Google To EU Regulators: No One Country Should Censor The Web Internationally. Poll Finds Canadians Support 'Right To Be Forgotten'

For those watching privacy legislation in Europe, MediaPost reported:

"... Maciej Szpunar, an advisor to the highest court in the EU, sided with Google in the fight, arguing that the right to be forgotten should only be enforceable in Europe -- not the entire world. The opinion is non-binding, but seen as likely to be followed."

For those unfamiliar, in the European Union (EU) the right to be forgotten:

"... was created in 2014, when EU judges ruled that Google (and other search engines) must remove links to embarrassing information about Europeans at their request... The right to be forgotten doesn't exist in the United States... Google interpreted the EU's ruling as requiring removal of links to material in search engines designed for European countries but not from its worldwide search results... In 2015, French regulators rejected Google's position and ordered the company to remove material from all of its results pages. Google then asked Europe's highest court to reject that view. The company argues that no one country should be able to censor the web internationally."

No one corporation should be able to censor the web internationally, too. Meanwhile, Radio Canada International reported:

"A new poll shows a slim majority of Canadians agree with the concept known as the “right to be forgotten online.” This means the right to have outdated, inaccurate, or no longer relevant information about yourself removed from search engine results. The poll by the Angus Reid Institute found 51 percent of Canadians agree that people should have the right to be forgotten..."

Consumers should have control over their information. If that control is limited to only the country of their residence, then the global nature of the internet means that control is very limited -- and probably irrelevant. What are your opinions?


Report: Navient Tops List Of Student Loan Complaints

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), a federal government agency in the United States, collects complaints about banks and other financial institutions. That includes lenders of student loans.

The CFPB and private-sector firms analyze these complaints, looking for patterns. Forbes magazine reported:

"The team at Make Lemonade analyzed these complaints [submitted during 2018], and found that there were 8,752 related to student loans. About 64% were related to federal student loans and 36% were related to private student loans. Nearly 67% of complaints were related to an issue with a student loan lender or student loan servicer."

"Navient, one of the nation's largest student loan servicers, ranked highest in terms of student loan complaints. In 2018, student loan borrowers submitted 4,032 complaints about Navient to the CFPB, which represents 46% of all student loan complaints. AES/PHEAA and Nelnet, two other major student loan servicers, received approximately 20% and 7%, respectively."

When looking for a student loan, wise consumers shop around, do their research, and shop wisely. Some lenders are better than others. The Forbes article is very helpful as it contains links to additional resources and information for consumers.

Learn more about the CFPB and its complaints database designed to help consumers and regulators:


After Promises To Stop, Mobile Providers Continued Sales Of Location Data About Consumers. What You Can Do To Protect Your Privacy

Sadly, history repeats itself. First, the history: after getting caught selling consumers' real-time GPS location data without notice nor consumers' consent, in 2018 mobile providers promised to stop the practice. The Ars Technica blog reported in June, 2018:

"Verizon and AT&T have promised to stop selling their mobile customers' location information to third-party data brokers following a security problem that leaked the real-time location of US cell phone users. Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) recently urged all four major carriers to stop the practice, and today he published responses he received from Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile USA, and SprintWyden's statement praised Verizon for "taking quick action to protect its customers' privacy and security," but he criticized the other carriers for not making the same promise... AT&T changed its stance shortly after Wyden's statement... Senator Wyden recognized AT&T's change on Twitter and called on T-Mobile and Sprint to follow suit."

Kudos to Senator Wyden. The other mobile providers soon complied... sort of.

Second, some background: real-time location data is very valuable stuff. It indicates where you are as you (with your phone or other mobile devices) move about the physical world in your daily routine. No delays. No lag. Yes, there are appropriate uses for real-time GPS location data -- such as by law enforcement to quickly find a kidnapped person or child before further harm happens. But, do any and all advertisers need real-time location data about consumers? Data brokers? Others?

I think not. Domestic violence and stalking victims probably would not want their, nor their children's, real-time location data resold publicly. Most parents would not want their children's location data resold publicly. Most patients probably would not want their location data broadcast every time they visit their physician, specialist, rehab, or a hospital. Corporate executives, government officials, and attorneys conducting sensitive negotiations probably wouldn't want their location data collected and resold, either.

So, most consumers probably don't want their real-time location data resold publicly. Well, some of you make location-specific announcements via posts on social media. That's your choice, but I conclude that most people don't. Consumers want control over their location information so they can decide if, when, and with whom to share it. The mass collection and sales of consumers' real-time location data by mobile providers prevents choice -- and it violates persons' privacy.

Third, fast forward seven months from 2018. TechCrunch reported on January 9th:

"... new reporting by Motherboard shows that while [reseller] LocationSmart faced the brunt of the criticism [in 2018], few focused on the other big player in the location-tracking business, Zumigo. A payment of $300 and a phone number was enough for a bounty hunter to track down the participating reporter by obtaining his location using Zumigo’s location data, which was continuing to pay for access from most of the carriers. Worse, Zumigo sold that data on — like LocationSmart did with Securus — to other companies, like Microbilt, a Georgia-based credit reporting company, which in turn sells that data on to other firms that want that data. In this case, it was a bail bond company, whose bounty hunter was paid by Motherboard to track down the reporter — with his permission."

"Everyone seemed to drop the ball. Microbilt said the bounty hunter shouldn’t have used the location data to track the Motherboard reporter. Zumigo said it didn’t mind location data ending up in the hands of the bounty hunter, but still cut Microbilt’s access. But nobody quite dropped the ball like the carriers, which said they would not to share location data again."

The TechCrunch article rightly held offending mobile providers accountable. Example: T-Mobile's chief executive tweeted last year:

Then, Legere tweeted last week:

The right way? In my view, real-time location never should have been collected and resold. Almost a year after reports first surfaced, T-Mobile is finally getting around to stopping the practice and terminating its relationships with location data resellers -- two months from now. Why not announce this slow wind-down last year when the issue first surfaced? "Emergency assistance" is the reason we are supposed to believe. Yeah, right.

The TechCrunch article rightly took AT&T and Verizon to task, too. Good. I strongly encourage everyone to read the entire TechCrunch article.

What can consumers make of this? There seem to be several takeaways:

  1. Transparency is needed, since corporate privacy policies don't list all (or often any) business partners. This lack of transparency provides an easy way for mobile providers to resume location data sales without notice to anyone and without consumers' consent,
  2. Corporate executives will say anything in tweets/social media. A healthy dose of skepticism by consumers and regulators is wise,
  3. Consumers can't trust mobile providers. They are happy to make money selling consumers' real-time location data, regardless of consumers' desires not for our data to be collected and sold,
  4. Data brokers and credit reporting agencies want consumers' location data,
  5. To ensure privacy, consumers also must take action: adjust the privacy settings on your phones to limit or deny mobile apps access to your location data. I did. It's not hard. Do it today, and
  6. Oversight is needed, since a) mobile providers have, at best, sloppy to minimal oversight and internal processes to prevent location data sales; and b) data brokers and others are readily available to enable and facilitate location data transactions.

I cannot over-emphasize #5 above. What issues or takeaways do you see? What are your opinions about real-time location data?


Federal Regulators Encourage Banks To Work With Borrowers Affected By Partial Government Shutdown

Six financial regulatory agencies issued a joint statement advising banks and financial institutions to be flexible with borrowers during the partial government shutdown in the United States. The January 11, 2019 statement said:

"While the effects of the federal government shutdown on individuals should be temporary, affected borrowers may face a temporary hardship in making payments on debts such as mortgages, student loans, car loans, business loans, or credit cards. As they have in prior shutdowns, the agencies encourage financial institutions to consider prudent efforts to modify terms on existing loans or extend new credit to help affected borrowers."

"Prudent workout arrangements that are consistent with safe-and-sound lending practices are generally in the long-term best interest of the financial institution, the borrower, and the economy. Such efforts should not be subject to examiner criticism. Consumers affected by the government shutdown are encouraged to contact their lenders immediately should they encounter financial strain."

The six agencies which signed the joint statement include the:

  • Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System
  • Conference of State Bank Supervisors
  • Consumer Financial Protection Bureau
  • Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation
  • National Credit Union Administration
  • Office of the Comptroller of the Currency

Today is day 25 of the shutdown. Yesterday, President Trump rejected calls by Republicans to temporarily reopen several agencies to encourage negotiations with Democrats in the House of Representatives.

Reportedly, OceanFirst Bank has suspended fees for borrowers unable to make monthly payments on mortgage loans, home equity loans, and lines of credit. Provident Bank it would offer a limited number of refunds on late payment fees for mortgages, home equity loans, checking account overdraft fees, and late credit card payment fees.

Has your bank shown flexibility? Or has it refused your requests? Share your experiences and opinions below.


Marriott Lowered The Number Of Guests Affected By Its Data Breach. Class Action Lawsuits Filed

Marriott International logo Important updates about the gigantic Marriott-Starwood data breach. The incident received more attention after security experts said that China's intelligence agencies may have been behind the cyberattack, which also targeted healthcare insurance companies.

Earlier this month, Marriott announced a lower number of guests affected:

"Working closely with its internal and external forensics and analytics investigation team, Marriott determined that the total number of guest records involved in this incident is less than the initial disclosure... Marriott now believes that the number of potentially involved guests is lower than the 500 million the company had originally estimated [in November, 2018]. Marriott has identified approximately 383 million records as the upper limit for the total number of guest records that were involved...

The announcement also said that fewer than 383 million different persons were affected because its database contained multiple records for the same guests. The announcement also stated that about:

"... 5.25 million unencrypted passport numbers were included in the information accessed by an unauthorized third party. The information accessed also includes approximately 20.3 million encrypted passport numbers... Marriott now believes that approximately 8.6 million encrypted payment cards were involved in the incident. Of that number, approximately 354,000 payment cards were unexpired as of September 2018..."

This is mixed news. Fewer breach victims is good news. The bad news: multiple database records for the same guests, and unencrypted passport numbers. Better, stronger data security always includes encrypting sensitive information. The announcement did not explain why some data was encrypted and some wasn't.

The hotel chain said that it will terminate its Starwood reservations database at the end of the year, and continue its post-breach investigation:

"While the payment card field in the data involved was encrypted, Marriott is undertaking additional analysis to see if payment card data was inadvertently entered into other fields and was therefore not encrypted. Marriott believes that there may be a small number (fewer than 2,000) of 15-digit and 16-digit numbers in other fields in the data involved that might be unencrypted payment card numbers. The company is continuing to analyze these numbers to better understand if they are payment card numbers and, if they are payment card numbers, the process it will put in place to assist guests."

Also, the hotel chain admitted during its January 4th announcement that it still wasn't fully ready to help affected guests:

"Marriott is putting in place a mechanism to enable its designated call center representatives to refer guests to the appropriate resources to enable a look up of individual passport numbers to see if they were included in this set of unencrypted passport numbers. Marriott will update its designated website for this incident (https://info.starwoodhotels.com) when it has this capability in place."

In related news, about 150 former guests have sued Marriott. Vox reported that a class-action lawsuit:

"... was filed Maryland federal district court on January 9, claims that Marriott did not adequately protect guest information before the breach and, once the breach had been discovered, “failed to provide timely, accurate, and adequate notice” to guests whose information may have been obtained by hackers... According to the suit, Marriott’s purchase of the Starwood properties is part of the problem. “This breach had been going on since 2014. In conducting due diligence to acquire Starwood, Marriott should have gone through and done an accounting of the cybersecurity of Starwood,” Amy Keller, an attorney at DiCello Levitt & Casey who is representing the Marriott guests, told Vox... According to a December report by the Wall Street Journal, Marriott could have caught the breach years earlier."

At least one other class-action lawsuit has been filed by breach victims.


Samsung Phone Owners Unable To Delete Facebook And Other Apps. Anger And Privacy Concerns Result

Some consumers have learned that they can't delete Facebook and other mobile apps from their Samsung smartphones. Bloomberg described one consumer's experiences:

"Winke bought his Samsung Galaxy S8, an Android-based device that comes with Facebook’s social network already installed, when it was introduced in 2017. He has used the Facebook app to connect with old friends and to share pictures of natural landscapes and his Siamese cat -- but he didn’t want to be stuck with it. He tried to remove the program from his phone, but the chatter proved true -- it was undeletable. He found only an option to "disable," and he wasn’t sure what that meant."

Samsung phones operate using Google's Android operating system (OS). The "chatter" refers to online complaints by Samsung phone owners. There were plenty of complaints, ranging from snarky:

To informative:

And:

Some persons shared their (understandable) anger:

One person reminded consumers of bigger issues with Android OS phones:

And, that privacy concern still exists. Sophos Labs reported:

"Advocacy group Privacy International announced the findings in a presentation at the 35th Chaos Computer Congress late last month. The organization tested 34 apps and documented the results, as part of a downloadable report... 61% of the apps tested automatically tell Facebook that a user has opened them. This accompanies other basic event data such as an app being closed, along with information about their device and suspected location based on language and time settings. Apps have been doing this even when users don’t have a Facebook account, the report said. Some apps went far beyond basic event information, sending highly detailed data. For example, the travel app Kayak routinely sends search information including departure and arrival dates and cities, and numbers of tickets (including tickets for children)."

After multiple data breaches and privacy snafus, some Facebook users have decided to either quit the Facebook mobile app or quit the service entirely. Now, some Samsung phone users have learned that quitting can be more difficult, and they don't have as much control over their devices as they thought.

How did this happen? Bloomberg explained:

"Samsung, the world’s largest smartphone maker, said it provides a pre-installed Facebook app on selected models with options to disable it, and once it’s disabled, the app is no longer running. Facebook declined to provide a list of the partners with which it has deals for permanent apps, saying that those agreements vary by region and type... consumers may not know if Facebook is pre-loaded unless they specifically ask a customer service representative when they purchase a phone."

Not good. So, now we know that there are two classes of mobile apps: 1) pre-installed and 2) permanent. Pre-installed apps come on new devices. Some pre-installed apps can be deleted by users. Permanent mobile apps are pre-installed apps which cannot be removed/deleted by users. Users can only disable permanent apps.

Sadly, there's more and it's not only Facebook. Bloomberg cited other agreements:

"A T-Mobile US Inc. list of apps built into its version of the Samsung Galaxy S9, for example, includes the social network as well as Amazon.com Inc. The phone also comes loaded with many Google apps such as YouTube, Google Play Music and Gmail... Other phone makers and service providers, including LG Electronics Inc., Sony Corp., Verizon Communications Inc. and AT&T Inc., have made similar deals with app makers..."

This is disturbing. There seem to be several issues:

  1. Notice: consumers should be informed before purchase of any and all phone apps which can't be removed. The presence of permanent mobile apps suggests either a lack of notice, notice buried within legal language of phone manufacturers' user agreements, or both.
  2. Privacy: just because a mobile app isn't running doesn't mean it isn't operating. Stealth apps can still collect GPS location and device information while running in the background; and then transmit it to manufacturers. Hopefully, some enterprising technicians or testing labs will verify independently whether "disabled" permanent mobile apps have truly stopped working.
  3. Transparency: phone manufacturers should explain and publish their lists of partners with both pre-installed and permanent app agreements -- for each device model. Otherwise, consumers cannot make informed purchase decisions about phones.
  4. Scope: the Samsung-Facebook pre-installed apps raises questions about other devices with permanent apps: phones, tablets, laptops, smart televisions, and automotive vehicles. Perhaps, some independent testing by Consumer Reports can determine a full list of devices with permanent apps.
  5. Nothing is free. Pre-installed app agreements indicate another method which device manufacturers use to make money, by collecting and sharing consumers' data with other tech companies.

The bottom line is trust. Consumers have more valid reasons to distrust some device manufacturers and OS developers. What issues do you see? What are your thoughts about permanent mobile apps?


Pennsylvania Ruling May Help Plaintiffs in Class Action Lawsuits About Data Breaches

An article in the Lexology site by attorneys at Thompson Coburn LLP provides an important update about class-action lawsuits in Pennsylvania regarding data breaches and data security:

"One of the most insurmountable barriers for security breach class action plaintiffs has been the ability to show concrete damages. In order to bring a lawsuit, fundamentally, plaintiffs must have standing to sue. In federal court, this standing to sue is governed by Article III of the U.S. Constitution. The U.S. Supreme Court has articulated standing to sue as requiring (1) injury in fact, (2) fairly traceable to the defendant’s conduct, (3) that is likely redressed by a favorable decision... Proving a concrete and particularized injury therefore becomes difficult for plaintiffs... since it often becomes an individualized analysis of harms. Many state courts follow similar standing requirements as those articulated by the federal courts..."

The case involved a class-action lawsuit by employees against their employer, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC). The suit alleged that the sensitive personal and financial information for 62,000 current and former employees had been stolen, and that:

"... UPMC breached an implied contract and was negligent by failing to implement adequate security measures to safeguard information relating to employees."

The claims were dismissed by a trial court. The employees appealed that decision, and the appellate court agreed with the trial court's decision. The good news:

"... the Pennsylvania Supreme Court concluded the lower courts erred in determining UPMC did not owe a duty to safeguard the employees’ personal information and that the economic loss doctrine barred the negligence claim... While the Pennsylvania decision affects only Pennsylvania for the time being, anyone that collects or stores personal information should be aware that this could signal a new tide for security breach plaintiffs..."


To Estimate The Value Of Facebook, A Study Asked How Much Money Users Would Demand As Payment To Quit The Service

Facebook logo What is the value of Facebook to its users? In a recent study, researchers explored answers to that question:

"Because [Facebook] users do not pay for the service, its benefits are hard to measure. We report the results of a series of three non-hypothetical auction experiments where winners are paid to deactivate their Facebook accounts for up to one year..."

The study was published in PLOS One, a peer-reviewed journal by the Public Library of Science. The study is important and of interest to economists because:

"... If Facebook were a country, it would be the world’s largest in terms of population with over 2.20 billion monthly active users, 1.45 billion of whom are active on a daily basis, spending an average of 50 minutes each day on Facebook-owned platforms (e.g., Facebook, Messenger, Instagram)... Despite concerns about loss of relevance due to declining personal posts by users, diminished interest in adoption and use by teens and young adults, claims about potential manipulation of its content for political purposes, and leaks that question the company’s handling of private user data, Facebook remains the top social networking site in the world and the third most visited site on the Internet after Google and YouTube...  Since its launch in 2004, Facebook has redefined how we communicate... Facebook had 23,165 employees as of September 30, 2017. This is less than 1% the number employed by Walmart, the world’s largest private employer... Because Facebook’s users pay nothing for the service, Facebook does not contribute directly to gross domestic product (GDP), economists’ standard metric of a nation’s output. In this context, it may seem surprising then that Facebook is the world’s fifth most valuable company with a market capitalization of $541.56 billion in May 2018... In 2017, the company had $40.65 billion in revenues, primarily from advertising, and $20.20 billion in net income..."

The detailed methodology of the study included:

"... a Vickrey second-price approach. In a typical experimental auction, participants bid to purchase a good or service. The highest bidder wins the auction and pays a price equal to the second-highest bid. This approach is designed such that participants’ best strategy is to bid their true willingness-to-pay... Because our study participants already had free access to Facebook, we could not ask people how much they would be willing to pay for access to the service. Instead, people bid for how much they would need in compensation to give up using Facebook. Economists have used these “willingness-to-accept” (WTA) auctions to assess the value of mundane items such as pens and chocolate bars, but also more abstract or novel items such as food safety, goods free of genetically modified ingredients, the stigma associated with HIV, battery life in smartphones, and the payment people require to endure an unpleasant experience... In this study, each bid can be interpreted as the minimum dollar amount a person would be willing to accept in exchange for not using Facebook for a given time period. The three auctions differ in the amount of time winners would have to go without using Facebook..."

The authors also discussed "consumer surplus," an economics term defined as:

"... a measure of value equal to the difference between the most a consumer would be willing to pay for a service and the price she actually pays to use it. When considering all consumers, Figure 1 below shows consumer surplus is the area under the demand curve, which shows consumers’ willingness to pay, and above the price; it is generally interpreted as consumers’ net benefit from being able to access a good or service in the marketplace. GDP, by contrast, is the market value of all final goods and services produced domestically in a given year..."

Journal.pone.0207101.g001

For comparison, the researchers cited related studies:

"... Bapna, Jank, and Shmueli [24] found that eBay users received a median of $4 in consumer surplus per transaction in 2003, or $7 billion in total. Ghose, Smith, and Telang [25] found that Amazon’s used-book market generated $67 million in annual consumer surplus. Brynjolfsson, Hu, and Smith [26] found that the increased variety of books available on Amazon created $1 billion in consumer surplus in 2000. Widening the lens to focus on the entire Internet, Greenstein and McDevitt [27] found that high-speed Internet access (as opposed to dial-up) generated $4.8 billion to $6.7 billion of consumer surplus in total between 1999 and 2006. Dutz, Orszag, and Willig [28] estimated that high-speed internet access generated $32 billion in consumer surplus in 2008 alone..."

Across the three auctions, study participants submitted bids ranging from $1,130 to $2,076 on average. The researchers found:

"... across all three samples, the mean bid to deactivate Facebook for a year exceeded $1,000. Even the most conservative of these mean WTA estimates, if applied to Facebook’s 214 million U.S. users, suggests an annual value of over $240 billion to users... Facebook reached a market capitalization of $542 billion in May 2018. At 2.20 billion active users in March 2018, this suggests a value to investors of almost $250 per user, which is less than one fourth of the annual value of [payments demanded by study participants to quit the service]. This reinforces the idea that the vast majority of benefits of new inventions go not to the inventors but to users."

To summarize, users in the study demanded at least $1,000 yearly each to quit the service. That's a measure of the value of Facebook to users. And, that value far exceeds the $250 value of each user to investors. The authors concluded:

"Concerns about data privacy, such as Cambridge Analytica’s alleged problematic handling of users’ private information, which are thought to have been used to influence the 2016 United States presidential election, only underscore the value Facebook’s users must derive from the service. Despite the parade of negative publicity surrounding the Cambridge Analytica revelations in mid-March 2018, Facebook added 70 million users between the end of 2017 and March 31, 2018. This implies the value users derive from the social network more than offsets the privacy concerns."

The conclusion suggests that the risk of a mass exodus of users is unlikely. I guess Facebook executives will find some comfort in that. However, more research is needed. Different sub-groups of users might demand different values. For example, a sub-group of users who have had their accounts hacked or cloned might demand a different -- perhaps lower -- annual payment amount to quit Facebook.

Another sub-group of users who have been identity theft and fraud victims might demand a higher annual payment to cover the costs of credit monitoring services and/or fraud resolution fees. A third sub-group -- parents and grandparents -- might demand a different payment amount due to the loss of access to family, children and grandchildren.

A one-size-fits-all approach to a WTA value doesn't seem very relevant. Follow-up studies could explore values by these sub-groups and by users with different types of behaviors (e.g., dissatisfaction levels):

  1. Quit the service's mobile apps and use only its browser interface,
  2. Reduced their time on the site (e.g., fewer posts, not using quizzes, not posting photos, not using Facebook Messenger, etc.),
  3. Daily usage ranges (e.g., less than 30 minutes, 31 to 59 minutes,, 60 to 79 minutes, 80 to 99 minutes, 100 minutes or more, etc.),
  4. Disabled the API interface with their accounts (e.g., don't user Facebook credentials to sign into other sites), and
  5. Tightened their privacy settings to display less (e.g., don't display Friends list, suppress personal newsfeed, don't display personal data, don't allow friends to post to their personal newsfeed page, etc.).

Clearly, more research is needed. Would you quit Facebook? If so, how much money would you demand as payment? What follow-up studies are you interested in?


If You're Over 50, Chances Are The Decision To Leave a Job Won't Be Yours

[Editor's note: today's guest post, by reporters at ProPublica, discusses workplace discrimination. It is reprinted with permission. Older than 50? Some of the employment experiences below may be familiar. Younger than 50? Save as much money as you can -- now.]

By Peter Gosselin, ProPublica

Tom Steckel hunched over a laptop in the overheated basement of the state Capitol building in Pierre, South Dakota, early last week, trying to figure out how a newly awarded benefit claims contract will make it easier for him do his job. Steckel is South Dakota’s director of employee benefits. His department administers programs that help the state’s 13,500 public employees pay for health care and prepare for retirement.

It’s steady work and, for that, Steckel, 62, is grateful. After turning 50, he was laid off three times before landing his current position in 2014, weathering unemployment stints of up to eight months. When he started, his $90,000-a-year salary was only 60 percent of what he made at his highest-paying job. Even with a subsequent raise, he’s nowhere close to matching his peak earnings.

Money is hardly the only trade-off Steckel has made to hang onto the South Dakota post.

He spends three weeks of every four away from his wife, Mary, and the couple’s three children, who live 700 miles away in Plymouth, Wisconsin, in a house the family was unable to sell for most of the last decade.

Before Christmas, he set off late on Dec. 18 for the 11-hour drive home. After the holiday is over, he drove back to Pierre. “I’m glad to be employed,” he said, “but this isn’t what I would have planned for this point in my life.”

Many Americans assume that by the time they reach their 50s they’ll have steady work, time to save and the right to make their own decisions about when to retire. But as Steckel’s situation suggests, that’s no longer the reality for many — indeed, most — people.

ProPublica and the Urban Institute, a Washington think tank, analyzed data from the Health and Retirement Study, or HRS, the premier source of quantitative information about aging in America. Since 1992, the study has followed a nationally representative sample of about 20,000 people from the time they turn 50 through the rest of their lives.

Through 2016, our analysis found that between the time older workers enter the study and when they leave paid employment, 56 percent are laid off at least once or leave jobs under such financially damaging circumstances that it’s likely they were pushed out rather than choosing to go voluntarily.

Only one in 10 of these workers ever again earns as much as they did before their employment setbacks, our analysis showed. Even years afterward, the household incomes of over half of those who experience such work disruptions remain substantially below those of workers who don’t.

“This isn’t how most people think they’re going to finish out their work lives,” said Richard Johnson, an Urban Institute economist and veteran scholar of the older labor force who worked on the analysis. “For the majority of older Americans, working after 50 is considerably riskier and more turbulent than we previously thought.”

The HRS is based on employee surveys, not employer records, so it can’t definitively identify what’s behind every setback, but it includes detailed information about the circumstances under which workers leave jobs and the consequences of these departures.

We focused on workers who enter their 50s with stable, full-time jobs and who’ve been with the same employer for at least five years — those who HRS data and other economic studies show are least likely to encounter employment problems. We considered only separations that result in at least six months of unemployment or at least a 50 percent drop in earnings from pre-separation levels.

Then, we sorted job departures into voluntary and involuntary and, among involuntary departures, distinguished between those likely driven by employers and those resulting from personal issues, such as poor health or family problems. (See the full analysis here.)

We found that 28 percent of stable, longtime employees sustain at least one damaging layoff by their employers between turning 50 and leaving work for retirement.

“We’ve known that some workers get a nudge from their employers to exit the work force and some get a great big kick,” said Gary Burtless, a prominent labor economist with the Brookings Institution in Washington. “What these results suggest is that a whole lot more are getting the great big kick.”

An additional 13 percent of workers who start their 50s in long-held positions unexpectedly retire under conditions that suggest they were forced out. They begin by telling survey takers they plan to keep working for many years, but, within a couple of years, they suddenly announce they’ve retired, amid a substantial drop in earnings and income.

Jeffrey Wenger, a senior labor economist with the RAND Corp., said some of these people likely were laid off, but they cover it up by saying they retired. “There’s so much social stigma around being separated from work,” he said, “even people who are fired or let go will say they retired to save face.”

Finally, a further 15 percent of over-50 workers who begin with stable jobs quit or leave them after reporting that their pay, hours, work locations or treatment by supervisors have deteriorated. These, too, indicate departures that may well not be freely chosen.

Taken together, the scale of damage sustained by older workers is substantial. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are currently 40 million Americans age 50 and older who are working. Our analysis of the HRS data suggests that as many as 22 million of these people have or will suffer a layoff, forced retirement or other involuntary job separation. Of these, only a little over 2 million have recovered or will.

“These findings tell us that a sizable percentage, possibly a majority, of workers who hold career jobs in their 50s will get pushed out of those jobs on their way to retirement,” Burtless said. “Yes, workers can find jobs after a career job comes to an early, unexpected end. But way too often, the replacement job is a whole lot worse than the career job. This leaves little room for the worker to rebuild.”

When you add in those forced to leave their jobs for personal reasons such as poor health or family trouble, the share of Americans pushed out of regular work late in their careers rises to almost two-thirds. That’s a far cry from the voluntary glide path to retirement that most economists assume, and many Americans expect.

Steckel knows a lot about how tough the labor market can be for older workers, and not just because of his own job losses. He’s spent much of his career in human resources, often helping employers show workers — including many, like him, over 50 — the door.

In most instances, he said he’s understood the business rationale for the cuts. Employers need to reduce costs, boost profits and beat the competition. But he also understands the frustration and loss of control older workers feel at having their experience work against them and their expectations come undone.

“Nobody plans to lose their job. If there’s work to do and you’re doing it, you figure you’ll get to keep doing it,” he said recently. But once employers start pushing people out, no amount of hard work will save you, he added, and “nothing you do at your job really prepares you for being out” of work.

For 50 years, it has been illegal under the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act, or ADEA, for employers to treat older workers differently than younger ones with only a few exceptions, such as when a job requires great stamina or quick reflexes.

For decades, judges and policymakers treated the age law’s provisions as part and parcel of the nation’s fundamental civil rights guarantee against discrimination on the basis of race, sex, ethnic origin and other categories.

But in recent years, employers’ pleas for greater freedom to remake their workforces to meet global competition have won an increasingly sympathetic hearing. Federal appeals courts and the U.S. Supreme Court have reacted by widening the reach of the ADEA’s exceptions and restricting the law’s protections.

Meanwhile, most employers have stopped offering traditional pensions, which once delivered a double-barreled incentive for older workers to retire voluntarily: maximum payouts for date-certain departures and the assurance that benefits would last as long as the people receiving them. That’s left workers largely responsible for financing their own retirements and many in need of continued work.

“There’s no safe haven in today’s labor market,” said Carl Van Horn, a public policy professor and director of the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “Even older workers who have held jobs with the same employer for decades may be laid off without warning” or otherwise cut.

In a story this year, ProPublica described how IBM has forced out more than 20,000 U.S. workers aged 40 and over in just the past five years in order to, in the words of one internal company planning document, “correct seniority mix.” To accomplish this, the company used a combination of layoffs and forced retirements, as well as tactics such as mandatory relocations seemingly designed to push longtime workers to quit.

In response, IBM issued a statement that said, in part, “We are proud of our company and our employees’ ability to reinvent themselves era after era, while always complying with the law.”

As an older tech firm trying to keep up in what’s seen as a young industry, IBM might seem unique, but our analysis of the HRS data suggests the company is no outlier in how it approaches shaping its workforce.

The share of U.S. workers who’ve suffered financially damaging, employer-driven job separations after age 50 has risen steadily from just over 10 percent in 1998 to almost 30 percent in 2016, the analysis shows.

The turbulence experienced by older workers is about the same regardless of their income, education, geography or industry.

Some 58 percent of those with high school educations who reach their 50s working steadily in long-term jobs subsequently face a damaging layoff or other involuntarily separation. Yet more education provides little additional protection; 55 percent of those with college or graduate degrees experience similar job losses.

Across major industrial sectors and regions of the country, more than half of older workers experience involuntarily separations. The same is true across sexes, races and ethnicities, although a larger share of older African-American and Hispanic workers than whites are forced out of work by poor health and family crises, the data shows. This could indicate that minority workers are more likely to have jobs that take a bigger toll on health.

Once out, older workers only rarely regain the income and stability they once enjoyed.

Jaye Crist, 58, of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, was a mid-level executive with printing giant RR Donnelley until his May 2016 layoff. Today, he supports his family on less than half his previous $100,000-a-year salary, working 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at a local print shop, 7 p.m. to 2 a.m. at the front desk of a Planet Fitness gym and bartending on Sundays.

Linda Norris, 62, of Nashua, New Hampshire, earned a similar amount doing engineering work for defense contractors before being laid off in late 2015. She spent much of 2016 campaigning for then-candidate Donald Trump and is convinced her fortunes will change now that he’s president. In the meantime, she hasn’t been able to find a permanent full-time job and said she has $25 to her name.

The HRS is widely considered the gold standard for information about the economic lives and health of older Americans. It’s funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Social Security Administration and is administered by the University of Michigan. It has been cited in thousands of academic papers and has served as the basis for a generation of business and government policymaking.

Our analysis suggests that some of those policies, as well as a good deal of what analysts and advocates focus on when it comes to aging, don’t grapple with the key challenges faced by working Americans during the last third or so of their lives.

Much public discussion of aging focuses on Social Security, Medicare and how to boost private retirement savings. But our analysis shows that many, perhaps most, older workers encounter trouble well before they’re eligible for these benefits and that their biggest economic challenge may be hanging onto a job that allows for any kind of savings at all.

“We’re talking about the wrong issues,” said Anne Colamosca, an economic commentator who co-authored one of the earliest critiques of tax-advantaged savings plans, “The Great 401(k) Hoax.” “Having a stable job with good wages is more important to most people than what’s in their 401(k). Getting to the point where you can collect Social Security and Medicare can be every bit as hard as trying to live on the benefits once you start getting them.”

Layoffs are the most common way workers over 50 get pushed out of their jobs, and more than a third of those who sustain one major involuntary departure go on to experience additional ones, as the last decade of Steckel’s work life illustrates.

Steckel spent 27 years with the U.S. affiliate of Maersk, the world’s largest container cargo company, working at several of its operations across the country. It was while managing a trucking terminal in Chicago that he met his wife, an MBA student who went on to become the marketing director at Thorek Memorial Hospital on the city’s North Side.

In the late 1990s, Steckel was promoted to a human resources position. It required the family to relocate to the company’s headquarters in northern New Jersey, but the salary — which, with bonuses, would eventually reach about $130,000 — allowed Mary to be a stay-at-home mom.

Steckel saw himself continuing to climb the company’s ranks, but as shipping technology changed and business slumped in the middle of the last decade, Maersk started consolidating operations and laying people off. Steckel flew around the country to notify employees, including some he knew personally.

“It was pretty hard not to notice that many — not all, but many — were over 50,” he said. A Maersk spokesman confirmed Steckel worked for the company but otherwise declined to comment.

In early 2007, Steckel, then 51, was laid off. He and Mary moved back to the Midwest, where the cost of living was lower and they had relatives.

Layoffs are common in the U.S. economy; there were 20.7 million of them last year alone, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In most instances, those who lose their jobs find new ones quickly. Steckel certainly assumed he would.

But laid-off workers in their 50s and beyond are more apt than those in their 30s or 40s to be unemployed for long periods and land poorer subsequent jobs, the HRS data shows. “Older workers don’t lose their jobs any more frequently than younger ones,” said Princeton labor economist Henry Farber, “but when they do, they’re substantially less likely to be re-employed.”

Steckel was out of work for eight months. The family made do, buoyed by generous severance pay and a short consulting contract. They did without dinners out, vacations or big purchases, but were basically okay.

Steckel was hired again in January 2008, this time as a benefits manager for Kohler, a manufacturer of bathroom fixtures. At about $90,000, his salary was 30 percent lower than what he’d made at Maersk, but Wisconsin was so affordable that the family was able to buy the house and five acres in Plymouth.

Kohler seemed like a safe bet. Many of its employees had never worked anywhere else, following their parents and grandparents into lifetime jobs with the company. But as Steckel started in his new position, the U.S. financial crisis cratered real estate and home construction and, with them, Kohler’s business.

This time, Steckel’s role in executing layoffs was explaining severance packages to the company’s shellshocked factory workers.

“Most of these people were in their late 40s and 50s and there was nothing out there for them,” he said. “They’d come in with their wives and some of them would break down and cry.”

After three years, Kohler’s problems leapt from the factory to the front office. Steckel, by then 54, was laid off again in April 2010. A Kohler spokeswoman did not reply to phone calls and emails.

Still the family’s sole breadwinner, with kids in fourth, eighth and ninth grades, he scrambled for new work and, after a string of interviews, landed a job just four months later as the manager of retirement plans at Alpha Natural Resources.

Alpha, in the coal mining business, was riding a double wave of demand from China and U.S. steel producers, snapping up smaller companies on its way to becoming an industry behemoth.

Steckel’s job was a big one, overseeing complicated, union-negotiated pensions and savings arrangements. At $145,000, the salary represented a substantial raise from what he’d been making at Kohler and was even more than he’d earned at Maersk. The Steckels relocated again, this time to the tiny southwest Virginia town of Abingdon.

“We started thinking: ‘This may be it. This is where we’ll stay,’” Mary Steckel said. “Then, all that changed.”

In January 2011, Alpha bought Massey Energy for $8.5 billion and with it the responsibility for reaching financial settlements with the families of 29 miners killed the previous year in an explosion at Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia. The combination of the settlement costs and a sustained fall in coal prices forced layoffs at Alpha and eventually led to the company’s bankruptcy.

Steckel struggled to collect decades of paper records on wages and years of service in order to calculate pension payments for laid-off miners, virtually all in their 50s and 60s. “There were no jobs for them, but they were owed [pension benefits] and they wanted their money yesterday,” he said. A spokesman for the successor company to Alpha, Contura Energy, did not return phone calls or emails.

Once again, he processed other employees’ layoffs right up until his own, in March 2013. He was 56. The Steckels packed the kids and the family’s belongings into their Mercury Sable station wagon and went back to Wisconsin.

There, Mary took a job at Oshkosh Defense, which builds Humvees and other equipment for the military. Tom was out of work almost six months before landing a consulting contract to work in Milwaukee with Harley-Davidson, the motorcycle maker.

If it had lasted, the position would have paid about $90,000, or about what he’d made at Kohler, and, for a time, it seemed possible that it might turn into a regular job. But it didn’t, and he was out again that December.

Unlike Steckel, Jean Potter of Dallas, Georgia, seemed to leave her longtime job at BellSouth by her own choice, taking early retirement in 2009, when she was 55.

But that wasn’t the full story, she said. Potter, who’d had a 27-year career with the telephone company, rising from operator services to pole-climbing line work to technical troubleshooting, said she only retired after hearing she was going to lose her $54,000-a-year job along with thousands of other employees being laid off as part of the company’s acquisition by AT&T.

Under the law, retirements are supposed to be voluntary decisions made by employees. The 1967 ADEA barred companies from setting a mandatory retirement age lower than 65. Congress raised that to 70 and then, in 1986, largely prohibited mandatory retirement at any age. Outraged by companies’ giving employees the unpalatable choice of retiring or getting laid off, lawmakers subsequently added a requirement that people’s retirement decisions must be “knowing and voluntary.”

Yet for almost two decades now, when HRS respondents who’ve recently retired have been asked whether their retirements were “something you wanted to do or something you felt forced into,” those who’ve answered they were forced or partially forced has risen steadily. The number of respondents saying this has grown from 33 percent in 1998 to 55 percent in 2014, the last year for which comparable figures are available.

“The expectation that American workers decide when they want to retire is no longer realistic for a significant number of older workers who are pushed out before they are ready to retire,” said Rutgers’ Van Horn.

Potter was convinced she’d secured money and benefits by leaving as a retiree that she would not otherwise have received. She felt better for making the decision herself and figured she’d go back to school, get a college degree and find a better job.

“I thought I’d gotten the drop on them by retiring,” she said.

But looking back, Potter acknowledges, her decision to retire was hardly freely chosen.

“If I had to do it over, I’d take early retirement again, but you can’t very well call it voluntary,” she said recently. “All the old people were toast. They were going to get laid off, me included.”

Jim Kimberly, a spokesman for AT&T, said the company could not confirm Potter’s employment at BellSouth because of privacy concerns. Speaking more generally, Kimberly said “We’re recognized for our longstanding commitment to diversity. We don’t tolerate discrimination based on an employee’s age.”

There was a time when older workers thought they could use early retirements as a stepping stone, locking in years of payments for leaving and then adding income from new jobs on top of that.

But many have discovered they can’t land comparable new jobs, or, in many cases, any jobs at all. In the decade since she left Bell South, Potter, now 65, has yet to find stable, long-term work.

After getting her bachelor’s degree in Spanish in 2014, Potter applied to teach in the Cobb County, Georgia, public schools but could only get substitute work. She got certified to teach English as a second language but said she was told she’d need a master’s degree to land anything beyond temporary jobs.

She’s scheduled to receive her master’s degree next June. In the meantime, she tutors grade-school students in math, English and Spanish and works as a graduate assistant in the office of multicultural student affairs at Kennesaw State University. She makes do on $1,129 a month from Social Security and a graduate-student stipend of $634, while applying, so far unsuccessfully, for other work.

She’s applied for jobs selling cellphones in a mall, providing call-center customer service and even being a waitress at a Waffle House. For the Waffle House job, she said she was told she wouldn’t be hired because she’d just leave when she got a better offer.

“Isn’t that what every waitress does?” she recalled replying. “Why hire them and not me?”

As with retirements, our analysis of the HRS data shows that, among older workers, quitting a job isn’t always the voluntary act most people, including economists, assume it to be.

The survey asks why people leave their jobs, including when they quit. It includes questions about whether their supervisors encouraged the departure, whether their wages or hours were reduced prior to their exit and whether they thought they “would have been laid off” if they didn’t leave.

We found that even when we excluded all but the most consequential cases — those in which workers subsequently experienced at least six months of unemployment or a 50 percent wage decline — 15 percent of workers over 50 who’d had long-term, stable jobs quit or left their positions after their working conditions deteriorated or they felt pressured to do so.

Quitting a job carries far greater risk for older workers than for younger ones, both because it’s harder to get rehired and because there’s less time to make up for what’s lost in being out of work.

After a simmering disagreement with a supervisor, David Burns, 50, of Roswell, Georgia, quit his $90,000-a-year logistics job with a major shipping company last February. He figured that the combination of his education and experience and the fact that unemployment nationally is at a 20-year low assured that he’d easily land a new position. But 10 months on, he says he’s yet to receive a single offer of comparable work. To help bring in some money, he’s doing woodworking for $20 an hour.

Burns has an MBA from Georgia State University and two decades in shipping logistics. A quick scan of online job ads turns up dozens for logistics management positions like the one he had in the area where he lives.

When he’d last lost a job at the age of 35, he said it took him only a couple of months and four applications to get three offers and a new spot. But in the years since, he said, he seems to have crossed a line that he wasn’t aware existed, eliminating his appeal to employers.

He keeps a spreadsheet of his current efforts to find new work. Through November, it shows he filed 160 online job applications and landed 14 phone interviews, nine face-to-face meetings and zero offers.

“My skills are in high demand,” he said. “But what’s not in high demand is me, a 50-year-old dude!”

“People can quibble about exactly why this kind of thing is going on or what to do about it, but it’s going on.”

Meg Bourbonniere had a similar experience just as she seemingly had reached the pinnacle of a successful career.

Two weeks after being appointed to a $200,000-a-year directorship managing a group of researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston in March 2015, Bourbonniere, then 59, said her supervisor called with an odd question: When did she think she’d be retiring?

“I kept asking myself, ‘Why would that be important today?’” she recalled. “The only thing I could come up with was they think I’m too old for the job.‘’

After she answered, “I’ll be here as long as you are,” she said she ran into an array of problems on the job: her decisions were countermanded, she was given what she saw as an unfairly negative job review and she was put on a “personal improvement plan” that required her to step up her performance or risk dismissal. Finally, a year after being hired, she was demoted from director to nurse scientist, the title held by those she’d managed.

Michael Morrison, a spokesman for Mass General’s parent organization, Partners HealthCare, confirmed the dates of Bourbonniere’s employment but said there was nothing further he could share as the company doesn’t comment on individual employees.

Bourbonniere said she accepted the demotion because her husband was unemployed at the time. “I couldn’t not work,” she said. “I was the chief wage earner.”

Through a friend, she found out about an opening for an assistant professor of nursing at the University of Rhode Island that, at about $75,000, paid only a third as much as the Mass General job. She told the friend she’d apply on one condition. “I said she had to tell the dean how old I was so I wouldn’t go through the same experience all over again.”

On paper, Bourbonniere quit Mass General of her own accord to take the position at URI. But, in her eyes, there was nothing voluntary about the move. “I had to go find another job,” she said. “They demoted me; I couldn’t stay.”

Soon after Steckel’s consulting contract ended in late 2013, he got what he saw as a sharp reminder of the role age was playing in his efforts to get and keep a job.

While searching job sites on his computer, Steckel stumbled across what seemed like his dream job on LinkedIn. Business insurer CNA Financial was looking for an assistant vice president to head its employee benefits operation. Best yet, the position was at CNA’s Chicago headquarters, a mere 145 miles from Plymouth. He immediately applied.

The application asked for the year he’d graduated from college.

Older job seekers are almost universally counseled not to answer questions like this. The ADEA bars employers from putting age requirements in help-wanted ads, but as job searches have moved online, companies have found other ways to target or exclude applicants by age. Last year, ProPublica and The New York Times reported that employers were using platforms like Facebook to micro-target jobs ads to younger users. Companies also digitally scour resumes for age indicators, including graduation dates.

Steckel left the field in the CNA application blank, but when he pushed “submit,” the system kicked it back, saying it was incomplete. He reluctantly filled in 1978. This time, the system accepted the application and sent back an automated response that he was in the top 10 percent of applicants based on his LinkedIn resume.

Hours later, however, he received a second automated response saying CNA had decided to “move forward with other candidates.” The rejection rankled Steckel enough that he tracked down the email address of the CNA recruiter responsible for filling the slot.

“Apparently, CNA believes a college application date is so important that it is a mandatory element in your job application process,” his email to the recruiter said. “Please cite a credible, peer-reviewed study that affirms the value of the year and date of one’s college graduation as a valid and reliable predictor of job success.”

He never got an answer.

Contacted by ProPublica, CNA spokesman Brandon Davis did not respond to questions but issued a statement. “CNA adheres to all applicable federal, state and local employment laws, and our policy prohibits any form of discrimination,” it said.

Steckel landed his current job with the state of South Dakota in March 2014.

Going back and forth between Pierre and Plymouth since then, he’s driven the equivalent of once around the world. If, as he hopes, he can hang onto the position until he retires, he figures he’ll make it around a second time.

During his off hours in the spring, when he’s not with his family, he fishes in the Black Hills. In the fall, he goes out with his Mossberg 12-gauge shotgun and hunts duck. The loneliest months are January and February. That’s when the Legislature is in session, so he can’t go home, and it’s usually too cold to do much outside. He spends a lot of time at the Y.

A half-century ago, in a report that led to enactment of the ADEA, then-U.S. Labor Secretary W. Willard Wirtz said that half of all private-sector job ads at the time explicitly barred anyone over the age of 55 from applying and a quarter barred anyone over 45.

Wirtz lambasted the practice in terms that, although backward in their depiction of work as solely a male concern, still ring true for older workers like Steckel and their families.

“There is no harsher verdict in most men’s lives than someone else’s judgment that they are no longer worth their keep,” he wrote. “It is then, when the answer at the hiring gate is ‘You’re too old,’ that a man turns away … finding nothing to look backwards to with pride [or] forward to with hope.”

Asked how the years of job turmoil and now separation have affected her family, Mary Steckel resists anger or bitterness. “The children know they are loved by two parents, even if Tom is not always here,” she said. She doesn’t dwell on the current arrangement. “I just deal with it.”

As for Tom?

“He hasn’t admitted defeat,” Mary said, although something has changed. “He’s not hopeful anymore.”

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.


More Than One Billion Accounts Affected By Data Breaches During 2018

Now that 2019 is here, we can assess 2018. It was a terrible year for identity theft, privacy, and data breaches. Several corporations failed miserably to protect the data they archive about consumers. This included failures within websites and mobile apps. There were so many massive data breaches that it isn't a question of whether or not you were affected.

You were. NordVPN reviewed the failures during 2018:

"If your data wasn’t leaked in 2018, you’re lucky. The information of over a billion people was compromised in 2018 as many of the companies we trust failed to protect our data."

That's billion with a "b." NordVPN provides virtual private network (VPN) services. If you want to use the internet with privacy, a VPN is the way to go. That is especially important for residents of the United States, since the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) repealed in 2017 both broadband privacy and net neutrality protections for consumers. A December 2017 study of 1,077 voters found that most want net neutrality protections. President Trump signed the privacy-rollback legislation in April 2017. A prior blog post listed many historical abuses of consumers by some ISPs.

PC Magazine reviewed NordVPN earlier this month and concluded:

"... NordVPN has proved itself to be our top service for securing your online activities. The company now has more than 5,100 servers across the globe, making it the largest service we've yet tested. It also takes a strong stance on privacy for its customers and includes tools rarely seen in the competition."

The NordVPN articled listed the major corporate data security failures during 2018. Frequent readers of this blog are familiar with the breaches. Chances are you use one or more of the services. Below is a partial list:

  • Marriott: 500 million
  • Twitter: 330 million
  • My Fitness Pal: 150 million accounts
  • Facebook: 147 million accounts
  • Quora: 100 million accounts
  • Firebase: 100 million accounts
  • Google+ : 500,000 accounts
  • British Airways: 380,000 accounts

While Google is closing its Google+ service, that is little help for breach victims whose personal data is out in the wild. The massive Equifax breach affecting 145.5 million persons isn't on the list because it happened in 2017. It's important to remember Equifax because persons cannot opt out of Equifax, or any of the other credit reporting agencies. Ain't corporate welfare nice?

What can consumers do to protect themselves and their sensitive personal and payment information? NordVPN advised:

  1. "Use strong and unique passwords.
  2. Think twice before posting anything on social media. This information can be used against you.
  3. If you shop online, use a credit card. You will have less liability for fraudulent charges if your financial information leaks.
  4. Provide companies only with necessary information. The less information they have, the less they can leak.
  5. Look out for fraud. If notified that your data was leaked, change your passwords and take the steps advised by the company that compromised your data."

Well, there you go. That's a good starter list for consumers to protect themselves. Do it because your personal data is out in the wild. The only question is which bad actor is abusing it.


Welcome To The New, Terrifying World Of Fake Porn. Plenty Of Consequences And Implications

First, I'd  like to thank all of my readers -- existing and new ones. Some have shared insightful comments on blog posts. Second, the last post of 2018 features a topic we will probably hear plenty about during 2019: artificial intelligence (AI) technologies.

To learn more about AI and related issues, watch or read the AI episodes within the CXO Talk site. And, MediaPost discussed the deployment of of AI by retail stores:

"... retailers seem much more bullish on artificial intelligence, with 7% already using some form of AI in digital assistants or chatbots, and most (64%) planning to have implemented AI within the next three years, 21% of those within the next 12 months. The top reason for using AI in retail is personalization (42%), followed by pricing and promotions (31%), landing page optimization (15%) and fraud detection (21%)."

Like any other online (or offline) technology, AI can be used for good and for bad. The good guys and bad actors both have access to AI technologies. MotherBoard reported:

"There’s a video of Gal Gadot having sex with her stepbrother on the internet. But it’s not really Gadot’s body, and it’s barely her own face. It’s an approximation... The video was created with a machine learning algorithm, using easily accessible materials and open-source code that anyone with a working knowledge of deep learning algorithms could put together."

You may remember Gadot from the 2017 film, "Wonder Woman." Other actors have been victims, too. Where do bad actors get tools to make AI-assisted fake porn? The fake porn with Gadot was:

"... allegedly the work of one person—a Redditor who goes by the name 'deepfakes'—not a big special effects studio... deepfakes uses open-source machine learning tools like TensorFlow, which Google makes freely available to researchers, graduate students, and anyone with an interest in machine learning. Like the Adobe tool that can make people say anything, and the Face2Face algorithm that can swap a recorded video with real-time face tracking, this new type of fake porn shows that we're on the verge of living in a world where it's trivially easy to fabricate believable videos of people doing and saying things they never did... the software is based on multiple open-source libraries, like Keras with TensorFlow backend. To compile the celebrities’ faces, deepfakes said he used Google image search, stock photos, and YouTube videos..."

There is also an AI App for fake porn. Yikes! As bad as this seems, it is worse. According to The Washington Post:

"... an anonymous online community of creators has in recent months removed many of the hurdles for interested beginners, crafting how-to guides, offering tips and troubleshooting advice — and fulfilling fake-porn requests on their own. To simplify the task, deepfake creators often compile vast bundles of facial images, called “facesets,” and sex-scene videos of women they call “donor bodies.” Some creators use software to automatically extract a woman’s face from her videos and social-media posts. Others have experimented with voice-cloning software to generate potentially convincing audio..."

This is beyond bad. It is terrifying.

The implications: many. Video, including speeches can easily be faked. Fake porn can be used as a weapon to harass women and/or to discredit accusers of sexual abuse and/or battery. Today's fake porn could be tomorrow's fake videos and fake news to discredit others: politicians, business executives, government officials (e.g., judges, military officers, etc.), individuals in minority groups, or activists. This places a premium upon mainstream news outlets to provide reliable, trustworthy news. This places a premium upon fact-checking sites.

The consequences: several. Social media users must first understand that they have made themselves vulnerable to the threats. Parents have made both themselves and their children vulnerable, too. How? The photographs and videos you've already uploaded to Facebook, Instagram, dating apps, and other social sites are source content for bad actors. So, parents must not only teach teenagers how to read terms-of-condition and privacy polices, but also how to fact-check content to avoid being tricked by fake videos.

This means all online users must become skilled consumers of information and news = read several news sources, verify, and fact check items. Otherwise, you are likely to be fooled... duped into joining or contributing to a bogus cause... tricked into voting for someone you wouldn't. This means social media users must carefully consider your photographs before you post online; and whether the social app or service truly provides effective privacy.

It also means that all social media users should NOT retweet or re-post every sensational item you see in their inboxes without fact-checking it first. Otherwise, you are part of the problem. Be part of the solution.

Video advertisements can easily be faked. So, it is in the interest of consumers, companies, and government agencies to both find solutions and to upgrade online privacy and digital laws -- which seem to constantly lag behind new technologies. There probably needs to be stronger consequences for offenders.

The Brookings Institute advised:

"In order to maximize positive outcomes [from AI], organizations should hire ethicists who work with corporate decision-makers and software developers, have a code of AI ethics that lays out how various issues will be handled, organize an AI review board that regularly addresses corporate ethical questions, have AI audit trails that show how various coding decisions have been made, implement AI training programs so staff operationalizes ethical considerations in their daily work, and provide a means for remediation when AI solutions inflict harm or damages on people or organizations."

These recommendations seems to apply to social media sites, which are high-value targets for bad actors wanting to post fake porn or other fake videos. It raises the question: which social sites have AI ethics policies and/or have hired ethicists and related staff to enforce such policies?

To do nothing seem unwise. Sticking our collective heads in the sane regarding new threats seems unwise, too. What issues concern you about AI-assisted fake porn or fake videos? What solutions do you want?


Dirty Tricks By Some Sellers At Amazon To Eliminate Competitors. Is Its Resolution System The Best Amazon Can Do?

Amazon logo Many consumers like shopping at Amazon.com. What you may not realize are the dirty tricks and scams among some sellers -- the individuals and firms who provide the products you purchase at the site. The Verge reported:

"When you buy something on Amazon, the odds are, you aren’t buying it from Amazon at all... They are largely hidden from customers, but behind any item for sale, there could be dozens of sellers, all competing for your click. This year, Marketplace sales were almost double those of Amazon retail itself, according to Marketplace Pulse, making the seller platform alone the largest e-commerce business in the US... "

Reportedly, there are 6 million sellers in Amazon Marketplace. So, there's plenty of competition. The Verge article described one dirty track where a seller posted posted bogus 5-star reviews on a competitor's page within the site. When the bogus reviews were removed, the targeted seller was accused of falsely manipulating buyers' reviews -- a violation of the site's rules -- and suspended. The Verge described several attacks by scammers. Here's another:

"Scammers have effectively weaponized Amazon’s anti-counterfeiting program. Attacks have become so widespread that they’ve even pulled in the US Patent and Trademark Office... Scammers had begun swapping out the email addresses on their rival’s trademark files, which can be done without a password, and using the new email to register their competitor’s brand with Amazon, gaining control of their listings... Amazon appears not to check whether a listing belongs to a brand already enrolled in brand registry..."

No online shopper wants to buy products from a seller who has fraudulently taken over a valid seller's trademarks.

Punishment is harsh for violators within Amazon Marketplace: suspension, monies frozen, de-listed from the site, and unable to sell products online. If the suspension lasts long enough or if reinstatement doesn't happen fast enough, bankruptcy can result. And all of this happens behind the scenes unbeknownst to customers:

"For sellers, Amazon is a quasi-state. They rely on its infrastructure — its warehouses, shipping network, financial systems, and portal to millions of customers — and pay taxes in the form of fees. They also live in terror of its rules, which often change and are harshly enforced... Sellers are more worried about a case being opened on Amazon than in actual court, says Dave Bryant, an Amazon seller and blogger. Amazon’s judgment is swifter and less predictable, and now that the company controls nearly half of the online retail market in the US, its rulings can instantly determine the success or failure of your business, he says... Amazon already has something like a judicial system — one that is secretive, volatile, and often terrifying. Amazon’s judgments are so severe that its own rules have become the ultimate weapon in the constant warfare of Marketplace. Sellers devise all manner of intricate schemes to frame their rivals... They impersonate, copy, deceive, threaten, sabotage, and even bribe Amazon employees for information on their competitors."

So, rather than using the established, well-documented public courts and legal system, this happens secretly within a corporation's processes with some unintended consequences:

"... what’s a seller to do when they end up in Amazon court? They can turn to someone like Cynthia Stine, who is part of a growing industry of consultants who help sellers navigate the ruthless world of Marketplace and the byzantine rules by which Amazon governs it. They are like lawyers, only their legal code is the Amazon Terms of Service, their court is a secretive and semi-automated corporate bureaucracy..."

How byzantine? Consider:

"Many sellers can’t even figure out what Amazon is accusing them of. A suspension message will typically list an item along with a broad and tangentially related category of an infraction, like "used sold as new." Understandably, sellers respond by sending invoices that show that the items are, in fact, new. Actually, Stine says, the suspension usually has nothing to do with the item being used, but with something like a peeling label on the box. “The thing Amazon wants you to fix is the buyer perception,” Stine says... JC Hewitt, whose law firm frequently works with Amazon sellers, calls the system’s mandatory guilty pleas, arbitrary verdicts, and obscure language "a Kafkaesque bureaucracy with bad writing." Inscrutable rulings emerge as if from a black box. The Performance team, which handles suspensions, has no phone number; there’s no one to ask for clarification. The only way to interact with them is by filing an appeal, and when it’s rejected, sellers often have no idea why... The secrecy can be so frustrating that sellers have traveled to Seattle or Amazon’s London office to try to find a human, to no avail..."

Huh? What? I'll bet many Amazon customers don't know this. And the system seems to use a poor balance of automation and humans:

"... there were likely humans reading [a seller's] appeal, but they’re part of a highly automated bureaucracy, according to former Amazon employees. An algorithm flags sellers based on a range of metrics — customer complaints, number of returns, certain keywords used in reviews, and other, more mysterious variables — and passes them to Performance workers based in India, Costa Rica, and other locations. These workers choose between several prewritten blurbs to send to sellers. They may see what the actual problem is or the key item missing from an appeal, but they can’t be more specific than the forms allow... The Performance workers’ incentives favor rejection. They must process approximately one claim every four minutes, and reinstating someone who later gets suspended again counts against them..."

Is this the best system possible? Probably not. I hope not. My guess is many Amazon Prime customers would prefer a better system to resolve disputes between sellers. My guess is that most shoppers would want to avoid using sellers who abuse or frame other sellers. And no shoppers want to buy from a seller who has fraudulently taken over another seller's trademarks.

The situation raises several issues:

  • A private court system prevents amazon customers from knowing about and avoiding shopping at sellers who abuse or frame other sellers
  • A private court system prevents external reviews and/or oversight by independent parties
  • An algorithm-based system may save money, but a poor balance of humans and automation causes problems. Is this the best system possible?
  • Amazon determines what's in its customers' best interests (versus disclosure and then feedback from customers)
  • There seem to be few penalties for sellers who frame or setup other sellers. What fix is underway?
  • The current system smells like a bloated monopoly. With some transparency and input, a better system seems possible... preferred.

What are your opinions? What issues do you see? Is a private court system a good thing?