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16
Aug

Google employees protest secret work on censored search engine for China

Some of the people working for the Monster of Mountain View still have a conscience, even if their bosses don’t. Via The New York Times:

Hundreds of Google employees, upset at the company’s decision to secretly build a censored version of its search engine for China, have signed a letter demanding more transparency to understand the ethical consequences of their work.

In the letter, which was obtained by The New York Times, employees wrote that the project and Google’s apparent willingness to abide by China’s censorship requirements “raise urgent moral and ethical issues.” They added, “Currently we do not have the information required to make ethically-informed decisions about our work, our projects, and our employment.”

The letter is circulating on Google’s internal communication systems and is signed by about 1,400 employees, according to three people familiar with the document, who were not authorized to speak publicly.

Props to these brave souls for speaking up and letting management know they’re not comfortable doing secret work on a project that could result in Google collaborating with Xi’s authoritarian regime.

13
Aug

Google records your location even when you tell it not to

An important catch from The Associated Press, via The Guardian:

Google wants to know where you go so badly that it records your movements even when you explicitly tell it not to.

An Associated Press investigation found that many Google services on Android devices and iPhones store your location data even if you’ve used a privacy setting that says it will prevent Google from doing so.

Computer science researchers at Princeton confirmed these findings at the AP’s request.

The article goes on to say:

Storing your minute-by-minute travels carries privacy risks and has been used by police to determine the location of suspects. So the company will let you “pause” a setting called “location history”.

Google says that will prevent the company from remembering where you’ve been. Google’s support page on the subject states: “You can turn off Location History at any time. With Location History off, the places you go are no longer stored.”

That isn’t true. Even with “location history” paused, some Google apps automatically store time-stamped location data without asking.

For nearly ten years, this site has been chronicling Google’s war on user privacy, so this is hardly a surprising development. Nevertheless, it shows the need for regulation. Google is never going to reform its ways of its own accord. Its entire business model is based on destroying privacy. And it will go on doing so while feigning to care about its users until governments compel it to change its business practices.

21
Jul

“Google’s iron grip on Android: Controlling open source by any means necessary” gets reposted by Ars Technica

Props to Ars:

In light of the $5 billion EU antitrust ruling against Google this week, we started noticing a certain classic Ars story circulating around social media. Google’s methods of controlling the open source Android code and discouraging Android forks is exactly the kind of behavior the EU has a problem with, and many of the techniques outlined in this 2013 article are still in use today.

The idea of a sequel to this piece has come up a few times, but Google’s Android strategy of an open source base paired with key proprietary apps and services hasn’t really changed in the last five or so years. There have been updates to Google’s proprietary apps so that they look different from the screenshots in this article, but the base strategy outlined here is still very relevant. So in light of the latest EU development, we’re resurfacing this story for the weekend. It first ran on October 20, 2013 and appears largely unchanged — but we did toss in a few “In 2018” updates anywhere they felt particularly relevant.

This is a great read that demonstrates what a menacing monopoly Google is. Android, at least in the form it ships in to most people, is not a “free”, “libre”, or “open source” operating system. It is a mostly proprietary OS with some open source components. That ultimately makes it no different and no better than other proprietary mobile platforms that also utilize some free software for certain components like their web browsers.

18
Jul

EU authorities hit Google with megafine, showing they’re serious about regulating Big Tech (unlike U.S.)

Three cheers for the European Union:

European authorities fined Google a record $5.1 billion on Wednesday for abusing its power in the mobile phone market and ordered the company to alter its practices, in one of the most aggressive regulatory actions against American technology giants and one that may force lasting changes to smartphones.

The European Union’s antitrust fine of 4.34 billion euros was almost double the bloc’s fine against Google last year over the company’s unfair favoring of its own services in internet search results. The penalty’s size highlighted Europe’s increasingly bold stance against the power of American tech firms, even as officials in the United States have taken a largely hands-off approach to the companies.

The fine was coupled with remedies that would effectively loosen Google’s grip over its Android software, which is used in 80 percent of the world’s smartphones and is a key part of the Silicon Valley company’s business. Those changes, which European regulators ordered to take effect in 90 days, undercut Google’s ability to automatically include its own search and other apps in mobile devices, opening it to more competition in a market that it has dominated.

“Google has used Android as a vehicle to cement the dominance of its search engine,” said Margrethe Vestager, Europe’s antitrust chief. “These practices have denied rivals the chance to innovate and compete on the merits. They have denied European consumers the benefits of effective competition in the important mobile sphere.”

This needed to happen, badly. Big props to Margrethe Vestager, who just proved she’s serious about enforcing antitrust laws, unlike authorities in the United States, who have continually done nothing as Google (and Facebook and Amazon) have become bigger and amassed ever more power.

Google utterly dominates both mobile computing as well as search & advertising online (with the exception of Facebook’s walled garden). Yet Google has not been subjected to rigorous antitrust scrutiny by U.S. agencies. The most that ever happens is that Google gets slapped on the wrist for a privacy bugaboo or snafu of some sort. The company’s aggressive growth has not been checked or challenged at all.

23
May

Google, You Owe Us: U.K. based campaign seeks to fine Monster of Mountain View for clandestine iPhone tracking

This is great:

Google’s in trouble again over the “Safari Workaround”: the iPhone shakedown for personal information from millions of iPhone users.

In 2012, the workaround got the search giant fined by the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for $22.5m, fined again a year later for $17m after it got sued by dozens of states, and now has the UK’s Google You Owe Us campaign out for its own pound of flesh.

Make that a few pounds of flesh: The Google You Owe Us campaign has started the process of getting its own comeuppance, and the US fines pale in comparison to what the British group is after.

Monday marked day one in London’s high court, where the collective action is suing the company for what could be as much as £3.2bn (USD $4.3b), according to court filings.

The campaign even has its own beautifully crafted website, which is totally worth checking out.

18
May

Multiple Google employees quit over company’s machine learning contract with the Pentagon

Bravo to these folks for taking a stand. Bravo!

It’s been nearly three months since many Google employees—and the public—learned about the company’s decision to provide artificial intelligence to a controversial military pilot program known as Project Maven, which aims to speed up analysis of drone footage by automatically classifying images of objects and people. Now, about a dozen Google employees are resigning in protest over the company’s continued involvement in Maven.

The resigning employees’ frustrations range from particular ethical concerns over the use of artificial intelligence in drone warfare to broader worries about Google’s political decisions—and the erosion of user trust that could result from these actions. Many of them have written accounts of their decisions to leave the company, and their stories have been gathered and shared in an internal document, the contents of which multiple sources have described to Gizmodo.

It takes a lot of courage to give up your job in protest of your employer’s business practices. But that is exactly what these twelve people have done. They have refused to compromise on their principles after learning what was going on. They couldn’t go on at Google because they knew Google was doing something immoral.

16
Apr

Bloomberg: Google’s Facebook copycat moves leave it more exposed to privacy backlash

Facebook may be getting all the attention lately, but the Monster of Mountain View is still, well, a monster:

No one at Google envied Mark Zuckerberg last week as he was being grilled by Congress. But for years, they certainly coveted the personal data that made Facebook Inc. a formidable digital ad player. And the strategies they set to compete have now placed Google squarely in the cross hairs of a privacy backlash against the world’s largest social-media company.

A backlash that has been a long time in coming.

“Google, in every respect, collects more data. Google, in every respect, has a much bigger advertising business,” said David Chavern, president of News Media Alliance, a publisher trade group. Rather than “a Facebook privacy law,” he expects regulation to target the entire industry.

Google’s many brushes with controversy haven’t deterred the company from making its business practices ever more invasive. Mimicry of Facebook has been occurring for years.

In 2015, the search giant unveiled Customer Match, a tool letting advertisers target ads using consumers’ Gmail addresses. That mirrored a popular Facebook offering called Custom Audiences. Google Plus, the company’s social network, failed to catch on with users but did prompt millions of people to log in to Google’s other web properties, catnip for marketers. Those changes helped Google’s display ad business blossom. Morgan Stanley recently pegged its value at $36 billion.

Political advertisers are among those embracing DoubleClick. Last year, the unit touted a case study with i360, a marketing firm affiliated with the conservative power brokers Charles and David Koch. i360 uses its own data to slice online populations into segments, such as those for and against gun control and traditional marriage. A Google blog post explained how DoubleClick’s systems sucked in that information to help i360 boost the number of its ads people saw. i360 didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Google is incapable of regulating itself, so we clearly need an American equivalent of the European General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR, as soon as possible.

23
Mar

Crooks infiltrate Google Play with malware in QR reading utilities

Google fails again… surprise, surprise:

SophosLabs just alerted us to a malware family that had infiltrated Google Play by presenting itself as a bunch of handy utilities.

Sophos detects this malware as Andr/HiddnAd-AJ, and the name gives you an inkling of what the rogue apps do: blast you with ads, but only after lying low for a while to lull you into a false sense of security.

We reported the offending apps to Google, and they’ve now been pulled from the Play Store, but not before some of them attracted more than 500,000 downloads.

The subterfuge used by the developers to keep Google’s “Play Protect” app-vetting process sweet seems surprisingly simple.

Prefer Android to iOS? Use F-Droid to get apps, NOT Google Play. There’s no malware lurking on F-Droid.

22
Nov

Google admits tracking users’ location even when location services are disabled

Big Brother is watching you. Even if you’ve told Big Brother Google you don’t want to be tracked.

Many people realize that smartphones track their locations. But what if you actively turn off location services, haven’t used any apps, and haven’t even inserted a carrier SIM card?

Even if you take all of those precautions, phones running Android software gather data about your location and send it back to Google when they’re connected to the internet, a Quartz investigation has revealed.

Since the beginning of 2017, Android phones have been collecting the addresses of nearby cellular towers—even when location services are disabled—and sending that data back to Google. The result is that Google, the unit of Alphabet behind Android, has access to data about individuals’ locations and their movements that go far beyond a reasonable consumer expectation of privacy.

Quartz observed the data collection occur and contacted Google, which confirmed the practice.

When confronted, Google claimed that the tracking was happening in part to improve message delivery, which Quartz rightly deemed to be a completely bogus explanation.

It is not clear how cell-tower addresses, transmitted as a data string that identifies a specific cell tower, could have been used to improve message delivery. But the privacy implications of the covert location-sharing practice are plain. While information about a single cell tower can only offer an approximation of where a mobile device actually is, multiple towers can be used to triangulate its location to within about a quarter-mile radius, or to a more exact pinpoint in urban areas, where cell towers are closer together.

The practice is troubling for people who’d prefer they weren’t tracked, especially for those such as law-enforcement officials or victims of domestic abuse who turn off location services thinking they’re fully concealing their whereabouts. Although the data sent to Google is encrypted, it could potentially be sent to a third party if the phone had been compromised with spyware or other methods of hacking. Each phone has a unique ID number, with which the location data can be associated.

Read the whole thing.

1
Nov

Google’s reCaptcha defeated again

NakedSecurity reports:

Researchers have created an automated system to solve Google’s reCAPTCHA auditory challenges.

Again.

Poor, poor prove-you’re-a-human reCAPTCHA tests – also known as Completely Automated Procedures for Telling Computers and Humans Apart – they get no respect!

The point of reCAPTCHA challenges is to act as a gate that lets humans through but stops or slows down bots (software robots), so a bot that can solve a CAPTCHA automatically defeats the whole object of reCAPTCHA. And yet, that’s precisely what keeps happening. There are three kinds, and they’ve all been automatically kicked over by researchers.

reCAPTCHA tests aren’t much of a hurdle for sophisticated spammers, but they definitely inconvenience and annoy users. Yet they are in widespread use all over the place. Time to get rid of them and replace them with something better.