Weekly output: Facebook privacy, social media vs. disinformation, mobile-app privacy, data breaches

The Facebook-privacy news cycle doesn’t seem to be letting up, with every other day bringing some ugly new revelation about the social network’s stewardship of our data. I feel like I’m getting the tiniest taste of life as a White House correspondent these days.

4/2/2018: How Facebook should fix its privacy problem, Yahoo Finance

My key suggestions: collect less data, don’t try so hard to maximize engagement, and give U.S. users the same privacy controls that European users will get in May as required by the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation. On Tuesday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wouldn’t commit to extending GDPR controls to the U.S.; on Wednesday, he said he would do just that.

4/2/2018: How Facebook should fight fake news, Yahoo Finance

Headline notwithstanding, this column is as much about Twitter as it is about Facebook–and a lot of it covers how large social networks like those two can’t necessarily adopt the strategies that have helped Wikipedia deter disinformation.

4/3/2018: After you delete old Facebook apps, take a hard look at Uber and Snapchat settings, USA Today

I would have written this piece faster if I hadn’t had the chance to see how the Samsung-ified Settings app on a Galaxy S7 buried a crucial app-permissions interface. Then I spent more journalistic processor cycles rewriting an explanation of how old versions of Facebook’s Android apps collected call and SMS logs.

4/4/2018: We need a federal law protecting consumers from data leaks, Yahoo Finance

This column inspired by Panera Bread’s data breach started in my head with the tweet I used to promote it. Reporting it involved an intersection of my college and professional lives: Stephanie Martz, the National Retail Federation lawyer I interviewed, is a fellow Georgetown Voice alum who graduated two years before me.

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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.

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: CableCard, two-step verification

It’s now been a month and a half since my last air travel for work. Crazy, huh? I hope the airline industry can deal with my absence.

Yahoo Tech CableCard post4/22/2014: Dept. of Diminishing Choice: Cable Industry Wants Out of the CableCARD It Invented, Yahoo Tech

I returned to a topic I last covered in an August post for Ars Technica about the emergence of a bill that would weaken the regulatory framework behind the CableCard that TiVo and a few other manufacturers rely on to make cable-compatible hardware.

Notice that I don’t write “Card” in all-caps here: Those four letters aren’t an acronym, so capitalizing them all just plays into some marketer’s idea of text hacking.

4/27/2014: Two-step verification: It’s a trust issue, USA Today

This column began on Tuesday, when a local tech-policy type asked why Google’s two-step verification kept inviting him to mark a computer as trusted and therefore exempt from this security check. I decided that query was too narrow–but that there could be a column looking at the broader topic of how strictly different sites implement this concept.

Weekly output: “free WiFi” (x2), 1776, Facebook Graph Search, Facebook and Twitter apps

My former employer collided with my current work this week, courtesy of the Post’s front-page story Monday heralding the Federal Communications Commission’s proposal to open some broadband-friendly frequencies to unlicensed use. My former cubicle-mate Cecilia Kang’s piece phrased things much more expansively than that, especially before the jump, and then things got out of control as people spun the story as “free WiFi for everyone!”

(If you want to hate tech journalism, there’s your reason: Competing sites couldn’t spend 10 minutes reading the FCC filings to understand the story for themselves and instead rushed to post their own breathless interpretations of Kang’s piece. Worse yet, most of them haven’t bothered to correct the errant results of this game of telephone.)

2/4/2013: FCC Plan to Provide Free Wireless a Long “Complicated” Process, Voice of Russia American Edition

This AM station in D.C. (a friend works as a producer there) had me on Monday to talk about the Post’s story; I did what I could to explain that there is no actual FCC plan for free WiFi, just a framework that could, maybe, make it easier for some companies to offer no-charge wireless access in certain locations.

DisCo FCC no-free WiFi post2/5/2013: Free As In Unlicensed: Why The FCC Isn’t Giving Away Wireless Service To Anybody, Disruptive Competition Project

After spending much of Monday on the phone and in e-mail with various tech-policy types to make sure I hadn’t missed some fundamental shift in the FCC’s positions, I explained what the FCC actually is proposing and how it ties into a larger problem in telecom: the lack of competition in residential broadband.

2/8/2013: Older City ISO Hot Young Tech Startups, Disruptive Competition Project

On Wednesday, I attended an open-house event for a startup incubator, 1776, that’s scheduled to open its doors next month with backing from the District government. Under that clickbait headline (my fault!), I put this in the context of how other cities and regions have tried to make themselves into startup hubs but have neglected to follow California’s practice of making almost all noncompete clauses unenforceable. Ending an employer’s veto power over an employee’s next job makes it vastly easier for talent to chase interesting problems, and I’d like to see other states follow that example.

2/10/2013: Tip: Control Facebook exposure by friending folks you know, USA Today

I held off writing much about Facebook’s Graph Search until I sat down with Facebook’s product manager in the social network’s D.C. office to learn what this tool does and does not index–and how people’s selective disclosure can further skew its results. (Appropriately enough, this discussion about unsent signals happened on the one day I forgot to put on my wedding ring before leaving the house.) The column wraps up with a reminder to clean out old and unused Facebook and Twitter apps.

On Sulia, my week included a recap of my experience attending a screening at the Motion Picture Association of America’s offices, two gripes about dumb car-stereo design trends seen at the Washington Auto Show, a report about Facebook asking if I knew new friends offline, and a reader’s assessment of the Mohu and WallTenna TV antennas at a less reception-friendly location.