Academics have scoured Facebook pages in the name of science. But the troves they’ve amassed are sometimes unsecured and now pose a privacy risk.
An emerging field, digital phenotyping, tries to assess people’s well-being based on their interactions with digital devices.
To see which apps are grabbing the most data, peek into your device’s settings or fire up a software meter.
If you want to browse international sites but cannot understand the text, a number of software interpreters will translate for you.
It can be tempting to hook up everything you love to the internet. But take a moment to appreciate some of the objects that can remain unplugged.
How Natasha Singer, a tech reporter at The Times, uses tech when she chronicles the industry’s effect on education, privacy and our health.
How much social media do you consume for work, what forms of it do you consume the most, and how do you handle the deluge?
Credit Jeenah Moon for The New York Times
As most social media editors can attest, the job demands consuming a lot of media in all forms. Day to day, Twitter takes up most of my time and energy. I also dedicate a good amount of my attention to Facebook, Reddit and Instagram at the office.
I’m very much still working on how I handle the deluge. Some days it feels like I’m always taking in information, from the moment I wake up and start listening to NPR. Creating methods to narrow down the “need to know” helps me cut out some of the noise. That could be a zooming in on sources pertinent to a story I’m working on or top news. Either way, creating lists and advanced searches on Twitter is invaluable. I also follow specific subreddits, track trending terms, and use Google Alerts.
That being said, I’ve found it’s helpful for my mental well-being to take one day a week off from social media. For me, that’s Saturday. It feels like a weekly cleanse and sometimes it’s truly a challenge, which makes me realize just how much I really need to push myself to do it. For one day a week, I try to use my phone as one thing and one thing only: a way to text and call family and friends. Radical, isn’t it?
You’re at the Winter Olympics as part of a team to cover the event. What tech preparations did you need to make to be ready for coverage?
My first priority was ensuring I have a secure backup for everything. If something happens to my phone or computer, I wanted to make sure that wouldn’t completely derail my work. I use a password manager, have two-step verification on everything that allows it, and keep lots of stuff in the cloud.
I’ve also kicked my listening tools usage into high gear. That means a wealth of new lists, alerts and threads I’m watching that are Olympics- and sport-specific.
Do you have to keep any tech gear warm in the chilly temperatures in Pyeongchang, and how do you plan to do so?
Yes! As many have experienced, phones can die quickly in the cold. Since temperatures have been hovering between zero and 30 degrees Fahrenheit, I thought about creative ways to keep my gear warm and charged. I ordered dozens and dozens of hand warmers that I plan on also using as phone warmers. The backup plan to that backup plan is having more than one phone on me, and more than one external charger on me.
That being said, none of my gear will do me any good if I’m an ice cube. So I thought about keeping myself warm too. SmartWool socks are my Olympic fashion staple.
What is our social media strategy set to be at the Winter Olympics?
I’ll tell you about the tool I’m most excited about — a new messaging system with one of our sports editors, Sam Manchester. Sam will be sending messages from the Olympics to readers within The New York Times app.
There are a handful of exciting things you’ll see on the messaging app. But perhaps most exciting is the fact that you will actually be able to talk to Sam, who is a real-life human and not a bot! He’s going to be your man on the ground who will take you behind the scenes of the Games in all their excitement and quirkiness.
Outside of work, what tech product are you in love with using in your daily life right now?
MoviePass, which provides a subscription plan so members get movie tickets at a cheaper price. I wasn’t a big moviegoer and this has completely transformed my habits overnight.
What could be better about it?
The most frustrating feature is that you have to be within 100 yards of a theater to reserve tickets. I wish you could reserve tickets in advance without being there. I don’t see a reason against it, especially if there was a penalty for not showing up at the movie after reserving tickets to dissuade no shows, à la ClassPass.
What do you do to get away from social media?
I get moving. I’ve been an avid runner since I was a little kid, and there’s nothing that makes me happier than a good long run. I’m hoping to get in some runs in the very early mornings in Pyeongchang, SmartWool included.
“There’s no incentive for operating system companies to create planned obsolescence,” said Greg Raiz, a former program manager for Microsoft who worked on Windows XP. “It’s software, and software has various degrees of production bugs and unintended things that happen.”
Here’s what happens: When tech giants like Apple, Microsoft and Google introduce new hardware, they often release upgrades for their operating systems. For example, a few days before the iPhone 8 shipped in September, Apple released iOS 11 as a free software update for iPhones, including the four-year-old iPhone 5S.
The technical process of upgrading from an old operating system to a new one — migrating your files, apps and settings along the way — is extremely complicated. So when you install a brand-new operating system on an older device, problems may occur that make everything from opening the camera to browsing the web feel sluggish.
“It’s like changing the plumbing of the house without changing anything else,” said Scott Berkun, an author and a former manager for Microsoft who oversaw engineers that worked on Windows operating systems and web browsers.
The good news is that because tech companies are not intentionally neutering your devices, there are remedies for when you think your three-year-old iPhone or your seven-year-old Windows computer has become slow or short-lived. Here’s a guide to speeding up your troubled gadgets, based on interviews with information technology professionals and operating system experts.
Tech companies make it simple to upgrade to a new operating system by pressing an “update” button, which seamlessly migrates all your apps and data over. While that’s convenient, it isn’t the best way to ensure that things will continue running smoothly.
A better practice is backing up all your data and purging everything from the device before installing the new operating system. This “clean install” works more reliably because the engineers developing operating systems were able to test this condition more easily, Mr. Raiz said.
Let’s say, for example, you have an iPhone 6 with 100 apps installed, four email accounts and 2,000 photos. It is more likely that a quality-assurance engineer tested installing a new operating system on a blank iPhone 6, rather than an iPhone 6 with the same setup as yours.
So if you want to minimize the chances of something going awry, resist the easy update path and opt for a clean install. For smartphones, I recommend backing up your data to your computer. For computers, you could back up your data to an online service or a portable drive. After the operating system installation is complete, you can then safely restore your data and apps to the device from the backup.
Remove the ‘Cruft’
Sometimes you can do some light maintenance to speed up your device. Over the long term, an operating system accumulates system files, settings, logs and other data; I.T. experts call this “cruft.” This can bog down your device.
For computers, there are some apps for cleaning up your system. Mac users can download a free app called Onyx, and Windows users can run a cleanup utility included in the system. For iPhones and Android devices, you can open the settings app and select reset settings. (Just make sure you back up first in case there are important settings you may lose.)
Be Mindful of Your Storage
Here’s something many people don’t realize: Just because your iPhone or Samsung phone has 64 gigabytes of storage doesn’t mean you should fill it all the way up. The device will generally run faster if more of its storage is available.
That’s partly because your device needs space to move data around and download software updates. But it’s also related to how the storage technology works inside smartphones and modern laptops.
Smartphones and newer laptops rely on flash storage, which stores data in the cells of semiconductor chips. When data is stored on a flash drive, it is scattered across the drive. So when you are pulling data to open an app or a document, you are retrieving it from multiple parts of the drive. If lots of space is occupied, the data gets crowded and the device may feel sluggish.
“If you fill these things up, it doesn’t get to operate as well,” said Brian Denslow, a technician for TechCollective, an information technology consulting company in San Francisco. Mr. Denslow said a good rule of thumb is to buy more storage than you think you will use. If you think you are going to use 64 gigabytes on an iPad, for example, buy the 256-gigabyte model.
I also recommend freeing up a huge amount of space by managing your photo library in the cloud. You can upload all your albums to a service like Google Photos and periodically purge all the images from the device itself. I did this recently on my iPhone 7 that was nearly full and seemed to be slowing down; purging the photos freed up about 50 gigabytes of data, and the iPhone feels as good as new.
Invest in Your Infrastructure
Your device may seem slower for reasons unrelated to the device. Mr. Denslow, the technician, said many apps relied on an internet connection, so a shoddy Wi-Fi router might be the real bottleneck.
To get a nice boost, invest in a modern Wi-Fi system. I recommend products like Google WiFi and Eero, which are so-called mesh networking systems that help you seamlessly set up multiple Wi-Fi stations to get a strong signal throughout the home. They are pricey, but upgrading your infrastructure will do more than buying a new phone.
“Instead of spending $1,000 on a phone every year, spend $500 on networking,” Mr. Denslow said. “It’s not sexy, but it provides more benefits over a long period of time.”
At the end of the day, there are many reasons your device may feel slow. New operating systems carry more powerful features that were designed to work better on new devices. In addition, developers of third-party apps typically prioritize making software for newer handsets, and sometimes they even discontinue support for old gadgets. If there are important tasks that your older device cannot do proficiently, consider an upgrade.
Mr. Raiz, the former Microsoft program manager, said he had recently encountered problems after updating his iPhone 6S to iOS 11. Some functions, like the ability to search for an app, no longer worked. Resetting the device’s settings fixed the problem, but he said he would most likely buy a new iPhone soon anyway to keep up with the latest technologies.
“There’s only so much you can do if your device is multiple release cycles behind,” he said.
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CreditMinh Uong/The New York Times
In the real world, your personal life is a private space. But in tech, your personal data is a ripe resource for businesses to harvest in their own interests.
That was the broad takeaway from last week’s New York Times profile on Uber, the car-summoning service, and its chief executive, Travis Kalanick. Among other revelations, the report illuminated that to stay competitive, Uber bought information about its main American ride-hailing competitor, Lyft, from Unroll.me, a free email digest service.
How did Unroll.me get data about Lyft? While people could use the service free of charge to unsubscribe from marketing emails, Unroll.me made money by scanning the contents of its users’ inboxes and selling anonymized data, information that did not have individuals’ names attached to it (in this case, emailed Lyft receipts), to other companies, including marketers. Many consumers found Unroll.me’s practices misleading.
In addition, Uber was involved in some deception of its own: It participated in fingerprinting, a process in which iPhones were tagged with permanent identities that were detectable even after the Uber app was erased from the devices. The practice violated Apple’s terms of service, which could have resulted in Uber’s being banned from the App Store. Uber eventually revised the app to remove the fingerprinting code.
When it comes to data collection, services like Unroll.me and Uber are small fry compared with internet giants like Google and Facebook, which have a wealth of information about people. And then there are large data brokers like Acxiom, CoreLogic, Datalogix and ID Analytics, which collect, analyze and sell billions of details about consumers’ online activities for marketing purposes.
For consumers, giving up some data has become part of the trade-off of receiving compelling, personalized services. But that doesn’t mean you have to be caught by surprise. Here are some tips from privacy experts on protecting yourself from tricky data collection.
Read privacy policies
That so many people were caught by surprise showed how rarely they bother to read terms of service agreements, including privacy policies, said Runa Sandvik, director of information security for The New York Times.
Of course, you would not be alone if you felt confused or uninformed after reading a terms of service agreement, which is saddled with language written by lawyers.
“People quickly run into the challenge that there’s so much legalese that it’s up to you to envision how your data may be used,” Ms. Sandvik said.
Still, it’s better than reading nothing.
Research company business models
Rarely is a free product ever truly free, and a company’s business model can provide insight into how your data may eventually be shared. If you are using a product that does not charge an upfront fee or show any advertising, a for-profit company has to find some way to monetize your patronage.
For many companies, the path to monetization is anonymized, aggregated user data. That means while your name will not be attached to the information, your age, gender, shopping activities and location will all be rolled up with other users’ data. Altogether, that becomes incredibly valuable information to many retailers looking for market research.
The good news: There are some nonprofits with no ties to the advertising industry that offer tools to protect your privacy, said Lee Tien, a lawyer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group. For example, his nonprofit provides Privacy Badger, a free ad blocker, in hopes of getting people to become members and donate to the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Free open-source tools like uBlock Origin, another ad blocker, and Signal, an encrypted messaging app, also lack skin in the advertising game.
But if it’s a for-profit business offering a free product, count on it monetizing your data somehow.
“Follow the money,” Mr. Tien said. “If you’re not paying for it with money, you’re paying for it with data.”
So before subscribing to a free app or online tool, take a moment to do a web search for the company’s business model.
Audit your apps
It’s worthwhile to periodically check your primary online accounts, like Facebook, Twitter or Google, to see which apps are hooked into them. Chances are you have used those accounts to quickly sign up for a web tool or app. The ones you never use may still be leeching off your personal data, so you should disable them.
On Facebook, go to the settings page and click on the Apps tab to see which apps are connected to the account. On your Google account page, you can find a similar apps list labeled “Connected apps & sites.” And on Twitter, go to the Apps page under “Settings and privacy.”
Ms. Sandvik recommended pruning apps that you don’t recognize or have not used in the last six months. Once you have narrowed down the list, take a deeper dive on the ones that remain and read up on how they use your personal data. If their data-sharing practices sound offensive, remove the apps.
Do this audit at least once a year: The number of connected apps on your online accounts can pile up over time. On my neglected Facebook account, for example, I had 82 connected apps. After removing many unused or defunct apps, like LivingSocial, Words With Friends and Draw Something, I had 32 left.
Opt out for good
Deleting your app from your phone or computer often isn’t enough. You’ll remove data from the device itself, but not from the company’s servers.
If you’ve lost trust in a company, make the cleanest break possible: Delete your account. In the case of an app like Uber, for example, you can submit a request on the company’s website to have your account deleted. Similarly, with Unroll.me, you can log in to the site and click through the settings to delete your account.
Even after doing that, you will have to reconcile with the idea that the company will probably hold on to the information you have already shared.
“Data you’ve provided to the service as part of using the service is data that they can store and continue to use,” Ms. Sandvik said. “It falls under the terms of service.”
At the time, Uber had just started its ride-hailing service in Portland without seeking permission from the city, which later declared the service illegal. To build a case against the company, officers like Mr. England posed as riders, opening the Uber app to hail a car and watching as miniature vehicles on the screen made their way toward the potential fares.
But unknown to Mr. England and other authorities, some of the digital cars they saw in the app did not represent actual vehicles. And the Uber drivers they were able to hail also quickly canceled. That was because Uber had tagged Mr. England and his colleagues — essentially Greyballing them as city officials — based on data collected from the app and in other ways. The company then served up a fake version of the app, populated with ghost cars, to evade capture.
Video by The Oregonian
At a time when Uber is already under scrutiny for its boundary-pushing workplace culture, its use of the Greyball tool underscores the lengths to which the company will go to dominate its market. Uber has long flouted laws and regulations to gain an edge against entrenched transportation providers, a modus operandi that has helped propel it into more than 70 countries and to a valuation close to $70 billion.
Yet using its app to identify and sidestep the authorities where regulators said Uber was breaking the law goes further toward skirting ethical lines — and, potentially, legal ones. Some at Uber who knew of the VTOS program and how the Greyball tool was being used were troubled by it.
In a statement, Uber said, “This program denies ride requests to users who are violating our terms of service — whether that’s people aiming to physically harm drivers, competitors looking to disrupt our operations, or opponents who collude with officials on secret ‘stings’ meant to entrap drivers.”
The mayor of Portland, Ted Wheeler, said in a statement, “I am very concerned that Uber may have purposefully worked to thwart the city’s job to protect the public.”
Uber, which lets people hail rides using a smartphone app, operates multiple types of services, including a luxury Black Car offering in which drivers are commercially licensed. But an Uber service that many regulators have had problems with is the lower-cost version, known in the United States as UberX.
UberX essentially lets people who have passed a background check and vehicle inspection become Uber drivers quickly. In the past, many cities have banned the service and declared it illegal.
That is because the ability to summon a noncommercial driver — which is how UberX drivers using private vehicles are typically categorized — was often unregulated. In barreling into new markets, Uber capitalized on this lack of regulation to quickly enlist UberX drivers and put them to work before local regulators could stop them.
After the authorities caught on to what was happening, Uber and local officials often clashed. Uber has encountered legal problems over UberX in cities including Austin, Tex., Philadelphia and Tampa, Fla., as well as internationally. Eventually, agreements were reached under which regulators developed a legal framework for the low-cost service.
That approach has been costly. Law enforcement officials in some cities have impounded vehicles or issued tickets to UberX drivers, with Uber generally picking up those costs on the drivers’ behalf. The company has estimated thousands of dollars in lost revenue for every vehicle impounded and ticket received.
Credit Mark Ralston/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
This is where the VTOS program and the use of the Greyball tool came in. When Uber moved into a new city, it appointed a general manager to lead the charge. This person, using various technologies and techniques, would try to spot enforcement officers.
One technique involved drawing a digital perimeter, or “geofence,” around the government offices on a digital map of a city that Uber was monitoring. The company watched which people were frequently opening and closing the app — a process known internally as eyeballing — near such locations as evidence that the users might be associated with city agencies.
Other techniques included looking at a user’s credit card information and determining whether the card was tied directly to an institution like a police credit union.
Enforcement officials involved in large-scale sting operations meant to catch Uber drivers would sometimes buy dozens of cellphones to create different accounts. To circumvent that tactic, Uber employees would go to local electronics stores to look up device numbers of the cheapest mobile phones for sale, which were often the ones bought by city officials working with budgets that were not large.
In all, there were at least a dozen or so signifiers in the VTOS program that Uber employees could use to assess whether users were regular new riders or probably city officials.
If such clues did not confirm a user’s identity, Uber employees would search social media profiles and other information available online. If users were identified as being linked to law enforcement, Uber Greyballed them by tagging them with a small piece of code that read “Greyball” followed by a string of numbers.
When someone tagged this way called a car, Uber could scramble a set of ghost cars in a fake version of the app for that person to see, or show that no cars were available. Occasionally, if a driver accidentally picked up someone tagged as an officer, Uber called the driver with instructions to end the ride.
Uber employees said the practices and tools were born in part out of safety measures meant to protect drivers in some countries. In France, India and Kenya, for instance, taxi companies and workers targeted and attacked new Uber drivers.
“They’re beating the cars with metal bats,” the singer Courtney Love posted on Twitter from an Uber car in Paris at a time of clashes between the company and taxi drivers in 2015. Ms. Love said that protesters had ambushed her Uber ride and had held her driver hostage. “This is France? I’m safer in Baghdad.”
Uber has said it was also at risk from tactics used by taxi and limousine companies in some markets. In Tampa, for instance, Uber cited collusion between the local transportation authority and taxi companies in fighting ride-hailing services.
In those areas, Greyballing started as a way to scramble the locations of UberX drivers to prevent competitors from finding them. Uber said that was still the tool’s primary use.
But as Uber moved into new markets, its engineers saw that the same methods could be used to evade law enforcement. Once the Greyball tool was put in place and tested, Uber engineers created a playbook with a list of tactics and distributed it to general managers in more than a dozen countries on five continents.
At least 50 people inside Uber knew about Greyball, and some had qualms about whether it was ethical or legal. Greyball was approved by Uber’s legal team, led by Salle Yoo, the company’s general counsel. Ryan Graves, an early hire who became senior vice president of global operations and a board member, was also aware of the program.
Ms. Yoo and Mr. Graves did not respond to requests for comment.
Outside legal specialists said they were uncertain about the legality of the program. Greyball could be considered a violation of the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, or possibly intentional obstruction of justice, depending on local laws and jurisdictions, said Peter Henning, a law professor at Wayne State University who also writes for The New York Times.
“With any type of systematic thwarting of the law, you’re flirting with disaster,” Professor Henning said. “We all take our foot off the gas when we see the police car at the intersection up ahead, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But this goes far beyond avoiding a speed trap.”
On Friday, Marietje Schaake, a member of the European Parliament for the Dutch Democratic Party in the Netherlands, wrote that she had written to the European Commission asking, among other things, if it planned to investigate the legality of Greyball.
To date, Greyballing has been effective. In Portland on that day in late 2014, Mr. England, the enforcement officer, did not catch an Uber, according to local reports.
And two weeks after Uber began dispatching drivers in Portland, the company reached an agreement with local officials that said that after a three-month suspension, UberX would eventually be legally available in the city.