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FTC Fines Facebook $5 Billion for Privacy Violations

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  • The Federal Trade Commission has fined Facebook $5 billion for violating the privacy of customers and imposed new accountability measures and restrictions for Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram.
  • The fine is the largest penalty imposed on a tech company for privacy violations ever, which comes after a yearlong investigation into Facebook’s involvement in the Cambridge Analytica data breach.
  • The FTC found that Facebook “deceived” their customers by allowing their data to be accessed by apps their friends used, despite telling the public they had stopped that practice.
  • The FTC also alleges that Facebook enforced data sharing policies based “on whether Facebook benefited financially from its arrangements with the developer.”

FTC Announcement 

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced Wednesday that it was fining Facebook a record-breaking $5 billion for privacy violations as well as instituting sweeping privacy restrictions and oversight measures.

The penalty represents the largest fine that the FTC has ever imposed on a tech company by far. It is also the biggest penalty ever brought on a company for privacy violations, according to the FTC announcement.

The announcement comes after a yearlong investigation of Facebook over privacy violations.

That investigation was started right after The New York Times and The Observer of London reported that Facebook allowed British political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica to harvest the data of millions of Facebook users without their knowledge and build voter profiles from those users data without their consent.

Cambridge Analytica got the data from Facebook users who used a third-party gaming application called “This Is Your Digital Life.”

Although it has been estimated that only around 270,000 people used the app, the users who gave the app permission to access and acquire their data also gave the app permission to do the same for all of their Facebook friends.

That resulted in the personal information of nearly 87 million Facebook users being collected by Cambridge Analytica, despite the fact that the vast majority of those people had never given the firm permission to access their information, or even played the game.

Along with investigating Cambridge Analytica, the FTC’s investigation also expanded to look at other privacy concerns, such as the tech giant’s data-sharing policies with other third-party apps and device-makers that Facebook users might not have understood or been aware of.

FTC Findings

All of that culminated in the report and announcement released Wednesday by the FTC.

In addition to the $5 billion fine, the FTC’s announcement also stated that Facebook must “submit to new restrictions and a modified corporate structure that will hold the company accountable for the decisions it makes about its users’ privacy.”

That requirement, the FTC says, is mandated “to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that the company violated a 2012 FTC order by deceiving users about their ability to control the privacy of their personal information.”

The FTC goes on to describe the 2012 order in question, saying that it explicitly “prohibited Facebook from making misrepresentations about the privacy or security of consumers’ personal information, and the extent to which it shares personal information.” 

The 2012 FTC order also required that Facebook “maintain a reasonable privacy program that safeguards the privacy and confidentiality of user information.”

Violations of 2012 Order

The FTC goes on to outline how Facebook specifically violated the 2012 order. The statement describes numerous instances, but the most significant examples center around privacy disclosures to customers.

For example, in 2012, Facebook put a disclosure on their Privacy Settings page telling users the information they shared with their friends could also be shared with the third-party apps their friends used. 

The FTC claims that four months later, Facebook removed the disclosure “even though it was still sharing data from an app user’s Facebook friends with third-party developers.”

Then in 2014, Facebook announced they would stop letting third-party developers collect data about the friends of app users. However, the FTC says that Facebook separately told the developers that they could continue to access that data until April 2015.

Even then, Facebook still waited “until at least June 2018 to stop sharing user information with third-party apps used by their Facebook friends,” the FTC said.

The statement then goes on to say, “Facebook did not screen the developers or their apps before granting them access to vast amounts of user data.” 

Facebook also claimed it had consequences for policy violations by third-parties, but it “did not enforce such policies consistently and often based enforcement of its policies on whether Facebook benefited financially from its arrangements with the developer,” the FTC alleged.

New Restrictions & Overhauls

In addition to spelling out Facebook’s privacy violations, the FTC announcement also included some of the new restrictions and oversight measures that Facebook will have to comply with under the settlement.

To ensure accountability with Facebook’s board of directors, the order will create “an independent privacy committee of Facebook’s board of directors,” in order to remove “unfettered control by Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg over decisions affecting user privacy.”

The settlement also requires the company to “designate compliance officers who will be responsible for Facebook’s privacy program,” and gives a third-party assessor more power to evaluate Facebook’s privacy programs.

Regarding restrictions the settlement imposes, Facebook will now have to conduct privacy reviews for any new or modified products and services before they can be implemented.

It will also be required to document any data breach involving 500 or more users. 

The FTC statement continues to include a laundry list of new requirements, like exercising more oversight over third-party apps, encrypting passwords, and more.

Notably, it also requires Facebook to “establish, implement, and maintain a comprehensive data security program.”

Also of huge significance is that these new restrictions and accountability measures will also apply to Facebook-owned companies WhatsApp and Instagram.

Response

The decision was approved by the FTC’s commissioners in a 3-to-2 vote earlier this month, with the three Republican commissioners voting to approve the settlement and the two Democrat commissioners voting to oppose.

In a statement to The New York Times, the three Republican commissioners, including agency chairman, Joseph Simons, said the settlement “will provide significant deterrence not just to Facebook, but to every other company that collects or uses consumer data.”

However, the two Democratic commissioners argued that the settlement did not do enough. They said that the $5 billion fine is just a slap on the wrist for Facebook, which made $55.8 billion in revenues last year alone. 

They also pointed out that the settlement did not actually do anything to change or restrict Facebook’s ability to collect and share their user’s personal information.

“The proposed settlement does little to change the business model or practices that led to the recidivism,” Democratic Commissioner Rohit Chopra wrote in his dissenting statement. “Nor does it include any restrictions on the company’s mass surveillance or advertising tactics.”

The Democratic commissioners also reportedly disliked the settlement because they wanted to take the case to court, and felt that the Facebook executives should have been held personally accountable.

The Republican commissioners, however, have said that they did not have a strong enough case to move it to court. 

See what others are saying: (The Chicago Tribune) (The Washington Post) (The New York Times)

Business

SEC Releases Long-Awaited Report on January Memestock Frenzy, Pokes Hole in “Short Squeeze” Narrative 

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Among other findings, the SEC said hedge funds weren’t broadly damaged by January’s unprecedented trading event.


SEC Publishes Findings

The Securities and Exchange Commission released a long-awaited, 44-page report on Monday detailing its findings regarding this year’s “Memestock Frenzy,” which involved companies such as GameStop and AMC.

During the frenzy in late January, the share prices of those companies soared exponentially. According to one of the key narratives of the situation, smaller investors piled onto GameStop as a way to directly attack hedge funds that were actively betting against GameStop’s success and future. As CNBC reported at the time, those “hedge funds and other players had to rush in to cover their bets against the stock.” 

What followed were reports that hedge funds had lost billions of dollars all at once. In fact, one notable hedge fund, Melvin Capital, received what many described as a nearly $3 billion bailout. Meanwhile, in June, it was reported that the London-based White Square Capital had shut down its main fund due to the losses it suffered in January.

However, now, the SEC has said there is no real evidence to support some of the key pillars of this narrative, including that hedge funds were substantially hurt in the long run.

“Staff believes that hedge funds broadly were not significantly affected by investments in GME and other meme stocks,” the agency said in its report. “Staff did not observe that any advisers to private funds and registered funds experienced liquidity issues or difficulties with counterparties.”

On the whole, hedge funds even saw a 1.2% increase in profits in January, according to data from the HFRI Fund Weighted Composite index.

The agency also noted that GameStop purchases to cover bets were just “a small fraction of overall buy volume,” adding that “GME share prices continued to be high after the direct effects of covering short positions would have waned.”

“The underlying motivation of such buy volume cannot be determined,” the agency concluded. “Perhaps it was motivated by the desire to maintain a short squeeze. Whether driven by [that] desire… or by belief in the fundamentals of GameStop, it was the positive sentiment, not the buying-to-cover, that sustained the weeks-long price appreciation of GameStop stock.”

SEC Not Currently Issuing Any Recommendation

The agency did not offer any policy recommendations with this report, though it did stress that a number of small-time investors who either initially bet against GameStop’s success or tried to ride the wave of gains saw significant losses.

Given that the number of investors trading GameStop rapidly jumped from 10,000 at the beginning of January to 900,000 by the end of the month, it’s not surprising that the FTC confirmed heavy losses for many.

With that in mind, the SEC aligned its next focus on commission-free trading apps and the way in which they promote potentially excessive trading. Notably, that includes apps such as Robinhood and Webull, both of which faced controversy during the frenzy for severely restricting users’ ability to trade so-called memestocks. 

“Consideration should be given to whether game-like features and celebratory animations that are likely intended to create positive feedback from trading lead investors to trade more than they would otherwise,” the SEC said in its report.

SEC Chair Gary Gensler said Tuesday that by April, the agency could propose rules limiting how those apps make money from each trade, which is known as “payment for order flow.”

See what others are saying: (The LA Times) (The Washington Post) (The Wall Street Journal)

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Supply Chain Issues Trigger Price Hikes, School Lunch Shortages, and More

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Many news outlets have cited experts warning of supply chain issues affecting holiday spending, but the consequences of ongoing bottlenecks are already being felt across the country.


Schools Struggle for Food 

A host of supply chain bottlenecks are affecting products and businesses throughout the U.S., forcing prices of goods and services to rise. 

In Colorado, the ​​Denver Public Schools system said it’s struggling to make sure it has enough milk for students on a daily basis, Insider reported Sunday. In fact, the schools are so short on milk cartons they’ve now resorted to asking students to bring refillable water bottles instead.

“When the milk is available, we are prioritizing serving milk at breakfast at all schools and at our elementary schools for lunch,” Theresa Hafner, DPS executive director of Food Services, told Insider in an email.

Meanwhile, other schools are struggling to find additional lunch-related supplies including meats, orange juice, meal trays, and plastic cutlery.

According to NBC News, Shonia Hall, director of school nutrition services for Oklahoma City Public Schools, even found herself needing to make a run to a local Sam’s Club to purchase 60,000 spoons and forks each just “to get us through for a few days in hopes the truck would show up.”

“It’s an additional cost to your budget, to your program,” she added.

Zillow Pauses House Buying

The issues also extend to the housing market, as both labor and supply shortages have led to operational backlogs for renovations and closings.

Zillow cited those issues Sunday when announcing that it would stop buying homes at least through December. Instead, the company said it plans to first prioritize the selling of its current catalog of homes. 

“We’re operating within a labor- and supply-constrained economy inside a competitive real estate market, especially in the construction, renovation and closing spaces,” Jeremy Wacksman, Zillow’s chief operating officer, said in a statement cited by Yahoo! Finance.

Zillow’s share price fell as much as 11% from around $94 to around $84 early Monday as investors pulled out of the company.  

What’s Causing the Issues?

U.S. companies are having a hard time stocking their shelves with certain products and keeping prices from rising largely because of factors induced by the pandemic.

The first and most basic issue is that last year, most consumer spending halted amid COVID-19 lockdowns in March. Around that same time, many companies were forced to scale back production and lay off workers.

However, more people are now returning to the outside world, and with that comes a boost in shopping. Still, several businesses have found themselves unable to ramp up production to meet the increased and arguably unprecedented demand.

In addition to production issues, there are numerous transportation challenges. For example, a large wave of businesses have struggled for months to fill open positions. One such industry where that’s being acutely felt is trucking.

In fact, the country is so stressed for drivers to haul freight that at least one high school in California has now launched a program to train seniors to drive big rigs

Meanwhile, Walmart, UPS, and FedEx all made 24/7 transportation commitments last week. 

The supply chains problems don’t stop with ground transportation. One of the most pressing situations seen so far involves the problems at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach in California, where container ships are backed up. 

Pre-pandemic, it was fairly unusual for any cargo ship to be seen waiting off the coast to get into one of the two ports, which process 40% of all shipping containers entering the U.S. Now, dozens of ships have been waiting weeks to get in. 

Even once they unload, there’s another major backlog involving shipping containers at the ports. Because of those combined issues, Long Beach extended its operational hours in September.

President Joe Biden later announced on Oct. 13 that L.A.’s port will “operat[e] around the clock 24/7” as part of a “90-day sprint” to clear a path for cargo.

Supply chain issues are expected to impact holiday shoppers, but many analysts expect the problems to extend well into 2022. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg echoed that prediction on Sunday during an appearance on CNN. 

See what others are saying: (NBC News) (Insider) (Wall Street Journal)

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Facebook Is Reviewing More Than 2,200 Hours of Footage for Next-Gen AI 

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The project, which could prove to be revolutionary, is already raising some big privacy concerns. 


Facebook’s Next-Gen AI

Facebook announced Thursday that it has captured more than 2,200 hours of first-person video that it will use to train next-gen AI models.

The company said it aims to make the AI, called Ego4D, capable of understanding and identifying both real and virtual objects through a first-person perspective using smart glasses or VR headsets. In effect, that could potentially help users do everything from remembering where they placed forgotten items to recording others in secret. 

Facebook listed five key scenarios the project aims to tackle and gave real-world examples of how each may look for people who will eventually use the AI.

  • “What happened when?” With that scenario, Facebook gave the example, “Where did I leave my keys?”
  • “What am I likely to do next?” There, Facebook gave the example, “Wait, you’ve already added salt to this recipe.”
  • “What am I doing?” For example, “What was the main topic during class?”
  • “Who said what when?” For example, “What was the main topic during class?”
  • “Who is interacting with whom?” For example, “Help me better hear the person talking to me at this noisy restaurant.”

Facebook said the amount of footage it has collected is 20 times greater than any other data set used by the company.

Privacy Concerns

In the wake of recent controversy surrounding Facebook, it’s important to note that the footage wasn’t reaped from users. Instead, the company said it, and 13 university partners, compiled the footage from more than 700 participants around the world.

Still, that hasn’t alleviated all privacy concerns. 

In an article titled, “Facebook is researching AI systems that see, hear, and remember everything you do,” The Verge writer James Vincent said that although the project’s guidelines seem practical, “the company’s interest in this area will worry many.”

In addition to the recent testimony and data leaks from whistleblower Frances Haugen, Facebook has also faced other privacy issues, as well as billions in fines

Vincent pointe out that the AI announcement doesn’t mention anything in the way of privacy or removing data for people who may not want to be recorded.

A Facebook spokesperson later assured Vincent that privacy safeguards will be introduced to the public in the future.

“For example, before AR glasses can enhance someone’s voice, there could be a protocol in place that they follow to ask someone else’s glasses for permission, or they could limit the range of the device so it can only pick up sounds from the people with whom I am already having a conversation or who are in my immediate vicinity,” the spokesperson said.

Among positive reception, some believe the tech could be revolutionary for helping people around the house, as well as for teaching robots to more rapidly learn about their surroundings.

See what others are saying: (The Verge) (CNBC) (Axios)

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