The UpStream

Facebook allowed several large tech companies to access your data

posted Saturday Dec 22, 2018 by Scott Ertz

Facebook allowed several large tech companies to access your data

In what is becoming a year that Facebook executives would certainly like to forget, we have seen a number of examples of Facebook giving data access to third parties, often without the knowledge and permission of the people affected. Sometimes it has been on accident, as was the case with Cambridge Analytica and their data breaches. In other cases, it was with full knowledge on their part, if not on the part of those receiving it.

It was revealed this week in another New York Times expose that Facebook granted exceedingly complex data access to some of the largest companies in the tech world, like Yahoo, Netflix, and Spotify. While all of the companies had more access than advertised, not all of them had access to the same information. Their access also extended well beyond the death of their overambitious product features.

For example, in 2014, Netflix implemented the ability for users to send messages to other users through Facebook Messenger. They would usually be prompted after finishing a movie to share the film with their friends. Because of the way Messenger worked at the time, they had to get access to the API to allow the messages to be sent (fortunately this is no longer the case). What the company believed they could do was initiate a message with a friend including a link. What they were given was access to every authorized users' messenger accounts, including the ability to read, write, and delete all messages in the account. The company claims they had no knowledge of these elevated privileges and never used any of the extra abilities. The feature was discarded in 2015.

Yahoo also received elevated privileges when they launched their "facebar" feature in 2011. The idea was to be able to present you with articles and information that had been seen by your friends on Facebook, making the experience of Yahoo more social. As expected, the feature was never popular, partially because Yahoo hadn't had the Marissa Mayer makeover and subsequent user bump, and partially because it was just too early for such a feature. However, Yahoo retained access to the registered users' news feeds.

Facebook tried to clarify the capabilities, but didn't do a great job of it,

Specifically, we made it possible for people to message their friends what music they were listening to in Spotify or watching on Netflix directly from the Spotify or Netflix apps (see screen shots below), to message links to Dropbox folders (like a collection of photographs) from the Dropbox app, and to message receipts from money transfers through the Royal Bank of Canada app.

In order for you to write a message to a Facebook friend from within Spotify, for instance, we needed to give Spotify "write access." For you to be able to read messages back, we needed Spotify to have "read access." "Delete access" meant that if you deleted a message from within Spotify, it would also delete from Facebook. No third party was reading your private messages, or writing messages to your friends without your permission. Many news stories imply we were shipping over private messages to partners, which is not correct.

In the screenshots mentioned in the quote, you can see that delete the capability was not available within Spotify. In fact, by the look of it, you couldn't even read those messages within the app (though perhaps you could). Netflix had a similar capability, where messages were not integrated deeply into the app, just the ability to send. The most interesting aspect of the post was the mentioning of the program being shut down 3 years ago. However, Netflix still apparently had access (though they claim they didn't know) in 2017. For those of you keeping track, that is less than 3 years ago.

The stock market has responded, with the price of the stock dropping over $20 per share. There has also been another round of users closing their accounts. All of this could signify the beginning of the end of Facebook's dominance in the social media world. If this isn't the nail in their coffin, they'll certainly find a way to do it themselves.

Razer releases a special keyboard and mouse combo for Xbox One

posted Saturday Dec 22, 2018 by Scott Ertz

Razer releases a special keyboard and mouse combo for Xbox One

A few months ago, Microsoft revealed their plans to bring keyboard and mouse support to the Xbox One. After testing support within the Insider program, support was rolled out to all Xbox One owners recently. The biggest problem with using a keyboard and mouse with the Xbox is that no combo has been designed for the standard Xbox usage: a couch. Luckily, Razer, the leading manufacturer of gaming accessories for serious gamers, has been hard at work in partnership with Microsoft to design and release such a product.

This week, Razer and Microsoft unveiled the Turret, a gaming quality keyboard and mouse combo designed specifically for use with the Xbox One. Obviously, the set is wireless, as running a cable across the living room just wouldn't do. They focused on making the battery life great, with 40 hours of use per charge. They also feature RazerChroma, which is compatible with the Xbox Dynamic Lighting feature, making the keyboard lights change in response to the game you're playing.

Of course, it all uses the company's high-quality technology, such as their mechanical switches, making the keyboard super responsive. One of the things that really sets the keyboard apart is the retractable mouse pad. It allows you to sit back on the couch, with the keyboard on your lap, and use the mouse without any trouble. With a dedicated wireless keyboard and mouse set designed for Xbox, this could begin the acceptance of the technology for the console.

The set is available for pre-order now, from both Razer and Microsoft for $250. The price is right in line with comparable Razer keyboards for PC. The set will ship at the end of Q1 2019, starting March 31, 2019.

Apple's quality control is failing, iPad Pros are shipping bent

posted Saturday Dec 22, 2018 by Scott Ertz

Apple's quality control is failing, iPad Pros are shipping bent

Once upon a time, Apple was run by a maniac with a level of obsession that could become painful for the people around him. This man was Steve Jobs, and he was known to do everything in his power to prevent anything even close to wrong from leaving his company. When the iPhone 4 was announced, it was to come in both black and white. However, it took over a half year before we would see the white model because Jobs wasn't presented with a shade of white he liked. Even when something slipped his notice, he blamed other companies.

After ceding control of the company, things changed fairly quickly. Today, it is not unusual for Apple to ship broken, defective, or knowingly poorly designed products. The iPhone 5, which was the last product Jobs had his hands on, shipped with scratches and dents. Then there was the famous #bendgate, where iPhone 6 would bend in a pocket. This week, Apple has combined both of these controversies into a new one, featuring the new iPad Pro.

According to owners in the MacRumors forums, some units have a bend in the body. Some claim that it happened after transporting it in a bag or backpack, while others claim that it was there when they opened their box. As it turns out, the latter seems to be more likely, as Apple has confirmed this is a reality. The company claims that this manufacturing defect is a normal part of the manufacturing process and that the bend will not get worse over time.

The question is, is this change in the company's treatment of its customers and lack of manufacturing control acceptable? Phone sales have slipped enough that the company is not reporting individual model sales anymore. iPad sales have always been slow, with Android and Windows devices outselling the company's tablets. The stock price has also shown a fall, down nearly 20 percent in 2018. It might be time for Apple to return to the obsessiveness of Jobs.

Facebook bans all positive reference to sex in surprise change

posted Saturday Dec 8, 2018 by Scott Ertz

Facebook bans all positive reference to sex in surprise change

Facebook has updated its Community Standards to address sexual content, and that changes are surprising. In fact, the general feeling that comes out of the change is that you cannot make any positive references to anything vaguely sexual, but you can make reference to most negative aspects of sexuality. For example, you can post about sexual exploitation, but cannot mention in a message that you are "looking for a good time tonight."

Obviously, there are a lot of problems with this move. The first glaring problem is that Facebook is a social networking platform, and therefore, a way for people to connect. Many dating apps, like Tinder, use Facebook as their primary connection point. Others allow you to link your Facebook to your profile to allow you to connect, or research, your potential partner. Once you are connected, it is not unusual to communicate with one another. I know, big surprise for a social network. As part of that communication, you might just want to discuss what types of things you're into, to see if you're a good match. That is no longer acceptable.

But that is just the beginning of the limitations. You can no longer post any content,

Using sexual hints such as mentioning sexual roles, sex positions, fetish scenarios, sexual preference/sexual partner preference, state of arousal, act of sexual intercourse or activity (sexual penetration or self-pleasuring), commonly sexualized areas of the body such as the breasts, groin, or buttocks, state of hygiene of genitalia or buttocks.

So, you cannot indicate that you are straight or gay, or that you are interested in someone who is dominant or submissive because that would indicate "sexual preference/sexual partner preference." However, the Facebook profile still includes an "interested in" category, with the options for male and female. However, by filling out an included aspect of the Facebook profile, you will be violating the Facebook Community Standards. This is going to have a major impact on the LGBT community, who have mostly found Facebook to be a good place to congregate to discuss topics of interest.

The second major issue is that by putting such draconian rules into place, Facebook is simply asking for trolls. According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation,

For many users, life on Facebook might continue as it always has. But therein lies the problem: the new rules put a substantial portion of Facebook users in danger of violation. Fundamentally, that's not how platform moderation policies should work - with such broadly sweeping rules, online trolls can take advantage of reporting mechanisms to punish groups they don't like.

Combined with opaque and one-sided flagging and reporting systems, overly restrictive rules can incentivize abuse from bullies and other bad actors. It's not just individual trolls either: state actors have systematically abused Facebook's flagging process to censor political enemies. With these new rules, organizing that type of attack just became a lot easier. A few reports can drag a user into Facebook's labyrinthine enforcement regime, which can result in having a group page deactivated or even being banned from Facebook entirely. This process gives the user no meaningful opportunity to appeal a bad decision.

In other words, if someone wanted to punish or even close the profile of someone they disagree with, they could simply begin reporting them for suggestive content. Because of how bad Facebook's accountability system works, once the content or profile is flagged as abusing terms of service, reversing that decision can be incredibly difficult. In fact, one of our broadcast partners experienced exactly this, losing their Facebook page twice because of false claims made against them. In both cases, it was easier to start from scratch than it was to fight Facebook's governing body.

It is always a scary scenario when an organization as large as Facebook decides not only to censor speech but to make common and important human topics off limits. It is not good for anyone involved, including the company enforcing the censorship itself.

Tumblr makes stunning policy change: deleting all NSFW content

posted Saturday Dec 8, 2018 by Scott Ertz

Tumblr makes stunning policy change: deleting all NSFW content

Blogging platform Tumblr has always had a complicated relationship with adult content. Despite always officially supporting it, they have closed accounts for years for doing things that were not against the platform's terms of service. In particular, gay adult blogs have had a harder time with being closed for not violating policy. On the other hand, the platform has also had a problem with illegal content being posted to the site, often without any repercussions.

Adding to Tumblr's dual nature with NSFW content is their relationship with Apple. It is a well-known fact that Apple's app guidelines leave a lot to be desired when it comes to the things that apps can and cannot do. For example, they censored the dictionary because it included "objectionable content." In this case, the objectionable content was words and their definitions. Facts can be offensive to some people, but that one was over the line. They also require dating and hookup platforms that allow nude photos to prevent those photos from being viewed on the iOS versions of their apps.

It was only a few weeks ago that Apple pulled the Tumblr app from the App Store, citing exactly these issues. In particular, it had to do with the presence of illegal content, but also involved their inclusion of adult content in the app. Some agreement was reached between Apple and Tumblr's owners Verizon, which brought the app back within a couple of days. The details of the agreement were not made public, but we are starting to get an idea of what might have happened.

This week, Tumblr announced that they would purge all adult content from the platform. As of December 17, 2018, all adult content will be gone, and blogs might be closed. According to the announcement,

There are no shortage of sites on the internet that feature adult content. We will leave it to them and focus our efforts on creating the most welcoming environment possible for our community.

However, this is not really true. No other platform allows content creators to interact with their fans quite the way that Tumblr does. The reality is that Verizon is likely trying to appease Apple with this move. The fast turnaround and the timing make it pretty obvious why this is happening. Unfortunately for users, a lot of non-adult content is being flagged as objectionable, as part of the pre-purge preparations.

We have seen sports photographers have photos of swimmers and divers have photos from competitions flagged as objectionable. You might be able to understand how a photo of a boy or man in a swim brief might get flagged, other types of content are, as well. Many bloggers are having photos of shirtless men flagged as objectionable. It seems that the rushed nature of the move is not making for a smooth process.

In addition, the platform is about to lose a large percentage of its userbase. Most of the internet knows that the primary use of Tumblr is adult-oriented content. By banning the thing that makes the platform popular, they might just see the platform collapse entirely, whcih is what Google experienced when they tried the same thing a few years ago.

A wild Steam challenger appeared: Epic Games Store

posted Saturday Dec 8, 2018 by Scott Ertz

A wild Steam challenger appeared: Epic Games Store

Just a few years ago, if you wanted to purchase a videogame on PC, you almost certainly were going to do it through Valve's Steam Store. Steam was the undisputed king of the gaming world. Today, that scenario is no longer a reality. Between the Microsoft Store, Discord Store, EA Origin, and more, Valve has never seen so much competition.

One thing that is consistent across the majority of the current game stores (with the exception of publisher-owned stores) is that the platforms take a large cut of the sale. For example, on Steam, publishers get only 70 percent of the game's sale. On the Microsoft Store, publishers get 80 percent of the game's sale. This large percentage is part of why companies like EA have built their own launchers and stores to eliminate the margin loss.

This week, another game store has come to try and challenge Steam, while addressing the concerns of publishers. Building on their unbelievable success with Fortnite, Epic Games has announced the Epic Games Store. Not only did they announce it, they launched it publicly. The feature that will set Epic apart is the 88 percent that publishers get to keep. A 12 percent cost of goods is amazingly low, so there is a possibility that they could succeed here.

This is not Epic's first challenge to traditional game distribution. When they released Fortnite for Android, they eschewed Google's Play Store entirely, preferring instead to distribute directly from their website. For most people, this installation method was new and scary, as they had to turn off some security features on Android (at least during the installation process). What they found was that people were willing to take the risk in order to get the game.

That is an important aspect of developing a new storefront: getting people to use it. If they can attract publishers through their lower margin and attract gamers with the quality or quantity of games, they might actually have a chance in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

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