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: old TVs, Mark Zuckerberg, rebooting, deleting old e-mail, wireless charging, Android phones, wireless carriers, smartphone features, smart apartments

Another Mobile World Congress went into the books when I flew home from Barcelona Thursday. I’m glad that show and that city have become a regular part of my travel schedule.

2/21/2016: It’s really time to let go of that old tube TV, USA Today

Circling back to a topic I covered in 2013 allowed me to note some good HDTV options for under $200–including the Wirecutter’s $170 pick–and the unfortunate end of Best Buy’s free TV recycling.

Yahoo Tech Zuckerberg MWC post2/22/2016: Zuckerberg at MWC: Getting the World (and Someday His Daughter) Online, Yahoo Tech

The Facebook founder’s Q&A session started at 6 p.m. local time, meaning the press room closed while I was still writing my recap. I finished it on a bench in the hall outside–MWC, unlike CES, has free WiFi throughout the facility.

2/22/2016: Tip: Sometimes You Really Do Need to Reboot the Damn Thing, Yahoo Tech

I’d written this tip item weeks before, not knowing that a colleague had just filed a different tip item around the virtues of rebooting. Fortunately, our devices did not get any less buggy over the ensuing month.

2/23/2016: Tip: How to Quickly and Easily Get Rid of Old E-Mails, Yahoo Tech

You read a version this three and a half years ago at USA Today, but that didn’t give enough credit to Microsoft’s Outlook.com for nailing the task of automatically deleting e-mails over a certain age.

2/23/2016: Why Wireless Charging Is Still a Tangled Mess, Yahoo Tech

Once again, the wireless industry seems dead set on balkanizing itself between two ways to do the same thing.

2/24/2016: Your Next Android Phone: Smaller but Expandable, Yahoo Tech

This was my attempt at a State of the Union address for Android phones.

2/24/2016: Best Wireless Carriers, The Wirecutter

Our first major update to this guide since September factored in the end of two-year contracts at AT&T and Sprint… and two days after it went up, I learned that Sprint had restored two-year contracts. We should have yet another update up in a few days.

2/26/2016: Your next smartphone should have these features, USA Today

My last MWC post inventoried six features that I think you’ll want on your next phone–and another that nobody should care about for a few more years.

2/27/2016: Emerging Multifamily Technologies Panel, NWP Energy Summit

The morning after I got home from Spain–professionalism!–I moderated this panel discussion with NWP’s Howard Behr, Greystar’s Pam Darmofalski, Embue’s Robert Cooper and Remotely’s Mike Branam about how smart-home technology is changing apartments.