Tag Archives: technology

Misaligned Interests

Did you happen to hear about (or read!) the NY Times article on how a young man got “sucked into the vortex” of radical videos on YouTube? It’s an interesting and scary read. It’s about how a person goes to YouTube to watch a video on one thing and ends up multiple videos later watching something completely different and often dangerous.

As the article says:

YouTube has been a godsend for hyper-partisans on all sides. It has allowed them to bypass traditional gatekeepers and broadcast their views to mainstream audiences and has helped once-obscure commentators build lucrative media businesses.

As usual, we’re not here to rant about the politics of these videos. It’s just as easy for the videos to be dangerous and non-political and even though YouTube specifically bans harmful or dangerous content, they can’t catch everything.

The real issue here is YouTube’s – and many other platforms’ – business model. They make money by keeping you engaged and the way that they do that is often via a recommendation engine. That engine uses an algorithm that rewards videos that have lengthy watch times by promoting them more often. Of course, the more engaged you are, the more ads you’ll see and that’s really the problem. Most of the popular platforms follow that business model and their interests don’t necessarily align with yours. They all have some sort of algorithm which on YouTube, as the article says, is

the software that determines which videos appear on users’ home pages and inside the “Up Next” sidebar next to a video that is playing. The algorithm is responsible for more than 70 percent of all time spent on the site.

Of course, you can turn off the recommendations. You can also delete your search history, pausing it going forward, and your watch history which will prevent the algorithm from determining what you usually watch. If you haven’t hidden the video suggestions (it’s in your settings) at least you’ll see lots of pretty neutral offerings. More importantly, you’ll take back control and realign their interests with yours.

It would be easy for YouTube and others to prevent a host of problems by killing off the recommendation engine but they never will because it’s the thing that drives their business model. In a perfect world, every business’ interests would align perfectly with those of their customers. Maybe it’s because the big platforms are out of alignment with us that there is so much anger directed toward them?

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Filed under digital media, Huh?

We’ve Been Robbed

An important, thought-provoking piece today from Roger McNamee in the NY Times. It’s entitled A Brief History of How Your Privacy Was Stolen and it raises some disturbing issues which concern – or should concern – us all. Mr. McNamee is a long-time tech investor and author. “Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe” is his book and I think the title gives you a sense about his concerns, especially since he was an early investor in and advisor to Facebook.

This is the gist of his position:

Why it is legal for service providers to comb our messages and documents for economically valuable data? Why is it legal for third parties to trade in our most private information, including credit card transactions, location and health data, and browsing history? Why is it legal to gather any data at all about minors? Why is it legal to trade predictions of our behavior?

Good questions, and if you’re not concerned by the answers or the implications of the questions themselves, here are a few things to consider. First, go to Facebook, click under “settings” and look at the “Ads” tab. Scroll down a bit and open up the line that says “advertisers and businesses.” There you will see a list of all the companies that uploaded your email or phone onto Facebook so they could serve you ads. The companies listed have run ads in the last 7 days containing your information. Scroll down and keep opening the “see more” rows. I quit when I got over 500 companies. Most were companies – car dealers and realtors – with which I’d had no dealings. Why do they have my information? Of course, I’m aware of list brokers but why would a car dealer in Arizona pay for my information? That’s their issue; mine is that they have it.

I’m willing to bet that you’ve given Facebook and others way more information than I have. I use the DuckDuckGo search engine so my search history is private. I’ve locked down my browser so the “bugs” from Facebook, Twitter, and others don’t follow me. You can start by disabling the “ad settings” on the Facebook “ad” tab you’re on. That’s only a small part of the issue.

Anyone who is paying attention to China has seen the rise of a totalitarian “Big Brother” state built around constant surveillance. In 2015, the Chinese Ministry of Public Security announced it was looking to implement an “omnipresent, completely connected, always on and fully controllable” network using facial recognition systems and CCTV hardware. It’s largely in place. What does this have to do with you?

Google, Facebook, and others know pretty much everything about you. Where you’ve been, your friends, your shopping habits, etc. McNamee’s point that “Platforms are under no obligation to protect user privacy. They are free to directly monetize the information they gather by selling it to the highest bidder” underscores the problem. What happens when the highest bidder has nefarious intent? What if it’s the government? What if your insurance company wants to raise your rate because you’re buying fast-food and cookies?

I make it a point to do unpredictable things every so often to mess with whatever algorithm is paying attention. That can be as simple as shopping for products in which I have no interest or “liking” something that I really don’t. Sometimes I wish that we could put the tech genie back in the bottle, even if it’s a bottle I had a hand in opening in some small way.

Read the McNamee piece and tell me what you think, ok?

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Filed under digital media, Huh?, Reality checks

Sharing Isn’t Caring

Suppose you are depressed or maybe you want to quit a bad habit – smoking, for example. Well, of course, there are apps to help you fight depression or to quit smoking. Maybe you want a discount on your car insurance so you agree to install what the industry calls a “telematics device.” As one report explained, these things report when the car was used, distance driven, and time spent driving. They also want to know how fast a driver typically drives and any incidents of hard braking, both of which are indicators that the driver takes risks and doesn’t pay attention. Finally, and perhaps most controversially, the devices can track a car’s location.

Since you’re a fairly literate person, digitally speaking, you know the apps collect some data and obviously so does a tracking device. What you don’t know is what happens to the data that the apps collect. If you go through the app’s privacy policies (you know – the thing you clicked through when you signed up), you’ll probably find that the developer might share data with third parties. And, in fact, a study just released shows that of 36 top-ranked apps for depression and smoking cessation available in public app stores, 29 transmitted data to services provided by Facebook or Google, but only 12 accurately disclosed this in a privacy policy.

Does this concern you? It should. It is not difficult at all for someone who has “non-PII” – anonymized personal information – to trace it back to a real person with a name, address, and other information. How many auto insurance companies also offer life insurance? How many share data – even anonymized data – with health insurers. And wouldn’t those health insurers love to know if you think you’re depressed, as would a life insurance company? Am I paranoid? Yes indeed, and you should be too.

As it turns out, while many of us are more wary about what companies are doing with our data, we’re still not DOING much about it. As eMarketer reports, Internet users are clearing cookies and sharing less on social media. Ad blockers continue to gain popularity. But nearly one-third of US internet users are still willing to sacrifice privacy for convenience.

Clearing cookies, using a VPN, making sure that apps don’t get permissions that they don’t need (why does a flashlight app need your contacts?), and other things can help but at the core of this issue is many companies’ philosophy to beg forgiveness than to ask permission. They have a laser-focus on making money and are woefully blind to their users’ concerns. That’s what really concerns me. You?

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Filed under Helpful Hints, Huh?, Reality checks