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Uber’s Power, Twitter Disarray, and Growing Military Interest in AI

Tech and privacy perspectives from around the globe

Illustration of square vignettes of a pink globe, layered with pixelated eyes and cursors.
Gabriel Hongsdusit

This week:

  • Ukraine’s war is reviving military interest in AI and other technologies
  • Leaks show Uber wielded political power and influence to further its goals
  • China’s big tech giants face more antitrust scrutiny at home
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War and (AI) Peace

The Ukraine war is pushing militaries to explore technologies out of Silicon Valley, especially artificial intelligence, according to MIT Technology Review. NATO said on June 30 it would “invest 1 billion euros in early-stage start-ups and other venture capital funds developing dual-use emerging technologies of priority to NATO.” The Defense Department said in May it was using AI to monitor progress of the war. MIT Technology Review said the U.K. has launched “a new AI strategy specifically for defense,” while Germany has set aside about half a billion Euros “for research and artificial intelligence (AI).” Topics include “robust navigation and monitoring and securing large spaces using AI,” according to Europäische Sicherheit & Technik, the official publication of the German Society of Security Policy and the Clausewitz Society.

At the same time an AI startup called Hugging Face is using funds from the French government to create a new large language model it hopes will be more transparent, affordable, and accessible than those models built by the likes of OpenAI and Google, according to another report from MIT Technology Review. “OpenAI and Google have not shared their code or made their models available to the public,” the story says, and while Meta, parent of Facebook, has made its model available, it is only shared upon request, and under a “license that limits its use to research purposes.”

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Technology and Power

A leak by a former lobbyist of some 124,000 confidential Uber documents from 2013 to 2017 has helped catalog the power the ride-hailing app company was able to wield behind the scenes. The material, leaked to The Guardian and shared with other publications, reportedly shows “how top politicians secretly helped Uber,” how it “used covert tech to thwart government raids” in Europe, and how it “deceived investigators and exploited violence against its drivers in battle for global dominance.” 

A former Twitter moderator says they had urged the company to act against President Donald Trump for months, according to The Washington Post. The former employee told the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection that Twitter ultimately took no action against the then president because it “relished in the knowledge that they were also the favorite and most-used service of the former president and enjoyed having that sort of power within the social media ecosystem.” Jessica Herrera-Flanigan, Twitter’s vice president of public policy for the Americas, was quoted by the Post as saying that Twitter “took unprecedented steps and invested significant resources to prepare for and respond to the threats that emerged” during the U.S.’s 2020 election cycle.

Twitter is currently challenging Elon Musk over his decision to pull out of a planned acquisition of the company, leaving the company in disarray, according to anonymous Twitter workers, one of whom was quoted by Wired as saying the company lacked strong leadership and was “running on autopilot.

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Antitrust and Surveillance in China

China’s antitrust authorities have fined major local players Tencent, Alibaba, and Didi for unreported merger deals going back more than a decade, according to the South China Morning Post (which is owned by Alibaba). The State Administration for Market Regulation (SAMR) said it would accelerate the process of reviewing old deals to “help companies move forward with a lighter load,” the Post reported. A piece by Bloomberg’s Lulu Yilun Chen explores the awkward dance between Chinese rulers and Big Tech, focusing on “superapp” WeChat and its parent, Tencent. In response to government pressure, Tencent has downsized and overhauled its financial business, according to the piece. 

China’s companies are learning the need to step carefully. Social app TikTok “pause[d] a privacy policy switch in Europe after regulatory scrutiny,” according to TechCrunch. The switch “would have meant the platform stopped asking users for their consent to be tracked to receive targeted advertising.”

Elsewhere Chinese companies have found a receptive audience for camera surveillance systems—once called “smart cities” but now more commonly marketed as “safe cities.” Myanmar’s junta has rolled out such programs in at least five more cities, according to Reuters, which quoted human rights groups as saying they feared the technology could be used against “activists and resistance groups, both of which have been designated as terrorists by the junta.” Local procurement firms winning the contracts “source the cameras and some related technology from Chinese surveillance giants Zhejiang Dahua Technology (Dahua), Huawei Technologies Co Ltd and Hikvision,” Reuters said.

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Health and Data Privacy

A congressional committee has said “it is investigating the privacy of reproductive health data, and has specifically sent letters demanding more information from data brokers and companies that manage period tracking apps,” Motherboard reported. The move follows an earlier report in Motherboard that found “multiple location data firms were offering information related to visitors of Planned Parenthood abortion clinics.” An executive order by President Joe Biden fortified data privacy, according to TechCrunch, in theory making it harder to “criminalize private medical activity across borders.” 

In the U.K., a new national strategy for health data balances efforts to promote better access to health data in the public interest with the need to keep data private and address concerns that data from the public sector was being shared with the private sector, according to an analysis by law firm DLA Piper

Jeremy Wagstaff, formerly a technology journalist with Reuters, now works as a writer and consultant. Past clients have included Microsoft, Google, Cisco, Samsung and Facebook. He has no current clients among, or financial interest in, any companies in the Fortune 500.

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