Despite new drugs, brain scans, and other innovations, mental illness remains an epidemic that we don’t know how to cure or treat. Tom Insel is trying to change that, and he thinks our phones will be the key (David Dobbs in The Atlantic). Insel, who led the National Institute of Mental Health for 13 years, left government to join the mental-health effort at Verily, Google’s healthcare spinoff — and recently left Verily for a new startup called Mindstrong.
Like several other companies in this field, Mindstrong intends to use the stream of data that our phones produce as a sort of early-warning system for the onset of conditions like depression and schizophrenia, and then help connect the user with counselors, peers, or doctors who can offer resources and treatments — quickly enough to make a difference.
If technology makes a particular kind of data collection possible, sooner or later some business will try to use that info to target ads. But sometimes the creepiness factor can get so intense that alarms go off. That’s what happened earlier this month with an alarming report from Australia, which suggested that Facebook was studying how to target young people in distress.
The company had conducted research intended to gauge the effectiveness of ads aimed at young users during “moments of psychological vulnerability,” and delivered the results to advertisers in a 23-page report (Nitasha Tiku in Wired). Facebook’s response implied that the project was a rogue operation that hadn’t followed stricter research guidelines put in place after Facebook’s last controversial study of psychological manipulation. But the details are disturbing enough on their own, and they have watchdog groups and privacy advocates mobilizing.
The entire digital economy is built on a simple transaction model in which users give companies access to their personal data and companies provide services cheap or free. It’s a convenient and successful scheme, but it has some ugly incentives built in. And every now and then, a news story that lifts the veil from its shadier corners causes the world to go “yuck.”
In the latest incident of this sort, readers of Mike Isaac’s in-depth New York Timesprofile of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick yesterday learned that an email inbox cleanup service called Unroll.me was selling anonymized data about its users’ behavior to third-party companies. In this case, Uber paid Unroll.me for reports on the volume of Lyft receipts in its users’ email so it could suss out the health of its rival’s business. Much online outcry ensued (here’s a good summary from CBS News).
Last year’s revelation that hyper-competitive, goal-crazed Wells Fargo salespeople opened millions of bogus accounts that customers never asked for already cost the bank’s CEO his job. But the fallout keeps growing. Today an outside law firm hired by the Wells board released a tough-talking report that put the onus chiefly on the banks’ former retail chief, Carrie Tolstedt (Reuters).
Wells said it would penalize Tolstedt and former CEO John Stumpf a total of $75 million more than it already has. These penalties are known on Wall Street as “clawbacks.” The label makes them sound difficult and unpleasant, which is exactly what executives want the world to think they are.
Markets are supposed to hate uncertainty and unpredictability, and those are surely hallmarks of the Trump administration’s early days. Yet the stock market, at least, has shrugged off fear of volatility and charged ahead: This week the Dow Jones index leaped past 21,000.
Is the “Trump bounce” just about anticipation of tax cuts and deregulation? Is it a result of large pools of investment cash desperate for a better return than bonds and banks can offer? Or is the market sending us a signal that the global economy, after a decade of slow growth and low inflation, about to return to the more familiar pattern of the ’80s, ’90s, and aughts, with faster growth and higher inflation punctuated by occasional recessions?
It should come as a surprise to no one that the arrival of a new conservative Republican administration means a reordering of telecommunications policy — away from regulation, and towards a freer hand for the semi-monopolists who control our network access. Now that this change is taking concrete form, it’s worth taking a closer look at.
Ajit Pai, who is already a commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission (and before that was a lawyer for Verizon), will be the new FCC chairman (The Washington Post). Critics say Pai was a staunch opponent of his predecessor Tom Wheeler’s moves to make network neutrality the law, and we should expect the FCC to begin unravelling that initiative — making it easier for Verizon, Comcast, AT&T and other network providers to create different tiers of internet access and to bundle content channels that they control with the basic network services they provide (Motherboard). Also in the offing: a loosening of privacy rules and less support for municipal broadband initiatives.
Snapchat has built a social-media empire with an Apple-like approach to secrecy. But its fanatical determination to quash leaks and its devotion to top-down, need-to-know management will be tested by the IPO the company is headed towards (Bloomberg).
Snapchat’s founder/CEO Evan Spiegel likes keeping people, including his own employees, in the dark: “Keeping secrets gives you space to change your mind, until you’re really sure that you’re right,” he has argued. And generations of business leadership have agreed with him. But more recently, and particularly in Silicon Valley, the gospel of openness has begun to take root: Companies test new ideas in public and share as much as they can with employees, partners, and customers, in the belief that everybody wins.
We all trust cloud-based file storage services to keep our data safe from prying eyes, right? Maybe we shouldn’t. In the summer of 2015, an exploit was discovered that let baddies get into Google Drive, Dropbox, and OneDrive accounts without knowing your password. As the ZDNet story about the problem pointed out, “The so-called ‘man-in-the-cloud’ attack is said to be a common flaw in most cloud-based file synchronization services.”
Of course, that particular security hole has been closed by now — we hope. But even if it has, another one always seems to come along. So it’s probably a good idea to encrypt any information we store in the cloud, especially since it’s easy to do — and free, as well.
“Whistleblower” is a peculiarly American term for someone who sees something wrong happening in an organization and calls foul. The problem with the sports metaphor is that, on the athletic field, the person blowing the whistle is empowered — a referee or umpire. In business, however, whistleblowers are usually vulnerable employees who face retribution and blackballing.
Government regulators at agencies like the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration have programs in place to encourage whistleblowers to step forward and reward and protect them. Businesses typically resent that and charge that it encourages fraud. But a new study by a business professor at the University of Iowa shows that whistleblowing has a clear and valuable deterrent effect (Gretchen Morgenson in The New York Times).
Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, and YouTube are “partnering to help curb the spread of terrorist content online.” They’ve announced a joint plan to use hashes (“digital fingerprints”) as a way to share that they’ve taken down a particular article or video. Get something banned from one service and it will now be much easier for the other services to block it, too (Ars Technica).
Sounds great! We’ve all read stories about “self-radicalizing” loners who watch one too many ISIS/Daesh recruiting videos and become dangerous. It makes sense for the big platforms to cooperate in fighting this problem, right?