Read/Write Web

Subscribe to Read/Write Web feed
Updated: 1 week 5 days ago

Facebook Is Reportedly Working On A Secret Clone

Tue, 10/07/2014 - 19:50

Categories:

Web

Facebook may be sticking to its guns on its controversial "real names" policy that says people need to use their real identities when using the service, but it's apparently not ruling out anonymity altogether. The company is creating a new app that will let people communicate anonymously with one another, according to a report from the New York Times

The social network prides itself on being central to identity on the Internet—outside applications even rely on it to confirm that users are who they say they are. Of course, not everyone abides by those rules; people regularly use fake or pseudonymous names on the service, and unless they've been reported, Facebook won't necessarily know about them.

Facebook, however, is apparently experimenting with a new application that would mimic others like Secret and Whisper, which let people post anonymous words and photos to mobile apps for other people to see.

According to the Times:

[The point of the app] is to allow Facebook users to use multiple pseudonyms to openly discuss the different things they talk about on the Internet; topics of discussion which they may not be comfortable connecting to their real names.

Facebook recently announced Anonymous Login, a way for people to connect to apps without sharing their Facebook information with them. However, even though these apps can't access a user's Facebook data, Facebook will knows which apps people are using anonymously. It's not yet clear how Facebook will connect with an anonymous app of its own, and whether it will collect data on users.

See also: Can Anyone Remember Facebook's Last Original Idea?

With Facebook's track record of controversial privacy policies, the real question is whether people trust their secrets and anonymous posts to Facebook, especially since the company has prided itself on being a place for people to share and communicate by using their true identities. 

There are some things people don't want even their friends to know.

(Failed) Attack Of The Clones

Considering Facebook's streak of failure when trying to emulate other applications, a Whisper clone might not be a huge success. But it does suggest the social network realizes people don't always want to be tied to their real names online.

Facebook is quick to jump on trends that it doesn't have its hands in yet. It's copied numerous features from Twitter, tried multiple times to clone Snapchat, and duplicated newsreaders like Flipboard when it launched Paper earlier this year. None of these clones appear to have taken off.

While Facebook might want people to share their dirty little secrets on an application that supposedly isn't tied to their identity, people probably don't want to ditch the apps they're already using in favor of Facebook's, which arrived at the party a little too late.

Facebook's Secret or Whisper copycat would effectively be the anti-Facebook—no names, no identity, and no way of knowing who posts what. That could make it a Facebook users might like, though maybe not trust, a little bit more.

Lead image by Amnesty International UK

The Feds Think It’s OK To Impersonate You On Facebook Using What's On Your Phone

Tue, 10/07/2014 - 18:41

Categories:

Web

A special agent with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration impersonated a woman by creating a fake Facebook profile and posting photos from her phone in an attempt to communicate with criminals. That woman, Sondra Arquiett, is now suing the agent and the federal government for at least $750,000.

Arquiett's court filing, first discovered by BuzzFeed, and related legal documents describe her 2010 arrest following a joint investigation into local drug trafficking by the DEA and other agencies. Investigators seized her phone at the time of her arrest. Arquiett pled guilty to an "intent to distribute" drug charge and received five years of probation.

Soon after her arrest, however, Timothy Sinnigen—the DEA agent and defendant in the lawsuit—set up a fake Facebook profile page using Arquiett's name and photos taken from her seized cellphone in an apparent attempt to communicate with other members of the alleged drug ring. In her complaint, Arquiett claims the agent used this data from her phone without her knowledge or consent.

In response, the Justice Department claims that Sinnigen set up and used the fake Facebook profile for a “legitimate law enforcement purpose,” though without specifying what that legitimate purpose was. The department denies any wrongdoing. Sinnigen sent and received friend requests while impersonating Arquiett, including one to a wanted fugitive who was evading arrest.

The agency says that while Arquiett did not give explicit consent for the photos to be used on an account impersonating her, she granted access to the information stored in her device to aid in ongoing criminal investigations.

Arguiett charges in her complaint that some of the photos used were “revealing and suggestive,” such as one of her in her bra and panties. Sinnigen also posted photos of Arquiett’s young son and niece. Arquiett claims she didn’t know about the page until a friend showed it to her, since no one ever told her that a federal agent might post her personal photos and other information on a public Facebook profile under her name. She says she suffered “fear and great emotional distress” as a result.

The Justice Department’s response goes on to argue that:

  • Plaintiff does not have a First Amendment Right to Privacy in the photographs contained on her cell phone.
  • Plaintiff relinquished any expectation of privacy she may have had to the photographs contained on her cell phone.
  • Plaintiff consented to the search of her cell phone.
  • Plaintiff consented to use of information contained on her cell phone in ongoing criminal investigations.
  • Plaintiff cannot establish a violation of her substantive due process rights because she has not, and cannot, allege that Defendant Sinnigen’s alleged actions were taken with the absence of a legitimate governmental interest.

A number of law and privacy experts told BuzzFeed the government's actions are hugely problematic, and that consenting to use the contents of a device does not grant permission to steal someone's identity. 

Whether or not the Justice Department has a legal right to impersonate Arquiett, Sinnigen's actions appear to have violated Facebook's terms of service, which state that, "Pretending to be anything or anyone isn't allowed." The fake-Arquiett Facebook page has also apparently vanished from the site.

Lead image by Ryan Lackey

What To Expect At The Grace Hopper Conference

Tue, 10/07/2014 - 17:00

Categories:

Web

There are a few things I look forward to each October: Halloween and pumpkin beer are among my favorites. But this year, the one thing I’m most excited about is happening this week, and as luck would have it, it’s in my hometown.

The Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing is one of the biggest events in the world dedicated to women technologists. Aptly named after legendary computer scientist Grace Hopper and sponsored by the Anita Borg Institute and the Association for Computing Machinery, the conference takes up all four floors of the Phoenix Convention Center in Arizona.

It’s like South by Southwest—but for women in technology who would rather listen to technical talks by some of the industry’s leading computer scientists and researchers than spend a day attending 20 parties sponsored by startups.

This is my first Grace Hopper Celebration. After working with the Anita Borg Institute and Harvey Mudd College on a series about women in computer science, I decided this conference was one I absolutely could not miss.

I’ll be spending three days at the conference, which is broken up into a variety of different tracks. Day one focuses on future careers; day two is all about emerging technologies like the Internet of Things and human computing interaction; and day three offers sessions on wearables, software engineering, and privacy and security.

It sounds like a lot. So I’ve planned ahead to make sure I’ll be attending panels I think our readers will be most interested in, including tuning in to keynotes featuring Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, Nest’s Yoky Matsuoka, and the director of DARPA, Arati Prabhakar.

Wednesday is open source day, and companies like GitHub are hosting how-to sessions for technologists interested in contributing to open source. Though the first day isn’t just for discussing best open source practices, but also how to make companies and workplaces more open and welcoming.

There is a trend in technology to release numbers that illustrate diversity data in the workplace, and the numbers at big tech companies all skew white and male. To improve these statistics, companies are dedicated to bringing more women and minorities into the technical workforce, and drop the brogrammer, sexist stereotypes that permeate tech culture. On Wednesday night, a talk called “Male Allies Plenary Panel” will take a look at different ways male leadership at companies like Google and Facebook advocate for women in the workplace.

Thursday kicks off with a conversation between Nadella and the president of Harvey Mudd College, Maria Klawe. (I’ll also be interviewing Klawe to discuss how universities are working to get more female and minority students in computer science.)

Machine learning and human interaction will be a hot topic throughout the day, and I’ll find out from Matsuoka what it will be like for humans to live in the connected homes of the future with devices that talk to one another, and how smartening our products will provide opportunities for life-saving technology.

On Friday, I’ll be attending a wearable fashion show, and I'm hoping to find some cute new technologies to add to our Pretty Geeky series for women who are looking for some fashion in a piece of technology strapped to their wrist. Bonnie Ross, studio head of 343 Industries and manager of the Halo franchise, will describe how technology has changed the way we show, and tell, stories in entertainment.

There’s so much more I won’t be able to check out while I’m there—there's no way one person could take in all the conference has to offer. Still, it's going to be a great opportunity.

Not only do I get to hang out with some old friends while in Phoenix, I get to make new ones at the biggest and best women-in-tech conference in the world. I hope you'll follow along with me when I'm there.

Lead photo by the Anita Borg Institute

How Students Can Get Free Developer Tools Through GitHub

Tue, 10/07/2014 - 16:00

Categories:

Web

Hacking new technologies can be time-consuming ... and expensive. So to help students create technical projects or learn how to use new tools, social coding site GitHub and a handful of technology partners have created the GitHub Student Developer Pack that provides access to 14 developer tools for free.

The project has been in the works for over a year, said John Britton, education evangelist at GitHub. The company already provides a free "micro account" to students, which provides them with five free private code repositories; this plan normally costs $7 a month. (GitHub's normal free plan requires all such "repos" to be public). Now it's expanding on that offer with limited free access to tools like Stripe for payment processing and DigitalOcean for cloud hosting.

See also: GitHub May Be Dragging Government Into The 21st Century

Many companies offer free services to students who aren’t shy about asking for them. But Britton says most companies make these offers on an individual basis, because it takes time and effort to manage an entire student services database.

“Students would write and ask GitHub for tools—a lot of companies are happy to do it, but it’s ad-hoc,” Britton said. “It’s an administrative burden. We thought, 'If we’re going to do the administrative work anyway, why not offer other tools as well and take the admin responsibility?'”

Over 100,000 students have already used a free GitHub account.

While it’s a charitable move on GitHub's part, it won't just benefit students. Once aspiring coders and engineers have grown accustomed to certain services, they’ll likely stick with the ecosystems they know when the free trial expires. That means more customers for companies like Stripe, which is waving fees for students on the first $1000 in revenue processed.

It will also benefit teachers who want to teach a class in something like game development. If they want to use the Unreal game engine, for instance, teachers can tell students to sign up for a GitHub Student Developer Pack, which will save each student almost $20 per month.

See also: GitHub Gets Its Science On

Students must sign up through GitHub and show proof of student status such as a university dot-edu email address or a student ID card. If neither is available, GitHub says an enrollment letter or transcript will work as well. Any student aged 13 or older can sign up for an account.

Participating companies will rely on GitHub’s student verification. So once students sign up through the company, they’ll get coupon codes or unique access links and can begin to use the full suite of services.

The offerings are as follows:

  • Atom: A free text editor from GitHub
  • Bitnami: Business 3 plan ($49/month for non-students) for one year
  • Crowdflower: Access to the Crowdflower platform (normally $2,500/month) and $50 in worker credit
  • DigitalOcean: $100 in platform credit
  • DNSimple: Bronze hosted DNS plan ($3/month for non-students) for two years
  • GitHub: Micro account (usually $7/month) with five private repositories while you're a student
  • HackHands: $25 in credit for live programming help
  • Namecheap: Free domain name registration on the .me TLD and one free SSL certificate for one year
  • Orchestrate: Free developer accounts for students (normally $49/month)
  • Screenhero: Free individual account while you're a student (saves students $10/month)
  • SendGrid: Free student plan for one year (saves students $5/month)
  • Stripe: No fees on first $1000 in revenue processed
  • Travis CI: Free private builds (normally $69/month)
  • Unreal Engine: Free access to the service (usually $19/month) 

Lead image by HackNY

Facebook Ads Are About To Start Following You Everwhere

Tue, 10/07/2014 - 15:00

Categories:

Web

Facebook ads may soon start following you everywhere. On Tuesday, the company announced that the Facebook Audience Network, announced at F8 in April, is available to the world.

This new ad network lets Facebook serve up targeted ads to mobile users wherever they are, using their Facebook data as a way to target specific interests or demographics. It also lets advertisers extend their Facebook ad campaigns into other applications. It will compete with Google's AdMob advertising network, though Facebook has more personal data on users than Google does, and thus could theoretically give advertisers better targeting options.

See also: Now Facebook Can Beam Targeted Ads At You Wherever You Are

Given that Facebook already runs its ads on other websites via its Atlas advertising platform, you can expect to see highly-targeted Facebook ads just about everywhere. It might be helpful, considering advertisements based on your personal data might appeal more to you—for instance, I usually see ads for fashion companies on Facebook, which I find more helpful than ads for gym memberships.

Developers can also use the ad network to provide “native advertising” to users, a tactic for making ads look more like they're part of an app's information itself.

“We’re really big believers in native advertising as a product," Sriram Kirshnan, product manager of the Audience Network, said in an interview. "For example if you look at the ads on Facebook’s own news feed, they look like any other organic content on Facebook. We’ve been able to take the idea of native ads, and bring it broadly to all developers through the Audience Network.”

See also: Facebook Wants To Be Creepier Than Google With Your Data

But now just like on the Web, advertisers will be able to use your data to distribute ads. That won't just be native advertising that Facebook supports, but also banners that appear at the bottom of the app, and full-screen ads that take up your entire screen. Personalized, yes, but no less annoying.

How To Join The Audience Network

For advertisers, it’s easy—they'll build an ad campaign in Facebook, and then select a new checkbox that says, “Make available to partner networks.” Then ads will be shown both on Facebook proper and in third-party apps.

Developers can sign up with Facebook and download the software development kit to get started on the Audience Network. Then by writing a few lines of code and integrating the SDK, apps can start running Facebook-powered apps. 

Lead image by Selena Larson for ReadWrite

Heads Up AT&T Customers! Another Employee Accessed Your Info

Tue, 10/07/2014 - 14:06

Categories:

Web

AT&T said it has fired an employee who gained access to users’ personal information without permission this year. The personal information compromised may include social security numbers and drivers’ licenses.

See also: AT&T Has Invented A Way To Charge You Twice For The Same Internet

The telecommunications provider sent a letter to the roughly 1,600 affected users informing them about the breach. Affected users will have any suspicious transactions reversed and will be eligible for a year of free credit monitoring, as has become customary after data breaches.

“On behalf of AT&T, please accept my sincere apology for this incident,” Michael Chiarmonte, director of finance billing operations at AT&T, said in the letter. “Simply stated, this is not how we conduct business, and as a result, this individual no longer works for AT&T.”

AT&T sent a letter to the Vermont attorney general indicating the company believes the breach took place sometime in August. It is the company’s second insider breach since June. 

Image by Shane Curcuru

LinkedIn Is Consolidating Its Publishing Empire In The Heart Of San Francisco

Tue, 10/07/2014 - 14:00

Categories:

Web

ReadWrite's Inside Tech series takes a close look at the workspaces and office culture of companies creating new technologies.

It's only been two years since LinkedIn entered the online-publishing business through its Influencers program, which signed up 150 business celebrities—the likes of Richard Branson and Jack Welch—to write essays for the site.

Since then, publishing original writing has become a key strategy for LinkedIn. It has 100 million potential writers instead of 150. And their output is transforming LinkedIn from a job-hunting site to a media operation aimed at bringing professional knowledge and insights to the world.

See also: LinkedIn Is Looking For The Next Nate Silver

Here's how important the strategy is to the company: Ryan Roslansky, LinkedIn's head of content products, now reports directly to CEO Jeff Weiner. Roslansky recently joked with ReadWrite about the number of emails a day he gets from Weiner (except when Roslansky's on vacation, when Weiner gives him a break). And Weiner regularly discusses the progress of LinkedIn's publishing efforts in the company's quarterly earnings calls with Wall Street analysts, crediting it for an increase in the the time users spend on the site. It's clear that the content operation is closely watched from the top. 

LinkedIn engineers, product managers, and editors now work out of an office in San Francisco.

And the company has opened up its first U.S. engineering office outside its Mountain View, Calif. headquarters in San Francisco. Over the summer, it moved hundreds of engineers, product managers, and other employees 40 miles north, into a building on the edge of San Francisco's Financial District. 

Those open, light-filled expanses on Howard Street are just temporary digs for LinkedIn's media empire. The company has leased a 450,000 sq. ft. tower under construction nearby which will open in 2016 and eventually house as many as 2,500 employees. (That will include the content team as well as a separate sales office currently located elsewhere in San Francisco.)

A Place Apart

The relocation of an entire product group to a new office away from the core engineering team at headquarters is practically unprecedented. Companies like Facebook, Google, and Apple are trying to keep their engineering groups under one roof at big new headquarter buildings—and when they acquire startups, they typically make them move to home base. 

LinkedIn's move has drawn relatively little notice compared to the attention showered on Pinterest, which had less than 50 employees when it moved from Palo Alto to San Francisco, or even companies like Deem and Appirio which relocated wholesale from Silicon Valley to the city. It will make LinkedIn one of the larger tech employers in San Francisco: Twitter, for example, currently has 2,000 employees in the city.

San Francisco has a different vibe than Mountain View.

The San Francisco office effectively gives LinkedIn's content operation its own distinct identity and a measure of independence, much like Google has afforded YouTube, which it kept on its own campus south of San Francisco after it bought the online-video startup in 2005. (How independent? Weiner, the CEO, had trouble getting into the office when he forgot his badge and the building's guards didn't recognize him.)

LinkedIn has been busy buying startups, too—like SlideShare, which moved from its own small office in San Francisco into the LinkedIn building. There's also the team behind Pulse, LinkedIn's mobile news-reading app, which relocated from San Francisco to Mountain View a year ago when LinkedIn bought the company, and is now moving back to the city. And there's Newsle, a San Francisco-based news-search startup, which LinkedIn acquired in July: Newsle's team never called Mountain View home, moving straight into the new San Francisco office instead.

The SlideShare team is one of the groups that moved into the new office.

San Francisco is an obvious location for a media operation. LinkedIn's future content headquarters is across the street from CBS Interactive, where CNET has its newsroom, and a few blocks away from the home bases of Wired, TechCrunch, ReadWrite, and other publishers. Medium, the longform publishing platform started by Twitter cofounder Ev Williams, is a few blocks away, and Twitter itself is just a few more blocks down Market Street. 

LinkedIn hopes its new location will let it hire engineers, product managers, and editors from the same talent pool as those companies.

Publish Or Perish

Those employees will work on various ways to read and publish material on LinkedIn—from the Pulse mobile app and Web feed, to SlideShare, a tool for sharing presentations, documents, and videos, to LinkedIn Groups, communities of interest on the site. 

But the star of the operation is LinkedIn's publishing platform, which began as an idea roughly three years ago. Initially, Roslansky, the content-products chief, wanted to make every LinkedIn member a publisher with the flip of a switch. But Weiner advised him to hold off and start with famous businesspeople first. 

Weiner hired Dan Roth, a former editor at Fortune and Wired, as LinkedIn's executive editor. (Roth, who's based in New York and has an editorial team there, has a few editors reporting to him in the new San Francisco office. Full disclosure: Roth and I worked together at Time Inc.) Roth went about recruiting LinkedIn's first publishers—the Influencers—and hired a team of editors to pick headlines for LinkedIn's homepage.

LinkedIn employees listen to a show-and-tell session.

From those 150 Influencers, LinkedIn gradually expanded its publishing tool, from 25,000 members in February to 15 million in July. Now, in the U.S., all 100 million members now have the ability to publish longer pieces to the site, and LinkedIn will expand that to other English-speaking countries by the end of this year. 

In total, those using the tool are producing 7,000 pieces on an average weekday, a LinkedIn spokesperson told ReadWrite. Writers on Medium, by comparison, are publishing roughly 1,000 to 1,500 posts a day. The 1,330-person newsroom of the New York Times publishes 700 articles a day.

Managing editor Marisa Wong picks presentations and videos uploaded to SlideShare to feature on its homepage.

The Times may beat the average LinkedIn post in quality, but what LinkedIn has in its favor is diversity and relevance—a wide swath of professionally-geared writing that ranges from sales tips to growth strategies to surviving office politics. LinkedIn doesn't pay writers, but it does give them a built-in audience, solving the tricky problem of distribution faced by people who publish on their own website using blogging tools.

LinkedIn's content business faces a host of challenges, from persuading more members to publish to vying for reading time with all the other demands on people's attention. It may face the stiffest competition from sites like Quora and StackOverflow, which have done a good job of appealing to specialists looking to share highly technical knowledge.

At least, though, LinkedIn has a campaign headquarters for this battle—right in the buzzing tech-and-media epicenter of San Francisco.

Photos by LinkedIn engineer Sylvain Kalache

Twitter Sues The U.S. Government So It Can Fully Report Surveillance Requests

Tue, 10/07/2014 - 10:40

Categories:

Web

Twitter filed suit against the U.S. government, seeking to overturn restrictions that prevent it from fully reporting on federal surveillance requests.

The social media company said back in February that it would take legal action if the government failed to allow Twitter to be fully transparent with users, and it followed through on that promise by filing a lawsuit to publish the company's full Transparency Report.

Twitter and other technology companies aren't allowed to share the exact number of national-security requests for data—national security letters (NSLs) and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court orders—they receive. Even if the number is zero.

See also: Twitter To Feds: Your User-Data Requests Need Way More Sunlight

In January, a group of tech companies including Facebook and Google reached an agreement with the government to share the number of requests for data in broad ranges and without differentiating between NSLs and FISA orders.

At the time, Twitter said it believed that was a step in the right direction, but not enough. 

In the months that followed, Twitter tried to work with the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI to provide a more transparent data request report, but the government didn't allow the company to publish it, even in redacted form.

"We’ve tried to achieve the level of transparency our users deserve without litigation, but to no avail," Ben Lee, Twitter's vice president of legal, wrote in a blog post announcing the lawsuit. 

Twitter argues that the government's restrictions on publishing such data are unconstitutional. From its lawsuit:

These restrictions constitute an unconstitutional prior restraint and content-based restriction on, and government viewpoint discrimination against, Twitter’s right to speak about information of national and global public concern. Twitter is entitled under the First Amendment to respond to its users’ concerns and to the statements of U.S. government officials by providing more complete information about the limited scope of U.S. government surveillance of Twitter user accounts—including what types of legal process have not been received by Twitter—and the DAG Letter is not a lawful means by which Defendants can seek to enforce their unconstitutional speech restrictions.

Yahoo lost a similar lawsuit when it refused to comply to broad government requests for user data in 2007-2008. The company lost the suit, but recently published a number of previously unreleased documents related to the case.

Lead image by Anthony Quintano

Why Half Of iPhone Users Don’t Trust iOS 8 Yet

Tue, 10/07/2014 - 09:22

Categories:

Web

When Apple released iOS 8 last month, it debuted to a lukewarm reception. According to mobile marketers, users last year installed iOS 7 twice as fast as they installed iOS 8 on the first day. 

Now, Apple's latest numbers are in. And the news is ... well, still kind of mediocre. 

Approximately three weeks after its release, less than half the people using an iOS device are using the new version. 

See also: On Its First Day, iOS 8 Took Off More Slowly Than Its Predecessors

iOS 8 Can't Kill iOS 7

According to Apple's developer site, which keeps tabs on mobile software installations through the App Store, just as many people run iOS 7 as iOS 8. 

Dated October 5, 2014, Apple's pie chart shows that the two software versions take an equal share, accounting for 47% of users. Beyond that, another 6% of gadgets—likely older models that can't handle newer software—run even earlier versions. 

Pie chart courtesy of <a href="https://developer.apple.com/support/appstore/">Apple</a>

Citing data from analytics firm Mixpanel, MacRumors notes that, during a similar period last year, almost 70 percent of iOS users put iOS 7 on their iPhones, iPads and iPod touches. 

Chart courtesy of <a href="https://mixpanel.com/trends/#report/ios_8/from_date:-3,report_unit:hour,to_date:0">Mixpanel</a><a href="http://software-apps-"></a>

Why the trepidation surrounding iOS 8? One look at the headlines should offer some answers. 

Apple radically retooled several aspects of the iPhone software, for both the users running it and the developers making apps for it. But the revamp has been plagued by glitches.  

Anything new and untested in the field can be prone to problems, and Apple's software is no exception. People who rushed to update their devices to iOS 8.0.0 and then iOS 8.0.1 found that the software crippled calling, killed battery life and removed the Camera Roll photo folder, among other things. 

See also: iOS 8.0.1 Kills More Than It Cures, So Apple Pulled It

The company moved quickly to address many of those issues in iOS 8.0.2, but it still sustained some damage to user trust. Now early adoption fever seems to have cooled, at least for half of the iPhone user base. 

Making matters worse, Apple pulled the plug on iOS 7.1.2 last month. Without the previous version of the software available, users who took a chance on iOS 8 effectively found themselves stranded with it, with no official way of downgrading. 

iOS 8.1: A New Hope?

Last week, developers got their hands on the new next version, iOS 8.1, which fuels speculation that it will launch very soon—likely later this month, around the time Apple unveils its new iPads. 

The update should come with even more bug fixes, as well as the much-anticipated Apple Pay, the all-new mobile payments system introduced at Apple’s September press event.

See also: Apple Has Reportedly Forced Banks To Stop "Taxing" Mobile Payments

That could help move the needle on iOS 8 installations. But there’s an equal chance that, faced with the prospect of yet another brand-new technology that hasn’t been battle-tested yet, bug-weary iPhone users may decide to wait. 

Because it would take an enormous leap of faith for people to hand over their financial data—especially to a company with a spotty track record in rolling out new things. 

Would you trust your wallet to a company that just pushed out loads of software bugs?

When it comes to mobile, Apple has had as many stumbles as hits over the years. For all its glorified successes with the first iPod, the iPhone and the conception of the App Store, it also caught heat for half-baked functions like Siri and Apple Maps, not to mention the iPhone 4 “antennagate” PR nightmare. 

Now with iOS 8, there’s a new pile of problems to add to Apple's hall of shame. And those problems aren't entirely in the rearview mirror yet. 

If Apple wants people using their iPhones as wallets, the company will need to make sure its software is bulletproof. And along with fixing bugs, it will also need to fix something else: the damaged trust that's still keeping people away from iOS 8. 

That, we suspect, might be much harder. 

Lead photo by Adriana Lee for ReadWrite. Apple Pay screenshot by Stephanie Chan for ReadWrite

Jennifer Lawrence Speaks! (About That iCloud Breach, That Is)

Tue, 10/07/2014 - 08:15

Categories:

Web

Jennifer Lawrence, one of the victims of an iCloud hack that leaked nude images of female celebrities, is finally speaking out about the massive violation of privacy she experienced.

"Anybody who looked at those pictures, you’re perpetuating a sexual offense," Lawrence, the Hunger Games actress, says in a forthcoming Vanity Fair interview. "You should cower with shame."

See Also: For Once, The Entire Internet Isn't Blaming The Victims Of This Nude Celebrity Photo Leak

In late August, someone accessed iCloud accounts of numerous female celebrities and distributed their private photos to 4chan and Reddit in what some online jokers called "the fappening," riffing off the slang term for masturbation

The images circulated widely, sparking a conversation around Internet privacy and security, as well as blatant Internet sexism and the often toxic anonymous communities that thrive on 4chan and Reddit.

Apple denied any iCloud security breach, instead blaming it on a "very targeted attack" by a person or people who presumably managed to guess or brute-force private login information for various users. After the compromising photos were leaked online, Apple promised to tighten security and better educate users on how iCloud actually works.

Apple may not have been directly responsible for the breach, but it happened, in part, because it can be confusing and difficult to protect your personal data in iCloud.

See Also: How Apple Made Its Users Vulnerable To iCloud Theft

Unlike other celebrities who spoke out condemning the attack, Lawrence—arguably the best-known of the bunch—remained silent. But in the Vanity Fair cover story, she blames sites like 4chan for what she calls a "sex crime."

"It is not a scandal,” she says according to a summary prepared by the magazine. “It is a sex crime. It is a sexual violation. It’s disgusting. The law needs to be changed, and we need to change."

"That’s why these Web sites are responsible," Lawrence continues. "Just the fact that somebody can be sexually exploited and violated, and the first thought that crosses somebody’s mind is to make a profit from it. It’s so beyond me. I just can’t imagine being that detached from humanity. I can’t imagine being that thoughtless and careless and so empty inside.”

Lead photo by Gage Skidmore

How This Hotel Made Sure Your Wi-Fi Hotspot Sucked

Sat, 10/04/2014 - 12:38

Categories:

Web

The message from the Federal Communications Commission is loud and clear: Do not mess with people’s access to the Internet. That's a lesson it's trying to teach the wireless carriers and, it turns out, hotels too. 

According to the FCC, Marriott's Gaylord Opryland Hotel and Convention Center intentionally used Wi-Fi jamming tactics on its own guests. The interference made it impossible for people to use their own personal hotspots, leaving Marriott's costly Wi-Fi as the only other option. In response to the investigation, the hotel agreed Friday to pay a penalty of $600,000 and promised to stop its signal-blocking activities. 

But that's as close as it has come to an apology. 

Despite getting caught in this mafia-worthy shakedown and consenting to pay the fine, the hotel doesn't admit any wrongdoing. Instead, it offers this excuse: We're squashing guests' Wi-Fi because we care about our security and theirs. 

See also: Where In The World Is The Fastest Broadband?

Where You Can Go And Disconnect 

According to the FCC’s filing, the Marriott location's Wi-Fi-blocking activities were discovered last year, when an event attendee noticed the dead zone in the hotel's convention center. 

[A] complainant alleged that the Gaylord Opryland was “jamming mobile hotspots so that you can’t use them in the convention space.” Marriott has admitted that one or more of its employees used containment features of a Wi-Fi monitoring system at the Gaylord Opryland to prevent consumers from connecting to the Internet via their own personal Wi-Fi networks.

CNN reports that Marriott didn't use a typical wireless-signal jammer, which the FCC defines as a radio frequency device that illegally interferes or impedes with "authorized radio communications." The news outlet spoke to a senior FCC official, who said that staffers used the hotel's own Wi-Fi system to interfere and dampen outside signals. 

However, details in the commission's filing clearly shows that some specialized equipment from a third-party vendor was used: 

Marriott operates a Wi-Fi monitoring system manufactured by a third party that was installed at the Gaylord Opryland. Among other features, the system includes a containment capability that, when activated, will cause the sending of de-authentication packets to Wi-Fi Internet access points that are not part of Marriott’s Wi-Fi system or authorized by Marriott and that Marriott has classified as “rogue.

Either way, the result is the same: All Wi-Fi, other than Marriott's own, was blocked. And its fee for access ran up to a hefty sum—as much as a thousand dollars in the conference center. 

"It is unacceptable for any hotel to intentionally disable personal hotspots while also charging customers and small businesses high fees to use the hotel's own Wi-Fi network," FCC Enforcement Bureau Chief Travis LeBlanc said in a statement. "This practice puts customers in the untenable position of either paying twice for the same service or forgoing Internet access altogether." 

Marriott RespondsLooks like a hot spot, but Marriott's Gaylord Opryland Hotel and Convention Center in Nashville, Tenn. is no friend to hotspots.&nbsp;

According to Recode, a Marriott rep shrugged off the accusation with this excuse: Jamming external Wi-Fi signals protects the hotel's own “from rogue wireless hotspots that can cause degraded service, insidious cyber-attacks and identity theft." The rep went on to say: 

Like many other institutions and companies in a wide variety of industries, including hospitals and universities, the Gaylord Opryland protected its Wi-Fi network by using FCC-authorized equipment provided by well-known, reputable manufacturers.

That's not exactly a mea culpa. Signal interference amid numerous wireless connections can be an issue, but when it comes to security, piling loads of strangers onto a single network usually poses more risks, not less. As for the "everyone else is doing it" excuse, Marriott may not realize that the FCC doesn't take too kindly to that. (Just ask Verizon Wireless.) 

To cap it off, the rep added that Marriott's activities didn’t break any laws, and that's not quite true

The company agreed to pay the $600,000 penalty—a slap on the wrist for a corporation that earns billions—but more importantly, the hotel agreed to cease all jamming activities. It will also submit compliance reports for the next three years, which should put an end to these shenanigans. 

Jammed Up

Taking aim at a hotel's Wi-Fi manipulation is a first for the FCC. But now that the issue is on the feds' radar, this may not be the last time it scrutinizes the industry. 

Hotels in general appear to have a love-hate affair with connected technology. Hilton and Starwood seem to embrace it. Both are reportedly eager to finally let guests skip the check-in desk and unlock doors with their phones. That's a scenario tech companies have been promising for years now. Marriott itself also tries to cater highly connected business guests. And in some of its properties, the chain doesn't even charge for broadband at all. 

See also: The E-Cig Traveler: To Vape Or Not To Vape (And Where)

But the old lodging business has seen newcomers like AirBnB enter the fray and connected gadgets chip away at its profits from ancillary services. Our phones, tablets and laptops can now handle things people used to rely on—and pay—hotels to supply.

For all their cash, the Marriotts of the world might be looking at their vast coffers and wondering how much bigger they could've been, if those devices hadn't stepped in to provide an array of services.

  • Phone calls (of course)
  • Premium TV: Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime and even streaming from your own TiVo recordings easily replace on-demand movies and even some premium sporting events.
  • Room service: It used to be a treat, but now it seems like a relic in the post-Seamless and Eat24 world.
  • Laundry and dry cleaning pick-up: Washio, Postmates and mobile sites of local cleaners themselves offer pick-up and delivery.
  • Honor bar: Apps like Instacart can deliver booze to your door—maybe even for a better value than the overpriced tiny bottles in that compact fridge.
  • And, of course, Internet access.

Thanks to 4G technology and the mobile carriers' push to build out their networks, hotspots have become viable alternatives for hotel Wi-Fi in many areas of the country. They might even be better, if you're in a busy hotel overloaded with hundreds of guests. 

That is, assuming the hotel doesn't put a hit out on your hotspot. 

Marriott photos courtesy of Marriott Gaylord Opryland Hotel and Convention Center. Wireless Jammer photo by David Mellis. All others courtesy of Shutterstock.

Would You Give Facebook Your Health Data?

Fri, 10/03/2014 - 19:46

Categories:

Web

Facebook is following Apple and Google into healthcare, according to a report from Reuters. The company is considering building online “support communities” and healthcare apps that would supposedly help people to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

The way the social network is planning to position this Facebook health effort is troubling.

According to one Reuters source, “the company is considering rolling out its first health application quietly and under a different name.” Presumably because the idea of Facebook knowing how much you exercise and what your blood pressure makes some people nervous. To gain users' trust, the company may package up a healthcare app without Facebook branding, and get people to share their data—that just seems backwards.

See also: One Thing Is Missing From Facebook’s Research Guidelines: Respect For Its Users

Considering patient privacy is one of the most important tenants of healthcare, Facebook’s history of controversial privacy policies doesn’t make it seem like a corporation people would really want to trust with their data.

Facebook’s plans to roll out health apps under apps from Facebook that aren't branded as such shows that even Facebook knows no one wants a future Facebook Health, either. 

So Why Is Facebook Doing This?

The company already has huge amounts of data on its users—names, where they live, what they read online, and what they’re interested in. Health data would only further strengthen its massive social graph.

There are a number of online support communities for people with health issues, like PatientsLikeMe and the #BCSM breast cancer community chats, and Facebook apparently wants to take advantage of peoples’ desire to share and interact with other patients for support, and build similar communities on Facebook. Reuters’ anonymous sources claim that Facebook is still in the “idea-gathering stage,” and is setting up a research and development arm for testing health applications.

See also: How To Opt Out Of Facebook's Mind Altering Experiments

Facebook developing tools for healthcare isn’t entirely surprising. Earlier this year the social networking company acquired Moves, a fitness and health tracking application. When the acquisition was announced, people were quick to question whether their health data would be shared with Facebook—they were right. Shortly after Moves joined Facebook, the fitness tracking app changed its privacy policy to allow broader sharing with Facebook.

Whether or not a future Facebook health app will fall under the big blue branding, it will likely have data policies that allow Facebook access to your health data. And people might find that a little too personal to share with friends, let alone giant corporations. 

Lead photo by Memories_by_Mike on Flickr

Apple To Announce New iPad October 16

Fri, 10/03/2014 - 18:25

Categories:

Web

Perhaps we should've gathered from iOS 8.1's expected launch date of October 20, but Apple's iPad—which was conspicuously missing from the company's September iPhone/Watch event—will be hitting the spotlight around that time as well. 

Actually, reports Re/code’s John Paczkowski, it will slide in on October 16, putting its debut slightly ahead of the rollout for the mobile software. It also fits with Apple's pattern of October iPad announcements. 

Let's consider what could be heading our way very, very soon. 

Bigger iPads (And Just Maybe, Macs Too)

Anticipation is high for a next-generation iPad Air, as well as a new version of the iPad mini. Rumors suggest there will be a new 12-inch version joining the 9.7-inch and 7.9-inch models, as well as the same Touch ID fingerprint scanner—the latter of which fuels speculation that the tablet will be capable of Apple Pay, the company's new mobile payments system. 

It's a strange thought—who would carry around a big tablet to pay for things in stores?—and it would require a Near Field Communication chip, like the iPhones 6 have. Given that, there's a chance that the tablets could merely hook into Apple Pay to pay for online shopping. 

Apple has also stayed curiously mum about its desktop and laptop offerings, so CEO Tim Cook and his crew could dedicate some time to chat about Macs, as well as OS X Yosemite, the desktop operating system Apple introduced, but still hasn't publicly launched. 

However, the company just released the first candidate for Golden Master, one of the last few pre-release versions before the desktop software goes into wide release. 

See also: Mac OS X Yosemite Takes Another Step Closer To Launch

Tying Up Loose Ends

Those computers and final desktop software will be key to the iOS-to-OS X integration that Apple promised when it announced its new iPhones. 

That integration—designed to make switching between docs, webpages and more on iPhones, iPads and Macs easy and seamless—forms a cornerstone for features like iCloud Drive, the document syncing tool between Apple's mobile devices and computers. Until now, though, such features have been essentially half-baked. (And apparently kind of buggy.) 

See also: Why Apple's iPad May Have Peaked

Hopefully iOS 8.1, the latest version of its iPhone and iPad operating system, will cure whatever glitches may still remain. The update is also expected to flip the "on" switch that officially grants access to Apple Pay functionality, as well as appease people upset about losing the Camera Roll that iOS 8.0 eliminated. There are strong suggestions that the new software will restore the familiar iPhone photo folder. 

Fingers-crossed that this version doesn't kill features like some of its software predecessors

As for the tablets that will be the foundation for Apple's next event, there's a lot riding on whatever the button-down and jeans–wearing executives have to show us. iPads have seen sales decline in recent years, so there's plenty of pressure on Apple to deliver announcements that reignite the public's appetite for new ones. We don't have long to wait now before we know whether a fire has been lit, or has in fact burned out. 

Lead photo by Max Herman for Shutterstock.com

Man Shoots Down Neighbor's Drone, Raises Legal Questions

Fri, 10/03/2014 - 15:01

Categories:

Web

A man allegedly shot down his neighbor’s drone over the Jersey Shore last week, after it reportedly flew over his property. Russell J. Percenti, 32, was arrested and charged with possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose and criminal mischief," but his predicament has opened up a slew of legal questions.

The neighbor said he’d been flying the device over a friend’s home to photograph construction when he heard some gunshots and immediately lost control of the drone. When he recovered the drone, he noticed the bullet holes and contacted the police. 

There a growing movement over the legality of shooting down drones. In 2013, a gunowner named Phil Steel introduced a proposal to issue drone-hunting licenses in his town of Deer Trail, Colorado. The proposal failed, but Steel said he planned  to sell drone-hunting licenses online and all over the country. Meanwhile, House contender Matt Rosendale of Montana used a drone-shooting stunt as part of his political campaign.

There’s also the Salvo 12 Shotgun Silencer, which advertises itself with a mascot named Johnny Dronehunter, a tough looking guy who shoots down six DJI Phantoms in one go in the name of defending privacy. Phantoms are hobby copters that go for $600 a pop and carry nothing more lethal than cameras.

See also: Five Quintessential Quadcopters

As drones that begin to dot America’s skies, they may start start fighting back. The Skunk Riot Control Copter, for instance, is armed with paint-ball cannons that fire off 80 pepper balls per second for “crowd suppression.”

Legally, drone hunting is still a gray area. The castle doctrine of common law posits that people have the right to defend their homes from attack. This isn’t extended to the sky above people’s homes, however. Otherwise airplanes would be in trouble. Ryan Calo, a robotics and cyber-law scholar at the University of Washington, said that the danger would have to be pretty apparent for you to be able to legally gun down a drone.

“You would probably have to be threatened physically, or another person or maybe your property, for you to be able to destroy someone else’s drone without fear of a counterclaim,” he told Gigaom.

See also: Why Commercial Drones Are Stuck In Regulatory Limbo

Currently only hobby drones are allowed to fly in American airspace, so it’s extremely unlikely that a drone would threaten your property. Perhaps it’ll be easier to take drone-hunting licenses more seriously if and when drones become a problem.

Screenshot via Silencerco

Not All Hot Silicon Valley Live Up To Their "Change The World" Billing—And We Have Data

Fri, 10/03/2014 - 14:00

Categories:

Web

There has never been a better time to be an engineer, with companies feverishly competing to recruit the best and brightest. But while some engineers may be motivated to work for the highest bidder, most are driven by something more intangible, according to VisionMobile survey data: They want to change the world.

Each year LinkedIn measures the most in-demand Silicon Valley startups, a window into the employers that engineers think can do more than help them pay their mortgage. But does the expectation match up with reality? Glassdoor data may have the answer.

Who's Hot With The Engineering Crowd?

How does LinkedIn measure the most in-demand startups? According to its blog, LinkedIn "compiled the list by analyzing millions of interactions between Bay Area startups with less than 500 employees and the more than 337,000 Bay Area software engineers and IT professionals on LinkedIn." It's not a perfect measure of the hottest startups to work for, but it's certainly a helpful indicator.

In 2014, LinkedIn determined that the most in-demand startups for engineers are:

  1. Lytro ("The first high-end camera that lets you capture and harness the power of light field")
  2. Theranos ("Working to shape the future of lab testing")
  3. Fitbit ("Design products and experiences that fit seamlessly into your life so you can achieve your health and fitness goals, whatever they may be")
  4. Coursera ("An education platform that partners with top universities and organizations worldwide, to offer courses online for anyone to take, for free")
  5. Minted ("The world's premier marketplace for independent design")
  6. Wealthfront ("The world's largest & fastest-growing automated investment service with over $1 billion in client assets")
  7. Bromium ("Redefines endpoint security with a new approach focused on isolation rather than detection")
  8. Twilio ("Lets you use standard web languages to build voice, VoIP and SMS applications via a web API")
  9. Egnyte ("Provides Enterprise File Sharing built from the Cloud down")
  10. Leap Motion ("Senses how you naturally move your hands and lets you use your computer in a whole new way.")

Remembering Cloudera co-founder Jeff Hammerbacher's lament that "The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads," it's telling that these in-demand startups tend to be working on important problems, even if they're not searching for the cure to cancer. 

If LinkedIn's past lists are any indication, the most in-demand startups tend to do well financially, too. Looking at 2013's crop of the top-10 in-demand startups, six are now worth between $1 billion and $10 billion (Cloudera, Hortonworks, Dropbox, Jawbone, Nutanix and Pinterest), while three went public (Violin Memory, Nimble Storage and GoPro). The tenth? Big Switch Networks, which appears to be doing quite well even without either distinction.

And, After The Honeymoon

So that's the promise of working for a hot startup. How does it match up with reality? 

Just as I did for the top big data startups, it turns out that Glassdoor review data can reveal a lot about the realities of working at a hip company. 

See also: What It's Like Working At A Red-Hot Big Data Startup

Digging through Glassdoor data, it's clear that...a job is a job. While engineers definitely remain enamored with the missions of their companies, the day-to-day grind of working with jerks or incompetent fools takes its toll on their happiness. 

The good news, however, is that these in-demand startups mostly get things right. A rating of 4 or more on the Glassdoor scale suggests the company is an ideal employer. Half of these 10 companies meet that criteria.

That said, the ratings aren't specific to engineering talent. Also, it's hard to separate out exactly who is an engineer and who isn't, as most reviewers prefer to remain anonymous. But with a little sleuthing here's a reasonably accurate view of how engineers feel about these top-10 startups.

  1. Lytro (3.9 of 5)—Some technical staff praise the company because they get to "work on technology that will absolutely change the camera industry someday," while others struggle with "middle management [that] is ineffective, or worse, jerks" and "micromanagement [that] is on the rise." 
  2. Theranos (4.1 of 5)—Most of the engineering employees sound like this reviewer, who says that "I have been a scientist for 20 years and never felt that my works actually matters until I started working here." Others say that "co-workers are great, but here only because they need their job" and complain that "Often times you will work over 40 hours a week." Imagine that.
  3. Fitbit (3.9 of 5)—Sixty-nine percent of employees would recommend Fitbit to a friend, with some lauding "how passionate everyone is" about the company's mission. Others, however, say "management only cares about the engineers." This isn't a bad thing if you're an engineer, of course, and the engineering reviews tend to be quite positive. 
  4. Coursera (4.4 of 5)—A whopping 85% of Coursera employees want their friends to work with them, and it's a bit of an engineering playground because of its "pretty unique Scala+Play stack, which is a pleasure to work on and [there are] plenty of interesting high growth projects in the pipeline." While some loathe the dual-CEO structure, most seem pretty happy with the company and its future.
  5. Minted (3.2 of 5)—LinkedIn may rate Minted as hot, but its employees sure don't. A mere 53% of employees would recommend it to a friend. Part of the problem may be that "Certain parts of the legacy codebase are brittle and need to be refactored" with the company disinclined to "paus[e] new feature work to reduce technical debt." That, however, isn't enough to explain the "insanely high turnover rate."
  6. Wealthfront (4.5 of 5)—Only two reviews, so it's hard to give the data much credence to the glowing reviews of the "amazing engineering culture" where "everyone is brilliant." Still, those two people really seem to like it.
  7. Bromium (3.8 of 5)—Though 75% approve of the company, only 67% like the CEO. One product manager "feel[s] like I am in the process of birthing a new giant technology company," yet also says "If you are at the stage in your life when you are prepared to work very hard and move up, this place may not be for you." That sounds ... promising?
  8. Twilio (4.2 of 5)—Some suggest that the "talent at every corner of this company is staggering," while another engineer wonders why "A lot of focus is around what new features people are working on with very little thought around fixing existing infrastructure beyond the hyperbole people hear in group meetings." Overall, engineering employees seem happy.
  9. Egnyte (3.6 of 5)—Only 76% of employees would recommend Egnyte to a friend. Some engineers suggest that Egnyte has a "strong mentor system in place to help new hires get up to speed," but others bemoan a "[t]oxic culture that starts at the top and is pushed down."
  10. Leap Motion (4.5 of 5)—Only two employees have bothered to write a review, but at least one of them has imbibed the Kool-Aid, gushing that "Everyone there is clearly passionate about the core mission," concluding that "This is a rare opportunity to actually change the world."

Most of these companies are not only hot with recruiters but also hot with employees, as the reviews show. But it still pays to do your homework before jumping into one of these startups, no matter how hot LinkedIn data suggests they are.

Lead photo by Cory Doctorow

Thanks GitHub! Now Anyone Can Download This Unpatchable USB Malware

Fri, 10/03/2014 - 13:54

Categories:

Web

How do you get people to take your unpatchable malware program like the serious threat it is? You release it into the wild where anybody can get their hands on it.

That’s the method behind the madness of security researchers Karsten Nohl and Jakob Lell. Their proof-of-concept malicious software indicates a huge hole in a commonly used technology—USB storage—and is now available for download on GitHub.

See also: Microsoft Patches Hollywood-Style USB Windows Exploit

USB sticks have become so cheap and easy to use that companies often hand them out like calling cards at conferences. Nohl and Lell, however, have found a flaw in USB security that allowed them to do some really scary things. Their malware, named BadUSB, can be installed on a USB stick to take over a PC simply by being plugged into the computer.

The researchers, who work for security consultancy SR Labs, demonstrated BadUSB to a packed crowd at the Black Hat conference in Las Vegas. There will be no quick fix for the vulnerability they’ve found, so the researchers have decided to open source it.

At first glance, it seems like a terrible idea to put malware where anybody can access it. However, this is a pretty standard practice in the online security world. In fact, it’s not even against GitHub’s terms of service since the researchers are upfront about their reasons.

"Security researchers often release a proof of concept to raise awareness of the vulnerability in the security community, and to encourage people to protect themselves,” a GitHub spokesperson told ReadWrite. “A repository that contains a proof of concept but isn't maliciously or covertly distributing malware would not be in violation of our terms of service.”

See also: How To Win Friends And Make Pull Requests On GitHub

Now that the researchers have opened the floodgates, more security experts may be motivated to begin working on a fix soon. And until then, stick to the USB sticks you already trust. 

Photo by Ambuj Saxena

Ello No Flash In The Pan, New Metrics Suggest

Fri, 10/03/2014 - 13:37

Categories:

Web

Ello, a social network that assures an ad-free experience, lept into the spotlight last week, and currently claims to process between 40,000 and 50,000 invite requests per hour. But is it doomed to make its exit just as quickly?

Not so, according to RJ Metrics. The web analytics company collected a sample size of 160,000 Ello users and crunched the numbers Thursday.

The most interesting finding is this: that six days after signup, 25% of users are still active. Thirty-six percent of users have never posted, while 27% have posted three times or more. That may not seem like a lot at first, but RJ Metrics observed that this percentage of active to inactive is comparable to Twitter’s user activity rate.

Check out the entire presentation below:

Back in August, Ello had a userbase of about 90. Now, CEO Paul Budnitz says, the site is doubling in size every one or two days. At that rate even RJ Metric’s massive sample size won’t be accurate for long. The story of Ello is still being written.

Photo by Analea Styles

One Thing Is Missing From Facebook’s Research Guidelines: Respect For Its Users

Fri, 10/03/2014 - 13:00

Categories:

Web

When Facebook announced changes as to how it will conduct online research, there was one glaring omission in its new guidelines: There's no mention of how the social network will treat its users moving forward.

Facebook faced quite the backlash from its emotional manipulation study published earlier this summer, in which it deliberately showed some users more positive or negative posts to see how they affected mood. In an effort to placate its critics with more transparency, the company issued new guidelines on Thursday to help it conduct online experiments more responsibly.

The framework includes a a more thorough vetting process for research proposals; a review panel that includes “senior subject-area researchers” and members of multiple teams at Facebook; a six-week training program to educate employees on research practices; and a new research website to publish Facebook’s academic studies.

See also: How To Opt Out Of Facebook's Mind Altering Experiments

Facebook wants you to blindly trust it to be better, and not to worry about potentially becoming a participant in an experiment you didn’t sign up for. But Thursday’s blog post doesn't instill that much confidence.

“What’s glaringly missing in this statement is the word ‘ethics’,” said Reynol Junco, an Iowa State professor and faculty associate at Harvard's Berkman Center, in an interview. “There’s really no discussion of how they’re going to address the ethical concerns, and who their ethical experts are going to be, and what their ethical review process looks like.”

I spoke with Junco earlier this year, and he said the problem with the Facebook study—and what made it different from the research other companies conduct as a form of A/B testing—was the potential for harm in its experiments. As he said at th time:

Is what you get from the research worth doing the intervention, and if the answer is yes, what are you going to do to minimize the effects?  

Facebook is silent in this regard.

Clickwrap Consent

When Facebook first published the emotional contagion study, one of the biggest concerns was that the company did not get informed consent from users—meaning people had no idea they were a part of an experiment. Facebook manipulated people psychologically without getting their consent first.

The mood manipulation study may have been legal, but perhaps not ethical. According to The Atlantic, the experiments took place before any of the researchers consulted an institutional review board, which exist primarily to ensure the protection of human research subjects.  Facebook's recent blog post says it will engage with the academic community, but doesn't say if it will seek approval from review boards before doing similar research. 

The Electronic Privacy Information Center, a privacy watchdog organization, filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission claiming Facebook broke the law when it ran the experiment. That's because the social network didn't state specifically in its data policy that user information could be used in research. 

Facebook has revised its policy since, although it's not yet clear whether it that change sufficient "informed consent" for future research purposes.

“The devil’s in the details—it's a nice statement, but how is this going to work in practice?” Junco said. “I don’t see any talk about how ... strong the user protections are going to be. They don’t really say how this isn’t going to happen again—is it just going to happen again, and they’ll say, look, we have clear guidelines and we have a panel?”

The guidelines are a good start, though, and increased transparency is at least somewhat promising sign. Facebook plans to apply the guidelines to both internal and public-facing experiments, for what that's worth.

Lead photo by Robert Scoble

Maybe The Carnegie Science Center Didn't Just Diss Science-Minded Girls

Fri, 10/03/2014 - 10:39

Categories:

Web

The Internet blew up Friday over a seemingly outrageous image—a list of the different science and technology programs the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh offers to Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts:

This photo, which shows a 9-to-1 discrepancy in the number of courses the museum offers for Boy Scouts and for Girl Scouts, was shared more than 3,000 times on Facebook and Twitter, and not happily. It wasn't just the numbers; the fact that the single offering for Girl Scouts had the word "sparkle" in the title seemed like a calculated insult. We already know that fewer girls than boys grow up to have careers in science, and this wasn’t helping.

See also: Why So Few Women Are Studying Computer Science

But the story is a little more complicated than it looks at first glance. It turns out that the viral photo is only a small part of that particular page in the program, which goes on to list multiple events just for girls arranged by a separate museum program:

In a lengthy statement on its Facebook page, Carnegie Science Center also clarified that it offers the programming it does because, well, that’s what girls want. The organization also noted that Girl Scouts are welcome to attend Boy Scout programs if they choose (although of course the program itself doesn't mention that).

The museum wrote:

Regarding Girl Scout-specific programming, we have struggled when it comes to enrollments. In the past, we have offered engineering, chemistry, and robotics programming for Girl Scouts. We created programming to go along with the new Journeys that Girl Scouts use. Unfortunately, no troops signed up for these. The programs that consistently get enrollments are ‘Science with a Sparkle’—which teaches girls about chemistry—and our sleepovers at the museum.

As for calling it “Science with a Sparkle,” it’s been shown that names do matter when getting girls interested in science. The University of California at Berkeley changed the name of an entry course from "Introduction to Symbolic Programming" to "The Beauty and the Joy of Computing.” The result was 40% female enrollment for the first time ever. 

Lead photo by Todd Kulesza

Facebook Will Change How It Uses People In Experiments

Thu, 10/02/2014 - 19:58

Categories:

Web

Facebook plans to change the way it conducts research, after its social experiment that manipulated users’ news feeds received an outpouring of criticism.

On Thursday, the company admitted that the way they handled the “emotional contagion” experiment could have been handled differently, and announced a new research framework that includes guidelines, a review policy, training, and a new research website dedicated to the company’s academic research.

In June, Facebook published a paper detailing how it used news feed posts to determine whether positive or negative posts had an effect on users’ moods. Almost 700,000 people unknowingly participated in the study, and when the results were published, Facebook users and members of the academic and scientific communities were outraged.

See also: How To Opt Out Of Facebook's Mind Altering Experiments

The Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission in the wake of the publicized research, because at the time of the experiments, Facebook did not explain in its data use policy that personal information would be shared with researchers.

Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer wrote in a blog post that the company didn’t anticipate the negative feedback. One thing Facebook should’ve considered, he wrote, was other non-experimental ways of doing the research, and that it could have benefitted by having more people, and more senior leadership, review the research. 

It’s important to engage with the academic community and publish in peer-reviewed journals, to share technology inventions and because online services such as Facebook can help us understand more about how the world works.

The new framework announced Wednesday includes both internal research and research that might be published for the world to see, though Schroepfer doesn’t describe in detail what the guidelines or the review policy might be.

Research Moving Forward

The company didn’t say anything about getting informed consent from users, one of the major criticisms of the Facebook study. While the company’s data use policy now states that users’ information might be used for research, it didn’t inform any of the 689,003 people in the emotional contagion study that their information would be used to figure out if posts make people happy or sad. And if people continue to agree to the data use policy, which few people even read, it appears that simply using Facebook is enough of a consent for future research. 

See also: Everyone's A Lab Rat In OkCupid's Labyrinth Of Love

Although the research had plenty of critics, a handful of people came out in support of the experiments Facebook was running, including dating site OkCupid and venture capitalist and Facebook board of directors member Marc Andreessen

Shortly after Facebook's research was released, OkCupid published its own study, in which it described the way the company manipulates potential matches in an effort to figure out how people date. Though the splashy claims of experiments were meant to support Facebook, OkCupid's research was little more than A/B testing.

Companies regularly run experiments on users—it's how they determine the best products, features and services to provide customers. And although Facebook says it will be more cautious in the future, the fact of the matter is, the only way to avoid being part of Facebook's social experiments is to quit the site entirely

Lead photo by Dimitris Kalogeropoylos on Flickr