Data privacy alarm bells sound in wake of Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal

Tech giants such as Google are facing calls for tighter data rules in the wake of the Facebook election scandal. (Reuters)
Updated 23 March 2018
0

Data privacy alarm bells sound in wake of Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal

SAN FRANCISCO: Big Internet companies and small software developers alike are likely to face scrutiny over how they share customer information in the wake of the scandal involving Facebook and the British election consulting firm Cambridge Analytica.
Lawmakers in the US and the EU have called for probes into how Facebook allowed Cambridge Analytica to access data on 50 million users and use it to help the election campaign of President Donald Trump. Facebook shares have fallen 8.5 percent this week as investors fear the incident will lead to new regulation.
The scrutiny and the risk of regulatory action could affect Alphabet Inc’s Google, Twitter Inc, Uber Technologies Inc, Microsoft Corp’s LinkedIn and the many others that make their user data available to outside developers.
The interconnections between platforms such as Facebook and Google and third-party services sit at the core of the contemporary Internet, enabling people to share articles to Facebook from news websites and log into shopping apps using their Google account.
But the Facebook case has turned the application programming interfaces, or APIs, that enable such data sharing, into a new front in the escalating battle between lawmakers and tech companies over the monitoring and securing of their vast platforms. Threat of sanctions has already prodded companies into better policing of inappropriate commentary on their services.
“All companies are going to need to do a lot more than just laissez faire policy to manage third-party data access,” said Jason Costa, who helped run APIs at Pinterest Inc, Twitter and Google and now works at GGV Capital. “The days of (the) ‘we’re just a platform and can’t be held responsible for how users use it’ line that many companies use, is no longer going to be tenable.”
APIs have raised privacy concerns since they emerged around 2005, but their adoption and impact has grown rapidly as companies move data online and look for ways to make it more useful.
Uber, for example, in 2016 enabled apps that provided tax and lending services to import driver paystubs. The company failed to respond to a request for comment on its monitoring and auditing practices.
The economic dynamic behind APIs is simple: Software developers create new tools that benefit big tech companies’ users, and in return they gain instant access to a large number of consumers.
The big platforms say they have built in protection, such as human reviews and automated scanning tools to detect abuse by partners.
But software experts say policies are toothless because auditing is lax; Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, under intense public pressure, said on Wednesday the company would now perform audits of the information it shared with partners before it tightened rules in 2014.
Dartmouth University engineering professor Geoffrey Parker, who has assigned students to develop apps based on APIs, said automated policing methods will detect spam-like apps and brazen efforts to steal data. It is much more difficult to enforce bans on storing or mashing together information, or acting against users’ interest, he said.
Some companies added safeguards in the past several years. Facebook stopped allowing developers access to information on its users’ friends. But compliance audits were minimal, a former employee said on the condition of anonymity.
Twitter and LinkedIn limited free public access. For paid deals, LinkedIn said “partners are rigorously vetted and regularly declined.” The company added that it regularly monitors API usage and takes “swift action when we see or hear of any abuse of our terms.”
Software developers acknowledged they often do not even read the terms of use for APIs. Rule-breakers can fly under the radar and amass significant information, said Andres Blank, chief executive of recruiting software maker Scout.
“It is hard to police if the alarms aren’t being sounded,” said Blank, who has worked with APIs from LinkedIn and Google. Alex Moore, chief executive of Baydin Inc, which develops Boomerang, an app that can send emails on time-delay, said Microsoft scrutinized his services when the companies partnered on a new feature. But he was not aware of any auditing after it launched. Google recently asked whether Boomerang could access less information, but that was a rare “poke,” Moore said. 
“There is going to be things people took for granted about data sharing that come to light,” he warned. Google declined to comment. Microsoft did not respond to a request to comment.
Clamping down could limit the supply of innovative tools built on data sharing. But some providers, including Royal Bank of Canada, which announced an API this week, have gone a step further to allow access only to vetted partners. 
Paul Nerger, senior vice president at Developerprogram.com, which helps companies such as Cisco Systems Inc. manage APIs, said clients have limited the number of partners so that software can be tested “to make sure they are not illegally harvesting” data. 
Startups are taking heed, too. Affectiva, which last year released an API for identifying consumers’ emotional states from speech samples, said that it would audit partners as its program grows. However, Gabi Zijderveld, the company’s chief marketing officer and head of product strategy, said: “We inevitably need regulation and legislation on ethical and transparent use of data.”


Porsche first German carmaker to abandon diesel engines

Updated 23 September 2018
0

Porsche first German carmaker to abandon diesel engines

  • The company would concentrate on its core strength, ‘powerful petrol, hybrid and, from 2019, purely electric vehicles’
  • But Porsche promised it would keep servicing diesel models on the road now

BERLIN: Sports car maker Porsche said Sunday it would become the first German auto giant to abandon the diesel engine, reacting to parent company Volkswagen’s emissions cheating scandal and resulting urban driving bans.
“There won’t be any Porsche diesels in the future,” CEO Oliver Blume told the newspaper Bild am Sonntag.
Instead, the company would concentrate on what he called its core strength, “powerful petrol, hybrid and, from 2019, purely electric vehicles.”
The Porsche chief conceded the step was a result of the three-year-old “dieselgate” scandal at auto giant Volkswagen, the group to which the luxury sports car brand belongs.
VW in 2015 admitted to US regulators to having installed so-called “defeat devices” in 11 million cars worldwide to dupe emissions tests.
It has so far paid out more than €27 billion in fines, vehicle buybacks, recalls and legal costs and remains mired in legal woes at home and abroad.
Diesel car sales have dropped sharply as several German cities have banned them to bring down air pollution — a trend that Chancellor Angela Merkel was due to discuss with car company chiefs in Berlin later Sunday.
Stuttgart-based Porsche in February stopped taking orders for diesel models, which it had sold for nearly a decade.
Blume said Porsche had “never developed and produced diesel engines,” having used Audi motors, yet the image of the brand had suffered.
“The diesel crisis has caused us a lot of trouble,” he said, months after Germany’s Federal Transport Authority ordered the recall of nearly 60,000 Porsche SUVs in Europe.
Blume promised that the company would keep servicing diesel models on the road now.
According to the paper, Porsche also faces claims of having manipulated engines to produce a more powerful sound with a technique that was deactivated during testing.
Blume acknowledged that German regulators had found irregularities in the 8-cylinder Cayenne EU5, affecting some 13,500 units.
Merkel, Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer and heads of German auto companies were due to meet in Berlin later Sunday to discuss steps to avoid more city driving bans.
The German government hopes to see one million fully electric and hybrid vehicles on the road by 2022, up from fewer than 100,000 at the start of this year.