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Update April 2018


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April 14, 2018 - April 20, 2018

Can Facebook restore public trust after privacy scandal?

Every time a person shops online or at a store, loyalty cards linked to phone numbers or email addresses can be linked to other databases that may have location data, home addresses and more. Voting records, job history, credit scores (remember the Equifax hack?) are constantly mixed, matched and traded by companies in ways regulators haven’t caught up with. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

Sharon Cohen & Matt Sedensky

Chicago (AP) - It’s a scandal of privacy, politics and an essential ingredient of business success - public trust.

Facebook is confronting a costly, embarrassing public relations debacle after revelations that Cambridge Analytica may have misused data from some 50 million users to try to influence elections. Among its marquee clients: President Donald Trump’s general election campaign.

Now a company known as much for reminders of a long-lost friend’s birthday and documentation of acquaintances’ every whim is grappling with outrage - and the possible loss of confidence - from users around the globe that have made the social media site a part of their daily routine.

“I trust somebody until they give me a reason not to trust them,” said Joseph Holt, who teaches business ethics at the University of Notre Dame. “And Facebook has increasingly given me reasons not to trust them.”

Losing that would be a disaster, not just for Facebook, but for any Silicon Valley company that relies on users to open up their private lives.

The amount of trust placed in technology has soared. Cars sync with cell phones. Refrigerators know when there’s no more milk and reorder it. Virtual assistants field answers to nearly any inane question.

And with each turn of the steering wheel, sip of milk or request for dinner reservations, a trail of digital crumbs is left for companies to collect, analyze and profit off.

The public has largely been willing to accept the trade-off, knowing in exchange for giving up some data, Netflix will offer spot-on show suggestions, Amazon will prompt a diaper order and Google will figure out what to search before a user finishes typing it.

Not everyone understands the darker side of data brokers in an always-connected society.

Every time a person shops online or at a store, loyalty cards linked to phone numbers or email addresses can be linked to other databases that may have location data, home addresses and more. Voting records, job history, credit scores (remember the Equifax hack?) are constantly mixed, matched and traded by companies in ways regulators haven’t caught up with.

While Facebook let slip data profiles on millions of people, “it’s much more than that,” says James Grimmelmann, a professor at Cornell Law School. “Trying to pin down any one breach as being the source of all the privacy harms out there is futile.”

For Facebook, whose power and value are built on being so ever-present in people’s lives, the impact has been immediate - its share price is down nearly 14 percent since the scandal broke March 16.

Investors fear that Facebook users will start to think twice before posting the latest snapshots of their puppy, or clicking “like” on a news story or movie trailer.

“It’s something that’s going to remain in people’s memory,” says Mike Chapple, a University of Notre Dame professor with expertise in cybersecurity. “I think it’s changed people’s perceptions.”

After the scandal broke, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg apologized, admitted his company’s mistakes and said security needs to be enhanced to protect users’ data. He noted that this is a major trust issue for the public.

It follows closely on the heels of the company acknowledging it helped spread fake news and propaganda from Russian-linked trolls disrupting the 2016 presidential election.

While some disenchanted Facebook users have deactivated their accounts, others point out that breaking up can be hard to do. If a credit card company or an airline’s data is breached, it’s easy enough to switch allegiances. But for most of Facebook’s 2 billion users there’s no real substitute, says Aaron Gordon, a partner at Schwartz Media Strategies, a Miami-based public relations and crisis management firm.

“It’s a lot harder to just up and leave,” he says. “So you go to Twitter or Instagram? It’s not the same.”

(Besides, Instagram is owned by Facebook.)

Holt, the business ethics professor, loved Facebook, but with all that’s come out, he feels like he’s in an abusive relationship. He estimates he cut his usage from about 30 minutes daily to about 10 minutes every other day and would happily flee altogether if a viable alternative emerged that more zealously protected data.

“I haven’t left it yet, but I go less often and I feel less good about it,” he says.

Facebook is not the only company to deal with misuse of private information that has weakened public confidence. Equifax, the credit reporting agency, and Target, the retail giant, both suffered massive data breaches affecting tens of millions of people. Wells Fargo faced stiff government fines for a fake accounts scandal.

The public tends to get numb to this steady drumbeat of bad news, says brand strategist Rachel Brand.

“People pick their battles and daily outrage,” she says. “Facebook messed up royally, but most people are on a daily outrage roller-coaster and aren’t sure if this is the hill worth dying on.”


April 7, 2018 - April 13, 2018

What Facebook’s privacy policy allows may surprise you

This July 1, 2016, file photo, shows the Facebook Data Center in Prineville, Ore. Facebook frequently defends its data collection and sharing activities by noting that it’s adhering to a privacy policy it shares with users. (AP Photo/Andrew Selsky, File)

Barbara Ortutay

New York (AP) - To get an idea of the data Facebook collects about you, just ask for it. You’ll get a file with every photo and comment you’ve posted, all the ads you’ve clicked on, stuff you’ve liked and searched for and everyone you’ve friended - and unfriended - over the years.

This trove of data is used to decide which ads to show you. It also makes using Facebook more seamless and enjoyable - say, by determining which posts to emphasize in your feed, or reminding you of friends’ birthdays.

Facebook claims to protect all this information, and it lays out its terms in a privacy policy that’s relatively clear and concise. But few users bother to read it. You might be surprised at what Facebook’s privacy policy allows - and what’s left unsaid.

Facebook’s privacy practices have come under fire after a Trump-affiliated political consulting firm, Cambridge Analytica, got data inappropriately from millions of Facebook users. While past privacy debacles have centered on what marketers gather on users, the stakes are higher this time because the firm is alleged to have created psychological profiles to influence how people vote or even think about politics and society.

Facebook defends its data collection and sharing activities by noting that it’s adhering to a privacy policy it shares with users. Thanks largely to years of privacy scandals and pressure from users and regulators, Facebook also offers a complex set of controls that let users limit how their information is used - to a point.

You can turn off ad targeting and see generic ads instead, the way you would on television or in a newspaper. In the ad settings, you’d need to uncheck all your interests, interactions with companies and websites and other personal information you don’t want to use in targeting. Of course, if you click on a new interest after this, you’ll have to go back and uncheck it in your ad preferences to prevent targeting. It’s a tedious task.

As Facebook explains, it puts you in target categories based on your activity. So, if you are 35, live in Seattle and have liked an outdoor adventure page, Facebook may show you an ad for a mountain bike shop in your area.

But activity isn’t limited to pages or posts you like, comments you make and your use of outside apps and websites.

“If you start typing something and change your mind and delete it, Facebook keeps those and analyzes them too,” Zeynep Tufekci, a prominent techno-sociologist, said in a 2017 TED talk.

And, increasingly, Facebook tries to match what it knows about you with your offline data, purchased from data brokers or gathered in other ways. The more information it has, the fuller the picture of you it can offer to advertisers. It can infer things about you that you had no intention of sharing - anything from your ethnicity to personality traits, happiness and use of addictive substances, Tufekci said.

These types of data collection aren’t necessarily explicit in privacy policies or settings.

What Facebook does say is that advertisers don’t get the raw data. They just tell Facebook what kind of people they want their ads to reach, then Facebook makes the matches and shows the ads.

Apps can also collect a lot of data about you, as revealed in the Cambridge Analytica scandal. The firm got the data from a researcher who paid 270,000 Facebook users to complete a psychological profile quiz back in 2014. But the quiz gathered information on their friends as well, bringing the total number of people affected to about 50 million.

Facebook says Cambridge Analytica got the data inappropriately - but only because the app said it collected data for research rather than political profiling. Gathering data on friends was permitted at the time, even if they had never installed the app or given explicit consent.

Ian Bogost, a Georgia Tech communications professor who built a tongue-in-cheek game called “Cow Clicker” in 2010, wrote in The Atlantic recently that abusing the Facebook platform for “deliberately nefarious ends” was easy to do then. What’s worse, he said, it was hard to avoid extracting private data.

If “you played Cow Clicker, even just once, I got enough of your personal data that, for years, I could have assembled a reasonably sophisticated profile of your interests and behavior,” he wrote. “I might still be able to; all the data is still there, stored on my private server, where Cow Clicker is still running, allowing players to keep clicking where a cow once stood.”

Facebook has since restricted the amount of types of data apps can access. But other types of data collection are still permitted. For this reason, it’s a good idea to check all the apps you’ve given permissions to over the years. You can also do this in your settings.


March 31, 2018 - April 6, 2018

The Samsung S9 has a great camera - just like other phones

 

In this Feb. 21, 2018, file photo, the Bixby virtual assistant software of a Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus mobile phone translates a foreign language sign during a product preview in New York. But stop signs in Thai, Portuguese and French were translated as “first,” ‘’shield,” and “crazy.” (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)

Anick Jesdanun

New York (AP) - Samsung says its new Galaxy S9 phone features a “reimagined” camera, and it is indeed pretty darned good. But you might not want to shell out $720 or more for one just yet unless your current phone is already close to death.

That’s because other high-end phone cameras - nowadays, one of the major differentiators between phones - are also pretty darned good. If your phone is recent, it probably already has a decent camera. Technology has improved to the point that it’s really hard to tell the difference between them.

In many of our test shots, the S9 outperformed the best of its rivals - Apple’s iPhone X, Google’s Pixel 2 XL and Samsung’s own Galaxy Note 8. Photos had more detail and less distortion. But unless you magnify images for closer inspection, usually there’s little obvious difference beyond color variation, which comes down to personal preference. In a few cases, the S9 performed worse than all three.

The phone came out March 16 with a U.S. starting price of $720 through Samsung and T-Mobile and nearly $800 through other major U.S. carriers. Here’s a look at what the S9 offers.

See the light

In a first for a major smartphone, the S9 camera has an adjustable aperture, or lens opening, to let in more or less light. Low-light shots are also improved with software tricks that automatically take 12 shots in quick succession and blend the best of each.

These changes produce small improvements in shots: The evening sky tends to be darker, with less distortion. A statue of Abraham Lincoln doesn’t look as grainy. Many S9 shots also have better contrast between dark and light areas.

But these differences are very subtle. What’s more likely to affect picture quality is the steadiness of your hands.

Freezing motion

The most distinctive feature in Samsung’s new camera is super-slow-mo video. People appear frozen as they jump. Waterfalls seem at peace as drops trickle down. The feature offers a fresh perspective on that time-honored prank of having fake snakes pop out of a can - not so scary when the snakes float in thin air.

It’s a gimmick, but loads of fun.

The camera can process only a fifth of a second of video at a time - stretched into six seconds when viewing - so auto detection is key to capturing the right moment. It’s fun to see people jump up at this speed, but less so when the super-slow-mo part doesn’t kick in until they’re almost back on the ground. There’s a lot of trial and error involved.

And compared with still images and regular video, super-slow-mo video tends to be darker and blurrier, particularly with close-ups. The feature is at its best outdoors, when lighting is good and the subject in motion is far enough away.

Say what?

Samsung’s Bixby digital assistant taps the camera for instant translations. Just point the phone at a sign and see it in English (or your chosen language) with similar fonts and colors.

Bixby was more reliable at picking up text than a similar Google Lens feature on Pixel phones. But stop signs in Thai, Portuguese and French were translated as “first,” ‘’shield,” and “crazy.” Bixby got Indonesian right, though. And it can deal with long passages in posters and documents.

You are what you eat

Point the camera at food for nutritional information. It gave me close-enough calorie counts for a burger and onion rings, but a roast beef sandwich was misidentified as either a pastrami or a cubano sandwich, depending on the angle.

All counts are based on single servings, which isn’t as useful as Bixby telling me the mac and cheese I had was actually three servings, or triple the calories. Unreported calories don’t contribute to weight gain, right?

What else

The larger S9 Plus model has a second lens with twice the magnification. Though I didn’t test this model, a similar feature in other phones is essential for producing better close-ups.

Both S9 models have a feature for turning selfies into personal emojis for sharing in messages. Some people will love this; I found no use for it. Next!

The new phone is easier to unlock by looking at it. Past Samsung phones scan your iris, but they don’t work reliably in bright sunlight. The S9 supplements that with facial recognition, which isn’t as secure. For that reason, Samsung won’t let banking and other sensitive apps use just the face, but it’s OK for unlocking the phone (you can disable it if you’re concerned). In any case, glasses can still be challenging, but there’s a fingerprint sensor on the back as a backup. It’s moved slightly to reduce smudges on the camera lens.

Beyond that, the phone’s design hasn’t changed much from last year’s S8. But that’s OK. No need to fix what isn’t broken. What matters is what the phone does - and shoots.
 


DAILY UPDATE

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HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Can Facebook restore public trust after privacy scandal?


What Facebook’s privacy policy allows may surprise you


The Samsung S9 has a great camera - just like other phones


 



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