Category: consumer protection

QR codes are becoming fishhooks

We’ve been very bullish on QR codes here, because they’re an excellent way for customers and vendors to shake hands, to start doing business, and to form constructive relationships.

Alas, they have become bait for tracking by marketers. In QR Codes Are Here to Stay. So Is the Tracking They Allow, Erin Woo (@erinkwoo) of the NY Times explains how:

Restaurants have adopted them en masse, retailers including CVS and Foot Locker have added them to checkout registers, and marketers have splashed them all over retail packaging, direct mail, billboards and TV advertisements.

But the spread of the codes has also let businesses integrate more tools for tracking, targeting and analytics, raising red flags for privacy experts. That’s because QR codes can store digital information such as when, where and how often a scan occurs. They can also open an app or a website that then tracks people’s personal information or requires them to input it.

As a result, QR codes have allowed some restaurants to build a database of their customers’ order histories and contact information. At retail chains, people may soon be confronted by personalized offers and incentives marketed within QR code payment systems.

“People don’t understand that when you use a QR code, it inserts the entire apparatus of online tracking between you and your meal,” said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union. “Suddenly your offline activity of sitting down for a meal has become part of the online advertising empire.”

So that’s one more thing to fix in our apps and browsers. But how?

Obviously, we can try to avoid QR codes; but there are a growing number of places where that’s not possible.

Providing ways to opt out is a giant non-starter, as we’ve learned at great pain on the Web. (Do you have any record at all of the separate privacy settings you’ve made at all the sites and services where those choices have been provided? Of course not.)

We need at least two things here, and fast.

One is some way, in our phones or browsers, to prevent QR code scanning on phones from turning into tracking. Are you listening, Apple and Google? Plus everybody else in the QR code business?

The other is regulation. And I hate to say that, because too many regulations protect yesterday from last Thursday, and distort markets in ways seen and unseen for decades to come. But this is a case where we really need it.

[Two days later…]

There has been much follow-up to this piece. If you’re interested in that, start with this clip rom Wednesday;s FLOSS Weekly podcast, where Jonathan Bennett (@JP_Bennett) provides some excellent answers to questions raised here and elsewhere.

On Twitter, @QRcodeART has some good follow-up under an @TWiT tweet pointing to that clip. In that thread I stand accused of “pure babbling,” to which I plead guilty (providing, as I do, an example of how, as Garrison Keillor once put it, “English is the preacher’s language because it allows you to talk until you think of what to say”).

The main point in the thread is that QR codes are essentially “innocent.” Also, “#Bluetooth is much worse! Creative names, unique IDs (!) and such and usually open and “seeable” for everybody. Similar to your #Wifi searching always for a #WLan in the perimeter. Unique funny names and identifiable MAC addresses. Think about that !”

Good advice. Clearly, there are concerns for all the tech we use, especially the networked kind. If we fail to take precautions such as those Jonathan recommends, we’re likely being tracked in ways we wouldn’t welcome if we knew about it. Returning to the metaphor, everything you carry, scan or click on can be a fishhook. And, to the hookers, you’re just a fish.

 

 

GDPR Hack Day at MIT

Our challenge in the near term is to make the GDPR work for us “data subjects” as well as for the “data processors” and “data controllers” of the world—and to start making it work before the GDPR’s “sunrise” on May 25th. That’s when the EU can start laying fines—big ones—on those data processors and controllers, but not on us mere subjects. After all, we’re the ones the GDPR protects.

Ah, but we can also bring some relief to those processors and controllers, by automating, in a way, our own consent to good behavior on their part, using a consent cookie of our own baking. That’s what we started working on at IIW on April 5th. Here’s the whiteboard:

Here are the session notes. And we’ll continue at a GDPR Hack Day, next Thursday, April 26th, at MIT. Read more about and sign up here. You don’t need to be a hacker to participate.

Good news for publishers and advertisers fearing the GDPR

The GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) is the world’s most heavily weaponized law protecting personal privacy. It is aimed at companies that track people without asking, and its ordnance includes fines of up to 4% of worldwide revenues over the prior year.

The law’s purpose is to blow away the (mostly US-based) surveillance economy, especially tracking-based “adtech,” which supports most commercial publishing online.

The deadline for compliance is 25 May 2018, just a couple hundred days from now.

There is no shortage of compliance advice online, much of it coming from the same suppliers that talked companies into harvesting lots of the “big data” that security guru Bruce Schneier calls a toxic asset. (Go to https://www.google.com/search?q=GDPR and see whose ads come up.)

There is, however, an easy and 100% GDPR-compliant way for publishers to continue running ads and for companies to continue advertising. All the publisher needs to do is agree with this request from readers:

That request, along with its legal and machine-readable expressions, will live here:

The agreements themselves can be recorded anywhere.

There is not an easier way for publishers and advertisers to avoid getting fined by the EU for violating the GDPR. Agreeing to exactly what readers request puts both in full compliance.

Some added PR for advertisers is running what I suggest they call #Safeds. If markets are conversations (as marketers have been yakking about since  The Cluetrain Manifesto), #SafeAds will be a great GDPR conversation for everyone to have:

Here are some #SafeAds benefits that will make great talking points, especially for publishers and advertisers:

  1. Unlike adtech, which tracks eyeballs off a publisher’s site and then shoot ads at those eyeballs anywhere they can be found (including the Web’s cheapest and shittiest sites), #SafeAds actually sponsor the publisher. They say “we value this publication and the readers it brings to us.”
  2. Unlike adtech, #SafeAds carry no operational overhead for the publisher and no cognitive overhead for readers—because there are no worries for either party about where an ad comes from or what it’s doing behind the scenes. There’s nothing tricky about it.
  3. Unlike adtech, #SafeAds carry no fraud or malware, because they can’t. They go straight from the publisher or its agency to the publication, avoiding the corrupt four-dimensional shell game adtech has become.
  4. #SafeAds carry full-power creative and economic signals, which adtech can’t do at all, for the reasons just listed. It’s no coincidence that nearly every major brand you can name was made by #SafeAds, while adtech has not produced a single one. In fact adtech has an ugly history of hurting brands by annoying people with advertising that is unwelcome, icky, or both.
  5. Perhaps best of all for publishers, advertisers will pay more for #SafeAds, because those ads are worth more.

#NoStalking and #SafeAds can also benefit social media platforms now in a world of wonder and hurt (example: this Zuckerberg hostage video). The easiest thing for them to do is go freemium, with little or no ads (and only safe ones on the paid side, and nothing but #SafeAds on the free side, in obedience to #NoStalking requests, whether expressed or not.

If you’re a publisher, an advertiser, a developer, an exile from the adtech world, or anybody else who wants to help out, talk to us. That deadline is a hard one, and it’s coming fast.

Let’s give some @VRM help to the @CFPB

cfpbThe Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (@CFPB) is looking to help you help them—plus everybody else who uses financial services.

They explain:

Many new financial innovations rely on people choosing to give a company access to their digital financial records held by another company. If you’re using these kinds of services, we’d love to hear from you…

Make your voice heard. Share your comments on Facebook or Twitter . If you want to give us more details, you can share your story with us through our website. To see and respond to the full range of questions we’re interested in learning about, visit our formal Request for Information

For example,

Services that rely on consumers granting access to their financial records include:

  • Budgeting analysis and advice:  Some tools let people set budgets and analyze their spending activity.  The tools organize your purchases across multiple accounts into categories like food, health care, and entertainment so you can see trends. Some services send a text or email notification when a spending category is close to being over-budget.

  • Product recommendations: Some tools may make recommendations for new financial products based on your financial history. For example, if your records show that you have a lot of ATM fees, a tool might recommend other checking accounts with lower or no ATM fees.

  • Account verification: Many companies need you to verify your identity and bank account information. Access to your financial records can speed that process.

  • Loan applications: Some lenders may access your financial records to confirm your income and other information on your loan application.

  • Automatic or motivational savings: Some companies analyze your records to provide you with automatic savings programs and messages to keep you motivated to save.

  • Bill payment: Some services may collect your bills and help you organize your payments in a timely manner.

  • Fraud and identity theft protection: Some services analyze your records across various accounts to alert you about potentially fraudulent transactions.

  • Investment management: Some services use your account records to help you manage your investments.

A little more about the CFPB:

Our job is to put consumers first and help them take more control over their financial lives. We’re the one federal agency with the sole mission of protecting consumers in the financial marketplace. We want to make sure that consumer financial products and services are helping people rather than harming them.

A hat tip to @GeneKoo (an old Berkman Klein colleague) at the CFPB,  who sees our work with ProjectVRM as especially relevant to what they’re doing.  Of course, we agree. So let’s help them help us, and everybody else in the process.

Some additional links:

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