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Pokemon Go: The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

Pokemon Go mobile game image. Click to view larger version The game's popularity proliferated after a July 6 launch in Australia, New Zealand, and the United States: 7.5 million downloads during its first week; 50 million downloads from Google Play during its first month; and it was WikiPedia's most visited article by mid-July. (View the game's Wikipedia pageviews.) Everyone noticed. Early in July, a former advertising coworker joked on Facebook:

" '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."

Pokemon Go mobile game image with character. Click to view larger version For many players, Pokemon Go has been a nostalgic return to their youth when Pokemon existed in cartoons, video games, and board-games. Some experts have speculated that the game's popularity, as measured by daily active users, may have peaked in the United States.

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.

The Good

Niantic Labs developed the game for Apple iOS and Android devices. Earlier this month, the game debuted in Latin America. Reviewers have cited the game's addictive qualities:

"... 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."

The Twitter account Pokemon Archaeology catalogs Pokemon sightings in historic locations. The National Park Service (NPS) has welcomed gamers in many of its parks, but not at memorial sites. Some National Parks have featured programs with the game. Earlier this month, the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore offered a new program called "Pokemon Hunt:"

"... 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."

This summer, the NPS celebrates 100 years of operations. Gamers should check the NPS site to learn about any discounts and programs before visiting a park.

Some local businesses near colleges and universities experienced increased sales from gamers. Minnesota Daily reported:

"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."

The BBC News reported that the game helped an autistic teenager. Autism Speaks published this perspective by a psychologist:

"... 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.

The Niantic Terms of Service policy clearly encourages safe game play and describes players' responsibilities:

"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.

The Bad

Foot traffic by gamers in public parks hasn't been all good. Some gamers have ignored local laws and ordinances. WPRI in Providence, Rhode Island reported:

"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.

It's critical for players to remain alert. In somewhat weird news, a gamer kept playing after being stabbed by a mugger. And a North-Texas teenager was bitten by a venomous snake while playing. In Missouri, criminals staked out known PokeStops and robbed players. A gamer in Riverton, Wyoming found a dead body.

While some gamers play on foot, others drive their vehicles. As you've probably guessed, there have been auto accidents. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported:

"A driver, distracted by a Squirtle or a Zubat, caught a tree, instead of a Pokemon. That collision occurred last month in Auburn, N.Y., near Syracuse. A few days later, a 28-year-old driver on a highway near Seattle told officials he was focused on the hunt for Pikachu when he ran into the rear end of a Chevrolet. Another distracted driver in Baltimore smashed into a police car. A parked police car."

Like any game, some gamers play by the rules while others don't. An entertaining video listing the ways players cheat has more than 6.7 million views. Niantic highlighted its policy toward cheaters:

"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."

Soon after the game's debut, privacy risks were discovered:

"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."

Since then, Niantic and the Pokemon Company notified Engadget that it fixed the bug in a subsequent update. Regardless, the Offensive Privacy blog warned players who have signed up using their Google credentials:

"... to review Google's guide on controlling and revoking app access to your account and check your account to see what permissions the game has. If it still has full access to your Google account, you can simply revoke access, then sign-in to the game again using your Google account. Your data will be safe and you can ensure your Google account is safe as well."

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.

Yes, security researchers have already found malware embedded in a rogue version of the Pokemon Go app. So, shop wisely at reputable sites and follow these tips to avoid the malware.

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 Ugly

Some property owners view the game as inappropriate for their locations. CNN Reported in July:

"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.

Some players have wandered onto nearby private properties. ComputerWorld reported on August 2:

"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."

Marder is part of a lawsuit alleging that the game included locations on private properties, without the owners' permissions. The Click on Detroit site reported on August 15:

"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."

To opt out of binding arbitration, players must do so within 30 days of sign up. This BoingBong explained how to opt out, and the associated issues. Of course, players should read all game policies in their entirety before sign up. (You did, right?) Regular readers of this blog are familiar with the issues with binding arbitration.

The Future

Given the success so far of Pokemon Go, it seems wise to expect copycats. The Motely Fool speculated:

"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..."

You can bet we'll see many more AR games with fantasy or fictional characters; probably with co-marketing agreements between AR games, movies, fast-food restaurants, toy stores, and the few remaining shopping malls. Experts estimate the global AR market to be $117.4 billion by 2022.

It's not just fantasy characters. Experts have estimated the augmented reality and virtual reality market within healthcare to be $2.54 billion by 2020. Hopefully, more games (and other services) will offer in their policies opt-out mechanisms from restrictive binding arbitration clauses.

What are your opinions of Pokemon Go? Of AR games? What advantages and disadvantages have you found? Does the good outweigh the bad?


Hulu Updated Its Terms of Use And Privacy Policies

Hulu.com, the popular TV streaming service, updated its terms of service and privacy policies. An August 5, 2016 e-mail to subscribers stated:

"... we are continually focused on improving our services and the viewer experience. To address some of the changes in our services, we've updated our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. We want to ensure that we keep you informed about our practices, so we've summarized some of the key updates below. This summary is not exhaustive, so we encourage you to review the full, updated versions of our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy Privacy Policy..."

The streaming TV service announced in May 2016 that is subscriber base of about 12 million had grown about 30 percent over 2015. Besides its $8 and $12 monthly subscription options, reportedly the service plans to introduce a third, cable-like bundle of channels for about $40 monthly.

The service's email message summarized the changes in its policies:

"Terms of Use updates
Given our constant desire to innovate our service, we clarify that we may experiment with certain features and that the content and services may change from time to time. We provide additional details about our billing practices, including in connection with promotional offers.
We include updated instructions around cancellation and explain that if you sign up and pay for Hulu through a third party (e.g., Apple iTunes) you may need to cancel your subscription or manage your billing through such third party.
We remind you that your interactions with third-party advertisements on our services, including any information you may provide through interactive advertisements, are between you and the advertiser. We encourage you to review any such advertiser's terms of use and privacy policy.
We clarify that we may communicate with you electronically and encourage you to keep copies of our electronic communications for your records.

Privacy Policy updates
We include an updated list of the types of technologies we or third parties may use to collect data from or about you. This data helps improve the content and advertisements provided to you.
We've likewise updated the section describing how we share information with business partners, service providers and other third parties.
We describe that you can choose to share information through sharing features we may offer, for example, through email, text message or social networks.
We provide instructions on how California residents can obtain more information about our data sharing practices in the event we were to share personal data about our users with third parties for their direct marketing purposes.
You have choices with respect to your use of our services and we include an updated and consolidated list of the various options available to you in a new section called "Your Choices, Including Opt-Out Options" (Section 6) which includes instructions about your opt-out choices related to your use of Hulu on websites, mobile devices and living room devices.
We explain that we may work with third parties who help us to establish connections across your related browsers and devices and how your opt-out choices apply."

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.

Current or prospective subscribers may or may not be comfortable participating in online experiments that affect their usage of the service. To learn more, I read Hulu's Terms Of Use policy. This section seemed key:

"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."

So, this revised Terms of Use policy may be the only notice subscribers receive about online experiments. And, there doesn't appear to be an option to decline (e.g., opt out of) online experiments, except to cancel their subscription. Some subscribers may not like that, and/or may want compensation for participating in online experiments.

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.

Bankrate reported on March 11, 2015:

"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.

The Hulu Privacy Policy is important for several reasons. It lists the technologies the service uses. The service obtains information about its subscribers from several sources: data subscribers submit into their profiles, third-party affiliates, data brokers, and the technologies used. These technologies may conflict with the privacy settings consumers use in their Web browsers. Some technologies apply specifically to phones/tablets versus laptops/desktops:

"... 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..."

This blog has discussed several technologies (e.g., cookies, “zombie cookies,” Flash cookies, “zombie e-tags,” super cookies, “zombie databases” on mobile devices, canvas fingerprinting, etc.) which companies have used to track consumers online. This makes it important to read any service's online privacy policy. Consumers may or may not be comfortable with the tracking technologies used.

Hulu's privacy policy also lists the types of companies and entities it shares subscribers' information with, but (besides Facebook.com and Nielsen) it doesn't disclose the names of specific companies and entities (bold added):

"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.

New at reading online polices? Unsure what to look for? I compiled what I've learned into this blog post: "10 Tips About How To Read Terms Of Use And Privacy Policies." You might find it helpful.

What are your opinions of Hulu's revised policies?

[Editor's note: this blog post is not legal advice. Consumers wanting legal advice should consult an attorney to help them fully evaluate any contracts or legal agreements.]


User Reports Facebook Changed Members' Ad Settings Without Notice Nor Consent

If you use Facebook.com, this is for you.

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.

Tweet by David Carroll. Click to view larger version


Emotional Technology: The Coming Products, Services, And Apps

A reader shared the video below with this comment:

"I don't know George, this sort of creeps me out."

My comments appear below the video:

My thoughts and reactions to the video:

  1. It should creep you out. Do you want technology between you and your spouse? During very private, intimate, face-to-face conversations? I think not.
  2. We consumers are already experiencing the beginnings of emotional technology. To make that tech work, companies must collect data about our moods and emotions. Some examples of this data capture: a) Facebook's expanded list of emojis; b) Facebook saves your unpublished and unedited comments and posts before final posting,
  3. 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.)
  4. 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,
  5. Wearables, fitness trackers and smart homes outfitted with certain Internet-of-things devices will perform this mood data capture.
  6. 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?

What are your opinions?


CPNI Privacy Notices: A Review Of AT&T's And What You Need To Know

AT&T postcard notice in March 2016 about CPNI

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.

AT&T logo 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.

If you want to know exactly what CPNI is, the FCC provides this definition:

"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."

While petitioning the FCC for greater privacy protections in 2007, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (Epic) and other advocacy groups said:

"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?

Fifth, the AT&T CPNI Optout page mechanism is poorly designed. The form, which asks customers to enter an account number and ZIP Code:

Image of AT&T CPNI Opt-out page

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:

Image of AT&T CPNI Opt-out Confirmation page

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.

So, I was underwhelmed by the CPNI opt-out mechanism. A long time ago, AT&T publicly promised to do behavioral advertising the right way. It's not there yet. Not even close.

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.

C/Net reported in 2014 that AT&T lagged Verizon in using supercookies:

"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?


Verizon Wireless Settles With The FCC Regarding 'Supercookies' And Online Tracking

Verizon logo 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.

Federal communications Commission logo The FCC's announcement also noted that the company was slow to update its privacy policy (bold added):

"It was not until late March 2015, over two years after Verizon Wireless first began inserting UIDH, that the company updated its privacy policy to disclose its use of UIDH and began to offer consumers the opportunity to opt-out of the insertion of unique identifier headers into their Internet traffic... Section 222 of the Communications Act imposes a duty on carriers to protect their customers’ proprietary information and use such information only for authorized purposes. It also expressly prohibits carriers that obtain proprietary information from other carriers for the provision of telecommunications services to use such information for any other purpose. Section 8.3 of the Commission’s rules, known as the Open Internet Transparency Rule, requires every fixed and mobile broadband Internet access provider to publicly disclose accurate information regarding the network management practices, performance, and commercial terms of its broadband Internet access services sufficient for consumers to make informed choices regarding use of such services and for content, application, service, and device providers to develop, market, and maintain Internet offerings."

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."

The EFF said that the Verizon Wireless settlement agreement:

"... 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).


Ad Blocking Software: What It Is, The Benefits, And How To Use It

Nobody wants their online experience cluttered with irrelevant advertisements. Recently, TechCrunch published a beginner's guide to ad blocking software. If you are unfamiliar with what the software is, does, and its benefits, then this primer is for you.

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.

During the last 7+ years, this blog covered a variety of technologies (e.g., cookies, “zombie cookies,” Flash cookies, “zombie e-tags,” super cookies, “zombie databases” on mobile devices, canvas fingerprinting, etc.) companies use to persistently track consumers online without their knowledge nor consent; and to circumvent consumers' efforts to maintain privacy online. So, you want to do what you can to avoid or minimize the tracking.

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."

You can't block ads that appear within a mobile (or desktop) app, so that maybe another reason to use your web browser instead of a mobile app (which is usually a piece of a website). I happen to use, with the Firefox web browser, the Privacy Badger tool from the Electronic Frontier Foundation. I am delighted with it. Yes, some websites won't display content when you block their ads, but most do.

For private online searches, I use the DuckDuckGo search engine instead of Google, Bing, and Yahoo. What ad-blocking software do you use? If not, do you plan to start using it?


Blocking The Ad Blockers

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:

Blocked ad blocker at CBS website. Click to view larger image

Have you encountered any similar messages at other sites?


You've Got Email Trackers: A Tool Marketers Use To Spy On Consumers

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.

This marketer isn't alone. According to The New York Times:

"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:

Image of Sidekick home page. Click to view larger version.

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.

Don't be that creepy marketer.

Will marketers act with respect and not go to the creepy, dark side? History suggests otherwise, given the litany of covert technologies marketers and advertisers have used to track consumers online: browser cookies, zombie cookies, zombie e-tags, Flash cookies to regenerate browser cookies users have deleted, super cookiescanvas finger-printing, and more recently cross-device 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.]


Online Ads: To Block Or Not To Block. And, Who Should Be In Control?

The New York Rimes reported on Friday about the fast adoption by consumers of ad blocking apps for their mobile devices:

"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."

That's not surprising. The frequency of continual auto-play video ads at many websites has become a huge annoyance. At the same time, one app developer removed his ad-blocking app from sales, stating:

"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?


Uber: Its Labor Ruling In California, Lawsuits, And Privacy Concerns

Uber logo During June, Uber, the ride-sharing company, has been in the news for a variety of reasons. Many consumers like the ride-sharing service as an alternative to tradition taxi-cabs. Uber is one of the largest ride-sharing services with about 8 million users worldwide and 160,000 drivers in the United States.

First, in March the State of California Labor Commission ruled that Uber drivers are employees and not independent contractors, as the company claimed. The ruling became public after the company appealed the original decision. In the original complaint, an Uber driver filed a claim for reimbursement of $4,152.00 of expenses.

The issues are worthy noting. Time reported:

"... the ruling is non-binding, has no legal bearing on any other drivers, and won’t force any money to change hands. But Uber’s decision to appeal will now move the fight to California’s court system where — along with several similar lawsuits pending in the state..."

One of several pending lawsuits:

"Uber has essentially shifted to its workers all the costs of running a business, the costs of owning a car, maintaining a car, paying for gas,” says Shannon Liss-Riordan, a Boston-based attorney who has a class-action case pending against Uber in California federal court. “Uber has saved massive amounts …. It’s important that the labor laws be enforced so that the companies can’t take advantage of workers that way. Uber’s a $50-billion company and I think it can afford to bear the responsibilities of an employer...”

Second, a new Uber policy bans firearms in its vehicles. KRJH in Tulsa, Oklahoma reported:

"Uber drivers and passengers have to follow a new company policy. Uber has banned all firearms from any vehicle used for its service. The policy comes two months after an Uber driver shot a man who was firing into a crowd of people in a Chicago neighborhood. The Uber driver had a concealed carry license and was not charged with a crime, but it raised the question of safety and comfort for its drivers and riders."

Third, the Electronic Privacy Rights Center (EPIC) has filed a complaint with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) about Uber's upcoming privacy policy amendments to both collect more data about its customers and to track customers. Uber's new Privacy Policy goes into effect on July 15:

Location Information: When you use the Services for transportation or delivery, we collect precise location data about the trip from the Uber app used by the Driver. If you permit the Uber app to access location services through the permission system used by your mobile operating system (“platform”), we may also collect the precise location of your device when the app is running in the foreground or background. We may also derive your approximate location from your IP address."

"Contacts Information: If you permit the Uber app to access the address book on your device through the permission system used by your mobile platform, we may access and store names and contact information from your address book to facilitate social interactions through our Services and for other purposes described in this Statement or at the time of consent or collection."

The sharing of customers' information by Uber seems extensive:

"We may share your information: With Uber subsidiaries and affiliated entities that provide services or conduct data processing on our behalf, or for data centralization and / or logistics purposes; With vendors, consultants, marketing partners, and other service providers who need access to such information to carry out work on our behalf; In response to a request for information by a competent authority if we believe disclosure is in accordance with, or is otherwise required by, any applicable law, regulation, or legal process; With law enforcement officials, government authorities, or other third parties if we believe your actions are inconsistent with our User agreements, Terms of Service, or policies, or to protect the rights, property, or safety of Uber or others; In connection with, or during negotiations of, any merger, sale of company assets, consolidation or restructuring, financing, or acquisition of all or a portion of our business by or into another company..."

Words to focus upon include vendors, consultants, marketing partners, and other service providers. That can include a lot of companies anywhere. Note: that sharing is in addition to any sharing you may perform with social networking sites.

You may remember that ethics and privacy issues surfaced after news reports in 2014 about Uber allegedly using customer and tracking data it collected to target journalists critical of the service.

The EPIC complaint filed with the FTC (Adobe PDF) stated:

"19. Uber will also collect precise location information if the app is operating in the background. On phones running iOS, this means that Uber may be able collect location data even after an app has been terminated by the user."

"20. Even if a user disables the GPS location services on their phone, the company may still derive approximate location from riders’ IP addresses."

"21. This collection of user’s information far exceeds what customers expect from the transportation service. Users would not expect the company to collect location information when customers are not actively using the app, or have turned off their GPS location finder (as Uber can still collect location information through the phones’ IP addresses)..."

"24. Uber claims that it will allow users to opt-out of these features. However, this change in business practices places an unreasonable burden on consumers and is not easy to exercise: while iOS users can later disable the contact syncing option by changing the contacts setting on their mobile devices, the Android platform does not provide any such setting..."

"31. Job interviewees have been granted provisional access all the customer location data available to full-time employees, allowing non-Uber employees to temporarily track any customer. One such interviewee was granted this access for an entire day, even after the job interview ended. He admitted using the database to search records of people he knew, including politician’s relatives."

Based upon the new privacy policy, the tracking and data collection seems very invasive since it will also occur when customers aren't using the service. It seems invasive because the address book collection includes people who aren't Uber customers, didn't agree to the data collection, can't opt out of the collection, and have no control over how their contact information is used. Based upon the company's history, Uber executives seem to play fast and loose with consumers' personal private information.

If you don't like the privacy invasion, there are several resources online about how to cancel and delete your Uber account: C/Net, Reddit, and wikiHow.

What are your opinions of Uber's new privacy policy?


Epic Facebook Privacy Fail

A friend, who shall remain anonymous, posted the following photo on their Facebook timeline:

Facebook ad requesting your household income

Click on the image to view a larger version. Along with the image, my friend posted this status message:

"So this appeared in my right-hand rail. Seriously Facebook, are you tripping? Why would I give you information about my household income? Because I'm so sure you won't abuse the information?"

This is highly confidential information. Does Facebook need to know it? Does Facebook deserve to know it? I wouldn't share this data with them, and nor should you.

After a long, hearty laugh, there wasn't much I could add to this status message. Lots of businesses, including credit reporting agencies, want access to your Facebook timeline (for applications you never intended). In its rush to make money, Facebook has had so many privacy intrusions, snafus, data collection tools masquerading as fitness apps, and failures, that my friend summarized it all concisely.

I did post this comment:

"Epic Facebook privacy fail."


Pew Research Reviews Key Statistics From 2014

Pew Reviewed published 14 statistics from 2014 that it views as noteworthy. I found several items from the list particularly interesting.

First, privacy is still a problem. A clear majority of American adult consumers -- 91 percent responded agree or strongly agree -- believe that they have lost control of how their personal information is collected and used by private companies:

Second, a clear majority -- 80% said they agree or strongly agree -- that Americans should be concerned about government monitoring of e-mail messages and Internet usage.

Third, since 2006 more Americans value highly Internet access and their mobile phones, compared to other devices:

You can bet that Internet service providers are aware of this, and will prices their services accordingly.


Digital Advertising Firm Pays $750K To Settle Online Privacy Abuses

Pointroll logo Six states, including Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, announced a $750,000 settlement with Pointroll, a digital advertising firm, after investigations for privacy violations. The Illinois AG announced:

"... Madigan and her counterparts from five other states alleged that PointRoll unlawfully deployed a browser circumvention technique that allowed it to place browser cookies on consumers’ Safari web browsers despite privacy settings configured to “block cookies from third-parties and advertisers” or alternatively set to “accept cookies” from “visited sites” (for Safari browsers on Apple iPhones and iPads) between December 13, 2011, and February 15, 2012."

Browser cookie files, often referred to as "cookies," are small text files web browsers create, update, and save to users' computers. These files allow advertisers to gather information about users online habits often including the sites you visit online. Pointroll is owned by the Gannett Corporation.

The settlement agreement requires Pointroll to respect and comply with consumers' cookie-blocking choices, provide prominent Privacy Policy buttons with links to complete policies on any websites it operates, and to implement a privacy program within six months that trains its employees about consumer privacy and how to maintain it. That program must include yearly assessments and make ongoing changes as needed. Additional terms of the settlement:

  • "Never misrepresent or omit material facts concerning the purposes for which it collects and uses consumer information, or the extent to which consumers may exercise control over the collection, disclosure or use of such information.
  • Ensure that its servers are configured to instruct Safari web browsers to expire any cookie placed by PointRoll using its browser circumvention technique, if those systems encounter such a cookie, for a period of two years.
  • Cooperate with compliance monitoring by the participating states, including providing a written report that describes PointRoll’s compliance with the privacy program requirement and allowing the inspection and copying of all records that may be required to verify compliance."

Besides Illinois, the states involved in the settlement include Connecticut ($110,000), Florida, Maryland ($110,000), New Jersey ($200,000), and New York ($110,000). The Connecticut Attorney General's announcement included a statement by the state's Consumer Protection Commissioner, William M. Rubenstein:

"Brazenly disregarding consumer preferences is an unwise business practice that borders on unethical conduct... We applaud New Jersey’s leadership in the investigation and negotiation with PointRoll and we will continue to uphold Connecticut consumers’ right to choose.”

Borders on unethical conduct? The settlement terms are pretty standard stuff (e.g., requires Pointroll to respect and comply with users' browser settings to block cookies, train employees, submit to annual assessments, and prominently display buttons with links to privacy-policies on its websites). That the firm had to be forced to do this makes one wonder what Pointroll's internal company culture is regarding ethics and privacy. It makes one wonder how trustworthy, or not, the executives at Pointroll are. Are executives at Gannett paying attention?

Readers of this blog know that advertisers have used a variety of technologies (e.g., browser cookies, "zombie cookies," Flash cookies ("super cookies," etags) to ignore and circumvent  consumers' explicit decisions and web browser settings not to be tracked online. I congratulate the six attorneys general and their staff for protecting and enforcing consumers' privacy.

What are your opinions of this settlement agreement?


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?


Canvas Fingerprinting: What It Is, How Entities Use It To Track You Online, And The Privacy Concerns

"Canvas fingerprinting" is the latest technique entities use to identify and track consumers' online habits and movements. I use the word "entities" since both private-sector corporations and public-sector government agencies use the technique in their websites. The BBC described it well:

"This technique forces a web browser to create a hidden image. Subtle differences in the set-up of a computer mean almost every machine will render the image in a different way enabling that device to be identified consistently."

Those subtle differences include the many features that distinguish your computer's configuration from others: clock setting, default font, software installed, operating system brand and version, browser brand and version, and more. Researchers at Princeton University in the United States and at the University of Leuven in Belgium analyzed tracking techniques at 100,000 websites. They announced their findings in a draft report dated July 1, 2014:

"We present the first large-scale studies of three advanced web tracking mechanisms -- canvas fingerprinting, evercookies, and use of cookie syncing" in conjunction with evercookies. Canvas fingerprinting, a recently developed form of browser fingerprinting, has not previously been reported in the wild; our results show that over 5% of the top 100,000 websites employ it... The tracking mechanisms studied in this paper can be differentiated from their conventional counterparts by their potential to circumvent users' tracking preferences, being hard to discover and resilient to removal."

The researchers emphasized the extremely difficulty confronting consumers:

"Canvas fingerprinting uses the browser's Canvas API to draw invisible images and extract a persistent, long-term fingerprint without the user's knowledge. There doesn't appear to be a way to automatically block canvas fingerprinting without false positives that block legitimate functionality; even a partial fix requires a browser source-code patch. Evercookies actively circumvent users' deliberate attempts to start with a fresh profile by abusing different browser storage mechanisms to store removed cookies. Cookie syncing... allows different trackers to share user identifiers with each other. Besides being hard to detect, cookie syncing enables back-end server-to-server data merges hidden from public view."

Why the researchers produced this report:

"Our goal is to improve transparency of web tracking in general and advanced tracking techniques in particular.We hope that our techniques and results will lead to better defenses, increased accountability for companies deploying exotic tracking techniques and an invigorated and informed public and regulatory debate on increasingly persistent tracking techniques."

The researchers concluded the following about consumers' ability to maintain their privacy online:

"Current options for users to mitigate these threats are limited, in part due to the difficulty of distinguishing unwanted tracking from benign behavior. In the long run, a viable approach to online privacy must go beyond add-ons and browser extensions. These technical efforts can be buttressed by regulatory oversight. In addition, privacy-friendly browser vendors who have hitherto attempted to take a neutral stance should consider integrating defenses more deeply into the browser."

ProPublica reported:

"The researchers found canvas fingerprinting computer code, primarily written by a company called AddThis, on 5 percent of the top 100,000 websites. Most of the code was on websites that use AddThis’ social media sharing tools. Other fingerprinters include the German digital marketer Ligatus and the Canadian dating site Plentyoffish."

I strongly encourage consumers to read the ProPublica article, since it includes an interview with an executive from AddThis. The article also lists five recommendations consumers can do to minimize the online tracking. However, some of the recommendations require technical knowledge and skills beyond what many consumers have.

One recommendation includes using Chameleon with the Google Chrome browser. A reader, who asked me not to mention their name, shared this opinion:

"... Chameleon, it does not appear to be available for Firefox, and I won't run Chrome because of Google's outrageous privacy policy, which is really a disclosure policy that let's Google do pretty much what it wishes with the personal information that its browser, Chrome, collects... putting Chameleon on Chrome just effectively gives Google a monopoly... as it blocks other domains' fingerprinting while leaving Google's collection techniques in Chrome unmolested."

Is this an over-reaction? Consider... earlier this year, Google changed its policy to reflect its continued scanning of all inbound e-mails from non-Gmail users. About the scanning, a United Kingdom newspaper wrote this headline, "Google: Don't Expect Privacy When Sending to Gmail." A simple online search found this review of Google Chrome privacy. Several news organizations reported in December 2013 about how spy agencies in the U.S. and U.K. use Google's proprietary cookie technology.

Plus, MediaPost reported yesterday:

"Back in March of 2012, Google made international headlines with its controversial decision to revise its privacy policy in a way that allowed it to consolidate information about users. Ever since, a group of consumers have been trying to sue the company for allegedly violating users' privacy. This week, a federal judge ruled that the consumers could proceed with a lawsuit -- but not based on their original claims. Instead, U.S. Magistrate Judge Paul Grewal in San Jose, Calif. said that users could continue with allegations that Google wrongly transfers users' names and contact information to app developers."

So, there seems to be enough happening that some consumers understandably might try to minimize or avoid interactions with any Google products and services.

Several news organizations have reported about the high-profile websites that use canvas fingerprinting, including several porn sites and WhiteHouse.gov. Interested readers can browse this list of websites the researchers found that perform canvas fingerprinting.

I would like to thank the researchers for this report. It is greatly appreciated and very valuable. Consumers need to be informed and the websites (e.g., marketers and advertisers) aren't doing it. Tracking methods need to be disclosed and opt-in based.

During the last 7+ years, this blog has covered stories about several technologies (e.g., cookies, “zombie cookies,” Flash cookies, “zombie e-tags,” super cookies, “zombie databases” on mobile devices, etc.) entities have used to persistently track consumers online without their knowledge nor consent; and circumvent consumers' efforts to maintain privacy online. Proponents usually justify the tracking as needed for consumers interested in seeing relevant, target advertisements online (a/k/a "behavioral advertising). Given this history of repeated privacy abuses, sadly I am not surprised about canvas fingerprinting. Frustrated, yes. Surprised, no.

Many of these tracking technologies have resulted in class-action lawsuits, which has been good because the speed of technological change is far faster than both the laws and legislators’ abilities to understand the emerging technologies. I fear that class-actions, as a protection tool for consumers and/or a method to hold privacy abusers accountable, will be more difficult in the future as many banks, telephone, Internet service providers, consumer electronics, software, nursing, and health care companies have added binding arbitration clauses to agreements with their customers.

This persistent tracking raises other issues. Consumers need new browser features to stop this persistent online tracking, as companies user creative ways to restore browser cookies that users have deleted to maintain privacy online. For consumers, help may be on the way in the form of the Privacy Badger tool from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

A prior blog post discussed the DuckDuckGo search engine as an alternative to traditional search engines (e.g., Google, Bing, Yahoo) for privacy-conscious users. While there was a discussion on one DuckDuckGo community board about canvas fingerprinting, a DuckDuckGo provided the this explanation:

"We removed the canvas check when we launched our reimagined/redesigned version earlier this year. This is no longer a concern. On the old DuckDuckGo, it's function was to detect if anti-aliasing was turned on, because our old default font (Segoe UI) broke when anti-aliasing was off."

So, the revised DuckDuckGo maintains privacy by design. Consumers can continue using the search engine with confidence for privacy.

Some consumers may conclude that using apps on their mobile devices instead of a web browser is an effective way to avoid the online tracking. Assuming this would be foolish given the Google lawsuit mentioned above. Plus, the unique device ID numbers (UDID) on all mobile devices are simply a very tempting identifier and tracking mechanism. It is one reason why so many apps want access to consumers' entire address books and other files on their mobile devices.

Download the researchers' report, "The Web Never Forgets: Persistent Tracking In The Wild" (Adobe PDF, 903 K bytes).

What are your opinions of the researchers' report? Of canvas fingerprinting? Of AddThis? Of Google? Of the failure of websites to inform consumers of the online tracking methods used? If you operate a blog or website using technologies from known canvas fingerprinters, please share your thoughts and/or whether you continue to use these technologies.

[Correction: an earlier version of this blog post mentioned a possible privacy problem with the DuckDuckGo.com search engine. The revised blog post above includes an explanation from DuckDuckGo about how their search engines maintains privacy and avoids canvas fingerprinting.]


Facebook Announced A New Feature Where It Listens And Identifies Music And TV Content

Facebook logo Before and during the Memorial Day holiday, I was busy with work and family events. Perhaps, you were busy too and missed this. Just before the holiday, Facebook announced a new, optional feature where it will listen and identify whatever you are listening to while typing status messages.

If you have used mobile apps like Shazam, then you know how technology can easily identify the name and artist of music. Facebook wants to take the technology further by identifying the background content (e.g., music you are listening to, movies or television show you are watching) while posting messages to Facebook. Facebook's announcement pitched the new feature as:

"You may have seen a friend post a photo after a tough workout with a “feeling proud” icon. Or you’ve seen your friend check in at a coffee shop “drinking an iced coffee.” In the last year, people shared more than 5 billion status updates... we’re making those conversations quicker and easier by introducing a new way to share and discover music, TV and movies. When writing a status update – if you choose to turn the feature on – you’ll have the option to use your phone’s microphone to identify what song is playing or what show or movie is on TV."

Unlike the Shazzam app (which the user initiates), once you turn on the "Identify TV and Music" feature, it will operate quietly and identify whatever is playing in the background when you post messages:

"If you leave the feature on, you will see the audio icon move and attempt to detect a match when you’re writing a status update. No sound is stored and you’ll always get to choose whether you post to your friends... if you choose to turn this feature on, it will only use your microphone (for 15 seconds) when you’re actually writing a status update to try and match music and TV... when you write a status update, the app converts any sound into an audio fingerprint on your phone. This fingerprint is sent to our servers to try and match it against our database of audio and TV fingerprints. By design, we do not store fingerprints from your device for any amount of time."

It's important to read Facebook's words closely. It says it won't store the music, TV show, or movie you are watching or listening to. It does store the status message you authorize about the background content. That means, the feature will record the name or title of the show/music, the artists, along with the date, time, your geolocation (e.g., GPS) data, and probably other relevant metadata. It needs these metadata elements to create a status message for you to post to your Timeline.

Based upon its matching algorithm, the message includes an excerpt of the music or show, since Facebook assumes that your friends may want to purchase the music or video item. In this way, Facebook can sell more advertising to its corporate sponsors; where once again Facebook members are the product. The feature allows Facebook to analyze its members' actions and build a a more robust activity profile. For example, people with certain demographic characteristics (e.g., age, sex, students, rural residents, etc.) or in certain locations, listen to XYZ music and/or watch a certain genre of television shows while posting status messages. And, Facebook can associate certain moods or feelings in your posts to the moods or feelings in the background content (e.g., music, movie, or TV shows).

The Naked Security blog by Sophos reported:

"When it initially announced the eavesdroppish new service, Facebook didn't say anything about listening in on background noise, including private conversations. But this week, Facebook's security head honcho, Gregg Stefancik, filled in that gap. Stefancik, head of security infrastructure for the very-data-rich, o-so-good-at-data-mining social network, explicitly told journalists that the new audio feature does not snoop on users and does not record conversations... The raw audio never leaves the phone, Stefancik said, while the data about the match is only stored if a user opts to post it:.. The app can't identify background noise and conversation before the feature is enabled."

I guess that this new feature will be a benefit to consumers who want to share easily, quickly, and automatically without having to do anything. You literally won't need to lift a finger. It seems wise for consumers to give a new feature like this a lot of thought and consideration before turning it on. Why? The background content (via the authorized status messages) will be associated with your profile.

Maybe, the background content is the television you've left on because you're home alone, not really watching it, and want some noise in your home. Maybe you are simply in the same room with a family member or friend who is watching TV, movies, or listening to music. Their selections identify their choices, not necessarily yours. Maybe you are in a shopping mall and muzak is playing in the background. Maybe the music playing is from an advertisement on television. Maybe Facebook's matching algorithm was incorrect.

My point: the background content may have nothing to do with your profile, but it gets recorded and associated with your profile anyway. The background content may be items you'd ever select nor buy, but Facebook would assume so. Then, who is right? Who knows more about you and your habits: you or Facebook?

I see this new feature as extremely invasive and problematic. I know my profile better than any social networking service, and remaining in control is important to me. Facebook addressed the issue of control in its announcement:

"... this feature is completely optional. If you don’t turn it on, we won’t use your microphone to try and match TV or music when you write a status update. If you do choose to turn it on and later decide it’s not for you, you can easily turn it off at any time."

This implies, if you want to delete any background content from your Timeline, then you would do so consistent with the capabilities and limitations of the current Timeline system. Does a user really have effective control? I don't see how any consumer can verify that Facebook uses the new feature to comply with its promises (e.g., don't record conversations, 15 seconds, identify only TV/music, etc.). The announcement did not specify how accurate the feature is. If it incorrectly identifies some background content, and you authorize that status message then an error has been introduced to your profile. Facebook member may not know the background content identified.

I'd like to see Facebook explain more about its matching algorithm. How accurate is it? Does it match any song or music? Does that include music in TV advertisements? If so, then, the matching algorithm could identify what commercials you have viewed. What about radio? The announcement didn't say anything about radio. People listen to traditional radio and satellite radio. What matching is done then?

This technology confirms what a lot of people have been worried about with surveillance by government spy agencies: the ability to remotely control the microphone in your smart phone or mobile device, and monitor what you are doing, listening to, and watching. Since Facebook already records and archives everything (including deletions) you type into the status message box, the two features combined provide the social networking site with very strong capabilities to determine what you are  thinking, feeling, and considering -- not just what you typed in the status message. That is very strong personal content.

It's also very creepy stuff, in my opinion. Spy agencies must be looking at this and wondering: if Facebook can do this, we should be able to do this, too. If I operated a Web design service that was a front for a spy agency, I'd want to use an app like this.

I wouldn't want any mobile device in my pocket running an app like this. Nor would I want to be around people using an app like this; especially in business meetings. Yes, this upcoming Facebook feature reminds me a lot of Google Glass. Very invasive for people who value their privacy.

What's your opinion of the upcoming Facebook feature? Is this more or less invasive than government spy programs?


California AG Issues Privacy Recommendations To Better Protect Consumers

Late last month, the Office of the Attorney General for the State of California issued a guide with privacy recommendations for companies about how to present privacy policies and do-not-track disclosures to consumers. The recommendations are based upon changes in California law (emphasis added):

"...in 2003, California established the landmark California Online Privacy Protection Act, which was the first law in the nation to require operators of commercial websites, including mobile apps, to conspicuously post a privacy policy if they collect personally identifiable information from Californians. In 2013, the Act was amended by Assembly Bill 370, which requires privacy policies to include information on how the operator responds to Do Not Track signals or similar mechanisms. The law also requires privacy policies to state whether third parties can collect personally identifiable information about the site’s users."

Previously, many mobile app developers failed to include usage term and privacy policies with their apps, both before and after purchase. Most Web browsers have Do Not Track (DNT) features, but the effectiveness of that feature depends upon the website operator's compliance, which is not mandatory. The California AG's guide included a summary of Do Not Track and web browsers (emphasis added):

"... the [U.S. Federal Trade Commission] staff in 2010 proposed a Do Not Track (DNT) browser signal as a uniform and comprehensive way for consumers to choose whether to allow the collection and use of data regarding their online searching and browsing activities. The Commission noted in its 2012 final report that a number of browser vendors had announced that their latest versions permitted consumers “to instruct websites not to track their activities across websites.” In a 2012 paper on consumer privacy, the White House noted that “privacy-enhancing technologies such as the ‘Do Not Track’ mechanism allow consumers to exercise some control over how third parties use personal data or whether they receive it at all.” By 2013, the major browser companies had all implemented a DNT mechanism in their browsers. In May 2014, the White House once again commented that consumers “have a valid interest in ‘Do Not Track’ tools that help them control when and how their data is collected. There is no legal requirement for how operators of web sites or online services must respond to a browser’s DNT signal. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which facilitates collaborative efforts to develop web standards, created a Tracking Protection Working Group, which has been working since 2011 to develop standards for the technology and meaning of Do Not Track. As of the end of 2013, the W3C group had not agreed upon what an operator or an advertising network should do when they receive a DNT browser header."

The guide includes the following key recommendations:

"Readability
- Use plain, straightforward language. Avoid technical or legal jargon.
- Use a format that makes the policy readable, such as a layered format.

Online Tracking/Do Not Track
- Make it easy for a consumer to find the section in which you describe your policy regarding online tracking by labeling it, for example: “How We Respond to Do Not Track Signals,” “Online Tracking,” or “California Do Not Track Disclosures.”
- Describe how you respond to a browser’s Do Not Track signal or to other such mechanisms. This is more transparent than linking to a “choice program."
- State whether other parties are or may be collecting personally identifiable information of consumers while they are on your site or service.

Data Use and Sharing
- Explain your uses of personally identifiable information beyond what is necessary for fulfilling a customer transaction or for the basic functionality of an online service.
- Whenever possible, provide a link to the privacy policies of third parties with whom you share personally identifiable information.

Individual Choice and Access
- Describe the choices a consumer has regarding the collection, use and sharing of his or her personal information.

Accountability
- Tell your customers whom they can contact with questions or concerns about your privacy policies and practices"

Personally identifiable information (PII) includes the following data elements:

  • Your name: first, middle, last
  • Your residential or home address, including the street name, town, and ZIP Code
  • Your e-mail address
  • Your telephone number (mobile or land-line)
  • Your Social Security number
  • Any other identifier that enables somebody to contact you online or offline in the physical world
  • "Information concerning a user that the web site or online service collects online from the user and maintains in personally identifiable form in combination with an identifier..."

The last two items are critical because they includes several things that can be used to identify only you, such as a user name, user ID, license number, member number, policy number, record number, the IP address assigned to your computer device, and so forth. The last item probably includes your physical movements (e.g., GPS coordinates with time stamps from your mobile device or car), since this data could be used to uniquely identify and track you.

Download the "Making Your Privacy Practices Public" guide (Adobe PDF) by the California Attorney General's Office. It includes detailed recommendations, which are a good start. Assembly Bill 370 makes it clearer for consumers to understand what a website and mobile app operator promises to do about privacy and handling consumers' sensitive personal information. Obviously, there needs to be a standard about how advertising networks respond to DNT signals from a browser.

I look forward to seeing more privacy improvements in California and in other states. What are your opinions of the "Making Your Privacy Practices Public" guide? Is it good? Does it go far enough?


Your Car Is The Next Advertising And Data Collection Frontier

Advertisers view your personal auto as the next frontier to display targeted, relevant advertisements based upon when and where you drive, plus how long you park at certain locations. All of this is possible as manufacturers equip cars with computing technology similar to what's in your smart phone and tablet computer. Think of you car as simply another mobile device.

Business Insider explained advertisers' interest:

"Americans spend an average of 1.2 hours a day traveling between locations and American commuters spend an average of 38 hours a year stuck in traffic. If mobile apps and Internet-based services can shoehorn their way into the in-car environment, that means a great opportunity to expand their ability to engage consumers, absorb their attention, and gather data."

It really doesn't matter whether you drive your car, or you use the Google self-driving car. The data collection will be massive and advertisers plan to capitalize on the opportunity. Say Media reported:

"... the McKinsey Global Institute estimates that the automotive industry will be the second largest generator of data by 2015. Gartner reports that, by 2018, one in five cars on the road will be "self-aware" and able to discern and share information on their mechanical health, their global position and status of their surroundings."

The data collected is not only GPS location and engine performance from sensors embedded throughout the car. The data collected is not only your travel directions and map information. It also includes your music selections and interactions with other mobile devices, since cars are Internet connected, access files in cloud services, and often operate as WiFi hotspots.

Then, there is the coming practice of "geo-fencing," the dynamic, real-time display of location-specific advertisements:

"According to the Placecast Blog, they and Aha™ by HARMAN have begun testing new in-car advertising that delivers relevant, real-time promotional offers to consumers based on the vehicle's locations. Quiznos is the first brand to activate promotional offers using the new service. When your vehicle enters a geo-fenced area, a Quiznos audio ad is inserted into the stream. A tap on the interface emails a coupon to your mobile device for use in the store..."

So, if you are driving near a particular fast-food restaurant chain, you will likely see advertisements and/or coupons displayed in your car (and/or on your mobile device connected to your car) about nearby restaurants and stores. Say Media posed some more relevant questions:

"... how much access advertisers will actually have to proprietary in-vehicle systems. Should auto manufacturers act as a gatekeeper, shielding their car's drivers from unwanted messages? Or should auto brands open-source their code for in-vehicle modules like the Ford Motor Company? Ford's strategy is to provide a link allowing apps on Android phones or iPhones to be controlled through the car's electronic units."

Proprietary in-vehicle systems includes the myriad of sensors embedded throughout your car that monitor and report information about specific components (e.g., engine, brakes, cameras, speed, road conditions, etc.). For me, consumers should be in control. And, there are many more questions:

  • Who stores the data collected by your car, and how long is it retained?
  • Who owns the data collected by your car (e.g., driver, auto manufacturer, operating system software developer, mobile app developer, advertiser, advertising network, mobile device manufacturer, insurance company, etc.)?
  • What other companies is the data collection shared with (especially auto maintenance, repair, and sensor information)?
  • Who controls the data sharing?
  • When and where are relevant policies (e.g., privacy, terms of use) displayed?
  • Are programs opt-in or opt-out based for consumers? Hopefully, the former.
  • What privacy tools will be available for drivers?
  • What anti-virus options to prevent malware, spam and bot nets using your car?
  • Will cars include embedded coded by the NSA and other intelligence agencies?
  • Supposedly, targeted and relevant advertisements are a convenience for consumers. How much convenience is enough?

If current Internet practices win out, then your car will likely operate similar to your Web browser, with a race by advertisers and companies to collect as much as possible via a variety of technologies (e.g., not just browser cookies) that track you and your movements.

What are your views about smart cars? About advertisements via geo-fencing? About privacy options for drivers?