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SAN FRANCISCO - OCTOBER 24:  Dustin Moskovitz, co-founder of Facebook, delivers his keynote address at the CTIA WIRELESS I.T. & Entertainment 2007 conference October 24, 2007 in San Francisco, California. The confernence is showcasing the lastest in mobile technology and will run through October 25.  (Photo by Kimberly White/Getty Images)

Google and Facebook are watching our every move online. It’s time to make them stop

January 31, 2018

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, left, and Google CEO Larry Page
To make any real progress in advancing data privacy this year, we have to start doing something about Google and Facebook. Not doing so would be like trying to lose weight without changing your diet. Simply ineffective.

The impact these two companies have on our privacy cannot be understated. You may know that hidden trackers lurk on most websites you visit, soaking up your personal information.

What you may not realize, though, is 76 percent of websites now contain hidden Google trackers, and 24 percent have hidden Facebook trackers, according to the Princeton Web Transparency & Accountability Project. The next highest is Twitter with 12 percent. It is likely that Google or Facebook are watching you on many sites you visit, in addition to tracking you when using their products.

As a result, these two companies have amassed huge data profiles on each person, which can include your interests, purchases, search, browsing and location history, and much more. They then make your sensitive data profile available for invasive targeted advertising that can follow you around the Internet.

This advertising system is designed to enable hyper-targeting, which has many unintended consequences, such as the ability for bad actors to use the system to influence the most susceptible or to exclude groups in a way that facilitates discrimination.

“These two companies have amassed huge data profiles on each person, which can include your interests, purchases, search, browsing and location history, and much more.”
Because of their entrenched positions in a wide array of Internet services, each collecting personal information that together combine into these massive digital profiles, Google and Facebook can offer hyper-targeting much better than the competition.

As a result, they now make up 63 percent of all digital advertising, and accounted for 74 percent of this market’s growth in 2017, according to eMarketer. Together they form a tight digital advertising duopoly, showing no signs of abating.

Google and Facebook also use your data as input for increasingly sophisticated AI algorithms that put you in a filter bubble — an alternate digital universe that controls what you see in their products, based on what their algorithms think you are most likely to click on.

These echo chambers distort people’s reality, creating a myriad of unintended consequences such as increasing societal polarization. On their unending march to profit from more and more personal information, Google and Facebook have shown little regard for all the negative consequences of their runaway algorithms.

So how do we move forward from here?

Don’t be fooled by claims of self-regulation, as any useful long-term reforms of Google and Facebook’s data privacy practices fundamentally oppose their core business models: hyper-targeted advertising based on more and more intrusive personal surveillance. Change must come from the outside.

Unfortunately, we’ve seen relatively little from Washington. Congress and federal agencies need to take a fresh look at what can be done to curb these data monopolies. They first need to demand more algorithmic and privacy policy transparency, so people can truly understand the extent of how their personal information is being collected, processed and used by these companies. Only then can informed consent be possible.

They also need to legislate that people own their own data, enabling real opt-outs. Finally, they need to restrict how data can be combined including being more aggressive at blocking acquisitions that further consolidate data power, which will pave the way for more competition in digital advertising.

Until we see such meaningful changes, consumers should vote with their feet. DuckDuckGo found that about a quarter of American adults are already taking significant actions to take back their privacy. Helping in this effort are seamless browser add-ons that will block Google and Facebook’s hidden trackers across the Internet, as well as more private alternatives to their core services. I can say from my own experience, you can indeed live Google and Facebook free.

If we do nothing about Google and Facebook, we will get more of the same: more hyper-targeting, more algorithmic bias, less competition and the further erosion of collateral industries, like media. Enough is enough.

The complete loss of personal privacy in the Internet age is not inevitable. Through thoughtful regulation and increased consumer choice, we can choose a brighter path. I hope to look back at 2018 as a turning point in data privacy, where we awoke to the unacceptable implications of two companies controlling so much of our digital future.

Commentary by Gabriel Weinberg, CEO and founder of DuckDuckGo, which makes online privacy tools, including an alternative search engine to Google. Follow him on Twitter @yegg .

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.

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Apple responds to Senator Franken’s Face ID privacy concerns

October 17, 2017

Apple has now responded to a letter from U.S. Senator Al Franken last month in which he asked the company to provide more information about the incoming Face ID authentication technology which is baked into its top-of-the-range iPhone X, due to go on sale early next month.

As we’ve previously reported, Face ID raises a range of security and privacy concerns because it encourages smartphone consumers to use a facial biometric for authenticating their identity — and specifically a sophisticated full three dimensional model of their face.

And while the tech is limited to one flagship iPhone for now, with other new iPhones retaining the physical home button plus fingerprint Touch ID biometric combo that Apple launched in 2013, that’s likely to change in future.

After all, Touch ID arrived on a single flagship iPhone before migrating onto additional Apple hardware, including the iPad and Mac. So Face ID will surely also spread to other Apple devices in the coming years.

That means if you’re an iOS user it may be difficult to avoid the tech being baked into your devices. So the Senator is right to be asking questions on behalf of consumers. Even if most of what he’s asking has already been publicly addressed by Apple.

Last month Franken flagged what he dubbed “substantial questions” about how “Face ID will impact iPhone users’ privacy and security, and whether the technology will perform equally well on different groups of people”, asking Apple for “clarity to the millions of Americans who use your products” and how it had weighed privacy and security issues pertaining to the tech itself; and for additional steps taken to protect users.

Here’s the full list of 10 questions the Senator put to the company:

1. Apple has stated that all faceprint data will be stored locally on an individual’s device as opposed to being sent to the cloud.

a. Is it currently possible – either remotely or through physical access to the device – for either Apple or a third party to extract and obtain usable faceprint data from the iPhone X?

b. Is there any foreseeable reason why Apple would decide to begin storing such data remotely?

2. Apple has stated that it used more than one billion images in developing the Face ID algorithm. Where did these one billion face images come from?

3. What steps did Apple take to ensure its system was trained on a diverse set of faces, in terms of race, gender, and age? How is Apple protecting against racial, gender, or age bias in Face ID?

4. In the unveiling of the iPhone X, Apple made numerous assurances about the accuracy and sophistication of Face ID. Please describe again all the steps that Apple has taken to ensure that Face ID can distinguish an individual’s face from a photograph or mask, for example.

5. Apple has stated that is has no plans to allow any third party applications access to the Face ID system or its faceprint data. Can Apple assure its users that it will never share faceprint data, along with the tools or other information necessary to extract the data, with any commercial third party?

6. Can Apple confirm that it currently has no plans to use faceprint data for any purpose other than the operation of Face ID?

7. Should Apple eventually determine that there would be reason to either begin storing faceprint data remotely or use the data for a purpose other than the operation of Face ID, what steps will it take to ensure users are meaningfully informed and in control of their data?

8. In order for Face ID to function and unlock the device, is the facial recognition system “always on,” meaning does Face ID perpetually search for a face to recognize? If so:

a. Will Apple retain, even if only locally, the raw photos of faces that are used to unlock (or attempt to unlock) the device?

b. Will Apple retain, even if only locally, the faceprints of individuals other than the owner of the device?

9. What safeguards has Apple implemented to prevent the unlocking of the iPhone X when an individual other than the owner of the device holds it up to the owner’s face?

10. How will Apple respond to law enforcement requests to access Apple’s faceprint data or the Face ID system itself?

In its response letter, Apple first points the Senator to existing public info — noting it has published a Face ID security white paper and a Knowledge Base article to “explain how we protect our customers’ privacy and keep their data secure”. It adds that this “detailed information” provides answers “all of the questions you raise”.

But also goes on to summarize how Face ID facial biometrics are stored, writing: “Face ID data, including mathematical representations of your face, is encrypted and only available to the Secure Enclave. This data never leaves the device. It is not sent to Apple, nor is it included in device backups. Face images captured during normal unlock operations aren’t saved, but are instead immediately discarded once the mathematical representation is calculated for comparison to the enrolled Face ID data.”

It further specifies in the letter that: “Face ID confirms attention by directing the direction of your gaze, then uses neural networks for matching and anti-spoofing so you can unlock your phone with a glance.”

And reiterates its prior claim that the chance of a random person being able to unlock your phone because their face fooled Face ID is approximately 1 in 1M (vs 1 in 50,000 for the Touch ID tech). After five unsuccessful match attempts a passcode will be required to unlock the device, it further notes.

“Third-party apps can use system provided APIs to ask the user to authenticate using Face ID or a passcode, and apps that support Touch ID automatically support Face ID without any changes. When using Face ID, the app is notified only as to whether the authentication was successful; it cannot access Face ID or the data associated with the enrolled face,” it continues.

On questions about the accessibility of Face ID technology, Apple writes: “The accessibility of the product to people of diverse races and ethnicities was very important to us. Face ID uses facial matching neural networks that we developed using over a billion images, including IR and depth images collected in studies conducted with the participants’ informed consent.”

The company had already made the “billion images” claim during its Face ID presentation last month, although it’s worth noting that it’s not saying — and has never said — it trained the neural networks on images of a billion different people.

Indeed, Apple goes on to tell the Senator that it relied on a “representative group of people” — though it does not confirm exactly how many individuals, writing only that: “We worked with participants from around the world to include a representative group of people accounting for gender, age, ethnicity and other factors. We augmented the studies as needed to provide a high degree of accuracy for a diverse range of users.”

There’s obviously an element of commercial sensitivity at this point, in terms of Apple cloaking its development methods from competitors. So you can understand why it’s not disclosing more exact figures. But of course Face ID’s robustness in the face of diversity remains to be proven (or disproven) when iPhone X devices are out in the wild.

Apple also specifies that it has trained a neural network to “spot and resist spoofing” to defend against attempts to unlock the device with photos or masks. Before concluding the letter with an offer to brief the Senator further if he has more questions.

Notably Apple hasn’t engaged with Senator Franken’s question about responding to law enforcement requests — although given enrolled Face ID data is stored locally on a user’s device in the Secure Element as a mathematical model, the technical architecture of Face ID has been structured to ensure Apple never takes possession of the data — and couldn’t therefore hand over something it does not hold.

The fact Apple’s letter does not literally spell that out is likely down to the issue of law enforcement and data access being rather politically charged.

In his response to the letter, Senator Franken appears satisfied with the initial engagement, though he also says he intends to take the company up on its offer to be briefed in more detail.

“I appreciate Apple’s willingness to engage with my office on these issues, and I’m glad to see the steps that the company has taken to address consumer privacy and security concerns. I plan to follow up with Apple to find out more about how it plans to protect the data of customers who decide to use the latest generation of iPhone’s facial recognition technology,” he writes.

“As the top Democrat on the Privacy Subcommittee, I strongly believe that all Americans have a fundamental right to privacy,” he adds. “All the time, we learn about and actually experience new technologies and innovations that, just a few years back, were difficult to even imagine. While these developments are often great for families, businesses, and our economy, they also raise important questions about how we protect what I believe are among the most pressing issues facing consumers: privacy and security.”

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Microsoft Windows 10 breaches Dutch privacy law

October 16, 2017

Microsoft breaches data protection law in the Netherlands because of the way its Windows 10 operating system processes personal information, according to a report.
The Dutch Data Protection Authority (DPA) also said users were not clearly informed about what data the technology giant was using.
There were four million active devices in Holland using Windows 10, it said.
Microsoft said it was “a priority” for the company to comply with Dutch law.
The DPA said that sanctions could be imposed if Microsoft failed to resolve the issues but did not detail what they might be.
The report claims that Windows 10 users “lack control of their data” because of the approach of Microsoft.
“It turns out that Microsoft’s operating system follows about every step you take on your computer. That results in an intrusive profile of yourself,” said Wilbert Tomesen, vice-chairman of the DPA.
“What does that mean? Do people know about this? Do they want this? Microsoft needs to give users a fair opportunity to decide about this themselves.”
Microsoft responded in a blog post.
It said that its latest update did give users of Windows 10 the opportunity to learn about privacy controls, and that users were informed in various documents and statements about why it processed data, including the performance of the device and apps installed.
“Windows collects data so that we can be responsive to your needs and interests,” wrote Marisa Rogers, Microsoft’s Windows and devices group privacy officer.
Ms Rogers later added that the company was “listening and responding” to feedback both from customers and regulators.
The technology giant also published a list of DPA claims that it said were inaccurate.

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Senator Franken asks Apple for privacy guarantees around Face ID data

September 15, 2017

A friendly letter from Senator Al Franken (D-MN) to Apple requests that the latter provide a few more details on the tech behind its Face ID system, which allows users to unlock their iPhone X using facial recognition.

It’s very far from a nastygram; the Senator pretty clearly just wants to cover a bit more ground than Apple had time for in its presentation yesterday. He writes:

I am encouraged by the steps that Apple states it has taken to implement the system responsibly. However, substantial questions remain about how Face ID will impact iPhone users’ privacy and security, and whether the technology will perform equally well on different groups of people. To offer clarity to the millions of Americans who use your products, I ask that you provide more information on how the company has processed these issues internally, as well as any additional steps that it intends to take to protect its users.

Face ID, which uses a Kinect-like system to scan the user’s face and only lets a matching faceprint unlock the phone, is being treated with some skepticism in the tech community. An onstage flub during the iPhone event didn’t help, but there are some usability concerns (how do you unlock your phone while it’s on the table a couple of feet away? Surely not a PIN?) and privacy ones as well.

Of course, there were similar concerns when Apple debuted Touch ID’s fingerprint recognition — and sure enough, Sen. Franken wrote a letter then, too.

His letter today is well-informed as to the potential weaknesses of facial recognition systems. For example, he asks what the source was for the billion face images Apple touted as the training set for the system, since a lack of diversity there could lead to underrepresented groups being unable to use Face ID.

He also asks whether Apple has any plans to use faceprint data for any purpose other than Face ID, whether it’s possible for Apple or any interested third party to extract that data from the phone, and whether the data might be stored remotely.

Interestingly, he asks whether there are any protections against a person being forced to unlock the phone by someone else holding it up to their face. Kind of dark, Senator!

Lastly, he asks how Apple will respond to law enforcement requests for faceprint data. That’s a sticky issue right now considering the amount of pressure tech companies are under to identify users, respond to law enforcement requests and so on.

If Apple’s answers are anything like the answers it gave in its response to the 2013 letter, the gist will be that because the faceprint is stored in the Secure Enclave and therefore is inaccessible to Apple, its services or its partners, many of these questions will be moot.

For the remaining questions, however, I look forward to Apple’s responses and evasions, each of which will likely be illuminating in its own way. Apple is requested to respond to the Senator by October 13.

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What happens to Aadhaar, Section 377?

August 25, 2017

NEW DELHI: A nine-judge Supreme Court bench unanimously ruled on Thursday that privacy is a fundamental right+ , protected as an intrinsic part of the right to life and personal liberty and as part of the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution+ .
Here is a citizen’s guide to the SC verdict:
Can I be forced to get an Aadhaar card? If I already have one, do I still have to link it with my bank account, PAN card, mobile number…
A 3-judge bench will examine if Aadhaar is still valid+ . Most likely, Aadhaar will stay, but there will be clear guidelines for its usage. Thursday’s ruling allows government to collate data without being accused of violating privacy if it is done for national security or for effective distribution of scarce national resources, food and other essential items.
Does the judgment decriminalise consensual sexual relations among members of the LGBT community?
The court has observed that one’s sexual orientation is undoubtedly an attribute of privacy. The right to privacy cannot be denied even if a small fraction of the population is affected. In an earlier judgment, a two-judge bench of the SC had upheld Section 377. On Thursday, the 9-member bench termed the earlier judgment as “completely flawed”. A pending petition may soon get decided along the lines indicated by the bench.
The SC recognises the challenge posed by sharing of personal data and firms collating them to create meta-data for commercial exploitation. It has asked the govt to provide a robust data protection regime. New law on data collection and usage are already in the making.
What about beef ban, prohibition and other such restrictions?
Most of these restrictions are enforced under existing laws. But anyone who has a problem with these laws can now challenge them directly in the SC, on the ground that these provisions violate his right to privacy and personal choice.

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