[Plura-list] Amazon drivers hide phones in trees; Russia didn't hack Michigan; Chevron's dirty tricks

Cory Doctorow doctorow at craphound.com
Wed Sep 2 11:11:00 EDT 2020

Today's links

* Amazon drivers hide phones in trees: Chickenizing the workforce.

* Russia didn't hack Michigan: The voter data is just public records.

* Chevron's dirty tricks against environmental lawyer: Steven Donziger
caught them doing genocide, now HE'S under arrest.

* Amazon's weird, terrible Flex: Spying on their chickenized workforce.

* How to report on vote-by-mail: A recipe from Propublica.

* This day in history: 2005, 2010

* Colophon: Recent publications, upcoming appearances, current writing
projects, current reading


🧉 Amazon drivers hide phones in trees

I've been a freelancer - a contractor - for most of my life, but I've
also been a salaried employee and an hourly employee and there is a
significant difference between all three.

Hourly and salaried work has some disadvantages in terms of independence
and freedom, but they have one huge advantage: stability. As a
freelancer, my pay yo-yos around - in some years, I'll have a month
that's worth 30 times more than all the rest combined.

Which sounds great, until you turn it around: some years, I'll earn
1/30th of my top rate for 11 out of 12 months. Also: I don't get
vacation pay, I pay for my own health care, etc. But for me, it makes
sense: I work for lots of clients, do my paperwork, and get by.

Which brings me to the "gig economy" and its pretense people who do
EXACTLY the kind of work as a waged or hourly employee are really
independent contractors, despite being completely dependent on, and
under the thumbs of, employers.

Gig economy work is a way to shift all the risks associated with being
an employer onto your workforce, while hoarding all of the benefits that
independent contractors customarily enjoy. For employers, it's a
disposable workforce whom you owe nothing to.

For workers, it's a contractor's precarity without a contractor's

Which brings me to Amazon drivers hanging cellphones from tree-branches.


You see: Amazon Flex drivers are not employees, they're contractors.
Their boss is an app that decides, from moment to moment, whether they
will get work and how much they'll get paid for it. The app uses a
secret mix of factors to make these determinations.

These drivers are like mice on an intermittent reinforcement schedule,
getting work according to factors that they are not privy to and cannot

In the immortal words of William Gibson: "Night City was like a deranged
experiment in social Darwinism, designed by a bored researcher who kept
one thumb
permanently on the fast-forward button."

(this is your periodic reminder that cyberpunk was a warning, not a

Amazon Flex drivers develop various folk theories of how the app works,
and one of these - which sounds plausible to me - is that you are more
likely to get a job if the app thinks you're physically close to a
pickup spot.

So: in the Chicago suburbs, desperate Amazon Flex drivers, competing
with one another for the unknown sums on offer for making deliveries,
stash phones in the branches of trees close to Whole Foods and other
Amazon distribution points.

This tricks the Amazon Flex app into thinking that they are on the very
doorstep of the distribution point, upping their chances of getting a
delivery (the drivers sync a second phone to their tree-phones, so they
get alerted when they get a job).

Labor economists talk about "chickenization," named for the
hyperconcentrated poultry industry: chicken farmers are notionally
independent contractors, but they have no independence.

Big Chicken tells the farmers how to build their coops, sells them their
chicks, specs out medicine, feed and light systems. But the meat-packers
don't tell farmers how much they'll get paid until the chickens are

The poultry industry - which has divided up the country so that each
region only has one processor - does analytics to decide how much to
pay, titrating the money-drip so that it's enough to survive, but not
enough to get ahead.

That way they can hold out the threat of a canceled contract to any
worker caught "cheating" - say, by speaking out to regulators about
these abusive practices.

You'll never guess what Amazon has proposed to do about the fact that
its drivers are so desperate they're hanging phones from tree-branches.

They've promised to investigate and discipline the drivers.

Because when your workforce is totally chickenized, you don't need to
correct these dysfunctions by eliminating the need for worker
"misconduct" (say, by paying workers a steady, predictable rate).

Instead, you can treat any attempt by your "independent contractors" to
increase their leverage as a form of fraud and punish them.


🧉 Russia didn't hack Michigan

You know that "massive Russian hack of all Michigan voter data" that hit
the news Tuesday morning? That "hacked data" was just public records.


Indeed, this kind of voter-roll hack is pretty common, but all the
hackers are doing is getting data that is lawfully, commercially
available for relatively low prices without having to pay for it:


The hacked data from Michigan is the same qualified voter info that
anyone can get through a Freedom of Information Act request:


But as Karl Bode describes, there is one genuinely nefarious thing about
this: the hackers are said to have reported their data-dump to the US
government's Rewards for Justice tipline, which pays for information
about security vulnerabilities US government infrastructure.

Don't get me wrong: Touchscreen voting machines remain a goddamned
dumpster fire of security vulnerabilities. The US should conduct
pencil-and-paper balloting. But this Russia-hacked-Michigan story? It's
just дезинформация.


🧉 Chevron's dirty tricks against environmental lawyer

Some stories are so vast and ghastly that they overwhelm our
consciousness, beggaring our ability to hold them in our heads all at
once. This is one of them, and it involves Chevron and what amounts to
genocide, where the only person headed to jail is the victims' lawyer.

Back when Chevron was Texaco, the company engaged in a campaign of
environmental genocide on indigenous land in Ecuador, abetted by the
brutal military dictatorship. Its recklessness - thousands of open-air,
unlined pits of heavy metal waste - poisoned five communities.

The indigenous people Chevron poisoned lived in abject, toxic poverty,
with carcinogens saturating their food, water and air. They and their
children contracted cancer at terrible rates, and died and died and died.

The environmental lawyer Steven Donziger sued Chevron, winning an
unprecedented $9.5B judgment. Chevron responded by threatening a
"lifetime of litigation" if their victims tried to collect and
circulated an internal memo laying out a plan to "demonize Donziger."

Enter SDNY Judge Lewis A Kaplan, a former tobacco company lawyer with
undisclosed Chevron holdings. Chevron sued Donziger in Kaplan's court,
proposing an obviously fraudulent theory that he had bribed the
Ecuadoran judge who made the award.

The case was so flimsy (the Ecuadoran judge had received hundreds of
thousands of dollars from Chevron prior to his accusation, and then
later recanted it under oath at a World Bank tribunal) that NY
prosecutors wouldn't take itup.

So Kaplan used an obscure legal maneuver to appoint a corporate law-firm
(with extensive ties to Chevron) to privately prosecute Donziger.

As part of this kangaroo court proceeding, they demanded that Donziger
turn over his laptop and phone, including lawyer-client privileged
confidential files, to Chevron's lawyers. Naturally, Donziger refused.

Kaplan charged him contempt and ordered him held in pre-trial detention
(house arrest). He's been locked up for more than a year.


Now things are coming to a head.

Kaplan has announced his intent to proceed with Donziger's trial,
reopening the SDNY's criminal court for the first time since March,
jumping Donziger ahead of accused rapists and murderers.

Donziger is the *only person in the entire USA* in pretrial detention
for a misdemeanor. His detention - 13 months - is four times longer than
the longest sentence *ever served* by a lawyer facing the same charge.

If Donziger goes to trial on Sept 9, it will be without adequate
representation. Kaplan has removed *both* of his in-state lawyers on a
flimsy pretense, and the dozens of other pro-bono lawyers representing
him are out of state and cannot travel safely.

Donziger has been denied his petition to delay the trial until December.
He's also been denied the right to trial by jury. If he loses, the judge
can send him to prison immediately for a sentence of six months, in the
midst of the pandemic - a potential death-sentence.

Look, I know this sounds unbelievable. Don't take my word for it. Have a
look at this in-depth article by the Pulitzer-winning investigative
journalist Chris Hedges.


And then check out this judicial complaint against Kaplan, co-signed by
organizations representing 500,000 lawyers worldwide and 200 individual
US lawyers:


They are joined by 29 Nobel laureates, a coalition of global human
rights groups, and many others who have decried Kaplan's conduct and
Donziger's legal jeopardy.

Here's a petition where you can add your name to the list of Donziger's
supporters (I signed):


And here's where you can donate to Donziger's legal defense fund (I



🧉 Amazon's weird, terrible Flex

Amazon Flex is a "gig economy" delivery system that maintains the
pretence that drivers are independent contractors, even as their motions
are scripted to a fine degree by an app whose control over them exceeds
that of any boss in history.

As with all gig economy work, the "independent contractor" wheeze is
just a ruse to shift the risks and costs of being an employer onto the
workforce, without any of the independence that real freelancers enjoy.

Amazon Flex drivers are a "chickenized" workforce, whose pay is
determined by a black-box algorithm tuned to keep them on the brink of
financial ruin (which is why Flex drivers have started *hiding their
phones in trees*):


Which is why Amazon maintains an extensive spy network of "analysts" who
infiltrate its drivers' private Facebook groups, a fact we discovered
when Amazon's internal counterintelligence system leaked to
Motherboard's Lauren Gurley and Joseph Cox.


Specifically, Amazon's spooks gather data on efforts to form unions or
attract attention from the press, lawmakers and regulators.

That may seem like garden-variety (illegal) union-busting (and it is),
but think about this in light of the "independent contractor" fiction.

According to Amazon, each of these drivers is a "small business" in its
supply chain, like the sellers who put products in the Amazon
Marketplace or the publishers who supply books for the Kindle.

Amazon's intelligence op is a mass surveillance effort *targeting small
businesses who sell it services*. If we are to believe that drivers are
independent contractors, then this is like Amazon sending out spies to
infiltrate every publisher in America.

Or putting covert informants in the factories of all its suppliers to
keep it apprised of any negative publicity that might attend its efforts
to squeeze them for higher discounts.

This is clearly not an isolated incident: surveillance of workers is
baked into its DNA. This is, after all, the company that maintains a
predictive, algorithmic "heat-map" of labor unrest in Whole Foods stores:


And it's also the company that - just this week - advertised for
"intelligence analysts" with military backgrounds to monitor the
internet for signs of labor organizing, activist opposition, and
"hostile" lawmakers and regulators.



🧉 How to report on vote-by-mail

Vote-by-mail wasn't my first pick for "top election year controversy,"
but here we are. Vote-by-mail is sufficiently obscure that few members
of the public or journalists (or, for that member, Presidents of the
United States) understand it very well.

So I was very glad to see Rachel Glickhouse and Jessica Huseman's
"reporting recipe" for vote-by-mail stories in Propublica:


Glickhouse and Huseman provide a checklist for would-be vote-by-mail
reporters to figure out how things should work, and how they are
actually working, and how to explain any discrepancy.

The recipe is in three stages.

I. Learn the process: Who's eligible? Has the process changed? Are there
current legal challenges? What are the voter ID laws? How do people
obtain ID if the DMV is closed? Do you need a printer and stamp to
request a ballot?

What do absentee ballots look like? What are the application and ballot
deadlines? Might they change due to court challenges? Is there enough
time between deadlines given current USPS delays? Who's paying for
ballot postage?

How many drop boxes will there be? Are there restrictions? Why? What's
the "cure" process for ballots with problems? What do voters do if they
don't receive ballots?

The writers suggest the Vote at Home Institute, the National Conference
of State Legislatures , the Brennan Center and the Lawyers' Committee
for Civil Rights for research starts.

II. Evaluate Preparedness: How many people used mail-in ballots in your
state/county in 2016 and 2018? Have election officials coordinated with
postal officials? What postal-ballot-processing equipment is on hand?
How much funding is there for voter education?

What's the local post office doing to prepare? How many mail ballots
were rejected previously? What are election officials doing about the
most common causes of rejections? What's your state's plan for
distributing CARES Act funding for elections?

III. Show and Tell: Explain (with video, if possible) how to fill in a
postal ballot. Give voters the deadlines, signature and ID requirements.
Get a tour of postal ballot storage and counting facilities, including
security measures.

Find out how drop boxes are checked and secured. Give the status of any
pending litigation over vote-by-mail.


🧉 This day in history

#15yrsago DVD Jon cracks Windows streaming video DRM

#10yrsago Wendy's restaurants beverage-handling training songs

#10yrsago Applying "ownership" to links, public domain material does
more harm than good

#10yrsago German "secure" ID cards compromised on national TV, gov't
buries head in sand


🧉 Colophon

Today's top sources: JWZ (https://www.jwz.org/blog/), Frank Syratt,
Naked Capitalism (https://www.nakedcapitalism.com/).

Currently writing: My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel
about truth and reconciliation. Yesterday's progress: 508 words (56282

Currently reading: Gideon the Ninth, Tamsyn Muir

Latest podcast: Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town (part 14)

Upcoming appearances:

* Keynote for Law Via the Internet conference, Sept 22,

* Writing into an Uncertain Future, Afterwords Festival, Oct 1,

Latest book:

* "Little Brother/Homeland": A reissue omnibus edition with a new
introduction by Edward Snowden:
https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250774583; personalized/signed copies

* "Poesy the Monster Slayer" a picture book about monsters, bedtime,
gender, and kicking ass. Order here:
https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781626723627. Get a personalized, signed
copy here:

Upcoming books:

* "Attack Surface": The third Little Brother book, Oct 20, 2020.

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*When life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla* -Joey "Accordion Guy"

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