Good Monday morning. It’s October 21st. The Washington Nationals face the Houston Astros to start baseball’s World Series on Tuesday night. 

2. News To Know Now

1. Facebook will change the way it counts the number of times someone has seen an organization’s posts. The company says that the change will be less extreme than the change in Q1 and appears to adjust the number of impressions downward. There has been scant information about this news that broke Friday, and we expect more this week. [AdWeek]

2. Facebook has also opened its search channel to advertisers after months of testing. When you search for a page or person on Facebook, you will now see advertising mixed in with the results.

3. A bill that would create personal penalties for corporate executives leading organizations with data privacy problems was introduced by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) last week. Wyden is the ranking member on the Senate Finance Committee that will first consider the legislation. [Ars Technica, Legislation Tracking]

3.  Medical Technology on Consumer Devices

Medical technology advances are enabling prolonged lifespans in many developed countries, and consumer devices are now being pressed into service to help medical practitioners help you prevent and fight diseases. 

Mobile phones and wearable devices such as fitness trackers are the tools fueling change. A top-end smartphone tends to lag the power of computer desktops by as little as five years. Mobile usage rates continue skyrocketing across all groups and have caused substantial decreases in other device sales. That means that your smartphone is as powerful as computers from only a few years ago and much more likely to be nearby.

Consider these medical technology advances that seemed aspirational ten years ago:

  • Google’s Android Live Transcribe app creates talk-to-text “instant captioning” in seventy different languages, a boon to hearing impaired people.
  • CPAP machines used by millions to treat sleep apnea now often use a home’s computer network or a device’s bluetooth connection to automatically upload sleep data directly to physicians.
  • Taking a selfie video with your phone can diagnose high blood pressure based on how software interprets the smartphone’s light interacting with your skin. There are still major kinks to work out, but with 1.1 billion hypertension sufferers worldwide, there is plenty of upside.
  • Beauty company L’Oreal created a nine millimeter wide sensor that measures UV exposure. The device can store three months of data.
  • Don’t forget that video conferencing was essentially unavailable in the mobile marketplace until 2012. A recent data analysis of insurance claims shows that consumers are availing themselves of video visits to doctors and clinicians.

Plenty of issues still need to be decided, especially data privacy and securing medical devices that consumers may wear. We told you previously about security researchers who had to prove to Medtronics that they could hack an insulin pump and withhold or overdose insulin into a vulnerable patient.

4.  Google Search Updates

Advertisers can now create a lead form that appears directly in Google’s search results. The information is then sent to the company. It’s part of the ongoing process we’ve been following and sharing with you that allows Google to be a sole distribution point for as many search queries as possible. They describe the process as frictionless, which is a phrase that certain members of the fox family often use when asked to guard a chicken coop.

A substantial part of that initiative is the often-overlooked Google Books project, which just celebrated its fifteenth anniversary. What started out as Page and Brin’s “audacious goal of organizing the world’s information” now includes a digitization project of more than forty million books. Google rolled out a new interface last week and greatly improved the search screens. Google already keeps the results one click away from every search result.

Google continues to be interested in crowd-sourced data and will now allow Apple users to report traffic congestion, crashes, speed traps, and similar information using Google Maps. This information can appear when people search for how to find a business. In online search forums where marketers sometimes speculate about nefarious things, the notion of negative information on maps is a big deal. Let your imagination run wild with tales of chronic traffic slowdowns and undesirable yet fictitious businesses nearby.

Google is also cautioning organizations not to use a separate domain to present your website to mobile users. That’s because they are not always sure what device a search is using and might display mobile-optimized pages to desktop computer users. Our takeaway is that mobile device vs. desktop device optimization is best left to people who study such things.  Need more details? Point the responsible person in your org to this YouTube Q&A with Google analyst John Mueller.

5. Debugged: Flu Vaccine does not cause polio

Things are bad enough when untrained lay people incorrectly insist that flu vaccines cause influenza. They can’t and don’t. Now a stupid meme is making the rounds on Instagram claiming that “over 1,100 people died from reactions to the flu shot” last year. And that it causes polio in children. 

The flu vaccine does not give children polio. Severe allergies do occur at the rate of 1.3 allergic reactions per one million doses. Those reactions caused one person to be hospitalized in the last three years. No one died from the flu shot.

Get more facts here if you need them.

6. Also in the Spotlight

Lyft is offering free or discounted rides to job seekers and to new hires still waiting for their first paycheck. The USO, United Way, and Goodwill are partners. [Lyft]

Pinterest is allowing users to “fine tune” their pin feeds and get recommendations about their secret boards. Head over to this explanation on their site to learn more. [Pinterest]

7. Great Data: An Interactive that Teaches 

MIT has created the Court Algorithm Game (yay, algo games!) that allows users to set standards for whether a judge should jail a defendant. There’s no code involved, promises MIT, which uses an iterative process to take visitors through some of the complexity that a human or software program faces when making this recommendation.

I learned a lot from this tool. That’s why it’s great data.

8. Protip: Your Data After Your Death

You know when you need a digital executor, and yes, I do. But most people don’t. They just need to someone to help memorialize their Facebook timeline and to get their data out of Google.

The funny and smart people at The Next Web take you through how to do the latter in their feature from this weekend, “RIP: How to stop Google from stealing all your data after you die.

9. Bizarre Bazaar (strange stuff for sale online)

If you write a compelling 50 word answer about why art matters,  British artist Banksy may deign to sell you a clutch for £750 ($968 USD) or a mug for much less. Some items like the clutch are limited editions. Some like the mug are priced around $13-15 to keep the man outfitted in spray paint.

Visit Gross Domestic Product, the homewares brand of Banksy.

10. Coffee Break: Traffic planning simulator

Remember that MIT interactive tool showing you how hard it is to be a judge from three items ago? It’s also really hard to design optimum traffic flow. That’s why Google Maps wants to report about it. 

Go ahead and take a spin on this simulator that lets you change road types, truck behavior, noise levels, and all sorts of variables.

There’s a politeness indicator for drivers changing lanes that I cranked down to zero to mimic the DC Beltway.

Start your engines!

Good Monday morning. It’s Indigenous People’s Day in four states: Alaska, Minnesota, Vermont, and South Dakota. Not only is Columbus Day inappropriate based on what historians now tell us, but it was a recent invention that Congress first approved as a holiday in 1937. It’s still on the federal calendar as a holiday so there is no mail delivery and most federal offices are closed. 

Today’s Spotlight takes about 4 minutes to read. Want to chat about something you see here? Press your email reply button or click the silver “Write George” button below.

2. News To Know Now

1. Turk Telekom, partially owned by the government, cut access to Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms for 48 hours while Turkey first invaded Syria last week according to the Internet Society’s NetBlocks initiative. An even larger Internet blackout began this weekend in Ecuador as large anti-government protests were reported.

2. Instagram has removed the “Following” tab that allowed people to learn which accounts were followed by other people. Instagram also rolled out a new app called Threads that mimics the  Snapchat functionality allowing users to quickly send images and messages to a group of close friends. Color me naive, but that seems a lot like social media’s initial purpose.

3. Color me skeptical, too, after hearing about an Accenture survey that reports half of U.S. consumers will  choose slower ground transportation and have items shipped together “for a lighter carbon footprint.”

Did you miss our annual look at how politicians, law enforcement, and others use government data mining to manage people and resources–even to fight crime?

We’ve pulled it all together for you in one easy-to-read report.

3.  Facebook Update: Won’t Fact Check Politicians

Facebook will not fact check ads placed by political campaigns according to Sir Nick Clegg, a Facebook senior executive and former deputy British Prime Minister. Clegg has specifically said that Facebook has no intention of intervening “when politicians speak.”

The move immediately inspired an advertisement from Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) announcing that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg had endorsed Donald Trump’s reelection bid. That’s not true, of course, but it’s a smart ad placement from Warren whose social media advertising is among the best of the Democratic presidential hopefuls. 

Anyone can sort and view ads placed on Facebook at the company’s Ad Archive.

Facebook has realized for years that the ads are a bigger problem than local news stories. That’s confirmed by a recent Nieman Lab analysis that looked at 300,000 local stories and found that 40% werre related to sports or obituaries. Emergency information accounted for another 28%. 

That does not mean that news articles on Facebook are accurate.  It means that the ads are especially inaccurate, and that stories from trusted local media sources address community needs and do well with consumer engagement. Have a look at one of the report’s top line graphs below and click through to get more.

Facebook’s hope for cryptocurrency will undoubtedly be tested by politicians when Zuckerberg testifies before the House Financial Services Committee about its Libra product on October 23. We’ll be watching this product closely this week after PayPal, Mastercard, Visa, and Square all canceled their involvement with the new product last week.

And Facebook’s biggest problem likely remains the antitrust review conducted by a coalition of state AG offices. The Washington Post reported last week that “roughly 40 states” are participating in the review of Facebook’s advertising and consumer data practices.

4.  Google Search Updates

Google is also facing antitrust and other government reviews, but has the enviable position of market share. Analytics provider StatCounter reported that for the 12 months ending in September, Google accounted for about 88% of U.S. search and about 93% of worldwide search.

We told you two weeks that Google had recently updated its core algorithm, a much larger update than the daily tweaks and adjustments the company makes. UK firm Sistrix is already reporting that some of the sites seeing traffic increases include tabloid the Daily Mail, Brighton paper The Argus, and Country Life magazine.  That doesn’t mean that this was only an update to improve media site visibility although we’ve written often about Google’s focus on EAT (Expertise-Authority-Trust) as a quality indicator. 

5. Debugged: Greta Thunberg was not with George Soros

Images of climate activist Greta Thunberg supposedly posing with philanthropist George Soros are doctored, according to a analysis. Conspiracy theory sites like “The Gateway Pundit” have tried to link the 16-year-old with the nearly 90-year-old billionaire.

Thunberg was pictured with fellow climate activist Al Gore, and the picture is ten months old.

6. Also in the Spotlight

European privacy laws continue to be aggressively interpreted. Europe’s top court has ruled that pre-checked consent boxes for tracking website users via cookies are not valid. TechCrunch has more.

Grammarly, the software that tells you to stop using passive voice among other things, received a $90 million investment in a second funding round that values the company at more than $1 billion, Venture Beat reports.

A University of Mexico archaeologist using a free map made with light detection and ranging technology has discovered the ruins of 27 previously unknown Maya ceremonial centers. Some even contain a type of construction archaeologists hadn’t seen before. This is easily our favorite story this week and you can read it in full in The New York Times.

7. Great Data: Using Great Presentation

Video is underused as a reporting media. And a little goes a long way, but this 150 second animation of the growth of different social media networks since 2003 is worth your time for the way it shares data.  Have a look below.

8. Protip: Google’s Digital Wellbeing Tools

We’ve written a lot of words about technology’s effect on reading comprehension, attention span, and linguistic changes. The overwhelming effect is on interpersonal engagement, though, and Google is introducing requirements for digital wellbeing tools to be used on all Android devices.

See what they look like and how to use them.

9. Bizarre Bazaar (strange stuff for sale online)

Shaun Dakin spotted this great use of an Instagram profile page to link to other social media channels, and of course, to the Amazon page selling this calendar of Harslo the Balancing Hound. 

Seems that Harslo has built up an audience of 107,000 Instagram followers, almost that many on Facebook, and some great media hits for balancing stuff on his head.

He’s a cute doggo.

Facial Recognition Grows Up

Observers could spend every working minute analyzing facial recognition to stay updated with its constant changes. For example, Amazon recently announced a change to its Rekognition software that “improved accuracy for emotion detection (for all 7 emotions: ‘Happy’, ‘Sad’, ‘Angry’, ‘Surprised’, ‘Disgusted’, ‘Calm’ and ‘Confused’) and added a new emotion: ‘Fear’. Lastly, we have improved age range estimation accuracy; you also get narrower age ranges across most age groups.”

Somehow Amazon is still working on age estimation accuracy, but can detect fear.

Facebook also announced new privacy settings for DeepFace, its facial recognition software. That sounds nice, but remember that DeepFace is believed to be the largest facial recognition database in the world thanks to the 250 billion photos that have been voluntarily uploaded to Facebook. The company claims that it beats the FBI’s facial recognition programs with 15% more accuracy.

Google’s Face Match algorithm now makes use of a camera in its Nest Hub smart home display, which is a nice way of saying that Google’s thermostat and light controlling gizmos point an always-on camera at your living space. You can learn more about that in CNet’s excellent “Google collects face data now. Here’s what it means and how to opt out.

The race to get this facial data isn’t only to sell you more stuff although that’s certainly helpful. Live Nation and its Ticketmaster subsidiary has said that it will use facial recognition at live events. Not so fast, say some artists like the aptly named Rage Against The Machine.  

More than half of U.S. adults trust law enforcement agencies to responsibly use facial recognition, according to Pew Research. The approval rating drops to 36% for technology companies and 18% for advertisers. California lawmakers sent a bill last week to Governor Gavin Newsom that would ban state and local police from using facial recognition software on their body cameras.

Tattletale Apps and Ancillary Data

Scary stories about phone apps, browser extensions, and smart devices abound in our society. We’re no longer surprised when we learn that a tech company is selling ovulation data from apps women use to track their periods or that Foursquare doesn’t care if you use their app to check in to a location since they have “passive” data collection.

Personal data from all of your transactions constantly flows into buckets at data brokerages around the world. WaPo columnist Geoffrey Fowler wrote a blockbuster expose this summer about browser extensions that seem innocuous but “leak information” directly to data brokers. In Fowler’s expose, one of the browser extensions was used to magnify images on a screen, but requested the ability “to read and change your browsing history.” The extension had 800,000 users and was packaging each user’s search history.

At a large family gathering this weekend, I was asked to troubleshoot someone’s PC because it seemed like Google was unresponsive. After only fifteen minutes of tinkering I found that there was a Firefox extension that promised private browsing. Instead, it read search data and routed the request to another network. Luckily, they didn’t return to Google but to Yahoo! search, which was my first clue that something terrible was happening.

Don’t forget that the absence of data is also data. Netflix raised eyebrows last month when The Verge found that Netflix was monitoring a phone’s physical activity sensor. Netflix later said it was a test to see if they could improve video quality while people were watching on the move. But the question remains why a video app gets to track your movements and activity. Fitness trackers, phones, and smart watches all have the ability to understand where you are and what you are doing or not doing.

Even medical data isn’t protected despite health privacy laws. ProPublica found 5 million health records on hundreds of computer servers worldwide. Anyone with a web browser or a few lines of computer code can view patient records, they found, including names in some cases. They didn’t do any hacking or nefarious activities because the records—either for consultation or stored for archives—were publicly accessible on the Internet.

Google, Amazon, and Microsoft are part of a new trade group called the CARIN Alliance that is creating a medical records universal standard for patient records. You’re probably already thinking to yourself, “What could go wrong with those three setting up programs accessing my most personal data?” Good news. The federal government, many state governments, and major health insurance companies are also participating.

The point is that your transactions every day create a growing pool of data about you.  Here in northern Virginia, our state is one of several using “remote sensing” that checks a vehicle’s emissions when it passes through a toll booth. The program is a great way to monitor air quality but also allows local jurisdictions to understand which vehicles don’t meet emissions standards and the locations that they travel through. 

Foursquare would call that a passive check-in.

The Algorithms

DNA testing at home led to big databases stuffed with results—and helped police solve multiple cold case crimes, including a 52 year old murder case in Seattle. GEDmatch, one of the larger aggregators of uploaded DNA data, is the database police most often use. That old Seattle case and the Golden State Killer case received headline attention, but law enforcement agencies are solving dormant cases every week using this unique collaboration between the public and law enforcement.

Users can opt-in to allow police genealogy experts to work with crime scene DNA results, genealogy hobbyist results, and create family trees for people who are still living. 

Technology is also fueling the New York Police Department’s real life exampleofa detective movie staple. Using software they developed and then made public for free, the NYPD uses Patternizr to find similarities between crimes. Like the genealogy situation, Patternizr requires human analysts to sort through the program’s output and decide which results to send to detectives.

Police are also finding new ways to use older technology like cameras and scanners. In London, the BBC reported that police tested rail passengers for hidden explosives or knives using new scanners that providing imaging from up to thirty feet away. Cameras are more widely used in other countries to surveil cities according to Comparitech. Their overview shows that London and Atlanta are the only non-Chinese cities on a list of the ten most surveilled cities, but plenty of western cities made the top 20, including Chicago, Sydney, and Berlin.

Benign social media use exists throughout law enforcement. We’ve all read tweets and social media updates about events in our communities as well as efforts to humanize officers. For example, the Gloucester (NJ) Police post images of recovered bicycles on Pinterest. But for every wholesome use of technology, we also see complaints like a 2016 ACLU of California warning about some police departments tracking activists and their movements on social media.

What Happens Next

Ivanka Trump didn’t start the trend, but quickly tried linking gun violence prevention legislation the White House finds troubling to a new federal agency proposal called the Health Advanced Research Projects Agency, or HARPA. Proponents see the agency as a medical science equivalent of the military’s DARPA, which created the technology that evolved into the Internet.

The administration specifically wanted to know if this new agency could help identify people who were on the brink of becoming mass shooters. Washington Post reporting shows that their three page proposal included tracking data from fitness trackers, smart watches, and mobile phones used by mentally ill consumers, which presupposes that gun violence is linked to mental health, something that is in no way proven.

The HARPA example of analyzing Fitbit data is one extreme but real example of government data mining and law enforcement using technology in preemptive ways. Another extreme recent example is Wednesday’s news that the Department of Justice will authorize Homeland Security to collect DNA from all migrants who are detained rather than only those who are arrested. We’ve covered DNA databases before, but this is DNA involuntary seized when a non-American is detained. That DNA will also undoubtedly be used to identify American citizens, leading many to question the constitutionality of the federal government collecting the data.

In addition to physical tracking, government agencies are also increasingly interested in using semantic analysis to question the words people post to social media. This type of analysis has been around for years and is behind robust marketing concepts like search engine optimization and advertising, but government plans call for wholesale monitoring of all platforms.

Israeli startup Zencity expanded into the U.S. last year and already has deals in place with local governments in Chicago, San Francisco, and Houston to monitor social media and telephone calls to city services while classifying citizen sentiment. This is no longer about counting complaints, but using software to classify the severity of the feedback. Federal offices increasingly want this information too, and Attorney General William Barr co-signed a joint US-UK open letter Thursday that urges Facebook not to encrypt communications.

The French government also wants social media access according to The Guardian last Tuesday, but for tax purposes. The French Public Action and Accounts Minister said last year in an interview that “the tax office will be able to see that if you have numerous pictures of yourself with a luxury car while you don’t have the means to own one, then maybe your cousin or your girlfriend has lent it to you, or maybe not.”

China remains the foreign government most invested in social media. The country’s Social Credit System remains a hodgepodge of basic counting (think: number of complaints), business information, and traditional credit reporting (which some may argue is already creepy enough). 

China’s vague plans were written about in breathless terms by Western media, especially in America, and have served as the backdrop or inspiration for more than one television show. Since then privacy advocates in the West agree that social credit scores could be very bad indeed, but no one understands how to codify those yet.

A fantastic explainer infographic by Visual Capitalist explains how social credit grew out of financial markets and has been used to stop people with unpaid taxes from leaving China or dog owners who don’t clean up after their dogs to potentially lose them. Both of those penalties sound fine. But there are warning signs too, including citizens being blocked from purchasing air or rail tickets or being eligible for a job.

The Bottom Line:  Nothing summarizes the dynamic nature of governments using consumer technology to govern better than what happened as we wrote this series.  We developed the idea to write about government data mining at the end of this summer and began the series in September. Since then we have had opportunities to include multiple new stories each week. 

What was written about China’s systems in 2015 and 2016 are inaccurate now. Either a new administration or a Trump reelection in 2020 will create additional programs. 

And there are ever-increasing numbers of private programs such as the DRN vehicle location database created entirely by companies that repossess vehicles. They’re tracking locations of all vehicles, not only the ones they’re interested in pursuing. They’re likely tracking your car too, which begs an answer to the oft-asked: whose data is it anyway?