A new report reveals something that we probably already know, perhaps in jest. Corporations are out to get us and our privacy is pretty much a commodity already. It does, however, demonstrate the implications of that massive covert surveillance and the social and legal structures that empower or at least permit such activities. While it is admittedly difficult to escape that sad reality without shunning technology altogether, there are still a few things you can do to minimize the data that others can gather about you.
Cyberpunk starts now
The cyberpunk genre mostly revolves around a futuristic dystopia where large corporations either directly run the world or pull the strings, monitoring and controlling everyone’s lives. That doesn’t sound futuristic at all and is pretty much what we’re starting to experience today, though admittedly to a lesser degree.
The New York Times’ latest report slaps that reality on readers’ faces, revealing just how much about them can be gleaned even from supposedly anonymized and protected location data, most of them coming from our smartphones. Granted, location alone might not be enough to identify individuals but they can be interpolated almost too easily with data that is publicly available, some from social media.
Making matters worse is how the entire world seems to conspire to allow this violation of privacy that is protected by most Constitutions around the world. From corporate culture to slow-paced legal development, users are left to fend for themselves instead of relying on those that should be keeping their welfare in mind. Fortunately, it’s not that hard to do and the biggest hurdle is actually making
the conscious effort to make changes.
As mentioned, the world seems to conspire against people’s privacy and it’s almost impossible to be 100% free. Even if you ditch your smartphone, signing up for any account and even just using an Internet-connected computer can already leak some data about your location. Telephone companies, for example, will always be able to know your location to some degree, even if you use a regular feature phone.
There isn’t a panacea but we do have means to at least mitigate the effects of smartphone location tracking. And it starts with knowing what your phone can do and what apps should not do.
Flip that switch
Fortunately, smartphone platforms do have facilities to curb the number of data apps and services gather, particular about location. Both Android and iOS can do more than just turn location use on and off for the entire phone. They also allow users to toggle location permissions on a per-app basis.
This does, of course, require digging into each app and turning location permissions for those that have no business knowing your location. Operating systems have introduced such granular permission systems to minimize apps’ access to unnecessary data and hardware but some still try to get away with what they can.
That said, flipping that switch may have unwanted effects, depending on the app in question. Some apps, like maps and navigation, naturally need access to location to even work while others have optional features that use location, like geotagging photos and posts. There will always be apps that make it sound like location data is critical to its function and will break without it, whether or not it actually makes sense. In that case, it might be best to report such behavior to Google or Apple.
Online services are also culpable of storing location data, with Google and Facebook as the biggest offenders. They do have settings to wipe your location data and stop recording it altogether, but getting there can sometimes require more work than necessary, being buried beneath settings and options. Unfortunately, that inertia is one of the biggest problems users face when protecting themselves.
Awareness and Vigilance
With corporations seeking to profit from your privacy and governments failing to keep up with fast-paced development, users really have little choice but to do the work of shielding themselves and protecting their privacy. No matter how simple it may be, however, the cognitive burden of simply doing so is enough to discourage people from doing so. Many have resorted to justifying the current practice as something in exchange for free and sometimes convenient services. It doesn’t have to be but until modern society undergoes a massive revolution, people will have to fight to keep that power in their own hands.
Apple's voice-only Music subscription could boost Siri's accent understanding – TechCrunch
Apple had a slew of interesting announcements at its event on Monday. But one that stood out to me — and I feel didn’t get as much attention — is the new pricing tier of Apple Music. A new “Voice” tier will offer the entire Apple Music library to subscribers at a reduced rate of just $5 per month: The catch is you have to use Siri to access it, eschewing the standard Apple Music visual and typing-friendly in-app user interface.
Apple didn’t share why it is launching this plan, but I think it’s reasonable to speculate that the iPhone-maker is lowering the price barrier and persuading more people to use Siri because it wants to gather more voice data to train and improve its voice assistant.
“We’re excited that even more people will be able to enjoy Apple Music simply with their voice,” Apple chief executive Tim Cook said at the event.
I can’t imagine any other compelling reason why the Apple Music Voice plan exists, especially since Apple is likely offering the new service with much lower margins than the standard plan, as the licensing agreements with labels remain the same to offer up the entire Apple Music catalog.
Again, this is just speculation, but I think given the stiff competition between Apple and Spotify, if the Swedish firm could offer its streaming service at $7-8 a month to beat Apple Music at price, it would. And Apple is taking some loss with the new subscription tier because it really wants to gather vast amounts of data. When I tweeted this theory, my colleague Alex wondered aloud why wouldn’t Apple just make the subscription free? I suppose Apple, a $2.5 trillion company, can technically swallow that much of a hit on the balance sheet, but it doesn’t want to attract more criticism from standalone music streaming firms such as Spotify. It’s already facing scrutiny for anti-competitive behavior on a number of fronts.
Tech firms feed their AI models with vast amounts of data to improve the services’ capabilities. Even as Siri has considerably improved over the years, the general consensus among many people who work in tech and the masses alike is that Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant are far superior.
It’s likely that Apple has already been gleaning such voice data from existing Apple Music users, but as a friend suggested, “the point is this — this feature always existed. It’s just that they’d put a high paywall. They’ve lowered that wall now.” In addition to lowering the barrier to entry, making Music voice-only via the new plan means people have to engage with Siri to make use of it; Siri is a feature for standard Apple Music subscribers, but it’s highly likely that most users primarily or exclusively access the content via the app’s UI.
If you want an example of what can happen to voice-powered assistants when you require that users treat it as a voice-first or voice-only service, look at Amazon’s Alexa. Out of the gate, Alexa had to be accessed by voice. This allowed Amazon to not only collect massive amounts of training data for its Alexa algorithms, but also helped train users about how to use it to maximum effect.
Understanding accents and dialects
Another reason why I think my theory works is the markets where Apple plans to offer this new subscription tier first: Australia, Austria, Canada, China, France, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Spain, Taiwan, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Having India, Spain, Ireland and France in the first wave of nations suggests that Apple is looking to amass a wide-range of dialects and accents from across the globe. On a side note, voice search is very popular in many markets, including developing nations such as India, and in markets like China and Japan where text input can sometimes be unnecessarily complex versus spoken word. (A Google executive told me once that the surprising mass adoption of voice searches in India, the world’s second-largest smartphone market and where Android commands about 98% of the pie, helped the company improve Google Assistant and prompted more aggressive approach to innovate on the voice front.)
Siri is often framed as a bit of a laggard in terms of its competence versus the rest of the voice assistant competition, and Apple’s latest move in services could be an attempt to help it close the perceived gap, while offering customers a discounted way to onboard to its music streaming service.
PSA: the MacBook Pro 14-inch’s $20 power brick upsell is probably worth it – The Verge
If you’re looking at buying the $1,999 base model MacBook Pro 14-inch, there’s one upgrade that you may really want to make — the $20 one that gets you the 96W power adapter instead of the 67W included power adapter. That’s because, according to some wording on Apple’s MacBook Pro configuration page (spotted by MacRumors), you’ll need the more powerful charger if you want to take advantage of the computer’s fast charging feature, which can charge the laptop up to 50 percent in half an hour.
Is it ridiculous that Apple is basically taxing the people who want to buy its least expensive (but still very pricey!) new MacBook Pro? Yes, absolutely — but you should still probably pay it if you want to charge your laptop up quickly. The exception is if you already have a charging brick capable of 100W USB-PD power delivery: Apple tells The Verge that you can fast charge via Thunderbolt as long as your power brick provides enough power. If you already have a beefy power brick, you can skip the upsell.
I know it probably doesn’t feel great to encourage Apple’s nickel-and-diming, but if you want fast charging, this will likely be the best way to get it. There may be, somewhere in the world, a 100W USB-PD charging brick that sells for $20, but there’s no way I would trust it enough to charge a very expensive computer. (If it was $20, I might not even trust it not to burn down my house). I’d pick the upsell.
The one silver lining is that this is only a problem on the base 8 CPU core / 14 GPU core model — if you do any processor upgrades, you’ll get the 96W brick for “free.” Please note, though, that upgrading just the RAM and/or storage on the base MacBook Pro won’t get you that upgrade, but if you’re in the configuration screen anyways, you should absolutely check that box unless you hate fast charging.
Facebook to pay up to $14.25 million to settle U.S. employment discrimination claims
Facebook Inc has agreed to pay up to $14.25 million to settle civil claims by the U.S. government that the social media company discriminated against American workers and violated federal recruitment rules, U.S. officials said on Tuesday.
The two related settlements were announced by the Justice Department and Labor Department and confirmed by Facebook. The Justice Department last December filed a lawsuit accusing Facebook of giving hiring preferences to temporary workers including those who hold H-1B visas that let companies temporarily employ foreign workers in certain specialty occupations. Such visas are widely used by tech companies.
Kristen Clarke, assistant U.S. attorney general for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, called the agreement with Facebook historic.
“It represents by far the largest civil penalty the Civil Rights Division has ever recovered in the 35-year history of the Immigration and Nationality Act’s anti-discrimination provision,” Clarke said in a call with reporters, referring to a key U.S. immigration law that bars discrimination against workers because of their citizenship or immigration status.
The case centered on Facebook’s use of the so-called permanent labor certification, called the PERM program.
The U.S. government said that Facebook refused to recruit or hire American workers for jobs that had been reserved for temporary visa holders under the PERM program. It also accused Facebook of “potential regulatory recruitment violations.”
Facebook will pay a civil penalty under the settlement of $4.75 million, plus up to $9.5 million to eligible victims of what the government called discriminatory hiring practices.
“While we strongly believe we met the federal government’s standards in our permanent labor certification (PERM) practices, we’ve reached agreements to end the ongoing litigation and move forward with our PERM program,” a Facebook spokesperson said, adding that the company intends to “continue our focus on hiring the best builders from both the U.S. and around the world.”
The settlements come at a time when Facebook is facing increasing U.S. government scrutiny over other business practices.
Facebook this month faced anger from U.S. lawmakers after former company employee and whistleblower Frances Haugen accused it of pushing for higher profits while being cavalier about user safety. Haugen has turned over thousands of documents to congressional investigators amid concerns that Facebook has harmed children’s mental health and has stoked societal divisions.
The company has denied any wrongdoing.
In Tuesday’s settlements, the Justice Department said that Facebook used recruitment practices designed to deter U.S. workers such as requiring applications to be submitted only by mail, refusing to consider American workers who applied for positions and hiring only temporary visa holders.
The Labor Department this year conducted audits of Facebook’s pending PERM applications and uncovered other concerns about the company’s recruitment efforts.
“ Facebook is not above the law,” U.S. Solicitor of Labor Seema Nanda told reporters, adding that the Labor Department is “committed to ensuring that the PERM process is not misused by employers – regardless of their size and reach.”
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Will Dunham)
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