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16 posts from September 2014

Presidential Executive Orders, US Spy Agencies, And Privacy

You probably never heard of Executive Order 12333. The Ars Technica blog explained what it is, the history leading up to the order, and how it affects spy programs today. Several NSA alumni offered their views of Executive Order 12333, issued in 1981:

“... 12333 is used to target foreigners abroad, and collection happens outside the US," whistleblower John Tye, a former State Department official, told Ars recently. "My complaint is not that they’re using it to target Americans, my complaint is that the volume of incidental collection on US persons is unconstitutional.” "

Another alumnus recalled that when President Reagan took office in 1981, he:

"... inherited an intelligence community that had been demoralized and debilitated by six years of public disclosures, denunciation, and budgetary limitations... during the Carter era, Congress set up onerous “procedures governing virtually every aspect of intelligence gathering in the US or affecting US citizens abroad.” These included the pesky House and Senate Select Committees on Intelligence, FISA, and FISC... 12333 was designed to allow NSA to have greater latitude when they pick up Americans [as part of] targets overseas..."

At that time, the primary perceived threat was spying by the Soviet Union. Terrorism was a lower priority:

"Ed Loomis, a cryptologist at the NSA from 1964 to October 2001 who later became a whistleblower, told Ars that every year, everyone working in the signals intelligence (SIGINT) division had to read EO 12333, FISA, and US SIGINT Directive 18 (July 1993) as a way to keep refreshed on the laws. Prior to the September 11 attacks, Loomis said the NSA's internal policy was to stay much more in line with FISA and not collect information—incidental or otherwise—on Americans."

How 12333 is used today:

"Thomas Drake, another well-known NSA veteran turned whistleblower, put it in simpler terms.“12333 is now being used as the ‘legal justification’... It’s not technically law... An executive order is the equivalent of the law, we have a constitutional process by which laws are created in this country... The NSA has carte blanche on foreign intelligence... They’re hiding behind 12333 to continue the vast collection of metadata and content... As long as there is reasonable doubt, they will hide behind what has been disclosed. What has been disclosed is 12333..."

I strongly urge you to read the entire Ars Technica blog post.


Travel: A New I've Been Mugged Topic

Sooner or later, everyone travel. For business or for pleasure. Via car, train, bus, boat or plane. The new "Travel" topic provides fast, convenient access to privacy, identity theft, security, threats, and safety tips related to transportation. You can easily access this content using the Categories tag cloud in the right column.

I hope that you like the new category.


The "Spiral Of Silence' And Social Networking Site Usage

Late last month, Pew Research released results of a study about the "spiral or silence," the tendency of people not to share their opinions to family, friends, coworkers, and classmates when they believe that their opinions are not widely shared. To study the "spiral of silence," Pew Research surveyed 1,801 adults about the disclosures by Edward Snowden about extensive government surveillance programs. Pew Research selected this topic because there was wide disagreement about it:

"... other surveys by the Pew Research Center at the time we were fielding this poll showed that Americans were divided over whether the NSA contractor’s leaks about surveillance were justified and whether the surveillance policy itself was a good or bad idea. For instance, Pew Research found in one survey that 44% say the release of classified information harms the public interest while 49% said it serves the public interest."

Pew Research found that:

"People were less willing to discuss the Snowden-NSA story in social media than they were in person. 86% of Americans were willing to have an in-person conversation about the surveillance program, but just 42% of Facebook and Twitter users were willing to post about it on those platforms."

"Social media did not provide an alternative discussion platform for those who were not willing to discuss the Snowden-NSA story. Of the 14% of Americans unwilling to discuss the Snowden-NSA story in person with others, only 0.3% were willing to post about it on social media."

"In both personal settings and online settings, people were more willing to share their views if they thought their audience agreed with them. For instance, at work, those who felt their coworkers agreed with their opinion were about three times more likely to say they would join a workplace conversation about the Snowden-NSA situation."

"Previous ‘spiral of silence’ findings as to people’s willingness to speak up in various settings also apply to social media users. Those who use Facebook were more willing to share their views if they thought their followers agreed with them..."

"Facebook and Twitter users were also less likely to share their opinions in many face-to-face settings. This was especially true if they did not feel that their Facebook friends or Twitter followers agreed with their point of view..."

Why do people practice this spiral of silence? The researchers didn't ask survey participants directly why:

"The traditional view of the spiral of silence is that people choose not to speak out for fear of isolation. Other Pew Research studies have found that it is common for social media users to be mistaken about their friends’ beliefs and to be surprised once they discover their friends’ actual views via social media. Thus, it might be the case that people do not want to disclose their minority views for fear of disappointing their friends, getting into fruitless arguments, or losing them entirely. Some people may prefer not to share their views on social media because their posts persist and can be found later—perhaps by prospective employers or others with high status."

It seems that FOMO (e.g., Fear Of Missing Out) applies to a lot of discussions on social networking sites and apps. This presents all of us with another opportunity to practice these three strategies to fight FOMO. The spiral of silence practice seems both profoundly sad and a waste. A waste because we have these wonderful, powerful social networking tools that people have chosen not to fully utilize and/or are afraid to use completely. Sad because the practice of spiral of silence prevents open, honest, and direct dicussions; we fail to learn as much as we might from each other.

What are your opinions of this study? Of the spiral of silence? Of FOMO? Are people who practice the 'spiral of silence' cowards?


More Wage Theft Complaints Filed By Employees Against Their Employers

The New York Times reported recently about a surge in lawsuits by workers against their employers:

"... a flood of recent cases — brought in California and across the nation — that accuse employers of violating minimum wage and overtime laws, erasing work hours and wrongfully taking employees’ tips... Some federal and state officials agree. They assert that more companies are violating wage laws than ever before, pointing to the record number of enforcement actions they have pursued."

One possible reason why wage theft is increasing:

"... underlying changes in the nation’s business structure. The increased use of franchise operators, subcontractors and temp agencies leads to more employers being squeezed on costs and more cutting corners... companies on top can deny any knowledge of wage violations [by contractors]...".

The news story reported plenty of examples:

"... Guadalupe Rangel worked seven days straight, sometimes 11 hours a day, unloading dining room sets, trampolines, television stands and other imports... Even though he often clocked 70 hours a week at the Schneider warehouse here, he was never paid time-and-a-half overtime, he said. And now, having joined a lawsuit involving hundreds of warehouse workers..."

One wage-theft tactic is to force workers to sign blank timesheets:

"Julie Su, the state labor commissioner, recently ordered a janitorial company in Fremont to pay $332,675 in back pay and penalties to 41 workers who cleaned 17 supermarkets. She found that the company forced employees to sign blank time sheets, which it then used to record inaccurate, minimal hours of work."

Reclassifying jobs is another tactic:

"... in California, a federal appeals court ruled last week that FedEx had in effect committed wage theft by insisting that its drivers were independent contractors rather than employees. FedEx orders many drivers to work 10 hours a day, but does not pay them overtime, which is required only for employees. FedEx said it planned to appeal."

And, the wage theft problem is spreading:

"Commissioner Su of California said... My agency has found more wages being stolen from workers in California than any time in history... This has spread to multiple industries across many sectors. It’s affected not just minimum-wage workers, but also middle-class workers..."

Terrible business practices and unethical behaviors. The tiny bit of good news: more workers are learning what their rights are and are standing up for their rights.

I am not surprised at all by these mounting wage-theft allegations. Why? First, professor and former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich summarized the ethical problem well in September 2013 on Twitter.com while discussing wrongdoing at the big banks:

"Fines effective only if risk of being caught x probability of being prosecuted x amount of fine > profits to be made."

Besides banks, executives in other and medium-sized businesses have done the math, too. Browse the website for the atate attorney general where you live. Some enforce wage laws vigorously. Others, not so much -- leaving it to workers to file civil suits. Low- and minimum-wage workers often don't have the funds to hire an attorney; if they know their rights. They are busy trying to survive, feed their families, and pay their bills.

Second, many unethical executives have concluded that labor laws in their states are weak. This 2013 study by NELP highlighted the problem: 83 percent of workers still had problems collecting unpaid wages -- even when they already had a court decision in their favor. That means, employers realize there are likely no consequences from violating labor laws.

Third, with any search engine you can easily find news reports about wage-theft settlements. I have reported about some recent cases in New York State: Domino's, McDonald's, and Masonry Services. Fourth, you see similar unethical behavior by executives with employer-operated retirement plans. This blog post reported about some typical cases. Overall, the U.S. Department of Labor recovered $1.2 billion in 2012 for workers. The facts speak for themselves.

What are your opinions of the wage-theft allegations?


Has Your Monthly Residential Internet Bill Gone Up?

Monthly Internet prices seem to be going up. Last month, my Internet Service Provider (ISP) raised prices about ten percent.

If you are wondering what other Americans pay monthly for Internet access, it's alot. I reviewed the "Cost of Connectivity 2013" report by the New America Foundation (NAF). The NAF analyzed prices in 24 cities worldwide and found:

"... in comparison to their international peers, Americans in major cities such as New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC are paying higher prices for slower Internet service. While the plans and prices have been updated in the intervening year, the 2013 data shows little progress, reflecting remarkably similar trends to what we observed in 2012."

The U.S. cities in the report: Bristol (Virginia), Chattanooga (Tennessee), Kansas City (Kansas), Kansas City (Missouri), Lafayette (Louisiana), Los Angeles (California), New York (New York), San Francisco (California), and Washington, DC.

I hope that Boston makes the 2014 report. Other cities in the 2013 report: Amsterdam (Netherlands), Berlin (Germany), Bucharest (Romania), Copenhagen (Denmark), Dublin (Ireland), Hong Kong (China), London (United Kingdom), Mexico City (Mexico), Paris (France), Prague (Czech Republic), Riga (Latvia), Seoul (South Korea), Tokyo (Japan), Toronto (Canada), and Zurich (Switzerland).

While Chattanooga (Tennessee), Seoul (South Korea), Lafayette (Louisiana), Kansas City (Kansas), and Kansas City (Missouri) offer the fastest connection speeds, residents in the USA  pay more and get slower speeds compared to other countries. Some more comparisons in the report:

"... the best deal for a 150 Mbps home broadband connection from cable and phone companies is $130/month, offered by Verizon FiOS. By contrast, the international cities we surveyed offer comparable speeds for less than $80/month, with most coming in at about $50/month.... In July 2013 Verizon announced a new 500 Mbps service (with 100 Mbps upload speeds) available in selected areas of its FiOS service. However, this new 500 Mbps service costs around $300 a month. In Amsterdam, a symmetrical 500 Mbps broadband plan (with 500 Mbps download and upload speeds) costs just over $86."

$300 per month? That's equivalent to an auto loan. Would you pay that? Can you afford to pay that? The comparisons aren't any better for mobile broadband:

"... the cheapest price for around 2 GB of data in the U.S. ($30/month from T-Mobile) is twice as much as what users in London pay ($15/month from T-Mobile). It costs more to purchase 2 GB of data in a U.S. city than it does in any of the cities surveyed in Europe."

So much for claims of American exceptionalism. I wrote in prior blog posts about how local laws already exist in 20 states to prevent broadband competition by stopping cities and towns from building their own (low-cost to users) fiber Internet services. This keeps monthly prices by your Internet Service Provider (ISP) high. This limits the freedom of consumers to build broadband alternatives through their cities and towns. Bad for you; good for the corporate ISPs., Again, from the NAF report:

"In cities with municipal broadband networks, pricing generally remained the same. The notable exception was Chattanooga, TN, where the local municipal provider EPB dramatically lowered the costs of a symmetrical 1 Gbps connection, from $349/month to $70/month. By contrast, in American cities without local fiber competitors, the highest speed available for $70/month is around 50 Mbps. EPB also raised the speed of their their slowest broadband plan from 30 Mbps to 100 Mbps, while keeping the monthly price the same at $57.99."

$349 to $70 monthly! If this is what it takes to lower monthly Internet prices, I am all for municipal broadband.

Yet, instead of foghting for lower Internet prices, during the past few months U.S. residents have had to fight to keep a fair and open Internet (a/k/a Net Neutrality). The first dealine to submit comments to the FCC was July 18 (moved from July 15 due to heavy volume). 1.1 million comments were submitted, and the electronic version of the comments data is available online.

The next deadline to submit Net Neutrality comments to the FCC is September 15, 2014 (moved from Sept. 10). If you believe prices are too high, tell your ISP, the FCC, and tell your elected officials.

Has your ISP lowered or raised prices recently? If so, how much? Do you think that Americans should pay more for Internet compared to residents of other countries? Do you think monthly Internet prices in the USA are okay as is or too high? Share your reasons.


I Surf, Therefore I am Vulnerable

Profile page at social weight-loss site. Click to view larger image.

[Editor's Note: today's post is by R. Michelle Green, a frequent guest author. She is the Principal for her company, Client Solutions, and a combination geek girl, personal organizer, and career coach. Today, she shares her experiences with with maintaining privacy online, especially at social networking sites that ask users to share health and fitness data.]

By R. Michelle Green

I recently watched a 60 Minutes report called The Data Brokers, about companies that gather our personal information from the net and sell it. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth your time. I spent the next several minutes thinking about the information I share, and the trade-offs I know I make.

I have two Google Mail accounts, for example. I consciously work to limit its access to all of me, using different browsers for the different Gmail accounts. I don’t stay logged in if I’m not actively reading or sending emails. Google treats me differently depending on which account I’m using (check it yourself – I got different results for the same search request) so my little efforts are not wasted. I know it’s a losing battle, but I make the effort.

I am not a power Facebook user. I Liked a couple of shows, but I play no games, and resist its use for birthdays, reminders etc. The site patiently and relentlessly reminds me that my profile is only 55% complete. It’ll stay that way if I have anything to do with it. (Why do they need to know where I was born? Or my elementary school? Please…) And the very idea of using my Facebook login credentials to log into other sites makes me twitch.

My ruminations led me to identify one site with a great deal of info about me that I had not scrutinized at all. My nutritionist requires me to journal my food intake at a free online weight-loss site offering coaching, motivational support, and analytic tools. This is not meant to be a review of the site, but rather the actions I took (and DIDN’T take) in using it.

While I consider myself pretty thoughtful about my net use (I actually do read most EULAs and TOCs), I realized I’d never tried to read this site’s. Like many sites that offer more choices as you scroll down, there never seemed to be a bottom to the main page. Only through intense perseverance (i.e., holding the page down button for several seconds) did I find links to a Privacy Policy and the Terms and Conditions.

The good news – the site manages the info well. They retain it, they do not sell it, and they are careful to distinguish between Private User Generated Content (available only by log-in) and Public User Generated Content (visible on the public Community pages). Once you find one governing document, big ad sized icons lead you to the other documents that control one’s use of the site. It also encourages people to read this info, with participation points (e.g., points users can earn by participating in the site's loyalty program) available at the bottom of each agreement. They even offer advice about how to surf the internet safely.

The bad news – I didn’t see any printer friendly protocols for these agreements. Like many sites, they permit 3rd party advertisers to offer you ads targeted to the content you are posting. They do not mention specifically the names of parties with whom they share information – but doubleclick (now a Google subsidiary) is mentioned as their 3rd party advertising partner. And like many sites, even when you do have choices about how your info is used, the default skews to the site’s benefit, as the user can only opt-out after the fact. Some of you have heard about Personal Health Information (PHI) here on this blog, with articles as far back as 2011. The term is never mentioned on my site, perhaps because they are careful to say that they are not dispensing medical advice, only offering tools for users’ convenience. And those tools have helped many people live healthier and stronger lives. For free? And with the site’s assertion that even if the site is purchased by some other entity, these rules will still apply? Not too shabby.

But I should have checked all that stuff first, back in 2012.

Now I only wrote down what I ate. But even just knowing the food I eat could be descriptive of very specific illnesses or syndromes. The site is available both via browsers and mobile apps. If I really fully used the site, I could be sharing my exercise routine and location, my psychological attitudes about myself, my meals, and/or my moods, and more. The site would have access to my conversations with others on the site. It would have access to what it calls user generated content (recipes, comments on restaurants, or other activities associated with participation in the online "Community"). That’s when it starts getting scary to me.

I’ve accepted that more info than I prefer is out on the net and out of my hands, but I’m not fully abdicating control. The keys, IMHO, to negotiating the compromises required to benefit from our digital technologies?

A) Read the terms and the privacy clauses of any site or application you routinely use. Review them periodically – they can and will change them, as Facebook has demonstrated.

B) Read the manuals of the mechanisms that you use to access the 'net, be they desktops, laptops or mobile devices like tablets, smartphones, etc.

C) Know how to disable your device’s location tracking. Know what your apps are broadcasting, and what it takes to control them.

D) take advantage of the apps or software available to maximize your control and minimize 3rd party controls. The program I’m most curious about after watching the 60 Minutes report is Disconnect. This software permits you to see in real time the numerous parties watching your web interactions, and reveal what information they are gathering in the process.

E) Don’t make it easy for them! For example, don’t use your Facebook log-in to join some other site. My choice with Facebook? I log in, enjoy, and log off when I’m done. I never leave it on continually in the background. (Apparently I am congenitally immune to FOMO.)

Pew research back in 2011 noted that the more time you spend on social networking sites, the more trusting you are. (Beware confusing correlation with causation!!) Since I’m unwilling to be Travis McGee and live off the grid, I’m always looking for new tools that make my life easier. Perhaps you’ll share with me some of your favorite ways to negotiate a path between eschewing the use of the net completely, and passive ignorance about the loss of privacy.


I Stopped "Liking" Things For Two Weeks. How My Facebook Experience Changed

Facebook logo In August, Matt Honan wrote an interesting article in Wired about his social networking experiment. He clicked on all Facebook's "Like" buttons everywhere for two days. It ruined his life. Then, Elan Morgan wrote in Medium about a similar experiment. He didn't click on any Facebook "Like" buttons for two straight weeks. Being curious, I decided to perform my own experiment.

Like Morgan, I decided not to click on any Facebook "Like" buttons for two weeks. That meant avoiding both buttons on posts and links in comments. It also meant not clicking on any "Like" buttons on Websites around the Internet that displayed them.

I use Facebook for personal posts, and to supplement this blog since many readers use Facebook. So, for my experiment I also decided not to click on any "Like" buttons nor links on the I've Been Mugged page on Facebook.

To start, I announced my experiment to my Facebook "friends," which includes friends, acquaintances, family, coworkers, former classmates, and former coworkers. An announcement seemed wise since some of them pursue "Likes" passionately. Many of those former coworkers also work in the digital advertising industry. I asked for their understanding and patience during my informal week-long experiment. My August 17 status message on Facebook:

"Notice for all my Facebook friends: during the next week, I will perform an experiment on Facebook by NOT clicking on any "Like" buttons on posts ,comments, photos, videos, and pages. I want to see how this changes my experience with Facebook. You'll probably see me write comments more. So, you have been warned. Please don't feel offended."

Nobody complained. Several wrote comments,  which included predictions:

"You will most likely not be bombarded with advertisements or "links you may like". Good!"

Their curiosity:

"Love to hear your methodology. Are you studying adds to your feed by the hour? something else?"

And, some shared tips about how they deal with advertising on Facebook (link added):

"I don't see ads because I use adblock. So I really don't know what they'd be trying to sell me."

Background

I used the Web version of Facebook. For a couple years, I used the mobile version on a Windows phone until I accidentally broke the screen. The mobile version was fun for a while, but the novelty soon wore thin. Spending $10 to $15 monthly for a data plan mostly for Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, and IMDB searches seemed an expensive indulgence. So, when the phone broke, I took that as a sign, ditched the mobile apps, and returned to the fuller Web version. While mobile apps are convenient, they are still pieces of a site. I prefer the entire experience, not pieces. About the only pieces I enjoy are Reese's Pieces. Maybe Facebook should have named its app "Facebook Pieces," but that is a discussion for another time.

I use Facebook to post and view articles, status messages, photos, and videos. I have family members who post plenty of photos. Plenty. For privacy and security, I don't play Facebook games nor apps, having years ago disabled all Facebook apps in my account settings. (To learn about how to use Facebook securely, there are plenty of posts in this blog. Follow any of the links in this post. In the right column, enter "Facebook"  in the search mechanism, or select "Social Networking" in the tag cloud.) Facebook has made some stunning privacy missteps and reversals about how much of your data apps harvest. And, there's more about apps privacy here.

Test Goals and Methodology

I performed this test to see how my experience with Facebook might change. Would Facebook display different content? If so, what might that different content be? Posts by friends, ads, the pages I follow, or what?

My hypothesis going in was that my news feed would probably change. I wasn't sure how. Would I see different ads? Fewer ads? More ads? I didn't expect ads to disappear because that's how Facebook makes money. I knew that Facebook performs behavioral targeting, in order to present relevant ads to its users.

My hope was that my news feed would change because my new behavior would influence Facebook's display algorithm. Ideally, I might see more status messages by friends that it previously hadn't shown. If you didn't know, Facebook uses an algorithm to selectively display about 12 percent of the total status messages by all of your friends. Simply, you don't see everything. You never did; and probably never will. Similarly, your friends don't see everything you post. This 12 percent delivery rate makes "frictionless sharing" claims sound like a bunch of BS.

For my experiment, I decided not to change my profile by "un-Liking" any Facebook pages (e.g., newspapers, magazines, celebrities, television shows, musicians, comedians, pundits, etc.) I had previously "Liked." Frankly, I wanted to continue reading content from these news and entertainment sources; and not live in a virtual cave.

Results Overview

For the first two or three days, not clicking on "Like" buttons felt like a burden. I was used to the convenience. It took little effort or thought to click "Like" buttons and links. Maybe, I was going through "Like" withdrawal. After a couple days, it became easy to not click "Like" buttons. I noticed several things. The first thing I noticed was that I had to change. I had to decide what to type instead.

Use Your Words

When my son was 10 to 20 months old, he often greeted a parent by extending his arms upward and grunting. That was his preferred way to ask a parent or adult to pick him up. My wife and I constantly reminded him to use his words. As soon I stopped clicking "Like" buttons, I realized that I had to change: use my words.

What to type? It had been so easy before to simply click "Like" buttons and links. Like many Facebook users, I often clicked only the "Like" button without entering any comments. Now, I had to give Facebook more thought and effort.

What words did I use? I went through predictable variations: "Ha," "LOL," "ROTFL," "WTH," "WTF," "Great photo," "I agree," "Awesome," "Nice," and several more. Had Facebook made me lazy? Perhaps. Probably. Typing the word "Like" seemed stupid with so many "Like" button and links nearby. For a couple days, I used "Likey" in a feeble attempt to merge liking and humor. I quickly abandoned that.

Nobody asked why I was only entering comments and not clicking "Like" buttons nor links.

Life Without Likes

The first week of my experiment flew by. I posted on my personal news feed on August 25:

"A week has passed and I haven't clicked on a single "Like" button. None. Anywhere. Was easier than I thought it would be."

For me, it felt like cable TV or the Major League Baseball strike during 1995. Once you learn to live without it, you soon find it's easy to live without it. You find other things to do instead; often, more enjoyable things to do. So, I decided to extend my experiment to two weeks. I'm glad I did.

One friend suggested a reason why I found it easy to not click "Like" buttons:

"Of course it's easy. You are not young enough to really be stricken with FOMO...."

If you don't know: Fear Of Missing Out. Convenience and fear seem to drive so much of our social media usage. We love the convenience being able to post/read/watch anywhere and anytime. When you and everyone act this way, you quickly fall into the FOMO trap: if you stop acting this way, you'll miss out. You may or may not actually miss anything. It's the fear that you might. During my experiment, I didn't have any feelings of fear. None.

How My Facebook Experience Changed

With a two-week experiment, I noticed several changes. First, before starting my experiment, I often clicked on "Like" buttons for artices from news and entertainment sources. When I did, Facebook dutifully displayed related ads in the right column about the brand or company I just "Liked." Example: after "Liking" a news article about Comcast customer service, Facebook dutifully presented in the right column area ads by Comcast or by other cable/TV/Internet service providers. Now, Facebook seemed to have to work harder to determine what I "liked."

During the first week of my experiment, the links to related articles disappeared. You've probably seen the three related articles the Facebook interface displays when you "Like" an article. During the first week of my experiment, they went away. During the second week, those related articles re-appeared only when I entered a comment. That's good or bad depending upon whether you consider those related articles relevant or not. In my experience, the relevancy is hit or miss. Before my experiment, I rarely clicked on a related-article link. That didn't change during my experiment.

Second, Facebook seemed to work harder by focus on the content I entered into comments. If I mentioned a brand in a comment or status message, then an ad for that brand soon appeared in the right column ad area. Example; while answering a friend's post for advice about leasing automobiles, I mentioned in a comment my experience with leasing a Honda Civic hatchback. Bingo! Facebook soon displayed a Honda ad, assuming I wanted to buy or lease a Honda car. Maybe Facebook did this all along and I just never noticed before. I can say is this: in a life without "Liking" anything, it is more easily noticed. Mention brand names in your comments and Facebook will most likely display ads by those brands.

Third, Facebook seemed to work harder by using my profile data to display ads. I live in Boston and before the experiment had specified Boston in my profile. I noticed ads by Facebook for free movies at the Prudential Mall ( a local shopping area), dentists, and other local services. Those of you who know me, know that I don't like to shop. And, I already have a dentist I am satisfied with. So, irrelevant ads.

In a life without "Likes," it seems that Facebook will dig deeper into your profile and use data from it to display targeted ads. This seems consistent with the targeting options Facebook provides advertisers:

"You can choose the location, gender, age, likes and interests, relationship status, workplace and education of your target audience. If you have a Facebook Page, event or app, you can also target your ad to people who are already connected to you."

The targeting of some of those ads was dubious. I never entered any comments about shopping, dentists, or dental hygiene, but Facebook showed ads anyway.

Fourth, I saw more generic ads, or what seemed to me to be generic ads. I say generic because the ads were for brands I had not "Liked" at all: Verizon Wireless phone service, 1-800-Flowers, customized pen writing instruments, and such.

During my experiment, I did not click on any ads. None. Why? I hadn't clicked on any ads before.

In his experiment, Morgan concluded:

"Now that I am commenting more on Facebook and not clicking Like on anything at all, my feed has relaxed and become more conversational. It’s like all the shouty attention-getters were ushered out of the room as soon as I stopped incidentally asking for those kinds of updates by using the Like function. I have not seen a single repugnant image of animal torture, been exposed to much political wingnuttery, or continued to drown under the influx of über-cuteness that liking kitten posters can bring on."

My experience was similar in some ways and different in other ways. Consistent with Morgan's "conversational" conclusion, I saw more posts by "friends" and fewer posts with news articles in my news feed. It also had implications.

Since  I wasn't clicking "Like" buttons for news articles, Facebook's algorithm concluded I must not like them  -- and it showed fewer in my news feed. So, to read news content I had to go to my Pages Feed. This behavior change by Facebook makes it a less-than-ideal tool to read news, since I had clearly "Liked" previously several agencies (e.g., CFPB, FTC, FDIC, CUNA, NCUA, advocacy (e.g., CSIPA, ACLU, EFF, Stanford CIS), and news sources (e.g., Mashable, FactCheck, ProPublica, Dorchester Reporter, Bill Moyers). I conclude that Twitter is a better source of news because it doesn't have a filtering algorithm. I see all tweets from the news sources I follow there, making Twitter more reliable and relevant -- for me.

In contrast to Morgan's conclusion, I still saw posts (often articles) by Facebook "friends" who are passionate about animal cruelty. Those posts never bothered me. That didn't change. I still saw posts by friends with photos and video of cute animals. That didn't change, either. I still saw article posts by friends who are passionate about politics. Heck, I post a lot about politics. That didn't change, either.

Conclusions

Given the ease at not "Liking" things on Facebook, I extended my experiment from one to two weeks. I was generally happy with my new experience on Facebook. (Yes, I will admit that there is a part of me that felt glee with thwarting Facebook's algorithm.) I had to work a little harder to view and read articles by the entities I followed. Facebook is still a less-than-optimal way to read news.

Also, I learned a little about how Facebook displays targeted ads. It'll dig deeper into your profile data to do so. And, it'll use your comments text more. I had wanted to see what ads appeared. I saw lots of Verizon Wireless ads -- every day, all day long. I still haven't bought a single thing from that store.

My experiment reinforced my view that Facebook isn't really a social networking service. Why? First, there is the 12-percent delivery rate of your friends' status messages. So, you can't assume you've seen everything by your friends, nor that your friends have seen all of your posts. Not very social. Second, in a life without "Liking" things, as Facebook digs deeper into your profile to target ads, it becomes clear that the service is really a gigantic, worldwide advertising delivery and distribution system.

Will I resume clicking "Like" buttons and links? I haven't decided, yet. I may. I may not. If you want to reduce your use of Facebook without deleting your account, not "Liking" things is an attractive option. A more conversational Facebook is a good thing.

Opinions? Could you use Facebook without clicking "Like" buttons? Would you? Have you? Why or why not?


The U.S. Justice Department And Bank Of America Agree On Record Settlement Amount

Department of Justice logo Maybe you were away on vacation and missed this. On August 21, the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) and several states' attorney generals announced the largest civil settlement ever with a single entity.

The $16.65 billion settlement agreement with Bank of America resolves both federal and state civil investigations into activities by the bank's former and current subsidiaries, including Countrywide Financial Corporation and Merrill Lynch, related to the packaging, marketing, sale, and issuance of residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS). The bank acquired Merrill Lynch in 2009, and Countrywide in 2008.

According to the DOJ announcement, the bank agreed to pay:

"... a $5 billion penalty under the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery and Enforcement Act (FIRREA) – the largest FIRREA penalty ever – and provide billions of dollars of relief to struggling homeowners, including funds that will help defray tax liability as a result of mortgage modification, forbearance or forgiveness. The settlement does not release individuals from civil charges, nor does it absolve Bank of America, its current or former subsidiaries and affiliates or any individuals from potential criminal prosecution."

Bank of America logo This settlement is part of President Obama’s Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force and its Residential Mortgage-Backed Securities (RMBS) Working Group, which has recovered $36.65 billion to date for American consumers and investors. The RMBS Working Group is led by Director Geoffrey Graber and five co-chairs: Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Division Stuart Delery, Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division Leslie Caldwell, Director of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement Andrew Ceresney, U.S. Attorney for the District of Colorado John Walsh, and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.

Additional terms of the settlement:

"...includes a statement of facts, in which the bank has acknowledged that it sold billions of dollars of RMBS without disclosing to investors key facts about the quality of the securitized loans. When the RMBS collapsed, investors, including federally insured financial institutions, suffered billions of dollars in losses.."

These losses and other activities contributed to the economic recession during 207 to 2009, from which the country is still trying to recover. Additional terms of the settlement:

"... almost $10 billion will be paid to settle federal and state civil claims by various entities related to RMBS, CDOs and other types of fraud. Bank of America will pay a $5 billion civil penalty to settle the Justice Department claims under FIRREA. Approximately $1.8 billion will be paid to settle federal fraud claims related to the bank’s origination and sale of mortgages, $1.03 billion will be paid to settle federal and state securities claims by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), $135.84 million will be paid to settle claims by the Securities and Exchange Commission. In addition, $300 million will be paid to settle claims by the state of California, $45 million to settle claims by the state of Delaware, $200 million to settle claims by the state of Illinois, $23 million to settle claims by the Commonwealth of Kentucky, $75 million to settle claims by the state of Maryland, and $300 million to settle claims by the state of New York."

The settlment includes relief for consumers:

"... $7 billion in the form of relief to aid hundreds of thousands of consumers harmed... That relief will take various forms, including principal reduction loan modifications that result in numerous homeowners no longer being underwater on their mortgages and finally having substantial equity in their homes. It will also include new loans to credit worthy borrowers struggling to get a loan, donations to assist communities in recovering from the financial crisis, and financing for affordable rental housing.... $490 million in a tax relief fund to be used to help defray some of the tax liability that will be incurred by consumers receiving certain types of relief if Congress fails to extend the tax relief coverage of the Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act of 2007."

Related announcements were made by several states' attorney generals, including California, Florida, and Maryland. The settlement also resolves an August 2013 complaint against the bank by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of North Carolina about $850 million of RMBS activities.

I encourage consumers to read the entire DOJ announcement, the 37-page settlement agreement (Adobe PDF), and the 30-page statement of facts addendum (Adobe PDF). The relief programs and payments to homeowners and consumers are good, but as former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich said in September 2013 on Twitter.com:

"Fines effective only if risk of being caught x probability of being prosecuted x amount of fine > profits to be made."

This wrongdoing by bank executives will stop also when individual bank executives are convicted of fraud and are sent to prison for lengthy periods (with the loss of significant personal assets). Until then, the country will have two sets of laws where poor people who commit crimes and are caught go to prison, while rich people (including bank and corporate executives) who commit crimes and are caught have their employers pay modest fines.

Fraud is fraud. Theft is theft. Consequences need to be consistent. What are your opinions of the settlement agreement?


Market Basket Returns To Normal Operations As Arthur T. Demoulas Buys Company And Resumes Management

This seemed like timely content for a Labor Day holiday.

On Thursday, the New Hampshire Union Leader reported that a deal had been reached regarding the confrontation at the Market Basket supermarkets in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Arthur T. Demoulas will acquire a 50.5 percent ownerhsip of the company and return to managing it. He had been ousted last year by the company's Board of Directors, which included other family members. Reportedly, the company issued a statement that Arthur T. Demoulas:

"... and his management team will return to Market Basket during the interim period while the transaction to purchase the company is completed... All associates are welcome back to work with the former management team to restore the company back to normal operations.”

A grassroots effort of managers and employees had stopped work, promising to return to work when Arthur T. Demoulas was reinstated. Supporting this effort, most customers stopped shopping at the supermarket chain, whose revenues dropped more than 90 percent. Store shelves became bare, and many workers had their hours reduced. The confrontation lasted about five weeks and made news headlines worldwide.

Reportedly, the sale will be completed in a couple months. Mr Arthur T. Demoulas thanked cheering employees and supporters.

I cannot recall a time in history when a group of managers and employees banded together to support a senior executive of a corporation. When Arthur T. Demoulas previously managed Market Basket, he managed it more like a benefit corporation --  a joint enterprise between the company, its owners, and the community. He kept prices lower than competitors' prices, paid employees more, and gave both employees and managers more authority.

Professor and former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich posted on August 28 via Facebook:

"In a big win for employees, managers, and customers of “Market Basket” -- the supermarket chain in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine whose beloved CEO, Arthur T. Demoulas, was fired by a greedy board of directors who thought him too generous – Arthur T. is now back. Yesterday the board relented and agreed to sell the company to him. Arthur T. told cheering workers at the company’s headquarters in Tewksbury that he loved them, appreciated their efforts helping him gain control of the company, and was “in awe of what you have all accomplished.” Over the last several weeks, the sacrifices of employees, managers, and customers of “Market Basket” gives new meaning to the old term “solidarity.” It also illustrates the power of treating such people as partners in an enterprise rather than as costs to be cut. When all benefit from a business's success, all will sacrifice to keep it successful. May the rest of American business take note."

Note: workers as partners, not a cost to be cut. And...  a sacrifice, indeed, by managers, employees, and customers. It showed what solidarity can achieve. Congratulations!