FTC Stalkerware Warning – Spotlight #315

Good Monday morning. It’s October 28th. Google reports earnings later today. Facebook and Apple report on Thursday. Expect lots of tech news this week.

Today’s Spotlight takes about 4 minutes to read. Want to chat about something you see here? You’re looking for the contact form then.

2. News To Know Now

1. Facebook has begun testing a news tab in its app. The news was announced by Campbell Brown, a former CNN anchor and current Facebook exec. Former Pulitzer Prize winner Anne Kornblut is also part of the group. Facebook acknowledged that it will pay some publishers to participate.

2.  UnitedHealth Group has been ordered by New York state regulators to prove that an algorithm they produce is free from racial bias, reports the Wall Street Journal.  A study published in the journal Science claims that white patients were projected to need more care over sicker, non-white patients. At issue is the manner in which the racial bias came from the data since race was excluded from the algorithm.

3. Some of YouTube’s most popular hosts launched a joint effort to raise money to plant trees. The coordinated effort took over YouTube’s trending chart by late Friday. The Team Trees website showed on Sunday that funds had been raised to plant five million of the twenty million trees the organization has set as its goal.

3.  FTC Warning on Stalkerware

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is warning American consumers about “stalkerware”, its term for mobile spyware that monitors another person. Once installed by someone with physical access to your phone, those apps could be run without the person knowing anything was wrong.  The apps then share detailed information about activities like call history, text messages, photos, GPS locations, and browser history.

The FTC alleges that Retina-X developed MobileSpy, which was marketed to monitor employees and children. Another two apps, PhoneSheriff and TeenShield, were marketed to monitor mobile devices used by children. Retina-X sold more than 15,000 subscriptions to all three stalking apps before the company stopped selling them in 2018. All of the apps required that the installer weaken the phone’s security.

The company did not safeguard the data, and it was hacked twice, according to the agency, which cited child and employee privacy laws as well as potential use by domestic abusers.  

Stalkerware is part of a pattern of benign devices and software proving troublesome:

Apple’s iTunes, replaced for Apple computers but still used by millions of Windows users, had a bug that allowed hackers to install ransomware on computers in a new and hard-to-detect way, reports Threatpost

New Android malware called Joker infects phones with software that orders premium subscriptions, according to Bleeping Computer. The malware was hidden on 24 Google Play Store apps that were downloaded a half million times. Another type of malware called Cutlet Maker targets ATMs and causes them to “jackpot”–spitting out the machine’s cash.

Even The Vatican’s brand new “smart rosary” (and fitness tracker) had an undetected vulnerability that would allow a hacker to quickly access a user’s Google or Facebook account. Called a brute-force flaw, the vulnerability was detected by a diligent researcher who apparently contacted The Vatican a lot to find the developers.

What we think: You can’t guard against stalkerware being installed on your phone by someone with access to your phone unless you use strong passwords and protections on your phone. Practice safe computing with timely backups, updating all software, and using password managers.

4.  Google Search Updates

You may have heard that Google is using artificial intelligence to sort search results.  They aren’t, but there have been many fantastic headlines saying otherwise. Here is what is happening:

First, it’s not artificial intelligence like you’ll see in a movie. This is a software program that in some instances replaces reliance on a massive database of keyword matching and starts to interpret context. We all sometimes misuse a word or find ourselves picking the best way to express an idea. The new Google software does a better job interpreting natural language. 

The software is called BERT and will be invoked in approximately 10% of search queries. It will change a lot for those of us in the field. But like all of the thousands of changes that Google makes to its algorithms, this should improve the results over time and be transparent to most users.

5. Debugged: $39.95 to Hold Your Baby

Making the rounds again is a story about a hospital charging $39.95 for skin-to-skin contact with a newborn following a C-section delivery. It’s true, but the charge was for an additional nurse because the operating room nurse is otherwise occupied.

Truth or Fiction has details and context.

6. Also in the Spotlight

AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon have launched a joint initiative to update U.S. text messaging systems from SMS to a new, feature-rich RCS that looks more like Facebook Messenger or chat apps. [The Verge]

97% of tweets from U.S. adults that mentioned national politics came from just 10% of users according to  a new study. Sorry, not sorry.  [Pew Research]

7. Great Data: Beautiful Hidden Logic of Cities

Erin Davis has color-coded map data from major cities and found… well, some interesting patterns underlying how each city was laid out.

See her work here.

8. Protip: Free Digital Wellbeing Apps

We share a lot about the digital wellbeing initiative because of its importance in helping us find balance between life and screens. This week Google launched six new free apps as part of the effort, including new ways to queue your phone’s notifications and counters showing you how often you check your phone.

Android Police run down the apps and has download links.

9. Bizarre Bazaar (strange stuff for sale online)

You can’t catch him, he’s the Gingerdead Man. Ready to combine Halloween and the cookie-heavy winter holidays? How about some gingerbread skeleton cookie cutters?

Genuine Fred has them in stock along with Snack-o-Lanterns.

10. Coffee Break:  Pupper Edition

B’gosh, you’re going to lose time on this website that features gifs of the most adorable puppers, doggos, and good bois and girls. There are no votes, comments, or any other distractions.  

You can, however, download your favorites.

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