Google’s GDPR probe

A year on from GDPR Day, and Irish eyes are staring in Google’s direction.

Irish regulator opens first privacy probe into Google
Google’s lead regulator in the European Union, Ireland’s Data Protection Commissioner, opened its first investigation into the U.S. internet giant on Wednesday over how it handles personal data for the purpose of advertising.

The probe was the result of a number of submissions against the company, the Irish Data Protection Commissioner said, including from privacy-focused web browser Brave which complained last year that Google and other digital advertising firms were playing fast and loose with people’s data.

Ireland’s Data Protection Commissioner launches investigation into Google’s advertising and compliance with GDPR
Dr Ryan [Chief Policy Officer at Brave] said his evidence to the DPC “revealed a massive and ongoing data breach” in which Google’s DoubleClick/Authorized Buyers “leaks intimate data about the people visiting these websites to thousands of companies every day”.

I noted The Register‘s footnote on this story, about that “privacy-focused web browser Brave”.

Irish data cops are shoving a probe right into Google’s ads
There is some irony in Brave being built on Chromium, the browser engine built and maintained by – who else? – Google. Ryan told us that Brave had “certainly not” seen any pushback from Googlers involved in the Chromium project.

It could be an extremely expensive problem for Google though, as all the reports are keen to point out, although I can’t imagine it would come to that.

Google is facing its first GDPR probe from Irish privacy regulators
If found guilty, the potential penalties for Google would be enormous. The GDPR authorizes fines as high as four percent of global annual revenue, which would total $5.4 billion in Google’s case. Even more damaging, the company would have to fundamentally reshape its ad system in order to avoid future fines.

There’s quite a lot of attention on Ireland’s Data Protection Commission already.

Ireland sits idly by as GDPR goes unenforced
Politico shares an investigation into why the GDPR’s lead regulator Ireland has failed to bring a single enforcement action against the big tech companies it is supposed to watchdog.

These are hugely complex cases, that will be setting precedents that may redefine how these companies operate.

Irish data official defends tech investigation record: ‘They’re not overnight’
Helen Dixon said the reality is it will take time to produce results from the 18 major technology investigations her office is pursuing — 11 of which involve Facebook or its platforms WhatsApp and Instagram.

“These aren’t matters where we can take in a complaint today and tomorrow make a conclusion on it,” Dixon, Ireland’s data protection commissioner, said during an interview at POLITICO’s Washington-area headquarters. “They’re not overnight, and anyone who understands anything about the process understands it takes time.”

Others agree.

Is Ireland too soft with GDPR enforcement, or just being prudent?
Jules Polonetsky, CEO of the Future of Privacy Forum (FPF), comes down on the side of patience. In fact, he argues that while fines tend to get most of the headlines, they aren’t as important as the major precedents that regulators will be setting – precedents that will “redefine business models.” That, he said, takes time to be done right. […]

Danny O’Brien, international director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), an aggressive privacy advocacy group, also isn’t troubled – at least not yet – about GDPR enforcement taking some time to get in gear. “There’s a lot about how the whole system was going to be organized that was left unsaid in the GDPR, so I think it’s fair to say that no-one was expecting anything to happen very quickly,” he said. “It’s not necessarily the Irish DPC’s fault.”

Let’s wait and see, then.

Phone fears

I don’t have much luck with phones. After having iPhones for a while, I switched to a Windows phone. I liked the Metro UI and really thought that features like Live Tiles and Continuum would catch on. It turned out, as I said last year, that I was backing the losing horse in what was a two—not three—horse race.

So I made another switch, to Android this time. And bought a Huawei phone…

Exclusive: Google suspends some business with Huawei after Trump blacklist
Holders of current Huawei smartphones with Google apps, however, will continue to be able to use and download app updates provided by Google, a Google spokesperson said, confirming earlier reporting by Reuters. “We are complying with the order and reviewing the implications,” the Google spokesperson said.

Google blocks Huawei access to Android updates after blacklisting
Google said it was complying with an executive order issued by Donald Trump and was reviewing the “implications”, later adding that Google Play – through which Google allows users to download apps – and the security features of its antivirus software Google Play Protect would continue on existing Huawei devices. New versions of its smartphones outside China would lose access to popular applications and services including Google Play, Maps and the Gmail app.

Huawei responds to Android ban
In a statement emailed to The Verge, Huawei underscores its contributions to the growth of Android globally — which most recently saw the company’s Android phone sales growing by double digits while every other leading smartphone vendor was shrinking or stagnant — and reassures current owners of Huawei and (subsidiary brand) Honor phones that they will continue to receive security updates and after-sales service.

Meanwhile.

Mexicans buy fake cellphones to hand over in muggings
Costing 300 to 500 pesos apiece — the equivalent of $15 to $25 — the “dummies” are sophisticated fakes: They have a startup screen and bodies that are dead ringers for the originals, and inside there is a piece of metal to give the phone the heft of the real article. That comes in handy when trying to fool trigger-happy bandits who regularly attack the buses, big and small, that ferry people from the poorer outlying suburbs to jobs in the city center.

Gone but not forgotten

A comprehensive list of what could be described as Google’s project failures.

Killed by Google – the Google graveyard & cemetery
Killed by Google is a Free and Open Source list of dead Google products, services, and devices. It serves to be a tribute and memorial of beloved products and services killed by Google.

We shouldn’t be afraid of failing, as that’s how we grow. I wouldn’t describe Google Reader as a failure, though. Still sorely missed.

Happy birthday Bach

I love this Google Doodle, though even Bach can’t rescue my appalling lack of musical ability!

Google’s first AI-powered Doodle is a piano duet with Bach
Starting on March 21st, you’ll be able to play with the interactive Doodle, which will prompt you to compose a two-measure melody or pick one of the pre-existing choices. When you press the “Harmonize” button, it will use machine learning to give you a version of your melody that sounds like it was composed by Bach himself.

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Various Google teams were involved in this project, including Google Magenta. There is an incredible amount of detail about the technologies behind the Bach harmonies on their own site.

Coconet: the ML model behind today’s Bach Doodle
Coconet is trained to restore Bach’s music from fragments: we take a piece from Bach, randomly erase some notes, and ask the model to guess the missing notes from context. The result is a versatile model of counterpoint that accepts arbitrarily incomplete scores as input and works out complete scores. This setup covers a wide range of musical tasks, such as harmonizing melodies, creating smooth transitions, rewriting and elaborating existing music, and composing from scratch.

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I cannot begin to understand what’s going on there, but it sounds good.

Breaking up is hard to do

The techlash continues.

Elizabeth Warren proposes breaking up tech giants like Amazon and Facebook
At a rally in Long Island City, the neighborhood that was to be home to a major new Amazon campus, Ms. Warren laid out her proposal calling for regulators who would undo some tech mergers, as well as legislation that would prohibit platforms from both offering a marketplace for commerce and participating in that marketplace.

“We have these giants corporations — do I have to tell that to people in Long Island City? — that think they can roll over everyone,” Ms. Warren told the crowd, drawing applause. She compared Amazon to the dystopian novel “The Hunger Games,” in which those with power force their wishes on the less fortunate.

“I’m sick of freeloading billionaires,” she said.

She’s far from the lone voice on this issue.

Elizabeth Warren is right – we must break up Facebook, Google and Amazon
The current effort is bipartisan. At a Senate hearing I attended last week, the arch-conservative Missouri Republican Josh Hawley asked me, rhetorically: “Is there really any wonder that there is increased pressure for antitrust enforcement activity, for privacy activity when these companies behave in the way that they do?”

Hawley added: “Every day brings some creepy new revelation about these companies’ behaviors. Of course the public is going to want there to be action to defend their rights. It’s only natural.”

House of Lords report calls for digital super-regulator
The chair of the committee, Lord Gilbert of Panteg, called on the government to be less reactive in how it responds to digital risks: “The government should not just be responding to news headlines but looking ahead so that the services that constitute the digital world can be held accountable to an agreed set of principles,” he said.

“Self-regulation by online platforms is clearly failing and the current regulatory framework is out of date. The evidence we heard made a compelling and urgent case for a new approach to regulation. Without intervention, the largest tech companies are likely to gain ever more control of technologies which extract personal data and make decisions affecting people’s lives.”

You can always take matters into your own hands.

Goodbye Big Five
Reporter Kashmir Hill spent six weeks blocking Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Apple from getting my money, data, and attention, using a custom-built VPN. Here’s what happened.

Needless to say, it didn’t go well.

Web beginnings and endings

It’s hard to believe the web’s thirty years old already. It seems like it’s been around forever in the way it underpins everything we do, from TV watching to banking. But we’re still grappling with the consequences its introduction has had on our societies, and probably will for another thirty years yet.

But let’s step back a little, to how it all began.

CERN 2019 WorldWideWeb rebuild
In December 1990, an application called WorldWideWeb was developed on a NeXT machine at The European Organization for Nuclear Research (known as CERN) just outside of Geneva. This program – WorldWideWeb — is the antecedent of most of what we consider or know of as “the web” today.

In February 2019, in celebration of the thirtieth anniversary of the development of WorldWideWeb, a group of developers and designers convened at CERN to rebuild the original browser within a contemporary browser, allowing users around the world to experience the rather humble origins of this transformative technology.

web-beginnings-and-endings

Their timeline is very interesting, too: “thirty years of influences leading up to (and the thirty years of influence leading out from) the publication of the memo that lead to the development of the first web browser.”

web-beginnings-and-endings-1

But all good things come to an end, and another one of the big players from back in the day is no more.

A eulogy for AltaVista, the Google of its time
You appeared on the search engine scene in December 1995. You made us go “woah” when you arrived. You did that by indexing around 20 million web pages, at a time when indexing 2 million web pages was considered to be big.

Today, of course, pages get indexed in the billions, the tens of billions or more. But in 1995, 20 million was huge. Existing search engines like Lycos, Excite & InfoSeek (to name only a few) didn’t quite know what hit them. With so many pages, you seemed to find stuff they and others didn’t.

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Who’s next, I wonder.

GDPR is still a thing, right?

Some recent data protection stories that have caught my eye.

French data watchdog dishes out largest GDPR fine yet: Google ordered to hand over €50m
The French agency, CNIL, ruled today that the search giant had offered users inadequate information, spreading it across multiple pages, and had failed to gain valid consent for ads personalisation. […] The CNIL concluded that Google had breached the General Data Protection Regulation in two ways: by failing to meet transparency and information requirements, and failing to obtain a legal basis for processing.

Amazon, Apple and Google face data complaints
General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) rules say EU customers have the right to access a copy of the personal data companies hold about them. However, privacy group noyb said it found that most of the big streaming companies did not fully comply. It has filed formal complaints, which if upheld could result in large fines.

Google accused of GDPR privacy violations by seven countries
Consumer groups across seven European countries have filed GDPR complaints against Google’s location tracking (via Reuters). The European Consumer Organisation (BEUC), of which each of the groups are a member, claims that Google’s “deceptive practices” around location tracking don’t give users a real choice about whether to enable it, and that Google doesn’t properly inform them about what this tracking entails. If upheld, the complaints could mean a hefty fine for the search giant.

The NOYB organisation gets mentioned a number of times there.

Max Schrems: The privacy bubble needs to start ‘getting sh*t done’
After years locked in numerous long, drawn-out and often bitter legal battles, Schrems decided to launch a nonprofit aiming to help people bring their own consumer privacy cases to court.

The plan is for NOYB (None Of Your Business) to take advantage of the incoming European Union General Data Protection Regulation, which offers more options for collective redress across the bloc, and harness the momentum Schrems has built up with various high-profile court cases.

Seems to be working. (Via)

“Hello? Is this thing on?”

I certainly enjoy reading about these voice assistants more than I do using them.

You bought smart speakers over the holidays. Now what are Amazon and Google doing with your data?
Ultimately, the choice to keep a smart speaker around comes down to what you’re getting out of the product. For some people with physical disabilities or intellectual differences, smart speakers can make household tasks easier or provide an engaging presence in daily life. For tech junkies like my friend, the sheer joy of commanding a smart home network might be enough. For Hoffman-Andrews, though, the benefits of a speaker don’t outweigh the costs. He bought a couple of products for testing, but he admits he couldn’t actually bring himself to set them up. Being able to ask a speaker to dim the lights or play a weather forecast just didn’t seem like a good enough tradeoff for giving companies access to his home.

“Is it normal to have cameras and microphones pointed at you and your guests? Currently the answer is mostly no,” he says. “These devices aim to change the answer to yes.”

Just Go+

The planned demise of Google+ isn’t going according to plan, it seems.

Google+ is shutting down sooner than expected
On Monday (Dec. 10), the company revealed that a security flaw could have exposed profile information such as names, email addresses, jobs, and ages of 52.5 million Google+ users without their permission in November. The Alphabet-owned company now says it will close down the main Google+ platform by April 2019, four months earlier than planned.

Well, at least they tried. Anyone remember this, from 2011?

Google takes buzz saw to Buzz, other appendages
“Changing the world takes focus on the future, and honesty about the past,” wrote Google VP for products Bradley Horowitz in a blog post on Friday. “We learned a lot from products like Buzz, and are putting that learning to work every day in our vision for products like Google+.”

By “honesty”, we can only assume that Horowitz means that Buzz – beset with a host of privacy problems from its inception – honestly never caught on.

Searching for digital sovereignty

Have you used Qwant yet?

Qwant – The search engine that respects your privacy
Based and designed in Europe, Qwant is the first search engine which protects its users freedoms and ensures that the digital ecosystem remains healthy. Our keywords: privacy and neutrality.

I must admit I had never heard of this search engine before I read this article from Wired. The French National Assembly and the French Army Ministry have announced that they’ll stop using Google as their default search engines, and use Qwant instead.

France is ditching Google to reclaim its online independence
“We have to set the example,” said Florian Bachelier, one of MPs chairing the Assembly’s cybersecurity and digital sovereignty task-force, which was launched in April 2018 to help protect French companies and state agencies from cyberattacks and from the growing dependency on foreign companies. “Security and digital sovereignty are at stake here, which is anything but an issue only for geeks,” Bachelier added. […]

In France, this all started with the Edward Snowden. In 2013, when the American whistleblower revealed that the NSA was spying on foreign leaders and had important capability to access data stocked on private companies’ clouds, it was a wake up call for French politicians. A senate report that same year fretted that France and the European Union were becoming “digital colonies”, a term that since then has been used by French government officials and analysts to alert about the threat posed by the US and China, on issues of economic, political and technological sovereignty. Recent scandals, including the Cambridge Analytica-Facebook imbroglio, further shook French politicians and public opinion.

A European Duckduckgo, but without the stupid name? Might be something to look further into.

Another day, another data protection issue

We’re generating data all the time, without realising, and without really knowing where it all goes.

Users told to ditch OneDrive and Office 365 to avoid ‘covert’ data harvesting
Microsoft Office and Windows 10 Enterprise uses a telemetry data collection mechanism that breaches the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), according to a 91-page report commissioned by the Dutch government, and conducted by firm Privacy Company.

It’s not just Microsoft in the firing line, of course.

With GDPR now several months into play, data watchdogs across Europe are beginning to take their first steps in the new regulatory landscape. Microsoft is the latest in a line of major companies accused of breaching GDPR, with Oracle and Equifax among seven firms reported for violations by a data rights group last week.

And that story about Google’s AI company having access to NHS data is still rumbling on.

Google: Our DeepMind health slurp is completely kosher
DeepMind told The Reg: “It is false to say that Google is “absorbing” data. This data is not DeepMind’s or Google’s – it belongs to our partners, whether the NHS or internationally. We process it according to their instructions.”

That claim, echoed by DeepMind Health chief Dominic King, brought a swift correction from legal experts. “It doesn’t belong to DeepMind’s partners, it belongs to the individuals,” Serena Tierney partner at lawyers VWV. “Those ‘partners’ may have limited rights, but it doesn’t belong to them.”

I wonder if we’ll be seeing more of these issues, what with one thing and another.

What the potentially useless draft Brexit agreement means for tech
One of the big questions for Brexit is data protection, and the agreement seeks to hold onto the status quo. Scroll through to Article 71 for the text, which says that EU data protection law will continue to cover the UK before and after the transition period, which runs until the end of 2020. That means personal data can continue to flow between the UK and the EU.

“This issue is critical to the tech sector and to every other industry in a modern digitising economy,” says Tech UK CEO Julian David in a blog post. Data’s the oil that greases tech, and all that.

That doesn’t mean that GDPR will continue to apply in the UK post Brexit. Christopher Knight, privacy lawyer at 11KBW, notes that the UK will become a “third state”. That means the UK won’t be required to apply GPDR and other data laws to “wholly internal situations of processing”.

Update: Well, here’s a thing. I’m still getting used to this new Android phone, with its Google news feed thing, and some time after first drafting this post I was browsing through it and came across the article below. How did it know to surface stories about DeepMind? I’m sure I hadn’t searched for it, but came across it in a newsletter. Is Google reading what I type into WordPress?

Inside DeepMind as the lines with Google blur
Last week, the line between the companies blurred significantly when DeepMind announced that it would transfer control of its health unit to a new Google Health division in California. […]

In March 2017, DeepMind also announced it would build a “data audit” system, as part of its public commitment to transparency. The technology would allow NHS partners to track its use of patient data in real time, with no possibility of falsification, DeepMind said. Google did not comment on whether it will finish the project.

Tim’s hippie manifesto

Some less than positive reaction from The Register and others to Tim Berners-Lee’s latest campaign to save the web from itself. To describe it as a hippie manifesto sounds a little harsh but, as I said before, I can’t see this making much difference unless Facebook and Google agree to give up power, money etc.

Web Foundation launches internet hippie manifesto: ‘We’ve lost control of our data, it is being used against us’
It identifies the same problems that everyone and their dog has been writing about for years: there is a digital divide; internet access can be expensive; an entire industry has grown up selling your personal data; governments abuse the internet sometimes; people use the internet to do unpleasant things like bully and harass people; net neutrality’s a thing.

It has some charts and stats. But basically it reads like a High School final project on the problems of the internet. Competent but not consequential. […]

But simply saying companies shouldn’t make money from personal data and governments shouldn’t turn off the internet is not going to achieve a single thing. There needs to be clear plan of attack, recognition of pain points for companies, a broad and well-organized campaign to engage and rally people.

Berners-Lee takes flak for ‘hippie manifesto’ that only Google and Facebook could love
Open-source advocate Rafael Laguna, co-founder of Open-Xchange, is suspicious that Google and Facebook – the companies most under fire for privacy and other human rights abuses – were first to voice their support for the Greatest Living Briton’s declaration. “They are the two outstanding creators of the problems proclaimed in Tim’s paper,” Laguna notes. […]

Laguna told us: “As we have seen before with ‘Privacy Shield’, I suspect this move will be used as ‘proof’ of their reputability – but I fail to see how Google and Facebook will genuinely adhere to the requirements laid out in the initiative. The only result I can see is that it gets watered down, that it remains a lip service and, worst case, the whole thing loses credibility.”

Can Tim Berners-Lee fix what he started?

We’re growing increasingly disillusioned with the web, but the guy behind it has a plan — a “Contract for the Web” that he hopes will set out our rights and freedoms on the internet.

Tim Berners-Lee launches campaign to save the web from abuse
“Humanity connected by technology on the web is functioning in a dystopian way. We have online abuse, prejudice, bias, polarisation, fake news, there are lots of ways in which it is broken. This is a contract to make the web one which serves humanity, science, knowledge and democracy,” he said.

For it to work, the big tech companies need to be behind it. No problem, right?

One of the early signatories to the contract, Facebook, has been fined by the Information Commissioner’s Office for its part in the Cambridge Analytica scandal; has faced threats from the EU for taking too long to remove extremist content; and has been sued for allowing advertisers to target housing ads only at white people. The firm, which has appointed the former deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, to lead its PR operation, did not respond to a request for comment.

Another early signatory, Google, is reportedly developing a censored version of its search engine for the Chinese market. “If you sign up to the principles, you can’t do censorship,” said Berners-Lee. “Will this be enough to make search engines push back? Will it be persuasive enough for the Chinese government to be more open? I can’t predict whether that will happen,” he said. Google did not respond to a request for comment.

Hmm. I can’t see this making much difference unless Facebook and Google agree to– what, make less money?

“I was devastated”: Tim Berners-Lee, the man who created the World Wide Web, has some regrets
“We demonstrated that the Web had failed instead of served humanity, as it was supposed to have done, and failed in many places,” he told me. The increasing centralization of the Web, he says, has “ended up producing—with no deliberate action of the people who designed the platform—a large-scale emergent phenomenon which is anti-human.”

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“Tim and Vint made the system so that there could be many players that didn’t have an advantage over each other.” Berners-Lee, too, remembers the quixotism of the era. “The spirit there was very decentralized. The individual was incredibly empowered. It was all based on there being no central authority that you had to go to to ask permission,” he said. “That feeling of individual control, that empowerment, is something we’ve lost.”

That’s it in a nutshell, for me. The web just isn’t the same as it was at the beginning.

The power of the Web wasn’t taken or stolen. We, collectively, by the billions, gave it away with every signed user agreement and intimate moment shared with technology. Facebook, Google, and Amazon now monopolize almost everything that happens online, from what we buy to the news we read to who we like. Along with a handful of powerful government agencies, they are able to monitor, manipulate, and spy in once unimaginable ways.

Tim Wu is a law professor and ‘influential tech thinker’. Here’s his take on what went wrong.

Tim Wu: ‘The internet is like the classic story of the party that went sour’
Looking back at the 00s, the great mistake of the web’s idealists was a near-total failure to create institutions designed to preserve that which was good about the web (its openness, its room for a diversity of voices and its earnest amateurism), and to ward off that which was bad (the trolling, the clickbait, the demands of excessive and intrusive advertising, the security breaches). There was too much faith that everything would take care of itself – that “netizens” were different, that the culture of the web was intrinsically better. Unfortunately, that excessive faith in web culture left a void, one that became filled by the lowest forms of human conduct and the basest norms of commerce. It really was just like the classic story of the party that went sour.

The Guardian certainly likes to report on versions of this story, but only in November and March, it seems.

Tech giants may have to be broken up, says Tim Berners-Lee
Web inventor says Silicon Valley firms have too much clout and ‘optimism has cracked’ [November 2018]

Tim Berners-Lee: we must regulate tech firms to prevent ‘weaponised’ web
The inventor of the world wide web warns over concentration of power among a few companies ‘controlling which ideas are shared’ [March 2018]

Tim Berners-Lee on the future of the web: ‘The system is failing’
The inventor of the world wide web remains an optimist but sees a ‘nasty wind’ blowing amid concerns over advertising, net neutrality and fake news [November 2017]

Tim Berners-Lee: I invented the web. Here are three things we need to change to save it
It has taken all of us to build the web we have, and now it is up to all of us to build the web we want – for everyone [March 2017]

Google+, we hardly knew ye

I admit, I did use this for a while, but I’m as surprised as others to learn that Google+ made it this far. ( I still miss Google Reader.)

The death of Google+ is imminent, says Google
Google’s decision follows the Wall Street Journal’s revelation. also published on Oct. 8, that the company exposed hundreds of thousands of Google+ users’ data earlier this year, and opted to keep it a secret:

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

That doesn’t make them look good, does it? But then, should we be surprised anymore?

AI to the rescue

In 2016 the RNIB announced a project between the NHS and DeepMind, Google’s artificial intelligence company.

Artificial intelligence to look for early signs of eye conditions humans might miss
With the number of people affected by sight loss in the UK predicted to double by 2050, Moorfields Eye Hospital NHS Foundation Trust and DeepMind Health have joined forces to explore how new technologies can help medical research into eye diseases.

This wasn’t the only collaboration with the NHS that Google was involved in. There was another project, to help staff monitor patients with kidney disease, that had people concerned about the amount of the medical information being handed over.

Revealed: Google AI has access to huge haul of NHS patient data
Google says that since there is no separate dataset for people with kidney conditions, it needs access to all of the data in order to run Streams effectively. In a statement, the Royal Free NHS Trust says that it “provides DeepMind with NHS patient data in accordance with strict information governance rules and for the purpose of direct clinical care only.”

Still, some are likely to be concerned by the amount of information being made available to Google. It includes logs of day-to-day hospital activity, such as records of the location and status of patients – as well as who visits them and when. The hospitals will also share the results of certain pathology and radiology tests.

The Google-owned company tried to reassure us that everything was being done appropriately, that all those medical records would be safe with them.

DeepMind hits back at criticism of its NHS data-sharing deal
DeepMind co-founder Mustafa Suleyman has said negative headlines surrounding his company’s data-sharing deal with the NHS are being “driven by a group with a particular view to peddle”. […]

All the data shared with DeepMind will be encrypted and parent company Google will not have access to it. Suleyman said the company was holding itself to “an unprecedented level of oversight”.

That didn’t seem to cut it though.

DeepMind’s data deal with the NHS broke privacy law
“The Royal Free did not have a valid basis for satisfying the common law duty of confidence and therefore the processing of that data breached that duty,” the ICO said in its letter to the Royal Free NHS Trust. “In this light, the processing was not lawful under the Act.” […]

“The Commission is not persuaded that it was necessary and proportionate to process 1.6 million partial patient records in order to test the clinical safety of the application. The processing of these records was, in the Commissioner’s view, excessive,” the ICO said.

And now here we are, some years later, and that eye project is a big hit.

Artificial intelligence equal to experts in detecting eye diseases
The breakthrough research, published online by Nature Medicine, describes how machine-learning technology has been successfully trained on thousands of historic de-personalised eye scans to identify features of eye disease and recommend how patients should be referred for care.

Researchers hope the technology could one day transform the way professionals carry out eye tests, allowing them to spot conditions earlier and prioritise patients with the most serious eye diseases before irreversible damage sets in.

That’s from UCL, one of the project’s partners. I like the use of the phrase ‘historic de-personalised eye scans’. And it doesn’t mention Google once.

Other reports also now seem to be pushing the ‘AI will rescue us’ angle, rather than the previous ‘Google will misuse our data’ line.

DeepMind AI matches health experts at spotting eye diseases
DeepMind’s ultimate aim is to develop and implement a system that can assist the UK’s National Health Service with its ever-growing workload. Accurate AI judgements would lead to faster diagnoses and, in theory, treatment that could save patients’ vision.

Artificial intelligence ‘did not miss a single urgent case’
He told the BBC: “I think this will make most eye specialists gasp because we have shown this algorithm is as good as the world’s leading experts in interpreting these scans.” […]

He said: “Every eye doctor has seen patients go blind due to delays in referral; AI should help us to flag those urgent cases and get them treated early.”

And it seems AI can help with the really tricky problems too.

This robot uses AI to find Waldo, thereby ruining Where’s Waldo
To me, this is like the equivalent of cheating on your math homework by looking for the answers at the back of your textbook. Or worse, like getting a hand-me-down copy of Where’s Waldo and when you open the book, you find that your older cousin has already circled the Waldos in red marker. It’s about the journey, not the destination — the process of methodically scanning pages with your eyes is entirely lost! But of course, no one is actually going to use this robot to take the fun out of Where’s Waldo, it’s just a demonstration of what AutoML can do.

There’s Waldo is a robot that finds Waldo

All as bad as each other?

Rhett Jones from Gizmodo strikes a cautionary note about Apple’s positioning following Facebook’s recent data sharing controversies.

Apple isn’t your friend
In its own deliberate fashion, Apple appears to see a market opportunity in the privacy debate that goes beyond polishing its own image. As headlines blared about Facebook’s latest data-sharing turmoil, the Wall Street Journal reported that Apple has been quietly planning to launch a new advertising network for the past year. It’s said to be a re-imagining of its failed iAd network that was shuttered in 2016.

[…]

Generally, more competition is welcome. If Apple is giving Facebook and Google headaches, we say that’s great. But it’s a thorny issue when we’re talking about a few billion-dollar companies exchanging places on the ladder as they strive to be trillion-dollar companies. It’s just not enough for the least bad megacorp to keep the evil ones in check.

Dumbing down the chatbots

A quite different take on Google’s AI demo from the other day. Rather than be impressed at how clever the bots appear, because they sound like us, we should be sad at how inefficient we’ve made them, because they sound like us.

Chatbots are saints
Pichai played a recording of Duplex calling a salon to schedule a haircut. This is an informational transaction that a couple of computers could accomplish in a trivial number of microseconds — bip! bap! done! — but with a human on one end of the messaging bus, it turned into a slow-motion train wreck. Completing the transaction required 17 separate data transmissions over the course of an entire minute — an eternity in the machine world. And the human in this case was operating at pretty much peak efficiency. I won’t even tell you what happened when Duplex called a restaurant to reserve a table. You could almost hear the steam coming out of the computer’s ears.

In our arrogance, we humans like to think of natural language processing as a technique aimed at raising the intelligence of machines to the point where they’re able to converse with us. Pichai’s demo suggests the reverse is true. Natural language processing is actually a technique aimed at dumbing down computers to the point where they’re able to converse with us. Google’s great breakthrough with Duplex came in its realization that by sprinkling a few monosyllabic grunts into computer-generated speech — um, ah, mmm — you could trick a human into feeling kinship with the machine. You ace the Turing test by getting machines to speak baby-talk.

Blogger’s still here?

TechCrunch has news of an update to Blogger. Nothing newsworthy about the update, really. What’s catching our eye is that Blogger still exists at all.

Blogger gets a spring cleaning
It’s surprising that Blogger is still around. I can’t remember the last time I saw a Blogger site in my searches, and it sure doesn’t have a lot of mindshare. Google also has let the platform linger and hasn’t integrated it with any of its newer services. The same thing could be said for Google+, too, of course. Google cuts some services because they have no users and no traction. That could surely be said for Blogger and Google+, but here they are, still getting periodic updates.

I used to have a blog on Blogger, and prompted by this article I’ve just had a very strange stroll down memory lane to visit it, via the Internet Archive’s marvellous Wayback Machine.

more-coffee-less-dukkha-585

I really liked the look of that old blog. Very mid-2000s. Are there no blogs that look like this anymore?

Google’s creeping us out again

But it only wants to help, it’s for our own good.

Google wants to cure our phone addiction. How about that for irony?
This is Google doing what it always does. It is trying to be the solution to every aspect of our lives. It already wants to be our librarian, our encyclopedia, our dictionary, our map, our navigator, our wallet, our postman, our calendar, our newsagent, and now it wants to be our therapist. It wants us to believe it’s on our side.

There is something suspect about deploying more technology to use less technology. And something ironic about a company that fuels our tech addiction telling us that it holds the key to weaning us off it. It doubles as good PR, and pre-empts any future criticism about corporate irresponsibility.

And then there’s this. How many times have we had cause to say, ‘just because we can, doesn’t mean we should’?

Google’s new voice bot sounds, um, maybe too real
“Google Assistant making calls pretending to be human not only without disclosing that it’s a bot, but adding ‘ummm’ and ‘aaah’ to deceive the human on the other end with the room cheering it… horrifying. Silicon Valley is ethically lost, rudderless and has not learned a thing,” tweeted Zeynep Tufekci, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who studies the social impacts of technology.

“As digital technologies become better at doing human things, the focus has to be on how to protect humans, how to delineate humans and machines, and how to create reliable signals of each—see 2016. This is straight up, deliberate deception. Not okay,” she added.

They know everything about us, and that’s ok?

I really need to stop reading articles about how our personal data is being used and abused by seemingly everyone on the internet. Nothing good can come from going over the same bad news. These from The Guardian are the last ones, I promise.

Why have we given up our privacy to Facebook and other sites so willingly?
If you think you’re a passive user of Facebook, minimising the data you provide to the site or refraining from oversharing details of your life, you have probably underestimated the scope of its reach. Facebook doesn’t just learn from the pictures you post, and the comments you leave: the site learns from which posts you read and which you don’t; it learns from when you stop scrolling down your feed and how long it takes you to restart; it learns from your browsing on other websites that have nothing to do with Facebook itself; and it even learns from the messages you type out then delete before sending (the company published an academic paper on this “self-censorship” back in 2013).

[…]

Lukasz Olejnik, an independent security and privacy researcher, agrees: “Years ago, people and organisations used to shift the blame on the users, even in public. This blaming is unfortunate, because expecting users to be subject-matter experts and versed in the obscure technical aspects is misguided.

“Blaming users is an oversimplification, as most do not understand the true implications when data are shared – they cannot. You can’t expect people to fully appreciate the amount of information extracted from aggregated datasets. That said, you can’t expect users to know what is really happening with their data if it’s not clearly communicated in an informed consent prompt, which should in some cases include also the consequences of hitting ‘I agree’.”

So what kind of data are we talking about? What are we sharing? Everything from where we’ve been, what we’ve ever watched or searched for, to even what we’ve deleted.

Are you ready? This is all the data Facebook and Google have on you
This information has millions of nefarious uses. You say you’re not a terrorist. Then how come you were googling Isis? Work at Google and you’re suspicious of your wife? Perfect, just look up her location and search history for the last 10 years. Manage to gain access to someone’s Google account? Perfect, you have a chronological diary of everything that person has done for the last 10 years.

This is one of the craziest things about the modern age. We would never let the government or a corporation put cameras/microphones in our homes or location trackers on us. But we just went ahead and did it ourselves because – to hell with it! – I want to watch cute dog videos.

And texts and calls too.

Facebook logs SMS texts and calls, users find as they delete accounts
Facebook makes it hard for users to delete their accounts, instead pushing them towards “deactivation”, which leaves all personal data on the company’s servers. When users ask to permanently delete their accounts, the company suggests: “You may want to download a copy of your info from Facebook.” It is this data dump that reveals the extent of Facebook’s data harvesting – surprising even for a company known to gather huge quantities of personal information.

So what can be done?

Beware the smart toaster: 18 tips for surviving the surveillance age
Just over a week ago, the Observer broke a story about how Facebook had failed to protect the personal information of tens of millions of its users. The revelations sparked a #DeleteFacebook movement and some people downloaded their Facebook data before removing themselves from the social network. During this process, many of these users were shocked to see just how much intel about them the internet behemoth had accumulated. If you use Facebook apps on Android, for example – and, even inadvertently, gave it permission – it seems the company has been collecting your call and text data for years.

It’s not me, it’s you! So Facebook protested, in the wake of widespread anger about its data-collection practices. You acquiesced to our opaque privacy policies. You agreed to let us mine and monetise the minutiae of your existence. Why are you so upset?

Most of the tips the article lists fail to really address the issues above, as they are more about how to secure your accounts from hackers, rather than dealing with Facebook and Google intrusions and opaque consent agreements. But a couple are worth highlighting.

12. Sometimes it’s worth just wiping everything and starting over
Your phone, your tweets, your Facebook account: all of these things are temporary. They will pass. Free yourself from an obsession with digital hoarding. If you wipe your phone every year, you learn which apps you need and which are just sitting in the background hoovering up data. If you wipe your Facebook account every year, you learn which friends you actually like and which are just hanging on to your social life like a barnacle.

[…]

18. Finally, remember your privacy is worth protecting
You might not have anything to hide (except your embarrassing Netflix history) but that doesn’t mean you should be blase about your privacy. Increasingly, our inner lives are being reduced to a series of data points; every little thing we do is for sale. As we’re starting to see, this nonstop surveillance changes us. It influences the things we buy and the ideas we buy into. Being more mindful of our online behaviour, then, isn’t just important when it comes to protecting our information, it’s essential to protecting our individuality.