Privacy anyone? Anti-GMO activists target Big Food’s science by pillaging emails of academic researchers thought friendly to industry

A group of activists “working to expose what the food industry doesn’t want us to know” is targeting university scientists who they suspect are paid shills for Big Food because their work buttresses industry claims that food made with GMOs (genetically modified organisms) is safe.

The organization, Oakland, Calif.-based U.S. Right to Know, has been using open records laws to ferret out correspondence, especially emails, in which scientists at public universities who have done research or talked publicly about GMO safety were in touch with industry representatives.

Right to Know scored with Kevin Folta, a plant scientist at the University of Florida, who had been on the speaking circuit defending the safety of GMOs. Folta had denied receiving industry money, but the activists determined, from the three years of emails he turned over to them, that he had gotten $25,000 from Monsanto, the agrichemical giant that is a leading GMO market force.

For his part, Folta says he never pocketed the money, and used it to cover travel costs for speeches and lobbying trips that he regards as the legitimate public extension of his work as a scientist. But he was sufficiently chastened to turn over $25,000 to a local food bank, and became the prime exhibit in a Sunday New York Times takeout titled “Food Industry Enlists Academics in GMO Lobbying War, Emails Show.”

My interest in this affair, and in the handling of the 43 scientists whose emails the activists want, has to do with privacy, not food safety. If anything, I am a GMO skeptic, not because I know much about growing food but because I spent years covering business, and believe if Big Food is anything like its cousins it will insist its products are perfectly fine up until the third generation of babies are born with horns, and will admit otherwise only when it has lucrative horn-reduction remedies to sell, when it will say it had been working tirelessly on the problem all along.

So I’m glad to see industry assurances challenged, and the work of those who support it scrutinized rigorously.

But I’m dismayed by the cavalier way in which the privacy claims of these scientists are being dismissed.

First, conflict of interest is invoked. I buy that. It’s not even remotely ethical for scientists to conceal financial sponsorships that might induce them to skew their research.

But enforcing that shouldn’t require email sweeps. Universities generally have rules that require faculty to disclose all payments from outside entities. If Folta Continue reading “Privacy anyone? Anti-GMO activists target Big Food’s science by pillaging emails of academic researchers thought friendly to industry”

It’s OK now for someone to shoot photos of you through your apartment window? NY court leaves a dark picture of privacy imperiled

When the first court ruling came down in 2013, this came down, with signature restraint, from The New York Post: “Judge backs the right of creepy Tribeca artist to photograph people through their windows.” Two weeks ago an appeals court upheld that decision, and The Hollywood Reporter announced: “Artist who spied on neighbors with telephoto lens beats privacy claims.”

Welcome to the affair of Arne Svenson, a fine arts photographer of considerable skill. He spent a year using a 500mm telephoto lens he got from a birdwatching friend to shoot thousands of pictures of his unwitting neighbors through the windows of their plush apartments across the street from his in Lower Manhattan. When some of Svenson’s photos were offered for sale at a high-end New York gallery in 2013, he was sued for, among other things, invasion of privacy.

Although they’re described in some quarters as “voyeuristic,” there’s nothing salacious about his pictures. They’re tasteful, and they’re cool. They’re photos of legs and of dogs, of reclining figures, of shadows and profiles, of children shot from behind, of blurred couples interacting and, perhaps, arguing. By and large, you can’t tell who the people are, and that anonymity, it’s suggested, universalizes the images. They’re framed by the crisp lines of their living-room windows, and the results look very much like art.

“I find the unrehearsed, unconscious aspects of life the most beautiful to photograph, as they are most open to interpretation, to a narrative,” Svenson said in 2013. “A dramatic moment has the single power of action, but tiny, linked moments are how we mark time on this earth. I am much more interested in recording the breath between words than I am the actual words themselves.”

So? How much of that matters? Here those people are, inhabiting “the breath between words,” tending to household pleasures, fussing or napping, scolding their kids, eating their prunes or flirting with their mates or scratching their butts, and some faceless guy across the way using some mid-tech peephole captures these images—and decides how much of what’s captured should be shared with (and peddled to) a vast audience of strangers. Don’t expectations of privacy matter? Does artistic flutter trump personal sanctuary?

The New York courts, applying a century-old law intended to keep an individual’s likeness from being used in advertisements without consent, decided that state privacy protections had to yield to Svenson’s expressive freedom under the First Amendment. That’s because a huge “newsworthy and public concern exemption” to privacy safeguards had been carved out, and although there’s nothing remotely newsworthy about Svenson’s images, it applies to literature, movies and works of art as well.

Now, newspeople are used to basing their right to ignore primordial privacy claims on such matters as where the photographer is shooting the picture from (a sidewalk, e.g.) or where the figures being shot are standing (if they’re in a Continue reading “It’s OK now for someone to shoot photos of you through your apartment window? NY court leaves a dark picture of privacy imperiled”

Transgender suicide ignites media ethics firestorm

An ethical firestorm has flared up over an expose that ran last month in Grantland, a sports and popular culture site affiliated with ESPN, on the unlikely subject of a new golf club and the woman who invented it.

As much as any media ethics matter of recent years, the furor touched off by “Dr. V’s Magical Putter” raises compelling questions about whether conventional journalistic practices are nasty, brutish and indefensible—questions raised by an online community of newspeople who have a strikingly different ethic in mind.

The Grantland article was the product of an eight-month inquiry into Essay Anne Vanderbilt, aka Dr. V, who spent seven years developing an aerodynamically innovative putter that some respected golfers believed materially improved their games. The possibility loomed of a major technological advance—and a business triumph—in a sport that reveres its toys.

But the Grantland writer, Caleb Hannan, discovered serious fabrications in Dr. V’s academic and professional resume: She didn’t, as claimed, have degrees from MIT and Wharton; she wasn’t related to the Vanderbilt dynasty; she probably didn’t help develop the Stealth bomber. Apparently, she had been an auto mechanic, albeit a remarkably gifted one.

Then, Hannan’s background checks took an unexpected turn. While trying to figure out why he could find no trace of Dr. V before 2000, he learned she was transgender, and had lived until then—and had married twice—under the male name she was born with. “What began as a story about a brilliant woman with a new invention had turned into the tale of a troubled man who had invented a new life for himself,” he wrote.

That story ended some weeks after Dr. V’s last, angry, email communication with Hannan, when in late October she killed herself.  In January the story was published.

It’s unclear what pushed her to suicide—fear that she’d be exposed as transgender, the lies in her resume, or the demons that many transgender people wrestle with, which is why they attempt suicide at rates far greater than the general population. (She tried before.)

But the transgender element is what provoked furious comment after the story was published—and it’s what challenges most frontally cherished practices of textbook journalism.

Traditionally, information bearing on the capacities, character, stability and credibility of an entrepreneur would be considered fair game for a reporter, who Continue reading “Transgender suicide ignites media ethics firestorm”

Would Google’s new glasses keep an eye on things?

Google’s launch of its dazzling Internet-connected eyewear, which it calls Glass, has been so understated that it’s tempting to mistake this wearable computer for just another cool plaything from Silicon Valley.

I think that would be wrong. Glass—its progeny, its successors, its imitators–is a very big deal, in my view, as big as anything that has come along since the PC and the World Wide Web a generation ago.

It’s not that Google’s eyeglasses are more powerful than today’s smartphones. At the moment Glass apparently does less, since the range and precision of instructions it recognizes are confined to what the wearer can convey through gestures, taps and limited speech.

What matters, big time, is that Glass layers a real-time Internet presence onto users’ normal visual fields—onto their everyday, curbside awareness, their routine comings and goings.

Glass looks like a pair of spectacles and works like a phone; what the user sees is a display that’s perched above the usual band of vision. That display accommodates a continuing crawl of Internet-fueled communications—text, images and sound.

Glass gets access to your world, it sees what you see. It can draw from your social networks, Internet queries, calendar, dining preferences, the bottomless resources of the Web, to furnish you with multiple levels of information and intelligence—customized for you—to inspire your choices and shape your life.

True, the technologically adept already get that via smart phones by heedlessly stroking at their tiny screens. But Glass promises a brazen and routine simultaneity of experience, an ability to interact seamlessly with the here and now without losing rich Web-enabled connectivity—just as having the radio on never meant you couldn’t talk with a friend.

That’s the good news. Now the rest. For starters, Glass can record and transmit pictures and sound. It is, as privacy expert Shaq Katikala puts it, “a phone in front of your eyes with a Continue reading “Would Google’s new glasses keep an eye on things?”