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Sharing Data for Deals? More Like Watching It Go With a Sigh

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The diapers ad that shows up on your computer when you are expecting a child. The coupon on your smartphone for a fast-food chain you just walked past. The sneaker offer appearing in your mailbox after you sign up to run a race.

For years, marketers and technology companies have crept further into the homes and habits of Americans, arguing all the while that there is a fair and voluntary exchange taking place. The more we know about you, the argument goes, the more we can show you products you actually want instead of ads that just annoy you. Consumers, they say, are happily trading very specific information about their lives in order to receive this kind of personalized advertising and marketing — relevant ads, as the industry calls them.

Joseph Turow, a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, has studied the topic for years and vigorously disagrees with that interpretation. Research by Professor Turow and his colleagues has found that most Americans give up data for relevant ads not because of convenience, but resignation. Rather than participating in a rational exchange, he argues, consumers are giving up their personal information with “a feeling of futility.”

“People are very uncomfortable with surveillance but they don’t know what to do,” Professor Turow said about the research, which involved a telephone survey of about 1,500 people across the country this year and in 2015. “In the real world, not having a frequent shopper card at the supermarket means you’re going to lose 15 to 20 percent on purchases. It’s very difficult for people to give up Facebook if all their friends are on Facebook.”

He added, “It’s that calculus people have, rather than, geez, this is a rational decision I’m making because I know this is what I have to do.”

Professor Turow is among the academics, privacy advocates and regulators who have long been critical of how companies extricate vast amounts of personal information from consumers in the digital world. In 2018, it became harder for the tech and media industries to ignore those voices, with more consumers and lawmakers discovering how extensive, secretive and unstoppable data collection can be.

This year has seen a string of revelations about how Facebook mishandled data from its users, even sharing their private messages with large corporations like Spotify and Netflix. Tech executives have regularly appeared before Congress and been grilled about their companies’ practices. European lawmakers passed a sweeping privacy law in Europe, known as the General Data Protection Regulation, or G.D.P.R. That was followed by a California state law on privacy, which its advocates hoped would serve as a model for the nation.

New questions emerged around how Google allows outside companies to scan and share data from consumers’ Gmail accounts. Companies were found to be using our smartphones to watch our every step. The rise of internet-connected devices in the home has turned everything from televisions to children’s thermometers into tools for targeted advertising. And that’s just a sampling.

“We know we’ve got work to do to regain people’s trust,” Steve Satterfield, director of privacy and public policy at Facebook, said in a statement. “Protecting people’s information requires stronger teams, better technology, and clearer policies, and that’s where we’ve been focused for most of 2018.”

Google did not respond to a request for comment.

The topic didn’t suddenly materialize this year — The Wall Street Journal broke major ground on digital surveillance with its award-winning series “What They Know” in 2010.

But at that time Facebook was not yet public and Google was a fraction of its current size. Digital tracking has since become far more pervasive and intertwined with peoples’ daily lives — advertisements follow them from their computers to their phones and even their TVs — and often, it can feel inescapable. Recently, Facebook told Gizmodo that even if people opt out of location sharing with the social network, it can still determine their location and use it for targeted advertising.

“There are so many aspects of how companies deal with the public that obfuscates what actually goes on and so many attempts to placate people using jargon,” Professor Turow said. “I’ve spoken to lawyers who write privacy policies who admit — they admit — that they aren’t written for the public.”

In their survey this year, researchers led by Professor Turow found that most Americans did not understand privacy policies on websites. More than half did not know the correct answer to this true-or-false statement: “If a website has a privacy policy, that means the site won’t share user information with other sites or companies without permission.” (The statement is false.)

The researchers also found that most Americans did not know that companies can legally collect and keep personal data on 13-year-olds as though they are adults. Companies are able to do that because the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, a federal law, only extends to children who are 12 and under.

“I would argue that’s because people can’t imagine that the law would allow this kind of attitude,” Professor Turow said. The researchers conducted national surveys in 2015 and 2018, working with two polling companies to interview a representative sample of Americans on their landlines and cellphones.

The findings are particularly notable as tech companies and marketers argue that individuals should be responsible for understanding and navigating all of these policies and their privacy settings. Some people may delete Facebook, but what about Instagram and WhatsApp? Avoiding Google for search purposes is one thing. Then try avoiding Gmail, YouTube and Waze.

Advertisers are watching closely as Americans question these services. They are the ones, after all, paying to use all this data to send messages to the right consumers. There is a stark difference between targeting consumers who are eagerly sharing their information for so-called relevance, and targeting those who have given up, and who may not even understand how, exactly, their data is being collected and interpreted.

Still, little has been said publicly. While some ad agency executives have criticized Facebook in recent weeks, other executives have sought to neutralize those remarks. Last month, Rishad Tobaccowala, the chief growth officer of the advertising firm Publicis Groupe, questioned Facebook’s moral compass in an interview with The New York Times. Shortly after, Facebook distributed more conciliatory comments from Arthur Sadoun, the chief executive of Publicis. Mr. Sadoun acknowledged the company’s issues but added, “We believe that the management is taking the right decisions that are going in the right direction.”

A similar reaction emerged after the chief executive of the agency Initiative said in a LinkedIn post that he would advise his clients to halt advertising on Facebook based on its “egregious behavior” involving consumer data. Michael Roth, the chief executive of the Interpublic Group, which owns Initiative, quickly told The Wall Street Journal that the company would continue to “work closely with our media partners,” including Facebook.

“There’s no question in my mind that Americans see privacy as an important issue,” Professor Turow said. “The question is: What do you do about it?”

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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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