“Never-Googlers: Web users take the ultimate step to guard their data - The Washington Post” plus 2 more

“Never-Googlers: Web users take the ultimate step to guard their data - The Washington Post” plus 2 more


Never-Googlers: Web users take the ultimate step to guard their data - The Washington Post

Posted: 23 Jul 2019 06:31 AM PDT


Glenn Harvey for The Washington Post

SAN FRANCISCO — In the small South Carolina town of Newberry, Bob's Red Mill muesli cereal is hard to come by.

That presents a challenge for resident Gregory Kelly, who can't get enough of the stuff. He'd rather not truck the 40 miles or so to Columbia to stock up on it, but he's also loath to buy it from the company's website, which he says is riddled with tracking software from Google.

His privacy being paramount, Kelly grudgingly chooses to head into Columbia every so often, rather than cede his data to Google or turn over his purchase history to another online retailer. "I'm just not sure why Google needs to know what breakfast cereal I eat," the 51-year-old said.

Kelly is one of a hearty few who are taking the ultimate step to keep their files and online life safe from prying eyes: turning off Google entirely. That means eschewing some of the most popular services on the Web, including Gmail, Google search, Google Maps, the Chrome browser, Android mobile operating software and even YouTube.

Such never-Googlers are pushing friends and family to give up the search and advertising titan, while others are taking to social media to get word out. Online guides have sprouted up to help consumers untangle themselves from Google.

These intrepid Web users say they'd rather deal with daily inconveniences than give up more of their data. That means setting up permanent vacation responders on Gmail and telling friends to resend files or video links that don't require Google software. More than that, it takes a lot of discipline.

People like Kelly are trying to build barriers to Google and other tech giants largely due to increasing concerns about the massive data collection. A series of privacy scandals showing how these companies collect and use consumer data has raised alarm bells for many people about how much they've traded for customization and targeted ads. For example, a Washington Post investigation last month found more than 11,000 requests for tracking cookies in just one week of Web use on Google's Chrome browser.

As a result, more consumers are taking measures to wrest greater control of their personal data, like deleting Facebook and its photo-sharing app Instagram. About 15 percent of U.S. households' primary shoppers never shop on Amazon, according to Kantar ShopperScape data. Some Amazon Echo and Google voice-activated speakers have landed in the trash. And some consumers are saving photos and other personal documents to external hard drives, rather than on Google or Apple's clouds.

(Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Brands are jumping on the trend, advertising what they say are superior privacy controls. At the CES 2019 tech conference earlier this year, Apple promised in a billboard above Las Vegas that "What Happens on Your iPhone, Stays on Your iPhone," though many apps siphon data from the phones and track users. And DuckDuckGo, a privacy-oriented search engine, said daily average searches have grown to 42.4 million, from 23.5 million a year earlier – although still a fraction of Google's.

Over the past few months, Jim Lantz, of Spokane, Wash., has been systematically eliminating Google products from his online life, spurred by reports of how the Silicon Valley company collects and distributes customer data. That's included scanning lengthy privacy agreements and researching websites' legal statements. "It's quite the challenge figuring out what they own," said the wholesale sales manager.

"I don't want to give up every ounce of myself over to Google," he said. "At least I can make it hard for them."

Google in May unveiled new features it said would help users protect more of their data, including storing more of it on personal devices, rather than in cloud computing centers, and giving people more control over how and when tracking software, or cookies, is deployed. And the Web search giant is offering ways to permanently erase data, including search and location history.

No data on how many consumers may be phasing out Google is readily available, and the company didn't provide figures on how many have deleted its apps. "We want to help people understand and control their data, even if they want to leave Google," said spokesman Aaron Stein. He pointed to Google's service allowing consumers to download information stored with the company for their use elsewhere.

Joshua Greenbaum, of Berkeley, Calif., said he pays about $100 per year to use Microsoft Office 365 software that he says has better privacy protections than Google's. "I am giving up more than I am getting" from Google, said the 61-year tech consultant who started scaling back his Google usage a couple years ago when advertisements began appearing in his Gmail account.

"With Gmail they get your email, with Android real-time location and app usage, with Maps more location data, with Google Wallet that can see into your finances, with Google Docs your personal and work history, Chrome gives your online history, your location," Greenbaum said. "I started asking myself what other data could they get to."

All that consumer data is precisely the reason Google may be in the crosshairs of the Justice Department, which earlier this year took initial steps toward a potential antitrust investigation, The Post reported. The House of Representatives is preparing its own probe of Google and Facebook amid comments from President Trump that the government should be "suing" them.

Users say that it's difficult to eliminate using Google completely. Greenbaum still maintains a Gmail account "for spam" he said, and finds that YouTube is all but unavoidable if he wants to watch videos online.

For him, "the improvement is mostly in the category of self-righteousness," he said.

Not so for Janet Vertesi, a Princeton University sociology professor, who in her private life has avoided Google since 2012. She said it's a matter of being able to control her own data, which Google automatically shares across its many properties. Data collected in Gmail, for instance, is supplied to the mapping software, whether a consumer uses Google Maps or not.

"I want to know where my data goes," Vertesi said. That sometimes involves asking people to turn off their voice assistants in their homes or re-sending documents in a format other than Google Docs, she said.

Tech firms like Google say the data helps drive more personal advertisements, which are beneficial to consumers, and underwrite products that would otherwise not be free, like email and photo storage programs.

But there's some evidence that so closely tracking people's online behavior may not provide the boost that tech companies tout. A recent study by academics from three U.S. universities who observed millions of transactions at a large media company over the course of a week found that such behavioral targeting only amounts to 4 percent more revenue than when tracking is not enabled through online "cookies," software that records browsing activity. That suggests that companies like Google and Facebook could easily absorb the lost revenue if they were less meticulous about tracking consumers.

Some lawmakers and Google's competitors have expressed concern that the search giant can unfairly control ad pricing and other online activity because of its outsize market share. The European Commission this year fined Google about $1.7 billion over allegations that the company thwarted rivals from working with other companies that had deals with Google.

Data analyst Peter Rowell, 64, pays $8 monthly for a private Web network, known as a VPN, which helps cloak a user's online identity. He said he worries private information about what he does online could end up spread far across the Web. "Google's got enough of my information," said the Stewartstown, Pa., resident, noting he has deleted the company's apps from his iPhone and switched to Web surfing on DuckDuckGo and Mozilla as his browser.

Still, some academics say that efforts to abandon use of Google — or Amazon and Microsoft, for that matter — are nearly impossible. Those companies all have cloud services businesses, or essentially data centers that other companies can rent, and they power most websites, as well as other consumer services. For example, Amazon's Web services business enables Netflix, while Google helps power Snapchat and Target.

Quitting Google is a major undertaking that may not be possible, said Jonathan Mayer, an assistant professor of computer science at Princeton University.

"The reality is, you're going to use these services whether intentionally or not," he said. "It is exceedingly hard to control the data flows of these companies."

Not everyone is avoiding Google just to protect their data. Amy Manlapas, a high school teacher in Atlanta, said the company's recent failure to more strongly condemn a conservative YouTube personality for repeatedly mocking a gay reporter caused her to stop using the video sharing site. She said she is researching document-storing software for her files so that she can drop Google Docs, and plans to eliminate her use of Gmail and other Google services.

"I don't want to give my time and money to a company that's not going to be conscious of diversity," she said.

"It's hard work being ethical."

How to pair your Mi Band with Google Fit - The Verge

Posted: 24 Jul 2019 09:12 AM PDT

The Mi Fit app is... not great, to put it frankly. It contains a lot of oddly worded analyses when it comes to your sleep and steps tracking, and doesn't display total calories burned in a day / week / month. Instead, it focuses on the miles you've walked, ran, or cycled.

This means that if you plan to use one of the affordable Mi Bands to begin tracking and improving your fitness, your efforts might be hindered by the fact that the app doesn't quite display data in a useful or actionable way. However, there are a couple of apps you can use in place of Mi Fit to better view your activity data. I recommend starting with Google Fit, which has one of the more polished interfaces and syncs easily from Mi Fit.

Here's how to do it:

  • To start, open up the Mi Fit app and tap the profile button on the lower right corner. You'll be taken to an overview of your account, the devices that you have paired with Mi Fit, and other settings you can adjust.
  • Scroll down and tap Add accounts. In the app, Mi Fit will offer to automatically pair with WeChat and Google Fit, so hit the Google Fit option and confirm the sync. You should now be able to see your activities show up on Google Fit, with the words "Mi Fit" displaying next to any data that appears on the app.
  • If you decide you don't like Google Fit and want to try a different third-party app, just go back to the "Add Accounts" setting on the Mi Fit app, tap "Google Fit," and hit "Remove from Google Fit" to unpair.

There are many more third-party apps that work with the Mi Band on Android than there are in iOS. The Mi Band subreddit community is an excellent place to start if you're looking for recommendations that best suit your specific needs. And of course, feel free to chat below about your preferred apps to use with the Mi Band.

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Agolo attracts Microsoft and Google funding with AI-powered summarization tools - TechCrunch

Posted: 23 Jul 2019 11:27 AM PDT

As the ways we consume content multiply and change, media creators are hard-pressed to adapt their methods to take advantage. Short-form audio and video news is one growing but labor-intensive niche — and Agolo aims to help automate the process, pulling in the AP as a client and Microsoft, Google and Tensility as investors.

Agolo is an AI startup focused on natural language processing; specifically, how to take a long article, like this one, and boil it down to its most important parts (assuming there are any). Summarization is the name of the process, as it is when you or I do it, and other bots and services do it, as well. Agolo's claim is to be able to summarize quickly and accurately, producing something of a quality worthy of broadcast or official documentation. Its deal with the AP provides an interesting example of how this works, and why it isn't as simple as picking a few representative sentences.

AgoloThe AP is, of course, a huge news organization, and a fast-moving one. But its stories, while spare as a rule, are rarely concise enough to be read aloud by a virtual assistant when its user asks "what's the big news this morning?" As a result, AP editors and writers manually put together scores or hundreds of short versions of stories every day specifically for audio consumption and other short-form contexts.

Because this isn't a situation where creative input is necessarily required, and it must be done quickly and systematically, it's a good fit for an AI agent trained in natural language. Even so, it isn't as easy as it sounds, explained Agolo co-founder and CEO Sage Wohns.

"The way that we have things read to us is different from the way we read them. So the algorithm understanding that and reproducing it is important," he said. And that's without reckoning with the AP's famous style guide.

"This is one of the most important points that we worked on with them," Wohns said. "The AP has their style bible, and it's a brick. We have a hybrid model that has algorithms pointed at each of those rules. We never want to change the language, but we can shorten the sentence."

Agolo Listenable 1

That's a risk with algorithmic summarizing, of course: that in "summarizing" a sentence you change its meaning. That's incredibly important in the news, where the difference between a simple statement of fact and an egregious error can easily be in a single word or phrase. So the system is careful to preserve meaning if not necessarily the exact wording.

While the AP may not be given, as I am, to circumlocutions, it may still be beneficial to shift things a bit, though. Agolo worked closely with the news organization to figure out what's acceptable and what's not. A simple example would be changing something like "Statement," said the source to The source said "Statement." That doesn't save any space, but you get the idea: essentially lossless compression of language.

If the AP team can trust the algorithm to produce a well-worded summary that follows their rules and only takes a quick polish by an editor, they could serve and even grow the demand for short-form content. "The goal is to enable them to create more content than was humanly possible before," said Wohns.

The investment from and collaboration with Google falls along these lines as well, though not as laser-focused on turning news stories into sound bites.

"What we're working on with them is making the web listenable," said Wohns. "Right now you can ask Google a question, but it often doesn't have an answer it can read back to you."

It's primarily a bid to extend the company's Assistant product as it continues its combat with Alexa and Siri, but may also have the extremely desirable side effect of making the data Google indexes more accessible to blind users.

The scope of Google's data (Agolo is probably now getting the full firehose of Google News, among other things) means that the AI model being used has to be lightweight and quick. Even if it takes only 10 seconds to summarize every article, that gets multiplied thousands of times in the complex workings of sorting and displaying news all over the world. So Agolo has been very focused on improving the performance of its models until they are able to turn things around very quickly and enable an essentially real-time summary service.

Agolo Research Application

This has a secondary application in large enterprises and companies with large backlogs of data like documentation and analysis. Microsoft is a good example of this: After decades of running an immense software and services empire, the number of support docs, studies, how-tos and so on are likely choking its intranet and search may or may not be effective on such a corpus.

NLP-based agents are useful for summarizing, but part of that process is, in a way, understanding the content. So the agent should be able to produce a shorter version of something, but also tell you that it's by this person (useful for attribution); it's about this topic; it's from this date range; it applies to these version numbers; its main findings are these; and so on and so forth.

Not all this information is useful in all cases, of course, but it sure is if you want to digest 30 years of internal documentation and be able to search and sort it efficiently. This is what Microsoft is using it for internally, and no doubt what it intends to apply it to as part of future product offerings or partnerships. (Semantic Scholar has applied a similar approach to journals and academic papers.)

It would also be helpful for, say, an investment bank analyst or other researcher, who can use Agolo's timeline to assemble all the relevant documents in order, grouped by author or topic, with the salient information surfaced and glanceable. One pictures this as useful for Google News, as well, in browsing coverage of a specific event or developing story.

The new (undisclosed amount of) funding has Microsoft (M12 specifically) returning, with Google (Assistant Investment Group specifically) and Tensility Venture Partners joining for the first time. The cash will be used in the expected fashion of a growing startup: chasing sales and a few key hires.

"It's about building out the go-to-market side, and the core NLP abilities of the team, specifically in New York and Cairo," said Wohns. "Right now we're about a 90% technical team, so we need to build out the sales side."

Agolo's service seems like a useful tool for many an application — anywhere you have to reduce a large amount of written content to a smaller amount. Certainly that's common enough — but Agolo will need to prove that it can do so as non-destructively and accurately as it claims with a wide variety of data sets, and that this process contributes to the bottom line more than the time-tested method of hiring another intern or grad student to perform the drudgery.

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