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Image credit: Illustration by Koren Shadmi

How it feels to survive Silicon Valley and a pandemic

Even bad security practices have to shelter in place.
Violet Blue, @violetblue
July 24, 2020
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quarantine pandemic era
Illustration by Koren Shadmi

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It shouldn’t feel like it took a pandemic to get Twitter to boot 7,000 QAnon accounts (and crack down on 150,000 more related to the violent conspiracy group), but it does. At least Twitter is doing harm mitigation around its role in this interconnected disaster. Five months in, you’d think 145,000 American deaths would move platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube to ban virus “truther” content, but nah. Imagine the annihilative mindset it takes to act like nothing has changed.

Just five months ago, America’s largest security event, RSA Conference 2020, was in full swing at the Moscone Center in San Francisco. The 40,000 attendees were filling our hotels and bars, the city’s streets were crowded with Ubers and massive luxury buses ferrying well-off techies to work at places like Google, Twitter, Facebook, Airbnb, Yelp (or even Uber itself). Lime scooters and Lyft bikes were either scattering pedestrians off sidewalks or locked to trees and abandoned in curb cuts meant for wheelchairs.

If RSA’s attendees were even able to score an Airbnb, it was second to the tech companies who’d, for years, packed employees into expensive rentals that once were on the normal-person market. Companies whose fat salaries also pushed rents out of reach for locals. Both had ensured a steady flow of evictions among artists, writers, musicians, teachers, sex workers, people of color, the elderly, and restaurant workers. Or they became part of San Francisco’s thousands upon thousands of homeless (like the grocery cashiers and pizza servers I knew living in cars).

This was February, yet I was already too aware of COVID-19’s contagion to brave going to the RSA conference. My best friend, a hacker visiting for conference-related meetings, felt the same way. Instead, we went to Haight-Ashbury, essentially where I grew up, loving the gritty contrast of Haight street punks posing for Japanese tourists under the Ben and Jerry’s sign on that iconic corner of colorful Victorians. 

At Japantown’s mall, she cautioned me to keep my phone clean with sterile wipes; while there we saw a man in a mask have a coughing fit that drove people away from him like dish soap dripped into a pan of oily water. She avoided RSA too, but caught covid when she got home. And in the following five months the world would come to a screeching halt and over half a million would be dead with no end in sight.

RSA Conference 2020 added 40,000 faces to our downtown of glittering towers and their corporate tenants’ technological promises of a better future, but that was a nominal blur for San Francisco tourism. We barely felt it. Yet the conference is a crystalline moment for me. I can pinpoint the day I began self-quarantining by the publication of my February 28 Bad Password column, Coronavirus bursts Big Tech’s bubble.

That column, like many of the Bad Passwords we’ve done here over the past five years, reads now like something that was published from the future, recognizing we were at the tipping point of the pandemic and cautioning the violent contractions to come.

Elon Musk is not a fan

SpaceX founder and chief engineer Elon Musk looks at his mobile phone during a post-launch news conference to discuss the  SpaceX Crew Dragon astronaut capsule in-flight abort test at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, U.S. January 19, 2020. REUTERS/Steve Nesius
Steve Nesius / Reuters

Like the rest of the world right now, Bad Password is going on a pandemic-induced hiatus. Shining a light on tech’s monsters and hypocrites has been our jam for five years, and there’s been plenty of greed, data dealing, security chicanery, discrimination, misinformation, and recklessness to go around. When Bad Password started, infosec slang was finally becoming everyday terminology. No one understood yet what a skid was (most still don’t) but I no longer had to explain what a dox was. 

Right out of the starting gate we surfaced a National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) report that showed Facebook is the epicenter of abuse for over 23 million women -- with the site’s “real names” policy at the heart of it. At the time, Facebook was targeting LGBTQ users and outing their names. After that column, I was “real named” by Facebook, who stalled their response to my attorneys, after which my account remained in Facebook jail for one reason or another. I don’t miss it.

Bad Password’s next big fun-time was when Hacking Team, arguably a  spyware-for-dictators company, got royally, publicly pwned. In How spyware peddler Hacking Team was publicly dismantled we examined what the hack revealed: a country-by-country rundown of who Hacking Team had done deadly deeds for. I cross-referenced Hacking Team’s client work with human rights reports on digital abuses by date and place, then worked with a team to make an interactive map — it was later used as a case study.

When Oculus Rift founder (and alt-right shitpost financier extraordinaire), Palmer Luckey, pivoted into pitching LIDAR tech to hunt immigrants, we took it apart brick by brick. Luckey’s response made my colleagues envious by decrying it as “fake news.” Then there was the time we documented Elon Musk’s PR lackeys calling Pulitzer-prize winning investigative outlet Reveal an “extremist organization” for reporting on Tesla factory safety issues. And when that Bad Password was directly cited to Musk on Twitter, he famously responded with a call for a journalist rating system. Elon really wanted to leave me a bad Yelp review.

When FOSTA passed, we explained why this was a horrible defining moment for every internet user, and not just for sex workers. When revisiting it, we found it left a very real body count behind — and that particular Bad Password is cited in academic articles on the topic. This heralded the great internet war on sex we’re suffering through, and with a sobering post-FOSTA terror we explained exactly how sex censorship killed the internet we love.

We did what Bad Password loves to do, which is show you the hypocrisy of a techie thing, shine a humorous spotlight on the greedy opportunists, and find the human thread to engender empathy (while seeking a strong positive to pull us forward when we can). I entered an alternative 1995 universe to take Rudy Giuliani, cybersecurity expert, down several notches. While others took the WikiLeaks bait hook, line, and sinker, we diagrammed exactly how Julian Assange was actually pushing propaganda. We hated Ajit Pai before it was cool. We also got to do one of the most thorough and painfully humorous takedowns of Uber’s toxic techbro culture you may ever read.

Bad Password also reveled in exposing the lies, dirty dealings, and anti-sex crusades of all those alleged “anti trafficking” orgs that love policing sex on the internet (and off). We also did one of the most referenced investigations on PayPal, Square and big banking’s war on the sex industry.

Where the past meets the present, before the disastrous 2016 election, we said yes, you should absolutely be worried about election hacking. And Bad Password did something many had hoped someone, somewhere would do: We drew a direct line between IBM working with Nazi Germany and tech companies working directly with ICE.

And yeah. It’s still all Facebook’s fault. I mean, they’ve raised what, at least an entire generation on firmly defended Holocaust denial. So here we are.

Locked indoors during a global pandemic, re-reading the Bad Password about Apps and gadgets for the ‘Blade Runner’ future we didn’t ask for. Watching Georgia’s election-hacking Brian Kemp rescind all local mask mandates while masks have become mandatory in France (and other countries). Wondering if we can somehow hack our way out of all this.

Rats fleeing the ship they sunk

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA  - APRIL 27: Hyde Street sits empty on April 27, 2020 in San Francisco, California. Officials from several counties in the San Francisco Bay Area have extended the coronavirus (COVID-19) shelter in place order through May. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Justin Sullivan via Getty Images

It has been five months since RSA Conference 2020. I feel like I emerged from my apartment to a San Francisco brutally ransacked by tech charlatans and venture capital Bioshock villains.

The tech buses are gone. The unbelievable traffic of Ubers, Lyfts, and Teslas has vanished. The Facebook, Google, Salesforce, and massive tech properties are vacant. The Twitter building is empty and could remain that way permanently. Tech employees have moved out in droves: one in ten city renters have broken their leases and moved out; others, like a house of Google employees who live near me, plan to be gone by the end of the year.

Vultures linger to see if we have anything left to bleed. Like Grubhub ignoring delivery fee caps and hiking fees on coronavirus-crippled restaurants yet again and Airbnb asking guests to “donate” money to their hosts.

Airbnbs across the city have no bookings. Zero. The (reviled) one on my block has nothing booked through at least 2021. It sits dark with the power shut off. I can see its back garden has turned brown, dry and dead. At least a third of the apartments and houses around me are vacant; I’ve watched them move out.

Airbnbs linger on Craiglist as fully furnished apartments where they sit and gradually become discounted, then include all utilities and wifi, then offer the first month free. SF Craigslist, where rents are absolutely schizophrenic, veering drunkenly from 1990 levels ($1400/month) to tech boom heights ($5K and up). The Craigslist “free” section overflows with designer furniture and high-end household items. More often, these spoils of the pandemic get dumped on the sidewalk in haste.

I can tell you for a fact that we won’t miss those people with more money than sense, whose businesses were so plainly naive and fraudulent, whose lack of empathy was a trait cherished as aspirational, and whose solidarity was predicated on the exclusion, use, and degradation of others. San Francisco had become a performative playground for sheltered college grads who wrote racist algorithms, who enforced "real names" policies on our LGBTQ communities, and whose companies leeched hate and deadly misinformation into our collective bloodstreams until eventually the world as we know it stopped.

Yet tech’s impact on my hometown, its invasive services no one wanted and human-unfriendly gig economy (as well as its economic crushing of the poor and disenfranchised), now combined with COVID-19 has delivered a one-two punch bringing us to our knees.

Where once we had localized areas of homeless encampments, they now sprawl block after block. Think “Skid Row,” but evenly distributed. Upper Haight, the neighborhood of my youth, looks like a post-nuclear blast zone town in Fallout 4, or Fallout 76. Five businesses on Haight closed permanently in the last week alone. Some blocks have two or three businesses remaining. Everything is boarded up. So many people have gone missing recently that my Haight Street friends and I wonder if it’s coronavirus, or a serial killer.

The smell of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream is gone. For now.

Hold back the night

Classic view of historic California Street with famous Oakland Bay Bridge illuminated in first golden morning light at sunrise in summer, San Francisco, California, USA
bluejayphoto via Getty Images

While Big Tech had been unconcerned with the outcomes of their privacy abuses, held a blatant disregard for user security, and were unwilling to believe their tools would be used to livestream massacres, Bad Password tirelessly documented, raised the alarm, and worked its hardest to shine a light into the dark. Our attitude here has never been “You should have known better.” Instead, it has been “the powerful people making decisions for the rest of us knew better, but did nothing.”

Our plan is for Bad Password to return. Our hope is that when we do, the tech forces that got us into much of this mess (and certainly made it worse) will decide that enough people have died to justify excising anti-science propaganda, banning hate groups and Holocaust denial, and will own up to their catastrophic failures at being responsible, ethical, just, and compassionate participants in the world around them. 

The days ahead feel dark now, but whatever comes next is in our hands. Let the unhappy techies keep their internet of shit garbage while we repurpose their devices and designs to reveal monsters, to document abuses that should never be repeated, and to take care of one another. 

Where we go from here, is forward.

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