1. Good Monday Morning

It’s June 28. Spotlight is off next Monday for the Independence Day holiday. Be safe and happy until then. We’ll be back in your email on July 12..

Today’s Spotlight is 1,068 words — about a 4 minute read.

2. News To Know Now

Quoted: “We need more choices, not to replace Google or Bing, but to offer alternatives… if we do not have our own [search] index, we are just a layer of paint on top of Google or Bing.” — Josep M. Pujol, Chief of Search at Brave to TechCrunch upon the browser launching its own search engine.

a) Western Digital is warning owners of its MyBook external hard drive devices to disconnect them from the internet because hackers are using an exploit that enables them to remotely wipe the drives. (Krebs on Security)

b)  An Amazon fulfillment center in Scotland is destroying millions of unsold items every year. An ex-manager at the facility provided ITV with documentation showing 124,000 items were destroyed during one week in April. Companies using Amazon to store and fulfill their products can ask the company to destroy the stock rather than pay to have unsold items returned. The fulfillment center is one of 24 in the UK and 185 globally.

c)  Telephone carriers have until Wednesday to finally implement the Stir/Shaken call verification system that will make it harder for companies making robocalls to hide their actual telephone number. CNET has an FAQ on the new program.

3. Search Engine News — New Search Message for Breaking News

Google is now using a consumer friendly message to respond to queries about evolving news stories for which the search engine has not yet indexed reliable content. This type of situation is exactly how Google News was created following the 9/11 terror attacks, but the main search index has not had this type of protection.

That meant that breaking news events traditionally kicked off a rush to post information to be among the first results in Google during a normally chaotic time.

Google also announced that it will expand its coverage of harassment-based search results. They say that they will apply “ranking protections to help prevent content from low quality sites appearing in search results for people’s names.”

Google used the example of the Babcock family in the UK that had been targeted by false reports online that the men in that family were pedophiles and child molesters while the women were labeled cheaters and scammers. Sites such as Ripoff Report, Deadbeats Exposed, and She’s a Homewrecker were specifically described in a New York Times expose that Google linked to. Sites like Ripoff Report often charge hundreds or thousands of dollars to have a subject go through “mediation” before removing a post with information another person has posted.

4. In The Spotlight — Dark Patterns

Dark patterns are under the spotlight in consumer circles and may soon be as familiar a term as robocalls. The phrase is used to describe a type of internet design that tricks or pressures a person into taking an unwanted action. Think of them as dirty tricks unscrupulous marketers use.

The tactics include disguising ads as editorial content, using hidden buttons and links, confusing trials with paid offers, or creating opt-outs that make you take an action to stop the company from doing something rather than defaulting to nothing. There are also fraudulent behaviors like signing up for recurring bills by simply clicking a button or hiding important terms. 

Usability designer Harry Bignull first codified this disingenuous behavior and now leads the professional effort to identify and halt dark patterns. That includes the new Dark Patterns Tipline that opened in May with support from Consumer Reports and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The new effort shows multiple examples of bad behavior by well known companies such as Carfax and Grubhub. (Full disclosure: I was on Carfax’s executive team for 8 years beginning in the mid 1990s).

Government is also paying attention. California modified its landmark Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) to ban dark patterns from websites. Those include confusing language or using more steps to opt-out of sharing private data than there are to opt-in. Former FTC Chair Rebecca Slaughter called for national rules to ban dark patterns. During a speech last week, she told a nonprofit group, “…We need to be focusing on the burden on the firms to limit their collection in the first instance, prohibit their sharing, prohibit their abusive use of data.”

Want to test how easy it is to be influenced by this insidious behavior? The Markup has created a quiz that lets you match your wits against these tricky techniques.

5. Debunked — Childhood Vaccines

Memes are floating around social media suggesting that childhood vaccines and laundry detergent share 16 common ingredients. Reuters has the fact check documenting that there are only three common ingredients: water, glycerin, and castor oil.

 6. Following Up — Microsoft Support Rep Hacked

As Microsoft investigated the Solar Winds hack, the group who did that hack compromised a Microsoft employee’s computer to launch targeted attacks against Microsoft customers. This news was breaking throughout the weekend, and there will undoubtedly be more revelations this week. Throughout 2021, Ars Technica has had some of the best coverage of this incident. You can also read our past coverage of the Solar Winds hack.

7. Protip — New Gmail Collaboration Tools

You’ve undoubtedly seen the brand new “Rooms” and “Chat” features in Gmail. Here are step-by-step instructions on using Google Docs, Chat, and other Google-specific programs without having to switch browser tabs.

Screening Room — Wedding Singers

Ryan Reynolds and his Maximum Effort ad agency are behind the latest Match.com commercial featuring real wedding singers crooning a new song penned by award-winning songwriters. 

9. Science Fiction World — AI Lip Reading

That scene in bad spy movies featuring a trained lip reader watching a target through binoculars is about to become anachronistic. Motherboard is reporting that people unable to vocalize may soon be helped by an AI app that translates lip movement into words.

10. Coffee Break — Follow A Drop of Water to the Ocean

This amazing 3-D science visualization simulates a drop of water as it flows from anywhere in the world to larger bodies of water. 

11. Sign of the Times

1. Good Monday Morning

It’s June 21. The made-up shopping holiday known as Amazon Prime Day begins today and ends tomorrow. We found you a well regarded web app that lets you check a product’s price history on Amazon. You have to click the product’s name in the search result to get to the history.

Today’s Spotlight is 1,073 words — about a 4 minute read.

2. News To Know Now

Quoted: “We do not allow hate speech on Facebook, even in the context of satire, because it creates an environment of intimidation and exclusion, and in some cases, may promote real-world violence.”a Facebook statement regarding a ruling by its Oversight Board that required the company to reinstate a satirical post.

a) Texas power officials triggered jokes galore last week when residents were asked to set their thermostats to 82 while sleeping. Some residents had that choice made for them because they signed up for a program called “Smart Savers Texas.” That program gave Texans a free sweepstakes entry in exchange for allowing their thermostats to be remotely controlled during high energy demand. From the reactions, many people did not think that would happen. (KHOU)

b) Zillow says that its algorithms’ accuracy have improved. Having improved its Zestimate house price estimate by 6.9%, Zillow plans to increase the number of homes it will offer to purchase by 30%. (WGCL)

c) Nielsen is putting perspective around the size of streaming audiences that is upending conventional wisdom. The company released a new visualization called The Gauge (below). The infographic compares streaming, broadcast, and even DVD viewing against each other rather than comparing individual programs. Netflix and YouTube streaming each make up 6% of viewing and contribute to streaming’s 26% of total viewing.

3. Search Engine News — New Ranking Method Rolling Out

Google’s Page Experience ranking update began rolling out last week. We’ve been telling you about this impending change since last year. Google advises that the new methodology won’t be completed for at least two months.

Factors influencing how a website page ranks include its mobile friendliness and encryption. A group of other page speed and technical metrics that Google calls Core Web Vitals also factor into the algorithm.

The change is significant. Business leaders will want to spend the next several months carefully monitoring the volume of search traffic. Even if your website isn’t directly affected yet, there could very well be changes to your competitors’ websites.

4. In The Spotlight — Covid App Problems Continuing

We’ve all read about the difficulty that contact tracing efforts met from the beginning of the pandemic. Even when states began putting human resources in place, too many people refused to cooperate. Community leaders hoped that digital contact tracing would help.

MIT Technology Review concluded that they really didn’t in large part because of a lack of user trust and the federal government’s failure to create a national app. Experts also cite the sidelining of the CDC, considered one of the best in the world at contact tracing, as a problem.

Digital apps were supposed to be an answer. Americans turned to food delivery, streaming media, and the internet for a year, but widely refused to cooperate with human or digital contact tracers. Two dozen states developed their own exposure notification apps, but the adoption rates in the U.S. mainland ranged from abysmal (only 1% each in Arizona and North Dakota) to low (37% in Connecticut). 

There were reports this weekend of Android phones in Massachusetts automatically receiving an installation of MassNotify, a Covid tracking app. The app still requires a user to opt-in and turn on exposure notices, but some reports suggest that the app is difficult to remove.

User privacy concerns may have been justified. Gizmodo reported last week that police in Western Australia accessed private data from that state’s Covid app at least twice during criminal investigations. Police claim that their use was legal and justified although they concede that people may have been unaware that their information could be checked.

5. Debunked — Hillary Clinton in Cuba

A QAnon site shared fake, graphic details of the alleged execution of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Guantánamo Bay last week. Needless to say, Secretary Clinton is alive and appeared last week with Lin-Manuel Miranda in New York. The graphic details were so disturbing to some that USA Today ran a fact check.

The FBI issued a threat assessment June 4 that warned that some QAnon followers could become violent when the conspiracy theory’s predictions fail to occur.

6. Following Up — Amazon Bigger Than 9 Competitors Combined

We published a deep dive into Amazon Retail just two weeks ago to get you ready for Prime Day. eMarketer released data after our report that shows Amazon’s e-commerce sales in the U.S. exceed the combined sales of the rest of its Top 10 competitors. Included on that list are Walmart, Apple, and Target.

7. Protip — Yes, You Can Fax On A Computer

Some entity still using Windows 3.1 and firmly entrenched in the 1990s is going to insist you fax something to them one day. Maybe it will be a small government agency or someplace similar. Save this How-To Geek roundup of three services that will let you do just that rather than arguing with them.

Screening Room — Internova Travel Group

How do you compete against highly automated competitors? This travel agency says you should make fun of ’em.

9. Science Fiction World — Wirelessly Charge Vehicles On the Road

Cornell researchers say they’ve developed an approach to create a charging lane on a roadway that would allow travel to become even more sustainable. They’ve even figured out how to bill you for that energy so I smell a public-private partnership being formed right about now.

10. Coffee Break — Nature’s Great Pics of the Month

I didn’t know that this feature existed before this month, but I’ll be checking it out in the future. Nature’s photo team selects the science pictures of the month, and they’re stunning.

11. Sign of the Times

1. Good Monday Morning

It’s June 14. Happy Father’s Day on Sunday to all the dads, those who have fathered children and those dads who haven’t. We see you.

Today’s Spotlight is 1,545 words — about a 6 minute read.

2. News To Know Now

Quoted: “So there is no way to give a third party app your location and not Google? This doesn’t sound like something we would want on the front page of the [New York Times].” — an unnamed Google employee quoted in newly unredacted court documents.

a) Voilà AI Artist is a viral app that creates cartoon avatars from photos. Their popularity exploded last week. Everyone posting photos of themselves looking like a Disney lead character or Renaissance painting has given a Canadian company some online information. Removing the watermark starts the clock on a 3 day trial period that turns into a $2 weekly subscription. Voilà is the top free app in both Google & Apple stores, ahead of such laggards as YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram.

b) TikTok seems to have edited Android user images on their own. Journalist Abby Ohlheiser wrote that some users were seeing subtle differences in their images — almost as if a beauty filter had been applied. After verifying the results herself, Ohlheiser contacted TikTok, which did not answer, but magically, the effect stopped appearing. (MIT Technology Review)

c) Amazon’s newest Echo Show device can identify when a human is in the same room. The device can’t identify the person yet, but as this CNET walk-through shows, you can turn lights on or off, lock a door, or activate any of the routines you’ve configured Alexa to handle when you trigger the device.

3. Search Engine News

As Google continues on its mission to organize the world’s data, some of that data may not be accurately sourced.

Industry news site SEO Roundtable noted that a Google knowledge graph about SEO sources a monthly average price of $2,819 to a self-described small team in Texas. 

They got the numbers from a marketing software company. The creator of the data isn’t even mentioned in the Google search results. And after watching colleagues try to reverse what happened, the agency’s actions were pretty innocent.

Like all of us, they copied and sourced (although didn’t link to) information on an authoritative site. That information could be there for years, just like information in a book is permanent and unchanging. But I promise you that the number quoted is too high for most small businesses and many nonprofit organizations. 

Of course the search experts then went looking for similar examples and found another. This time there was a quote inside a Google knowledge graph that suggested the return on an advertising campaign is 80%, which is a silly number that means nothing without context.

Here is an example that I found after only a few minutes of searching. 

The search result on the right shows “Conversion rate: about 3.75%” and quotes software company SpyFu. The problem is that SpyFu published its data 18 months ago. It was based on even earlier data from yet another software company’s report.

Remember this example and source information yourself unless there is detailed information at the provided link because Google’s data extraction remains imperfect.

4. In The Spotlight — 3rd annual Police Technology Overview

We’re back with year three of our annual look at police technology. In previous years, we’ve  covered doorbell camera videos shared with police, local use of facial recognition data sourced from non-police sources, persistent vehicle surveillance from the air, broad warrants that seek the names of everyone in a location, and even predictive algorithms that identify citizens as “likely to break the law.”

You can read those previous police technology reports here: 2019 and 2020.

The best example demonstrating how police technology is used today is shown in this criminal complaint (PDF) filed by the FBI against Chicago Police officer Karol Chwiesiuk for his participation in January’s domestic terror attack on the U.S. Capitol. The June 10 document is relatively easy to read as the agent meticulously documents Officer Chwiesiuk’s activity:

  1. An email received on January 5 from an organization called “Stop the Steal” with logistics information.
  2. Multiple locations mapped out between January 4 and January 8, tracking the defendant from Chicago to Washington and back.
  3. Multiple locations mapped out around Washington showing the time and day that the officer was in Washington and when he traveled to the Capitol the night before the rally.
  4. Texts beginning January 3 when he contacted a friend and said that he was “traveling to dc … to save the nation.” He also texted during these conversations that he was “busy planning how to fuck up commies.”
  5. Multiple texts with pictures showing the defendant participating in the attack. During one exchange, he acknowledged that he was present when guns were drawn in the Capitol.
  6. Pictures showing the defendant matched by facial recognition from other sources, including other individuals.

Cracking down on a domestic terrorist assaulting the Capitol feels like an appropriate use of police technology, but this is also the rationale used to create the Patriot Act following the 9/11 terror attacks.

In the last few weeks we’ve learned about three surprising policy technology advances.

USA Today’s publisher is fighting a broad subpoena calling for the device information for every person that read an article on their website about the death of two FBI agents in February. The government won’t disclose why it wants the data that covers everyone who read the article online in a 35 minute period.

We also learned last week of two other developments after the Justice Department announced that it had seized more than 80% of the ransom that Colonial Pipeline paid to hackers last month. That ransom was paid in Bitcoin, which uses publicly available register entries. One big question remaining is how the FBI managed to crack the criminals’ Bitcoin account.

The FBI has also been busy running an encrypted telephone network with Australian law enforcement that was popular among criminals. Their three year operation concluded with 800 arrests announced last week. Law enforcement monitored 27 million messages from 12,000 devices during the operation.

On their surface, these initiatives appear to be a great use of technology in fighting crime, but privacy advocates and legal experts are concerned. New York City police can monitor people from as far as two blocks away using a network of more than 15,000 cameras. Concern quickly boiled over when police worked with doorbell and apartment camera owners to track individuals into nearby homes and apartments during racial equality protests last year.

This type of surveillance is not limited to local agencies. In December, we learned that the Customs and Border Protection agency was purchasing commercial cellphone location data from third parties. This data reportedly includes information on people who are not being investigated for any criminal activity.

The Commerce Department is home to another agency that The Washington Post reports “covertly searched employees’ offices at night, ran broad keyword searches of their emails trying to surface signs of foreign influence and scoured Americans’ social media for critical comments about the census.”

5. Debunked — Social Media Influencers Offered Bribes

A UK marketing agency with apparent Russian connections has reportedly offered European bloggers and influencers money to falsely report that the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine is responsible for hundreds of deaths. The Guardian has coverage.

6. Following Up — Amazon Routes

Motherboard has published an in depth look at Flex, Amazon’s driver routing software. Drivers in two states claim that they’re often routed to places where they have to cross busy streets carrying multiple packages.

7. Protip — Your iPhone’s Other Storage Setting

The nice folks at The Next Web are going to show you two ways to reclaim a lot of storage space on your iPhone. One scary method involves resetting your phone. Please don’t do that. 

The other shows you what files you can safely delete.

Screening Room — Danish Road Safety Council

Funny and creative, this big budget government commercial has been going viral since its release last week.

 9. Science Fiction World — Google Maps 50,000 Brain Cells

I know we just beat up Google for synthesizing the wrong information about marketing and advertising costs, but they do have some remarkable initiatives. One of these was assisting a Harvard researcher in mapping 50,000 brain cells. You can read about that at New Scientist.

 10. Coffee Break — Unequal Scenes

Get a venti coffee for this one because you’ll want to spend a lot of time looking at this fascinating drone photography website. In their words: “We’re shocked seeing tin shacks and dilapidated buildings hemmed into neat rows, bounded by the fences, roads, and parks of the wealthiest few.”

The photography at Unequal Scenes is amazing. The message is critical.

11. Sign of The Times