About robpegoraro

Freelance journalist who covers (and is often vexed by) computers, gadgets and other things that beep.

Weekly output: Facebook and Cambridge Analytica (x3), news paywalls

I had ambitions of catching up on various side projects this week, and then the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica story blew up.

3/19/2018: Facebook apps may see more of your personal info than you want. Here’s how to turn them off, USA Today

My first stab at covering the Cambridge Analytica debacle was this how-to for USA Today about pruning Facebook apps. Six days later, the piece already looks a little obsolete: It doesn’t note how Facebook could have gathered your call and SMS logs if you’d enabled its contacts-sync option in earlier versions of Android. (I can’t remember allowing that, and my Facebook data download shows no evidence of any such collection.)

3/20/2018: Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, Al Jazeera

The news channel had me on once again to discuss this news, in particular how Cambridge’s data plunder compared to the Obama campaign’s Facebook efforts in 2012. This time, though, I couldn’t find a link back to my overdubbed-in-Arabic appearance.

3/21/2018: Big Tech’s accountability-avoidance problem is getting worse, Yahoo Finance

I revisited this topic yet again for Yahoo, this time putting Facebook’s early non-response in the context of the “we’re just a platform” line that social networks keep throwing out every time we learn of horrible user behavior happening on their watch.

3/23/2018: News sites have embraced paywalls that alienate readers, Yahoo Finance

I revisited my August 2016 endorsement of the news-micropayment site Blendle in a less-forgiving mood. Blendle’s gone two years without exiting its closed beta in the U.S., news sites here have accelerated an understandable pivot to paywalls, and a Steve Jobs quote now comes to mind: “real artists ship.” Sadly, too much of the rest of the industry seems in no hurry to offer an alternative to readers who want to inform themselves on a breaking-news topic but aren’t ready for an auto-renewing commitment to a news site.

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My Facebook-apps privacy audit

At some point, I was going to revisit my Facebook-privacy settings, but this weekend’s news about Cambridge Analytica’s exfiltration of some 50 million Facebook users’ data via a personality-quiz app moved up that timetable a bit.

That also sped up my overdue reacquaintance with my Facebook app settings–something I hadn’t paid much attention to since I last added any apps to my profile. The how-to I wrote in late 2013 about Facebook privacy waved away that angle: “Most of the options under the ‘Apps’ heading only apply if you add applications to your profile.”

Alas, I had added a few apps to my profile, especially in the first few years I had an account. Make that a few dozen apps. They fell into a few categories:

  • Apps or site logins (Facebook lists both on the same page) that I didn’t remember adding but could imagine reasons to have done so.
  • Apps that I had once appreciated but hadn’t touched in years (and which, per the new policy Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced Wednesday, would now be cut off).
  • Apps that I still appreciated but which had more access to my data than I recalled granting.
  • Apps that I recognized and which didn’t demand information beyond the public-on-Facebook aspects of my profile.

The last category aside, it was an embarrassing exercise. How had I allowed so many apps to see my friends list? Aren’t I supposed to know this stuff?

After that humbling moment, I removed about two-thirds of the apps, with those offering discernable utility cut down to seeing only my basic profile information. I should have done that years ago. But so should most of us.

Bear in mind that I’ve never treated Facebook as a friends-only space. I know that screenshots exist; I hadn’t had a Facebook account for more than a year and change before a now-defunct D.C.-journalism-gossip site posted a sceengrab of it. If I post an update, I try to write it so it won’t look too incriminating when quoted elsewhere out of context.

During this overdue investigation, I also looked at the “Apps Others Use” category that Facebook vaguely explains as a way for friends to bring your info to apps they use. I’d unchecked all 13 of those options, but after seeing most activated in a dummy account I keep for fact-checking purposes–and having people ask if this didn’t mean that Facebook apps could still grab data from friends–I had to ask Facebook to clear this up.

The less-than-conclusive answer I got over two e-mails: That cluster of settings dates to “before we made significant changes to how developers build apps on Facebook” that eliminated its functionality, except that it “still addresses some limited situations like photo sharing.”

So it appears that this absurdly wealthy company has trouble updating and documenting its privacy interface. That’s yet another problem Facebook needs to solve.

Weekly output: tech backlash at SXSW, Elon Musk, Avatar XPrize, Austin package bombings, Waymo, Cambridge Analytica and Facebook

Another South By Southwest in the books (see my Flickr album), but despite moments like my getting retweeted by Mark Hamill, this one wasn’t as much fun as the six before it. The fourth item below should explain why.

3/12/2018: Tech gets a skeptical look at SXSW, USA Today

I wrote a longer-than-usual column from Austin about “techlash,” as seen in panels and a few interviews I snagged. The one with Rep. Darrell Issa (R.-Calif.) happened by dumb luck: After having my exit from the Hilton delayed by a scrum of people around Arnold Schwarzenegger (no, really), I realized that the congressman was among them, so I recorded a quick conversation as we walked towards the escalator.

3/12/2018: Elon Musk: Mars will be great, if AI doesn’t kill us first, Yahoo Finance

Musk’s Sunday appearance was a late-breaking addition to the SXSW schedule–the e-mail advising journalists about the 7 a.m. deadline to put in for a press pass landed after 10 p.m. Saturday, when I was not in a fit state to do anything with e-mail. So I watched his appearance as you could have: on the SXSW live stream.

3/13/2018: There’s a $10 million race to build you a robot avatar by 2021, Yahoo Finance

Monday’s talk by XPrize Foundation founder Peter Diamandis was a dose of unadulterated tech utopianism.

3/13/2018: Austin package explosions: City on edge as police seek clues, USA Today

Monday evening, my USAT editor called to ask if I could pitch in to help cover the three package bombings around Austin, so I spent much of Tuesday afternoon taking a car2go to two of those sites and getting quotes from neighbors. The last time I knocked on random doors for a story was in late 2011, and the last time I did any reporting from a law-enforcement situation may have been August of 1998–when a woman survived trying to kill herself by jumping in front of the Metro train I was taking to work.

3/15/2018: Google’s self-driving Waymo cars will be picking you up soon, Yahoo Finance

Although Waymo CEO John Krafcik had a panel Tuesday morning, I waited to write this until after his Tuesday-evening appearance with comedian Adam Carolla–which made the post a lot more fun. Listen to Carolla’s podcast to hear his quizzing of Krafcik, including the “morgue mode” riff I mentioned in the post and a urethra reference that my editor cut to avoid giving our readers the heebie-jeebies.

3/17/2018: Cambridge Analytica and Facebook, Al Jazeera

The Arabic news channel had me on Saturday afternoon to discuss the grotesque abuse of Facebook’s apps regime by a contractor for the Trump-connected research firm Cambridge Analytica. My spot comes up just after the 12-minute walk; if you can speak Arabic, please let me know if the translation adequately conveys my disgust at Facebook’s tardy response.

Covering conference costs

My travel for work often involves a four-word question with a one-word answer. As in, somebody asks me “Who’s sending you here?”, and I reply by saying “me.”

Self-employment usually means self-financing of travel. Except for when speaking somewhere gets my travel comped or a conference organizer offers a travel subsidy (or the very rare times that a client covers my travel costs), I have to pay my own way.

When I started freelancing in 2011, I didn’t worry too much about how. I was blessed with clients overpaying me, and I was so tired of having the Post deny my travel requests–like the three years in a row they wouldn’t send me to South By Southwest–that I chose to spend some money to see what I’d missed.

I’m more practical these days: If I go somewhere, I should sell enough work based on things I learn during that trip to cover my costs. As long as I can find a scarcity to exploit, that should be doable. Google I/O and Mobile World Congress, for example, either limit press access or take place in locations where tech-news sites don’t have anybody based full-time–leaving me less competition. So did the Falcon Heavy launch.

To be honest in my accounting, I also have to consider how much I would have written and sold on a normal week at home, when my expenses amount to Metro fare and part of the utilities bills. In other words, I didn’t write five Yahoo posts from CES just for my health.

Most of the time, I do sell enough from out of town to get my above-baseline income to meet travel costs that I already try to ratchet down with my Airbnb and public-transit habits. What I still need to address: not slacking off the week after a mega-gathering like CES or MWC, a pattern you’ve probably noticed in my weekly recaps of my work.

Some trips, however, are worth doing even at a loss, and I appreciate that self-employment lets me make that choice.

For example, the XOXO conference in Portland was so mind-expandingly great in 2013 and 2015 that I paid not just for airfare and lodging but even for the conference pass–and I only sold a single post from it each time. Friday, the organizers tweeted that after taking 2017 off, the conference would return this September… so, you know, my financial realism may have to take a break that week.

Weekly output: Android Go edition, wireless charging

AUSTIN–Although Mobile World Congress happened two weeks ago, my coverage of it continued this week with a couple of posts that I wrote before coming here Friday for my seventh SXSW in a row.

3/8/2018: If $100 is your limit for smartphones, good news is coming with Android Go, USA Today

I used my USAT column to note a positive development in Android: a version of Google’s operating system built to run well on cheap smartphones that would otherwise likely get stuck with an obsolete Android release.

3/11/2018: These companies want to create truly wireless charging, Yahoo Finance

This post about two wireless-charging companies that I met at Mobile World Congress two weeks ago should have been written sooner. But then I had a tree snap the wires bringing power to our house–the irony is duly noted–and needed a few more days than I expected to get an analyst’s take on the company. Note that we had to correct the story after publication to correct the job titles of not one but two executives I quoted, making it one of the more snakebit things I’ve written lately.

 

 

 

SXSW scheduling: indecision is the key to flexibility

AUSTIN–Looking at the glut of invitations to South By Southwest events that have landed in my inbox in the past few days, two things seem clear: Many publicists think this event starts and ends on Saturday, and I shouldn’t have bothered scheduling anything until this week.

SXSW 2018 logoI know from prior experience that this conference attracts a silly amount of marketing money that gets lit on fire in various #brand-building exercises–most involving the distribution of free tacos, BBQ and beer.

But this year–much like at CES–some sort of happy-hour herd instinct has also led many companies to schedule their events on the same day, in this case Saturday. Looking over the possibilities, it appears I could spend that entire day–starting with a 7:30 a.m. mimosa breakfast–drinking on the dime of one corporate host or another.

(I won’t. I have panels to attend, people to interview, and probably one post to write. I may need a nap too.)

And, yes, a huge number of these invitations came in the last 72 hours. Far be it for me to criticize other people’s just-in-time conduct, but weren’t all of these bars, restaurants and other event spaces booked months ago? I have to assume that after not enough of the A, B and C-list guests responded affirmatively, the sponsor reluctantly decided to invite the D-list.

Considering that you can’t tell which events will be mobbed and how you might be waylaid by random meetings at them, your only safe response is to RSVP to everything and leave your calendar looking like a game of Tetris that you’re about to lose. Then decide where you’ll go based on where you’re standing and what looks interesting nearby–as shallow and impolite as that is.

And that’s how I came to a conclusive answer to this question: What’s a less reliable indication of somebody’s attendance than an Evite response?

Weekly output: headphone jack, 5G wireless, unlocked smartphones, broadband maps, wireless plans, MWC’s weirdest gadgets, Twitter spam

I had a terrific but exhausting week in Barcelona at Mobile World Congress and looked forward to a relaxing weekend at home–until Friday’s windstorm toppled the tree in our front yard and deprived our home of power until Sunday afternoon. As a result, most of the pictures in my Flickr MWC album haven’t seen any editing yet. And they may not until next week, since I have another short week: Friday, I head out of town again as SXSW brings me to Austin.

2/26/2018: The headphone jack isn’t dead yet, Yahoo Finance

I revisited a theme of last year’s MWC coverage to note that most phone vendors are not following Apple and Google’s foolish removal of the headphone jack. But with Sony, Huawei and Nokia introducing at least some models without that old but perfectly functional audio output, I’m not feeling too confident about the industry’s direction.

2/28/2018: How 5G wireless will soon supercharge the internet, Yahoo Finance

After years of hype about 5G, the next wireless standard is starting to look less vaporous–and some key industry figures are dialing back that hype.

2/28/2018: Don’t buy these smartphones through your carrier, Yahoo Finance

I’ve been arguing for years that you shouldn’t buy your phone from your wireless carrier, but at MWC three of the big four made that point for me by pricing the Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus at least $70 over what you’d pay–with interest-free installment payments available–at Samsung’s own site.

CityLab broadband-map post2/28/2018: The Problem With America’s New National Broadband Map, CityLab

The Federal Communications Commission relaunched its broadband map, but the much better-looking version suffers from the same information gaps as ever. So does a privately-run site that draws on the same FCC filings as the map.

2/28/2018: The best cell phone plans, Wirecutter

I updated this guide to reflect more generous plans at many prepaid and resold services. But within a day of the revised guide’s publication, AT&T reworked its pricing for unlimited data, so we’ll have to update the guide yet again to account for that.

3/2/2018: The 6 strangest gadgets from Mobile World Congress 2018, Yahoo Finance

I had fun writing this look at the weirder hardware I saw at MWC–the last piece I filed from the show, shortly before they shut down the press room Wednesday night.

3/3/2018: Twitter spam, Al Jazeera

The news network’s Arabic-language channel had me on (overdubbed live into Arabic) to talk about an outbreak of Twitter spam in Saudi Arabia. The point I made: Going back to Usenet, every popular social platform has inevitably been abused by spammers and con artists.