Privacy Badger Update Fights 'Link Tracking' And 'Link Shims'

Many internet users know that social media companies track both users and non-users. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) updated its Privacy Badger browser add-on to help consumers fight a specific type of surveillance technology called "Link Tracking," which facebook and many social networking sites use to track users both on and off their social platforms. The EFF explained:

"Say your friend shares an article from EFF’s website on Facebook, and you’re interested. You click on the hyperlink, your browser opens a new tab, and Facebook is no longer a part of the equation. Right? Not exactly. Facebook—and many other companies, including Google and Twitter—use a variation of a technique called link shimming to track the links you click on their sites.

When your friend posts a link to eff.org on Facebook, the website will “wrap” it in a URL that actually points to Facebook.com: something like https://l.facebook.com/l.php?u=https%3A%2F%2Feff.org%2Fpb&h=ATPY93_4krP8Xwq6wg9XMEo_JHFVAh95wWm5awfXqrCAMQSH1TaWX6znA4wvKX8pNIHbWj3nW7M4F-ZGv3yyjHB_vRMRfq4_BgXDIcGEhwYvFgE7prU. This is a link shim.

When you click on that monstrosity, your browser first makes a request to Facebook with information about who you are, where you are coming from, and where you are navigating to. Then, Facebook quickly redirects you to the place you actually wanted to go... Facebook’s approach is a bit sneakier. When the site first loads in your browser, all normal URLs are replaced with their l.facebook.com shim equivalents. But as soon as you hover over a URL, a piece of code triggers that replaces the link shim with the actual link you wanted to see: that way, when you hover over a link, it looks innocuous. The link shim is stored in an invisible HTML attribute behind the scenes. The new link takes you to where you want to go, but when you click on it, another piece of code fires off a request to l.facebook.com in the background—tracking you just the same..."

Lovely. And, Facebook fails to deliver on privacy in more ways:

"According to Facebook's official post on the subject, in addition to helping Facebook track you, link shims are intended to protect users from links that are "spammy or malicious." The post states that Facebook can use click-time detection to save users from visiting malicious sites. However, since we found that link shims are replaced with their unwrapped equivalents before you have a chance to click on them, Facebook's system can't actually protect you in the way they describe.

Facebook also claims that link shims "protect privacy" by obfuscating the HTTP Referer header. With this update, Privacy Badger removes the Referer header from links on facebook.com altogether, protecting your privacy even more than Facebook's system claimed to."

Thanks to the EFF for focusing upon online privacy and delivering effective solutions.


Academic Professors, Researchers, And Google Employees Protest Warfare Programs By The Tech Giant

Google logo Many internet users know that Google's business of model of free services comes with a steep price: the collection of massive amounts of information about users of its services. There are implications you may not be aware of.

A Guardian UK article by three professors asked several questions:

"Should Google, a global company with intimate access to the lives of billions, use its technology to bolster one country’s military dominance? Should it use its state of the art artificial intelligence technologies, its best engineers, its cloud computing services, and the vast personal data that it collects to contribute to programs that advance the development of autonomous weapons? Should it proceed despite moral and ethical opposition by several thousand of its own employees?"

These questions are relevant and necessary for several reasons. First, more than a dozen Google employees resigned citing ethical and transparency concerns with artificial intelligence (AI) help the company provides to the U.S. Department of Defense for Maven, a weaponized drone program to identify people. Reportedly, these are the first known mass resignations.

Second, more than 3,100 employees signed a public letter saying that Google should not be in the business of war. That letter (Adobe PDF) demanded that Google terminate its Maven program assistance, and draft a clear corporate policy that neither it, nor its contractors, will build warfare technology.

Third, more than 700 academic researchers, who study digital technologies, signed a letter in support of the protesting Google employees and former employees. The letter stated, in part:

"We wholeheartedly support their demand that Google terminate its contract with the DoD, and that Google and its parent company Alphabet commit not to develop military technologies and not to use the personal data that they collect for military purposes... We also urge Google and Alphabet’s executives to join other AI and robotics researchers and technology executives in calling for an international treaty to prohibit autonomous weapon systems... Google has become responsible for compiling our email, videos, calendars, and photographs, and guiding us to physical destinations. Like many other digital technology companies, Google has collected vast amounts of data on the behaviors, activities and interests of their users. The private data collected by Google comes with a responsibility not only to use that data to improve its own technologies and expand its business, but also to benefit society. The company’s motto "Don’t Be Evil" famously embraces this responsibility.

Project Maven is a United States military program aimed at using machine learning to analyze massive amounts of drone surveillance footage and to label objects of interest for human analysts. Google is supplying not only the open source ‘deep learning’ technology, but also engineering expertise and assistance to the Department of Defense. According to Defense One, Joint Special Operations Forces “in the Middle East” have conducted initial trials using video footage from a small ScanEagle surveillance drone. The project is slated to expand “to larger, medium-altitude Predator and Reaper drones by next summer” and eventually to Gorgon Stare, “a sophisticated, high-tech series of cameras... that can view entire towns.” With Project Maven, Google becomes implicated in the questionable practice of targeted killings. These include so-called signature strikes and pattern-of-life strikes that target people based not on known activities but on probabilities drawn from long range surveillance footage. The legality of these operations has come into question under international and U.S. law. These operations also have raised significant questions of racial and gender bias..."

I'll bet that many people never imagined -- nor want - that their personal e-mail, photos, calendars, video, social media, map usage, archived photos, social media, and more would be used for automated military applications. What are your opinions?


U.S. Senate Vote Approves Resolution To Reinstate Net Neutrality Rules. FCC Chairman Pai Repeats Claims While Ignoring Consumers

Yesterday, the United States Senate approved a bipartisan resolution to preserve net neutrality rules, the set of internet protections established in 2015 which require wireless and internet service providers (ISPs) to provide customers with access to all websites, and equal access to all websites. That meant no throttling, blocking, slow-downs of selected sites, nor prioritizing internet traffic in "fast" or "slow" lanes.

Federal communications Commission logo Earlier this month, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) said that current net neutrality rules would expire on June 11, 2018. Politicians promised that tax cuts will create new jobs, and that repeal of net neutrality rules would encourage investments by ISPs. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, appointed by President Trump, released a statement on May 10, 2018:

"Now, on June 11, these unnecessary and harmful Internet regulations will be repealed and the bipartisan, light-touch approach that served the online world well for nearly 20 years will be restored. The Federal Trade Commission will once again be empowered to target any unfair or deceptive business practices of Internet service providers and to protect American’s broadband privacy. Armed with our strengthened transparency rule, we look forward to working closely with the FTC to safeguard a free and open Internet. On June 11, we will have a framework in place that encourages innovation and investment in our nation’s networks so that all Americans, no matter where they live, can have access to better, cheaper, and faster Internet access and the jobs, opportunities, and platform for free expression that it provides. And we will embrace a modern, forward-looking approach that will help the United States lead the world in 5G..."

Chairman Pai's claims sound hollow, since reality says otherwise. Telecommunications companies have fired workers and reduced staff despite getting tax cuts, broadband privacy repeal, and net neutrality repeal. In December, more than 1,000 startups and investors signed an open letter to Pai opposing the elimination of net neutrality. Entrepreneurs and executives are concerned that the loss of net neutrality will harm or hinder start-up businesses.

CNet provided a good overview of events surrounding the Senate's resolution:

"Democrats are using the Congressional Review Act to try to halt the FCC's December repeal of net neutrality. The law gives Congress 60 legislative days to undo regulations imposed by a federal agency. What's needed to roll back the FCC action are simple majorities in both the House and Senate, as well as the president's signature. Senator Ed Markey (Democrat, Massachusetts), who's leading the fight in the Senate to preserve the rules, last week filed a so-called discharge petition, a key step in this legislative effort... Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers and broadband lobbyists argue the existing rules hurt investment and will stifle innovation. They say efforts by Democrats to stop the FCC's repeal of the rules do nothing to protect consumers. All 49 Democrats in the Senate support the effort to undo the FCC's vote. One Republican, Senator Susan Collins of Maine, also supports the measure. One more Republican is needed to cross party lines to pass it."

"No touch" is probably a more accurate description of the internet under Chairman Pai's leadership, given many historical problems and abuses of consumers by some ISPs. The loss of net neutrality protections will likely result in huge price increases for internet access for consumers, which will also hurt public libraries, the poor, and disabled users. The loss of net neutrality will allow ISPs the freedom to carve up, throttle, block, and slow down the internet traffic they choose, while consumers will lose the freedom to use as they choose the broadband service they've paid for. And, don't forget the startup concerns above.

After the Senate's vote, FCC Chairman Pai released this statement:

“The Internet was free and open before 2015, when the prior FCC buckled to political pressure from the White House and imposed utility-style regulation on the Internet. And it will continue to be free and open once the Restoring Internet Freedom Order takes effect on June 11... our light-touch approach will deliver better, faster, and cheaper Internet access and more broadband competition to the American people—something that millions of consumers desperately want and something that should be a top priority. The prior Administration’s regulatory overreach took us in the opposite direction, reducing investment in broadband networks and particularly harming small Internet service providers in rural and lower-income areas..."

The internet was free and open before 2015? Mr. Pai is guilty of revisionist history. The lack of ISP competition in key markets meant consumers in the United States pay more for broadband and get slower speeds compared to other countries. There were numerous complaints by consumers about usage-based Internet pricing. There were privacy abuses and settlement agreements by ISPs involving technologies such as deep-packet inspection and 'Supercookies' to track customers online, despite consumers' wishes not to be tracked. Many consumers didn't get the broadband speeds ISP promised. Some consumers sued their ISPs, and the New York State Attorney General had residents  check their broadband speed with this tool.

Tim Berners-Lee, the founder of the internet, cited three reasons why the Internet is in trouble. His number one reason: consumers had lost control of their personal information. The loss of privacy meant consumers lost control over their personal information.

There's more. Some consumers found that their ISP hijacked their online search results without notice nor consent. An ISP in Kansas admitted in 2008 to secret snooping after pressure from Congress. Given this, something had to be done. The FCC stepped up to the plate and acted when it was legally able to; and reclassified broadband after open hearings. Proposed rules were circulated prior to adoption. It was done in the open.

Yet, Chairman Pai would have us now believe the internet was free and open before 2015; and that regulatory was unnecessary. I say BS.

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel released a statement yesterday:

"Today the United States Senate took a big step to fix the serious mess the FCC made when it rolled back net neutrality late last year. The FCC's net neutrality repeal gave broadband providers extraordinary new powers to block websites, throttle services and play favorites when it comes to online content. This put the FCC on the wrong side of history, the wrong side of the law, and the wrong side of the American people. Today’s vote is a sign that the fight for internet freedom is far from over. I’ll keep raising a ruckus to support net neutrality and I hope others will too."

A mess, indeed, created by Chairman Pai. A December 2017 study of 1,077 voters found that most want net neutrality protections:

Do you favor or oppose the proposal to give ISPs the freedom to: a) provide websites the option to give their visitors the ability to download material at a higher speed, for a fee, while providing a slower speed for other websites; b) block access to certain websites; and c) charge their customers an extra fee to gain access to certain websites?
Group Favor Opposed Refused/Don't Know
National 15.5% 82.9% 1.6%
Republicans 21.0% 75.4% 3.6%
Democrats 11.0% 88.5% 0.5%
Independents 14.0% 85.9% 0.1%

Why did the FCC, President Trump, and most GOP politicians pursue the elimination of net neutrality protections despite consumers wishes otherwise? For the same reasons they repealed broadband privacy protections despite most consumers wanting broadband privacy. (Remember, President Trump signed the privacy-rollback legislation in April 2017.) They are doing the bidding of the corporate ISPs at the expense of consumers. Profits before people. Whenever Mr. Pai mentions a "free and open internet," he's referring to corporate ISPs and not consumers. What do you think?


Equifax Operates A Secondary Credit Reporting Agency, And Its Website Appears Haphazard

Equifax logo More news about Equifax, the credit reporting agency with multiple data security failures resulting in a massive data breach affecting half of the United States population. It appears that Equifax also operates a secondary credit bureau: the National Consumer Telecommunications and Utilities Exchange (NCTUE). The Krebs On Security blog explained Equifax's role:

"The NCTUE is a consumer reporting agency founded by AT&T in 1997 that maintains data such as payment and account history, reported by telecommunication, pay TV and utility service providers that are members of NCTUE... there are four "exchanges" that feed into the NCTUE’s system: the NCTUE itself, something called "Centralized Credit Check Systems," the New York Data Exchange (NYDE), and the California Utility Exchange. According to a partner solutions page at Verizon, the NYDE is a not-for-profit entity created in 1996 that provides participating exchange carriers with access to local telecommunications service arrears (accounts that are unpaid) and final account information on residential end user accounts. The NYDE is operated by Equifax Credit Information Services Inc. (yes, that Equifax)... The California Utility Exchange collects customer payment data from dozens of local utilities in the state, and also is operated by Equifax (Equifax Information Services LLC)."

This surfaced after consumers with security freezes on their credit reports at the three major credit reporting agencies (e.g., Experian, Equifax, TransUnion) found fraudulent mobile phone accounts opened in their names. This shouldn't have been possible since security freezes prevent credit reporting agencies from selling consumers' credit reports to telecommunications companies, who typically perform credit checks before opening new accounts. So, the credit information must have come from somewhere else. It turns out, the source was the NCTUE.

NCTUE logo Credit reporting agencies make money by selling consumers' credit reports to potential lenders. And credit reports from the NCTUE are easy for anyone to order:

"... the NCTUE makes it fairly easy to obtain any records they may have on Americans. Simply phone them up (1-866-349-5185) and provide your Social Security number and the numeric portion of your registered street address."

The Krebs on Security blog also explain the expired SSL certificate used by Equifax which prevents serving web pages in a secure manner. That was simply inexcusable, poor data security.

A quick check of the NCTUE page on the Better Business Bureau site found 2 negative reviews and 70 complaints -- mostly about negative credit inquiries, and unresolved issues. A quick check of the NCTUE Terms Of Use page found very thin usage and privacy policies lacking details, such as mentions about data sharing, cookies, tracking, and more. The lack of data-sharing mentions could indicate NCTUE will share or sell data to anyone: entities, companies, and government agencies. It also means there is no way to verify whether the NCTUE complies with its own policies. Not good.

The policy contains enough language which indicates that it is not liable for anything:

"... THE NCTUE IS NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR, AND EXPRESSLY DISCLAIM, ALL LIABILITY FOR, DAMAGES OF ANY KIND ARISING OUT OF USE, REFERENCE TO, OR RELIANCE ON ANY INFORMATION CONTAINED WITHIN THE SITE. All content located at or available from the NCTUE website is provided “as is,” and NCTUE makes no representations or warranties, express or implied, including but not limited to warranties of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title or non-infringement of proprietary rights. Without limiting the foregoing, NCTUE makes no representation or warranty that content located on the NCTUE website is free from error or suitable for any purpose; nor that the use of such content will not infringe any third party copyrights, trademarks or other intellectual property rights.

Links to Third Party Websites: Although the NCTUE website may include links providing direct access to other Internet resources, including websites, NCTUE is not responsible for the accuracy or content of information contained in these sites.."

Huh?! As is? The data NCTUE collected is being used for credit decisions. Reliability and accuracy matters. And, there are more concerns.

While at the NCTUE site, I briefly browsed the credit freeze information, which is hosted on an outsourced site, the Exchange Service Center (ESC). What's up with that? Why a separate site, and not a cohesive single site with a unified customer experience? This design gives the impression that the security freeze process was an afterthought.

Plus, the NCTUE and ESC sites present different policies (e.g., terms of use, privacy). Really? Why the complexity? Which policies rule? You'd think that the policies in both sites would be consistent and would mention each other, since consumers must use the two sites complete security freezes. That design seems haphazard. Not good.

There's more. Rather than use state-of-the-art, traditional web pages, the ESC site presents its policies in static Adobe PDF documents making it difficult for users to follow links for more information. (Contrast those thin policies with the more comprehensive Privacy and Terms of Use policies by TransUnion.) Plus, one policy was old -- dated 2011. It seems the site hasn't been updated in seven years. What fresh hell is this? More haphazard design. Why the confusing user experience? Not good.

Image of confusing drop-down menu for exchanges within the security freeze process. Click to view larger version There's more. When placing a security freeze, the ESC site includes a drop-down menu asking consumers to pick an exchange (e.g., NCTUE, Centralized Credit Check System, California Utility Exchange, NYDE). The confusing drop-down menu appears in the image on the right. Which menu option is the global security freeze? Is there a global option? The form page doesn't say, and it should. Why would a consumer select one of the exchanges? Perhaps, is this another slick attempt to limit the effectiveness of security freezes placed by consumers. Not good.

What can consumers make of this? First, the NCTUE site seems to be a slick way for Equifax to skirt the security freezes which consumers have placed upon their credit reports. Sounds like a definite end-run to me. Surprised? I'll bet. Angry? I'll bet, too. We consumers paid good money for security freezes on our credit reports.

Second, the combo NCTUE/ESC site seems like some legal, outsourcing ju-jitsu to avoid all liability, while still enjoying the revenues from credit-report sales. The site left me with the impression that its design, which hasn't kept pace during the years with internet best practices, was by a committee of attorneys focused upon serving their corporate clients' data collection and sharing needs while doing the absolute minimum required legally -- rather than a site focused upon the security needs of consumers. I can best describe the site using an old film-review phrase: a million monkeys with a million crayons would be hard pressed in a million years to create something this bad.

Third, credit reporting agencies get their data from a variety of sources. So, their business model is based upon data sharing. NCTUE seems designed to effectively do just that, regardless of consumers' security needs and wishes.

Fourth, this situation offers several reminders: a) just about anyone can set up and operate a credit reporting agency. No special skills nor expertise required; b) there are both national and regional credit reporting agencies; c) credit reports often contain errors; and d) credit reporting agencies historically have outsourced work, sometimes internationally -- for better or worse data security.

Fifth, you now you know what criminals and fraudsters already know... how to skirt the security freezes on credit reports and gain access to consumers' sensitive information. The combo NCTUE/ESC site is definitely a high-value target by criminals.

My first impression of the NCTUE site: haphazard design making it difficult for consumers to use and to trust it. What do you think?


San Diego Police Widely Share Data From License Plate Database

Images of ALPR device mounted on a patrol car. Click to view larger version Many police departments use automated license plate reader (ALPR or LPR) technology to monitor the movements of drivers and their vehicles. The surveillance has several implications beyond the extensive data collection.

The Voice of San Diego reported that the San Diego Police Departments shares its database of ALPR data with many other agencies:

"SDPD shares that database with the San Diego sector of Border Patrol – and with another 600 agencies across the country, including other agencies within the Department of Homeland Security. The nationwide database is enabled by Vigilant Solutions, a private company that provides data management and software services to agencies across the country for ALPR systems... A memorandum of understanding between SDPD and Vigilant stipulates that each agency retains ownership of its data, and can take steps to determine who sees it. A Vigilant Solutions user manual spells out in detail how agencies can limit access to their data..."

San Diego's ALPR database is fed by a network of cameras which record images plus the date, time and GPS location of the cars that pass by them. So, the associated metadata for each database record probably includes the license plate number, license plate state, vehicle owner, GPS location, travel direction, date and time, road/street/highway name or number, and the LPR device ID number.

Information about San Diego's ALPR activities became public after a data request from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a digital privacy organization. ALPRs are a popular tool, and were used in about 38 states in 2014. Typically, the surveillance collects data about both criminals and innocent drivers.

Images of ALPR devices mounted on unmarked patrol cars. Click to view larger version There are several valid applications: find stolen vehicles, find stolen license plates, find wanted vehicles (e.g., abductions), execute search warrants, find parolees, and find wanted parolees. Some ALPR devices are stationary (e.g., mounted on street lights), while others are mounted on (marked and unmarked) patrol cars. Both deployments scan moving vehicles, while the latter also facilitates the scanning of parked vehicles.

Earlier this year, the EFF issued hundreds of similar requests across the country to learn how law enforcement currently uses ALPR technology. The ALPR training manual for the Elk Grove, Illinois PD listed the data archival policies for several states: New Jersey - 5 years, Vermont - 18 months, Utah - 9 months,  Minnesota - 48 hours, Arkansas - 150 days, New Hampshire - not allowed, and California - no set time. The document also stated that more than "50 million captures" are added each month to the Vigilant database. And, the Elk Grove PD seems to broadly share its ALPR data with other police departments and agencies.

The SDPD website includes a "License Plate Recognition: Procedures" document (Adobe PDF), dated May 2015, which describes its ALPR usage and policies:

"The legitimate law enforcement purposes of LPR systems include the following: 1) Locating stolen, wanted, or subject of investigation vehicles; 2) Locating witnesses and victims of a violent crime; 3) Locating missing or abducted children and at risk individuals.

LPR Strategies: 1) LPR equipped vehicles should be deployed as frequently as possible to maximize the utilization of the system; 2) Regular operation of LPR should be considered as a force multiplying extension of an officer’s regular patrol efforts to observe and detect vehicles of interest and specific wanted vehicles; 3) LPR may be legitimately used to collect data that is within public view, but should not be used to gather intelligence of First Amendment activities; 4) Reasonable suspicion or probable cause is not required for the operation of LPR equipment; 5) Use of LPR equipped cars to conduct license plate canvasses and grid searches is encouraged, particularly for major crimes or incidents as well as areas that are experiencing any type of crime series... LPR data will be retained for a period of one year from the time the LPR record was captured by the LPR device..."

The document does not describe its data security methods to protect this sensitive information from breaches, hacks, and unauthorized access. Perhaps most importantly, the 2015 SDPD document describes the data sharing policy:

"Law enforcement officers shall not share LPR data with commercial or private entities or individuals. However, law enforcement officers may disseminate LPR data to government entities with an authorized law enforcement or public safety purpose for access to such data."

However, the Voice of San Diego reported:

"A memorandum of understanding between SDPD and Vigilant stipulates that each agency retains ownership of its data, and can take steps to determine who sees it. A Vigilant Solutions user manual spells out in detail how agencies can limit access to their data... SDPD’s sharing doesn’t stop at Border Patrol. The list of agencies with near immediate access to the travel habits of San Diegans includes law enforcement partners you might expect, like the Carlsbad Police Department – with which SDPD has for years shared license plate reader data, through a countywide arrangement overseen by SANDAG – but also obscure agencies like the police department in Meigs, Georgia, population 1,038, and a private group that is not itself a police department, the Missouri Police Chiefs Association..."

So, the accuracy of the 2015 document is questionable, it it isn't already obsolete. Moreover, what's really critical are the data retention and sharing policies by Vigilant and other agencies.


Medicare Scams Still Operate. How To Avoid Getting Your Identity Information Stolen

To minimize fraud, the new Medicare cards display a unique 11-digit identification number instead of patients' Social Security numbers. However, scammers have created a new tactic to trick patients into revealing their sensitive Medicare information. The Oregon Department of Justice warned:

"If someone calls and asks you for your personal information, money to activate the new card, or threatens to cancel your Medicare benefits if you don’t share your personal information, just hang up! It is a scam," said Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum.

Medicare will not call you nor ask for your Social Security number or bank information. That's good advice for patients nationwide. Experts estimate that Medicare loses about $60 billion yearly to con artists via a variety of scams.

Oregon residents suspecting healthcare fraud or wanting to report scammers, should contact Oregon's Department of Justice’s Consumer Protection (hotline: 1-877-877-9392 or www.oregonconsumer.gov). Consumers in other states should contact their state's attorney general, and/or report suspected fraud directly to Medicare.

The video below from 2017 includes advice about how patients should protect their Medicare cards.


Report: Software Failure In Fatal Accident With Self-Driving Uber Car

TechCrunch reported:

"The cause of the fatal crash of an Uber self-driving car appears to have been at the software level, specifically a function that determines which objects to ignore and which to attend to, The Information reported. This puts the fault squarely on Uber’s doorstep, though there was never much reason to think it belonged anywhere else.

Given the multiplicity of vision systems and backups on board any given autonomous vehicle, it seemed impossible that any one of them failing could have prevented the car’s systems from perceiving Elaine Herzberg, who was crossing the street directly in front of the lidar and front-facing cameras. Yet the car didn’t even touch the brakes or sound an alarm. Combined with an inattentive safety driver, this failure resulted in Herzberg’s death."

The TechCrunch story provides details about which software subsystem the report said failed.

Not good.

So, the autonomous or self-driving cars are only as good as the software they're programmed with (including maintenance). Anyone who has used computers during the last couple decades probably has experienced software glitches, bugs, and failures. It happens.

This latest incident suggests self-driving cars aren't yet ready. what do you think?


Connecticut And Federal Regulators Announce $1.3 Million Settlement With Substance Abuse Healthcare Provider

Connecticut and federal regulators recently announced a settlement agreement to resolve allegations that New Era Rehabilitation Center (New Era), operating in New Haven and Bridgeport, submitted false claims to both state and federal healthcare programs. The office of George Jepsen, Connecticut Attorney General, announced that New Era:

"... and its co-founders and owners – Dr. Ebenezer Kolade and Dr. Christina Kolade – are enrolled as providers in the Connecticut Medical Assistance Program (CMAP), which includes the state's Medicaid program. As part of their practice, they provide methadone treatment services for patients dealing with opioid addiction. Most of their patients are CMAP beneficiaries.

During the relevant time period, CMAP reimbursed methadone clinics by paying a weekly bundled rate that included all of the services associated with methadone maintenance, including the patient's doses of methadone; the initial intake evaluation; a physical examination; periodic drug testing; and individual, group and family drug counseling... The state and federal governments alleged that, from October 2009 to November 2013, New Era and the Kolades engaged in a pattern and practice of billing CMAP weekly for the methadone bundled service rate and then also submitting a separate claim to the CMAP for virtually every drug counseling session provided to clients by using a billing code for outpatient psychotherapy. The state and federal governments further alleged that those psychotherapy sessions were actually the drug counseling sessions already included and reimbursed through the bundled rate."

These actions were part of the State of Connecticut's Inter-agency Fraud Task Force created in 2013 to investigate and prosecute healthcare fraud. The joint investigation included the Connecticut AT's office, the office of Connecticut U.S. Attorney John H. Durham, and the U.S. Health and Human Services, Office of Inspector General – Office of Investigations.

Connecticut Fight Fraud logo Terms of the settlement agreement require NERC to pay $1,378,533 in settlement funds. Of that amount, $881,945 will be returned to CMAP.

Connecticut residents suspecting healthcare fraud or abuse should contact the Attorney General’s Antitrust and Government Program Fraud Department (phone at 860-808-5040, or email at ag.fraud@ct.gov), or the Department of Social Services fraud (hotline at 1-800-842-2155, online at www.ct.gov/dss/reportingfraud, or email at providerfraud.dss@ct.gov). Residents in other states can contact their state's attorney general's office.


Oakland Law Mandates 'Technology Impact Reports' By Local Government Agencies Before Purchasing Surveillance Equipment

Popular tools used by law enforcement include stingrays, fake cellular phone towers, and automated license plate readers (ALPRs) to track the movements of persons. Historically, the technologies have often been deployed without notice to track both the bad guys (e.g., criminals and suspects) and innocent citizens.

To better balance the privacy needs of citizens versus the surveillance needs of law enforcement, some areas are implementing new laws. The East Bay Times reported about a new law in Oakland:

"... introduced at Tuesday’s city council meeting, creates a public approval process for surveillance technologies used by the city. The rules also lay a groundwork for the City Council to decide whether the benefits of using the technology outweigh the cost to people’s privacy. Berkeley and Davis have passed similar ordinances this year.

However, Oakland’s ordinance is unlike any other in the nation in that it requires any city department that wants to purchase or use the surveillance technology to submit a "technology impact report" to the city’s Privacy Advisory Commission, creating a “standardized public format” for technologies to be evaluated and approved... city departments must also submit a “surveillance use policy” to the Privacy Advisory Commission for consideration. The approved policy must be adopted by the City Council before the equipment is to be used..."

Reportedly, the city council will review the ordinance a second time before final passage.

The Northern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) discussed the problem, the need for transparency, and legislative actions:

"Public safety in the digital era must include transparency and accountability... the ACLU of California and a diverse coalition of civil rights and civil liberties groups support SB 1186, a bill that helps restores power at the local level and makes sure local voices are heard... the use of surveillance technology harms all Californians and disparately harms people of color, immigrants, and political activists... The Oakland Police Department concentrated their use of license plate readers in low income and minority neighborhoods... Across the state, residents are fighting to take back ownership of their neighborhoods... Earlier this year, Alameda, Culver City, and San Pablo rejected license plate reader proposals after hearing about the Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) data [sharing] deal. Communities are enacting ordinances that require transparency, oversight, and accountability for all surveillance technologies. In 2016, Santa Clara County, California passed a groundbreaking ordinance that has been used to scrutinize multiple surveillance technologies in the past year... SB 1186 helps enhance public safety by safeguarding local power and ensuring transparency, accountability... SB 1186 covers the broad array of surveillance technologies used by police, including drones, social media surveillance software, and automated license plate readers. The bill also anticipates – and covers – AI-powered predictive policing systems on the rise today... Without oversight, the sensitive information collected by local governments about our private lives feeds databases that are ripe for abuse by the federal government. This is not a hypothetical threat – earlier this year, ICE announced it had obtained access to a nationwide database of location information collected using license plate readers – potentially sweeping in the 100+ California communities that use this technology. Many residents may not be aware their localities also share their information with fusion centers, federal-state intelligence warehouses that collect and disseminate surveillance data from all levels of government.

Statewide legislation can build on the nationwide Community Control Over Police Surveillance (CCOPS) movement, a reform effort spearheaded by 17 organizations, including the ACLU, that puts local residents and elected officials in charge of decisions about surveillance technology. If passed in its current form, SB 1186 would help protect Californians from intrusive, discriminatory, and unaccountable deployment of law enforcement surveillance technology."

Is there similar legislation in your state?


Twitter Advised Its Users To Change Their Passwords After Security Blunder

Yesterday, Twitter.com advised all of its users to change their passwords after a huge security blunder exposed users' passwords online in an unprotected format. The social networking service released a statement on May 3rd:

"We recently identified a bug that stored passwords unmasked in an internal log. We have fixed the bug, and our investigation shows no indication of breach or misuse by anyone. Out of an abundance of caution, we ask that you consider changing your password on all services where you’ve used this password."

Security experts advise consumers not to use the same password at several sites or services. Repeated use of the same password makes it easy for criminals to hack into multiple sites or services.

The statement by Twitter.com also explained that it masks users' passwords:

"... through a process called hashing using a function known as bcrypt, which replaces the actual password with a random set of numbers and letters that are stored in Twitter’s system. This allows our systems to validate your account credentials without revealing your password. This is an industry standard.

Due to a bug, passwords were written to an internal log before completing the hashing process. We found this error ourselves, removed the passwords, and are implementing plans to prevent this bug from happening again."

The good news: Twitter found the buy by itself. The not-so-good news: the statement was short on details. It did not disclose details about the fixes so this blunder doesn't happen again. Nor did the statement say how many users were affected. Twitter has about 330 million users, so it seems that all users were affected.


How to Wrestle Your Data From Data Brokers, Silicon Valley — and Cambridge Analytica

[Editor's note: today's guest post, by reporters at ProPublica, discusses data brokers you may not know, the data collected and archived about consumers, and options for consumers to (re)gain as much privacy as possible. It is reprinted with permission.]

By Jeremy B. Merrill, ProPublica

Cambridge Analytica thinks that I’m a "Very Unlikely Republican." Another political data firm, ALC Digital, has concluded I’m a "Socially Conservative," Republican, "Boomer Voter." In fact, I’m a 27-year-old millennial with no set party allegiance.

For all the fanfare, the burgeoning field of mining our personal data remains an inexact art.

One thing is certain: My personal data, and likely yours, is in more hands than ever. Tech firms, data brokers and political consultants build profiles of what they know — or think they can reasonably guess — about your purchasing habits, personality, hobbies and even what political issues you care about.

You can find out what those companies know about you but be prepared to be stubborn. Very stubborn. To demonstrate how this works, we’ve chosen a couple of representative companies from three major categories: data brokers, big tech firms and political data consultants.

Few of them make it easy. Some will show you on their websites, others will make you ask for your digital profile via the U.S. mail. And then there’s Cambridge Analytica, the controversial Trump campaign vendor that has come under intense fire in light of a report in the British newspaper The Observer and in The New York Times that the company used improperly obtained data from Facebook to help build voter profiles.

To find out what the chaps at the British data firm have on you, you’re going to need both stamps and a "cheque."

Once you see your data, you’ll have a much better understanding of how this shadowy corner of the new economy works. You’ll see what seemingly personal information they know about you … and you’ll probably have some hypotheses about where this data is coming from. You’ll also probably see some predictions about who you are that are hilariously wrong.

And if you do obtain your data from any of these companies, please let us know your thoughts at politicaldata@propublica.org. We won’t share or publish what you say (unless you tell us that’s it’s OK).

Cambridge Analytica and Other Political Consultants

Making statistically informed guesses about Americans’ political beliefs and pet issues is a common business these days, with dozens of firms selling data to candidates and issue groups about the purported leanings of individual American voters.

Few of these firms have to give your data. But Cambridge Analytica is required to do so by an obscure European rule.

Cambridge Analytica:

Around the time of the 2016 election, Paul-Olivier Dehaye, a Belgian mathematician and founder of a website that helps people exercise their data protection rights called PersonalData.IO, approached me with an idea for a story. He flagged some of Cambridge Analytica’s claims about the power of its "psychographic" targeting capabilities and suggested that I demand my data from them.

So I sent off a request, following Dehaye’s coaching, and citing the UK Data Protection Act 1998, the British implementation of a little-known European Union data-protection law that grants individuals (even Americans) the rights to see the data Europeans companies compile about individuals.

It worked. I got back a spreadsheet of data about me. But it took months, cost ten pounds — and I had to give them a photo ID and two utility bills. Presumably they didn’t want my personal data falling into the wrong hands.

How You Can Request Your Data From Cambridge Analytica:

  1. Visit Cambridge Analytica’s website here and fill out this web form.
  2. After you submit the form, the page will immediately request that you email to data.compliance@cambridgeanalytica.org a photo ID and two copies of your utility bills or bank statements, to prove your identity. This page will also include the company’s bank account details.
  3. Find a way to send them 10 GBP. You can try wiring this from your bank, though it may cost you an additional $25 or so — or ask a friend in the UK to go to their bank and get a cashier’s check. Your American bank probably won’t let you write a GBP-denominated check. Two services I tried, Xoom and TransferWise, weren’t able to do it.
  4. Eventually, Cambridge Analytica will email you a small Excel spreadsheet of information and a letter. You might have to wait a few weeks. Celeste LeCompte, ProPublica’s vice president of business development, requested her data on March 27 and still hasn’t received it.

Because the company is based in the United Kingdom, it had no choice but to fulfill my request. In recent weeks, the firm has come under intense fire after The New York Times and the British paper The Observer disclosed that it had used improperly obtained data from Facebook to build profiles of American voters. Facebook told me that data about me was likely transmitted to Cambridge Analytica because a person with whom I am "friends" on the social network had taken the now-infamous "This Is Your Digital Life" quiz. For what it’s worth, my data shows no sign of anything derived from Facebook.

What You Might Get Back From Cambridge Analytica:

Cambridge Analytica had generated 13 data points about my views: 10 political issues, ranked by importance; two guesses at my partisan leanings (one blank); and a guess at whether I would turn out in the 2016 general election.

They told me that the lower the rank, the higher the predicted importance of the issue to me.

Alongside that data labeled "models" were two other types of data that are run-of-the-mill and widely used by political consultants. One sheet of "core data" — that is, personal info, sliced and diced a few different ways, perhaps to be used more easily as parameters for a statistical model. It included my address, my electoral district, the census tract I live in and my date of birth.

The spreadsheet included a few rows of "election returns" — previous elections in New York State in which I had voted. (Intriguingly, Cambridge Analytica missed that I had voted in 2015’s snoozefest of a vote-for-five-of-these-five judicial election. It also didn’t know about elections in which I had voted in North Carolina, where I lived before I lived in New York.)

ALC Digital

ALC Digital is another data broker, which says that its info is "audiences are built from multi-sourced, verified information about an individual." Their data is distributed via Oracle Data Cloud, a service that lets advertisers target specific audience of people — like, perhaps, people who are Boomer Voters and also Republicans.

The firm brags in an Oracle document posted online about how hard it is to avoid their data collection efforts, saying, "It has no cookies to erase and can’t be ‘cleared.’ ALC Real World Data is rooted in reality, and doesn’t rely on inferences or faulty models."

How You Can Request Your Data From ALC Digital:

Here’s how to find the predictions about your political beliefs data in Oracle Data Cloud:

  1. Visit http://www.bluekai.com/registry/. If you use an ad blocker, there may not be much to see here.
  2. Click on the Partner Segments tab.
  3. Scroll on through until you find ALC Digital.

You may have to scroll for a while before you find it.

And not everyone appears to have data from ALC Digital, so don’t be shocked if you can’t find it. If you don’t, there may be other fascinating companies with data about who you are in your Oracle file.

What You Might Get Back From ALC Digital:

When I downloaded the data last year, it said I was "Socially Conservative," "Boomer Voter" — as well as a female voter and a tax reform supporter.

Recently, when I checked my data, those categories had disappeared entirely from my data. I had nothing from ALC Digital.

ALC Digital is not required to release this data. It is disclosed via the Oracle Data Cloud. Fran Green, the company’s president, said that Aristotle, a longtime political data company, “provides us with consumer data that populates these audiences.” She also said that “we do not claim to know people’s ‘beliefs.’”

Big Tech

Big tech firms like Google and Facebook tend to make their money by selling ads, so they build extensive profiles of their users’ interests and activities. They also depend on their users’ goodwill to keep us voluntarily giving them our locations, our browsing histories and plain ol’ lists of our friends and interests. (So far, these popular companies have not faced much regulation.) All three make it easy to download the data that they keep on you.

Firms like Google and Facebook firms don’t sell your data — because it’s their competitive advantage. Google’s privacy page screams in 72 point type: "We do not sell your personal information to anyone." As websites that we visit frequently, they sell access to our attention, so companies that want to reach you in particular can do so with these companies’ sites or other sites that feature their ads.

Facebook

How You Can Request Your Data From Facebook:

You of course have to have a Facebook account and be logged in:

  1. Visit https://www.facebook.com/settings on your computer.
  2. Click the “Download a copy of your Facebook data” link.
  3. On the next page, click “Start My Archive.”
  4. Enter your password, then click “Start My Archive” again.
  5. You’ll get an email immediately, and another one saying “Your Facebook download is ready” when your data is ready to be downloaded. You’ll get a notification on Facebook, too. Mine took just a few minutes.
  6. Once you get that email, click the link, then click Download Archive. Then reenter your password, which will start a zip file downloading..
  7. Unzip the folder; depending on your computer’s operating system, this might be called uncompressing or “expanding.” You’ll get a folder called something like “facebook-jeremybmerrill,” but, of course, with your username instead of mine.
  8. Open the folder and double-click “index.htm” to open it in your web browser.

What You Might Get Back From Facebook

Facebook designed its archive to first show you your profile information. That’s all information you typed into Facebook and that you probably intended to be shared with your friends. It’s no surprise that Facebook knows what city I live in or what my AIM screen name was — I told Facebook those things so that my friends would know.

But it’s a bit of a surprise that they decided to feature a list of my ex-girlfriends — what they blandly termed "Previous Relationships" — so prominently.

As you dig deeper in your archive, you’ll find more information that you gave Facebook, but that you might not have expected the social network to keep hold of for years: if you’re me, that’s the Nickelback concert I apparently RSVPed to, posts about switching high schools and instant messages from my freshman year in college.

But finally, you’ll find the creepier information: what Facebook knows about you that you didn’t tell it, on the "Ads" page. You’ll find "Ads Topics" that Facebook decided you were interested in, like Housing, ESPN or the town of Ellijay, Georgia. And, you’ll find a list of advertisers who have obtained your contact information and uploaded it to Facebook, as part of a so-called Custom Audience of specific people to whom they want to show their ads.

You’ll find more of that creepy information on your Ads Preferences page. Despite Mark Zuckerberg telling Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Calif., in a hearing earlier this month that “all of your information is included in your ‘download your information,’” my archive didn’t include that list of ad categories that can be used to target ads to me. (Some other types of information aren’t included in the download, like other people’s posts you’ve liked. Those are listed here, along with where to find them — which, for most, is in your Activity Log.)

This area may include Facebook’s guesses about who you are, boiled down from some of your activities. Most Americans’ will have a guess about their politics — Facebook says I’m a "moderate" about U.S. Politics — and some will have a guess about so-called "multicultural affinity," which Facebook insists is not a guess about your ethnicity, but rather what sorts of content "you are interested in or will respond well to." For instance, Facebook recently added that I have a "Multicultural Affinity: African American." (I’m white — though, because Facebook’s definition of "multicultural affinity" is so strange, it’s hard to tell if this is an error on Facebook’s part.)

Facebook also doesn’t include your browsing history — the subject of back-and-forths between Mark Zuckerberg and several members of Congress — it says it keeps that just long enough to boil it down into those “Ad Topics.”

For people without Facebook accounts, Facebook says to email datarequests@support.facebook.com or fill out an online form to download what Facebook knows about you. One puzzle here is how Facebook gathers data on people whose identities it may not know. It may know that a person using a phone from Atlanta, Georgia, has accessed a Facebook site and that the same person was last week in Austin, Texas, and before that Cincinnati, but it may not know that that person is me. It’s in principle difficult for the company to give the data it collects about logged-out users if it doesn’t know exactly who they are.

Google

Like Facebook, Google will give you a zip archive of your data. Google’s can be much bigger, because you might have stored gigabytes of files in Google Drive or years of emails in Gmail.

But like Facebook, Google does not provide its guesses about your interests, which it uses to target ads. Those guesses are available elsewhere.

How You Can Request Your Data From Google:

  1. Visit https://takeout.google.com/settings/takeout/ to use Google’s cutely named Takeout service.
  2. You’ll have to pick which data you want to download and examine. You should definitely select My Activity, Location History and Searches. You may not want to download gigabytes of emails, if you use Gmail, since that uses a lot of space and may take a while. (That’s also information you shouldn’t be surprised that Google keeps — you left it with Gmail so that you could use Google’s search expertise to hold on to your emails. )
  3. Google will present you with a few options for how to get your archive. The defaults are fine.
  4. Within a few hours, you should get an email with the subject "Your Google data archive is ready." Click Download Archive and log in again. That should start the download of a file named something like "takeout-20180412T193535.zip."
  5. Unzip the folder; depending on your computer’s operating system, this might be called uncompressing or “expanding.”
  6. You’ll get a folder called Takeout. Open the file inside it called "index.html" in your web browser to explore your archive.

What You Might Get Back From Google:

Once you open the index.html file, you’ll see icons for the data you chose in step 2. Try exploring "Ads" under "My Activity" — you’ll see a list of times you saw Google Ads, including on apps on your phone.

Google also includes your search history, under "Searches" — in my case, going back to 2013. Google knows what I had forgotten: I Googled a bunch of dinosaurs around Valentine’s Day that year… And it’s not just web searches: the Sound Search history reminded me that at some point, I used that service to identify Natalie Imbruglia’s song "Torn."

Android phone users might want to check the "Android" folder: Google keeps a list of each app you’ve used on your phone.

Most of the data contained here are records of ways you’ve directly interacted with Google — and the company really does use the those to improve how their services work for me. I’m glad to see my searches auto-completed, for instance.

But the company also creates data about you: Visit the company’s Ads Settings page to see some of the “topics” Google guesses you’re interested in, and which it uses to personalize the ads you see. Those topics are fairly general — it knows I’m interested in “Politics” — but the company says it has more granular classifications that it doesn’t include on the list. Those more granular, hidden classifications are on various topics, from sports to vacations to politics, where Google does generate a guess whether some people are politically “left-leaning” or “right-leaning.”

Data Brokers

Here’s who really does sell your data. Data brokers like the credit reporting agency Experian and a firm named Epsilon.

These sometimes-shady firms are middlemen who buy your data from tracking firms, survey marketers and retailers, slice and dice the data into “segments,” then sell those on to advertisers.

Experian

Experian is best known as a credit reporting firm, but your credit cards aren’t all they keep track of. They told me that they “firmly believe people should be made aware of how their data is being used” — so if you print and mail them a form, they’ll tell you what data they have on you.

“Educated consumers,” they said, “are better equipped to be effective, successful participants in a world that increasingly relies on the exchange of information to efficiently deliver the products and services consumers demand.”

How You Can Request Your Data From Experian:

  1. Visit Experian’s Marketing Data Request site and print the Marketing Data Report Request form.
  2. Print a copy of your ID and proof of address.
  3. Mail it all to Experian at Experian Marketing Services PO Box 40 Allen, TX 75013
  4. Wait for them to mail you something back.

What You Might Get Back From Experian:

Expect to wait a while. I’ve been waiting almost a month.

They also come up with a guess about your political views that’s integrated with Facebook — our Facebook Political Ad Collector project has found that many political candidates use Experian’s data to target their Facebook ads to likely supporters.

You should hope to find a guess about your political views that’d be useful to those candidates — as well as categories derived from your purchasing data.

Experian told me they generate the data they have about you from a long list of sources, including public records and “historical catalog purchase information” — as well as calculating it from predictive models.

Epsilon

How You Can Request Your Data From Epsilon:

  1. Visit Epsilon’s Marketing Data Summary Request form.
  2. After entering your name and address, Epsilon will answer some of those identity-verification questions that quiz you about your old addresses and cars. If your identity can’t be verified with those, Epsilon will ask you to mail in a form.
  3. Wait for Epsilon to mail you your data; it took about a week for me.

What You Might Get Back From Epsilon:

Epsilon has information on “demographics” and “lifestyle interests” — at the household level. It also includes a list of “household purchases.”

It also has data that political candidates use to target their Facebook ads, including Randy Bryce, a Wisconsin Democrat who’s seeking his party’s nomination to run for retiring Speaker Paul Ryan’s seat, and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii.

In my case, Epsilon knows I buy clothes, books and home office supplies, among other things — but isn’t any more specific. They didn’t tell me what political beliefs they believe I hold. The company didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Oracle

Oracle’s Data Cloud aggregates data about you from Oracle, but also so-called third party data from other companies.

How You Can Request Your Data From Oracle:

  1. Visit http://www.bluekai.com/registry/. If you use an ad blocker, there may not be much to see here.
  2. Explore each tab, from “Basic Info” to “Hobbies & Interests” and “Partner Segments.”

Not fun scrolling through all those pages? I have 84 pages of four pieces of data each.

You can’t search. All the text is actually images of text. Oracle declined to say why it chose to make their site so hard to use.

What You Might Get Back From Oracle:

My Oracle profile includes nearly 1500 data points, covering all aspects of my life, from my age to my car to how old my children are to whether I buy eggs. These profiles can even say if you’re likely to dress your pet in a costume for Halloween. But many of them are off-base or contradictory.

Many companies in Oracle’s data, besides ALC Digital, offer guesses about my political views: Data from one company uploaded by AcquireWeb says that my political affiliations are as a Democrat and an Independent … but also that I’m a “Mild Republican.” Another company, an Oracle subsidiary called AddThis, says that I’m a “Liberal.” Cuebiq, which calls itself a “location intelligence” company, says I’m in a subset of “Democrats” called “Liberal Professions.”

If an advertiser wants to show an ad to Spring Break Enthusiasts, Oracle can enable that. I’m apparently a Spring Break Enthusiast. Do I buy eggs? I sure do. Data on Oracle’s site associated with AcquireWeb says I’m a cat owner …

But it also “knows” I’m a dog owner, which I’m not.

Al Gadbut, the CEO of AcquireWeb, explained that the guesses associated with his company weren’t based on my personal data, but rather the tendencies of people in my geographical area — hence the seemingly contradictory political guesses. He said his firm doesn’t generate the data, but rather uploaded it on behalf of other companies. Cuebiq’s guess was a “probabilistic inference” they drew from location data submitted to them by some app on my phone. Valentina Marastoni-Bieser, Cuebiq’s senior vice president of marketing, wouldn’t tell me which app it was, though.

Data for sale here includes a long list what TV shows I — supposedly — watch.

But it’s not all wrong. AddThis can tell that I’m “Young & Hip.”

Takeaways:

The above list is just a sampling of the firms that collect your data and try to draw conclusions about who you are — not just sites you visit like Facebook and controversial firms like Cambridge Analytica.

You can make some guesses as to where this data comes from — especially the more granular consumer data from Oracle. For each data point, it’s worth considering: Who’d be in a position to sell a list of what TV shows I watch, or, at least, a list of what TV shows people demographically like me watch? Who’d be in a position to sell a list of what groceries I, or people similar to me in my area, buy? Some of those companies — companies who you’re likely paying, and for whom the internet adage that “if you’re not paying, you’re the product” doesn’t hold — are likely selling data about you without your knowledge. Other data points, like the location data used by Cuebiq, can come from any number of apps or websites, so it may be difficult to figure out exactly which one has passed it on.

Companies like Google and Facebook often say that they’ll let you “correct” the data that they hold on you — tacitly acknowledgingly that they sometimes get it wrong. But if receiving relevant ads is not important to you, they’ll let you opt-out entirely — or, presumably, “correct” your data to something false.

An upcoming European Union rule called the General Data Protection Regulation portends a dramatic change to how data is collected and used on the web — if only for Europeans. No such law seems likely to be passed in the U.S. in the near future.

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for their newsletter.


News Media Alliance Challenges Tech Companies To 'Accept Accountability' And Responsibility For Filtering News In Their Platforms

Last week, David Chavern, the President and CEO of News Media Alliance (NMA), testified before the House Judiciary Committee. The NMA is a nonprofit trade association representing over 2,000 news organizations across the United States. Mr. Chavern's testimony focused upon the problem of fake news, often aided by social networking platform.

His comments first described current conditions:

"... Quality journalism is essential to a healthy and functioning democracy -- and my members are united in their desire to fight for its future.

Too often in today’s information-driven environment, news is included in the broad term "digital content." It’s actually much more important than that. While some low-quality entertainment or posts by friends can be disappointing, inaccurate information about world events can be immediately destructive. Civil society depends upon the availability of real, accurate news.

The internet represents an extraordinary opportunity for broader understanding and education. We have never been more interconnected or had easier and quicker means of communication. However, as currently structured, the digital ecosystem gives tremendous viewpoint control and economic power to a very small number of companies – the tech platforms that distribute online content. That control and power must come with new responsibilities... Historically, newspapers controlled the distribution of their product; the news. They invested in the journalism required to deliver it, and then printed it in a form that could be handed directly to readers. No other party decided who got access to the information, or on what terms. The distribution of online news is now dominated by the major technology platforms. They decide what news is delivered and to whom – and they control the economics of digital news..."

Last month, a survey found that roughly two-thirds of U.S. adults (68%) use Facebook.com, and about three-quarters of those use the social networking site daily. In 2016, a survey found that 62 percent of adults in the United States get their news from social networking sites. The corresponding statistic in 2012 was 49 percent. That 2016 survey also found that fewer social media users get their news from other platforms: local television (46 percent), cable TV (31 percent), nightly network TV (30 percent), news websites/apps (28 percent), radio (25 percent), and print newspapers (20 percent).

Mr. Chavern then described the problems with two specific tech companies:

"The First Amendment prohibits the government from regulating the press. But it doesn’t prevent Facebook and Google from acting as de facto regulators of the news business.

Neither Google nor Facebook are – or have ever been – "neutral pipes." To the contrary, their businesses depend upon their ability to make nuanced decisions through sophisticated algorithms about how and when content is delivered to users. The term “algorithm” makes these decisions seem scientific and neutral. The fact is that, while their decision processes may be highly-automated, both companies make extensive editorial judgments about accuracy, relevance, newsworthiness and many other criteria.

The business models of Facebook and Google are complex and varied. However, we do know that they are both immense advertising platforms that sell people’s time and attention. Their "secret algorithms" are used to cultivate that time and attention. We have seen many examples of the types of content favored by these systems – namely, click-bait and anything that can generate outrage, disgust and passion. Their systems also favor giving users information like that which they previously consumed, thereby generating intense filter bubbles and undermining common understandings of issues and challenges.

All of these things are antithetical to a healthy news business – and a healthy democracy..."

Earlier this month, Apple Computer and Facebook executives exchanged criticisms about each other's business models and privacy. Mr. Chavern's testimony before Congress also described more problems and threats:

"Good journalism is factual, verified and takes into account multiple points of view. It can take a lot of time and investment. Most particularly, it requires someone to take responsibility for what is published. Whether or not one agrees with a particular piece of journalism, my members put their names on their product and stand behind it. Readers know where to send complaints. The same cannot be said of the sea of bad information that is delivered by the platforms in paid priority over my members’ quality information. The major platforms’ control over distribution also threatens the quality of news for another reason: it results in the “commoditization” of news. Many news publishers have spent decades – often more than a century – establishing their brands. Readers know the brands that they can trust — publishers whose reporting demonstrates the principles of verification, accuracy and fidelity to facts. The major platforms, however, work hard to erase these distinctions. Publishers are forced to squeeze their content into uniform, homogeneous formats. The result is that every digital publication starts to look the same. This is reinforced by things like the Google News Carousel, which encourages users to flick back and forth through articles on the same topic without ever noticing the publisher. This erosion of news publishers’ brands has played no small part in the rise of "fake news." When hard news sources and tabloids all look the same, how is a customer supposed to tell the difference? The bottom line is that while Facebook and Google claim that they do not want to be "arbiters of truth," they are continually making huge decisions on how and to whom news content is delivered. These decisions too often favor free and commoditized junk over quality journalism. The platforms created by both companies could be wonderful means for distributing important and high-quality information about the world. But, for that to happen, they must accept accountability for the power they have and the ultimate impacts their decisions have on our economic, social and political systems..."

Download Mr. Chavern's complete testimony. Industry watchers argue that recent changes by Facebook have hurt local news organizations. MediaPost reported:

"When Facebook changed its algorithm earlier this year to focus on “meaningful” interactions, publishers across the board were hit hard. However, local news seemed particularly vulnerable to the alterations. To assuage this issue, the company announced that it would prioritize news related to local towns and metro areas where a user resided... To determine how positively that tweak affected local news outlets, the Tow Center measured interactions for posts from publications coming from 13 metro areas... The survey found that 11 out of those 13 have consistently seen a drop in traffic between January 1 and April 1 of 2018, allowing the results to show how outlets are faring nine weeks after the algorithm change. According to the Tow Center study, three outlets saw interactions on their pages decrease by a dramatic 50%. These include The Dallas Morning News, The Denver Post, and The San Francisco Chronicle. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution saw interactions drop by 46%."

So, huge problems persist.

Early in my business career, I had the opportunity to develop and market an online service using content from Dow Jones News/Retrieval. That experience taught me that the news - hard news - included who, where, when, and what happened. Everything else is either opinion, commentary, analysis, an advertisement, or fiction. And, it is critical to know the differences and/or learn to spot each type. Otherwise, you are likely to be misled, misinformed, or fooled.