Location Data Privacy in Apps

The New York Times released a report (with some fancy graphics) detailing location data use by apps for advertising, outside the main purpose of the app. Only 10 apps were covered in depth, but the findings reveal how some advertising companies aggregate location data from apps.

At least 75 companies receive anonymous, precise location data from apps whose users enable location services to get local news and weather or other information, The Times found. Several of those businesses claim to track up to 200 million mobile devices in the United States — about half those in use last year. The database reviewed by The Times — a sample of information gathered in 2017 and held by one company — reveals people’s travels in startling detail, accurate to within a few yards and in some cases updated more than 14,000 times a day.

[Learn how to stop apps from tracking your location.]

An app may tell users that granting access to their location will help them get traffic information, but not mention that the data will be shared and sold. That disclosure is often buried in a vague privacy policy.

via NY Times

Remember, even with location services disabled, apps and websites and still track your approximate location.

The Times app did not request precise location data and did not send it. It sent location data to several companies based on an IP address that placed the device elsewhere within the city.

via NY Times

IP based location tracking came up during the Facebook Congressional hearings and is a way Google can personalize search results when logged out or in private browsing windows. And don’t forget Google’s “Location History” and “Web and App Activity both cover location services.

The most unnerving finding of the report is how apps hide code that exports your location to advertisers behind opaque privacy policies.

Frequently, location data companies make packages of code that collect phones’ whereabouts. Developers who add this code to their apps can get paid for location-targeted ads, or earn money for providing the location data, or get free mapping or other services for their apps.

via NY Times

If we can’t communicate use of location with transparency, what will happen when biometric and facial recognition technologies are embedded in every camera and device:

“people deserve to know when [facial recognition] technology is being used, so they can ask questions and exercise some choice in the matter if they wish. Indeed, we believe this type of transparency is vital for building public knowledge and confidence in this technology. New legislation can provide for this in a straightforward approach:

  • Ensuring notice. The law should require that entities that use facial recognition to identify consumers place conspicuous notice that clearly conveys that these services are being used.
    Clarifying consent.The law should specify that consumers consent to the use of facial recognition services when they enter premises or proceed to use online services that have this type of clear notice.”
  • via Facial recognition: It’s time for action
  • What the Marriott Breach Says About Security

    Your personal data is already stolen. Here’s what you need to be doing:

    via Krebs on Security

     

    How Criminals Steal $37 Billion a Year

    It is increasingly difficult to trust someone calling from a phone call you don’t recognize. Not only are scammers calling from numbers that seem to be in your area, but they are also impersonating family members in distress.

    The dirty little secret about elder exploitation is that almost 60 percent of cases involve a perpetrator who is a family member, according to a 2014 study by Lachs and others, an especially fraught situation where victims are often unwilling, or unable, to seek justice. Such manipulation sometimes involves force or the threat of force

    via Bloomberg

    This trick has been around for a while, but there are new defenses available to guard against the scam.

    On Feb. 5, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, an industry body, put into effect “the first uniform, national standards to protect senior investors.” It now requires members to try to obtain a trusted contact’s information so they can discuss account activity. It also permits firms to place temporary holds on disbursements if exploitation is suspected.

    Bloomberg

    Interesting idea; a two person authentication for account transactions, but it still may be easy to beat the system.

    Loewy, who left her job as a prosecutor in 2014 to join EverSafe, a startup that makes software to monitor suspicious account activity, is underwhelmed by the industry projects.

    “They may say they’re focused on it, but they aren’t really doing much more than training employees,” she says. “Exploiters know what they’re doing. They take amounts under $10,000 that they know won’t get picked up by fraud and risk folks at banks. And they steal across institutions over time.”

    Bloomberg

    And remember, if you get a text from a short-code number with 5 or 6 digits, you can verify the identity of the sender with the Short Code Directory.

    Nobody is immune to ads

    In his post Nobody is immune to ads, Georges Abi-Heila explores the psychology of how humans react to the barrage of brands and ads we see every day.

    There’s no scientific consensus on the number of ads we’re exposed to daily, as estimates vary from a few hundreds to thousands. Why is it so hard to get a reasonable figure? Because it depends on a variety of factors that greatly affect the final result (sorted by level of importance):

    What is considered an ad?
    Including brand labels and logos can increase 10x the final result.
    Think about every time you pass by a brand name in a supermarket, the label on everything you wear, the condiments in your fridge, the cars on the highway…
    Where does the subject live?
    The denser your living environment, the more ads you’re exposed to as companies fiercely compete for your attention (and, ultimately, your wallet). Visual pollution is one of the drawbacks of living in big city…
    What is the subject’s job?
    During work hours, a hotel receptionist sees a lot less ads than a truck driver which is less exposed than a social media manager.

    Want to see an interesting example? Have an iPhone? Ignore for a moment all the brands you see from the icons on your home screen, this one is more subtle. What does it say in the top left corner? 

    https://cdn.vox-cdn.com/thumbor/prj_rjURjKC1ZVVlVmhOuMUrbso=/0x0:2040x1360/1720x0/filters:focal(0x0:2040x1360):no_upscale()/cdn.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/9276345/jbareham_170916_2000_0088.jpg
    The Verge iPhone 8 Review

    So every time you pick up your phone you are served an ad for your cell carrier. Why does it exist? Do you frequently forget you are on the AT&T network?

    It is worth noting, the notched iPhones no longer show the carrier name, so his redditor has the right idea.

    https://cdn.vox-cdn.com/thumbor/PZtyF3VgyktMRvvz5AciV-borm8=/0x0:2040x1360/1920x0/filters:focal(0x0:2040x1360):no_upscale()/cdn.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/9597629/jbareham_171101_2099_A_0104.jpg
    The Verge iPhone X Review

    Is it a big change? No. But one less ad in the thousands you see in a day.

    As a bonus, check out the streets of Sao Paulo. The city has a law that prohibits outdoor advertising. The story is covered in a post by 99% Invisible.

    21 Lessons for the 21st Century

    Yuval Noah Harari on the Talks at Google podcast (and in video form)

    He’s marketing his new book extremely well and a New York Times interview on the subject garnered attention:

    It made him sad, he told me, to see people build things that destroy their own societies, but he works every day to maintain an academic distance and remind himself that humans are just animals. “Part of it is really coming from seeing humans as apes, that this is how they behave,” he said, adding, “They’re chimpanzees. They’re sapiens. This is what they do.”

    . . .

    “It’s just a rule of thumb in history that if you are so much coddled by the elites it must mean that you don’t want to frighten them,” Mr. Harari said. “They can absorb you. You can become the intellectual entertainment.”

    . . .

    He told the audience that free will is an illusion, and that human rights are just a story we tell ourselves. Political parties, he said, might not make sense anymore. He went on to argue that the liberal world order has relied on fictions like “the customer is always right” and “follow your heart,” and that these ideas no longer work in the age of artificial intelligence, when hearts can be manipulated at scale

    Not the most heartening view of the future.

    21 Lessons is also recommended by Bill Gates as one of 5 books he loved in 2018 (to further corroborate Harari’s points)

    The trick for putting an end to our anxieties, he suggests, is not to stop worrying. It’s to know which things to worry about, and how much to worry about them. As he writes in his introduction: “What are today’s greatest challenges and most important changes? What should we pay attention to? What should we teach our kids?”

    Or maybe we should be a bit more like Newt Scamander

    My philosophy is that worrying means you suffer twice.

    Rent-seeking

    The Exponent podcast is back! And there’s a lot of news regarding pressure to change existing App Store pricing models.

    it seems incredibly worrisome to me anytime any company predicates its growth story on rent-seeking: it’s not that the growth isn’t real, but rather that the pursuit is corrosive on whatever it was that made the company great in the first place. That is a particularly large concern for Apple: the company has always succeeded by being the best; how does the company maintain that edge when its executives are more concerned with harvesting profits from other companies’ innovations?

    via Stratechery and Exponent

    Plus, after shipping Fortnite outside of the Google Play Store, Epic Games is moving in on Steam with a new game store and taking a smaller cut of sales.

    Developers receive 88% of revenue. There are no tiers or thresholds. Epic takes 12%. And if you’re using Unreal Engine, Epic will cover the 5% engine royalty for sales on the Epic Games store, out of Epic’s 12%.

    via Unreal Engine Blog

    The case for slowing everything down a bit

    Ezra Klein on increased digital friction:

    I believe that one reason podcasts have exploded is that they carry so much friction: They’re long and messy, they often take weeks or months to produce, they’re hard to clip and share and skim — and as a result, they’re calmer, more human, more judicious, less crazy-making.

    Klein and Jaron Lanier discuss just that, in a podcast.

    Writing . . . is full of friction. It’s hard and slow, and the words on the page fall short of the music and clarity I imagined they’d have. But it is, in the end, rewarding. It’s where I have at least a chance to create something worth creating. The work is worth it.

    via Vox

    Sunday Reading: Thoughts on The Tech Industry’s War on Kids

    Person sitting at a table reading a book with a bowl of cereal and cup of tea

    Reflecting on The Tech Industry’s War on Kids: How psychology is being used as a weapon against children

    Richard Freed is a child psychologist who focuses on helping families work through “extreme overuse of phones, video games, and social media.”

    Preteen and teen girls refuse to get off their phones, even though it’s remarkably clear that the devices are making them miserable. I also see far too many boys whose gaming obsessions lead them to forgo interest in school, extracurricular activities, and anything else productive. Some of these boys, as they reach their later teens, use their large bodies to terrorize parents who attempt to set gaming limits. A common thread running through many of these cases is parent guilt, as so many are certain they did something to put their kids on a destructive path.

    Kids might be struggling with technology, but adults may also act like children if older folks had to go a day without technology. Maybe we should all take a digital detox.

    Captology

    BJ Fogg directs the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab. There is tons of research and design practices used by today’s most popular apps, websites, and games, but we can still use this newfound power for good. Although, whether good or bad, the techniques are still shaping human behavior without consent.

    Fogg’s website also has lately undergone a substantial makeover, as he now seems to go out of his way to suggest his work has benevolent aims, commenting, “I teach good people how behavior works so they can create products & services that benefit everyday people around the world.” Likewise, the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab website optimistically claims, “Persuasive technologies can bring about positive changes in many domains, including health, business, safety, and education. We also believe that new advances in technology can help promote world peace in 30 years.”

    Why don’t we make it easy for kids and adults to spend their time doing the things society deems productive. Part of the challenge is exposing kids to new opportunities and experiences to help them understand their real world potential, even at their age.

    While persuasion techniques work well on adults, they are particularly effective at influencing the still-maturing child and teen brain. “Video games, better than anything else in our culture, deliver rewards to people, especially teenage boys,” says Fogg. “Teenage boys are wired to seek competency. To master our world and get better at stuff. Video games, in dishing out rewards, can convey to people that their competency is growing, you can get better at something second by second.” And it’s persuasive design that’s helped convince this generation of boys they are gaining “competency” by spending countless hours on game sites, when the sad reality is they are locked away in their rooms gaming, ignoring school, and not developing the real-world competencies that colleges and employers demand.

    Motivation/inspiration, Ability/capability, Trigger/feedback

    According to B.J. Fogg, the “Fogg Behavior Model” is a well-tested method to change behavior and, in its simplified form, involves three primary factors: motivation, ability, and triggers. Describing how his formula is effective at getting people to use a social network, the psychologist says in an academic paper that a key motivator is users’ desire for “social acceptance,” although he says an even more powerful motivator is the desire “to avoid being socially rejected.” Regarding ability, Fogg suggests that digital products should be made so that users don’t have to “think hard.” Hence, social networks are designed for ease of use. Finally, Fogg says that potential users need to be triggered to use a site. This is accomplished by a myriad of digital tricks, including the sending of incessant notifications urging users to view friends’ pictures, telling them they are missing out while not on the social network, or suggesting that they check — yet again — to see if anyone liked their post or photo.

    It seems we should be able to reframe the three motivation, ability, and triggers behavioral factors into a more productive framing of inspiration, capability, and reinforcement. For example, a kid who enjoys watching YouTube creators may be inspired to make a channel of their own. YouTube, influencers, or another service, can help kids build their movie making capabilities. Feedback on work can help reinforce learning and growth. In the end, kids are still spending time where they want to, but the behavioral model focuses on a healthy balance of creation and consumption leading to development in modern day, “real world capabilities”.

    Mostly terrifying

    the startup Dopamine Labs boasts about its use of persuasive techniques to increase profits: “Connect your app to our Persuasive AI [Artificial Intelligence] and lift your engagement and revenue up to 30% by giving your users our perfect bursts of dopamine,” and “A burst of Dopamine doesn’t just feel good: it’s proven to re-wire user behavior and habits.”

    Ramsay Brown, the founder of Dopamine Labs, says in a KQED Science article, “We have now developed a rigorous technology of the human mind, and that is both exciting and terrifying. We have the ability to twiddle some knobs in a machine learning dashboard we build, and around the world hundreds of thousands of people are going to quietly change their behavior in ways that, unbeknownst to them, feel second-nature but are really by design.”

    Facebook Messenger Kids

    How has the consumer tech industry responded to these calls for change? By going even lower. Facebook recently launched Messenger Kids, a social media app that will reach kids as young as five years old. Suggestive that harmful persuasive design is now honing in on very young children is the declaration of Messenger Kids Art Director, Shiu Pei Luu, “We want to help foster communication [on Facebook] and make that the most exciting thing you want to be doing.”

    Facebook’s narrow-minded vision of childhood is reflective of how out of touch the social network and other consumer tech companies are with the needs of an increasingly troubled generation. The most “exciting thing” for young children should be spending time with family, playing outside, engaging in creative play, and other vital developmental experiences — not being drawn into the social media vortex on phones or tablets. Moreover, Facebook Messenger Kids is giving an early start to the wired life on social media that we know poses risks of depression and suicide-related behavior for older children.

    In response to the release of Facebook’s Messenger Kids, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) sent Facebook a letter signed by numerous health advocates calling on the company to pull the plug on the app. Facebook has yet to respond to the letter and instead continues to aggressively market Messenger Kids for young children.

    Conscious workflows vs impulsive habits

    President John F. Kennedy’s prescient guidance: He said that technology “has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man.”

    From Cal Newport:

    Workflows are arguably more important than your high-level habits when it comes to impacting how effectively you produce valuable things (my preferred definition of “productivity”), but they’re a topic that’s often ignored.

    Indeed, for most people, the workflows that drive their professional life are processes that haphazardly arose without much intention or consideration.

    This fall, in other words, consider spending some serious time evaluating your workflows before turning your attention to the habits that help you deal with the obligations these flows generate.

    Technology gives us the tools to do more. It’s up to us to decide how we leverage our new powers.

    The best analogy I’ve ever heard is Scientific American, I think it was, did a study in the early 70s on the efficiency of locomotion, and what they did was for all different species of things in the planet, birds and cats and dogs and fish and goats and stuff, they measured how much energy does it take for a goat to get from here to there. Kilocalories per kilometer or something, I don’t know what they measured. And they ranked them, they published the list, and the Condor won. The Condor took the least amount of energy to get from here to there. Man was didn’t do so well, came in with a rather unimpressive showing about a third of the way down the list.

    But fortunately someone at Scientific American was insightful enough to test a man with a bicycle, and man with a bicycle won. Twice as good as the Condor, all the way off the list. And what it showed was that man is a toolmaker, has the ability to make a tool to amplify an inherent ability that he has. And that’s exactly what we’re doing here.

    Additional reading

    BJ Fogg commented on the article and provided a list of his works to raise awareness about the ethics of persuasive tech.

    A recent Atlantic article, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?,” by Dr. Jean Twenge

    Stratechery article on Tech’s Two Philosophies: Some problems are best solved by human ingenuity; others by collective action

    Tuesday’s Links and Quotes

    Today I explored the internet. There was no common thread other than reading stories and articles from various people of interest to me. Just some divergent thinking to spark new ideas and connections.

    Cosmik Debris from Kneeling Bus

    “Let little bits of your daily existence dissipate into the air rather than having them vacuumed up by a global machine that will alchemize them into advertising gold.”

    How to Avoid Card Skimmers at the Pump from Krebs on Security (also All About Skimmers)

    “look for fuel pumps with raised keypads and horizontal card slots. And keep in mind that it may not be the best idea to frequent a particular filling station simply because it offers the lowest prices: Doing so could leave you with hidden costs down the road.”

    Map of Bay Area Memespace from Julia Galef

    “Business in general is good real-world rationality training: you test your theories, you update your models, or you fail. And startup culture in particular promotes a “try things fast” attitude that can be a perfect antidote to the “sit around planning and theorizing forever” failure mode we’re sometimes prone to.”

    “You take the thought as something your brain produced, which may or may not be true, and may or may not be useful — and this ability to take a step back from your thoughts and reflect on them is arguably one of the building blocks of rationality.”