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Whistleblower Sandy Parakilas says Facebook knew risks but failed to act

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Mark Bridge reports in the Times:

The Facebook leak to Cambridge Analytica was “worse than a data breach” because the company failed to safeguard users even after it understood the risks, a whistleblower said.

Sandy Parakilas, 38, worked at Facebook in 2011 and 2012, two years before the data of 50 million users was obtained by a Cambridge University researcher and shared with the British firm in violation of Facebook’s terms.

Parakilas told MPs that he had warned senior executives that poor safeguards could enable “foreign powers” or data brokers to harvest users’ data without their consent. Speaking by video link, he told members of the digital, culture, media and sport committee that Facebook had not acted on his concerns before the leak.

He said that the company’s previous practices that permitted developers to access data of users and their friends were “far outside the boundaries of what should have been allowed”.

He added that the company had failed to properly investigate a number of other reports of data misuse, suggesting that it had turned a blind eye due to the fear of incurring legal liability.

Mr Parakilas has told The Observer that there was no control of data once it left the company’s servers.

He told the select committee that he did not remember “a single physical audit of a developer’s storage” after reports of data misuse. When Facebook stopped allowing developers to access data on the “friends” of users it had acted to prevent rival social networks from obtaining their details, he said.

“Facebook didn’t want its data to go to data brokers, but their primary motive was to motivate the huge ecosystem of apps in the fastest way,” he said. “There were people like me saying it could go to data brokers; I think it was a risk they were willing to take.

“I think it was well understood both internally and externally that there was risk with the way [it] was handling data.”

Mr Parakilas also criticised Facebook for failing to notify users, sue Cambridge Analytica or call in law enforcement after reports that the British firm used the data to target voters. Instead, it continued to accept Cambridge Analytica’s assurances that it had destroyed the records obtained without consent.

Facebook has denied reports that users were victims of a data “breach”, saying that the data was obtained by the researcher Aleksandr Kogan in line with its own terms and conditions. Mr Parakilis said: “Users had no idea that this had happened. Their data was compromised in the same way as it would have been during a technical breach.”

Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers warned yesterday that while Facebook has made it harder to gather users’ data since 2014, software developers could harvest large quantities of data without users’ permission or knowledge. In a blog post, they added that “such activity can be made difficult to distinguish from ordinary” browsing.

Robert Thomson, chief executive of News Corp, said that Facebook and YouTube were guilty of publishing “pernicious” and “reprehensible” content because they refused to spend the money required to keep their sites safe.

He warned that social media users struggled to differentiate between fact and fiction because they had been “socialised to accept” dubious content online. He also expressed fears that the tech titans could manipulate their algorithms for political and commercial gain — to penalise competitors or censor stories they did not like.

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 March 2018 at 10:50 am

IBM is a scofflaw on age discrimination

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Peter Gosselin and Ariana Tobin report in ProPublica:

As it scrambled to compete in the internet world, the once-dominant tech company cut tens of thousands of U.S. workers, hitting its most senior employees hardest and flouting rules against age bias.

FOR NEARLY A HALF CENTURY, IBM came as close as any company to bearing the torch for the American Dream.

As the world’s dominant technology firm, payrolls at International Business Machines Corp. swelled to nearly a quarter-million U.S. white-collar workers in the 1980s. Its profits helped underwrite a broad agenda of racial equality, equal pay for women and an unbeatable offer of great wages and something close to lifetime employment, all in return for unswerving loyalty.

But when high tech suddenly started shifting and companies went global, IBM faced the changing landscape with a distinction most of its fiercest competitors didn’t have: a large number of experienced and aging U.S. employees.

The company reacted with a strategy that, in the words of one confidential planning document, would “correct seniority mix.” It slashed IBM’s U.S. workforce by as much as three-quarters from its 1980s peak, replacing a substantial share with younger, less-experienced and lower-paid workers and sending many positions overseas. ProPublica estimates that in the past five years alone, IBM has eliminated more than 20,000 American employees ages 40 and over, about 60 percent of its estimated total U.S. job cuts during those years.

In making these cuts, IBM has flouted or outflanked U.S. laws and regulations intended to protect later-career workers from age discrimination, according to a ProPublica review of internal company documents, legal filings and public records, as well as information provided via interviews and questionnaires filled out by more than 1,000 former IBM employees.

Among ProPublica’s findings, IBM:

Denied older workers information the law says they need in order to decide whether they’ve been victims of age bias, and required them to sign away the right to go to court or join with others to seek redress.
Targeted people for layoffs and firings with techniques that tilted against older workers, even when the company rated them high performers. In some instances, the money saved from the departures went toward hiring young replacements.
Converted job cuts into retirements and took steps to boost resignations and firings. The moves reduced the number of employees counted as layoffs, where high numbers can trigger public disclosure requirements.
Encouraged employees targeted for layoff to apply for other IBM positions, while quietly advising managers not to hire them and requiring many of the workers to train their replacements.
Told some older employees being laid off that their skills were out of date, but then brought them back as contract workers, often for the same work at lower pay and fewer benefits.
IBM declined requests for the numbers or age breakdown of its job cuts. ProPublica provided the company with a 10-page summary of its findings and the evidence on which they were based. IBM spokesman Edward Barbini said that to respond the company needed to see copies of all documents cited in the story, a request ProPublica could not fulfill without breaking faith with its sources. Instead, ProPublica provided IBM with detailed descriptions of the paperwork. Barbini declined to address the documents or answer specific questions about the firm’s policies and practices, and instead issued the following statement:

“We are proud of our company and our employees’ ability to reinvent themselves era after era, while always complying with the law. Our ability to do this is why we are the only tech company that has not only survived but thrived for more than 100 years.”

With nearly 400,000 people worldwide, and tens of thousands still in the U.S., IBM remains a corporate giant. . .

Continue reading.

It really looks as though corporations have no respect at all for the law, and thus vigorous investigation and enforcement is required to keep them in line. The GOP is not up to this task: they see their mission as protecting corporations and have zero concern for consumers (thus the gutting of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau). A Democratic wave election is badly needed, and that requires an informed and motivated electorate. I hope the US is up to the task.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 March 2018 at 9:55 am

Taxes, Welfare, and Income Inequality: Here’s the CBO’s Latest Report

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Kevin Drum has an interesting post filled with good charts. Here’s just one:

As you can see, the income tax is the fairest, which excise taxes + payroll taxes + corporate income taxes are quite regressive.

Read the whole thing.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 March 2018 at 4:21 pm

What Facebook Did to American Democracy—and why it was so hard to see it coming

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Alexis Madrigal writes in the Atlantic:

In the media world, as in so many other realms, there is a sharp discontinuity in the timeline: before the 2016 election, and after.

Things we thought we understood—narratives, data, software, news events—have had to be reinterpreted in light of Donald Trump’s surprising win as well as the continuing questions about the role that misinformation and disinformation played in his election.

Tech journalists covering Facebook had a duty to cover what was happening before, during, and after the election. Reporters tried to see past their often liberal political orientations and the unprecedented actions of Donald Trump to see how 2016 was playing out on the internet. Every component of the chaotic digital campaign has been reported on, here at The Atlantic, and elsewhere: Facebook’s enormous distribution power for political information, rapacious partisanship reinforced by distinct media information spheres, the increasing scourge of “viral” hoaxes and other kinds of misinformation that could propagate through those networks, and the Russian information ops agency.

But no one delivered the synthesis that could have tied together all these disparate threads. It’s not that this hypothetical perfect story would have changed the outcome of the election. The real problem—for all political stripes—is understanding the set of conditions that led to Trump’s victory. The informational underpinnings of democracy have eroded, and no one has explained precisely how.

* * *

We’ve known since at least 2012 that Facebook was a powerful, non-neutral force in electoral politics. In that year, a combined University of California, San Diego and Facebook research team led by James Fowler published a study in Nature, which argued that Facebook’s “I Voted” button had driven a small but measurable increase in turnout, primarily among young people.

Rebecca Rosen’s 2012 story, “Did Facebook Give Democrats the Upper Hand?” relied on new research from Fowler, et al., about the presidential election that year. Again, the conclusion of their work was that Facebook’s get-out-the-vote message could have driven a substantial chunk of the increase in youth voter participation in the 2012 general election. Fowler told Rosen that it was “even possible that Facebook is completely responsible” for the youth voter increase. And because a higher proportion of young people vote Democratic than the general population, the net effect of Facebook’s GOTV effort would have been to help the Dems.

The research showed that a small design change by Facebook could have electoral repercussions, especially with America’s electoral-college format in which a few hotly contested states have a disproportionate impact on the national outcome. And the pro-liberal effect it implied became enshrined as an axiom of how campaign staffers, reporters, and academics viewed social media.In June 2014, Harvard Law scholar Jonathan Zittrain wrote an essay in New Republic called, “Facebook Could Decide an Election Without Anyone Ever Finding Out,” in which he called attention to the possibility of Facebook selectively depressing voter turnout. (He also suggested that Facebook be seen as an “information fiduciary,” charged with certain special roles and responsibilities because it controls so much personal data.)

In late 2014, The Daily Dot called attention to an obscure Facebook-produced case study on how strategists defeated a statewide measure in Florida by relentlessly focusing Facebook ads on Broward and Dade counties, Democratic strongholds. Working with a tiny budget that would have allowed them to send a single mailer to just 150,000 households, the digital-advertising firm Chong and Koster was able to obtain remarkable results. “Where the Facebook ads appeared, we did almost 20 percentage points better than where they didn’t,” testified a leader of the firm. “Within that area, the people who saw the ads were 17 percent more likely to vote our way than the people who didn’t. Within that group, the people who voted the way we wanted them to, when asked why, often cited the messages they learned from the Facebook ads.”

In April 2016, Rob Meyer published “How Facebook Could Tilt the 2016 Election” after a company meeting in which some employees apparently put the stopping-Trump question to Mark Zuckerberg. Based on Fowler’s research, Meyer reimagined Zittrain’s hypothetical as a direct Facebook intervention to depress turnout among non-college graduates, who leaned Trump as a whole.

Facebook, of course, said it would never do such a thing. “Voting is a core value of democracy and we believe that supporting civic participation is an important contribution we can make to the community,” a spokesperson said. “We as a company are neutral—we have not and will not use our products in a way that attempts to influence how people vote.”

They wouldn’t do it intentionally, at least.

As all these examples show, though, the potential for Facebook to have an impact on an election was clear for at least half a decade before Donald Trump was elected. But rather than focusing specifically on the integrity of elections, most writers—myself included, some observers like Sasha IssenbergZeynep Tufekci, and Daniel Kreiss excepted—bundled electoral problems inside other, broader concerns like privacysurveillancetech ideologymedia-industry competition, or the psychological effects of social media.

The same was true even of people inside Facebook. “If you’d come to me in 2012, when the last presidential election was raging and we were cooking up ever more complicated ways to monetize Facebook data, and told me that Russian agents in the Kremlin’s employ would be buying Facebook ads to subvert American democracy, I’d have asked where your tin-foil hat was,” wrote Antonio García Martínez, who managed ad targeting for Facebook back then. “And yet, now we live in that otherworldly political reality.”

Not to excuse us, but this was back on the Old Earth, too, when electoral politics was not the thing that every single person talked about all the time. There were other important dynamics to Facebook’s growing power that needed to be covered.

* * *

Facebook’s draw is its ability to give you what you want. Like a page, get more of that page’s posts; like a story, get more stories like that; interact with a person, get more of their updates. The way Facebook determines the ranking of the News Feed is the probability that you’ll like, comment on, or share a story. Shares are worth more than comments, which are both worth more than likes, but in all cases, the more likely you are to interact with a post, the higher up it will show in your News Feed. Two thousand kinds of data (or “features” in the industry parlance) get smelted in Facebook’s machine-learning system to make those predictions.

What’s crucial to understand is that, from the system’s perspective, success is correctly predicting what you’ll like, comment on, or share. That’s what matters. People call this “engagement.” There are other factors, as Slate’s Will Oremus noted in this rare story about the News Feed ranking team. But who knows how much weight they actually receive and for how long as the system evolves. For example, one change that Facebook highlighted to Oremus in early 2016—taking into account how long people look at a story, even if they don’t click it—was subsequently dismissed by Lars Backstrom, the VP of engineering in charge of News Feed ranking, as a “noisy” signal that’s also “biased in a few ways” making it “hard to use” in a May 2017 technical talk.

Facebook’s engineers do not want to introduce noise into the system. Because the News Feed, this machine for generating engagement, is Facebook’s most important technical system. Their success predicting what you’ll like is why users spend an average of more than 50 minutes a day on the site, and why even the former creator of the “like” button worries about how well the site captures attention. News Feed works really well.

But as far as “personalized newspapers” go, this one’s editorial sensibilities are limited. Most people are far less likely to engage with viewpoints that they find confusing, annoying, incorrect, or abhorrent. And this is true not just in politics, but the broader culture.

That this could be a problem was apparent to many. Eli Pariser’s The Filter Bubble, which came out in the summer of 2011, became the most widely cited distillation of the effects Facebook and other internet platforms could have on public discourse.

Pariser began the book research when he noticed conservative people, whom he’d befriended on the platform despite his left-leaning politics, had disappeared from his News Feed. “I was still clicking my progressive friends’ links more than my conservative friends’— and links to the latest Lady Gaga videos more than either,” he wrote. “So no conservative links for me.”

Through the book, he traces the many potential problems that the “personalization” of media might bring. Most germane to this discussion, he raised the point that if every one of the billion News Feeds is different, how can anyone understand what other people are seeing and responding to?

“The most serious political problem posed by filter bubbles is that they make it increasingly difficult to have a public argument. As the number of different segments and messages increases, it becomes harder and harder for the campaigns to track who’s saying what to whom,” Pariser wrote. “How does a [political] campaign know what its opponent is saying if ads are only targeted to white Jewish men between 28 and 34 who have expressed a fondness for U2 on Facebook and who donated to Barack Obama’s campaign?”

This did, indeed, become an enormous problem. When I was editor in chief of Fusion, we set about trying to track the “digital campaign” with several dedicated people. What we quickly realized was that there was both too much data—the noisiness of all the different posts by the various candidates and their associates—as well as too little. Targeting made tracking the actual messaging that the campaigns were paying for impossible to track. On Facebook, the campaigns could show ads only to the people they targeted. We couldn’t actually see the messages that were actually reaching people in battleground areas. From the outside, it was a technical impossibility to know what ads were running on Facebook, one that the company had fought to keep intact.

Pariser suggests in his book, “one simple solution to this problem would simply be to require campaigns to immediately disclose all of their online advertising materials and to whom each ad is targeted.” Which could happen in future campaigns.

Imagine if this had happened in 2016. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 March 2018 at 11:36 am

Wow! This Facebook thing is a fusion bomb.

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From Brian Stelter’s Reliable Sources:

Exec summary: Scroll down for Ralph Peters’ scorching statement about Fox News, NYMag’s new hire, Google’s subscription help, and another “Black Panther” record… Plus, a snow day delay in the AT&T trial…


What will Facebook do?

Lawmakers in the U.S. and the U.K. are asking Mark Zuckerberg to testify… FTC officials are making inquiries… And Cambridge Analytica is suspending CEOAlexander Nix.

What will Wednesday bring? Maybe a public statement from Zuckerberg and/or Sheryl Sandberg. As CNN’s Laurie Segall reported, frustration is brewing inside Facebook about the company’s response to this crisis…

–> FB says Zuckerberg and Sandberg are “working around the clock to get all the facts… The entire company is outraged we were deceived…

–> Zuck’s former mentor Roger McNamee told Christiane Amanpour that Facebook is confronting a crisis of public trust “that is going to destroy the company…”

–> Wired’s Nicholas Thompson and Fred Vogelstein summed it up well here: “A Hurricane Flattens Facebook”

Meet the data scientist

Donie O’Sullivan emails: We tracked down Aleksandr Kogan, the scientist that swept up Facebook data on millions of Americans for Cambridge Analytica. He saysFacebook is making him a scapegoat… He suspects thousands of other developers gathered Facebook data just like him… And he says he’s willing to talk to Congress…

–> Kogan’s point about FB: “Using users’ data for profit is their business model…”

 –> Donie adds: For a guy that has prompted so much international intrigue these past few days, Kogan seems quite calm about it all. He seems to find it more surreal than anything else…

Continue reading.

And definitely watch this video.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 March 2018 at 9:08 pm

The Dream/Nightmare (depending on your POV) Team Opposing Trump

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From a comment in the Washington Post:

Meet the Dream Team of Prosecuting Attorneys that are going to put Trump away.
Robert Mueller (Representing the USA):
Michael Avengetti (Representing Stormy Daniels):
Gloria Allred: (Representing Summer Zervos):
Peter K. Stris (Representing Karen McDougal):

Written by LeisureGuy

20 March 2018 at 8:50 pm

Trump Economist Wants to Give Rich People Another Tax Break, Without a Vote in Congress

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Sigh. Jonathan Chait writes in New York magazine:

The Trump administration’s new National Economic Council director, Lawrence Kudlow, has a lifelong monomaniacal obsession with reducing taxes for the rich. Unfortunately for Kudlow and his boss, Republicans have already used up their one-per-session budget reconciliation bill, which would allow them to pass a tax cut bill with a majority vote in the Senate, unlike the normal 60-vote requirement. And since Democrats aren’t about to support another tax cut for the rich — zero supported the last one — they’re stuck for this term.

Or are they? The Wall Street Journal’s Richard Rubin reports that Kudlow is interested in applying an inflation index to the capital gains tax. “Some believe Potus could do it as exec order,” he told Rubin via email.

The policy Kudlow is describing would reduce the amount of taxable income paid by people who receive income from capital gains (mostly, by selling stock). As it stands, right now, if you bought $1,000 worth of stock, and sold it ten years later for $1,500, you would pay tax on the $500 you gained.

The tax code already confers a lot of benefits upon capital gains income. First of all, people who earn money from capital gains don’t pay ordinary income tax rates, as they did in the aftermath of the 1986 Tax Reform Act. They pay a tax rate that’s about half the level of taxes on ordinary income. Second, they get the additional benefit of deferring all taxes until the sale goes through. Their stock portfolio can appreciate for years or decades without any tax, unlike wage income, on which taxes are paid annually. And third, gains in stock that is passed on to heirs go completely untaxed, a massive break.

Conservatives have long wanted to give capital gains an additional break, by subtracting inflation from the taxable gain. So, to go back to that $500 stock gain, if inflation ran a total of 10 percent over that decade, then the IRS would knock $100 off the value of the sale, and you’d only be taxed for a $400 capital gain.

Republicans have been proposing this change for a long time but have never enacted it, in part because Democrats have opposed it as a complicated change that would give rich people a windfall for no serious economic benefit. The Congressional Budget Office published a paper analyzing it back in 1990. Kudlow is proposing that Trump would just go ahead and order the IRS to implement this change on its own, via executive order.

If Trump does this, would it stand up in court to a legal challenge? Probably not, since Congress obviously did not intend to make this change when it wrote capital gains tax laws —but you never know what judge you might get. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 March 2018 at 8:47 pm

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