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US Government asked Google for user data 4,601 times.


/ June 29th, 2011 /

What does Google do with all that data they collect on us? Most of it sits in massive data centers — quietly providing users with more “relevant” search results and news. But what happens when governments get involved?

That’s what Google’s latest transparency report provides — a detailed look at who’s asking for data and how much Google gives up. They even have an nicely arranged website for those interested in the stats.

The newest report was released today, detailing the six-month period of  July-December 2010. For curious individuals in the US — Google has received 4,601 user data requests from the US Government over the most recent six-month period and has complied with 94% of those requests (the highest compliance rate).

Other countries making full use of their information request power include: Brazil, France, the UK, and India.

The old adage holds true — “With great power vast quantities of data, comes great responsibility.” Good for Google for providing such a detailed and accessible analysis of this data.


Personalization gets physical – and temperamental


/ June 29th, 2011 /

In the market of personalization, data is currency.

Companies like Google and Acxiom track your clicks, purchases and likes, converting them into a personal profile they can then sell to targeted advertisers.

Up until now that profile has been fairly static. What online advertisers know about you – your location, gender, purchasing preferences, favorite news sources – doesn’t change much from day to day, let alone from hour to hour. Your profile is also largely based on (semi-)conscious choices – what you click on, like, etc. – and advertisers can only infer so much about your physical and emotional state.

But that may all change in the next year or two, according to Tim Ferris, one of a growing number of “Self-quantifiers.”

Like other entrepreneurs profiled in the Financial Times this month, Ferris uses gadgets and automated spreadsheets that can track our bodies’ biorhythms, including REM cycles, calorie intake, heart beat, blood pressure, glucose levels and even vitamin deficiencies (just plunk a tracking device in your toilet bowl). Those data streams can then be combined to infer how stressed you are, when you’re drowsy and, increasingly, what mood you’re in.  It’s not about navel-gazing, though. Self-quantifiers hope to use the bio-feedback to manage attention spans at work, stress throughout the day, diet, and sleep habits. Their bio-signal patterns can also serve as red flags for oncoming illnesses.

Self-quantifying services could end up using fee-based revenue models, but more likely they’ll go the way of the cloud – offering free-ish services and making up their profits from selling data to advertisers. At least, that’s what Ferris predicts.

“I think, as soon as the next 12 or 24 months, that people will have to opt out of self-tracking, as opposed to opt in,” he says, “much like GPS and geo tagging,” a feature of smartphones that records users’ geographic location automatically for use in various consumer mobile applications.

And privacy advocates agree:

Imagining three years worth of heart rate data or depression symptoms travelling through mobile devices – potentially being offered for sale to drug or insurance companies, exploited by advertisers or hacked by cyber criminals – puts watchdog groups on alert. “What consumers need to realise is there’s a huge, huge demand for information about their activities, and the protections for the information about their activities are far, far, far less than what they think,” says Lee Tien, a privacy attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “A lot of these cloud services fall outside the federal and state privacy regimes.”

But being exploited by big pharma might not be the worst of it (assuming drug companies are trying to cure the conditions they believe you to have). Imagine if advertisers could sense when you’re hungry, angry, depressed or randy. Will they want to push products that mitigate your mood – or aggravate it? Craving carbs? Time to order in from Cinnabon. Pissed off? There’s a sale on glocks in the next county. Feeling blue? We have just the perfect pint of Ben & Jerry’s / guide to assisted suicide for you. Got an itch? Okay, you get the picture.


Algorithmic dating: OKCupid’s 10 most divisive questions


/ May 12th, 2011 /

As The Filter Bubble describes, OKCupid takes the logic of Google personalized search and applies it to the search for love (or, at minimum, sex). A friend there was kind enough to send me the list of the 10 questions that most evenly divide OKCupid users into groups — a key part of the personalization process. (This isn’t necessarily the order in which viewers see them.)

They’re pretty intense — especially the last, which is a doozy. But when it comes to increasing the match rate, they seem to work. Here they are.

1. What’s your deal with harder drugs (not marijuana)?

  • I do drugs regularly.
  • I do drugs occasionally.
  • I’ve done drugs in the past, but no longer.
  • I never do drugs.

2. How often do you keep your promises?

  • My word is my bond.  No exceptions.
  • Whenever possible
  • Usually
  • When convenient

3. Do you take prevention of STD transmission seriously (making sure your partner has been tested, using protection, being upfront if you’re at risk, etc.)?

  • Yes
  • No

4. If you were in a serious relationship and you learned that your partner cheated on you one drunken night, could you forgive him/her?

  • Yes
  • No
  • Maybe
  • I don’t believe in monogamy

5. Is it ever ok for a man to hit a woman?

  • Yes
  • Only in self-defense.
  • No

6. To you, is abortion an option in case of an unwanted accidental pregnancy?

  • Yes
  • No

7. Are you looking for a partner to have children with?

  • Yes
  • No

8. Is homosexuality a sin?

  • Yes
  • No

9. Does smoking disgust you?

  • Yes
  • No

10. You have just discovered that your eight year old daughter has been raped. The most important thing to do now is….

  • Punish the violator, legally or otherwise
  • Comfort the child
  • Get past this as quickly as possible
  • Handle this quietly

 


What does Skype’s $8.5 billion dollar privacy policy look like?


/ May 10th, 2011 /

Microsoft is buying Skype for $8.5 billion – making it one of the largest tech deals in recent memory. For reference, Google paid $1.65 billion back in 2006 for Youtube. This deal is 5x the size.

Microsoft may have overpaid for the online VOIP service (voice over internet protocol), but the intent is clear: Microsoft wants to establish a firm foothold online. Aside from Bing, they don’t have much to work with.

That got me thinking – what else might Microsoft get from the deal? For that I turned to Skype’s privacy policy. The important bit:

2. WHAT INFORMATION DOES SKYPE USE?

Skype may gather and use information about you, including (but not limited to) information in the following categories:

(a) Identification data (e.g. name, address, telephone number, mobile number, email address);

(b) Profile information (e.g. age, gender, country of residence and any information that you choose to make available to others as part of your Skype user profile);

(c) Electronic identification data (e.g. IP addresses, cookies);

(d) Banking and payment information (credit card information, account number);

(e) Survey results;

(f) Information about your usage of and interaction with the Skype software, our products and websites including computer and connection information, device capability, bandwidth, statistics on page views, and traffic to and from our websites;

(g) Products or services ordered and delivered;

(h) The URL of videos that you have selected to appear in your mood message;

(i) Skype test calls made to ECHO123 (which are recorded and played back to the user and deleted thereafter);

(j) List of your contacts;

(k) Your user profile;

(l) Your username and password for other email accounts where you have provided this to us and requested us to search for your friends on Skype (please note that Skype does not retain this information or use it for any other purpose);

(m) Correspondence between you and Skype;

(n) Traffic data (data processed for the purpose of the conveyance of communications or the billing thereof, including, but not limited to, the duration of the call, the number calling and the number called); and

(o) content of instant messaging communications (please see section 13).

I doubt data mining played a major role in Microsoft’s reasoning for the acquisition, but it’s worth noting that Microsoft now has access to 665 million names, numbers, and chat logs.


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