Walkies app Wag demands silence in exchange for paying for dog’s cremation

Technology companies are notorious for keeping bad news under wraps with Non-Disclosure Agreements, but this seems… very wrong.

Wag, the app that pairs dog walkers with dogs needing a walk, offered to fully compensate a couple whose dog died while on a walk – but only if they agreed to not speak of the incident to anyone. BBC News:

The couple were told by a Wag representative the company would “take care of all of the expenses, such as Winnie’s cremation”.

The company then issued the couple a non-disclosure agreement forbidding them from speaking about the incident.

“We could not leave any negative reviews. We could not make posts on social media. We could not hold Wag or the walker responsible,” Mr Moore wrote.

Now, of course, the Streisand Effect is in full force. An arguably foolish move from Wag given, on the whole, I think people would expect that accidents will always happen.

Wag’s statement stressed the company had a strict vetting process, but didn’t go on to explain why it required silence in order to properly address the couple’s loss.

Tech’s lobbying in 2018 hit new heights

The Washington Post’s Tony Romm (who else?) has written about the staggering amount spent by technology firms on lobbying last year, according to pubic disclosures.

The biggies – Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google and Microsoft – spent a combined $64m. Romm continues:

The tech sector’s most prolific spender was Google: It shelled out more than $21 million last year to lobby Congress, the White House and key federal agencies on issues including online privacy, an analysis of the disclosure reports shows. That marks a new record for the search giant, which spent roughly $18 million in 2017 — more than any other company across all industries — to influence policymakers in the nation’s capital.

For context, last year Google spent $18m. Why the jump? You may have noticed the revolving door of congressional hearings that had the bosses of these firms dragged in front of lawmakers. Big Tech knows they are going to be regulated, and so they are investing big in making sure the pendulum falls as close to their side as possible.

Drone grounds flights at America’s 11th busiest airport

Uh-oh. My reporting for BBC News:

A pilot told air traffic control that one of the drones came within 30ft (9m) of his aircraft. He was flying at Teterboro Airport, a nearby private facility, but officials grounded Newark International flights as a precaution. The airport is the 11th busiest in the US, with 20 million passengers a year.

Easyjet’s chief executive has called the recent major disruption at Gatwick a “wake-up call” for the aviation industry. Now, with Newark disrupted, even briefly, calls to solve this glaring issue will intensify. Newark is a gateway for many travelers going to and from New York City, and rogue drone pilots simply can’t be allowed to disrupt normal operations.

MIT’s Technology Review resurfaced its piece from December about the probability of a fatal drone attack on a commercial jet. It’s… sobering:

Anti-drone systems like nets might protect high-value targets like the White House, 10 Downing Street, or the immediate vicinity of major airports. But there is too much airspace around to protect it all—and from a technical perspective a drone can fly 2,000 feet up just as easily as it can fly near the ground. There is simply no good technical countermeasure to a swarm of semi-autonomous drones attacking an airliner. That’s the bad news. The good news is that the vast majority of people with the necessary technical skills are not willing to commit mass murder.

Your old tweets might expose where you live

From the putting-the-cat-back-into-the-bag dept, here’s a piece from Wired’s Issie Lapowsky on how old tweets contained precise location data that was accessible through Twitter’s API:

The tool, called LPAuditor (short for Location Privacy Auditor), exploits what the researchers call an “invasive policy” Twitter deployed after it introduced the ability to tag tweets with a location in 2009. For years, users who chose to geotag tweets with any location, even something as geographically broad as “New York City,” also automatically gave their precise GPS coordinates. Users wouldn’t see the coordinates displayed on Twitter. Nor would their followers. But the GPS information would still be included in the tweet’s metadata and accessible through Twitter’s API.

Twitter didn’t change this policy across its apps until April of 2015. Now, users must opt-in to share their precise location—and, according to a Twitter spokesperson, a very small percentage of people do. But the GPS data people shared before the update remains available through the API to this day.

It’s another example – as if we needed one – of the naivety within top social networks when it came to the collection and sharing of personal data.

What’s worse in this case is that Twitter’s software was not clear that it was gathering and sharing this kind of location data.

Twitter should have known better. Its response –  that users had the chance to opt out and delete the data – is no response at all. Contrition remains in very short supply.

 

Was Glassdoor manipulated or just… used?

The WSJ has an investigation today about apparent manipulations of Glassdoor, the “Yelp for employers”.

Per the report:

An analysis of millions of anonymous reviews posted on Glassdoor’s site identified more than 400 companies with unusually large single-month increases in reviews. Some companies, including Elon Musk’s rocket company Space Exploration Technologies Corp. and software giant SAP SE , have had multiple spikes.

During the vast majority of these surges, the ratings were disproportionately positive compared with the surrounding months, the Journal’s analysis shows.

Hm.

In today’s employment market – particularly in tech jobs – company culture is a huge factor in top talent’s decision-making when it comes to where they want to work.

I find it perfectly reasonable that a company would want to encourage employees to leave good reviews in the hope it attracts high-quality applicants. I also find it reasonable – and probable – that employees would be willing to support that without coercion.

I don’t think it’s accurate to say that companies encouraging current employees to post to Glassdoor is manipulation of its service per se – though it of course depends on exactly what form that encouragement takes. A free mug is a thank you, not a bribe.

The spike in SpaceX’s reviews came with the note that 73% were five star, suggesting that employees weren’t exactly typing reviews with a gun to their heads – some weren’t that complimentary. (You could suggest that SpaceX told some people not to give completely glowing reviews so it didn’t look gamed, but that doesn’t feel likely to me.)

So was Glassdoor manipulated, or just used?

I’m reminded of a time when my university sent an email off to all of us asking to fill in a survey about student satisfaction, with an incentive of a voucher for the bar (if I recall correctly). I did it, wrote an honest, anonymous review, and had my beer. The university rose dramatically in the rankings (compiled by The Times) – but it was well-deserved.

Aside from the case study the piece opens with – about the mortgage broker – I don’t think this piece lands any real punches on Glassdoor. Still, an interesting read that’s worth your time.

Wired: London’s skyscrapers are fighting back against YouTube rooftoppers

Great read in Wired about the struggles the owners of London’s tallest buildings are having preventing so-called “rooftoppers”.

These are the people who break into buildings, head to the roof, and post a variety of usually dangerous videos to YouTube or similar. James O’Malley writes that the law wasn’t written with this kind of behaviour in mind:

“What surprises many people is that trespass is in the main a civil offence,” explains Bryan Johnston, head of real estate litigation at law firm Dentons. “What this means is that the police cannot take immediate action to remove a trespasser from private land. What is worse is that the owner of land risks committing a criminal offence if they try to remove trespassers.”

Of course, without an audience, and monetisation opportunities, these kind of stunts would soon stop happening so frequently. If you search YouTube for “rooftopping” right now you’ll see plenty of examples, with millions of views, making presumably a lot money from ads.

What 5G’s ‘fatter pipe’ will actually bring us

One of the hardest things, as a technology reporter, is explaining to viewers/readers new tech trends that, right now, don’t have a tangible application in mind.

This is the case with 5G, a topic that draws either yawns or anger from our audience.

The anger comes, mostly, from those who feel they don’t get adequate 4 or even 3G right now – and that telecom firms are more eager to charge crazy fees for people in cities than they are to properly connect those in more rural areas. They’re absolutely right, of course.

Analyst Benedict Evans has written a thoughtful post on where 5G is right now, where it is headed, and, most impressively, what it actually makes possible. His overriding point, I think, is that creating a better, faster network is always a good idea, even if the uses for it aren’t yet clear. We’ve seen this with every upgrade to date – from 2G, upwards. He writes:

With each of these surges in speed, two things happen. First, the things we’re already doing get smoother and easier and quicker, and also get more capable (or bloated). Pages get more images and become more dynamic. Second, new things become possible. You could not have done Flickr or Google Maps on dialup, and you could not have done Netflix (or at least not well) on the broadband of 2003. In the following generation, Snapchat only worked when you could presume that all of your users can connect at tens of Mbits/sec (when they’re not on home WiFi, of course). That in turn means networks with the overall capacity to give that speed not just to one person at a time but to lots of people, and network infrastructure that can do that at a vaguely reasonable price. If you’d shown Snapchat to a mobile network executive in the early 2000s, their hair would have gone white – there was just no way the early 3G network could have supported that kind of load.

And so:

In the same way, then, 5G speeds, and ever-faster home broadband, will mean that existing applications will get richer, and also that new applications will emerge – new Flickrs, YouTubes or Snapchats. We don’t know what yet, exactly, though we can make some early guesses, but the creativity of entrepreneurs and platforms and the choices of consumers will decide. This is the great thing about the decentralized, permissionless innovation of the internet – telcos don’t need to decide in advance what the use cases are, any more than Intel had to decide what the use cases for faster CPUs would be.

I hope I’m not quoting more than is polite of Evans’ post – I do it only to give a snippet of his insight. He concludes by saying that, essentially, the “killer app” of 5G is that it just is.

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Insights from a Waymo self-driving taxi beta tester 

The Verge has a great piece looking at some of the real-life scenarios posed to Waymo’s fleet of self-driving cars in Arizona, the largest public test of its kind.

Reporter Andrew J Hawkins talks to Shawn Metz, one of Waymo’s select number invitees for the testing phase. Metz has been posting about his experiences on Instagram and YouTube, and seems to have taken a keen interest in pushing the boundaries of what this tech is currently able to do:

He recalled a handful of moments when the Waymo vehicle appeared confused by certain situations, such as a crowded parking lot outside Costco. “I was really ambitious and I tried to take it to Costco on the weekend during the holiday season,” he said. “And basically we essentially got kind of stuck outside of entrance.” After several minutes of failing to find a gap through the number of pedestrians streaming in and out of the store, Metz said the vehicle “timed out” and the safety driver had to call Waymo’s remote support center for re-routing help.

He goes on to say that rainstorms seem to be a problem for the cars, with the in-car human safety driver taking over – though it wasn’t clear if that was out of an abundance of caution, or a software failing.

Metz says he hasn’t experienced any of the aggressive behaviour towards the cars that a recent New York Times article discussed.

On the Covington Catholic incident

By now you’ll have seen the video of the young white man staring down the older Native American man. It doesn’t need any more analysis here. (Not least because I, like you, have no real idea what happened.)

I’m going to keep the below paragraph to hand – it’s an almost perfect encapsulation of the major problem we have with the online outrage cycle. The Atlantic:

The story is a Rorschach test—tell me how you first reacted, and I can probably tell where you live, who you voted for in 2016 and your general take on a list of other issues—but it shouldn’t be. Take away the video and tell me why millions of people cared so much about an obnoxious group of high-school students protesting legalized abortion and a small circle of Native Americans protesting centuries of mistreatment who were briefly locked in a tense standoff. Take away Twitter and Facebook and explain why total strangers cared so much about people they didn’t know in a confrontation they didn’t witness. Why are we all so primed for outrage, and what if the thousands of words and countless hours spent on this had been directed toward something consequential?

My new rule with aggro online is to ask myself: would my input achieve anything?

The answer has, so far, always been no.

Update:

There has been more than a little soul searching about this today. From NYT writer David Brooks:

Also, Buck Sexton, writing in The Hill:

There is also a bigger lesson to be drawn from this. Social media mobs are a cancer on this country, and those in the news business have an obligation not to carelessly magnify malignant efforts at personal destruction. This affects all of us. It does not matter who you are, whether you are active online, care about politics, or keep to yourself. The social justice mob may come for you, your spouse or your child, and engage in a ritualistic destruction of their online reputation. Even a trip to the Lincoln Memorial for high school kids can be turned into something catastrophic.

GDPR strikes! Google fined 50 million euros

The first major GDPR fine for a US firm has dropped: 50 million euro ($47m) for Google over what the French data regulator deemed insufficient transparency on how it gathered data for personalised advertising.

Washington Post:

France’s top data-privacy agency, known as the CNIL, said Monday that Google failed to fully disclose to users how their personal information is collected and what happens to it. Google also did not properly obtain users’ consent for the purpose of showing them personalized ads, the watchdog agency said.

Google said it was “studying the decision”.