What to expect from tomorrow’s antitrust hearing featuring big tech

Tomorrow, representatives from Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple will testify before Congress in the second hearing organized as part of the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust investigation into the world’s largest technology companies.

While the first hearing focused on the ways technology companies busted the traditional news business, this one promises to look at the “impact of market power of online platforms on innovation and entrepreneurship,” according to the committee.

Unlike the previous hearing, which featured representatives from media outlets and industry trade organizations attacking or defending the ways in which online advertising had gutted the news business, this latest outing led by Rhode Island Democratic Rep. David Cicilline will have actual tech company execs on hand to answer congressional queries.

One section of the testimony will feature Google’s economic policy head, Adam Cohen; Amazon’s associate general counsel, Nate Sutton; Facebook’s global head of policy, Matt Perault; and Kyle Andeer, Apple’s chief compliance officer.

Others expected to appear include Tim Wu, the Columbia Law professor who’s been an outspoken critic of technology consolidation and an advocate for more stringent antitrust oversight of tech companies, and Maureen Ohlhausen, a partner at Baker Botts and the former acting chairman of the Federal Trade Commission in charge of its antitrust actions.

Wu and his views sort of encapsulate much of the thinking from critics of these companies’ current dominance in the market.

“I would love, in fact, if a serious Facebook challenger took down Facebook, and I would stop calling for any antitrust action. It’s just when you become suspicious that the barriers have gotten strong enough that a company could survive, then maybe we need to have antitrust law loosened up, get things moving, and provide for the market cycle to take its place. Now eventually it will happen, but we can’t wait for 50 years,” Wu told the American Enterprise Institute in an interview earlier this year.

“It’s also possible that history would suggest that a company like Facebook, and perhaps Amazon, will soon try to get government on their side to defend themselves against competition. I don’t know what it will look like, but maybe Facebook agrees to some kind of privacy law, which for some reason is very hard for new entrants to adhere to. Amazon may try and instantiate itself as basically the national e-commerce monopolist, kind of like a Bell-regulated monopoly. That’s a next natural step, especially as a big star, to become less competitive. And so before that happens, I think we give the antitrust law its turn.”

Policy watchers can expect market criticisms of the big technology platforms to come from a few different angles (each company has different, slightly overlapping, issues that policymakers find worrisome).

For Alphabet, criticism stems primarily from the company’s dominance in online search and the ad networks it controls through its ownership of DoubleClick and AdMob (along with its ownership of YouTube’s wildly popular video platform). At Amazon, it’s the ways in which Jeff Bezos’e-commerce behemoth hoovers up sales information  and uses it to inform pricing and potentially anticompetitive practices that stymie the development of new e-commerce players by promoting its own brands and products.

For Facebook, it’s the dominance of the company’s social media platforms (including Instagram and the messaging service WhatsApp) that are a cause for concern — as is its unwillingness to open its social graph for other startups. The company also elicits howls from consumer advocates for its abysmal ability to protect user privacy and data.

Finally, Apple’s control over the entire ecosystem it pitches to consumers — and the pricing policies it enforces that some critics have called extortive are cause for concern among the political class.

These competitive concerns also play out against the outsized ambitions that these technology companies have in other areas. Facebook is trying to make an end run around the existing global financial system through the launch of its Libra cryptocurrency; Alphabet, Amazon and Facebook all have designs to dominate the development of artificial intelligence in open markets; and then there’s the work these companies are conducting in areas as diverse as healthcare, mobility technologies and even space travel and high-speed networking.

With so many interests in so many areas and core businesses generating so much money, it’s easy to conflate a broader unease with these companies’ ambitions and the core anti-competitive arguments that are worthy of discussion.

For this hearing — and indeed the Congressional investigation to be successful — the focus should be less on the global ambitions of these technology companies and more on the practices they’ve enacted to stifle competition.

Why commerce companies are the advertising players to watch in a privacy-centric world

The unchecked digital land grab for consumers’ personal data that has been going on for more than a decade is coming to an end, and the dominoes have begun to fall when it comes to the regulation of consumer privacy and data security.

We’re witnessing the beginning of a sweeping upheaval in how companies are allowed to obtain, process, manage, use and sell consumer data, and the implications for the digital ad competitive landscape are massive.

On the backdrop of evolving privacy expectations and requirements, we’re seeing the rise of a new class of digital advertising player: consumer-facing apps and commerce platforms. These commerce companies are emerging as the most likely beneficiaries of this new regulatory privacy landscape — and we’re not just talking about e-commerce giants like Amazon.

Traditional commerce companies like eBay, Target and Walmart have publicly spoken about advertising as a major focus area for growth, but even companies like Starbucks and Uber have an edge in consumer data consent and, thus, an edge over incumbent media players in the fight for ad revenues.

Tectonic regulatory shifts

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Image via Getty Images / alashi

By now, most executives, investors and entrepreneurs are aware of the growing acronym soup of privacy regulation, the two most prominent ingredients being the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) and the CCPA (California Consumer Privacy Act).

W(hy)TF are Japan and South Korea in a trade war?

Another week, another trade war. And unlike most trade wars these days, this one didn’t originate from the confines of the Rose Garden with the Marine One whirlybird in the background. No, like any Ice Bucket Challenge-worthy meme, others are getting in on the trade war bandwagon and making it their own.

Cue Japan and South Korea. The two countries have slipped into their own trade war over the past few weeks, a conflict that now threatens the foundations of Japan’s supplier industry, Samsung Electronics, and global smartphone and computer shipments.

But why a trade conflict? If the U.S./China trade war emanates from the dark recesses of President Trump’s brain, then this new trade war emanates from the dark chapters of Japan and South Korea’s collective and sad history.

One of the saddest of those chapters is the plight of Korean comfort women — women who were forced into sexual slavery by wartime Japan in the 1930s and 1940s to service soldiers throughout the Japanese empire. Given the dates of those atrocities, many of those women are now reaching the late stages of their lives, as are men who were impressed into wartime labor in Japanese factories to fight the Allies.

Late last year, Korea’s highest court ordered Mitsubishi to pay essentially reparations for the company’s use of slave labor throughout the Japanese occupation and World War II, a decision that mirrored the court’s earlier judgment against Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal a few weeks before.

As the Korean court system has attempted to claw back those reparations from Japanese companies, Japan has not sat still. The country’s prime minister Shinzo Abe and his government have responded by placing a broad trade embargo on South Korea of high-technology goods under “national security” grounds, arguing that Seoul has failed to find a path forward to mend the fences between the two countries.

This past week, the two countries met to try to resolve the tensions, but failed to agree on a solution. That leaves the export bans in place, jeopardizing the supply chains for many electronics products.

Take Samsung Electronics for instance. The Korean company is the number one manufacturer of memory DRAM chips, accounting for more than 40% of the nearly $100 billion market, and also the number one manufacturer of NAND flash chips, with 35% share. SK Hynix — another Korean company — was the second largest manufacturer of DRAM chips with a roughly 31% share. Samsung and other Korean manufacturers are also market leading in industries like semiconductors and LCD displays.

Korea’s electronics companies have deep supply chains in Japan, which produce everything from photoresist chemicals and materials for semiconductors to the actual manufacturing equipment and parts required to operate factories. Thus, Japan’s trade embargo was expected to compromise two of Korea’s leading manufacturers, a punch to Korea’s fragile economy and a wake-up call for President Moon to reach a compromise with Prime Minister Abe.

Except, as often happens in the wacky world of trade, the export ban had unexpectedly positive consequences.

An anticipated glut of DRAM memory chips this year had pushed prices to new lows, slashing profits at Samsung Electronics in the company’s worst drop in four years. The company’s stock has been battered: from August last year until January, the company lost a third of its value.

And then Japan interceded. Supplies of DRAM chips are suddenly dropping — and prices are rising in turn. As the Wall Street Journal noted Thursday, Japan’s curbs are actually shoring up the memory chip market and leading to better than expected results for Samsung and other Korean manufacturers. While it has had a topsy-turvy few weeks, the stock price for Samsung Electronics is now almost back to where it was this time last year.

In other words, Japan’s punch was more like a stimulus. Whoops.

Such short-term gains may be amusing for trade policy watchers, but any returns are likely to be short-lived of course. And the news is much worse for semiconductors. As the Nikkei Asian Review noted this week, “Any disruption in the supply of EUV photoresist — a coating product used in the extreme ultraviolet lithography vital to the most complex semiconductors — could set back Samsung’s plans to launch its 7-nanometer chips around the turn of the year.” The company has stockpiled some materials, but if the trade war extends from weeks to months, it will eventually have to succumb from the damage to its supply chain.

All of which is to say that what started as a trade spat might boil over into shrinking quantities of memory chips, displays, and next-generation semiconductors — in other words, pretty much everything you need to build a computer or smartphone today.

There are a couple of lessons for the tech industry here. First, while Silicon Valley and other tech regions enjoy a mostly ahistorical outlook, the antecedents of the world are always brimming just beneath the surface. The comfort women situation may seem tangential to the day-to-day challenges of building a hardware product, but politics — particularly visceral, human politics — has a way of interceding far from its remit.

Second, even in a globalized world where national politicians lust for economic growth (and certainly Prime Minister Abe and President Moon are heavily invested in growing their respective economies), networked and cross-border supply chains are increasingly fragile. Just as Huawei discovered the dangers of relying on American technology over the past year, now Korean companies are learning about the dangers of depending on Japan’s high technology industry for critical components.

Third, the development of 5G wireless technology standards and associated hardware devices just increasingly gets battered. The U.S. has specifically targeted Huawei over 5G, but Samsung also has 5G modems and network equipment underway, which are now threatened in Japan and South Korea’s trade war. As wireless technology has become essential to global commerce and entertainment the past few decades, the political importance of controlling this technology has increased dramatically.

Ultimately, what’s the resolution to this new trade war? Well, that’s part of the challenge. President Moon doesn’t want to agree to a quick truce, worrying that such a rapid negotiation would appear to be giving in to Japan’s demands — a symbolism that he is unlikely to accept. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Abe faces the opposite forces, with the Japanese government holding the line that all claims to reparations over the comfort women and wartime slavery were settled by the two countries’ bilateral trade agreement from the 1960s and other diplomatic agreements.

Yet, both politicians need economic growth to succeed, and compromising their leading companies from selling their leading exports is not a route to that outcome. Both are principled leaders, but both are ultimately pragmatic. And so as it happens, it may not be the State Department that gets a deal over the line. No, maybe it’s time Tim Cook gets on his iPhone and talks about, well, iPhones.

As FTC cracks down, data ethics is now a strategic business weapon

Five billion dollars. That’s the apparent size of Facebook’s latest fine for violating data privacy. 

While many believe the sum is simply a slap on the wrist for a behemoth like Facebook, it’s still the largest amount the Federal Trade Commission has ever levied on a technology company. 

Facebook is clearly still reeling from Cambridge Analytica, after which trust in the company dropped 51%, searches for “delete Facebook” reached 5-year highs, and Facebook’s stock dropped 20%.

While incumbents like Facebook are struggling with their data, startups in highly-regulated, “Third Wave” industries can take advantage by using a data strategy one would least expect: ethics. Beyond complying with regulations, startups that embrace ethics look out for their customers’ best interests, cultivate long-term trust — and avoid billion dollar fines. 

To weave ethics into the very fabric of their business strategies and tech systems, startups should adopt “agile” data governance systems. Often combining law and technology, these systems will become a key weapon of data-centric Third Wave startups to beat incumbents in their field. 

Established, highly-regulated incumbents often use slow and unsystematic data compliance workflows, operated manually by armies of lawyers and technology personnel. Agile data governance systems, in contrast, simplify both these workflows and the use of cutting-edge privacy tools, allowing resource-poor startups both to protect their customers better and to improve their services.

In fact, 47% of customers are willing to switch to startups that protect their sensitive data better. Yet 80% of customers highly value more convenience and better service. 

By using agile data governance, startups can balance protection and improvement. Ultimately, they gain a strategic advantage by obtaining more data, cultivating more loyalty, and being more resilient to inevitable data mishaps. 

Agile data governance helps startups obtain more data — and create more value. 

With agile data governance, startups can address their critical weakness: data scarcity. Customers share more data with startups that make data collection a feature, not a burdensome part of the user experience. Agile data governance systems simplify compliance with this data practice. 

Take Ally Bank, which the Ponemon Institute rated as one of the most privacy-protecting banks. In 2017, Ally’s deposits base grew 16%, while those of incumbents declined 4%.

One key principle to its ethical data strategy: minimizing data collection and use. Ally’s customers obtain services through a personalized website, rarely filling out long surveys. When data is requested, it’s done in small doses on the site — and always results in immediate value, such as viewing transactions. 

This is on purpose. Ally’s Chief Marketing Officer publicly calls the industry-mantra of “more data” dangerous to brands and consumers alike.

A critical tool to minimize data use is to use advanced data privacy tools like differential privacy. A favorite of organizations like Apple, differential privacy limits your data analysts’ access to summaries of data, such as averages. And by injecting noise into those summaries, differential privacy creates provable guarantees of privacy and prevents scenarios where malicious parties can reverse-engineer sensitive data. But because differential privacy uses summaries, instead of completely masking the data, companies can still draw meaning from it and improve their services. 

With tools like differential privacy, organizations move beyond governance patterns where data analysts either gain unrestricted access to sensitive data (think: Uber’s controversial “god view”) or face multiple barriers to data access. Instead, startups can use differential privacy to share and pool data safely, helping them overcome data scarcity. The most agile data governance systems allow startups to use differential privacy without code and the large engineering teams that only incumbents can afford.

Ultimately, better data means better predictions — and happier customers.

Agile data governance cultivates customer loyalty

According to Deloitte, 80% of consumers are more loyal to companies they believe protect their data. Yet far fewer leaders at established, incumbent companies — the respondents of the same survey — believed this to be true. Customers care more about their data than the leaders at incumbent companies think. 

This knowledge gap is an opportunity for startups. 

Furthermore, big enterprise companies — themselves customers of many startups — say data compliance risks prevent them from working with startups. And rightly so. Over 80% of data incidents are actually caused by errors from insiders, like third party vendors who mishandle sensitive data by sharing it with inappropriate parties. Yet over 68% of companies do not have good systems to prevent these types of errors. In fact, Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica firestorm — and resulting $5 billion fine — was sparked by third party inappropriately sharing personal data with a political consulting firm without user consent. 

As a result, many companies — both startups and incumbents — are holding a ticking time bomb of customer attrition. 

Agile data governance defuses these risks by simplifying the ethical data practices of understanding, controlling, and monitoring data at all times. With such practices, startups can prevent and correct the mishandling of sensitive data quickly.

Cognoa is a good example of a Third Wave healthcare startup adopting these three practices at a rapid pace. First, it understands where all of its sensitive health data lies by connecting all of its databases. Second, Cognoa can control all connected data sources at once from one point by using a single access-and-control layer, as opposed to relying on data silos. When this happens, employees and third parties can only access and share the sensitive data sources they’re supposed to. Finally, data queries are always monitored, allowing Cognoa to produce audit reports frequently and catch problems before they escalate out of control. 

With tools that simplify these three practices, even low-resourced startups can make sure sensitive data is tightly controlled at all times to prevent data incidents. Because key workflows are simplified, these same startups can maintain the speed of their data analytics by sharing data safely with the right parties. With better and safer data sharing across functions, startups can develop the insight necessary to cultivate a loyal fan base for the long-term.

Agile data governance can help startups survive inevitable data incidents

In 2018, Panera mistakenly shared 37 million customer records on its website and took 8 months to respond. Panera’s data incident is a taste of what’s to come: Gartner predicts that 50% of business ethics violations will stem from data incidents like these. In the era of “Big Data,” billion dollar incumbents without agile data governance will likely continue to violate data ethics. 

Given the inevitability of such incidents, startups that adopt agile data governance will likely be the most resilient companies of the future. 

Case in point: Harvard Business Review reports that the stock prices of companies without strong data governance practices drop 150% more than companies that do adopt strong practices. Despite this difference, only 10% of Fortune 500 companies actually employ the data transparency principle identified in the report. Practices include clearly disclosing data practices and giving users control over their privacy settings. 

Sure, data incidents are becoming more common. But that doesn’t mean startups don’t suffer from them. In fact, up to 60% of startups fold after a cyber attack. 

Startups can learn from WebMD, which Deloitte named as one standout in applying data transparency. With a readable privacy policy, customers know how data will be used, helping customers feel comfortable about sharing their data. More informed about the company’s practices, customers are surprised less by incidents. Surprises, BCG found, can reduce consumer spending by one-third. On a self-service platform on WebMD’s site, customers can control their privacy settings and how to share their data, further cultivating trust. 

Self-service tools like WebMD’s are part of agile data governance. These tools allow startups to simplify manual processes, like responding to customer requests to control their data. Instead, startups can focus on safely delivering value to their customers. 

Get ahead of the curve

For so long, the public seemed to care less about their data. 

That’s changing. Senior executives at major companies have been publicly interrogated for not taking data governance seriously. Some, like Facebook and Apple, are even claiming to lead with privacy. Ultimately, data privacy risks significantly rise in Third Wave industries where errors can alter access to key basic needs, such as healthcare, housing, and transportation.

While many incumbents have well-resourced legal and compliance departments, agile data governance goes beyond the “risk mitigation” missions of those functions. Agile governance means that time-consuming and error-prone workflows are streamlined so that companies serve their customers more quickly and safely.

Case in point: even after being advised by an army of lawyers, Zuckerberg’s 30,000-word Senate testimony about Cambridge Analytica included “ethics” only once, and it excluded “data governance” completely.

And even if companies do have legal departments, most don’t make their commitment to governance clear. Less than 15% of consumers say they know which companies protect their data the best. Startups can take advantage of this knowledge gap by adopting agile data governance and educate their customers about how to protect themselves in the risky world of the Third Wave.

Some incumbents may always be safe. But those in highly-regulated Third Wave industries, such as automotive, healthcare, and telecom should be worried; customers trust these incumbents the least. Startups that adopt agile data governance, however, will be trusted the most, and the time to act is now. 

Minimum investment for EB-5 investor green card expected to more than double

While not a startup visa, the EB-5 investor green card offers many entrepreneurs a path to a green card by investing money and creating jobs in the U.S. Under the EB-5 program, an entrepreneur’s family is also eligible for green cards.

Imminent regulatory changes to the EB-5 program are expected to make obtaining an EB-5 green card a whole lot more expensive. The minimum investment is anticipated to more than double to $1.35 million from the current $500,000. And with individuals from India expected to face a backlog for EB-5 green cards shortly, the opportunity to obtain an EB-5 green card at a relatively low cost and in a timely manner is closing.

When someone great is gone: How to address grief in the workplace with empathy

Birthday cakes, gift cards, free lunches, snacks, movie tickets, and other perks are generously bestowed on employees to celebrate life’s happy moments. This is an improvement from the industrial approach to management, but can we go deeper for our work-family members?

Life’s darker moments hold the greatest opportunity to exemplify a genuine and caring 21st-century workplace culture. One which fosters empathy and camaraderie. Employee turnover is highest when employees take leave, claim FMLA, or use PTO. According to Global Studies, 79% of employees report their reason for quitting was simply due to feeling unnoticed (lack of appreciation).

Appreciation for your employees is best demonstrated as an act of kindness in moments that really matter, like the loss of a family member. Acknowledging that someone great is gone, instead of ignoring the uncomfortable aspects of grief, is a valuable way to embed empathy into your workplace culture.

Recently, while working with a mid-sized (500+ employees) tech company, I asked what they were doing to support employees during the negative life moments. The HR Director replied, “um, nothing really”.

Once realizing how crappy that sounded, another executive countered her by saying he sent an employee a t-shirt and card after a miscarriage. I later learned that the employee he was referring to had been with the company for over 5 years, so it’s safe to assume that she had a couple of company swag t-shirts in her collection prior to getting one as a get well gift.

Even in the largest and most notable companies, where a variety of employee amenities and benefits are offered, the concept and practice of empathy is often neglected. Perhaps you haven’t come across such extreme examples of indifference in your workplace, but you may have participated in signing a generic condolences card or chipping in for some flowers.

FEC says political campaigns can now get discounted cybersecurity help

In a long awaited decision, the Federal Elections Commission will now allow political campaigns to appoint cybersecurity helpers to protect political campaigns from cyberthreats and malicious attackers.

The FEC, which regulates political campaigns and contributions, was initially poised to block the effort under existing rules that disallow campaigns to receive discounted services for federal candidates because it’s treated as an “in kind donation.”

For now the ruling allows just one firm, Area 1 Security, which brought the case to the FEC, to assist federal campaigns to fight disinformation campaigns and hacking efforts, both of which were prevalent during the 2016 presidential election.

Campaigns had fought in favor of the proposal, fearing a re-run of 2016 in the upcoming presidential and lawmaker elections in 2020.

FBI director Christopher Wray said last in April that the recent disinformation efforts were “a dress rehearsal for the big show in 2020.”

In an opinion published Thursday, the FEC said the rules would be relaxed because Area 1 “would offer these services in the ordinary course of business and on the same terms and conditions as offered to similarly situated non-political clients.” In other words, political campaigns are not given a special deal but are offered the same price as others on its lowest tier of service.

Several other companies, like Facebook and Google-owned Jigsaw, have already offered free services to campaigns to fight disinformation and foreign hacking efforts.

However many political campaigns still are not taking basic security precautions, researchers found.

A spokesperson for Area 1 did not return a request for comment.

Google is investigating the source of voice data leak, plans to update its privacy policies

Google has responded to a report this week from Belgian public broadcaster VRT NWS, which revealed that contractors were given access to Google Assistant voice recordings, including those which contained sensitive information — like addresses, conversations between parents and children, business calls, and others containing all sorts of private information. As a result of the report, Google says it’s now preparing to investigate and take action against the contractor who leaked this information to the news outlet.

The company, by way of a blog post, explained that it partners with language experts around the world who review and transcribe a “small set of queries” to help Google better understand various languages.

Only around 0.2 percent of all audio snippets are reviewed by language experts, and these snippets are not associated with Google accounts during the review process, the company says. Other background conversations or noises are not supposed to be transcribed.

The leaker had listened to over 1,000 recordings, and found 153 were accidental in nature — meaning, it was clear the user hadn’t intended to ask for Google’s help. In addition, the report found that determining a user’s identity was often possible because the recordings themselves would reveal personal details. Some of the recordings contained highly sensitive information, like “bedroom conversations,” medical inquiries, or people in what appeared to be domestic violence situations, to name a few.

Google defended the transcription process as being a necessary part of providing voice assistant technologies to its international users.

But instead of focusing on its lack of transparency with consumers over who’s really listening to their voice data, Google says it’s going after the leaker themselves.

“[Transcription] is a critical part of the process of building speech technology, and is necessary to creating products like the Google Assistant,” writes David Monsees, Product Manager for Search at Google, in the blog post. “We just learned that one of these language reviewers has violated our data security policies by leaking confidential Dutch audio data. Our Security and Privacy Response teams have been activated on this issue, are investigating, and we will take action. We are conducting a full review of our safeguards in this space to prevent misconduct like this from happening again,” he said.

As voice assistant devices are becoming a more common part of consumers’ everyday lives, there’s increased scrutiny on how tech companies are handline the voice recordings, who’s listening on the other end, what records are being stored, and for how long, among other things.

This is not an issue that only Google is facing.

Earlier this month, Amazon responded to a U.S. senator’s inquiry over how it was handling consumers’ voice records. The inquiry had followed a CNET investigation which discovered Alexa recordings were kept unless manually deleted by users, and that some voice transcripts were never deleted. In addition, a Bloomberg report recently found that Amazon workers and contractors during the review process had access to the recordings, as well as an account number, the user’s first name, and the device’s serial number.

Further, a coalition of consumer privacy groups recently lodged a complaint with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission which claims Amazon Alexa is violating the U.S. Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) by failing to obtain proper consent over the company’s use of the kids’ data.

Neither Amazon nor Google have gone out of their way to alert consumers as to how the voice recordings are being used.

As Wired notes, the Google Home privacy policy doesn’t disclose that Google is using contract labor to review or transcribe audio recordings. The policy also says that data only leaves the device when the wake word is detected. But these leaked recordings indicate that’s clearly not true — the devices accidentally record voice data at times.

The issues around the lack of disclosure and transparency could be yet another signal to U.S. regulators that tech companies aren’t able to make responsible decisions on their own when it comes to consumer data privacy.

The timing of the news isn’t great for Google. According to reports, the U.S. Department of Justice is preparing for a possible antitrust investigation of Google’s business practices, and is watching the company’s behavior closely. Given this increased scrutiny, one would think Google would be going over its privacy policies with a fine-toothed comb — especially in areas that are newly coming under fire, like policies around consumers’ voice data — to ensure that consumers understand how their data is being stored, shared, and used.

Google also notes today that people do have a way to opt-out of having their audio data stored. Users can either turn off audio data storage entirely, or choose to have the data auto-delete every 3 months or every 18 months.

The company also says it will work to better explain how this voice data is used going forward.

“We’re always working to improve how we explain our settings and privacy practices to people, and will be reviewing opportunities to further clarify how data is used to improve speech technology,” said Monsees.

ICE mined driver’s license photos for facial recognition

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement are using facial recognition software to trawl through millions of driver’s license photos provided by 21 states to search and find suspects.

News broke over the weekend that the FBI and immigration officials access images — often without obtaining a search warrant or court order — in order to identify criminal suspects but also witnesses, victims and innocent bystanders. In some cases agents would simply email the state department of motor vehicles for assistance.

But Congress nor state lawmakers ever authorized the access or the searches. A bipartisan group of congresspeople have criticized the use of facial recognition as dangerous to citizens’ right to privacy.

Several states, like New York, and the District of Columbia, allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses, with other states — like Florida and Texas — working to introduce similar laws.

Documents obtained by a public records request and seen by both The Washington Post and The New York Times reveal the scope of the privacy infraction. Utah alone saw close to 2,000 facial recognition searches from law enforcement agencies in the two years between 2015 and 2017.

Facial recognition remains controversial, not least because it’s been accused of racial bias and plagued with inaccuracies. The FBI’s facial recognition database contains more than 640 million images but a government watchdog reported that the agency has “not taken sufficient action to help ensure accuracy” of its system.

Earlier this year documents revealed 9,000 ICE agents have access to a massive license plate database, containing six billion vehicle detections. The database also includes a “hot list” of more than 1,100 license plates of subjects of interest, which triggers an alert every time the plates are picked up by a license plate reader.

The U.S. has thousands of automatic license plate readers (ALPR) across the country.

Why you should naturalize — now, not later

It’s no secret that America thrives on tech-savvy immigrants who put down permanent roots: Three in five of the country’s biggest tech companies — Apple, Facebook, and Google among them — were founded by first- or second-generation immigrants.

Those giants combined boast a market cap of over $4 trillion and employ nearly two million workers. Considering such clear economic benefits, you’d expect an efficient, straightforward process for turning America’s tech-savviest new arrivals into U.S. citizens.

But that’s not the case. Naturalizing has only gotten harder and more expensive in recent years. And because of those barriers, even immigrants who manage to secure U.S. permanent residence often stop short of officially becoming U.S. citizens. In fact, a third of citizenship-eligible green card holders, or around 9.3 million people, have yet to apply.

If you’re among that group, don’t wait to take the final step of your immigration journey. After all, U.S. citizenship brings a host of tangible and intangible perks.

Taking the oath of citizenship, for one, is a profound experience and an affirmation that you’ve finally been welcomed into the American family. From the moment you naturalize, you become an equal stakeholder in our national project — as much an American as anyone born in this nation.

Of course, naturalization offers practical benefits, too. So take some time this Fourth of July to consider all the reasons why you should set your sights on citizenship now, not later:

It won’t get easier

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Image via Getty Images / Vaselena

The single best reason to file a citizenship application is to make sure you don’t miss the boat. The Trump administration is prone to overhauling immigration rules on short notice — so if you’re eligible today, it doesn’t necessarily mean you will be tomorrow.

Applying sooner will make the process quicker and cheaper, too. Already, the government plans to further complicate naturalization steps, at an estimated cost to applicants of nearly $205 million a year.

The bottom line: Getting citizenship will only get harder in the months and years ahead — applying for citizenship under the current rules will protect you from the future whims of America’s leaders. File your papers today, and save yourself headaches or heartbreak down the line.

Have your say

For many new citizens, this is the big one: As an American, you’ll be eligible to vote in all federal, state, and local elections and have your say in who gets to steer the country you’ve chosen to call home. Still, if you’re hoping to pull the lever for your preferred candidate in the 2020 presidential election, you’ll need to get a move on — there’s now a 10-month average wait just to get your application approved. Add all the other steps, and you could be looking at a total wait time of up to 1.6 years, and the line is only growing longer.

Also worth bearing in mind: Citizenship is a requirement for federal office and most state and local political positions. As a naturalized citizen, you’ll be able to run for office yourself.

And while immigrants can’t become president, plenty of naturalized Americans already represent their communities in Congress. Get your paperwork squared away if you want to be next.

Plan for the future 

Whether you’re starting a business, building your career, or buying a home, it helps to have the security that citizenship affords. Naturalizing also makes it far easier to bring relatives — even your parents and adult children — to America on green cards of their own. Spouses and immediate relatives of U.S. citizens get preferential treatment when it comes to green card applications, which means much shorter waits compared to the spouses and relatives of green cardholders.

Pro tip: If you’re a permanent resident and have a pending marriage green card application for your spouse, naturalizing upgrades you to the fast-track process for spouses of U.S. citizens.

Of course, naturalization is also a fantastic gift for your future offspring who are born abroad — they’re automatically citizens if you’re American at the moment of their birth. As a citizen, you’ll be able to register your children as U.S. citizens simply by reporting their birth to the nearest U.S. consulate or embassy.

Access public benefits

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As an immigrant, you’re likely already paying taxes that fund public programs such as Social Security and Medicaid — but in many cases, you can’t actually benefit from those programs. In fact, you’ve probably been justly wary of using any government assistance whatsoever, for fear of being labeled a “public charge” and jeopardizing your immigration status.

As a citizen, all that changes: You’ll have as much right as anyone else to public benefits, and you won’t have to fret about being penalized for seeking help. You might never need public support beyond Social Security and Medicare — studies show that naturalized citizens use most benefits at much lower rates than the native-born — but it’s good to know there’s a safety net waiting to catch you if you fall.

Protect yourself

In theory, green cards offer permanent residence, but it’s still possible to lose your immigration status if you spend significant time outside the United States, if you have legal problems, or if the rules change. Citizens receive far greater protections and can’t be deported even if they run afoul of the law. You’ll also have an incontrovertible right to work in America and to win federal jobs and contracts that are off-limits to non-citizens.

One caveat: It’s been reported that the U.S. government is planning to “denaturalize” some citizens. This applies mostly to cases where applicants committed identity fraud or were subject to deportation orders that they did not disclose to immigration officers during the application process. That shouldn’t affect the vast majority of naturalized citizens, though, and in virtually any legal tangle you’ll be better off as a U.S. citizen.

Get a passport, and see the world

In these turbulent times, a U.S. passport is worth its weight in gold. You’ll be able to apply for the coveted navy-blue travel document immediately after receiving your Certificate of Naturalization and can look forward to visa-free travel to more than 180 countries. You’ll also be able to call on local U.S. embassies for assistance if you run into trouble while traveling.

As a citizen, you won’t have to worry about losing your status, regardless of how long you’re away from the United States. And remember: The United States allows dual citizenship, so depending on your nation of origin, you might not have to give up your existing passport — let alone your original nationality — in order to become an American.

Give back by getting ahead

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Getting citizenship is a smart financial decision. Citizens fare better economically than non-citizen immigrants, perhaps because they’re better placed to put down roots and invest in their future.

Research shows that naturalized immigrants earn an average of $3,200 more each year than eligible non-citizens and also increase their homeownership rate by 6.3 percent. In fact, it’s estimated that if just half of eligible immigrants went ahead and gained citizenship, it would boost America’s GDP by up to $52 billion a year.

All those extra earnings translate into billions of dollars in extra local, state, and federal tax revenues, too. That makes naturalization a great way not just to make more money, but also to support your new community and make America a stronger and more prosperous place for yourself and your loved ones.

You’ve earned it, so go get it

Gaining citizenship is more than just a patriotic gesture; it’s a practical step toward building a secure future in America and seizing all the opportunities this country has to offer. As any immigrant knows, the pursuit of happiness is an American ideal — but it’s one that’s a whole lot easier to achieve if you have citizenship.

If you’re eligible to become a U.S. citizen, then you’ve already earned your place in this country by investing years of your life here, working hard, and playing by the rules. Applying for citizenship is a way to seal the deal, both by underscoring your commitment to the American project and receiving a definitive assurance that you’re welcome and wanted in the Land of the Free.

So this Fourth of July, if you’re chasing your own little piece of the American dream, bear in mind that there are real and concrete benefits to naturalization. After all, the smoke and noise from the fireworks will eventually fade away — but your American citizenship will last forever.