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How your apps tell the government where you are

Good morning! This Thursday, there's a secretive company hoovering up location data and selling it to the government, GM claps back at Tesla, and Quibi can't stop raising money.

For those in SF, Source Code Happy Hour is tonight! Sadly, I'm sick and can't make it, but I hope you can come hang and get to know some other folks from the Protocol team. Everyone's looking forward to seeing you at Bartlett Hall in San Francisco, starting about 5 p.m.!

People Are Talking

Uber may look outside the company to make self-driving work, Dara Khosrowshahi said:

  • "If any of those competitors want to put their tech onto our platform, we're open."

The future of health care will happen in your home, Andreessen Horowitz's Julie Yoo believes:

  • "The frame of your bathroom door will be a real-time imaging device that scans you every day, compares your measurements to your own personalized baseline, and alerts you via your smart mirror as to any concerns. A smart mirror will also detect any changes in your mood or demeanor, and automatically invoke the appropriate dosage of music therapy."

Data science will help us deal with pandemics better in the future, Novant Health's Angela Yochem says in this week's Protocol Braintrust:

  • "With unprecedented access to data from a variety of sources, prediction will come from understanding the movements, behaviors and the touch points of people once a virus is identified."

Uber drivers are employees, not contractors, according to one French court:

  • "Drivers who use the Uber application do not build up their own clientele, do not freely set their rates, and do not determine the terms and conditions of providing their transportation service."
  • "The destination is unknown to the driver, thereby revealing that the driver cannot freely choose the route that suits him/her."

The Big Story

How your apps tell the government where you are

A secretive Virginia company called Babel Street has huge contracts with law enforcement agencies including ICE and the Secret Service. They're all signed up for a product called Locate X, which uses location data from popular smartphone apps to track users.

  • The product allows investigators to draw a digital fence around an address or area, pinpoint mobile devices that were within that area, and see where else those devices have traveled, going back months.
  • The location data that's used to target ads or tell users the weather can also be used to track immigrants coming into the country. And that's just one example.

Protocol's Charles Levinson found this practice has been going on longer, and has been used in a bigger way, than had been previously known. I asked him to explain why it's been such a secret:

  • Charles said that Babel Street has required agencies buying this technology to sign strict secrecy agreements that forbid them from mentioning the technology in any legal proceedings. Similar secrecy agreements were used by the company that made StingRays.
  • The DHS and DOJ both issued very strongly worded policies in response to the StingRay issue in the past, in which they said that such secrecy was not allowed. "In all circumstances, candor to the court is of paramount importance," the DHS policy declared.

The Locate X work is an example of "parallel construction," in which law enforcement agencies gather evidence in one way — in this case, through smartphone locations — and then tell courts they actually found it a different way.

Charles' story is full of examples of how this tech is used — like in a credit card-skimming crackdown — and what it means when the government can simply buy a trove of data for law-enforcement purposes. The whole piece is well worth a read.

Social

Twitter gets on the Stories — sorry, Fleets — bandwagon

After years of user demand, Twitter is finally adopting Stories as a format. (Twitter wants you to call it Fleets, which is actually pretty clever — fleeting tweets! — but that's never going to happen.) Users will now be able to share in two places: on their timeline, where things will live forever, and in their Stories, where they'll expire after 24 hours.

  • Kayvon Beykpour, Twitter's head of product, said that "people often tell us that they don't feel comfortable Tweeting because Tweets can be seen and replied to by anybody, feel permanent and performative (how many Likes & Retweets will this get!?)" Fleets won't have those public metrics, or that pressure.
  • It's also a way to control the conversation around your tweets. Rather than letting anyone reply, quote-tweet or RT, the only way to respond to a Fleet is in a DM. Which is ironic, given how bad DMs are as a product, but that's a conversation for another day.

Twitter's testing Fleets in Brazil, and hasn't given any indication about what happens next. But Stories fundamentally changed the way people use both Instagram and Snapchat, and could do the same for Twitter.

  • It could turn Twitter into less of a public, breaking-news platform: If most people post in Stories that can't be shared or embedded, Twitter becomes more like a social network for friends and interests than the "It's what's happening" place.
  • It could also be a hugely valuable ad slot for Twitter, as it has been for Instagram and Snapchat.

The news made #RIPTwitter into a trending topic, with people complaining that Twitter's just turning into Facebook or Instagram. But as Jack Dorsey preps for a fight to keep his job, he might be happy about finding more ways to mimic the big blue app.

A MESSAGE FROM NASDAQ

Reimagining Markets Everywhere

Nasdaq Technology is reshaping the future of global markets by redefining what a marketplace can be.

Learn more here

Transportation

GM's big plan to go electric

$20 billion. That's what GM has promised to spend over the next five years to make the company a real player in the electric car market. And at an event on Wednesday, the company explained a bit more about what the electric GMs of the future might look like:

  • It's planning to launch 22 electric cars in the next few years. That includes Hummers, Cadillacs, Buicks, and even a new Bolt, everyone's sixth-favorite electric car.
  • GM also showed off its underlying battery tech, called Ultium (GM's really leaning into the futuristic angle here), which is adaptable enough to work for all of GM's cars. GM said the tech is better for the environment, and more efficient, than other batteries.
  • GM didn't mention Tesla directly, but Elon and co. are clearly the target for GM.

On one hand, it seems like America's largest car maker is awfully late to the party — Tesla practically owns the electric market in the US, and has lapped GM and others in market cap.

But the electric market is still so small, and GM's investments in Cruise and other tech seem to be working. Of course, virtually every other carmaker has also made hay about their plans to catch up on EVs, and nobody's yet pulled it off. But someone has to!

Making Moves

Boosted laid off "a significant portion" of its employees, and is looking for a buyer. The electric skateboard company largely blamed the trade war with China for recent challenges.

Oyo is laying off 5,000 people, about a sixth of its workforce. The layoffs at the SoftBank-backed and growing-way-too-fast hotel company will reportedly mostly happen in China.

Google is opening a new game-development studio in Playa Vista, and hired Shannon Studstill to run it. Studstill previously worked at Santa Monica Studio, building games like God of War. The studio will be focused on games for Stadia … which could really use some more good games.

AT&T's layoffs are going to keep coming, as the company goes through what its president and COO John Stankey called "headcount rationalization." Stankey told a Morgan Stanley conference that he's looking at making tens of billions in cost-cuts in the next few years.

In Other News

One More Thing

The deepfake king

So you want to look 20 years younger? Don't we all, honestly. Still, there's a guy you can call: Paul Shales, also known as The Fakening, who has become both a meme machine and a surprisingly in-demand businessperson. He's worked with The Strokes, Diplo, and others on time-shifting music videos. The Verge interviewed Shales about how he works, the kind of projects he's asked to do, and whether there's really any limit to what we can deepfake.

A MESSAGE FROM NASDAQ

Reimagining Markets Everywhere

Nasdaq Technology is daring to think differently.

Learn more here

Thoughts, questions, tips? Send them to me, david@protocol.com, or our tips line, tips@protocol.com. Enjoy your day, see you tomorrow.

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