Good Monday Morning

It’s September 12th. Financial markets are watching tomorrow’s Consumer Price Index announcement as an early indicator of how much the Federal Reserve will increase interest rates when it meets next week. The agency has increased the rates banks and other institutions charge each other by 2.25 points in just six months. That’s directly affected mortgage, credit card, automotive, and other consumer interest rates.

Today’s Spotlight is 1,349 words — about 5 minutes to read.

News To Know Now

Quoted:“We are particularly targeting house extensions like verandas. But we have to be sure that the software can find buildings with a large footprint and not the dog kennel or the children’s playhouse.

— Antoine Magnant, a French government official quoted by the BBC after France used AI to identify 20,000 swimming pools that were undeclared on homeowner taxes. The government expects the pools to contribute $11 million in additional property tax revenue.

Driving the news: Consumer anxiety around unsettled political and economic forces continue to take their toll as interest rates rise and important midterm elections are only nine weeks away.

Three Important Stories

1)Irish regulators fined Meta about $400 million for violating EU privacy data laws regarding the company’s treatment of children’s data on Instagram. Meta is subject to Irish regulatory action because it is where the company’s European headquarters is located. Politico reports that Ireland’s data privacy agency has “at least six other” Meta investigations in progress.

2)The IRS exposed information about 120,000 taxpayers on its website after what it termed a “human-coding error.” The data was publicly accessed by The Wall Street Journal, which also reported that ProPublica published tax data about wealthy Americans last year, but failed to link that expose with this data release.

3) The White House banned publishers from putting taxpayer-funded research behind paywalls online. Publishers of expensive scientific journals must now make federally funded research available for free on the same day that it is published.

Trends & Spends

Spotlight Explainer — Abortion Location Data

The FTC sued a large data broker as the Labor Day weekend approached two weeks ago. The broker, Kochava Inc., is accused of selling millions of records from telephone data that tracked consumer locations to abortion providers, substance abuse recovery facilities, and plenty of other sensitive places.

The FTC said even sample data was telling.
“A free sample [of the data] … was sufficient to identify the mobile device that visited a clinic and then trace that device to a single family home,” quoted Wall Street Journal coverage of the suit.

This is critical for you to understand.
Abortion location data doesn’t have to be accurate to affect you and change your life. You or one of your loved ones may not even be physically capable of bearing a child. Your data is being aggregated and if a person can buy location information in an unregulated data market, you might be a target of vigilantism in the hopes of an “abortion bounty,” doxxed, or worse. 

Maybe you’re dating someone who works in the office. Or maybe your company just sold some office supplies there. Or maybe you’re thinking about having an abortion.

This is not hyperbole.
We can buy this location data from multiple brokers. We’ve done it it in the past to prove that it can be done. There is no license required or background information needed. Then the information only needs to get matched to existing data. That’s not hard if you know what you’re doing and don’t mind spending money.

Private citizens in Texas can get bounties called “rewards”.
Skirting any constitutional protections, Texas created a law that allows private citizens to file civil lawsuits against anyone suspected of performing or inducing an abortion, or anyone who “aids and abets” that behavior. The suit can be filed for up to four years and the lowest bounty is $10,000. That buys a whole lot of location data. 

And if you’re the person wrongly accused of having an abortion or aiding and abetting one, you still have to pay an attorney to defend yourself.

Every carrier and almost every app sells this data.
Law enforcement agencies have been using a secret tool called Fog Reveal to access this data since 2018. A joint expose from The Associated Press and EFF found law enforcement agencies accessing billions of records from 250 million mobile devices. Many agencies do not require their officers to get a warrant for the data, information that the company says is “freely given by individuals.” 

As the EFF points out, “police can also, for instance, track people whose devices have been inside an immigration attorney’s office, a women’s health clinic, or a mental health facility. Police could easily, with almost no oversight, use this tool to watcha  secret rendezvous between a journalist and their whistle-blowing source.”

Researchers have found more than 1,000 phone apps that track location data, according to Time. Telecom carriers like AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile keep pinpoint location data for months and all location data for one to five years each.

Privacy expert and UVA law professor Danielle Citron points out that law enforcement agencies investigating an abortion (how’s that for a horrifying phrase?) don’t have to rely on Big Tech companies and can also seize and search your phone or other devices with a warrant.

Billionaire invests in “femtech.”
Billionaire anti-abortion activist Peter Thiel has financed a new “femtech” startup called 28 that provides a holistic view of physical and emotional content related to menstrual cycles. Thiel invested $3.2 million in the company’s app which will be offered free in app stores and not carry advertising.

Did That Really Happen? — Meta Removes RFK Jr.’s Org for Misinformation

An organization led by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. that promotes misinformation about vaccines has been banned from Facebook and Instagram. Kennedy’s Children’s Health Defense company was called a member of the “disinformation dozen” last year by a watchdog group that found 65% of all false anti-vaccine content online could be tracked to Kennedy’s and eleven other organizations.

Following Up — An IRS Submission Platform

The Internal Revenue Service is investigating whether it can offer U.S. taxpayers a free filing system that it had originally attempted to offer through public-private partnerships. We’ve written at length about the work ProPublica has done in calling attention to the abuses of the IRS’ Free File program available to most taxpayers reporting under $73,000 in income. 

The IRS estimates that 70% of taxpayers should be able to use the Free File program, but only 3% of taxpayers do. That disparity is considered to be the result of companies like H & R Block and Intuit making the program difficult to access online without first paying for the company’s services.

Protip — Google Docs’ Spiffy Changes

Google has done a great job with its free Docs program over the last year, and there are 11 cool new tips you should try. The email draft is awesome, but the table templates are pretty nifty too.

Screening Room — Sandy Hook Promise’s Emmy

Last week, Sandy Hook Promise won a Creative Arts Emmy Award for their “Teenage Dream” video that combined real people with Katy Perry’s hit song of the same name. The Creative Emmys are handed out one week before the Primetime Emmy Awards telecast.

Science Fiction World — Driverless Ice Cream Vans

Robomart and Unilever are partnering on driverless vans with fancy vending machines that will dispense Ben & Jerry’s, Breyers, and other ice cream treats by hailing the van via an app. That’s right, you’ll soon be able to whip out your phone and summon a pint of Cherry Garcia to your driveway where no one will judge you even if it’s 10 a.m.

Coffee Break — The Top Invention Every Year

Have a gander at the best invention every year since 1954’s microwave oven. Stop in at 1974 (barcodes), 1996 (DVDs), and 2010 (Siri).

Sign of the Times

Good Monday Morning

 It’s July 25. This will be a full week of financial news. Google parent Alphabet and Microsoft report earnings Tuesday, followed by Facebook parent Meta on Wednesday, and Apple and Amazon on Thursday. The Fed is also meeting on Wednesday and is widely expected to increase the federal funds rate by another 75 basis points. Over two months, that would be a 1.5 point increase, a historic rate.

Today’s Spotlight is 1,054 words — about 4 minutes to read.

News To Know Now

Quoted:“This type of fraudulent activity [on LinkedIn] is significant, and there are many potential victims, and there are many past and current victims.”

— FBI special agent Sean Ragan during a CNBC interview in which he called cryptocurrency investment scams on LinkedIn “a significant threat.”

Driving the news: Earnings reports abound. Look for Big Tech companies to uncharacteristically address expenses and layoffs. 

a)Working remotely could become a legal right in the Netherlands. Dutch lawmakers approved a bill that would require employers to provide an explanation when rejecting an employee’s request to work remotely. That bill is now being considered by that country’s senate. About 28% of Dutch people work remotely according to Euronews.

b)Media attention will be focused on Amazon’s $3.9 billion acquisition of One Medical, a primary care practice with 180 offices in 25 cities, the Wall Street Journal reports. In addition to providing remote telemedicine services, AmazonCare entered pharmacy services two years ago by purchasing online pharmacy PillPack. The company also owns 500 Whole Food stores and 33 Amazon Fresh stores, all of which could provide pharmacy services to the public.

c) Misinformation about abortion proliferates online, and Alphabet and Meta are tackling it in different ways. On Thursday, YouTube announced that it will no longer allow misinformation related to abortion on its platform. CNN reports that TikTok has also begun removing abortion videos containing inaccurate information. 

Despite this, Facebook is allowing companies to continue to use an unapproved process they falsely claim can “reverse” an RU-486 dose. The Markup found 17 ads placed by two advertisers between October and May on Facebook. When Facebook users clicked on the links in those ads, they could connect with a physician online to receive what is described as scientifically unsound prescriptions. 

Trends & Spends

Spotlight Explainer — Facebook Feed Changes

Your Facebook feed is changing in ways that might have seemed off-brand only a year ago. Using Instagram videos as material for its Reels product, video will take on an even bigger role. There are also new audio options and a new sidebar for Groups. In Instagram chat, you will also be able to buy products directly.

The Facebook Feed Changes
Home is the new name for the tab you see when you first open the app. There will still be personalization, but you’ll also start seeing videos that Meta’s algorithm expects you to engage with. Observers say that’s a direct influence of TikTok’s usage metrics. US TikTok users averaged 25 hours per month on that app last year, far above Facebook’s engagement.

The new Facebook feed (below) is categorized by your designated favorites or by content from friends, groups, or pages. Toggling between the categories is the equivalent of TikTok choosing your content or you choosing to only see creators that you follow.

Friends Feed
One of the most popular requests on Facebook has been “just let me see my friends.” You may want to revisit that choice, but here is a short explainer showing how you can fine-tune your Facebook feed to show only posts from  your friends.

What’s This About Reels and Instagram?
Instagram’s Remix functions are expanding to include more stitching options including chronological and different split screens, remixing public photos, and Reels templates. The big news, though, is that all new public Instagram posts that are under 15 minutes will be repurposed as Reels. (Yes, minutes.)

Instagram Buying Via Chat
Meta is also offering merchants the opportunity to interact with customers using e-commerce widgets directly in chat. Here’s a look at how that might function when sales close in five seconds.

Did That Really Happen? — COVID Vaccine Data Misinterpreted

Multiple social media posts are mispresenting a Swedish organization’s study about COVID-19 vaccines and inaccurately claiming that they alter the recipient’s DNA. The Associated Press explains how this isn’t accurate. It seems that lay people aren’t very good at comprehending scientific studies about genetics.

Following Up — Lawmakers Complain About VPN Advertising

We wrote last week about VPNs, incognito mode, and passwords (and thanks for the many comments!). Now, two members of Congress have written the FTC and requested that the agency crack down on deceptive VPN advertising that purports to offer complete anonymity. We’re not saying that Congress reads Spotlight, but I dunno, they sure cited a lot of the issues we told you about first.

P.S. The total anonymity claim is garbage. Our article tells you which software and services we use.

Protip — Blur Faces & Remove Metadata From Pictures

You know that your images for the last 25 years have been stored with EXIF data that specifies the date and time, location, and other info about the file. Here is how you can remove that data as well as effectively blur faces. Then you can upload it to Instagram where Meta will convert it to a reel and share it with up to two billion people, but that’s showbiz, baby.

Screening Room — Mattress Firm

Science Fiction World — Dedicated Drone Space

It’s not quite at the level of The Jetsons, but the UK government is creating a dedicated drone corridor spanning 165 miles that is centered on the town of Reading.

Coffee Break — Blue Peter’s 1976 Computer Demo 

BBC1 once aired a geeky feature called Blue Peter. Here is a glimpse back at 45 year old technology showing maps and directory information summoned via a phone line. 

Sign of the Times 

Good Monday Morning

It’s July 11. The new shorter national suicide prevention hotline number launches Saturday. All carriers are required to route calls made to 988 to that service run by HHS. The helpline receives more than 5,000 calls daily. 

Today’s Spotlight is 1,136 words — about 4 minutes to read.

News To Know Now

Quoted:“Right now, one of the most common forms of governance in virtual worlds is a reactive and punitive form of moderation based on reporting users who may then be warned, suspended, or banned. Given the sheer size of virtual communities, these processes are often automated.”

— Ethicist Lucy Sparrow writing in Wired about how companies providing metaverse products can guard against hate speech,  race and gender bias, and other community problems.

Driving the news: European regulators took American tech giants to task last week. Here are the the news stories you need to know.

a) Italy warned websites operating there that Google Analytics 4 requires additional modification to comply with GDPR privacy regulations. Among that country’s concerns: “US-based governmental and intelligence agencies may access the personal data being [collected].”

b) Canceling Amazon Prime in Europe will now require only two mouse clicks after the company settled complaints brought by EU regulators. The Norwegian Consumer Council’s report on difficulty canceling Prime services said that the cancelation process included “complicated navigation menus, skewed wording, confusing choices, and repeated nudging… that seems designed to be obscure and manipulative, in order to keep consumers bound to the paid service.”

c) U.S. legislators and watchdog agencies are alleging that Google allowed a Russian advertising agency to buy ads and receive data about consumers in multiple countries, including Ukraine.  A Pro Publica expose alleges that Google was continuing to supply data to the company as late as June 23 despite it appearing on a sanctions list on April 6.

Trends & Spends

Spotlight Explainer — The Metaverse Explained

Remember when you finally grokked that “The Cloud” was simply a bunch of computing resources owned by a company and accessible online?


The Metaverse is simply a different way to interact online. Instead of email and spreadsheets, you’ll see a visual representation of the information. You might access that via a virtual reality headset where your point-of-view becomes what is projected in the headset instead of your physical surroundings.

I hear you muttering now. Surely there’s more. And there is, sort of, but also sort of not.

Facebook head Mark Zuckerberg got a lot of publicity last week for introducing designer clothing for the cartoon-like figures that represent real people in many metaverse projects. The Meta Avatar store will charge users real money for different looks to represent themselves. Here’s the graphic his company published last week.

Meta's avatar store for the metaverse

The internet and media promptly scoffed at the idea that anyone would pay money for designer duds to represent a cartoon version of themselves. But I know that they’re wrong because my wife (okay, then-future wife) and I worked on a national project for this more than thirty years ago featuring big names like George Lucas and Steve Case.

The metaverse was first realized in 1985, two years after the final movie in the original Star Wars trilogy debuted. The state of the art then was either a Commodore 64 or Macintosh. Both had rudimentary color monitors that could handle a cartoon world. The speeds were glacially slow, essentially measured in hundreds of characters transmitted per second. At those rates, it would take several days to download a song.

Lucasfilm and Quantum Link (which later became AOL) developed a way to do all the cartoon-like metaverse designs locally on the user’s disk drive. The program lasted several years under different names: Habitat, Club Caribe, and Worlds Away, and on different platforms including CompuServe and Fujitsu. Here’s a look at that 35 year old world.

Those users paid for the service by spending 6-8 cents per minute for access time. The goals for content creators and moderators like us were to build user minutes and increase retention. It wasn’t unusual to see users spend an hour or more per day in that universe at around five dollars an hour.

Metaverse spending is expected to reach $5 trillion by 2030 according to McKinsey. They project that the metaverse will be a dominant player in gaming, remote learning, socializing, and ecommerce. Games like Roblox and Fortnite are already making real money there and every significant consumer brand  you can think of from McDonalds to Mercedes is already advertising or investing.

Our take: be aware of it, understand conceptually how you’ll interact for customer service and in other ways, but don’t launch your own initiatives yet unless you’re in R&D, in which case you’re already late.

Did That Really Happen? — Rep. Greene Posts Doctored Photos

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) posted photos of alleged Highland Park murderer Robert Crimo III that purportedly showed him in “jail, rehab, or a psychiatric center,” according to the congresswoman.

The photos were obviously doctored, say experts. Poynter has details.

Following Up — GM Vehicles Causing SF Traffic Jams

They’re really allowed to go driverless. GM Cruise’s automated vehicle division has lost contact with as many as 60 driverless vehicles at the same time, according to Wired. The cars stop in traffic when that occurs, including crosswalks and intersections.

Protip — Amazon Prime Day Discounts

You’re going to hear a lot about Prime Day for the next couple of days. To get you ready to spend, Lifehacker’s Stephen Johnson compiled a list of offers that can give you store credit at the big sale.

Screening Room — Ally Bank

Ally touts its decision to provide equal investments in sports media for each gender. It’s a creative way to reinforce the brand and practice social good.

Science Fiction World — EU Preps Self-Driving Cars Legislation

Maybe they believe that San Francisco’s hilly roadways are too much for driverless cars, but Politico reports that the EU is about to approve the sale and registration of up to 1,500 automated vehicles per carmaker per year.  The laudable goal: eliminate road deaths. Up to 95% of vehicle accidents are caused by human error.

Coffee Break — Fireworks vs. Family

If you haven’t yet seen it, here is an Independence Day gathering gone horribly wrong. First, a group of several families scatters when fireworks zoom towards them. Then the devices head straight for the cars, and it’s not a pleasant scene for anyone there.