Benner on Tech: Rules for the Surveillance State

Katie Benner is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes about technology, innovation, and the cult and culture of Silicon Valley. She lives in San Francisco.
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Thanks to the sensors in our devices and the cameras all around us, we essentially live in a surveillance state. It’s dominated by the device makers that let us easily load images to the Internet, as well as the social platforms that host video, like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. But the rules of video engagement haven’t developed as fast as our ability to monitor and share, and the tech community isn't doing enough to write those rules.

That's the view of Nicole Wong, the former deputy chief technology officer for the U.S. government and a former lawyer for Google. She spoke on a panel last night on the impact of video on privacy and civil rights, hosted by the  startup Neon and the human rights group Witness.

Wong said that tech companies should think about working with human rights groups to figure out best business practices for our brave new image-and-video-dominated world, and she used her experiences at Google to illustrate why technologists need help.

Google was ill-prepared to deal with the many privacy issues it waded into when it bought YouTube. The rules for the platform seemed so straightforward at first: No porn, no illegal acts, no gratuitous violence. Then one day YouTube took down multiple videos of a savage beating that turned out to be police brutality footage that had been uploaded by human rights activist. But there was not metadata in the video to suggest that it was more than an act of gratuitous violence.

YouTube has been forced again and again to figure out what to do with potentially important, graphic video that often has little context. Should the company post it at all? If so, what is its obligation to the safety of others? Is the company’s facial blurring technology good enough to protect the identities of, say, gay teens in Russia being beaten up or a woman being beaten by her partner? How should these things be responsibly tagged and hosted?

These types of question are growing as the amount of video increases exponentially thanks to cameras embedded in public lighting fixtures, ATMs, Dropcams and other recording devices that monitor our public selves.

Wong says this state of play leads to another big question for the tech world: When is it okay to even turn on the camera? Should a church that hosts AA meetings be videotaped? Or a domestic violence shelter? Or a park where kids play?

“The tech is here and we haven’t grappled with the questions,” said Wong, who believes that the industry isn’t equipped to answer those questions on its own. “We do need human rights and civil rights communities to get on board.”

Weekend Reads:

** Fusion’s Kevin Roose has the heartwarming story of a guy in Pennsylvania who managed to get 100,000 shares of by gaming the company’s referral program. Yawning wealth gap be damned. There’s hope that any one of us could get super rich.

** BuzzFeed’s Mat Honan’s says that the FCC’s net neutrality decision ushers in a new age of mainstream Internet politics.

** The Guardian’s Jacob Silverman looks at how sharing our lives on social media became the new living: “The point of being on social media is to produce and amass evidence of being on social media.”

** LA Weekly’s Eric Webb asks us to remember a time before Lyft got all corporate (fist bumps no longer required) and was still weird and fun. That Lyft, the Lyft of our dreams, still exists in Los Angeles.


The Ellen Pao-Kleiner Perkins trial: Pao made more than $500,000 a year as a junior partner at Kleiner and that’s a lot of money. But she could have made $2.6 million as a senior partner, USA Today reports. Fortune’s recap reminds us that the players that loom large in the case are pretty much unknown in the rest of the world. Debate the tech valuation bubble all you want, but surely Silicon Valley exists under the dome. And the case got me thinking about Wall Street in the 1980s.

Aereo had expected to get $4 million to $31 million for the assets that it sold in a bankrupty auction, but the company got less than $2 million, Bloomberg reports.

Ello. Remember Ello? The social network peaked at 30 million users in October and is now at around 9 million, writes blogger Wagner James Au. He thinks only about 1 million of those 9 million users are active. My colleagues Matt Levine and Joe Weisenthal are among them. Matt and Joe love numbers and the cult of Finance Ello

Lyft is offering lots of money for driver referrals payments and signing bonuses.

Venmo, the payments app, may have grown so fast that it outpaced its security capabilities, says Slate. The company has been sort of whatever about the whole thing, even though users are freaked out, according to BuzzFeed.

Late stage private deals could mean less diligence and more risk, argues the Financial Times.

Notation Capital, a pre-seed fund started by Nicholas Chirls and Alex Lines, has raised $8 million to invest in very young companies, the Wall Street Journal reports.

People and Personnel Moves

Jay Carney will join Amazon as senior vice president for worldwide corporate affairs, reports Politico. Carney was previously the White House Press Secretary.

Phil Molyneux was named president and chief operating officer of, a wearables startup run by, the New York Times reports. Molyneux was previously the president and COO of Sony Electronics in the United States.

Sundar Pichai talks about his vision for vision Google, including initiatives like Android and payments, in an exclusive interview with Forbes.



Twitch, the service that 100 million users a month use to watch people play video games, will now broadcast online poker players, reports the Wall Street Journal.


Ericsson upped the ante in its patent dispute with Apple by asking the U.S. International Trade Commission to keep Apple products from the U.S. market, Bloomberg reports. Advertising Age says that the March issue of Vogue will contain 12 pages of Apple Watch ads. And the company announced a special “Spring Forward” event on March 9 that is likely going to be about the watch, says 9to5Mac.


The company is thinking about diversity in the run up to its next developer conference, Bloomberg reports. And it’s no longer defining gender for users, says the Verge.


The company has a big lead in mobile search and earns way more revenue per mobile user, reports the Information. It’s unifying its European operations to deal with the changing regulatory landscape, the Financial Times reports. Google paid $25 million for the .app domain name. And adult content will continue to have a home at Blogger, says Engadget.


The company says it will spend $4 billion on cloud, analytics, mobile, social and security technologies in 2015 and make those segments generate a total of $40 billion in revenue by 2018, Bloomberg reports.


The company has a strategy to take virtual reality mainstream, says VideoInk.

News and Notes

Popcorn is BitTorrent’s easier-to-use, slightly less sketchy cousin, and Bloomberg Businessweek says it seems almost too good to be legal.

Mobile disruption tends to be a top-down phenomenon, argues Benedict Evans in his latest industry observation.

A full-scale Hyperloop could launch as early as 2016, the Verge reports.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the editor on this story:
Timothy L. O'Brien at