Good Monday morning. It’s June 1st, the start of Pride Month. People are raw right now between a pandemic, protests over racial inequality, and forty million lost jobs. We’re going to have to take care of each other. Try really hard to do that this week.

We’ve created new pricing during this crisis for nonprofits and small businesses that need help maintaining their online presence on websites, email, and social media.

Today’s Spotlight is 1,304 words, about a 4 1/2 minute read.

1. News to Know Now

a. We told you for months and most recently on May 19, that “Twitter is cracking down on misinformation and deliberate disinformation. The company says it will remove tweets that are deliberately misleading and that have a severe propensity for harm even if that content is sent by the president.”

Twitter did just that early in the week after the president posted an inaccurate two-part tweet about voting fraud. The company left the tweets in place but labeled them as “potentially misleading.” The president retaliated by issuing an executive order filled with complaints about Big Tech and a request that the FCC review the Communications Decency Act provisions that protect tech companies from liability for what users post on their systems. A consensus among industry legal analysts seems to have formed that suggests legislative rather than executive action is needed to accomplish what the president wants.

Later in the week Twitter labeled, but did not remove, a post by the president that it said “glorified violence.” Twitter’s labels were among the least punitive action that the private company could have taken. Twitter, Facebook, or any other company can remove anyone’s account or posts as they have shown in the past when taking action against people posting legal but inaccurate information. 

b. Facebook continues adding features to attract small businesses. The company announced that its new Shops program is available on Facebook, Instagram, or WhatsApp to any entity with a business profile. Ten percent of U.S. small businesses remain closed today due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

c. Facebook also launched Venue, “a second screen” mobile app for live events. Venue’s goal will be to directly compete with Twitter to provide social media coverage of live events from well known personalities. Tech Crunch has coverage including screenshots.

2. COVID-19 Online Resources and News

Great Trackers

Johns Hopkins – added state level and other data.
Covidly — flexible data and charting tools
Our World in Data — Oxford nonprofit 
ProPublica Reopening Tracker – State by state measures – truly excellent
DC Metro Tracker spreadsheet by WTOP editor Alejandro Alvarez

Note: if you’re a DC area resident on Twitter, follow Alvarez there for excellent local info (@aletweetsnews)

Tech News

Google’s AR tool helps you measure two meters to maintain proper social distancing – read at The Verge

Microsoft News just cut dozens of editorial workers as it shifts to an AI-driven system of picking stories – read at Business Insider

Nearly Half Of The Twitter Accounts Discussing ‘Reopening America’ May Be Bots – read at Carnegie Mellon

One of the first contact-tracing apps violates its own privacy policy – read at The Washington Post

Tracking COVID-19 Excess Deaths Across Countries (updated) – read at The Economist

WATCH: 9 Local TV Stations Pushed the Same Amazon-Scripted Segment About COVID-19 – read at Courier

3. Search Engine Optimization News

Google has created a new report called “Core Web Vitals” that it says provides metrics around areas that it considers “critical to all web experiences.” In nearly twenty years of running websites, I’ve learned to pay attention to what Google does rather than what they say.

These metrics are outgrowths of Google’s focus on speed. As SEJ’s Matt Southern reported, “There’s more to keeping users happy than having a site that loads fast.”

Google is singling out these three elements:

Cumulative Layout Shift — this measures if a page loads something late that causes the whole display to shift.

First Input Delay — This is how fast the website responds in a way that the user can see.

Largest Contentful Paint — That is the measure of how long it takes the main section of the page’s content to load. Yes, it is called Contentful.

There are dozens of significant factors that affect an organization’s website visibility, and page speed is among the most important. These are not the replacement for page speed metrics, but a way to subdivide the metric and to measure if websites use less desirable fixes like loading things late that cause the display to move.

Why should you care? As a business leader, your team should already know about and have plans to optimize these factors. As a user, you’ll see the continuing and increasing focus on usability as it relates to website speed.

4. Also in the Spotlight — NSA Built a Social Network About You. And They Update It.

Award winning journalist Barton Gellman’s new book is “Dark Mirror: Edward Snowden and the American Surveillance State.” Wired has published a 3,600 word excerpt well worth your time.

This section explains how Gellman learned that the NSA didn’t simply capture the data of who called whom, when, and for how long. Instead, the data was continually fed through software that mapped each connection at the first, second, and even more remote levels.

Read Gellman on “contact chaining.”

5. Following Up: Walmart Discontinues Jet

Walmart saw as its jump start to challenge Amazon in the e-commerce space when it bought the company four years ago for $3 billion. We’ve talked about Walmart’s other acquisitions such as ModCloth and Bonobos also failing to help the company much like Amazon acquiring Zappos in 2009.

Tech Crunch has coverage here.

6. Debugging: Minneapolis Police Station Fire

Enough misinformation circulated online about the police station fire in Minneapolis that Reuters felt compelled to issue a fact check. The city’s Third Precinct was indeed set on fire, but the building often shown engulfed in flames was an apartment building still under construction.

Reuters has pictures of the construction site and police station, plus y’know, facts.

7. ProTip: New Chrome Features 

If your web browser is called Google Chrome, you can access new safe browsing settings and the ability to group multiple open tabs.

C|Net’s Iyaz Akhtar has a great five minute explainer video demonstrating them.

8. Great Data: Coronavirus Data Visualization

By now, you and everyone that you know is an expert on the difference between linear and logarithmic trendlines because we’ve all seen enough of them this year. One thing that we’re all going to do in the future is make data beautiful because plenty of others are setting the bar high.

French brand marketers BRIGHT took coronavirus data that you know well and gave it a great visualization. You should have access to people who can create at this level.

Move to the right after each animation loads.

Screening Room: Ryan Reynolds & Mint

Ryan Reynolds’ second splashy acquisition was last year’s purchase of budget carrier Mint Mobile. Here’s a goofy spot in the “we’re all working from home” style.

10. Coffee Break:  Can’t Unsee

This fun graphic design quiz gets progressively harder as you play. You’ll see side-by-side designs and pick which one “is most correct.”

Have fun. See you again in 20 minutes.

Good Monday morning. It’s December 30th. There are only two more days until our Roaring Twenties begin.  Wednesday is also when California’s Consumer Privacy Act takes effect. Organizations that earn at least $25 million in annual revenue or that retain information for 50,000 or more consumers or households have new rules to follow. And you will keep getting email notices this week from those companies advising you that their privacy policies have changed. As with the European GDPR privacy launch 19 months ago, those emails will stop soon.

Today’s Spotlight takes about 4 minutes to read. Want to chat about something you see here? Here is a contact form.

1. News To Know Now

1. Microsoft will no longer support Windows 7 as of January 14. That matters to everyone because there are up to one billion computers with Windows 7 still installed, they are going to become less reliable, and they will be great hacking and virus targets for the ten year old operating system. I’ve seen dozens of messages in the last week from people who insist that they won’t upgrade — even for free. Good luck with that if you’re one of them.

Smart links
How Many PCs are Still Running Windows 7 at ZDNet
You Can Still Get Windows 10 for Free at How-To Geek
How to Move on or Keep Living With Windows 7 — Tom’s Hardware

2. News broke last week that Chinese government hackers can breach a system with two-factor authentication (2FA). That includes servers containing sensitive information or controlling traffic signals, power plants, and more. The hackers still need to get to the servers in question, usually through a phishing or password cracking attempt. The bigger issue is their ability to fake the code that is sent to a mobile phone or similar physical device check.

Smart links: ZDNet broke the story, the 40 page report as PDF

3. Facebook is piloting a fact-checking program of part-time contractors who are ‘ordinary people’, reports Axios. The company reportedly wants to feature work done by regular individuals instead of trained researchers as a way of creating a higher threshold. Axios also reported that Facebook and Reuters are teaming up to offer a free 45 minute class on how individuals can spot “manipulated media and deepfakes.”

2. Amazon Delivery

Amazon made a lot of money this month. The company reports that tens of millions of its devices were sold worldwide this holiday season. Consumers also began five million new or trial Amazon Prime memberships, the company stated in a December 26 report.

Amazon delivery statistics caught the attention of many analysts. Amazon said that the company and its contractors delivered 3.5 billion packages during 2019, more than half of what UPS delivered. Critics say that the company reached that volume by skipping planned driver training and requiring unrealistic productivity, which are similar to complaints lodged about conditions in Amazon’s distribution centers where items are stored and packed.

Drivers reach productivity goals by skipping meal breaks and urinating in bottles stored in their trucks to save time, according to an expose by Pro Publica and BuzzFeed. Amazon is ramping up its logistics capabilities by outsourcing to small companies that handle between twenty and forty routes.

Dozens of these subcontractors are not in compliance with Amazon standards and rules. The report also alleges that at least 60 collisions have occurred with serious personal injuries. The scale at which Amazon delivery has grown has also required the company to write guidelines for how to address deaths that occur after collisions with Amazon delivery vehicles.

Three U.S. Senators signed a letter in September asking Amazon for more information regarding its delivery practices. After receiving the company’s response, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) called Amazon’s answers “evasive” and demanded that the company “throw open the books” to lawmakers.

3. Google Search Updates

Your organization’s website has a source of “primary content” that you can’t edit. Coverage of a Twitter conversation this month by Search Engine Roundtable included the statement by Googler John Mueller that Google uses public comments to help rank a website’s content. 

Google can also help you remember upcoming movies. 9 to 5 Google reports that mobile users can now choose a “Watched It?” checkmark to track movies they’ve seen. There is also a “Watchlist” feature that will allow you to store the names of movies you would like to see.

Don’t forget that we publish a free weekly newsletter that updates Netflix DVD and streaming release dates. We also include information about many Amazon Prime Video dates and even some Canadian data. We pioneered this category of information way back in 2011 and have published steadily since then. You can always see the latest movie dates at our Everything Netflix page

Ask for your free newsletter here. We only need your email address.

4. Debugged: Plant Based Burgers & Breasts

The good folks at Tri-State Livestock News claim that men might grow breasts after eating Burger King’s new Impossible Whopper. The claim, made without evidence, is a good example of how inaccurate news can be passed around via official-looking sources. Understanding information’s original source is critical. 

For the record, men already have breasts, and eating too many of any kind of burger will cause them to grow larger.

Ars Technica debunks this one.

5. Also in the Spotlight: Spotify Stops Political Ads

Presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders and the Republican National Committee are two advertisers that will soon say goodbye to Spotify. The music streaming giant has 141 million users on its ad-supported tier and will stop accepting political advertising soon. Sanders and the RNC are its two highest profile political advertisers.

Ad Age has details.

6. Great Data: Annotated Animations

No one is going to criticize your data if you add helpful annotations. This short video of Moore’s Law visualized over time makes great use of short annotations that appear among the techspeak throughout its runtime.

Moore’s Law states the number of components per integrated circuit would double every year. The animation explains the principle, debunks a popular misquote, and explains other technically advanced information as it also reports on the data.

Have a look at Visual Capitalist’s video here.

7. Protip: Share Notes Between Your Chrome Devices

The new version of Google’s Chrome browser features an easy-peasy way to transfer links and notes between your phone and a computer or tablet.

Lifehacker has the helpful details.

8. Following Up: Hackers Release Pensacola Files

Two weeks ago, we told you that the Pensacola, Florida, government was a ransomware victim. The hackers behind the attack demanded $1 million to release the network. The group published two gigabytes of files last Monday and claim that they have ten times that amount in reserve.

Bleeping Computer says that they’re in touch with the hackers.

9. ICYMI — Top links from the past 30 days

Tracking President Trump (via cellphone data) at the New York Times.

Deep Sea visualization showing where creatures live at

RFK, Jr. is Single Largest Anti-Vax Advertiser at Ars Technica

10. Coffee Break: Deer Scores Goal, Celebrates

There were about 55 hours remaining in the year when I typed this. Lots of people will share resolutions and greetings over the next two days.

My wish for you is that you are as happy in the coming year as this deer who scored a goal with a soccer ball and then celebrated.

Watch him here.

Facial Recognition Grows Up

Observers could spend every working minute analyzing facial recognition to stay updated with its constant changes. For example, Amazon recently announced a change to its Rekognition software that “improved accuracy for emotion detection (for all 7 emotions: ‘Happy’, ‘Sad’, ‘Angry’, ‘Surprised’, ‘Disgusted’, ‘Calm’ and ‘Confused’) and added a new emotion: ‘Fear’. Lastly, we have improved age range estimation accuracy; you also get narrower age ranges across most age groups.”

Somehow Amazon is still working on age estimation accuracy, but can detect fear.

Facebook also announced new privacy settings for DeepFace, its facial recognition software. That sounds nice, but remember that DeepFace is believed to be the largest facial recognition database in the world thanks to the 250 billion photos that have been voluntarily uploaded to Facebook. The company claims that it beats the FBI’s facial recognition programs with 15% more accuracy.

Google’s Face Match algorithm now makes use of a camera in its Nest Hub smart home display, which is a nice way of saying that Google’s thermostat and light controlling gizmos point an always-on camera at your living space. You can learn more about that in CNet’s excellent “Google collects face data now. Here’s what it means and how to opt out.

The race to get this facial data isn’t only to sell you more stuff although that’s certainly helpful. Live Nation and its Ticketmaster subsidiary has said that it will use facial recognition at live events. Not so fast, say some artists like the aptly named Rage Against The Machine.  

More than half of U.S. adults trust law enforcement agencies to responsibly use facial recognition, according to Pew Research. The approval rating drops to 36% for technology companies and 18% for advertisers. California lawmakers sent a bill last week to Governor Gavin Newsom that would ban state and local police from using facial recognition software on their body cameras.

Tattletale Apps and Ancillary Data

Scary stories about phone apps, browser extensions, and smart devices abound in our society. We’re no longer surprised when we learn that a tech company is selling ovulation data from apps women use to track their periods or that Foursquare doesn’t care if you use their app to check in to a location since they have “passive” data collection.

Personal data from all of your transactions constantly flows into buckets at data brokerages around the world. WaPo columnist Geoffrey Fowler wrote a blockbuster expose this summer about browser extensions that seem innocuous but “leak information” directly to data brokers. In Fowler’s expose, one of the browser extensions was used to magnify images on a screen, but requested the ability “to read and change your browsing history.” The extension had 800,000 users and was packaging each user’s search history.

At a large family gathering this weekend, I was asked to troubleshoot someone’s PC because it seemed like Google was unresponsive. After only fifteen minutes of tinkering I found that there was a Firefox extension that promised private browsing. Instead, it read search data and routed the request to another network. Luckily, they didn’t return to Google but to Yahoo! search, which was my first clue that something terrible was happening.

Don’t forget that the absence of data is also data. Netflix raised eyebrows last month when The Verge found that Netflix was monitoring a phone’s physical activity sensor. Netflix later said it was a test to see if they could improve video quality while people were watching on the move. But the question remains why a video app gets to track your movements and activity. Fitness trackers, phones, and smart watches all have the ability to understand where you are and what you are doing or not doing.

Even medical data isn’t protected despite health privacy laws. ProPublica found 5 million health records on hundreds of computer servers worldwide. Anyone with a web browser or a few lines of computer code can view patient records, they found, including names in some cases. They didn’t do any hacking or nefarious activities because the records—either for consultation or stored for archives—were publicly accessible on the Internet.

Google, Amazon, and Microsoft are part of a new trade group called the CARIN Alliance that is creating a medical records universal standard for patient records. You’re probably already thinking to yourself, “What could go wrong with those three setting up programs accessing my most personal data?” Good news. The federal government, many state governments, and major health insurance companies are also participating.

The point is that your transactions every day create a growing pool of data about you.  Here in northern Virginia, our state is one of several using “remote sensing” that checks a vehicle’s emissions when it passes through a toll booth. The program is a great way to monitor air quality but also allows local jurisdictions to understand which vehicles don’t meet emissions standards and the locations that they travel through. 

Foursquare would call that a passive check-in.

The Algorithms

DNA testing at home led to big databases stuffed with results—and helped police solve multiple cold case crimes, including a 52 year old murder case in Seattle. GEDmatch, one of the larger aggregators of uploaded DNA data, is the database police most often use. That old Seattle case and the Golden State Killer case received headline attention, but law enforcement agencies are solving dormant cases every week using this unique collaboration between the public and law enforcement.

Users can opt-in to allow police genealogy experts to work with crime scene DNA results, genealogy hobbyist results, and create family trees for people who are still living. 

Technology is also fueling the New York Police Department’s real life exampleofa detective movie staple. Using software they developed and then made public for free, the NYPD uses Patternizr to find similarities between crimes. Like the genealogy situation, Patternizr requires human analysts to sort through the program’s output and decide which results to send to detectives.

Police are also finding new ways to use older technology like cameras and scanners. In London, the BBC reported that police tested rail passengers for hidden explosives or knives using new scanners that providing imaging from up to thirty feet away. Cameras are more widely used in other countries to surveil cities according to Comparitech. Their overview shows that London and Atlanta are the only non-Chinese cities on a list of the ten most surveilled cities, but plenty of western cities made the top 20, including Chicago, Sydney, and Berlin.

Benign social media use exists throughout law enforcement. We’ve all read tweets and social media updates about events in our communities as well as efforts to humanize officers. For example, the Gloucester (NJ) Police post images of recovered bicycles on Pinterest. But for every wholesome use of technology, we also see complaints like a 2016 ACLU of California warning about some police departments tracking activists and their movements on social media.

What Happens Next

Ivanka Trump didn’t start the trend, but quickly tried linking gun violence prevention legislation the White House finds troubling to a new federal agency proposal called the Health Advanced Research Projects Agency, or HARPA. Proponents see the agency as a medical science equivalent of the military’s DARPA, which created the technology that evolved into the Internet.

The administration specifically wanted to know if this new agency could help identify people who were on the brink of becoming mass shooters. Washington Post reporting shows that their three page proposal included tracking data from fitness trackers, smart watches, and mobile phones used by mentally ill consumers, which presupposes that gun violence is linked to mental health, something that is in no way proven.

The HARPA example of analyzing Fitbit data is one extreme but real example of government data mining and law enforcement using technology in preemptive ways. Another extreme recent example is Wednesday’s news that the Department of Justice will authorize Homeland Security to collect DNA from all migrants who are detained rather than only those who are arrested. We’ve covered DNA databases before, but this is DNA involuntary seized when a non-American is detained. That DNA will also undoubtedly be used to identify American citizens, leading many to question the constitutionality of the federal government collecting the data.

In addition to physical tracking, government agencies are also increasingly interested in using semantic analysis to question the words people post to social media. This type of analysis has been around for years and is behind robust marketing concepts like search engine optimization and advertising, but government plans call for wholesale monitoring of all platforms.

Israeli startup Zencity expanded into the U.S. last year and already has deals in place with local governments in Chicago, San Francisco, and Houston to monitor social media and telephone calls to city services while classifying citizen sentiment. This is no longer about counting complaints, but using software to classify the severity of the feedback. Federal offices increasingly want this information too, and Attorney General William Barr co-signed a joint US-UK open letter Thursday that urges Facebook not to encrypt communications.

The French government also wants social media access according to The Guardian last Tuesday, but for tax purposes. The French Public Action and Accounts Minister said last year in an interview that “the tax office will be able to see that if you have numerous pictures of yourself with a luxury car while you don’t have the means to own one, then maybe your cousin or your girlfriend has lent it to you, or maybe not.”

China remains the foreign government most invested in social media. The country’s Social Credit System remains a hodgepodge of basic counting (think: number of complaints), business information, and traditional credit reporting (which some may argue is already creepy enough). 

China’s vague plans were written about in breathless terms by Western media, especially in America, and have served as the backdrop or inspiration for more than one television show. Since then privacy advocates in the West agree that social credit scores could be very bad indeed, but no one understands how to codify those yet.

A fantastic explainer infographic by Visual Capitalist explains how social credit grew out of financial markets and has been used to stop people with unpaid taxes from leaving China or dog owners who don’t clean up after their dogs to potentially lose them. Both of those penalties sound fine. But there are warning signs too, including citizens being blocked from purchasing air or rail tickets or being eligible for a job.

The Bottom Line:  Nothing summarizes the dynamic nature of governments using consumer technology to govern better than what happened as we wrote this series.  We developed the idea to write about government data mining at the end of this summer and began the series in September. Since then we have had opportunities to include multiple new stories each week. 

What was written about China’s systems in 2015 and 2016 are inaccurate now. Either a new administration or a Trump reelection in 2020 will create additional programs. 

And there are ever-increasing numbers of private programs such as the DRN vehicle location database created entirely by companies that repossess vehicles. They’re tracking locations of all vehicles, not only the ones they’re interested in pursuing. They’re likely tracking your car too, which begs an answer to the oft-asked: whose data is it anyway?