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.

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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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Why did you stop posting on Facebook?

Many of my friends have stopped posting on Facebook. Some have uninstalled the app and others even deleted their accounts.

They are not posting on Twitter either, and the more ephemeral Snapchat hasn’t reached critical mass among my closest friends.

Instagram is the only place where I still get a glimpse of the most intimate side of the people I love the most, but I’d say only 20% of my online friends actively use it.

What causes someone to stop sharing on social media? Is it a natural part of being over 30? Or is there an actual problem with the platform? Talking to 12 of these friends, I learned that there are several groups.

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Apple vs FBI, who’s right?

You might think that this case is an easy one, that Apple wants to protect its customers’ privacy and the government doesn’t, that Apple is right and the FBI is not. Well, it’s not that simple.

First, let me provide a little bit of context:

  1. On December 2, 2015, Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife Tafsheen Malik shot and killed 14 people and injured 22 others at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California.
  2. The FBI recovered an iPhone 5c, issued by Farook’s employer, which “may contain critical communications and data prior to and around the time of the shooting“.
  3. The FBI obtained a warrant to search the iPhone, and the owner of the iPhone gave the FBI its consent.
  4. The iPhone is locked and the FBI asked Apple to help execute the search warrant.

Apple refused on a very long letter written by CEO Tim Cook (full text here). Here’s a little extract:

Specifically, the FBI wants us to make a new version of the iPhone operating system, circumventing several important security features, and install it on an iPhone recovered during the investigation. In the wrong hands, this software — which does not exist today — would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession.

The FBI may use different words to describe this tool, but make no mistake: Building a version of iOS that bypasses security in this way would undeniably create a backdoor. And while the government may argue that its use would be limited to this case, there is no way to guarantee such control.

After reading that letter, I concluded that Apple was right, but after a discussion with a good friend, I realized that my conclusion was too simplistic.

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About the Sony hack and ‘The Interview’

2014 has been a year filled with privacy issues, hacks and data leaks. Some of the most memorable cases include the Snapchat hacks (which leaked around 4.6 million usernames and phone numbers in January, and about 100k images from users in October), the iCloud photo leaks (releasing about 500 private pictures of celebrities in August) and more recently, the infamous Sony hack (leaking personal data, emails, movie scripts and even copies of unreleased films from Sony Pictures Entertainment).

This last hack is still unfolding, and it’s not only impacting Hollywood’s world: last week, Snapchat’s business plans were disclosed through leaked emails from Sony Pictures Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton, who also happens to be on Snapchat’s board.

The saddened memo sent after that by Evan Spiegel left me thinking once more about the power of secrets, especially this sentence:

We keep secrets because we get to do our work free from judgment – until we’re ready to share it. We keep secrets because keeping secrets gives you space to change your mind until you’re really sure that you’re right.

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Would you sell your driving privacy for a potential discount?

I attended a presentation by Kevin Mitnick several years ago where he claimed that he could get a person’s account password by offering them a pen, by the end of the presentation he was able to get several. In reality people do give up their information for a benefit, Google gives you free search results, Facebook keeps you connected with friends for free, Nielsen pays you to know your TV habits and even the government with their NSA programs provides security (although this has been controversial to say the least).

I first heard about Progressive from my marketing professor, who raved about them. He really loved this company due to their offerings and their great marketing. He also talked about their Snapshot program where Progressive sends a customer a device that tracks their driving habits and provides a discount to do so. At the time, I was very happy with my car insurance but started noticing the advertisement around this program. I found it very intriguing and was curious about it. Last August when I bought a new car my insurance company dropped the ball and I decided to give Progressive a try.

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