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Flo gets FTC slap for sharing user data when it promised privacy

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The FTC has reached a settlement with Flo, a period- and fertility tracking app with 100M+ users, over allegations it shared users’ health data with third party app analytics and marketing services like Facebook despite promising to keep users’ sensitive health data private.

Flo must obtain an independent review of its privacy practices and obtain app users’ consent before sharing their health information, under the terms of the proposed settlement.

The action follows a 2019 reports in the Wall Street Journal which conducted an analysis of a number of apps’ data sharing activity.

It found the fertility tracking app had informed Facebook of in-app activity — such as when a user was having their period or had informed it of an intention to get pregnant despite. It did not find any way for Flo users to prevent their health information from being sent to Facebook.

In the announcement of a proposed settlement today, the FTC said press coverage of Flo sharing users data with third party app analytics and marketing firms including Facebook and Google had led to hundreds of complaints.

The app only stopped leaking users’ health data following the negative press coverage, it added.

Under the FTC settlement terms, Flo is prohibited from misrepresenting the purposes for which it (or entities to whom it discloses data) collect, maintain, use, or disclose the data; how much consumers can control these data uses; its compliance with any privacy, security, or compliance program; and how it collects, maintains, uses, discloses, deletes, or protects users’ personal information. 

Flo must also notify affected users about the disclosure of their personal information and instruct any third party that received users’ health information to destroy that data.

The app maker has been contacted for comment.

No financial penalty is being levied but the FTC’s proposed settlement is noteworthy as it’s the first time the US regulator has ordered notice of a privacy action.

“Apps that collect, use, and share sensitive health information can provide valuable services but consumers need to be able to trust these apps. We are looking closely at whether developers of health apps are keeping their promises and handling sensitive health information responsibly,” said Andrew Smith, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, in a statement.

While the settlement received unanimous backing from five commissioners, two — Rohit Chopra and Rebecca Kelly Slaughter — have issued a joint dissent statement in which they highlight the lack of a finding of a breach of a US’ health breach notification rule which they argue should have applied in this case.

“In our view, the FTC should have charged Flo with violating the Health Breach Notification Rule. Under the rule, Flo was obligated to notify its users after it allegedly shared their health information with Facebook, Google, and others without their authorization. Flo did not do so, making the company liable under the rule,” they write.

“The Health Breach Notification Rule was first issued more than a decade ago, but the explosion in connected health apps make its requirements more important than ever. While we would prefer to see substantive limits on firms’ ability to collect and monetize our personal information, the rule at least ensures that services like Flo need to come clean when they experience privacy or security breaches. Over time, this may induce firms to take greater care in collecting and monetizing our most sensitive information,” they add.

Flo is by no means the only period tracking app to have attracted attention for leaking user data in recent years.

A report last year by the Norwegian Consumer Council found fertility/period tracker apps Clue and MyDays unexpectedly sharing data with adtech giants Facebook and Google, for example.

That report also found similarly non-transparent data leaking going on across a range of apps, including dating, religious, make-up and kids apps — suggesting widespread breaches of regional data processing laws which require that for consent to be valid users must be properly informed and given a genuine free choice. Although app makers have so far faced little enforcement for analytics/marketing-related data leaking in the region.

In the US regulatory action around apps hinges on misleading claims — whether about privacy (in Flo’s case) or in relation to the purposes of data processing, as in a separate settlement the FTC put out earlier this week related to cloud storage app Ever.

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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Elon Musk says Tesla Semi is ready for production, but limited by battery cell output

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Tesla CEO Elon Musk said on the company’s 2020 Q4 earnings call that all engineering work is now complete on the Tesla Semi, the freight-hauling semi truck that the company is building with an all-electric powertrain. The company expects to begin deliveries of Tesla Semi this year, the company said in its Q4 earnings release, and Musk said the only thing limiting their ability to produce them now is the availability of battery cells.

“The main reason we have not accelerated new products – like for example Tesla Semi – is that we simply don’t have enough cells for it,” Musk said. “If we were to make the Semi right now, and we could easily go into production with the Semi right now, but we would not have enough cells for it.”

Musk added that the company does expect to have sufficient cell volume to meet its needs once it goes into production on its 4680 battery pack, which is a new custom cell design it created with a so-called ‘tables’ design that allows for greater energy density and therefore range.

“A Semi would use typically five times the number of cells that a car would use, but it would not sell for five times what a car would sell for, so it kind of would not make sense for us to do the Semi right now,” Musk said. “But it will absolutely make sense for us to do it as soon as we can address the cell production constraint.”

That constraint points to the same conclusion for the possibility of Tesla developing a van, Musk added, and the lifting of the constraint will likewise make it possible for Tesla to pursue the development of that category of vehicle, he said.

Tesla has big plans for “exponentially” ramping cell production, with a goal of having production capacity infrastructure in place for a Toal of 200 gigawatt hours per year by 2022, and a target of being able to actually produce around 40% of that by that year (with future process improvements generating additional gigawatt hours of cell capacity  in gradual improvements thereafter).

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Pro-Trump Twitter figure arrested for spreading vote-by-text disinformation in 2016

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The man behind a once-influential pro-Trump account is facing charges of election interference for allegedly disseminating voting disinformation on Twitter in 2016.

Federal prosecutors allege that Douglass Mackey, who used the name “Ricky Vaughn” on Twitter, encouraged people to cast their ballot via text or on social media, effectively tricking others into throwing away those votes.

According to the Justice Department, 4,900 unique phone numbers texted a phone number Mackey promoted in order to “vote by text.” BuzzFeed reported the vote-by-text scam at the time, noting that many of the images were photoshopped to look like official graphics from Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

Some of those images appeared to specifically target Black and Spanish-speaking Clinton supporters, a motive that tracks with the account’s track record of white supremacist and anti-Semitic content. The account was suspended in November 2016.

At the time, the mysterious account quickly gained traction in the political disinformation ecosystem. HuffPost revealed that the account was run by Mackey, the son of a lobbyist, two years later.

“… His talent for blending far-right propaganda with conservative messages on Twitter made him a key disseminator of extremist views to Republican voters and a central figure in the alt-right’ white supremacist movement that attached itself to Trump’s coattails,” HuffPost’s Luke O’Brien reported.

Mackey, a West Palm Beach resident, was taken into custody Wednesday in Florida.

“There is no place in public discourse for lies and misinformation to defraud citizens of their right to vote,” Acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York Seth D. DuCharme said.

“With Mackey’s arrest, we serve notice that those who would subvert the democratic process in this manner cannot rely on the cloak of Internet anonymity to evade responsibility for their crimes.”

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Tesla is willing to license Autopilot and has already had “preliminary discussions” about it with other automakers

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Tesla is open to licensing its software, including its Autopilot highly-automated driving technology, and the neural network training it has built to improve its autonomous driving technology. Tesla CEO Elon Musk revealed those considerations on the company’s Q4 earnings call on Wednesday, adding that the company has in fact already “had some preliminary discussions about licensing Autopilot to other OEMs.”

The company began rolling out its beta version of the so-called ‘full self-driving’ or FSD version of Autopilot late last year. The standard Autopilot features available in general release provide advanced driver assistance (ADAS) which provide essentially advanced cruise control capabilities designed primarily for use in highway commutes. Musk said on the call that he expects the company will seek to prove out its FSD capabilities before entering into any licensing agreements, if it does end up pursuing that path.

Musk noted that Tesla’s “philosophy is definitely not to create walled gardens” overall, and pointed out that the company is planning to allow other automakers to use its Supercharger networks, as well as its autonomy software. He characterized Tesla as “more than happy to license” those autonomous technologies to “other car companies,” in fact.

One key technical hurdle required to get to a point where Tesla’s technology is able to demonstrate true reliability far surpassing that of a standard human driver is transition the neural networks operating in the cars and providing them with the analysis that powers their perception engines is to transition those to video. That’s a full-stack transition across the system away from basing it around neural nets trained on single cameras and single frames.

To this end, the company has developed video labelling software that has had “a huge effect on the efficiency of labeling,” with the ultimate aim being enabling automatic labeling. Musk (who isn’t known for modesty around his company’s achievements, it should be said) noted that Tesla believes “it may be the best neural net training computer in the world by possibly an order of magnitude,” adding that it’s also “something we can offer potentially as a service.”

Training huge quantities of video data will help Tesla push the reliability of its software from 100% that of a human driver, to 200% and eventually to “2,000% better than the average human,” Musk said, while again suggesting that it won’t be a technological achievement the company is interested into keeping to themselves.

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