Tech

An Obsession With Secrets – The New York Times

An Obsession With Secrets – The New York Times
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An Obsession With Secrets – The New York Times

An Obsession With Secrets – The New York Times

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Before visitors enter many tech company offices, they have to sign a (digital) pledge not to gossip about what they hear or see there. Religious leaders in the United States have entered into legally binding agreements not to discuss in detail their online worship collaboration with Facebook. And Amazon demanded that testers of revealing body-scanning technology not reveal anything about the experience.

Non-disclosure agreements like these have become must-haves for many influential people and institutions who wish to keep secrets, sometimes for understandable reasons and sometimes for horrific reasons. Non-disclosure agreements and similar legal agreements have been used to cover sexual abuse, harassment and discrimination in the workplace.

NDAs are certainly not limited to the tech industry. But the power of the big tech companies and the popularity of their products make their attempts at forced secrecy particularly dangerous because of how the NDAs prevent the public from fully understanding how these companies shape the world.

The use of nondisclosure agreements, including in mundane or routine circumstances like visiting a technical office, is ironic in an industry that promotes openness and transparency. Facebook says it values ​​free speech, but that might keep you from talking about the grapes you ate in the company cafeteria.

Yes, there are often good reasons for people and businesses to demand privacy or to try to prevent competitors from learning their best ideas. And because many people, including journalists, are eager to learn about potential technology products or projects, the risk of data breaches from these companies may be higher.

But it’s also easy to find fault with the willingness of many tech companies to throw NDAs like confetti, in ways that are both stupid and unsettling. Ifeoma Ozoma, the former public policy manager at Pinterest, is among those pushing to ban NDAs that prevent people discriminated against in the workplace from speaking publicly about their experiences. Some laws restrict nondisclosure agreements if they keep sexual misconduct or unsafe products a secret. (The people leading the charge against abusive NDAs or other restrictive workplace legal agreements are often women or black tech workers like Ozoma.)

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If tech workers hadn’t risked breaking nondisclosure agreements at their companies, the public may never have heard of the fraud at blood testing company Theranos, the health risks emotional and physical facing those who examine Facebook posts containing violence and sex, and details of Russian propaganda online to create electoral chaos in the United States.

“The vast reach of these companies is what makes their use of operating agreements the biggest problem,” Ozoma told me in an email. “California-based companies are exporting overly restrictive and silent agreements to all corners of the world. And they do all of this while claiming to care about speech rights and freedom of speech.

It could harm other customers when Airbnb forces customers to sign NDAs if they encounter bedbugs in rented homes, or when nondisclosure provisions prevent customers from publicly complaining about their experiences with them. tooth aligners. And is it fair for Amazon and other companies to require elected officials to sign nondisclosure agreements on projects that use taxpayer money?

The requirement to sign NDAs before entering tech companies stunned me when I first met her. It sounds like a pointless and trivial exercise of power. (Another question: are these agreements even enforceable?)

Many sensitive details are discussed within investment banks, law firms, news agencies, and hospitals, and as far as I know they don’t have nondisclosure agreements for everyone. who pass through the doors. Instead, employees tend to be careful not to discuss secrets where strangers might hear them.

Again, NDAs are not unique to technology. Trump’s White House used them. Some celebrities apparently need nondisclosure agreements for friends or romantic partners. My colleagues reported last year that many companies require their employees to sign non-disclosure agreements in order to receive severance pay.

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Businesses and individuals have legitimate reasons for wanting to keep many of their secrets, but they could choose other legal means to do so, including confidentiality provisions, which are more limited in scope. When powerful, forward-thinking tech companies use NDAs for anything and everything, it often protects them to the detriment of the rest of us.


Tip of the week

Are your wireless headphones more frustrating than magical? Brian X Chen, the New York Times mainstream tech columnist, is here to share your {CRIS} and advise us when to give up:

Wireless headphones are great. They allow you to roam freely, are easier to store than wired headphones, and have decent sound quality. Recently, however, I have discontinued wireless headphones for only one type of use: video calling on a computer.

For over a year of working remotely, my Apple AirPods were unreliable for video calls on my desktop. Sometimes AirPods would disappear from the list of available Bluetooth devices on my Mac, forcing me to reset my headphones. Other times I was not able to choose the wireless headphones as the microphone or speaker when I entered a new video call.

I tried a number of troubleshooting steps to no avail and saw that many more had similar headaches. Then I read an article on this issue by my colleague Lauren Dragan at Wirecutter, our sister publication that tests the products. It turns out that Bluetooth headphones often have problems connecting with computers – it happens so frequently that manufacturers point out that wireless headphones are “optimized for mobile devices” and do not guarantee they will work well with them. computers.

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It makes sense to me: We tend to upgrade smartphones more regularly than computers, so mobile devices have newer Bluetooth technology that probably works better with newer headphones.

After thinking about all the video calls that went wrong for me, I bit the bullet and bought a relatively inexpensive old-fashioned wired headset from Logitech just for my virtual meetings. It costs $ 25 and works flawlessly every time. Sometimes you have to know when to stop sophisticated technology.


  • Beijing’s not-so-invisible hand: The company behind the hugely popular WeChat app in China has suspended new user registrations, which my colleague Paul Mozur said raised fears of further regulatory pressure. In recent months, Chinese authorities have engaged in a wave of technical reviews that have affected Didi, like Uber, food delivery services and online tutoring start-ups.

  • Challenging a technology frequently used in law enforcement: The Vice’s Motherboard publication reviewed court records which suggest that ShotSpotter, a technology that detects gunfire and alerts law enforcement, has occasionally altered data about the location and time of gunfire in demand from police services.

  • The online video that drew attention and danger: An Iraqi teenager recorded a video online documenting his country’s unrest and asking President Biden for help. The video has gotten big and my colleague Jane Arraf reported that the teenager has been inundated with thousands of negative comments on social media and is afraid to leave home.

Mother and son set out to make origami cranes to mark the passage of time and learn about perseverance during the pandemic. They took the final photos last month of the 465 cranes.

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