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Facebook’s Data Sharing and Privacy Rules: 5 Takeaways From Our Investigation

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You are the product: That is the deal many Silicon Valley companies offer to consumers. The users get free search engines, social media accounts and smartphone apps, and the companies use the personal data they collect — your searches, “likes,” phone numbers and friends — to target and sell advertising.

But an investigation by The New York Times, based on hundreds of pages of internal Facebook documents and interviews with about 50 former employees of Facebook and its partners, reveals that the marketplace for that data is even bigger than many consumers suspected. And Facebook, which collects more information on more people than almost any other private corporation in history, is a central player.

Here are five takeaways from our investigation.

“We don’t sell data to anyone,” Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder, told Congress during a hearing in April. His pledge — that the torrent of data Facebook collects from its 2.2 billion users will always remain safely in Facebook’s hands — has been a cornerstone of the company’s defensive strategy this year, as lawmakers, regulators and activists have pummeled the social network over a series of privacy breaches and public relations blunders.

While it is true that Facebook hasn’t sold users’ data, for years it has struck deals to share the information with dozens of Silicon Valley companies. These partners were given more intrusive access to user data than Facebook has ever disclosed. In turn, the deals helped Facebook bring in new users, encourage them to use the social network more often, and drive up advertising revenue.

Revelations in March that a political consulting firm linked to President Trump had improperly obtained data on as many as 87 million Facebook users set off the worst crisis in Facebook’s history. The company’s stock plunged, as regulators around the world demanded answers and users worried that Facebook wasn’t protecting their data. In response, Facebook pointed to changes it had made to its privacy policy in 2014, saying that developers no longer had the kind of access that Cambridge had exploited.

But The Times’s investigation reveals that Facebook continued to give huge tech companies, including Microsoft and Amazon, access to much more: the data of hundreds of millions of people a month, including email addresses and phone numbers — without users’ knowledge or consent.

Internal documents obtained by The Times show that Facebook shared data with more than 150 companies — most of them tech businesses, but also automakers, media organizations (including The Times) and others.

While Facebook users can control what data they share with most of the thousands of apps on Facebook’s platform, some companies had access to users’ data even if they had disabled all sharing. Many of the partners’ applications never even appeared in Facebook’s user application settings. According to Facebook, each of the outside companies acted as an extension of the social network. Any information a user shared with friends on Facebook, the company argues, could be shared with these partner companies without additional consent.

The data partnerships date to 2010, at the start of a period of headlong growth and expansion for Facebook. Within a few years, the social network had struck so many of these deals that Facebook employees built a tool to track the different types of access the partners had.

Despite this, Facebook appears not to have kept close tabs on how its users’ data flowed out into the world. A Russian social media company, Yandex, that has been accused of having overly close ties to the Kremlin, still had access to Facebook’s unique user IDs for years after Facebook had cut off other applications from the data, citing security concerns.

Likewise, Facebook gave Yahoo the ability to display a Facebook user’s news feed — including friends’ posts — on the search company’s home page. Yahoo got rid of the feature in 2012. But as of last year, it still had access to data for close to 100,000 people a month.

Under the terms of a 2011 consent agreement with the Federal Trade Commission, Facebook was required to strengthen privacy safeguards and disclose data practices more thoroughly. The company hired an independent firm, PricewaterhouseCoopers, to formally assess its privacy procedures and report back to the F.T.C. every two years.

Four former officials and employees of the F.T.C., briefed on The Times’s findings, said the data-sharing deals likely violated the consent agreement, since users had no way of knowing which companies Facebook had shared their data with, and no clear means of granting or withholding permission. At least one assessment by PricewaterhouseCoopers, in 2013, found that Facebook had done little to ensure that the shared data was appropriately safeguarded.

Facebook maintains that the partnerships are covered by an exemption to the consent decree. A spokeswoman for the F.T.C., which last spring opened a new investigation into Facebook, declined to say whether the commission agreed.

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Canadian tech diversity and inclusion in the spotlight

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Diversity and inclusion are hot-button issues, but for all the attention they get, there’s still work to be done in the tech sector, according to a recent Gartner blog.

Citing a range of challenges that include pay inequity, lack of diversity in corporate management, and difficulty recruiting diverse talent, the blog suggests three possible remedies for organizations trying to become more diverse and inclusive: having a long-term plan but focusing on one aspect that will make the most benefit, setting targets and making leadership accountable, and committing resources.

The call for such strategies finds support in a report from the Brookfield Institute revealing that Canada’s technology sector has a disappointing track record when it comes to inclusion and equity, with women “four times less likely to be employed in the sector than men, and earning on average $7,300 less than men in technology jobs.”

The findings are just as grim in a January 2020 report funded by Canada’s Future Skills Centre. According to this document, despite corporate commitments to diversity, “decades of initiatives designed to advance women in technology have scarcely had an effect: The proportion of women in engineering and computer science in Canada has changed little in 25 years.”

And women are not the only disadvantaged group, says the report. “The under-employment of skilled immigrants and under-representation of women and other groups in the ICT industry suggests that recruitment and retention policies and practices of the very firms complaining about this [skills] gap may be contributing to the problem.”

Until we do a better job of addressing inclusion and diversity, career opportunities will continue to be limited for women, internationally educated professionals, racialized minorities, First Nations, Inuit and Métis people. In addition to being a very human issue, this is also one that perpetuates the ICT skills gap by failing to tap into a supply of well-qualified labour.

On the bright side, there are technology companies and organizations across Canada that are truly determined to create opportunities for those who are under-represented in the digital talent pool. There is also an opportunity to recognize their efforts during Channel Innovation 2021: Adapting to the New Customer Experience, a 2.5-hour, virtual event on April 28, 2021.

A showcase for independent software vendors (ISVs) and Canadian channel innovators, the Channel Innovation 2021 celebration will take place on CIA-TV, a unique ITWC platform that allows the audience to take in the show, download related content and videos, and network in live breakout rooms. There are six award categories, including the C4 Award for Diversity and Inclusion. Nominating is simple. Whether a self- or third-party nomination, there are only two main questions to answer and an opportunity to include a supporting document or image.

Winning entries will be announced during the celebration and profiled in the Channel Daily News Magazine and in Direction Informatique, ITWC’s French-language publication devoted to the Quebec marketplace. They will also receive a digital badge for use on their websites and on social media to help gain industry-wide recognition and end-user exposure.

The media attention and recognition are reason enough to vie for this honour, and we always need things to celebrate during a global pandemic, but the real value in awards for diversity and inclusion is in setting an example for others to follow. The news is full of the ways we are falling down when it comes to equity in the IT sector. Let’s take some time to highlight the success stories and encourage other tech innovators to step up.

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Leading Canadian tech entrepreneur Saadia Muzaffar to give virtual keynote in Peterborough on March 9

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In celebration of International Women’s Day, one of Canada’s leading female tech entrepreneurs will be giving a virtual keynote for residents of Peterborough and the Kawarthas on Tuesday, March 9th at 7 p.m.

The Innovation Cluster is hosting Saadia Muzaffar as part of its ‘Electric City Talks’ series.

Muzaffar is a tech entrepreneur, author, and passionate advocate of responsible innovation, decent work for everyone, and prosperity of immigrant talent in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). She is the founder of TechGirls Canada, a hub for Canadian women in STEM, and co-founder of Tech Reset Canada, a group of business people, technologists, and other residents advocating for innovation that is focused on the public good.

In 2017, Muzaffar was featured in Canada 150 Women, a book about 150 of the most influential and groundbreaking women in Canada. Her work has been featured in CNNMoney, BBC World, Fortune Magazine, The Globe and Mail, VICE, CBC, TVO, and Chatelaine.

Muzaffar’s March 9th talk, entitled ‘Redefining Term Sheets: Success, Solidarity, & The Future We Want’, will inspire women to achieve success in all areas of life, including in business by providing strategies for obtaining funding.

“It is impossible to explain how women only get 2.2 per cent of funding for their ventures while we constitute a majority of the population, without acknowledging long-standing structural and systemic bias,” Muzaffar says, describing her talk. “Women know these odds in our bones because we feel them in too many boardrooms, banks, media advertisements, and venture competitions — yet women are the fastest-growing demographic in new businesses.”

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ARK’s Cathie Wood joins board of Canadian tech firm mimik

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ARK Invest’s Cathie Wood is joining the board of Canadian technology company mimik.

Vancouver-based mimik is an edge computing company that effectively turns devices like phones into private cloud servers. It has already teamed up with Amazon Web Services and IBM on edge computing – two of the bigger players in the space.

The AWS partnership gives software developers access to mimik’s cloud platform. Together, edge devices including smart phones, tablets, and Internet of Things (IoT) products can act as extensions of the AWS cloud. With the IBM partnership, mimik’s technology will be included in automation and digital transformation across manufacturing, retail, IoT and healthcare.

All of mimik’s business lines fit in with Wood’s broad ‘next generation internet’ thesis, one of her big five investment themes. The company itself is private and Wood is not an investor. 

However, as Citywire noted in January, Wood has hinted in interviews that ARK is exploring the launch of a private markets strategy. 

Wood joins a relatively high profile board at mimik. Other members include  Allen Salmasi, a pioneer in mobile technology who was previously with Qualcomm, and Ori Sasson, managing director of Primera Capital, who was an investor in VMWare and other technology companies.

‘I’ve always believed in backing founders who are at the forefront of innovation,’ Wood said in a statement on her decision to join mimik. ‘At mimik, [they] have built a foundation for the next generation of cloud computing.’ 

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