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Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook wants Congress to shift its attention to the "shadow economy” of data brokers — as policymakers pushing for a national privacy law largely focus on the transgressions of Silicon Valley behemoths.
Cook wants Congress to create a “data-broker clearinghouse” within the Federal Trade Commission that would oversee these companies. Data brokers collect and bundle people's information and sell their profiles to other companies, often to enable personalized online advertising. Cook is proposing the government require data brokers to register with the FTC and allow consumers the ability to track how the brokers package and sell their data — and easily delete their data from services for free.
“Meaningful, comprehensive federal privacy legislation should not only aim to put consumers in control of their data, it should also shine a light on actors trafficking in your data behind the scenes,” Cook wrote in a Time magazine op-ed published today. “Some state laws are looking to accomplish just that, but right now there is no federal standard protecting Americans from these practices.”
Right now, much of the national debate on privacy is focused on technology companies that are household names. Lawmakers are largely focused on cleanup after high-profile data privacy scandals such as Cambridge Analytica’s collection of Facebook users’ data without their permission or the Google security bug highlighted how lax these companies have been when it comes to data security.
Cook’s op-ed and a recent Motherboard investigation into location data transactions could put pressure on Congress to more specifically target data brokers in national privacy legislation. When lawmakers held a major hearing on privacy to set the stage for national legislation last year, they included many of the major technology and telecom companies as witnesses — but they did not have any data brokers.
Some lawmakers are already choosing to take up the issue this year. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), known as a privacy hawk, is planning to introduce a consumer privacy bill in the next few weeks that would give consumers a way to review what data companies have collected about them and who they share it with. The bill would also include a “Do Not Track system” that would let people stop companies from tracking them online and then selling their data.
But it's unclear whether Senate Republicans would be supportive of such heavy-handed measures. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) introduced privacy legislation yesterday -- but the American Data Dissemination Act and an accompanying op-ed did not mention data brokers. His bill calls on the FTC to draft privacy recommendations for Congress. If Congress does not adopt its own legislation in the next two years, the bill would grant the authority to the FTC to write privacy rules itself.
However bipartisan scrutiny of the sale and transfer of consumers' personal data is building. Last week, Motherboard’s Joseph Cox exposed that phone companies like AT&T, T Mobile and Sprint were selling customers’ location data — and he was able to buy that information from a bounty hunter. AT&T and Sprint have promised to stop selling location data to third parties since the piece was published.
Yesterday, top Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee sent a series of letters to the companies involved, including the mobile carriers as well as Microbilt and Zumigo. Motherboard reported that T-Mobile sold the data to Zumigo, a company that aggregates mobile location data, and Zumigo then sold it to Microbilt, a company that does credit and background checks, then Microbit sold it to various clients — including a bounty hunter.
“This practice of selling and sharing of location information through multiple entities potentially impacts hundreds of millions of American customers,” Reps. Greg Walden (Ore.), Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.), Robert E. Latta (Ohio) and Brett Guthrie (Ky.) wrote. “We are deeply troubled because it is not the first time we have received reports and information about the sharing of mobile users’ location information involving a number of parties who may have misused personally identifiable information.”
Democrats in both the House and Senate are putting pressure on the FCC to investigate the telephone companies’ sale of location data. House Democrats on the Energy and Commerce Committee requested an emergency briefing with FCC Chairman Ajit Pai on the wireless industry’s collection of data. Pai declined to participate in the hearing due to the government shutdown, but committee chairman Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (N.J.) was unsatisfied because he said there's nothing in the law that should prevent Pai from meeting with the committee personally. The FCC told The Hill that it was investigating the carriers’ handling of location data, but it was suspended following a lapse in funding for the agency.
As lawmakers are shaping national privacy legislation, they’re also looking at laws on the books in the states. Already, California and Vermont have passed legislation that would limit data brokers. Under California’s new law, consumers would have the right to “opt out” from any company selling their data. The businesses still have to give these people the same quality of service.
Vermont has a law that’s somewhat similar to Cook’s proposal, which requires data brokers to register with the state’s attorney general and to disclose how they collect data and whether they offer ways for consumers to opt out of their services. But the law doesn’t go as far as Cook’s proposal because the brokers aren’t required to let people opt out.
“As this debate kicks off, there will be plenty of proposals and competing interests for policymakers to consider,” Cook wrote. “We cannot lose sight of the most important constituency: individuals trying to win back their right to privacy.”
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BITS: Facebook removed hundreds of accounts, pages and groups “that engaged in coordinated inauthentic behavior on Facebook and Instagram,” the company announced in a blog post this morning as it continues to try to combat disinformation on its platforms.
The company said it removed 364 Facebook Pages and accounts run by a Russian network. Some of the pages were linked to employees of the Russian news agency Sputnik. On a tip from U.S. law enforcement, the company also separately took down 107 Facebook pages, group and accounts and 41 Instagram accounts that originated in Russia and operated in Ukraine.
“We didn’t find any links between these operations, but they used similar tactics by creating networks of accounts to mislead others about who they were and what they were doing,” Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy, said in the blog post.
NIBBLES: Microsoft pledged $500 million toward affordable housing and homelessness initiatives in the Seattle area as the city's recent tech boom drives up real estate prices, according to The Seattles Times's Vernal Coleman and Mike Rosenberg. The company's housing pledge dwarfs the $100 million in annual public funding for Washington's Housing Trust Fund.
Microsoft is trying to address the affordability gap in the region's housing market as real estate is becoming a hot button issue between technology companies and communities in many fast-growing hubs, such as Seattle and San Francisco. Developers are racing to build new housing to keep up with the demand in these cities, but new options mostly target wealthy renters and leave behind middle or low-income residents.
“Microsoft officials say it’s too early to say exactly how much affordable housing will ultimately result from the $500 million,” the Seattle Times reported. Brad Smith, Microsoft’s president and chief legal officer, told the Times the funding would target workers who “teach our kids in schools, and put out the fires in our houses and keep us alive in the hospital.”
BYTES: YouTube is cracking down on dangerous pranks with new guidelines for creators who upload videos to the platform, the Verge's Julia Alexander reported. The company said it updated its guidelines to ban “pranks that make victims believe they’re in serious physical danger — for example, a home invasion prank or a drive-by shooting prank,” according to the Verge. Such dangerous pranks can also include the “Bird Box challenge” where people perform actions while blindfolded or the “Tide Pod challenge” where people eat the laundry detergent.
YouTube might not shut down a user's channel for uploading a dangerous video for the first time but it may crack down if it happens repeatedly. “YouTube’s policy is to hand out a strike and remove the video, but that strike disappears after 90 days,” Alexander reported. “While a creator may lose some privileges within those 90 days, including the ability to live stream, they could technically come back once the strike is removed and perform another dangerous stunt.”
A Pew Research Center survey found that 74 percent of Facebook users did not know that the social network creates a list of their interests for advertisers, despite recent scrutiny of the company's data collection practices, The Washington Post's Abby Ohlheiser reported. “We consistently find that there’s a paradox at the center of generalized privacy research,” said Lee Rainie, director of Internet and technology research at Pew, according to my colleague. “Americans, being Americans, say that it matters, but they behave in a way that doesn’t indicate that it matters.”
The poll, which was conducted from Sept. 4 to Oct. 1, also found that 51 percent of respondents were not comfortable with Facebook gathering this data once they saw the list. “Nearly 9 in 10 (88 percent) Facebook users found that the social network had generated some material for them on the ad preferences page, and 6 in 10 had 10 or more interests listed for them,” Abby wrote. “Unsurprisingly, heavy or longtime users of Facebook were more likely to have more interests on their ad preferences pages.”
— Amazon isn't just the largest book retailer in the world, it is also reshaping the publishing business, according to the Wall Street Journal's Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg. Amazon Publishing, the company's unit that publishes books such as thrillers and romance novels, has become a tough competitor to other players in the industry. The company can also rely in its publishing activity on in-house tools such as the promotion program Amazon First Reads and the e-book subscription service Kindle Unlimited.
Amazon went from publishing 373 titles in the United States in 2009 when it ventured into consumer book publishing to 1,231 in 2017. “To some in the industry, it is an inherently conflicted structure, in which the most powerful retailer has a competing incentive to favor books it publishes and those from authors using its self-publishing technology,” Trachtenberg wrote. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
— Facebook is expanding its efforts to boost the transparency of political ads and combat election interference to several foreign countries that are holding elections this year, according to Reuters's Paresh Dave. The new Facebook rules will apply to Nigeria, Ukraine, India and the European Union. Facebook said that starting Wednesday, only advertisers based in Nigeria are allowed to place electoral ads on Facebook in that country. The same rules are set to kick in in Ukraine next month.
Facebook will also launch an online searchable archive of electoral ads in India and a similar system for the European Union, according to Reuters. “We’re learning from every country,” Rob Leathern, a director of product management at Facebook, told Dave. “We know we’re not going to be perfect, but our goal is continuing, ongoing improvement.”
— Apple is continuing to venture further into health care as it has held talks with at least three private Medicare plans to subsidize its Apple Watch for seniors, although no official deal has been struck yet, CNBC's Christina Farr reported. The idea would be to subsidize the watch for use as a health tracker by people over 65 years of age. “Health experts say that seniors are an ideal market for the Apple Watch, which has introduced features that can be used by anyone, but are most beneficial to seniors, including fall detection and cardiac arrhythmia monitoring,” CNBC reported. “It also makes sense as a business model for insurers, as seniors are a particularly lucrative market.”
— More technology news from the private sector:
— The bad news continue to pile up for Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei. Federal prosecutors are conducting a criminal probe of the company for alleged theft of trade secrets from U.S. business partners of Huawei, according to the Wall Street Journal's Dan Strumpf, Nicole Hong and Aruna Viswanatha. “The investigation grew in part out of civil lawsuits against Huawei, including one in which a Seattle jury found Huawei liable for misappropriating robotic technology from T-Mobile’s Bellevue, Wash., lab, the people familiar with the matter said,” the Journal reported. “The probe is at an advanced stage and could lead to an indictment soon, they said.”
— Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) is planning to share her social media savvy with other Democrats today, according to USA Today's Eliza Collins. She is scheduled to join Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.) this morning for a session hosted by the House Democratic Policy and Communications Committee “on the most effective ways to engage constituents on Twitter and the importance of digital storytelling,” Collins reported.
— More technology news from the public sector:
— Several investors in the office-space company WeWork said they were concerned by an arrangement in which Adam Neumann, WeWork's chief executive, made millions of dollars by leasing properties that he owns back to the company, according to the Wall Street Journal's Eliot Brown. The situation could be a potential conflict of interest for Neumann, according to several investors. Brown reported that a WeWork representative “said all related-party deals are reviewed and approved by the board or an independent committee and disclosed to investors.” Neumann founded WeWork in 2010 and is the biggest individual shareholder of the company.
“Corporate governance experts say Mr. Neumann’s ownership of buildings he leases to WeWork is unusual for a large company,” the Journal reported. “Corporations typically bar executives from similar arrangements, given that companies risk paying too much in rent or leasing buildings they ordinarily wouldn’t, they said.”
— John Legere, the chief executive of T-Mobile, responded on Twitter to a report by The Washington Post. The Post's Jonathan O'Connell and David A. Fahrenthold reported that T-Mobile executives including Legere booked rooms at the Trump International Hotel last Spring while T-Mobile awaited a decision from the Trump administration on a merger with Sprint.
Wow - A lot of attention on where I choose to stay in DC. I’ve said many times that I respect this process and am working to get our merger done the right way. I trust regulators will make their decision based on the benefits it will bring to the US, not based on hotel choices.— John Legere (@JohnLegere) January 16, 2019
As I said that day, my leaders & I stay in many different hotels in DC. The process to get our merger approved is important and rigorous - and we respect it. We will continue to go through that process and I don’t expect a hotel stay to have any influence on regulatory decisions.— John Legere (@JohnLegere) January 16, 2019
— Tech news generating buzz around the Web:
— News about tech incidents or blunders:
— Today in funding news:
- The Brookings Institution holds a discussion titled “Enabling opportunities: 5G, the internet of things, and communities of color” on Jan. 23.
- RE•WORK Deep Learning Summit in San Francisco on Jan. 24 through Jan. 25.
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