Smartphone Privacy- Tides Shifting

Does IDFA= Identity Details Facebook Acquires?

Cheetos (the food) leaves stains on your fingers. A Tide ad from the 2020 superbowl ad suggests use Tide for stains.
Smartphone privacy! Don’t leave a trace!
Tide ad from 2020 Superbowl

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I am confused by the news about smartphone privacy. First I read this week that Apple has a new privacy feature for iPhones. Then I read a story that big U.S. companies are working with the Chinese to bypass these privacy settings. And, finally, there is a piece today that says it is all a corporate battle with Facebook. I am worried about my smartphone privacy, not about these companies. Annette, Tiburon

Dear Annette: We hold the answers in our hand, but not quite!  There is currently a secret string of numbers called an Identifier for Advertisers (IDFA) on Iphones and a similar code, called an AAID on Android phones.  Mobile apps do not have cookies, so instead an unique identifier tracks you across the apps you download, your purchase history, location and quote, “much more.”

In the next release of their software, Apple will provide IDFA controls for the apps you open. Meanwhile, as you noted, some companies are allegedly working with the Chinese to bypass it, like Procter and Gamble (the maker of Tide). A third viewpoint is that this is a high stake game to move the app business away from Facebook.

ChangiNG TIDES

Suppose, like me, you buy Tide detergent. In bygone times that brand targeted women and ran lots of full page ads in magazines such as Better Homes & Gardens. The publisher of that magazine is now in an exclusive licensing relationship with Walmart, so we can imagine they could merge  the address and zipcode of subscribers with other data bases, and send you promotions for Walmart. Data on the Internet works the same way, except that the IDFA is truly specific and granular- it is at the person (i.e., smartphone) level. 

Ads and IDFA’s are the underpinning of our media, since we do not pay a subscription or license fee like users of the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation).  Instead, when we use search engines and email we pay with our eyeballs and attention. Our interests and browsing habits are commodities that Facebook, Google, and to a lesser extent Apple, sell to advertisers. Here’s a DearSmartphone post, from the summer, of how a grandma was “oversold.”

Don’t Leave A TRACE!

The point is that that the searches you make, the media you post, and the sites you click leave a breadcrumb trail about “you.”  If I want to sell Tide detergent, it’s important to know whether you favor brand name reputation, as well as your age, marital status, and stage in life. For a fee, Facebook runs a Tide ad  to viewers with these exact qualities. Really, does IDFA stands for “Identity Details Facebook Acquires?”

The good news is that you don’t have to wait for the release of new Apple software. There’s a setting on your Iphone where you can ‘sort-of’ opt-out today. Go to <Settings> then <Privacy> <Tracking> and make sure the toggle is off. While there scroll to the bottom of <Privacy> screen and you will reach <Apple Advertising>. Toggle off settings to receive Apple’s ‘Personalized Ads.’ But, note that they still intend to send ‘served ads’ when you search on the App Store or on Apple News and Stocks. Apple calls it “contextual information”  and it speaks to Gabriel Nichols critique (cited above) that a discussion of personal privacy is also entangled with larger institutional interests. 

CUrious IF..

Since we don’t have BBC like fees for the Internet, targeted ads are baked into our digital culture. Speaking of Target,  one of the most often repeated stories about tracking was published in Forbes magazine in 2012. A Dad learned that his teen daughter was first-trimester pregnant, after she bought vitamins, or something similar at Target, the retailer. Target had unwittingly mailed the household coupons for expectant moms. In 2020, a Facebook employee, Colin Fraser, debunks this story, assiduously noting that the story was probably made up, and even if it did happen, the AI prediction model could not operate with such precision and accuracy.

Whether the story and pregnancy are true or false, it should rankle some curiosity and make you more aware and attentive online. Consider using cash instead of a trackable credit card, continue to delete cookies from search engines and preferably buy your Tide from a locally owned and operated store. Finally, spend some time exploring what the apps on your phone want from you and what you choose to give them.

Misunderstood Prank on Email

A fake photo of an orca attacking a bear. It is a prank photo that has gone viral on social media.
Orca & The Bear. A Misunderstood April Fools’ Prank. See Snopes.org

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Can you help me understand this misunderstood prank?  On April Fool’s Day (this past Thursday) I posted an email to the town’s listserv. I  invited fellow board members to a special Transportation Meeting. My email strongly recommended that they arrive on a scooter or bicycle. At the end of the email I wrote ‘Happy April Fools!’  Despite this, two or three people immediately called the town administrator to say they had a conflict with the date. Another person called the accessibility commissioner and complained about scooters! Honestly, I sent the email in humor but it came off as a misunderstood prank. Do people not have a sense of humor anymore?  Craig (name of town withheld)

Dear Craig: Hopefully by now this misunderstood prank has sunk to the bottom of the  email well and you and the town are happily reconciled. My sympathies. All of us have sent emails that we wish to have erased.  But here is why your email “blew up.” 

First, it’s April 2021, and the pandemic has made people edgy and anxious. It’s been a stressful 13 months and many have checked out, literally.  For them,  April 1 was just another new month when the rent was due and there were bills to pay. They probably forgot the occasion unless they were tuned in to jokey-jokey morning radio or TV. The Onion is not the reading choice of your listserve friends and the media they consult may be too fragmented.

Second, and this ties into a recent DearSmartphone post, we seem to be experiencing weird, wacky, and woke decision making by public groups. Why?  Perhaps the majority of people who meet on Zoom don’t speak up, and a vocal minority lead the charge.  Your April Fool’s  email that required board members to arrive by scooter or bike might have struck them as another wacky iteration.

Jumping to Wrong Conclusions

Obviously, you are grieved because people did not read the email to the end. That would have clarified it was an April Fool’s lark. But, in my post on the weird and wacky, note that disassociated publics can jump to quick  (and wrong) conclusions. Most likely, the members read the email from home, alone, and for some, still in their PJs. The post would have been received differently had they congregated at the water-cooler or conversed about it over the office cubicles.  

While I hate to be a spoiler, there is a larger, sinister issue surrounding your innocent April Fools prank. Increasingly our media seems to be hijacked by fake news and fake followers. For example, nearly half of the Twitter accounts spreading messages about the pandemic this past summer were probably bots, according to researchers  at Carnegie Mellon University. And, recently The New York Times has started publishing ‘Daily Distortions’, a feed to chronicle and debunk false and misleading information. Meanwhile, it’s not just the news stories that are co-opted. There is increasingly sophisticated  software that alters and fabricate images.

Check Hoax, Check ‘Snopes’

You might get a smile from the site called hoaxes.org where I found the river image (above). Quite to your point, someone posted the image and a  prank story on April’s Fools day, 2015.  Snopes, a useful fact-checking site, says people continue to stumble upon the image of an Orca attacking a bear.  Bearware?!  It’s beginning to feel like everyday is April Fools!

Does Social Media Run our Lives?

A photo of a young girl in Paris near Eiffel Tower taking a Selfie with Phone.
Does Social Media Run our Lives and Our Travel too? (Getty Image)

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Does social media run our lives? My college roommate is a teacher in Los Angeles. He and I stay in touch, and we had planned to take a Spring Break trip this month.  This is a tradition  since we roomed together (except in 2020). Now he heard on Facebook that he was not supposed to post pictures. And he wants to cancel the trip and not travel. Is this fair?  Christian, San Francisco

Dear Christian: When I started this column, I expected that the majority of letters would be about bad digital behavior and public shaming, but now that seems wrong. Human behavior is so much more complex. It’s too easy to blame the Internet for our woes.

Travel for younger people is often inspired by photo-opportunities and bragging rights. In a 2018 travel study, Millennials and GenZ noted that posting travel pictures was also artistic and helped them feel connected. They hoped to visit exotic or scenic locales, and use smartphone cameras to record the moment. That’s not so different than the behavior of old-fashioned tourists, except that elders did not share their photos as publicly. 

More Than Pictures

But, photos are the superficial issue. Your friend may not want to go because of a larger, more pressing issue brought on by social media. The teacher’s union worries  that parents, and other members of the public, will find the holiday photos online.  Social media would reveal if teachers are straying far from home.

A similar issue occurred in Broward County (Florida). There, the School District reopened schools after they scoured teacher’s Facebook pages, and found some of them posting pictures from restaurants, Disney, and beach vacations. The teachers and lawyers went head to head. 

It is likely that your friend wants to cancel the trip because social media might “follow” him. That is the overarching concern if someone takes vacation pictures and then posts them on social media, even if they can obscure the time and date of the posting.

Whose Social Media?

Your friend is posting on his personal account, so the vetted social media policy for the school district does not apply.  But, it’s a slippery slope. School districts have challenged the rights of students to post on social media when their posts do harm and injury to classmates. When private posts go public, we begin to change our behaviors.

The way I see it, and you may disagree, teachers are opinion leaders, role models, and upholders of community values. They can’t be willy-nilly about their social media posts, any more than a federal judge, a medical doctor or a rabbi. Each profession upholds a duty and responsibility to their constituency. So, for your friend, it’s not about travel photos per se, but about the milieu of leadership and values. 

Digital Literacy for Adults too

Ironically, some school districts instruct students in a curriculum called “digital literacy.” It’s designed to make students better digital citizens. We should not neglect teachers and educators. We expect adults to be good role models, but most of them have not grown up with the technology, and are in some ways, less informed than the ‘digital native’ students. Skills like privacy controls, identifying deep fakes, and manipulating images may not be in the adult’s toolbox. 

The University of San Diego publishes a “9 P” digital literacy curriculum, one of many out there.  Their fourth “P” is about photographs- with content on geotagging, facial recognition software, and general precautions on photo posting. 

So take heed! Teachers and parents learned in more traditional ways and have a lot to learn from the digital literacy classes. It makes sense to assume that the more digitally literate our teachers are, the more they will employ these skills inside the classroom…and outside of them too. During these days when our travel trips are limited, and we are on social media more, it could not be more important.