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.

Good Monday Morning

It’s June 27th. Have a great and safe long weekend. And please keep our pet friends in mind by not using fireworks in residential neighborhoods. Some dogs and cats undoubtedly love them, but not the ones I’ve spent my time with.

Today’s Spotlight is 1,394 words — about 5 minutes to read.

News To Know Now

Quoted:“We are not yet sure how companies may respond to law enforcement requests for any abortion related data, and you may not have much control over their choices. But you can do a lot to control who you are giving your information to, what kind of data they get, and how it might be connected to the rest of your digital life.

— The Electronic Frontier Foundation in its “Security and Privacy Tips for People Seeking An Abortion.” The org also covers protests and offers great general advice as well as some unique takes–such as using different browsers.

a) Amazon showed off voice synthesizing software that can emulate the speech of a specific person. That brings voice fakes to a whole new level and managed to creep out the internet during a demo by showing a fictional deceased grandmother reading a bedtime story. 

b) Microsoft is taking automated software in a different direction after announcing that its facial recognition programs will no longer predict a person’s gender, age, or emotional state. It’s unclear to me how principled that stand is coming on the heels of Facebook announcing that it will test facial recognition to verify a user’s age when they set up a new Instagram account.

c) U.S. companies would be forbidden from selling or transferring location and health data for a period of ten years under legislation proposed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). The legislation has the backing of progressive Democratic Party senators, but is unlikely to pass the Senate. Several dozen major companies sell location and health data in addition to thousands more that use it for marketing and demographics.

Trends & Spends

Spotlight Explainer — Police Data Tracking Grows, Hidden Cameras & Fake Social Media In Constant Use

Our 4th annual Police Technology report shows that the trends we saw in previous years have become best practices. Rather than monitoring social media, for example, police are using false profiles to surveil people. Police also continue to buy facial recognition data, location information, and behavioral data.

All of this gets mashed together in a series of predictive models that inform personnel and equipment allocations and can even create surveillance assignments.

Location Data Use Is Prevalent
Imagine all the ways technology tracks you from your vehicle to your phone to your online activity or in millions of doorbell, traffic cameras, and location data records that have become widespread in police technology. The real question is trying to determine when you are not being tracked. Smart TV and other home devices not only report on our use, but establish our presence at a physical address. So do automated toll booth systems, smartwatches, and fitness trackers. 

There are times when that is great. Court documents show that dozens of people arrested for breaking into and ransacking the Capitol had their whereabouts pinpointed to specific areas during that attack, but sometimes the data’s use is unclear.

The FBI last year conducted more than 3.4 million searches of private data that the NSA had compiled, according to the Wall Street Journal. No one alleges that the searches were illegal or improper, only that millions of searches is a lot of data. 

It’s not only government searches that are turned over. For a 6 month period in 2020, Facebook, Google, Apple, and Microsoft received more than 100,00 subpoenas for data.

Police Tech Data Piles Up & Is Sometimes Lost
You probably have lots of data on your computer, phone, and other devices that incorporates everything from screenshots to passwords and text messages. With all that data piling up, it’s not hard to imagine that there are inadvertent releases and leaks.

We learned last Thanksgiving that helicopter surveillance data from Texas and Georgia was leaked online. In the last year alone, police in New York and Boston have come under fire for buying surveillance technology without public oversight. The equipment they’ve purchased includes “cell tower simulators” used to find missing people or criminals by emulating a cell tower signal. Police acknowledge that all the telephones in that area might also connect to them, but say they ordinarily dispose of that data.

Some experts are concerned about a new trend for 911 calling that allows phone companies to relay phone calls, video, and text into emergency call centers. Along with that rich media data, phones can also transmit full GPS coordinates and vertical information, speed information, and potentially anything else on that device.

Police Tech Goes Social
A report published this spring about the Minneapolis Police Department alleged, “MPD officers used covert, or fake, social media accounts to surveil and engage Black individuals, Black organizations, and elected officials unrelated to criminal activity, without a public safety objective.” 

MIT Technology Review expanded on that by reporting that “officers kept at least three watch lists of people present at and around protests related to race and policing. Nine state and local policing groups were part of a multiagency response program called Operation Safety Net, which worked in concert with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the US Department of Homeland Security to acquire surveillance tools [and] compile data sets … during racial protests in the state.”

Police in Los Angeles are doing the same according to an earlier expose by The Brennan Center. Their reporting included many horrifying documents including a list that triggered surveillance and included the phrases “#BlackLivesMatter,” “#fuckdonaldtrump,” and the names Tamir Rice and Sandra Bland. Rice and Bland were black Americans killed by police or while in custody.

Police Tech Predicting Crime
All of this data often gets regurgitated back to law enforcement agencies in the form of predictions about crime in particular areas. The Markup and Gizmodo analyzed five million of those predictions and found incredible amounts of race bias in the results. In multiple cities, neighborhoods made up of mostly white residents had predicted crime volume that was orders of magnitude lower than nearby majority nonwhite neighborhoods. In the case of the Los Angeles data, reporters found that the agencies had inadvertently published millions of predictions. 

Researchers suggest that the racial bias might be due to disparities in the number of arrests of nonwhite people. They also suggest that any data used to predict the population can’t have that bias and still be accurate. And when those predictions are combined with personal data, they can create a relative score that suggests a person will be involved with crime — either as victim or criminal, but not reliably assess which.

Still interested? Have a look at our 2021 police tech roundup.

Did That Really Happen? — TED Talk Did Not Endorse Pedophilia

The AP debunked an old hoax that resurfaced this week with a doctored graphic claiming that a TED talk endorsed pedophilia as a natural orientation. Snopes debunked the same graphic four years ago. I wish people would stop doing this.

Following Up — Advertisers Can’t Use Facebook to Discriminate

Although actual ad agencies know and understand what we can’t advertise in discriminatory ways such as excluding age or racial groups from seeing ads related to housing, jobs, and other areas,  some people kept doing just that. 

Facebook is revising its systems again to settle a Justice Dept. action and prohibit that sort of targeting. 

Protip — What Do Cookie Preferences Really Mean?

After first inserting your Oreo or Newton joke here, head over to Wired and learn about cookies from Lou Montulli, the software engineer who invented them 18 years ago.

Screening Room – Meta

Facebo–, fine, Meta, takes 30 seconds to show you how virtual worlds help you in the real one. 

Science Fiction World — Shirts that Monitor Hearts

A little heavier than a shirt, but lighter than a jacket is how engineers describe clothing made of special fibers that detect and convert the sounds of a heartbeat into an electrical signal. There are endless possibilities for acoustic fiber beyond personal cardiac monitoring, including monitoring sea life, detecting fetal heartbeats, and of course, answering phone calls. 

Coffee Break — Noisy Cities

A startup focused on improving traffic pollution has mapped out the relative sounds of individual streets in Paris, London, and New York. Have a listen here

Sign of the Times

Good Monday Morning

It’s June 13. Spotlight is off next week as we observe Juneteenth. 

Today’s Spotlight is 1,355 words — about 5 minutes to read.

News To Know Now

Quoted:“If I didn’t know exactly what it was, which is this computer program we built recently, I’d think it was a seven-year-old, eight-year-old kid that happens to know physics.”

— Blake Lemoine, a Google AI ethicist to The Washington Post. The company disputed his claim that a machine learning program displayed sentience and put him on paid leave last week when he took the dispute public. Lemoine is the fourth high profile HR dispute between Google and its AI ethics team in two years.

a) Google is also being criticized for sending 11% of visitors searching for abortions to “crisis pregnancy centers” that are anti-abortion. We reviewed some of the listings and can see that some of those anti-abortion sites misrepresented themselves online. The terms those companies use appear to be designed to trick search engines into making that mistake. Regulatory agencies can challenge companies over such misrepresentations, but that’s relatively uncommon.

b) Apple’s future iOS update allowing people to delete or change messages is being criticized in a viral tweet posted by a family law attorney. Jennifer Nielsen of Columbus, Ohio, is instructing people involved in family litigation to turn off the future update to protect text messages that might be used in legal proceedings.

c) TikTok is adding digital well-being tools that advise users to take a break and provides screen time summaries. Use of the tools is optional, but the company said that it would start using proactive prompts to children between the ages of 13 and 17 who used the app more than 100 minutes in one day. We last wrote about TikTok usage in March, when US Android phone users were spending an average of 40 minutes per day on the site — far more than any other social media network.

Trends & Spends

Google’s Left Hand & Right Hand

We’ve written many times (okay, more than a decade) about Google’s often conflicting advice, but this latest takes the cake.

As part of its new digital marketing certification program, Google teaches about search engine optimization and suggests a variety of tactics related to keyword density and page length. 

Search Engine Journal brought that to the attention of Google Search Liaison Danny Sullivan. That’s a good call because Danny is widely considered to be the inventor of the term “search engine optimization” and an early, if not its first, practitioner. 

Danny’s pay has come from Google for the past five years, and he told SEJ that there was no truth to either the keyword length or density claims. The slide was dropped from Google’s training, but it’s an outstanding example of how misinformation flourishes in a vacuum. 

We don’t begrudge anyone who took a Google course on SEO coming away with inaccurate beliefs. It’s a great cautionary tale for corporate secrets that transcend the mere proprietary. You may not know what exactly is in Coca-Cola or how Google ranks website pages, but it’s probably not cocaine any longer, and at least according to Danny Sullivan, it has nothing to do with keyword density.

Spotlight Explainer — Guns Online in 5 Clicks

This week’s explainer was inspired by a Quartz piece, “We ordered the same gun used in Uvalde. Here’s how easy it was.”

5 clicks
Spoiler alert. Quartz purchased a DDM4 V7 directly from the manufacturer. Daniel Defense sells the gun online for $2,057 and touts $92.94 monthly payments. Shipping to a local gun store is free, and Quartz says they were never asked for proof of age or the lack of a felony conviction. Instead that gun dealer provides the “background check” by checking the ID presented against a database and requiring a 3 page form to be filled out. 

You Can’t Get Caught Selling Guns Online 10 Times on Facebook
Technically, you’re no longer allowed (since 2016) to sell guns on Facebook, but a blockbuster Washington Post story last week reported that sellers aren’t banned from the site until their 10th violation. Facebook insists that “nearly 90 percent” of people who have a violation about selling guns online have only one. Meanwhile, competitors like TikTok ban accounts after the first violation. 

That doesn’t mean that selling gun accessories is prohibited. Everything imaginable that can be used with a gun is sold on most online networks and again serves as a gateway to generating personal information via advertising that can then occur in email or other methods.

The Raffle Catch
You can promote raffles on Facebook and other sites that give away guns. Along the way, the seller collects very personal information and has the ability to advertise the raffle throughout the U.S.

Sometimes that can be a public relations problem for groups. A police union in Columbia, MO, deleted a gun raffle post in early June after a public outcry. The union protested that it was “only raffling items that are 100% lawful to possess” before inviting the public to buy a ticket offline.

YouTube for Learning
The 18-year-old who is believed to have been the killer at the massacre at a Buffalo supermarket wrote that he learned to illegally modify his gun online after watching a training video on YouTube, reports NBC News. YouTube claimed that the video the teen watched was permissible under its rules. And while YouTube has specific rules about many gun videos, other second-tier social media sites with audiences in the millions may not.

Did That Really Happen? — A Dumb Conspiracy Theory

USA Today fact checked a viral social media post showing clips from NBC and CNN. The post claimed that the Uvalde shooting never happened, and was captioned, “Two men claim to be the father of the same child who allegedly died in the school. Maybe they’re gay and are both her parents but did separate interviews.”

After the post’s author dismissed the men as “crisis actors” and opined that “the dude in the cap is a poor actor,” USA Today reported that NBC’s Savannah Guthrie interviewed murdered 10-year-old Amerie Jo Garza’s father while CNN’s Anderson Cooper interviewed Amerie’s stepfather.

 Following Up — Google’s Turn After Facebook Payout?

We wrote a lot about the facial recognition suit brought against Facebook in Illinois and its settlement for nearly $400 for each affected person. Now Google has settled a similar suit for an amount estimated to be worth $200-$400 per affected person in Illinois.

Protip — Speeding Up the iPhone

Clearing memory on an iPhone (any iOS device, really) is not exactly an intuitive process, but can speed up your device quite a bit. Here’s a Tom’s Guide explainer on how to make your phone go vroom.

Screening Room — iRobot

iRobot’s funniest in its latest series of looks inside the vacuum’s decision making process.

Science Fiction World — Pizza Machine 

We’ve talked about automated cooking devices and servers, but how about a vending machine that makes a custom pizza from the flour and water-level for you in three minutes? Yay Food Technologies is selling its Lets Pizza unit for about $30K although my family insists that I can’t save to put one in my home office. Have a look at this.

Coffee Break — AI Imagery

It’s not sentient (yet, I hope), but Open AI’s DALL-E image model is now available in a mini-format for you to use free. They’re the same organization that introduced a then state-of-the-art language called GPT-3.

Dall-E mini creates images based on your text prompt.

Sign of the Times