Google, Data Privacy, and Unconscious Oversharing

Pushpins overturned on a map of the world

Pushpins overturned on a map of the world

Google is tracking your location. Did we not already realize this?

Yesterday the Associate Press released a story titled Google tracks your movements, whether you like it or not. The gist of the article is there are at least two settings on your Google account relevant to your location, “Location History” and “Web and App Activity”, and you need to be aware of how you’ve configured both to limit the extent to which Google tracks and saves your location data.

Privacy Settings

via Google’s Activity Controls:

Location History

Saves where you go with your devices to give you personalized maps, recommendations based on places you’ve visited, and more.

Web and App Activity

Saves your activity on Google sites and apps to give you faster searches, better recommendations, and more personalized experiences in Maps, Search, and other Google services.

Question

Which setting do you need to disable to stop Google from saving locations of the places you’ve been?

(Second question: Did you know these settings exist?)

For the first, what did you go with? Location History? That seems to make sense but turns out not to be enough.

Answer, from AP and Google

To stop Google from saving these location markers, the company says, users can turn off another setting, one that does not specifically reference location information. Called “Web and App Activity” and enabled by default, that setting stores a variety of information from Google apps and websites to your Google account.
When paused, it will prevent activity on any device from being saved to your account. But leaving “Web & App Activity” on and turning “Location History” off only prevents Google from adding your movements to the “timeline,” its visualization of your daily travels. It does not stop Google’s collection of other location markers.

Um, what? Actually, this is not too surprising. Leveraging location makes Google services better. Knowing your location allows Google Search to show you the conditions outside when you search for “weather” instead of a definition for the word. It also lets you see concert tickets at venues in your city and movie times at your local theaters without the need to include your physical address in the search. Plus, driving directions in Maps would be useless if you didn’t let Google know your GPS coordinates.

Unconscious Over-sharing

The real issue here is not that we give up some privacy to make online services better as we use them, but the fact that transparency is virtually nonexistent into how companies use our data in ways we don’t consider. We are unconsciously over-sharing our personal information.

Take Maps again as an example. Not only does the service help us get from point A to B without the need of a physical map, but it also gets us there on the fastest route, optimized to include time in traffic.

Did you specifically let Google know that you are sitting in traffic? Unless you’re an active Wazer, the answer is probably no. So how did they determine there is a slowdown ahead? Remember, data lets companies improve their apps and services in ways indirectly related to the original value proposition. So while you are going 20 on the highway, using Google Maps to direct you home, Google is using your changes in location to measure your position and speed and recognize you are sitting in traffic.

Do you like that Google Maps includes traffic data? How would you feel if Google removed the “Traffic” feature from Maps? No one focuses on the benefit that’s given to you when you hand over your data and the service gets better.

It would be interesting to learn exactly how Google implements Traffic in Maps. As a thought experiment, would Traffic still work if everyone on the planet disabled Web & Activity Data? Clearly for Google Maps to give you directions, you must give it your location. But is the transaction single use? Does Google read your location, update your directions, then throw away your GPS point? They could reuse your location data to help improve the service for everyone else. They could even go as far as saving that data point for later, just in case another service could benefit from the information in the future. Each of these are not a “could”, Google is doing all of this.

But because the industry is so shady in its reporting practices for collecting data, it’s confusing what benefit you’re actually getting because it’s all just very opaque I give you my data and what am I getting out of it? This confusion leads to a default reaction is to turn off all data sharing settings, but in reality the services don’t work if they have no data. Kind of a Catch-22.

Companies have also streamlined the app onboarding experience and skirted away the finer details of what apps give and take. Google’s activity controls are not mentioned when you set up an Android phone or create a new Google account. So how are we supposed to be proactive about the privacy settings?

We need to flip the script on data privacy and give people the information they need as they need it. Not retroactively as a “clean up” feature.

Random thoughts

Ad Market Cap. Ad companies like Google and Facebook need as much information as possible about you to create a profile about you to sell ads and show ads to people like you. Facebook still knows a lot about you based on how you’ve used Instagram even if you’ve never posted a single picture. They can track scrolling, clicking, stopping, screenshotting.

Inastapaper GDPR. We still have no idea what Intapaper and Pinterest were doing that was against GDPR in the EU. It would be nice to know how companies use the data we so generously hand over.

Facebook and Google “Shadow profile”. All the data and information we didn’t explicitly give, but is intuited by algorithms from less visible forms of input (location from ip address, activity by linking signed in & out accounts). Even with all these settings disabled, to some unknown extent, Google et all stills know about our location and how we use the internet. It’s our right to know they know.

We need apps people pay for.

Product & service privacy settings

If you are concerned about companies knowing too much about you and your whereabouts, be sure to double check privacy settings for Location Services on all your devices.

Devices

iPhone
Settings > Privacy > Location Services

Android
Settings > Security & location > Location

Mac
Apple menu > System Preferences > Security & Privacy > Location Services

Windows
Settings > Privacy > Location

Chromebook/Chrome
Settings > Advanced > Privacy and security > Content settings > Location
(or search “Location”)

Apps & Services

Google

Microsoft

Apple

Instagram

Facebook
(Use a VPN)

Strava
So many toggles… read the article

My settings

Just saying, turn everything off. Google won’t be the same, but at least you’ll be in greater control of your data privacy.

Activity Controls

Screenshot of Google's Activity Controls permissions settings webpage

My Activity

Screenshot of Google's My Activity control page

Oh, and pot, meet kettle

“They build advertising information out of data,” said Peter Lenz, the senior geospatial analyst at Dstillery, a rival advertising technology company. “More data for them presumably means more profit.”

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Workplace Design

Coffee mug and open notebook on a wooden desk

My team is moving back from open to private offices, so it’s an opportune time to find inspiration for the new space. There are all sorts of studies about collaboration and productivity level in open space vs closed offices, but Joel Spolsky and Anil Dash from Stack Overflow and Fog Creek have perspectives from the lens of software engineers that still hold nearly fifteen years later.

Office space seems to be the one thing that nobody can get right and nobody can do anything about. There’s a ten year lease, and whenever the company moves the last person anybody asks about how to design the space is the manager of the software team, who finds out what his new veal-fattening pens, uh, cubicle farm is going to be like for the first time on the Monday after the move-in.

Well, it’s my own damn company and I can do something about it, so I did.

Bionic Office by Joel Spolsky

Mindset

Building great office space for software developers serves two purposes: increased productivity, and increased recruiting pull. Private offices with doors that close prevent programmers from interruptions allowing them to concentrate on code without being forced to stop and listen to every interesting conversation in the room. And the nice offices wow our job candidates, making it easier for us to attract, hire, and retain the great developers we need to make software profitably. It’s worth it, especially in a world where so many software jobs provide only the most rudimentary and depressing cubicle farms.

The New Fog Creek Office by Joel Spolsky

Just take a look at the long list of requirements for the office space:

  • Gobs of well-lit perimeter offices
  • Desks designed for programming
  • Glass whiteboards
  • Coffee bar and lunchroom
  • A huge salt water aquarium
  • Plenty of meeting space
  • A library
  • A shower
  • Wood floors, carpet, concrete

The link to photos of the space is broken, but not because the space didn’t work out; Joel’s ideas on workplace design outlasted Picasa. Luckily the NYTimes article on the Fog Creek office still has a few thumbnail sized images. Plus street view is still a thing.

They used bold, playful colors and bright common areas to foster in-the-trenches camaraderie and created private soundproof offices where the programmers can go to get their jobs done.

A Software Designer Knows His Office Space, Too via NYTimes

Spolsky wanted a space designed intentionally for deep work and collaboration, and he put a considerable amount of thought to ensure he built a productive environment for the people at Fog Creek. It paid off.

Results

Spolsky has a treasure trove of knowledge on his blog that spills out amongst others on his team. The rich history is pervasive across those he influences.

With a private office, you’re in control of your space and attention: you can choose when to close the door and avoid interruptions, and when to go play ping-pong, talk with coworkers or work out of the coffee bar. In an open office you’re at the mercy of the people around you: if they’re talking, the best you can do is crank up your headphones and hope to drown them out, and if they’re playing foosball then good luck.

Everybody has their own rhythm. People come in at different times, take breaks at different times, need to socialize at different times, and have their most productive hours at different times. Management’s job is to accommodate that and create a space where all those conflicting needs don’t congeal into a persistent hum of distraction — not to enforce some top-down ideal of openness and creativity. Private offices put the people who do the actual work in control.

Why We (Still) Believe in Private Offices by David Fullerton

Fullerton’s post shows how teams can create a “magnificent culture of non-distraction” by using technology to keep people in control of how they work. At first, the idea typing out a chat, going back and forth seems less efficient than tapping someone on the shoulder for help, but leveraging technology as a tool to help people stay in the flow actually makes sense.

Whenever we get a new hire in the office, I make it a point to sit down with them in their first week and explain that they should not go to someone’s office when they have a question. Instead, ping them in chat and then jump on a hangout. The result is exactly the sort of culture that open offices are supposed to promote but better:

  • If someone else sees the message, they can chime in with the answer
  • If someone else is interested in the discussion, they can jump onto the hangout
  • And, crucially, if someone is working heads-down and doesn’t want to be distracted, all they have to do is close the chat window.

But what about marketing and design? And how about expanding teams?

We don’t actually even give everyone private offices: some people are doubled up in offices, and the sales and marketing teams sit in larger open spaces because they feel that’s an important part of how they work.

Evolution

Putting employees first is always at the heart of how we create great places to work.

In 2017 Fog Creek moved to it’s fourth headquarters (1, 2, 3, 4). They could have recreated a bigger version of their office 3.0, but instead they reflected on their team dynamic and arrived at a design that allows people to work in a variety of ways. With a largely remote workforce and a larger percentage of people in non-technical roles, Anil Dash (Fog Creek CEO as of December 2016) understood the existing office design could be enhanced.

The new office also includes a variety of work spaces that accommodate different work modes. Anil mentioned personal offices for standalone work, but they also work well for collaborative work like pair programming. There are workstations for independent or individual co-working, and phone booths for external communication such as sales calls or podcast appearances. There’s also our conference room — known as the “quiet car” — which can be used across a number of different work modes. And true to the nature of our office being flexible and experimental, we are already re-configuring some of these spaces based on how we use them.

Beyond Open Offices: The New Fog Creek Headquarters by Maurice Cherry

Fog Creek treats their office like any other product they produce. With Spolsky at the helm, the company researched best designs, planned with it’s people in mind, built it’s ideal vision, and iterated on the product, improving with each new update.

As the company has grown and changed over the years, so has our office space. Joel’s grand visions for what a work environment should do for employees have been part of Fog Creek from the very beginning, and we have tried to honor that legacy. We also have plenty of plans for the future, and look forward to continuing our tradition of incubating new teams and ideas from within our company and beyond.

Inspiration

For those of you looking to revitalize your open space or bring the aesthetics of open plan spaces to a private office from Design Milk 2017 Where I Work Year in Review. Since these aren’t Fog Creek offices, the productivity may not be at the same level, but they look cool.

All the links

View story at Medium.com

View story at Medium.com

Week in Review – September 24, 2017

Top down view of coffee mug on a yellow surface

A lot of work this week, possibly fueled by too much caffeine (3 cups in 4 days is a lot for me). But I am practicing deep work techniques to avoid email, single task and stay in the flow.

How to answer questions in a helpful way

Jvns post from a couple days ago caught my attention. Just today I encountered both sides of how to answer questions in a helpful way.

How you phrase a question is important:

  • Rephrase a more specific question back at them (“Are you asking X?”)
  • Ask them for more specific information they didn’t provide (“are you using IPv6?”)
  • Ask what prompted their question. For example, sometimes people come into my team’s channel with questions about how our service discovery works. Usually this is because they’re trying to set up/reconfigure a service. In that case it’s helpful to ask “which service are you working with? Can I see the pull request you’re working on?”

When asking a question, you need to be cognizant that the other person may not know your level of understanding. Set the state by giving them some insight into your point of view. Maybe start with a drawing.. Visualizing the problem often makes it easier to communicate.

Figuring out what your question-asker knows already is important because they may be confused about fundamental concepts (“What’s Redux?”), or they may be an expert who’s getting at a subtle corner case. An answer building on concepts they don’t know is confusing, and an answer that recaps things they know is tedious.

Building on the idea of visualizing the problem, when talking about how you solve a problem, try to show what you did and explain your thought process

New person: “I’m seeing errors on the site, what’s happening?”
More Experienced Person: (2 minutes later) “oh that’s because there’s a database failover happening”
New person: how did you know that??!?!?
More Experienced Person: “Here’s what I did!”:
Often these errors are due to Service Y being down. I looked at $PLACE and it said Service Y was up. So that wasn’t it.
Then I looked at dashboard X, and this part of that dashboard showed there was a database failover happening.
Then I looked in the logs for the service and it showed errors connecting to the database, here’s what those errors look like.

High Frequency Trading

If this doesn’t seem like a company run by a Bond villain, I don’t know what does: Citadel

And Reading for the Emmys

The Handmaid’s Tale

Week in Review – August 6, 2017

Stock image of a person simulating an open office environment

Meditation and Routine:

I took time this morning to meditate. I noticed I was going to rush to make it to the bus, and decided to wait and take the one leaving 30 minutes later. It was a simple decision that has big impact for the day. I leave in a calmer state and am able to get more done in the morning (at a relaxed pace). If only I would wake up earlier to take advantage of the time with my scheduled routine. My alarm goes off just after 7am and the next 20-25 minutes are spent snoozing and scrolling on my phone. I should re-read my routine post.

 

Readings:

Anil Dash on open space workplaces

via Medium

Anil Dash is not a fan of open offices for programmers. Programmers need to get into a state of flow to focus on the work in front of them and go deep. This is difficult with constant visual and auditory distraction.

At home it is quiet and there is little going on. Because of this I am able to stay focused and get work done. Deep work can come at with a loss to collaboration, but Cal Newport details how deep collaboration can be done.

More on open space at Fog Creek.

1000 True Fans

Kevin Kelly

I read this before,

“A creator, such as an artist, musician, photographer, craftsperson, performer, animator, designer, videomaker, or author—in other words, anyone producing works of art—needs to acquire only 1,000 True Fans to make a living.”

but it came up again (via Ryan Holiday)

“So don’t wait. Build your platform now. Build it before your first project, before your first great perennial seller comes out, so that you have a better chance of actually turning it into one. Build it now so that you might create multiple works like that. Build it so you can have a career—so you can be more than just a guy or gal with a book or movie or app. Because you’re more than that. You’re an entrepreneur, an author, a filmmaker, a journalist. You’re a mogul.”

Tuesday’s hard fork of bitcoin

Bitcoin and cryptocurrency are fascinating. Some analysis on the bitcoin cash spinoff. I don’t know anything about it him, but I’ll have to read more from Matt Levine.

BCH spun off from BTC on Tuesday afternoon, and briefly traded over $700 on Wednesday (though it later fell significantly). But BTC hasn’t really lost any value since the spinoff, still trading at about $2,700. So just before the spinoff, if you had a bitcoin, you had a bitcoin worth about $2,700. Now, you have a BTC worth about $2,700, and also a BCH worth as much as $700. It’s weird free money, if you owned bitcoins yesterday.

Apple and the Oak Tree

Stratechery

The iPods Shuffle and Nano, the last two iTunes-dependent (i.e. non-iOS) MP3 players Apple sold, were quietly discontinued last Tuesday. The revelation two days later that Apple was, at the behest of the Chinese government, removing VPN apps from the App Store in China, drew considerably more interest

 

Podcasts

Long Distance

Reply All (Ep. 1 and Ep. 2)

Wow. The two part episode lacks closure, but is a captivating detective story that spans the globe.

 

danah boyd — The Internet of the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

On Being with Krista Tippett

 

“Even the most fleeting acquaintance with the history of information and communication technologies indicates that moral panics are episodic and should be taken with a grain of salt.”

 

danah boyd on why fake news is so easy to believe

The Ezra Klein Show

 

“Give me more kale”

These interviews are so similar, it’s almost as if they are with the same person. Still, each interviewer provides their own color. Tippett takes a more human approach while Klein focuses on the news, but both are searching for truth

 

 

Interactive thingy

The Evolution of Trust

Nicky Case

“We are punished by our sins, not for them.”

~ Elbert Hubbard

Almost as cool as the game. The history of making it: https://github.com/ncase/trust/commits/gh-pages

 

Movies

 

Earworms

 

Cryptocurrency

Man facing away standing on a Brazilian street

Here’s an unformed thought for the day

What is the value of a cryptocurrency? If something like Ripple makes sense from an application perspective, but the blockchain is not as useful, does it adhere to the crypto manta of fat protocols and lean application layer? Not sure exactly what that means yet, but if the application is the selling point, it seems like blockchain is not the most well suited to the problem.

When we look at Bitcoin, the value of the blockchain is defined by its ability to record financial transactions, and rewarded in the verification, or Ethereum, where the value is the smart contracts and again rewarded in verification, the inherent the value of the coin is in the blockchain, the fat protocols that give life to the thin task layer above.

Does bitcoin, the currency, have financial value because of the Bitcoin blockchain? I am not quite sure. Where does the $2.5k+ price point come from? I sort of understand the opportunity of blockchain as a technology, but the value in the currency still alludes me.

Here’s another coin that makes some sense. Filecoin. This is a cryptocurrency that is paid to users who lend unused hard drive space. File transactions are stored in blockchain and contracts are paid out via a filecoin drop (how to upper and lower case coins differ? Bitcoin vs bitcoin?). With Filecoin is a tangible contract. A seller who has unused hard drive space in s server somewhere. A buyer who needs hard drives to store data. And a currency, filecoin, as a means for the transaction to take place. The Filecoin blockchain (I’m sticking with upper case for the blockchain itself, and lowercase for the coin, maybe that’s right), records all the transactions keeping a history of what went where (again, maybe this is just for Bitcoin). I kinda had it: http://filecoin.io/

What else is out there?

Steemit, Synereo, Akasha? I like the tag line of mining your mind. One could see this becoming the way of the future on the internet. Blockchain and cryptocurrencies solve the problem of advertisers. From the get go, there are blockchains set up to pay people for their creations. I’m still unsure this is the best use of the tech, but it is great to see a new way of funding artists, creators, and makers.

“Within each Bitcoin transaction is the ability to write a little program. For example, you can write a little program in a Bitcoin transaction that says “this transaction isn’t valid unless it’s June 15th, 2016 or later”. This is very powerful because you can move money automatically with computer code and everyone can see the rules by which that money moves and know those rules will be followed.” (From Ethereum is the Forefront of the Digital Economy)

More fascination

We needed to invent something completely different to get people to crowd fund projects. How do we have headlines like “the easiest way to monetize your open source work” that work in currency most people don’t even know about, but we cant’t do the same with fiat currency? It is similar to government efforts to fix hyperinflation. Where was it that changed the currency and tried to replace people’s perception of the money? I think I heard about it in a Planet Money podcast. Ah Brazil: How Fake Money Saved Brazil and How Four Drinking Buddies Saved Brazil (Podcast)

Replace URV with BTC and hyperinflation with spammy internet ads, and you nearly have the same story.

Fact check – URV or BTC?

Create a currency that doesn’t exist. No coins, no bills
URV (its called BitCOIN, duh)

He and three friends had been studying X since they were graduate students — four guys at the campus bar complaining to each other about how no one else knew how to fix this.  And now they were being told “Fine, do it your way.”

Find X: Brazilian Inflation or Spammy Internet Ads
Brazilian Inflation

Enough of that. People will catch on.

Lightening round

DAO sounds fun, but I don’t get it (and neither does coindesk)
(The DAO Just Raised 50 Million, But What is It?)

Only the dull mine Ethereum. Go create!
(An Idiots Guide to Building an Ethereum Mining Rig)

More questions

What do Ethereum miners verify on the blockchain? Completion of all the contracts? What is the Bitcoin verification process for that matter? I think i conflated cryptocurrency and blockchain, what is the distinction?

Getting tired. Taking a break for a few.

Next time on internet ramblings with Ryan: How to prepare a balanced meal of energy usage, water consumption, and animal ethics.

Edit

(this post didn’t publish correctly a few weeks ago)

Now this is happening: Bitcoin is forking to BTC and BCC. Coinbase is only supporting BTC. People are concerned. This seems like a stock split. Speculation abound.

(didn’t post again…)

Some analysis on the fork Bitcoin Exchange Had Too Many Bitcoins