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A Privacy Absolutist Isn’t So Sure Anymore

A Privacy Absolutist Isn’t So Sure Anymore

A Privacy Absolutist Isn’t So Sure Anymore

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Charlie Warzel, an Opinion writer for The New York Times, had been incensed about the smartphone apps that track our paths through the world.

Then, he said, the urgency of the pandemic made him question his beliefs.

In a conference call this week with readers, Charlie talked about his conflicting views on technology right now, and why he thinks health experts should be more upfront about what they don’t know. (Charlie’s dogs also butted into the call.)

These are edited excerpts from the conversation. You can also listen to the recording here.

Shira: What do you think about using technology to track people infected with the coronavirus?

Charlie: In working on the Privacy Project, it became clear to me that being surveilled all the time by private companies was an absolute violation of our rights. But when I first heard about location tracking for this pandemic, I thought, “We need to understand where everyone is at a given time so we can contain this.”

Honestly, I am taken aback by how my principles were undermined immediately by fears for my own safety. I’m still conflicted. I do think, though, that Bluetooth contact tracing for disease is a far better use of surveillance than, say, targeted advertising.

What do you think about Apple and Google’s location-tracking blueprint to help health care authorities?

These massive companies have the infrastructure and resources to do this. And there’s this feeling of almost, “Thank God someone’s stepping up.” They’re trying to engineer this in a very privacy-focused way.

At the same time, I fear the consolidation of power of companies that already have huge amounts of it.

Edri Geiger, a reader in Washington, asks: What can we do to protect children’s privacy with many schools holding classes online?

There are guides, including from the Privacy Project and the Wirecutter, about how to download a VPN, virtual private network, which can offer some protection. You can also turn off location tracking on your phone.

But we all live online at the moment. The only way we’re going to see real change is to put pressure on companies like Zoom to fortify their products.

How can the authorities inform the public when knowledge about the pandemic keeps shifting?

It puts the press, experts and political figures in complicated situations. The best example is the guidance from the C.D.C. and the W.H.O. about wearing face masks. They pushed the view that people don’t need them. And then conventional wisdom shifted.

Some of the best experts are now communicating what they don’t know upfront. I wrote a column that was a list of things we don’t know. Stating the “known unknowns” is an exercise in humility for the press and for experts that will ultimately lead to more trust.

I hear barking. Which dog was that?

It was both Peggy and Steve. They don’t like the spotlight to be off them for too long.


Shopping on Amazon always worked so well. It sold just about everything imaginable. It was easy to use, and packages showed up at our door reliably.

But Amazon doesn’t just work anymore.

It hasn’t been able to keep up with a spike of orders from people stuck at home. Amazon’s endless product bounty is no more. Good luck finding Bounty. Shifting delivery times and out-of-stock items are confusing shoppers, my colleague Karen Weise reported.

Karen reported that Amazon is trying tricks to get people to order less — like showing long delivery times on items deemed low priority, to give Amazon more flexibility to fulfill orders and tamp down demand.

I cannot express how profoundly un-Amazon it is for this company to turn away business.

What I wonder is whether the company’s struggles will permanently shake people’s belief that Amazon just works.

How has your experience been with Amazon in the past few weeks? Have you tried shopping online elsewhere? Please tell us about it at [email protected], and put shopping in the subject line.


  • Required listening: My colleague Kevin Roose is the person I most want to hear from on how the internet is shaping our behavior and ideas. The first episodes of his new podcast series, Rabbit Hole, go deep into one young man’s radicalization on YouTube. I’ll have a conversation with Kevin in this newsletter on Monday.

  • The boogeyman of conspiracies: Bill Gates, the Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist, has become a target online of false accusations that he created the coronavirus and wants to profit from it. Of all coronavirus misinformation, falsehoods about Gates are the most widespread, and they are amplified by prominent people including a son of Robert F. Kennedy, my Times colleagues report.

  • May I just say: No, thanks. Courting through online video may become a permanent feature of dating, the boss of Match.com and Tinder told The Wall Street Journal.

  • Balancing personal privacy and the public good: My colleagues Norimitsu Onishi and Constant Méheut explore whether France’s love of individual liberty can mesh with growing demands for digital tracking to fight the coronavirus.

This is the plot: She developed “pulmonary gold disease” from her golden prosthetic arm, and things GOT WEIRD. Here are people giggling through this intentionally (???) campy horror series. I refuse to name this show, but it’s so bad/good I forgot about everything.


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