Airlines Want To Extend 'Dynamic Pricing' Capabilities To Set Ticket Prices By Each Person

In the near future, what you post on social media sites (e.g., Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, etc.) could affect the price you pay for airline tickets. How's that?

First, airlines already use what the travel industry calls "dynamic pricing" to vary prices by date, time of day, and season. We've all seen higher ticket prices during the holidays and peak travel times. The Telegraph UK reported that airlines want to extend dynamic pricing to set fares by person:

"... the advent of setting fares by the person, rather than the flight, are fast approaching. According to John McBride, director of product management for PROS, a software provider that works with airlines including Lufthansa, Emirates and Southwest, a number of operators have already introduced dynamic pricing on some ticket searches. "2018 will be a very phenomenal year in terms of traction," he told Travel Weekly..."

And, there was a preliminary industry study about how to do it:

" "The introduction of a Dynamic Pricing Engine will allow an airline to take a base published fare that has already been calculated based on journey characteristics and broad segmentation, and further adjust the fare after evaluating details about the travelers and current market conditions," explains a white paper on pricing written by the Airline Tariff Publishing Company (ATPCO), which counts British Airways, Delta and KLM among its 430 airline customers... An ATPCO working group met [in late February] to discuss dynamic pricing, but it is likely that any roll out to its customers would be incremental."

What's "incremental" mean? Experts say first step would be to vary ticket prices in search results at the airline's site, or at an intermediary's site. There's virtually no way for each traveler to know they'd see a personal price that's higher (or lower) from prices presented to others.

With dynamic pricing per person, business travelers would pay more. And, an airline could automatically bundle several fees (e.g., priority boarding, luggage, meals, etc.) for its loyalty program members into each person's ticket price, obscuring transparency and avoiding fairness. Of course, airlines would pitch this as convenience, but alert consumers know that any convenience always has its price.

Thankfully, some politicians in the United States are paying attention. The Shear Social Media Law & Technology blog summarized the situation very well:

"[Dynamic pricing by person] demonstrates why technology companies and the data collection industry needs greater regulation to protect the personal privacy and free speech rights of Americans. Until Silicon Valley and data brokers are properly regulated Americans will continue to be discriminated against based upon the information that technology companies are collecting about us."

Just because something can be done with technology, doesn't mean it should be done. What do you think?

The 'CLOUD Act' - What It Is And What You Need To Know

Chances are, you probably have not heard of the "CLOUD Act." I hadn't heard about it until recently. A draft of the legislation is available on the website for U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch (Republican - Utah).

Many people who already use cloud services to store and backup data might assume: if it has to do with the cloud, then it must be good.  Such an assumption would be foolish. The full name of the bill: "Clarifying Overseas Use Of Data." What problem does this bill solve? Senator Hatch stated last month why he thinks this bill is needed:

"... the Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case... United States v. Microsoft Corp., colloquially known as the Microsoft Ireland case... The case began back in 2013, when the US Department of Justice asked Microsoft to turn over emails stored in a data center in Ireland. Microsoft refused on the ground that US warrants traditionally have stopped at the water’s edge. Over the last few years, the legal battle has worked its way through the court system up to the Supreme Court... The issues the Microsoft Ireland case raises are complex and have created significant difficulties for both law enforcement and technology companies... law enforcement officials increasingly need access to data stored in other countries for investigations, yet no clear enforcement framework exists for them to obtain overseas data. Meanwhile, technology companies, who have an obligation to keep their customers’ information private, are increasingly caught between conflicting laws that prohibit disclosure to foreign law enforcement. Equally important, the ability of one nation to access data stored in another country implicates national sovereignty... The CLOUD Act bridges the divide that sometimes exists between law enforcement and the tech sector by giving law enforcement the tools it needs to access data throughout the world while at the same time creating a commonsense framework to encourage international cooperation to resolve conflicts of law. To help law enforcement, the bill creates incentives for bilateral agreements—like the pending agreement between the US and the UK—to enable investigators to seek data stored in other countries..."

Senators Coons, Graham, and Whitehouse, support the CLOUD Act, along with House Representatives Collins, Jeffries, and others. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) opposes the bill and warned:

"Despite its fluffy sounding name, the recently introduced CLOUD Act is far from harmless. It threatens activists abroad, individuals here in the U.S., and would empower Attorney General Sessions in new disturbing ways... the CLOUD Act represents a dramatic change in our law, and its effects will be felt across the globe... The bill starts by giving the executive branch dramatically more power than it has today. It would allow Attorney General Sessions to enter into agreements with foreign governments that bypass current law, without any approval from Congress. Under these agreements, foreign governments would be able to get emails and other electronic information without any additional scrutiny by a U.S. judge or official. And, while the attorney general would need to consider a country’s human rights record, he is not prohibited from entering into an agreement with a country that has committed human rights abuses... the bill would for the first time allow these foreign governments to wiretap in the U.S. — even in cases where they do not meet Wiretap Act standards. Paradoxically, that would give foreign governments the power to engage in surveillance — which could sweep in the information of Americans communicating with foreigners — that the U.S. itself would not be able to engage in. The bill also provides broad discretion to funnel this information back to the U.S., circumventing the Fourth Amendment. This information could potentially be used by the U.S. to engage in a variety of law enforcement actions."

Given that warning, I read the draft legislation. One portion immediately struck me:

"A provider of electronic communication service or remote computing service shall comply with the obligations of this chapter to preserve, backup, or disclose the contents of a wire or electronic communication and any record or other information pertaining to a customer or subscriber within such provider’s possession, custody, or control, regardless of whether such communication, record, or other information is located within or outside of the United States."

While I am not an attorney, this bill definitely sounds like an end-run around the Fourth Amendment. The review process is largely governed by the House of Representatives; a body not known for internet knowledge nor savvy. The bill also smells like an attack on internet services consumers regularly use for privacy, such as search engines that don't collect nor archive search data and Virtual Private Networks (VPNs).

Today, for online privacy many consumers in the United States use VPN software and services provided by vendors located offshore. Why? Despite a national poll in 2017 which found the the Republican rollback of FCC broadband privacy rules very unpopular among consumers, the Republican-led Congress proceeded with that rollback, and President Trump signed the privacy-rollback legislation on April 3, 2017. Hopefully, skilled and experienced privacy attorneys will continue to review and monitor the draft legislation.

The ACLU emphasized in its warning:

"Today, the information of global activists — such as those that fight for LGBTQ rights, defend religious freedom, or advocate for gender equality are protected from being disclosed by U.S. companies to governments who may seek to do them harm. The CLOUD Act eliminates many of these protections and replaces them with vague assurances, weak standards, and largely unenforceable restrictions... The CLOUD Act represents a major change in the law — and a major threat to our freedoms. Congress should not try to sneak it by the American people by hiding it inside of a giant spending bill. There has not been even one minute devoted to considering amendments to this proposal. Congress should robustly debate this bill and take steps to fix its many flaws, instead of trying to pull a fast one on the American people."

I agree. Seems like this bill creates far more problems than it solves. Plus, something this important should be openly and thoroughly discussed; not be buried in a spending bill. What do you think?

Securities & Exchange Commission Charges Former Equifax Executive With Insider Trading

Last week, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) charged a former Equifax executive with insider trading. While an employee, Jun Ying allegedly used confidential information to dump stock and avoid losses before Equifax announced its massive data breach in September, 2017.

The SEC announced on March 14th that it had:

"... charged a former chief information officer of a U.S. business unit of Equifax with insider trading in advance of the company’s September 2017 announcement about a massive data breach that exposed the social security numbers and other personal information of about 148 million U.S. customers... The SEC’s complaint charges Ying with violating the antifraud provisions of the federal securities laws and seeks disgorgement of ill-gotten gains plus interest, penalties, and injunctive relief... According to the SEC’s complaint, Jun Ying, who was next in line to be the company’s global CIO, allegedly used confidential information entrusted to him by the company to conclude that Equifax had suffered a serious breach. The SEC alleges that before Equifax’s public disclosure of the data breach, Ying exercised all of his vested Equifax stock options and then sold the shares, reaping proceeds of nearly $1 million. According to the complaint, by selling before public disclosure of the data breach, Ying avoided more than $117,000 in losses... The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Georgia today announced parallel criminal charges against Ying."

The massive data breach affected about 143 million persons. Equifax announced in March, 2018 that even more people were affected, than originally estimated in its September, 2017 announcement.

MarketWatch reported that Ying:

"... found out about the breach on Friday afternoon, August 25, 2017... The SEC complaint says that Ying’s internet browsing history shows he learned that Experian’s stock price had dropped approximately 4% after the public announcement of [a prior 2015] Experian breach. Later Monday morning, Ying exercised all of his available stock options for 6,815 shares of Equifax stock that he immediately sold for over $950,000, and a gain of over $480,000... on Aug. 30, the global CIO for Equifax officially told Ying that it was Equifax that had been breached. One of the company’s attorneys, unaware that Ying had already traded on the information, told Ying that the news about the breach was confidential, should not be shared with anyone, and that Ying should not trade in Equifax securities. According the SEC complaint, Ying did not volunteer the fact that he had exercised and sold all of his vested Equifax options two days before. Equifax finally announced the breach on Sept. 7, and Equifax common stock closed at $123.23 the next day, a drop of $19.49 or nearly 14%..."

Banking Legislation Advances In U.S. Senate

The Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act (Senate Bill 2155) was approved Wednesday by the United States Senate. The vote was 67 for, 31 against, and 2 non voting. The voting roll call by name:

Alexander (R-TN), Yea
Baldwin (D-WI), Nay
Barrasso (R-WY), Yea
Bennet (D-CO), Yea
Blumenthal (D-CT), Nay
Blunt (R-MO), Yea
Booker (D-NJ), Nay
Boozman (R-AR), Yea
Brown (D-OH), Nay
Burr (R-NC), Yea
Cantwell (D-WA), Nay
Capito (R-WV), Yea
Cardin (D-MD), Nay
Carper (D-DE), Yea
Casey (D-PA), Nay
Cassidy (R-LA), Yea
Cochran (R-MS), Yea
Collins (R-ME), Yea
Coons (D-DE), Yea
Corker (R-TN), Yea
Cornyn (R-TX), Yea
Cortez Masto (D-NV), Nay
Cotton (R-AR), Yea
Crapo (R-ID), Yea
Cruz (R-TX), Yea
Daines (R-MT), Yea
Donnelly (D-IN), Yea
Duckworth (D-IL), Nay
Durbin (D-IL), Nay
Enzi (R-WY), Yea
Ernst (R-IA), Yea
Feinstein (D-CA), Nay
Fischer (R-NE), Yea
Flake (R-AZ), Yea
Gardner (R-CO), Yea
Gillibrand (D-NY), Nay
Graham (R-SC), Yea
Grassley (R-IA), Yea
Harris (D-CA), Nay
Hassan (D-NH), Yea
Hatch (R-UT), Yea
Heinrich (D-NM), Not Voting
Heitkamp (D-ND), Yea
Heller (R-NV), Yea
Hirono (D-HI), Nay
Hoeven (R-ND), Yea
Inhofe (R-OK), Yea
Isakson (R-GA), Yea
Johnson (R-WI), Yea
Jones (D-AL), Yea
Kaine (D-VA), Yea
Kennedy (R-LA), Yea
King (I-ME), Yea
Klobuchar (D-MN), Nay
Lankford (R-OK), Yea
Leahy (D-VT), Nay
Lee (R-UT), Yea
Manchin (D-WV), Yea
Markey (D-MA), Nay
McCain (R-AZ), Not Voting
McCaskill (D-MO), Yea
McConnell (R-KY), Yea
Menendez (D-NJ), Nay
Merkley (D-OR), Nay
Moran (R-KS), Yea
Murkowski (R-AK), Yea
Murphy (D-CT), Nay
Murray (D-WA), Nay
Nelson (D-FL), Yea
Paul (R-KY), Yea
Perdue (R-GA), Yea
Peters (D-MI), Yea
Portman (R-OH), Yea
Reed (D-RI), Nay
Risch (R-ID), Yea
Roberts (R-KS), Yea
Rounds (R-SD), Yea
Rubio (R-FL), Yea
Sanders (I-VT), Nay
Sasse (R-NE), Yea
Schatz (D-HI), Nay
Schumer (D-NY), Nay
Scott (R-SC), Yea
Shaheen (D-NH), Yea
Shelby (R-AL), Yea
Smith (D-MN), Nay
Stabenow (D-MI), Yea
Sullivan (R-AK), Yea
Tester (D-MT), Yea
Thune (R-SD), Yea
Tillis (R-NC), Yea
Toomey (R-PA), Yea
Udall (D-NM), Nay
Van Hollen (D-MD), Nay
Warner (D-VA), Yea
Warren (D-MA), Nay
Whitehouse (D-RI), Nay
Wicker (R-MS), Yea
Wyden (D-OR), Nay
Young (R-IN), Yea

The bill now proceeds to the House of Representatives. If it passes the House, then it would be sent to the President for a signature.

Report: Little Progress Since 2016 To Replace Old, Vulnerable Voting Machines In United States

We've know for some time that a sizeable portion of voting machines in the United States are vulnerable to hacking and errors. Too many states, cities, and town use antiquated equipment or equipment without paper backups. The latter makes re-counts impossible.

Has any progress been made to fix the vulnerabilities? The Brennan Center For Justice (BCJ) reported:

"... despite manifold warnings about election hacking for the past two years, the country has made remarkably little progress since the 2016 election in replacing antiquated, vulnerable voting machines — and has done even less to ensure that our country can recover from a successful cyberattack against those machines."

It is important to remember this warning in January 2017 from the Director of National Intelligence (DNI):

"Russian effortsto influence the 2016 US presidential election represent the most recent expression of Moscow’s longstanding desire to undermine the US-led liberal democratic order, but these activities demonstrated a significant escalation in directness, level of activity, and scope of effort compared to previous operations. We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process... Russian intelligence accessed elements of multiple state or local electoral boards. Since early 2014, Russian intelligence has researched US electoral processes and related technology and equipment. DHS assesses that the types of systems we observed Russian actors targeting or compromising are not involved in vote tallying... We assess Moscow will apply lessons learned from its Putin-ordered campaign aimed at the US presidential election to future influence efforts worldwide, including against US allies and their election processes... "

Detailed findings in the BCJ report about the lack of progress:

  1. "This year, most states will use computerized voting machines that are at least 10 years old, and which election officials say must be replaced before 2020.
    While the lifespan of any electronic voting machine varies, systems over a decade old are far more likely to need to be replaced, for both security and reliability reasons... older machines are more likely to use outdated software like Windows 2000. Using obsolete software poses serious security risks: vendors may no longer write security patches for it; jurisdictions cannot replace critical hardware that is failing because it is incompatible with their new, more secure hardware... In 2016, jurisdictions in 44 states used voting machines that were at least a decade old. Election officials in 31 of those states said they needed to replace that equipment by 2020... This year, 41 states will be using systems that are at least a decade old, and officials in 33 say they must replace their machines by 2020. In most cases, elections officials do not yet have adequate funds to do so..."
  2. "Since 2016, only one state has replaced its paperless electronic voting machines statewide.
    Security experts have long warned about the dangers of continuing to use paperless electronic voting machines. These machines do not produce a paper record that can be reviewed by the voter, and they do not allow election officials and the public to confirm electronic vote totals. Therefore, votes cast on them could be lost or changed without notice... In 2016, 14 states (Arkansas, Delaware, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia) used paperless electronic machines as the primary polling place equipment in at least some counties and towns. Five of these states used paperless machines statewide. By 2018 these numbers have barely changed: 13 states will still use paperless voting machines, and 5 will continue to use such systems statewide. Only Virginia decertified and replaced all of its paperless systems..."
  3. "Only three states mandate post-election audits to provide a high-level of confidence in the accuracy of the final vote tally.
    Paper records of votes have limited value against a cyberattack if they are not used to check the accuracy of the software-generated total to confirm that the veracity of election results. In the last few years, statisticians, cybersecurity professionals, and election experts have made substantial advances in developing techniques to use post-election audits of voter verified paper records to identify a computer error or fraud that could change the outcome of a contest... Specifically, “risk limiting audits” — a process that employs statistical models to consistently provide a high level of confidence in the accuracy of the final vote tally – are now considered the “gold standard” of post-election audits by experts... Despite this fact, risk limiting audits are required in only three states: Colorado, New Mexico, and Rhode Island. While 13 state legislatures are currently considering new post-election audit bills, since the 2016 election, only one — Rhode Island — has enacted a new risk limiting audit requirement."
  4. "43 states are using machines that are no longer manufactured.
    The problem of maintaining secure and reliable voting machines is particularly challenging in the many jurisdictions that use machines models that are no longer produced. In 2015... the Brennan Center estimated that 43 states and the District of Columbia were using machines that are no longer manufactured. In 2018, that number has not changed. A primary challenge of using machines no longer manufactured is finding replacement parts and the technicians who can repair them. These difficulties make systems less reliable and secure... In a recent interview with the Brennan Center, Neal Kelley, registrar of voters for Orange County, California, explained that after years of cannibalizing old machines and hoarding spare parts, he is now forced to take systems out of service when they fail..."

That is embarrassing for a country that prides itself on having an effective democracy. According to BCJ, the solution would be for Congress to fund via grants the replacement of paperless and antiquated equipment; plus fund post-election audits.

Rather than protect the integrity of our democracy, the government passed a massive tax cut which will increase federal deficits during the coming years while pursuing both a costly military parade and an unfunded border wall. Seems like questionable priorities to me. What do you think?

Legislation Moving Through Congress To Loosen Regulations On Banks

Legislation is moving through Congress which will loosen regulations on banks. Is this an improvement? Is it risky? Is it a good deal for consumers? Before answering those questions, a summary of the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act (Senate Bill 2155):

"This bill amends the Truth in Lending Act to allow institutions with less than $10 billion in assets to waive ability-to-repay requirements for certain residential-mortgage loans... The bill amends the Bank Holding Company Act of 1956 to exempt banks with assets valued at less than $10 billion from the "Volcker Rule," which prohibits banking agencies from engaging in proprietary trading or entering into certain relationships with hedge funds and private-equity funds... The bill amends the United States Housing Act of 1937 to reduce inspection requirements and environmental-review requirements for certain smaller, rural public-housing agencies.

Provisions relating to enhanced prudential regulation for financial institutions are modified, including those related to stress testing, leverage requirements, and the use of municipal bonds for purposes of meeting liquidity requirements. The bill requires credit reporting agencies to provide credit-freeze alerts and includes consumer-credit provisions related to senior citizens, minors, and veterans."

Well, that definitely sounds like relief for banks. Fewer regulations means it's easier to do business... and make more money. Next questions: is it good for consumers? Is it risky? Keep reading.

The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) analyzed the proposed legislation in the Senate, and concluded (bold emphasis added):

"S. 2155 would modify provisions of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (Dodd Frank Act) and other laws governing regulation of the financial industry. The bill would change the regulatory framework for small depository institutions with assets under $10 billion (community banks) and for large banks with assets over $50 billion. The bill also would make changes to consumer mortgage and credit-reporting regulations and to the authorities of the agencies that regulate the financial industry. CBO estimates that enacting the bill would increase federal deficits by $671 million over the 2018-2027 period... CBO’s estimate of the bill’s budgetary effect is subject to considerable uncertainty, in part because it depends on the probability in any year that a systemically important financial institution (SIFI) will fail or that there will be a financial crisis. CBO estimates that the probability is small under current law and would be slightly greater under the legislation..."

So, the propose legislation means there is a greater risk of banks either failing or needing government assistance (e.g., bailout funds). Are there risks to consumers? To taxpayers? CNN interviewed U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (Dem- Mass.), who said:

"Frankly, I just don't see how any senator can vote to weaken the regulations on Wall Street banks.. [weakened regulations] puts us at greater risk that there will be another taxpayer bailout, that there will be another crash and another taxpayer bailout..."

So, there are risks for consumers/taxpayers. How? Why? Let's count the ways.

First, the proposed legislation increases federal deficits. Somebody has to pay for that: with either higher taxes, less services, more debt, or a combination of all three. That doesn't sound good. Does it sound good to you?

Second, looser regulations mean some banks may lend money to more people they shouldn't have = persons who default on loan. To compensate, those banks would raise prices (e.g., more fees, higher fees, higher interest rates) to borrowers to cover their losses. If those banks can't cover their losses, then they will fail. If enough banks fail at about the same time, then bingo... another financial crisis.

If key banks fail, then the government will bail out (again) banks to keep the financial system running. (Remember too big to fail banks?) Somebody has to pay for bailouts... with either higher taxes, less services, more debt, or a combination of all three. Does that sound good to you? It doesn't sound good to me. If it doesn't sound good, I encourage you to contact your elected officials.

It's critical to remember banking history in the United States. Nobody wants a repeat of the 2008 melt-down. There are always consequences when government... Congress decides to help bankers by loosening regulations. What do you think?

Verizon FiOS: Poor Message Display And Cumbersome Opt Out Mechanism

Verizon logo Do you use broadband internet from Verizon FiOS? Or are you considering it? The blazing speed is awesome for viewing video content online, but I found portions of the service less than awesome. Which portions? The view/pay bills section of the secure site.

After signing into the secure site recently to pay my monthly bill, the view/pay bill section of the Verizon FiOS site displayed this alert:

The right-column message alert Verizon FiOS displays in its site to signed-in customers

To browse the messages, I selected "View all messages." The site displayed messages in the following overlay window:

The CPNI opt-out message Verizon FiOS displays in its site to signed-in customers

I found this presentation problematic. First, neither the alert nor the text displayed provide a status of the number of unread messages. Had I read any of these before? I couldn't tell. Well-designed sites provide read/unread message status. Second, the overlay window lacked dates. What? I couldn't tell which messages were new or old. Not good

Third, the presentation lacked features to print, save, or delete individual messages. The presentation also lacked a sort feature. That's not state-of-the-art. Strangely, the profile section of the site includes a slightly better presentation of messages with dates and read/unread status. So, Verizon knows how to do it, but seems to have decided not to for this site section. Why deviate? Why not simply link to the profile messages section and display all messages in the profile section?

Fourth, the first message contained important instructions about how to opt out of Verizon's data sharing programs. The full message stated:

"Your Choices to Limit Use and Sharing of Information for Marketing
You have choices about Verizon's use and sharing of certain information for the purpose of marketing new services to you. Verizon offers a full range of services, such as television, telematics, high-speed internet, video, and local and long distance services.Unless you notify us as explained below, we may use or share your information beginning 30 days after the first time we notify you of this policy. Your choice will remain valid until you notify us that you wish to change it, which you have the right to do at any time. Verizon protects your information and your choices won't affect the provision of any services you currently have with us.¿Customer Proprietary Network InformationCustomer Proprietary Network Information (CPNI) is information available to us solely by virtue of our relationship with you that relates to the type, quantity, destination, technical configuration, location, and amount of use of the telecommunications and interconnected VoIP services you purchase from us, as well as related billing information.We may use and share your CPNI among our affiliates and agents to offer you services that are different from the services you currently purchase from us. If you don't want us to use or share your CPNI with our affiliates and agents for this purpose, let us know by calling us any time at 1.866.483.9700.¿Information about Your CreditInformation about your credit includes your credit score, the information found in your consumer reports and your account history with us. We may share this information among the Verizon family of companies for the purpose of marketing new services to you. If you don't want us to share this information among the Verizon family of companies for the purpose of marketing new services to you, let us know by calling us any time at 1.844.366.2879."

If you like online privacy, then opting out of these programs is wise. Regular readers of this blog are familiar with CPNI disclosures from AT&T, and how much that information describes about the specific telecommunications services you use and your associated spending. The failure to display a date makes it impossible for consumers to determine whether or not the 30-day deadline has passed (and Verizon FiOS has already begun sharing customers' information). Not good.

Note: the program default automatically includes customers in Verizon's data-sharing programs after 30 days. A better default would be to not include all customers, and then only include customers who opt in or register. Is this lazy or slick marketing? Probably a little of both since most consumers fail to read legal messages.

Fifth, what's with the funky syntax (e.g., upside-down question marks)? This is English, not Spanish. Sixth, the message presented information as a "wall of words" without paragraph breaks, imagery, or other mechanisms to improve readability. There should be paragraph breaks before both "CreditInformation" and "Customer Proprietary Network Information" -- two critical concepts requiring customers' attention.

Seventh, the opt-out mechanism includes two different phone numbers to fully opt out of the data-sharing programs. Why the complexity? Come on, Verizon. You can do better. You are the phone company. Is a single phone number too difficult? Why put your customers through this hassle? Even worse: the site fails to provide an online opt-out mechanism. What's up with that?

Come on Verizon! You can do better. This poor message display and cumbersome opt-out mechanism makes it easier for Comcast Xfinity. Is that really what you want to do? I think not. Hopefully, FiOS customers will hear from Verizon in the comments section below. If they write to me separately, I'll post that response.

To me, the unnecessary (and avoidable) complexity seems like slick attempts to discourage customers from opting out of the data-sharing programs. What do you think?

Amazon's Virtual Assistant Randomly Laughs. A Fix Is Underway

Image of Amazon Echo Dot virtual assistant
You may have read or viewed news reports about random, loud laughter by Amazon's virtual assistant products. Some users reported that the laughter was unprompted and with a different voice from the standard Alexa voice. Many users were understandably spooked.

Clearly, there is a problem. According to BuzzFeed, Amazon is aware of the problem and replied to its inquiry with this statement:

"In rare circumstances, Alexa can mistakenly hear the phrase 'Alexa, laugh.' We are changing that phrase to be 'Alexa, can you laugh?' which is less likely to have false positives, and we are disabling the short utterance 'Alexa, laugh.' We are also changing Alexa’s response from simply laughter to 'Sure, I can laugh,' followed by laughter..."

Hopefully, that will fix the #AlexaLaugh bug. No doubt, there will be more news to come about this.

Cozy Relationship Between The FBI And A Computer Repair Service Spurs 4th Amendment Concerns

Image of Geek Squad auto and two technicians. Click to view larger version The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has learned more about the relationship between Geek Squad, a computer repair service, and the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). In a March 6th announcement, the EFF said it filed a:

"... FOIA lawsuit last year to learn more about how the FBI uses Geek Squad employees to flag illegal material when people pay Best Buy to repair their computers. The relationship potentially circumvents computer owners’ Fourth Amendment rights."

Founded in 1966, the Best Buy retail chain operates more than 1,500 stores in North America and employs more than 125,000 people. The chain sells home appliances and electronics both online and at stores in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Located in about 1,100 Best Buy stores, Geek Squad provides repair services via phone, in-store, or at home. This means that Geek Squad employees configure and fix popular smart devices many consumers have purchased for their homes: cameras and camcorders, cell phones, computers and tablets, home theater, car electronics, home security (e.g., smart doorbells, smart locks, smart thermostats, wireless cameras), smart appliances (e.g., refrigerators, ovens, washing machines, dryers, etc.), smart speakers, video game consoles, wearables (e.g., fitness bands, smart watches), and more.

The 4th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states:

"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

It is most puzzling how a broken computer translates into probable cause for a search. The FOIA request was prompted by the prosecution of a doctor in California, "who was charged with possession of child pornography after Best Buy sent his computer to the Kentucky Geek Squad repair facility."

Logos for Best Buy and Geek Squad The FOIA request yielded documents which showed:

"... that Best Buy officials have enjoyed a particularly close relationship with the agency for at least 10 years. For example, an FBI memo from September 2008 details how Best Buy hosted a meeting of the agency’s “Cyber Working Group” at the company’s Kentucky repair facility... Another document records a $500 payment from the FBI to a confidential Geek Squad informant... over the years of working with Geek Squad employees, FBI agents developed a process for investigating and prosecuting people who sent their devices to the Geek Squad for repairs..."

The EFF announcement described that process in detail:

"... a series of FBI investigations in which a Geek Squad employee would call the FBI’s Louisville field office after finding what they believed was child pornography. The FBI agent would show up, review the images or video and determine whether they believe they are illegal content. After that, they would seize the hard drive or computer and send it to another FBI field office near where the owner of the device lived. Agents at that local FBI office would then investigate further, and in some cases try to obtain a warrant to search the device... For example, documents reflect that Geek Squad employees only alert the FBI when they happen to find illegal materials during a manual search of images on a device and that the FBI does not direct those employees to actively find illegal content. But some evidence in the case appears to show Geek Squad employees did make an affirmative effort to identify illegal material... Other evidence showed that Geek Squad employees were financially rewarded for finding child pornography..."

Finding child pornography and prosecuting perpetrators is a worthy goal, but the FBI-Geek Squad program seems to blur the line between computer repair and law enforcement. The program and FOIA documents raise several questions:

  1. What are the program details (e.g., training, qualifications for informants, payments, conditions for payments, scope, etc.) for financial rewarding Geek Squad employees for finding child pornography?
  2. What other computer/appliance repair vendors does the FBI operate similar programs with?
  3. What quality control measures does the program contain to prevent wrongful prosecutions?
  4. What penalties or consequences, if any, for Geek Squad employees who falsely reported child pornography claims?
  5. Is this Geek Squad program nationwide, or if not, in which states does it operate?
  6. In cases of suspected child pornography, what other information on targets' devices is collected and archived by the FBI through this program?
  7. Were/are whole hard drives copied and archived?
  8. How long is information archived?
  9. Does the program between the FBI and Geek Squad target other types of crime  and threats (e.g., terrorism)?
  10. What other law enforcement or security agencies does Geek Squad have cozy relationships with?

I'm sure there are more questions to be asked. What are your opinions?

Image of Geek Squad services promoted on Best Buy site

2017 FTC Complaints Report: Debt Collection Tops The List. Older Consumers Better At Spotting Scams

Earlier this month,, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) released its annual report of complaints submitted by consumers in the United States. The report is helpful is understand the most frequent types of scams and reports consumers experienced.

The latest report, titled 2017 Consumer Sentinel Network Data Book, includes complaints from 2.68 million consumers, a decrease from 2.98 million in 2016. However, consumers reported losing a total of $905 million to fraud in 2017, which is $63 million more than in 2016. The most frequent complaints were about debt collection (23 percent), identity theft (14 percent), and imposter scams (13 percent). The top 20 complaint categories:

Rank Category # Of
% Of
1 Debt Collection 608,535 22.74%
2 Identity Theft 371,061 13.87%
3 Imposter Scams 347,829 13.00%
4 Telephone & Mobile Services 149,578 5.59%
5 Banks & Lenders 149,316 5.58%
6 Prizes, Sweepstakes & Lotteries 142,870 5.34%
7 Shop-at-Home & Catalog Sales 126,387 4.72%
8 Credit Bureaus, Information
Furnishers & Report Users
107,473 4.02%
9 Auto Related 86,289 3.23%
10 Television and Electronic Media 47,456 1.77%
11 Credit Cards 45,428 1.70%
12 Internet Services 45,093 1.69%
13 Foreign Money Offers &
Counterfeit Check Scams
31,980 1.20%
14 Health Care 27,660 1.03%
15 Travel, Vacations &
Timeshare Plans
22,264 0.83%
16 Business & Job Opportunities 19,082 0.71%
17 Advance Payments for
Credit Services
17,762 0.66%
18 Investment Related 15,079 0.56%
19 Computer Equipment
& Software
9,762 0.36%
20 Mortgage Foreclosure Relief
& Debt Management
8,973 0.34%

While the median loss for all fraud reports in 2017 was $429, consumers reported larger losses in certain types of scams: travel, vacations and timeshare plans ($1,710); mortgage foreclosure relief and debt management ($1,200); and business/job opportunities ($1,063).

The telephone was the most frequently-reported method (70 percent) scammers used to contact consumers, and  wire transfers was the most frequently-reported payment method for fraud ($333 million in losses reported). Also:

"The states with the highest per capita rates of fraud reports in 2017 were Florida, Georgia, Nevada, Delaware, and Michigan. For identity theft, the top states in 2017 were Michigan, Florida, California, Maryland, and Nevada."

What's new in this report is that it details financial losses by age group. The FTC report concluded:

"Consumers in their twenties reported losing money to fraud more often than those over age 70. For example, among people aged 20-29 who reported fraud, 40 percent indicated they lost money. In comparison, just 18 percent of those 70 and older who reported fraud indicated they lost any money. However, when these older adults did report losing money to a scammer, the median amount lost was greater. The median reported loss for people age 80 and older was $1,092 compared to $400 for those aged 20-29."

Detailed information supporting this conclusion:

2017 FTC Consumer Sentinel complaints report. Reports and losses by age group. Click to view larger image

2017 FTC Consumer Sentinel complaints report. Median losses by age group. Click to view larger image

The second chart is key. Twice as many younger consumers (40 percent, ages 20 - 29) reported fraud losses compared to 18 percent of consumers ages 70 and older. At the same time, those older consumers lost more money. So, older consumers were more skilled at spotting scams and few fell victim to scams. It seems both groups could learn from each other.

CBS News interviewed a millennial who fell victim to a mystery-shopper scam, which seemed to be a slick version of the old check scam. It seems wise for all consumers, regardless of age, to maintain awareness about the types of scams. Pick a news source or blog you trust. Hopefully, this blog.

Below is a graphic summarizing the 2017 FTC report:


Update: 2.4 Million More Persons Affected By Massive Data Breach At Equifax In 2017

Equifax logo Equifax, one of the three national credit reporting agencies, announced today that 2.4 million more persons were affected by its massive data breach in 2017. The March 1st announcement stated, in part:

"Equifax Inc. today announced that the company has confirmed the identities of U.S. consumers whose partial driver’s license information was taken. Equifax was able to identify these consumers by referencing other information in proprietary company records that the attackers did not steal, and by engaging the resources of an external data provider.

Through these additional efforts, Equifax was able to identify approximately 2.4 million U.S. consumers whose names and partial driver’s license information were stolen, but who were not in the previously identified affected population discussed in the company’s prior disclosures about the incident. This information was partial because, in the vast majority of cases, it did not include consumers’ home addresses, or their respective driver’s license states, dates of issuance, or expiration dates... Today’s newly identified consumers were not previously informed because their SSNs were not stolen together with their partial driver’s license information..."

Equifax will notify the newly identified breach victims via U.S. Postal mail, and will offer them complimentary identity theft protection and credit file monitoring services.

The timeline for the massive breach: intrusions occurred in May (2017), Equifax staff first discovered the intrusions in July (2017); Equifax notified the publicy in September (2017); and now identified 2.4 million more breach victims (March, 2018).

Equifax said in September (2017) that 143 million persons were affected. That was about 44 percent of the United States population. In October (2017), Equifax revised upward the number affected by 2.5 million to 145.5 million persons. What's the new total? Equifax didn't have the guts to admit it in its March 1st announcement. Since the company doesn't seem to want to admit it, I'm going with 147.9 million persons affected -- about 45.6 percent of the population.

So, it took Equifax almost six months after its initial announcement to determine exactly who was affected during its massive data breach. This does not inspire confidence. Instead, it suggests that the company's internal systems and intrusion detection mechanisms failed miserably.

A breach investigation by U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (Democrat - Massachusetts) reported several failures:

  1. Equifax Set up a Flawed System to Prevent and Mitigate Data Security Problems
  2. Equifax Ignored Numerous Warnings of Risks to Sensitive Data
  3. Equifax Failed to Notify Consumers, Investors, and Regulators about the Breach in a Timely and Appropriate Fashion
  4. Equifax Took Advantage of Federal Contracting Loopholes and Failed to Adequately Protect Sensitive IRS Taxpayer Data
  5. Equifax’s Assistance and Information Provided to Consumers Following the Breach was Inadequate.

Equifax's latest breach update highlights item #3: the company's failure to promptly notify consumers. When consumers aren't notified promptly, they are unable to take action to protect their sensitive personal and payment information.

Have we heard the last from Equifax? Will it provide future updates with even more persons affected? I hope not, but the company's track record suggests otherwise.

Equifax has foisted upon the country a cluster f--k of epic proportions = #FUBAR. Businesses and consumers depend upon secure, reliable credit reports. The United States economy relies upon it, too. Equifax executives need to experience direct consequences: fines, terminations, and jail time. Without consequences, executives won't adequately secure sensitive personal and financial information -- and this will happen again. What do you think?

Analysis: Closing The 'Regulatory Donut Hole' - The 9th Circuit Appeals Court, AT&T, The FCC And The FTC

The International Association of Privacy Professionals (IAPP) site has a good article explaining what a recent appeals court decision means for everyone who uses the internet:

"When the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled, in September 2016, that the Federal Trade Commission did not have the authority to regulate AT&T because it was a “common carrier,” which only the Federal Communications Commission can regulate, the decision created what many in privacy foresaw as a “regulatory doughnut hole.” Indeed, when the FCC, in repealing its broadband privacy rules, decided to hand over all privacy regulation of internet service providers to the FTC, the predicted situation came about: The courts said “common carriers” could only be regulated by the FCC, but the FCC says only the FTC should be regulating privacy. So, was there no regulator to oversee a company like AT&T’s privacy practices?

Indeed, argued Gigi Sohn, formerly counsel to then-FCC Chair Tom Wheeler, “The new FCC/FTC relationship lets consumers know they’re getting screwed. But much beyond that, they don’t have any recourse.” Now, things have changed once again. With an en banc decision, the 9th Circuit has reversed itself... This reversal of its previous decision by the 9th Circuit now allows the FTC to go forward with its case against AT&T and what it says were deceptive throttling practices, but it also now allows the FTC to once again regulate internet service providers’ data-handling and cybersecurity practices if they come in the context of activities that are outside their activities as common carriers."

Somebody has to oversee Internet service providers (ISPs). Somebody has to do their job. It's an important job. The Republicans-led FCC, by Trump appointee Ajit Pai, has clearly stated it won't given its "light touch" approach to broadband regulation, and repeals last year of both broadband privacy and net neutrality rules. Earlier this month, the National Rifle Association (NRA) honored FCC Chairman Pai for repealing net neutrality rules.

"No touch" is probably a more accurate description. A prior blog post listed many historical problems and abuses of consumers by some ISPs. Consumers should buckle up, as ISPs slowly unveiled their plans in a world without net neutrality protections for consumers. What might that look like? What has AT&T said about this?

Bob Quinn, the Vice President of External and Legislative Affairs for AT&T, claimed today in a blog post:

"Net neutrality has been an emotional issue for a lot of people over the past 10 years... For much of those 10 years, there has been relative agreement over what those rules should be: don’t block websites; censor online content; or throttle, degrade or discriminate in network performance based on content; and disclose to consumers how you manage your network to make that happen. AT&T has been publicly committed to those principles... But no discussion of net neutrality would be complete without also addressing the topic of paid prioritization. Let me start by saying that the issue of paid prioritization has always been hazy and theoretical. The business models for services that would require end-to-end management have only recently begun to come into focus... Let me clear about this – AT&T is not interested in creating fast lanes and slow lanes on anyone’s internet."

Really? The Ars Technica blog called out AT&T and Quinn on his claim:

"AT&T is talking up the benefits of paid prioritization schemes in preparation for the death of net neutrality rules while claiming that charging certain content providers for priority access won't create fast lanes and slow lanes... What Quinn did not mention is that the net neutrality rules have a specific carve-out that already allows such services to exist... without violating the paid prioritization ban. Telemedicine, automobile telematics, and school-related applications and content are among the services that can be given isolated capacity... The key is that the FCC maintained the right to stop ISPs from using this exception to violate the spirit of the net neutrality rules... In contrast, AT&T wants total control over which services are allowed to get priority."

Moreover, fast and slow lanes by AT&T already exist:

"... AT&T provides only DSL service in many rural areas, with speeds of just a few megabits per second or even less than a megabit. AT&T has a new fixed wireless service for some rural areas, but the 10Mbps download speeds fall well short of the federal broadband standard of 25Mbps. In areas where AT&T has brought fiber to each home, the company might be able to implement paid prioritization and manage its network in a way that prevents most customers from noticing any slowdown in other services..."

So, rural (e.g., DSL) consumers are more likely to suffer and notice service slowdowns. Once the final FCC rules are available without net neutrality protections for consumers and the lawsuits have been resolved, then AT&T probably won't have to worry about violating any prioritization bans.

The bottom line for consumers: expect ISPs to implement first changes consumers won't see directly. Remember the old story about a frog stuck in a pot of water? The way to kill it is to slowly turn up the heat. You can expect ISPs to implement this approach in a post-net-neutrality world. (Yes, in this analogy we consumers are the frog, and the heat is higher internet prices.) Paid prioritization is one method consumers won't directly see. It forces content producers, and not ISPs, to raise prices on consumers. Make no mistake about where the money will go.

Consumers will likely see ISPs introduce tiered broadband services, with lower-priced service options that exclude video streaming content... spun as greater choice for consumers. (Some hotels in the United States already sell to their guests WiFi services with tiered content.) Also, expect to see more "sponsored data programs," where video content owned by your ISP doesn't count against wireless data caps. Read more about other possible changes.

Seems to me the 9th Circuit Appeals Court made the best of a bad situation. I look forward to the FTC doing an important job which the FCC chose to run away from. What do you think?