Fixing Facebook’s privacy problem

Facebook has been receiving criticism once again for how they handled users’ personal data. Here is a quick summary: in 2013, a 3rd party developer acquired large amounts of data from about 50 million users through an old platform capability (which was removed by Facebook itself one year later to prevent abuse); this data was then used to target US voters during the 2016 Presidential Election. The issue is complex in depth and it highlights a bigger underlying problem: users’ privacy expectations are not aligned with the commitment from most tech companies.

Zuckerberg said in a recent interview with Wired, “early on […] we had this very idealistic vision around how data portability would allow all these different new experiences, and I think the feedback that we’ve gotten from our community and from the world is that privacy and having the data locked down is more important to people.”

Regardless, Facebook never committed to fully lock down users’ data, and their business model was in fact built around the value that data can have for advertisers through interest relevance and demographic targeting. Google and Facebook accounted for 73% of all US digital ad revenue in the second quarter of FY18, up from 63% two years before.

I can nonetheless relate to that idealistic vision between privacy and technology. The more information the Google Assistant knows about the music I like, the better it can personalize my listening experience. Richer actions become available too, like allowing me to control the Nest thermostat or the lights by voice. At the end of the day, I’m trusting Google with my music taste and the devices installed in my house, and I get the benefit of convenience in return.

The same can be applied to many other tech companies: you provide data, they provide a benefit. Data is one of the most valuable commodities of the 21st century, and some companies are openly creating their business model around this (for example: would you give up your privacy for unlimited movies?). When you can infer personality traits or personal habits from that data, the stakes are much higher, and we should hold these companies accountable.

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Accountability is especially difficult if there is a lack of transparency in the data a company stores about us. That’s why laws like the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) approved by the European Union are critical. Many are calling for more regulation on Facebook, but regulation should be applied equally to any tech company with private user information.

Every user should know what data is being collected when they use a product, so that they can make an informed decision on whether or not to proceed. Are you sure you want to answer that personality quiz? If so, do you really know who is keeping the answers and how can they be used in the future? Users also have a responsibility to protect their own privacy and this is unfortunately a big challenge. When was the last time you saw a dashboard with all the data Facebook, Google, Microsoft or Amazon have about you? I wouldn’t be surprised if the answer was never.

Even if we assumed GDPR-like regulation was already enforced and that users knew all the data they have shared with the world, there is one final problem that nobody has been able to solve and that primarily affects tech products where human emotions are involved: algorithms and advertising tools are easy to exploit in order to manipulate users.

When you have a huge artificial intelligence, the way that Facebook and Google have, and you marry that to a software product that captures every human action—and in the case of Facebook captures emotional states, across the day and all their interactions—you have massive power. You put that on a smartphone, which is available every waking moment, and the combination of those things creates filter bubbles, which is to say the ability for each person to live in their own context, their own world, with their own facts, and to surround themselves with like-minded people so that non-confirming facts don’t get through. When people are in that heightened state, and when the advertisers have the ability to take advantage of the outrage curve—which is to say pushing the buttons of fear and anger, the things that create maximum engagement—people are really vulnerable and you can implant ideas in their head that they will think are their own,” Roger McNamee, one of Facebook’s early investors, explains in an interview with ProMarket. Facebook wasn’t hacked, our minds were.

When creating a social product, we need to ensure that it’s difficult to use to deform the truth, and that it protects users’ personal data. A social product should also not break us apart into smaller bubbles, but bring us together into a better society. Ultimately, this is the tech industry’s biggest challenge: continue improving the world through cohesive services and convenience, while considering users themselves a true living customer and not a product.


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I experienced the future of retail: Amazon Go

The craziest thing I’ve seen is someone who came in dressed in a Pikachu costume“, said an Amazon employee while she handed me a promotional bag with the Amazon Go logo on one side and the text ‘good food fast’ on the other.

I arrived at the new store in downtown Seattle around 7:20 pm and was surprised to see the line of people still reached the end of the block. It had been a cold day in Seattle but that didn’t discourage the hundreds of people who came to see the ‘magical’ store on day 0. I didn’t use the term ‘magical’ lightly here: the experience was truly unique and it felt too good to be true. Amazon Go is probably the store with more sensors on the planet right now, and it is intimidating:

The ceiling of the Amazon Go store

Each of those boxes on the ceiling are cameras connected to deep learning algorithms that analyze every move you make: which aisle you walk through, what items you grab to read and then return to the shelf, what items you put in your pockets or bag… everything to ensure you only get charged for what you take home. But also, everything to ensure your shopping pattern is studied and well understood. Maybe not today, but it’s the inevitable next step and the ultimate dream for any retail store: to know what their customers like and the type of advertisements that will work best on them.

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Nintendo Labo: Thinking outside the box (or with the box?)

When Nintendo released the Switch last year I was very surprised by what they had been able to achieve, take the gaming industry on a spin (again). Once again they proved that they can innovate in a crowded space with deep pocket rivals. They were able to achieve something fun, flexible and that meets our new lifestyle not by thinking of specs but thinking of use cases. They understand people still want to play but they don’t do it just in a living room, so they would meet them where they are by providing play flexibility (great article about that here). Now, with Labo they have done something I consider priceless: enable kids to imagine, play and dream by connecting both the physical world and the digital one.

I have to be honest, I did not buy the Switch right away and when I did I played it and then returned it. Sometimes there is a price for innovation. To me, the Switch has two big drawbacks. First it is the lack of games. I could care less for Zelda (yeah yeah hate me) and some of the other games are just “meh”. However, it was the release of Mario Odyssey that finally made me get it. I loved it, it was fun, I could play at home and take it with me. I bought my Switch just before my holiday trip and took it on the road with me. This meant playing with the Joy-Cons inserted to make a huge Gameboy. I’m a big guy and I am very jumpy and move around when playing. Towards the end of the trip my Switch started to break. My gameplay would stop every minute because they would get disconnected (guess I can’t be that excited while playing). Turned out that the price to pay for the hardware flexibility was ruggedness. So when it was time to return, I could exchange or return and decided for the former due to lack of games.

I thought that would be the end of my Switch journey but this week Nintendo announced Labo. Nintendo has always been great at thinking outside the box. Some of these product work (Wii, Amiibos) and some don’t (VirtualBoy, Wii U) and that is the price to pay to try new things. What amazes me is Nintendo’s relentless pursuit of not thinking about what is the next big technology push they can do, but how to enable new ways to bring playfulness into our lives.

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Would you give up your privacy for unlimited movies? interview with René Sánchez from CineSinFronteras.com

MoviePass is a subscription-based service that allows users to watch almost any movie in theaters for a flat monthly rate. In August, the company announced a surprisingly low price of $9.95, leaving many scratching their heads. I interviewed René Sánchez, cinema expert and movie critic at CineSinFronteras.com, and we discussed the privacy implications and the potential impact to the online streaming industry.

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Even though I’ve been using it for a month already, it still feels too good to be true. Were you surprised by the MoviePass announcement?

Yes, I was surprised by their announcement to reduce the monthly subscription price to just $9.95. It is such an amazing deal, especially when you consider that a regular, 2D movie here in the Seattle metro area costs between $12-15. So even if you only watch one movie every month, you will be saving some dollars with MoviePass! What shocked me the most was to know that the major exhibitors and theater chains were onboard with this change. I expected a lot of pushback from them, considering their old-school ways to operate. So far, only AMC has tried (and failed) to restrict the use of MoviePass in their theaters.

What’s the problem that MoviePass is trying to solve?

People don’t go to the movie theaters anymore. Studios and exhibitors keep blaming Netflix and other rival streaming platforms for their audience loss, instead of recognizing the real root cause: the movie-going experience has become very expensive and obsolete. Ticket prices rise every year (the same goes for concessions), studios keep releasing sequels and remakes no one asked for, and most multiplexes scream for renovations (uncomfortable seats, run-down interiors, and poor image and sound quality). To top it off, patrons can sometimes be rude and annoying.

Again, it’s really not Netflix’s fault that people want to stay at home, rather than going out to watch a movie. Who wants to pay more than $60 (including tickets, food and parking/Uber) to enjoy a mediocre movie in a rickety auditorium, while everyone else is either talking or staring at their phones?

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Visiting the Oculus office in Seattle: is augmented reality (AR) or virtual reality (VR) the future of user interfaces?

Earlier this week I had the pleasure of visiting the Oculus Seattle office for a private tour, some cool demos and a very interesting conversation. During the whole visit, a question kept popping up in my mind: will augmented reality (AR) or virtual reality (VR) ever become the standard way of interacting with our desktop or mobile devices?

User interfaces have evolved over the years in very significant ways: we moved from punched cards to command-line interfaces, and from there to graphical interfaces, which ended up evolving into what we know today, mouse, keyboard and touch. With recent advances in artificial intelligence, we are beginning to transition into conversational interfaces, where we can use natural language to get things done, sometimes even without touching a button or reading a line of text.

Is the future of user interfaces an (almost) invisible one? In many cases, yes, just watch the 2014 movie Her to see a glimpse of where we will be in a few years (minus the “falling in love” part):

However, for many other tasks we will still need to read, type, touch and draw. This doesn’t mean that we will be tied forever to a screen, and here’s where VR and AR come in.

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About the iPhone X notch controversy

The iPhone X was already controversial even before it was officially introduced last Tuesday, mostly due to the rumored removal of Touch ID in favor of Face ID.

However, Apple’s presentation caused a new controversy: the infamous notch. Even though the array of cameras and sensors got leaked long before the event, nobody knew how Apple was planning to do in order to integrate it with iOS 11. We have the answer now: Apple is so proud of that black bar that they decided to render the user interface around it.

Since Apple controls the operating system, they made sure it looks good with most 1st party apps. But what happens with 3rd party content like a website? The notch gets in the way. Continue reading

3 reasons why I’m excited about the new iPhone

Apple will present the new iPhone this Tuesday and, as usual, most of the details have already been leaked.

What seems guaranteed is that we’ll see 3 models being introduced: the iPhone 7s, 7s Plus and a special edition to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the original iPhone. That special edition has been known until now as iPhone 8, iPhone Edition, or iPhone Pro, but the official name iPhone X has been confirmed (among other details) thanks to the final version of iOS 11 leaking.

These are the top 3 reasons why I’m excited about the iPhone X.

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Facebook created a mess trying to take on Snapchat

If you use Facebook, Instagram, Messenger or WhatsApp, you have probably noticed recent updates that allow you to share a picture that expires after 24 hours.

Stories, Shared Days, or Status, all different names for the same feature across 4 different apps. This is what they look like side by side:

Facebook is trying to suffocate Snap by flooding every app they own with the one thing that made Snapchat special.

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On Leadership

What is a leader? What traits do I want to make sure I have as a leader? What has my experience taught me so far? I’ve been trying to answer these questions and have been thinking about what leadership means to me. 

Even though the dictionary defines a leader as “the person who leads or commands a group”, I do not believe that this simple definition is the same thing as being a true leader. A person that merely uses their “power” to intimidate others into getting things done is not a leader. Likewise, a person who uses fear to motivate people into getting things done, or walks over people in a selfish attempt to achieve a goal, is also not a leader.

So, what qualifies someone as a great leader? Let’s start with a fact, and one that many leaders refuse to acknowledge; there are no perfect leaders. We are human and we have weaknesses. We are human and we have strengths. The key is to spot the differences between the two, understand the pros and cons of both, and be a leader that is balanced.

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I broke Facebook

I’m sitting on a train, on my way to Whistler, and I decide to check Facebook. I’m hoping to see what my friends did last night, or what their plans are for Thanksgiving, but this is what I see:

I don’t see almost any personal posts, or pictures that help me connect with my friends, with the people I love. Isn’t that Facebook’s mission? Instead, I get irrelevant stories.

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