631 posts categorized "Privacy" Feed

Google Home Devices Recorded Users' Conversations. Legal Questions Result. Google Says It Is Investigating

Many consumers love the hands-free convenience of smart speakers. However, there are risks with the technology. BBC News reported on Thursday:

"Belgian broadcaster VRT exposed the recordings made by Google Home devices in Belgium and the Netherlands... VRT said the majority of the recordings it reviewed were short clips logged by the Google Home devices as owners used them. However, it said, 153 were "conversations that should never have been recorded" because the wake phrase of "OK Google" was not given. These unintentionally recorded exchanges included: a) blazing rows; b) bedroom chatter; c) parents talking to their children; d) phone calls exposing confidential information. It said it believed the devices logged these conversations because users said a word or phrase that sounded similar to "OK Google" that triggered the device..."

So, conversations that shouldn't have been recorded were recorded by Google Home devices. Consumers use the devices to perform and control a variety of tasks, such as entertainment (e.g., music, movies, games), internet searches (e.g., cooking recipes), security systems and cameras, thermostats, window blinds and shades, appliances (e.g., coffee makers), online shopping, internet searches, and more.

The device software doesn't seem accurate, since it mistook similar phrases as wake phrases. Google calls these errors "false accepts." Google replied in a blog post:

"We just learned that one of these language reviewers has violated our data security policies by leaking confidential Dutch audio data. Our Security and Privacy Response teams have been activated on this issue, are investigating, and we will take action. We are conducting a full review of our safeguards... We apply a wide range of safeguards to protect user privacy throughout the entire review process. Language experts only review around 0.2 percent of all audio snippets. Audio snippets are not associated with user accounts as part of the review process, and reviewers are directed not to transcribe background conversations or other noises, and only to transcribe snippets that are directed to Google."

"The Google Assistant only sends audio to Google after your device detects that you’re interacting with the Assistant—for example, by saying “Hey Google” or by physically triggering the Google Assistant... Rarely, devices that have the Google Assistant built in may experience what we call a “false accept.” This means that there was some noise or words in the background that our software interpreted to be the hotword (like “Ok Google”). We have a number of protections in place to prevent false accepts from occurring in your home... We also provide you with tools to manage and control the data stored in your account. You can turn off storing audio data to your Google account completely, or choose to auto-delete data after every 3 months or 18 months..."

To be fair, Google is not alone. Amazon Alexa devices also record and archive users' conversations. Would you want your bedroom chatter recorded (and stored indefinitely)? Or your conversations with your children? Many persons work remotely from home, so would you want business conversations with coworkers recorded? I think not. Very troubling news.

And, there is more.

This data security incident confirms that human workers listen to recordings by Google Assistant devices. Those workers can be employees or outsourced contractors. Who are these contractors, by name? What methods does Google employ to confirm privacy compliance by contractors? So many unanswered questions.

Also, according to U.S. News & World Report:

"Google's recording feature can be turned off, but doing so means Assistant loses some of its personalized touch. People who turn off the recording feature lose the ability for the Assistant to recognize individual voices and learn your voice pattern. Assistant recording is actually turned off by default — but the technology prompts users to turn on recording and other tools in order to get personalized features."

So, to get the full value of the technology, users must enable recordings. That sounds a lot like surveillance by design. Not good. You'd think that Google software developers would have developed a standard vocabulary, or dictionary, in several languages (by beta test participants) to test the accuracy of Assistant software; rather than review users' actual conversations. I guess they viewed it easier, faster, and cheaper to snoop on users.

Since Google already scans the contents of Gmail users' email messages, maybe this is simply technology creep and Google assumed nobody would mind human reviews of Assistant recordings.

About the review of recordings by human workers, the M.I.T. Technology Review said:

"Legally questionable: Because Google doesn’t inform users that humans review recordings in this way, and thus doesn’t seek their explicit consent for the practice, it’s quite possible that it could be breaking EU data protection regulations. We have asked Google for a response and will update if we hear back."

So, it will be interesting to see what European Union regulators have to say about the recordings and human reviews.

To summarize: consumers have willingly installed perpetual surveillance devices in their homes. What are your views of this data security incident? Do you enable recordings on your smart speakers? Should human workers have access to archives of your recorded conversations?


Tech Expert Concluded Google Chrome Browser Operates A Lot Like Spy Software

Many consumers still use web browsers. Which are better for your online privacy? You may be interested in this analysis by a tech expert:

"... I've been investigating the secret life of my data, running experiments to see what technology really gets up to under the cover of privacy policies that nobody reads... My tests of Chrome vs. Firefox [browsers] unearthed a personal data caper of absurd proportions. In a week of Web surfing on my desktop, I discovered 11,189 requests for tracker "cookies" that Chrome would have ushered right onto my computer but were automatically blocked by Firefox... Chrome welcomed trackers even at websites you would think would be private. I watched Aetna and the Federal Student Aid website set cookies for Facebook and Google. They surreptitiously told the data giants every time I pulled up the insurance and loan service's log-in pages."

"And that's not the half of it. Look in the upper right corner of your Chrome browser. See a picture or a name in the circle? If so, you're logged in to the browser, and Google might be tapping into your Web activity to target ads. Don't recall signing in? I didn't, either. Chrome recently started doing that automatically when you use Gmail... I felt hoodwinked when Google quietly began signing Gmail users into Chrome last fall. Google says the Chrome shift didn't cause anybody's browsing history to be "synced" unless they specifically opted in — but I found mine was being sent to Google and don't recall ever asking for extra surveillance..."

Also:

"Google's product managers told me in an interview that Chrome prioritizes privacy choices and controls, and they're working on new ones for cookies. But they also said they have to get the right balance with a "healthy Web ecosystem" (read: ad business). Firefox's product managers told me they don't see privacy as an "option" relegated to controls. They've launched a war on surveillance, starting last month with "enhanced tracking protection" that blocks nosy cookies by default on new Firefox installations..."

This tech expert concluded:

"It turns out, having the world's biggest advertising company make the most popular Web browser was about as smart as letting kids run a candy shop. It made me decide to ditch Chrome for a new version of nonprofit Mozilla's Firefox, which has default privacy protections. Switching involved less inconvenience than you might imagine."

Regular readers of this blog are aware of how Google tracks consumers online purchases, the worst mobile apps for privacy, and privacy alternatives such the Brave web browser, the DuckDuckGo search engine, virtual private network (VPN) software, and more. Yes, you can use the Firefox browser on your Apple iPhone. I do.

Me? I've used the Firefox browser since about 2010 on my (Windows) laptop, and the DuckDuckGo search engine since 2013. I stopped using Bing, Yahoo, and Google search engines in 2013. While Firefox installs with Google as the default search engine, you can easily switch it to DuckDuckGo. I did. I am very happy with the results.

Which web browser and search engine do you use? What do you do to protect your online privacy?


Digital Jail: How Electronic Monitoring Drives Defendants Into Debt

[Editor's note: today's guest post, by reporters at ProPublica, discusses the convergence of law enforcement, outsourcing, smart devices, surveillance, "offender funded" programs, and "e-gentrification." It is reprinted with permission.]

By Ava Kofman, ProPublica

On Oct. 12, 2018, Daehaun White walked free, or so he thought. A guard handed him shoelaces and the $19 that had been in his pocket at the time of his booking, along with a letter from his public defender. The lanky 19-year-old had been sitting for almost a month in St. Louis’ Medium Security Institution, a city jail known as the Workhouse, after being pulled over for driving some friends around in a stolen Chevy Cavalier. When the police charged him with tampering with a motor vehicle — driving a car without its owner’s consent — and held him overnight, he assumed he would be released by morning. He told the police that he hadn’t known that the Chevy, which a friend had lent him a few hours earlier, was stolen. He had no previous convictions. But the $1,500 he needed for the bond was far beyond what he or his family could afford. It wasn’t until his public defender, Erika Wurst, persuaded the judge to lower the amount to $500 cash, and a nonprofit fund, the Bail Project, paid it for him, that he was able to leave the notoriously grim jail. “Once they said I was getting released, I was so excited I stopped listening,” he told me recently. He would no longer have to drink water blackened with mold or share a cell with rats, mice and cockroaches. He did a round of victory pushups and gave away all of the snack cakes he had been saving from the cafeteria.

Emass logo When he finally read Wurst’s letter, however, he realized there was a catch. Even though Wurst had argued against it, the judge, Nicole Colbert-Botchway, had ordered him to wear an ankle monitor that would track his location at every moment using GPS. For as long as he would wear it, he would be required to pay $10 a day to a private company, Eastern Missouri Alternative Sentencing Services, or EMASS. Just to get the monitor attached, he would have to report to EMASS and pay $300 up front — enough to cover the first 25 days, plus a $50 installation fee.

White didn’t know how to find that kind of money. Before his arrest, he was earning minimum wage as a temp, wrapping up boxes of shampoo. His father was largely absent, and his mother, Lakisha Thompson, had recently lost her job as the housekeeping manager at a Holiday Inn. Raising Daehaun and his four siblings, she had struggled to keep up with the bills. The family bounced between houses and apartments in northern St. Louis County, where, as a result of Jim Crow redlining, most of the area’s black population lives. In 2014, they were living on Canfield Drive in Ferguson when Michael Brown was shot and killed there by a police officer. During the ensuing turmoil, Thompson moved the family to Green Bay, Wisconsin. White felt out of place. He was looked down on for his sagging pants, called the N-word when riding his bike. After six months, he moved back to St. Louis County on his own to live with three of his siblings and stepsiblings in a gray house with vinyl siding.

When White got home on the night of his release, he was so overwhelmed to see his family again that he forgot about the letter. He spent the next few days hanging out with his siblings, his mother, who had returned to Missouri earlier that year, and his girlfriend, Demetria, who was seven months pregnant. He didn’t report to EMASS.

What he didn’t realize was that he had failed to meet a deadline. Typically, defendants assigned to monitors must pay EMASS in person and have the device installed within 24 hours of their release from jail. Otherwise, they have to return to court to explain why they’ve violated the judge’s orders. White, however, wasn’t called back for a hearing. Instead, a week after he left the Workhouse, Colbert-Botchway issued a warrant for his arrest.

Three days later, a large group of police officers knocked on Thompson’s door, looking for information about an unrelated case, a robbery. White and his brother had been making dinner with their mother, and the officers asked them for identification. White’s name matched the warrant issued by Colbert-Botchway. “They didn’t tell me what the warrant was for,” he said. “Just that it was for a violation of my release.” He was taken downtown and held for transfer back to the Workhouse. “I kept saying to myself, ’Why am I locked up?’” he recalled.

The next morning, Thompson called the courthouse to find the answer. She learned that her son had been jailed over his failure to acquire and pay for his GPS monitor. To get him out, she needed to pay EMASS on his behalf.

This seemed absurd to her. When Daehaun was 13, she had worn an ankle monitor after violating probation for a minor theft, but the state hadn’t required her to cover the cost of her own supervision. “This is a 19-year-old coming out of the Workhouse,” she told me recently. “There’s no way he has $300 saved.” Thompson felt that the court was forcing her to choose between getting White out of jail and supporting the rest of her family.

Over the past half-century, the number of people behind bars in the United States jumped by more than 500%, to 2.2 million. This extraordinary rise, often attributed to decades of “tough on crime” policies and harsh sentencing laws, has ensured that even as crime rates have dropped since the 1990s, the number of people locked up and the average length of their stay have increased. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the cost of keeping people in jails and prisons soared to $87 billion in 2015 from $19 billion in 1980, in current dollars.

In recent years, politicians on both sides of the aisle have joined criminal-justice reformers in recognizing mass incarceration as both a moral outrage and a fiscal sinkhole. As ankle bracelets have become compact and cost-effective, legislators have embraced them as an enlightened alternative. More than 125,000 people in the criminal-justice system were supervised with monitors in 2015, compared with just 53,000 people in 2005, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. Although no current national tally is available, data from several cities — Austin, Texas; Indianapolis; Chicago; and San Francisco — show that this number continues to rise. Last December, the First Step Act, which includes provisions for home detention, was signed into law by President Donald Trump with support from the private prison giants GEO Group and CoreCivic. These corporations dominate the so-called community-corrections market — services such as day-reporting and electronic monitoring — that represents one of the fastest-growing revenue sectors of their industry.

By far the most decisive factor promoting the expansion of monitors is the financial one. The United States government pays for monitors for some of those in the federal criminal-justice system and for tens of thousands of immigrants supervised by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. But states and cities, which incur around 90% of the expenditures for jails and prisons, are increasingly passing the financial burden of the devices onto those who wear them. It costs St. Louis roughly $90 a day to detain a person awaiting trial in the Workhouse, where in 2017 the average stay was 291 days. When individuals pay EMASS $10 a day for their own supervision, it costs the city nothing. A 2014 study by NPR and the Brennan Center found that, with the exception of Hawaii, every state required people to pay at least part of the costs associated with GPS monitoring. Some probation offices and sheriffs run their own monitoring programs — renting the equipment from manufacturers, hiring staff and collecting fees directly from participants. Others have outsourced the supervision of defendants, parolees and probationers to private companies.

“There are a lot of judges who reflexively put people on monitors, without making much of a pretense of seriously weighing it at all,” said Chris Albin-Lackey, a senior legal adviser with Human Rights Watch who has researched private-supervision companies. “The limiting factor is the cost it might impose on the public, but when that expense is sourced out, even that minimal brake on judicial discretion goes out the window.”

Nowhere is the pressure to adopt monitors more pronounced than in places like St. Louis: cash-strapped municipalities with large populations of people awaiting trial. Nationwide on any given day, half a million people sit in crowded and expensive jails because, like Daehaun White, they cannot purchase their freedom.

As the movement to overhaul cash bail has challenged the constitutionality of jailing these defendants, judges and sheriffs have turned to monitors as an appealing substitute. In San Francisco, the number of people released from jail onto electronic monitors tripled after a 2018 ruling forced courts to release more defendants without bail. In Marion County, Indiana, where jail overcrowding is routine, roughly 5,000 defendants were put on monitors last year. “You would be hard-pressed to find bail-reform legislation in any state that does not include the possibility of electronic monitoring,” said Robin Steinberg, the chief executive of the Bail Project.

Yet like the system of wealth-based detention they are meant to help reform, ankle monitors often place poor people in special jeopardy. Across the country, defendants who have not been convicted of a crime are put on “offender funded” payment plans for monitors that sometimes cost more than their bail. And unlike bail, they don’t get the payment back, even if they’re found innocent. Although a federal survey shows that nearly 40% of Americans would have trouble finding $400 to cover an emergency, companies and courts routinely threaten to lock up defendants if they fall behind on payment. In Greenville, South Carolina, pretrial defendants can be sent back to jail when they fall three weeks behind on fees. (An officer for the Greenville County Detention Center defended this practice on the grounds that participants agree to the costs in advance.) In Mohave County, Arizona, pretrial defendants charged with sex offenses have faced rearrest if they fail to pay for their monitors, even if they prove that they can’t afford them. “We risk replacing an unjust cash-bail system,” Steinberg said, “with one just as unfair, inhumane and unnecessary.”

Many local judges, including in St. Louis, do not conduct hearings on a defendant’s ability to pay for private supervision before assigning them to it; those who do often overestimate poor people’s financial means. Without judicial oversight, defendants are vulnerable to private-supervision companies that set their own rates and charge interest when someone can’t pay up front. Some companies even give their employees bonuses for hitting collection targets.

It’s not only debt that can send defendants back to jail. People who may not otherwise be candidates for incarceration can be punished for breaking the lifestyle rules that come with the devices. A survey in California found that juveniles awaiting trial or on probation face especially difficult rules; in one county, juveniles on monitors were asked to follow more than 50 restrictions, including not participating “in any social activity.” For this reason, many advocates describe electronic monitoring as a “net-widener": Far from serving as an alternative to incarceration, it ends up sweeping more people into the system.

Dressed in a baggy yellow City of St. Louis Corrections shirt, White was walking to the van that would take him back to the Workhouse after his rearrest, when a guard called his name and handed him a bus ticket home. A few hours earlier, his mom had persuaded her sister to lend her the $300 that White owed EMASS. Wurst, his public defender, brought the receipt to court.

The next afternoon, White hitched a ride downtown to the EMASS office, where one of the company’s bond-compliance officers, Nick Buss, clipped a black box around his left ankle. Based in the majority white city of St. Charles, west of St. Louis, EMASS has several field offices throughout eastern Missouri. A former probation and parole officer, Michael Smith, founded the company in 1991 after Missouri became one of the first states to allow private companies to supervise some probationers. (Smith and other EMASS officials declined to comment for this story.)

The St. Louis area has made national headlines for its “offender funded” model of policing and punishment. Stricken by postindustrial decline and the 2008 financial crisis, its municipalities turned to their police departments and courts to make up for shortfalls in revenue. In 2015, the Ferguson Report by the United States Department of Justice put hard numbers to what black residents had long suspected: The police were targeting them with disproportionate arrests, traffic tickets and excessive fines.

EMASS may have saved the city some money, but it also created an extraordinary and arbitrary-seeming new expense for poor defendants. When cities cover the cost of monitoring, they often pay private contractors $2 to $3 a day for the same equipment and services for which EMASS charges defendants $10 a day. To come up with the money, EMASS clients told me, they had to find second jobs, take their children out of day care and cut into disability checks. Others hurried to plead guilty for no better reason than that being on probation was cheaper than paying for a monitor.

At the downtown office, White signed a contract stating that he would charge his monitor for an hour and a half each day and “report” to EMASS with $70 each week. He could shower, but was not to bathe or swim (the monitor is water-resistant, not waterproof). Interfering with the monitor’s functioning was a felony.

White assumed that GPS supervision would prove a minor annoyance. Instead, it was a constant burden. The box was bulky and the size of a fist, so he couldn’t hide it under his jeans. Whenever he left the house, people stared. There were snide comments ("nice bracelet") and cutting jokes. His brothers teased him about having a babysitter. “I’m nobody to watch,” he insisted.

The biggest problem was finding work. Confident and outgoing, White had never struggled to land jobs; after dropping out of high school in his junior year, he flipped burgers at McDonald’s and Steak ’n Shake. To pay for the monitor, he applied to be a custodian at Julia Davis Library, a cashier at Home Depot, a clerk at Menards. The conversation at Home Depot had gone especially well, White thought, until the interviewer casually asked what was on his leg.

To help improve his chances, he enrolled in Mission: St. Louis, a job-training center for people reentering society. One afternoon in January, he and a classmate role-played how to talk to potential employers about criminal charges. White didn’t know how much detail to go into. Should he tell interviewers that he was bringing his pregnant girlfriend some snacks when he was pulled over? He still isn’t sure, because a police officer came looking for him midway through the class. The battery on his monitor had died. The officer sent him home, and White missed the rest of the lesson.

With all of the restrictions and rules, keeping a job on a monitor can be as difficult as finding one. The hours for weekly check-ins at the downtown EMASS office — 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and 1 p.m. until 5 p.m. on Mondays — are inconvenient for those who work. In 2011, the National Institute of Justice surveyed 5,000 people on electronic monitors and found that 22% said they had been fired or asked to leave a job because of the device. Juawanna Caves, a young St. Louis native and mother of two, was placed on a monitor in December after being charged with unlawful use of a weapon. She said she stopped showing up to work as a housekeeper when her co-workers made her uncomfortable by asking questions and later lost a job at a nursing home because too many exceptions had to be made for her court dates and EMASS check-ins.

Perpetual surveillance also takes a mental toll. Nearly everyone I spoke to who wore a monitor described feeling trapped, as though they were serving a sentence before they had even gone to trial. White was never really sure about what he could or couldn’t do under supervision. In January, when his girlfriend had their daughter, Rylan, White left the hospital shortly after the birth, under the impression that he had a midnight curfew. Later that night, he let his monitor die so that he could sneak back before sunrise to see the baby again.

EMASS makes its money from defendants. But it gets its power over them from judges. It was in 2012 that the judges of the St. Louis court started to use the company’s services — which previously involved people on probation for misdemeanors — for defendants awaiting trial. Last year, the company supervised 239 defendants in the city of St. Louis on GPS monitors, according to numbers provided by EMASS to the court. The alliance with the courts gives the company not just a steady stream of business but a reliable means of recouping debts: Unlike, say, a credit-card company, which must file a civil suit to collect from overdue customers, EMASS can initiate criminal-court proceedings, threatening defendants with another stay in the Workhouse.

In early April, I visited Judge Rex Burlison in his chambers on the 10th floor of the St. Louis civil courts building. A few months earlier, Burlison, who has short gray hair and light blue eyes, had been elected by his peers as presiding judge, overseeing the city’s docket, budget and operations, including the contract with EMASS. It was one of the first warm days of the year, and from the office window I could see sunlight glimmering on the silver Gateway Arch.

I asked Burlison about the court’s philosophy for using pretrial GPS. He stressed that while each case was unique and subject to the judge’s discretion, monitoring was most commonly used for defendants who posed a flight risk, endangered public safety or had an alleged victim. Judges vary in how often they order defendants to wear monitors, and critics have attacked the inconsistency. Colbert-Botchway, the judge who put White on a monitor, regularly made pretrial GPS a condition of release, according to public defenders. (Colbert-Botchway declined to comment.) But another St. Louis city judge, David Roither, told me, “I really don’t use it very often because people here are too poor to pay for it.”

Whenever a defendant on a monitor violates a condition of release, whether related to payment or a curfew or something else, EMASS sends a letter to the court. Last year, Burlison said, the court received two to three letters a week from EMASS about violations. In response, the judge usually calls the defendant in for a hearing. As far as he knew, Burlison said, judges did not incarcerate people simply for failing to pay EMASS debts. “Why would you?” he asked me. When people were put back in jail, he said, there were always other factors at play, like the defendant’s missing a hearing, for instance. (Issuing a warrant for White’s arrest without a hearing, he acknowledged after looking at the docket, was not the court’s standard practice.)

The contract with EMASS allows the court to assign indigent defendants to the company to oversee “at no cost.” Yet neither Burlison nor any of the other current or former judges I spoke with recalled waiving fees when ordering someone to wear an ankle monitor. When I asked Burlison why he didn’t, he said that he was concerned that if he started to make exceptions on the basis of income, the company might stop providing ankle-monitoring services in St. Louis.

“People get arrested because of life choices,” Burlison said. “Whether they’re good for the charge or not, they’re still arrested and have to deal with it, and part of dealing with it is the finances.” To release defendants without monitors simply because they can’t afford the fee, he said, would be to disregard the safety of their victims or the community. “We can’t just release everybody because they’re poor,” he continued.

But many people in the Workhouse awaiting trial are poor. In January, civil rights groups filed suit against the city and the court, claiming that the St. Louis bail system violated the Constitution, in part by discriminating against those who can’t afford to post bail. That same month, the Missouri Supreme Court announced new rules that urged local courts to consider releasing defendants without monetary conditions and to waive fees for poor people placed on monitors. Shortly before the rules went into effect, on July 1, Burlison said that the city intends to shift the way ankle monitors are distributed and plans to establish a fund to help indigent defendants pay for their ankle bracelets. But he said he didn’t know how much money would be in the fund or whether it was temporary or permanent. The need for funding could grow quickly. The pending bail lawsuit has temporarily spurred the release of more defendants from custody, and as a result, public defenders say, the demand for monitors has increased.

Judges are anxious about what people released without posting bail might do once they get out. Several told me that monitors may ensure that the defendants return to court. Not unlike doctors who order a battery of tests for a mildly ill patient to avoid a potential malpractice suit, judges seem to view monitors as a precaution against their faces appearing on the front page of the newspaper. “Every judge’s fear is to let somebody out on recognizance and he commits murder, and then everyone asks, ’How in the hell was this person let out?’” said Robert Dierker, who served as a judge in St. Louis from 1986 to 2017 and now represents the city in the bail lawsuit. “But with GPS, you can say, ’Well, I have him on GPS, what else can I do?’”

Critics of monitors contend that their public-safety appeal is illusory: If defendants are intent on harming someone or skipping town, the bracelet, which can be easily removed with a pair of scissors, would not stop them. Studies showing that people tracked by GPS appear in court more reliably are scarce, and research about its effectiveness as a deterrent is inconclusive.

“The fundamental question is, What purpose is electronic monitoring serving?” said Blake Strode, the executive director of ArchCity Defenders, a nonprofit civil rights law firm in St. Louis that is one of several firms representing the plaintiffs in the bail lawsuit. “If the only purpose it’s serving is to make judges feel better because they don’t want to be on the hook if something goes wrong, then that’s not a sensible approach. We should not simply be monitoring for monitoring’s sake.”

Electronic monitoring was first conceived in the early 1960s by Ralph and Robert Gable, identical twins studying at Harvard under the psychologists Timothy Leary and B.F. Skinner, respectively. Influenced in part by Skinner’s theories of positive reinforcement, the Gables rigged up some surplus missile-tracking equipment to monitor teenagers on probation; those who showed up at the right places at the right times were rewarded with movie tickets, limo rides and other prizes.

Although this round-the-clock monitoring was intended as a tool for rehabilitation, observers and participants alike soon recognized its potential to enhance surveillance. All but two of the 16 volunteers in their initial study dropped out, finding the two bulky radio transmitters oppressive. “They felt like it was a prosthetic conscience, and who would want Mother all the time along with you?” Robert Gable told me. Psychology Today labeled the invention a “belt from Big Brother.”

The reality of electronic monitoring today is that Big Brother is watching some groups more than others. No national statistics are available on the racial breakdown of Americans wearing ankle monitors, but all indications suggest that mass supervision, like mass incarceration, disproportionately affects black people. In Cook County, Illinois, for instance, black people make up 24% of the population, and 67% of those on monitors. The sociologist Simone Browne has connected contemporary surveillance technologies like GPS monitors to America’s long history of controlling where black people live, move and work. In her 2015 book, “Dark Matters,” she traces the ways in which “surveillance is nothing new to black folks,” from the branding of enslaved people and the shackling of convict laborers to Jim Crow segregation and the home visits of welfare agencies. These historical inequities, Browne notes, influence where and on whom new tools like ankle monitors are imposed.

For some black families, including White’s, monitoring stretches across generations. Annette Taylor, the director of Ripple Effect, an advocacy group for prisoners and their families based in Champaign, Illinois, has seen her ex-husband, brother, son, nephew and sister’s husband wear ankle monitors over the years. She had to wear one herself, about a decade ago, she said, for driving with a suspended license. “You’re making people a prisoner of their home,” she told me. When her son was paroled and placed on house arrest, he couldn’t live with her, because he was forbidden to associate with people convicted of felonies, including his stepfather, who was also on house arrest.

Some people on monitors are further constrained by geographic restrictions — areas in the city or neighborhood that they can’t go without triggering an alarm. James Kilgore, a research scholar at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, has cautioned that these exclusionary zones could lead to “e-gentrification,” effectively keeping people out of more-prosperous neighborhoods. In 2016, after serving four years in prison for drug conspiracy, Bryan Otero wore a monitor as a condition of parole. He commuted from the Bronx to jobs at a restaurant and a department store in Manhattan, but he couldn’t visit his family or doctor because he was forbidden to enter a swath of Manhattan between 117th Street and 131st Street. “All my family and childhood friends live in that area,” he said. “I grew up there.”

Michelle Alexander, a legal scholar and columnist for The Times, has argued that monitoring engenders a new form of oppression under the guise of progress. In her 2010 book, “The New Jim Crow,” she wrote that the term “mass incarceration” should refer to the “system that locks people not only behind actual bars in actual prisons, but also behind virtual bars and virtual walls — walls that are invisible to the naked eye but function nearly as effectively as Jim Crow laws once did at locking people of color into a permanent second-class citizenship.”

BI Incorporated logo As the cost of monitoring continues to fall, those who are required to submit to it may worry less about the expense and more about the intrusive surveillance. The devices, some of which are equipped with two-way microphones, can give corrections officials unprecedented access to the private lives not just of those monitored but also of their families and friends. GPS location data appeals to the police, who can use it to investigate crimes. Already the goal is both to track what individuals are doing and to anticipate what they might do next. BI Incorporated, an electronic-monitoring subsidiary of GEO Group, has the ability to assign risk scores to the behavioral patterns of those monitored, so that law enforcement can “address potential problems before they happen.” Judges leery of recidivism have begun to embrace risk-assessment tools. As a result, defendants who have yet to be convicted of an offense in court may be categorized by their future chances of reoffending.

The combination of GPS location data with other tracking technologies such as automatic license-plate readers represents an uncharted frontier for finer-grained surveillance. In some cities, police have concentrated these tools in neighborhoods of color. A CityLab investigation found that Baltimore police were more likely to deploy the Stingray — the controversial and secretive cellphone tracking technology — where African Americans lived. In the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s death in 2015, the police spied on Black Lives Matter protesters with face recognition technology. Given this pattern, the term “electronic monitoring” may soon refer not just to a specific piece of equipment but to an all-encompassing strategy.

If the evolution of the criminal-justice system is any guide, it is very likely that the ankle bracelet will go out of fashion. Some GPS monitoring vendors have already started to offer smartphone applications that verify someone’s location through voice and face recognition. These apps, with names like Smart-LINK and Shadowtrack, promise to be cheaper and more convenient than a boxy bracelet. They’re also less visible, mitigating the stigma and normalizing surveillance. While reducing the number of people in physical prison, these seductive applications could, paradoxically, increase its reach. For the nearly 4.5 million Americans on probation or parole, it is not difficult to imagine a virtual prison system as ubiquitous — and invasive — as Instagram or Facebook.

On January 24, exactly three months after White had his monitor installed, his public defender successfully argued in court for its removal. His phone service had been shut off because he had fallen behind on the bill, so his mother told him the good news over video chat.

When White showed up to EMASS a few days later to have the ankle bracelet removed, he said, one of the company’s employees told him that he couldn’t take off his monitor until he paid his debt. White offered him the $35 in his wallet — all the money he had. It wasn’t enough. The employee explained that he needed to pay at least half of the $700 he owed. Somewhere in the contract he had signed months earlier, White had agreed to pay his full balance “at the time of removal.” But as White saw it, the court that had ordered the monitor’s installation was now ordering its removal. Didn’t that count?

“That’s the only thing that’s killing me,” White told me a few weeks later, in early March. “Why are you all not taking it off?” We were in his brother’s room, which, unlike White’s down the hall, had space for a wobbly chair. White sat on the bed, his head resting against the frame, while his brother sat on the other end by the TV, mumbling commands into a headset for the fantasy video game Fortnite. By then, the prosecutor had offered White two to three years of probation in exchange for a plea. (White is waiting to hear if he has been accepted into the city’s diversion program for “youthful offenders,” which would allow him to avoid pleading and wipe the charges from his record in a year.)

White was wearing a loosefitting Nike track jacket and red sweats that bunched up over the top of his monitor. He had recently stopped charging it, and so far, the police hadn’t come knocking. “I don’t even have to have it on,” he said, looking down at his ankle. “But without a job, I can’t get it taken off.” In the last few weeks, he had sold his laptop, his phone and his TV. That cash went to rent, food and his daughter, and what was left barely made a dent in what he owed EMASS.

It was a Monday — a check-in day — but he hadn’t been reporting for the past couple of weeks. He didn’t see the point; he didn’t have the money to get the monitor removed and the office was an hour away by bus. I offered him a ride.

EMASS check-ins take place in a three-story brick building with a low-slung facade draped in ivy. The office doesn’t take cash payments, and a Western Union is conveniently located next door. The other men in the waiting room were also wearing monitors. When it was White’s turn to check-in, Buss, the bond-compliance officer, unclipped the band from his ankle and threw the device into a bin, White said. He wasn’t sure why EMASS had now softened its approach, but his debts nonetheless remained.

Buss calculated the money White owed going back to November: $755, plus 10% annual interest. Over the next nine months, EMASS expected him to make monthly payments that would add up to $850 — more than the court had required for his bond. White looked at the receipt and shook his head. “I get in trouble for living,” he said as he walked out of the office. “For being me.”

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Facebook Announced New Financial Services Offering Available in 2020

On Tuesday, Facebook announced its first financial services offering which will be available in 2020:

"... we’re sharing plans for Calibra, a newly formed Facebook subsidiary whose goal is to provide financial services that will let people access and participate in the Libra network. The first product Calibra will introduce is a digital wallet for Libra, a new global currency powered by blockchain technology. The wallet will be available in Messenger, WhatsApp and as a standalone app — and we expect to launch in 2020... Calibra will let you send Libra to almost anyone with a smartphone, as easily and instantly as you might send a text message and at low to no cost. And, in time, we hope to offer additional services for people and businesses, like paying bills with the push of a button, buying a cup of coffee with the scan of a code or riding your local public transit..."

Long before the announcement, consumers crafted interesting nicknames for the financial service, such as #FaceCoin and #Zuckbucks. Good to see people with a sense of humor.

On a more serious topic, after multiple data breaches and privacy snafus at Facebook (plus repeated promises by CEO Zuckerberg that his company will do better), many people are understandably concerned about data security and privacy. Facebook's announcement also addressed security and privacy:

"... Calibra will have strong protections... We’ll be using all the same verification and anti-fraud processes that banks and credit cards use, and we’ll have automated systems that will proactively monitor activity to detect and prevent fraudulent behavior... We’ll also take steps to protect your privacy. Aside from limited cases, Calibra will not share account information or financial data with Facebook or any third party without customer consent. This means Calibra customers’ account information and financial data will not be used to improve ad targeting on the Facebook family of products. The limited cases where this data may be shared reflect our need to keep people safe, comply with the law and provide basic functionality to the people who use Calibra. Calibra will use Facebook data to comply with the law, secure customers’ accounts, mitigate risk and prevent criminal activity."

So, the new Calibra subsidiary promised that it won't share users' account information with Facebook's core social networking service, except when it will -- to "comply with the law." The announcement encourages interested persons to sign up for email updates. This leaves Calibra customers to trust Facebook's wall separating its business units. "Provide basic functionality to the people who use Calibra" sounds like a huge loophole to justify any data sharing.

Tech and financial experts quickly weighed in on the announcement and its promises. TechCrunch explained why Facebook created a new business subsidiary. After Calibra's Tuesday announcement:

"... critics started harping about the dangers of centralizing control of tomorrow’s money in the hands of a company with a poor track record of privacy and security. Facebook anticipated this, though, and created a subsidiary called Calibra to run its crypto dealings and keep all transaction data separate from your social data. Facebook shares control of Libra with 27 other Libra Association founding members, and as many as 100 total when the token launches in the first half of 2020. Each member gets just one vote on the Libra council, so Facebook can’t hijack the token’s governance even though it invented it."

TechCrunch also explained the risks to Calibra customers:

"... that leaves one giant vector for abuse of Libra: the developer platform... Apparently Facebook has already forgotten how allowing anyone to build on the Facebook app platform and its low barriers to “innovation” are exactly what opened the door for Cambridge Analytica to hijack 87 million people’s personal data and use it for political ad targeting. But in this case, it won’t be users’ interests and birthdays that get grabbed. It could be hundreds or thousands of dollars’ worth of Libra currency that’s stolen. A shady developer could build a wallet that just cleans out a user’s account or funnels their coins to the wrong recipient, mines their purchase history for marketing data or uses them to launder money..."

During the coming months, hopefully Calibra will disclose the controls it will implement on the developer platform to prevent abuses, theft, and fraud.

Readers wanting to learn more should read the Libra White Paper, which provides more details about the companies involved:

"The Libra Association is an independent, not-for-profit membership organization headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland. The association’s purpose is to coordinate and provide a framework for governance for the network... Members of the Libra Association will consist of geographically distributed and diverse businesses, nonprofit and multilateral organizations, and academic institutions. The initial group of organizations that will work together on finalizing the association’s charter and become “Founding Members” upon its completion are, by industry:

1. Payments: Mastercard, PayPal, PayU (Naspers’ fintech arm), Stripe, Visa
2. Technology and marketplaces: Booking Holdings, eBay, Facebook/Calibra, Farfetch, Lyft, Mercado Pago, Spotify AB, Uber Technologies, Inc.
3. Telecommunications: Iliad, Vodafone Group
4. Blockchain: Anchorage, Bison Trails, Coinbase, Inc., Xapo Holdings Limited
5. Venture Capital: Andreessen Horowitz, Breakthrough Initiatives, Ribbit Capital, Thrive Capital, Union Square Ventures
6. Nonprofit and multilateral organizations, and academic institutions: Creative Destruction Lab, Kiva, Mercy Corps, Women’s World Banking"

Yes, the ride-hailing company, Uber, is involved. Yes, the same ride-hailing service which which paid $148 million to settle lawsuits and a coverup from a data breach in 2016. Yes, the same ride-hailing service with a history of data security, compliance, cultural, and privacy snafus. This suggests -- for better or worse -- that in the future consumers will be able to pay for Uber rides using the Libra Network.

Calibra hopes to have about 100 members in the Libra Association by the service launch in 2020. Clearly, there will be plenty more news to come. Below are draft screen images of the new app.

Early version of screen images of the Calibra mobile app. Click to view larger version


How Google Tracks All Of Your Online Purchases. Its Reasons Are Unclear

Google tracks all of your online purchases. How? ExpressVPN reported:

"Initially stumbled across by a CNBC reporter, a "Google Purchases" page keeps track of all digital receipts sent to your Gmail account from as far back as 2012. The page is not limited to purchases made directly from Google, either. From flight tickets to Amazon purchases to food delivery services, if the receipt went to your Gmail, it’s on the list. Google takes the name, date, and other specifics surrounding the purchase and records them in a list on the page."

The tracking is a reminder of the special place Internet service providers (ISPs) enjoy with access to all of users' online activities. Consumers' purchase receipts can include very sensitive information such as foods, medicine, and medical devices -- for parents and/or their children; or bookings for upcoming travel indicating when a home will be vacant; or purchases of medical marijuana, D-I-Y guns, and/or internet-connected adult toys. The bottom line: some consumers may not want their purchase data collected (nor shared with other companies by Google).

Now that you're aware of the tracking, something to consider the next time a cashier at a brick-and-mortar retail store asks: paper or email receipt? I always choose paper. You might, too.

To view your Google Purchase page, visit http://myaccount.google.com/purchases and sign in. Only you can view your purchases page.

Privacy solutions appear ugly. One option is to switch to an email provider that doesn't track you. If you decide to stay with Gmail, the only fix is a manual process which will cost you several hours or days to wade through your archive and delete emails:

"... the only way to remove a purchase from the list is to find and manually delete the email that contains the original receipt. Worse still, you can’t turn off tracking, and there’s no way to delete the list en masse. This process is incredibly tedious... Even more perplexing is that there’s no clear purpose for the collection of this data... the logic behind this reasoning is strange, the info is hiding in Google’s Account page, and it’s not exactly easy to access for users who want to “view and keep track of purchases.” And seeing as this page isn’t really being promoted to its users..."

Google said it is doing more for its customers regarding privacy. Last month, The Washington Post reported:

"... One executive after another at Google’s I/O conference in its hometown of Mountain View, California emphasized new privacy settings in products like search, maps, thermostats and updated mobile phone software. "We strongly believe that privacy and security are for everyone, not just a few," Google CEO Sundar Pichai said.

Said product manager Stephanie Cuthbertson, who introduced a new version of the Android mobile operating system: "You should always be in control of what you share and who you share it with."... Google also committed to improved privacy controls of its Nest-connected home devices, including the ability of users to delete their audio files. Some users have reported having hackers eavesdropping through their Nest devices."

Hmmm. It seems more privacy and control does not extend to Gmail users' purchase data. What are your opinions?

[Editor's note: this page was revised Monday evening to fix a typo and to include the link the Google Purchases page.]


The Worst Mobile Apps For Privacy

ExpressVPN compiled its list for 2019 of the four worst mobile apps for privacy. If you value your online privacy and want to protect yourself, the security firm advises consumers to, "Delete them now." The list of apps includes both predictable items and some surprises:

"1. Angry Birds: If you were an international spying organization, which app would you target to harvest smartphone user information? If you picked Angry Birds, congratulations! You’re thinking just like the NSA and GCHQ did... what it lacks in gameplay, it certainly makes up for in leaky data... A mobile ad platform placed a code snippet in Angry Birds that allowed the company to target advertisements to users based on previously collected information. Unfortunately, the ad’s library of data was visible, meaning it was leaking user information such as phone number, call logs, location, political affiliation, sexual orientation, and marital status..."

"2. The YouVersion Bible App: The YouVersion Bible App is on more than 300 million devices around the world. It claims to be the No. 1 Bible app and comes with over 1,400 Bibles in over 1,000 languages. It also harvests data... Notable permissions the app demands are full internet access, the ability to connect and disconnect to Wi-Fi, modify stored content on the phone, track the device’s location, and read all a user’s contacts..."

Read the full list of sketchy apps at the ExpressVPN site.


How To Do Online Banking Safely And Securely

Most people love the convenience of online banking via their smartphone or other mobile device. However, it is important to do it safely and securely. How? NordVPN listed four items:

"1. Don't lose your phone: The biggest security threat of your mobile phone is also its greatest asset – its size. Phones are small, handy, beautiful, and easy to lose..."

So, keep your phone in your hand. Never place it on a table out of sight. Of course, you should lock your phone with a strong password. NordVPN commented about other locking options:

"Facial recognition: convenient but not secure, since it can sometimes be bypassed with a photograph... Fingerprints: low false-acceptance rates, perfect if you don’t often wear gloves."

More advice:

"2. Use the official banking app, not the browser... If you aren’t careful, you could download a fake banking app created by scammers to break into your account. Make sure your bank created or approves of the app you are downloading. Get it from their website. Moreover, do not use mobile browsers to log in to your bank account – they are less secure than bank-sanctioned apps..."

Obviously, you should sign out of the mobile app when when finished with your online banking session. Otherwise, a thief with your stolen phone has direct access to your money and accounts. NordVPN advises consumers to do your homework first: read app ratings and reviews before downloading any mobile apps.

Readers of this blog are probably familiar with the next item:

"4. Don’t use mobile banking on public Wi-Fi: Anyone on a public Wi-Fi network is in danger of a security breach. Most of these networks lack basic security measures and have poor router configurations and weak passwords..."

Popular places with public Wi-Fi includes coffee shops, fast food restaurants, supermarkets, airports, libraries, and hotels. If you must do online banking in a public place, NordVPN advised:

"... use your cellular network instead. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than public Wi-Fi. Better yet, turn on a virtual private network (VPN) and then use public Wi-Fi..."

There you have it. Read the entire online banking article by NordVPN. Ignore this advice at your own peril.


Study: While Consumers Want Sites Like Facebook And Google To Collect Less Data, Few Want To Pay For Privacy

A recent study by the Center For Data Innovation explored consumers' attitudes about online privacy. One of the primary findings:

"... when potential tradeoffs were not part of the question approximately 80 percent of Americans agreed that they would like online services such as Facebook and Google to collect less of their data..."

So, most survey participants want more online privacy as defined by less data collected about them. That is good news, right? Maybe. The researchers dug deeper to understand survey participants' views about "tradeoffs" - various ways of paying for online privacy. It found that support for more privacy (e.g., less data collected):

"... eroded when respondents considered these tradeoffs... [support] dropped by 6 percentage points when respondents were asked whether they would like online services to collect less data even if it means seeing ads that are less useful. Support dropped by 27 percentage points when respondents considered whether they would like less data collection even if it means seeing more ads than before. And it dropped by 26 percentage points when respondents were asked whether they would like less data collection even if it means losing access to some features they use now."

So, support for more privacy fell if irrelevant ads, more ads, and/or fewer features were the consequences. There is more:

"The largest drop in support (53 percentage points) came when respondents were asked whether they would like online services to collect less of their data even if it means paying a monthly subscription fee."

This led to a second major finding:

"Only one in four Americans want online services such as Facebook and Google to collect less of their data if it means they would have to start paying a monthly subscription fee..."

So, most want privacy but few are willing to pay for it. This is probably reassuring news for executives in a variety of industries (e.g., social media, tech companies, device manufacturers, etc.) to keep doing what they are doing: massive data collection of consumers' data via sites, mobile apps, partnerships, and however else they can get it.

Next, the survey asked participants if they would accept more data collection if that provided more benefits:

"... approximately 74 percent of Americans opposed having online services such as Google and Facebook collect more of their data. But that opposition decreased by 11 percentage points... if it means seeing ads that are more useful. It dropped by 17 percentage points... if it means seeing fewer ads than before and... if it means getting access to new features they would use. The largest decrease in opposition (18 percentage points) came... if it means getting more free apps and services..."

So, while most consumers want online privacy, they can be easily persuaded to abandon their positions with promises of more benefits. The survey included a national online poll of 3,240 U.S. adult Internet users. It was conducted December 13 - 16, 2018.

What to make of these survey results? Americans are fickle and lazy. We say we want online privacy, but few are willing to pay for it. While nothing in life is free, few consumers seem to realize that this advice applies to online privacy, too. Plus, consumers seem to highly value convenience regardless of the consequences.

What do you think?


New Vermont Law Regulating Data Brokers Drives 120 Businesses From The Shadows

In May of 2018, Vermont was the first (and only) state in the nation to enact a law regulating data brokers. According to the Vermont Secretary of State, a data broker is defined as:

"... a business, or unit or units of a business, separately or together, that knowingly collects and sells or licenses to third parties the brokered personal information of a consumer with whom the business does not have a direct relationship."

The Vermont Secretary of State's website contains links to the new law and more. This new law is important for several reasons. First, many businesses operate as data brokers. Second, consumers historically haven't known who has information about them, nor how to review their profiles for accuracy. Third,  consumers haven't been able to opt out of the data collection. Fourth, if you don't know who the data brokers are, then you can't hold them accountable if they fail with data security. According to Vermont law:

"2447. Data broker duty to protect information; standards; technical requirements (a) Duty to protect personally identifiable information. (1) A data broker shall develop, implement, and maintain a comprehensive information security program that is written in one or more readily accessible parts and contains administrative, technical, and physical safeguards that are appropriate... identification and assessment of reasonably foreseeable internal and external risks to the security, confidentiality, and integrity of any electronic, paper, or other records containing personally identifiable information, and a process for evaluating and improving, where necessary, the effectiveness of the current safeguards for limiting such risks... taking reasonable steps to select and retain third-party service providers that are capable of maintaining appropriate security measures to protect personally identifiable information consistent with applicable law; and (B) requiring third-party service providers by contract to implement and maintain appropriate security measures for personally identifiable information..."

Before this law, there was little to no oversight, no regulation, and no responsibility for data brokers to adequately protect sensitive data about consumers. A federal bill proposed in 2014 went nowhere in the U.S. Senate. You can assume that many data brokers operate in your state, too, since there's plenty of money to be made in the industry.

Portions of the new Vermont law went into effect in May, and the remainder went into effect on January 1, 2019. What has happened since then? Fast Company reported:

"So far, 121 companies have registered, according to data from the Vermont secretary of state’s office... The list of active companies includes divisions of the consumer data giant Experian, online people search engines like Spokeo and Spy Dialer, and a variety of lesser-known organizations that do everything from help landlords research potential tenants to deliver marketing leads to the insurance industry..."

The Fast Company site lists the 120 (so far) registered data brokers in Vermont. Regular readers of this blog will recognize some of the data brokers by name, since prior posts covered Acxiom, Equifax, Experian, LexisNexis, the NCTUE, Oracle, Spokeo, TransUnion, and others. (Yes, both credit reporting agencies and social media firms also operate as data brokers. Some states do it, too.) Reportedly, many privacy advocates support the new law:

"There’s companies that I’ve never heard of before," says Zachary Tomanelli, communications and technology director at the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, which supported the law. "It’s often very cumbersome [for consumers] to know where the places are that you have to go, and how you opt out."

Predictably, the industry has opposed (and continues to oppose) the legislation:

"A coalition of industry groups like the Internet Association, the Association of National Advertisers, and the National Association of Professional Background Screeners, as well as now registered data brokers such as Experian, Acxiom, and IHS Markit, said the law was unnecessary... Requiring companies to disclose breaches of largely public data could be burdensome for businesses and needlessly alarming for consumers, they argue... Other companies, like Axciom, have complained that the law establishes inconsistent boundaries around personal data used by third parties, and the first-party data used by companies like Facebook and Google."

So, no companies want consumers to own and control the data -- property -- that describes them. Real property laws matter. To learn more, read about data brokers at the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse site. Related posts in the Data Brokers section of this blog:

Kudos to Vermont lawmakers for ensuring more disclosures and transparency from the industry. Readers may ask their elected officials why their state has not taken similar action. What are your opinions of the new Vermont law?


Brave Alerts FTC On Threats From Business Practices With Big Data

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) held a "Privacy, Big Data, And Competition" hearing on November 6-8, 2018 as part of its "Competition And Consumer Protection in the 21st Century" series of discussions. During that session, the FTC asked for input on several topics:

  1. "What is “big data”? Is there an important technical or policy distinction to be drawn between data and big data?
  2. How have developments involving data – data resources, analytic tools, technology, and business models – changed the understanding and use of personal or commercial information or sensitive data?
  3. Does the importance of data – or large, complex data sets comprising personal or commercial information – in a firm’s ordinary course operations change how the FTC should analyze mergers or firm conduct? If so, how? Does data differ in importance from other assets in assessing firm or industry conduct?
  4. What structural, behavioral or conduct remedies should the FTC consider when remedying antitrust harm in a market or industry where data or personal or commercial information are a significant product or a key competitive input?
  5. Are there policy recommendations that would facilitate competition in markets involving data or personal or commercial information that the FTC should consider?
  6. Do the presence of personal information or privacy concerns inform or change competition analysis?
  7. How do state, federal, and international privacy laws and regulations, adopted to protect data and consumers, affect competition, innovation, and product offerings in the United States and abroad?"

Brave, the developer of a web browser, submitted comments to the FTC which highlighted two concerns:

"First, big tech companies “cross-use” user data from one part of their business to prop up others. This stifles competition, and hurts innovation and consumer choice. Brave suggests that FTC should investigate. Second, the GDPR is emerging as a de facto international standard. Whether this helps or harms United States firms will be determined by whether the United States enacts and actively enforces robust federal privacy laws."

A letter by Dr. Johnny Ryan, the Chief Policy & Industry Relations Officer at Brave, described in detail the company's concerns:

"The cross-use and offensive leveraging of personal information from one line of business to another is likely to have anti-competitive effects. Indeed anti-competitive practices may be inevitable when companies with Google’s degree of market dominance update their privacy policies to include the cross-use of personal information. The result is that a company can leverage all the personal information accumulated from its users in one line of business to dominate other lines of business too. Rather than competing on the merits, the company can enjoy the unfair advantage of massive network effects... The result is that nascent and potential competitors will be stifled, and consumer choice will be limited... The cross-use of data between different lines of business is analogous to the tying of two products. Indeed, tying and cross-use of data can occur at the same time, as Google Chrome’s latest “auto sign in to everything” controversy illustrates..."

Historically, Google let Chrome web browser users decide whether or not to sign in for cross-device usage. The Chrome 69 update forced auto sign-in, but a Chrome 70 update restored users' choice after numerous complaints and criticism.

Regarding topic #7 by the FTC, Brave's response said:

"A de facto international standard appears to be emerging, based on the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)... the application of GDPR-like laws for commercial use of consumers’ personal data in the EU, Britain (post EU), Japan, India, Brazil, South Korea, Malaysia, Argentina, and China bring more than half of global GDP under a common standard. Whether this emerging standard helps or harms United States firms will be determined by whether the United States enacts and actively enforces robust federal privacy laws. Unless there is a federal GDPR-like law in the United States, there may be a degree of friction and the potential of isolation for United States companies... there is an opportunity in this trend. The United States can assume the global lead by adopting the emerging GDPR standard, and by investing in world-leading regulation that pursues test cases, and defines practical standards..."

Currently, companies collect, archive, share, and sell consumers' personal information at will -- often without notice nor consent. While all 50 states and territories have breach notification laws, most states have not upgraded their breach notification laws to include biometric and passport data. While the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) is the federal law which governs healthcare data and related breaches, many consumers share health data with social media sites -- robbing themselves of HIPAA protections.

Moreover, it's an unregulated free-for-all of data collection, archiving, and sharing by telecommunications companies after the revoking in 2017 of broadband privacy protections for consumers in the USA. Plus, laws have historically focused upon "declared data" (e.g., the data users upload or submit into websites or apps) while ignoring "inferred data" -- which is arguably just as sensitive and revealing.

Regarding future federal privacy legislation, Brave added:

"... The GDPR is compatible with a United States view of consumer protection and privacy principles. Indeed, the FTC has proposed important privacy protections to legislators in 2009, and again in 2012 and 2014, which ended up being incorporated in the GDPR. The high-level principles of the GDPR are closely aligned, and often identical to, the United States’ privacy principles... The GDPR also incorporates principles endorsed by the U.S. in the 1980 OECD Guidelines on the Protection of Privacy and Transborder Flows of Personal Data; and the principles endorsed by the United States this year, in Article 19.8 (3) of the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement."

"The GDPR differs from established United States privacy principles in its explicit reference to “proportionality” as a precondition of data use, and in its more robust approach to data minimization and to purpose specification. In our view, a federal law should incorporate these elements too. We also recommend that federal law should adopt the GDPR definitions of concepts such as “personal data”, “legal basis” including opt-in “consent”, “processing”, “special category personal data”, ”profiling”, “data controller”, “automated decision making”, “purpose limitation”, and so forth, and tools such as data protection impact assessments, breach notification, and records of processing activities."

"In keeping with the fair information practice principles (FIPPs) of the 1974 US Privacy Act, Brave recommends that a federal law should require that the collection of personal information is subject to purpose specification. This means that personal information shall only be collected for specific and explicit purposes. Personal information should not used beyond those purposes without consent, unless a further purpose is poses no risk of harm and is compatible with the initial purpose, in which case the data subject should have the opportunity to opt-out."

Submissions by Brave and others are available to the public at the FTC website in the "Public Comments" section.


Study: Privacy Concerns Have Caused Consumers To Change How They Use The Internet

Facebook commissioned a study by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) to understand "internet inclusion" globally, or how people use the Internet, the benefits received, and the obstacles experienced. The latest survey included 5,069 respondents from 100 countries in Asia-Pacific, the Americas, Europe, the Middle East, North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa.

Overall findings in the report cited:

"... cause for both optimism and concern. We are seeing steady progress in the number and percentage of households connected to the Internet, narrowing the gender gap and improving accessibility for people with disabilities. The Internet also has become a crucial tool for employment and obtaining job-related skills. On the other hand, growth in Internet connections is slowing, especially among the lowest income countries, and efforts to close the digital divide are stalling..."

The EIU describes itself as, "the world leader in global business intelligence, to help companies, governments and banks understand changes in the world is changing, seize opportunities created by those changes, and manage associated risks. So, any provider of social media services globally would greatly value the EIU's services.

The chart below highlights some of the benefits mentioned by survey respondents:

Chart-internet-benefits-eiu-2019

Other benefits respondents said: almost three-quarters (74.4%) said the Internet is more effective than other methods for finding jobs; 70.5% said their job prospects have improved due to the Internet; and more. So, job seekers and employers both benefit.

Key findings regarding online privacy (emphasis added):

"... More than half (52.2%) of [survey] respondents say they are not confident about their online privacy, hardly changed from 51.5% in the 2018 survey... Most respondents are changing the way they use the Internet because they believe some information may not remain private. For example, 55.8% of respondents say they limit how much financial information they share online because of privacy concerns. This is relatively consistent across different age groups and household income levels... 42.6% say they limit how much personal health and medical information they share. Only 7.5% of respondents say privacy concerns have not changed the way they use the Internet."

So, the lack of online privacy affects how people use the internet -- for business and pleasure. The chart below highlights the types of online changes:

Chart-internet-usage-eiu-2019

Findings regarding privacy and online shopping:

"Despite lingering privacy concerns, people are increasingly shopping online. Whether this continues in the future may hinge on attitudes toward online safety and security... A majority of respondents say that making online purchases is safe and secure, but, at 58.8% it was slightly lower than the 62.1% recorded in the 2018 survey."

So, the percentage of respondents who said online purchases as safe and secure went in the wrong direction -- down. Not good. There were regional differences, too, about online privacy:

"In Europe, the share of respondents confident about their online privacy increased by 8 percentage points from the 2018 survey, probably because of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the EU’s comprehensive data privacy rules that came into force in May 2018. However, the Middle East and North Africa region saw a decline of 9 percentage points compared with the 2018 survey."

So, sensible legislation to protect consumers' online privacy can have positive impacts. There were other regional differences:

"Trust in online sources of information remained relatively stable, except in the West. Political turbulence in the US and UK may have played a role in causing the share of respondents in North America and Europe who say they trust information on government websites and apps to retreat by 10 percentage points and 6 percentage points, respectively, compared with the 2018 survey."

So, stability is important. The report's authors concluded:

"The survey also reflects anxiety about online privacy and a decline in trust in some sources of information. Indeed, trust in government information has fallen since last year in Europe and North America. The growth and importance of the digital economy will mean that alleviating these anxieties should be a priority of companies, governments, regulators and developers."

Addressing those anxieties is critical, if governments in the West are serious about facilitating business growth via consumer confidence and internet usage. Download the Inclusive Internet Index 2019 Executive Summary (Adobe PDF) report.


New Bill In California To Strengthen Its Consumer Privacy Law

Lawmakers in California have proposed legislation to strengthen the state's existing privacy law. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra and and Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson jointly announced Senate Bill 561, to improve the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA). According to the announcement:

"SB 561 helps improve the workability of the [CCPA] by clarifying the Attorney General’s advisory role in providing general guidance on the law, ensuring a level playing field for businesses that play by the rules, and giving consumers the ability to enforce their new rights under the CCPA in court... SB 561 removes requirements that the Office of the Attorney General provide, at taxpayers’ expense, businesses and private parties with individual legal counsel on CCPA compliance; removes language that allows companies a free pass to cure CCPA violations before enforcement can occur; and adds a private right of action, allowing consumers the opportunity to seek legal remedies for themselves under the act..."

Senator Jackson introduced the proposed legislation into the sate Senate. Enacted in 2018, the CCPA will go into effect on January 1, 2020. The law prohibits businesses from discriminating against consumers for exercising their rights under the CCPA. The law also includes several key requirements businesses must comply with:

  • "Businesses must disclose data collection and sharing practices to consumers;
  • Consumers have a right to request their data be deleted;
  • Consumers have a right to opt out of the sale or sharing of their personal information; and
  • Businesses are prohibited from selling personal information of consumers under the age of 16 without explicit consent."

State Senator Jackson said in a statement:

"Our constitutional right to privacy continues to face unprecedented assault. Our locations, relationships, and interests are being tracked without our knowledge, bought and sold by corporate interests for their own economic gain and conducted in order to manipulate us... With the passage of the California Consumer Privacy Act last year, California took an important first step in protecting our fundamental right to privacy. SB 561 will ensure that the most significant privacy protections in the nation are effectively and robustly enforced."

Predictably, the pro-business lobby opposes the legislation. The Sacramento Bee reported:

"Punishment may be an incentive to increase compliance, but — especially where a law is new and vague — eliminating a right to cure does not promote compliance," the California Chamber of Commerce released in a statement on February 25. "SB 561 will not only hurt and possibly bankrupt small businesses in the state, it will kill jobs and innovation."

Sounds to me like fearmongering by the Chamber. Senator Jackson has it right. From the same Sacramento Bee article:

"If you don’t violate the law, you won’t get sued... To have very little recourse when these violations occur means that these large companies can continue with their inappropriate, improper behavior without any kind of recourse and sanction. In order to make sure they comply with the law, we need to make sure that people are able to exercise their rights."

Precisely. Two concepts seem to apply:

  • If you can't protect it, don't collect it (e.g.,  consumers' personal information), and
  • If the data collected is so value, compensate consumers for it

Regarding the second item, the National Law Review reported:

"Much has been made of California Governor Gavin Newsom’s recent endorsement of “data dividends”: payments to consumers for the use of their personal data. Common Sense Media, which helped pass the CCPA last year, plans to propose legislation in California to create such a dividend. The proposal has already proven popular with the public..."

Laws like the CCPA seem to be the way forward. Kudos to California for moving to better protect consumers. This proposed update puts teeth into existing law. Hopefully, other states will follow soon.


UK Parliamentary Committee Issued Its Final Report on Disinformation And Fake News. Facebook And Six4Three Discussed

On February 18th, a United Kingdom (UK) parliamentary committee published its final report on disinformation and "fake news." The 109-page report by the Digital, Culture, Media, And Sport Committee (DCMS) updates its interim report from July, 2018.

The report covers many issues: political advertising (by unnamed entities called "dark adverts"), Brexit and UK elections, data breaches, privacy, and recommendations for UK regulators and government officials. It seems wise to understand the report's findings regarding the business practices of U.S.-based companies mentioned, since these companies' business practices affect consumers globally, including consumers in the United States.

Issues Identified

First, the DCMS' final report built upon issues identified in its:

"... Interim Report: the definition, role and legal liabilities of social media platforms; data misuse and targeting, based around the Facebook, Cambridge Analytica and Aggregate IQ (AIQ) allegations, including evidence from the documents we obtained from Six4Three about Facebook’s knowledge of and participation in data-sharing; political campaigning; Russian influence in political campaigns; SCL influence in foreign elections; and digital literacy..."

The final report includes input from 23 "oral evidence sessions," more than 170 written submissions, interviews of at least 73 witnesses, and more than 4,350 questions asked at hearings. The DCMS Committee sought input from individuals, organizations, industry experts, and other governments. Some of the information sources:

"The Canadian Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics published its report, “Democracy under threat: risks and solutions in the era of disinformation and data monopoly” in December 2018. The report highlights the Canadian Committee’s study of the breach of personal data involving Cambridge Analytica and Facebook, and broader issues concerning the use of personal data by social media companies and the way in which such companies are responsible for the spreading of misinformation and disinformation... The U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has an ongoing investigation into the extent of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections. As a result of data sets provided by Facebook, Twitter and Google to the Intelligence Committee -- under its Technical Advisory Group -- two third-party reports were published in December 2018. New Knowledge, an information integrity company, published “The Tactics and Tropes of the Internet Research Agency,” which highlights the Internet Research Agency’s tactics and messages in manipulating and influencing Americans... The Computational Propaganda Research Project and Graphika published the second report, which looks at activities of known Internet Research Agency accounts, using Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube between 2013 and 2018, to impact US users"

Why Disinformation

Second, definitions matter. According to the DCMS Committee:

"We have even changed the title of our inquiry from “fake news” to “disinformation and ‘fake news’”, as the term ‘fake news’ has developed its own, loaded meaning. As we said in our Interim Report, ‘fake news’ has been used to describe content that a reader might dislike or disagree with... We were pleased that the UK Government accepted our view that the term ‘fake news’ is misleading, and instead sought to address the terms ‘disinformation’ and ‘misinformation'..."

Overall Recommendations

Summary recommendations from the report:

  1. "Compulsory Code of Ethics for tech companies overseen by independent regulator,
  2. Regulator given powers to launch legal action against companies breaching code,
  3. Government to reform current electoral communications laws and rules on overseas involvement in UK elections, and
  4. Social media companies obliged to take down known sources of harmful content, including proven sources of disinformation"

Role And Liability Of Tech Companies

Regarding detailed observations and findings about the role and liability of tech companies, the report stated:

"Social media companies cannot hide behind the claim of being merely a ‘platform’ and maintain that they have no responsibility themselves in regulating the content of their sites. We repeat the recommendation from our Interim Report that a new category of tech company is formulated, which tightens tech companies’ liabilities, and which is not necessarily either a ‘platform’ or a ‘publisher’. This approach would see the tech companies assume legal liability for content identified as harmful after it has been posted by users. We ask the Government to consider this new category of tech company..."

The UK Government and its regulators may adopt some, all, or none of the report's recommendations. More observations and findings in the report:

"... both social media companies and search engines use algorithms, or sequences of instructions, to personalize news and other content for users. The algorithms select content based on factors such as a user’s past online activity, social connections, and their location. The tech companies’ business models rely on revenue coming from the sale of adverts and, because the bottom line is profit, any form of content that increases profit will always be prioritized. Therefore, negative stories will always be prioritized by algorithms, as they are shared more frequently than positive stories... Just as information about the tech companies themselves needs to be more transparent, so does information about their algorithms. These can carry inherent biases, as a result of the way that they are developed by engineers... Monika Bickert, from Facebook, admitted that Facebook was concerned about “any type of bias, whether gender bias, racial bias or other forms of bias that could affect the way that work is done at our company. That includes working on algorithms.” Facebook should be taking a more active and urgent role in tackling such inherent biases..."

Based upon this, the report recommended that the UK's new Centre For Ethics And Innovation (CFEI) should play a key role as an advisor to the UK Government by continually analyzing and anticipating gaps in governance and regulation, suggesting best practices and corporate codes of conduct, and standards for artificial intelligence (AI) and related technologies.

Inferred Data

The report also discussed a critical issue related to algorithms (emphasis added):

"... When Mark Zuckerberg gave evidence to Congress in April 2018, in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, he made the following claim: “You should have complete control over your data […] If we’re not communicating this clearly, that’s a big thing we should work on”. When asked who owns “the virtual you”, Zuckerberg replied that people themselves own all the “content” they upload, and can delete it at will. However, the advertising profile that Facebook builds up about users cannot be accessed, controlled or deleted by those users... In the UK, the protection of user data is covered by the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). However, ‘inferred’ data is not protected; this includes characteristics that may be inferred about a user not based on specific information they have shared, but through analysis of their data profile. This, for example, allows political parties to identify supporters on sites like Facebook, through the data profile matching and the ‘lookalike audience’ advertising targeting tool... Inferred data is therefore regarded by the ICO as personal data, which becomes a problem when users are told that they can own their own data, and that they have power of where that data goes and what it is used for..."

The distinction between uploaded and inferred data cannot be overemphasized. It is critical when evaluating tech companies statements, policies (e.g., privacy, terms of use), and promises about what "data" users have control over. Wise consumers must insist upon clear definitions to avoided getting misled or duped.

What might be an exampled of inferred data? What comes to mind is Facebook's Ad Preferences feature allows users to review and delete the "Interests" -- advertising categories -- Facebook assigns to each user's profile. (The service's algorithms assign Interests based groups/pages/events/advertisements users "Liked" or clicked on, posts submitted, posts commented upon, and more.) These "Interests" are inferred data, since Facebook assigned them, and uers didn't.

In fact, Facebook doesn't notify its users when it assigns new Interests. It just does it. And, Facebook can assign Interests whether you interacted with an item once or many times. How relevant is an Interest assigned after a single interaction, "Like," or click? Most people would say: not relevant. So, does the Interests list assigned to users' profiles accurately describe users? Do Facebook users own the Interests list assigned to their profiles? Any control Facebook users have seems minimal. Why? Facebook users can delete Interests assigned to their profiles, but users cannot stop Facebook from applying new Interests. Users cannot prevent Facebook from re-applying Interests previously deleted. Deleting Interests doesn't reduce the number of ads users see on Facebook.

The only way to know what Interests have been assigned is for Facebook users to visit the Ad Preferences section of their profiles, and browse the list. Depending how frequently a person uses Facebook, it may be necessary to prune an Interests list at least once monthly -- a cumbersome and time consuming task, probably designed that way to discourage reviews and pruning. And, that's one example of inferred data. There are probably plenty more examples, and as the report emphasizes users don't have access to all inferred data with their profiles.

Now, back to the report. To fix problems with inferred data, the DCMS recommended:

"We support the recommendation from the ICO that inferred data should be as protected under the law as personal information. Protections of privacy law should be extended beyond personal information to include models used to make inferences about an individual. We recommend that the Government studies the way in which the protections of privacy law can be expanded to include models that are used to make inferences about individuals, in particular during political campaigning. This will ensure that inferences about individuals are treated as importantly as individuals’ personal information."

Business Practices At Facebook

Next, the DCMS Committee's report said plenty about Facebook, its management style, and executives (emphasis added):

"Despite all the apologies for past mistakes that Facebook has made, it still seems unwilling to be properly scrutinized... Ashkan Soltani, an independent researcher and consultant, and former Chief Technologist to the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC), called into question Facebook’s willingness to be regulated... He discussed the California Consumer Privacy Act, which Facebook supported in public, but lobbied against, behind the scenes... By choosing not to appear before the Committee and by choosing not to respond personally to any of our invitations, Mark Zuckerberg has shown contempt towards both the UK Parliament and the ‘International Grand Committee’, involving members from nine legislatures from around the world. The management structure of Facebook is opaque to those outside the business and this seemed to be designed to conceal knowledge of and responsibility for specific decisions. Facebook used the strategy of sending witnesses who they said were the most appropriate representatives, yet had not been properly briefed on crucial issues, and could not or chose not to answer many of our questions. They then promised to follow up with letters, which -- unsurprisingly -- failed to address all of our questions. We are left in no doubt that this strategy was deliberate."

So, based upon Facebook's actions (or lack thereof), the DCMS concluded that Facebook executives intentionally ducked and dodged issues and questions.

While discussing data use and targeting, the report said more about data breaches and Facebook:

"The scale and importance of the GSR/Cambridge Analytica breach was such that its occurrence should have been referred to Mark Zuckerberg as its CEO immediately. The fact that it was not is evidence that Facebook did not treat the breach with the seriousness it merited. It was a profound failure of governance within Facebook that its CEO did not know what was going on, the company now maintains, until the issue became public to us all in 2018. The incident displays the fundamental weakness of Facebook in managing its responsibilities to the people whose data is used for its own commercial interests..."

So, internal management failed. That's not all. After a detailed review of the GSR/Cambridge Analytica breach and Facebook's 2011 Consent Decree with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the DCMS Committee concluded (emphasis and text link added):

"The Cambridge Analytica scandal was facilitated by Facebook’s policies. If it had fully complied with the FTC settlement, it would not have happened. The FTC Complaint of 2011 ruled against Facebook -- for not protecting users’ data and for letting app developers gain as much access to user data as they liked, without restraint -- and stated that Facebook built their company in a way that made data abuses easy. When asked about Facebook’s failure to act on the FTC’s complaint, Elizabeth Denham, the Information Commissioner, told us: “I am very disappointed that Facebook, being such an innovative company, could not have put more focus, attention and resources into protecting people’s data”. We are equally disappointed."

Wow! Not good. There's more:

"... a current court case at the San Mateo Superior Court in California also concerns Facebook’s data practices. It is alleged that Facebook violated the privacy of US citizens by actively exploiting its privacy policy... The published ‘corrected memorandum of points and authorities to defendants’ special motions to strike’, by the complainant in the case, the U.S.-based app developer Six4Three, describes the allegations against Facebook; that Facebook used its users’ data to persuade app developers to create platforms on its system, by promising access to users’ data, including access to data of users’ friends. The case also alleges that those developers that became successful were targeted and ordered to pay money to Facebook... Six4Three lodged its original case in 2015, after Facebook removed developers’ access to friends’ data, including its own. The DCMS Committee took the unusual, but lawful, step of obtaining these documents, which spanned between 2012 and 2014... Since we published these sealed documents, on 14 January 2019 another court agreed to unseal 135 pages of internal Facebook memos, strategies and employee emails from between 2012 and 2014, connected with Facebook’s inappropriate profiting from business transactions with children. A New York Times investigation published in December 2018 based on internal Facebook documents also revealed that the company had offered preferential access to users data to other major technology companies, including Microsoft, Amazon and Spotify."

"We believed that our publishing the documents was in the public interest and would also be of interest to regulatory bodies... The documents highlight Facebook’s aggressive action against certain apps, including denying them access to data that they were originally promised. They highlight the link between friends’ data and the financial value of the developers’ relationship with Facebook. The main issues concern: ‘white lists’; the value of friends’ data; reciprocity; the sharing of data of users owning Android phones..."

You can read the report's detailed descriptions of those issues. A summary: a) Facebook allegedly used promises of access to users' data to lure developers (often by overriding Facebook users' privacy settings); b) some developers got priority treatment based upon unclear criteria; c) developers who didn't spend enough money with Facebook were denied access to data previously promised; d) Facebook's reciprocity clause demanded that developers also share their users' data with Facebook; e) Facebook's mobile app for Android OS phone users collected far more data about users, allegedly without consent, than users were told; and f) Facebook allegedly targeted certain app developers (emphasis added):

"We received evidence that showed that Facebook not only targeted developers to increase revenue, but also sought to switch off apps where it considered them to be in competition or operating in a lucrative areas of its platform and vulnerable to takeover. Since 1970, the US has possessed high-profile federal legislation, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO); and many individual states have since adopted similar laws. Originally aimed at tackling organized crime syndicates, it has also been used in business cases and has provisions for civil action for damages in RICO-covered offenses... Despite specific requests, Facebook has not provided us with one example of a business excluded from its platform because of serious data breaches. We believe that is because it only ever takes action when breaches become public. We consider that data transfer for value is Facebook’s business model and that Mark Zuckerberg’s statement that “we’ve never sold anyone’s data” is simply untrue.” The evidence that we obtained from the Six4Three court documents indicates that Facebook was willing to override its users’ privacy settings in order to transfer data to some app developers, to charge high prices in advertising to some developers, for the exchange of that data, and to starve some developers—such as Six4Three—of that data, thereby causing them to lose their business. It seems clear that Facebook was, at the very least, in violation of its Federal Trade Commission settlement."

"The Information Commissioner told the Committee that Facebook needs to significantly change its business model and its practices to maintain trust. From the documents we received from Six4Three, it is evident that Facebook intentionally and knowingly violated both data privacy and anti-competition laws. The ICO should carry out a detailed investigation into the practices of the Facebook Platform, its use of users’ and users’ friends’ data, and the use of ‘reciprocity’ of the sharing of data."

The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) is one of the regulatory agencies within the UK. So, the Committee concluded that Facebook's real business model is, "data transfer for value" -- in other words: have money, get access to data (regardless of Facebook users' privacy settings).

One quickly gets the impression that Facebook acted like a monopoly in its treatment of both users and developers... or worse, like organized crime. The report concluded (emphasis added):

"The Competitions and Market Authority (CMA) should conduct a comprehensive audit of the operation of the advertising market on social media. The Committee made this recommendation its interim report, and we are pleased that it has also been supported in the independent Cairncross Report commissioned by the government and published in February 2019. Given the contents of the Six4Three documents that we have published, it should also investigate whether Facebook specifically has been involved in any anti-competitive practices and conduct a review of Facebook’s business practices towards other developers, to decide whether Facebook is unfairly using its dominant market position in social media to decide which businesses should succeed or fail... Companies like Facebook should not be allowed to behave like ‘digital gangsters’ in the online world, considering themselves to be ahead of and beyond the law."

The DCMS Committee's report also discussed findings from the Cairncross Report. In summary, Damian Collins MP, Chair of the DCMS Committee, said:

“... we cannot delay any longer. Democracy is at risk from the malicious and relentless targeting of citizens with disinformation and personalized ‘dark adverts’ from unidentifiable sources, delivered through the major social media platforms we use everyday. Much of this is directed from agencies working in foreign countries, including Russia... Companies like Facebook exercise massive market power which enables them to make money by bullying the smaller technology companies and developers... We need a radical shift in the balance of power between the platforms and the people. The age of inadequate self regulation must come to an end. The rights of the citizen need to be established in statute, by requiring the tech companies to adhere to a code of conduct..."

So, the report seems extensive, comprehensive, and detailed. Read the DCMS Committee's announcement, and/or download the full DCMS Committee report (Adobe PDF format, 3,5o7 kilobytes).

Once can assume that governments' intelligence and spy agencies will continue to do what they've always done: collect data about targets and adversaries, use disinformation and other tools to attempt to meddle in other governments' activities. It is clear that social media makes these tasks far easier than before. The DCMS Committee's report provided recommendations about what the UK Government's response should be. Other countries' governments face similar decisions about their responses, if any, to the threats.

Given the data in the DCMS report, it will be interesting to see how the FTC and lawmakers in the United States respond. If increased regulation of social media results, tech companies arguably have only themselves to blame. What do you think?


Popular iOS Apps Record All In-App Activity Causing Privacy, Data Security, And Other Issues

As the internet has evolved, the user testing and market research practices have also evolved. This may surprise consumers. TechCrunch reported that many popular Apple mobile apps record everything customers do with the apps:

"Apps like Abercrombie & Fitch, Hotels.com and Singapore Airlines also use Glassbox, a customer experience analytics firm, one of a handful of companies that allows developers to embed “session replay” technology into their apps. These session replays let app developers record the screen and play them back to see how its users interacted with the app to figure out if something didn’t work or if there was an error. Every tap, button push and keyboard entry is recorded — effectively screenshotted — and sent back to the app developers."

So, customers' entire app sessions and activities have been recorded. Of course, marketers need to understand their customers' needs, and how users interact with their mobile apps, to build better products, services, and apps. However, in doing so some apps have security vulnerabilities:

"The App Analyst... recently found Air Canada’s iPhone app wasn’t properly masking the session replays when they were sent, exposing passport numbers and credit card data in each replay session. Just weeks earlier, Air Canada said its app had a data breach, exposing 20,000 profiles."

Not good for a couple reasons. First, sensitive data like payment information (e.g., credit/debit card numbers, passport numbers, bank account numbers, etc.) should be masked. Second, when sensitive information isn't masked, more data security problems arise. How long is this app usage data archived? What employees, contractors, and business partners have access to the archive? What security methods are used to protect the archive from abuse?

In short, unauthorized persons may have access to the archives and the sensitive information contained. For example, market researchers probably have little or no need to specific customers' payment information. Sensitive information in these archives should be encrypted, to provide the best protection from abuse and from data breaches.

Sadly, there is more bad news:

"Apps that are submitted to Apple’s App Store must have a privacy policy, but none of the apps we reviewed make it clear in their policies that they record a user’s screen... Expedia’s policy makes no mention of recording your screen, nor does Hotels.com’s policy. And in Air Canada’s case, we couldn’t spot a single line in its iOS terms and conditions or privacy policy that suggests the iPhone app sends screen data back to the airline. And in Singapore Airlines’ privacy policy, there’s no mention, either."

So, the app session recordings were done covertly... without explicit language to provide meaningful and clear notice to consumers. I encourage everyone to read the entire TechCrunch article, which also includes responses by some of the companies mentioned. In my opinion, most of the responses fell far short with lame, boilerplate statements.

All of this is very troubling. And, there is more.

The TechCrunch article didn't discuss it, but historically companies hired testing firms to recruit user test participants -- usually current and prospective customers. Test participants were paid for their time. (I know because as a former user experience professional I conducted such in-person test sessions where clients paid test participants.) Things have changed. Not only has user testing and research migrated online, but companies use automated tools to perform perpetual, unannounced user testing -- all without compensating test participants.

While change is inevitable, not all change is good. Plus, things can be done in better ways. If the test information is that valuable, then pay test participants. Otherwise, this seems like another example of corporate greed at consumers' expense. And, it's especially egregious if data transmissions of the recorded app sessions to developers' servers use up cellular data plan capacity consumers paid for. Some consumers (e.g., elders, children, the poor) cannot afford the costs of unlimited cellular data plans.

After this TechCrunch report, Apple notified developers to either stop or disclose screen recording:

"Protecting user privacy is paramount in the Apple ecosystem. Our App Store Review Guidelines require that apps request explicit user consent and provide a clear visual indication when recording, logging, or otherwise making a record of user activity... We have notified the developers that are in violation of these strict privacy terms and guidelines, and will take immediate action if necessary..."

Good. That's a start. Still, user testing and market research is not a free pass for developers to ignore or skip data security best practices. Given these covert recorded app sessions, mobile apps must be continually tested. Otherwise, some ethically-challenged companies may re-introduce covert screen recording features. What are your opinions?


Survey: People In Relationships Spy On Cheating Partners. FTC: Singles Looking For Love Are The Biggest Target Of Scammers

Happy Valentine's Day! First, BestVPN announced the results of a survey of 1,000 adults globally about relationships and trust in today's digital age where social media usage is very popular. Key findings:

"... nearly 30% of respondents admitted to using tracking apps to catch a partner [suspected of or cheating]. After all, over a quarter of those caught cheating were busted by modern technology... 85% of those caught out in the past now take additional steps to protect their privacy, including deleting their browsing data or using a private browsing mode."

Below is an infographic with more findings from the survey.

Valentines-day-infograph-bestvpn-feb2019

Second, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued a warning earlier this week about fraud affecting single persons:

"... romance scams generated more reported losses than any other consumer fraud type reported to the agency... The number of romance scams reported to the FTC has grown from 8,500 in 2015 to more than 21,000 in 2018, while reported losses to these scams more than quadrupled in recent years—from $33 million in 2015 to $143 million last year. For those who said they lost money to a romance scam, the median reported loss was $2,600, with those 70 and over reporting the biggest median losses at $10,000."

"Romance scammers often find their victims online through a dating site or app or via social media. These scammers create phony profiles that often involve the use of a stranger’s photo they have found online. The goals of these scams are often the same: to gain the victim’s trust and love in order to get them to send money through a wire transfer, gift card, or other means."

So, be careful out there. Don't cheat, and beware of scammers and dating imposters. You have been warned.


Senators Demand Answers From Facebook And Google About Project Atlas And Screenwise Meter Programs

After news reports surfaced about Facebook's Project Atlas, a secret program where Facebook paid teenagers (and other users) for a research app installed on their phones to track and collect information about their mobile usage, several United States Senators have demanded explanations. Three Senators sent a join letter on February 7, 2019 to Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's chief executive officer.

The joint letter to Facebook (Adobe PDF format) stated, in part:

"We write concerned about reports that Facebook is collecting highly-sensitive data on teenagers, including their web browsing, phone use, communications, and locations -- all to profile their behavior without adequate disclosure, consent, or oversight. These reports fit with Longstanding concerns that Facebook has used its products to deeply intrude into personal privacy... According to a journalist who attempted to register as a teen, the linked registration page failed to impose meaningful checks on parental consent. Facebook has more rigorous mechanism to obtain and verify parental consent, such as when it is required to sign up for Messenger Kids... Facebook's monitoring under Project Atlas is particularly concerning because the data data collection performed by the research app was deeply invasive. Facebook's registration process encouraged participants to "set it and forget it," warning that if a participant disconnected from the monitoring for more than ten minutes for a few days, that they could be disqualified. Behind the scenes, the app watched everything on the phone."

The letter included another example highlighting the alleged lack of meaningful disclosures:

"... the app added a VPN connection that would automatically route all of a participant's traffic through Facebook's servers. The app installed a SSL root certificate on the participant's phone, which would allow Facebook to intercept or modify data sent to encrypted websites. As a result, Facebook would have limitless access to monitor normally secure web traffic, even allowing Facebook to watch an individual log into their bank account or exchange pictures with their family. None of the disclosures provided at registration offer a meaningful explanation about how the sensitive data is used, how long it is kept, or who within Facebook has access to it..."

The letter was signed by Senators Richard Blumenthal (Democrat, Connecticut), Edward J. Markey (Democrat, Massachusetts), and Josh Hawley (Republican, Mississippi). Based upon news reports about how Facebook's Research App operated with similar functionality to the Onavo VPN app which was banned last year by Apple, the Senators concluded:

"Faced with that ban, Facebook appears to have circumvented Apple's attempts to protect consumers."

The joint letter also listed twelve questions the Senators want detailed answers about. Below are selected questions from that list:

"1. When did Project Atlas begin and how many individuals participated? How many participants were under age 18?"

"3. Why did Facebook use a less strict mechanism for verifying parental consent than is Required for Messenger Kids or Global Data Protection Requlation (GDPR) compliance?"

"4.What specific types of data was collected (e.g., device identifieers, usage of specific applications, content of messages, friends lists, locations, et al.)?"

"5. Did Facebook use the root certificate installed on a participant's device by the Project Atlas app to decrypt and inspect encrypted web traffic? Did this monitoring include analysis or retention of application-layer content?"

"7. Were app usage data or communications content collected by Project Atlas ever reviewed by or available to Facebook personnel or employees of Facebook partners?"

8." Given that Project Atlas acknowledged the collection of "data about [users'] activities and content within those apps," did Facebook ever collect or retain the private messages, photos, or other communications sent or received over non-Facebook products?"

"11. Why did Facebook bypass Apple's app review? Has Facebook bypassed the App Store aproval processing using enterprise certificates for any other app that was used for non-internal purposes? If so, please list and describe those apps."

Read the entire letter to Facebook (Adobe PDF format). Also on February 7th, the Senators sent a similar letter to Google (Adobe PDF format), addressed to Hiroshi Lockheimer, the Senior Vice President of Platforms & Ecosystems. It stated in part:

"TechCrunch has subsequently reported that Google maintained its own measurement program called "Screenwise Meter," which raises similar concerns as Project Atlas. The Screenwise Meter app also bypassed the App Store using an enterprise certificate and installed a VPN service in order to monitor phones... While Google has since removed the app, questions remain about why it had gone outside Apple's review process to run the monitoring program. Platforms must maintain and consistently enforce clear policies on the monitoring of teens and what constitutes meaningful parental consent..."

The letter to Google includes a similar list of eight questions the Senators seek detailed answers about. Some notable questions:

"5. Why did Google bypass App Store approval for Screenwise Meter app using enterprise certificates? Has Google bypassed the App Store approval processing using enterprise certificates for any other non-internal app? If so, please list and describe those apps."

"6. What measures did Google have in place to ensure that teenage participants in Screenwise Meter had authentic parental consent?"

"7. Given that Apple removed Onavoo protect from the App Store for violating its terms of service regarding privacy, why has Google continued to allow the Onavo Protect app to be available on the Play Store?"

The lawmakers have asked for responses by March 1st. Thanks to all three Senators for protecting consumers' -- and children's -- privacy... and for enforcing transparency and accountability.


Technology And Human Rights Organizations Sent Joint Letter Urging House Representatives Not To Fund 'Invasive Surveillance' Tech Instead of A Border Wall

More than two dozen technology and human rights organizations sent a joint letter Tuesday to representatives in the House of Representatives, urging them not to fund "invasive surveillance technologies" in replacement of a physical wall or barrier along the southern border of the United States. The joint letter cited five concerns:

"1. Risk-based targeting: The proposal calls for “an expansion of risk-based targeting of passengers and cargo entering the United States.” We are concerned that this includes the expansion of programs — proven to be ineffective and to exacerbate racial profiling — that use mathematical analytics to make targeting determinations. All too often, these systems replicate the biases of their programmers, burden vulnerable communities, lack democratic transparency, and encourage the collection and analysis of ever-increasing amounts of data... 3. Biometrics: The proposal calls for “new cutting edge technology” at the border. If that includes new face surveillance like that deployed at international airline departures, it should not. Senator Jeff Merkley and the Congressional Black Caucus have expressed serious concern that facial recognition technology would place “disproportionate burdens on communities of color and could stifle Americans’ willingness to exercise their first amendment rights in public.” In addition, use of other biometrics, including iris scans and voice recognition, also raise significant privacy concerns... 5. Biometric and DNA data: We oppose biometric screening at the border and the collection of immigrants’ DNA, and fear this may be another form of “new cutting edge technology” under consideration. We are concerned about the threat that any collected biometric data will be stolen or misused, as well as the potential for such programs to be expanded far beyond their original scope..."

The letter was sent to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Minority Leader Steny Hoyer, Minority Whip Steve Scalise, Chair Nita Lowey a Ranking Member of House Appropriations, and Kay Granger of the House Appropriations committee.

27 organizations signed the joint letter, including Fight for the Future, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the Center for Media Justice, the Project On Government Oversight, and others. Read the entire letter.

Earlier this month, a structural and civil engineer cited several reasons why a physical wall won't work and would be vastly more expensive than the $5.7 billion requested.

Clearly, the are distinct advantages and disadvantages for each and all border-protection solutions the House and President are considering. It is a complex problem. These advantages and disadvantages of all proposals need to be clear, transparent, and understood by taxpayers prior to any final decisions.


Facebook Paid Teens To Install Unauthorized Spyware On Their Phones. Plenty Of Questions Remain

Facebook logoWhile today is the 15th anniversary of Facebook,  more important news rules. Last week featured plenty of news about Facebook. TechCrunch reported on Tuesday:

"Since 2016, Facebook has been paying users ages 13 to 35 up to $20 per month plus referral fees to sell their privacy by installing the iOS or Android “Facebook Research” app. Facebook even asked users to screenshot their Amazon order history page. The program is administered through beta testing services Applause, BetaBound and uTest to cloak Facebook’s involvement, and is referred to in some documentation as “Project Atlas” — a fitting name for Facebook’s effort to map new trends and rivals around the globe... Facebook admitted to TechCrunch it was running the Research program to gather data on usage habits."

So, teenagers installed surveillance software on their phones and tablets, to spy for Facebook on themselves, Facebook's competitors,, and others. This is huge news for several reasons. First, the "Facebook Research" app is VPN (Virtual Private Network) software which:

"... lets the company suck in all of a user’s phone and web activity, similar to Facebook’s Onavo Protect app that Apple banned in June and that was removed in August. Facebook sidesteps the App Store and rewards teenagers and adults to download the Research app and give it root access to network traffic in what may be a violation of Apple policy..."

Reportedly, the Research app collected massive amounts of information: private messages in social media apps, chats from in instant messaging apps, photos/videos sent to others, emails, web searches, web browsing activity, and geo-location data. So, a very intrusive app. And, after being forced to remove oneintrusive app from Apple's store, Facebook continued anyway -- with another app that performed the same function. Not good.

Second, there is the moral issue of using the youngest users as spies... persons who arguably have the lease experience and skills at reading complex documents: corporate terms-of-use and privacy policies. I wonder how many teenagers notified their friends of the spying and data collection. How many teenagers fully understood what they were doing? How many parents were aware of the activity and payments? How many parents notified the parents of their children's friends? How many teens installed the spyware on both their iPhones and iPads? Lots of unanswered questions.

Third, Apple responded quickly. TechCrunch reported Wednesday morning:

"... Apple blocked Facebook’s Research VPN app before the social network could voluntarily shut it down... Apple tells TechCrunch that yesterday evening it revoked the Enterprise Certificate that allows Facebook to distribute the Research app without going through the App Store."

Facebook's usage of the Enterprise Certificate is significant. TechCrunch also published a statement by Apple:

"We designed our Enterprise Developer Program solely for the internal distribution of apps within an organization... Facebook has been using their membership to distribute a data-collecting app to consumers, which is a clear breach of their agreement with Apple. Any developer using their enterprise certificates to distribute apps to consumers will have their certificates revoked..."

So, the Research app violated Apple's policy. Not good. The app also performs similar functions as the banned Onavo VPN app. Worse. This sounds like an end-run to me. So as punishment for its end-run actions, Apple temporarily disable the certificates for internal corporate apps.

Axios described very well Facebook's behavior:

"Facebook took a program designed to let businesses internally test their own app and used it to monitor most, if not everything, a user did on their phone — a degree of surveillance barred in the official App Store."

And the animated Facebook image in the Axios article sure looks like a liar-liar-logo-on-fire image. LOL! Pure gold! Seriously, Facebook's behavior indicates questionable ethics, and/or an expectation of not getting caught. Reportedly, the internal apps which were shut down included shuttle schedules, campus maps, and company calendars. After that, some Facebook employees discussed quitting.

And, it raises more questions. Which Facebook executives approved Project Atlas? What advice did Facebook's legal staff provide prior to approval? Was that advice followed or ignored?

Google logo Fourth, TechCrunch also reported:

"Facebook’s Research program will continue to run on Android."

What? So, Google devices were involved, too. Is this spy program okay with Google executives? A follow-up report on Wednesday by TechCrunch:

"Google has been running an app called Screenwise Meter, which bears a strong resemblance to the app distributed by Facebook Research that has now been barred by Apple... Google invites users aged 18 and up (or 13 if part of a family group) to download the app by way of a special code and registration process using an Enterprise Certificate. That’s the same type of policy violation that led Apple to shut down Facebook’s similar Research VPN iOS app..."

Oy! So, Google operates like Facebook. Also reported by TechCrunch:

"The Screenwise Meter iOS app should not have operated under Apple’s developer enterprise program — this was a mistake, and we apologize. We have disabled this app on iOS devices..."

So, Google will terminate its spy program on Apple devices, but continue its own program with Facebook. Hmmmmm. Well, that answers some questions. I guess Google executives are okay with this spy program. More questions remain.

Fifth, Facebook tried to defend the Research app and its actions in an internal memo to employees. On Thursday, TechCrunch tore apart the claims in an internal Facebook memo from vice president Pedro Canahuati. Chiefly:

"Facebook claims it didn’t hide the program, but it was never formally announced like every other Facebook product. There were no Facebook Help pages, blog posts, or support info from the company. It used intermediaries Applause and CentreCode to run the program under names like Project Atlas and Project Kodiak. Users only found out Facebook was involved once they started the sign-up process and signed a non-disclosure agreement prohibiting them from discussing it publicly... Facebook claims it wasn’t “spying,” yet it never fully laid out the specific kinds of information it would collect. In some cases, descriptions of the app’s data collection power were included in merely a footnote. The program did not specify data types gathered, only saying it would scoop up “which apps are on your phone, how and when you use them” and “information about your internet browsing activity.” The parental consent form from Facebook and Applause lists none of the specific types of data collected...

So, Research app participants (e.g., teenagers, parents) couldn't discuss nor warn their friends (and their friends' parents) about the data collection. I strongly encourage everyone to read the entire TechCrunch analysis. It is eye-opening.

Sixth, a reader shared concerns about whether Facebook's actions violated federal laws. Did Project Atlas violate the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA); specifically the "anti-circumvention" provision, which prohibits avoiding the security protections in software? Did it violate the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act? What about breach-of-contract and fraud laws? What about states' laws? So, one could ask similar questions about Google's actions, too.

I am not an attorney. Hopefully, some attorneys will weigh in on these questions. Probably, some skilled attorneys will investigate various legal options.

All of this is very disturbing. Is this what consumers can expect of Silicon Valley firms? Is this the best tech firms can do? Is this the low level the United States has sunk to? Kudos to the TechCrunch staff for some excellent reporting.

What are your opinions of Project Atlas? Of Facebook's behavior? Of Google's?


Google Fined 50 Million Euros For Violations Of New European Privacy Law

Google logo Google has been find 50 million Euros (about U.S. $57 million) under the new European privacy law for failing to properly disclose to users how their data is collected and used for targeted advertising. The European Union's General Data Protection Regulations, which went into effect in May 2018, give EU residents more control over their information and how companies use it.

After receiving two complaints last year from privacy-rights groups, France's National Data Protection Commission (CNL) announced earlier this month:

"... CNIL carried out online inspections in September 2018. The aim was to verify the compliance of the processing operations implemented by GOOGLE with the French Data Protection Act and the GDPR by analysing the browsing pattern of a user and the documents he or she can have access, when creating a GOOGLE account during the configuration of a mobile equipment using Android. On the basis of the inspections carried out, the CNIL’s restricted committee responsible for examining breaches of the Data Protection Act observed two types of breaches of the GDPR."

The first violation involved transparency failures:

"... information provided by GOOGLE is not easily accessible for users. Indeed, the general structure of the information chosen by the company does not enable to comply with the Regulation. Essential information, such as the data processing purposes, the data storage periods or the categories of personal data used for the ads personalization, are excessively disseminated across several documents, with buttons and links on which it is required to click to access complementary information. The relevant information is accessible after several steps only, implying sometimes up to 5 or 6 actions... some information is not always clear nor comprehensive. Users are not able to fully understand the extent of the processing operations carried out by GOOGLE. But the processing operations are particularly massive and intrusive because of the number of services offered (about twenty), the amount and the nature of the data processed and combined. The restricted committee observes in particular that the purposes of processing are described in a too generic and vague manner..."

So, important information is buried and scattered across several documents making it difficult for users to access and to understand. The second violation involved the legal basis for personalized ads processing:

"... GOOGLE states that it obtains the user’s consent to process data for ads personalization purposes. However, the restricted committee considers that the consent is not validly obtained for two reasons. First, the restricted committee observes that the users’ consent is not sufficiently informed. The information on processing operations for the ads personalization is diluted in several documents and does not enable the user to be aware of their extent. For example, in the section “Ads Personalization”, it is not possible to be aware of the plurality of services, websites and applications involved in these processing operations (Google search, Youtube, Google home, Google maps, Playstore, Google pictures, etc.) and therefore of the amount of data processed and combined."

"[Second], the restricted committee observes that the collected consent is neither “specific” nor “unambiguous.” When an account is created, the user can admittedly modify some options associated to the account by clicking on the button « More options », accessible above the button « Create Account ». It is notably possible to configure the display of personalized ads. That does not mean that the GDPR is respected. Indeed, the user not only has to click on the button “More options” to access the configuration, but the display of the ads personalization is moreover pre-ticked. However, as provided by the GDPR, consent is “unambiguous” only with a clear affirmative action from the user (by ticking a non-pre-ticked box for instance). Finally, before creating an account, the user is asked to tick the boxes « I agree to Google’s Terms of Service» and « I agree to the processing of my information as described above and further explained in the Privacy Policy» in order to create the account. Therefore, the user gives his or her consent in full, for all the processing operations purposes carried out by GOOGLE based on this consent (ads personalization, speech recognition, etc.). However, the GDPR provides that the consent is “specific” only if it is given distinctly for each purpose."

So, not only is important information buried and scattered across multiple documents (again), but also critical boxes for users to give consent are pre-checked when they shouldn't be.

CNIL explained its reasons for the massive fine:

"The amount decided, and the publicity of the fine, are justified by the severity of the infringements observed regarding the essential principles of the GDPR: transparency, information and consent. Despite the measures implemented by GOOGLE (documentation and configuration tools), the infringements observed deprive the users of essential guarantees regarding processing operations that can reveal important parts of their private life since they are based on a huge amount of data, a wide variety of services and almost unlimited possible combinations... Moreover, the violations are continuous breaches of the Regulation as they are still observed to date. It is not a one-off, time-limited, infringement..."

This is the largest fine, so far, under GDPR laws. Reportedly, Google will appeal the fine:

"We've worked hard to create a GDPR consent process for personalised ads that is as transparent and straightforward as possible, based on regulatory guidance and user experience testing... We're also concerned about the impact of this ruling on publishers, original content creators and tech companies in Europe and beyond... For all these reasons, we've now decided to appeal."

This is not the first EU fine for Google. CNet reported:

"Google is no stranger to fines under EU laws. It's currently awaiting the outcome of yet another antitrust investigation -- after already being slapped with a $5 billion fine last year for anticompetitive Android practices and a $2.7 billion fine in 2017 over Google Shopping."