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Google faces GDPR complaint over ‘deceptive’ location tracking

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A group of European consumer watchdogs has filed a privacy complaint against Google — arguing the company uses manipulative tactics in order to keep tracking web users’ locations for ad-targeting purposes.

The consumer organizations are making the complaint under the EU’s new data protection framework, GDPR, which regulators can use to levy major fines for compliance breaches — of up to 4 percent of a company’s global annual turnover.

Under GDPR, a consent-based legal basis for processing personal data (e.g. person’s location) must be specific, informed and freely given.

In their complaint, the groups, which include Norway’s Consumer Council, argue that Google does not have proper legal basis to track users through “Location History” and “Web & App Activity” — settings which are integrated into all Google accounts, and which, for users of Android -based smartphones, they assert are particularly difficult to avoid.

The Google mobile OS remains the dominant smartphone platform globally, as well as across Europe.

“Google is processing incredibly detailed and extensive personal data without proper legal grounds, and the data has been acquired through manipulation techniques,” said Gro Mette Moen, acting head of the Norwegian Consumer Council’s digital services unit in a statement.

“When we carry our phones, Google is recording where we go, down to which floor we are on and how we are moving. This can be combined with other information about us, such as what we search for, and what websites we visit. Such information can in turn be used for things such as targeted advertising meant to affect us when we are receptive or vulnerable.”

Responding to the complaint, a Google spokesperson sent TechCrunch the following statement:

Location History is turned off by default, and you can edit, delete, or pause it at any time. If it’s on, it helps improve services like predicted traffic on your commute. If you pause it, we make clear that — depending on your individual phone and app settings — we might still collect and use location data to improve your Google experience. We enable you to control location data in other ways too, including in a different Google setting called Web & App Activity, and on your device. We’re constantly working to improve our controls, and we’ll be reading this report closely to see if there are things we can take on board.

Earlier this year the Norwegian watchdog produced a damning report calling out dark pattern design tricks being deployed by Google and Facebook meant to manipulate users by nudging them toward “privacy intrusive options.” It also examined Microsoft’s consent flows, but judged the company to be leaning less heavily on such unfair tactics.

Among the underhand techniques that the Google-targeted GDPR complaint, which draws on the earlier report, calls out are allegations of deceptive click-flow, with the groups noting that a “location history” setting can be enabled during Android set-up without a user being aware of it; key settings being both buried in menus (hidden) and enabled by default; users being presented at the decision point with insufficient and misleading information; repeat nudges to enable location tracking even after a user has previously turned it off; and the bundling of “invasive location tracking” with other unrelated Google services, such as photo sorting by location.

GDPR remains in the early implementation phrase — just six months since the regulation came into force across Europe. But a large chunk of the first wave of complaints have been focused on consent, according to Europe’s data protection supervisor, who also told us in October that more than 42,000 complaints had been lodged in total since the regulation came into force.

Where Google is concerned, the location complaint is by no means the only GDPR — or GDPR consent-related — complaint it’s facing.

Another complaint, filed back in May also by a consumer-focused organization, took aim at what it dubbed the use of “forced consent” by Google and Facebook — pointing out that the companies were offering users no choice but to have their personal data processed to make use of certain services, yet the GDPR requires consent to be freely given.

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AI can run your work meetings now

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Enlarge / Headroom is one of several apps advertising AI as the solution for your messy virtual/video meetings.

Julian Green was explaining the big problem with meetings when our meeting started to glitch. The pixels of his face rearranged themselves. A sentence came out as hiccups. Then he sputtered, froze, and ghosted.

Green and I had been chatting on Headroom, a new video conferencing platform he and cofounder Andrew Rabinovich launched this fall. The glitch, they assured me, was not caused by their software, but by Green’s Wi-Fi connection. “I think the rest of my street is on homeschool,” he said, a problem that Headroom was not built to solve. It was built instead for other issues: the tedium of taking notes, the coworkers who drone on and on, and the difficulty in keeping everyone engaged. As we spoke, software tapped out a real-time transcription in a window next to our faces. It kept a running tally of how many words each person had said (Rabinovich dominated). Once our meeting was over, Headroom’s software would synthesize the concepts from the transcript; identify key topics, dates, ideas, and action items; and, finally, spit out a record that could be searched at a later time. It would even try to measure how much each participant was paying attention.

Meetings have become the necessary evil of the modern workplace, spanning an elaborate taxonomy: daily stand-ups, sit-downs, all-hands, one-on-ones, brown-bags, status checks, brainstorms, debriefs, design reviews. But as time spent in these corporate conclaves goes up, work seems to suffer. Researchers have found that meetings correlate with a decline in workplace happiness, productivity, and even company market share. And in a year when so many office interactions have gone digital, the usual tedium of meeting culture is compounded by the fits and starts of teleconferencing.

Recently, a new wave of startups has emerged to optimize those meetings with, what else, technology. Macro (“give your meeting superpowers”) makes a collaborative interface for Zoom. Mmhmm offers interactive backgrounds and slide-share tools for presenters. Fireflies, an AI transcription tool, integrates with popular video conferencing platforms to create a searchable record of each meeting. And Sidekick (“make your remote team feel close again”) sells a dedicated tablet for video calls.

The idea behind Headroom, which was conceived pre-pandemic, is to improve on both the in-person and virtual problems with meetings, using AI. (Rabinovich used to head AI at Magic Leap.) The use of video conferencing was already on the rise before 2020; this year it exploded, and Green and Rabinovich are betting that the format is here to stay as more companies grow accustomed to having remote employees. Over the last nine months, though, many people have learned firsthand that virtual meetings bring new challenges, like interpreting body language from other people on-screen or figuring out if anyone is actually listening.

“One of the hard things in a videoconference is when someone is speaking and I want to tell them that I like it,” says Green. In person, he says, “you might head nod or make a small aha.” But on a video chat, the speaker might not see if they’re presenting slides, or if the meeting is crowded with too many squares, or if everyone who’s making verbal cues is on mute. “You can’t tell if it’s crickets or if people are loving it.”

Headroom aims to tackle the social distance of virtual meetings in a few ways. First, it uses computer vision to translate approving gestures into digital icons, amplifying each thumbs up or head nod with little emojis that the speaker can see. Those emojis also get added to the official transcript, which is automatically generated by software to spare someone the task of taking notes. Green and Rabinovich say this type of monitoring is made clear to all participants at the start of every meeting, and teams can opt out of features if they choose.

More uniquely, Headroom’s software uses emotion recognition to take the temperature of the room periodically, and to gauge how much attention participants are paying to whoever’s speaking. Those metrics are displayed in a window on-screen, designed mostly to give the speaker real-time feedback that can sometimes disappear in the virtual context. “If five minutes ago everyone was super into what I’m saying and now they’re not, maybe I should think about shutting up,” says Green.

Emotion recognition is still a nascent field of AI. “The goal is to basically try to map the facial expressions as captured by facial landmarks: the rise of the eyebrow, the shape of the mouth, the opening of the pupils,” says Rabinovich. Each of these facial movements can be represented as data, which in theory can then be translated into an emotion: happy, sad, bored, confused. In practice, the process is rarely so straightforward. Emotion recognition software has a history of mislabeling people of color; one program, used by airport security, overestimated how often Black men showed negative emotions, like “anger.” Affective computing also fails to take cultural cues into context, like whether someone is averting their eyes out of respect, shame, or shyness.

For Headroom’s purposes, Rabinovich argues that these inaccuracies aren’t as important. “We care less if you’re happy or super happy, so long that we’re able to tell if you’re involved,” says Rabinovich. But Alice Xiang, the head of fairness, transparency, and accountability research at the Partnership on AI, says even basic facial recognition still has problems—like failing to detect when Asian individuals have their eyes open—because they are often trained on white faces. “If you have smaller eyes, or hooded eyes, it might be the case that the facial recognition concludes you are constantly looking down or closing your eyes when you’re not,” says Xiang. These sorts of disparities can have real-world consequences as facial recognition software gains more widespread use in the workplace. Headroom is not the first to bring such software into the office. HireVue, a recruiting technology firm, recently introduced an emotion recognition software that suggests a job candidate’s “employability,” based on factors like facial movements and speaking voice.

Constance Hadley, a researcher at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, says that gathering data on people’s behavior during meetings can reveal what is and isn’t working within that setup, which could be useful for employers and employees alike. But when people know their behavior is being monitored, it can change how they act in unintended ways. “If the monitoring is used to understand patterns as they exist, that’s great,” says Hadley. “But if it’s used to incentivize certain types of behavior, then it can end up triggering dysfunctional behavior.” In Hadley’s classes, when students know that 25 percent of the grade is participation, students raise their hands more often, but they don’t necessarily say more interesting things. When Green and Rabinovich demonstrated their software to me, I found myself raising my eyebrows, widening my eyes, and grinning maniacally to change my levels of perceived emotion.

In Hadley’s estimation, when meetings are conducted is just as important as how. Poorly scheduled meetings can rob workers of the time to do their own tasks, and a deluge of meetings can make people feel like they’re wasting time while drowning in work. Naturally, there are software solutions to this, too. Clockwise, an AI time management platform launched in 2019, uses an algorithm to optimize the timing of meetings. “Time has become a shared asset inside a company, not a personal asset,” says Matt Martin, the founder of Clockwise. “People are balancing all these different threads of communication, the velocity has gone up, the demands of collaboration are more intense. And yet, the core of all of that, there’s not a tool for anyone to express, ‘This is the time I need to actually get my work done. Do not distract me!’”

Clockwise syncs with someone’s Google calendar to analyze how they’re spending their time, and how they could do so more optimally. The software adds protective time blocks based on an individual’s stated preferences. It might reserve a chunk of “do not disturb” time for getting work done in the afternoons. (It also automatically blocks off time for lunch. “As silly as that sounds, it makes a big difference,” says Martin.) And by analyzing multiple calendars within the same workforce or team, the software can automatically move meetings like a “team sync” or a “weekly 1×1” into time slots that work for everyone. The software optimizes for creating more uninterrupted blocks of time, when workers can get into “deep work” without distraction.

Clockwise, which launched in 2019, just closed an $18 million funding round and says it’s gaining traction in Silicon Valley. So far, it has 200,000 users, most of whom work for companies like Uber, Netflix, and Twitter; about half of its users are engineers. Headroom is similarly courting clients in the tech industry, where Green and Rabinovich feel they best understand the problems with meetings. But it’s not hard to imagine similar software creeping beyond the Silicon Valley bubble. Green, who has school-age children, has been exasperated by parts of their remote learning experience. There are two dozen students in their classes, and the teacher can’t see all of them at once. “If the teacher is presenting slides, they actually can see none of them,” he says. “They don’t even see if the kids have their hands up to ask a question.”

Indeed, the pains of teleconferencing aren’t limited to offices. As more and more interaction is mediated by screens, more software tools will surely try to optimize the experience. Other problems, like laggy Wi-Fi, will be someone else’s to solve.

This story first appeared on wired.com

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Comcast raising TV and Internet prices, including a big hike to hidden fees

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Enlarge / Comcast Xfinity cable television installation truck parked on a street in front of a suburban home, San Ramon, California, May 17, 2018. (Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)

Getty Images | Smith Collection | Gado

Comcast is raising prices for cable TV and Internet service on January 1, 2021, with price hikes coming both to standard monthly rates and to hidden fees that aren’t included in advertised prices.

TV customers are getting an especially raw deal, as Comcast is adding up to $4.50 a month to the “Broadcast TV” fee and $2 to the Regional Sports Network (RSN) fee. That’s an increase of up to $78 a year solely from two fees that aren’t included in advertised rates.

As in past years, even customers who still are on promotional pricing will not be spared from the Broadcast TV and RSN fee increases. “Customers on promotional pricing will not see that pricing change until the end of the promotion, but the RSN and Broadcast TV fees will increase because they’re not part of the promotional pricing,” a Comcast spokesperson told Ars.

Without the upcoming increase, the Broadcast TV fee currently ranges from $7.90 to $14.95 depending on the market, the spokesperson said. The RSN fee maxes out at $8.75 a month in most of Comcast’s territory, but Comcast said this fee is $14.45 for Chicago-area customers with access to the Sinclair-owned Marquee Sports Network that airs Chicago Cubs games. The RSN fee is not charged in some markets that don’t have RSNs.

Six Internet-only packages that cost $53 to $113 a month will all rise $3 a month, and the price for professional installations or in-home service visits is rising from $70 to $100. Comcast revealed price increases in a notice that has been shared on Reddit:

List of Comcast price increases taking effect in Chicago on January 1, 2021.

List of Comcast price increases taking effect in Chicago on January 1, 2021.

While the above price-increase notice is for Chicago only, a Comcast spokesperson confirmed to Ars that price hikes will be nationwide. The Chicago price-change list doesn’t include the Regional Sports Network fee “because their RSN fee increased on October 1, 2020 with the addition of the Marquee Sports Network. The RSN Fee will increase by $2 in all other markets effective January 1, 2021,” Comcast told Ars.

“Other changes for 2021 include a Broadcast TV Fee increase of up to $4.50 depending on the market; $3 increase for Internet-only service; and up to to a $2.50 increase for TV boxes on the primary outlet, with a decrease of up to $2.45 for TV boxes on additional outlets,” the Comcast spokesperson added. The fee for a customer’s primary TV box is rising from $5 to $7.50, while the fee for additional boxes is being lowered from $9.95 to $7.50.

While the Chicago price list says the base price of the Choice TV package is rising from $25 to $30 a month, it’s not clear which TV packages will get price increases in other areas. Comcast told us that changes to base TV prices will vary by market.

Comcast charges a $30 monthly fee to upgrade from the 1.2TB plan to unlimited data, or $25 a month for customers who purchase xFi Complete, which includes unlimited data and rental of the Comcast gateway modem/router. The xFi Complete fee is only $20 in some markets, but Comcast told Ars it is raising the price in those markets to $25 to match what’s charged in the rest of the country.

Comcast blames programmers

Comcast defended the price increases with this statement:

Rising programming costs—most notably for broadcast TV and sports—continue to be the biggest factors driving price increases for all content distributors and their customers, not just Comcast. We’re continuing to work hard to manage these costs for our customers while investing in our network to provide the best, most reliable broadband service in the country and the flexibility to choose our industry-leading video platform with X1 or the highest quality streaming product with Flex, the only free streaming TV device with voice remote that’s included with broadband service.

But Comcast can’t solely blame other programmers for price hikes because Comcast itself owns NBCUniversal and thus determines the price of all NBCUniversal content, including the national channels and eight RSNs in major markets. Despite Comcast owning NBC, the cable company recently warned customers that they could lose NBC channels if Comcast is unable to reach a new carriage contract with… NBC. The absurd situation was summarized by TechDirt in an article aptly titled, “Comcast Tells Customers They May Lose Access To Comcast Channels If Comcast Can’t Agree With Comcast.”

On the broadband side, Comcast seems to be justifying price hikes based on the company’s investment in improving its network. But Comcast reduced capital spending on its cable division in 2019 and reduced cable-division capital spending again in the first nine months of 2020.

As we reported Monday, Comcast will also be enforcing the 1.2TB monthly data cap throughout its entire 39-state territory in 2021. Currently, Comcast enforces the cap in 27 states.

Comcast is the largest cable company and broadband provider in the US, followed by Charter, which has also raised prices on a regular basis. The companies do not compete against each other and each has a virtual monopoly over high-speed wired broadband in large portions of the US. Charter is raising prices on its Spectrum service in December. Charter is prohibited from imposing data caps until May 2023 thanks to a merger condition, but has petitioned the Federal Communications Commission to drop the data-cap ban in May 2021 instead.

Disclosure: The Advance/Newhouse Partnership, which owns 13 percent of Charter, is part of Advance Publications. Advance Publications owns Condé Nast, which owns Ars Technica.

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SpaceX Starlink engineers take questions in Reddit AMA—here are highlights

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Enlarge / Starlink logo imposed on stylized image of the Earth.

SpaceX Starlink engineers answered questions in a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) on Saturday, covering topics such as data caps (which they hope to never implement), when the public beta will expand to more users, and how the satellite-broadband service will expand and change in the future.

“Starlink is an extremely flexible system and will get better over time as we make the software smarter. Latency, bandwidth, and reliability can all be improved significantly,” the engineers wrote under the Reddit username “DishyMcFlatface,” which is also SpaceX’s nickname for the Starlink satellite dish.

Here are some highlights from the AMA.

No data caps “at this time”

When asked if users will ever face data caps, the Starlink team gave a vague answer: “At this time, the Starlink beta service does not have data caps.”

While that response covered the present but not the future, a subsequent comment from DishyMcFlatface gave a more detailed answer that suggests SpaceX is trying to avoid data caps:

So we really don’t want to implement restrictive data caps like people have encountered with satellite Internet in the past. Right now we’re still trying to figure a lot of stuff out—we might have to do something in the future to prevent abuse and just ensure that everyone else gets quality service.

Expanded beta in January—no bribes required

Starlink satellite dish and equipment in the Idaho panhandle's Coeur d'Alene National Forest.

Starlink satellite dish and equipment in the Idaho panhandle’s Coeur d’Alene National Forest.

Many people who haven’t been able to get the Starlink beta are eagerly awaiting updates on availability, and the AMA provided an answer. SpaceX is “steadily increasing network access over time to bring in as many people as possible,” the Starlink team wrote. “Notably, we’re planning to move from a limited beta to a wider beta in late January, should give more users an opportunity to participate.”

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk gave a similar update on Twitter a few weeks ago when a user asked when the beta will come to Florida. “Lower-latitude states need more satellites in position, so probably January,” Musk wrote at the time.

As before, people hoping to get Starlink can enter their email and service address on the Starlink website and hope to hear back. Bribes apparently won’t help. When one Reddit user asked, “How are beta users chosen and what’s a good bribe amount?” the Starlink team answered, “No bribes necessary, our goal is serve everyone eventually.”

More engineers needed

The Starlink team told Reddit users several times that SpaceX is looking for more engineers. In the answer about when the beta will expand, DishyMcFlatface wrote, “If you really want to help drive that, the best thing you can do is send great software engineers over to Starlink to help make it happen.”

Over a dozen jobs in Starlink production design, product design, and software are available, and links to the job posts can be found in this DishyMcFlatface comment. “We are super excited about the initial response and future potential of Starlink, but we still have a ton to learn,” the Starlink team wrote. “If you know any great people who can help us with that, please have them email their resume to starlink@spacex.com.”

Will Starlink work away from home?

A few weeks ago, we wrote about a Starlink beta user who took the satellite dish and a portable power supply to a national forest in Idaho, where he was able to get fast Internet service. But that doesn’t mean you can take the dish just anywhere, as SpaceX currently only promises that it will work at each beta user’s service address.

One Reddit user who lives and works on a boat docked in South Florida wanted to know if Starlink will provide service on the open seas. “A mobile system that gives me reliable connectivity will truly set me free to roam the coastal US, Bahamas, and eventually beyond,” the user wrote.

Starlink answered:

Right now, we can only deliver service at the address you sign up with on starlink.com. You might get lucky if you try to use Starlink in nearby locations, but service quality may be worse.

Mobility options—including moving your Starlink to different service addresses (or places that don’t even have addresses!)—is coming once we are able to increase our coverage by launching more satellites & rolling out new software.

SpaceX recently asked the Federal Communications Commission for permission to test Starlink user terminals “on seagoing platforms” and on private jets.

Storms and extreme temperatures

A Reddit user asked if the satellite dish will work in heavy wind, such as when mounted “on the tail of a flatbed trailer flying down the interstate into a collapsing thunderstorm.” The SpaceX team said that is not a recommended use, and that the “dish is not designed for tropical storms, tornadoes, etc.”

One Reddit user who lives in Canada asked if the dish will work in temperatures as low as 45° below zero Celsius (that’s 49° below in Fahrenheit). Starlink engineers responded that the dish is certified to operate from 30° below zero to 40° above zero on the Celsius scale (that’s 22° below zero up to 104°F). SpaceX has performed “testing down to these cold temperatures with no issues.”

Starlink satellite dishes “have self-heating capabilities to deal with a variety of weather conditions,” the team also said. In the coming weeks and months, they plan to deploy software updates that will “upgrade our snow melting ability.”

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