Leaked Document Says Google Fired Dozens of Employees for Data Misuse

Google has fired dozens of employees between 2018 and 2020 for abusing their access to the company’s tools or data, with some workers potentially facing allegations of accessing Google user or employee data, according to an internal Google document obtained by Motherboard. From a report:
The document provides concrete figures on an often delicate part of a tech giant’s operations: investigations into how company’s own employees leverage their position inside the company to steal, leak, or abuse data they may have access to. Insider abuse is a problem across the tech industry. Motherboard previously uncovered instances at Facebook, Snapchat, and MySpace, with employees in some cases using their access to stalk or otherwise spy on users.

The document says that Google terminated 36 employees in 2020 for security related issues. Eighty-six percent of all security-related allegations against employees included mishandling of confidential information, such as the transfer of internal-only information to outside parties. 10 percent of all allegations in 2020 concerned misuse of systems, which can include accessing user or employee data in violation of Google’s own policies, helping others to access that data, or modifying or deleting user or employee data, according to the document. In 2019, that figure was 13 percent of all security allegations.

Google Says Staff Have No Right to Protest Its Choice of Clients

Google employees have no legal right to protest the company’s choice of clients, the internet giant told a judge weighing the U.S. government’s allegations that its firings of activists violated the National Labor Relations Act.

“Even if Google had, for the sake of argument, terminated the employees for their protest activities — for protesting their choice of customers — this would not violate the Act,” Google’s attorney Al Latham said in his opening statement Tuesday at a labor board trial.

National Labor Relations Board prosecutors have accused the Alphabet Inc. unit of violating federal law by illegally firing five employees for their activism. Three of those workers’ claims had originally been dismissed under President Donald Trump, because agency prosecutors concluded that their opposition to the company collaborating with immigration enforcement wasn’t legally protected, according to their lawyer. But that decision was reversed after President Joe Biden fired and replaced the labor board’s general counsel.

Google has been roiled over the past four years by a wave of activism by employees challenging management over issues including treatment of sub-contracted staff, handling of sexual harassment, and a contract with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, which some of the fired workers accessed internal information about and circulated a petition against.

Google has denied wrongdoing, saying in a Monday statement that it encourages “open discussion and debate” but terminated staff in response to violations of its data security policies. “Google terminated these employees not because of their protest as such, but because in the pursuit of their protest, they accessed highly confidential information that they had no right to access,” its attorney told the judge Tuesday.

What Happens When Big Tech’s Datacenters Come to Small Towns?

Few big tech companies that are building and hiring across America bring that wealth with them when they set up in new communities. Instead, they hire armies of low-paid contractors, many of whom are not guaranteed a job from one month to the next; some of the contracting companies have a history of alleged mistreatment of workers. Nor do local governments share in the companies’ wealth; instead, the tech giants negotiate deals — the details protected by non-disclosure agreements — that exempt them from paying taxes that would fund schools, roads and fire departments….

Globally, by the end of 2020, there were nearly 600 “hyperscale” data centers, where a single company runs thousands of servers and rents out cloud space to customers. That’s more than double the number from 2015. Amazon, Google and Microsoft account for more than half of those hyperscale centers, making data centers one more field dominated by America’s richest and biggest companies… Google in March said it was “investing in America” with a plan to spend $7 billion across 19 states to build more data centers and offices. Microsoft said in April that it plans to build 50 to 100 data centers each year for the foreseeable future. Amazon recently got approval to build 1.75 million square feet of data-center space in Northern Virginia, beyond the 50 data centers it already operates there. Facebook said this year it would spend billions to expand data centers in Iowa, Georgia and Utah; in March it said it was adding an 11th building to its largest data-center facility in rural Prineville, Oregon…

Facebook has spent more than $2 billion expanding its operations in Prineville, but because of the tax incentives it negotiated with local officials, the company paid a total of just $119,403.42 in taxes to Crook County last year, according to the County Assessor’s list of top taxpayers. That’s less than half the taxes paid by Brasada Ranch, a local resort. And according to the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries, the data center has been the subject of numerous labor complaints… “I’ve spent way too much of my life watching city councils say, ‘We need a big tech company to show that we’re future-focused,'” says Sebastian Moss, the editor of Data Center Dynamics, which tracks the industry. Towns will give away tax breaks worth hundreds of millions of dollars, his reporting has found, and then express gratitude toward tech companies that have donated a few thousand computers — worth a fraction of the tax breaks — to their cash-strapped school systems. “I sometimes wonder if they’re preying on desperation, going to places that are struggling.”

Communities give up more than tax breaks when they welcome tech companies. Data centers use huge amounts of water to cool computer equipment, yet they’re being built in the drought-stricken American West.

The article cites Bureau of Labor Statistics showing that 373,300 Americans were working in data processing, hosting, and related services in June — up 52% from 10 years ago.

Activist Raided By London Police After Downloading Docs Found On Google Search

The raid by four Metropolitan Police constables took place after Southwark campaigner Robert Hutchinson was reportedly accused of illegally entering a password-protected area of a website. “I was searching in Google and found links to board meeting minutes,” he told The Register. “Board reports, none of which were marked confidential. So I have no question that it was in the public domain.” The Southwark News reported that Hutchinson was arrested at 8.20am on 10 June this year at home following allegations made by Leathermarket Community Benefit Society (CBS). The society is a property development firm that wants to build flats over a children’s caged ball court in the south London borough, something Hutchinson “vocally opposes,” according to the local paper.

“There’s a directory, which you need to enter a password and a username to get into. But documents from that area were being published on Google,” explained Hutchinson. “I didn’t see a page saying ‘this is the directors’ area’ or anything like that, the documents were just available. They were just linked directly.” Police said in a statement that Hutchinson was arrested on suspicion of breaking section 1 of Britain’s Computer Misuse Act 1990 “between the 17th and 24th February 2021 and had published documents from the website on social media.” They added: “He was taken into custody and later released under investigation. Following a review of all available evidence, it was determined no offences had been committed and no further action was taken.”

Hutchinson said his identification by Leathermarket and subsequent arrest raised questions in his mind, saying police confirmed to him that the company had handed over an access log containing IP addresses: “Now, how that ended up with me being in the frame, I don’t know. There’s part of this that doesn’t add up…” While the property business did not respond to The Register’s request for comment at the time of publication, in a statement given to the Southwark News it said: “When it came to the CBS’s attention that confidential information had been accessed and subsequently shared via Twitter, the CBS made a general report of the data breach to the police â” who requested a full log of visitor access to the website before deciding whether or not to progress. The police carried out their own independent investigation into who accessed the documents and how, and have now concluded their investigation.” The prepared police statement did not explain whether investigators tested Leathermarket CBS’s version of events before arresting the campaigner.

Google Illegally Spied On Workers Before Firing Them, US Labor Board Alleges

Google violated US labor laws by spying on workers who were organizing employee protests, then firing two of them, according to a complaint to be filed by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) today. The complaint names two employees, Laurence Berland and Kathryn Spiers, both of whom were fired by the company in late 2019 in connection with employee activism. Berland was organizing against Google’s decision to work with IRI Consultants, a firm widely known for its anti-union efforts, when he was let go for reviewing other employees’ calendars. Now, the NLRB has found Google’s policy against employees looking at certain coworkers’ calendars is unlawful. “Google’s hiring of IRI is an unambiguous declaration that management will no longer tolerate worker organizing,” Berland said in a statement. “Management and their union busting cronies wanted to send that message, and the NLRB is now sending their own message: worker organizing is protected by law.”

Spiers was fired after she created a pop-up for Google employees visiting the IRI Consultants website. “Googlers have the right to participate in protected concerted activities,” the notification read, according to The Guardian. The company said Spiers had violated security policies, a statement that hurt her reputation in the tech community. Now, the NLRB has found the firing was unlawful. “This week the NLRB issued a complaint on my behalf. They found that I was illegally terminated for trying to help my colleagues,” Spiers said. “Colleagues and strangers believe I abused my role because of lies told by Google management while they were retaliating against me. The NLRB can order Google to reinstate me, but it cannot reverse the harm done to my credibility.”

Six Reasons Why Google Maps Is the Creepiest App On Your Phone

VICE has highlighted six reasons why Google Maps is the creepiest app on your phone. An anonymous reader shares an excerpt from the report:

1. Google Maps Wants Your Search History: Google’s “Web & App Activity” settings describe how the company collects data, such as user location, to create a faster and “more personalized” experience. In plain English, this means that every single place you’ve looked up in the app — whether it’s a strip club, a kebab shop or your moped-riding drug dealer’s location — is saved and integrated into Google’s search engine algorithm for a period of 18 months. Google knows you probably find this creepy. That’s why the company uses so-called “dark patterns” — user interfaces crafted to coax us into choosing options we might not otherwise, for example by highlighting an option with certain fonts or brighter colors.

2. Google Maps Limits Its Features If You Don’t Share Your Search History: If you open your Google Maps app, you’ll see a circle in the top right corner that signifies you’re logged in with your Google account. That’s not necessary, and you can simply log out. Of course, the log out button is slightly hidden, but can be found like this: click on the circle > Settings > scroll down > Log out of Google Maps. Unfortunately, Google Maps won’t let you save frequently visited places if you’re not logged into your Google account. If you choose not to log in, when you click on the search bar you get a “Tired of typing?” button, suggesting you sign in, and coaxing you towards more data collection.

3. Google Maps Can Snitch On You: Another problematic feature is the “Google Maps Timeline,” which “shows an estimate of places you may have been and routes you may have taken based on your Location History.” With this feature, you can look at your personal travel routes on Google Maps, including the means of transport you probably used, such as a car or a bike. The obvious downside is that your every move is known to Google, and to anyone with access to your account. And that’s not just hackers — Google may also share data with government agencies such as the police. […] If your “Location History” is on, your phone “saves where you go with your devices, even when you aren’t using a specific Google service,” as is explained in more detail on this page. This feature is useful if you lose your phone, but also turns it into a bonafide tracking device.

4. Google Maps Wants to Know Your Habits: Google Maps often asks users to share a quick public rating. “How was Berlin Burger? Help others know what to expect,” suggests the app after you’ve picked up your dinner. This feels like a casual, lighthearted question and relies on the positive feeling we get when we help others. But all this info is collected in your Google profile, making it easier for someone to figure out if you’re visiting a place briefly and occasionally (like on holiday) or if you live nearby.

5. Google Maps Doesn’t Like It When You’re Offline: Remember GPS navigation? It might have been clunky and slow, but it’s a good reminder that you don’t need to be connected to the internet to be directed. In fact, other apps offer offline navigation. On Google, you can download maps, but offline navigation is only available for cars. It seems fairly unlikely the tech giant can’t figure out how to direct pedestrians and cyclists without internet.

6. Google Makes It Seem Like This Is All for Your Own Good: “Providing useful, meaningful experiences is at the core of what Google does,” the company says on its website, adding that knowing your location is important for this reason. They say they use this data for all kinds of useful things, like “security” and “language settings” — and, of course, selling ads. Google also sells advertisers the possibility to evaluate how well their campaigns reached their target (that’s you!) and how often people visited their physical shops “in an anonymized and aggregated manner”. But only if you opt in (or you forget to opt out).

New Survey Reveals Teens Get Their News from Social Media and YouTube

Celebrities, influencers, and personalities have as much influence as a source of current events as friends, family, and news organizations.

Teens today are not only getting the majority of their news online, but they are turning away from traditional media organizations to find out about current events on social media sites and YouTube, often from online influencers and celebrities, according to a new poll by Common Sense and SurveyMonkey.

The survey found that more than half of teens (54%) get news at least a few times a week from social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter and 50% get news from YouTube.

Teens’ news habits reflect the diversity of the modern media landscape. And, while most news organizations maintain accounts on social media and other platforms, they are competing for attention with corporate brands, celebrities, influencers, and personal connections. Of those teens who get their news from YouTube, for example, six in 10 say they are more likely to get it from celebrities, influencers, and personalities rather than from news organizations utilizing the platform.

What’s noteworthy is that, even with so many relying on alternative sources for the majority of their news, teens are more confident in the news they get directly from news organizations. Of teens who get news of current events from news organizations, 65% say it helps them better understand what is going on. In contrast, just 53% of teens who get news from social media say it helps them better understand what is going on, while 19 percent say it has made them more confused about current events.

Amid ongoing concerns about the impact of information disseminated through social media on elections, older teens’ news habits may have political implications. Of the teens age 16 and 17 who say they’ll be eligible to vote in the 2020 election, 85% are likely to cast a ballot, including 61% who say they’re “very likely.”

“These findings raise concerns about what kind of news the next generation is using to shape their decisions,” said James Steyer, CEO of Common Sense. “There are few standards for what constitutes news and how accurately it’s portrayed on the platforms teens use. With the 2020 election coming up, we need to make sure teens are getting their news from reliable sources, thinking critically, and making informed decisions.”

This latest survey is part of a Common Sense partnership with SurveyMonkey to examine media and technology trends affecting kids and their parents and to share actionable data and insights with families.

“While it’s notable that teens rely heavily on platforms such as Facebook and YouTube to stay informed, their reliance on news from celebrities and influencers rather than journalists may have pernicious implications,” said Jon Cohen, chief research officer at SurveyMonkey. “It’s a bit of a paradox: Overwhelmingly teens say they are interested in keeping up with the news, but they’re not seeking out either traditional or new media to do so.”

Selected key findings

  1. A large majority of teens age 13 to 17 in the U.S. (78%) say it’s important to them to follow current events.
  2. Teens get their news more frequently from social media sites (e.g., Facebook and Twitter) or from YouTube than directly from news organizations. More than half of teens (54%) get news from social media, and 50% get news from YouTube at least a few times a week. Fewer than half, 41%, get news reported by news organizations in print or online at least a few times a week, and only 37% get news on TV at least a few times a week.
  3. YouTube recommendations drive news consumption. Among all teens who get their news from YouTube—regardless of how often—exactly half (50%) say they most often find news on YouTube because it was recommended by YouTube itself (i.e., as a “watch next” video or in the sidebar). Almost half as many (27%) say they follow or subscribe to a specific channel for news on YouTube, and fewer say they find their news on YouTube through search (10%) or because it was shared by someone they know in real life (7%).
  4. Sixty percent of teens who get news from YouTube say they are more likely to get it from celebrities, influencers, and personalities as compared to news organizations (39%). The difference is even more apparent among daily YouTube news consumers (71% vs. 28%).
  5. Nearly two in three teens (65%) who get news directly from news organizations say doing so has helped them better understand current events, compared with 59% of teens who get their news from YouTube (56%) and 53% who get their news from social media sites (53%). Nearly two in 10 teens (19%) say that getting news from social media has made them more confused about current events.
  6. Teens clearly prefer a visual medium for learning about the news. A majority (64%) say that “seeing pictures and video showing what happened” gives them the best understanding of major news events, while just 36% say they’d prefer to read or hear the facts about what happened.
  7. Politically, teens are more likely to be moderate and identify as Democrats, but they are open to ideas from sources whose opinions differ from their own. Just under half of teens (45%) say they get news from sources that have views different from their own once a week or more, and only 14% say they never get news from sources with different views. Slightly fewer (35%) say they discuss political issues with people who have different views once a week or more, and 19% say they never discuss politics with people who have opposing views.

The study comes on the heels of the release of Common Sense’s revamped Digital Citizenship Curriculum, which gives teachers lessons to help students develop skills to be critical consumers of news at a time when they are navigating a fast-changing digital terrain fraught with fake media, hate speech, cyberbullying, and constant digital distraction.

Methodology: This SurveyMonkey Audience survey was conducted June 14 to 25, 2019, among 1,005 teenagers age 13 to 17 in the United States. Respondents for these surveys were selected from more than 2 million people who take surveys on the SurveyMonkey platform each day. The modeled error estimate for the full sample is +/-4.0 percentage points. Data has been weighted for age and sex using the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey to reflect the demographic composition of people in the United States age 13 to 17. Find the full survey results and more information about Common Sense research here.

Google is Giving Data To Police Based on Search Keywords, Court Docs Show

There are few things as revealing as a person’s search history, and police typically need a warrant on a known suspect to demand that sensitive information. But a recently unsealed court document found that investigators can request such data in reverse order by asking Google to disclose everyone who searched a keyword rather than for information on a known suspect.

In August, police arrested Michael Williams, an associate of singer and accused sex offender R. Kelly, for allegedly setting fire to a witness’ car in Florida. Investigators linked Williams to the arson, as well as witness tampering, after sending a search warrant to Google that requested information on “users who had searched the address of the residence close in time to the arson.”

The July court filing was unsealed on Tuesday. Detroit News reporter Robert Snell tweeted about the filing after it was unsealed. Court documents showed that Google provided the IP addresses of people who searched for the arson victim’s address, which investigators tied to a phone number belonging to Williams. Police then used the phone number records to pinpoint the location of Williams’ device near the arson, according to court documents. The original warrant sent to Google is still sealed, but the report provides another example of a growing trend of data requests to the search engine giant in which investigators demand data on a large group of users rather than a specific request on a single suspect. “This ‘keyword warrant’ evades the Fourth Amendment checks on police surveillance,” said Albert Fox Cahn, the executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project. “When a court authorizes a data dump of every person who searched for a specific term or address, it’s likely unconstitutional.”

Big Tech Continues Its Surge Ahead of the Rest of the Economy

While the rest of the U.S. economy languished earlier this year, the tech industry’s biggest companies seemed immune to the downturn, surging as the country worked, learned and shopped from home. From a report:

On Thursday, as the economy is showing signs of improvement, Amazon, Apple, Alphabet and Facebook reported profits that highlighted how a recovery may provide another catalyst to help them generate a level of wealth that hasn’t been seen in a single industry in generations. With an entrenched audience of users and the financial resources to press their leads in areas like cloud computing, e-commerce and digital advertising, the companies demonstrated again that economic malaise, upstart competitors and feisty antitrust regulators have had little impact on their bottom line. Combined, the four companies reported a quarterly net profit of $38 billion.

Amazon reported record sales, and an almost 200 percent rise in profits, as the pandemic accelerated the transition to online shopping. Despite a boycott of its advertising over the summer, Facebook had another blockbuster quarter. Alphabet’s record quarterly net profit was up 59 percent, as marketers plowed money into advertisements for Google search and YouTube. And Apple’s sales rose even though the pandemic forced it to push back the iPhone 12’s release to October, in the current quarter. On Tuesday, Microsoft, Amazon’s closest competitor in cloud computing, also reported its most profitable quarter, growing 30 percent from a year earlier. “The scene that’s playing out fundamentally is that these tech stalwarts are gaining more market share by the day,” said Dan Ives, managing director of equity research at Wedbush Securities. “It’s ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ for this group of tech companies and everyone else.”

What It’s Like To Get Locked Out of Google Indefinitely

When he received the notification from Google he couldn’t quite believe it. Cleroth, a game developer who asked not to use his real name, woke up to see a message that all his Google accounts were disabled due to “serious violation of Google policies.” His first reaction was that something must have malfunctioned on his phone. Then he went to his computer and opened up Chrome, Google’s internet browser. He was signed out. He tried to access Gmail, his main email account, which was also locked. “Everything was disconnected,” he told Business Insider. Cleroth had some options he could pursue: One was the option to try and recover his Google data â” which gave him hope. But he didn’t go too far into the process because there was also an option to appeal the ban. He sent in an appeal.

He received a response the next day: Google had determined he had broken their terms of service, though they didn’t explain exactly what had happened, and his account wouldn’t be reinstated. (Google has been approached for comment on this story.) Cleroth is one of a number of people who have seen their accounts suspended in the last few days and weeks. In response to a tweet explaining his fear at being locked out of his Google account after 15 years of use, others have posted about the impact of being barred from the company that runs most of the services we use in our day-to-day lives. “I’ve been using a Google account for personal and work purposes for years now. It had loads of various types of data in there,” said Stephen Roughley, a software developer from Birkenhead, UK. “One day when I went to use it I found I couldn’t log in.” Roughley checked his backup email account and found a message there informing him his main account had been terminated for violating the terms of service. “It suggested that I had been given a warning and I searched and searched but couldn’t find anything,” added Roughley. “I then followed the link to recover my account but was given a message stating that my account was irrecoverable.” Roughley lost data including emails, photos, documents and diagrams that he had developed for his work. “My account and all its data is gone,” he said.

deletegoogle.com

A guide to deleting your Google account.

Google is Giving Data To Police Based on Search Keywords, Court Docs Show

There are few things as revealing as a person’s search history, and police typically need a warrant on a known suspect to demand that sensitive information. But a recently unsealed court document found that investigators can request such data in reverse order by asking Google to disclose everyone who searched a keyword rather than for information on a known suspect.

In August, police arrested Michael Williams, an associate of singer and accused sex offender R. Kelly, for allegedly setting fire to a witness’ car in Florida. Investigators linked Williams to the arson, as well as witness tampering, after sending a search warrant to Google that requested information on “users who had searched the address of the residence close in time to the arson.”

The July court filing was unsealed on Tuesday. Detroit News reporter Robert Snell tweeted about the filing after it was unsealed. Court documents showed that Google provided the IP addresses of people who searched for the arson victim’s address, which investigators tied to a phone number belonging to Williams. Police then used the phone number records to pinpoint the location of Williams’ device near the arson, according to court documents. The original warrant sent to Google is still sealed, but the report provides another example of a growing trend of data requests to the search engine giant in which investigators demand data on a large group of users rather than a specific request on a single suspect. “This ‘keyword warrant’ evades the Fourth Amendment checks on police surveillance,” said Albert Fox Cahn, the executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project. “When a court authorizes a data dump of every person who searched for a specific term or address, it’s likely unconstitutional.”

Cory Doctorow’s New Book Explains ‘How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism’

If we’re going to break Big Tech’s death grip on our digital lives, we’re going to have to fight monopolies. That may sound pretty mundane and old-fashioned, something out of the New Deal era, while ending the use of automated behavioral modification feels like the plotline of a really cool cyberpunk novel… But trustbusters once strode the nation, brandishing law books, terrorizing robber barons, and shattering the illusion of monopolies’ all-powerful grip on our society. The trustbusting era could not begin until we found the political will — until the people convinced politicians they’d have their backs when they went up against the richest, most powerful men in the world. Could we find that political will again…?

That’s the good news: With a little bit of work and a little bit of coalition building, we have more than enough political will to break up Big Tech and every other concentrated industry besides. First we take Facebook, then we take AT&T/WarnerMedia. But here’s the bad news: Much of what we’re doing to tame Big Tech instead of breaking up the big companies also forecloses on the possibility of breaking them up later… Allowing the platforms to grow to their present size has given them a dominance that is nearly insurmountable — deputizing them with public duties to redress the pathologies created by their size makes it virtually impossible to reduce that size. Lather, rinse, repeat: If the platforms don’t get smaller, they will get larger, and as they get larger, they will create more problems, which will give rise to more public duties for the companies, which will make them bigger still.

We can work to fix the internet by breaking up Big Tech and depriving them of monopoly profits, or we can work to fix Big Tech by making them spend their monopoly profits on governance. But we can’t do both. We have to choose between a vibrant, open internet or a dominated, monopolized internet commanded by Big Tech giants that we struggle with constantly to get them to behave themselves…

Big Tech wired together a planetary, species-wide nervous system that, with the proper reforms and course corrections, is capable of seeing us through the existential challenge of our species and planet. Now it’s up to us to seize the means of computation, putting that electronic nervous system under democratic, accountable control.

With “free, fair, and open tech” we could then tackle our other urgent problems “from climate change to social change” — all with collective action, Doctorow argues. And “The internet is how we will recruit people to fight those fights, and how we will coordinate their labor.

“Tech is not a substitute for democratic accountability, the rule of law, fairness, or stability — but it’s a means to achieve these things.”

Facebook and Google Serve As Vectors For Misinformation While Hobbling Local Journalism and Collecting Taxpayer Subsidies, Group Says

Facebook and Google are hollowing out local communities by serving as vectors for misinformation while hobbling local journalism and collecting taxpayer subsidies, a new paper from progressive think tank the American Economic Liberties Project charges. Both companies cite benefits their platforms offer small businesses as a key defense against critiques of their size and power. The paper, dated Aug. 30, is sure to presage further scrutiny of the impact they’ve had on local communities.

The brief, by Pat Garofalo, the group’s director of state and local policy, argues that: Google doesn’t do enough to protect against fraud, allowing scammers to get their own numbers and websites listed on Google to the detriment of legitimate businesses. Facebook, by design, boosts shoddy and sensationalist content, crowding out legitimate local news and information, all as it and Google have come to dominate the local advertising market that was long the lifeblood of community journalism. Both have sucked up potentially billions in local taxpayer dollars via tax breaks as well as subsidies and discounts on utilities they’ve gotten in exchange for building data centers. Garofalo recommends remedies including more antitrust enforcement at the federal and state levels and an end to preferential treatment by states and localities, either voluntarily or under force of law.

Google Search and Dark Patterns

Previously, the search engine had marked paid results with the word “Ad” in a green box, tucked beneath the headline next to a matching green display URL. Now, all of a sudden, the “Ad” and the URL shifted above the headline, and both were rendered in discreet black; the box disappeared. The organic search results underwent a similar makeover, only with a new favicon next to the URL instead of the word “Ad.” The result was a general smoothing: Ads looked like not-ads. Not-ads looked like ads. This was not Google’s first time fiddling with the search results interface. In fact, it had done so quite regularly over the last 13 years, as handily laid out in a timeline from the news site Search Engine Land. Each iteration whittled away the distinction between paid and unpaid content that much more. Most changes went relatively unnoticed, internet residents accepting the creep like the apocryphal frog in a slowly boiling pot.

But in January, amid rising antitrust drumbeats and general exhaustion with Big Tech, people noticed. Interface designers, marketers, and Google users alike decried the change, saying it made paid results practically indistinguishable from those that Google’s search algorithm served up organically. The phrase that came up most often: “dark pattern,” a blanket term coined by UX specialist Harry Brignull to describe manipulative design elements that benefit companies over their users. That a small design tweak could inspire so much backlash speaks to the profound influence Google and other ubiquitous platforms have — and the responsibility that status confers to them. “Google and Facebook shape realities,” says Kat Zhou, a product designer who has created a framework and toolkit to help promote ethical design. “Students and professors turn to Google for their research. Folks turn to Facebook for political news. Communities turn to Google for Covid-19 updates. In some sense, Google and Facebook have become arbiters of the truth. That’s particularly scary when you factor in their business models, which often incentivize blurring the line between news and advertisements.”

Google’s not the only search engine to blur this line. If anything, Bing is even more opaque, sneaking the “Ad” disclosure under the header, with only a faint outline to draw attention. […] But Google has around 92 percent of global search marketshare. It effectively is online search. Dark patterns are all too common online in general, and January wasn’t the first time people accused Google of deploying them. In June of 2018, a blistering report from the Norwegian Consumer Council found that Google and Facebook both used specific interface choices to strip away user privacy at almost every turn. The study details how both platforms implemented the least privacy-friendly options by default, consistently “nudged” users toward giving away more of their data, and more. It paints a portrait of a system designed to befuddle users into complacency. […] That confusion reached its apex a few months later, when an Associated Press investigation found that disabling Location History on your smartphone did not, in fact, stop Google from collecting your location in all instances.

How Google Ruined the Internet

Remember that story about the Polish dentist who pulled out all of her ex-boyfriend’s teeth in an act of revenge? It was complete and utter bullshit. 100% fabricated. No one knows who wrote it. Nevertheless, it was picked up by Fox News, the Los Angeles Times and many other publishers. That was eight years ago, yet when I search now for “dentist pulled ex boyfriends teeth,” I get a featured snippet that quotes ABC News’ original, uncorrected story. Who invented the fidget spinner? Ask Google Assistant and it will tell you that Catherine Hettinger did: a conclusion based on poorly-reported stories from The Guardian, The New York Times and other major news outlets. Bloomberg’s Joshua Brustein clearly demonstrated that Ms. Hettinger did not invent the low friction toy. Nevertheless, ask Google Assistant “who really invented the fidget spinner?” and you’ll get the same answer: Catherine Hettinger.

In 1998, the velocity of information was slow and the cost of publishing it was high (even on the web). Google leveraged those realities to make the best information retrieval system in the world. Today, information is free, plentiful and fast moving; somewhat by design, Google has become a card catalog that is constantly being reordered by an angry, misinformed mob. The web was supposed to forcefully challenge our opinions and push back, like a personal trainer who doesn’t care how tired you say you are. Instead, Google has become like the pampering robots in WALL-E, giving us what we want at the expense of what we need. But, it’s not our bodies that are turning into mush: It’s our minds.

Why Don’t We Just Ban Targeted Advertising?

Google and Facebook, including their subsidiaries like Instagram and YouTube, make about 83 percent and 99 percent of their respective revenue from one thing: selling ads. It’s the same story with Twitter and other free sites and apps. More to the point, these companies are in the business of what’s called behavioral advertising, which allows companies to aim their marketing based on everything from users’ sexual orientations to their moods and menstrual cycles, as revealed by everything they do on their devices and every place they take them. It follows that most of the unsavory things the platforms do—boost inflammatory content, track our whereabouts, enable election manipulation, crush the news industry—stem from the goal of boosting ad revenues. Instead of trying to clean up all these messes one by one, the logic goes, why not just remove the underlying financial incentive? Targeting ads based on individual user data didn’t even really exist until the past decade. (Indeed, Google still makes many billions of dollars from ads tied to search terms, which aren’t user-specific.) What if companies simply weren’t allowed to do it anymore?

Let’s pretend it really happened. Imagine Congress passed a law tomorrow morning that banned companies from doing any ad microtargeting whatsoever. Close your eyes and picture what life would be like if the leading business model of the internet were banished from existence. How would things be different?

Many of the changes would be subtle. You could buy a pair of shoes on Amazon without Reebok ads following you for months. Perhaps you’d see some listings that you didn’t see before, for jobs or real estate. That’s especially likely if you’re African-American, or a woman, or a member of another disadvantaged group. You might come to understand that microtargeting had supercharged advertisers’ ability to discriminate, even when they weren’t trying to.

Xiaomi Camera Feed is Showing Random Homes on a Google Nest Hub, Including Still Images of Sleeping People

So-called “smart” security cameras have had some pretty dumb security problems recently, but a recent report regarding a Xiaomi Mijia camera linked to a Google Home is especially disturbing. One Xiaomi Mijia camera owner is getting still images from other random peoples’ homes when trying to stream content from his camera to a Google Nest Hub. The images include sills of people sleeping (even an infant in a cradle) inside their own homes. This issue was first reported by user /r/Dio-V on Reddit and affects his Xiaomi Mijia 1080p Smart IP Security Camera, which can be linked to a Google account for use with Google/Nest devices through Xiaomi’s Mi Home app/service. It isn’t clear when Dio-V’s feed first began showing these still images into random homes or how long the camera was connected to his account before this started happening. He does state that both the Nest Hub and the camera were purchased new. The camera was noted as running firmware version 3.5.1_00.66.

YouTube’s Algorithm Made Fake CNN Reports Go Viral

“YouTube channels posing as American news outlets racked up millions of views on false and inflammatory videos over several months this year,” reports CNN.

“All with the help of YouTube’s recommendation engine.”

Many of the accounts, which mostly used footage from CNN, but also employed some video from Fox News, exploited a YouTube feature that automatically creates channels on certain topics. Those topic channels are then automatically populated by videos related to the topic — including, in this case, blatant misinformation.

YouTube has now shut down many of the accounts.

YouTube’s own algorithms also recommended videos from the channels to American users who watched videos about U.S. politics. That the channels could achieve such virality — one channel was viewed more than two million times over one weekend in October — raises questions about YouTube’s preparedness for tackling misinformation on its platform just weeks before the Iowa caucuses and points to the continuing challenge platforms face as people try to game their systems….

Responding to the findings on Thursday, a CNN spokesperson said YouTube needs to take responsibility.

“When accounts were deleted or banned, they were able to spin up new accounts within hours,” added Plasticity, a natural language processing and AI startup which analyzed the data and identified at least 25 different accounts which YouTube then shut down.

“The tactics they used to game the YouTube algorithm were executed perfectly. They knew what they were doing.”

Facebook, Google Donate Heavily To Privacy Advocacy Groups

Few companies have more riding on proposed privacy legislation than Alphabet’s Google and Facebook. To try to steer the bill their way, the giant advertising technology companies spend millions of dollars to lobby each year, a fact confirmed by government filings. Not so well-documented is spending to support highly influential think tanks and public interest groups that are helping shape the privacy debate, ostensibly as independent observers. Bloomberg Law examined seven prominent nonprofit think tanks that work on privacy issues that received a total of $1.5 million over a 18-month period ending Dec. 31, 2018. The groups included such organizations as the Center for Democracy and Technology, the Future of Privacy Forum and the Brookings Institution. The actual total is undoubtedly much higher — exact totals for contributions were difficult to pin down. The tech giants have “funded scores of nonprofits, including consumer and privacy groups, and academics,” said Jeffrey Chester, executive director at the Center for Digital Democracy, a public interest group that does not accept donations from Google or Facebook. Further, he says, their influence is strong. The companies have “opposed federal privacy laws and worked to weaken existing safeguards,” Chester said. Accepting donations from these “privacy-killing companies enable them to influence decisions by nonprofits, even subtly,” he said.