408 posts categorized "Mobile" Feed

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?


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?


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?


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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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?


Some Surprising Facts About Facebook And Its Users

Facebook logo The Pew Research Center announced findings from its latest survey of social media users:

  • About two-thirds (68%) of adults in the United States use Facebook. That is unchanged from April 2016, but up from 54% in August 2012. Only Youtube gets more adult usage (73%).
  • About three-quarters (74%) of adult Facebook users visit the site at least once a day. That's higher than Snapchat (63%) and Instagram (60%).
  • Facebook is popular across all demographic groups in the United States: 74% of women use it, as do 62% of men, 81% of persons ages 18 to 29, and 41% of persons ages 65 and older.
  • Usage by teenagers has fallen to 51% (at March/April 2018) from 71% during 2014 to 2015. More teens use other social media services: YouTube (85%), Instagram (72%) and Snapchat (69%).
  • 43% of adults use Facebook as a news source. That is higher than other social media services: YouTube (21%), Twitter (12%), Instagram (8%), and LinkedIn (6%). More women (61%) use Facebook as a news source than men (39%). More whites (62%) use Facebook as a news source than nonwhites (37%).
  • 54% of adult users said they adjusted their privacy settings during the past 12 months. 42% said they have taken a break from checking the platform for several weeks or more. 26% said they have deleted the app from their phone during the past year.

Perhaps, the most troubling finding:

"Many adult Facebook users in the U.S. lack a clear understanding of how the platform’s news feed works, according to the May and June survey. Around half of these users (53%) say they do not understand why certain posts are included in their news feed and others are not, including 20% who say they do not understand this at all."

Facebook users should know that the service does not display in their news feed all posts by their friends and groups. Facebook's proprietary algorithm -- called its "secret sauce" by some -- displays items it thinks users will engage with = click the "Like" or other emotion buttons. This makes Facebook a terrible news source, since it doesn't display all news -- only the news you (probably already) agree with.

That's like living life in an online bubble. Sadly, there is more.

If you haven't watched it, PBS has broadcast a two-part documentary titled, "The Facebook Dilemma" (see trailer below), which arguable could have been titled, "the dark side of sharing." The Frontline documentary rightly discusses Facebook's approaches to news, privacy, its focus upon growth via advertising revenues, how various groups have used the service as a weapon, and Facebook's extensive data collection about everyone.

Yes, everyone. Obviously, Facebook collects data about its users. The service also collects data about nonusers in what the industry calls "shadow profiles." CNet explained that during an April:

"... hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, the Facebook CEO confirmed the company collects information on nonusers. "In general, we collect data of people who have not signed up for Facebook for security purposes," he said... That data comes from a range of sources, said Nate Cardozo, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. That includes brokers who sell customer information that you gave to other businesses, as well as web browsing data sent to Facebook when you "like" content or make a purchase on a page outside of the social network. It also includes data about you pulled from other Facebook users' contacts lists, no matter how tenuous your connection to them might be. "Those are the [data sources] we're aware of," Cardozo said."

So, there might be more data sources besides the ones we know about. Facebook isn't saying. So much for greater transparency and control claims by Mr. Zuckerberg. Moreover, data breaches highlight the problems with the service's massive data collection and storage:

"The fact that Facebook has [shadow profiles] data isn't new. In 2013, the social network revealed that user data had been exposed by a bug in its system. In the process, it said it had amassed contact information from users and matched it against existing user profiles on the social network. That explained how the leaked data included information users hadn't directly handed over to Facebook. For example, if you gave the social network access to the contacts in your phone, it could have taken your mom's second email address and added it to the information your mom already gave to Facebook herself..."

So, Facebook probably launched shadow profiles when it introduced its mobile app. That means, if you uploaded the address book in your phone to Facebook, then you helped the service collect information about nonusers, too. This means Facebook acts more like a massive advertising network than simply a social media service.

How has Facebook been able to collect massive amounts of data about both users and nonusers? According to the Frontline documentary, we consumers have lax privacy laws in the United States to thank for this massive surveillance advertising mechanism. What do you think?


Survey: Most Home Users Satisfied With Voice-Controlled Assistants. Tech Adoption Barriers Exist

Recent survey results reported by MediaPost:

"Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant have the highest satisfaction levels among mobile users, each with an 85% satisfaction rating, followed by Siri and Bixby at 78% and Microsoft’s Cortana at 77%... As found in other studies, virtual assistants are being used for a range of things, including looking up things on the internet (51%), listening to music (48%), getting weather information (46%) and setting a timer (35%)... Smart speaker usage varies, with 31% of Amazon device owners using their speaker at least a few times a week, Google Home owners 25% and Apple HomePod 18%."

Additional survey results are available at Digital Trends and Experian. PWC found:

"Only 10% of surveyed respondents were not familiar with voice-enabled products and devices. Of the 90% who were, the majority have used a voice assistant (72%). Adoption is being driven by younger consumers, households with children, and households with an income of >$100k... Despite being accessible everywhere, three out of every four consumers (74%) are using their mobile voice assistants at home..."

Consumers seem to want privacy when using voice assistants, so usage tends to occur at home and not in public places. Also:

"... the bulk of consumers have yet to graduate to more advanced activities like shopping or controlling other smart devices in the home... 50% of respondents have made a purchase using their voice assistant, and an additional 25% would consider doing so in the future. The majority of items purchased are small and quick.. Usage will continue to increase but consistency must improve for wider adoption... Some consumers see voice assistants as a privacy risk... When forced to choose, 57% of consumers said they would rather watch an ad in the middle of a TV show than listen to an ad spoken by their voice assistant..."

Consumers want control over the presentation of advertisements by voice assistants. Control options desired include skip, select, never while listening to music, only at pre-approved times, customized based upon interests, seamless integration, and match to preferred brands. 38 percent of survey respondents said that they, "don't want something 'listening in' on my life all the time."

What are your preferences with voice assistants? Any privacy concerns?


'Got Another Friend Request From You' Warnings Circulate On Facebook. What's The Deal?

Facebook logo Several people have posted on their Facebook News Feeds messages with warnings, such as:

"Please do not accept any new Friend requests from me"

And:

"Hi … I actually got another friend request from you yesterday … which I ignored so you may want to check your account. Hold your finger on the message until the forward button appears … then hit forward and all the people you want to forward too … I had to do the people individually. Good Luck!"

Maybe, you've seen one of these warnings. Some of my Facebook friends posted these warnings in their News Feed or in private messages via Messenger. What's happening? The fact-checking site Snopes explained:

"This message played on warnings about the phenomenon of Facebook “pirates” engaging in the “cloning” of Facebook accounts, a real (but much over-hyped) process by which scammers target existing Facebook users accounts by setting up new accounts with identical profile pictures and names, then sending out friend requests which appear to originate from those “cloned” users. Once those friend requests are accepted, the scammers can then spread messages which appear to originate from the targeted account, luring that person’s friends into propagating malware, falling for phishing schemes, or disclosing personal information that can be used for identity theft."

Hacked Versus Cloned Accounts

While everyone wants to warn their friends, it is important to do your homework first. Many Facebook users have confused "hacked" versus "cloned" accounts. A hack is when another person has stolen your password and used it to sign into your account to post fraudulent messages -- pretending to be you.

Snopes described above what a "cloned" account is... basically a second, unauthorized account. Sadly, there are plenty of online sources for scammers to obtain stolen photos and information to create cloned accounts. One source is the multitude of massive corporate data breaches: Equifax, Nationwide, Facebook, the RNC, Uber, and others. Another source are Facebook friends with sloppy security settings on their accounts: the "Public" setting is no security. That allows scammers to access your account via your friends' wide-open accounts lacking security.

It is important to know the differences between "hacked" and "cloned" accounts. Snopes advised:

"... there would be no utility to forwarding [the above] warning to any of your Facebook friends unless you had actually received a second friend request from one of them. Moreover, even if this warning were possibly real, the optimal approach would not be for the recipient to forward it willy-nilly to every single contact on their friends list... If you have reason to believe your Facebook account might have been “cloned,” you should try sending separate private messages to a few of your Facebook friends to check whether any of them had indeed recently received a duplicate friend request from you, as well as searching Facebook for accounts with names and profile pictures identical to yours. Should either method turn up a hit, use Facebook’s "report this profile" link to have the unauthorized account deactivated."

Cloned Accounts

If you received a (second) Friend Request from a person who you are already friends with on Facebook, then that suggests a cloned account. (Cloned accounts are not new. It's one of the disadvantages of social media.) Call your friend on the phone or speak with him/her in-person to: a) tell him/her you received a second Friend Request, and b) determine whether or not he/she really sent that second Friend Request. (Yes, online privacy takes some effort.) If he/she didn't send a second Friend Request, then you know what to do: report the unauthorized profile to Facebook, and then delete the second Friend Request. Don't accept it.

If he/she did send a second Friend Request, ask why. (Let's ignore the practice by some teens to set up multiple accounts; one for parents and a second for peers.) I've had friends -- adults -- forget their online passwords, and set up a second Facebook account -- a clumsy, confusing solution. Not everyone has good online skills. Your friend will tell you which account he/she uses and which account he/she wants you to connect to. Then, un-Friend the other account.

Hacked Accounts

All Facebook users should know how to determine if your Facebook account has been hacked. Online privacy takes effort. How to check:

  1. Sign into Facebook
  2. Select "Settings."
  3. Select "Security and Login."
  4. You will see a list of the locations where your account has been accessed. If one or more of the locations weren't you, then it's likely another person has stolen and used your password. Proceed to step #5.
  5. For each location that wasn't you, select "Not You" and then "Secure Account." Follow the online instructions displayed and change your password immediately.

I've performed this check after friends have (erroneously) informed me that my account was hacked. It wasn't.

Facebook Search and Privacy Settings

Those wanting to be proactive can search the Facebook site to find other persons using the same name. Simply, enter your name in the search mechanism. The results page lists other accounts with the same name. If you see another account using your identical profile photo (and/or other identical personal information and photos), then use Facebook's "report this profile" link to report the unauthorized account.

You can go one step further and warn your Facebook friends who have the "Public" security setting on their accounts. They may be unaware of the privacy risks, and once informed may change their security setting to "Friends Only." Hopefully, they will listen.

If they don't listen, you can suggest that he/she at a minimum change other privacy settings. Users control who can see their photos and list of friends on Facebook. To change the privacy setting, navigate to your Friends List page and select the edit icon. Then, select the "Edit Privacy" link. Next, change both privacy settings for, "Who can see your friends?" and "Who can see the people, Pages, and lists you follow?" to "Only Me." As a last resort, you can un-Friend the security neophyte, if he/she refuses to make any changes to their security settings.


Why The Recent Facebook Data Breach Is Probably Much Worse Than You First Thought

Facebook logo The recent data breach at Facebook has indications that it may be much worse than first thought. It's not the fact that a known 50 million users were affected, and 40 million more may also be affected. There's more. The New York Times reported on Tuesday:

"... the impact could be significantly bigger since those stolen credentials could have been used to gain access to so many other sites. Companies that allow customers to log in with Facebook Connect are scrambling to figure out whether their own user accounts have been compromised."

Facebook Connect, an online tool launched in 2008, allows users to sign into other apps and websites using their Facebook credentials (e.g., username, password). many small, medium, and large businesses joined the Facebook Connect program, which was using:

"... a simple proposition: Connect to our platform, and we’ll make it faster and easier for people to use your apps... The tool was adopted by thousands of other firms, from mom-and-pop publishing companies to high-profile tech outfits like Airbnb and Uber."

Initially, Facebook Connect made online life easier and more convenient. Users could sign up for new apps and sites without having to create and remember new sign-in credentials:

But in July 2017, that measure of security fell short. By exploiting three software bugs, attackers forged “access tokens,” digital keys used to gain entry to a user’s account. From there, the hackers were able to do anything users could do on their own Facebook accounts, including logging in to third-party apps."

On Tuesday, Facebook released a "Login Update," which said in part:

"We have now analyzed our logs for all third-party apps installed or logged in during the attack we discovered last week. That investigation has so far found no evidence that the attackers accessed any apps using Facebook Login.

Any developer using our official Facebook SDKs — and all those that have regularly checked the validity of their users’ access tokens – were automatically protected when we reset people’s access tokens. However, out of an abundance of caution, as some developers may not use our SDKs — or regularly check whether Facebook access tokens are valid — we’re building a tool to enable developers to manually identify the users of their apps who may have been affected, so that they can log them out."

So, there are more news and updates to come about this. According to the New York Times, some companies' experiences so far:

"Tinder, the dating app, has found no evidence that accounts have been breached, based on the "limited information Facebook has provided," Justine Sacco, a spokeswoman for Tinder and its parent company, the Match Group, said in a statement... The security team at Uber, the ride-hailing giant, is logging some users out of their accounts to be cautious, said Melanie Ensign, a spokeswoman for Uber. It is asking them to log back in — a preventive measure that would invalidate older, stolen access tokens."


Facebook Data Breach Affected 90 Million Users. Users Claim Facebook Blocked Posts About the Breach

On Friday, Facebook announced a data breach which affected about 50 million users of the social networking service. Facebook engineers discovered the hack on September 25th. The Facebook announcement explained:

"... that attackers exploited a vulnerability in Facebook’s code that impacted “View As” a feature that lets people see what their own profile looks like to someone else. This allowed them to steal Facebook access tokens which they could then use to take over people’s accounts. Access tokens are the equivalent of digital keys that keep people logged in to Facebook so they don’t need to re-enter their password every time they use the app... This attack exploited the complex interaction of multiple issues in our code. It stemmed from a change we made to our video uploading feature in July 2017, which impacted “View As.” The attackers not only needed to find this vulnerability and use it to get an access token, they then had to pivot from that account to others to steal more tokens."

Facebook Security Update: image for mobile users. Click to view larger version Many mobile users will see the message in the image displayed on the right. Facebook said it has fixed the vulnerability, notified law enforcement, turned off the "View As" feature until the breach investigation is finished, and has already reset the access tokens of about 90 million users.

Why the higher number of 90 million and not 50 million? According to the announcement:

"... we have reset the access tokens of the almost 50 million accounts we know were affected to protect their security. We’re also taking the precautionary step of resetting access tokens for another 40 million accounts that have been subject to a “View As” look-up in the last year. As a result, around 90 million people will now have to log back in to Facebook, or any of their apps that use Facebook Login. After they have logged back in, people will get a notification at the top of their News Feed explaining what happened."

So, 90 million users affected and 50 million known for sure. What to make of this? Wait for findings in the completed breach investigation. Until then, we won't know exactly how attackers broke in, what they stole, and the true number of affected users.

What else to make of this? Facebook's announcement skillfully avoided any direct mentions of exactly when the attack started. The announcement stated that the vulnerability was related to a July 2017 change to the video uploading feature. So, the attack could have started soon after that. Facebook didn't say, and it may not know. Hopefully, the final breach investigation report will clarify things.

And, there is more disturbing news.

Some users have claimed that Facebook blocked them from posting messages about the data breach. TechCrunch reported:

"Some users are reporting that they are unable to post [the] story about a security breach affecting 50 million Facebook users. The issue appears to only affect particular stories from certain outlets, at this time one story from The Guardian and one from the Associated Press, both reputable press outlets... some users, including members of the staff here at TechCrunch who were able to replicate the bug, were met with the following error message which prevented them from sharing the story."

Error message displayed to some users trying to post about Facebook data breach. Click to view larger version

Well, we now know that -- for better or for worse -- Facebook has an automated tool to identify spam content in real-time. And, this tool can easily misidentify content as spam, which isn't spam. Not good.

Reportedly, this error message problem has been fixed. Regardless, it should never have happened. The data breach is big news. Clearly, many people want to read and post about it. Popularity does not indicate spam. And Facebook owes users an explanation about its automated tool.

Did Facebook notify you directly of its data breach? Did you get this spam error message? How concerned are you? Please share your experience and opinions below.


Tips For Parents To Teach Their Children Online Safety

Today's children often use mobile devices at very young ages... four, five, or six years of age. And they don't know anything about online dangers: computer viruses, stalking, cyber-bullying, identity theft, phishing scams, ransomware, and more. Nor do they know how to read terms-of-use and privacy policies. It is parents' responsibility to teach them.

NordVPN logo NordVPN, a maker of privacy software, offers several tips to help parents teach their children about online safety:

"1. Set an example: If you want your kid to be careful and responsible online, you should start with yourself."

Children watch their parents. If you practice good online safety habits, they will learn from watching you. And:

"2. Start talking to your kid early and do it often: If your child already knows how to play a video on Youtube or is able to download a gaming app without your help, they also should learn how to do it safely. Therefore, it’s important to start explaining the basics of privacy and cybersecurity at an early age."

So, long before having the "sex talk" with your children, parents should have the online safety talk. Developing good online safety habits at a young age will help children throughout their lives; especially as adults:

"3. Explain why safe behavior matters: Give relatable examples of what personal information is – your address, social security number, phone number, account credentials, and stress why you can never share this information with strangers."

You wouldn't give this information to a stranger on a city street. The same applies online. That also means discussing social media:

"4. Social media and messaging: a) don’t accept friend requests from people you don’t know; b) never send your pictures to strangers; c) make sure only your friends can see what you post on Facebook; d) turn on timeline review to check posts you are tagged in before they appear on your Facebook timeline; e) if someone asks you for some personal information, always tell your parents; f) don’t share too much on your profile (e.g., home address, phone number, current location); and g) don’t use your social media logins to authorize apps."

These are the basics. Read the entire list of online safety tips for parents by Nord VPN.


Verizon Throttled Mobile Services Of First Responders Fighting California Wildfires

Verizon logo Fighting fires is difficult, dangerous work. Recently, that was made worse by an internet service provider (ISP). Ars Technica reported:

"Verizon Wireless' throttling of a fire department that uses its data services has been submitted as evidence in a lawsuit that seeks to reinstate federal net neutrality rules. "County Fire has experienced throttling by its ISP, Verizon," Santa Clara County Fire Chief Anthony Bowden wrote in a declaration. "This throttling has had a significant impact on our ability to provide emergency services. Verizon imposed these limitations despite being informed that throttling was actively impeding County Fire's ability to provide crisis-response and essential emergency services." Bowden's declaration was submitted in an addendum to a brief filed by 22 state attorneys general, the District of Columbia, Santa Clara County, Santa Clara County Central Fire Protection District, and the California Public Utilities Commission. The government agencies are seeking to overturn the recent repeal of net neutrality rules in a lawsuit they filed against the Federal Communications Commission in the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit."

Reportedly, Verizon replied with a statement that the throttling, "was a customer service error." Huh? This is how Verizon treats first-responders? This is how an ISP treats first-responders during a major emergency and natural disaster? The wildfires have claimed 12 deaths, destroyed at least 1,200 homes, and wiped out the state's emergency fund. Smoke from the massive wildfires has caused extensive pollution and health warnings in Northwest areas including Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington. The thick smoke could be seen from space.

Ars Technica reported in an August 21 update:

"Santa Clara County disputed Verizon's characterization of the problem in a press release last night. "Verizon's throttling has everything to do with net neutrality—it shows that the ISPs will act in their economic interests, even at the expense of public safety," County Counsel James Williams said on behalf of the county and fire department. "That is exactly what the Trump Administration's repeal of net neutrality allows and encourages." "

In 2017, President Trump appointed Ajit Pai, a former Verizon attorney, as Chairman of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission. Under Pai's leadership, the FCC revoked both online privacy and net neutrality protections for consumers. This gave ISPs the freedom to do as they want online while consumers lost two key freedoms: a) the freedom to control the data describing their activities online (which are collected and shared with others by ISPs), and b) freedom to use the internet bandwidth purchased as they choose.

If an ISP will throttle and abuse first-responders, think of what it will do it regular consumers. What are your opinions?


Facebook To Remove Onavo VPN App From Apple App Store

Not all Virtual Private Network (VPN) software is created equal. Some do a better job at protecting your privacy than others. Mashable reported that Facebook:

"... plans to remove its Onavo VPN app from the App Store after Apple warned the company that the app was in violation of its policies governing data gathering... For those blissfully unaware, Onavo sold itself as a virtual private network that people could run "to take the worry out of using smartphones and tablets." In reality, Facebook used data about users' internet activity collected by the app to inform acquisitions and product decisions. Essentially, Onavo allowed Facebook to run market research on you and your phone, 24/7. It was spyware, dressed up and neatly packaged with a Facebook-blue bow. Data gleaned from the app, notes the Wall Street Journal, reportedly played into the social media giant's decision to start building a rival to the Houseparty app. Oh, and its decision to buy WhatsApp."

Thanks Apple! We've all heard of the #FakeNews hashtag on social media. Yes, there is a #FakeVPN hashtag, too. So, buyer beware... online user beware.


Study: Performance Issues Impede IoT Device Trust And Usage Worldwide By Consumers

Dynatrace logo A global survey recently uncovered interesting findings about the usage and satisfaction of Iot (Internet of things) devices by consumers. A survey of consumers in several countries found that 52 percent already use IoT devices, and 64 percent of users have already encountered performance issues with their devices.

Opinium Research logo Dynatrace, a software intelligence company, commissioned Opinium Research to conduct a global survey of 10,002 participants, with 2,000 in the United States, 2,000 in the United Kingdom, and 1,000 respondents each in France, Germany, Australia, Brazil, Singapore, and China. Dynatrace announced several findings, chiefly:

"On average, consumers experience 1.5 digital performance problems every day, and 62% of people fear the number of problems they encounter, and the frequency, will increase due to the rise of IoT."

That seems like plenty of poor performance. Some findings were specific to travel, healthcare, and in-home retail sectors. Regarding travel:

"The digital performance failures consumers are already experiencing with everyday technology is potentially making them wary of other uses of IoT. 85% of respondents said they are concerned that self-driving cars will malfunction... 72% feel it is likely software glitches in self-driving cars will cause serious injuries and fatalities... 84% of consumers said they wouldn’t use self-driving cars due to a fear of software glitches..."

Regarding healthcare:

"... 62% of consumers stated they would not trust IoT devices to administer medication; this sentiment is strongest in the 55+ age range, with 74% expressing distrust. There were also specific concerns about the use of IoT devices to monitor vital signs, such as heart rate and blood pressure. 85% of consumers expressed concern that performance problems with these types of IoT devices could compromise clinical data..."

Regarding in-home retail devices:

"... 83% of consumers are concerned about losing control of their smart home due to digital performance problems... 73% of consumers fear being locked in or out of the smart home due to bugs in smart home technology... 68% of consumers are worried they won’t be able to control the temperature in the smart home due to malfunctions in smart home technology... 81% of consumers are concerned that technology or software problems with smart meters will lead to them being overcharged for gas, electricity, and water."

The findings are a clear call to IoT makers to improve the performance, security, and reliability of their internet-connected devices. To learn more, download the full Dynatrace report titled, "IoT Consumer Confidence Report: Challenges for Enterprise Cloud Monitoring on the Horizon."


Experts Warn Biases Must Be Removed From Artificial Intelligence

CNN Tech reported:

"Every time humanity goes through a new wave of innovation and technological transformation, there are people who are hurt and there are issues as large as geopolitical conflict," said Fei Fei Li, the director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab. "AI is no exception." These are not issues for the future, but the present. AI powers the speech recognition that makes Siri and Alexa work. It underpins useful services like Google Photos and Google Translate. It helps Netflix recommend movies, Pandora suggest songs, and Amazon push products..."

Artificial intelligence (AI) technology is not only about autonomous ships, trucks, and preventing crashes involving self-driving cars. AI has global impacts. Researchers have already identified problems and limitations:

"A recent study by Joy Buolamwini at the M.I.T. Media Lab found facial recognition software has trouble identifying women of color. Tests by The Washington Post found that accents often trip up smart speakers like Alexa. And an investigation by ProPublica revealed that software used to sentence criminals is biased against black Americans. Addressing these issues will grow increasingly urgent as things like facial recognition software become more prevalent in law enforcement, border security, and even hiring."

Reportedly, the concerns and limitations were discussed earlier this month at the "AI Summit - Designing A Future For All" conference. Back in 2016, TechCrunch listed five unexpected biases in artificial intelligence. So, there is much important work to be done to remove biases.

According to CNN Tech, a range of solutions are needed:

"Diversifying the backgrounds of those creating artificial intelligence and applying it to everything from policing to shopping to banking...This goes beyond diversifying the ranks of engineers and computer scientists building these tools to include the people pondering how they are used."

Given the history of the internet, there seems to be an important take-away. Early on, many people mistakenly assumed that, "If it's in an e-mail, then it must be true." That mistaken assumption migrated to, "If it's in a website on the internet, then it must be true." And that mistaken assumption migrated to, "If it was posted on social media, then it must be true." Consumers, corporate executives, and technicians must educate themselves and avoid assuming, "If an AI system collected it, then it must be true." Veracity matters. What do you think?


European Regulators Fine Google $5 Billion For 'Breaching EU Antitrust Rules'

On Wednesday, European anti-trust regulators fined Google 4.34 billion Euros (U.S. $5 billion) and ordered the tech company to stop using its Android operating system software to block competition. ComputerWorld reported:

"The European Commission found that Google has abused its dominant market position in three ways: tying access to the Play store to installation of Google Search and Google Chrome; paying phone makers and network operators to exclusively install Google Search, and preventing manufacturers from making devices running forks of Android... Google won't let smartphone manufacturers install Play on their phones unless they also make its search engine and Chrome browser the defaults on their phones. In addition, they must only use a Google-approved version of Android. This has prevented companies like Amazon.com, which developed a fork of Android it calls FireOS, from persuading big-name manufacturers to produce phones running its OS or connecting to its app store..."

Reportedly, less than 10% of Android phone users download a different browser than the pre-installed default. Less than 1% use a different search app. View the archive of European Commission Android OS documents.

Yesterday, the European Commission announced on social media:

European Commission tweet. Google Android OS restrictions graphic. Click to view larger version

European Commission tweet. Vestager comments. Click to view larger version

And, The Guardian newspaper reported:

"Soon after Brussels handed down its verdict, Google announced it would appeal. "Android has created more choice for everyone, not less," a Google spokesperson said... Google has 90 days to end its "illegal conduct" or its parent company Alphabet could be hit with fines amounting to 5% of its daily [revenues] for each day it fails to comply. Wednesday’s verdict ends a 39-month investigation by the European commission’s competition authorities into Google’s Android operating system but it is only one part of an eight-year battle between Brussels and the tech giant."

According to the Reuters news service, a third EU case against Google, involving accusations that the tech company's AdSense advertising service blocks users from displaying search ads from competitors, is still ongoing.


Facial Recognition At Facebook: New Patents, New EU Privacy Laws, And Concerns For Offline Shoppers

Facebook logo Some Facebook users know that the social networking site tracks them both on and off (e.g., signed into, not signed into) the service. Many online users know that Facebook tracks both users and non-users around the internet. Recent developments indicate that the service intends to track people offline, too. The New York Times reported that Facebook:

"... has applied for various patents, many of them still under consideration... One patent application, published last November, described a system that could detect consumers within [brick-and-mortar retail] stores and match those shoppers’ faces with their social networking profiles. Then it could analyze the characteristics of their friends, and other details, using the information to determine a “trust level” for each shopper. Consumers deemed “trustworthy” could be eligible for special treatment, like automatic access to merchandise in locked display cases... Another Facebook patent filing described how cameras near checkout counters could capture shoppers’ faces, match them with their social networking profiles and then send purchase confirmation messages to their phones."

Some important background. First, the usage of surveillance cameras in retail stores is not new. What is new is the scope and accuracy of the technology. In 2012, we first learned about smart mannequins in retail stores. In 2013, we learned about the five ways retail stores spy on shoppers. In 2015, we learned more about tracking of shoppers by retail stores using WiFi connections. In 2018, some smart mannequins are used in the healthcare industry.

Second, Facebook's facial recognition technology scans images uploaded by users, and then allows users identified to accept or decline labels with their name for each photo. Each Facebook user can adjust their privacy settings to enable or disable the adding of their name label to photos. However:

"Facial recognition works by scanning faces of unnamed people in photos or videos and then matching codes of their facial patterns to those in a database of named people... The technology can be used to remotely identify people by name without their knowledge or consent. While proponents view it as a high-tech tool to catch criminals... critics said people cannot actually control the technology — because Facebook scans their faces in photos even when their facial recognition setting is turned off... Rochelle Nadhiri, a Facebook spokeswoman, said its system analyzes faces in users’ photos to check whether they match with those who have their facial recognition setting turned on. If the system cannot find a match, she said, it does not identify the unknown face and immediately deletes the facial data."

Simply stated: Facebook maintains a perpetual database of photos (and videos) with names attached, so it can perform the matching and not display name labels for users who declined and/or disabled the display of name labels in photos (videos). To learn more about facial recognition at Facebook, visit the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) site.

Third, other tech companies besides Facebook use facial recognition technology:

"... Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft have filed facial recognition patent applications. In May, civil liberties groups criticized Amazon for marketing facial technology, called Rekognition, to police departments. The company has said the technology has also been used to find lost children at amusement parks and other purposes..."

You may remember, earlier in 2017 Apple launched its iPhone X with Face ID feature for users to unlock their phones. Fourth, since Facebook operates globally it must respond to new laws in certain regions:

"In the European Union, a tough new data protection law called the General Data Protection Regulation now requires companies to obtain explicit and “freely given” consent before collecting sensitive information like facial data. Some critics, including the former government official who originally proposed the new law, contend that Facebook tried to improperly influence user consent by promoting facial recognition as an identity protection tool."

Perhaps, you find the above issues troubling. I do. If my facial image will be captured, archived, tracked by brick-and-mortar stores, and then matched and merged with my online usage, then I want some type of notice before entering a brick-and-mortar store -- just as websites present privacy and terms-of-use policies. Otherwise, there is no notice nor informed consent by shoppers at brick-and-mortar stores.

So, is facial recognition a threat, a protection tool, or both? What are your opinions?


Researchers Find Mobile Apps Can Easily Record Screenshots And Videos of Users' Activities

New academic research highlights how easy it is for mobile apps to both spy upon consumers and violate our privacy. During a recent study to determine whether or not smartphones record users' conversations, researchers at Northeastern University (NU) found:

"... that some companies were sending screenshots and videos of user phone activities to third parties. Although these privacy breaches appeared to be benign, they emphasized how easily a phone’s privacy window could be exploited for profit."

The NU researchers tested 17,260 of the most popular mobile apps running on smartphones using the Android operating system. About 9,000 of the 17,260 apps had the ability to take screenshots. The vulnerability: screenshot and video captures could easily be used to record users' keystrokes, passwords, and related sensitive information:

"This opening will almost certainly be used for malicious purposes," said Christo Wilson, another computer science professor on the research team. "It’s simple to install and collect this information. And what’s most disturbing is that this occurs with no notification to or permission by users."

The NU researchers found one app already recording video of users' screen activity (links added):

"That app was GoPuff, a fast-food delivery service, which sent the screenshots to Appsee, a data analytics firm for mobile devices. All this was done without the awareness of app users. [The researchers] emphasized that neither company appeared to have any nefarious intent. They said that web developers commonly use this type of information to debug their apps... GoPuff has changed its terms of service agreement to alert users that the company may take screenshots of their use patterns. Google issued a statement emphasizing that its policy requires developers to disclose to users how their information will be collected."

May? A brief review of the Appsee site seems to confirm that video recordings of the screens on app users' mobile devices is integral to the service:

"RECORDING: Watch every user action and understand exactly how they use your app, which problems they're experiencing, and how to fix them.​ See the app through your users' eyes to pinpoint usability, UX and performance issues... TOUCH HEAT MAPS: View aggregated touch heatmaps of all the gestures performed in each​ ​screen in your app.​ Discover user navigation and interaction preferences... REALTIME ANALYTICS & ALERTS:Get insightful analytics on user behavior without pre-defining any events. Obtain single-user and aggregate insights in real-time..."

Sounds like a version of "surveillance capitalism" to me. According to the Appsee site, a variety of companies use the service including eBay, Samsung, Virgin airlines, The Weather Network, and several advertising networks. Plus, the Appsee Privacy Policy dated may 23, 2018 stated:

"The Appsee SDK allows Subscribers to record session replays of their end-users' use of Subscribers' mobile applications ("End User Data") and to upload such End User Data to Appsee’s secured cloud servers."

In this scenario, GoPuff is a subscriber and consumers using the GoPuff mobile app are end users. The Appsee SDK is software code embedded within the GoPuff mobile app. The researchers said that this vulnerability, "will not be closed until the phone companies redesign their operating systems..."

Data-analytics services like Appsee raise several issues. First, there seems to be little need for digital agencies to conduct traditional eye-tracking and usability test sessions, since companies can now record, upload and archive what, when, where, and how often users swipe and select in-app content. Before, users were invited to and paid for their participation in user testing sessions.

Second, this in-app tracking and data collection amounts to perpetual, unannounced user testing. Previously, companies have gotten into plenty of trouble with their customers by performing secret user testing; especially when the service varies from the standard, expected configuration and the policies (e.g., privacy, terms of service) don't disclose it. Nobody wants to be a lab rat or crash-test dummy.

Third, surveillance agencies within several governments must be thrilled to learn of these new in-app tracking and spy tools, if they aren't already using them. A reasonable assumption is that Appsee also provides data to law enforcement upon demand.

Fourth, two of the researchers at NU are undergraduate students. Another startling disclosure:

"Coming into this project, I didn’t think much about phone privacy and neither did my friends," said Elleen Pan, who is the first author on the paper. "This has definitely sparked my interest in research, and I will consider going back to graduate school."

Given the tsunami of data breaches, privacy legislation in Europe, and demands by law enforcement for tech firms to build "back door" hacks into their mobile devices and smartphones, it is startling alarming that some college students, "don't think much about phone privacy." This means that Pan and her classmates probably haven't read privacy and terms-of-service policies for the apps and sites they've used. Maybe they will now.

Let's hope so.

Consumers interested in GoPuff should closely read the service's privacy and Terms of Service policies, since the latter includes dispute resolution via binding arbitration and prevents class-action lawsuits.

Hopefully, future studies about privacy and mobile apps will explore further the findings by Pan and her co-researchers. Download the study titled, "Panoptispy: Characterizing Audio and Video Exfiltration from Android Applications" (Adobe PDF) by Elleen Pan, Jingjing Ren, Martina Lindorfer, Christo Wilson, and David Choffnes.


Money Transfer Scams Target Both Businesses And Consumers

Money transfer scams, also called wire transfer scams, target both businesses and consumers. The affected firms include both small and large businesses.

Businesses

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) calls theses scams "Business E-mail Compromise" (BEC), since the fraudsters often target executives within a company with phishing e-mails, designed to trick victims into revealing sensitive bank account and sign-in credentials (e.g., usernames, passwords):

"At its heart, BEC relies on the oldest trick in the con artist’s handbook: deception. But the level of sophistication in this multifaceted global fraud is unprecedented... Carried out by transnational criminal organizations that employ lawyers, linguists, hackers, and social engineers, BEC can take a variety of forms. But in just about every case, the scammers target employees with access to company finances and trick them into making wire transfers to bank accounts thought to belong to trusted partners—except the money ends up in accounts controlled by the criminals."

From January, 2015 to February 2017, there was a 1,300 percent increase in financial losses due to these scams, totaling $3 billion. To trick victims, criminals use a variety of online methods including spear-phishing, social engineering, identity theft, e-mail spoofing, and the use of malware. (If these terms are unfamiliar, then you probably don't know enough to protect yourself.) Malware, or computer viruses, are often embedded in documents attached to e-mail messages -- another reason not to open e-mail attachments from strangers.

Forbes Magazine reported in April:

"Fraudsters target the CEO's and CFO's at various companies and hack their computers. They collect enough information to learn the types of billing the company pays, who the payee's are and the average balances paid. They then spoof a customer or, in other words, take their identity, and bill the company with wire transfer instructions to a scam bank account."

Some criminals are particularly crafty, by pretending to be a valid customer, client or vendor; and use a slightly altered sender's e-mail address hoping the victim won't to notice. This technique is successful more often that you might think. Example: a valid sender's e-mail address might be johnson@XYZcompany.com, while the scammer uses johnson@XYZcompamy.com. Did you spot the alteration? If you didn't, then you've just wired money directly to the criminal's offshore account instead of to a valid customer, client, or vendor.

Scammers can obtain executives' e-mail addresses and information from unprotected pages on social networking sites and/or data breaches. So, the data breaches at Under Armour, Equifax, Fresenius, Uber, the Chicago Board of Elections, Yahoo, Nationwide, Verizon, and others could have easily provided criminals with plenty of stolen personal data to do plenty of damage; impersonating coworkers, business associates, and/or coworkers. Much of the stolen information is resold by criminals to other criminals. Trading stolen data is what many cyber criminals do.

There are several things executives can do to protect themselves and their business' money. Learn to recognize money transfer scams and phishing e-mails. Often, bogus e-mails or text messages contain spelling errors (e.g., in the message body) and/or contain a request to wire immediately an unusually large amount of money. Most importantly, the FBI recommends:

"The best way to avoid being exploited is to verify the authenticity of requests to send money by walking into the CEO’s office or speaking to him or her directly on the phone. Don’t rely on e-mail alone."

That means don't rely upon text messages either.

Consumers

Wiring money is like sending cash. To avoid losing money, it is important for consumers to learn to recognize money transfer scams, too. There are several versions, according to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC):

"1. You just won a prize but you have to pay fees to get the prize
2. You need to pay for something you just bought online before they send it
3. A friend is in trouble and needs your help
4. You got a check for too much money and you need to send back the extra"

Regular readers of this blog are already familiar with #4 -- also called "check scams." Instead of paper checks, scammers have upgraded to prepaid cards and/or wire transfers. The FTC also advises consumers to pause before doing anything, and then:

  • "If the person claims (via e-mail) to need money for an emergency, call them first. Call another family member. Verify first if something truly happened.
  • If the check received is too much money, call your bank before you deposit the check.  Ask your bank what they think about wiring money back to someone.
  • If the e-mail or phone caller says you received an inheritance or prize, "you do not have to pay for a prize. Ever.  Did they say you have an inheritance? Talk to someone you trust. What does that person think?"

If you have already sent money to a scammer, it's gone and you probably won't get it back. So, file a complaint with the FTC. Chances are the scammer will contact you again, since they (or their associates) were successful already. Don't give them any more money.


The Wireless Carrier With At Least 8 'Hidden Spy Hubs' Helping The NSA

AT&T logo During the late 1970s and 1980s, AT&T conducted an iconic “reach out and touch someone” advertising campaign to encourage consumers to call their friends, family, and classmates. Back then, it was old school -- landlines. The campaign ranked #80 on Ad Age's list of the 100 top ad campaigns from the last century.

Now, we learn a little more about how extensive pervasive surveillance activities are at AT&T facilities to help law enforcement reach out and touch persons. Yesterday, the Intercept reported:

"The NSA considers AT&T to be one of its most trusted partners and has lauded the company’s “extreme willingness to help.” It is a collaboration that dates back decades. Little known, however, is that its scope is not restricted to AT&T’s customers. According to the NSA’s documents, it values AT&T not only because it "has access to information that transits the nation," but also because it maintains unique relationships with other phone and internet providers. The NSA exploits these relationships for surveillance purposes, commandeering AT&T’s massive infrastructure and using it as a platform to covertly tap into communications processed by other companies.”

The new report describes in detail the activities at eight AT&T facilities in major cities across the United States. Consumers who use other branded wireless service providers are also affected:

"Because of AT&T’s position as one of the U.S.’s leading telecommunications companies, it has a large network that is frequently used by other providers to transport their customers’ data. Companies that “peer” with AT&T include the American telecommunications giants Sprint, Cogent Communications, and Level 3, as well as foreign companies such as Sweden’s Telia, India’s Tata Communications, Italy’s Telecom Italia, and Germany’s Deutsche Telekom."

It was five years ago this month that the public learned about extensive surveillance by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA). Back then, the Guardian UK newspaper reported about a court order allowing the NSA to spy on U.S. citizens. The revelations continued, and by 2016 we'd learned about NSA code inserted in Android operating system software, the FISA Court and how it undermines the public's trust, the importance of metadata and how much it reveals about you (despite some politicians' claims otherwise), the unintended consequences from broad NSA surveillance, U.S. government spy agencies' goal to break all encryption methods, warrantless searches of U.S. citizens' phone calls and e-mail messages, the NSA's facial image data collection program, the data collection programs included ordinary (e.g., innocent) citizens besides legal targets, and how  most hi-tech and telecommunications companies assisted the government with its spy programs. We knew before that AT&T was probably the best collaborator, and now we know more about why. 

Content vacuumed up during the surveillance includes consumers' phone calls, text messages, e-mail messages, and internet activity. The latest report by the Intercept also described:

"The messages that the NSA had unlawfully collected were swept up using a method of surveillance known as “upstream,” which the agency still deploys for other surveillance programs authorized under both Section 702 of FISA and Executive Order 12333. The upstream method involves tapping into communications as they are passing across internet networks – precisely the kind of electronic eavesdropping that appears to have taken place at the eight locations identified by The Intercept."

Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden commented on Twitter: