At least 75 companies receive anonymous, precise location data from apps whose users enable location services to get local news and weather or other information. Several of those businesses claim to track up to 200 million mobile devices in the United States. The database reveals people’s travels in startling detail, accurate to within a few yards and in some cases updated more than 14,000 times a day. These companies sell, use or analyze the data to cater to advertisers, retail outlets and even hedge funds seeking insights into consumer behavior.
Thousands of jails and prisons across the US use a company called Securus Technologies to provide and monitor calls to inmates. But the former sheriff of Mississippi County (MO) used a lesser-known Securus service to track people’s cellphones, including those of other officers, without court orders, according to charges filed against him in state and federal court. The service can find the whereabouts of almost any cellphone in the country within seconds.
In an era of ubiquitous data gathering by tech companies, your personal information — where you go, who your friends are, what you read, eat and watch, and when you do it — is being used for purposes many people never expected. As privacy concerns have mounted among consumers, policymakers and regulators, tech companies have come under intensifying scrutiny over their data collection practices. Technology companies have for years responded to court orders for specific users’ information. The new warrants go further, suggesting possible suspects and witnesses in the absence of other clues.
Hundreds of federal political ads — including those from major players such as the Democratic National Committee and the Donald Trump 2020 campaign — are running on Facebook without adequate disclaimer language, likely violating Federal Election Commission rules. An FEC opinion in December clarified that the requirement for political ads to say who paid for and approved them, which has long applied to print and broadcast outlets, extends to ads on Facebook.
Facebook has said it plans to avoid a repeat of the Russia fiasco by improving transparency. An approach it’s rolling out in Canada now, and plans to expand to other countries this summer, enables Facebook users outside an advertiser’s targeted audience to see ads. The hope is that enhanced scrutiny will keep advertisers honest and make it easier to detect foreign interference in politics. So we used a remote connection, called a virtual private network, to log into Facebook from Canada and see how this experiment is working.
Russian disinformation isn’t the only deceptive political advertising on Facebook. The pitch designed to lure President Donald Trump’s critics is one of more than a dozen politically themed advertisements masking consumer rip-offs that ProPublica has identified since launching an effort in September to monitor paid political messages on the world’s largest social network.