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Priest outed via Grindr app highlights rampant data tracking

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Digital Privacy Catholic Official

When a religious publication used smartphone app data to deduce the sexual orientation of a high-ranking Roman Catholic official, it exposed a problem that goes far beyond a debate over church doctrine and priestly celibacy.

With few U.S. restrictions on what companies can do with the vast amount of data they collect from web page visits, apps and location tracking built into phones, there’s not much to stop similar spying on politicians, celebrities and just about anyone that’s a target of another person’s curiosity — or malice.

Citing allegations of “possible improper behavior,” the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on Tuesday announced the resignation of its top administrative official, Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill, ahead of a report by the Catholic news outlet The Pillar that probed his private romantic life.

The Pillar said it obtained “commercially available” location data from a vendor it didn’t name that it “correlated” to Burrill’s phone to determine that he had visited gay bars and private residences while using Grindr, a dating app popular with gay people.

“Cases like this are only going to multiply,” said Alvaro Bedoya, director of the Center for Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law School.

Privacy activists have long agitated for laws that would prevent such abuses, although in the U.S. they only exist in a few states, and then in varying forms. Bedoya said the firing of Burrill should drive home the danger of this situation, and should finally spur Congress and the Federal Trade Commission to act.

Privacy concerns are often construed in abstract terms, he said, “when it’s really, ‘Can you explore your sexuality without your employer firing you? Can you live in peace after an abusive relationship without fear?'” Many abuse victims take great care to ensure that their abuser can’t find them again.

As a congressional staffer in 2012, Bedoya worked on legislation that would have banned apps that let abusers secretly track their victims’ locations through smartphone data. But it was never passed.

“No one can claim this is a surprise,” Bedoya said. “No one can claim that they weren’t warned.”

Privacy advocates have been warning for years that location and personal data collected by advertisers and amassed and sold by brokers can be used to identify individuals, isn’t secured as well as it should be and is not regulated by laws that require the clear consent of the person being tracked. Both legal and technical protections are necessary so that smartphone users can push back, they say.

The Pillar alleged “serial sexual misconduct” by Burrill — homosexual activity is considered sinful under Catholic doctrine, and priests are expected to remain celibate. The online publication’s website describes it as focused on investigative journalism that “can help the Church to better serve its sacred mission, the salvation of souls.”

Its editors didn’t respond to requests for comment Thursday about how they obtained the data. The report said only that the data came from one of the data brokers that aggregate and sell app signal data, and that the publication also contracted an independent data consulting firm to authenticate it.

There are brokers that charge thousands of dollars a month for huge volumes of location data, some of which is marketed not just to advertisers but to landlords, bail bondsmen and bounty hunters, said John Davisson, senior counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center. He said someone looking to “reverse engineer” a particular person’s data from that bulk package could potentially get it from any of the many customers in the data chain.

“It is surprisingly and disturbingly cheap to obtain location data derived from mobile phones,” Davisson said. “It’s easy enough that a determined party can do it.”

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, said the incident confirms yet again the dishonesty of an industry that falsely claims to safeguard the privacy of phone users.

“Experts have warned for years that data collected by advertising companies from Americans’ phones could be used to track them and reveal the most personal details of their lives. Unfortunately, they were right,” he said in a statement. “Data brokers and advertising companies have lied to the public, assuring them that the information they collected was anonymous. As this awful episode demonstrates, those claims were bogus — individuals can be tracked and identified.”

Wyden and other lawmakers asked the FTC last year to investigate the industry. It needs “to step up and protect Americans from these outrageous privacy violations, and Congress needs to pass comprehensive federal privacy legislation,” he added.

Norway’s data privacy watchdog concluded earlier this year that Grindr shared personal user data with a number of third parties without legal basis and said it would impose a fine of $11.7 million (100 million Norwegian krone), equal to 10% of the California company’s global revenue.

The data leaked to advertising technology companies for targeted ads included GPS location, user profile information as well as the simple fact that particular individuals were using Grindr, which could indicate their sexual orientation.

Sharing such information could put someone at risk of being targeted, the Norwegian Data Protection Authority said. It argued that the way Grindr asked users for permission to use their information violated European Union requirements for “valid consent.” Users weren’t given the chance to opt out of sharing data with third parties and were forced to accept Grindr’s privacy policy in its entirety, it said, adding that users weren’t properly informed about the data sharing.

The advertising partners that Grindr shared data with included Twitter, AT&T’s Xandr service, and other ad-tech companies OpenX, AdColony and Smaato, the Norwegian watchdog said. Its investigation followed a complaint by a Norwegian consumer group that found similar data leakage problems at other popular dating apps such as OkCupid and Tinder.

In a statement, Grindr called The Pillar’s report an “unethical, homophobic witch hunt” and said it does “not believe” it was the source of the data used. The company said it has policies and systems in place to protect personal data, although it didn’t say when those were implemented. The Pillar said the app data it obtained about Burrill covered parts of 2018, 2019 and 2020.

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Remote work is becoming the new norm, should tech industries be worried?

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Remote work

Back in 1822, Charles Lamb, British poet and essayist wrote in a letter to poet William Worsworth “You don’t know how wearisome it is to breathe the air of four pent walls without relief, day after day,” describing the agony he faces while working in the East India Company’s office located in the heart of London’s Leadenhall Street. 

It’s safe to say Lamb would’ve enjoyed the COVID-19 pandemic that pushed workers into a work-from-home routine, liberated from what he coined as “official confinement.” Yet, this may not be the case any longer. 

A new survey of 2,000 UK tech workers and employers by Hackajob’s marketplace researchers resulted in shocking findings.  

Half of the employers who participated in the survey noted that it is extremely difficult to grow and enhance a strong team while working remotely, and 54 percent of the participants said having a distributed workforce caused a negative toil on the office culture. 

However, tech professionals have a different perspective on the matter. Hackajob’s researchers found that only 22 percent of tech workers agreed that remote working has a negative impact, while 44 percent noted that there isn’t much of a difference.  

The different findings mean one thing: businesses are increasingly facing challenges when trying to please their workers and ensure a productive workforce with the shift in job expectations. 

Hackajob noted that 72 percent of the tech workers surveyed cited remote working as the main element they look for during a job hunt, while 67 percent said that they’re looking for different opportunities that don’t require remote work. 

Co-founder and CEO of Hackajob, Mark Chaffey, made it clear that the increase in demand for tech workers might force businesses to reformulate their work culture, even though expectations of employers and employees “are not aligned at the moment.” 

“Tech workers are in demand and our data shows it is a buyer’s market now, so employees seem to be in the driver’s seat,” Chaffey added. 

For example, Microsoft recently warned that remote work can possibly have a harmful impact on workplace communication and productivity as it turns out that the tech giant’s own U.S. workforce was struggling with communicating back in March of last year when employees were forced to work remotely for the first time. 

Yet, other tech giants are maneuvering their way around remote work in a different manner. Google has given its U.S. staff the option to work remotely at the expense of salary deductions. 

In Hackajob’s survey, 53 percent of tech workers stated that they wouldn’t consider cutting their salaries to work remotely, in comparison to only 27 percent of participants who were okay with having potential salary adjustments. 

“It will be interesting to see what shifts first and what shifts furthest, workers’ expectations about remote working or employers’ demands about being in the office,” Chaffey said. 

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Your favorite retail giant is pushing for weed legalization in the U.S.

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Cannabis

Back in June, Amazon announced that it will not screen employees for cannabis use. Fast forward to the present moment, and the retail giant is kicking it up a notch by calling on the U.S. government to fully legalize marijuana.

In a post on the company’s blog, Beth Galetti, Amazon’s Senior Vice President of Human Resources, wrote: “We strongly believe the time has come to reform the nation’s cannabis policy, and we are committed to helping lead the effort.”

“Today’s status quo is unfair and untenable,” added Galetti, who explained that it’s extremely difficult for firms to work around cannabis rules due to the blurriness between federal law and local measures.

Amazon’s move comes after a number of states began expanding weed legalization, with “36 states allowing some level of public access to cannabis and 18 states plus Washington, DC, legalizing recreational adult use,” according to Gizmodo.

The news might work for Amazon’s favor, as the majority of Americans approve of a similar policy in their state, as seen by a CBS News poll conducted earlier this year.

More specifically, the retail giant is lobbying for the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act of 2021, a house bill that aims to halt any kind of federal ban on the use of marijuana. The e-commerce firm has also publicized its support for the recently created Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act, a homogenous bill put forward by the Senate.
“Pre-employment marijuana testing disproportionately impacts people of color and acts as a barrier to employment,” Galetti wrote. “We’ve found that eliminating pre-employment testing for cannabis allows us to expand our applicant pool.”

Over 250 warehouses, packaging stores, hubs and delivery centers in the U.S have been opened by Amazon so far this year, with more than 100 buildings expected to open by the end of September, according to the company. The e-commerce gorilla has welcomed over 450,000 people in the U.S. to work for them since COVID-19 began taking over. Currently, 750,000 Amazon employees are working on an hourly basis across the U.S.

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Australia’s tech industry is falling behind, report finds

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Australia

As the world’s top technologically driven nations continue to transform innovative concepts into a reality, Australia risks falling behind without an interest to invest in digital technology-based research, IT professionals, and workers.

That is according to a new report published by the Australian Academy of Science in collaboration with the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering, which acted as a much-needed wake up call to the federal government to take a stand when it comes to ensuring digital technologies and innovation are a priority to the country.

The non-profit organization warned the government that Australia’s tech industry is edging closer to lagging behind global countries, noting that countries like Canada, France, the UK, and the U.S. have invested hefty resources into placing digital technologies as their main priority, a strategy that increased competitiveness and innovation.

“Australia’s digital innovation earnings relative to its GDP was almost four percentage points lower than the OECD average of 11.2 percent,” the organization explained.

To target the issue, the organization recommended a number of measures to be taken that can help elevate Australia’s tech industry in order to stay up to date with other nations.

For starters, the tech sector must be recognized by the Australian government as an independent growth sector, according to the report.

The organization also highlights how research and innovation in new digital technologies should be part of the federal government’s 2021 National Research Infrastructure Roadmap.

Utilizing artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain, and 5G are just some of the innovations the report dives into, suggesting examples of how these new tech innovations can benefit the country as seen by other nations who have prioritized research in the tech field.

Shazia Sadiq, Chair of the Australian Academy of Science’s national committee for information and communication told InnovationAus in an interview that while the Australian Government’s investment in digital tech – such as building a digital economy and creating advanced manufacturing strategies – was a good step to take, much more needs to be implemented.

“Our key message is that we need to be more than ‘smart users’ of emerging technologies,” Sadiq told InnovationAus.

Yet, what does that entail?

“It means that we need to have the scientific expertise, our sovereign capability, through which we can help and create and foster those opportunities that come from these emerging digital technologies, but also help with the vulnerabilities and limitations and dangers and do it at a national level,” she added.

Sadiq explained that the country needs to be able to ensure that the scientific experts in the science and engineering field should work in collaboration with technology professionals.

“The thinking is that these digital technologies have a very wide footprint that impacts almost all sectors,” Sadiq said.

Chris Connell, the managing director of the UK-based Kaspersky APAC, the world’s largest privately held vendor of endpoint protection solutions, is pushing forward security awareness and digital education as a method to help the Australian government achieve tech savviness among its public.

“We’re facing security challenges that put a strain on cybersecurity resources. Investing in cyber talent and promoting security awareness and digital education are the keys to success in building cyber resilient digital societies and economies,” Connell said.

“We need to move from the ‘needs’ to actually delivering on this, if we don’t, and the way the world is changing, there will be more and more risk moving forward.”

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