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11 posts from December 2018

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?


A Series Of Recent Events And Privacy Snafus At Facebook Cause Multiple Concerns. Does Facebook Deserve Users' Data?

Facebook logo So much has happened lately at Facebook that it can be difficult to keep up with the data scandals, data breaches, privacy fumbles, and more at the global social service. To help, below is a review of recent events.

The the New York Times reported on Tuesday, December 18th that for years:

"... Facebook gave some of the world’s largest technology companies more intrusive access to users’ personal data than it has disclosed, effectively exempting those business partners from its usual privacy rules... The special arrangements are detailed in hundreds of pages of Facebook documents obtained by The New York Times. The records, generated in 2017 by the company’s internal system for tracking partnerships, provide the most complete picture yet of the social network’s data-sharing practices... Facebook allowed Microsoft’s Bing search engine to see the names of virtually all Facebook users’ friends without consent... and gave Netflix and Spotify the ability to read Facebook users’ private messages. The social network permitted Amazon to obtain users’ names and contact information through their friends, and it let Yahoo view streams of friends’ posts as recently as this summer, despite public statements that it had stopped that type of sharing years earlier..."

According to the Reuters newswire, a Netflix spokesperson denied that Netflix accessed Facebook users' private messages, nor asked for that access. Facebook responded with denials the same day:

"... none of these partnerships or features gave companies access to information without people’s permission, nor did they violate our 2012 settlement with the FTC... most of these features are now gone. We shut down instant personalization, which powered Bing’s features, in 2014 and we wound down our partnerships with device and platform companies months ago, following an announcement in April. Still, we recognize that we’ve needed tighter management over how partners and developers can access information using our APIs. We’re already in the process of reviewing all our APIs and the partners who can access them."

Needed tighter management with its partners and developers? That's an understatement. During March and April of 2018 we learned that bad actors posed as researchers and used both quizzes and automated tools to vacuum up (and allegedly resell later) profile data for 87 million Facebook users. There's more news about this breach. The Office of the Attorney General for Washington, DC announced on December 19th that it has:

"... sued Facebook, Inc. for failing to protect its users’ data... In its lawsuit, the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) alleges Facebook’s lax oversight and misleading privacy settings allowed, among other things, a third-party application to use the platform to harvest the personal information of millions of users without their permission and then sell it to a political consulting firm. In the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, some Facebook users downloaded a “personality quiz” app which also collected data from the app users’ Facebook friends without their knowledge or consent. The app’s developer then sold this data to Cambridge Analytica, which used it to help presidential campaigns target voters based on their personal traits. Facebook took more than two years to disclose this to its consumers. OAG is seeking monetary and injunctive relief, including relief for harmed consumers, damages, and penalties to the District."

Sadly, there's still more. Facebook announced on December 14th another data breach:

"Our internal team discovered a photo API bug that may have affected people who used Facebook Login and granted permission to third-party apps to access their photos. We have fixed the issue but, because of this bug, some third-party apps may have had access to a broader set of photos than usual for 12 days between September 13 to September 25, 2018... the bug potentially gave developers access to other photos, such as those shared on Marketplace or Facebook Stories. The bug also impacted photos that people uploaded to Facebook but chose not to post... we believe this may have affected up to 6.8 million users and up to 1,500 apps built by 876 developers... Early next week we will be rolling out tools for app developers that will allow them to determine which people using their app might be impacted by this bug. We will be working with those developers to delete the photos from impacted users. We will also notify the people potentially impacted..."

We believe? That sounds like Facebook doesn't know for sure. Where was the quality assurance (QA) team on this? Who is performing the post-breach investigation to determine what happened so it doesn't happen again? This post-breach response seems sloppy. And, the "bug" description seems disingenuous. Anytime persons -- in this case developers -- have access to data they shouldn't have, it is a data breach.

One quickly gets the impression that Facebook has created so many niches, apps, APIs, and special arrangements for developers and advertisers that it really can't manage nor control the data it collects about its users. That implies Facebook users aren't in control of their data, either.

There were other notable stumbles. There were reports after many users experienced repeated bogus Friend Requests, due to hacked and/or cloned accounts. It can be difficult for users to distinguish valid Friend Requests from spammers or bad actors masquerading as friends.

In August, reports surfaced that Facebook approached several major banks offering to share its detailed financial information about consumers in order, "to boost user engagement." Reportedly, the detailed financial information included debit/credit/prepaid card transactions and checking account balances. Not good.

Also in August, Facebook's Onavo VPN App was removed from the Apple App store because the app violated data-collection policies. 9 To 5 Mac reported on December 5th:

"The UK parliament has today publicly shared secret internal Facebook emails that cover a wide-range of the company’s tactics related to its free iOS VPN app that was used as spyware, recording users’ call and text message history, and much more... Onavo was an interesting effort from Facebook. It posed as a free VPN service/app labeled as Facebook’s “Protect” feature, but was more or less spyware designed to collect data from users that Facebook could leverage..."

Why spy? Why the deception? This seems unnecessary for a global social networking company already collecting massive amounts of content.

In November, an investigative report by ProPublica detailed the failures in Facebook's news transparency implementation. The failures mean Facebook hasn't made good on its promises to ensure trustworthy news content, nor stop foreign entities from using the social service to meddle in elections in democratic countries.

There is more. Facebook disclosed in October a massive data breach affecting 30 million users (emphasis added):

For 15 million people, attackers accessed two sets of information – name and contact details (phone number, email, or both, depending on what people had on their profiles). For 14 million people, the attackers accessed the same two sets of information, as well as other details people had on their profiles. This included username, gender, locale/language, relationship status, religion, hometown, self-reported current city, birth date, device types used to access Facebook, education, work, the last 10 places they checked into or were tagged in, website, people or Pages they follow, and the 15 most recent searches..."

The stolen data allows bad actors to operate several types of attacks (e.g., spam, phishing, etc.) against Facebook users. The stolen data allows foreign spy agencies to collect useful information to target persons. Neither is good. Wired summarized the situation:

"Every month this year—and in some months, every week—new information has come out that makes it seem as if Facebook's big rethink is in big trouble... Well-known and well-regarded executives, like the founders of Facebook-owned Instagram, Oculus, and WhatsApp, have left abruptly. And more and more current and former employees are beginning to question whether Facebook's management team, which has been together for most of the last decade, is up to the task.

Technically, Zuckerberg controls enough voting power to resist and reject any moves to remove him as CEO. But the number of times that he and his number two Sheryl Sandberg have over-promised and under-delivered since the 2016 election would doom any other management team... Meanwhile, investigations in November revealed, among other things, that the company had hired a Washington firm to spread its own brand of misinformation on other platforms..."

Hiring a firm to distribute misinformation elsewhere while promising to eliminate misinformation on its platform. Not good. Are Zuckerberg and Sandberg up to the task? The above list of breaches, scandals, fumbles, and stumbles suggest not. What do you think?

The bottom line is trust. Given recent events, BuzzFeed News article posed a relevant question (emphasis added):

"Of all of the statements, apologies, clarifications, walk-backs, defenses, and pleas uttered by Facebook employees in 2018, perhaps the most inadvertently damning came from its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg. Speaking from a full-page ad displayed in major papers across the US and Europe, Zuckerberg proclaimed, "We have a responsibility to protect your information. If we can’t, we don’t deserve it." At the time, the statement was a classic exercise in damage control. But given the privacy blunders that followed, it hasn’t aged well. In fact, it’s become an archetypal criticism of Facebook and the set up for its existential question: Why, after all that’s happened in 2018, does Facebook deserve our personal information?"

Facebook executives have apologized often. Enough is enough. No more apologies. Just fix it! And, if Facebook users haven't asked themselves the above question yet, some surely will. Earlier this week, a friend posted on the site:

"To all my FB friends:
I will be deleting my FB account very soon as I am disgusted by their invasion of the privacy of their users. Please contact me by email in the future. Please note that it will take several days for this action to take effect as FB makes it hard to get out of its grip. Merry Christmas to all and with best wishes for a Healthy, safe, and invasive free New Year."

I reminded this friend to also delete any Instagram and What's App accounts, since Facebook operates those services, too. If you want to quit the service but suffer with FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), then read the experiences of a person who quit Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Amazon for a month. It can be done. And, your social life will continue -- spectacularly. It did before Facebook.

Me? I have reduced my activity on Facebook. And there are certain activities I don't do on Facebook: take quizzes, make online payments, use its emotion reaction buttons (besides "Like"), use its mobile app, use the Messenger mobile app, nor use its voting and ballot previews content. Long ago I disabled the Facebook API platform on my Facebook account. You should, too. I never use my Facebook credentials (e.g., username, password) to sign into other sites. Never.

I will continue to post on Facebook links to posts in this blog, since it is helpful information for many Facebook users. In what ways have you reduced your usage of Facebook?


China Blamed For Cyberattack In The Gigantic Marriott-Starwood Hotels Data Breach

Marriott International logo An update on the gigantic Marriott-Starwood data breach where details about 500 million guests were stolen. The New York Times reported that the cyberattack:

"... was part of a Chinese intelligence-gathering effort that also hacked health insurers and the security clearance files of millions more Americans, according to two people briefed on the investigation. The hackers, they said, are suspected of working on behalf of the Ministry of State Security, the country’s Communist-controlled civilian spy agency... While American intelligence agencies have not reached a final assessment of who performed the hacking, a range of firms brought in to assess the damage quickly saw computer code and patterns familiar to operations by Chinese actors... China has reverted over the past 18 months to the kind of intrusions into American companies and government agencies that President Barack Obama thought he had ended in 2015 in an agreement with Mr. Xi. Geng Shuang, a spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, denied any knowledge of the Marriott hacking..."

Why any country's intelligence agency would want to hack a hotel chain's database:

"The Marriott database contains not only credit card information but passport data. Lisa Monaco, a former homeland security adviser under Mr. Obama, noted last week at a conference that passport information would be particularly valuable in tracking who is crossing borders and what they look like, among other key data."

Also, context matters. First, this corporate acquisition was (thankfully) blocked:

"The effort to amass Americans’ personal information so alarmed government officials that in 2016, the Obama administration threatened to block a $14 billion bid by China’s Anbang Insurance Group Co. to acquire Starwood Hotel & Resorts Worldwide, according to one former official familiar with the work of the Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States, a secretive government body that reviews foreign acquisitions..."

Later that year, Marriott Hotels acquired Starwood for $13.6 billion. Second, remember the massive government data breach in 2014 at the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). The New York Times added that the Marriott breach:

"... was only part of an aggressive operation whose centerpiece was the 2014 hacking into the Office of Personnel Management. At the time, the government bureau loosely guarded the detailed forms that Americans fill out to get security clearances — forms that contain financial data; information about spouses, children and past romantic relationships; and any meetings with foreigners. Such information is exactly what the Chinese use to root out spies, recruit intelligence agents and build a rich repository of Americans’ personal data for future targeting..."

MSS Inside Not good. And, this is not the first time concerns about China have been raised. Reports surfaced in 2016 about malware installed in the firmware of smartphones running the Android operating system (OS) software. In 2015, China enacted a new "secure and controllable" security law which many security experts viewed then as a method to ensure that back doors were built into computing products and devices during into the manufacturing and assembly process.

And, even if China's MSS didn't do this massive cyberattack, it could have been another country's intelligence agency. Not good either.

Regardless who the attackers were, this incident is a huge reminder to executives in government and in the private sector to secure their computer systems. Hopefully, executives at major hotel chains -- especially those frequented by government officials and military members -- now realize that their systems are high-value targets.


Your Medical Devices Are Not Keeping Your Health Data to Themselves

[Editor's note: today's guest post, by reporters at ProPublica, is part of a series which explores data collection, data sharing, and privacy issues within the healthcare industry. It is reprinted with permission.]

By Derek Kravitz and Marshall Allen, ProPublica

Medical devices are gathering more and more data from their users, whether it’s their heart rates, sleep patterns or the number of steps taken in a day. Insurers and medical device makers say such data can be used to vastly improve health care.

But the data that’s generated can also be used in ways that patients don’t necessarily expect. It can be packaged and sold for advertising. It can anonymized and used by customer support and information technology companies. Or it can be shared with health insurers, who may use it to deny reimbursement. Privacy experts warn that data gathered by insurers could also be used to rate individuals’ health care costs and potentially raise their premiums.

Patients typically have to give consent for their data to be used — so-called “donated data.” But some patients said they weren’t aware that their information was being gathered and shared. And once the data is shared, it can be used in a number of ways. Here are a few of the most popular medical devices that can share data with insurers:

Continuous Positive Airway Pressure, or CPAP, Machines

What Are They?

One of the more popular devices for those with sleep apnea, CPAP machines are covered by insurers after a sleep study confirms the diagnosis. These units, which deliver pressurized air through masks worn by patients as they sleep, collect data and transmit it wirelessly.

What Do They Collect?

It depends on the unit, but CPAP machines can collect data on the number of hours a patient uses the device, the number of interruptions in sleep and the amount of air that leaks from the mask.

Who Gets the Info?

The data may be transmitted to the makers or suppliers of the machines. Doctors may use it to assess whether the therapy is effective. Health insurers may receive the data to track whether patients are using their CPAP machines as directed. They may refuse to reimburse the costs of the machine if the patient doesn’t use it enough. The device maker ResMed said in a statement that patients may withdraw their consent to have their data shared.

Heart Monitors

What Are They?

Heart monitors, oftentimes small, battery-powered devices worn on the body and attached to the skin with electrodes, measure and record the heart’s electrical signals, typically over a few days or weeks, to detect things like irregular heartbeats or abnormal heart rhythms. Some devices implanted under the skin can last up to five years.

What Do They Collect?

Wearable ones include Holter monitors, wired external devices that attach to the skin, and event recorders, which can track slow or fast heartbeats and fainting spells. Data can also be shared from implanted pacemakers, which keep the heart beating properly for those with arrhythmias.

Who Gets the Info?

Low resting heart rates or other abnormal heart conditions are commonly used by insurance companies to place patients in more expensive rate classes. Children undergoing genetic testing are sometimes outfitted with heart monitors before their diagnosis, increasing the odds that their data is used by insurers. This sharing is the most common complaint cited by the World Privacy Forum, a consumer rights group.

Blood Glucose Monitors

What Are They?

Millions of Americans who have diabetes are familiar with blood glucose meters, or glucometers, which take a blood sample on a strip of paper and analyze it for glucose, or sugar, levels. This allows patients and their doctors to monitor their diabetes so they don’t have complications like heart or kidney disease. Blood glucose meters are used by the more the 1.2 million Americans with Type 1 diabetes, which is usually diagnosed in children, teens and young adults.

What Do They Collect?

Blood sugar monitors measure the concentration of glucose in a patient’s blood, a key indicator of proper diabetes management.

Who Gets the Info?

Diabetes monitoring equipment is sold directly to patients, but many still rely on insurer-provided devices. To get reimbursement for blood glucose meters, health insurers will typically ask for at least a month’s worth of blood sugar data.

Lifestyle Monitors

What Are They?

Step counters, medication alerts and trackers, and in-home cameras are among the devices in the increasingly crowded lifestyle health industry.

What Do They Collect?

Many health data research apps are made up of “donated data,” which is provided by consumers and falls outside of federal guidelines that require the sharing of personal health data be disclosed and anonymized to protect the identity of the patient. This data includes everything from counters for the number of steps you take, the calories you eat and the number of flights of stairs you climb to more traditional health metrics, such as pulse and heart rates.

Who Gets the Info?

It varies by device. But the makers of the Fitbit step counter, for example, say they never sell customer personal data or share personal information unless a user requests it; it is part of a legal process; or it is provided on a “confidential basis” to a third-party customer support or IT provider. That said, Fitbit allows users who give consent to share data “with a health insurer or wellness program,” according to a statement from the company.

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House Oversight Committee Report On The Equifax Data Breach. Did The Recommendations Go Far Enough?

On Monday, the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform released its report (Adobe PDF) on the massive Equifax data breach, where the most sensitive personal and payment information of more than 148 million consumers -- nearly half of the population -- was accessed and stolen. The report summary:

"In 2005, former Equifax Chief Executive Officer(CEO) Richard Smith embarked on an aggressive growth strategy, leading to the acquisition of multiple companies, information technology (IT) systems, and data. While the acquisition strategy was successful for Equifax’s bottom line and stock price, this growth brought increasing complexity to Equifax’s IT systems, and expanded data security risks... Equifax, however, failed to implement an adequate security program to protect this sensitive data. As a result, Equifax allowed one of the largest data breaches in U.S. history. Such a breach was entirely preventable."

The report cited several failures by Equifax. First:

"On March 7, 2017, a critical vulnerability in the Apache Struts software was publicly disclosed. Equifax used Apache Struts to run certain applications on legacy operating systems. The following day, the Department of Homeland Security alerted Equifax to this critical vulnerability. Equifax’s Global Threate and Vulnerability Management (GTVM) team emailed this alert to over 400 people on March 9, instructing anyone who had Apache Struts running on their system to apply the necessary patch within 48 hours. The Equifax GTVM team also held a March 16 meeting about this vulnerability. Equifax, however, did not fully patch its systems. Equifax’s Automated Consumer Interview System (ACIS), a custom-built internet-facing consumer dispute portal developed in the 1970s, was running a version of Apache Struts containing the vulnerability. Equifax did not patch the Apache Struts software located within ACIS, leaving its systems and data exposed."

As bad as that is, it gets worse:

"On May 13, 2017, attackers began a cyberattack on Equifax. The attack lasted for 76 days. The attackers dropped “web shells” (a web-based backdoor) to obtain remote control over Equifax’s network. They found a file containing unencrypted credentials (usernames and passwords), enabling the attackers to access sensitive data outside of the ACIS environment. The attackers were able to use these credentials to access 48 unrelated databases."

"Attackers sent 9,000 queries on these 48 databases, successfully locating unencrypted personally identifiable information (PII) data 265 times. The attackers transferred this data out of the Equifax environment, unbeknownst to Equifax. Equifax did not see the data exfiltration because the device used to monitor ACIS network traffic had been inactive for 19 months due to an expired security certificate. On July 29, 2017, Equifax updated the expired certificate and immediately noticed suspicious web traffic..."

Findings so far: 1) growth prioritized over security while archiving highly valuable data; 2) antiquated computer systems; 3) failed security patches; 4) unprotected user credentials; and 5) failed intrusion detection mechanism. Geez!

Only after updating its expired security certificate did Equifax notice the intrusion. After that, you'd think that Equifax would have implemented a strong post-breach response. You'd be wrong. More failures:

"When Equifax informed the public of the breach on September 7, the company was unprepared to support the large number of affected consumers. The dedicated breach website and call centers were immediately overwhelmed, and consumers were not able to obtain timely information about whether they were affected and how they could obtain identity protection services."

"Equifax should have addressed at least two points of failure to mitigate, or even prevent, this data breach. First, a lack of accountability and no clear lines of authority in Equifax’s IT management structure existed, leading to an execution gap between IT policy development and operation. This also restricted the company’s implementation of other security initiatives in a comprehensive and timely manner. As an example, Equifax had allowed over 300 security certificates to expire, including 79 certificates for monitoring business critical domains. "Second, Equifax’s aggressive growth strategy and accumulation of data resulted in a complex IT environment. Equifax ran a number of its most critical IT applications on custom-built legacy systems. Both the complexity and antiquated nature of Equifax’s IT systems made IT security especially challenging..."

Findings so far: 6) inadequate post-breach response; and 7) complicated IT structure making updates difficult. Geez!

The report listed the executives who retired and/or were fired. That's a small start for a company archiving the most sensitive personal and payment information of all USA citizens. The report included seven recommendations:

"1: Empower Consumers through Transparency. Consumer reporting agencies (CRAs) should provide more transparency to consumers on what data is collected and how it is used. A large amount of the public’s concern after Equifax’s data breach announcement stemmed from the lack of knowledge regarding the extensive data CRAs hold on individuals. CRAs must invest in and deploy additional tools to empower consumers to better control their own data..."

"2: Review Sufficiency of FTC Oversight and Enforcement Authorities. Currently, the FTC uses statutory authority under Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act to hold businesses accountable for making false or misleading claims about their data security or failing to employ reasonable security measures. Additional oversight authorities and enforcement tools may be needed to enable the FTC to effectively monitor CRA data security practices..."

"3: Review Effectiveness of Identity Monitoring and Protection Services Offered to Breach Victims. The General Accounting Office (GAO) should examine the effectiveness of current identity monitoring and protection services and provide recommendations to Congress. In particular, GAO should review the length of time that credit monitoring and protection services are needed after a data breach to mitigate identity theft risks. Equifax offered free credit monitoring and protection services for one year to any consumer who requested it... This GAO study would help clarify the value of credit monitoring services and the length of time such services should be maintained. The GAO study should examine alternatives to credit monitoring services and identify addit ional or complimentary services..."

"4: Increase Transparency of Cyber Risk in Private Sector. Federal agencies and the private sector should work together to increase transparency of a company’s cybersecurity risks and steps taken to mitigate such risks. One example of how a private entity can increase transparency related to the company’s cyber risk is by making disclosures in its Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filings. In 2011, the SEC developed guidance to assist companies in disclosing cybersecurity risks and incidents. According to the SEC guidance, if cybersecurity risks or incidents are “sufficiently material to investors” a private company may be required to disclose the information... Equifax did not disclose any cybersecurity risks or cybers ecurity incidents in its SEC filings prior to the 2017 data breach..."

"5: Hold Federal Contractors Accountable for Cybersecurity with Clear Requirements. The Equifax data breach and federal customers’ use of Equifax identity validation services highlight the need for the federal government to be vigilant in mitigating cybersecurity risk in federal acquisition. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) should continue efforts to develop a clear set of requirements for federal contractors to address increasing cybersecurity risks, particularly as it relates to handling of PII. There should be a government-wide framework of cybersecurity and data security risk-based requirements. In 2016, the Committee urged OMB to focus on improving and updating cybersecurity requirements for federal acquisition... The Committee again urges OMB to expedite development of a long-promised cybersecurity acquisition memorandum to provide guidance to federal agencies and acquisition professionals..."

"6: Reduce Use of Social Security Numbers as Personal Identifiers. The executive branch should work with the private sector to reduce reliance on Social Security numbers. Social Security numbers are widely used by the public and private sector to both identify and authenticate individuals. Authenticators are only useful if they are kept confidential. Attackers stole the Social Security numbers of an estimated 145 million consumers from Equifax. As a result of this breach, nearly half of the country’s Social Security numbers are no longer confidential. To better protect consumers from identity theft, OMB and other relevant federal agencies should pursue emerging technology solutions as an alternative to Social Security number use."

"7: Implement Modernized IT Solutions. Companies storing sensitive consumer data should transition away from legacy IT and implement modern IT security solutions. Equifax failed to modernize its IT environments in a timely manner. The complexity of the legacy IT environment hosting the ACIS application allowed the attackers to move throughout the Equifax network... Equifax’s legacy IT was difficult to scan, patch, and modify... Private sector companies, especially those holding sensitive consumer data like Equifax, must prioritize investment in modernized tools and technologies...."

The history of corporate data breaches and the above list of corporate failures by Equifax both should be warnings to anyone in government promoting the privatization of current government activities. Companies screw up stuff, too.

Recommendation #6 is frightening in that it hasn't been implemented. Yikes! No federal agency should do business with a private sector firm operating with antiquated computer systems. And, if Equifax can't protect the information it archives, it should cease to exist. While that sounds harsh, it ain't. Continual data breaches place risks and burdens upon already burdened consumers trying to control and protect their data.

What are your opinions of the report? Did it go far enough?


You Snooze, You Lose: Insurers Make The Old Adage Literally True

[Editor's note: today's guest post, by reporters at ProPublica, is part of a series which explores data collection, data sharing, and privacy issues within the healthcare industry. It is reprinted with permission.]

By Marshall Allen, ProPublica

Last March, Tony Schmidt discovered something unsettling about the machine that helps him breathe at night. Without his knowledge, it was spying on him.

From his bedside, the device was tracking when he was using it and sending the information not just to his doctor, but to the maker of the machine, to the medical supply company that provided it and to his health insurer.

Schmidt, an information technology specialist from Carrollton, Texas, was shocked. “I had no idea they were sending my information across the wire.”

Schmidt, 59, has sleep apnea, a disorder that causes worrisome breaks in his breathing at night. Like millions of people, he relies on a continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP, machine that streams warm air into his nose while he sleeps, keeping his airway open. Without it, Schmidt would wake up hundreds of times a night; then, during the day, he’d nod off at work, sometimes while driving and even as he sat on the toilet.

“I couldn’t keep a job,” he said. “I couldn’t stay awake.” The CPAP, he said, saved his career, maybe even his life.

As many CPAP users discover, the life-altering device comes with caveats: Health insurance companies are often tracking whether patients use them. If they aren’t, the insurers might not cover the machines or the supplies that go with them.

In fact, faced with the popularity of CPAPs, which can cost $400 to $800, and their need for replacement filters, face masks and hoses, health insurers have deployed a host of tactics that can make the therapy more expensive or even price it out of reach.

Patients have been required to rent CPAPs at rates that total much more than the retail price of the devices, or they’ve discovered that the supplies would be substantially cheaper if they didn’t have insurance at all.

Experts who study health care costs say insurers’ CPAP strategies are part of the industry’s playbook of shifting the costs of widely used therapies, devices and tests to unsuspecting patients.

“The doctors and providers are not in control of medicine anymore,” said Harry Lawrence, owner of Advanced Oxy-Med Services, a New York company that provides CPAP supplies. “It’s strictly the insurance companies. They call the shots.”

Insurers say their concerns are legitimate. The masks and hoses can be cumbersome and noisy, and studies show that about third of patients don’t use their CPAPs as directed.

But the companies’ practices have spawned lawsuits and concerns by some doctors who say that policies that restrict access to the machines could have serious, or even deadly, consequences for patients with severe conditions. And privacy experts worry that data collected by insurers could be used to discriminate against patients or raise their costs.

Schmidt’s privacy concerns began the day after he registered his new CPAP unit with ResMed, its manufacturer. He opted out of receiving any further information. But he had barely wiped the sleep out of his eyes the next morning when a peppy email arrived in his inbox. It was ResMed, praising him for completing his first night of therapy. “Congratulations! You’ve earned yourself a badge!” the email said.

Then came this exchange with his supply company, Medigy: Schmidt had emailed the company to praise the “professional, kind, efficient and competent” technician who set up the device. A Medigy representative wrote back, thanking him, then adding that Schmidt’s machine “is doing a great job keeping your airway open.” A report detailing Schmidt’s usage was attached.

Alarmed, Schmidt complained to Medigy and learned his data was also being shared with his insurer, Blue Cross Blue Shield. He’d known his old machine had tracked his sleep because he’d taken its removable data card to his doctor. But this new invasion of privacy felt different. Was the data encrypted to protect his privacy as it was transmitted? What else were they doing with his personal information?

He filed complaints with the Better Business Bureau and the federal government to no avail. “My doctor is the ONLY one that has permission to have my data,” he wrote in one complaint.

In an email, a Blue Cross Blue Shield spokesperson said that it’s standard practice for insurers to monitor sleep apnea patients and deny payment if they aren’t using the machine. And privacy experts said that sharing the data with insurance companies is allowed under federal privacy laws. A ResMed representative said once patients have given consent, it may share the data it gathers, which is encrypted, with the patients’ doctors, insurers and supply companies.

Schmidt returned the new CPAP machine and went back to a model that allowed him to use a removable data card. His doctor can verify his compliance, he said.

Luke Petty, the operations manager for Medigy, said a lot of CPAP users direct their ire at companies like his. The complaints online number in the thousands. But insurance companies set the prices and make the rules, he said, and suppliers follow them, so they can get paid.

“Every year it’s a new hurdle, a new trick, a new game for the patients,” Petty said.

A Sleep Saving Machine Gets Popular

The American Sleep Apnea Association estimates about 22 million Americans have sleep apnea, although it’s often not diagnosed. The number of people seeking treatment has grown along with awareness of the disorder. It’s a potentially serious disorder that left untreated can lead to risks for heart disease, diabetes, cancer and cognitive disorders. CPAP is one of the only treatments that works for many patients.

Exact numbers are hard to come by, but ResMed, the leading device maker, said it’s monitoring the CPAP use of millions of patients.

Sleep apnea specialists and health care cost experts say insurers have countered the deluge by forcing patients to prove they’re using the treatment.

Medicare, the government insurance program for seniors and the disabled, began requiring CPAP “compliance” after a boom in demand. Because of the discomfort of wearing a mask, hooked up to a noisy machine, many patients struggle to adapt to nightly use. Between 2001 and 2009, Medicare payments for individual sleep studies almost quadrupled to $235 million. Many of those studies led to a CPAP prescription. Under Medicare rules, patients must use the CPAP for four hours a night for at least 70 percent of the nights in any 30-day period within three months of getting the device. Medicare requires doctors to document the adherence and effectiveness of the therapy.

Sleep apnea experts deemed Medicare’s requirements arbitrary. But private insurers soon adopted similar rules, verifying usage with data from patients’ machines — with or without their knowledge.

Kristine Grow, spokeswoman for the trade association America’s Health Insurance Plans, said monitoring CPAP use is important because if patients aren’t using the machines, a less expensive therapy might be a smarter option. Monitoring patients also helps insurance companies advise doctors about the best treatment for patients, she said. When asked why insurers don’t just rely on doctors to verify compliance, Grow said she didn’t know.

Many insurers also require patients to rack up monthly rental fees rather than simply pay for a CPAP.

Dr. Ofer Jacobowitz, a sleep apnea expert at ENT and Allergy Associates and assistant professor at The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, said his patients often pay rental fees for a year or longer before meeting the prices insurers set for their CPAPs. But since patients’ deductibles — the amount they must pay before insurance kicks in — reset at the beginning of each year, they may end up covering the entire cost of the rental for much of that time, he said.

The rental fees can surpass the retail cost of the machine, patients and doctors say. Alan Levy, an attorney who lives in Rahway, New Jersey, bought an individual insurance plan through the now-defunct Health Republic Insurance of New Jersey in 2015. When his doctor prescribed a CPAP, the company that supplied his device, At Home Medical, told him he needed to rent the device for $104 a month for 15 months. The company told him the cost of the CPAP was $2,400.

Levy said he wouldn’t have worried about the cost if his insurance had paid it. But Levy’s plan required him to reach a $5,000 deductible before his insurance plan paid a dime. So Levy looked online and discovered the machine actually cost about $500.

Levy said he called At Home Medical to ask if he could avoid the rental fee and pay $500 up front for the machine, and a company representative said no. “I’m being overcharged simply because I have insurance,” Levy recalled protesting.

Levy refused to pay the rental fees. “At no point did I ever agree to enter into a monthly rental subscription,” he wrote in a letter disputing the charges. He asked for documentation supporting the cost. The company responded that he was being billed under the provisions of his insurance carrier.

Levy’s law practice focuses, ironically, on defending insurance companies in personal injury cases. So he sued At Home Medical, accusing the company of violating the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act. Levy didn’t expect the case to go to trial. “I knew they were going to have to spend thousands of dollars on attorney’s fees to defend a claim worth hundreds of dollars,” he said.

Sure enough, At Home Medical, agreed to allow Levy to pay $600 — still more than the retail cost — for the machine.

The company declined to comment on the case. Suppliers said that Levy’s case is extreme, but acknowledged that patients’ rental fees often add up to more than the device is worth.

Levy said that he was happy to abide by the terms of his plan, but that didn’t mean the insurance company could charge him an unfair price. “If the machine’s worth $500, no matter what the plan says, or the medical device company says, they shouldn’t be charging many times that price,” he said.

Dr. Douglas Kirsch, president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, said high rental fees aren’t the only problem. Patients can also get better deals on CPAP filters, hoses, masks and other supplies when they don’t use insurance, he said.

Cigna, one of the largest health insurers in the country, currently faces a class-action suit in U.S. District Court in Connecticut over its billing practices, including for CPAP supplies. One of the plaintiffs, Jeffrey Neufeld, who lives in Connecticut, contends that Cigna directed him to order his supplies through a middleman who jacked up the prices.

Neufeld declined to comment for this story. But his attorney, Robert Izard, said Cigna contracted with a company called CareCentrix, which coordinates a network of suppliers for the insurer. Neufeld decided to contact his supplier directly to find out what it had been paid for his supplies and compare that to what he was being charged. He discovered that he was paying substantially more than the supplier said the products were worth. For instance, Neufeld owed $25.68 for a disposable filter under his Cigna plan, while the supplier was paid $7.50. He owed $147.78 for a face mask through his Cigna plan while the supplier was paid $95.

ProPublica found all the CPAP supplies billed to Neufeld online at even lower prices than those the supplier had been paid. Longtime CPAP users say it’s well known that supplies are cheaper when they are purchased without insurance.

Neufeld’s cost “should have been based on the lower amount charged by the actual provider, not the marked-up bill from the middleman,” Izard said. Patients covered by other insurance companies may have fallen victim to similar markups, he said.

Cigna would not comment on the case. But in documents filed in the suit, it denied misrepresenting costs or overcharging Neufeld. The supply company did not return calls for comment.

In a statement, Stephen Wogen, CareCentrix’s chief growth officer, said insurers may agree to pay higher prices for some services, while negotiating lower prices for others, to achieve better overall value. For this reason, he said, isolating select prices doesn’t reflect the overall value of the company’s services. CareCentrix declined to comment on Neufeld’s allegations.

Izard said Cigna and CareCentrix benefit from such behind-the-scenes deals by shifting the extra costs to patients, who often end up covering the marked-up prices out of their deductibles. And even once their insurance kicks in, the amount the patients must pay will be much higher.

The ubiquity of CPAP insurance concerns struck home during the reporting of this story, when a ProPublica colleague discovered how his insurer was using his data against him.

Sleep Aid or Surveillance Device?

Without his CPAP, Eric Umansky, a deputy managing editor at ProPublica, wakes up repeatedly through the night and snores so insufferably that he is banished to the living room couch. “My marriage depends on it.”

In September, his doctor prescribed a new mask and airflow setting for his machine. Advanced Oxy-Med Services, the medical supply company approved by his insurer, sent him a modem that he plugged into his machine, giving the company the ability to change the settings remotely if needed.

But when the mask hadn’t arrived a few days later, Umansky called Advanced Oxy-Med. That’s when he got a surprise: His insurance company might not pay for the mask, a customer service representative told him, because he hadn’t been using his machine enough. “On Tuesday night, you only used the mask for three-and-a-half hours,” the representative said. “And on Monday night, you only used it for three hours.”

“Wait — you guys are using this thing to track my sleep?” Umansky recalled saying. “And you are using it to deny me something my doctor says I need?”

Umansky’s new modem had been beaming his personal data from his Brooklyn bedroom to the Newburgh, New York-based supply company, which, in turn, forwarded the information to his insurance company, UnitedHealthcare.

Umansky was bewildered. He hadn’t been using the machine all night because he needed a new mask. But his insurance company wouldn’t pay for the new mask until he proved he was using the machine all night — even though, in his case, he, not the insurance company, is the owner of the device.

“You view it as a device that is yours and is serving you,” Umansky said. “And suddenly you realize it is a surveillance device being used by your health insurance company to limit your access to health care.”

Privacy experts said such concerns are likely to grow as a host of devices now gather data about patients, including insertable heart monitors and blood glucose meters, as well as Fitbits, Apple Watches and other lifestyle applications. Privacy laws have lagged behind this new technology, and patients may be surprised to learn how little control they have over how the data is used or with whom it is shared, said Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum.

“What if they find you only sleep a fitful five hours a night?” Dixon said. “That’s a big deal over time. Does that affect your health care prices?”

UnitedHealthcare said in a statement that it only uses the data from CPAPs to verify patients are using the machines.

Lawrence, the owner of Advanced Oxy-Med Services, conceded that his company should have told Umansky his CPAP use would be monitored for compliance, but it had to follow the insurers’ rules to get paid.

As for Umansky, it’s now been two months since his doctor prescribed him a new airflow setting for his CPAP machine. The supply company has been paying close attention to his usage, Umansky said, but it still hasn’t updated the setting.

The irony is not lost on Umansky: “I wish they would spend as much time providing me actual care as they do monitoring whether I’m ‘compliant.’”

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Oath To Pay Almost $5 Million To Settle Charges By New York AG Regarding Children's Privacy Violations

Oath Inc. logo Barbara D. Underwood, the Attorney General (AG) for New York State, announced last week a settlement with Oath, Inc. for violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). Oath Inc. is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Verizon Communications. Until June 2017, Oath was known as AOL Inc. ("AOL"). The announcement stated:

"The Attorney General’s Office found that AOL conducted billions of auctions for ad space on hundreds of websites the company knew were directed to children under the age of 13. Through these auctions, AOL collected, used, and disclosed personal information from the websites’ users in violation of COPPA, enabling advertisers to track and serve targeted ads to young children. The company has agreed to adopt comprehensive reforms to protect children from improper tracking and pay a record $4.95 million in penalties..."

The United States Congress enacted COPPA in 1998 to protect the safety and privacy of young children online. As many parents know, young children don't understand complicated legal documents such as terms-of-use and privacy policies. COPPA prohibits operators of certain websites from collecting, using, or disclosing personal information (e.g., first and last name, e-mail address) of children under the age of 13 without first obtaining parental consent.

The definition of "personal information" was revised in 2013 to include persistent identifiers that can be used to recognize a user over time and across websites, such as the ID found in a web browser cookie or an Internet Protocol (“IP”) address. The revision effectively prohibits covered operators from using cookies, IP addresses, and other persistent identifiers to track users across websites for most advertising purposes on COPPA-covered websites.

The announcement by AG Underwood explained the alleged violations in detail. Despite policies to the contrary:

"... AOL nevertheless used its display ad exchange to conduct billions of auctions for ad space on websites that it knew to be directed to children under the age of 13 and subject to COPPA. AOL obtained this knowledge in two ways. First, several AOL clients provided notice to AOL that their websites were subject to COPPA. These clients identified more than a dozen COPPA-covered websites to AOL. AOL conducted at least 1.3 billion auctions of display ad space from these websites. Second, AOL itself determined that certain websites were directed to children under the age of 13 when it conducted a review of the content and privacy policies of client websites. Through these reviews, AOL identified hundreds of additional websites that were subject to COPPA. AOL conducted at least 750 million auctions of display ad space from these websites."

AG Underwood said in a statement:

"COPPA is meant to protect young children from being tracked and targeted by advertisers online. AOL flagrantly violated the law – and children’s privacy – and will now pay the largest-ever penalty under COPPA. My office remains committed to protecting children online and will continue to hold accountable those who violate the law."

A check at press time of both the press and "company values" sections of Oath's site failed to find any mentions of the settlement. TechCrunch reported on December 4th:

"We reached out to Oath with a number of questions about this privacy failure. But a spokesman did not engage with any of them directly — emailing a short statement instead, in which it writes: "We are pleased to see this matter resolved and remain wholly committed to protecting children’s privacy online." The spokesman also did not confirm nor dispute the contents of the New York Times report."

Hmmm. Almost a week has passed since AG Underwood's December 4th announcement. You'd think that Oath management would have released a statement by now. Maybe Oath isn't as committed to children's online privacy as they claim. Something for parents to note.

The National Law Review provided some context:

"...in 2016, the New York AG concluded a two-year investigation into the tracking practices of four online publishers for alleged COPPA violations... As recently as September of this year, the New Mexico AG filed a lawsuit for alleged COPPA violations against a children's game app company, Tiny Lab Productions, and the online ad companies that work within Tiny Lab's, including those run by Google and Twitter... The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) continues to vigorously enforce COPPA, closing out investigations of alleged COPPA violations against smart toy manufacturer VTech and online talent search company Explore Talent... there have been a total of 28 enforcement proceedings since the COPPA rule was issued in 2000."

You can read about many of these actions in this blog, and how COPPA was strengthened in 2013.

So, the COPPA law works well and it is being vigorously enforced. Kudos to AG Underwood, her staff, and other states' AGs for taking these actions. What are your opinions about the AOL/Oath settlement?


Massive Data Breach At Quora Affects 100 Million Users

Quora logo Quora, the knowledge-sharing social networking site, announced on Monday a data breach affecting about 100 million of its users. The company discovered the breach on Friday, and a breach investigation is ongoing.

The company’s Chief Executive Officer, Adam D’Angelo, wrote in a blog post that the following data elements were compromised or stolen:

"a) Account information, e.g. name, email address, encrypted password (hashed using bcrypt with a salt that varies for each user), data imported from linked networks when authorized by users; b) Public content and actions, e.g. questions, answers, comments, upvotes; and c) Non-public content and actions, e.g. answer requests, downvotes, direct messages (note that a low percentage of Quora users have sent or received such messages)"

Quora has cancelled affected users' passwords. Quora does not yet know exactly how unauthorized persons accessed its system. The breach announcement did not state when the intrusion began. D'Angelo added:

"We're still investigating the precise causes and in addition to the work being conducted by our internal security teams, we have retained a leading digital forensics and security firm to assist us. We have also notified law enforcement officials."

Affected users are being notified via email. Affected users returning to the site must reset their accounts with new passwords. Quora encourages users with questions to visit its breach help site. Users are warned to change their online passwords.

The New York Times reported:

"... the incident was unlikely to result in identity theft, as the site does not collect sensitive information such as credit card or Social Security numbers... 300 million people around the world use its site at least once a month to ask and answer questions about politics, faith, calculus, unrequited love, the meaning of life and more. By comparison, Twitter claims 326 million monthly active users. But since it blasted onto the social media landscape in 2010, igniting a blaze of interest among tech company employees, Quora has not become the mainstream cultural force that Twitter has..."

This breach is another reminder to all consumers to never use the same password at multiple sites. Cybercriminals are persistent, and will reuse stolen passwords to see which other sites they can break into to steal sensitive personal and payment information.

If you received an email breach notice from Quora, please share it below (after deleting any sensitive personal data).


Gigantic Data Breach At Marriott International Affects 500 Million Customers. Plenty Of Questions Remain

Marriott International logo A gigantic data breach at Marriott International affects about 500 million customers who have stayed at its Starwood network of hotels in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Marriott International announced the data breach on Friday, November 30th, and set up a website for affected Starwood guests.

According to its breach announcement, an "internal security tool" discovered the breach on September 8, 2018. The initial data breach investigation determined that unauthorized persons accessed its registration database as far back as 2014, and had both copied and encrypted information before removing it. Marriott engaged security experts, the information was partially decrypted on November 19, 2018, and the global hotel chain determined that the information was from its Starwood guest reservation database.

Starwood Preferred Guest logo The Starwood hotels network includes brands such as W Hotels, St. Regis, Sheraton Hotels & Resorts, Westin Hotels & Resorts, Le Méridien Hotels & Resorts, Four Points by Sheraton, and more. Marriott has not finished decrypting all information, so there may be future updates from the breach investigation.

For 327 million guests, the personal data items stolen included a combination of name, mailing address, phone number, email address, passport number, Starwood Preferred Guest (“SPG”) account information, date of birth, gender, arrival and departure information, reservation date, and communication preferences. For some guests, the information stolen also included payment card numbers and payment card expiration dates. While Marriott said the payment card numbers were encrypted using Advanced Encryption Standard encryption (AES-128), its warned that it doesn't yet know if the encryption keys (needed to decrypt payment information) were also stolen.

For 173 million guests, fewer personal data items were stolen included, "name and sometimes other data such as mailing address, email address, or other information." Marriott International said its Marriott-branded hotels were not affected since they use a different reservations database on a different server.

Marriott said it has notified law enforcement, is working with law enforcement, and has begun to notify affected guests via email. The hotel chain will offer affected guests in select countries one year of free enrollment in the WebWatcher program which, "monitors internet sites where personal information is shared and  an alert to the consumer if evidence of the consumer’s personal information is found." WebWatcher will not be offered to all affected guests. Eligible guests should read the fine print, which the Starwood breach site summarized:

"Due to regulatory and other reasons, WebWatcher or similar products are not available in all countries. For residents of the United States, enrolling in WebWatcher also provides you with two additional benefits: (1) a Fraud Loss Reimbursement benefit, which reimburses you for out-of-pocket expenses totaling up to $1 million in covered legal costs and expenses for any one stolen identity event. All coverage is subject to the conditions and exclusions in the policy; and (2) unlimited access to consultation with a Kroll fraud specialist. Consultation support includes showing you the most effective ways to protect your identity, explaining your rights and protections under the law, assistance with fraud alerts, and interpreting how personal information is accessed and used..."

The seriousness of this data breach cannot be overstated. First, it went undetected for a very long time. Marriott needs to explain that and the changes it will implement with an improved "internal security tool" so this doesn't happen again. Second, 500 million is an awful lot of affected customers. An awful lot. Third, breach CNN Business reported:

"Because the hack involves customers in the European Union and the United Kingdom, the company might be in violation of the recently enacted General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Mark Thompson, the global lead for consulting company KPMG's Privacy Advisory Practice, told CNN Business that hefty GDPR penalties will potentially be slapped on the company. "The size and scale of this thing is huge," he said, adding that it's going to take several months for (EU) regulators to investigate the breach."

Fourth, the data items stolen are sufficient to cause plenty of damage. Security experts advise affected customers to change their Starwood passwords, check the answers.Kroll.com breach site next week to see if their information was compromised/stolen, sign up for credit monitoring (if they don't already have it), watch their payment or bank accounts for fraudulent entries, and consider an early renewal if your passport number was compromised/stolen. Fifth, companies usually arrange free credit monitoring for breach victims for one or two years. So far, Marriott hasn't done this. Maybe it will. If not, Marriott needs to explain why.

Sixth, breach notification of affected guests via email seems sketchy... like Marriott is trying to cut corners and costs. History is littered with numerous examples of skilled spammers and cybercriminals using faked or spoofed email to trick consumers into revealing sensitive personal and payment information. It will be interesting to see how Marriott's breach notification via email works and manages this threat.

Seventh, lawsuits and other investigations have already begun. ZDNet reported:

"... two Oregon men sued international hotel chain Marriott for exposing their data. Their lawsuit was followed hours later by another one filed in the state of Maryland. Both lawsuits seek class-action status. While plaintiffs in the Maryland lawsuit didn't specify the amount of damages they were seeking from Marriott, the plaintiffs in the Oregon lawsuit want $12.5 billion in costs and losses. his should equate to $25 for each of the 500 million users who had their personal data stolen from Marriott's serv ers... The Maryland lawsuit was filed by Baltimore law firm Murphy, Falcon & Murphy..."

Bloomberg BNA announced:

"The Massachusetts, New York and Illinois state attorneys general quickly announced they would examine the hack. Connecticut George Jepsen (D) is also looking into the matter, a spokesman told Bloomberg Law."

Eighth, the breach site's website address unnecessarily vague: answers.kroll.com. Frankly, a website address like "starwood-breach.kroll.com" or "marriott-breach.kroll.com" would have been better. (The combination of email notification and vague website name seems eerily similar to the post-breach clusterf--k by Equifax's poorly implemented breach site.) Maybe this vague address was a temporary quick fix, and Marriott will host a comprehensive breach-status site later on one of its servers. That would be better and clearer for affected customers, who probably are unfamiliar with Kroll. Readers of this blog probably first encountered Kroll after IBM Inc. contracted it to help implement IBM's post-breach response in 2007.

The Starwood breach notice appears within the news section of Marriott.com site. Also, Marriott's post-breach notice included overlays on both the home page and the Starwood landing page within the Marriott.com site. This is a good start, but a better implementation would insert a link directly into the webpages, since the overlays don't render well in all browsers on all devices. (Marriott: you did test this before deployment?) Example: people with pop-up blockers may miss the breach notice in the overlays. And, a better implementation would link to the news story's detail page within the Marriott.com site -- not directly to the vague answers.kroll.com site.

Last, some questions remain about the post-breach response:

  • Why email notices to breach victims? Hopefully, there are more reasons than simply saving postal mailing costs.
  • Why no credit monitoring offers to breach victims?
  • What data in the Starwood reservations database was altered by the attackers? That data was encrypted by the attackers suggests that the attackers had sufficient time, resources, and skills to modify or alter database records. Marriott needs to explain what it is doing about this.
  • When will Marriott host a breach site on one of its servers? No doubt, there will be follow-up news, more questions by breach victims, and breach investigation updates. A dedicated breach site on one of its servers seems best. Leaning too much on Kroll is not good.
  • Why did the intrusion go undetected for so long? Marriott needs to explain this and the post-breach fix so guests are reassured it won't happen again.
  • Is the main Marriott reservations database also vulnerable? Guests for other brands weren't affected since a separate reservations database was used. Maybe this is because the main Marriott reservations database and server are better protected, or cybercriminals haven't attacked it (yet). Guests deserve comprehensive answers.
  • Why the website overlaps/pop-ups and not static links?
  • What changes (e.g., software upgrades, breach detection tools, employee training, etc.) will be implemented so this doesn't happen again?

Having blogged about data breaches for 11+ years, these types of questions often arise. None are unreasonable questions. Answers will help guests feel comfortable with using Starwood hotels. Plus, Marriott has an obligation to fully inform guests directly at its website, and not lean on Kroll. What do you think?


Google Admitted Tracking Users' Location Even When Phone Setting Disabled

If you are considering, or already have, a smartphone running Google's Android operating system (OS), then take note. ZDNet reported (emphasis added):

"Phones running Android have been gathering data about a user's location and sending it back to Google when connected to the internet, with Quartz first revealing the practice has been occurring since January 2017. According to the report, Android phones and tablets have been collecting the addresses of nearby cellular towers and sending the encrypted data back, even when the location tracking function is disabled by the user... Google does not make this explicitly clear in its Privacy Policy, which means Android users that have disabled location tracking were still being tracked by the search engine giant..."

This is another reminder of the cost of free services and/or cheaper smartphones. You're gonna be tracked... extensively... whether you want it or not. The term "surveillance capitalism" is often used.

A reader shared a blunt assessment, "There is no way to avoid being Google’s property (a/k/a its bitch) if you use an Android phone." Harsh, but accurate. What is your opinion?