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.