“Scandal” and “Little Fires Everywhere” star Kerry Washington won her first Emmy Award yesterday, but when she joined us at TechCrunch Disrupt today, she was much more focused on her work as an investor.
Washington traced much of her interest in technology to the premiere of “Scandal” in 2012. It had, she said, been “almost 40 years since a Black woman was the lead on a network drama,” which meant that the pressure was high — and that “Scandal” was considered a “bubble show,” with the network “taking a big risk by putting a Black woman in the lead.”
So Washington said she drew on her experience as a volunteer with Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns in 2008 and 2012, and particularly her work with social media organizing, to try to rally support.
“From the very beginning of that show, we leveraged the power of technology to support the show in ways that traditional media wasn’t supporting us — or was waiting to see what the public response would be,” she said. “Really, I think the Twitter-verse allowed us to have a second season, and then we kind of took off from there.”
As for how that led to investing her own money into startups, Washington suggested that she wanted to be more involved.
“When it comes to my engagement with any sort of any creative relationship that I’m in, I’m not really good at having a seat at the table without a voice,” she said. For example, she noted, “I gravitated very quickly in my career … toward being a producer.”
Similarly, she said that using tech tools was exciting, “but figuring out how to have more stake, more input, more creative voice, more ability to impact the technology itself was really exciting for me.”
Washington’s first investment was in female co-working space The Wing. which she explained as being part of her commitment to “ideas of inclusivity and community, celebrating identity in a really inclusive way, supporting women’s voices, supporting marginalized voices.”
The Wing has seen its share of success, but also controversy, with a New York Times article reporting that a number of employees (particularly women of color) felt that they had been mistreated. In the wake of these criticisms, CEO Aubrey Gelman departed this summer.
When asked about her response to the controversy, Washington said, “As somebody who’s an investor, as a woman of color, it’s important to me that there is increased transparency and also accountability.” She said that over the past few months, her role as an investor has been “really just supporting leadership in this transition,” while also expressing a “deep desire” for that transparency and accountability.
Other investments include Community, which allows celebrities to manage text message conversations with fans. (Washington promised that if you text her, she will really be the one who responds — though she also asked for patience, since she’s texting with “thousands and thousands of people.”) There’s also direct-to-consumer teeth-straightening startup Byte, which Washington said she uses herself.
As for her dream startup, Washington said she has a not-yet-announced investment in a direct-to-consumer fashion startup, “and it feels really dreamy at the moment.”
Again, these have all been personal investments so far. Would Washington consider raising a fund or joining a venture capital firm?
“I have considered it, but at this point, I really like having the more intimate and really hands-on relationship with the investments that I’ve made,” she said. “I feel like I’m really able to be in the trenches and bring more value as an individual investor.”
The U.S. government rolled out a new online tool Wednesday designed to give the public insight into where and who is testing automated vehicle technology throughout the country.
The official name of the online tool — Automated Vehicle Transparency and Engagement for Safe Testing Initiative tracking tool — is a jargony mess of a word salad. Fortunately, its mechanics are straightforward. The online tool gives users the ability to find information about on-road testing of automated vehicles in 17 cities throughout the United States. The public can find out information about a company’s on-road testing and safety performance, the number of vehicles in its fleet as well as AV-related legislation or policy in specific states.
The AV tracking tool is part of the Automated Vehicle Transparency and Engagement for Safe Testing Initiative, called AV TEST for short, that was announced in June. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is overseeing the AV TEST Initiative.
The online tool is hardly comprehensive, but it’s a start, and continues to expand. The tool currently shows data in 17 cities, including Austin, Columbus (Ohio), Dallas, Denver, Jacksonville, Orlando, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, Salt Lake City, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. The data might include testing activity as well as dates, frequency, vehicle counts and routes, NHTSA said.
The information on the interactive web page is based on information that companies have volunteered. In other words, companies testing automated vehicle technology are not required by the federal government to provide data.
However, a growing number of AV founders and engineers understand that public education and acceptance will be necessary if they ever hope to commercially deploy their technology. Ten companies and nine states have already signed on as participants in the voluntary web pilot. The participating companies, to date, are Beep, Cruise, EasyMile, FCA, LM Industries, Navya, Nuro, Toyota, Waymo and Uber Advanced Technologies Group. The online tool also contains voluntarily submitted safety reports from Aurora, Ike, Kodiak, Lyft, TuSimple and Zoox.
NHTSA has limited the number of companies submitting data during the pilot phase, Dr. Joseph M. Kolly, the agency’s chief safety scientist said during a briefing earlier Wednesday.
“The more information the public has about the on-road testing of automated driving systems, the more they will understand the development of this promising technology,” NHTSA Deputy Administrator James Owens said in a statement. “Automated driving systems are not yet available for sale to the public, and the AV TEST Initiative will help improve public understanding of the technology’s potential and limitations as it continues to develop.”
Microsoft has added to the slowly growing pile of technologies aimed at spotting synthetic media (aka deepfakes) with the launch of a tool for analyzing videos and still photos to generate a manipulation score.
The tool, called Video Authenticator, provides what Microsoft calls “a percentage chance, or confidence score” that the media has been artificially manipulated.
“In the case of a video, it can provide this percentage in real-time on each frame as the video plays,” it writes in a blog post announcing the tech. “It works by detecting the blending boundary of the deepfake and subtle fading or greyscale elements that might not be detectable by the human eye.”
If a piece of online content looks real but ‘smells’ wrong chances are it’s a high tech manipulation trying to pass as real — perhaps with a malicious intent to misinform people.
And while plenty of deepfakes are created with a very different intent — to be funny or entertaining — taken out of context such synthetic media can still take on a life of its own as it spreads, meaning it can also end up tricking unsuspecting viewers.
While AI tech is used to generate realistic deepfakes, identifying visual disinformation using technology is still a hard problem — and a critically thinking mind remains the best tool for spotting high tech BS.
Nonetheless, technologists continue to work on deepfake spotters — including this latest offering from Microsoft.
Although its blog post warns the tech may offer only passing utility in the AI-fuelled disinformation arms race: “The fact that [deepfakes are] generated by AI that can continue to learn makes it inevitable that they will beat conventional detection technology. However, in the short run, such as the upcoming U.S. election, advanced detection technologies can be a useful tool to help discerning users identify deepfakes.”
This summer a competition kicked off by Facebook to develop a deepfake detector served up results that were better than guessing — but only just in the case of a data-set the researchers hadn’t had prior access to.
Microsoft, meanwhile, says its Video Authenticator tool was created using a public dataset from Face Forensic++ and tested on the DeepFake Detection Challenge Dataset, which it notes are “both leading models for training and testing deepfake detection technologies”.
It’s partnering with the San Francisco-based AI Foundation to make the tool available to organizations involved in the democratic process this year — including news outlets and political campaigns.
“Video Authenticator will initially be available only through RD2020 [Reality Defender 2020], which will guide organizations through the limitations and ethical considerations inherent in any deepfake detection technology. Campaigns and journalists interested in learning more can contact RD2020 here,” Microsoft adds.
The tool has been developed by its R&D division, Microsoft Research, in coordination with its Responsible AI team and an internal advisory body on AI, Ethics and Effects in Engineering and Research Committee — as part of a wider program Microsoft is running aimed at defending democracy from threats posed by disinformation.
“We expect that methods for generating synthetic media will continue to grow in sophistication,” it continues. “As all AI detection methods have rates of failure, we have to understand and be ready to respond to deepfakes that slip through detection methods. Thus, in the longer term, we must seek stronger methods for maintaining and certifying the authenticity of news articles and other media. There are few tools today to help assure readers that the media they’re seeing online came from a trusted source and that it wasn’t altered.”
On the latter front, Microsoft has also announced a system that will enable content producers to add digital hashes and certificates to media that remain in their metadata as the content travels online — providing a reference point for authenticity.
The second component of the system is a reader tool, which can be deployed as a browser extension, for checking certificates and matching the hashes to offer the viewer what Microsoft calls “a high degree of accuracy” that a particular piece of content is authentic/hasn’t been changed.
The certification will also provide the viewer with details about who produced the media.
Microsoft is hoping this digital watermarking authenticity system will end up underpinning a Trusted News Initiative announced last year by UK publicly funded broadcaster, the BBC — specifically for a verification component, called Project Origin, which is led by a coalition of the BBC, CBC/Radio-Canada, Microsoft and The New York Times.
It says the digital watermarking tech will be tested by Project Origin with the aim of developing it into a standard that can be adopted broadly.
“The Trusted News Initiative, which includes a range of publishers and social media companies, has also agreed to engage with this technology. In the months ahead, we hope to broaden work in this area to even more technology companies, news publishers and social media companies,” Microsoft adds.
While work on technologies to identify deepfakes continues, its blog post also emphasizes the importance of media literacy — flagging a partnership with the University of Washington, Sensity and USA Today aimed at boosting critical thinking ahead of the US election.
This partnership has launched a Spot the Deepfake Quiz for voters in the US to “learn about synthetic media, develop critical media literacy skills and gain awareness of the impact of synthetic media on democracy”, as it puts it.
The interactive quiz will be distributed across web and social media properties owned by USA Today, Microsoft and the University of Washington and through social media advertising, per the blog post.
The tech giant also notes that it’s supporting a public service announcement (PSA) campaign in the US encouraging people to take a “reflective pause” and check to make sure information comes from a reputable news organization before they share or promote it on social media ahead of the upcoming election.
“The PSA campaign will help people better understand the harm misinformation and disinformation have on our democracy and the importance of taking the time to identify, share and consume reliable information. The ads will run across radio stations in the United States in September and October,” it adds.
Security researchers say they have developed a new technique to detect modern cell-site simulators.
Cell site simulators, known as “stingrays,” impersonate cell towers and can capture information about any phone in its range — including in some cases calls, messages and data. Police secretly deploy stingrays hundreds of times a year across the United States, often capturing the data on innocent bystanders in the process.
Little is known about stingrays, because they are deliberately shrouded in secrecy. Developed by Harris Corp. and sold exclusively to police and law enforcement, stingrays are covered under strict nondisclosure agreements that prevent police from discussing how the technology works. But what we do know is that stingrays exploit flaws in the way that cell phones connect to 2G cell networks.
Most of those flaws are fixed in the newer, faster and more secure 4G networks, though not all. Newer cell site simulators, called “Hailstorm” devices, take advantage of similar flaws in 4G that let police snoop on newer phones and devices.
Some phone apps claim they can detect stingrays and other cell site simulators, but most produce wrong results.
But now researchers at the Electronic Frontier Foundation have discovered a new technique that can detect Hailstorm devices.
Enter the EFF’s latest project, dubbed “Crocodile Hunter” — named after Australian nature conservationist Steve Irwin who was killed by a stingray’s barb in 2006 — helps detect cell site simulators and decodes nearby 4G signals to determine if a cell tower is legitimate or not.
Every time your phone connects to the 4G network, it runs through a checklist — known as a handshake — to make sure that the phone is allowed to connect to the network. It does this by exchanging a series of unencrypted messages with the cell tower, including unique details about the user’s phone — such as its IMSI number and its approximate location. These messages, known as the master information block (MIB) and the system information block (SIB), are broadcast by the cell tower to help the phone connect to the network.
“This is where the heart of all of the vulnerabilities lie in 4G,” said Cooper Quintin, a senior staff technologist at the EFF, who headed the research.
Quintin and fellow researcher Yomna Nasser, who authored the EFF’s technical paper on how cell site simulators work, found that collecting and decoding the MIB and SIB messages over the air can identify potentially illegitimate cell towers.
This became the foundation of the Crocodile Hunter project.
A rare public photo of a stingray, manufactured by Harris Corp. Image Credits: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office
Crocodile Hunter is open-source, allowing anyone to run it, but it requires a stack of both hardware and software to work. Once up and running, Crocodile Hunter scans for 4G cellular signals, begins decoding the tower data, and uses trilateration to visualize the towers on a map.
But the system does require some thought and human input to find anomalies that could identify a real cell site simulator. Those anomalies can look like cell towers appearing out of nowhere, towers that appear to move or don’t match known mappings of existing towers, or are broadcasting MIB and SIB messages that don’t seem to make sense.
That’s why verification is important, Quintin said, and stingray-detecting apps don’t do this.
“Just because we find an anomaly, doesn’t mean we found the cell site simulator. We actually need to go verify,” he said.
In one test, Quintin traced a suspicious-looking cell tower to a truck outside a conference center in San Francisco. It turned out to be a legitimate mobile cell tower, contracted to expand the cell capacity for a tech conference inside. “Cells on wheels are pretty common,” said Quintin. “But they have some interesting similarities to cell site simulators, namely in that they are a portable cell that isn’t usually there and suddenly it is, and then leaves.”
In another test carried out earlier this year at the ShmooCon security conference in Washington, D.C. where cell site simulators have been found before, Quintin found two suspicious cell towers using Crocodile Hunter: One tower that was broadcasting a mobile network identifier associated with a Bermuda cell network and another tower that didn’t appear to be associated with a cell network at all. Neither made much sense, given Washington, D.C. is nowhere near Bermuda.
Quintin said that the project was aimed at helping to detect cell site simulators, but conceded that police will continue to use cell site simulators for as long as the cell networks are vulnerable to their use, an effort that could take years to fix.
Instead, Quintin said that the phone makers could do more at the device level to prevent attacks by allowing users to switch off access to legacy 2G networks, effectively allowing users to opt-out of legacy stingray attacks. Meanwhile, cell networks and industry groups should work to fix the vulnerabilities that Hailstorm devices exploit.
“None of these solutions are going to be foolproof,” said Quintin. “But we’re not even doing the bare minimum yet.”
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America’s technology industry, radiating brilliance and profitability from its Silicon Valley home base, was until recently a shining beacon of what made America great: Science, progress, entrepreneurship. But public opinion has swung against big tech amazingly fast and far; negative views doubled between 2015 and 2019 from 17% to 34%. The list of concerns is long and includes privacy, treatment of workers, marketplace fairness, the carnage among ad-supported publications and the poisoning of public discourse.
But there’s one big issue behind all of these: An industry ravenous for growth, profit and power, that has failed at treating its employees, its customers and the inhabitants of society at large as human beings. Bear in mind that products, companies and ecosystems are built by people, for people. They reflect the values of the society around them, and right now, America’s values are in a troubled state.
We both have a lot of respect and affection for the United States, birthplace of the microprocessor and the electric guitar. We could have pursued our tech careers there, but we’ve declined repeated invitations and chosen to stay at home here in Canada . If you want to build technology to be harnessed for equity, diversity and social advancement of the many, rather than freedom and inclusion for the few, we think Canada is a good place to do it.
U.S. big tech is correctly seen as having too much money, too much power and too little accountability. Those at the top clearly see the best effects of their innovations, but rarely the social costs. They make great things — but they also disrupt lives, invade privacy and abuse their platforms.
We both came of age at a time when tech aspired to something better, and so did some of today’s tech giants. Four big tech CEOs recently testified in front of Congress. They were grilled about alleged antitrust abuses, although many of us watching were thinking about other ills associated with some of these companies: tax avoidance, privacy breaches, data mining, surveillance, censorship, the spread of false news, toxic byproducts, disregard for employee welfare.
But the industry’s problem isn’t really the products themselves — or the people who build them. Tech workers tend to be dramatically more progressive than the companies they work for, as Facebook staff showed in their recent walkout over President Donald Trump’s posts.
Big tech’s problem is that it amplifies the issues Americans are struggling with more broadly. That includes economic polarization, which is echoed in big-tech financial statements, and the race politics that prevent tech (among other industries) from being more inclusive to minorities and talented immigrants.
We’re particularly struck by the Trump administration’s recent moves to deny opportunities to H-1B visa holders. Coming after several years of family separations, visa bans and anti-immigrant rhetoric, it seems almost calculated to send IT experts, engineers, programmers, researchers, doctors, entrepreneurs and future leaders from around the world — the kind of talented newcomers who built America’s current prosperity — fleeing to more receptive shores.
One of those shores is Canada’s; that’s where we live and work. Our country has long courted immigration, but it’s turned around its longstanding brain-drain problem in recent years with policies designed to scoop up talented people who feel uncomfortable or unwanted in America. We have an immigration program, the Global Talent Stream, that helps innovative companies fast-track foreign workers with specialized skills. Cities like Toronto, Montreal, Waterloo and Vancouver have been leading North America in tech job creation during the Trump years, fuelled by outposts of the big international tech companies but also by scaled-up domestic firms that do things the Canadian way, such as enterprise software developer OpenText (one of us is a co-founder) and e-commerce giant Shopify.
But it’s not just about policy; it’s about underlying values. Canada is exceptionally comfortable with diversity, in theory (as expressed in immigration policy) and practice (just walk down a street in Vancouver or Toronto). We’re not perfect, but we have been competently led and reasonably successful in recognizing the issues we need to deal with. And our social contract is more cooperative and inclusive.
Yes, that means public health care with no copays, but it also means more emphasis on sustainability, corporate responsibility and a more collaborative strain of capitalism. Our federal and provincial governments have mostly been applauded for their gusher of stimulative wage subsidies and grants meant to sustain small businesses and tech talent during the pandemic, whereas Washington’s response now appears to have been formulated in part to funnel public money to elites.
American big tech today feels morally adrift, which leads to losing out on talented people who want to live the values Silicon Valley used to stand for — not just wealth, freedom and the few, but inclusivity, diversity and the many. Canada is just one alternative to the U.S. model, but it’s the alternative we know best and the one just across the border, with loads of technology job openings.
It wouldn’t surprise us if more tech refugees find themselves voting with their feet.
Amazon has received approval from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to launch and operate a planned constellation of 3,236 internet satellites. That’s the backbone of Amazon’s Project Kuiper, an initiative to create a satellite-based broadband internet service designed to provide high-speed, low latency connections to U.S.-based households that currently don’t have great access to a high-speed connection.
Alongside the key regulatory approval, Amazon also announced that it would be committing over $10 billion in Kuiper, money that it says will generate U.S. jobs and involve not only building and testing satellites for the constellation, but also building out key ground network infrastructure that’s required in order to actually make the connectivity available to consumers.
Amazon’s Kuiper includes plans to provide backhaul service to carriers in addition to direct consumer service. Essentially, that means it’ll offer a way for carriers to offer high-speed LTE and 5G wireless connections to their customers in more areas where they don’t currently have the ground station infrastructure to do so. Amazon says this will be on offer “in the United States and around the world,” so it sounds like the plan is to first address the U.S. market and then expand the Kuiper network globally from there.
Amazon lags behind SpaceX in terms of deployment, since the latter company is actually launching satellites for its Starlink network, and looks ready to enter a beta testing program for the service this summer. The Jeff Bezos -led e-commerce giant has opened a brand new R&D facility in Redmond, Washington dedicated entirely to Kuiper development, however, and partner Blue Origin, Bezos’ space launch company, has been securing significant industry partnerships and could be ready to provide launch services for Kuiper satellites relatively soon.
It’s also unlikely that this emerging market for low Earth orbit satellites will have only one winner; provided these networks can actually live up to their promises in terms of latency, speed and quality connection, there will likely be room for multiple providers to compete on a global scale. Amazon’s $10 billion investment is also another good reason to bet it’ll be able to make this a reality – few others out there have as reliable a funding pipeline for the massive upfront infrastructure costs that come with launching a large satellite constellation.
“The doctor’s office is dead.”
That’s the way Nick Desai, the co-founder and chief executive of the Los Angeles-based startup Heal describes the future of traditional healthcare delivery.
While Desai’s bluster may be wishful thinking, the doctor’s office is certainly changing, and that’s thanks in part to companies like Heal, which offer in-home and telemedical consultations — and health insurance providers like Humana that are backing them.
The two companies have announced a new partnership that will see Humana pushing Heal’s in-home and virtual care delivery services to the patients it covers and committing $100 million to spur the Los Angeles-based startup’s growth.
“Humana has a more strategic view of home-based care,” said Desai. “We want all payers to be this strategic. Most insurance partners offer Heal now but we want them to view it more strategically.”
For Desai, the home is the best place to get care because doctors can see the environment that may influence (and in some cases complicate or worsen) a patient’s condition. Heal, Desai says, also works with the digital technologies to provide more remote and persistent patient monitoring, so that doctors can have a better sense of a patient’s health over time, rather than at an acute moment of care.
“You want to talk to the doctor and get continuity of care,” said Desai. “We think we are… an accelerant for the adoption of those services.”
Things like iPhone-based EKG machines, remote diagnostics to determine diabetic retinopathy, digital hubs to provide remote monitoring of body mass and movement are all hardware offerings within Heal’s panoply of care and diagnostic solutions. “We want to be able to gather more and more of those diagnostics remotely,” Desai said. “Anything that makes care more accurate, more data driven, more timely we want to use and ask our patients to utilize so that they can get better care, more quickly and more affordably.”
The new financing from Humana will go to support Heal’s geographic expansion, product development, and sales and marketing, Desai said. Already, the company has expanded into new treatment areas, including teletherapy for mental health.
Discussion between Heal and the Louisville-based Humana began back in December and the two businesses only inked the final terms of their deal last week.
Heal telemedicine, telepsychology (CA only), and digital monitoring services are currently available in New York, New Jersey, Washington, California, Georgia, Virginia, Maryland, and Washington D.C. To date, the company has linked patients with over 200,000 home visits from doctors since its launch in 2015.
Under the terms of the agreement with Humana, will expand to geographies in Chicago, Charlotte and Houston as part of Humana’s “Bold Goal” program focusing on addressing and creating healthcare services that address social determinants and social needs for its population of insured patients.
“The partnership with Heal is part of Humana’s efforts to build a broader set of offerings across the spectrum of home based care, with high quality, value-based primary care being a key foundational element,” said Susan Diamond, Humana’s Segment President, Home Business, who is joining Heal’s Board of Directors as part of the partnership and investment. “We continue to see high levels of customer satisfaction and improved health outcomes when care is delivered in the home. Our goal is to make the healthcare experience easier, more personalized and caring for the people we serve—and is the hallmark of how Humana delivers human care.”
For Desai, the deal is also an indicator of not just his company’s growth, but the growth of the entire Los Angeles technology ecosystem.
“Heal’s funding just proves that LA is as much an epicenter of venture backed ecosystem as any in the country including Silicon Valley,” he said.
U.S. prosecutors have charged two Chinese nationals, said to be working for China’s state intelligence bureau, for their alleged involvement in a massive global hacking operation that targeted hundreds of companies and governments for more than a decade.
The 11-count indictment, unsealed Tuesday, alleges Li Xiaoyu, 34, and Dong Jiazhi, 33, stole terabytes of data from high-technology companies, around the world — including the United States, the prosecutors said.
More recently, the prosecutors accused the hackers of targeting the networks of several U.S. companies in Maryland, Massachusetts and California developing vaccines and treatments for COVID-19.
The indictment comes just weeks after both the FBI and Homeland Security warned that China was actively trying to steal U.S. research data related to the coronavirus pandemic.
The hackers were first discovered after they targeted a U.S. Department of Energy network in Hanford, Washington, the Justice Department said. The hackers also targeted companies in Australia, South Korea, and several European nations. The hackers used known but unpatched vulnerabilities in widely-used web server software to break into their victims’ networks. By gaining a foothold onto the network, the hackers installed password-stealing software to gain deeper access to their systems. The prosecutors said that the hackers would “frequently” return to the networks — in some cases years later.
According to the indictment, the hackers stole “hundreds of millions of dollars” worth of trade secrets and intellectual property. The prosecutors also allege that the hackers stole data related to military satellite programs, military wireless networks, and high-powered microwave and laser systems from defense contractors.
The hackers are said to have targeted their victims on behalf of China’s intelligence services, but also hacked personal financial gain. Prosecutors said in one case, the hackers “sought to extort cryptocurrency” from a victim company by threatening to publish the victim’s stolen source code online.
John C. Demers., U.S. assistant attorney general for national security, said that the indictments were “concrete examples” of China using hackers to “rob, replicate, and replace” non-Chinese companies in the global marketplace.”
Demers also accused China of providing a safe-haven for the hackers.
“China has now taken its place, alongside Russia, Iran and North Korea, in that shameful club of nations that provide a safe haven for cyber criminals in exchange for those criminals being ‘on call’ to work for the benefit of the state, here to feed the Chinese Communist party’s insatiable hunger for American and other non-Chinese companies’ hard-earned intellectual property, including COVID-19 research,” said Demers.
If prosecuted, the hackers could face more than 35 years in prison. But since the hackers are believed to still be in China, any extraditions to the U.S. are unlikely.
Everywhere you go, you are being followed. Not by some creep in a raincoat, but by the advertisers wanting to sell you things.
The more advertisers know about you — where you go, which shops you visit, and what purchases you make — the more they can profile you, understand your tastes, your hobbies and interests, and use that information to target you with ads. You can thank the phone in your pocket — the apps on it, to be more accurate — that invisibly spits out gobs of data about you as you go about your day.
Your location, chief among the data, is by far the most revealing.
Apps, just like websites, are filled with trackers that send your real-time location to data brokers. In return, these data brokers sell on that data to advertisers, while the app maker gets a cut of the money. If you let your weather app know your location to serve you the forecast, you’re also giving your location to data brokers.
By collecting your location data, these data brokers have access to intensely personal aspects of your life and can easily build a map of everywhere you go. This data isn’t just for advertising. Immigration authorities have bought access to users’ location data to help catch the undocumented. In one case, a marketing firm used location data harvested from phones to predict the race, age, and gender of Black Lives Matter protesters. It’s an enormous industry, said to be worth at least $200 billion.
It’s only been in recent years that it was possible to learn what these data brokers know about us. But the law is slowly catching up. Anyone in Europe can request access to obtain or delete their data under the GDPR rules. California’s new consumer privacy law grants California residents access to their data.
But because so many data brokers collect and resell that data, the data marketplace is a fragmented mess, making it impossible to know which companies have your data. That can make requesting it a nightmare.
Jordan Wright, a senior security architect at Duo Security, requested his data from some of the biggest data brokers in the industry, citing California’s new consumer privacy law. Not all went to plan. As an out-of-state resident, only one of the 14 data brokers approved his request and sent him his data.
What came back was a year’s worth of location data.
Wright works in cybersecurity and knows better than most how much data spills out of his phone. But he takes precautions, and is careful about the apps he puts on his phone. Yet the data he got back knew where he lives, where he works, and where he took his family on holiday before the pandemic hit.
“It’s frustrating not fully knowing what data has been collected or shared and by whom,” he wrote in a blog post. “The reality is that dozens of companies are monitoring the location of hundreds of millions of unsuspecting people every single day.”
Avoiding this invasive tracking is nearly impossible. Just like with web ad tracking, you have little choice but to accept the app’s terms. Allow the tracking, or don’t use the app.
But the winds are changing and there is an increasing appetite to rein in the data brokers and advertising giants by kneecapping their data collection efforts. As privacy became a more prominent selling point for phone consumers, the two largest smartphone makers, Apple and Google, in recent years began to curb the growing power of data brokers.
Both iPhones and Android devices now let you opt-out of ad tracking, a move that doesn’t reduce the ads that appear but prevents advertisers from tracking you across the web or between apps.
Apple threw down the gauntlet last month when it said its next software update, iOS 14, would let users opt-out of app tracking altogether, serving a severe blow to data brokers and advertisers by reducing the amount of data that these ad giants collect on millions without their explicit and direct consent. That prompted an angry letter from the Interactive Advertising Bureau, an industry trade group that represents online advertisers, expressed its “strong concerns” and effectively asked it to back down from the plans.
Google also plans to roll out new app controls for location data in its next Android release.
It’s not the only effort taking on data brokers but it’s been the most effective — so far. Lawmakers are scrambling to find bipartisan support for a proposed federal data protection agency before the end of the year, when Congress resets and enters a legislative session.
Shy of an unlikely fix by Washington, it’s up to the tech giants to send a message.
Kerry Washington’s fingerprints are all over Hollywood. The Emmy, SAG and Golden Globe nominated actor, director and producer has touched myriad projects, from her role as Olivia Pope on “Scandal” (where she was the first African-American woman since 1974 to headline a network drama) to her production of Hulu’s “Little Fires Everywhere” and Netflix’s AMERICAN SON (she starred in both, as well). And let’s not forget her many director credits, including on “SMILF”, “Scandal”, and “Insecure”.
But Washington is much, much more than a Hollywood superstar.
She’s gotten deeper into the tech realm over the past few years, and not only by writing a check.
Washington participated in the $75 million investment in The Wing, a members’ only coworking space for women. She also invested in Community, the platform that gives stars and celebrities a more direct connection with their fans (you can ‘text’ her using the number in her Twitter bio) and she invested in Byte, a D2C teeth-straightening platform (where she serves as Creative Ambassador).
Washington told TechCrunch in May that her portfolio is all about companies that she can be proud to be associated with.
“That pride comes from the quality of the product and how it improves the quality of people’s lives,” said Washington. “The idea of having a voice is really important.”
Whether it’s through creating space to come together, straightening a smile, or giving people a more direct connection to their icons, her portfolio is exclusive when it comes to empowering people to use their voices.
Washington is also an activist.
She was honored with the NAACP’s President’s Award in 2013, and received the GLAAD Media Vanguard Award in 2015, as well as the ACLU Bill of Rights Award in 2016. In 2018, when the world went through a huge change in the form of #MeToo, Washington joined Natalie Portman, America Ferrera, Reese Witherspoon and others as a leader of the Time’s Up movement within Hollywood.
She’s also the co-chair of Michelle Obama’s “When We All Vote” campaign and the founder of Influence Change 2020, an initiative that partners with non-profit organizations with the goal of increasing voter turnout.
It should go without saying, we’re absolutely thrilled to sit down for a conversation with Washington at Disrupt 2020.
We’ll ask her about her recent move towards tech investment and operations, and which sectors are most exciting to her as we head into the next couple years. We’ll also talk about the rapidly changing media landscape as platforms like Netflix, Hulu, Quibi, Disney+ and HBO take up more space in the ecosystem and networks look to evolve alongside the shift in user behavior.
As we head into a presidential election, in a year where the Black Lives Matter movement has risen to the forefront, we’ll also talk about her activism work and get her insights on where the tech world is falling short with regards to diversity, equity and inclusion, and how it can do better.
There will be no shortage of topics to cover with Washington and we’re very excited about this conversation.
Disrupt 2020 runs from September 14 – September 18 and will be virtual this year. Get your front row seat to see Kerry Washington speak with a Disrupt Digital Pro Pass or a Digital Startup Alley Exhibitor Package before prices increase in a few short weeks. Can’t wait to see you there!