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

Good Morning

It’s June 7. Incomparable Simone Biles won a record seventh U.S. gymnastics championship last night. She’s also won eight straight all-around competitions. U.S. Olympic trials begin two weeks from Thursday. 

Today’s Spotlight is 1,282 words — about a 4 minute read.

2. News To Know Now

Quoted: “We’ve used this model around terrorism before, but never with ransomware.” —John Carlin, acting deputy attorney general to Reuters describing new initiatives to escalate in-progress ransomware cases.

a)  European regulators are continuing their crackdown on American tech companies.  EC and UK regulators announced an antitrust investigation into Facebook regarding its Marketplace service. Meanwhile Google is reportedly near a settlement of a similar case brought by French regulators regarding the company’s advertising marketplace, according to The Wall Street Journal and confirmed by Reuters. The Journal is owned by News Corporation, the company that lodged the complaint against Google in France. Tech revenues are an attractive target for governments. G7 leaders meeting in London this weekend announced that they have reached an agreement to create a global corporate minimum tax to address companies providing services in one country and declaring revenues in another.

b) Twitter announced a premium subscription called Twitter Blue late last week. The service will launch as a pilot program in Australia and Canada. The biggest feature is the ability to revise a Tweet within the first 30 seconds after it is sent. Twitter has famously refused to offer an edit function in the past. (Axios)

c) A new Florida law makes it illegal for tech companies to ban the accounts of political candidates. Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the bill to halt what he calls “censorship of conservatives” although conservative and liberal experts expect the law to be challenged in court. Unsurprisingly for Florida, there are exemptions for theme park operators, which include media companies Disney and Comcast. (Ars Technica)

3. Search Engine News

Google says that your web content stands a better chance of catching its ranking software’s attention if you do something that newspapers have known for generations: put some unique content “above the fold.” That’s the area on a broadsheet newspaper visible to passersby when the newspaper is folded at a newsstand or in a vending machine. Web designers apply the term to mean the first screen a visitor sees without any scrolling.

Search Engine Journal transcribed Google’s most recent video chat with users and quoted executive John Mueller saying, “The important part for us is really that there is some amount of unique content in the above the fold area.” Mueller acknowledged that the unique content could be an image. It’s worthwhile to look at your website with fresh eyes (even better: have it professionally tested) to see what impression new visitors receive.

Google also announced a partnership with e-commerce platform Shopify. That’s great news for Shopify merchants because they will receive enhanced listings in Google Shopping. For those of you who compete against merchants who might use Shopify, have a look at your website data to closely monitor your website’s traffic from Google.

4. In The Spotlight — Amazon Retail News: Automated Registers, Pharma, and Lawsuits

Google seemed quite excited to announce that it would open a store in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. The area is home to 11,000 Google employees. This is their first non-popup store.

So, about Amazon:

You already know about their ridiculous e-commerce lead. eMarketer summarized it this way: Amazon gets 40 cents of every US dollar spent on retail online, Walmart gets 7 cents, and a handful of other companies get 2-3 cents each.

Amazon is reportedly considering a move into retail pharmacy, according to Business Insider. It’s worth remembering that the company ditched partners JPMorgan Chase and Berkshire Hathaway last year so that all three could go their own way in health initiatives. Amazon quickly began offering pharmacy services on its website and to leverage its purchase of Pill Pack. One potential jump-start: the company’s 500 Whole Food locations.

I’ve been enjoying Amazon Unbound, Brad Stone’s second book quoting company insiders that was just released in May. Readers get an insider’s look at the Whole Foods acquisition and the rollout of various retail initiatives. 

I also enjoyed Morning Brew writer Halie LeSavage’s tour using the new Amazon One payment system that relies on a customer’s biometrics when a customer leaves an Amazon retail store. The system is now being tested in twenty-one locations–the kind of broad rollout afforded to companies with 12 digit market caps.

Amid the physical retail news, Amazon has new challenges related to its bread and butter e-commerce operations. DC Attorney General Karl Racine brought an antitrust suit against the company in late May. The suit alleges that Amazon exerts monopoly control over third party sellers on the site.

5. Debunked — Bing & DDG Don’t Have Protestor Photos (True!)

Image search at Microsoft Bing and DuckDuckGo inexplicably returned no results last Friday when users searched for “tank man” on the 32nd anniversary of the iconic photo taken during a protest in China’s Tiananmen Square.

Vice and Gizmodo separately confirmed that results were censored in the U.S., France, and Switzerland.

6. Following Up — Insurance Using AI & Email Spearphishing 

Insurance startup Lemonade bragged on Twitter that its tech-oriented service detects fraud by analyzing non-verbal cues in videos of claims filers just like on TV shows. Not so fast, tweeted apparently everyone who works in that field. Motherboard has more on this cautionary tale.

We’re also going to tell you again about developments in the Solar Winds hack. Reminder: Microsoft, Solar Winds, and two other companies make software that was hacked by a Russian government-backed group. More than two hundred organizations and 10 federal agencies were compromised last year.

Microsoft has detected that 3,000 email accounts at 150 organizations in 24 different countries were targeted late last month using faked email from one U.S. agency. Their targets were humanitarian and human rights organizations this time.

7. Protip — Androids Announce Who’s Calling

This can be quite a boon while you’re driving or otherwise occupied so you don’t reach for the phone to check the caller id when it rings. Lifehacker walks through how to enable caller ID announcements.

Screening Room — Heinz, Waze & Burger King Team Up

There were only 400 views of this brand-new Canadian commercial when Spotlight was sent so you’re getting an early peek at a cute new promo. Drivers who use the Waze app score a free Burger King sandwich when summer traffic slows their vehicle to 0.040 KM/H. Heinz says that’s how fast ketchup pours.

9. Science Fiction World — Google Rolls Out Tricorder

That’s the name of a new tool from Google that uses a smartphone to identify skin, hair, and nail conditions to aid a physician’s diagnosis. European regulators have already approved the image recognition program as a medical tool. You can read more at the BBC.

10. Coffee Break — The Today Show Tackles “What Is Internet, Anyway?” Live

Quite possibly the funniest comedy I’ve ever seen lasts 86 seconds and debuted in 1994. That’s when Today show hosts Bryant Gumbel and Katie Couric fumble trying to explain the internet to each other and a live national audience. I had already been paid for more than eight years working online by then so I’m feeling very smug right now. Also, very old.

You’re welcome for this trip to Memory Lane.

11. Sign of the Times

1. Good Monday Morning

It’s May 24th. Here is your long weekend alert for next week. There will be no Spotlight next Monday. We’ll be back on June 7th.

Today’s Spotlight is 1,223 words — about a 4 minute read.

2. News To Know Now

Quoted: “But I want to be careful to say we are not in the business of what should or shouldn’t circulate. We don’t think it’s our role to adjudicate information versus misinformation.” — Prabhakar Raghavan, Senior Vice President at Google to Stephen Levy

a) Video game players are helping scientists learn more about COVID-19. More than 300,000 gamers have completed a total of 330 years worth of research by playing a portion of the game that presents real scientific data. EVE Online players get points for a minigame by drawing polygons around clusters that help researchers give human input to algorithms. (IGN)

b) BuzzFeed News found President Joe Biden’s Venmo account after less than 10 minutes of looking for it. The company also founda network of his private social connections. The account has been further locked down since BuzzFeed easily uncovered other accounts linked to the president’s family and senior White House officials. This is what we mean when we suggest that social engineering can be done simply from clues people post in social media games.

c) Lots of product news surfaced during Google’s annual I/O event last week, but the gee-whiz factor was biggest around the company’s “hyper-realistic” 3D video call portal. There is no more staring at a camera and glancing at the screen. Instead, you’ll interact as if the caller was on the other side of a window. Here’s the video.

3. Search Engine News

Google’s search engine news included an update about its natural language processing for search. As we often explain to people, typing a query for “rice” might mean that you’re interested in the food, the university, the politician, or any of its other meanings. Likewise, a search for Paris Hilton may yield information about the hotel or the heiress.

Last week the company announced a new model called MUM that it says is “1,000 times more powerful” than its current system and can pull information from multiple languages into the same results. Remember that we’ve been telling you for several months about three Google AI ethicists who have been fired or unexpectedly resigned over controversies regarding these models.

Google is also allowing website managers to use new codes that help it define what is displayed in a video clip shown on the website — and allow that clip to be played directly on the Google results page without someone visiting the website.

4. In The Spotlight — Driver Privacy and Surveillance

In the age of tech-driven surveillance, there is a growing gap between what people expect and what they endure. Amazon monitors delivery drivers with GPS devices that track their every move. Insurance companies monitor your driving habits to determine rates and coverage eligibility, and in-car cameras focus on your behavior behind the wheel.

Now Congress is considering legislation that would require driver-monitoring tech in every car, with the aim of preventing accidents and saving lives. But would this new technology be a violation of personal driver privacy? And how do we balance that surveillance-privacy gap?

Delivery driver complaints about Amazon have received most of the public’s attention about this issue because the retail tech giant always steals the oxygen from a room. There’s good reason to agree with drivers that the company’s AI-powered cameras and Mentor app is a form of digital surveillance that workers shouldn’t be subjected to.

But Amazon isn’t the only company to have a say in how your personal information is used. Insurance companies monitor driver behavior and rates, too. So does law enforcement with traffic stop cameras, which can capture license plate numbers on thousands of cars every day.

My home state requires vehicles have their emissions checked in some parts of the state. Yet when I pass through a tollbooth, emissions collectors there can send me an automatic waiver of the test. I still have to pay because no state is good at reducing revenue opportunities, but that’s just a simple example of how driver surveillance can create new opportunities for data collection.

Auto safety improvement and technology continue to fuel a decrease in collision fatalities. But because driver behavior is so closely monitored by camera and other means of data collection, when it comes to car accidents, drivers understand that their vehicle’s every move will be scrutinized for fault or liability.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says that distracted driving caused 3,142 deaths in 2019. Monitoring devices that help understand issues like this are important, but knowing who can access them and for what purposes remains problematic.

We’re all happy about the improved safety, but may not want to sacrifice driver privacy or at least may want to decide how much driver privacy is sacrificed. Government and workplace mandates about surveillance and driver privacy are something we don’t yet know how to successfully manage.

5. Debunked — Choose Your Vaccine

Snopes has in-depth look at a meme making the rounds that cherry picks negative data about pharmaceutical companies that might make it incorrectly seem that COVID-19 vaccines are unsafe. It’s a sophisticated way to try to get past fact checkers. The facts are accurate, but the entire thing is a big logical fallacy that Snopes calls misleading.

6. Following Up — 60 Minutes Misses

Those Google AI ethicists should have been in the news even more last week. CBS’ 60 Minutes ran a long piece about racial bias in facial recognition. The segment’s producers showed interviews with four men, but didn’t interview the three Black women who did the original work on the topic. And yes, one was part of that now famous Google AI ethics team.

7. Protip — Just Press Slash for Google

Great keyboard shortcuts are the best. New in 2021 is using the slash key (probably under the question mark key on your keyboard) to return to the search query box when using Google. No scrolling necessary. How cool is that?

Screening Room – Apple’s Take on Privacy 

Apple is going to ride this privacy horse in every race it runs. This is a really sharp new ad that you will see more of.

9. Science Fiction World — Drones Over Europe

I’ve been fascinated while watching Manna Aero’s drone delivery tests going on in Ireland. There is news this weekend that Irish regulators have signed off on the first light unmanned aircraft operator certificate throughout Europe.

CEO Bobby Healey told Morning Brew that the company was operating in a town with 3,000 homes. Consumers pay $1-$6 per for fast delivery of groceries, food, and even books.

 10. Coffee Break — Breathtaking Pictures

As more Americans begin traveling during the upcoming Memorial Day gateway to summer, here are The Atlantic’s winners for Best International Landscape Photos awarded just before the pandemic.

11. Sign of the Times