Google

Google Exposed User Data, Feared Repercussions of Disclosing to Public

8 October 2018

From The Wall Street Journal:

Google exposed the private data of hundreds of thousands of users of the Google+ social network and then opted not to disclose the issue this past spring, in part because of fears that doing so would draw regulatory scrutiny and cause reputational damage, according to people briefed on the incident and documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

As part of its response to the incident, the Alphabet Inc. unit plans to announce a sweeping set of data privacy measures that include permanently shutting down all consumer functionality of Google+, the people said. The move effectively puts the final nail in the coffin of a product that was launched in 2011 to challenge Facebook Inc. and is widely seen as one of Google’s biggest failures.

A software glitch in the social site gave outside developers potential access to private Google+ profile data between 2015 and March 2018, when internal investigators discovered and fixed the issue, according to the documents and people briefed on the incident. A memo reviewed by the Journal prepared by Google’s legal and policy staff and shared with senior executives warned that disclosing the incident would likely trigger “immediate regulatory interest” and invite comparisons to Facebook’s leak of user information to data firm Cambridge Analytica.

. . . .

Chief Executive Sundar Pichai was briefed on the plan not to notify users after an internal committee had reached that decision, the people said.

The planned closure of Google+ is part of a broader review of privacy practices by Google that has determined the company needs tighter controls on several major products, the people said.

. . . .

The episode involving Google+, which hasn’t been previously reported, shows the company’s concerted efforts to avoid public scrutiny of how it handles user information, particularly at a time when regulators and consumer privacy groups are leading a charge to hold tech giants accountable for the vast power they wield over the personal data of billions of people.

The snafu threatens to give Google a black eye on privacy after public assurances that it was less susceptible to data gaffes like those that have befallen Facebook. It may also complicate Google’s attempts to stave off unfavorable regulation in Washington. Mr. Pichai recently agreed to testify before Congress in the coming weeks.

“Whenever user data may have been affected, we go beyond our legal requirements and apply several criteria focused on our users in determining whether to provide notice,” a Google spokesman said in a statement.

In weighing whether to disclose the incident, the company considered “whether we could accurately identify the users to inform, whether there was any evidence of misuse, and whether there were any actions a developer or user could take in response,” he said. “None of these thresholds were met here.”

The internal memo from legal and policy staff says the company has no evidence that any outside developers misused the data but acknowledges it has no way of knowing for sure.

. . . .

In the announcement expected on Monday, Google plans to clamp down on the data it provides outside developers through APIs, two people briefed on the matter said. The company will stop letting most outside developers gain access to SMS messaging data, call log data and some forms of contact data on Android phones, and Gmail will only permit a small number of developers to continue building add-ons for the email service, the people said.

Google faced pressure to rein in developer access to Gmail earlier this year, after a Wall Street Journal examination found that developers commonly use free email apps to hook users into giving up access to their inboxes without clearly stating what data they collect. In some cases, employees at these app companies have read people’s actual emails to improve their software algorithms.

. . . .

In March of this year, Google discovered that Google+ also permitted developers to retrieve the data of some users who never intended to share it publicly, according to the memo and two people briefed on the matter. Because of a bug in the API, developers could collect the profile data of their users’ friends even if that data was explicitly marked nonpublic in Google’s privacy settings, the people said.

During a two-week period in late March, Google ran tests to determine the impact of the bug, one of the people said. It found 496,951 users who had shared private profile data with a friend could have had that data accessed by an outside developer, the person said. Some of the individuals whose data was exposed to potential misuse included paying users of G Suite, a set of productivity tools including Google Docs and Drive, the person said. G Suite customers include businesses, schools and governments.

. . . .

The bug existed since 2015, and it is unclear whether a larger number of users may have been affected over that time.

Google believes up to 438 applications had access to the unauthorized Google+ data, the people said. Strobe investigators, after testing some of the apps and checking to see if any of the developers had previous complaints against them, determined none of the developers looked suspicious, the people said. The company’s ability to determine what was done with the data was limited because the company doesn’t have “audit rights” over its developers, the memo said. The company didn’t call or visit with any of the developers, the people said.

The question of whether to notify users went before Google’s Privacy and Data Protection Office, a council of top product executives who oversee key decisions relating to privacy, the people said.

Internal lawyers advised that Google wasn’t legally required to disclose the incident to the public, the people said. Because the company didn’t know what developers may have what data, the group also didn’t believe notifying users would give any actionable benefit to the end users, the people said.

The memo from legal and policy staff wasn’t a factor in the decision, said a person familiar with the process, but reflected internal disagreements over how to handle the matter.

The document shows Google officials knew that disclosure could have serious ramifications. Revealing the incident would likely result “in us coming into the spotlight alongside or even instead of Facebook despite having stayed under the radar throughout the Cambridge Analytica scandal,” the memo said. It “almost guarantees Sundar will testify before Congress.”

. . . .

Google could also face class action lawsuits over its decision not to disclose the incident, Mr. Saikali said. “The story here that the plaintiffs will tell is that Google knew something here and hid it. That by itself is enough to make the lawyers salivate,” he said.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

PG notes that Google removed its well-known motto, “Don’t be evil,” from its Code of Conduct earlier this year.

Given all the negative publicity originating in large tech firms in recent months, PG wonders if, as a group, tech startups are more reliable than the established tech giants. He also notes that, when the code underlying a product or service becomes sufficiently complex, it becomes more and more difficult to locate and identify flaws in that code.

Twenty Years with Google Books Searches

27 September 2018

Google is celebrating its 20th anniversary.

One of the ways it is doing so is to track the most commonly-searched topics on a year-by-year basis. It’s broken these topics into various areas of interest.

One of these areas is Books.

The Books page provides you with a variety of insights including the following:

  • The peak number of searches for To Kill a Mockingbird was from 2014 to 2018
  • Lolita was the most searched book from 1999 to 2002.
  • Hamlet was the 3rd most searched book of 1999, 2001, 2002 and 2005.

There is also an Authors page which shows that during each of the past twenty years, the most common Author search was for Martin Luther King.

Here’s a link to insights about Google searches on Les Misérables

You can hover and click on any portion of the resulting graphs for additional information.

Is Google Attempting to Hack the EU Parliament with Robo Calls, Emails and Fake News?

1 August 2018

From The Trichordist:

Think it’s a coincidence that Google’s search algorithm returns exclusively negative or outright fake news on EU proposed copyright revisions? 

Google is the first imperialist power of the 21st century.  It has no qualms about subverting democratic processes whenever those processes threaten it’s profits.  Most of the time we see these power grabs in the US.  For instance Google used stolen emails to derail a Mississippi State investigation into it’s advertising practices. Most recently Google used it’s pet Senator (Ron Wyden) to try to derail an anti child sex trafficking bill. Wyden was one of only two Senators to oppose the overwhelmingly popular bill.  WTF right?  Makes you wonder what they have on him.

There are so many cases of Google strong arming government officials it would take fifty pages to list them all.  Suffice it to say that in almost all these cases Google upends the democratic processes when government actions in some small way threaten googles internet advertising and web hosting businesses.  From Google’s perspective it makes sense as Google is willing to monetizes any and all web traffic with no oversight, and with no regard to how abhorrent that traffic may be. Google does not give a shit that it may be enabling child prostitution rings, the opioid crisis, or radicalizing lone wolf terrorists.  Any regulation that requires even minimal oversight and might cut into Google’s $110 billion yearly profit(profit not revenue) is attacked by Googles vast network of lobbyists, astroturf groups, google-funded think tanks, paid bloggers, and academics.

The last few years we have seen Google turn their efforts towards subverting democratic processes outside the US.  In some ways they have been more effective in places like EU where they are unaccustomed to the kind of subversive political/academic/NGO practices honed by Big Tobacco.  In the U.S. we have been partially inoculated. Europeans fall hook line and sinker for this shit.

Case in point.

The EU parliament legal affairs committee (recently) voted to approve a new copyright directive  giving authors, performers and songwriters much more control over how their work appears online. The directive would require online platforms to pro-actively manage their platforms so that creators could decide when and if their content appears on digital platforms and under what financial terms.

This does not make Google/YouTube very happy because currently they enjoy an massive subsidy from creators because they essentially use whatever they want  whenever they want. As usual they claim that it is their “users” who are doing the infringing. Not Google. Never mind that Google is making billions slinging ads against all this unlicensed content.

. . . .

In the U.S. Google has consistently used  groups like Fight For The Future.   Fight For The Future purports to be a grassroots organization but it is actually run by a Google lobbyist. Despite claiming to have millions of followers, when they tried to stage a protest in San Francisco before a copyright roundtable they couldn’t get a single real individual to show up. Astroturf.  Fake.

. . . .

During the last round of Copyright Office hearings on safe harbors we observed that the vast majority of tweets against copyright reform were coming from anonymous accounts that were only active when copyright issues were being considered. Fake.

. . . .

Fight for the Future the astroturf group run by Google lobbyist has repeatedly bombarded congress, and federal agencies with identical automated emails and comments. We demonstrated that the “tool” they provided from their website, didn’t verify identity; allowed users from outside US to vote; and allowed repeated voting by simply reloading page.

Link to the rest at The Trichordist

How Google and Facebook Are Monopolizing Ideas

5 July 2018

From The Wall Street Journal:

In early May Google banned bail-bond companies from advertising on its platforms. Such companies profit from “communities of color and low income neighborhoods when they are at their most vulnerable,” it explained in a blog post. They use “opaque financing offers that can keep people in debt for months or years.”

That Google can ban ads from an industry that offends its values is not, by itself, noteworthy. Media companies have long decided what content or ads to carry for the same reason. The difference is that even after decades of consolidation, no media company enjoys a U.S. market share as dominant as Google’s in Internet search (close to 90%) or Facebook Inc.’s in social networking. Like earlier bans on payday-loan ads, Google’s bail-bond ad ban, which Facebook copied the next day, effectively kicked an entire industry out of a major advertising channel.

The debate over whether Google, a unit of Alphabet Inc., and Facebook are too big usually revolves around economics: Do they suppress competition for goods and services? The bail-bond ad ban raises a different, and potentially more troubling, possibility: that they also undermine competition for values and ideas. While Google and Facebook claim to be neutral platforms connecting users, advertisers and content providers, decisions about which ads to ban and which content to delete or reclassify are inherently value-laden, even when those values are embedded in an algorithm.

Data monopolies “can actually be more dangerous than traditional monopolies,” Maurice Stucke, a law professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville specializing in antitrust, wrote earlier this year in Harvard Business Review. “They can affect not only our wallets but our privacy, autonomy, democracy, and well-being.”

Bail bonds aren’t a sympathetic industry. For a steep fee, agents agree to pay the court’s required bail if the client doesn’t show up for a court date. They are, however, legal and, in most states, regulated. And the industry says it serves low-income and minority clients because they are caught up in the criminal-justice system without the means to post bail on their own.

Jeff Clayton, executive director of the American Bail Coalition, whose members insure bail agents, says Google gave the industry no opportunity to comment on or appeal the ban. A Google spokeswoman declined to comment. Facebook did consult with both the industry and criminal-justice-reform groups after announcing its ban, a spokesman said.

Bail-bond agents used to advertise in the yellow pages, but as the public abandoned phone books for Google, so did the industry. “There are just no other options,” Mr. Clayton said. The ban doesn’t extend to regular search results, but it makes it harder for individual companies to stand out.

Conservatives tend to see tech companies’ progressive leanings at work in what gets banned or reclassified—for example, Facebook’s labeling of videos by two prominent supporters of President Donald Trump as “unsafe.” Bail bonds and payday loans have long been targets of progressive activist groups.

But as the companies come under growing pressure to police their platforms and weed out “fake news,” a growing range of content gets banned, labeled or deleted for often opaque or arbitrary reasons. ProPublica and Reveal, both nonprofit news publications, have had content dealing with hate groups and immigrant children, respectively, deleted or rejected by Instagram or Facebook. Video artists complain of viewership and ads being restricted because their content violated YouTube’s community standards.

Unhappy users, advertisers and content providers wouldn’t have as much to complain about if Google (which bought YouTube in 2006) and Facebook (which acquired Instagram in 2012) had strong competitors to which they could switch.

Absent such competition, expect pressure for the government to regulate it. But that’s a slippery slope. Politically appointed overseers may simply replace the companies’ judgments with their own. For that reason the Federal Communications Commission long ago gave up policing the nation’s airwaves for fairness.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal 

How to Keep Google From Owning Your Online Life

9 May 2018

From The Wall Street Journal:

About 10 minutes after I decided to try temporarily removing Google from my life—an experiment I hoped would illuminate how much Alphabet’s giant dominates online existence—I messed it all up.

I spotted a video of Donald Glover, co-star of “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” giving a Millennium Falcon tour. Even on my most careful guard, I still clicked the red play button. A few seconds in, I realized I was watching YouTube—Google’s YouTube.

Google is so woven into the fabric of the internet it’s all but impossible to avoid. It’s where billions of users find, create and store important information, where they work and distract themselves from working. You can quit Facebook or take a Twitter break and barely notice, save for an increased sense of boredom in the Starbucks line. Google, you’d miss.

But even more than other companies offering free services, Google collects astounding amounts of data about you and uses it to sell ads. I’m happy with Google, because to date there haven’t been reports of catastrophic breaches or data-sharing scandals on the level of Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica nightmare. If Google springs a leak, it could be disastrous.

. . . .

Quitting Google takes more than just typing “bing.com.” I deleted 16 apps from my phone, from Gmail to Google Maps to Google Photos. I unplugged my Google Home, yanked the Chromecast from the back of my TV, and powered down my Chromebook. Luckily I don’t own a Nest thermostat, or this would have become a construction project.

I hadn’t realized before how my life had come to revolve around Google products. To replace them, I brought in an Amazon Echo and a Microsoft Surface Laptop. I used the Notion app and Dropbox Paper for notes and documents, and switched cord-cutting allegiance from YouTube TV to Sling. I deleted the Chrome browser from all my devices, and installed Firefox in its place.

Most Google services have straightforward replacements: Microsoft’s free Office Online for Docs and Sheets; Signal for Hangouts; Evernote for Keep; and Flipboard for Google News. In many cases you can download your Google data using its Takeout service, upload it to a new app—for instance, bringing email and calendars into Outlook—and hardly miss a beat. iPhone users who switch their search engine to Bing or DuckDuckGo and use Apple’s productivity apps seldom encounter Google.

. . . .

As Google products have taken over, they’ve also become more insular and closed. Google Search tries to answer your questions without ever taking you to another site. Gmail’s best security features are a hassle to use, except for other Gmail users. The Chrome browser is the worst offender: Some Google services, like Google Earth, work only in Chrome—though Google says it’s changing that.

. . . .

Chrome commands nearly 60% market share, according to analytics company Statcounter—over four times as large as second-place Safari. It has outsize influence over the future of the web. Companies such as Airbnb and Bank of America have directed users to Chrome for the “optimized” versions of their sites. If you use a Google product in another browser, Google frequently prompts you to download Chrome. (Google says it is dedicated to supporting other browsers.)

By almost any measure, Google collects more data than Facebook. I recommend doing a thorough audit of your My Activity page, which displays everything Google watches you do. You should also manage and delete data through Google’s privacy and security checkups.

On a recent day, Google tracked me in 468 different activities—many that had nothing to do with Google, except that I did them using a Chromebook, Android phone or Chrome browser.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal 

The Antitrust Case Against Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple

16 January 2018

From The Wall Street Journal:

Standard Oil and Co. and American Telephone and Telegraph Co. were the technological titans of their day, commanding more than 80% of their markets.

Today’s tech giants are just as dominant: In the U.S., Alphabet Inc.’s Google drives 89% of internet search; 95% of young adults on the internet use a Facebook Inc. product; and Amazon.com Inc. now accounts for 75% of electronic book sales. Those firms that aren’t monopolists are duopolists: Google and Facebook absorbed 63% of online ad spending last year; Google and Apple Inc. provide 99% of mobile phone operating systems; while Apple and Microsoft Corp. supply 95% of desktop operating systems.

A growing number of critics think these tech giants need to be broken up or regulated as Standard Oil and AT&T once were. Their alleged sins run the gamut from disseminating fake news and fostering addiction to laying waste to small towns’ shopping districts. But antitrust regulators have a narrow test: Does their size leave consumers worse off?

By that standard, there isn’t a clear case for going after big tech—at least for now. They are driving down prices and rolling out new and often improved products and services every week.

That may not be true in the future: if market dominance means fewer competitors and less innovation, consumers will be worse off than if those companies had been restrained. “The impact on innovation can be the most important competitive effect” in an antitrust case, says Fiona Scott Morton, a Yale University economist who served in the Justice Department’s antitrust division under Barack Obama.

. . . .

“Forty percent of Google search is local,” says Luther Lowe, the company’s head of public policy. “There should be hundreds of Yelps. There’s not. No one is pitching investors to build a service that relies on discovery through Facebook or Google to grow, because venture capitalists think it’s a poor bet.”

There are key differences between today’s tech giants and monopolists of previous eras. Standard Oil and AT&T used trusts, regulations and patents to keep out or co-opt competitors. They were respected but unloved. By contrast, Google and Facebook give away their main product, while Amazon undercuts traditional retailers so aggressively it may be holding down inflation. None enjoys a government-sanctioned monopoly; all invest prodigiously in new products. Alphabet plows 16% of revenue back into research and development; for Facebook it’s 21%—ratios far higher than other companies. All are among the public’s most loved brands, according to polls by Morning Consult.

Yet there are also important parallels. The monopolies of old and of today were built on proprietary technology and physical networks that drove down costs while locking in customers, erecting formidable barriers to entry. Just as Standard Oil and AT&T were once critical to the nation’s economic infrastructure, today’s tech giants are gatekeepers to the internet economy. If they’re imposing a cost, it may not be what customers pay but the products they never see.

. . . .

The story of AT&T is similar. It owed its early growth and dominant market position to Alexander Graham Bell’s 1876 patent for the telephone. After the related patents expired in the 1890s, new exchanges sprung up in countless cities to compete.

Competition was a powerful prod to innovation: Independent companies, by installing twisted copper lines and automatic switching, forced AT&T to do the same. But AT&T, like today’s tech giants, had “network effects” on its side.

“Just like people joined Facebook because everyone else was on Facebook, the biggest competitive advantage AT&T had was that it was interconnected,” says Milton Mueller, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology who has studied the history of technology policy.

Early in the 20th century, AT&T began buying up local competitors and refusing to connect independent exchanges to its long-distance lines, arousing antitrust complaints. By the 1920s, it was allowed to become a monopoly in exchange for universal service in the communities it served. By 1939, the company carried more than 90% of calls.

Though AT&T’s research unit, Bell Labs, became synonymous with groundbreaking discoveries, in telephone innovation AT&T was a laggard. To protect its own lucrative equipment business it prohibited innovative devices such as the Hush-a-Phone, which kept others from overhearing calls, and the Carterphone, which patched calls over radio airwaves, from connecting to its network.

After AT&T was broken up into separate local and long-distance companies in 1982, telecommunication innovation blossomed, spreading to digital switching, fiber optics, cellphones—and the internet.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Why Amazon is the new Microsoft

16 January 2018

From TechConnect:

A few years ago, chatbots were supposed to take over as a leading way to interact with the internet. They would live on our phones and in our messaging apps. Whenever we needed anything, all we had to do was type out a question.

Things are turning out … differently.

Chatbots, bots, virtual assistants and agents are all about the conversational UI — about interacting with a computer through natural-language words and sentences.

The conventional wisdom used to be that the chatbot revolution would be driven by pre-emption, interjection and agency, as exemplified by Facebook M and Google Now.

Instead, the killer features are hands-free voice interaction and ubiquity — the main strengths of the Amazon Alexa platform.

. . . .

Facebook M is dead.

Facebook plans to close it’s M chatbot service on Jan. 19.

Facebook M, which launched in August 2015, was experimental, available to only 10,000 people in Silicon Valley.

When M first emerged, it was widely assumed to represent the future of how chatbots should and would work.

. . . .

Google Now is dead, too — sort of.

A few years ago, the conventional wisdom in tech circles was that Google Now was the most sophisticated virtual assistant.

Google Now was introduced in Android in the summer of 2012.

The best thing about Google Now was pre-emption: Display cards would pop up to alert you to things (rather than waiting for you to ask). Google Now used your location, calendar and, above all, Gmail messages to figure out what kind of help you needed, and it would try to give you that help with suggestion cards. One of its best tricks was to see on your calendar where you were going, check your current location, check the traffic between those locations, and give you advice about when to leave.

Meanwhile, the coolest feature of Google Assistant is interjection, which means it will pay attention to conversations in Allo and make suggestions based on the conversation.

Unfortunately, hardly anyone uses Allo, and so the amazing interjection powers of the Google Assistant are largely unknown and generally unused by the larger public.

. . . .

A couple of years ago, Amazon Alexa was considered to be the weakest and least sophisticated chatbot or virtual assistant on the market. (Oddly, MS-DOS and, later, Microsoft Windows initially had similar reputations.)

While agency, including the ability to buy things, was once assumed to be an important feature of a virtual assistant, it’s clear even for Alexa that buying things is secondary.

According to an Experian study last year, fewer than one-third of surveyed Echo owners have ever bought something through Alexa.

The vast majority of tasks involve setting a timer, playing a song, reading the news, checking the time — really, the most basic functions of a smartphone made convenient by voice interaction.

And yet Amazon is clearly dominating the space. This week’s CES showed that the industry is following Amazon’s lead.

Alexa appeared at the show inside projectors, ceiling lights, cars, glasses, showers, washing machines, earbuds, speakers — and even Windows 10 PCs.

. . . .

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos this week became the world’s richest person, according to the Forbes list. Over the past few decades, that spot was normally occupied by former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates.

The symbolism is timely; it was at CES this week that Amazon became the new Microsoft.

Microsoft rose to dominance by controlling the operating system that the majority of people and businesses used.

Amazon is now doing something similar with Alexa. While Alexa isn’t even close to becoming as important as Windows, it is becoming the operating system of the post-PC, post-smartphone future.

The reason is very simple, and perfectly described by Sam Dolnick, who oversees digital initiatives at The New York Times. He said: “We are living in a world where the mobile phone is dominant, and audio, which doesn’t require your eyes or your hands, is the ultimate mobile medium.”

Link to the rest at TechConnect

Evaluation of Speech for the Google Assistant

8 January 2018

From the Google Research Blog:

Voice interactions with technology are becoming a key part of our lives — from asking your phone for traffic conditions to work to using a smart device at home to turn on the lights or play music. The Google Assistant is designed to provide help and information across a variety of platforms, and is built to bring together a number of products — including Google Maps, Search, Google Photos, third party services, and more. For some of these products, we have released specific evaluation guidelines, like Search Quality Rating Guidelines. However, the Google Assistant needs its own guidelines in place, as many of its interactions utilize what is called “eyes-free technology,” when there is no screen as part of the experience.

In the past we have received requests to see our evaluation guidelines from academics who are researching improvements in voice interactions, question answering and voice-guided exploration. To facilitate their evaluations, we are publishing some of the first Google Assistant guidelines. It is our hope that making these guidelines public will help the research community build and evaluate their own systems.

Creating the Guidelines
For many queries, responses are presented on the display (like a phone) with a graph, a table, or an interactive element, like you’d see for [weather this weekend].

But spoken responses are very different from display results, as what’s on screen needs to be translated into useful speech. Furthermore, the contents of the voice response are sometimes sourced from the web, and in those cases it’s important to provide the user with a link to the original source. While users looking at their mobile device can click through to read the original web page, an eyes free solution presents unique challenges. In order to generate the optimal audio response, we use a combination of explicit linguistic knowledge and deep learning solutions that allow us to keep answers grammatical, fluent and concise.

. . . .

Formulation: it is much easier to understand a badly formulated written answer than an ungrammatical spoken answer, so more care has to be placed in ensuring grammatical correctness.

Link to the rest at the Google Research Blog

 

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