An Obsession With Secrets

Tech companies throw around nondisclosure agreements like confetti, but they can hurt the rest of us.,

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Before visitors set foot inside many tech company offices, they must sign a (digital) promise not to blab about what they overhear or see there. Religious leaders in the United States entered into legally binding agreements not to talk in detail about their online worship collaboration with Facebook. And Amazon demanded that testers of a revealing body-scanning technology not reveal anything about the experience.

Nondisclosure agreements like these have become a fixture for many influential people and institutions that want to keep secrets, sometimes for understandable reasons and other times for horrifying ones. NDAs and similar legal agreements have been used to cover up sexual abuse and harassment and discrimination at work.

NDAs are definitely not confined to the tech industry. But the power of large technology companies and the popularity of their products make their attempts at enforced secrecy particularly dangerous because of the ways NDAs keep the public from fully understanding how these companies shape the world.

The use of NDAs, including in trivial or routine circumstances like visiting a tech office, is ironic in an industry that praises openness and transparency. Facebook says it values free expression, but it might stop you from talking about the grapes that you ate at the company cafeteria.

Yes, there are often good reasons for people and companies to demand confidentiality or try to prevent competitors from learning their best ideas. And because many people, including journalists, are eager to know about potential tech products or projects, there may be a higher risk of stuff leaking out of those companies.

But it’s also easy to find fault in the willingness of many technology companies to throw around NDAs like confetti, in both silly and unsettling ways. Ifeoma Ozoma, the former Pinterest public policy executive, is among those pressing to ban NDAs that limit people who experienced workplace discrimination from speaking publicly about their experiences. Some laws restrict NDAs if they keep sexual misconduct or dangerous 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.)

If tech workers hadn’t risked breaking NDAs at their companies, the public might have never learned about fraud at the blood testing company Theranos, the emotional and physical health risks faced by those who review Facebook posts containing violence and sex, and details of Russian online propaganda to create voter chaos in the United States.

“The vast reach of these companies is what makes their use of exploitative agreements the biggest issue,” Ozoma told me in an email. “Companies based in California are exporting overly restrictive, silencing agreements to every corner of the world. And they’re doing all of this while claiming to give a damn about speech rights and free expression.”

It might hurt other customers when Airbnb makes customers sign NDAs if they encounter bedbugs at rented homes, or when nondisclosure provisions limit customers from complaining publicly about their experiences with teeth aligners. And is it fair for Amazon and other companies to require elected officials to sign nondisclosure agreements about projects that use taxpayer dollars?

The requirement to sign NDAs before entering tech companies stunned me when I first encountered it. It feels like an unnecessary and trivial exercise of power. (Another question: Are these agreements even enforceable?)

Lots of sensitive details are discussed inside investment banks, law firms, news organizations and hospitals, and as far as I know they don’t have nondisclosure agreements for everyone who walks through the doors. Instead, employees tend to be careful not to discuss secrets where outsiders might hear them.

Again, NDAs aren’t unique to technology. The Trump White House used them. Some celebrities apparently require NDAs for friends or romantic partners. My colleagues reported last year that many companies require employees to sign nondisclosure agreements in order to receive severance packages.

Companies and people have legitimate reasons to want 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 and trendsetting tech companies use NDAs for everything and anything, it often protects them at the expense of the rest of us.

Tip of the Week

When to quit your fancy headphones

Are your cord-free headphones way more frustrating than magical? Brian X. Chen, the consumer tech columnist for The New York Times, is here to share your {SCREAMS} and advise us when to give up:

Wireless earphones are great. They let you move around freely, are easier to put away than wired earphones and have decent sound quality. Recently, however, I called it quits on wireless earbuds for one type of use: video calls on a computer.

For more than a year of remote work, my Apple AirPods were unreliable for video calls on my desktop. Occasionally, the AirPods would vanish from the list of available Bluetooth devices on my Mac, forcing me to reset my earbuds. Other times, I wasn’t able to choose the wireless earphones as a microphone or speaker when I entered a new video call.

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

This makes sense to me: We tend to upgrade smartphones more regularly than we do computers, so mobile devices have newer Bluetooth technology that presumably works better with newer earbuds.

After reflecting on all of the video calls that have gone wrong for me, I bit the bullet and bought a relatively cheap, old-school wired headset from Logitech just for my virtual meetings. It costs $25 and works perfectly every time. Sometimes, you have to know when to call it quits on fancy tech.

Before we go …

The not-so-invisible hand of Beijing: The company behind China’s wildly popular WeChat app suspended new user registrations, which my colleague Paul Mozur said raised fears of new regulatory pressure. In recent months, Chinese authorities have been on a spree of tech scrutiny that has affected Uber-like Didi, food delivery services and online tutoring start-ups.

Questioning a technology frequently used in law enforcement: Vice’s Motherboard publication reviewed court records that suggest that ShotSpotter, a technology that detects gunfire and alerts law enforcement, has sometimes modified data on the location and time of gunshots at the request of police departments.

The online video that brought attention and danger: An Iraqi teenager recorded an online video listing the troubles of his country and asking President Biden for help. The video went big, and my colleague Jane Arraf reported that the teen has been flooded with thousands of negative social media comments and is afraid to leave home.

Hugs to this

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 all 465 cranes.

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