Handheld Technology

News Roundup: Feeling Facebook, Google Cuba and NSA Headlines

A round of the week’s tech news including Who Loves Bitcoin Most, Unsettling Stats and Tech Spring Cleaning.

Facebook’s Emotions

So the big news this week is that Facebook is now technically illegal in one German state.

I kid. It’s obviously the one that’s been all over the news all week; that Facebook has been manipulating our emotions via the news feed!

Thanks to a published study with academics from Cornell and the University of California we’ve got pretty much all the major facts; for one, in January of 2012, Facebook scientists skewed the news feeds of 680,000 people. Some were shown what were classified as happy posts, others sad. After the week, they found these people were more likely to also post statuses happier or sadder than normal. It’s not the first time Facebook have conducted studies on its users, and as many point out, most websites are constantly conducting A/B testing. But this story has so many facets it’s hard to pick which one is the most interesting.

The study said this was ok due the Terms and Conditions of the site. According to the paper, the research “was consistent with Facebook’s Data Use Policy, to which all users agree prior to creating an account on Facebook, constituting informed consent for this research.” Under the social network’s terms, Facebook may use the information it collects about you data for “data analysis, testing, [and] research.” This actually turned out to be a lie and the edits making this study legit were only added after the study was conducted.

There were cries of outrage and upset on the one side, while various scientists, media types and psychologists spoke out in defence of the practice. Privacy groups and various watchdogs from different countries are looking into the legality of the study, while some researchers say it broke ethical guidelines. A poll by the Guardian found people weren’t surprised by the news but they weren’t very happy about it either.

Various members of the Facebook team and those involved with the study have had to speak up since the story broke. Sheryl Sandberg said the study was ‘Poorly Communicated’. Susan Fiske, the psychology professor who edited the study ‘was concerned’ about it. Adam Kramer, one of the authors of the study, was sorry for all the anxiety he caused. Monika Bickert, Head of Global Policy Management, said the study was basically trying to improve customer service. Mark Zuckerburg is yet to comment at time of writing.

There’s still plenty of legs in this story yet I fear. But to me it’s a very interesting turn of events. I think the study itself is actually worthwhile and further confirms what people already guessed, plus there’s lots of interesting tangents still not fully explored: That a company can manipulate us in subtle ways and the responsibility that comes with such influence; Whether we should be allowed to manipulate our own feeds beyond hiding annoying people; and the funding issue, and whether it was funded in any way by the military, and why more scientists are going to the private tech sector.

Google Cuba

Last year Google’s Eric Schmidt visited North Korea. This year it looks like he has picked Cuba as the dictatorship he wanted to visit. According to Reuters, Schmidt and his team are there to ‘promote open Internet access’. Maybe Google are there to promote their fibre internet connection and offer their services, maybe Google were there to ask why a Cuban Twitter was picked over Google+ to stir unrest.


The usual dose of NSA headlines

- The NSA published a Transparency report that wasn’t very transparent. Senators aren't very happy. Luckily, for a nice grid showing all the different aspects of the NSA program, you can go here. You can also get a scorecard for how different legislators rate on various surveillance bills.

- The NSA only actually wanted the phone records of 248 people, but have spied on another 89,138 targets, while a new list appears documenting all the countries on which the NSA may spy. Turns out everyone except Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

- The NSA can manipulate internet traffic of US citizens in order to make them count as foreign targets, and can track you through the background hum of electrical devices, maybe.

- The FBI and CIA can get at your data without a warrant as well.

- Greenpeace decide flying a bright green blimp over NSA datcentres is a good idea, while the EFF is suing the NSA over Zero-day info, and lots of ISPs are suing GCHQ.

- New NSA Chief says 'sky isn't falling' after Snowden leaks, one privacy watchdog has called the NSA's snooping "valuable and effective" in protecting the United States.

- The British ambassador to the US says Snowden leaks would have helped Hitler, while one former NSA director says the agency is collecting too much intelligence data to do a good job.

- A new study from Pew says security experts are concerned, while businesses are still saying the NSA stuff is bad for their industry.

- "57K to 1.7M" new Snowden docs will be leaked next month in order to avert a war.

In other news, Russia is continuing its move away from US tech and pushing for a ban on online services that don’t store data in Russia. US companies will be ruing the damage the NSA story has done to their business with the news that China IT spending is up but they're going to be picking local vendors instead.

And in censorship news, the Honk Kong demonstrations have seen the Great Firewall ban instagram, and currently Iraq's internet shutdown is pretty severe.

Monies and Shutdowns

Are we in a tech bubble? Yes. No. Maybe. Not yet. No one really knows and so far this year's tech IPO data sends mixed messages.

Meanwhile, M&A action continues unabated. Facebook's takeover of LiveRail failed to distract from other FB-based news, Google bought Songza, Microsoft now own SyntaxTree, the bit of Nokia Microsoft don't own has acquired SAC Wireless, Cisco has gobbled up Assemblage, Twitter has now got Tapcommerce and Dropbox continues its spree with the acquiring of Predictive Edge. Elsewhere, Perion has bought Grow Mobile, Globo has snapped up SourceBits, and Wandisco acquired Ohmdata.

It seems tech companies take spring cleaning seriously with a series of announcements about various services being retired. The engineering team for Facebook's Home has been suspended, which doesn't bode well for the software-cum-OS-thing. Any other week and that would have had more of a send-off. Oh well.

Google have finally put ancient social network Orkut to bed after 10 years. Sad times. I never signed up, but leave any once happy memories below. The company is also retiring its Quickoffice apps because they've got GoogleDocs to push instead. Meanwhile Yahoo! is killing off a bunch of products including Xobni, Newlook, and some others that people forgot existed. Few wept.

Unsettling Stats

There's always plenty of sad or unsettling tech stats and reports coming out. This week Samsung's Corporate Social Responsibility report admitted that its suppliers in China were guilty of labour violations over safety gear and excessive work hours without overtime pay. But at least they didn't find any child labour.

Meanwhile women in tech, or lack thereof was in the press again, this time for not being in the public's consciousness. According to a new study, 72% of the UK public are unable to name female tech leaders. 90% could name Bill Gates, and almost 80% knew of Mark Zuckerberg, but when given a list of female leaders at tech companies, 72% could not recognise any of them. Also the study showed women were less able to name female tech leaders then men.

And finally, someone else has released a study showing how sadly addicted we are to technology.   One in seven Americans would rather give up their best friends for a week than part with their smartphones, and most are never far away for their devices. You know, just in case they get SnapChatted or something.

Who Loves Bitcoin Most - Jersey, Bali, Scotland or Kenya?

Could Jersey become the first 'Bitcoin Isle'? Or maybe Bali? Or maybe even an independent Scotland? Seems any country that's got a little quirk about it thinks it doesn't need regular money anymore. Elsewhere Bitcoins are now legal in California, the Russian Central Bank isn't totally against them and in Kenya the Bitcoin mobile service Bitpesa has launched.

In a random turn of events, Tim Draper, aka the man who wanted to create Silicon-Valley-the-US-state, has been identified as the guy who bought the 30,000-odd Bitcoins seized during the closure of Silk Road. He sounded pretty pleased about his purchase but didn't say what he paid for the stash.

Verbatim: Words! Quotes! Talking! AMAs!

Steve Wozniak is not a fan of Samsung's Galaxy Gear. "That [Galaxy Gear] was the only technology I bought to experiment with that I threw out after half a day, sold it on eBay because it was so worthless and did so little that was convenient,” he said at a Flying Car conference.

You may have seen that we covered London Tech Week not so long ago. Never one to miss a photo op, Mayor Boris Johnson was there, and gave an honest assessment of the London tech scene. "Although we've got the biggest tech sector anywhere in Europe here in London, we haven't yet produced the kind of knock-out multi-multi-billion pound business of the kind they produce in Silicon Valley," he said, pointing to a lack of "kick-ass business people" and "a certain British diffidence to making billions of pounds." Also at LTW was former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who said the opposite. Which speech do you reckon was scripted?

Elsewhere in London this week Julian Assange did a Reddit AMA, where he talked about WikiLeaks, Snowden, being in an embassy, but passed on questions about why he's stuck there. The Police Commissioner for the City of London thinks Tor is '90% of the net' when obviously it's spam and porn. And finally a UK thinktank has called for the government to privatise the Pound and replace it with Bitcoin, while the creator of Dogecoin has called its followers "sadly cult-like." How rude.


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Dan Swinhoe

Dan is a journalist at CSO Online. Previously he was Senior Staff Writer at IDG Connect.

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