Good Monday morning. It’s December 16th. The Rise of Skywalker, Disney’s final installment in the Star Wars Skywalker Trilogy, premieres Friday. Analysts expect that this will be Disney’s seventh film in 2019 to generate at least one billion dollars in revenue.
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.
1. News To Know Now
1. New Orleans and Pensacola were hit by ransomware attacks. New Orleans officials said that emergency services were not affected but that all city employees were required to log off their computers. City officials expect lingering issues to continue disrupting services this week. Pensacola didn’t fare as well and experienced disruptions in sanitation, energy, and city management. New Orleans joins Atlanta and Baltimore as major city governments disrupted by ransomware attacks since 2018.
2. Security troubles also plagued Amazon’s Ring camera this week. People in four states have reported that their Ring device has been used by an outside person who has called them names or interacted with their children. Ring said this weekend that consumers are using login ids and passwords they have used on other systems and that their system has not been compromised.
Our take: Anyone using smart home technology should understand that the system will be compromised at some point, even if only by a house guest who mistakenly accesses the wrong information. Use strong passwords, a password management system, and two factor authentication on everything possible to minimize your exposure.
3. Project Maven is an advanced drone image recognition system that Google withdrew from last year after pressure from its employees. Bloomberg reported Friday that defense contractor Palantir has been awarded the contract to resume the project.
2. Internet Censorship
The Palantir-Google difference over Project Maven is at the heart of an inflection point technology companies are wrestling with. Working on projects your organization’s ethics support is an easy call. The dilemma companies face today is whether their scientists will work on projects used by governments to do ethically questionable things.
Palantir’s Peter Thiel likens it to the same dilemma organizations faced when deciding whether to work on atomic weapons. Speaking at the Reagan National Defense Forum, Thiel said today’s technologists lack the perspective previous generations had during the 1960s and 1970s when the concept of a military-industrial complex took hold in the public’s awareness.
As the internet becomes required for more activities, governments are finding new ways to practice internet censorship. A new Chinese law requires every person establishing mobile phone service to submit to a facial scan. Critics have argued that facial recognition has played a large role in China’s handling of monthslong protests in Hong Kong.
In Russia, President Vladimir Putin signed a bill last Monday requiring that all internet-capable devices, including televisions, have pre-installed Russian apps. The law takes effect next summer and will require companies such as Apple and Samsung to comply. Refusing means being shut out from sales in the world’s ninth most populous country.
India uses spot internet outages to control information in areas with political unrest. Prime Minister Narendra Modi cut Internet access this summer to an area where seven million people live. His actions are not unique. An excellent overview at Ozy describes 196 internet shutdowns in 2018. Here’s a map they created showing countries (in red) that have experienced internet censorship.
3. Google Search Update
The biggest commitment Google has made to idea diversity is reflected in the latest version of its search quality evaluator guidelines released this month. These guidelines are used by specially trained employees who provide a human check on how the search engine’s algorithms rank websites.
Make no mistake: search is automated. Evaluators don’t even overrule the algorithms. Instead their ratings are used to refine the algorithms that create search results.
Google now includes political affiliations when describing its users having different ages, genders, races, and religions. Evaluators are constantly cautioned to rate sites in as neutral a manner as possible while being wary of allowing age, gender, or political affiliation to bias their reports.
4. Debugged: That Was Not a Paid Celebrity Breakup
Consumers can now buy celebrity video shoutouts online at prices ranging from $25 to $1,000. Former Sugar Ray frontman and TV host Mark McGrath made headlines when a video he made appeared to be paid for by a woman breaking up with her boyfriend.
5. Also in the Spotlight: DNA Database Sold
DNA kits purportedly showing a person’s heritage are always hot items during gift giving holidays. You may want to hold off uploading your results elsewhere though after industry site GEDmatch was sold to Verogen, a DNA analysis company that works with law enforcement.
How: GEDmatch is a third-party service that people voluntarily use to find relatives. Disclosure: I’m a user of the free service, and it does work. Smart police officials have begun using DNA obtained in criminal investigations to find relatives too, a process that GEDmatch users can opt out of. California police found the Golden State Killer in 2018 by matching DNA on the site and using genealogy to identify possible suspects.
Then: GEDmatch quickly created a process to allow people to opt out of sharing their DNA with law enforcement, which seemed like the best solution. Then a state judge forced GEDmatch last month to comply with a warrant allowing police to find people related to a serial rapist whose DNA police had.
What’s next: GEDmatch is convenient because more than one million people participate by uploading their DNA results but there’s no reason why a judge couldn’t issue warrants to the major companies selling DNA kits.
Food for thought: Maybe being able to identify a serial rapist or murderer using DNA and genealogy is a good thing.
6. Great Data: Big Media Owners
Great data provides context. Recode heeded that axiom with their most recent infographic about media and communications ownership. Giants like Google and Facebook are tucked neatly to the side to show how relatively tiny Lionsgate compares with giants like AT&T, Verizon, and Disney. Each company’s major assets are shown so that users can understand that MGM owns the Epix cable network and the James Bond film franchise.
7. Protip: Send Websites & Docs Between Desktop & Android
Google Chrome has a new feature that allows you to share a clipboard between your devices. You can send a website page from your phone to your computer or vice versa without emailing them. It’s really a timesaver.
8. Bizarre Bazaar: LED Bow Ties and Suspenders
With New Year’s Eve barreling towards us far too fast, who else needs a snazzy LED bow tie and suspender set? They even blink if you’re so inclined.
9. ICYMI — Top links from the past 30 days
Animated bar chart showing social media use by age – at Visual Capitalist
Step-by-step instructions on protecting fitness tracker data – at Wired
When Baltimore’s mayor repeated a hoax about white vans – at CNN
10. Coffee Break: Canada’s Worst Artichoke Dip
From the oldie but goodies file, this is a two minute video segment on holiday potluck sharing on Canada’s Global News. Seems one of the broadcasters isn’t a fan of cooking and botched an artichoke dip recipe. Thanks to the glory that is live television, you get to laugh too.
When you’re done, click here for a free Spotlight subscription.