What’s Sex Got to Do With It

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/21/opinion/kamala-harris-2020-democrats-sexism-trump.html

Ray Myers

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Did Facebook Learn Anything?

It’s been barely six months since Mark Zuckerberg appeared before Congress and promised lawmakers and the American public that he and Facebook, the company he founded and leads today, would do better. “This episode has clearly hurt us,” Mr. Zuckerberg said. “We have to do a lot of work about building trust back.”

The episode he was referring to was the revelation in March that Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm connected to the Trump campaign, had harvested the sensitive data of as many as 87 million Facebook users without their explicit permission. That scandal rocked Facebook, sending the company’s stock price spiraling. Mr. Zuckerberg himself lost nearly $11 billion.

Since Mr. Zuckerberg’s testimony, lawmakers have done little to nothing to better regulate technology platforms like Facebook and hold them more accountable for suspect practices. But there’s also little evidence that Facebook, and Mr. Zuckerberg, has taken his pledge to Congress as seriously as once hoped either: Facebook announced late last month the biggest data breach in its history, affecting nearly 50 million user accounts. In the same week, the news site Gizmodo published an investigation that found Facebook gave advertisers contact information harvested from the address books on their users’ cellphones.

Equally worrisome from Gizmodo’s report: Facebook is also giving advertisers phone numbers that users have provided solely for security reasons. Security experts generally advise users to add two-factor authentication to their accounts, which sometimes takes the form of providing a phone number to receive text messages containing log-in codes. It’s ironic — two-factor authentication is supposed to better safeguard privacy and security, but these phone numbers are wWhile the Cambridge Analytica scandal engulfed Facebook in a firestorm of controversy, this time the company effectively got a free pass from a nation fixated on Brett Kavanaugh and his turbulent Supreme Court confirmation. Still, with consequential midterms less than a month away, this latest string of Facebook privacy failures is a discouraging reminder of how much potential there is for things to go terribly wrong — again —  during those elections. It’s not just about user privacy, it’s a sign of how well Facebook is poised to handle sophisticated foreign disinformation campaigns, and where its priorities lie.

The seriousness of Facebook’s most recent data breach ranks it among one of the most egregious in the history of Silicon Valley. A weakness in Facebook’s code allowed hackers to gain access into other people’s accounts, and potentially control not only the Facebook profiles but any services that those users logged into using Facebook — Instagram, Spotify and Tinder, for example.

The breach originated from three bugs in Facebook’s code. At least one was introduced over a year ago; it’s still not clear when the other two became part of the code. Information security is a difficult problem: A company might do the right thing every time and still be successfully attacked. But one of the reasons Facebook’s breach is so concerning is the company’s footprint in the lives of so many people — 2.2 billion and counting. Facebook has sought to find ways into as many aspects of people’s lives as possible, becoming the recipient of a glut of data and the implicit trust of its users. The company has been careless with that trust — and is still being careless.

Speaking before Congress and in other public statements, Mr. Zuckerberg has been upfront about being caught unaware of the influence his company can have in ordinary people’s lives, whether that influence is in determining election outcomes or sparking real-life violence in places like Sri Lanka and Libya. And perhaps nobody fully understands that power — academics and experts are still piecing together the puzzle of how advertising systems honed on personal information can enable foreign propaganda campaigns, and to what extent this phenomenon affects democratic elections. It may be a long time before it all becomes clear. (In the meantime, falsehoods about Judge Kavanaugh’s accuser Christine Blasey Ford are going viral on Facebook). In response to such concerns, Facebook has set up a “war room” in its headquarters to monitor potential foreign influence campaigns during elections, winding up in the hands of advertisers.

But the latest disclosures are far from reassuring. In late September, the war room was still under construction. With less than a month to go before the American midterms, is Facebook really ready for its next big test?

(NYTImes editorial, 10/7/18)

Ray Myers

P.S. I will be taking a fall break and will blog again on Wednesday, 10/17)

Google Chief Executive Will Testify to Congress

WASHINGTON — Sundar Pichai, Google’s chief executive, toured the nation’s capital this week trying to assuage concerns from both parties about the company’s size and influence, and whether its search results have political bias.

Mr. Pichai, who had largely avoided meeting with lawmakers, will be coming back.

Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, who organized a meeting with Mr. Pichai on Friday, said he expected him to attend a congressional hearing later this year. The hearing will address questions of political bias, as well as Google’s potential plans to re-enter the Chinese market, said Mr. McCarthy, the House majority leader.

Mr. Pichai confirmed in a statement that he would testify in “due course.”

In addition, he has agreed to participate in a discussion with other tech industry leaders and President Trump, said Larry Kudlow, the director of the National Economic Council.

Google had declined to send Mr. Pichai to testify this month at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing about foreign manipulation of social media. The absence upset many lawmakers, leading to his visit this week.

Mr. McCarthy has been one of the most vocal critics of Google, raising accusations that the search engine purposely suppresses conservative views in its results. He has accused Twitter and Facebook of similar bias, joined by other Republican lawmakers who point to the liberal leanings of Silicon Valley as motivation to skew the discovery of information.

The meeting on Friday with Mr. Pichai, which Mr. McCarthy and eight other Republican lawmakers attended, seemed to smooth over relations. But suspicions of political bias remained.

“I see a hearing right now looking at bias, looking at all the issues we talked about, from privacy to China,” Mr. McCarthy said after the meeting. He does not expect the hearing to focus on antitrust concerns and whether Google should be broken up, he added.

After avoiding much of the scrutiny heaped upon its internet rivals over the last year, Google has been thrust into the harsh spotlight in recent weeks. Conservatives have accused the company of using its dominance of online search to provide results slanted against Republicans — a charge the company denies.

Mr. Pichai’s no-show at the hearing this month — captured by images of an empty seat alongside executives from Facebook and Twitter — added to the rancor. Leaks of employee emails discussing ways to counter President Trump’s immigration policy, and video of a companywide meeting that showed executives lamenting his election victory, have also fueled the allegations of bias.

Mr. McCarthy said Mr. Pichai had explained how search worked and how Google’s algorithm, which the company keeps secret, changes over time. In the past, Google has said political ideology is not a factor in any aspect of its search results. It does not, according to the company, collect information about whether a user is conservative or liberal, or categorize web pages by political leanings.

On Thursday and Friday, Mr. Pichai also had meetings with Democratic lawmakers, including one with Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the minority leader.

Mr. Pichai, in the statement, said the discussions over the two days “with a wide range of congressional leaders were constructive and informative.”

Cecilia Kang reported from Washington, and Daisuke Wakabayashi from San Francisco. (NYTImes,9/19/18)

Ray Myers

Medicaid Work Requirements Kick Thousands Off of It – Make America Great Again?

The Trump administration argues that imposing work requirements for Medicaid is an incentive that can help lift people out of poverty. But a test program in Arkansas shows how hard it is merely to inform people about new incentives, let alone get them to act.

In the first month that it was possible for people to lose coverage for failing to comply, more than 4,300 people were kicked out of the program for the rest of the year. Thousands more are on track to lose health benefits in the coming months. You lose coverage if you fail to report three times, and the program, in effect for three months, is slowly phasing in more people.

Arkansas is the first state to test a work requirement, a policy that the administration has encouraged, and that several other states are hoping to copy. The demonstration project is testing whether a work requirement can help encourage more low-income people to work, volunteer or go to school and improve their financial prospects.

The early results suggest that the incentives may not work the way officials had hoped. Arkansas officials, trying to minimize coverage losses, effectively exempted two-thirds of the eligible people from having to report work hours.

Of the remaining third — about 20,000 people — 16,000 didn’t report qualifying activities to the state. Only 1,200 people, about 2 percent of those eligible for the requirement, told the state they had done enough of the required activities in August, according to state figures.

Seema Verma, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which approved the project, offered an enthusiastic assessment of the results so far. “I’m excited by the partnerships that Arkansas has fostered to connect Medicaid beneficiaries to work and educational opportunities,” she wrote on Twitter. (Her office declined to offer any further statements on the Arkansas experience.)

Advocates for the poor, and the state officials in charge of the program, said the low compliance numbers suggested that many eligible people probably didn’t know the program existed. State officials said they worked hard to get the word out — mailing letters, sending emails, placing phone calls, briefing medical providers, putting posts on social media sites and distributing fliers where Medicaid patients might find them.

“I was literally taking fliers to the urgent care clinic when I was taking my kids to get tested for strep,” said Amy Webb, the chief communications and community engagement officer for the Arkansas Department of Human Services. “If there’s something we are not doing to reach people, if someone will tell us how to do that, we will do it.”

But it seems that not everyone opened or read their mail. Ray Hanley, the president of the Arkansas Foundation for Medical Care, which ran a call center for the state, told my colleague Robert Pear that many people never answered their phones. The state said the open rate on emails was between 20 and 30 percent.

It’s harder to measure how many people opened paper mail, but the state noted in its recent report that it knows that thousands of people in the program either move away from their recorded address or fail to answer other mail from the state. Housing instability and moves are more common among low-income Americans.

Jessica Greene, a professor of health policy at Baruch College in New York, visited three Arkansas counties last month and interviewed 18 Medicaid beneficiaries. Twelve of them were unaware of the work requirement, according to an article she published on the website of the journal Health Affairs.

That may not be entirely surprising. “I ignore mailings and calls from my health insurer — I get them all the time,” said Eliot Fishman, a senior director of health policy at Families USA, a consumer advocacy group.

Mr. Fishman oversaw Medicaid demonstration projects in the Obama administration. He said he learned that it was challenging to use health insurance as a vehicle to shape behavior, because most people don’t read the fine print of their health benefits.

Under Mr. Fishman’s watch, Indiana tested a program to get beneficiaries to take more responsibility for their health. Medicaid patients who made small monthly payments in special accounts, got a checkup or did other activities could earn more generous benefits. Ms. Verma, then a consultant, helped the state devise that program. In an evaluation, it turned out that only a minority of eligible people understood that the accounts existed.

Joan Alker, the executive director of the Georgetown Center for Children and Families, who opposes work requirements for Medicaid, said the state could have done more to get the word out — if it had been willing to spend more.

The Obama administration spent millions on advertising and in-person help when it rolled out Obamacare’s coverage expansion in 2014. Even then, it took several years before the uninsured rate among poor Americans stopped dropping. “You cannot have an incentive strategy that is allegedly designed to change people’s behavior if people are not aware of it,” she said.

The challenge goes beyond getting the message out. The state requires those eligible for the work requirement to report their work hours every month, and only online. Arkansas has one of the lowest rates of internet penetration in the country; estimates from the Urban Institute suggest that more than a quarter of eligible families are not online.

Advocates for the poor describe the state’s website as confusing to navigate, especially for people with limited computer skills and overall literacy. (Click on the site yourself and see if you can figure out how to report work hours.) The state has tried workarounds — like offering computer terminals in county offices, and training volunteers to help people log their hours.

But evidence from a range of social programs — including Medicaid — has repeatedly demonstrated that administrative hurdles can cause eligible people to lose benefits.

As the program is expanded to more people, awareness and compliance may spread over time. But the early results could mean the end of the program before we know for sure. A lawsuit challenging the work requirement will be reviewed soon by a federal judge who already knocked down a similar work rule in Kentucky. In that case, the judge, James Boasberg, said Kentucky had been insufficiently concerned about the people who might lose coverage because of the requirement. In Kentucky, those losses were theoretical. In Arkansas, they’re already real.

Margot Sanger-Katz is a domestic correspondent and writes about health care for The Upshot. She was previously a reporter at National Journal and The Concord Monitor and an editor at Legal Affairs and the Yale Alumni Magazine. @sangerkatzFacebook

Ray Myers

The Apps That Help Blind People Shop

For consumers who are blind or have low vision, a shopping trip can be rife with challenges. More than 8 million Americans reportedly have a vision impairment, but they can’t count on store staff to offer assistance or stores to have clutter-free aisles or easy-to-navigate layouts. Just entering or exiting some businesses can be difficult.

Now some tech companies are developing products to make shopping less of an ordeal for customers with blindness or low vision. A San Diego startup called Aira (Artificial Intelligence and Remote Assistance) has launched an app that allows people with vision impairment to connect with trained professionals who remotely provide visual assistance, and is partnering with retail stores and other businesses to integrate the technology.

Suman Kanuganti got the idea for Aira in 2015, after speaking to a blind communications professional about how Google Glass technology could be used to help the blind become more mobile. Aira has described the app as “OnStar for the blind.”

How it works: When users download the Aira app, they’re linked to an operator who accesses their smartphone camera to view their surroundings. (Users pay a monthly subscription fee and can also subscribe to a plan that comes with smart glasses and a camera accessible to Aira operators.)

At the grocery store chain Wegmans, for instance, which recently began offering Aira services at all its stores, blind and low-vision shoppers can activate the Aira app to connect them with professionals who help them move around the store, find what they want, and direct them to the shortest checkout lines. By speaking with these customers on the phone, the agents essentially act as a second pair of eyes for them.

Aira is available in some restaurants, college campuses, and airports, and is branching out to other places like AT&T stores. During a time when discussions about inclusion in retail have often focused on size, gender, or race, the emergence of technology like Aira underscores the importance of challenging ableism by making shopping more accessible for people with physical impairments.

Ray Myers