Google Health Data Is A Thing – Spotlight #317

Good Monday morning. It’s November 18th. Our Roaring Twenties start in 44 days. And somehow that means that 1980 will be forty years in the past. Wow.

Today’s Spotlight takes about 5 minutes to read. Want to chat about something you see here? Here is a contact form.

1. News To Know Now

1. Twitter’s political advertising ban takes effect Friday. New rules announced last Friday will allow advocacy organizations to advertise messages about issues like climate change or gun violence prevention, but no candidates or elections may be referenced. All political officials, candidates, PACs, and 501(c) (4) organizations are prohibited from advertising. The official rules

2. Microsoft will honor the California Consumer Privacy Act throughout the U.S., the company announced last week. The new law takes effect on January 1 and addresses organizations with $25 million in revenues or personal information records for 50,000 or more people.

3. Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales launched WT Social, an ad-free social media network. On Sunday night there were 170,000 users signed up and active on the site. There are already payment options ($12.99/month or $100/year) although they’re not required. And the company promises to never sell your data. Here is a picture of the no-frills profile page, and here’s a sign-up link.

2. Google, Amazon, Facebook Make Financial, Medical News

This busy November means that we should give you all the news fast.


  • Project Nightingale, a Google health data project with partner Ascension Health, gives the company access to the health records of 50 million Americans in 21 states. About 150 Google employees and 100 Ascension employees work on the project, and some are questioning whether the arrangement adheres to federal health privacy regulations.

    More: WSJ’s initial reporting, the NY Times’ follow-up, or the whistle-blower’s anonymous op-ed in The Guardian.
  • A 2017 project with the National Institute of Health nearly resulted in Google publishing X-ray images that included identifying information, reported a Washington Post expose this week. NIH and Google had worked on removing personal information, but NIH canceled the release two days before it was made public.
  • Google Cache is a new service that allows Google to offer personal financial services to its users. Citigroup and Stanford Federal Credit Union are partnering with Google to offer checking accounts.


  • More than seven thousand Facebook emails and internal reports were leaked to NBC News, a House subcommittee, and several tech journals. Imagine that your organization had the same happen. Of course there will be things that your attorney, your accountant, or your boss would not be happy to see. This is the same leak reported earlier this year, but now the organizations have published all of the documents online. There are lots of details about insider issues and confirmation of Facebook’s knowledge that their data is their real source of power. Here’s the PDF link at NBC with all 3,800 pages.
  • Web designer Joshua Maddux revealed on Twitter that the camera on his iPhone opened when he was using the Facebook app in full screen mode and scrolling the feed a certain way. After tech journalists confirmed the finding and began calling for blood, Facebook announced that they had fixed the bug. I don’t know what else to share besides that. Bug fixed. Probably. Maybe. That’s what they said. Nothing to see here. Move along.
  • Facebook Pay has begun rolling out on Facebook and FB Messenger. The service joins the also creatively named Apple Pay, Google Pay, Samsung Pay, and Amazon Pay. It also provides a new answer for the question, “Who do you trust less than Google to process payments for you?” Here’s the more upbeat announcement from Facebook.


  • Branding first because it’s important: Amazon changed the name of PillPack to Amazon Pharmacy. The service delivers a consumer’s medicine packaged into individual envelopes stamped with the date and time they’re to be taken. Amazon spent more than $700 million buying PillPack.
  • The company’s Haven insurance which operates as a joint venture with JP Morgan and Berkshire Hathaway is expanding its coverage to 30,000 employees of those three companies. That will pair nicely with Health Navigator, a WebMD-like company Amazon bought last month. Business Insider has more info.
  • The other big recent Amazon acquisition was Whole Foods, which is now getting a baby sibling. There’s been speculation all year about this, but Amazon confirmed that an entirely new store with different branding will open in Los Angeles suburb Woodland Hills. CNET broke the news after spotting employment ads.
  • Nike wants nothing to do with all of these Amazon shenanigans. The company was late to sell directly on Amazon and announced this week that it would stop selling clothes and shoes directly on the site. Bloomberg broke that story.

3. Google Search Updates

Google meddles in search is how a 7,500 word Wall Street Journal article might be summarized. One would think that the word count was sufficient to be comprehensive, but there is a lot of context left out of the piece.

A great summary by Greg Sterling, a digital marketing expert I respect: “No one would argue that Google is a pure, shining force for good in the world. But neither do we agree that it’s the corrupt entity portrayed in a highly charged Wall Street Journal (WSJ) article that appeared Friday.

In other search news we learned about Google:

  • Merchant responses to reviews are being tested. At this stage, they’re similar to the automated suggestions for email. 
  • Companies and organizations influenced by local search are seeing the evidence of a significant algorithmic change in that field over the past several weeks. Canadian agency SterlingSky named the change “Bedlam” and there appear to be more reports following their initial story.
  • Google is also insisting that it does not consider user behavior when ranking websites, specifically that it does not consider the time that a user spends on a website’s page when ranking that website. Several Googlers insist that this is the case. Several people you know, one of whom may be writing this sentence, have data to the contrary.

4. Debugged: There is no $75 Costco Coupon

Don’t take my word for it. Here’s what they say.

5. Also in the Spotlight: Open Text Generators

We’ve told you about machine learning programs writing unique content,most recently in August. That fancy schmancy code has another new public update, doubling its ability to write unique content that makes sense.

Although I certainly won’t rush to welcome our new computer overlords, it’s a remarkable system that I test with unpublished things that I’ve written.

Generate some content yourself and then copy and paste it into a search engine. It’s not there because it was just created. So, um, who owns it? That’s for the AI lawyers to argue about. 

You can play with the model here.

6. Great Data: Best Selling Music Artists

We’ve shown you how video charting can use animation to come alive and tell a story. The folks at Data is Beautiful enhanced that idea by taking RIAA music sales data and adding a picture of the artist to each label. Now lines show Drake or The Beatles moving up or down. The result is even smarter story telling. Here’s what it looks like.

7. Protip: Privatize Your Smart Assistant Recordings

Once you opt for a voice assistant, you’ve agreed to let the system monitor your environment, but you don’t have to let human employees and contractors have access. This comprehensive Wired article tells you how to opt out of human transcriptions of your voice commands.

A gift for you from the man who says, ‘Damn it, Alexa” too often.

8. Bizarre Bazaar (strange stuff for sale online)

Child’s Own is in the strange but sweet category. The company takes a drawing your child makes and creates a stuffed animal from the image.

It sure ain’t Build-A-Bear.

9. ICYMI – Top links from the past 30 days

How to stop Google from stealing all your data after you die – at TNW

Gingerdead Men for sale – and other weird cookie cutters

#TeamTrees – YouTubers collaborating on donations for 20 million trees to be planted.

10. Coffee Break:  AgeGuess

The creators bill this as a “citizen science project” about perceptions of human aging.  And it does that to some extent, but it’s fun to scroll through images and see how close your guess is to what other people guessed and your overall results.

Being a carny is not in my future.

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