The Looking Glass Dispatch

Notes on the current moment, written quickly

I saw ads for Mullvad VPN on the subway in New York City recently. “Free the internet,” they declared. “A free and open society is a society where people have the right to privacy.” The ads are colorful and striking, a mix of low-brow design and high-minded messaging. It was only the latest example of how the right to privacy is now a commodity — a development that is only possible in a highly surveilled society. 

Companies like Mullvad and DeleteMe offer what was once an inalienable right in the U.S. — for a price. This raises questions about equity and ethics. While some companies (Proton, for instance) offer free accounts, other companies charge monthly fees to erase your data trails from the internet. 

Even if you are particularly savvy about how data about you is being tracked, why is it that privacy is now considered opt-in? How did we get to this point? 

Getting out of the web of mass surveillance is trickier and more time consuming to deal with than paying $9 or $20 a month, despite the marketing promises of VPN companies or encrypted email platforms. Companies and governments have been spending decades developing digital doubles of individuals made up for data points from across the internet and through biometric information. 

Even what would seem like the most logical action takes a mighty effort. Take the iPhone. I must have spent four or five hours trying to lock it down from prying eyes. I couldn’t believe how much data I was sending to Apple and dozens of third party apps. And Apple does a pretty good job policing its walled garden for security threats. I still have no idea if I am safe from mobile surveillance. Who has the time or the energy to deal with all this? 

#privacy #surveillance

Like many people, I decided to launch a newsletter. I read a lot about “best practices” and tried to follow advice in resources like the GNI Startups Playbook. The first thing to do, of course, was to figure out what the hell I was going to write about. After considering climate change (too much competition), I decided what the world really, really needed was a newsletter about the failures of the mental healthcare system. Obviously, I know how to have fun.

The next step was deciding on a platform. Do you think that was easy? No, that was not easy. There’s so many. Substack, Ghost, Beehiiv. Those are just a few. I could even use this platform for newsletters, I guess, but I really don’t know how to do that yet. Anyway, I started with Beehiiv, but all their good features cost dolares. So, no, I’m not going to take the risk. Substack, I decided, would be my platform. Which was all fine and good until it was revealed that Nazis were profiting off of it.

Thing is, I don’t know what upsets me more: That the fascists were able to monetize an audience and that I haven’t or that Substack was allowing this to happen. Of course, we all know batshit lunacy sells in the American marketplace of toxic ideas.

Eight months later, I’m still at it. The newsletter, if you want to subscribe, is called The Receptor. It’s kind of an experiment to see if I can learn how to build an audience. It’s also a way to keep doing some journalism. Maybe I’ll make a few bucks so that I can start a college fund for my daughters.

If I was smart, I would turn this into a how-to article about what to do to create a successful newsletter. But I have not yet created a successful newsletter. It’s not as easy as you might think! Also, everyone seems to want create a newsletter these days. It’s like blogging, except I get to send the blog posts to inboxes when I publish them. Yeah, it’s annoying. Because a gazillion other people are sending email newsletters to inboxes.

(And, yes, I realize that being on Substack may be seen some as an implicit endorsement of their platforming of unsavory characters, but it really is not. I just have not figured out which platform to switch to yet).

#newsletters #media #mentalhealth

Hundreds of journalists are now unemployed after eight-month-old media startup The Messenger folded yesterday. Staffers learned they didn’t have jobs from news reports, instead of from their managers. This is terrible, and my heart goes out to them and their families. Blame for this needs to be directed toward the startup’s founders, especially media entrepreneur Jimmy Finkelstein, who arrogantly believed that they could spend their way out of what was widely considered a stupid business strategy of a bygone era, as Nieman Lab highlighted in May 2023:

The Messenger thinks it will reach 100 million monthly uniques on the back of bland aggregation. (That’s only slightly smaller than The New York Times’ audience.) It thinks it can support a 550-person newsroom on programmatic advertising. The Messenger thinks the right pitch for a site funded by Republican megadonors and run by the guy who brought the world John Solomon is: “We’re the unbiased ones!”

The failure is already being seen as one of the most significant, rapid collapses in the history of news. It follows weeks of terrible news for media workers, including historic layoffs at The Los Angeles Times. Prominent journalists had been lured away by The Messenger from relatively secure jobs at other major news organizations to join the startup. The question now: What kind of industry is left to employ them?


I have been using Apple products since I was a teenager. I’m middle-aged now. I still enjoy the ease of use and friction-less experience of the company’s products. But privacy has become an increasingly touchy subject with every digital product as companies seek larger profits from their users. While Apple has done a lot better than other tech behemoths in protecting privacy rights, there are many ways that the company’s products can be used to track location, usage, and much more.

Now the company has released the Apple Vision Pro. While most reviews have focused on the weight, lack of apps, and plain weirdness of the experience of the headset, few have focused on the implications for privacy. Thankfully, The Washington Post’s Geoffrey Fowler, raises critical questions. The headline of his must-read review calls the headset a “privacy mess” and he goes on to write:

I’m pretty sure Apple does not want to be known for creating the ultimate surveillance machine. But to make magical things happen inside its goggles, apps need loads of information about what’s happening to the user and around them. Apple has done more than rivals like Meta to limit access to some of this data, but developers are going to keep pressing for more.

Fowler points out that, in order to work, Vision Pro needs to map your space and body, making it extremely attractive to marketers and other third parties who may want to promote products and services. Yes, you read that right: the device all tracks information about your body movements. This isn’t as innocuous as you might think, Fowler reports:

Information about how you’re moving and what you’re looking at “can give significant insights not only to the person’s unique identification, but also their emotions, their characteristics, their behaviors and their desires in a way that we have not been able to before,” says Jameson Spivak, a senior policy analyst at the Future of Privacy Forum.

Alright, so what is to stop a third-party app, say a social media giant, from tapping into this data so that they perfect algorithms to promote influencers to appear in your living room and sell you the exact product that you need at that exact moment? Sounds fantastic. A little too fantastic? Unfortunately, Apple declined to answer questions about privacy from Fowler.

Photo by Igor Omilaev on Unsplash.

#privacy #apple #surveillance

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