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: video surveillance, privacy vs. security, Facebook listening, universal basic income, intelligent assistants, convenience economy, UberAir, privacy fears

Once again, I’m at an airport. I got back from Web Summit on Friday, and now I’m headed to San Francisco for the Internet Association’s Virtuous Circle conference. This trip, however, will be a lot shorter than the last one: I fly back Wednesday.

11/6/2017: ‘Smart’ surveillance cameras should set off privacy alarms, Yahoo Finance

The advances in machine vision I saw demonstrated at the Nvidia GPU Tech Conference in D.C. last week both impressed and alarmed me–especially when I heard some of the responses of executives at companies bringing these artificial-intelligence technologies to the market.

11/7/2017: Debate: We should be prepared to give up our privacy for security, Web Summit

My first Web Summit panel was a debate between Threatscape managing director Dermot Williams and Federal Trade Commission commissioner Terrell McSweeny. I expected a one-sided audience vote at the end in favor of privacy, but Williams changed a few minds. There should be video of this somewhere, but I’ve yet to find it on Web Summit’s Facebook page.

11/8/2017: Why so many people still think Facebook is listening to them, Yahoo Finance

I’d had this post in the works for a while, and then CNN’s Laurie Segall asked Facebook’s Messenger head Stan Chudnovsky in a Summit panel about the persistent rumor that Facebook’s apps listen surreptitiously to your conversations. Hello, news peg.

11/8/2017: Double focus: IPO’s & the future of games, Web Summit

My contribution to Web Summit’s Wednesday programming was this interview of Rovio CEO Kati Levoranta. As you can probably guess from watching the video below, I exhausted my questions early on and had to improv a bunch of it.

11/9/2017: Why would you oppose Universal Basic Income?, Web Summit

This panel, held at one of the small stages in Web Summit’s speakers lounge, featured Basic Income Earth Network co-president Guy Standing, Kela change management director Marjukka Turunen, GiveDirectly CEO Michael Faye, and Portuguese foreign minister Augusto Santos Silva. Not having taken part in any extended debate on this topic before, I learned a few things from this conversation.

11/9/2017: The next evolution of intelligent assistants, Web Summit

I quizzed Sherpa founder Xabi Uribe-Etxebarria about what he thinks the likes of Amazon, Apple and Google miss in the AI-personal-assistant market and how he hopes to carve out a niche with his own app.

11/9/2017: Demand more: Driving the convenience economy, Web Summit

The last of Thursday’s three panels had me interviewing Trivago co-founder and CEO Rolf Schromgens and Casper co-founder Luke Sherwin about how each is trying to challenge long-established competitors. This panel featured an unexpected technical difficulty: The acoustics made it hard for Schromgens, seated farther away from me on the stage, to hear me.

11/9/2017: Uber’s grand plan for flying cars faces a major obstacle, Yahoo Finance

One of first thoughts about “UberAir” was something along the lines of “you’re really going to get the FAA to open up the national air system to flocks of new electric-powered air taxis?” A conversation over e-mail with aviation-safety expert Bob Mann led me to believe Uber is being predictably optimistic about the odds of it bending government regulators to its will.

11/12/2017: Web companies should make it easier to make your data portable: FTC’s McSweeny. USA Today

This column about the privacy discussions that carried on all week long in Lisbon benefited from a little luck: My debate partner from day one was on both of my flights back from Lisbon and even sat a row behind me on the EWR-DCA hop, so we had a quick chat after arriving at National Airport before she headed to the parking garage and I got on Metro.

Updated 11/27/2017 to add an embed of video of my first Web Summit panel.

Weekly output: Adobe Flash’s farewell, white-spaces broadband, People You May Know

Two of this week’s three articles (there weren’t more because I was visiting family for most of the week and trying to approximate being on vacation) involve topics that I’ve been following for more than a decade. That has me feeling my age, as does today’s lack of a nap.

7/25/2017: Why everybody should be happy that Flash is finally dying, Yahoo Finance

Writing this post about Adobe’s announcement that it will officially retire Flash at the end of 2020 had me re-reading stuff I wrote seven or eight years ago, not all of which looks too prescient today.

7/27/2017: How Microsoft wants to bring broadband to rural Americans, Yahoo Finance

I had meant to file this story the previous week, but it took multiple phone calls and e-mails to pin down the pricing and features of an upcoming wireless-broadband service built on “white spaces” technology. For all the griping I do about PR people, sometimes you run across a company that would communicate its message much more effectively with professional help.

7/30/2017: Why Facebook’s ‘People You May Know’ makes some weird suggestions, USA Today

This Q&A involved its own game of e-mail tag, but it was worth that effort to document Facebook’s friend suggestions in more detail than the social network’s own online help.

 

Weekly output: techno-panics, unsubsidized phones, Apple and Google streaming music

Hey, August, you’ve been doing a really bad job of being a slow news month. Could you please clock out already?

8/18/2015: How to Survive the Next Techno-Panic, Yahoo Tech

When I suggested this topic to my editors, I had no idea that a day later, Spotify would uncork a self-inflicted techno-panic by… wait for it… rolling out a vague and expansionist privacy policy written by lawyers for other lawyers.

Yahoo Tech phone-prices post8/20/2015: 5 Reasons You Should Pay Full Price For Your Smartphone, Yahoo Tech

I filed the first draft of this story last week, then had to update it twice when Sprint a) said it would stop selling subsidized phones at the end of the year and b) the next day, rolled out a warmed-over version of its old “iPhone for Life” lease plan. You can guess what other, oft-updated work of mine needed repeated revisions this week; look for them to show up online shortly.

8/23/2015: What to do when Apple Music has its head in cloud, USA Today

In an alternate universe, this would have run July 5. Instead, I wrote another, timelier column and put this one back on the shelf until now. That extra time led me to discover a useful option in Google Play Music that’s missing from Apple’s music apps.

What posting a Facebook Offer taught me about Facebook’s privacy rules

Some months ago, a PR person for Gogo handed me a few freebies I probably couldn’t use: three free passes for that company’s inflight WiFi service. (Ethics aside, almost all of my transcon flights are on planes that don’t employ its connectivity, while on shorter flights Gogo’s unintentional free access to Google apps suffices.) Many weeks later, I finally remembered that I could try giving the passes to readers with the Offers function on my Facebook page.

Gogo WiFi passesIt seemed simple enough: You create a special post on your page with the image and brief description of your choice, you set an expiration date and limit how many people can claim the deal, and you watch the audience love roll in.

But I didn’t realize, by virtue of not reading the documentation before, that readers would have to take an extra step to collect this freebie. The lucky winners got an e-mail with this instruction: “To use the offer, visit Rob Pegoraro and show this email.”

As the page owner, meanwhile, I only got a notification that the offer had been claimed–without a hint of who had won it. As Facebook’s help explains: “To protect the privacy of the individuals who claimed your offer, you will not be able to see any of their personal information.” They’d have to get back to me somehow.

I wasn’t planning on any face-to-face interaction, but I didn’t get much of the digital sort either. One longtime reader left a comment saying he’d redeemed the offer–I took him at his word and e-mailed one of the three Gogo alphanumeric codes–and nobody else responded, even after I posted comments imploring them to e-mail me.

That’s bad in the sense that I have some readers wondering why they never received the free inflight WiFi they sought. But it’s good in the sense that Facebook seems to have defaulted to privacy at the expense of marketing convenience.

That, in turn, matches up with such Page limits as my not being able to send messages to fans unless they’ve sent me one first. So if you were holding off on Liking my page because you didn’t want your name in lights–go ahead, since even I probably won’t know unless I spend a lot of time scrolling through Graph Search results for “people who like Rob Pegoraro.”

(Whoever can see your profile will, however, see your new Like. If they already mock you for your taste in tech news, you might want to hold off on the appreciation.)

In the meantime, I have two Gogo passes left. Let’s do this instead: E-mail me about how you’ll make great use of them, and the first two people to send a persuasive story will have the codes in their inboxes soon after.

Weekly output: “right to be forgotten” (x2), Facebook privacy, travel bags, Pandora, Tech Night Owl, downloading Flickr and Facebook photos

Two things I’d written a while back–weeks ago in one case, last year in the other–made their appearance this week.

5/20/2014: The ‘Right to be Forgotten’: A Right to Endless Argument, Yahoo Tech

In this week’s column, I tried to untangle the logic behind a European court’s ruling that EU citizens can petition search engines to have unflattering links not be shown in queries for their names.

5/20/2014: How to See Yourself as the Web Sees You: 5 Tips, Yahoo Tech

To go with that column, I wrote a short sidebar about how to check up on the picture of you that search engines and Facebook present to strangers.

5/22/2014: Facebook privacy, WTOP

The news station interviewed me about Facebook’s unprecedented but welcome move to less-public default settings. As I said on the air: With this change, it’s definitely not throwback Thursday at Facebook HQ.

5/23/2014: Nerd Bags: How 5 Yahoo Tech Writers Keep It All Together, Yahoo Tech

Read on to see what kind of bags I and four Yahoo Tech colleagues–Rafe NeedlemanRob WalkerAlyssa Bereznak, and Dan Tynan–use when we travel for business.

Boing Boing Pandora post5/24/2014: Pandora’s “Music Genome Project” explores the cold hard facts of how we interact with music, Boing Boing

This story had an exceptionally prolonged gestation: I waited way too long to file the thing, and then my editor wanted to hold off running it until the site could launch its redesign. That redesign, in turn, took months longer than expected (I don’t know the details, nor do I want to know the details). There are a couple of references in the piece that show its age–for example, iTunes Radio is no longer an “upcoming” product–and should be fixed soon.

5/24/2014: May 24, 2014 — Dorothy Pomerantz, Daniel Eran Dilger and Rob Pegoraro, Tech Night Owl

I talked about the right-to-be-forgotten ruling, AT&T’s proposal to buy DirecTV, and Apple’s “never mind” settlement of a patent suit against Google on Gene Steinberg’s podcast.

5/25/2014: Grab it: Download photos in bulk from Flickr, Facebook, USA Today

I was unpleasantly surprised by the poor quality of the apps I tried for downloading multiple photos from Flickr and Facebook. (Hint: Adobe Flash is not a good middleware layer to build an app on these days.) The tip part of the column suggests that readers take another look at OS X’s Preview utility and the Paint app in Windows for basic image editing.