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Businesses

Amazon Says It Puts Customers First - But Its Pricing Algorithm Doesn't (propublica.org) 110

ProPublica has a report today in which it warns Amazon shoppers about the results that they see on the shopping portal. It notes that people often hope that the results that come up first after a search are the best deals, and that's what Amazon will have you believe, but its algorithm doesn't work that way. In what may surprise many, in more than 80 percent of cases, Amazon ranks its own products, or those of its affiliate partners higher. From the report: Amazon does give customers a chance to comparison shop, with a listing that ranks all vendors of the same item by "price + shipping." It appears to be the epitome of Amazon's customer-centric approach. But there, too, the company gives itself an oft-decisive advantage. Its rankings omit shipping costs only for its own products and those sold by companies that pay Amazon for its services. Erik Fairleigh, a spokesman for Amazon, said the algorithm that selects which product goes into the "buy box" accounts for a range of factors beyond price. "Customers trust Amazon to have great prices, but that's not all -- vast selection, world-class customer service and fast, free delivery are critically important," he said in an e-mailed statement. "These components, and more, determine our product listings."
Earth

Five Solomon Islands Disappear Into The Pacific Ocean As A Result Of Climate Change (go.com) 287

An anonymous reader writes: Climate change strikes again. A paper published in the journal Environmental Research Letters says five of the Solomon Islands have completely submerged underwater due to man-made climate change, and six more have experienced a dramatic reduction in shoreline. The Solomon Islands has a population of a little more than 500,000 people, many of whom have been adversely affected by rising sea levels in recent years. NASA scientist James Hansen estimated that seas could rise by seven meters within the next century. In 2014, Losing Ground issued a report that shows how large areas of the Louisiana coastline are being lost to rising sea levels. A 2011 study conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey determined that the state's wetlands were being lost at a rate of "a football field per hour." Michael Edison Hayden writes from ABC News, "The Solomon Islands provides a preview of how sea-level rise could affect other coastal communities in the coming years, according to the study, largely because the speed which erosion is taking place has been accelerated by a "synergistic interaction" with the waves that surround it.
Government

TSA Body Scanner Opt-out No Longer Guaranteed (slashgear.com) 278

codguy writes: Up to now, airline passengers have been able opt out of the TSA's Advanced Imaging Technologies (AIT) whole body scanners, and request a physical pat-down for their security check. But ProPublica journalist Julia Angwin points out that a rule change on December 18, 2015 now allows the TSA to compel some passengers to use these scanners instead of giving them a pat-down. The updated rule says, "While passengers may generally decline AIT screening in favor of physical screening, TSA may direct mandatory AIT screening for some passengers," (PDF source). Of course, the criteria for when this can happen is completely unspecified, and one can easily imagine them abusing this by deciding to compel anyone who requests a pat-down to go through the scanners for some reasonable cause from their perspective. Guilty until proven innocent?
Advertising

Viewing Data Harvested From Smart TVs Used To Push Ads To Other Screens? (securityledger.com) 148

chicksdaddy writes: In the latest episode of EULA overreach, electronics maker Vizio Holdings has been called out by the non profit investigative reporting outfit ProPublica for an on-by-default feature on its smart TVs called "Smart Interactivity" that analyzes both broadcast and streamed content viewed using the device. ProPublica noted that the company's privacy policy failed to clearly describe the tracking behavior, which included the collection of information such as the date, time, channel and whether the program was viewed live or recorded.

According to ProPublica, the monitoring of viewing information through IP addresses, while it does not identify individuals, can be combined with other data available in commercial databases from brokers such as Experian, creating a detailed picture of an individual or household. Vizio has since updated its privacy policy with a supplement that explains how "Smart Interactivity" works.

The bigger issue may be what that updated privacy policy reveals. As The Security Ledger notes, the updated Vizio privacy policy makes clear that the company will combine "your IP address and other Non-Personal Information in order to inform third party selection and delivery of targeted and re-targeted advertisements." Those advertisements "may be delivered to smartphones, tablets, PCs or other internet-connected devices that share an IP address or other identifier with your Smart TV."

In other words, TV viewing patterns will be used to serve ads to any device user who happens to be connected to the same network as the Vizio Smart TV — an obvious problem for households with a mix of say... adults and children?! Vizio does provide instructions for disabling the Smart Interactivity features and says that "connected" features of the device aren't contingent on monitoring. That's better than some other vendors. In 2014, for example, LG used a firmware update for its smart televisions to link the "smart" features of the device to viewer tracking and monitoring. Viewers who applied the update, but refused to consent to monitoring were not able to use services like Netflix and YouTube.

Verizon

Verizon Is Merging Its Cellphone Tracking Supercookie with AOL's Ad Tracking Network 100

schwit1 writes: ProPublica reports that Verizon is giving a new mission to its controversial hidden identifier that tracks users of mobile devices. Verizon said in a little-noticed announcement that it will soon begin sharing the profiles with AOL's ad network, which in turn monitors users across a large swath of the Internet. That means AOL's ad network will be able to match millions of Internet users to their real-world details gathered by Verizon, including — "your gender, age range and interests." AOL's network is on 40 percent of websites, including on ProPublica.
Privacy

First Library To Support Anonymous Internet Browsing Halts Project After DHS Email 130

An anonymous reader writes with an update to the news we discussed in July that a small library in New Hampshire would be used as a Tor exit relay. Shortly after the project went live, the local police department received an email from the Department of Homeland Security. The police then met with city officials and discussed all the ways criminals could make use of the relay. They ultimately decided to suspend the project, pending a vote of the library board of trustees on Sept. 15. DHS spokesman Shawn Neudauer said the agent was simply providing "visibility/situational awareness," and did not have any direct contact with the Lebanon police or library. "The use of a Tor browser is not, in [or] of itself, illegal and there are legitimate purposes for its use," Neudauer said, "However, the protections that Tor offers can be attractive to criminal enterprises or actors and HSI [Homeland Security Investigations] will continue to pursue those individuals who seek to use the anonymizing technology to further their illicit activity." ...Deputy City Manager Paula Maville said that when she learned about Tor at the meeting with the police and the librarians, she was concerned about the service’s association with criminal activities such as pornography and drug trafficking. "That is a concern from a public relations perspective and we wanted to get those concerns on the table," she said.
The Almighty Buck

How the Red Cross Raised Half a Billion Dollars For Haiti and Built 6 Homes 235

An anonymous reader points out an investigation from NPR and Propublica into how the Red Cross spent the $500 million in relief funds they gathered to help Haiti after the country was devastated by an earthquake in 2010. They found "a string of poorly managed projects, questionable spending and dubious claims of success." While the organization claims to have built homes for 130,000 people, investigators only found six permanent homes they could attribute to the charity. The Red Cross admitted afterward that the 130,000 number included people who had attended a seminar on how to fix their own homes.

"Lacking the expertise to mount its own projects, the Red Cross ended up giving much of the money to other groups to do the work. Those groups took out a piece of every dollar to cover overhead and management. Even on the projects done by others, the Red Cross had its own significant expenses – in one case, adding up to a third of the project’s budget." The Red Cross raised far more money for Haiti than any other charity, but is unwilling to provide details on where the money went. In one case, a brochure that extolled the virtues of one project claimed $24 million had been spent on a particular area — but residents of that area haven't seen any improvement in living conditions, and are unable to get information from the Red Cross. The former director of the Red Cross's shelter program said charity officials had no idea how to spend the money they'd accumulated.
Security

GPG Programmer Werner Koch Is Running Out of Money 222

New submitter jasonridesabike writes "ProPublica reports that Werner Koch, the man behind GPG, is in financial straits: "The man who built the free email encryption software used by whistleblower Edward Snowden, as well as hundreds of thousands of journalists, dissidents and security-minded people around the world, is running out of money to keep his project alive. Werner Koch wrote the software, known as Gnu Privacy Guard, in 1997, and since then has been almost single-handedly keeping it alive with patches and updates from his home in Erkrath, Germany. Now 53, he is running out of money and patience with being underfunded." (You can donate to the project here..)
Privacy

Stanford Promises Not To Use Google Money For Privacy Research 54

An anonymous reader writes Stanford University has pledged not to use money from Google to fund privacy research at its Center for Internet and Society — a move that critics claim poses a threat to academic freedom. The center has long been generously funded by Google but its privacy research has proved damaging to the search giant as of late. Just two years ago, a researcher at the center helped uncover Google privacy violations that led to the company paying a record $22.5 million fine. In 2011-2012, the center's privacy director helped lead a project to create a "Do Not Track" standard. The effort, not supported by Google, would have made it harder for advertisers to track what people do online, and likely would have cut into Google's ad revenue. Both Stanford and Google say the change in funding was unrelated to the previous research.
United States

Leaked Docs Show Spyware Used To Snoop On US Computers 135

Advocatus Diaboli writes Software created by the controversial UK-based Gamma Group International was used to spy on computers that appear to be located in the United States, the UK, Germany, Russia, Iran, and Bahrain, according to a leaked trove of documents analyzed by ProPublica. It's not clear whether the surveillance was conducted by governments or private entities. Customer e-mail addresses in the collection appeared to belong to a German surveillance company, an independent consultant in Dubai, the Bosnian and Hungarian Intelligence services, a Dutch law enforcement officer, and the Qatari government.
Privacy

A New Form of Online Tracking: Canvas Fingerprinting 194

New submitter bnortman (922608) was the first to write in with word of "a new research paper discussing a new form of user fingerprinting and tracking for the web using the HTML 5 <canvas> ." globaljustin adds more from an article at Pro Publica: Canvas fingerprinting works by instructing the visitor's Web browser to draw a hidden image. Because each computer draws the image slightly differently, the images can be used to assign each user's device a number that uniquely identifies it. ... The researchers found canvas fingerprinting computer code ... on 5 percent of the top 100,000 websites. Most of the code was on websites that use the AddThis social media sharing tools. Other fingerprinters include the German digital marketer Ligatus and the Canadian dating site Plentyoffish. ... Rich Harris, chief executive of AddThis, said that the company began testing canvas fingerprinting earlier this year as a possible way to replace cookies ...
Government

Intuit, Maker of Turbotax, Lobbies Against Simplified Tax Filings 423

McGruber (1417641) writes "Return-free filing might allow tens of millions of Americans to file their taxes for free and in minutes. Under proposals authored by several federal lawmakers, it would be voluntary, using information the government already receives from banks and employers and that taxpayers could adjust. The concept has been endorsed by Presidents Obama and Reagan and is already a reality in some parts of Europe. Sounds great, except to Intuit, maker of Turbotax: last year, Intuit spent more than $2.6 million on lobbying, some of it to lobby on four bills related to the issue, federal lobbying records show."
Privacy

Google Speeding Up New Encryption Project After Latest Snowden Leaks 248

coolnumbr12 writes "In a new leak published by the Guardian, New York Times and ProPublica, Edward Snowden revealed new secret programs by the NSA and GCHQ to decrypt programs designed to keep information private online. In response to NSA's Bullrun and GCHQ's Edgehill, Google said it has accelerated efforts to build new encryption software that is impenetrable to the government agencies. Google has not provided details on its new encryption efforts, but did say it would be 'end-to-end,' meaning that all servers and fiber-optic lines involved in delivering information will be encrypted."
Encryption

NSA Foils Much Internet Encryption 607

An anonymous reader writes "The New York Times is reporting that the NSA has 'has circumvented or cracked much of the encryption, or digital scrambling, that guards global commerce and banking systems, protects sensitive data like trade secrets and medical records, and automatically secures the e-mails, Web searches, Internet chats and phone calls of Americans and others around the world, the documents show. ... The agency, according to the documents and interviews with industry officials, deployed custom-built, superfast computers to break codes, and began collaborating with technology companies in the United States and abroad to build entry points into their products. The documents do not identify which companies have participated.'" You may prefer Pro Publica's non-paywalled version, instead, or The Guardian's.
IT

NSA Can't Search Its Own Email 165

cycoj writes "The NSA says that there is no central method to search its own email. When asked in a Freedom of Information Act request for emails with the National Geographic Channel over a specific time period, the agency, which has been collecting and analyzing the data of hundreds of millions of Internet users, says it can only perform person-per-person searches on its own email."
The Media

ProPublica's Guide To News App Tech 12

dstates writes "ProPublica, the award winning public interest journalism group and frequently cited Slashdot source, has published an interesting guide to app technology for journalism and a set of data and style guides. Journalism presents unique challenges with potentially enormous but highly variable site traffic, the need to serve a wide variety of information, and most importantly, the need to quickly develop and vet interesting content, and ProPublica serves lots of data sets in addition to the news. They are also doing some cool stuff like using AI to generate specific narratives from tens of thousands of database entries illustrating how school districts and states often don't distribute educational opportunities to rich and poor kids equally. The ProPublica team focuses on some basic practical issues for building a team, rapidly and flexibly deploying technology and insuring that what they serve is correct. A great news app developer needs three key skills: the ability to do journalism, design acumen and the ability to write code quickly — and the last is the easiest to teach. To build a team they look to their own staff rather than competing with Google for CS grads. Most news organizations use either Ruby on Rails or Python/Django, but more important than which specific technology you choose is to just pick a server-side programming language and stick to it. Cloud hosting provides news organizations with incredible flexibility (like increasing your capacity ten-fold for a few days around the election and then scaling back the day after), but they're not as fast as real servers, and cloud costs can scale quickly relative to real servers. Maybe a news app is not the most massive 'big data' application out there, but where else can you find the challenge of millions of users checking in several times a day for the latest news, and all you need to do is sort out which of your many and conflicting sources are providing you with straight information? Oh, and if you screw up, it will be very public."
Crime

Hacktivism: Civil Disobedience Or Cyber Crime? 243

An anonymous reader writes "You don't necessarily have to a hacker to be viewed as one under federal law. ProPublica breaks down acts of 'hacktivism' to see what is considered criminal under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. It points out that both Aaron Swartz and Bradley Manning were charged under the CFAA. Quoting: 'A DDoS attack can be charged as a crime under the CFAA, as it “causes damage” and can violate a web site’s terms of service. The owner of the site could also file a civil suit citing the CFAA, if they can prove a temporary server overload resulted in monetary losses. ... The charges for doxing depend on how the information was accessed, and the nature of published information. Simply publishing publicly available information, such as phone numbers found in a Google search, would probably not be charged under the CFAA. But hacking into private computers, or even spreading the information from a hack, could lead to charges under the CFAA.'"
Government

TSA (Finally) Studying Health Effects of Body Scanners 225

An anonymous reader writes "A 2011 ProPublica series found that the TSA had glossed over the small cancer risk posed by its X-ray body scanners at airports across the country. While countries in Europe have long prohibited the scanners, the TSA is just now getting around to studying the health effects." I'm not worried; the posters and recorded announcements at the airport say these scanners raise no health concerns.
Transportation

TSA Moving X-ray Body Scanners To Smaller Airports 168

OverTheGeicoE writes "If you're concerned about possible health effects from TSA's X-ray body scanners, you might be pleased to learn that TSA is making changes. TSA is removing X-ray body scanners from major airports including Los Angeles International, Boston's Logan, Chicago's O'Hare, and New York City's JFK. Then again, these changes might not please you at all, because they are not mothballing the offending devices. No, they are instead moving them to smaller airports like the one in Mesa, AZ. Is this progress, or is TSA just moving potentially dangerous scanners from 'Blue' areas to 'Red' ones right before a presidential election?"

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