Google Sued For ‘Clandestine Tracking’ of 4.4 Million UK iPhone Users’ Browsing Data

Google is being sued in the high court for as much as $4.3 billion for the alleged "clandestine tracking and collation" of personal information from 4.4 million iPhone users in the UK. From a report: The collective action is being led by former Which? director Richard Lloyd over claims Google bypassed the privacy settings of Apple's Safari browser on iPhones between August 2011 and February 2012 in order to divide people into categories for advertisers. At the opening of an expected two-day hearing in London on Monday, lawyers for Lloyd's campaign group Google You Owe Us told the court information collected by Google included race, physical and mental heath, political leanings, sexuality, social class, financial, shopping habits and location data. Hugh Tomlinson QC, representing Lloyd, said information was then "aggregated" and users were put into groups such as "football lovers" or "current affairs enthusiasts" for the targeting of advertising. Tomlinson said the data was gathered through "clandestine tracking and collation" of browsing on the iPhone, known as the "Safari Workaround" -- an activity he said was exposed by a PhD researcher in 2012. Tomlinson said Google has already paid $39.5m to settle claims in the US relating to the practice. Google was fined $22.5m for the practice by the US Federal Trade Commission in 2012 and forced to pay $17m to 37 US states.

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Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin Wants Justice Department To Scrutinize Big Tech

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin on Monday joined the growing chorus of government officials concerned about tech monopolies. From a report: When asked if Google is a monopoly, Mnuchin said, "These are issues that the Justice Department needs to look at seriously -- not for any one company -- but obviously as these technology companies have a greater and greater impact on the economy, I think that you have to look at the power they have," Mnuchin told CNBC's "Squawk Box." Mnuchin acknowledged that antitrust matters don't fall under his jurisdiction, but said someone ought to be looking. His comments come on the heels of a "60 Minutes" segment on Google's unparalleled market share in online search. The Sunday night spot included an interview with Jeremy Stoppelman, co-founder of Yelp, which he said "would have no shot" if it were being built today.

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Google Removes ‘Don’t Be Evil’ Clause From Its Code of Conduct

Kate Conger, reporting for Gizmodo: Google's unofficial motto has long been the simple phrase "don't be evil." But that's over, according to the code of conduct that Google distributes to its employees. The phrase was removed sometime in late April or early May, archives hosted by the Wayback Machine show. "Don't be evil" has been part of the company's corporate code of conduct since 2000. When Google was reorganized under a new parent company, Alphabet, in 2015, Alphabet assumed a slightly adjusted version of the motto, "do the right thing." However, Google retained its original "don't be evil" language until the past several weeks. The phrase has been deeply incorporated into Google's company culture -- so much so that a version of the phrase has served as the wifi password on the shuttles that Google uses to ferry its employees to its Mountain View headquarters, sources told Gizmodo.

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Does Google’s Duplex violate two-party consent laws?

Google’s Duplex, which calls businesses on your behalf and imitates a real human, ums and ahs included, has sparked a bit of controversy among privacy advocates. Doesn’t Google recording a person’s voice and sending it to a datacenter for analysis violate two-party consent law, which requires everyone in a conversation to agree to being recorded? The answer isn’t immediately clear, and Google’s silence isn’t helping.

Let’s take California’s law as the example, since that’s the state where Google is based and where it used the system. Penal Code section 632 forbids recording any “confidential communication” (defined more or less as any non-public conversation) without the consent of all parties. (The Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press has a good state-by-state guide to these laws.)

Google has provided very little in the way of details about how Duplex actually works, so attempting to answer this question involves a certain amount of informed speculation.

As a first assumption, it seems clear that, like most Google services, Duplex’s work takes place in a datacenter somewhere, not locally on your device. So fundamentally there is a requirement in the system that the other party’s audio will be in recorded and sent in some form to that datacenter for processing, at which point a response is formulated and spoken.

On its face it sounds bad for Google. There’s no way the system is getting consent from whoever picks up the phone. That would spoil the whole interaction — “This call is being conducted by a Google system using speech recognition and synthesis; your voice will be analyzed at Google datacenters. Press 1 or say ‘I consent’ to consent.” I would have hung up after about two words. The whole idea is to mask the fact that it’s an AI system at all, so getting consent that way won’t work.

But there’s wiggle room as far as the consent requirement in how the audio is recorded, transmitted, and stored. After all, there are systems out there that may have to temporarily store a recording of a person’s voice without their consent — think of a VoIP call that caches audio for a fraction of a second in case of packet loss. There’s even a specific cutout in the law for hearing aids, which if you think about it do in fact do “record” private conversations. Temporary copies produced as part of a legal, beneficial service aren’t the target of this law.

This is partly because the law is about preventing eavesdropping and wiretapping, not preventing any recorded representation of conversation whatsoever that isn’t explicitly authorized. Legislative intent is important.

“There’s a little legal uncertainty there, in the sense of what degree of permanence is required to constitute eavesdropping,” said Mason Kortz, of Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society. “The big question is what is being sent to the datacenter and how is it being retained. If it’s retained in the condition that the original conversation is understandable, that’s a violation.”

For instance, Google could conceivably keep a recording of the call, perhaps for AI training purposes, perhaps for quality assurance, perhaps for users’ own records (in case of time slot dispute at the salon, for example). They do retain other data along these lines.

But it would be foolish. Google has an army of lawyers and consent would have been one of the first things they tackled in the deployment of Duplex. For the on-stage demos it would be simple enough to collect proactive consent from the businesses they were going to contact. But for actual use by consumers the system needs to engineered with the law in mind.

What would a functioning but legal Duplex look like? The conversation would likely have to be deconstructed and permanently discarded immediately after intake, the way audio is cached in a device like a hearing aid or a service like digital voice transmission.

A closer example of this is Amazon, which might have found itself in violation of COPPA, a law protecting children’s data, whenever a kid asked an Echo to play a Raffi song or do long division. The FTC decided that as long as Amazon and companies in that position immediately turn the data into text and then delete it afterwards, no harm and therefore no violation. That’s not an exact analogue to Google’s system, but it is nonetheless instructive.

“It may be possible with careful design to extract the features you need without keeping the original, in a way where it’s mathematically impossible to recreate the recording,” Kortz said.

If that process is verifiable and there’s no possibility of eavesdropping — no chance any Google employee, law enforcement officer, or hacker could get into the system and intercept or collect that data — then potentially Duplex could be deemed benign, transitory recording in the eye of the law.

That assumes a lot, though. Frustratingly, Google could clear this up with a sentence or two. It’s suspicious that the company didn’t address this obvious question with even a single phrase, like Sundar Pichai adding during the presentation that “yes, we are compliant with recording consent laws.” Instead of people wondering if, they’d be wondering how. And of course we’d all still be wondering why.

We’ve reached out to Google multiple times on various aspects of this story, but for a company with such talkative products, they sure clammed up fast.

Google Is Making An AR Headset With New Qualcomm Chips

Google is reportedly working on a standalone augmented reality headset that will use new Qualcomm chips. "It will be built by Taiwanese computer maker Quanta," reports The Verge. "The project is still in its early stages, according to documents obtained by WinFuture." From the report: The AR headset is supposed to be similar to Microsoft's HoloLens, a headset that came out in 2016 and is aimed at design, training, and industrial use. The Google AR headset that's in development will reportedly be self-contained and powered by a Qualcomm chip, rather than tethered to another device. It will also include cameras and microphones. The headset is currently going by the name "Google A65." There's no release date yet for the Google A65 as it's still in the prototype stage, according to WinFuture. The headset won't only operate like a HoloLens, but it will use the same chips. HoloLens is rumored to be getting an update this year, with a new ARM-powered design and an improved field of view. The Qualcomm chips that will reportedly be used in both the new HoloLens and the new Google headset are the Qualcomm QSC603 four-core chips, based on ARM architecture.

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What we know about Google’s Duplex demo so far

The highlight of Google’s I/O keynote earlier this month was the reveal of Duplex, a system that can make calls to set up a salon appointment or a restaurant reservation for you by calling those places, chatting with a human and getting the job done. That demo drew lots of laughs at the keynote, but after the dust settled, plenty of ethical questions popped up because of how Duplex tries to fake being human. Over the course of the last few days, those were joined by questions about whether the demo was staged or edited after Axios asked Google a few simple questions about the demo that Google refused to answer.

We have reached out to Google with a number of very specific questions about this and have not heard back. As far as I can tell, the same is true for other outlets that have contacted the company.

If you haven’t seen the demo, take a look at this before you read on.

So did Google fudge this demo? Here is why people are asking and what we know so far:

During his keynote, Google CEO Sundar Pichai noted multiple times that we were listening to real calls and real conversations (“What you will hear is the Google Assistant actually calling a real salon.”). The company made the same claims in a blog post (“While sounding natural, these and other examples are conversations between a fully automatic computer system and real businesses.”).

Google has so far declined to disclose the name of the businesses it worked with and whether it had permission to record those calls. California is a two-consent state, so our understanding is that permission to record these calls would have been necessary (unless those calls were made to businesses in a state with different laws). So on top of the ethics questions, there are also a few legal questions here.

We have some clues, though. In the blog post, Google Duplex lead Yaniv Leviathan and engineering manager Matan Kalman posted a picture of themselves eating a meal “booked through a call from Duplex.” Thanks to the wonder of crowdsourcing and a number of intrepid sleuths, we know that this restaurant was Hongs Gourmet in Saratoga, California. We called Hongs Gourmet last night, but the person who answered the phone referred us to her manager, who she told us had left for the day. (We’ll give it another try today.)

Sadly, the rest of Google’s audio samples don’t contain any other clues as to which restaurants were called.

What prompted much of the suspicion here is that nobody who answers the calls from the Assistant in Google’s samples identifies their name or the name of the business. My best guess is that Google cut those parts from the conversations, but it’s hard to tell. Some of the audio samples do however sound as if the beginning was edited out.

Google clearly didn’t expect this project to be controversial. The keynote demo was clearly meant to dazzle — and it did so in the moment because, if it really works, this technology represents the culmination of years of work on machine learning. But the company clearly didn’t think through the consequences.

My best guess is that Google didn’t fake these calls. But it surely only presented the best examples of its tests. That’s what you do in a big keynote demo, after all, even though in hindsight, showing the system fail or trying to place a live call would have been even better (remember Steve Job’s Starbucks call?).

For now, we’ll see if we can get more answers, but so far all of our calls and emails have gone unanswered. Google could easily do away with all of those questions around Duplex by simply answering them, but so far, that’s not happening.

Google Won’t Confirm If Its Human-Like AI Actually Called a Salon To Make an Appointment As Demoed at I/O

The headline demo at Google's I/O conference earlier this month continues to be a talking point in the industry. The remarkable demo, which saw Google Assistant call a salon to successfully fix an appointment, continues to draw skepticism. News outlet Axios followed up with Google to get some clarifications only to find that the company did not wish to talk about it. From the report: What's suspicious? When you call a business, the person picking up the phone almost always identifies the business itself (and sometimes gives their own name as well). But that didn't happen when the Google assistant called these "real" businesses. Axios called over two dozen hair salons and restaurants -- including some in Google's hometown of Mountain View -- and every one immediately gave the business name. Axios asked Google for the name of the hair salon or restaurant, in order to verify both that the businesses exist and that the calls were not pre-planned. We also said that we'd guarantee, in writing, not to publicly identify either establishment (so as to prevent them from receiving unwanted attention). A longtime Google spokeswoman declined to provide either name. We also asked if either call was edited, even perhaps just cutting the second or two when the business identifies itself. And, if so, were there other edits? The spokeswoman declined comment, but said she'd check and get back to us. She didn't.

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Google Says India Anti-Trust Ruling Could Cause ‘Irreparable Harm’ and Reputational Loss to the Company

Google has said an Indian antitrust ruling that found it was guilty of search bias could cause "irreparable" harm and reputational loss to the company, Reuters reported Thursday, citing a legal document. From the report: The Competition Commission of India (CCI) in February fined Google $20 million for abusing its position in online web search and also slammed the company for preventing its partners from using competing search services. After the ruling, Google had said the verdict raised only "narrow concerns," but in its plea challenging the CCI's ruling the search giant signaled the impact could be far greater. The order, the company said, "requires Google to change the way it conducts business in India on a lasting basis and the way it designs its search results page in India," according to a copy of its plea which was seen exclusively by Reuters. The CCI, among other things, had ordered Google to stop imposing restrictions on its direct search agreements with other publishers.

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Google’s Selfish Ledger is an Unsettling Vision of Silicon Valley Social Engineering

An anonymous reader shares a report: Google has built a multibillion-dollar business out of knowing everything about its users. Now, a video produced within Google and obtained by The Verge offers a stunningly ambitious and unsettling look at how some at the company envision using that information in the future. The video was made in late 2016 by Nick Foster, the head of design at X (formerly Google X), and shared internally within Google. It imagines a future of total data collection, where Google helps nudge users into alignment with their goals, custom-prints personalized devices to collect more data, and even guides the behavior of entire populations to solve global problems like poverty and disease.

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YouTube revamps its Red subscription service to offer standalone music streaming

Like Google’s messaging focus, YouTube’s efforts to spin out successful streaming and music products has felt confusing and haphazard. Now the company is simplifying and consolidating that play by decoupling the music and film components with the launch of a new service.

YouTube Music is, as the name suggests, a music streaming service that will launch on May 22. Aimed squarely at competing with Apple Music and Spotify, it’ll cost $9.99 per month following a free trial period as is standard in the industry.

An ad-supported version will be available for free also, but it won’t include premium features such as background listening, song downloads and music discovery features. (It’s worth noting that this new service will replace the existing Google Play Music service.)

YouTube Music was originally part of YouTube Red, the company’s subscription video streaming service, and though it is being decoupled, customers will be able to subscribe to both services if they buy a YouTube Red subscription, which is now priced at $11.99 per month. Except that YouTube Red will now be known as YouTube Premium since it covers both music and video.

Confused? Well, essentially YouTube has made it possible for customers to opt for music only. But it is also dangling the carrot of the full video service for just $2 more. Or, if you prefer a more negative slant, YouTube Red now costs $2 more than it did before. Take your pick.

The split makes a lot of sense when you consider how many people use YouTube for playing music for free despite a plethora of excellent streaming experiences like Spotify and Apple Music. It’s particularly popular in emerging markets where you can see YouTube listeners on public transport or other moments that Spotify and co would want to own.

That said, the new YouTube services are being focused on first-world markets initially. The company said the first stops will be U.S., Australia, New Zealand, Mexico and South Korea. Further down the line, it will expand to Austria, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Norway, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.