The Cambridge Analytica-Facebook Scandal and the Coming Data Bust

From today’s New York Times:

The queasy truth at the heart of Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal, which is so far the company’s defining disgrace of 2018, is that its genesis became scandalous only in retrospect. The series of events that now implicate Facebook began in 2014, in plain view, with a listing on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service, where users can complete small tasks for commensurately modest sums of cash. In exchange for installing a Facebook app and completing a survey — in the process granting the app access to parts of your Facebook profile — you would get around a dollar. Maybe two.

This was a great deal, at least by the standards of the time. Facebook users were then accustomed to granting apps permission to see their personal data in exchange for much less. It was the tail end of a Facebook era defined by connected apps: games like FarmVille, Candy Crush and Words With Friends; apps that broadcast your extra-Facebook activities, like Spotify and Pinterest; and apps that were almost explicitly about gathering as much useful data as possible from users, like TripAdvisor’s Cities I’ve Visited app, which let you share a digital pushpin map with your friends.

Most of these apps, when installed, demanded permission to access “your profile info,” which could include things like your activity, birthday, relationship status, interests, religious and political views, likes, education and work history. They could also collect information about users’ friends, multiplying their reach. In providing a marketplace for such apps, Facebook made it easy for users to extend their extraordinarily intimate relationship with the site to thousands of third-party developers. One of them turned out to be connected to Cambridge Analytica, which was using the data for right-wing political campaigns — a fact that was lucidly and widely reported as early as 2015 but promptly lost in the roiling insanity of primary season. (As of Facebook’s most recent admission, data was collected on as many as 87 million users.)

Not that more exposure in the news cycle would have mattered much back then. It was self-evidently absurd to grant a virtual-farming game access to your religious views, but that’s just how the platform worked at the time, and so we got used to it, much in the same way we got used to conducting our private lives on any other corporate platform. (When Gmail first started in 2004, the fact that it placed ads based on the contents of users’ emails was considered invasive. That feeling passed; Google continued scanning consumer email until 2017, and Gmail now has more than a billion users.) Still, these individually trivial decisions never gave us cause to confront just how much we had come to trust Facebook.

Read the complete article here.

Tariffs bad news for American economy, including workers and consumers

From today’s The Hill:

There’s never a good time for tariffs. American workers and consumers will pay dearly for the Trump administration’s short-sighted action to protect an industry that shows no signs of needing any protection—the market values of the five largest steel companies have more than doubled over the past five years. Yet with a major infrastructure spending bill set to come through Congress over the next year, Trump’s tariffs are bad policy with even worse timing.

While a small amount of people will benefit from the proposed tariffs, many more will be harmed. The American steel industry employs roughly 140,000 workers, but industries that rely on steel to create their products—the ones who will suffer directly under the tariffs—employ 6.5 million workers. A recent study by the Trade Partnership found that the direct cost of tariffs on employment would be 18 jobs lost for every one created. On net, 470,000 Americans could lose their jobs.

The Trade Partnership’s study fits with the lessons of recent history. In 2002, President Bush instituted protective tariffs on foreign steel imports. After just a year in which steel prices rose by up to 50 percent, steel production was insufficient to meet demand, 200,000 Americans lost their jobs, and the tariff was dropped. A mere fifteen years later, these lessons have already been forgotten.

Nor will other countries sit idly by as Trump restricts trade. Well over 10 million Americans’ jobs are supported by exports—jobs which would be at risk in the case of a trade war. Already, the European Union has prepared a ten-page hit list of potential targets of retaliatory tariffs should Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs go into effect.

American consumers will be harmed as well. A combination of new steel tariffs and lumber tariffs imposed last year mean that the cost of new homes is likely to continue rising—nearly half of steel imports go towards construction. Other American staples such as cars and canned beer are also set to see price spikes resulting directly from tariffs.

Read the complete article here.

Cambridge Analytica CEO Suspended, Involved in Hacking American Elections

From National Public Radio News:

Cambridge Analytica has suspended its CEO, Alexander Nix. The London-based company, which is accused of using data from 50 million Facebook users to influence the 2016 presidential campaign, announced the move Tuesday afternoon — one day after the release of a video that appears to show Nix acknowledging the firm’s engagement in political dirty tricks.

“In the view of the Board, Mr. Nix’s recent comments secretly recorded by Channel 4 and other allegations do not represent the values or operations of the firm,” the company’s board of directors said in a statement, “and his suspension reflects the seriousness with which we view this violation.”

The board said it is replacing Nix with Alexander Tayler in the interim as an independent investigation is conducted.

Also, the British government says it has opened an investigation of its own, seeking a warrant to search databases and servers belonging to the company. U.K. Information Minister Elizabeth Denham had demanded access to Cambridge Analytica’s databases by Monday following reports that the company improperly mined user data from Facebook to target potential voters.

However, after the firm missed the deadline, Denham told Britain’s Channel 4: “I’ll be applying to the court for a warrant.”

Cambridge Analytica says it used legal means to obtain the data and did not violate Facebook’s terms of service. Facebook has promised “a comprehensive internal and external review.”

Denham’s statement follows the latest revelation in the British media about the firm co-founded by former White House adviser Steve Bannon and heavyweight Republican donor Robert Mercer. The company is an offshoot of behavioral research and strategic communications company SCL Group with ties to the 2016 Trump presidential campaign.

Read the complete article here.

Will Trump’s Tariffs Help or Hurt American Workers? Contrasting Views

From the New York Times:

The Case for Trump’s Tariffs and ‘America First’ Economics

The Tyranny of Convenience

From the New York Times:

Convenience is the most underestimated and least understood force in the world today. As a driver of human decisions, it may not offer the illicit thrill of Freud’s unconscious sexual desires or the mathematical elegance of the economist’s incentives. Convenience is boring. But boring is not the same thing as trivial.

In the developed nations of the 21st century, convenience — that is, more efficient and easier ways of doing personal tasks — has emerged as perhaps the most powerful force shaping our individual lives and our economies. This is particularly true in America, where, despite all the paeans to freedom and individuality, one sometimes wonders whether convenience is in fact the supreme value.

As Evan Williams, a co-founder of Twitter, recently put it, “Convenience decides everything.” Convenience seems to make our decisions for us, trumping what we like to imagine are our true preferences. (I prefer to brew my coffee, but Starbucks instant is so convenient I hardly ever do what I “prefer.”) Easy is better, easiest is best.

Convenience has the ability to make other options unthinkable. Once you have used a washing machine, laundering clothes by hand seems irrational, even if it might be cheaper. After you have experienced streaming television, waiting to see a show at a prescribed hour seems silly, even a little undignified. To resist convenience — not to own a cellphone, not to use Google — has come to require a special kind of dedication that is often taken for eccentricity, if not fanaticism.

For all its influence as a shaper of individual decisions, the greater power of convenience may arise from decisions made in aggregate, where it is doing so much to structure the modern economy. Particularly in tech-related industries, the battle for convenience is the battle for industry dominance.

Read the complete article here.

In Montana, Governor Bullock Signs Order to Enforce Net Neutrality

From the New York Times:

Most efforts underway to restore so-called net neutralityface big obstacles and would take many months, if not years, to succeed.

But in Montana, the governor has used the stroke of a pen to bring the rules to broad parts of his state.

Through an executive order, Gov. Steve Bullock declared on Monday that any internet service provider with a state government contract cannot block or charge more for faster delivery of websites, two core aspects of net neutrality, to any customer in the state.

Many major landline and mobile broadband providers, including Charter, CenturyLink, AT&T and Verizon, hold government contracts in the state. The new requirements apply to new and renewed contracts signed after July 1, 2018.

The action, the first of its kind by a governor, could face legal challenges.

In December, the Federal Communications Commission rolled back rules meant to protect a free and open internet. The new rules say states cannot create net neutrality laws. The agency did not respond to a request for comment about the Montana action.

Read the complete article here.

Strategies to Manage Your Career: From Networking to Balancing Work and Life

From the New York Times Business Section:

There is no shortage of books claiming to reveal the secret truth behind successful careers. Then there are all the podcasts, TED talks, late-night motivational speakers and your relatives’ sage advice. The bottom line of most of these advice-givers? A successful career requires managing the person in the mirror – overcoming your tendencies and habits that can undermine efforts to find happiness at work. Read on to see what professors and researchers suggest for managing different situations, whether you want to improve your situation at work, if you suspect changes are coming down, or if you are making a go of it in the gig economy.

Build a Strong Foundation

There are some key fundamentals of building a successful career that you should be aware of whether you are just starting out, or are closing in on retirement.

There are some key fundamentals of building a successful career, whether you are just starting out, or are closing in on retirement. And they apply to all walks of life – if you are a butcher, a baker or a computer systems analyst.

Fair warning, the following tried-and-true strategies will have little impact on what you do every day. They will not necessarily help you meet an assignment due by Friday morning, or complete a to-do list.

Instead, they are foundations that will give you a solid base on which to build a successful career that can withstand unexpected changes. These ideas will also help you put work and career in proper perspective, because there is a lot more to life beyond the daily grind.

The Value of Networking

There’s no getting around it: Networking has an awful reputation. It conjures up images of self-absorbed corporate ladder-climbers whose main interest is, “What’s in it for me?”

But there is almost unanimous agreement among researchers that building and nurturing relationships with people — current and former colleagues and people we respect in the business — provides a strong medium for a vibrant career and a cushion for when the unplanned happens.

Read the complete article here.

LA Times Newsroom Votes on Whether to Unionize, Tronc tries to suppress it

Here is an object lesson in why workers at the LA Times newsroom voted to unionize. Below is the “story” that appears in the LA Times about this historically significant event, in a time of digital transformation, job displacement, and mismanagement of news sources. The second article below is from the New York Times, and provides extensive coverage of both the background and context of yesterday’s vote by LA Times reporters. No wonder they are making a serious effort to unionize—their own management apparently wouldn’t even let them cover their own important story. Shame on Tronc for this selective editorial heavy-handedness.

From the Los Angeles Times:

Newsroom employees of the Los Angeles Times voted Thursday on whether to form a union.

Employees began casting ballots at 10 a.m. at The Times’ offices in downtown Los Angeles and Fountain Valley in an election held by the National Labor Relations Board. Those who work outside those offices were to able vote by mail.

Election results are expected to be announced Jan. 19. If a simple majority votes for the union, nearly 400 journalists would be represented.

A group of more than 40 Times journalists launched efforts last year to have the NewsGuild-Communications Workers of America represent employees in collective bargaining.

Organizers are calling for regular raises as well as improved benefits and job protections. The management of The Times had urged employees to vote no, arguing a union would not benefit employees.

From the New York Times:

Newsroom employees at The Los Angeles Times began casting ballots Thursday on whether to form a union, in what they believe is the first time journalists have held a union vote in the newspaper’s 136-year history.

Workers — who are calling for more competitive salaries, equitable pay for women and minorities, more generous benefits and improved working conditions — began voting at 10 a.m. in a first-floor community room at The Times headquarters in downtown Los Angeles and at the company’s offices in Orange County. Those who work remotely or who are on assignment will be able to vote using mail-in ballots.

A tally of the vote is expected to be announced on Jan. 19; forming a union requires a simple majority of votes cast.

The unit would include roughly 380 employees. People familiar with the process said they believed the organizing effort had the votes to join the NewsGuild, which represents 25,000 reporters, editors, photojournalists and other media workers at news organizations across the United States.

The union vote affirms something of a shift at The Times, where a bombing by union organizers in 1910 helped shape a historically anti-union stance. The organizing effort has also exacerbated tensions between newsroom employees and the newspaper’s executives.

Times employees, who have seen repeated management and ownership turmoil over the years, have long expressed skepticism over their top leaders, but a wave of recent changes further strained their relationship.

Over the last several months, Tronc, the Times’s Chicago-based corporate parent, installed a new publisher, Ross Levinsohn, and editor in chief, Lewis D’Vorkin, who has vowed a “digital transformation” that has left some in the newsroom anxious. A dispute between The Times and the Walt Disney Company also raised tensions between the paper’s employees and its new top management, with some employees questioning how Mr. D’Vorkin had handled the paper’s response.

Management typically counters efforts to organize employees, but many in The Times newsroom — especially against the backdrop of already tense relations — said they felt that those in charge have been unduly aggressive in the attempt to thwart the union effort.

Read the complete article here.

Robots Are Coming, and Sweden Is Fine

From New York Times:

From inside the control room carved into the rock more than half a mile underground, Mika Persson can see the robots on the march, supposedly coming for his job here at the New Boliden mine.

He’s fine with it.

Sweden’s famously generous social welfare system makes this a place not prone to fretting about automation — or much else, for that matter.

Mr. Persson, 35, sits in front of four computer screens, one displaying the loader he steers as it lifts freshly blasted rock containing silver, zinc and lead. If he were down in the mine shaft operating the loader manually, he would be inhaling dust and exhaust fumes. Instead, he reclines in an office chair while using a joystick to control the machine.

He is cognizant that robots are evolving by the day. Boliden is testing self-driving vehicles to replace truck drivers. But Mr. Persson assumes people will always be needed to keep the machines running. He has faith in the Swedish economic model and its protections against the torment of joblessness.

“I’m not really worried,” he says. “There are so many jobs in this mine that even if this job disappears, they will have another one. The company will take care of us.”

In much of the world, people whose livelihoods depend on paychecks are increasingly anxious about a potential wave of unemployment threatened by automation. As the frightening tale goes, globalization forced people in wealthier lands like North America and Europe to compete directly with cheaper laborers in Asia and Latin America, sowing joblessness. Now, the robots are coming to finish off the humans.

Read the complete article here.

Will Robots Take Our Children’s Jobs?

From today’s New York Times:

Like a lot of children, my sons, Toby, 7, and Anton, 4, are obsessed with robots. In the children’s books they devour at bedtime, happy, helpful robots pop up more often than even dragons or dinosaurs. The other day I asked Toby why children like robots so much.

“Because they work for you,” he said.

What I didn’t have the heart to tell him is, someday he might work for them — or, I fear, might not work at all, because of them.

It is not just Elon MuskBill Gates and Stephen Hawking who are freaking out about the rise of invincible machines. Yes, robots have the potential to outsmart us and destroy the human race. But first, artificial intelligence could make countless professions obsolete by the time my sons reach their 20s.

You do not exactly need to be Marty McFly to see the obvious threats to our children’s future careers.

Say you dream of sending your daughter off to Yale School of Medicine to become a radiologist. And why not? Radiologists in New York typically earn about $470,000, according to Salary.com.

But that job is suddenly looking iffy as A.I. gets better at reading scans. A start-up called Arterys, to cite just one example, already has a program that can perform a magnetic-resonance imaging analysis of blood flow through a heart in just 15 seconds, compared with the 45 minutes required by humans.

Maybe she wants to be a surgeon, but that job may not be safe, either. Robots already assist surgeons in removing damaged organs and cancerous tissue, according to Scientific American. Last year, a prototype robotic surgeon called STAR (Smart Tissue Autonomous Robot) outperformed human surgeons in a test in which both had to repair the severed intestine of a live pig.

So perhaps your daughter detours to law school to become a rainmaking corporate lawyer. Skies are cloudy in that profession, too. Any legal job that involves lots of mundane document review (and that’s a lot of what lawyers do) is vulnerable.

Software programs are already being used by companies including JPMorgan Chase & Company to scan legal papers and predict what documents are relevant, saving lots of billable hours. Kira Systems, for example, has reportedly cut the time that some lawyers need to review contracts by 20 to 60 percent.

As a matter of professional survival, I would like to assure my children that journalism is immune, but that is clearly a delusion. The Associated Press already has used a software program from a company called Automated Insights to churn out passable copy covering Wall Street earnings and some college sports, and last year awarded the bots the minor league baseball beat.

What about other glamour jobs, like airline pilot? Well, last spring, a robotic co-pilot developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, known as Darpa, flew and landed a simulated 737. I hardly count that as surprising, given that pilots of commercial Boeing 777s, according to one 2015 survey, only spend seven minutes during an average flight actually flying the thing. As we move into the era of driverless cars, can pilotless planes be far behind?

Then there is Wall Street, where robots are already doing their best to shove Gordon Gekko out of his corner office. Big banks are using software programs that can suggest bets, construct hedges and act as robo-economists, using natural language processing to parse central bank commentary to predict monetary policy, according to Bloomberg. BlackRock, the biggest fund company in the world, made waves earlier this year when it announced it was replacing some highly paid human stock pickers with computer algorithms.

So am I paranoid? Or not paranoid enough? A much-quoted 2013 study by the University of Oxford Department of Engineering Science — surely the most sober of institutions — estimated that 47 percent of current jobs, including insurance underwriter, sports referee and loan officer, are at risk of falling victim to automation, perhaps within a decade or two.

Read the complete article here.