1. Good Monday Morning

Thanks for being Spotlight’s Valentine today.  Quick housekeeping note: we’re off next week for President’s Day and then we’ll be with you every Monday straight to Memorial Day.

Today’s Spotlight is 1,310 words — about a 5 minute read.

2. News To Know Now

Quoted:“If you receive calls, emails, or other communications claiming to be from the Treasury Department and offering COVID-19 related grants or stimulus payments in exchange for personal financial information, or an advance fee, or charge of any kind, including the purchase of gift cards, please do not respond. These are scams. Please contact the FBI at www.ic3.gov so that the scammers can be tracked and stopped.“— Treasury Department instructions as COVID-19 fraud and scams continue. Keep reading for more on this issue in Spotlight Explainer below.

a) The IRS rescinded its policy that people use their private contractor’s facial recognition program to retrieve personal data online. One day later, the contractor made facial recognition optional for all of its government programs. The company also said that people who had submitted their face images could opt to delete them.

b)   Amazon Care, the company’s telehealth service offering, has now rolled out nationally ahead of Amazon launching in-person care in 20 U.S. cities this year. 

c) Social media sharing could become more difficult in the future. Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Cynthia Loomis (R-WY) have introduced legislation that direct the National Science Foundation and National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to create content-neutral ways to slow down sharing. One example already in place: a Twitter prompt that lets someone know if they’re sharing an article they haven’t read yet. 

3. Search Engine News — Original Photos for Reviews

Using manufacturer images to accompany product reviews is convenient, but Google suggests using unique images. The search company also said that enhancing the stock photo isn’t enough to make it unique. And as a good analysis from Search Engine Journal points out, original images will be a big benefit for your  site when it is manually reviewed by the Google Quality Rater team.

Not every website is manually reviewed by a quality rater, but with 10,000 of them throughout the world, the chances are good that it can happen. We’ve published info about that group’s guidelines before, but you can access the 172 page document at will.

4. Spotlight Explainer — COVID Fraud Online

The Situation

The U.S. government has prosecuted more than 100 people for fraud related to the Paycheck Protection Program and seized over $75 million in cash. There were new warnings last week that COVID fraud would continue to be a Justice Department priority. Those cases have received most of the media coverage, but the pandemic has created other opportunities for online fraud.

Print Your Own Vaccine Card

I keep asking business leaders how they’re verifying vaccination cards for employees or customers. No one has a good answer yet, and that’s because they’re handwritten records on easily available paper stock.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also made an odd choice counter to their own recommendations by providing a link to printable vaccine cards. Grid News broke that story after following up on their previous reporting. 

This is the simplest form of COVID fraud and yet people continue paying for fake cards. In one very public case that came to light several weeks ago two nurses were charged with selling forged vaccination cards and entering fake records into New York’s database. Their prices ranged from $85 for a child to $220 for an adult.

Selling Vaccine Misinformation

Nearly every publisher and online platform contains vaccine misinformation. Spotify’s issues with Joe Rogan are the well known ones, but hardly unique. Think about the anti-vaccination misinformation monetized on YouTube and other platforms while Amazon sells books by vaccine skeptics. 

One well known skeptic who has been deplatformed elsewhere is Joseph Mercola, an osteopath who has generated more than $2.2 million selling anti-vaccination newsletters on Substack. The Substack platform allows creators to keep up to 90% of revenue.

Ongoing PPP Fallout

The latest big COVID fraud case to make national news is the search for Tamara Dadyan, a California real estate broker who along with family members formed a group of eight who filed 150 fake PPP applications that netted them $18 million. Dadyan’s ten year prison sentence was due to begin two weeks ago, but she and two others have escaped.

Fake Tests & Surveys

The Department of Health and Human Services is warning that COVID fraud and scams are increasing online. These include surveys, sales of fake tests, and identity theft. The agency warns that you could be on the hook if someone gains your personal information and bills Medicare or Medicaid for unauthorized tests or procedures. Here’s their warning video.

 5. Did That Really Happen? — The Government is Not Distributing Crack Pipes

Comedian Robert Wuhl’s classic bit about printing the legend that is more interesting than the boring truth continues flourishing with pundit claims and opinion hosts posing as newscasters.

The Washington Free Beacon, whose costs are underwritten by a hedge fund billionaire, poses as a conservative news website. They posted an article citing anonymous sources that falsely stated the Biden administration was giving drug-smoking pipes to millions of people. 

Without checking to find out it was true, multiple outlets and Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) commented on and criticized the program that did not exist. Instead, the so-called safer smoking part of the kit includes alcohol swabs, lip balm, and other materials to help reduce disease transmission.

USA Today has the fact-checked details.

 6. Following Up — Missouri Prosecutor Won’t Charge Reporter

We’ve been writing about the case of reporter Josh Renaud who privately warned the Missouri government that Social Security Numbers and other personal information about teachers could be accessed by the public on a state website. Renaud promised not to publish the news until the state fixed the flaw, but Gov. Mike Parson targeted Renaud and referred to him on multiple occasions as a criminal.

Renaud didn’t commit a crime. He pressed the button on his browser that allowed him to see the website code. Parson has held fast to the criminal narrative for months, but the county prosecutor confirmed last Friday that he will not press charges.

7. Protip — Using Air Tags for Stalking Is A No-No

I wasn’t sure how to feel when my wife sent me Kashmir Hill’s great piece on tracking her husband’s movements using Air Tags and other trackers. (Hill, maybe the best general circulation privacy reporter around, had her husband’s permission.)

But I am almost 100% certain that Apple’s statements about abusing Air Tags for stalking came directly as a result of Hill’s piece. And you should read this because Apple says they will work with law enforcement to help them prosecute those cases.

8. Screening Room — Super Bowl Free

We’ve all seen enough TV commercials these past few days so let’s revisit this fantastic tweet from Adidas. The message posted last Wednesday morning featured images of 25 pairs of bare breasts as Adidas promoted their sports bra line in one of the most inclusive and body positive ways possible.

9. Science Fiction World — DARPA’s Autonomous Helicopter For the U.S. Military

You do too know about DARPA. They started a project back in 1966 that became ARPANET, which became the internet. And they do other cool stuff. Now there’s news that the agency tested a 30 minute autonomous Black Hawk helicopter flight around Fort Campbell two weeks ago.

 10. Coffee Break — Tom Cruise Deepfake (A New One)

We’ve shown you deepfakes for years. Many feature Tom Cruise, but the state-of-the-art is reaching a point where lay people can’t detect the video manipulation.

Here’s a short video of Paris Hilton from last week with what appears to be a much younger Tom Cruise. It’s really Miles Fisher, who resembles the actor in the same way a nightclub impersonator might present as a singer. But a little computer magic makes that resemblance become identical.

 11. Sign of The Times

1. Good Monday Morning

It’s February 7th, which means that National Pizza Day is on Wednesday. The Today Show helpfully published a list of national chain discounts, including delivery app Slice, which represents local shops.

Today’s Spotlight is 1,521 words — about a 5 1/2 minute read.

2. News To Know Now

Quoted:We now have evidence from law enforcement that the previously peaceful demonstration has become an occupation, with police reports of violence and other unlawful activity.“— A GoFundMe announcement last Friday that the company would refund individual donors instead of disbursing funds to COVID-19 protesters in Ottawa. The Ottawa government declared a state of emergency late last night.

a)  The Crisis Text Line, a suicide prevention hotline, has stopped sharing “anonymized data” with a for-profit partner after data ethicists were horrified to learn that they had been doing so. Politico points out that they’re not alone–even the Trevor Project allows targeted advertising. The company halted the agreement after that story made national headlines and drew questions from Congress, philanthropists, and its own volunteers.

b) NewsCorp announced last Friday that its networks had been breached and journalists targeted. The company owns The Wall Street Journal, New York Post, and Smart Money magazine and has linked the attack to China.

c) Tech earnings season wrapped up last week with Facebook posting the largest one day stock loss in history and Amazon posting the largest one day gain. Highlights:

  • Alphabet — Google’s parent posted a 32% YOY increase in quarterly revenue and finished 2021 with $76 billion in net profit. 
  • Snap — The Snapchat parent company posted its first ever quarterly profit after quarterly sales grew to $1.3 billion.
  • Pinterest —A 20% YOY increase in quarterly revenue offset news that its monthly active U.S. user count declined.
  • Facebook — Two storylines that drove Facebook stock down more than 21% last week need context. The company lost users for the first time, but it decreased from 1.93 billion daily users to 1.92 billion. The other is the $10 billion that it invested in its Reality Labs division, which includes its metaverse strategy. Even with that investment, Facebook posted a quarterly profit of $10.3 billion vs. an expected $10.9 billion. Most Facebook metrics are up even as Apple’s privacy initiatives hurt the company’s core advertising business.
  • Amazon — The Everything Company nearly doubled profit and was rewarded with a $190 billion market cap bump in only one day. Amazon also disclosed that it now owns 18% of EV maker Rivian, 5% of self-driving tech company Aurora, and 95 planes in its fleet. On top of all that news, Amazon is also reportedly exploring a deal to acquire Peloton and announced a Prime dues increase of $20 per year. It’s the second Prime increase after a four year interval. 

    Despite the flood of great Amazon news, the company had a setback after a Washington Attorney General order permanently shut the retailer’s “Sold by Amazon” program. As part of that agreement, Amazon will pay a fine of $2.25 million.

    Meanwhile, founder Jeff Bezos will pay the city of Rotterdam to temporarily dismantle a 95-year-old bridge so that his new 417 foot yacht can pass through when it launches from a shipyard there this summer. 

3. Search Engine News — Google Often Changing Titles Websites Submit 

We’ve told you before how Google has been changing the titles of webpages that it shows in its search results. The search giant says that its machine language systems will change the title of a webpage in its displays if the software calculates that it’s appropriate and closer to the user’s intent.

Search marketers were not happy about this, but the company has held fast to its decision.

Now a study conducted by search software firm Zyppy has found that Google changed those titles more than 61% of the time. Zyppy CEO Cyrus Shepherd, a well respected digital marketer, reported:

  • When titles were only 5 characters or less, they were rewritten by software 96% of the time.
  • Titles up 20 characters still had a better than 50% chance of being rewritten.
  • But titles exceeding 60 characters were also getting rewritten too often.
  • In fact, anything over 70 characters was almost always (99.9%) rewritten.

Google has also demonstrated a clear favorite in the way marketers separate phrases in titles. For years, that was a brand preference issue, but Zyppy’s data from thousands of sites shows that Google removes dashes 20% of the time and pipes (the | character) more than 40% of the time.

Part of your website’s strategy in 2022: analyze how often this is happening to your site and whether Google’s changes are helping. If they are, perhaps more than the title should change.

4. Spotlight Explainer — Algorithm Bias & Housing Discrimination

The Situation

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau director Rohit Chopra has put mortgage lenders on notice that the agency considers algorithmic lending a path to digital redlining and robo discrimination. Chopra recently testified to Congress that the agency believes that “matching consumer records solely by name” is an unreasonable standard because of algorithm bias.

He’s reacting to reports and studies from The Markup last summer that showed nonwhite homebuyers were more likely to be rejected for mortgages that white borrowers received. When nonwhites were approved for those mortgages, they also paid higher rates.

Explaining Redlining

Generally used today to describe a discriminatory practice of denying or marking up services in a specific area, the term redlining comes from color-coded maps that the U.S. government used in the 1930s. Neighborhoods with the highest risks for mortgage lenders were outlined in red and invariably contained most of a city’s African American homeowners. Redlining created an inequitable race wealth gap in the U.S. economy that McKinsey estimates at more than $1 trillion.

Breakdowns by Racial Group

The Associated Press worked with The Markup and analyzed 17 factors across more than 2 million mortgage applications. Nationally, the rates at which nonwhites were rejected when whites were approved ranged 40% more often for Latinos to 80% for Black applicants. The AP cautioned that final decisions are made by humans, but “largely driven” by software recommendations.

What’s Next for Algorithm Bias

The Department of Justice and Comptroller of the Currency have joined the CPFB in a new effort to identify and stop algorithm bias that is often codifying systemic bias created by generations of legal discrimination against women and nonwhites.

Democrats in Congress have also announced that they will introduce an updated version of the Algorithmic Accountability Act that was first proposed in 2019. That legislation would require transparent audits of AI used in finance, health care, housing, and education.

5. Did That Really Happen? — Johns Hopkins Lockdown Paper Not Peer-Reviewed

Last week conservative media outlets began touting a paper by Johns Hopkins professors that reportedly found that “lockdowns” did not mitigate the COVID-19 death toll to date.

Snopes dug in and found that the document was a working paper by three economists, not epidemiologists or medical scientists. This working paper has not been peer-reviewed and cannot be labeled a JHU study. Finally, instead of the traditional definition, these economists defined a lockdown as “the imposition of at least one compulsory, non-pharmaceutical intervention (NPI).” That means that requiring masks counts for these professors as a “lockdown.”

6. Following Up — No Movement on IRS Facial Recognition, Apple Improves Face ID

After a flurry of complaints about the IRS’ plans to require facial recognition via a third party for taxpayers who want to receive personal data online, the Treasury Department said that it would re-evaluate the idea. And as the second week of tax season closed, there was no movement on that issue, but Apple announced last Thursday that its Face ID now works when the person is wearing a face mask.

7. Protip — Import a PDF into Excel

Importing a PDF with words, numbers, or both into Excel is easier than you might think. And since tax season has begun in earnest, here is a walkthrough for you.

8. Screening Room — Matthew McConaughey’s Space

Salesforce’s new spot has McConaughey jabbing at Bezos and Zuckerberg in the same minute. See, it wasn’t just us giving them grief.

9. Science Fiction World — Google’s DeepMind Says Its System Can Code Competitively

I still think that it’s cool when my robo vacuum plugs itself back in to recharge, but DeepMind, a Google AI lab in London, says that its new AlphaCode software can write programs at a competitive level. The company says that the software ranked in the top 54% against human competitors in problems on the Codeforces platform.

10. Coffee Break — McMansion Hell

Kate Wagner’s blog is the place to go for some of the funniest annotated pictures of the dreaded McMansions. Bring a large coffee. She writes well and often.

11. Sign of the Times

1. Good Monday Morning

Exhale. It’s January 31st. Tomorrow is February, when the Lunar New Year and Black History Month celebrations begin. 

Today’s Spotlight is 1,326 words — about a 5 minute read.

2. News To Know Now

Quoted:“[Last year] more than 95,000 people told the FTC that they’d been scammed with a con that started on social media.”— A Federal Trade Commission report detailing $770 million in losses, or an average of just over $8,000 per person. Perhaps surprisingly: people 18 to 39 were more than twice as likely to report losing money than older adults.

a) Apple and Microsoft reported strong earnings last week. Microsoft reported quarterly profit rose 21 percent to $18.8 billion. The company has $125 billion in cash reserves and intends to buy video game company Activision Blizzard with $70 billion of that. Apple also broke records. The company announced quarterly profits of $34.6 billion. Apple has $203 billion in cash. That cash hoard is bigger than the entire valuation of companies like Shell and McDonalds.

b) Snap Inc. is taking on drug-related content with new initiatives.The company said that 88% of drug related content is detected by AI and machine learning. They have also grown their law enforcement operations team and continue to work on blocking drug dealing information and attempts on the platform.

c) More than 50 nursing students each week are learning in George Mason University’s new Virtual Reality simulator lab. Students begin in a simulated hospital lobby and interact with peers and patients followed by individual debriefing. Up the road in Baltimore, researchers are using an autonomous robot to operate on pigs. The team reported that the robot made no errors while providing consistent suturing.

3. Search Engine News — Google’s Latest Idea to Classify People is Topics + Be Careful Changing URLs 

After resistance from browser makers and privacy experts, Google has abandoned its post-cookie world plans for a new notion: assigning dynamic topics to individuals.

As outlined now, Google will assign three different topic groups for each person every three weeks. There will also be some false data included to make uncovering identities more difficult. Google believes more privacy is assured by making 300 larger topics instead of 30,000 smaller ones under their previous proposal. 

The plans won’t make anyone anonymous on the web. Right now, they’re still in proposal stage, and only applicable to Google’s Chrome browser, which has about 65% market share globally and 50% in the U.S.

On the search side, Google released a short video reminding people that software can make changing a website’s URL structure seem like a small task, but this is considered a site move — even if the only change is to remove a trailing slash from the URL. Google also advises that the updates won’t be completed on its end for several months and that any redirects should be left in place for at least one year. 

Stash this video away for when an exec or board member has an idea to change things up.

4. Spotlight Explainer — IRS Facial Recognition

The IRS says that people using its website will have to scan their faces to access individual tax information like transcripts and other personal data. Logging in with facial recognition is NOT required to file a return or retrieve forms. Here is what the new login process looks like.

IRS facial recognition login

You’ve probably already guessed that it’s much easier to find people who disapprove than to find people who approve.

Why do I have to do this?

Anyone accessing data about their taxes (refund status, tax transcripts, etc.) will have to do this although the Treasury department is signaling that they are reconsidering

Who is ID.me?

The privately held suburban Virginia company started out by providing identity services in the military and state government sectors. Last year, the IRS announced this change around Thanksgiving and just as the Omicron variant was being identified. That may be why you don’t remember.

Why facial recognition?

Remember that one-to-one facial recognition is a smart way to verify someone’s identity and usually more secure than relying on passwords, even passwords backed up by two factor authentication. The privacy problem begins when images are used in a one-to-many environment such as identifying protesters or for law enforcement purposes. 

Isn’t it a bad idea to start with taxes?

Many federal agencies already use a system called Login.gov that reportedly has 30 million users. There are also multiple state governments using identity verification for benefits such as COVID relief payments or unemployment.

How does it work?

After some pretty usual steps like entering an email address and telephone number (both of which are verified), users are prompted to upload images of their driver’s license or passport. That data is then aggregated with your phone, email, and a credit verification that the company says does not affect your credit score. If the automated systems don’t detect a match, you can enter a video call with an ID.me employee who will try to ascertain your identity.

Who is against this?

Pretty much every privacy expert you’ve ever heard of and many members of Congress. Their biggest complaints center around outsourcing all of the data services to a private company and lack of transparency around that data. There are also significant concerns regarding people who don’t have easy access to smartphone technology.

 5. Did That Really Happen? — FL Governor Lies About COVID Treatments

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is being dishonest when he says that the Food & Drug Administration has limited the use of monoclonal antibody treatments previously used as COVID-19 therapeutics. DeSantis inaccurately wrote on Twitter that the FDA had canceled the medication’s emergency use authorization with no physical evidence. In truth, the manufacturer of the medicine and the FDA agreed that it is “highly unlikely” to be useful against the Omicron variant. Read: Reuters fact-check

6. Following Up — NSO Pegasus Spyware

We’ve been telling you about the Pegasus software used to crack phones that has been found installed on mobile devices used by heads of state, activists, reporters, and business leaders. The New York Times continues to publish excellent coverage, including this description of when the FBI installed the software on burner phones with dummy accounts:

What they could see, minutes later, was every piece of data stored on the phone as it unspooled onto the large monitors of the Pegasus computers: every email, every photo, every text thread, every personal contact. They could also see the phone’s location and even take control of its camera and microphone. 

7. Protip — How to Cover Your Tracks

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has a great browser tool called Cover Your Tracks that tests your browser to see how much data you share with websites. I got high marks for my Brave browser and VPN, lower marks for allowing ad tracking, but uh, that’s kinda my job, so there’s that.

8. Screening Room — Dove on Hair Discrimination

Race-based hair discrimination starts as early as five years old, according to this poignant Dove commercial that asks for a signature on the CROWN Act petition.

9. Science Fiction World — The Virtual Human

Software company Unity, the outfit behind the technology used by many video game companies, bought Ziva Dynamics. They in turn showed off this amazing video of a virtual human — literally a simulation not based on any specific person.

 10. Coffee Break — Incredibox

Music for all is available at Incredibox with one simple requirement: you have to create the mix of samples used. But it’s free to try and really addicting.

 11. Sign of the Times