Good Monday morning. It’s March 18th. Spring allegedly begins this week.

Google makes a mystery announcement on Tuesday that they’ve teased will “unveil its vision for the future of gaming.” The current state of gaming is around $140 billion annually so their take would be interesting. Just like search and advertising, about half of that amount comes from mobile.

News to Know Now

  • Facebook’s outage on Thursday included Instagram and other Facebook properties. It’s the biggest outage the company endured since allowing widespread public access in 2006.  
  • Social media was criticized by many in the immediate aftermath of Friday’s gun massacre in New Zealand. But we’ll look at the facts of what people can reasonably expect in situations with fast breaking news.
  • Google confirmed a “core algorithm change” took place March 1. Core updates occur only a couple of times each year and affect Google’s main search engine algorithms rather than the specific, more focused changes that happen daily.
This is part of  Silver Beacon’s live website traffic display.

We can toggle them to different metrics and watch multiple clients throughout the day.  But it’s important to remember issues like seasonality (which caused the growth in the second site shown) and different externalities. 

Knowing the history helps us understand any shifts.

1.  Murder Videos Online

Facebook stopped 1.2 million copies of the video streamed during the New Zealand massacre from being uploaded. Another 300,000 were taken down after they were uploaded. The white supremacist who murdered people at worship seemed to have a good working knowledge of how social media works online.

  • This had nothing to do with Facebook or YouTube any more than the post office is involved with an illegal scam or the phone company when someone calls in a bomb threat.
  • Stop and ask this question: who tried to upload the video 1.5 million times to Facebook? Those are the people deserving of your anger.
  • Senator Elizabeth Warren was upset when Facebook automatically removed ads her campaign posted calling for its breakup. Facebook replied this week that ads using its logo are blocked. 
    • Uploads happened all over the Internet, not just Facebook and Youtube. 
    • A Reddit channel called r/watchpeopledie showed images of people hit by cars and other deaths for 7 years. There are 300,000 subscribers.
    • Where does Facebook draw the line between recognizing problem imagery?
    • Are trailers for R-rated movies okay? What about news coverage of wars?

YouTube has the same problem. So does every website. There were still copies of the video available on Sunday on many different websites in New Zealand. YouTube told The Verge that they can stop child pornography well, but their systems aren’t designed for “urgent situations”. That’s fair. No one is going to catch a murder or suicide being live-streamed. And the company deliberately errs on the side of having news-related videos stay online. Think the Arab Spring, riots in Venezuela, and war throughout the world.  

YouTube Kids exists for children under the age of 13. The company is explicit that children under the age of 13 are not permitted to use the main service. That’s reasonable although we’ve all seen parents and others plop a kid in front of videos.  I’m sympathetic. After once grounding one of my children from the Internet, the then-enterprising student used his game console to access a neighbor’s WiFi signal and went about whatever it was he did online then.

Humanity has shown that we are not good at putting genies back in bottles. We are hopeful Big Tech will solve this problem, but let’s not forget that 1.5 million attempts were made to upload this horrific video to Facebook in only 24 hours.

2.  Facebook’s Troubling Carousel


Facebook is an easy target. No one seems to really like it except for the couple of billion people who access it as much as several times a day. Much was made of 15 million U.S. users quitting last year.  The company deserves to be pilloried for some of the ways it has handled data in the last decade, but it’s certainly not alone. 

Last week was especially bad for the social media giant besides the ridiculously long outage on Thursday  that TechCrunch reported caused 3 million people to sign up for new Telegram accounts. Besides the outage, the Christchurch videos, and temporarily blocking Senator Warren’s ads, these things happened:

  • Chris Cox, the company’s #3 exec, announced Thursday that he was leaving. So did another executive who was running Whats App after that company’s founders left. Their moves are widely regarded to be a response to the idea of combining Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp. But it’s a big shakeup because Cox was an early Facebook tech voice.
  • Brian Acton, who co-founded WhatsApp and received nearly $4 billion in Facebook money when it was sold to them, repeated his advice that users should “delete Facebook now”.  Acton left the company in November of 2017 after Facebook monetized WhatsApp traffic by placing ads inside the app.
  • Data deals that Facebook signed with more than 150 companies are under criminal  investigation by a grand jury according to The New York Times.
    • It’s not just data causing trouble at Facebook. A Fast Company article in February reported that “a shockingly large majority of health news shared on Facebook is fake or misleading.”  Read it here.
    • The Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard links many problems back to Facebook’s de-emphasis of news sites. Their analysis published this week is “One year in, Facebook’s big algorithm change has spurred an angry, Fox News-dominated-and very engaged!-News Feed.


The bottom line: Facebook will survive and continue thriving despite fines and legal brickbats until people find a substitute for the communication need the site currently fulfills.

Also in the Spotlight

Worth your time this week:

  • More than 600,000 people in Michigan may have had their health records compromised by a data breach affecting a company that works with providers such as Blue Cross Blue Shield and McLaren Health Care. Attorney General Dana Nessel’s announcement.
  • Google introduced Be My Eyes last year. The free app connects visually impaired people with sighted volunteers for assistance describing an area or situation. Now the company has announced that it will work with Be My Eyes to set up free help from Google Disability Specialists each weekday. Their announcement.
  • Firefox Send is a new free service. The service allows people to send an encrypted file safely from a browser. And it will even be available on Android later this year. Files up to 1GB can be sent free by anyone while files up to 2.5GB require a free registration. Neither the sender nor the recipient need to use a Firefox browser to access the file. Details.

Good Monday morning. It’s March 11th. The Youth Climate Strike is this Friday. Expect tens of thousands of young adults and children marching to call attention to climate change.  Read their platform.

 

News You Need To Know Now

 

  • Senator Elizabeth Warren is now the most prominent politician to call for breaking up Big Tech companies, including Facebook, Google, and Amazon, after a policy announcement Friday.

 

  • The California Consumer Privacy Act may be getting even tougher. State leaders have introduced an amendment to include protections for biometric and passport data. The bill takes effect January 1.

 

  • France takes another turn at revenue generation via tech with a bill that will tax 3% of revenue created by the 30 largest companies that do not sell products online. This includes Facebook and Google.

 

  • Mark Zuckerberg’s announcement that Facebook would change to temporary, private messages was met with resounding yawns in the digital marketing industry. No one we’ve spoken with knows how or when such an initiative would take place. Our take is that things could change tomorrow and not dissuade Senator Warren or the French government.

 

Hidden Nest Surprise


Rumors about your devices listening
 to you may not be as far-fetched as you think. Google now admits that its Nest Secure home security device includes a microphone that wasn’t previously disclosed.

Google says that the plan had always been to enable Nest Secure to work with voice commands via Google Assistant. They just didn’t disclose that future plan and built the mic in. My thermostat says that’s pretty standard.

iPhone apps also had a nasty surprise for users, who learned last month that their screens were being recorded without their knowledge.  Apple demanded that app developers remove or disclose the functionality or be removed from the App Store.

Facebook’s security teams got a lot of attention this week for their cool-sounding executive security work that includes rumors of a “panic chute” to get Mark Zuckerberg out of the building in an emergency, but the company’s use of a Be On the Lookout (BOLO) list of security threats worries some privacy advocates. CNBC reporting tells of a global list that can include people who simply send an irate email with threats or expletives to Facebook.

The people on that list can be tracked if Facebook is on their mobile device OR if they are using an app that reports data to Facebook. We told you about those apps–some of the world’s biggest–weeks ago.

  • There are undoubtedly credible threats to the only organization we know with nearly 3 billion accounts. But the ability to create a quasi-law enforcement agency with undisclosed surveillance capabilities is something that lawmakers will have to wrestle with in the coming months.

Also In The Spotlight

 

Worth your time this week:

  • “Verified Licenses” on Yelp are a new paid service, writes local expert Greg Sterling at Search Engine Land. They’re available for state-issued licenses in Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, New York, Texas, and Washington.
    • Google announced local changes that highlight budget options on its map display.  That’s just in time for spring vacations. Read the announcement.

 

  • Which TeleTubby are you? Facebook filed suit against two Ukrainian men who created quizzes that injected malware on user computers. The quizzes went by the names “SuperTest” and “Megatest” although not the one I’m most familiar with: Stop Sending Me This Garbage, Uncle Ralph!
    • Bottom line: if you take a quiz or survey and need to allow the system to access your Facebook account, your most recent info is almost certainly harvested.

 

  • Another 150 Facebook accounts were deleted last week for “coordinated inauthentic behavior” coming from Romania and the UK. That follows a suit Facebook announced that it  filed the previous week against companies “selling fake accounts, likes, and followers“.
    • But if you remember that a committee in the UK’s Parliament has a trove of Facebook documents, you’ll be interested in learning that Facebook “promised politicians investments and incentives while seeking to pressure them into lobbying on Facebook’s behalf against data privacy legislation.”

Good Monday morning. It’s February 25th. Meteorological spring begins Friday.

Thank you, George Mason University’s Marketing 491 class and Professor Shaun Dakin, for allowing me to talk with them Thursday at the Fairfax campus. I always learn a lot from these sessions, and last week was no exception. Here’s an overview of what we discussed.

Today’s Spotlight takes about 5 minutes to read.

News to Know Now

 

  • The Open AI initiative announced it would not release its recent text generator project because “it looked pretty darn real.”  We unpack the important story below.

 

  • Facebook is in new hot water over apps that report user health information to the company. It’s a day that’s name ends with the letter “y” – you expected good Facebook news?

 

  • Those Amazon Scout delivery robots being tested near Seattle have some cousins in college. George Mason University now has a fleet of 25 delivery robots bringing food including pizza, doughnuts, and coffee to people on campus. DoorDash has also tested the Starship Tech robots. The rollout video from the Mason launch is below.

 

 

Artificial Intelligence News

 

An algorithm’s writing reached a level that caused scientists to block its release. The text generator was reviewed by journalists including reporters from Axios and Wired. Fake political stories quoting real people and even fake Amazon reviews were well within the program’s grasp.

An excerpt from a story Axios had the AI write,

China uses new and innovative methods to enable its advanced military technology to proliferate around the world, particularly to countries with which we have strategic partnerships,” the Pentagon said in its five-page strategy outline last week.The new U.S. strategy will be a major component of the White House’s first National Security Strategy, coming in two parts in September.”    (Axios, Wired)

Visual disinformation, often called “deep fakes”, are also making news after software engineer Philip Wang created a website called This Person Does Not Exist. The site creates an entirely new image of a person from an algorithm every time a browser refreshes the screen. The very real image is of a person that never existed. Wang said that he created the site to show people how A.I. has advanced and its possibilities in today’s world. (Inverse)

CAPTCHAs are the small programs websites use to separate human visitors from automated traffic. You’ve seen them before–click this box to prove you’re a human or maybe select the parts of a picture showing a street sign. But machine learning and artificial intelligence is solving each new type of puzzle faster than before. “Machine learning is now about as good as humans at basic text, image, and voice recognition tasks,” said scientist Jason Polakis. (The Verge)

 

Tech Privacy News

 

“What’s the big deal if consumer tech has privacy problems?” a GMU student asked me. “They’ll just use the info to market more appropriate things to me.”

And he’s right.

But as Professor Dakin and I explained, there are many abuses from redlining based on race or gender to employment and other discrimination. NATO researchers have another take.

They used publicly available data against the participants in a military exercise in an Allied country. Their goals were to get service personnel to leave position, not fulfill their duty, or other actions. They took three to four weeks of prep time, used only information that the public could retrieve, and quickly identified the individual soldiers involved. Then they lured soldiers into fake social media groups and conversations, gained the exact locations of battalions as well as dates and troop movement information.

One conclusion: “The privacy features and settings…cannot be trusted not to leak information.”  Our takeaway: people adept at pretexting and Internet research are not limited to NATO. Your organization can be targeted. Read the Stratcom report.

This wasn’t Facebook’s fault but the British government would like you to know that the company “intentionally and knowingly violated both data privacy and anti-competition laws” in their country. We’ve been telling you for months about the legal clashes between EU countries and Facebook, especially the United Kingdom and Germany. The report from Parliament is harsh and could have ramifications beyond that country’s nearly 40 million users. The U.S. government is also reportedly in talks with Facebook regarding a multi-billion dollar fine for the company’s data privacy practices.

Data privacy’s big news this week centered around an explosive WSJ expose that cites medical and other private data being sent to Facebook from mobile apps. The Journal has been following this story for months. This latest expose is going to spell trouble for the social media company for decades. WSJ and privacy researchers found:

  • Instant Heart Rate sends a user’s heart rate information to Facebook
  • Flo Period & Ovulation Tracker sends dates of a woman’s period or if she’s trying to get pregnant
  • Realtor.com sends locations and prices of homes users review
  • Better Me Weight Loss Workouts sends height and weight information.
  • Lose It also sent height and weight information along with exercise information, including sexual  activity that the user entered.
  • Glucose Buddy sent blood pressure information and meal detail from food tracking.
  • Trulia sends zip code and some neighborhood information about homes users check.
Here is the most important part about these apps: they were downloaded from Google’s Play Store and Apple’s iOS App Store. They were not Facebook apps, but Facebook had reached seemingly legal data agreements with them to purchase information. And in some cases, the user didn’t have a Facebook account.When apps specify that they are going to share user information only with its trusted partners, those partners are often trusted as the result of writing a check.

The original WSJ article is here but requires a subscription. A free CNBC article is here.

Also in the Spotlight

Worth your time this week:

  • Advertisers are leaving YouTube again over “soft core” child exploitation and porn videos and comments left on them. The company has been deleting users (including commenters) and videos. AT&T and Walt Disney are among the companies that are boycotting the company.
  • Pinterest has filed for an IPO according to multiple reports, but as a direct listing. That means much less fanfare. Slow, steady Pinterest is winning praise for solid growth and banning anti-vaccination and other health-related disinformation.
  • 40% of LinkedIn users check the site daily according to Search Engine Journal. The site now has 610 million members.