Good Monday morning. It’s February 3rd.  A busy political week kicks off today with the Iowa caucuses, the continuing impeachment trial of President Trump, and tomorrow night’s State of the Union address. 

Today’s Spotlight is 1,603 words and takes about 6 minutes to read.

Want to chat about something you see here? Here is a contact form.

1. News To Know Now

1. Amazon is fighting charges that it pays no taxes. In a written statement Friday, the company said that it was subject to “over $1 billion in federal income tax” and $4 billion in payroll, property, and state taxes. The company famously avoided paying taxes last year. This year’s statement comes a day after Amazon announced record-breaking revenue of $88 billion in the fourth quarter. Amazon also announced that it now has 150 million Prime customers worldwide.

2. Some users of product management software Trello are in for an unhappy surprise. The collaborative task management software uses a default public setting that search engines index. The exposed data includes performance ratings of hundreds of Regus employees, a second board showing personal identification such as lab coat sizes and passwords, and a third company’s board that includes salary, bonus, and contract information. Naked Security has the details.

3. The coronavirus has captured the world’s attention in a way that much more deadly and commonplace influenza never does. Here is a CDC chart showing influenza in the U.S. since 2010. This year’s data is incomplete but the CDC says that 10,000 Americans have died and 180,000 been hospitalized for now-widespread influenza as of January 25.

Pro tip: you can still get a flu shot. It can’t hurt. It may help.

But if you want to see what the online world is doing about coronavirus, Google launched their SOS alert that flags searches related to coronavirus, Facebook announced it is removing false information about the coronavirus, and BlueDot, which uses an AI algorithm that checks foreign news reports and animal and plant disease networks, identified Coronarivus on December 31 — seven days before the CDC and 9 days before the WHO. Score one for us nerds.

2. Facebook Facial Recognition Suit Settled

Facial recognition continues to occupy regulators and activists. Big news erupted this week when Facebook agreed to settle a five year old class action suit for $550 million after losing on appeal. The federal suit was filed in Illinois on behalf of Illinois users whose faces were used to prompt others to tag them in photographs. Those users may now receive up to “a couple of hundred dollars each”, the Chicago Tribune reports.

Despite the large settlement, Facebook posted $7.3 billion in quarterly net income and $18.5 billion for 2019 on $71 billion in revenue. Grandpappy always used to say, “George get yourself a 26% business with a bigger economy than five states.” 

The EU was considering banning facial recognition technology use in public places, but has said that it will look for “clear criteria” when it is used. Former EU city London seemingly has no such qualms and is deploying live facial recognition throughout the city to look for “wanted individuals” regarding serious crimes. 

The incidence of misidentification especially of nonwhite people continues to be a problem for existing technology. A federal study released in December says that Native American, Asian and African American people were up to 100 times more likely to be misidentified than white males. 

The U.S. military already uses facial recognition but has at least two multimillion dollar projects developing long range facial recognition that would also work in the dark. The DoD project guidelines call for a portable device that works up to 500 yards away. Unlabeled output from MRI devices is also being successfully matched in databases of volunteers. 

Smart links: Facebook and facial recognition

Facebook May Pay Illinois Users …” at the Chicago Tribune
EU No Longer Considering …” at Biometric Update
London to Deploy Live Facial Recognition …” at Ars Technica
Federal Study Confirms Racial Bias …” at the Washington Post
The Military is Building Long-Range Facial …” at OneZero
… Identify Patients from MRI Scans” at The Wall Street Journal

3. Google Search Updates

Don’t believe me. Believe Google’s new video, Top 5 Things To Consider For Your Website.” The fifth item in that video is to hire a search engine optimization expert. I think that is terrific advice, and we happen to be looking for a new client to start in February, so forward this to someone you think that we should be working with and suggest that you introduce us. Your friend or colleague will thank you, and  I already do.

Google also updated its best practices documentation for mobile-first indexing with a significant amount of information. Some important things to note are keeping content consistent between mobile and desktop displays, using the same title tags and other meta tags behind the scenes, and a huge troubleshooting section. 

You can read all of the changes at Search Engine Journal or you can introduce yourself to a great search agency

4. Debugged: Coronavirus Misinformation

Remember: U.S. influenza deaths: 10,000 this flu season. Coronavirus deaths: 362, including one outside of China. 

The coronavirus has not been patented, there are many strains of coronavirus, and it wasn’t started by a comedian.

Fact Check has more debunked nonsense.

5. Also in the Spotlight: Lady Gaga

One of my favorite recent stories describes Lady Gaga’s fans sleuthing her new website to find the title of her upcoming song. They had already spotted the title on an Instagram post last October and confirmed it was hidden in the text of her website.

Daily Dot has the story about Gaga’s little monsters.

6. Great Data: Name Guesser

We’ve written before about Nathan Yau at Flowing Data. One of his recent projects involves a “name guesser” that uses the decade a person was born and their gender to begin guessing their first name.

Nathan describes how he uses publicly available first name data from the Social Security Administration to guess the name. Don’t type anything and you’ll see the most popular letters. Add the first letter, and the choices quickly narrow. Add a second letter to get even closer.

The project is a nice look behind the scenes at how something interesting can be pulled together with great data that is often free and readily available.

Check it out here. You don’t even have to buy a vowel.

7. Protip: Translating in Spreadsheets

If you work at an organization where employees use more than one language, you need to know that Google Sheets has a built-in translation function. Now when you get a spreadsheet with non-English data, you can translate close enough right inside the spreadsheet.

Here is the support page at Google Sheets.

8. Following Up: Avast and AVG Antivirus

We’ve told you countless times not to use Avast and AVG Antivirus software. You probably know the saying that you are the product when the product is free.

Motherboard Vice broke the story last week that Avast sold entire clickstream data from its users. The data was billed as “Every search. Every click. Every buy. On every site.” And the buyers were top corporate names including Pepsi and Home Depot as well as tech giants like Google and Microsoft.

Here is what Avast’s subsidiary Jumpshot delivered as part of a package that Vice examined:

Google searches, lookups of locations and GPS coordinates on Google Maps, people visiting companies’ LinkedIn pages, particular YouTube videos, and people visiting porn websites. It is possible to determine from the collected data what date and time the anonymized user visited YouPorn and PornHub, and in some cases what search term they entered into the porn site and which specific video they watched.

There are good uses for this data. Tools used by marketing firms rely on some of this information to see what search results people click on. Ad Age called the company ” … a place to get unparalleled insights into online behavior.” Search marketer Rand Fishkin accurately said that the data helped businesses of all sizes understand what Amazon, Facebook, and Google were actually doing. 

All of this is fair, but only when someone agrees to use the free software in exchange for their information being stripped of obvious identifiers and sold. 

Here is Vice’s story

9. ICYMI — Top links from the past 30 days

How to Stop Google Maps from Tracking You at CNBC

Coronavirus Mapping by Johns Hopkins University

Microsoft Launches Tool to Identify Child Sex Predators at NBC News

10. Coffee Break: The Jeopardy Archive

Lady Gaga’s fans have nothing on fans of the Big J. 

A crowd sourced site has an archive of Jeopardy clues of this iteration of the show dating back to Alex Trebek’s pilot in 1983 and 44 of the show’s first episodes the next year.

They’re arranged exactly as they appear on the clue board. It’s … overwhelming.

385,000 and counting clues.

When you’re done, click here for a free Spotlight subscription.

photo by Axel Bueckert

Good Monday morning. It’s January 27th. This is tech earnings week. Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, and Apple  all announce earnings this week so expect some news to filter out during their calls.

Today’s Spotlight is 1,725 words and takes about 7 minutes to read.

Want to chat about something you see here? Here is a contact form.

1. News To Know Now

1. Google has launched a new data set search engine. The special search was in beta and is now a full-fledged Google product that lets people learn to get data from 25 million different data sets. Put any term into the search bar to get a list of databases. I tried random terms from this weekend’s news (Grammys, basketball, influenza) and found more than one hundred data sets for each. Visit: to search.

2. Byte, a video-sharing app similar to Vine and TikTok, officially launched Friday. Vine was a similar service acquired by Twitter and then killed. Videos are no more than six seconds in length. In an aspirational move, the company categorized the app as “Teen.” 

3. New Jersey’s Attorney General has banned police from using the Clearview facial recognition app. This follows a week of exposes about the company that has reportedly built a database of more than three billion face images. Company executives told one reporter that they scrape websites like Facebook for images despite rules against that behavior. Facebook says it is looking into the claim. Twitter has sent a cease and desist letter.

Clearview smart links
The Secretive Company That Might End Privacy as We Know It — at NYT
Twitter tells facial-recognition app maker to stop collecting its data — at The Hill
New Jersey cops told to halt all use of controversial facial-recognition technology — at
Scraping the Web Is a Powerful Tool. Clearview AI Abused It — at Wired
Class-action lawsuit filed against controversial Clearview AI startup — at ZDNET

2. Fighting Disinformation

The internet is filled with misinformation that people publish without knowing the information is inaccurate. By definition, the people who publish disinformation do so to deceive. Oxford doctoral candidate Samantha Bradshaw has published the results of a study showing how people publishing disinformation use search engine optimization techniques to improve its visibility.

Disinformation is highly virulent in the audiences it targets. Often presented with false or no supporting claims, the messaging is amplified by people whose confirmation bias allows them to ignore the lack of research or supporting information.

Bradshaw received search tactic information from twenty-nine firms she classifies as “junk news” sites. She used the same tools good search marketers use and concluded that growing distrust of mainstream media is pushing readers to fringe and partisan news sources. There is a bigger issue, she posits, around news and digital literacy. But the very tactics all organizations use to improve search visibility and advertise online are also used for propaganda such as denying the effects of climate change or that the Holocaust occurred.

This trend is prevalent on social media. Lawfare noted last week that a pattern existed in tweets about former FBI attorney Lisa Page.  Lawfare worked with BotSentinel to show that more than 28% of the replies to tweets about Page appear to be automated disinformation. The fact that there is a product named BotSentinel to discover disinformation campaigns is indicative of the trend’s prevalence.

Fake or mislabeled images and amplification by others enhances the effect and makes it difficult to fight disinformation. For example, tweets and Facebook posts showing past military action were posted minutes after Iran attacked U.S. bases in Iraq on January 7 with labels claiming the information was new. 

This week is filled with uncertainty. The U.S. Senate is considering whether to remove Donald Trump following his impeachment, there is a scary new virus in China, Brexit occurs on Friday, and the U.S. Embassy in Iraq was reportedly hit by a rocket late Sunday. As news unfolds, please check a second source and read the information with a critical eye — especially if it is news you like.

Disinformation Smart links
Disinformation Optimized — at Internet Policy Review
How to Spot 2020 Election Disinformation — NPR
Is There A Targeted Troll Campaign Against Lisa Page — Lawfare
False and Unverified Information Spreads — BuzzFeed

3. Google Search Updates

On the subject of disinformation, Google and Microsoft mucked around in the search pond last week and both came off looking terrible.

The ugly parade began when some Microsoft Office subscribers noticed that their default search engine was changed to Bing when they used the Google Chrome browser. The culprit? Microsoft’s own guide said this: “Starting with Version 2002 of Office 365 ProPlus, an extension for Microsoft Search in Bing will be installed that makes Bing the default search engine for the Google Chrome web browser.”

Since every user always reads the guide, there was absolutely no confusion and all of the users approved of Microsoft changing their default search settings without permission.

Meanwhile we had previously told you about Google encouraging website owners to ensure their sites published a favicon so that Google could publish the cute little icon next to search results. Everyone thought that was nifty until Google took its own advice and further stripped down the indicator showing ads to match the regular organic results. 

Here is what their gambit looked like. If you’re playing along at home, the first item is the ad.

We would reprint search exec Danny Sullivan’s full statement retracting that move, but it’s long and many digital marketers don’t believe it especially coming from an advertising company currently threatened with additional regulatory actions. Suffice it to say that this treatment will not appear on desktop search.

4. Debugged: The Case for Microdots. What about Encryption?

If you ever toured FBI Headquarters, you probably saw labs that could duplicate typewriter impressions. The federal government was no slouch when printers caught on and got the industry to add microdot technology that identifies the date and time of all printouts as well as a coded serial number on every printer.

Advocacy groups like the Electronics Frontier Foundation (EFF) loathe the use of microdot technology.  And we adore the EFF and its many fights for civil liberties. But as news about the FBI insisting that Apple help unlock the phone of an alleged gunman in Florida, we’re reminded that the government does not have full visibility into mobile devices.

Here’s the BBC’s article about how your printer includes this technology for comparative purposes.

5. Also in the Spotlight: Security

Here is what happened in digital security last week:

  • The world’s richest man had his phone hacked (allegedly) by the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. The prince is also implicated in the death of a journalist who worked for the other rich man’s newspaper.
  • The FBI took down a website that was selling data records from previous breaches.
  • The Tampa Bay Times was hit with a ransomware attack.
  • Political campaigns in the U.S. are getting additional free help to secure their information after multiple reports of campaign hacking.
  • Microsoft inadvertently left a tranche of customer service data exposed.
  • Experts warned about a Citi financial phishing scheme sent via a convincing looking email.
  • The Justice Department lobbied Apple to keep computer backups unencrypted.

Anyone reading all of that might throw their hands in the air, suggest they can’t protect themselves, and stop trying. But don’t. Many of the issues here are fixed by following a few simple rules:

  1. Don’t open anything ever from anyone unless you were expecting it. If you receive an unexpected attachment, yes, even at work, confirm first.
  2. Have a trusted source of reliable, regular backups.
  3. Use password management software (many good ones are free) and don’t reuse passwords. 

6. Great Data: Coronavirus Map

Johns Hopkins University is publishing a coronavirus map that may be the single most informative map I’ve seen. The CAL FIRE maps are usually excellent, but this map has a whole series of important data facts surrounding it on all four sides.

JHU map tracking coronavirus

7. Protip: Stop Google From Tracking Your Location

Google Maps tracks everywhere you go using data from your iPhone or Android phone. It displays the information in a feature called Timeline. Some folks might find it creepy.

When I look at mine, I see an entry from when I recently met a college friend for lunch. I left at 12:03 p.m., drove 10.4 miles, arrived at 12:24 p.m., stayed until 2:07 p.m. then drove 17.6 miles after running an errand before arriving at my desk at 2:54 p.m. All of the data is supported with a map showing the roads I traveled and where we ate.

You know what? That is creepy because it is a part of your Google history.

CNBC shows you how to delete it and stop future tracking.

8. Following Up: Selling Dot Org Domains

Back in December we told you that the entity that sells the dot org domains used by most nonprofit organizations was selling the registry to a venture capitalist. Organizations have been protesting the sale for weeks and won a temporary reprieve when the existing registrar agreed to delay the sale for 30 days to allow an Internet regulatory body to review the terms. 

Read more at Domain News Wire.

9. ICYMI — Top links from the past 30 days

Amazon Tells Shoppers that PayPal’s Honey is a Security Risk – Bloomberg

How to Create a Google Sheets Template – How-To Geek

How to help the victims of Australia’s Wildfires – PBS NewsHour

10. Coffee Break: Target Tori

You may have heard Tori Perrotti’s story. She works for Target and refused to sell a $90 toothbrush for 1 cent because of a signage error. The shopper demanding the extreme discount posted a couple of photos and tried to shame her on Twitter.

Everything backfired on him, and supporters put up a GoFundMe account to send Tori on a vacation. It raised $34,000.

The Boston-area retail manager’s story on NBC Boston.

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Good Monday morning. It’s January 13th. We’re off next Monday in observance of Dr. King’s birthday so we will take this opportunity to share a digital collection of his papers at Stanford.  Among them: Dr. King’s birth certificate, a mushy telegram to Mrs. King on Valentine’s Day ’57, and an early draft of Letter from a Birmingham Jail. 

Today’s Spotlight is 1,784 words and takes about 7 minutes to read.

Want to chat about something you see here? Here is a contact form.

1. News To Know Now

1. The Department of Homeland Security issued a critical announcement last Wednesday about a Firefox vulnerability. Most users receive automatic updates, but some of you have turned that option off. You need to update your browser right now if you’re one of them because Mozilla says this exploit can lead to someone taking over your computer. Here’s a link showing you how to update.

2. “A Cook County judge has ordered Google to turn over Jussie Smollett’s emails, photos, location data and private messages for an entire year.” That is the lede of a stunning Chicago Tribune story published late Wednesday. The order also covers Smollett’s manager and includes “.. drafted and deleted text messages, Google Drive files, Google Voice texts, calls and contacts, search and web browsing history; and location data.” That’s the kind of dossier Big Tech builds on us all. Read Megan Crepeau and Jeremy Gorner’s story here.

3. Microsoft launched Project Artemis, free software that detects a predator grooming a child in an online chat room. The software rates chat histories based on previous predator behavior and can flag suspicious ones to be reviewed by humans. Microsoft has already deployed the software on Xbox and is considering adding it to Skype.

Smart links:
Microsoft announcement,
NBC News coverage,
CyberTipline if you know about a child being sexually exploited online.
You can also call 1-800-THE-LOST.

2. Facebook Starts 2020 Like 2018

The Facebook Cambridge Analytica scandal is two years old, but continues to affect the company. A leaked Facebook memo to The New York Times claims that Facebook knew Cambridge’s business model “was pure snake oil.” The executive in charge of advertising wrote that he personally regrets letting CA remain members of the Facebook Marketing Program. The memo claims that “the tools they used didn’t work, and the scale they used them at wasn’t meaningful.” 

We view this Facebook memo with wary eyes. There is a lot of explanation and a definite sense that advertising executive Andrew Bosworth wrote the memo to detail Facebook’s stance rather than as some internal soul-searching update. But there are statements in the document that make it worthy of your attention.

“Facebook got Donald Trump elected because he ran the single best digital ad campaign I’ve ever seen from any advertiser. Period.” That’s Bosworth’s big reveal, and he provides context by saying that he donated the maximum possible to the 2016 Clinton campaign. Trump’s campaign didn’t create anything unique, but they spent a lot of money hammering fresh content at people. You won’t be surprised to read the Facebook ad guy’s statement that advertisers should spend lots of money.

“The Russians may have used misinformation alongside real partisan messaging in their campaigns, but the primary source of misinformation was economically motivated.” Bosworth’s words ring true here, and we have some proof of that in a story below about donations to Australia wildfire relief that underscores this trend.

“The Russians worked to exploit existing divisions in the American public … people who showed up to those events were real even if the event coordinator was not. Likewise the groups of Americans being fed partisan content was real even if those feeding them were not.” Bosworth ends this section with a complaint that people can’t contextualize big numbers. That’s true, but ten people protesting outside your office would raise a heckuva ruckus and change the conversation for many more. 

This bit of public relations and message control seems very late to be anything other than window dressing for regulators.

Bosworth’s Facebook memo might have also been distraction from the company’s announcement that Facebook users at some unspecified point this summer will get controls that allow them to see fewer political and social issue ads on Facebook and Instagram. Facebook’s social issue ad categories include social and civil rights, crime, economy, education, environment, guns, health, security and foreign policy, and immigration. Our clients in those spaces are not thrilled to be lumped in with political advertising. 

With so many moving parts, controlling the message remains difficult for Facebook. As all of this was going on midweek, a flattering article about Facebook’s 2020 election efforts appeared in Teen Vogue.  Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s Twitter account even tweeted the link. The article was later edited to include a statement that it was “sponsored editorial content” (aka an advertisement) before it was completely removed.

Smart links
Lord of the Rings, 2020, and Stuffed Oreos (Facebook memo) at the NY Times
Memo news coverage at The New York Times
Social Issues advertising categories at Facebook
Teen Vogue and Facebook coverage at Business Insider

3. Google Search Updates

We’ve written about voice search a lot in the past because it’s clearly a new opportunity for every organization. Consider that any change of that magnitude, be it mobile proliferation, multiple home computers, or voice offers the possibility of getting new traffic in the digital equivalent of a land rush.

Google now reports that it has 500 million worldwide Google Assistant users. Some have only tested the function. Others use it constantly for simple search lookups like a calculator or dictionary. Plenty use it to avoid typing. The news is doubly interesting because Google has never revealed the number before. And also because one out of every 15 people on the planet is a lot. Read Search Engine Journal’s coverage

Google also offered guidance last week about changing dates on a website’s content. The simple advice from Google’s John Mueller was tweeted as, “If it’s evergreen, then by definition you don’t need to change it. No need to do anything special. Keep your dates, make it great.”

Our advice instead: don’t date evergreen content. Google already knows when they first crawled the content.

4. Debugged: Australian Fire Claims

Disasters bring out rogue charities hiding among those doing the work of the angels, and the Australian fire catastrophe is not different. The Washington Post has a great explanation of how some are using misinformation, like Facebook’s Andrew Bosworth explained above, to drive revenue. .

Misinformation and hoaxes are also a regular occurrence during tragedies. Last week Donald Trump, Jr. and Sean Hannity were among the people spreading a lie that close to 200 people in Australia have charged with arson for creating that country’s fires. That’s not what happened, and Vox does a great job explaining how they twisted the facts to make them fit a political agenda.

The Post on “Hoaxes are using the Australia wildfires …

Vox on “The viral false claim …

5. Also in the Spotlight: Amazon & the Honey Extension

Honey is a web browser extension that searches for lower prices at other sites when a user is shopping online. It’s not entirely benevolent and it certainly isn’t unique in the market, but it is the biggest in its class. The extension clearly has commercial upside in PayPal’s estimation because they bought it for FOUR BILLION DOLLARS in November.

Fast forward to this year’s holiday buying season when Amazon stunned some analysts by claiming that the software poses a security risk. 

Amazon doesn’t like PayPal and vice versa, explained at Bloomberg

6. Great Data: Always Updated Wikipedia Articles of the Week

Movies, music, and current events collide when Wikipedia shares its Top 25 articles every week along with a little snarky commentary. It’s another version of trending topics, but from a website that counts everyone as its audience. 

I read it every week. I learn new stuff every week, and the data contextualizes the stories

7. Protip: Google Sheets Templates

Our years-old coverage of Google spreadsheet templates still gets dozens of visitors each week. George was going to update it and show people how to create their own spreadsheet template (teach a person to fish …) but thankfully, How To Geek did it instead.

This is simple and there’s no reason why you can’t use Excel & Google Sheets.

8. Following Up: YouTube Kid Rules 

YouTube has been emphatic that its service is not for use by children under the age of 13. If you’re the parent who lets a kid watch YouTube, you’re responsible for what they watch. The FTC still fined the company $170 million and then announced that channel creators could be held accountable in the future.


YouTube announced last Monday that it created new rules that are governed by a fascinating assumption: “any viewer of child friendly content is underage.” 

In many ways, society failed the marketplace because that assumption shouldn’t be necessary but since we’re humans, it is, and it’s a GIANT STEP. There are also some new rules about data collection, comments, and related videos, but the operating assumption about underage viewers is the story here.

Read coverage at The Washington Post

9. ICYMI — Top links from the past 30 days

How to help victims of Australia’s apocalyptic wildfires at CBS News

No Virginia Gun Confiscation at PolitiFact

You Can Still Get Windows 10 For Free at How To Geek

10. Coffee Break: Popeyes Newsjacks Family Feud

Eve Dubois was proud of her answer in a sudden death round of Family Feud. 

Except Eve was wrong. Virally, funny wrong.

And then an interesting thing happened. Popeyes saw the news coverage and social media virality and stole the spotlight with a timely gift for Eve and her family. We call it newsjacking. You’ll probably call it funny.

CNN has details about Popeye’s mistaken identity.