If you use Facebook, then you know that the social networking site serves ads based upon your interests. And, you''d probably be surprised at what Facebook thinks you are interested in versus what you are really interested in.
To see what Facebook thinks you are interested in, you will need to access your Ad Preferences page. Sign into your Facebook account using the browser interface, and click on the triangle drop-down menu icon in the upper right corner. Next select Settings, and then select Ads in the left column. Your Ad Preferences page looks like this:
Facebook has neatly organized what it thinks your interests are into several categories: Your Interests, Advertisers You've Interacted With, Your Information, and Ad Settings. Open the Your Interests module:
This module includes several sub-categories: News & Entertainment, Business & Industry, Hobbies & Activities, Travel Places, & Events, People, Technology, and Lifestyle. Mouse over an item to reveal both an explanation why that item appears in your list and the "X" delete button. Click on the "X" button to remove that item.
Facebook has collected impressively long lists about what it thinks your interests are. So, click on the "See More" links within each sub-category. Facebook ads interest items based upon links you've selected, groups you've joined, ads you have viewed, the photos/videos you have uploaded, items (e.g., groups, events, status messages) you have "Liked," and more. There's plenty to browse, so you'll probably want to set aside 15 minutes to review and delete items.
There is a sneaky aspect to Facebook's interface. An item may appear in several categories. So, if you delete it in one category don't assume it was deleted in other categories. You'll have to visit each sub-category and delete it there, too. And, there is no guarantee Facebook won't re-add that item later based upon your activities within the site and/or mobile app.
Caution: even if you delete everything, Facebook will still show advertisements. Why? That's what the social networking service is designed to do. That's its business model. Even if you stop clicking "Like" buttons, Facebook will use alternate criteria to display ads. You can control or limit the topics for ads, but you can't stop ads entirely.
The Your Information module includes toggle switches to either activate or deactivate groups of items within your profile which Facebook uses to display ads:
It's probably wise to re-visit your Ad Preference page once yearly to delete items. What do you think?
Most people love the Internet. It's a tool that has made life easier and more efficient in many ways. Even with all of those advances, the founder of the Internet listed three reasons why our favorite digital tool is in serious trouble:
Consumers have lost control of their personal information
It's too easy for anyone to publish misinformation online
Political advertising online lacks transparency
Tim Berners-Lee explained the first reason:
"The current business model for many websites offers free content in exchange for personal data. Many of us agree to this – albeit often by accepting long and confusing terms and conditions documents – but fundamentally we do not mind some information being collected in exchange for free services. But, we’re missing a trick. As our data is then held in proprietary silos, out of sight to us, we lose out on the benefits we could realise if we had direct control over this data and chose when and with whom to share it. What’s more, we often do not have any way of feeding back to companies what data we’d rather not share..."
"Today, most people find news and information on the web through just a handful of social media sites and search engines. These sites make more money when we click on the links they show us. And they choose what to show us based on algorithms that learn from our personal data that they are constantly harvesting. The net result is that these sites show us content they think we’ll click on – meaning that misinformation, or fake news, which is surprising, shocking, or designed to appeal to our biases, can spread like wildfire..."
Most other search engines collect information about their users and that to serve search results items related to what they've searched upon previously. That's called the "filter bubble." It's great for search engines' profitability as it encourages repeat usage, but is terrible for consumers wanting unbiased and unfiltered search results.
Berners-Lee warned that online political advertising:
"... has rapidly become a sophisticated industry. The fact that most people get their information from just a few platforms and the increasing sophistication of algorithms drawing upon rich pools of personal data mean that political campaigns are now building individual adverts targeted directly at users. One source suggests that in the 2016 U.S. election, as many as 50,000 variations of adverts were being served every single day on Facebook, a near-impossible situation to monitor. And there are suggestions that some political adverts – in the US and around the world – are being used in unethical ways – to point voters to fake news sites, for instance, or to keep others away from the polls. Targeted advertising allows a campaign to say completely different, possibly conflicting things to different groups. Is that democratic?"
What do you think of the assessment by Berners-Lee? Of his solutions? Any other issues?
Internet-connected televisions, often referred to as "smart TVs," collect a wide variety of information about consumers. The devices track the videos you watch from several sources: cable, broadband, set-top box, DVD player, over-the-air broadcasts, and streaming devices. The devices collect a wide variety of information about consumers, including items such as as sex, age, income, marital status, household size, education level, home ownership, and household value. The TV makers sell this information to third parties, such as advertisers and data brokers.
What's a consumer to do to protect their privacy? This C/Net article provides good step-by-step instructions to turn off or to minimize the tracking by your smart television. The instructions include several smart TV brands: Samsung, Vizio, LG, Sony, and others. Sample instructions for one brand:
"Samsung: On 2016 TVs, click the remote's Home button, go to Settings (gear icon), scroll down to Support, then down to Terms & Policy. Under "Interest Based Advertisement" click "Disable Interactive Services." Under "Viewing Information Services" unclick "I agree." And under "Voice Recognition Services" click "Disable advanced features of the Voice Recognition services." If you want you can also disagree with the other two, Nuance Voice Recognition and Online Remote Management.
On older Samsung TVs, hit the remote's Menu button (on 2015 models only, then select Menu from the top row of icons), scroll down to Smart Hub, then select Terms & Policy. Disable "SynchPlus and Marketing." You can also disagree with any of the other policies listed there, and if your TV has them, disable the voice recognition and disagree with the Nuance privacy notice described above."
"Republican Senator Jeff Flake, who opposes the Federal Communications Commission's broadband privacy rules, says he's readying a resolution to rescind them, Politico reports. Flake's confirmation to Politico comes days after Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee), the head of the House Communications Subcommittee, said she intends to work with the Senate to revoke the privacy regulations."
Pause for a moment and let that sink in. Blackburn and other GOP representatives have pursued policies where we consumers all pay more for broadband due to the lack of competition. The GOP, a party that supposedly dislikes regulation and prefers free-market competition, is happy to do the opposite to help their corporate donors. The GOP, a party that historically has promoted states' rights, now uses state laws to restrict the freedoms of constituents at the city, town, and local levels. And, that includes rural constituents.
Too many GOP voters seem oblivious to this. Why Democrats failed to capitalize on this broadband issue, especially during the Presidential campaign last year, is puzzling. Everyone needs broadband: work, play, school, travel, entertainment.
"... in adopting new broadband privacy rules late last year, the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) took action that jeopardizes the vibrancy and success of the internet and the innovations the internet has and should continue to offer. While the FCC’s Order applies only to Internet Service Providers (“ISPs”), the onerous and unnecessary rules it adopted establish a very harmful precedent for the entire internet ecosystem. We therefore urge Congress to enact a resolution of disapproval pursuant to the Congressional Review Act (“CRA”) vitiating the Order."
The new privacy rules by the FCC require broadband providers (a/k/a ISPs) to obtain affirmative “opt-in” consent from consumers before using and sharing consumers' sensitive information; specify the types of information that are sensitive (e.g., geo-location, financial information, health information, children’s information, social security numbers, web browsing history, app usage history and the content of communications); stop using and sharing information about consumers that have opted out of information sharing; meet transparency requirements to clearly notify customers about the information collection sharing and how to change their opt-in or opt-out preferences, prohibit "take-it-or-leave-it" offers where ISPs can refuse to serve customers who don't consent to the information collection and sharing; and comply with "reasonable data security practices and guidelines" to protect the sensitive information collected and shared.
The new FCC privacy rules are common sense stuff, but clearly these companies view common-sense methods as a burden. They want to use consumers' information however they please without limits, and without consideration for consumers' desire to control their own personal information. And, GOP representatives in Congress are happy to oblige these companies in this abuse.
Alarmingly, there is more. Lots more.
The GOP-led Congress also seeks to roll back consumer protections in banking and financial services. According to Consumer Reports, the issue arose earlier this month in:
"... a memo by House Financial Services Committee Chairman Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex), which was leaked to the press yesterday... The fate of the database was first mentioned [February 9th] when Bloomberg reported on a memo by Hensarling, an outspoken critic of the CFPB. The memo outlined a new version of the Financial CHOICE Act (Creating Hope and Opportunity for Investors, Consumers and Entrepreneurs), a bill originally advanced by the House Financial Services Committee in September. The new bill would lead to the repeal of the Consumer Complaint Database. It would also eliminate the CFPB's authority to punish unfair, deceptive or abusive practices among banks and other lenders, and it would allow the President to handpick—and fire—the bureau's director at will."
[Editor's note: today's guest post is by reporters at ProPublica. I've posted it because, a) many consumers don't know how their personal information is bought, sold, and used by companies and social networking sites; b) the USA is capitalist society and the sensitive personal data that describes consumers is consumers' personal property; c) a better appreciation of "a" and "b" will hopefully encourage more consumers to be less willing to trade their personal property for convenience, and demand better privacy protections from products, services, software, apps, and devices; and d) when lobbyists and politicians act to erode consumers' property and privacy rights, hopefully more consumers will respond and act. Facebook is not the only social networking site that trades consumers' information. This news story is reprinted with permission.]
Facebook has long let users see all sorts of things the site knows about them, like whether they enjoy soccer, have recently moved, or like Melania Trump.
But the tech giant gives users little indication that it buys far more sensitive data about them, including their income, the types of restaurants they frequent and even how many credit cards are in their wallets.
Since September, ProPublica has been encouraging Facebook users to share the categories of interest that the site has assigned to them. Users showed us everything from "Pretending to Text in Awkward Situations" to "Breastfeeding in Public." In total, we collected more than 52,000 unique attributes that Facebook has used to classify users.
Facebook's site says it gets information about its users "from a few different sources."
What the page doesn't say is that those sources include detailed dossiers obtained from commercial data brokers about users' offline lives. Nor does Facebook show users any of the often remarkably detailed information it gets from those brokers.
"They are not being honest," said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. "Facebook is bundling a dozen different data companies to target an individual customer, and an individual should have access to that bundle as well."
When asked this week about the lack of disclosure, Facebook responded that it doesn't tell users about the third-party data because its widely available and was not collected by Facebook.
"Our approach to controls for third-party categories is somewhat different than our approach for Facebook-specific categories," said Steve Satterfield, a Facebook manager of privacy and public policy. "This is because the data providers we work with generally make their categories available across many different ad platforms, not just on Facebook."
Satterfield said users who don't want that information to be available to Facebook should contact the data brokers directly. He said users can visit a page in Facebook's help center, which provides links to the opt-outs for six data brokers that sell personal data to Facebook.
Limiting commercial data brokers' distribution of your personal information is no simple matter. For instance, opting out of Oracle's Datalogix, which provides about 350 types of data to Facebook according to our analysis, requires "sending a written request, along with a copy of government-issued identification" in postal mail to Oracle's chief privacy officer.
Users can ask data brokers to show them the information stored about them. But that can also be complicated. One Facebook broker, Acxiom, requires people to send the last four digits of their social security number to obtain their data. Facebook changes its providers from time to time so members would have to regularly visit the help center page to protect their privacy.
One of us actually tried to do what Facebook suggests. While writing a book about privacy in 2013, reporter Julia Angwin tried to opt out from as many data brokers as she could. Of the 92 brokers she identified that accepted opt-outs, 65 of them required her to submit a form of identification such as a driver's license. In the end, she could not remove her data from the majority of providers.
ProPublica's experiment to gather Facebook's ad categories from readers was part of our Black Box series, which explores the power of algorithms in our lives. Facebook uses algorithms not only to determine the news and advertisements that it displays to users, but also to categorize its users in tens of thousands of micro-targetable groups.
Our crowd-sourced data showed us that Facebook's categories range from innocuous groupings of people who like southern food to sensitive categories such as "Ethnic Affinity" which categorizes people based on their affinity for African-Americans, Hispanics and other ethnic groups. Advertisers can target ads toward a group 2014 or exclude ads from being shown to a particular group.
Last month, after ProPublica bought a Facebook ad in its housing categories that excluded African-Americans, Hispanics and Asian-Americans, the company said it would build an automated system to help it spot ads that illegally discriminate.
Facebook has been working with data brokers since 2012 when it signed a deal with Datalogix. This prompted Chester, the privacy advocate at the Center for Digital Democracy, to filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission alleging that Facebook had violated a consent decree with the agency on privacy issues. The FTC has never publicly responded to that complaint and Facebook subsequently signed deals with five other data brokers.
To find out exactly what type of data Facebook buys from brokers, we downloaded a list of 29,000 categories that the site provides to ad buyers. Nearly 600 of the categories were described as being provided by third-party data brokers. (Most categories were described as being generated by clicking pages or ads on Facebook.)
The categories from commercial data brokers were largely financial, such as "total liquid investible assets $1-$24,999," "People in households that have an estimated household income of between $100K and $125K, or even "Individuals that are frequent transactor at lower cost department or dollar stores."
We compared the data broker categories with the crowd-sourced list of what Facebook tells users about themselves. We found none of the data broker information on any of the tens of the thousands of "interests" that Facebook showed users.
Our tool also allowed users to react to the categories they were placed in as being "wrong," "creepy" or "spot on." The category that received the most votes for "wrong" was "Farmville slots." The category that got the most votes for "creepy" was "Away from family." And the category that was rated most "spot on" was "NPR."
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The letter, available at the ANA site and here (Adobe PDF; 354.4k), explained the groups' reasoning:
"Unfortunately, in adopting new broadband privacy rules late last year, the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) took action that jeopardizes the vibrancy and success of the internet and the innovations the internet has and should continue to offer. While the FCC’s Order applies only to Internet Service Providers (“ISPs”), the onerous and unnecessary rules it adopted establish a very harmful precedent for the entire internet ecosystem. We therefore urge Congress to enact a resolution of disapproval pursuant to the Congressional Review Act (“CRA”) vitiating the Order.
Adopted on a party-line 3-2 vote just ten days before the Presidential election, over strenuous objections by the minority and strong concerns expressed by entities throughout the internet ecosystem, the new rules impose overly prescriptive online privacy and data security requirements that will conflict with established law, policy, and practice and cause consumer confusion... the FCC Order would create confusion and interfere with the ability of consumers to receive customized services and capabilities they enjoy and be informed of new products and discount offers. Further, the Order would also result in consumers being bombarded with trivial data breach notifications."
Data breach notifications are trivial? After writing this blog for almost 10 years, I have learned they aren't. Consumers deserve to know when companies fail to protect their sensitive personal information. Most states have laws requiring breach notifications. It seems as these advertising groups don't want to be responsible nor held accountable.
"The Congressional Review Act (CRA) has only worked precisely one time as a way for Congress to undo an executive branch regulation... The CRA was passed in 1996 as part of then-Speaker Newt Gingrich's (R-Ga.) "Contract with America." While executive branch agencies can only issue regulations pursuant to statutes passed by Congress, Congress wanted to find a way to make it easier to overturn those regulations. Previously there was a process by which, if one house of Congress voted to overturn the regulation, it was invalidated. This procedure was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1983.
Congress was still able to overturn an executive branch regulation by passing a law. Passing a law is, of course, subject to filibusters in the Senate. We've learned that the filibuster in recent years has made it quite difficult to pass laws. The CRA created a period of 60 "session days" (days in which Congress is in session) during which Congress could use expedited procedures to overturn a regulation.
"... to oppose the use of the Congressional Review Act (CRA) to adopt a Resolution of Disapproval overturning the FCC’s broadband privacy order. That order implements the mandates in Section 222 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which an overwhelming, bipartisan majority of Congress enacted to protect telecommunications users’ privacy. The cable, telecom, wireless, and advertising lobbies request for CRA intervention is just another industry attempt to overturn rules that empower users and give them a say in how their private information may be used.
Not satisfied with trying to appeal the rules of the agency, industry lobbyists have asked Congress to punish internet users by way of restraining the FCC, when all the agency did was implement Congress’ own directive in the 1996 Act. This irresponsible, scorched-earth tactic is as harmful as it is hypocritical. If Congress were to take the industry up on its request, a Resolution of Disapproval could exempt internet service providers (ISPs) from any and all privacy rules at the FCC... It could also preclude the FCC from addressing any of the other issues in the privacy order like requiring data breach notification and from revisiting these issues as technology continues to evolve in the future... Without these rules, ISPs could use and disclose customer information at will. The result could be extensive harm caused by breaches or misuse of data.
Broadband ISPs, by virtue of their position as gatekeepers to everything on the internet, have a largely unencumbered view into their customers’ online communications. That includes the websites they visit, the videos they watch, and the messages they send. Even when that traffic is encrypted, ISPs can gather vast troves of valuable information on their users’ habits; but researchers have shown that much of the most sensitive information remains unencrypted. The FCC’s order simply restores people’s control over their personal information and lets them choose the terms on which ISPs can use it, share it, or sell it..."
The new FCC broadband privacy rules kept consumers in control of their online privacy. The new rules featured opt-in requirements allowing them to collect consumers' sensitive personal information only after gaining customers' explicit consent.
So, advertisers have finally stated clearly how much they care about protecting consumers' privacy. They really don't. They don't want any constraints upon their ability to collect and archive consumers' (your) sensitive personal information. During the 2016 presidential campaign, candidate and now President Donald Trump promised:
"One of the keys to unlocking growth is scaling-back years of disastrous regulations unilaterally imposed by our out-of-control bureaucracy. In 2015 alone, federal agencies issued over 3,300 final rules and regulations, up from 2,400 the prior year. Every year, over-regulation costs our economy $2 trillion dollars a year and reduces household wealth by almost $15,000 dollars. Mr. Trump has proposed a moratorium on new federal regulations that are not compelled by Congress or public safety, and will ask agency and department heads to identify all needless job-killing regulations and they will be removed... A complete regulatory overhaul will level the playing field for American workers and add trillions in new wealth to our economy – keeping companies here, expanding hiring and investment, and bringing thousands of new companies to our shores."
Are FCC rules protecting your privacy "over-regulation," "onerous and unnecessary?" Are FCC privacy rules keeping consumers in control over their sensitive personal information "disastrous?" Will the Trump administration side with corporate lobbies or consumers' privacy protections? We shall quickly see.
There is a clue what the answer to that question will be. President Trump has named Ajit Pai, a Republican member of the Federal Communications Commission, as the new FCC chair replacing Tom Wheeler, the former chair and Democrat, who stepped down on Friday. This will also give the Republicans a majority on the FCC.
[Editor's note: Today's guest post was originally published by ProPublica on November 11, 2016. It is reprinted with permission. This prior post explained the problems with Facebook's racial advertising filters.]
Facing a wave of criticism for allowing advertisers to exclude anyone with an "affinity" for African-American, Asian-American or Hispanic people from seeing ads, Facebook said it would build an automated system that would let it better spot ads that discriminate illegally.
Federal law prohibits ads for housing, employment and credit that exclude people by race, gender and other factors.
Facebook said it would build an automated system to scan advertisements to determine if they are services in these categories. Facebook will prohibit the use of its "ethnic affinities" for such ads.
Facebook said its new system should roll out within the next few months. "We are going to have to build a solution to do this. It is not going to happen overnight," said Steve Satterfield, privacy and public policy manager at Facebook.
He said that Facebook would also update its advertising policies with "stronger, more specific prohibitions" against discriminatory ads for housing, credit and employment.
After ProPublica published an article about its ad purchase, Facebook was deluged with criticism. Four members of Congress wrote Facebook demanding that the company stop giving advertisers the option of excluding by ethnic group.
The federal agency that enforces the nation's fair housing laws said it was "in discussions" with Facebook to address what it termed "serious concerns" about the social network's advertising practices.
And a group of Facebook users filed a&n class-action lawsuit against Facebook, alleging that the company's ad-targeting technology violates the Fair Housing Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Facebook's Satterfield said that today's changes are the result of "a lot of conversations with stakeholders."
Facebook said the new system would not only scan the content of ads, but could also inject pop-up notices alerting buyers when they are attempting to purchase ads that might violate the law or Facebook's ad policies.
"We're glad to see Facebook recognizing the important civil rights protections for housing, credit and employment," said Rachel Goodman, staff attorney with the racial justice program at the American Civil Liberties Union. "We hope other online advertising platforms will recognize that ads in these areas need to be treated differently."
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Imagine if, during the Jim Crow era, a newspaper offered advertisers the option of placing ads only in copies that went to white readers.
That's basically what Facebook is doing nowadays.
The ubiquitous social network not only allows advertisers to target users by their interests or background, it also gives advertisers the ability to exclude specific groups it calls "Ethnic Affinities." Ads that exclude people based on race, gender and other sensitive factors are prohibited by federal law in housing and employment.
Here is a screenshot of a housing ad that we purchased from Facebook's self-service advertising portal:
The ad we purchased was targeted to Facebook members who were house hunting and excluded anyone with an "affinity" for African-American, Asian-American or Hispanic people. (Here's the ad itself.)
When we showed Facebook's racial exclusion options to a prominent civil rights lawyer John Relman, he gasped and said, "This is horrifying. This is massively illegal. This is about as blatant a violation of the federal Fair Housing Act as one can find."
The Fair Housing Act of 1968 makes it illegal "to make, print, or publish, or cause to be made, printed, or published any notice, statement, or advertisement, with respect to the sale or rental of a dwelling that indicates any preference, limitation, or discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin." Violators can face tens of thousands of dollars in fines.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 also prohibits the "printing or publication of notices or advertisements indicating prohibited preference, limitation, specification or discrimination" in employment recruitment.
Facebook's business model is based on allowing advertisers to target specific groups 2014 or, apparently to exclude specific groups 2014 using huge reams of personal data the company has collected about its users. Facebook's microtargeting is particularly helpful for advertisers looking to reach niche audiences, such as swing-state voters concerned about climate change. ProPublica recently offered a tool allowing users to see how Facebook is categorizing them. We found nearly 50,000 unique categories in which Facebook places its users.
Facebook says its policies prohibit advertisers from using the targeting options for discrimination, harassment, disparagement or predatory advertising practices.
"We take a strong stand against advertisers misusing our platform: Our policies prohibit using our targeting options to discriminate, and they require compliance with the law," said Steve Satterfield, privacy and public policy manager at Facebook. "We take prompt enforcement action when we determine that ads violate our policies."
Satterfield said it's important for advertisers to have the ability to both include and exclude groups as they test how their marketing performs. For instance, he said, an advertiser "might run one campaign in English that excludes the Hispanic affinity group to see how well the campaign performs against running that ad campaign in Spanish. This is a common practice in the industry."
He said Facebook began offering the "Ethnic Affinity" categories within the past two years as part of a "multicultural advertising" effort.
Satterfield added that the "Ethnic Affinity" is not the same as race 2014 which Facebook does not ask its members about. Facebook assigns members an "Ethnic Affinity" based on pages and posts they have liked or engaged with on Facebook.
When we asked why "Ethnic Affinity" was included in the "Demographics" category of its ad-targeting tool if it's not a representation of demographics, Facebook responded that it plans to move "Ethnic Affinity" to another section.
Facebook declined to answer questions about why our housing ad excluding minority groups was approved 15 minutes after we placed the order.
By comparison, consider the advertising controls that the New York Times has put in place to prevent discriminatory housing ads. After the newspaper was successfully sued under the Fair Housing Act in 1989, it agreed to review ads for potentially discriminatory content before accepting them for publication.
Steph Jespersen, the Times' director of advertising acceptability, said that the company's staff runs automated programs to make sure that ads that contain discriminatory phrases such as "whites only" and "no kids" are rejected.
The Times' automated program also highlights ads that contain potentially discriminatory code words such as "near churches" or "close to a country club." Humans then review those ads before they can be approved.
Jespersen said the Times also rejects housing ads that contain photographs of too many white people. The people in the ads must represent the diversity of the population of New York, and if they don't, he says he will call up the advertiser and ask them to submit an ad with a more diverse lineup of models.
But, Jespersen said, these days most advertisers know not to submit discriminatory ads: "I haven't seen an ad with 'whites only' for a long time."
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Earlier this month, the Attorney General for the State of New York (NYSAG) announced settlement agreements with the operators of several popular websites for the illegal online tracking of children, which violated the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). The website operators agreed to pay a total of $835,000 in fines, comply with, and implement a comprehensive set of requirements and changes.
COPPA, passed by Congress in 1998 and updated in 2013, prohibits the unauthorized collection, use, and disclosure of children’s personal information (e.g., first name, last name, e-mail address, IP address, etc.) on websites directed to children under the age of 13, including the collection of information for tracking a child’s movements across the Internet. The 2013 update expanded the list of personal information items, and prohibits covered operators from using cookies, IP addresses, and other persistent identifiers to track users across websites for most advertising purposes, amassing profiles on individual users, and serving targeted behavioral advertisements.
The NYSAG operated a program titled "Operation Child Tracker," which analyzed the most popular children’s websites for any unauthorized tracking. The analysis found that four website operators include third-party tracking on their websites -- which is prohibited by COPPA -- and failed to properly evaluate third-party companies, such as advertisers, advertising networks, and marketers. The website operators and their properties included Viacom (websites associated with Nick Jr. and Nickelodeon), Mattel (Barbie, Hot Wheels, and American Girl), JumpStart (Neopets), and Hasbro (My Little Pony, Littlest Pet Shop, and Nerf).
Regular readers of this blog are familiar with the variety of technologies and mechanisms companies have used to track consumers online: web browser cookies, “zombie cookies,” Flash cookies, “zombie e-tags,” super cookies, “zombie databases” on mobile devices, canvas fingerprinting, and augmented reality (which tracks consumers both online and in the physical world). For example, the web browser cookie is a small text file placed by a website on a user’s computer which is stored by the user’s web browser. Every time a user visits the website, the website retrieves all cookies files stored by that website on the user’s computer. Some website operators shared the information contained in web browser cookies with third-party companies, such as marketing affiliates, advertisers, and tracking companies. This allows web browser cookies to be used to track a user’s browsing history across several websites.
All of this happens in the background without explicit notices in the web browser software, unless the user configures their web browser to provide notice and/or to delete all browser cookies stored. The other technologies represent alternative methods with more technical sophistication and stealth.
The announcement by the NYSAG described each website operator's activities:
"Viacom operates the Nick Jr. website, at www.nickjr.com, and the Nickelodeon website, at www.nick.com... The office of the Attorney General found a variety of improper third party tracking on the Nick Jr. and Nickelodeon websites. These included:
1. Many advertisers and agencies that placed advertisements on Nick Jr. and Nickelodeon websites introduced tracking technologies of third parties that routinely engage in the type of tracking, profiling, and targeted advertising prohibited by COPPA. Viacom considered several approaches to mitigate the risk of COPPA violations from these third parties, including removing adult advertising from a child-directed section of the Nick Jr. website and monitoring advertisements for unexpected tracking... However, Viacom did not timely take either approach and did not implement sufficient safeguards for its users.
2. Some visitors to the homepage of the Nick Jr. website were served behavioral advertising and tracked through a third party advertising platform Viacom used to serve advertisements. Although Viacom considered the homepage of the Nick Jr. website to be parent-directed, and thus not covered by COPPA, the homepage had content that appealed to children. Under COPPA, website operators must treat mixed audience pages as child-directed..."
The NYSAG also found:
"... 26 of Mattel’s websites feature content for young children, including online games, animated cartoons, and downloadable content such as posters, computer desktop wallpaper, and pages for young children to color... The office of the Attorney General found that a variety of improper third party tracking technologies were present on Mattel’s child-directed websites and sections of websites. These included:
1. Mattel deployed a tracking technology supplied by a third party data broker across its Barbie, Hot Wheels, Fisher-Price, Monster High, Ever After High, and Thomas & Friends websites. Mattel used the tracking technology for measuring website metrics, such as the number of visitors to each site, a practice permitted under COPPA. However, the tracking technology supplied by the data broker introduced many other third party tracking technologies in a process known as “piggy backing.” Many of these third parties engage in the type of tracking, profiling, and targeted advertising prohibited by COPPA.
2. A tracking technology that Mattel deployed on the e-commerce portion of the American Girl website, which is not directed to children or covered by COPPA, was inadvertently introduced onto certain child-directed webpages of the American Girl website.
3. Mattel uploaded videos to Google’s YouTube.com, a video hosting platform, and then embedded some of these videos onto the child-directed portion of several Mattel websites, including the Barbie website. When the embedded videos were played by children, it enabled Google tracking technologies, which were used to serve behavioral advertisements.
Regarding JumpStart, the NYSAG found:
"... several improper third party tracking technologies were present on the Neopets website, both for logged-in users under the age of 13 and users who were not logged-in. These included:
1. JumpStart failed to configure the advertising platform used to serve ads on the Neopets website in a manner that would comply with COPPA. As a result, users under the age of 13 were served behavioral advertising and tracked through the advertising platform.
2. JumpStart integrated a Facebook plug-in into the Neopets website... Facebook uses the tracking information for serving behavioral advertising, among other things, unless the website operator notifies Facebook with a COPPA flag that the website falls is subject to COPPA. JumpStart did not notify Facebook that the Neopets website was directed to children."
For Hasbro, the NYSAG found:
"... several improper third party tracking technologies were present on Hasbro’s child-directed websites and sections of websites. These included:
1. Hasbro engaged in an advertising campaign that tracked visitors to the Nerf section of Hasbro’s website in order to serve Hasbro advertisements to those same users as they visited other websites at a later time, a type of online behavioral advertising prohibited by COPPA known as “remarketing.”
2. Hasbro integrated a third-party plug-in into many of its websites, that allowed users to be tracked across websites and introduced other third parties that engaged in the type of tracking, profiling, and targeted advertising prohibited under COPPA.
It is important to note that Hasbro participated in a safe harbor program. A website operator that complies with the rules of an FTC-approved safe harbor program is deemed in compliance with COPPA. However, safe harbor programs rely on full disclosure of the operator’s practices and Hasbro failed to disclose the existence of the remarketing campaign through the Nerf website."
The terms of the settlement agreements require the website operators to:
Conduct regular electronic scans for unexpected third party tracking technologies that may appear on their children’s websites. Three of the companies, Viacom, Mattel, and JumpStart will provide regular reports to the office regarding the results of the scans.
Adopt procedures to evaluate third-party companies before they are introduced onto their children’s websites. the evaluation should determine whether and how the third parties collect, use, and disclose, and allow others to collect, use, and disclose, personal information from users.
Provide notice to third parties that collect, use, or disclose personal information of users with information sufficient to enable the third parties to identify the websites or sections of websites that are child directed pursuant to COPPA.
Update website privacy policies with either, a) information sufficient to enable parents and others to identify the websites and portions of websites that are directed to children under COPPA, or b) a means of contacting the company so that parents and others may request such information.
Kudos to the NYSAG office and staff for a comprehensive analysis and enforcement to protect children's online privacy. This type of analysis and enforcement is critical as companies introduce more Internet-connected toys and products classified as part of the Internet of Things (ioT).
" 'How about we partner with Pokemon Go?' -- Said in every office at every agency for every client this morning."
Probably. The augmented-reality (AR) mobile game requires players to travel real-life streets to find and capture digital characters superimposed on locations and displayed on the screens of players' phones. The game's screens also display PokeStops and gyms, locations superimposed on real-life landmarks. The CNN video at the end of this blog post provides a good summary. The Apple iTunes site explains important game details:
"Search far and wide for Pokémon and items: Certain Pokémon appear near their native environment—look for Water-type Pokémon by lakes and oceans. Visit PokéStops, found at interesting places like museums, art installations, historical markers, and monuments, to stock up on Poké Balls and helpful items... As you level up, you’ll be able to catch more-powerful Pokémon to complete your Pokédex. You can add to your collection by hatching Pokémon Eggs based on the distances you walk... Take on Gym battles and defend your Gym: As your Charmander evolves to Charmeleon and then Charizard, you can battle together to defeat a Gym and assign your Pokémon to defend it against all comers."
What do we know so far about the AR game? What has happened since the game's launch? What happens when a mobile fantasy game combines real-life locations? Are non-players affected? What might be the implications for future AR games? I looked for answers, found plenty, and organized my findings into good, bad, and ugly categories -- with apologies to Mr. Leone and Mr. Eastwood.
"... Pokemon Go’s game designers have perfectly executed on the “Hook Model” — a framework for gamification and getting users to come back again and again and again."
Advocates have said that the game has gotten gamers off of their couches (e.g., butts) and out into the real world to get exercise, meet people, and explore locations they probably wouldn't have visited otherwise. Sounds good.
Within the game, PokeStops and gyms are located in publicly-accessible locations, such as theme parks, gardens, and museums. This has increased the sales at some nearby, small businesses. IGN reported on July 21:
"Bok Tower Gardens, a “contemplative garden” and National Historic Landmark located in Lake Wales, Fl, is saturated with PokeStops. The non-profit recorded a 10 to 15 percent increase in ticket sales during the first week of Pokemon Go’s release... So far, the only way to become a PokeStop or gym is to send in a request to Niantic Labs, but it isn't likely to be accepted unless the location is one of cultural significance or in a Pokemon Go deadzone."
"... to connect “Pokemon Go!” with real-world flora and fauna... This interactive, ranger-guided walk will allow visitors to uncover the creatures, both physical and virtual, that can be found within the National Lakeshore. They will learn how these creatures do or do not fit in with the rest of the environment, and what can be done to help them thrive. At the end of the program, visitors will be able to design their own Pokemon. “Trainers” of all ages are welcome."
"Many local Minneapolis businesses have considered, or implemented, special promotions to attract more mobile-gamers. Last week, Sencha Tea Bar in Stadium Village released three special shakes in correspondence with the three color teams of the game — red, yellow and blue — said store manager Josh Suwaratana. Suwaratana said the store does special shakes for other occasions, so the Pokemon shakes weren’t anything out of the ordinary... Sencha is also located next to a Pokestop — a real-life location where players can obtain items in the game. Suwaratana said the proximity to the Pokestop has helped business attract players."
"... I would encourage parents to seize the opportunity for their children to capitalize on this gaming experience while at the park or when running errands. My advice is not to judge this new gaming experience as all bad and in need of limits. Rather let’s embrace a step toward video games and virtual reality that may one day be tailored to inspiring those we love with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to leave the house and receive points/rewards/tokens for gathering information from other people they encounter in the store, at work, or at a place of leisure. To me that sounds an awful lot like what I have been trying to get them to do by learning social skills in my office each week..."
To focus the world's attention upon the impacts to citizens and children, activists have added Pokemon characters to images from war zones. C/Net reported on July 26 that Khaled Akil, a Syrian artist:
"... has taken Pokemon Go creatures and Photoshopped them into pictures of his war-torn homeland, presenting a stark contrast between the whimsy of the augmented-reality game and the sobering day-to-day realities of war... In one image, a young boy walks his bike through a street lined by bombed-out buildings, a Vaporeon by his side. In another, a Pikachu rests on a block of rubble next to a burning car... the activist group Revolutionary Forces of Syria Media Office has been tweeting poignant photos of kids holding up printouts of popular Pokemon creatures, along with their locations, which are identified as being near areas of heavy fighting, and the words 'save me'..."
To view photos, follow the links in the C/Net article to Akil's website and Instagram account.
"During game play, please be aware of your surroundings and play safely. You agree that your use of the App and play of the game is at your own risk, and it is your responsibility to maintain such health, liability, hazard, personal injury, medical, life, and other insurance policies as you deem reasonably necessary for any injuries that you may incur while using the Services. You also agree not to use the App to violate any applicable law, rule, or regulation (including but not limited to the laws of trespass) or the Trainer Guidelines, and you agree not to encourage or enable any other individual to violate any applicable law, rule, or regulation or the Trainer Guidelines. Without limiting the foregoing, you agree that in conjunction with your use of the App you will not inflict emotional distress on other people, will not humiliate other people (publicly or otherwise), will not assault or threaten other people, will not enter onto private property without permission, will not impersonate any other person or misrepresent your affiliation, title, or authority, and will not otherwise engage in any activity that may result in injury, death, property damage, and/or liability of any kind."
The "Conduct, General Prohibitions, and Niantic’s Enforcement Rights" section of the policy also lists the responsibilities of players, including players will not:
"... trespass, or in any manner attempt to gain or gain access to any property or location where you do not have a right or permission to be..."
So, it is important for players to know their responsibilities. Do they? Keep reading.
"Members of the East Providence Police Department said “Pokemon Go” has drawn huge crowds of people to local parks after hours... Officers say they have responded to several calls about the crowds. “They are very peaceful, they’re not causing problems, but it is in a public area – in public parks – and people who live in those areas do deserve to have their rest at night,” said Maj. William Nebus of the East Providence Police Department. “Our parks do close at 9 p.m. and just to have 200 people lurking in overnight hours is not peaceful to the residents.”
Law enforcement in Michigan ticketed players with misdemeanors after late-night, 12:30 a.m. game play. Nearby property owners have found players intrusive. There are two implications. First, it's important for players to understand and comply with local town ordinances and hour restrictions. Second, taxpayers will likely absorb the additional costs of park maintenance, clean-up, and law enforcement patrols to address the increased foot traffic in local parks.
"Your account was permanently terminated for violations of the Pokémon GO Terms of Service. This includes, but is not limited to: falsifying your location, using emulators, modified or unofficial software and/or accessing Pokémon GO clients or backends in an unauthorized manner including through the use of third party software."
"Security researcher Adam Reeve noted that when some users sign into Pokemon Go through Google on Apple devices, they effectively give the game and its developer full access to their Google account; this means, that at least in theory, Niantic... can access players' Gmail-based email, Google Drive based files, photos and videos stored in Google Photos, and any other content within their Google accounts. From a technical perspective, Niantic could potentially send emails on your behalf, or copy and distribute your photos. This is obviously concerning. Perhaps even scarier - and more eye-opening - is that users are accepting such permissions en masse without regard for the risks."
The Offensive Privacy blog offered privacy tips given the game's usage of smartphone cameras:
"While it's a bit outlandish to think that Niantic collects the video streams from every device, it is always a possibility that cannot be completely ruled out. This means anything your camera sees could, in theory, be stored by Niantic... I suggest some common sense tactics that apply to all cameras and video streams when using the AR mode of the game: 1) Never allow the camera to see personal ID such as your license, passport, or other sensitive document; 2) Never let the camera see a license plate or government building. This is especially true for those working in high-security environments; and 3) Avoid letting the camera see street signs, your house, house numbers, etc. It's also possible that metadata could be embedded in the image and made available if the image is shared publicly..."
Regular readers of this blog are already familiar with the privacy issues associated with metadata collection. Some players may be surprised that tips to maintain privacy while playing requires effort.
One measure of popularity are parodies. There is a porn parody of the game titled, "Poke-mon Ho!" Depending upon your lifestyle, you might categorize this as "good." Yes, the parody reportedly is NSFW. No, I haven't seen it.
"The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Arlington National Cemetery, both in Washington, DC area, have both issued appeals for players to avoid hunting Pokemon on their sites. "Playing Pokemon Go in a memorial dedicated to the victims of Nazism is extremely inappropriate," said Andy Hollinger, director of communications at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., in a statement sent to CNNMoney. "We are attempting to have the Museum removed from the game," the statement said... Pokemon Go has a link set up for people to report sensitive locations and contact on its website... According to a statement from The Pokemon Company International and Niantic -- the creators of Pokemon Go -- Pokestops and gyms in the app are found at publicly accessible places. That includes historical markers, public art installations, museums, monuments -- and apparently churches."
I see two problems with the approach the game's developers used. First, the approach seems to have treated all public spaces the same, without considering the unique needs of cemeteries, memorials, and similar places. Game-play isn't appropriate everywhere. Second, Niantic's approach automatically included real-life locations as PokeStops and gyms without first obtaining the property owners' permissions. This approach places the burden on property owners (who aren't players nor participants) to opt-out of the game. Not good. Maybe this was a slick attempt to force property owners to participate. Not good.
"Jeffrey Marder, a resident of West Orange, N.J., found in the days after the release of the successful augmented reality game Pokémon Go, that strangers, phone in hand, had begun lingering outside his home. At least five of them knocked on Marder’s door and asked for access to his backyard to catch and add to their virtual collections of the Pokémon images, superimposed over the real world, that the game developer had placed at the residence without his permission."
"Scott Dodich and Jayme Gotts-Dodich, of St. Clair Shores, filed a class action lawsuit against Niantic, The Pokemon Company and Nintendo... The couple lives on a private cul-de-sac and alleges that over several weeks, Pokemon Go players parked their vehicles on their street and blocked driveways. The couple also alleges that players trespassed on lawns, trampled landscaping and peered into windows. The complaint also alleges that when Jayme Gotts-Dodich asked a Pokemon Go player to leave her property, the player told her to “shut up b****, or else... The suit alleges that the intentional, unauthorized placement of Pokestops and Pokemon gyms on or near private property constitutes a continuing invasion of use and enjoyment. Due to the ignored repeated requests for removal, the couple believes that Niantic is liable for nuisance and that all defendants have been unjustly enriched.”
If a disagreement arises between Niantic and a player, that may not be resolved in court in front of a jury of the gamer's peers. The Niantic Terms of Service policy strips gamers of that right:
"ARBITRATION NOTICE: EXCEPT IF YOU OPT OUT AND EXCEPT FOR CERTAIN TYPES OF DISPUTES DESCRIBED IN THE “AGREEMENT TO ARBITRATE” SECTION BELOW, YOU AGREE THAT DISPUTES BETWEEN YOU AND NIANTIC WILL BE RESOLVED BY BINDING, INDIVIDUAL ARBITRATION, AND YOU ARE WAIVING YOUR RIGHT TO A TRIAL BY JURY OR TO PARTICIPATE AS A PLAINTIFF OR CLASS MEMBER IN ANY PURPORTED CLASS ACTION OR REPRESENTATIVE PROCEEDING."
"Pokemon Go has added a new layer of excitement to a day at Disney World for those who seek that variety of enchantment. Disney is benefiting from the craze, even as non-players shake their heads while swerving around distracted gamers. This also could and should be just the beginning. It's only a matter of time before it rolls out its own augmented-reality app... A Disney app likely also wouldn't include a Pokemon-like battle element, at least not in terms of pitting Pluto against Yoda in combat. However, the Disney gym equivalent could be mini-game stations offering everything from speed Disney trivia matches to Virtual Magic Kingdom-type competitions... There are more than 200 Disney Store locations scattered across North America, and more than 120 overseas. These stores can also serve as character-collecting hubs, giving players a local connection for special events. It would also keep interest active outside of theme park visits..."
Hulu.com, the popular TV streaming service, updated its terms of service and privacy policies. An August 5, 2016 e-mail to subscribers stated:
The service's email message summarized the changes in its policies:
What is a consumer to make of this? Hulu is clearly both providing notice to and obtaining consent from its subscribers to perform online experiments. Previously, social sites like OKCupid were heavily criticized for performing online experiments without notice nor consent. So, it is good that Hulu provides this advance notice.
"3.10 Modification/Suspension/Discontinuation. We regularly make changes to the Services. The availability of the Content as well as Access Points through which the Services are available will change from time to time. Hulu reserves the right to replace or remove any Content and Access Points available to you through the Services, including specific titles, and to otherwise make changes in how we operate the Services... In our continued assessment of the Services, we may from time to time, with respect to any or all of our users, experiment with or otherwise offer certain features or other elements of the Services, including promotional features, user interfaces, plans, pricing, and advertisements. You acknowledge that Hulu may do so in Hulu's sole discretion at any time without notice. You also agree that Hulu will not be liable to you for any modification, suspension, or discontinuance of the Services, although if you are a Hulu subscriber and Hulu suspends or discontinues your subscription to the Services, Hulu may, in its sole discretion, provide you with a credit, refund, discount or other form of consideration (for example, we may credit additional days of service to your account) in accordance with Section 4 below. However, if Hulu terminates your account or suspends or discontinues your access to Services due to your violation of these Terms, then you will not be eligible for any such credit, refund, discount or other consideration."
Another section current and prospective subscribers may want to read closely is the "13. Arbitration of Claims" section. While this clause is not new, it is important since it describes how disagreements are resolved between subscribers and Hulu. Basically, most disagreements would be resolved through binding arbitration Individually, and not in court nor through a group action:
"... If we do not reach an agreed upon solution after our discussions for at least 30 days, you and Hulu agree that any claim that either of us may have arising out of or relating to these Terms (including formation, performance, or breach of them), our relationship with each other, or use of the Services must be resolved through binding arbitration before the American Arbitration Association using its Consumer Arbitration Rules, available here. As an exception to this arbitration agreement, Hulu is happy to give you the right to pursue in small claims court any claim that is within that court's jurisdiction as long as you proceed only on an individual basis... you and Hulu agree to begin any arbitration within one year after a claim arises; otherwise, the claim is waived. You and Hulu also agree to arbitrate in each of our individual capacities only, not as a representative or member of a class, and each of us expressly waives any right to file a class action or seek relief on a class basis..."
Regular readers of this blog are familiar with the issues about binding arbitration. Companies in several industries have inserted "binding arbitration" clauses into their terms of service policies with consumers. The Public Citizen website lists the banks, retail stores, entertainment, online shopping, telecommunications, consumer electronics, software, nursing homes, and health care companies that use these clauses.
"This week, the CFPB released new research showing that banks' practice of forcing customers into binding arbitration has a wide range of downsides for consumers... The exhaustive 700+ page CFPB report shows that arbitration clauses have a broad range of negative consequences for consumers. They discourage individual consumers from pursuing claims. The CFPB found that the number of arbitrations filed by individual consumers was much lower than one would expect given the number federal lawsuits filed by those who still have that option... They squelch legitimate class-action lawsuits. Arbitration clauses generally prevent customers from joining together in class-action lawsuits... They reduce consumer protections. The way that many consumer protection laws are enforced is through civil litigation. By blocking civil suits brought by customers, financial institutions effectively give themselves an end-around against these protections... They confuse consumers. In surveys conducted by the CFPB for the report, relatively few customers understood what arbitration was, whether they were subject to it and how it works in practice... They don't lead to lower prices. The big selling point for arbitration has always been that reducing legal costs by blocking customer lawsuits would result in lower prices for consumers. But that hasn't been the case, according to the report..."
Current and prospective subscribers may or may not be comfortable giving up these rights.
"... One technology we use is called a cookie. A cookie is a small data file that is transferred to your computer’s hard disk. We may use both session cookies and persistent cookies to better understand how you interact with the Hulu Services or Hulu advertising published outside of the Hulu Services, to monitor aggregate usage by our users and web traffic routing on the Hulu Services, and to customize Content and advertising... We may collect information through other kinds of local storage (also referred to as "Flash cookies") and HTML5 local storage, including in connection with features such as volume/mute settings for the Video Player. Because these technologies are similar to browser cookies, they are sometimes called "browser cookies," even though they may be stored in different parts of your computer... Please note that disabling cookies or deleting information contained in cookies or Flash cookies may interfere with the performance and features of the Hulu Services, including the Video Player... we may use other technologies such as web beacons or pixel tags, which can be embedded in web pages, videos, or emails, to collect certain types of information from your browser or device, check whether you have viewed a particular web page, ad, or email message, and determine, among other things, the time and date on which you viewed the Content, the IP address of your computer, and the URL of the web page... Mobile Device Identifiers and Software Development Kits ("SDKs"). We may use or work with third parties including our business partners and service providers who use mobile SDKs to collect information, such as mobile identifiers (e.g., "ad-ID" or "IDFA") and information related to how mobile devices interact with the Hulu Services. An SDK is computer code that app developers can include in their apps to enable ads to be shown, data to be collected and related services and functionality to be implemented. A mobile SDK is in effect the mobile app version of a pixel tag or beacon..."
"We work with a number of business partners who help us offer the Hulu Services, including for example our content licensors, distributors, and corporate owners. We may share information collected from or about you with such business partners... When you choose to share information with social networking services about your activities on the Hulu Services, including shows you watch or like on Hulu, information about you and your activities will be shared with that social network... We may share the information collected from or about you with companies that provide services to us and our business partners, including companies that assist with payment processing, analytics, data processing and management, account management, hosting, customer and technical support, marketing (e.g., email, online or direct mail communications) and other services... We may share the information collected from or about you in encrypted, aggregated, or de-identified forms with advertisers and service providers that perform advertising-related services for us and our business partners in order to tailor advertisements, measure, and improve advertising effectiveness, and enable other enhancements. This information includes your use of the Hulu Services, websites you visited, advertisements you viewed, and your other activities online... Our business partners, such as content licensors, as well as our advertisers, seek to measure the performance of their creative material across many platforms, including the Hulu Services. Accordingly, Hulu may permit the use of third-party measurement software that enables third parties (such as Nielsen) to include your viewing on the Hulu Services in calculating measurement statistics such as TV Ratings... If we sell all or part of our business, make a transfer of assets, or otherwise might be involved in a change of control transaction, or in the unlikely event of bankruptcy, we may transfer information from or about you to one or more third parties as part of the transaction, including the due diligence process... Third Parties When Required By Law or When Necessary to Protect Your or Our Rights. In some instances, we may disclose information from or about you without providing you with a choice. For example, we may disclose your information in the following ways: to protect the legal rights of Hulu and our affiliates or partners... and to comply with or respond to the law or legal process or a request for cooperation by a government entity, whether or not legally required..."
It is reasonable to assume that the last group includes law enforcement agencies (e.g., federal, state, local) in the United States, but the policy seems vague about whether those agencies are from other countries, too. Again, (current or prospective) subscribers may want to know the specific names of companies and entities data is shared with.
David Carroll, an associate professor of media design at Parsons School of Design, posted the warning below on Twitter. I checked my Facebook settings and this specific advertisement setting had indeed been changed. So, check yours today. It's fast and easy. It will take at most half a minute to check and change it.
What's driving this activity by the social network? The Washington Post summarized the situation well when it discussed new ad features the site introduced in 2014:
"Things are about to get better for Facebook customers! Not you. You are not a Facebook customer. Advertisers are Facebook customers. You are part of the Facebook product... Facebook, at its moneymaking core, is a system for showing ads to people... why we’re seeing this is because Facebook is not a social network. It is an advertising network... And it seems to be banking on what is always banks on: our unwillingness to change any default settings or think about the flip side of data sharing."
Now, go check and restore your ad settings to maintain privacy.
Consumers decide when and where you want technology in your relationships. That line is already blurred. (Examples: devices with voice-recognition interfaces, such as Amazon Echo and Hello Barbie, that listen 24/7/365.)
If I was a data broker, of course I'd want to capture your moods and emotions and link them to certain geo-locations and at times of day. Why? It's an opportunity to make more $$$ by selling to advertisers that emotional data so they can serve up supposedly relevant ads responding to your moods in those locations and/or times,
Whenever somebody uses technology to offer convenience, watch out. There is usually are accompanying data capture, tracking, and privacy issues (e.g., notice, consent) embedded. Will companies adequately protect emotional information from data breaches? How will your government and law enforcement acquire, archive, and use moods information?
Last week, my wife and I received the above postcard from AT&T, which provides our mobile phone service. All telecommunications companies in the United States provide these notices -- by snail mail, email, or both. If you receive a notice, don't toss it in the trash. Read it closely because your privacy depends upon it.
The text of our postcard read:
"AN IMPORTANT MESSAGE ABOUT THE PRIVACY OF YOUR CUSTOMER PROPRIETARY NETWORK INFORMATION (OR CPNI)
The protection of our customers' privacy is of utmost importance to the employees and management of the AT&T family of companies (AT&T)*. Please take a moment to read the following important message about the privacy of your customer information.
AT&T companies that provide telecommunications and interconnected Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) service (which permits VoIP customers to both send and receive calls to/from customer with traditional telephone/telecommunications service) would like to share your customer proprietary network information (CPNI) within the AT&T family of companies for our own marketing purposes, including using theat information to offer you additional products and services.
What CPNI? Your CPNI includes the types of telecommunications and interconnected VoIP services you currently purchase, how you use them, and the related billing for those services. CPNI does not include your telephone number, your name or your address. Protecting the confidentiality of your CPNI is your right and our duty under federal law. As an AT&T customer, you can restrict the use of your CPNI even within the AT&T family of companies.
To allow AT&T to use your CPNI, no further action is required. AT&T and our authorized agents will not sell, trade or share your CPNI with anyone other than those who are in the AT&T family of companies or are AT&T authorized agents, unless required by law. If at any time you would prefer that AT&T not use your CPNI to offer you additional products and services, you may: - Submit an online form at att.com/ecpnioptout; or - Call 800.315.8303 24 hour a day, 7 days a week and follow the prompts; or - To speak to a service representative call 800.288.2020
Your decision to permit or restrict the use of CPNI will remain in effect until you decide to change it, which you can do at any time without charge. Restricting our use of your CPNI will not affect the providion of any AT&T products or services to which you currently subscribe, nor will it eliminate other types of marketing contacts. Thank you for choosing AT&T. We appreciate your business.
*The AT&T Family of Companies are those companies that provide voice, video and broadcast-related products and/or services domestically and internationally, including the AT&T local and long distance companies, AT&T Corp., AT&T Mobility, DIRECTV and other subsidiaries or affiliates of AT&T Inc. that provide, design, market, or sell products and/or services."
What does this notice mean? What's really going on?
First, AT&T is already sharing your information. Anytime you read a corporate notice that says you can opt out (e.g., unsubscribe) of a marketing or advertising program, that means you are already included. You'd think that programs would work the other way: you are never included in a program until you subscribe (e.g., opt in). That would be easy for consumers. You're only in programs you want to participate in, and there's no burden to (constantly) opt out of unwanted programs.
Sadly, other telecommunications companies have similar marketing programs with CPNI and opt-out mechanisms. Why? Marketing and advertising programs that automatically include all customers are the easiest and fastest way for companies to collect and share as much information as possible about as many customers as possible. So, you're included in programs whether you want them or not, with the hope that you won't take the time to read and opt out (unsubscribe).
That's definitely not consumer friendly.
Second, the notice fails to explain exactly what CPNI is. The description seems to have been written by lawyers for lawyers -- and not for consumers. A clearer notice would list the specific data elements collected and shared, with examples. I checked AT&T's CPNI website page to see if it provided a more details. It doesn't. It provided the same vague text. Compared to a postcard, there's plenty of more room on a web page to share details. I guess AT&T really doesn't want to share details about CPNI.
"Your local, long distance and wireless telephone companies, as well as your Voice over Internet Provider (VoIP), collect information such as the numbers you call and when you call them, as well as the particular services you use, such as call forwarding or voice mail. These companies collect this customer information, also called Customer Proprietary Network Information (CPNI) so they can provide the services you have requested and send you bills for them."
"CPNI is the data collected by telecommunications corporations about a consumer’s telephone calls. It includes the time, date, duration and destination number of each call, the type of network a customer subscribes to, and any other information that appears on the customer's bill."
So, CPNI includes metadata about your call and online activity. That's sensitive personal information... which leads to the next point.
Third, treat the security of your CPNI data seriously. Last year, AT&T paid a $25 million penalty after data breaches in three of its offshore call centers that included stolen CPNI. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) investigated after unauthorized employees in call centers in Mexico, Colombia, and the Philippines accessed sensitive personal information of about 280,000 U.S. customers: names, full or partial Social Security numbers, and CPNI data. The employees transferred the stolen information to "unauthorized third parties" (e.g., criminals) to unlock stolen phones and other acts. So, criminals understand the value of CPNI data. You should, too.
Fourth, the notice seems slanted. It uses the term "restrict" as if that is bad, but never provides examples of the benefits for consumers. How are consumers to make informed decisions if a company fails to clearly explain the program?
This works okay for accounts with a single person. It is problematic for accounts with multiple persons (phones), like family plans -- which my wife and I have. The form's lack of flexibility means that the account holder decides for everyone on the account. Individual persons can't selectively opt out. You'd think that AT&T would have designed the mechanism with flexibility to accommodate this, but it didn't. Everything seems driven by the sharing of information on monthly bills.
Sixth, the confirmation page copy seems vague. It isn't clear if the customer has opted out or not. If the processing isn't complete, then messaging should explain what happens next and when. See:
Seventh, if you opted out of the CPNI data sharing program, you're not finished. The AT&T Choices and Controls page lists about six behavioral advertising programs. It is time consuming and crazy-making to have to wade through so many programs and opt out of each one.
What else might be happening here? AT&T executives probably have watched the 'supercookies' investigation and settlement agreement involving Verizon Wireless. Supercookies are unique identifiers inserted into mobile users' data streams to track their online usage. The identifiers, which are really difficult for consumers to delete, help provide advertisers with the robust information they desire. The FCC found that Verizon Wireless didn't inform its customers about its use of supercookies with data sharing, and didn't provide its customers with an opt-out mechanism. Bazinga! $1.35 million fine for privacy violations and a three-year compliance program. Verizon has since updated its policies and opt-out mechanism.
"Verizon, the largest mobile carrier in the US, uses information gleaned from its supercookies to understand your interests and concerns by tracking the websites you visit and links you click on. It then supplies that information to its advertisers so they can craft finely targeted advertising campaigns. About 106 million of Verizon's consumer customers have been tracked this way for over two years by the company's Precision Market Insights program... AT&T tracks fewer customers, but only because the company says its program is still being tested."
Will AT&T ramp up its supercookies development? That bears monitoring. I expect privacy advocates will keep watch. Meanwhile, consumers can assume that CPNI includes everything on their monthly bill for whichever telecommunications products and services you use. Make your opt-out decisions based upon that.
What are your opinions of the CPNI privacy notice by AT&T? By other telecommunications companies?
Yesterday, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced a settlement agreement with Verizon Wireless regarding the company's use of "Supercookies" to track mobile users. The FCC alleged that that Verizon Wireless inserted:
"... unique identifier headers or so-called “supercookies” into its customers’ mobile Internet traffic without their knowledge or consent. These unique, undeletable identifiers – referred to as UIDH – are inserted into web traffic and used to identify customers in order to deliver targeted ads from Verizon and other third parties."
Terms of the settlement agreement require Verizon Wireless to notify consumers about its targeted advertising programs, obtain customers’ opt-in consent before sharing UIDH with third-party companies and affiliates, and obtain customers’ opt-in (or opt-out) consent before sharing UIDH internally among Verizon's companies and business units. The settlement terms also require the company to pay a $1.35 million fine and adopt a three-year compliance plan.
The FCC began its investigation in December, 2014. At that time, the concern was:
"... whether Verizon Wireless failed to appropriately protect customer proprietary information and whether the company failed to disclose accurate and adequate information regarding its insertion of UIDH into consumer Internet traffic over its wireless network, in violation of the FCC’s 2010 Open Internet Transparency Rule and Section 222 of the Communications Act."
Verizon Wireless began inserting UIDH into consumer Internet traffic in December 2012, and didn't disclose this practice until October 2014. After acknowledging this practice, the company claimed that third-party advertising companies were unlikely to use their supercookies to build consumer profiles or other purposes. The Washington Post reported in November 2014:
"Verizon and AT&T have been quietly tracking the Internet activity of more than 100 million cellular customers with what critics have dubbed “supercookies”... The technology has allowed the companies to monitor which sites their customers visit, cataloging their tastes and interests. Consumers cannot erase these supercookies or evade them by using browser settings, such as the “private” or “incognito” modes that are popular among users wary of corporate or government surveillance.
Also in November 2014, the Electronic Frontier foundation (EFF) discovered the tracking, and asked Verizon to both notify users and get their consent before using supercookies:
"Verizon users might want to start looking for another provider. In an effort to better serve advertisers, Verizon Wireless has been silently modifying its users' web traffic on its network to inject a cookie-like tracker. This tracker, included in an HTTP header called X-UIDH, is sent to every unencrypted website a Verizon customer visits from a mobile device. It allows third-party advertisers and websites to assemble a deep, permanent profile of visitors' web browsing habits without their consent. Verizon apparently created this mechanism to expand their advertising programs, but it has privacy implications far beyond those programs."
"... is a huge win for Internet privacy. ISPs are trusted carriers of our communications. They should be supporting individuals' privacy rights, not undermining them."
The EFF tempered its comments with a warning how ISPs can still secretly track consumers:
"... They can send tracking data only to selected web sites, hindering detection by third parties. ISPs can (and some very likely do) hide tracking data in a lower protocol layer, like TCP or IP, setting fields that are normally random based on an agreed-upon code. Or they could log all user browsing activity themselves and share it upon request. Detecting these more pernicious methods will require ongoing skilled technical work by the FCC and other watchdog organizations.."
This is why both a skilled oversight agency and watchdog groups are necessary. The average consumer cannot perform this technical analysis. FCC Enforcement Bureau Chief Travis LeBlanc said:
"Consumers care about privacy and should have a say in how their personal information is used, especially when it comes to who knows what they’re doing online... Privacy and innovation are not incompatible. This agreement shows that companies can offer meaningful transparency and consumer choice while at the same time continuing to innovate...”
Yes! Innovation and privacy are compatible. Yes, we consumers care... care greatly about privacy. Relevant advertising is not an excuse to do anything without notification and without consent. Kudos to the FCC. View the Verizon Wireless Order and Consent Decree (Adobe PDF).
Basically, ad blocking software prevents your web browser from downloading and displaying unwanted advertisements. Consumers use it for several reasons, including performance, privacy, and security for a better online experience:
"Performance. The average page has dozens of ad tags, and ad providers are typically built with no regard to performance (loading hundreds of tags, images, megabytes of video, etc.), so preventing all of this from loading drastically speeds up the website."
"Privacy. Most ad networks and tracking systems (like Google Analytics) collect information about user behavior and pages visited, which can lead to privacy issues. Ad blockers stop all of this and make it easy to browse privately."
Security is a concern because some advertising networks (e.g., AOL, Yahoo, Huffington Post) have been compromised with computer viruses, or malware, onto unsuspecting consumers' devices. Some malware targeted mobile devices. It has occurred often enough that the term malvertising is now used. Malvertising is very bad because you don't have to click on annything in order for your computer to get infected.
Consumers have plenty of choices for which ad-blocking software to use. As TechCrunch reported:
"Apple’s iOS has recently allowed for content blocking extensions in its Safari browser, so now it’s possible to block ads on mobile websites, as well. Both iOS and Android also allow for third-party browsers that can come with ad-blocking abilities built in."
The digital advertising arms race is well underway. Since many consumers have installed ad blocking software on their computing devices for privacy and a better online experience, some publishers have responded by blocking those online users... or at least those users' web browsers.
While attempting to stream the latest episode of a popular television show, I encountered the message below, which is an extremely poor implementation. It suggested that i disable all ad blocking software. A better, responsible implementation would include messaging about the specific advertising mechanism:
Have you encountered any similar messages at other sites?
The New York Times told the story of an executive who received a call at 10:30 pm on his smartphone from a marketer, minutes after opening an e-mail message from the same marketer. Coincidence? The executive didn't think so, and after some investigation found that the marketer had planted a tracking mechanism in the e-mail message.
This marketer took e-mail marketing to the creepy zone. The marketer arrogantly assumed the executive, a) wouldn't mind the tracking and privacy invasion; and b) was agreeable to receiving a late-night phone call. Inappropriate. If the executive was driving his car, the late-night call could have created a distracted driving risk. Dangerous.
"The trackers are traditionally offered by email marketing services like GetResponse and MailChimp. They have a legitimate use: to help commercial entities send messages tailored for specific types of customers. The New York Times, too, uses email trackers in its newsletters. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit that focuses on digital rights, estimates that practically every marketing email now contains some form of a tracker."
The e-mail tracking is possible because most users view HTML e-mail messages. One e-mail vendor's website home page highlights the industry's position:
Marketers want to know when, where, what device you use, and what link(s) you click on with their e-mails and advertisements. Yes, marketers should be able to evaluate their e-mail and marketing programs. At the same time, consumers have valid needs, often including privacy and the desire not to be tracked.
According to Pew Research, consumers perform a variety of tasks to thwart online tracking and data collection: delete browser cookies or browser history (59 percent), refuse to provide personal information irrelevant to the transaction (57 percent), set their browser to disable or turn off browser cookies (34 percent), and more. 86% of internet users have taken steps online to remove or mask their digital footprints. Plus, the growth in usage of ad-blockers by consumers highlights the desire not to be tracked (since many advertising networks contain tracking mechanisms):
"Between 15 to 17% of the U.S. population reportedly use ad blockers, and the number is double that for millennials. The numbers are even higher in Europe, and up to 80-90% in the case of specialty tech and gaming sites."
So, balance and respect are key. If marketers and advertisers are going to plant trackers in e-mail messages, then be honest and transparent: say so. Notify consumers. Provide opt-in mechanisms for consumers that don't mind the tracking.
Aware consumers realize that surveillance isn't performed only by government spy agencies. Private-sector corporate marketers and advertisers do it, too. The New York Times article discussed one of the e-mail trackers used:
"... MailTrack, which is a plug-in for Google’s Chrome browser that can quickly insert a hidden tracking pixel into a message..."
Unfortunately, both the good guys and bad guys (e.g., spammers, phishers) use e-mail trackers. Experts advise consumers to expect trackers planted in messages, and:
"A basic method for thwarting some email trackers involves disabling emails from automatically loading images, including invisible tracking pixels. But that doesn’t defeat all trackers, which are also hiding in other places like fonts and web links."
Ugly Email and Trackbuster, are tools consumers can use to detect trackers embedded in e-mail messages. The former is a Gmail plug-in.
What are your opinions of e-mail trackers? What software do you use to detect e-mail trackers?
[Editor's Note: an earlier version of this post linked the "cross-device tracking" text to a CBS News article. That link was updated to a more descriptive article at Ars Technica.]
"Just two days after Apple enabled ad-blocking apps through its new mobile operating system, iOS 9, users are embracing the new technology... In less than 48 hours, several ad-blocking apps with names like Peace, Purify and Crystal soared to the top of Apple’s App Store chart... About 16 percent of those who use the Internet in the United States, or 45 million people, have already installed an ad blocker, up 48 percent over the last 12 months, said Sean Blanchfield, who runs PageFair, an Irish start-up that tracks ad blocking. In a report last month, Adobe and PageFair calculated that blockers would cost publishers nearly $22 billion in revenue in 2015."
"Peace required that all ads be treated the same — all-or-nothing enforcement for decisions that aren’t black and white. This approach is too blunt, and Ghostery and I have both decided that it doesn’t serve our goals or beliefs well enough. If we’re going to effect positive change overall, a more nuanced, complex approach is required than what I can bring in a simple iOS app."
I agree. The ad-blocking apps should be robust and keep consumers in control. If a consumer wants to block everything, she should be able to. If a consumer wants to block all ads from a specific advertising network and/or ads at a specific website, then he should be able to. Keep consumers in control.
And, the ad blocking should be simpler. Blocking apps should cover a consumer's multiple devices: phone, tablet, laptop, desktop, automobile, and household appliances (e.g., refrigerators, etc.) in a "smart home."Otherwise, the burden on consumers becomes massive.
And, make it opt-in not opt-out. Opt-out puts a perpetual burden on consumers to constantly monitor advertising activities and techniques. Simplicity is always better.
A worse-case scenario wold be apps that block ads, but still allow the tracking and data collection by advertisers. Keep consumers in control. I use the EFF's Privacy Badger add-on for my Firefox web browser, to stop both the ads and the tracking technologies embedded in website pages by publishers and ad networks. Privacy Badger explained how it is different:
"Although we like Disconnect, Adblock Plus, Ghostery and similar products (in fact Privacy Badger is based on the ABP code!), none of them are exactly what we were looking for. In our testing, all of them required some custom configuration to block non-consensual trackers. Several of these extensions have business models that we weren't entirely comfortable with. And EFF hopes that by developing rigorous algorithmic and policy methods for detecting and preventing non-consensual tracking, we'll produce a codebase that could in fact be adopted by those other extensions, or by mainstream browsers, to give users maximal control over who does and doesn't get to know what they do online."
Whatever tools consumers use to block ads and tracking, it needs to be robust to account for newer techniques, like canvas fingerprinting. One blogger equated ad-blocking software with the deadly pesticide DDT. While it is tempting to equate the intrusive online ads with unwanted insects, I wouldn't go that far. DDT was banned, and ad-blocking software should be encouraged, not banned. Like any other software, there are well-designed products and poorly designed ones.
Sure, publishers and website operators should be able to make to make money via advertising. The issue is one of balance: balancing consumers' needs versus advertisers' needs. If consumers user ad-blocking apps and browser add-ons, then advertisers have only themselves to blame. They've largely brought this on themselves with ad networks tracking across websites.
what are your opinions of ad blocking software? Which apps and browser add-ons do you use?