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Big Tech Is Coming for Your Most Sensitive Data

November 13, 2019, 3:23 PM UTC

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Welcome to the first edition of Cyber Wednesday. Robert Hackett here. The name admittedly doesn’t have quite the same ring as Cyber Saturday, a newsletter I have authored for four years. But the schedule change does absolute wonders, let me tell you, for my ability to enjoy the weekend. (Is this what two days off feels like??) So, let’s get to it.

Big Tech is coming for the last bastions of people’s most sensitive data—including financial and medical histories. Now these data-hungry corporations must convince everyone they come in peace.

Facebook is donning a banker’s pinstripes as it barrels into the world of finance—whether or not Libra, its besieged digital currency plan, ever gets off the ground. The media giant on Tuesday debuted Facebook Pay, a rebranding and consolidation of its payments efforts across WhatsApp, Instagram, Messenger, and Facebook. The service is sort of like PayPal’s Venmo, which lets people send money around, except that Facebook will also use the transaction data to fuel its advertising engine.

Cynicism abounds. “Have you ever used Venmo and thought to yourself, ‘this is extremely easy and completely ubiquitous but I wish Facebook knew about this transaction for some reason’? Well folks today I have good news,” commented The Intercept’s Sam Biddle on Twitter. Gizmodo’s Catie Keck, another skeptic, wrote, “If handing even more sensitive information over to Facebook than many of us already have sounds like a good idea, then buddy, I’ve got a bridge I’d love to sell ya—cash only, tho.”

Meanwhile, Google is dressing itself up in a doctor’s frock. The company raised eyebrows earlier this month when it said it planned to buy Fitbit, a treasure trove of consumer health data, for $2.1 billion. Meanwhile, the company has for months been quietly hoovering up patients’ sensitive medical data through its “cloud” division as part of a partnership with Ascension, the second-largest healthcare system in America, as the Wall Street Journal revealed on Monday.

In a blog post, Google said that “patient data cannot and will not be combined with any Google consumer data.”

Legislators aren’t so sure. Senator Mark Warner of Virginia raised the specter of antitrust action, calling tech companies’ encroaching dominance in healthcare “a worrying prospect,” as the Journal reported. Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, a Democratic presidential contender, questioned whether regulations were strict enough and whether Google’s business plans have been subject to enough government oversight.

Big Tech would have us believe in its manifest destiny to prevail over all aspects of puny human life. Even as I write this essay, Google is crashing the banking party with a plan to offer checking accounts, and Facebook is getting called out for slyly feeding health data into its advertising. (Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft have designs on our health and financial data as well.) Where there is data to be gulped, these companies are well aware fortunes await.

Will their intentions prove to be Hippocratic, or hypocritical?

Robert Hackett

Twitter: @rhhackett


This Cyber Wednesday edition of Data Sheet was curated by Robert Hackett.


Search and seizure. A federal court in Boston ruled that U.S. border and customs agents must have "reasonable suspicion" to search people's devices, such as laptops and phones, at airports and other ports of entry. While officials won't require a warrant, they will need to arm themselves with specific justifications before searching for digital contraband, like child abuse imagery. The Electronic Frontier Foundation and American Civil Liberties Union called the decision "a major victory for privacy rights."

I spy with my little eye. A bug in Facebook's main app has caused a furor for unintentionally activating the cameras on people's iPhones. Apparently, a fix for one bug led to the introduction of another. "We have seen no evidence of photos or videos being uploaded due to this bug. We’re submitting the fix for this to Apple today," Facebook said in a statement, per Gizmodo.

Better late than never? Intel has patched a security hole it initially said it patched six months ago. The security researchers that discovered the issue are unhappy with the way the chipmaker directed them to keep quiet about their findings, including pressuring them to alter a paper they planned to present publicly, to suit the company's interests. 

Be still my heart. Hospitals that have been struck by cyberattacks and data breaches have worse outcomes for patients, a study out of Vanderbilt University claims. These facilities were found to experience as many as 36 more fatalities per 10,000 heart attacks. Apparently, breach remediation efforts introduce changes and delays "that complicate or disrupt health IT and patient care processes."

Hug a hacker. Charles Henderson, who leads a team of hackers at IBM, writes that his trade has gotten an unfairly bad rap. The world should celebrate hackers, who find vulnerabilities in products (ideally) before criminals can exploit them. Call the bad ones "cybercriminals," "threat actors," or "cyberattackers," not hackers, he says.

Have yourself a laugh with this data breach excuse generator.


Most regulatory protections for U.S. consumers date back to the late 19th century when Congress sought to shield people from the abusive practices of oil, steel, and railroad giants. That regime has utterly failed to address product safety and security in the digital era, argues Natasha Singer for the New York Times. It's time for the country to adopt a set of clear federal standards and to establish standalone "digital privacy agency" to enforce them, rather than foisting this work on an over-extended, ill-equipped Federal Trade Commission, she says.

Today, the Food and Drug Administration vets new prescription drugs before they go on sale. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration investigates automobile safety hazards and sets fuel economy standards. And the Securities and Exchange Commission protects investors from fraud in stock sales.

By contrast, Americans have almost no safeguards for apps, in part because Congress has never established an agency to police Facebook, Instagram, Uber, YouTube and other online services that use sophisticated data-mining tools to surveil, sort and steer people on a massive scale.


How Fintech's Third Wave Will Change How You Bank by Robert Hackett

How to Get Disney+ Free for a Year With Verizon Right Now by Chris Morris

Microsoft Reveals Its Gender Diversity Gap Between Workers and Management by Emma Hinchliffe

A Silicon Valley Funding Giant Opens in Denmark— Where Unicorns Are Numerous and Loans Are Dirt Cheap by Jennifer Baljko

A.I. Is Everywhere—But Where Is Human Judgment? by Jeremy Kahn


Welcome to the island of misfit data. So-called Null Island is an imaginary plot of land on computer maps where latitude and longitude equal "zero." If you enter invalid addresses into tools like Google Maps, which use "geocoders" to translate human text into machine-readable form, they'll point you to this spot off the coast of West Africa. Cartographer Tim St. Ogne charts the origin of this geographical oddity in a blog post for the Library of Congress.

Well, I know where I'm booking my next vacation...That's where we want to go, way down in Kokomo.


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