Google’s Lightning-Fast Response to My “Trusted Contacts” Concerns

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Very recently I discussed my concerns regarding several issues related to Google’s “Trusted Contacts” service. Trusted Contacts permits users to send their current location data to other users as notifications.

The situation was triggered when I suddenly began receiving such location data notifications from somebody I’d never heard of in Africa. Address typos? Trying to attract my attention for some other reason? I dunno.

But stopping those emailed notifications was easier said than done, because it turned out that there was no way to do so from a web page, and the only available mechanism to block them was usable only via the Trusted Contacts smartphone app that needed to be installed, which required enabling of Location History which I don’t ordinarily use. After installing the app (which I had no personal interest in installing otherwise, and which of course a person without a suitable smartphone would not have been able to do) I was ultimately able to stop the notifications. Not a good user experience.

Since then, I’ve already been contacted directly by Google’s privacy and maps teams about these issues, and they’ve now implemented the means for users to easily unsubscribe from such notifications via a web page — without the need for installing an app. Other very useful changes related to the issues that I identified are apparently in the pipeline for availability.

My great thanks to the Google teams involved for so rapidly reaching out to me regarding these matters, and especially for the ultra-quick implementation of the web-based Trusted Contacts notifications unsubscribe tool that is now available to desktop users!

–Lauren–

Google Predictably Makes a Confused Jumble Out of New YouTube, Music Offerings

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An old saying suggests that the only inevitabilities are death and taxes.  When it comes to Google, there are a couple more that we can add. Google will likely always have an array of often incompatible and overlapping “chat” programs and systems — and their paid video and music offerings will be a maze of twisty passages, all different.

Google hasn’t disappointed in that respect with the manner in which word has gotten out about their latest paid content changes. The one thing that seems clear is that the brand “YouTube Red” is apparently going away. But after that, everything is about as easy to understand as hieroglyphics prior to the discovery of the Rosetta Stone. 

YouTube Premium, YouTube Music. YouTube Music Premium. And what of Google Play Music (for free, purchased, and uploaded music) — which Google in their tweets (trying to calm down confused onlookers on Twitter) says is continuing for now?

I tried to figure it all out last night and got a terrible headache that forced me to quit. This morning, it’s all as clear as mud.

There are a couple of things that I’m fairly sure about. At the moment I’m in Google’s “family plan” for $15/month that gives me both YouTube Red and Google Play Music paid services for up to six accounts. I use it mainly for ad-free YouTube viewing and to be able to simultaneously stream different music to different Google Home devices without conflict, from music sources on Play Music and YouTube.

I’ve been led to believe that for existing subscribers of these services under their new names, there are no immediate price changes — though likely that’s coming down the line. It appears that obtaining the same mix of content under Google’s new plans will cost new subscribers more (though they may be able to lock in current prices for a time if they subscribe to the existing plans before the new plans launch reportedly next week).

But how much more will the new services cost going forward? Perhaps the Sphinx could figure it all out. I’ve seen so many different numbers and combinations of services now — not to mention that the future and form of Play Music still seems up in the air — that the only thing seeming certain is uncertainty itself.

I do know that for essentially the same paid mix of video and music content that I receive now from Google, I’d personally probably be willing to pay a wee bit more. But not much more and/or for a more limited set of content. In such latter eventualities, I’d be tempted to drop all of these Google paid content services entirely.

For the moment though, I think that I will sit tight for a bit, and wait for some sort of clarity to hopefully eventually shine its light on this current but predictable Google communications confusion.

Isn’t it nice to have a hobby?

–Lauren–

The Amazing 360 VR “Scoring the Last Jedi” Video

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I just watched “Scoring The Last Jedi: a 360 VR Experience” – https://youtu.be/b32Q1nTgHM0 – for the first time, via a Google Daydream VR headset. It’s absolutely stunning, especially if you’re a lifetime fan of film scoring as I am.

Frankly, I was smiling like an idiot through the entire video. Put aside the flight simulators and the games for a moment — if you have the VR hardware to watch this baby (Google Cardboard will work fine too, if your smartphone has a good gyro), it demonstrates — better than anything else I’ve seen so far — what the potential is for VR to transport you almost physically to a different time and place.

Be warned, just watching this on YouTube without a VR headset is like an ant compared with a skyscraper. You really must see it in VR to properly experience this video.

As I’ve said previously, this kind of tech will ultimately either save civilization — or destroy it. It’s really that important.

Trust me on this.

–Lauren–

Warning: Dangerous Fake Emails About Google Privacy Changes

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If you use much of anything Google, by now you’ve likely gotten at least one email from Google noting various privacy-related changes. They typically have the Subject:

Improvements to our Privacy Policy and Privacy Controls

and tend to arrive not from the expected simple “google.com” domain, but often from unusual-appearing Google subdomains, for example with addresses like:

privacy-noreply@www3.l.google.com

The notice also includes a bunch of links to various relevant privacy pages and/or systems at Google.

All of this is in advance of the effective date for the European Union’s “GDPR” laws. If you’re not familiar with the GDPR, it’s basically the latest hypocritical move by the EU on their relentless march toward dictating the control of personal data globally and to further their demands to become a global censorship czar — with the ability to demand the deletion of any search engine results around the world that they find inconvenient. Joseph Stalin would heartily approve.

One can assume that Google’s privacy team has been putting in yeoman’s service to meet the EU’s dictatorial demands, and it’s logical that Google decided to make other changes in their privacy ecosystem at the same time, and now is informing users about those changes.

Unfortunately, phishing crooks are apparently already taking advantage of this situation — in particular several aspects of these Google notification emails.

First, the legitimate Google privacy emails going out recently and currently are a veritable flood. It appears that Google is sending these out to virtually every email address ever associated with any Google account since perhaps the dawn of time. I’ve already received approximately 1.3E9 of them. OK, not really that many, but it FEELS like that many.

Some of these are coming in to addresses that I don’t even recognize. This morning one showed up to such a strange address that I had to go digging in my alias databases to figure out what it actually was. It turned out to be so ancient that cobwebs flew out of my screen at me when I accessed its database entry.

Seriously, these are one hell of a lot of emails, and the fact that they may come from somewhat unusual looking google subdomains plus include links has made them fodder for the crooks.

You can guess what’s happening. Phishing and other criminal types are sending out fraudulent emails that superficially appear to be the same as these legit Google privacy policy notification emails. Of course, some or all of the links in the phishing emails lead not to Google but to various evil traps and personal data stealing tricks.

So please, be extraordinarily careful when you receive what appear to be these privacy notices from Google. With so many real ones going out — with multiples often ending up at the same individual via various redirects and forwarding addresses — it’s easy for fake versions to slip in among the real ones, and clicking on the links in the crooked ones or opening attachments that they include can seriously ruin your day, to say the very least.

Take care, all.

–Lauren–

Teachable Moment: How Outrage Over Google’s AI “Duplex” Could Have Been Avoided

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We find ourselves at a “teachable moment” in the history of Artificial Intelligence — we should not squander this opportunity. The global controversy that erupted over the last few days regarding Google’s AI-based  “Duplex” phone calling system can be viewed as a harbinger of things to come if a holistic approach to AI is not a fundamental design factor from the ground up.

The Duplex controversy should be calmed down at least for the moment. Google has now announced that calls made by Duplex will be identified as such to the called party, exactly what I had urged in: “Calls From Google’s ‘Duplex’ System Should Include Initial Warning Announcements” (https://lauren.vortex.com/2018/05/09/calls-from-googles-duplex-system-should-include-initial-warning-announcements).

While there are some observers asserting that Duplex-type technology should be banned — or required to use a “robotic” sounding voice not easily confused with a human — I consider both of those suggestions to be extreme, unnecessary, and counterproductive. This kind of technology can have a range of positive applications. I am very much a supporter of AI research (“How AI Could Save Us All” – https://lauren.vortex.com/2018/05/01/how-ai-could-save-us-all).

We want the voices to be as humanlike as possible to be as understandable as possible. Full disclosure that the calls are from AI-based Assistants is completely adequate to assuage most related concerns, though how this tech might potentially be abused by users in ways that makes the robocalling flood even worse is still an open question. 

How did we get here? Basically, while Google’s blog post regarding Duplex made a vague mention of transparency, their demos of the system played at Google I/O appeared to show called parties with absolutely no idea that they were talking to an AI. That’s mightily impressive as a showcase for Google’s AI advances.

But it was also immediately obvious to me — as soon as I heard those demos — that this was going to quickly blow up into a big, public mess that could have been easily avoided.  Because there was bound to be an emotional, visceral, negative reaction by many observers to hear a human “manipulated” in that manner by an AI system. It strikes to very heart of many persons’ fears of “intelligent” machines — ranging from sci-fi fantasies to legitimate real world concerns.

All Google needed to do to avoid this entire PR nightmare was to announce at I/O that the system would disclose itself to called parties, and play demos that included such disclosures.

Why didn’t Google do this? I don’t have any inside scoop, but I can make some fairly informed guesses.

Google still considers Duplex to be an experiment. That’s a valid point, but only takes us so far. If you’re only showing the tech internally, that one thing. But as soon as you make a public demo, you’ve lit the fuse, so to speak.

Several reporters who called me about this story asked me variations of the same question: “How come Google didn’t realize how much negative reaction there would be to those demos?” 

And my answer is that while Google’s heart is almost always in the right place when it comes technologies, sometimes they get a bit, shall we say, “overenthusiastic” — which can make it more difficult to anticipate the non-engineering aspects of a system and how it will be perceived.

This is not just a Google issue. It’s a endemic problem at many engineering-oriented firms, and as a techie myself I’ve had to push back sometimes against my own overly enthusiastic feelings about some new technologies.

Over the years, I’ve numerous times been in the position of trying to point out these kinds of problems on the Net and elsewhere. It’s a tough sell. We engineering types can be tightly focused on solving engineering problems, and we don’t like being told that perhaps we should broaden our focus a bit. And then there’s the classic Silicon Valley attitude of pushing ahead whenever possible and just apologizing later when things go wrong. 

I’m concerned that these are no longer viable strategies — or at least that they’re ever more risky ones in our toxic political environment, where regulators and politicians increasingly see reason and technology as enemies to attack for their own political gains.

Firms like Google and so many others should be subjecting their product launches to more than just engineering and privacy reviews. We’ve reached a stage where some sort of what we might call “ethical” reviews are needed as well and just as routinely. There are many different ways that these could be accomplished, and I won’t detail them here right now.

But without these kinds of formal review mechanisms to consider the ethical impacts of these technologies, the probability of public and political blowback against both potentially very beneficial AI and other socially positive tech projects will be dramatically increasing.

–Lauren–