Good Monday Morning

It’s May 22. We’re off next week for Memorial Day. See you on June 5.

Today’s Spotlight is 1,173 words–about 4 1/2 minutes to read.

image by MidJourney 5, prompted by George Bounacos

Spotlight On … Federal Surveillance Programs

A steady drumbeat of anti-privacy federal surveillance headlines emerged last week about programs at FBI, HUD, and the Post Office. The programs are similar to one we learned about in January regarding surprising federal surveillance initiatives.

For Everyday Money Transfers

In January, we learned that more than 600 law enforcement agencies can access a database that details money transfers between Americans and people in more than 20 countries. Those transfers include the full name and address of the sender and recipient for money orders and other electronic transfers well below the $10,000 threshold, often triggered by as little as $500.

Important quote: “Courts have held that customers using money transmitter businesses do not have the same expectation of privacy as traditional banking customers,” an Arizona Attorney General statement to the WSJ.

In Public Housing Communities

Public housing funds earmarked to combat crime are being used to monitor resident behavior and recommend evictions for minor violations. Transgressions such as taking a cart from a laundry room or violating overnight guest rules are monitored by cameras that include facial recognition and advanced software.

Important quote: “People choose to get evicted by their actions.” Melody McClurg, executive director of the Jefferson Metropolitan Housing Authority in Steubenville to the Washington Post

At the Post Office

A bipartisan group of U.S. Senators last week accused the U.S. Postal Service of “unchecked government monitoring” of Americans’ mail. Post offices collect information upon written request by a law enforcement officer–no court order is necessary. All the information on the envelope’s outside is included. In their letter, the senators claim tens of thousands of Americans and businesses are monitored.

Important quote: “A mail cover is an investigative tool used to record data appearing on the outside of a mailpiece. Law enforcement agencies use this information to protect national security; locate fugitives; obtain evidence; or help identify property, proceeds, or assets forfeitable under criminal law. A mail cover is justified when it will further an investigation or provide evidence of a crime.” — USPS description

In Secret Databases

A recently unsealed court document shows that the FBI used a federal surveillance database to monitor individuals who protested for racial equality, illegally entered the Capitol during the January 6 insurrection, or donated to a congressional candidate. The database is under the control of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which threatened last year to restrict FBI access to the data.

Important finding: Court documents show “an FBI analyst conducted a batch query for over 19,000 donors to a congressional campaign” because the analyst said the campaign was a target of foreign influence, reports the Washington Post.

3 More Stories to Know

1) A First Amendment battle is shaping up in Montana where Gov. Greg Gianforte signed a bill to ban TikTok in the state. The bill takes effect in January and prohibits app stores from making the software available and the company from operating in the state.

2) 30-Second unskippable ads can now be purchased on YouTube. Calling the format “a staple of the TV industry,” YouTube said that the ads would be used only when content is shown on a television and not on phones or computers.

3) Angi company HomeAdvisor has agreed to pay $7.2 million to home services companies it defrauded by misrepresenting the consumer leads it sold them.

Did That Really Happen? — Biden Graduation Video Manipulated

A video of President Biden attending his granddaughter’s graduation has been digitally manipulated to include a crowd chanting “Fuck Joe Biden” in time to a marching band. The hoax video has been viewed more than one million times.

Following Up —  TSA Rolling Out New Program

Travelers at 16 airports will have the opportunity to take a selfie at a kiosk and then have their id scanned without having to rely on an officer to match their id and face. An agent is available, and travelers can opt out.

Protip —  Revisit WhatsApp Privacy

Wired updated their privacy walk-through of WhatsApp so if that’s one of your communications channels, have a look through this explainer.

Screening Room —  Augmental MouthPad

This unobtrusive mouthguard-like device is a game-changer for adapting tech devices for people who have disabilities.

Science Fiction World —  Your DNA, Pulled From Thin Air

Environmental researchers have long filtered human DNA from their work. Wildlife researchers and botanists use environmental DNA after scrubbing out human contamination. Now a bioethical issue is being raised: what should be the rules for how residual human DNA is used when it’s available to anyone with the right equipment?

Coffee Break — Same Place Names As Viewed Throughout The U.S.

This interactive database allows you to enter a place name and learn which town is being referred to throughout the U.S. 

For example: most of the country is referring to the Fairfax in Virginia, but people in Kentucky, Ohio, and Indiana likely mean Fairfax, Ohio, and people in SC and eastern Georgia probably mean Fairfax, SC.

It’s great fun to play with.

Sign of The Times

Good Monday Morning

It’s May 1, May Day, celebrating workers’ rights. The Fed Open Market Committee meets on Wednesday. Experts are divided about whether rates will be increased for the tenth time since the beginning of 2022 or if there’s been enough friction applied.

Today’s Spotlight is 1,098 words–about 4 minutes to read

Two features debut this month

  • Practical AI, our new look at how you can leverage AI, will appear after 3 More Stories to Know starting this month.

    We’ve been to this hypergrowth rodeo before, and the rush to control the internet’s next phase has revved up development in every possible industry. We’re dedicating a special area to generative AI so that its constant news doesn’t crowd out other digital news.
  • Spends & Trends adds TikTok data next week:  Hashtags, Songs, and Creator data organized by engagement.

Spotlight On … Hide Your Location Data

Location data is purchased and collated with personal information more often than most Americans realize. Data brokers claim to have 75,000 data points on the average American consumer. Many of those data sets are repackaged at the request of marketers with data combined in new, unique ways.

According to news reports last month, a conservative Catholic group spent millions of dollars tracking priests who used gay dating apps. A lay group spent $4 million legally purchasing the data, then shared the findings with bishops. That kind of punitive tracking led to the outing of an administrator for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and other measures that destroyed the illusion of privacy.

Relying on the industry to police itself harms individuals, but can also create significant national security issues. In 2018, we wrote about Strava, a data company that aggregates data from fitness trackers. Strava reporting revealed the existence of military and other sensitive sites even in countries where the U.S. military was fighting.

Now we’ve learned that a similar situation arose last week with hiking data from AllTrails. The app revealed the confidential whereabouts of a former senior Biden administration official. It included travel information to a residence and the White House. A security researcher also tracked the official’s activity including actual hiking trail locations and date and time information.

Some states are acting now to restrict location data without waiting for federal lawmakers. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill last week that shields abortion data of all types, including location data. A first in the U.S., the bill also allows consumers to control their own data even after it’s been captured by tech companies. 

Keep reading & we’ll show you how to turn off some of the location data tracking on your phone before it’s sent back to Google or Apple.

 3 More Stories to Know

1) Windows 10 users got word last week that the software will only receive security updates until Oct. 14, 2025. No new features are planned for Windows 10, and the company advises consumers to switch to Windows 11 before then.

2) You may want to reconsider if you already embraced Google’s 2FA new cloud backup feature. This story shares a researcher’s work claiming that the account details are unencrypted when transmitted to Google. That means all of your account information would be available to anyone searching for them with a subpoena.

Separately, cybersecurity journalist Brian Krebs reported that Salesforce’s Community sites can leak personal information. He was able to demonstrate to Vermont officials that he could access names, Social Security numbers, bank account numbers, and other highly confidential information.

3) The European Union is considering legislation that would require AI companies such as the makers of ChatGPT to disclose all copyrighted materials used in training their models.

 Waiting in the Wings

  • What you can really do with those chatbots
  • How algorithms are automatically denying medical claims
  • The May debut of “Practical AI”

Put your email address in the form at this link and you’ll get a free copy of Spotlight each Monday morning to start your week in the know.

If you’re already a free subscriber, would you please forward this to a friend who could use a little Spotlight in their Monday mornings? It would really help us out.

Did That Really Happen? — Adam Schiff Not Being Impeached … Because He Can’t Be

A video traveling around on Facebook characterizes Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan as “brave” and says that he has “shut down” Rep. Adam Schiff, who will be impeached. The hoax includes clips of a hearing four years ago that shows a Republican representative demanding that Schiff resign. There are two clips of Rep. Jordan, but neither has anything to do with Schiff. House rules don’t allow for representatives to be impeached, and no such action is happening.

Following Up —  Revisiting Amazon

We featured Amazon two weeks ago and wrote that their cost cutting measures were largely performative because Wall Street was concerned about Amazon’s growth rate. Events last Thursday played out as we projected. Revenue growth at the AWS cloud unit was 11%, down from 16% the previous quarter, and the lowest for that unit in its eight year history.

Amazon beat overall expectations and saw profit increase 50% over what analysts expected. Ecommerce sales and the advertising division both beat estimates, but Amazon stock got hit as soon as the AWS numbers came out.

This Statista chart does a great job showing the importance of AWS to Amazon’s future.

Protip —  Hide Your Location Data

You can stop your phone from being a blabbermouth by following these step-by-step instructions to change your Apple Maps and Android settings.  

Screening Room —  Calm Mindfulness App

Science Fiction World — ChatGPT & Google Play Their Own Sims

Using ChatGPT’s models and Google engineers, researchers created an online Sims-like environment where generative AI controlled 25 player characters. Those characters could interact with each other as well as human players. Those AI characters did things like independently planning parties while inviting others to join and other “believable plans, reactions, and thoughts…”

Coffee Break — A New (Short) Daily Game

Where in the USA Is This is from The Pudding, some of the best data visualization people online. They’ve created a game that gives you up to 5 guesses to choose the site of images harvested from Google Maps’ Street View. The maps are usually stripped of street signs and building names, but you can use other visual clues to guess the location. After each guess you’re told how close you are, but not the direction. It’s a lot of fun.

Sign of the Times

Good Monday Morning

It’s April 24th. Friday is Arbor Day. Here’s a WDIV segment showing a Michigan celebration involving champion tree climbers–the arborists themselves.

Today’s Spotlight is 1,108 words–about 4 minutes to read

Spotlight On … Voice Cloning

The music world is livid and wary after the release of the track “Heart On My Sleeve,” credited to Drake and The Weeknd. The song became a viral sensation with millions of plays, proving problematic for the Canadian superstars who have collaborated in the past, but never sang on this track.

“Heart on My Sleeve” was created by voice cloning AI software and was released without the involvement of the artists or their music companies. This has sparked a debate about the potential of generative AI and what it could mean for the music industry. It has also raised questions about copyright laws and how they apply to AI-generated content.

Using sound alikes isn’t new in the music industry. Singer Ral Donner sounded like Elvis on multiple hits between 1959 and 1963. Before he became famous, Elton John recorded nearly 50 top hits between 1969 and 1970 for uncredited sound-alike releases. And even today, singers who leave a band are often replaced by others who mimic their voices.

But vocal cloning poses a different threat to the music industry. The judiciary often lags behind technological advances. Legal battles still rage over key provisions of the nearly thirty-year-old Communications Decency Act. Some legal experts today muse that the software creation could itself be considered a protected work of art.

Voice over artists are also increasingly concerned about synthesized versions of their voices that have cropped up online, usually on websites that promise to provide artificially generated scripts of famous voices.

Criminals are also using voice cloning. An Arizona mother received a call featuring the voice of her daughter crying and apologizing. A man told her that her daughter had been kidnapped while on a skiing trip and then demanded a ransom. In minutes, the woman verified the phone voice was fake and that her daughter was safe.

In Saskatchewan, a couple in their 70s was targeted by a call from their grandson’s voice  claiming he was in jail and needed bail money. After withdrawing $3,000 CAD, they rushed to a second bank branch where they learned he was safe. Another couple lost $21,000 after a voice that sounded like their adult son claimed to be in jail after killing a U.S. diplomat in a car accident.

Voice cloning is cheap, easy, and ubiquitous. Critics also praise its quality. For now, be careful, ask smart questions that may not be public knowledge, and heed these red flags that the FBI identified.

3 More Stories to Know

1) Europe’s air traffic control organization has been under cyberattack by a known Russian hacking gang since April. 19. Officials says that air traffic there remains unaffected.

2) Instagram announced that commercial accounts can now include up 5 links in their profile. Account holders previously had to use a third-party service to include more than one link.

3) An era ended when Netflix announced that it will stop emailing DVDs to customers in September.

You may not know that Silver Beacon-owned website Movie Rewind was one of the first sites to publish the company’s schedule. EIC Sue Millinocket wrote the breakthrough piece, “The Blind Side Not Out On Netflix? I’ll Tell You Why” way back in March of 2010. Since then, Sue and her team of contributors publish genre-specific reviews of older films and television. 

They also still publish a free weekly overview of Netflix release dates. Sign up here.

 Waiting in the Wings

  • Protecting yourself from location data
  • What you can really do with those chatbots
  • How algorithms are automatically denying medical claims

Put your email address in the form at this link and you’ll get a free copy of Spotlight each Monday morning to start your week in the know.

If you’re already a free subscriber, would you please forward this to a friend who could use a little Spotlight in their Monday mornings? It would really help us out.

Trends & Spends

Did That Really Happen? — Bud Light Billboards  & Other Debunked Stuff

Here’s what happened with the Bud Light “boycott.”

  • Anheuser-Busch sent out “influencer packages,” essentially free gifts for hundreds of  people in different communities.
  • One of the goodies was some Bud Light cans with the person’s name on it.
  • One went to an online personality who happens to be transgendered.

From there, all the stories got crazy. Conservative musicians Kid Rock and John Rich both made videos complaining about a transgendered person’s inclusion. Both claimed to cut off Budweiser sales at their restaurants, which Fr. Nathan Monk later proved was untrue.

Others claimed that the company had lost “billions” although the stock price is actually flat this month and up this year. And still others claimed, especially on social media, that the entire marketing department had been fired, which was again, untrue.

Finally, the AP had to debunk claims that Budweiser had bought billboards mocking conservative activists and calling them crybabies.

Following Up —  AI Cutting Academic Paper Mills

Academic paper writers who help students cheat say that the rise of generative AI like ChatGPT has cut into their earnings.

Protip —  Disable ChatGPT on Windows 11

If you’re using Bing and Windows 11, you now have ChatGPT on your taskbar, but this simple diagram shows you how to remove it.

Screening Room —  My Last Lullaby

Science Fiction World — NYPD Robot Dogs Are Back

We wrote about police robots fashioned to look like dogs two years ago. A public outcry ended the program before it really started, but with former police captain and current mayor Eric Adams leading the way, the NYPD is using robots again.

Coffee Break —  Voice Clone Yourself

Here’s one of many free options you can try yourself to see what all the fuss is about.

Sign of the Times