In 2017, tech platforms touch every aspect of our daily lives, giving technology companies an unprecedented — and often unchecked — amount of power.
And, as @hypervisible, who studies discrimination in data mining and algorithms, showed on Twitter, what tech companies do with that power can be shady AF.
“What’s the most absurd/invasive thing that tech platforms do or have done that sounds made-up but is actually true?” he asked, and began listing a number of cases that he found.
Here’s Inverse’s list of shady activity from 2017 alone:
The sex toy We-Vibe was a “smart vibrator” that connected to an app using Bluetooth so that the vibrator could be remotely controlled. (This could be a fun thing for couples, maybe?) What’s less fun: that the Bluetooth was highly insecure and susceptible to hacking — and that the app secretly sent highly sensitive user data back to Standard Innovation, the company behind the toy, giving them intimate details about users’ sex lives and preferences.
When the news broke at a hacking conference, users started and won a class-action lawsuit against the company.
An internal report that Facebook prepared for a bank, which was obtained by an Australian newspaper, described how the company has a database of its young users in Australia and New Zealand — 1.9 million high schoolers, 1.5 million college students, and 3 million workers — and can monitor and analyze their posts in real time, tracking when they feel “stressed,” “defeated,” “overwhelmed,” “stupid,” “silly,” “useless,” and a “failure.”
And then advertisers, like the bank that was receiving this information, can take advantage of this by selling things to impressionable young people at their most vulnerable.
Over the years, users have noticed weird things about their phone performance when new releases come out, and Apple has finally admitted to this behavior, though arguing with the intent. In a statement to The Verge, they said that older lithium-ion batteries can’t always handle all of the draws for electricity from the updated phone to prevent random shutdowns. Apple is basically throttling the processing speeds to prevent this.
Replacing batteries will return the iPhone to normal speeds, but most consumers don’t know this, so it also serves as a shady way of subtly encouraging consumers to buy new iPhones.
When this was revealed, Apple apologized and lowered the price of replacement batteries to $29.
Unroll.me seemed like a great product that actually solves a user problem: unsubscribing us from the endless marketing emails that we all receive and kind of hate. Except that it was also secretly scanning our email inboxes for ride receipts from Lyft — and then giving this data, in anonymized form, to Uber.
Not that either of these facts is more reassuring. It means that we’re all being tracked, all the time, and Unroll.me revealed that ugly truth.
Expensify aims to make expense reports easier to fill out by using artificial intelligence to scan user-submitted documents, and then use that data to fill out the forms.
Sounds great, except that it was outsourcing parts of the task to digital freelancers on Mechanical Turk, an Amazon service that allows freelancers around the world to do digital microtasks, and it wasn’t even obscuring the names.
Rochelle LaPlante, a Mechanical Turk user, first shared this on Twitter, asking: “I wonder if Expensify SmartScan users know MTurk workers enter their receipts. I’m looking at someone’s Uber receipt with their full name, pick up, and drop off addresses.”
Expensify responded in a blog post that it had confidentiality clauses in place, among other safety measures, but this didn’t calm skeptics.
The thing about these examples, though, is that none of them are isolated cases.
They’re really just about common tech practices that are coming to light, and the outrage — which is understandable and deserved — just reflects how little we, as consumers, understand what exactly we’ve given up in the name of convenience.
That is, until the platform screws up, as it inevitably (it seems) will.
For more, check out @hypervisible’s full thread.