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
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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.”


UAE’s ADNOC looks to smarten up the forecourt experience in Saudi Arabia

Updated 35 min 2 sec ago
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UAE’s ADNOC looks to smarten up the forecourt experience in Saudi Arabia

  • ADNOC's Oasis chain has 235 outlets in the Emirates, and it recently increased its profile in this business with a deal with French hypermarket group Geant to convert 10 stores to the world-famous brand.
  • ADNOC has 45 years experience of operating petrol stations in the UAE, and can be relied on to provide a top quality product on a fast roll-out schedule.

DUBAI: ADNOC Distribution’s new license in Saudi Arabia allows it to own, operate and manage fuel service stations, which could be a big thing for anybody stopping to fill up with gas, and grab a sandwich and coffee across the Kingdom in years to come.

ADNOC may look and sound like a petrol pumper, and a large part of its business is in supplying fuel to service stations as well as wholesale to big government entities and airlines.

But the most profitable and fastest growing segment consists of owning and running the retail outlets that are a big feature on station forecourts across the Arabian Gulf. It owns and operates more shops than any other retailer in the UAE, with a virtual monopoly across most of the country.

Its Oasis chain has 235 outlets in the Emirates, and ADNOC recently increased its profile in this business with a deal with French hypermarket group Geant to convert 10 stores to the world-famous brand. So, while motorists will still stop mainly for “special” or “super”, they will linger for KFC or McDonalds, or increasingly the high quality fresh food the French do so well.

It all makes a great deal of sense for Saudi citizens in the midst of a consumer revolution sparked by the Vision 2030 transformation of the economy. Female drivers, the logic goes, are even more likely than men to linger for a bit of shopping once they’ve filled up, or will want to get the family some snacks or even full dinner on the way home. All of which begs the question: why does it take a UAE company to see the market gap in the Kingdom?

With a car-crazy population of 30m, and an apparently inexhaustible appetite for fast food and shopping, surely there were local entrepreneurs who could take advantage of that market opportunity?

Part of the answer is that ADNOC has been doing it or a long time now, with 45 years of operating petrol stations in the UAE, and can be relied on to provide a top quality product on a fast roll-out schedule. The one station it is pledged to open this year will surely be followed quickly by others across the Kingdom. But the main reason lies in the highly fractured nature of the petrol station business in Saudi Arabia.

There are some big operators, but the national oil company, Saudi Aramco, does not enjoy the near monopoly that ADNOC does in the UAE. Many petrol stations are owned by smaller businesses that lack the scale, and the ambition, to aim for something bigger. The removal of fuel subsidies will give them flexibility to be more competitive on price for their basic product, while the entry of ADNOC may give them an inventive to give Saudi consumers what they increasingly want.

There is no doubt it is a potentially lucrative market. The retail side of the ADNOC business was the main reason the UAE company was able to achieve a market capitalization of more than 30 billion dirhams when it went public in an initial public offering in Abu Dhabi last year.