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Tech Companies Take Your Private Data for Their Profit

By Paul Nutcher

A smart phone now stays in a users hands longer than the device is beneficial. Out of its holster, their user thumbs its glass to share photos, their children’s names, locations, vacation destinations, illnesses and even their emotions over websites across the Internet. All of this online activity is tracked by technology companies and the user’s data is stored so it can be plugged into an algorithm for use by a third-party. Even ones face on a security camera recording, snoring data from medical devices, hidden microphones in home security systems and your unstocked refrigerator are feeding data to algorithms so tech companies can predict your behavior. In the age of the Internet of things, your data is gold. Once mined and processed you are fed advertising and reviews just as you’re about to make a buying decision: from tennis shoes to hernia surgery; or, a nudge that you are almost out of milk or in need of a lower dose of your prescription medicine. Phone apps feed you notifications that are designed to provide the same instant gratification that addicts gamblers to slot machines. All of this is possible with today’s technology and most app users and website visitors opt-in because it seems convenient to do so. However, this vast collection of human data is not considered for the good of mankind by everyone.

The Rise of Surveillance Capitalism

Experts are calling these forms of nudging our behavior a form of surveillance and the data held by so few at the top of the wealth scale a form of capitalism on steroids, whether it is influencing our voting decision toward a particular political candidate or giving our favorite restaurant a five-star rating. Experts such as Shoshana Zuboff, the author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, claims that no matter how careful the user of a device is there are processes going on out of sight from the user that are an invasion of privacy. She argues, data collection of online users’ behavior and other activities people reasonably believe is a private action should not be allowed.

Usually, the goal of data collection is to influence people to buy things by watching online behavior on apps and websites. However, surveillance today goes many steps beyond a user’s consent. People’s faces show their emotions via facial recognition programs, their mouse clicks record their likes and dislikes, and their movements through the physical world, including visits to shopping malls and even where a person eats lunch is being monitored and algorithms look for ways both the tech company and a third party, usually an advertiser, can make money off these personal activities. These are some of the ways information is collected by companies such as Facebook or Google. According to Zuboff, “It begins with these companies claiming our private human experience as their free source of raw material,” she said in a Channel 4 News interview. The raw material is data, which is sold to another company and that data can help predict a person’s behavior, Zuboff explained. They sell this information to advertisers that hope to influence a person into buying something.

            But there are potential existential threats. Surveillance-type online programs used by companies are a potential threat to democracy in the United States. Most of the data used by tech companies should be regulated with laws to protect people instead of the way it is taken from people today who have little knowledge of how it is used. The information is not harvested for the benefit of the users, Zuboff explains. “They are writing algorithms to mine our behavior to determine our inner thoughts,” she says. Not only is user data sold to another company that wants to sell something to people, it is willing to influence behavior to sell a product or service. The promise of the Internet as a tool to keep people educated — as the information superhighway was originally sold — cannot happen in a society that allows a few wealthy businessmen to know more about Americans than they know about themselves, and further, allow them to decide what we see and what they do not want us to see. This is already causing a large divide in information resources resulting in a system of inequality. Where there is inequality there is a threat to democracy. Giving mind control over to Silicon Valley entrepreneurs is not conducive to self-governance by the people.

Conversely, critics of Zuboff argue that the user willingly agrees to allow their data to be sold to advertisers when they agree to the website’s privacy policy. They are willing accomplices to giving up their privacy in order to receive the power, benefits and convenience of the Internet in their hand. Still, these privacy agreements are too long to read and too difficult to understand so most people do not realize their data will be sold to another company, counters Zuboff, a distinguished Harvard professor, who spent seven years writing her more than 600-page book. She claims there are no ways for the average person to hide because many forms of electronic data collection are not noticed by unsuspecting smart phone users nor do they opt-in to the peering eyes of Silicon Valley. From cameras in city centers and computers in cars, there is no escape even if you wanted to be out from under this type of now commonplace surveillance apparatus.

But Are There Consumer Benefits

When all the data collection started, much of what is now used in algorithms was considered excess bits and bytes. It was stored in huge servers but never used. Fast-forward to today and some experts tout the ways data collection improves the human lives. Data collection can improve the human experience, according to Allan Storman, a blogger and senior content marketing manager for Oracle Data Cloud services wrote in his post: The Five Forgotten Benefits of Consumer Data You Need to Know. From improved consumer products to discount coupons, allowing companies to collect data about its users can be of benefit to society.

Data collection of a person’s online activity should be allowed to continue because there are many more benefits. Storman explained, people enjoy their time online when companies know that they will be interested in their products and services. “Data collection happens everywhere – in marketing, advertising, and consumer goods and services, as well as in broader areas such as public safety, health care, and energy conservation.” He said there are ways sales and marketing teams can use data to improve the relationship between the business and the customer. The potential of more personalized products and services is the overall benefit to people, Stormon said. Data helps the business find more efficient ways of reaching customers saving resources for the company. It benefits people by saving them time online because they will read only advertising that applies to them.

Further, data collection can help consumers save money. If a company knows you are interested in a pair of tennis shoes by your online activity, they can send you an electronic coupon to help you save money. There are other ways consumers can save money, for example, within the insurance industry, according to Stormon, “Consumer data allows carriers to more accurately price premiums and offer products and services timed to align with customers’ changing circumstances, such as retirement or purchasing a new home.” The data can also streamline buying transactions making life more convenient for customers, including automated prescription refills or scheduled maintenance needs for an air conditioner.

Lastly, online fraud can be reduced as data is collected. When an algorithm detects unusual patterns of online behavior, the company can intervene and prevent potential losses to its account holders. “Anyone who has received a notification from their credit card company about a suspicious transaction is in effect being protected by the same data used to receive a discount on purchases,” Stormon noted. The same goes for real time sensors often deployed by medical devices and transmitted to a healthcare professional, who can then intervene based on the data and potential avoid their patient suffering a catastrophic emergency. For example, doses of medications can be adjusted so heart attacks or strokes can be prevented. Stormon noted that it will be up to the companies collecting the data to make sure people continue to believe there is value added to their lives instead of intrusions and potential threats.

Big Tech On the Defensive

In a 2013 case, Google was held accountable for its Gmail practices when a class action lawsuit claimed its practices were violating federal and California privacy laws. According to an ABC News online report, Google was alleged to be violating privacy laws when its automated processor scaned emails sent from non-Gmail accounts. Google’s argument is publicly available for download at https://www.consumerwatchdog.org/resources/googlemotion061313.pdf  The court documents show Google wanted the lawsuit thrown out. While that is no surprise, a statement in the documents says that “a person has not legitimate expectation of privacy in information he voluntarily turns over to third parties.” That statement was from a 1997 court case and the citation was part of Google’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit.

The ABC News report futher explained that an industry source that works closely with Google said these practices are common with other email services at least for spam filtering and virus protection. Still, others interviewed for the report said Google goes beyond this and the content of Gmail messages were being mined for data and using it for “whatever purposes they want to do with it,” according to John Simpson, the director of Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project. https://www.consumerwatchdog.org/newsrelease/google-tells-court-you-cannot-expect-privacy-when-sending-messages-gmail-people-who-care

The ABC News reporter also added Lorrie Cranor’s comments that machines may be the email readers but that is not the issue. It is “what could happen as a result of having your email read,” said Cranor, director of the privacy engineering master’s program at Carnegie Mellon University. Google does have a Gmail privacy policy that spells out what it does with data collected from its account users, and it allows them to opt-out of targeted advertising, but at the time of the court case, it did not divulge how it deals with messages that come from outside Google.

ABC News also discovered that work emails sent to Google emails were now subject to Google’s processing. Rachel Greenstadt, an assistant professor of computer science at Drexel University, added that forwarding emails to Gmail complicates the issue even further. “You sent an email to my Drexel account, but it got forwarded to my Gmail,” she said. “You had no idea that was going to happen, and now it’s subject to Gmail’s processing.”

If Google’s motion were to be denied and the court rules that Google’s practice does violate privacy laws, Simpson has some ideas for how the company could change. “Maybe they could use ads that aren’t based on reading your email,” he said. “Or they could just stop reading emails. There are a number of commercial services that are more amenable to privacy concerns.”

The case is being heard in the U.S. District Court in San Jose, Calif. Regardless of where the legal decision falls, arguments like these will likely surface again. “There is a difference between user expectations and business practices,” said Cranor. “Just because every business may do it doesn’t mean that users know the things that are actually done. Ideally, the best choice is to give people the option to opt out.”

Walkable Central Florida

From Deadliest Streets, To Complete Streets: Central Florida Gains Walkable, Sustainable Pockets of Mixed Use Neighborhoods

By Paul Nutcher

ORLANDO — Ribbons of high speed boulevards sew together pockets of walkable neighborhoods in Central Florida. These metropolitan arteries sprouted along Interstate 4 from Daytona Beach in the east, to the well-know Disney tourist attractions in the southwestern reaches of Orlando. The city’s urban core and its regional pedestrian friendly enclaves have come a long way in satisfying their wayfaring residents reversing post-World War II automobile designed communities.

Before ground breaking at Walt Disney World and the construction of Interstate 4, Orlando was a relatively small city in population. It was better known as a railroad crossing: a meeting point between all the cattle ranches throughout Central Florida and the region’s working “Crackers” — a term for native Florida’s cowboys and the crack of a their whips used to keep their herds in check. Then in 1965, Disney announced his plans to build theme parks at the outer limits of Orlando along the relatively immature Interstate 4 corridor — in an area once agricultural and equidistant from Daytona Beach to the northwest and Tampa to the southwest. Seemingly overnight massive housing and strip mall developments began springing up as fast as algae blooms in a stagnant retention pond in the burgeoning Orlando metropolitan area. Parking lots, divided highways and subdivisions paved over the far flung orange orchards in the exurbs of Orlando, surrounded by Orange County and the other counties of the Central Florida region (including: Volusia, Lake, Sumter, Osceola, Polk and Brevard counties). The I-4 corridor quickly became clogged and despite several roadwork expansions, the main thoroughfare has never been able to keep pace with the massive amounts of commuters and tourists on the cross-state highway. The slowdowns come in waves fueled by spikes in population and the expansions in theme parks area (now including: Legoland, Universal, and SeaWorld among other smaller parks). This is despite the less than two decades old system of toll roads circling the City Beautiful and its multiple chains of lakes.

Now with a midsized city population, and as if the urban area possessed an immune system only really the region was suffering from poor growth management, its angry and careless drivers killed pedestrians here at alarming rates placing the city at the top of the worst cities for pedestrians lists and keeping its orthopedic trauma surgeons extremely busy for more than a decade. As city and county residents entered the new millennium, this tragic reality came to light in May 2014 from the non-profit Smart Growth America report entitled, Dangerous by Design, which stated:

“Metro Orlando tops the list of most dangerous areas to walk this year, followed by the Tampa-St. Petersburg, Jacksonville, Miami and Memphis regions. Across the Orlando region, the calculated PDI for 2003- 2013 was 244.28, four times higher than the national PDI. The Birmingham, Houston, Atlanta, Phoenix and Charlotte regions round out the list of the 10 most dangerous places to walk.”

Demands of a New Generation

As the Great Recession ascended on Central Florida, the Millennials arrived (many were graduates of the now 2nd largest university in the nation; the University of Central Florida). Their on-demand, not-like-my-parents attitudes have helped transform downtown Orlando from a late-night ghost town to a nightly Mecca for party goers. They want to live somewhere else after growing up in their parent’s disconnected, suburban cul de sac. Instead of wandering further down the boulevards where roadside markers show where cyclists and pedestrians lost their lives trying to use them to travel on foot or by bike, they chose to migrate and settle inward to the city. The City of Orlando has become the place to be for its nightlife and its career opportunities in recent times. Apartments and condominiums as high as a Cape Canaveral launch pad surrounded the urban core and its skyscrapers. Today, city residents enjoy all the amenities via a short ride-sharing service or in some sections of Orlando: walkable spaces and pink bike rentals.

In fact, a recent report by real estate firm Redfin ranked the mixed use neighborhood around Orlando’s Lake Eola and its iconic fountain and swan boats, as the second most walkable neighborhood within Florida. The report, which was published by the Associated Press (Sept. 17, 2016), gave neighborhood’s with amenities such as restaurants, shops and other businesses high marks for walkability. By comparison to Orlando, a Miami neighborhood took first place, with neighborhoods in St. Petersburg and Sarasota, Fort Lauderdale and Miami Beach rounding out the list.

While most of Orlando’s boom cycles occurred after World War II and few neighborhoods escaped the auto-dependant mode of transportation, young upstart, Chris Castro, recently named the City of Orlando’s Director of Sustainability is trying to reverse past development trends.

In March 2016, the city adopted a Complete Streets policy to ensure when designing and constructing City projects, all modes of transportation are considered. According to Castro: “Adopting policies, like this that promote a multi-modal environment ensures Orlando remains competitive in attracting new business, retaining a diverse workforce and providing safe walkable and healthy communities.”

He compared Orlando’s innovative efforts to those in other cities such as Austin, Denver, Salt Lake City and San Antonio.

Since the negative report in 2014, Orlando has implemented many new initiatives including a Bike Share program last year with 34 stations and 200 bikes. “Users have traveled nearly 50,000 miles, burned nearly two million calories and offset 41,000 pounds of carbon emissions when compared to a car,” Castro explained. He has a long list of improvements including bike only bridges connecting new and existing trails, strategically located bike repair shops and launched a bike rack request program for businesses and honored 30 of those requests to date. The city’s programs are well timed. With these and many other improvements for pedestrians and bicyclists, the places people need to live to enjoy these amenities also have mushroomed in Orlando.

Plans for future biking and pedestrian route improvements and additions include:

  • Completion of Gertrude’s Walk in Downtown Orlando, restoring the previous path created in the 1880’s running from South Street north to Concord Street. The new off-street trail will provide both pedestrians and cyclists with a convenient route through the Central Business District.
  • Construction of the Colonial Pedestrian Overpass which will connect Gertrude’s Walk with the Orlando Urban Trail and provide access to the LYNX Central Station.
  • Expansion of the Shingle Creek Trail from Sand Lake Road to Oak Ridge Road to further our regional connections. When complete this 32-mile trail will connect the City with Orange County, Osceola County and the City of Kissimmee.

The core downtown — once with just a smattering of bars below its highrise office towers conveniently located to snare workers after their daily grind for happy hour drinks — has become the place to be at night for the below-age-30 crowd. City police barricade several blocks of Orange Avenue for a block party atmosphere late nights on weekends and holidays. The partygoers can dance and stumble across the main drag between dozens of nightclubs and bars without being struck by a ride share driver. Students come from as far as the city orbiting University of Central Florida to patronize their fraternity brothers bartending at the clubs. Conventioneers and tourists migrate from the attractions area and their timeshares near Disney to escape the nighttime family friendly-only offerings around the theme parks. The touristy watering holes at Disney Springs, Universal’s City Walk or International Drive near Seaworld are all rated G. While this is the Deep South, at moments late on Saturday nights the city’s downtown can be as decadent as a Bourbon Street or a casino floor in Las Vegas, minus the all-day-drinking-allowed laws. All the bars close at 2 a.m. here. In the Bible Belt, everyone has church in the morning.

Walkable Suburbia

Even the far flung subdivisions in established metropolitan Orlando have entered the millennium of the walkable city; from Winter Park, Maitland, Casselberry and Winter Springs along the once mindless stretches of strip malls along the State Road 17/19 corridor that dead-end in the nearby City of Sanford, new urbanist mixed-use cores are popping up every few miles or so.

Despite efforts, some of these new urbanism town centers have struggled even post-Great Recession, including the Winter Springs Town Center along State Road 434. There are vacant retail spaces in the Town Center but new apartments in the city have sprouted there too adding bodies for business owners hoping for higher walk-in traffic who are affluent enough to spend on goods and services. Despite the apartment building, Winter Spring politicians fear the multi-family units could become remarketed as affordable housing if vacancies in the new multi-family housing projects become a reality.

Conversely, Winter Park town center was a seed that sprouted separate growth along the 17/92 corridor with the addition of both walkable amenities such as new eateries and car accessible shops such as a Trader Joe’s.

The less-than-a-decade old medical city outside the Orlando core, between the rings of toll roads south of the city near the Orlando International Airport, which boosts a Nemour’s Children’s Hospital, Veterans Administration Hospital and UCF’s Medical School, offers multiple subdivisions and gated communities for the doctors and newly arriving residents to Central Florida.

Walkable urban districts are the expertise of EDSA president Doug Smith. He sums up successful walkable, mixed use neighborhoods as addressing three components: 1. The transportation network; 2. The DNA or the streetscape; 3. Health in relationship to good design.

Smith and his colleagues drill down to the size of the city block, taking into account “the pattern of the place,” he said. Residents of a walkable neighborhoods thrive in blocks around 1,600 linear feet, which take a five to seven minute walk to orbit. The place helps them form their identity, develop social networks and supports them; he called these places “complete streets” with pedestrians, bicyclists, businesses and other amenities all coexisting.

These blocks can be strict grids such as you find in New York City but often can be angled urban blocks, he explained. “In good pedestrian environments, there is a pedestrian priority.” To further promote walkability, “one of the things I promote is a good street tree program in both residential and commercial areas,” Smith explained, adding: “There needs to be many interesting components along the way.” In such a setting, highway scale lighting does not fit; it has no relevance to humans. Rather it needs to be human scale as does other elements including appropriately proportioned sidewalks. “People will walk if they feel safe.” There are aesthetic efforts too. Local groupls have, for example, installed sculpture throughout the downtown core and its neighborhoods as eye candy for the bicyclist and pedestrian.

Sustainable Xurban Expansions

The horse breeders and Sorrento ranchette owners as well as environmental groups have made sure the proposed northern stretch of Orlando’s planned a circular toll road system was built with ecosystem preservation in mind in order to preserve the rural nature of the region. The toll road will be elevated along environmentally sensitive areas including the Wekiwa River area. The current terminus of the Toll Road 417 dead ends near the closest walkable neighborhood and at its intersection with Interstate 4. The Lake Mary town center or Colonial Townpark, with a super market, movie theater and eateries in a small and compact xurban, new urbanism development nearly two decades since it was developed.

There is hope that walkable cities will have a positive effect on traffic along Interstate 4 and will keep some of the outer toll roads less congested. Central Florida as a region will never be able to escape its hydra-like development between its great stretches of highways. However, the concentration of urban mixed-use developments around its xurban subdivisions offer promising walkable attributes to the region. Still, as the current I-4 Ultimate project now under construction for the addition of “Lexus lanes,” toll roads with demand-surge toll pricing, and improvements to the interstate’s width, alignment and exits gets underway, there is an increasing chance a toll payment will be unavoidable on drives between Central Florida’s walkable neighborhoods if commuters want to arrive on-time. This is the price for past unbridled development and life without a state income tax.

Systematic Sprawling Developments

While strip mall developers and home builders may seem to blame, a recent article suggests that the federal government also plays a role in driving sprawling regional development dependent on the automobile. Walkable mixed use developments are in high demand according to a report by Curbed.com, which cited studies from the Regional Plan Association paper Strong Town and the American Planning Association survey.

In Strong Town, a majority of Millennials (56 percent) wanted to live in these neighborhoods while 44 percent of the Baby Boomer generation also said they wanted to move to walkable cities. The APA noted that fewer people want to live in the suburbs and 40 percent of the study respondents currently lived in an auto-dependent area, while 10 percent would prefer this type of neighborhood. They also found that across generations 56 percent of Millennials and 46 percent of Baby Boomers preferred life in walkable, mixed use neighborhoods.

Despite these numbers, the APA report found that the federal government retains a preference toward single-family homes to the detriment of the others. The study by RPA found that 81 percent of all federal loans went to larger buildings and cap commercial floor space in mixed use projects, discouraging the mid-level, multi-family projects needed in desperate urban areas with high demand for walkable, mixed use neighborhoods.