Of course, state executives claim no such policy exists, while the employees responsible for protecting the state's environment reported that the policy was communicated verbally. Read more:
Of course, state executives claim no such policy exists, while the employees responsible for protecting the state's environment reported that the policy was communicated verbally. Read more:
Earlier this month, Senator Edward Markey (D-MA) issued a report calling for greater automobile security and privacy for consumers. The "Tracking & Hacking: Security & Privacy Gaps Put American Drivers at Risk" report included questions Senator Market posed to 16 automobile manufacturers during 2014. The questions focused upon how vehicles might be vulnerable to hackers, and how driver information is collected and protected.
Senator Markey sent letters to the following automobile manufacturers:
|Automobile Manufacturers Queried|
|1. Aston Martin The Americas
2. Audi of America**
3. BMW North America*
4. Chrysler Group LLC*
5. Ford Motor Company*
6. General Motors*
7. American Honda Motor Co. Inc.*
8. Hyundai Motors North America*
9. Jaguar Landrover LLC*
10. Automobili Lamborghini America
|11. Mazda North American Operations*
12. Mercedes-Benz USA*
13. Mitsubishi Motors North America*
14. Nissan North America*
15. Porsche Cars of North America*
16. Subaru Motors America*
18. Toyota North American Region*
19. Volkswagen Group of America*
20. Volvo North America
|*Provided responses to Senator Markey's inquiry letters.
** Audis response was included with Volkswagon's submission.
Some of the questions asked:
Regarding automobile data security, the report found four trends:
Regarding privacy, the report found:
Download the "Tracking & Hacking: Security & Privacy Gaps Put American Drivers at Risk" report (Adobe PDF). After reading it, I had several reactions. First, I would love to know why Aston Martin, Lamborghini, and Tesla failed to respond. Are data security and privacy not important to them? If they are important, then does their failure to respond indicate some internal disorganization?
Third, the lack of focus by auto manufacturers on data security and privacy is an alert to the hackers, identity thieves, and fraudsters worldwide that these autos are vulnerable. While writing this blog, I have learned that the bad guys are persistent, creative, and posses the same equipment, software, and technologies as the good guys. Autos contain computing technologies that are similar to other mobile devices (e.g., laptops, smart phones, tablets, fitness devices, and wearables). Autos should have the same data security protections: firewalls, anti-virus software and updates, and so forth. So, it makes sense to keep a strong focus on data security and privacy.
Fourth, the lack of focus by auto manufacturers on data security and privacy is an alert to governments and spy agencies worldwide. Why? They already perform surveillance using other mobile devices. Autos are just another mobile device they'll add to their lists.
The lack of focus represents a data security and privacy disaster of epic proportions in the making.
What do you think of the automobile security and privacy report?
Since President Obama will mention competition and high-speed Internet services in his 2015 State of The Union address to the nation Tuesday evening, it seemed appropriate to discuss the state of high-speed Internet services (a/k/a broadband) in the United States. The "Cost of Connectivity 2014" annual report by the Open Technology Institute compared Internet prices and speeds in 24 cities around the world. The overall finding:
"... the data that we have collected in the past three years demonstrates that the majority of U.S. cities surveyed lag behind their international peers, paying more money for slower Internet access."
The researchers investigated both home and mobile high-speed Internet prices and speeds. Data was collected between July and September of 2014. The list of cities:
For home usage, the researchers looked at "broadband-only" plans. If a provider didn't offer a broadband-only plan, then they looked for the cheapest bundle (e.g., phone plus Internet, "triple-play bundles of phone, Internet, and television, etc.). Prices in foreign currencies were converted to U.S. Dollars using:
"... the World Bank’s purchasing power parity (PPP) metric."
The researchers used the broadband definition by U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC): a minimum of 4 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload. The researchers collected the following information about each broadband service:
Consumers in Asia and Europe get the best value (e.g., highest speeds at the lwest prices):
"Most Asian and European cities provide broadband service in the 25 to 50 megabits per second (Mbps) speed range at a better value on average than North American cities (with a few key exceptions). In addition, when it comes to the estimated speeds a customer could expect to get for $50 in each of the cities we surveyed, the U.S. is middling at best, with many cities falling to the bottom of the pack. Our analysis also finds that, in terms of speed and price, cities with municipal networks are on par with Hong Kong, Seoul, Tokyo, and Zürich and are ahead of the major incumbent ISPs in the U.S."
This merits repeating. The areas in the USA that offer the best value for consumers are municipal broadband networks and not the corporate Internet Service Providers (ISPs). Yet, local laws in 19 states prevent or restrict consumers from building municipal broadband services. Yet politicians in the United States are quick to promote privatization (e.g., corporations are good; government is bad) as a catch-all solution.
And, it is worse for mobile phone and tablet users:
"In the mobile broadband space, USB dongle and wireless hotspot device offerings continue to be expensive substitutes for home broadband connectivity, with consumers in some other countries paying the same price for mobile plans with data caps that are up to as 40 times higher than those offered by U.S. providers."
Providers of home services in cities with the fastest broadband speeds both increased speeds and reduced prices in 2013 compared to 2012, and again in 2014 compared to 2013:
"Virtually every city in this ranking has seen an annual increase in its top speed offering since 2012. In cases where ISPs offer the same speed as last year, those ISPs have tended to lower their prices. For instance, Lafayette, LA charged $999.95 per month for its gigabit service in 2013 and dropped that price to $109.95 per month in 2014. In Mexico City, a 200 Mbps package was available for nearly $100 less than the price offered for that speed by a different provider in 2013. The average download speed of plans in this ranking increased from 233 Mbps in 2012 to around 500 in 2013, and almost 650 Mbps in 2014. Nearly half of all cities in this ranking offer gigabit speeds, and more than two-thirds of all cities offer service over 500 Mbps."
The researchers look at what consumers could get with spending $40 monthly:
"In 2014, five providers offered gigabit service for under $40, up from just one in 2013 and none in 2012. The U.S. cities on this list that are ranked at the middle or higher (Kansas City, KS; Kansas City, MO; and San Francisco, CA) are represented by local, innovative providers who offer competitive alternatives to the services provided by incumbents."
Incumbents are the large, national corporate ISPs (e.g., Verizon, AT&T, etc.). So, the top five best deals under $40 monthly:
|Rank - City||Monthly Cost ($ U.S.)||Provider||Speeds||Network Technology|
|1. Seoul||$30.30||HelloVision||1,000 Mbps download & upload||Fiber|
|2. Hong Kong||$37.41||Hong Kong Broadband||1,000 Mbps download & upload||Fiber|
|3. Tokyo||$39.15||KDDI||1,000 Mbps download & upload||Fiber|
|4. Paris||$38.81||SFR||1,000 Mbps download & 200 Mbps upload||Fiber|
|5. Bucharest||$32.35||RCS & RDS||1,000 Mbps download & 30 Mbps upload||Fiber|
Now, compare the above prices to what you pay and the speed you get. I did. Here in Boston, Comcast charges $66.95 per month for what it calls "Performance Internet." That's the regular price, and not the promotional price. The Comcast website states:
"Restrictions apply. Not available in all areas. Limited to new residential customers. Not available in all areas. Requires subscription to Performance Internet service. Equipment, installation, taxes and fees, and other applicable charges extra, and subject to change during and after the promo. After 12 mos., service charge for Performance Internet increases to $54.99/mo. After promo, or if any service is cancelled or downgraded, regular rates apply. Comcast's service charge for Performance Internet is $66.95/mo. (subject to change). Service limited to a single outlet. May not be combined with other offers. Internet: Wi-Fi claim based on the September 2014 study by Allion Test Labs. Actual speeds vary and are not guaranteed."
So, the site doesn't even disclose what speed consumers get for $66.95 per month. The true price is higher once you add in equipment and taxes. And that is for older cable technology; not fiber. So, it is difficult for consumers to determine the value of Comcast Internet. Yes, Comcast offers a promotion price of $39.99 per month for 12 months, and then the monthly rate increases. I ignored this promotional price since the researchers compared regular rates. You should, too, so you know what the service really costs. And Comcast includes enough caveats that if you change anything in your subscription, regular rates apply.
Verizon FiOS is a fiber Internet service here in Massachusetts. Below are the service's prices:
The prices are very high, and the speeds are slower than the above leaders mentioned in the "Cost of Connectivity 2014" report. So, it seems appropriate to ask: are you getting good value (e.g., monthly price divided by download speed) for home Internet where you live? Probably not; unless you live in an area with a municipal service provider. Do you have a state-of-the-art fiber connection? Probably not.
The researchers compared high-speed Internet services between Europe and the USA. They found:
"... median prices are higher in the U.S. for speeds equivalent to those in Europe. Except for the lowest speed tier reported in this graph, the median price in every other tier is noticeably higher for the U.S., indicating that customers pay more for the same broadband packages than their European peers."
The researchers analyzed and compared Internet services in several ways. Since consumers often set a household budget for items, the researchers looked at what consumers get with a monthly budget of $50 for Internet services. Providers in the USA didn't fare well:
"Figure 7 demonstrates the estimated speeds a customer could expect to get for $50 in each of the cities we surveyed. Hong Kong and Seoul are far ahead, with around 300 Mbps at $50, while Tokyo and Paris both hover around 200 Mbps. Most of the U.S. cities cluster between 25 and 45 Mbps, with only San Francisco, CA, and Chattanooga, TN, falling out of that range on the high and low end, respectively. Mexico City ranks last with an average of around 8 Mbps."
Sometimes, consumers seek a certain Internet speed to perform certains tasks. So, the researchers looked at which countries provided the best value with a download speed of 25 Mbps or faster. 25 Mbps download is fast enough to download a short video clip in 1.3 seconds, 10 songs in about half a minute, or a 2-hour video in 13 minutes. That speed allows you to do most things you'd want to do, especially since most mobile devices store your files in the cloud. Once again, the USA lagged other countries:
"Figure 8 demonstrates the estimated monthly price for 25 Mbps in each of the cities we surveyed. The results are largely consistent with our other observations, although in this analysis London comes out at the top of the list at around $24 a month, followed closely by Seoul, Bucharest, and Paris. The U.S. cities are still clustered in the bottom half of the pack, with the exceptions of Kansas City, KS and Kansas City, MO. Notably, Hong Kong drops much lower in this analysis, which reflects the fact that some providers offer speeds ranging from 8 to 100 Mbps at very similar or identical prices."
Feeling proud about American exceptionalism? The next time you hear pundits or politicians profess American exceptionalism, ask them what they are doing to lower your monthly high-speed Internet prices, and speed up your connection, so you get the same (or better) value as consumers in other parts of the world. Write to your elected officials and tell them high-speed Internet prices are too high.
What are your opinions of this report? Of the monthly prices you pay? Do you think that ISPs in the U.S.A. are doing a good job?
"Research by Web performance monitoring company Catchpoint Systems suggests that news sites may be in trouble because publishers are putting too many assets on their Web pages, forcing the content and the advertisements to load too slowly... search engines loaded the quickest. Travel-related pages and Internet retailers loaded at about the same speeds, with retailers loading slightly faster. But overall, news sites tended to load the slowest..."
Wesite pages at the Financial Times took about 29.5 seconds to load. Website pages at Bloomberg averaged about 27 seconds, while pages at CNN averaged 18.8 seconds and The Wall Street Journal averaged 18.6 seconds.
Have you noticed slow load times at websites? If so, please share which sites. I've found pages often load slowly at The Huffington Post. I doubt that most users would wait half a minute for a web page to load. I wouldn't. Would you? Do you wait or go elsewhere?
Apparently, there are dark and ligh social channels on the Internet. MediaPost reported:
"Nearly a third (32%) of consumers who share content with other people digitally say they do it via so-called “dark social” channels such as email, SMS or other peer-to-peer platforms that are not as easy to see and monitor as so-called “light social” networks such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest."
This statistics was based upon an October 2014 survey by Tpoli of 9,000 consumers. However:
"According to RadiumOne, which released the Tpoll findings this morning as part of a new report, “The Light and Dark of Social Sharing,” found that actual content sharing is more like 69% “dark,” based on trends from its PO.ST content-sharing widgets. That finding is much closer to the patterns found by 33Across’s Tynt database, which tracks actual copy-and-pasting of digital content across all channels and has consistently found that more than 70% of content-sharing is via dark social channels."
Reportedly, about one third of users survey only use dark social channels. That sharing rate is higher among older users. Also, users tend to share socially-acceptable content in light social channels; a finding consistent with research about the spiral of silence.
The Pew Research Internet Project released the results of a survey of American adults' views about privacy. First, privacy means different things to different people:
"... privacy applies to personal material—their space, their “stuff,” their solitude, and, importantly, their “rights.” Beyond the frequency of individual words, when responses are grouped into themes, the largest block of answers ties to concepts of security, safety, and protection. For many others, notions of secrecy and keeping things “hidden” are top of mind when thinking about privacy."
Former NSA contractor Ed Snowden began leakingd documents in June 2013 about the government ongoing surveillance programs. Pew Research found:
"... 43% of adults have heard “a lot” about “the government collecting information about telephone calls, emails, and other online communications as part of efforts to monitor terrorist activity,” and another 44% have heard “a little.” Just 5% of adults in our panel said they have heard “nothing at all” about these programs."
Survey respondents lack confidence that they have control over their personal information:
"91% of adults in the survey “agree” or “strongly agree” that consumers have lost control over how personal information is collected and used by companies.
88% of adults “agree” or “strongly agree” that it would be very difficult to remove inaccurate information about them online.
80% of those who use social networking sites say they are concerned about third parties like advertisers or businesses accessing the data they share on these sites.
70% of social networking site users say that they are at least somewhat concerned about the government accessing some of the information they share on social networking sites without their knowledge"
Are government spy programs a concern? Should government do more to protect consumers. Here's are survey respondents answered:
"80% of adults “agree” or “strongly agree” that Americans should be concerned about the government’s monitoring of phone calls and internet communications. Just 18% “disagree” or “strongly disagree” with that notion.
64% believe the government should do more to regulate advertisers, compared with 34% who think the government should not get more involved.”
Historically, web sites have typically claim that the online data collection is necessary to serve up relevant advertisements and/or to provide free services. Here's what survey respondents said about that:
"61% of adults “disagree” or “strongly disagree” with the statement: “I appreciate that online services are more efficient because of the increased access they have to my personal data.”
At the same time, 55% “agree” or “strongly agree” with the statement: “I am willing to share some information about myself with companies in order to use online services for free.”
Pew Research found that most repondents felt the most unsecure on social networking websites, followed by chat and instant messaging services. Respondents felt the most secure on landline phones when they need to share private information. Most people want to protect their privacy online, but it feel it is impossible to be anonymous online.
People considered their Social Security Numbers the most sensitive personal data. The rank order of personal data elements from the most to least sensitive:
This list can be used to measure the intrusiveness of social networking sites. For example, Facebook collects directly via member interactions items 2, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, and 16.
The survey included 607 adults who GfK Knowledge Panel members. The survey was conducted online in english January 11 - 28, 2014.
What are your opinions of the survey results?
We all use the Internet to find things: products, services, travel deals, air fare, hotel tickets, and more. Are you getting the best price? Several sites, like Trivago, claim to help provide the best prices. How are consumers to tell? Do the search terms you use affect the prices you find?
Researchers at Northeastern University in Boston announced the results of a study about personalization by websites and the prices displayed to consumers. The study included two types of e-commerce sites:
E-commerce sites currently collect a wide variety of data about online users, including your Internet history, (cookie files saved to your web browser, pages and products viewed, products purchased, products rated), search terms, device (brand, operating system, screen size, etc.), IP address, geo-location data, and more. Sites and marketers usually justify the data collection as necessary to display relevant content and advertisements. Readers of the blog are familiar with historical privacy abuses where marketers and advertisers used a variety of technologies to track consumers online: browser cookies, supercookies, Flash cookies, zombie e-tags, and zombie cookies, and zombie databases.
The Northeastern University researchers analyzed the prices displayed and the factors that affected those displays. They found:
"... that several e-commerce sites implement price discrimination and steering. Closer examination reveals that a small fraction of users receive personalized results across many sites, indicating that these users are being specifically targeted."
The researchers compared results between users with and without Internet histories by using the same search terms. The researchers found that users with an Internet history could see higher prices online, and presented the example below with two images showing a higher price for a user with an Internet history compared to a user without:
In this example, the price difference for a hotel in Paris is $68 per night, a substantial difference. Also, the researchers found that e-commerce sites implement different types of personalization:
Cheaptickets and Orbitz implement price discrimination by offering reduced prices on hotels to "members." Expedia and Orbitz engage in A/B testing that steers a subset of users towards more expensive hotel rooms. Home Depot and Travelocity both personalize search results for users on Android and iOS devices. Priceline personalizes search results based on a user's history of clicks and purchases on the site.
About "price steering" and A/B testing:
"Hotels.com and Expedia are also owned by a single company, and our analysis reveals that they both implement the same personalization strategy: randomized A/B tests on users. A/B testing is a common practice among large websites, and is used to test specific features of a site (for example: do people click a blue button more often than a red button?). In this case, Hotels.com and Expedia appear to be randomly dividing users among three "buckets" based on their [browser] cookie. The graph below shows that users in different buckets see different hotel rooms in a different order... users in two of the buckets are shown higher priced hotels towards the top of the page, which is an example of price steering."
About personalization by device type:
"For Travelocity, we discovered that they alter hotel search results for users who browse from [Apple] iOS devices. The graphs below show that users browsing with Safari on iOS receive slightly different hotels, and in a much different order, than users browsing from Chrome on Android, Safari on OS X, or other desktop browsers. The takeaway from the grpahs below is that we observe evidence consistent with price discrimination in favor of iOS users on Travelocity. Unlike Cheaptickets and Orbitz, which clearly mark sale price “Members Only” deals, there is no visual cue on Travelocity’s results that indicates prices have been changed for iOS users."
There is more:
"Similar to our findings on Travelocity, Home Depot personalizes results for users with mobile browsers... Strangely, Home Depot serves 24 search results per page to desktop browsers and Android, but serves 48 products per page to iOS users. We discovered the pool of results served to mobile browsers contains more expensive products overall... Thus, Home Depot is effectively steering users on mobile devices towards more expensive products. In addition to steering, Home Depot also discriminates against Android users. We discovered that Android users consistently see differences on about 6% of prices..."
Overall, the researchers concluded:
"... we find evidence for price steering and price discrimination on four general retailers and six travel sites. Overall, travel sites show price inconsistencies in a higher percentage of cases... users experience personalization across multiple sites... we are able to isolate specific user attributes that trigger personalization on seven e-commerce sites. This includes logging-in to an account on Cheaptickets and Orbitz, using a mobile device with Travelocity and Home Depot, purchase history on Priceline, and A/B testing on Expedia and Hotels.com."
Read the full study titled, "Measuring Price Discrimination and Steering on E-Commerce Web Sites."
What can consumers do about this? The researchers didn't provide firm recommendations because e-commerce sites can change their personalization methods at any time. One suggestion is for consumers to become members at sites that show lower prices for members. However,, there is no guarantee that this preference will remain so.
Another suggestion is for consumers to try using different devices, including a desktop without any saved browser cookies. You might find lower prices with a specific device. This seems a huge pain, as it defeats the whole purpose of convenience with mobile devices.
I can understand lower prices displayed to members. That encourages repeat business. It's a standard marketing technique.
As a usability professional, I understand and have performed A/B testing with websites; specifically, a portion of a site where users were invited to a separate test session, paid for their time, and asked several questions. A test plan was written to clearly state the test objectives and testing program. The testing had a defined beginning and end; and was separate from the live site. Then, the live site was adjusted based upon the test findings. This approach avoids ethical issues.
When sites perform A/B testing contiuously with the live site, and without notice to users, then ethical issues arise. It becomes impossible to tell of the "test" prices are indeed new prices applied arbitrarily to users. That helps nobody and erodes consumers' trust. These ethical issues were highlighted recently with with the OKCupid dating site. Marketers often claim that "everyone is doing it," but that does not make it right.
Did you expect sites to display higher prices to users with certain device types? I didn't, and I bet you didn't either. Now you know that can and does happen. Is it right? Should there be warnings on sites that do this? What do you think of the study? Share your opinions below.
Last week, the New York State Attorney General released a report that analyzed the short-term rental market in New York City. The report found several impacts, chiefly including:
"... widespread illegality across New York City listings on the Airbnb website, with data indicating that as much as 72% of Airbnb reservations over the last several years violated New York law... The report is based on data obtained by the Attorney General’s Office as a result of a May 2014 subpoena for information about potential illegal hotels using Airbnb’s site."
The report analyzed short-term rental in New York with Airbnb reservations data from January 1, 2010 to June 2, 2014. Findings and impacts cited by the report:
"Private short-term booking in New York City on Airbnb increased sharply during the Review Period, registering more than a tenfold increase. The associated revenue also spiked, nearly doubling each year. This year, revenue to Airbnb and its hosts from private short-term rentals in New York City is expected to exceed $282 million."
And, commercial hosts dominated:
"94 percent of Airbnb hosts offered at most two unique units during the Review Period. But the remaining 6 percent of hosts dominated the platform during that period, offering up to hundreds of unique units, accepting 36 percent of private short-term bookings, and receiving $168 million, 37 percent of all host revenue..."
The good news: a lot of people like and use Airbnb; both individuals and commercial entities. The bad news included two types of illegality. First:
"Most Short-Term Rentals Booked in New York Violated the Law. State and local laws in New York — including the Multiple Dwelling Law and the New York City Administrative Code — prohibit certain short-term rentals... 72 percent of units used as private short-term rentals on Airbnb appeared to violate these laws."
The second type of illegality:
"New York law does not permit commercial enterprises to operate hostels, where multiple, unrelated guests share tight quarters. In 2013, approximately 200 units in New York City were booked as private short-term rentals for more than 365 nights during the year. This indicates that multiple transients shared the same listing on the same night, as they would in an illegal hostel. The 10 most-rented units for private short-term rentals were each booked for an average of about 1,900 nights in 2013, with the top listing accepting 13 reservations on an average night."
Some people might think that this is no problem, because either change the law or force Airbnb hosts to comply with the law. The problem: other city residents have been affected with the decreased availability of traditional long-term rental units:
"Private Short-Term Rentals Displaced Long-Term Housing in Thousands of Apartments. In 2013, more than 4,600 units were booked as short-term rentals through Airbnb for three months of the year or more. Of these, nearly 2,000 units were booked as short-term rentals for a cumulative total of half the year or more — rendering them largely unavailable for use by long-term residents..."
Put simply: it seems that landlords (people and corporations) have found they can make more money from their rental property by using it as short-term rentals and by cramming into each rental multiple, unrelated guests.
What the folks at Airbnb are doing about the problems:
"In April 2014, in direct response to NYAG’s investigation, Airbnb publicly claimed it had barred certain large Commercial Users from accepting additional reservations. The time period covered by the Data does not enable us to gauge whether Airbnb’s purported reform lessened the domination of Commercial Users in the private short-term rental market."
With any new technology or service, there are intended and unintended consequences. While initially developed to help travelers find alternative, short-term rentals, the above impacts can be huge upon communities, residents, and workers. The report found:
"Gentrified or Rapidly Gentrifying Neighborhoods Primarily in Manhattan Accounted for the Vast Majority of Revenue from Private Short-Term Rentals in New York City. Bookings in just three Community Districts in Manhattan — the Lower East Side/Chinatown, Chelsea/Hell’s Kitchen, and Greenwich Village/SoHo — accounted for approximately $187 million in revenue to hosts , or more than 40 percent of private stay revenue to hosts during the Review Period. By contrast, all the reservations in three boroughs (Queens, Staten Island, and the Bronx) brought hosts revenue of $12 million — less than three percent of the New York City total..."
This report raises lots of questions. Is similar illegal activity happening in other cities? If so, to a lesser or greater extent? Have residents seeking affordable, long-term rentals been forced to move out of neighborhoods and cities? What are the impacts upon schools and local businesses from this displacement? What are the impacts upon voting? I don't know the answers to these questions. Maybe a reader will post some answers and/or links to documents. The report did cite one impact:
"New York City is Likely Owed Millions in Unpaid Hotel Taxes from Private Short-Term Rentals. A number of taxes may apply to private short-term rentals... In particular, New York City assesses a hotel room occupancy tax of 5.875 percent that applies to private short-term rentals. Excluding fines and penalties, the total estimated liability for hotel room occupancy taxes associated with the Reviewed Transactions is over $33 million. Few Airbnb hosts appear to have filed the paperwork with New York City necessary to remit hotel room occupancy taxes, nor did Airbnb collect any of the hotel taxes owed..."
According to its website, Airbnb is in 34,000 cities and 190 countries. In a time of strained government budgets, you can bet that politicians won't leave $33 million on the table unpaid.
Download the report, "Airbnb In The City" (Adobe PDF).
"... a study in the current issue of the Journal of Patient Safety that says the numbers may be much higher — between 210,000 and 440,000 patients each year who go to the hospital for care suffer some type of preventable harm that contributes to their death, the study says. That would make medical errors the third-leading cause of death in America, behind heart disease, which is the first, and cancer, which is second."
I'll bet you didn't know that so many people die every year from medical errors. Below is the ranked list of death causes in 2011 in the U.S.A. published by the Center For Disease Control (CDC):
440,000 deaths per year from medical errors easily captures the number 3 spot. As bad as this is, sadly there is more.
On Friday October 17, professor and former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich posted on his Facebook page (link added):
"The failures at Dallas Presbyterian Hospital reflect a much bigger problem. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hospital-acquired infections now affect one in 25 patients, causing 99,000 deaths each year. That’s 1 out of 4 deaths in hospitals -- more deaths than caused by many of the conditions that lead patients to enter hospitals in the first place..."
Hence, a more accurate ranked list of leading causes of death would include both medical errors and hospital-acquired infections:
With existing death causes like these, the calls by politicians to ban flights from West Africa seem to miss the point. So much for American exceptionalism. Mr. Reich explored the problem further:
"... hospital administrators don’t have much incentive to improve. Most people have no idea of the infection rate at any given hospital, and don’t ask their doctors. If a hospital’s infection rate goes down the hospital doesn’t get more patients, and if it goes up the hospital doesn’t get fewer. (In fact, it might even make money because it can then increase its billing.) Bottom line: The CDC should require hospitals to report their infection rates into a common database that you have access to, and you should consult it before choosing a hospital for yourself or a loved one."
Now, that proposal makes sense. It allows consumers to make informed decisions about where to seek health care.
What are your opinions of the leading causes of death? Is the country focused on the right problem? Have you asked your physician about hospital infection rates?
Monthly Internet prices seem to be going up. Last month, my Internet Service Provider (ISP) raised prices about ten percent.
If you are wondering what other Americans pay monthly for Internet access, it's alot. I reviewed the "Cost of Connectivity 2013" report by the New America Foundation (NAF). The NAF analyzed prices in 24 cities worldwide and found:
"... in comparison to their international peers, Americans in major cities such as New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC are paying higher prices for slower Internet service. While the plans and prices have been updated in the intervening year, the 2013 data shows little progress, reflecting remarkably similar trends to what we observed in 2012."
The U.S. cities in the report: Bristol (Virginia), Chattanooga (Tennessee), Kansas City (Kansas), Kansas City (Missouri), Lafayette (Louisiana), Los Angeles (California), New York (New York), San Francisco (California), and Washington, DC.
I hope that Boston makes the 2014 report. Other cities in the 2013 report: Amsterdam (Netherlands), Berlin (Germany), Bucharest (Romania), Copenhagen (Denmark), Dublin (Ireland), Hong Kong (China), London (United Kingdom), Mexico City (Mexico), Paris (France), Prague (Czech Republic), Riga (Latvia), Seoul (South Korea), Tokyo (Japan), Toronto (Canada), and Zurich (Switzerland).
While Chattanooga (Tennessee), Seoul (South Korea), Lafayette (Louisiana), Kansas City (Kansas), and Kansas City (Missouri) offer the fastest connection speeds, residents in the USA pay more and get slower speeds compared to other countries. Some more comparisons in the report:
"... the best deal for a 150 Mbps home broadband connection from cable and phone companies is $130/month, offered by Verizon FiOS. By contrast, the international cities we surveyed offer comparable speeds for less than $80/month, with most coming in at about $50/month.... In July 2013 Verizon announced a new 500 Mbps service (with 100 Mbps upload speeds) available in selected areas of its FiOS service. However, this new 500 Mbps service costs around $300 a month. In Amsterdam, a symmetrical 500 Mbps broadband plan (with 500 Mbps download and upload speeds) costs just over $86."
$300 per month? That's equivalent to an auto loan. Would you pay that? Can you afford to pay that? The comparisons aren't any better for mobile broadband:
"... the cheapest price for around 2 GB of data in the U.S. ($30/month from T-Mobile) is twice as much as what users in London pay ($15/month from T-Mobile). It costs more to purchase 2 GB of data in a U.S. city than it does in any of the cities surveyed in Europe."
So much for claims of American exceptionalism. I wrote in prior blog posts about how local laws already exist in 20 states to prevent broadband competition by stopping cities and towns from building their own (low-cost to users) fiber Internet services. This keeps monthly prices by your Internet Service Provider (ISP) high. This limits the freedom of consumers to build broadband alternatives through their cities and towns. Bad for you; good for the corporate ISPs., Again, from the NAF report:
"In cities with municipal broadband networks, pricing generally remained the same. The notable exception was Chattanooga, TN, where the local municipal provider EPB dramatically lowered the costs of a symmetrical 1 Gbps connection, from $349/month to $70/month. By contrast, in American cities without local fiber competitors, the highest speed available for $70/month is around 50 Mbps. EPB also raised the speed of their their slowest broadband plan from 30 Mbps to 100 Mbps, while keeping the monthly price the same at $57.99."
$349 to $70 monthly! If this is what it takes to lower monthly Internet prices, I am all for municipal broadband.
Yet, instead of foghting for lower Internet prices, during the past few months U.S. residents have had to fight to keep a fair and open Internet (a/k/a Net Neutrality). The first dealine to submit comments to the FCC was July 18 (moved from July 15 due to heavy volume). 1.1 million comments were submitted, and the electronic version of the comments data is available online.
The next deadline to submit Net Neutrality comments to the FCC is September 15, 2014 (moved from Sept. 10). If you believe prices are too high, tell your ISP, the FCC, and tell your elected officials.
Has your ISP lowered or raised prices recently? If so, how much? Do you think that Americans should pay more for Internet compared to residents of other countries? Do you think monthly Internet prices in the USA are okay as is or too high? Share your reasons.
"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."
"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:
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:
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.]
Many consumers subscribe to cable providers for Internet, television, and phone services. Some consumers are unhappy with the high prices and poor customer support by their cable providers. If you are unhappy, the May 2014 issue of Consumer Reports magazine provides ratings and resources to lower your monthly bills or find alternate providers.
Over he past few decades, cable providers have raised their prices. The magazine found that the price of "expanded basic cable service" has risen faster than inflation since 1998, and:
"According to a recent report by the Mintel Group, the average cost of home communication services is $154. In the course of a year, that works out to $1,848 -- more than the average household spends on clothing, furniture, or electricity."
For consumers (especially people who subscribe all three services: TV, Internet, and phone) that want to lower their monthly cable bills, the magazine included a section explaining which fees are unavoidable, negotiable, reprehensible, and cut-able. Another section described five negotiation tactics you can use. It pays to negotiate:
"Among the hagglers, 46 percent said their provider dropped the price by as much as $50 per month, 31 percent got a new promotional rate..."
However, the magazine also warned:
"... the high times for hagglers might be coming to an end. Cablevision CEO Jim Dolan has publicly stated that his company will stop offering repeat promotional discounts to subscribers. "The customer that has been bouncing from one company to another on promotional discounts has hit a dead end with us..."
So, consumers must be willing to fire their cable providers. What I liked most about the Consumer Reports article was its ratings and bundle suggestions for replacement services. The magazine provides ratings of more than two-dozen service providers in the following categories:
Ratings included value, reliability, satisfaction, billing, support, call quality (phone), speed (Internet), and picture (television). I found the ratings informative and helpful. Comcast, Time Warner, and Verizon seem to consistently rank near the bottom. Wise consumers already know that USA residents don't get good value because our Internet speeds are slower and cost more than in other countries.
I also liked the magazine's suggestions of replacement services that consumers can use to create their own custom bundles. The bundle you create depends upon where you live, the combination of services (e.g., Internet, phone, television) you use to currently, and your television habits (e.g., basic, expanded basic, premium, pay-per-view). Sports fans will probably create different bundles than movie lovers. The magazine's analysis mentioned providers I hadn't heard of before (e.g., WOW, Ooma for phone service, SuddenLink, Bright House), the usual suspects (e.g., Roku, Hulu, Verizon FiOS, Cablevision, DirecTV, Vonage), and others.
You'll have to read the magazine to learn about the specific bundles it recommended. The magazine also provided a mini-review of Google Fiber:
"Broadband speeds in the U.S. are pretty slow -- averaging 9.8 megabits per second... a few cities have hit the jackpot thanks to Google's venture... Kansas City... Provo, Utah... Austin, Texas... Initial setup was quick and easy, but it took three additional visits by Google technicians to fix some bugs. The service promised up to 200 Mbps, although Vidmar's tests using Ookla Speedtest show that he's been averaging 50 Mbps..."
My home is now cable-free. We fired Comcast several months ago after decades with basic cable service. The monthly bill for that service had almost tripled since the mid 1990s. When Comcast encrypted its television transmission, I ordered the free adapters it provided. The problem: Comcast sent low definition adapters and failed to notify me that high-definition adapters were also available. The low-definition adapters (instead of a cable box) provided a degraded television viewing experience. We now use a bundle with Mohu Leaf digital antennas for free over-the-air television, Netflix, and the public library. Our savings paid for the digital antennas in a couple months.
Recently, Pew Research reported that two-thirds of Americans are actively engaged with, use, and value public libraries. So, my library usage is consistent with other's usage.
The bundles you create will vary, as everyone has slightly different television viewing habits. I was never a fan of premium cable channels. I prefer to spend my money on travle rather than television services. People who know me have heard me talk in terms of "cruise units" -- the price of a typical seven-night Caribbean cruise ship vacation. Using the above $154 average monthly cable bill, in five months I've paid for a cruise -- and if I plan ahead, that could include airfare, too.
Of course, consumers' custom bundle creations will change if Congress and the FCC fail to restore net neutrality. Without net Neutrality rules, experts predict several changes to your Internet access including higher prices and degraded service. In that scenario, I expect Internet bills to become as complicated, convoluted, and fee heavy as your current cable television bills. I described in this blog post one provider's Internet prices without net neurtrality.
What custom bundles have you created to replace your cable provider?
In a December 2013 speech, President Obama stated:
"... a dangerous and growing inequality and lack of upward mobility that has jeopardized middle-class America’s basic bargain -- that if you work hard, you have a chance to get ahead. I believe this is the defining challenge of our time..."
Income inequality represents the difference in incomes between the very wealthy and the poor. Upward mobility is the ability of people at lower income levels to move up to higher income levels. Some people refer to it as "social mobility" since people can (and do) move both up and down between income levels. Both economic concepts measure the health of groups.
This is not a new issue. In 2011, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels said:
"... upward mobility from the bottom is the crux of the American promise.”
Call it what you want: American promise... American dream... America, the land of opportunity. To understand if the dream, promise, and opportunity are still possible, you have to understand these economic concepts.
Recently, the Brookings Institute recently released a report about income inequality. The report used the "95/20 ratio" statistic:
"This figure represents the income at which a household earns more than 95 percent of all other households, divided by the income at which a household earns more than only 20 percent of all other households. In other words, it represents the distance between a household that just cracks the top 5 percent by income, and one that just falls into the bottom 20 percent."
Income inequality is important not solely because the U.S. President mentioned it, but also because:
"Obama’s speech followed a series of municipal elections in November 2013 in which inequality figured prominently as a campaign issue. Foremost among these was in New York City... Similar themes were sounded in the successful campaigns and first days in office of Marty Walsh in Boston, Ed Murray in Seattle, and Betsy Hodges in Minneapolis. The “Google Bus” in San Francisco’s Mission District has shone a spotlight on growing economic divisions within that city."
The Brookings report concluded:
"The latest U.S. Census Bureau data confirm that, overall, big cities remain more unequal places by income than the rest of the country. Across the 50 largest U.S. cities in 2012, the 95/20 ratio was 10.8, compared to 9.1 for the country as a whole. The higher level of inequality in big cities reflects that, compared to national averages, big-city rich households are somewhat richer ($196,000 versus $192,000), and big-city poor households are somewhat poorer ($18,100 versus $21,000)."
The specific cities where income inequality is worse:
"The big cities with the highest 95/20 ratios in 2012 were Atlanta, San Francisco, Miami, and Boston. In each of these cities, a household at the 95th percentile of the income distribution earned at least 15 times the income of a household at the 20th percentile. In Atlanta, for instance, the richest 5 percent of households earned more than $280,000, while the poorest 20 percent earned less than $15,000. In another six cities (Washington, D.C., New York, Oakland, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Baltimore), the 95/20 ratio exceeded 12. Overall, 31 of the 50 largest U.S. cities exhibited a higher level of income inequality than the national average."
A second measure of income inequality is the comparison of CEO pay to average workers' pay in companies. In 2012, CNN Money analyzed the differences in pay for the largest (Fortune 50) companies:
"With a staggering total compensation package of $378 million for 2011, Apple's Tim Cook takes the cake for the highest Fortune 50 CEO-to-typical-worker pay ratio. Indeed, it takes 6,258 typical Apple worker salaries to match Cook's total pay. On the opposite side of the spectrum, the ratio for Berkshire Hathaway's Warren Buffett was 11-to-1. Overall, most CEOs took home an average 379 staffers' worth in base pay..."
In this analysis, the CEO/workers pay ratio ranged from a low about 25 to more than 1,000. The ratio was more than 500 at Apple, Walmart, Target, and McKesson. The main conclusion: the CEO/workers pay ratio averaged 379. And, a CEO/worker ratio of 379 is far, far greater than a 95/20 ratio of 15 or 10. Very high CEO/worker pay ratios make it easier for people to demand increases in the minimum wage rate. Very high CEO/worker pay ratios indicate that the increases are easily affordable.
A third way to look at income inequality is to look at how incomes have changed over time. The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) did just that when it analyzed income growth in the United States:
"On average, income in the United States grew 36.9% between 1979 and 2007."
So, the total income for everyone in the United States went up. That's good, right? Nope. You have to dig deeper. Some people in the United States did far better than others:
"The top 1% snared a disproportionate share of that growth—53.9%. So their massive income growth far eclipsed income growth of the bottom 99%, whose raise was meager when you divide it over three decades."
Since the last recession, some people in the United States did far better than others:
"The top 1% is recovering, but the bottom 99%'s income has actually gone down in the so-called recovery."
So, it's been a recovery for a tiny few, and a continuing disaster for mostly everyone else. At the EPI site, you can use the interactive features to view income growth in the state where you live.
You can view all of these measures of income inequality as indicators of whether things are getting better or worse. Rising income inequality means things are getting worse for most people... better for the few people at the highest income levels, and worse for everyone else at lower income levels. If trickle-down economics (a/k/a "Reaganomics") worked, then everyone would benefit, not only a tiny few.
In an attempt to predict the changing popularity of existing social networking websites, researchers from the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Princeton University predicted that Facebook will undergo a massive decline during the next few years. The researchers, John Cannarella and Joshua Spochler, analyzed the popularity of specific "online social networks" (OSNs) by using mathematical models of the spread of infectious diseases:
"The application of disease-like dynamics to OSN adoption follows intuitively, since users typically join OSNs because their friends have already joined. The precedent for applying epidemiological models to non-disease applications has previously been set by research focused on modeling the spread of less-tangible applications such as ideas..."
With about 1.19 billion users worldwide, Facebook definitely qualifies as a large social networking website. Anyone active on Internet knows that social networking websites (Who remembers Friendster?) come and go:
"Despite the recent success of Facebook and Twitter, the last decade also provides numerous examples of OSNs that have risen and fallen in popularity, most notably MySpace. MySpace, founded in 2003, reached its peak in 2008 with 75.9 million unique monthly visits in the US before subsequently decaying to obscurity by 2011."
Accurately predictions of changes in the popularity of specific social networking websites can help investors with financial decisions. the researchers used Google search data to specific social networking websites:
"The epidemiological models presented in this study are used to analyze publicly available Google search query data for different OSNs, which can be obtained from Google’s "Google Trends” service. Google search query data has been used in a range of studies, including the monitoring of disease outbreak, economic forecasting, and the prediction of financial trading behavior..."
The researchers adapted and validated their mathematical model using the adoption and decline data from the Myspace OSN. The researchers concluded:
"Extrapolating the best fit model into the future suggests that Facebook will undergo a rapid decline in the coming years, losing 80% of its peak user base between 2015 and 2017."
"... Myspace is not the best social network with which to compare Facebook. At its peak, Myspace had 75.9 million monthly active users. Facebook, meanwhile, said it had 1.19 billion active members in September. Facebook has reached levels Myspace never hit... Although search queries -- not active users -- for Facebook did decline in 2013, the company has only seen its monthly active user base grow since it launched in 2004. Seeing a drop as big as the one the researchers predict would be more than surprising -- it'd be the first time Facebook sees a decline in users."
The Motley Fool reported that teens are leaving Facebook in substantial numbers, but it may not matter:
"... Facebook's teen base had fallen 25% in the past three years. Facebook CFO David Ebersman confirmed that the issue is real during a recent earnings call... the iStrategy Labs study draws from Facebook's Social Advertising platform... Facebook has 4,292,080 fewer high-school aged users and 6,948,848 college-aged users than it did in 2011... it definitely shows that Facebook is not as hot with teens as it once was... According to the same iStrategy Labs Study, the number of users 55+ has exploded with 80.4% growth in the past three years. These older users may not be as desirable as teenagers, but they are more stable and less likely to leave..."
While the researchers analyzed search data, there are more metrics that describe social networking website popularity. Some metrics that come to mind include:
Then, you would want to see which of those metrics most accurately precede subscription terminations.
The OSN study has not been peer reviewed. Download the Princeton study: "Epidemiological Modeling of Online Social Network Dynamic" report (Adobe PDF). It is also available here (Adobe PDF, 436.3K bytes).
According to a New York Times report yesterday, the U.S. Federal government frequently does business with, and renews contracts with, companies that frequently violate labor laws:
"... 18 federal contractors — including Imperial Sugar — were among the recipients of the largest 100 penalties issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration from 2007 to 2012. The report found that 32 federal contractors were among the leading companies in the amount of back pay assessed for wage violations between 2007 and 2012... 49 federal contractors responsible for large violations of federal labor laws were cited for 1,776 separate violations of these laws and paid $196 million in penalties... In fiscal year 2012, these same companies were awarded $81 billion in taxpayer dollars."
The Congressional report was issued for the Health, Education, Labor, and Pension Committee. Some specific examples from the report:
"Imperial Sugar had $94.8 million in federal contracts last year, even though it paid $6 million in safety penalties over a 2008 factory explosion in Georgia that killed 14 workers. The report also noted that the federal government had awarded $4.2 billion in contracts to Tyson Foods since 2000, even though Tyson has faced more than $500,000 in safety penalties since 2007 and 11 of its workers have died on the job since 1999."
It seems that the Federal government should factor more heavily violations into its decisions to award contracts, and the report recommends this change. The Federal government awards about $500 billion in contracts every year.
After reading this, I wonder if state governments are better, or worse, at awarding contracts to repeat offenders -- and which states perform the best.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) released the results of its survey about which companies encrypt transmissions of users' information. Encryption is important to protect consumers against extensive surveillance by the NSA and other agencies:
"By adopting these practices, described below, these service providers have taken a critical step towards protecting their users from warrantless seizure of their information off of fiber-optic cables. By enabling encryption across their networks, service providers can make backdoor surveillance more challenging, requiring the government to go to courts and use legal process."
This is important because of the warrant-less surveillance by the NSA:
"The National Security Agency’s MUSCULAR program, which tapped into the fiber-optic lines connecting the data centers of Internet giants like Google and Yahoo, exposed the tremendous vulnerabilities companies can face when up against as powerful an agency as the NSA. Bypassing the companies’ legal departments, the program grabbed extralegal access to your communications, without even the courtesy of an order from the secret rubber-stamp FISA court..."
The infographic below contains the results of the EFF survey:
Within the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) federal agency, its Employee Benefits Security Division (EBSA) oversees employee benefits programs, including about 707,000 retirement plans, 2.3 million health plans, and related employer-sponsored benefits plans (e.g., stock plans, IRA plans). All of these plans cover about 141 million individuals (e.g., employees and their dependents), with assets of about $7.1 billion.
The oversight function by the EBSA includes enforcement when employers violate labor laws. During 2012, the EBSA:
"... closed 3,566 civil investigations, with 2,570 (72.1%) resulting in monetary results for plans or other corrective action. EBSA often pursues voluntary compliance as a means to correct violations and restore losses to employee benefit plans. However, in cases where voluntary compliance efforts have failed, or which involve issues for which voluntary compliance is not appropriate, EBSA forwards a recommendation to the Solicitor of Labor that litigation be initiated. In FY 2012, 218 cases were referred for litigation..."
Also during 2012, the EBSA closed 318 criminal investigations and indicted 117 persons about crimes related to benefits plans. All of that agency activity, including both voluntary and involuntary compliance, resulted in the EBSA achieving about $1.27 billion in monetary results. That's a huge amount of money that employees would have lost otherwise.
Some examples of employer violations and EBSA resolution activity during 2012:
Another way to look at this enforcement activity: it's a lot of companies -- a lot of senior executives -- violating wage laws. It's not just low-wage or immigrant employees affected, but white-collar, middle-income employees (and their families) affected.
The EBSA also operates an Informal Complaint process, where employees can submit complaints about alleged violations and abuses. During 2012, the EBSA:
"... EBSA's Benefits Advisors closed nearly 240,000 inquiries and recovered $260.7 million in benefits on behalf of workers and their families through informal resolution of individual complaints..."
This is government working effectively, folks. Employees can submit complaints by contacting the EBSA via its toll-free phone number (1-866-444-3272), or visit www.askebsa.dol.gov.
I look forward to reading about the EBSA's performance during 2013, despite the 16-day federal government shutdown which cost the country an estimated $24 billion, and which probably hampered EBSA performance.
Recently, researchers at Harvard Business School published a report about a study about fake online reviews. Typically, a company or hired vendors write the fake online reviews. The researchers studied fake reviews at the Yelp.com site about restaurants in Boston, and found:
"First, roughly 16 percent of restaurant reviews on Yelp are identified as fraudulent, and tend to be more extreme (favorable or unfavorable) than other reviews. Second, a restaurant is more likely to commit review fraud when its reputation is weak, i.e., when it has few reviews, or it has recently received bad reviews. Third, chain restaurants - which benefit less from Yelp - are also less likely to commit review fraud. Fourth, when restaurants face increased competition, they become more likely to leave unfavorable reviews...
The researchers labeled certain business behaviors: "positive review fraud" when a business engaged in creating fake, positive reviews about itself, and "negative review fraud" when a business engaged in creating fake, bad reviews about a competitor. The study methodology used Yelp's formulas for identifying bogus reviews. At the time of the study, Yelp had about 30 million online reviews and 100 million unique visitors per month.
The researchers cited results from other studies that focused on other industries:
"... Mayzlin et al. (2012) exploit an organizational difference between Expedia and TripAdvisor (which are spin-os of the same parent company with different features) to study review fraud by hotels: while anyone can post a review on TripAdvisor, Expedia requires that a guest has "paid and stayed" before submitting a review. The authors observe that Expedia's verification mechanism increases the cost of posting a fake review. The study finds that independent hotels tend to have a higher proportion of five-star reviews on TripAdvisor relative to Expedia and competitors of independent hotels tend to have a higher proportion of one-star reviews on TripAdvisor relative to Expedia..."
The findings in this study probably explain the motives by 19 companies exposed last week and fined for astroturfing by the New York State Attorney General. Desperate companies and executives do desperate things. It isn't right, but they do it. And, they will continue committing online review fraud as long as:
The probability of getting caught X the probability of getting sued X the probability of paying a fine (or going to jail) < the amount of revenues generated by fake online reviews
What are consumers to do? Right now, learn how to spot fake reviews. Some of the links below can help. I hope that the attorney generals in more states investigate and prosecute online review fraud. These fraudsters need to be exposed publicly.
Download the Harvard Business School report, "Fake It To You Make It: Reputation, Competition, And Yelp Review Fraud" (Adobe PDF). Learn more about online reviews:
The newspaper reported about an internal audit by the National Security Agency (NSA), where the NSA violated consumers' privacy thousands of times while performing surveillance of foreign targets in the United States. The audit covered the period from April 2011 through March 2012. The newspaper obtained the document from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
In plain English, this means that the NSA collected data about U.S. citizens it shouldn't have collected data about. That is a violation of the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Some of the violations were serious. Defenders of the NSA were quick to point out that many of the violations were supposedly minor typographic errors:
"In one instance, the NSA decided that it need not report the unintended surveillance of Americans. A notable example in 2008 was the interception of a “large number” of calls placed from Washington when a programming error confused the U.S. area code 202 for 20, the international dialing code for Egypt... In another case, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which has authority over some NSA operations, did not learn about a new collection method until it had been in operation for many months. The court ruled it unconstitutional."
When defenders of the NSA claim that typographical errors are minor, to me that is dishonest. The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution is the issue here, however it was violated. Data was collected about U.S. citizens that should not have been collected. Period. You don't get rewards for good intentions..., or oops we didn't really mean to collect that. All violations are intrusive.
This highlights the problem when there are secret courts, secret laws, secret operations, and either insufficient or incompetent oversight by the U.S. Congress. Privacy is breached, the violations never corrected, and things get a lot worse. A related Washington Post article about the FISA Court reported:
"The chief judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court said the court lacks the tools to independently verify how often the government’s surveillance breaks the court’s rules that aim to protect Americans’ privacy. Without taking drastic steps, it also cannot check the veracity of the government’s assertions that the violations its staff members report are unintentional mistakes."
So, things are worse. I cannot over-emphasize the importance for citizens -- voters -- to read the Washington Post article with comments by U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton. Kudos to the Washington Post for this excellent reporting.
The Washington Post website contains several detail articles, including a redacted executive summary of the internal NSA audit. And based on the training the NSA gives its analysts, the explanations and spy language intentionally downplay, obfuscate the truth, and mislead Congress about the privacy violations:
"This document tells NSA analysts how to explain their targeting decisions without giving "extraneous information" to "our FAA overseers." Analysts are specifically warned that they "MUST NOT" provide the evidence on which they base their "reasonable articulable suspicion" that a target will produce valid foreign intelligence. They are also forbidden to disclose the "selectors," or search terms, they plan to use. In examples that draw on actual searches, the document shows how to strip out details and substitute generic descriptions."
Geez. Is it so hard to simply tell the truth? At this point, my trust level for the NSA is zero. Whatever trust I had in the FISA Court is declining fast.
When I think back over the last 10 weeks, it seems like one lie after another, followed by one disclosure after another. The CrunchGov blog summed it up well the recent history:
"It’s just metadata. It’s just metadata on all phone calls. No they can’t call up your emails. Well, yes, XKeyscore is real, and you should be happy we have it. No, there have been zero privacy abuses. Well, fine, in one 12-month period ending in 2012 there were 2,776, but that’s just proof of oversight and none were willful! Wrong. And no, there has been no harm to individuals. We should worry more about terrorism."
No harm? We have heard that the NSA shares the data it has collected with other government agencies, who then use it for their own investigations without disclosing where they got it from. This makes it difficult (or impossible) for people to defend themselves in court proceedings. That is harm. We've heard about one e-mail service shutting down, and one blog shutting down so far; in addition to forecasted revenue losses in the cloud industry. Lost revenue equals lost jobs. That harm is spreading.
So, not only do we have a secret court, secret laws, and secret operations, but the court that is supposed to oversee all of this doesn't have the resources to do the job. Hence, it cannot verify the allegations about the privacy violations. The privacy violations could be a lot worse, and/or more frequent. And, the U.S. Congress seems okay with this mess.
So, we essentially have big government spying run a muck. The acronym FUBAR comes immediately to my mind. If this bothers you (and I sincerely hope that it does), write to your elected officials today.