Good Monday Morning

It’s September 19th. Thursday marks the official beginning of autumn. All National Park Service sites offer free admission on Saturday. 

Today’s Spotlight is 1,088 words — about 4 minutes to read.

News To Know Now

Quoted:“A strong nonlinear relationship was identified between daily maximum temperature and the percentage change in hate tweets.

— Data appearing in a study published in The Lancet that found temperatures above 80 degrees in U.S. communities resulted in 6%-30% more hate speech on Twitter.

Driving the news: Escalating political rhetoric from both parties is influencing finance, education, health, and immigration in near real-time with important midterm elections only 50 days away.

Three Important Stories

1)Illinois residents have only six days remaining to file a claim for funds in a class action settlement regarding Google Photos. A similar suit against Facebook resulted in each affected resident receiving a check for nearly $400. PC Mag has details. And if you live elsewhere, Google Photos just released an upgrade that includes a collage editor.

2)An appeals court restored a Texas law that bars online companies from removing posts based on the author’s politics. It’s a First Amendment battle related to the issue of censorship that experts believe will remain unsettled until a final Supreme Court decision.

3) Patagonia’s owners irrevocably transferred the majority of the company into a C4 nonprofit after reserving a small piece for a trust that will retain family control. The move is expected to fund activities to fight climate change at the rate of $100 million annually, including political contributions. Business publications like Bloomberg were quick to point out that the $3 billion donation also avoids $700 million in tax liability although all but the most cynical acknowledge the charitable nature of giving almost everything away. A family-controlled trust will hold 2% of the nonvoting stock (current value: $60 million) and all of the voting stock.

Spotlight Explainer — Elections Online This Year

Election Day is fifty days away. The Jan. 6 committee plans to restart public hearings by September 28. Former President Donald Trump continues to hold rallies around the country although he is not a candidate for office. A rally in Ohio two days ago featured more inflammatory rhetoric, music associated with the Q-Anon conspiracy, and audience members making hand gestures associated with that group.  Political control of both chambers of Congress is at stake.

The latest in preparations for these elections:

Social media advertising will be curtailed or cut off.

Meta plans to follow its playbook from 2020. That means that no new political ads can be started on the network after November 1 and for a period extending until at least polls close. During the last such period, however, Meta kept new ads from being published until mid-January.

Worth remembering: Meta categorizes these ad topics as “social issues” and regulates them as political: 

  • civil and social rights
  • crime
  • economy
  • education
  • environmental politics
  • guns
  • health
  • immigration
  • political values and governance
  • security and foreign policy

That means that the charities operating in those areas won’t be able to run new ads either.

Although many other social media networks already ban political and advocacy advertising, financially troubled Snapchat has yet to make an official announcement about ads. TikTok already bans political ads and says that its goal this year is to ban the use of videos by influencers that are undeclared political ads.

An eBay auction for a voting machine.

Authorities are trying to understand how a voting machine used in Michigan ended up for sale at Goodwill for $7.99 and then was offered for auction on eBay. An election machine security expert saw the auction listing, bought the machine, and quickly notified authorities. 

Michigan police and federal authorities are also investigating security breaches at local election offices in Colorado, Georgia, and Michigan after election deniers were improperly allowed access to machines and software.

NC elections official threatened.

Surry County GOP Chairman W.K. Senter reportedly threatened the county’s election director with losing her job or having her pay cut if she didn’t provide him with illegal access to voting equipment. He reportedly wants to verify if they have “cell or internet capability” and have “a forensic analysis” conducted.

The problems aren’t just in Surry County. Republican officials in Durham County, home to Duke University and a city with a quarter-million people, announced that they planned to inspect all machines. A state official rebuffed their plans and insists that none of the machines used for voting in North Carolina can access the internet.

CISA launches tool kit for local election officials.

The U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency rolled out a new program last month that helps local elections officials and workers better detect and defend against phishing, ransomware, and other attacks and other elections online problems. The program also shows how to improve security for equipment with internet connectivity. 

CISA was one of the federal agencies that announced on November 12, 2020, that there was “no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised.”

Did That Really Happen? — Germany Continues to Administer COVID-19 vaccines

Twitter and Telegram users have been amplifying a false statement that Germany stopped using COVID-19 vaccines. That never happened according to this AP reporting.

Following Up — Abortion Privacy Bill

We wrote extensively last week about abortion data privacy problems. A bill to protect data in California would reportedly prohibit Big Tech companies headquartered there from providing information related to abortion data demanded by courts in other states. California Gov. Gavin Newsom has not yet signed the bill into law.

Protip — Free Photo Restoration

An AI model that aims to reconstruct low resolution images is now available for anyone to use free. This is similar to online processes available at My Heritage. The website is rudimentary relative to advanced image software, but again, is free.

Screening Room — Pinterest’s Don’t Don’t Yourself

This clever series of short ads called “Don’t Don’t Yourself” shows people shaking undesirable behaviors.

Science Fiction World — Robotic Ikea Assembly

Naver Labs has graduated its robot Ambidex from playing table tennis to assembling Ikea furniture. I’m not bragging, but I once paid a guy eighty bucks to do the same for me because it was cheaper than the divorce that would’ve happened if my family tried to do it.

Coffee Break — How 25 Canadian Sites Looked in the 1990s

Back in my day, websites were ugly with gradients and exclamation points and walls of links and, oh, just have a look for yourself.

Sign of the Times

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 August 29. America returns to the moon this morning with the scheduled liftoff of Artemis I at 8:33 a.m. ET. There’s an informative NASA page with multiple short videos and gorgeous images that will get you up to speed on plans for this mission and the program.

Housekeeping: we’re off next week for Labor Day and back in your email on September 12.

Today’s Spotlight is 1,293 words — about 5 minutes to read.

News To Know Now

Quoted: “We have seen no evidence that this incident involved any access to customer data or encrypted password vaults.

— LastPass CEO Karim Toubba in a letter to users explaining that hackers were able to steal some of the company’s software code, but could not access user information.

Driving the news: Conspiracy theory and political rhetoric are ramping up outrage against federal agencies including the IRSNational Archives, and the EPA. Some of that is taking the form of cyber attacks although physical security is also concerning agency leaders. The Government Executive website headline: Stay Vigilant.

Three Important Stories

1) Amazon is closing the telehealth service it launched to great fanfare in 2019. The company’s plans appear to be more mainstream now that is has committed $4.6 billion combined to acquire PillPack and healthcare clinic chain One Medical. The Wall Street Journal also reported last week that Amazon is negotiating against CVS, among others, to acquire home health care company Signify for as much as $8 billion.

2) Twitter is under fire after its former head of security disclosed as a whistleblower that the company is aware that it has major cybersecurity issues. Peiter “Mudge” Zutko is an ethical hacker who has worked for the Defense Department, Google, and Motorola, as well as a Twitter senior executive. That company says that he is a disgruntled former employee. Part of the frenzy around the story includes Zutko’s allegations that the company has misled regulators about cybersecurity and that allegations made by Elon Musk when trying to back out of acquiring Twitter were accurate.

3) Meta announced that it canceled hundreds of accounts, pages, and groups affiliated with the Proud Boys terror organization on Facebook and Instagram. The company banned the group from its platforms in 2018 for violating its policies against hate speech.

Trends & Spends

Spotlight Explainer — Google Launches Helpful Content Update

Google is launching an update this week that it calls Helpful Content. It’s a big deal with some industry experts likening it to a famous 10-year-old update series called Penguin that penalized websites for using automation to manipulate ranking systems. The Penguin update affected around 8% of all search queries. If this week’s Helpful Content update matches that number, there could be up to 1 billion daily searches affected.

Helpful Content: Designed to Fight Automated Content

Dozens of software packages have launched in the last two years that create seemingly human written content with a fatal flaw —  some of that content is wrong. 

The software is trained on large language models and uses machine learning to create a corpus of facts and styles mimicking human writers. The age-old saying of “garbage in, garbage out” means that inaccurate facts or inappropriate positions are made.

Microsoft’s Tay chatbot posted on Twitter in 2016 that “Hitler was right” and “9/11 was an inside job.” Last week we wrote about Meta’s BlenderBot telling a journalist that Ronald Reagan had been president for more than two terms and that Donald Trump was still president.

Publishing Garbage at Scale

Google search executive Danny Sullivan wrote last week that Helpful Content was designed to “tackle content that seems to have been primarily created for ranking well in search engines rather than to help or inform people.” Danny’s correct.

I can create a website in minutes and have bots create plausible, mostly accurate essays as content. Add in machine generated images of people and places and surround the whole thing with ads. Millions of people globally have those skills and could generate several of those sites every day. One of the biggest complaints I’ve seen in forums for that type of software is that the content creation process doesn’t automatically run and relies on human prompts, which slows it down.

New Product Review Updates

There’s something to be said for real reviews by nonexperts, but that has also been proven to be an area rife with fraud. Sullivan says that Google will be rolling out a new update in the coming weeks to have Google results show “more helpful, in-depth reviews based on firsthand expertise in search results.”

Even SEO Software Can Be Based on False Facts

As a young executive in the data industry, I quickly learned about the power of asynchronous data flow and the inequities that arose when one party in a transaction has more information than another.

That’s the perpetual state that search engine optimization has been in since Danny Sullivan and several other pioneers popularized the concept more than 25 years ago. Even today, well regarded tools can incorrectly insist that successful web content requires specific word counts, placement of keywords, or specific keyword densities. 

The real trick to getting this information right is learning what works and monitoring it to take action when your tactics no longer outperform others.

Did That Really Happen? — Florida’s Banned Book List

Book banning is a very real problem, and we’ve previously posted a link to this remarkable Book Censorship list by the advocacy group EveryLibrary Institute. 

Unfortunately, last week a meme surfaced that claimed to be a list of books that Florida has banned in its schools. The plausible list included oft-censored titles like The Handmaid’s Tale, To Kill A Mockingbird, and I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. 

Actor Mark Hamill and American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten shared the list, which was more than enough to make it viral. USA Today unpacks the details.

Following Up — We Love Instagram Reels

We wrote one month ago about Meta changing the way its feeds are generated. Newly published data from HypeAuditor show that short-form video Reels on Instagram receive more reach engagement than other forms of content. HypeAuditor found that Reels accounted for 22% of content types but 35% of all likes and 34% of all reach.

Protip — Let Your Devices Update

Cybersecurity experts say we can help protect ourselves online by allowing our computers and phones to automatically update their operating systems. That’s because those updates often contain new code to keep your device safe. Here’s how to check and reset your preferences for each device type.

Screening Room — Dove Canada

We’re taking a break from YouTube this week and giving props to the never-shy Dove brand which waded into the controversial firing of Canadian news anchor Lisa LaFlamme. CTV cut the announcer loose after she had spent 35 years there, eleven of them as an anchor, following a network executive’s comment, “Who let Lisa’s hair go gray?”

Dove Canada’s 15 second spot is on Twitter.

Science Fiction World — Google’s Helper Robots

If you think Google has money now, watch what happens if they get helper robots correct and at a price point that ordinary consumers can afford.

Coffee Break — Gorgeous, Weird Medieval Medicine

You must take some coffee break to see this amazing and beautiful website being constructed by the Cambridge University Library showing a digitizing project for 180 medieval manuscripts about medicine. It’s breathtaking art and science.

Sign of the Times