Facebook’s Current Status With Advertisers? It’s Complicated


The fallout has become unusually personal for Ahalogy, which in recent weeks has been contacted by almost a dozen frustrated Facebook users demanding to know what the company is and why it has their contact information.

The queries have come via email and social media as more people have learned just how much Facebook knows about them and are downloading their data and more closely scrutinizing sections on the social network like “Advertisers with your contact info.”

“Ahalogy Partners” sometimes shows up because the Cincinnati-based firm runs digital marketing campaigns for a range of advertisers and uses that account to buy targeted Facebook ads on their behalf.

One Twitter user confronted the company in late March after downloading her Facebook data, calling it “desperate” and saying, “I learned that Facebook gave you my data? Why?” She added the hashtag #DeleteMyData.

Mr. Gilbreath explained that Ahalogy, like many marketers, often buys data from outside firms for campaigns so that it can direct ads to certain groups of people — say, Walmart shoppers — but that the company doesn’t store that material and can’t see personal information like email addresses.

While marketers may be frustrated right now, few have actually left Facebook. The company is the second-biggest seller of digital ads with more than $40 billion in annual revenue. Last week, Carolyn Everson, Facebook’s vice president of global marketing solutions, said at a conference that the company did not expect “major changes to our overall revenue and business model.”

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More Facebook users are downloading their data and exploring their advertising preferences, paying special attention to advertisers who have their contact information.

Ms. Everson and her team, which works with agencies and the biggest global advertisers, have been in overdrive in recent weeks. She has sent frequent emails to agency leaders, held calls with Facebook’s council of top marketers and joined a discussion with the Association of National Advertisers. She noted in an interview that she “would much rather err on the side of over-communication right now.”

John Montgomery, executive vice president for brand safety at WPP’s GroupM, said that while he was dismayed by the initial “pocket of silence” from Facebook in the wake of the revelations, the company has since been candid. He said he appreciated the email updates sent by Ms. Everson every other day.

One of the points of concern seems to be apps companies made years ago at the behest of Facebook. The tech company recently declared that it would conduct a full investigation of apps that obtained access to a large amount of user information before Facebook changed its platform policies. Between 2010 and the change in 2014, Facebook encouraged brands from insurers to entertainment companies to make games and other apps for the site, according to one agency executive who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Ms. Everson said Facebook would look at all app developers, including major brands, that had access to large amounts of data and conduct audits if it sees “suspicious activity.”

“To marketers who have asked me about that, I have said if they have an app or had an app, that all app developers will be looked at,” Ms. Everson said. “They understand that and recognize our mission only works if people feel it’s safe to communicate online and share with others.”

Other advertisers have expressed alarm over Facebook’s plan to remove the so-called “partner categories” on its site. These categories enable advertisers to direct ads to people based on data collected by outside companies, including their purchasing habits in physical stores and profiles like “big-city moms.”

Facebook said that the change would improve user privacy. But it has also resulted in a perhaps counterintuitive lesson for marketers: several are devising new ways to build up their own customer data lists out of concern that they were too reliant on Facebook for such information.

One executive gave a hypothetical example of a jam brand that had been targeting ads on Facebook through shopping habits based on outside company data. That company might now set up a recipe site and create a newsletter to distribute great recipes every week. They could also make a loyalty program with peanut butter and jelly points, a children’s site and an iJam app, collecting customer data from each.

Mr. Montgomery said that he did not expect people to migrate from Facebook en masse.

“The major question we’ve asked together of ourselves and our clients is will this affect user engagement on the platform, and we haven’t seen any of that yet,” he said. “At the end of the day, what really counts is whether the users will value the utility of Facebook over the privacy missteps.”

If people stop using Facebook in significant numbers, it will test the patience of advertisers, who have had a fraught relationship with the social network. The main points of contention have been the amount of data that advertisers can access on the platform and issues around how ad performance is measured. Facebook is aiming to soothe them while it sorts through a very public problem.

“There may have been sellers in media that maybe got the benefit of doubt when something went wrong — when you get discretion, relationships matter, perceptions of the media brand matter,” said Brian Wieser, a media analyst at Pivotal Research. “But with Facebook, I feel like a common refrain I’ve heard is that user trends go down, that’s going to have ramifications.”

Yet Ms. Everson has received many public messages of support and praise for her leadership on Twitter and on her Facebook page from agency executives and chief marketing officers, including those at General Electric and Toys “R” Us.

In one of her emails to advertisers last month, which a recipient shared with The New York Times, Ms. Everson said it was important to remember that Facebook’s mission was unchanged. It was still the same company, she said, that is “bringing connectivity to remote areas of the world” and that “gives people a voice and enables the movements that are changing the world.” She concluded by saying, “Thank you so very much for your continued partnership.”

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Tech We’re Using: Following the Trail of Online Ads, Wherever It Leads


What do you like about these tools, and what could be better?

The online ad tracking services are helpful for the desktop and mobile web, but I haven’t yet found an effective way to sort through the many, many ads that flow through Facebook and Instagram or across various mobile apps.

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The online tools that have helped Ms. Maheshwari monitor online advertising include Ghostery, Moat Pro and Pathmatics, but she has yet to find an effective way to track ads on Facebook, Instagram and mobile apps, she said.

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Sam Hodgson for The New York Times

In the wake of the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica controversy, many privacy experts are pointing out that if something is free, you are the product. Do you agree with that?

This question makes me think of a headline from The Onion, “Exciting New App Allows Users to Be Pawns in 26-Year-Old C.E.O.’s Little Game.” I generally agree with the privacy experts, but don’t know if there are good ad-free alternatives for a lot of services that people can pay for. Maybe in the future?

How has tech changed advertising, and how much is the advertising industry looking to tech these days?

Tech has transformed advertising — there are so many more ways to target and reach people now than when the industry was dominated by TV, print, radio and event sponsorships.

There’s also so much more data being collected about our habits by an array of companies, from big tech platforms to agencies to the advertisers themselves. Huge portions of advertising dollars in the past few years have gone to the big tech giants that we read about all the time — specifically Google and Facebook and, to a lesser extent, companies like Snap. Lately, advertisers have said they’re spending more money on Amazon. So there are still more major changes afoot.

As for how advertisers are looking at tech — it can be a double-edged sword. The ability to follow consumers wherever they go online comes with the risk that brands could end up with their ads appearing on conspiracy and extremist sites or offensive YouTube videos. Platforms like Twitter have made it easy for brands to talk to consumers, but it’s also opened them up to new criticism, demands and potential boycotts.

Advertisers are also grappling with how to measure their ads in this new world. That’s a challenge throughout the industry. Think of all the ways that people watch TV shows now. I recently watched — or, more accurately, binged — NBC’s “The Good Place.” I watched the first season on Netflix, where there were no ads, then saw the first eight episodes of the second season through NBC’s Apple TV app, where there were lots of commercials. I watched the final few on Hulu, which might have had different ads. That type of behavior — especially since I was using my parents’ cable login for the NBC app — is a new kind of challenge for the people buying, selling and measuring ads.

What do you think of Google’s and Facebook’s power in the online ad industry?

It’s an enormous topic within the advertising industry, which generally refers to Google and Facebook as the “duopoly.” It’s pretty remarkable that two of the world’s most valuable companies make virtually all of their money from selling online ads and dominate more than half of the American digital ad market.

Their size and influence make it essential for people to really understand how the companies’ business models work and the types of information they’re sharing with them every day — and what makes them such powerful advertising machines.

Obviously, advertisers are drawn to Facebook and Google properties because people are spending lots of time there. But they’re also fast and easy to use and rely heavily on automation. Lately, we seem to be getting a crash course in how the tools that advertisers love can be misused, whether it’s in the political realm or through fraudulent or discriminatory ads. I’m interested to see how humans factor into solving some of these issues — for example, YouTube is implementing more human screening of videos to assuage advertisers’ fears about appearing on inappropriate content.

Outside work, what tech product do you love using?

It’s a tie between two. I recently installed a Chrome extension called HabitLab to help keep me from wasting time when I’m online.

And I love the Bose wireless speaker that my boyfriend gave me for Diwali. I use it to listen to podcasts and talk on the phone while cooking or cleaning. I love that the speaker gets me away from my phone, which can charge in the meantime, and that I can use it throughout my apartment. It would be nice if it just did the cooking for me, though.

What’s your advice for those who want to prevent their data from being tracked by advertisers?

It’s hard to prevent, but you can take some steps to limit it. Explore the privacy settings on your smartphone, including which apps have access to your location and microphone and whether you allow ad tracking. Delete apps that you don’t use anymore.

Some people like ad blockers, but they can be operating their own businesses that allow ads through from advertisers that pay them. You could also check the settings for internet-connected devices like your television, and turn off certain “smart” features that could be sharing your viewing habits with third parties. When you check out at a store, you can avoid giving your phone number, email address or ZIP code. Finally, you can see and delete your ad preferences on Facebook and those for Google, too.

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Inside Cambridge Analytica’s Virtual Currency Plans


The effort was overseen by Cambridge Analytica’s British chief executive, Alexander Nix, who was forced out of the company in March after he was caught on tape bragging about his company’s approach to political work in other countries, including the use of shell companies and strategies designed to entrap opponents. The Facebook data revelations and Mr. Nix’s comments appear to have put the virtual currency work, which was still in the early stages, on hold.

Initial coin offerings, or I.C.O.s, are a method of fund-raising in which companies sell their own virtual currencies. The tokens are generally structured like Bitcoin, using a so-called blockchain to record transactions. The coins are usually designed to be used as an internal payment method in software that the start-ups are building. Over the last year, companies have raised over $6 billion through I.C.O.s.

The New York Times Explains…

Coin offerings generally avoid the regulatory oversight that accompanies traditional fund-raising methods, opening the door for significant fraud. A number of coin offerings have been shut down by law enforcement, and there are several broad investigations of the industry by regulators around the world.

“There are only a handful of more controversial areas it could have expanded its business into,” said Tim Swanson, a consultant to companies in the industry, who was briefed on the Cambridge Analytica coin offering.

A spokesman for Cambridge Analytica did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Cambridge Analytica began working with coin offerings in the middle of last year. The business was guided by Ms. Kaiser, an American who led the company’s business development and previously appeared at a press event with organizers of the “Brexit” campaign to get Britain out of the European Union.

Cambridge Analytica boasts that its “psychographic profiles” of voters and consumers allow for more persuasive and precisely targeted advertising. In marketing material sent to investors, the firm said Ms. Kaiser was “helping blockchain companies in using predictive modeling to target investors for token sales.”

Jill Carlson, a consultant who has worked with several blockchain companies, attended meetings where Cambridge Analytica pitched its services to virtual currency companies, including one that Mr. Nix attended.

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Wan Kuok-koi, center, a Macau gangster, after his release from prison in 2012. Documents have listed Mr. Wan as a supporter of a Dragon Coin, a digital token promoted by Cambridge Analytica.

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Laurent Fievet/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Ms. Carlson said the Cambridge Analytica employees had bragged about their success in helping get President Trump elected and their ability to carefully target advertising campaigns using data from social networks like Facebook.

She also remembers they spoke about an array of potential campaigns. The most unusual idea involved sending virtual currencies to people in far-flung regions of Mexico. The payments would give people incentive to fill out surveys and get data that could then be used to help design campaigns for Mexican political candidates.

Ms. Carlson said the pitch was contrary to the ideas of openness and transparency that drew her to virtual currency projects like Bitcoin.

“The way that Cambridge Analytica was talking about it, they were viewing it as a means of being able to basically inflict government control and private corporate control over individuals, which just takes the whole initial premise of this technology and turns it on its head in this very dystopian way,” she said.

Cambridge Analytica did win over some clients. Last summer, Ms. Kaiser’s team began working with Dragon Coin, a new virtual currency that was designed to be used by gamblers. The coin was supposed to make it easier for people to get their money to casinos in Macau, an island that is technically a part of China with some independent political structures.

Cambridge Analytica had little public role in promoting Dragon Coin. But behind the scenes the company emailed potential partners and investors and arranged for some of them to take all-expenses-paid trips to a glitzy Dragon Coin event in Macau.

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Brittany Kaiser, who guided Cambridge Analytica’s work with initial coin offerings, has been critical of the company since leaving it in February.

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Stefan Wermuth/Reuters

The South China Morning Post published a photo from the event showing Wan Kuok-koi in attendance. Mr. Wan is known as Broken Tooth Koi from his days as the leader of the famous 14K gang in Macau. He was released from prison in 2012 after serving a 14-year term.

The founder of Dragon Coin, Chris Ahmad, told Business Insider at the time that Mr. Wan “is not involved in Dragon, and he is not financing Dragon in any way.”

But documents sent in September to potential investors by Dragon Coin’s co-founder Paul Moynan listed Mr. Wan as the sponsor of the initial coin offering and included his picture. Ms. Kaiser was included in the email. A separate Dragon Coin document that Mr. Moynan sent out at the same time listed Mr. Wan as one of a few high-profile supporters of the project.

When reached recently, Mr. Moynan initially said that his email address had been hacked and that he did not recognize the documents. He later said the documents were a “hypothetical wish list” of a “junior staff” member.

“We will be conducting an internal investigation, as unfinished draft documents would never have been indicative of actual agreed partnerships,” he said.

Ms. Kaiser said that her work on the Dragon Coin event in Macau had been done in a personal capacity, and that the Dragon Coin team had told her that Mr. Wan was not involved with the project.

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The Manhattan location of Cambridge Analytica, a British company. Its virtual currency work, which was still in the early stages, now appears to be on hold.

Credit
Joshua Bright

Dragon Coin claimed it raised over $300 million from investors last fall. That total has been hard to verify. But like many coin offerings, Dragon Coin has failed to live up to its promises.

The document sent to investors in September said Dragon Coin had secured a partnership with Visa to release a debit card that would work on the Visa network. A spokeswoman for Visa said that there was no partnership and that no Dragon card had been approved, as is necessary for a card to be issued.

The documents last summer also said the Dragon app, which would let investors use its virtual coin, would be available in September. When that didn’t happen, the company promised the app in January — but it still has not appeared. In the meantime, the company has spent its money sponsoring a Formula E car racing team and a team climbing Mount Everest.

The setbacks did not stop Cambridge Analytica from plunging further into the virtual currency realm. The company’s New York office continued reaching out to potential investors and partners, emails show. And in January, Ms. Kaiser hosted a side conference dedicated to blockchain projects, known as CryptoHQ, at the World Economic Forum’s annual conference in Davos, Switzerland. Mr. Nix spoke on a panel at the event.

He said that the technology would be helpful in solving the very problems that Cambridge Analytica has since become the emblem of — the abuse of online personal data.

“We’re going to see a new type of economy emerging where people can start to take ownership of their data and monetize on their data,” Mr. Nix said, according to a tweet from the CryptoHQ account. “And that is only possible through the blockchain.”

The virtual currency that Cambridge Analytica was designing was aimed at exactly this problem, and would have also helped the company raise money from investors.

The company wrote a document describing the technical specifications of the coin, Ms. Kaiser said. Her account was confirmed by another person who worked on the project and agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity. The work was overseen by Alexander Tayler, the firm’s chief data scientist and briefly the interim chief executive after Mr. Nix stepped down.

Ms. Kaiser left Cambridge Analytica in February and has been sharply critical of the company since then. As far as she knows, the coin offering has not moved forward. But she is still working on similar concepts at her new consulting firm, Bueno Capital.

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Mind: Antidepressants and Withdrawal: Readers Tell Their Stories


Readers in my age group and older (I’m 58) often came of age in an era in which depression was considered somehow a lapse in character. These readers typically reported having started on Prozac or one of its early competitors — Paxil, Zoloft — very often after a major setback like divorce, or the loss of a job, spouse or child.

“My G.P. put me on Zoloft 28 years ago to deal with my husband’s cancer diagnosis,” wrote Carole Wilson, 74, of Alburnett, Iowa. Her husband has since died. “I have cut down from 200 milligrams to 100, but when I go lower I get horrible side effects, like nausea, jumpiness, crying a lot which I never do. I’m nearly 75; at this point I will continue because I cannot go through the withdrawal.”

James Midkiff, 75, of Vienna, W.V., wrote: “I was sole caretaker for my dying wife and was a law enforcement officer and under a great deal of stress.” Mr. Midkiff said he tapered off Lexapro gradually, about a month ago, “but I am having withdrawal symptoms of shaking, panic attacks, flulike symptoms, nausea, fatigue, night sweats, tingling and numbness in the arms and legs. I am determined to get off antidepressant drugs; however it is disheartening to note that other folks are still having withdrawal symptoms after a year.”

Hundreds of others, in their 60s and 70s, told us similar stories about starting a prescription in the wake of terrible loss. The drugs helped ease the emotional turmoil initially, many said.

Their reasons for wanting to stop taking them were rooted in part in the understanding that antidepressants were supposed to be a short-term solution, a bridge over troubled waters. But by the mid-1990s, drug makers had convinced government regulators that when taken long-term, the medications sharply reduced the risk of relapse in people with chronic, recurrent depression.

Thus began the era of indefinite or open-ended prescribing, and not just for the most severe cases of depression. The change in practice roughly coincided with the promotion of the “chemical imbalance” theory of depression: Marketers and some researchers implied that antidepressants corrected deficits in brain levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter.

In truth, the theory has scant basis. No one knows the underlying biology of depression or any mood disorder. But that shift — along with a change in federal regulations, in 1997, allowing drug makers to advertise directly to consumers — helped undermine the stigma associated with depression and mood disorders generally.

Depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder came out of the closet, if gingerly, and the generation that came of age during this time — people now in their 40s, give or take — did so in a culture that no longer automatically presumed that depression was a character flaw.

The condition had some biological basis, it was felt, and antidepressants became a vastly popular option. Everyone knew someone taking them. Long-term prescription rates surged.

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Robin Hempel began taking an antidepressant on the advice of her gynecologist. “Had I been told the risks of trying to come off this drug, I never would have started it,” she said.

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Cheryl Senter for The New York Times

In their responses to us, many readers in this age group were much more likely than older readers to cite specific psychiatric diagnoses: social anxiety, panic disorder, PTSD, as well as depression. And their decisions to taper off were less tied to the presumption that the drugs are short-term bridges; most cited practical concerns like lingering side effects (sexual dysfunction is common, as is weight gain), pregnancy or the passing of postpartum despair.

“When I became pregnant I chose to stop taking Effexor because I was uncomfortable using it during pregnancy,” wrote Katie Slattery, 39, of Orlando, Fla. “When I stopped cold turkey, I felt extremely unwell and had to go back on and wean off slowly. I would break open my pill capsules and reduce my dose by one milligram at a time every couple of days. It was a lengthier process, but it prevented the dizziness, headache and fogginess I felt when I originally stopped the medication.”

Amy Cannon, 42, of Philadelphia wrote: “I started taking Zoloft after experiencing moderate postpartum depression, and after about a year I felt my symptoms weren’t as severe.” But she had “brain zaps” — electric-shock sensations in her head — and mood swings after trying to quit cold turkey, so she resumed taking the drug.

“Eventually I was able to wean down slowly without severe consequences, but it took six months and was still really unpleasant.” Nonetheless, she said that she was very grateful that the drugs were available when she needed them.

Women taking antidepressants who become pregnant, or are planning to, often prefer not to expose the developing fetus to any prescriptions. The evidence that exposure in utero causes problems for a child is fairly weak.

And untreated depression poses risks indeed, both before birth and after, when the child needs an energetic, vigilant caregiver.

As the stigma associated with mood disorders faded, so too did the social barriers to taking a daily prescription. By 2000, when doctors began prescribing antidepressants to children, prevailing views were vastly different from those of the first Prozac generation.

Nearly 1,000 young people in their 20s or younger responded the The Times’s invitation. They did not come of age during the rise of long-term use — their parents did, and often it was their parents who decided the medications could help them.

Many told us they were too young to know what the drugs were at the time, and didn’t learn until much later. As they enter high school and college, their understanding of the prescription culture is far different from that of generations before.

For one thing, many of their friends have been on antidepressants or other psychiatric medications for long periods. “I live in a college house of six girls, two of whom are on antidepressants,” wrote Julian O., 21, of Seattle.

“When brought up in conversation, the medications are discussed with vanity, as if they are veterans trying out the newest medication prescribed to them.”

Emma Dreyfus, 28, of Boston, said the “one mistake her parents had made” was putting her on Paxil at age 10 to treat anxiety. She weaned herself off slowly at age 23.

“I don’t blame them, but I wish we’d all understood the long-term effects.” She said she is starting graduate work in the fall, in social work, to help others facing similar challenges.

Others in this youngest cohort wondered about the effect of the medications on brain development; the drugs cause biological adjustments in the brain, but so do persistent mood problems.

For now, no one has good answers for them. The drugs are a brand new cultural development, historically speaking, and their diffuse biological effects — especially in the developing brain — are largely unknown.

Whatever their ages, all of us are part of Generation Rx — a huge, uncontrolled experiment with little precedent and few guideposts.

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Tech Fix: I Downloaded the Information That Facebook Has on Me. Yikes.


“They don’t delete anything, and that’s a general policy,” said Gabriel Weinberg, the founder of DuckDuckGo, which offers internet privacy tools. He added that data was kept around to eventually help brands serve targeted ads.

Beth Gautier, a Facebook spokeswoman, put it this way: “When you delete something, we remove it so it’s not visible or accessible on Facebook.” She added: “You can also delete your account whenever you want. It may take up to 90 days to delete all backups of data on our servers.”

Digging through your Facebook files is an exercise I highly recommend if you care about how your personal information is stored and used. Here’s what I learned.

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How Facebook Lets Brands and Politicians Target You

A history of the steps the company took to become an advertising giant.



OPEN Graphic


Facebook Retains More Data Than We Think

When you download a copy of your Facebook data, you will see a folder containing multiple subfolders and files. The most important one is the “index” file, which is essentially a raw data set of your Facebook account, where you can click through your profile, friends list, timeline and messages, among other features.

One surprising part of my index file was a section called Contact Info. This contained the 764 names and phone numbers of everyone in my iPhone’s address book. Upon closer inspection, it turned out that Facebook had stored my entire phone book because I had uploaded it when setting up Facebook’s messaging app, Messenger.

This was unsettling. I had hoped Messenger would use my contacts list to find others who were also using the app so that I could connect with them easily — and hold on to the relevant contact information only for the people who were on Messenger. Yet Facebook kept the entire list, including the phone numbers for my car mechanic, my apartment door buzzer and a pizzeria.

This felt unnecessary, though Facebook holds on to your phone book partly to keep it synchronized with your contacts list on Messenger and to help find people who newly sign up for the messaging service. I opted to turn off synchronizing and deleted all my phone book entries.

My Facebook data also revealed how little the social network forgets. For instance, in addition to recording the exact date I signed up for Facebook in 2004, there was a record of when I deactivated Facebook in October 2010, only to reactivate it four days later — something I barely remember doing.

Facebook also kept a history of each time I opened Facebook over the last two years, including which device and web browser I used. On some days, it even logged my locations, like when I was at a hospital two years ago or when I visited Tokyo last year.

Facebook keeps a log of this data as a security measure to flag suspicious logins from unknown devices or locations, similar to how banks send a fraud alert when your credit card number is used in a suspicious location. This practice seemed reasonable, so I didn’t try to purge this information.

But what bothered me was the data that I had explicitly deleted but that lingered in plain sight. On my friends list, Facebook had a record of “Removed Friends,” a dossier of the 112 people I had removed along with the date I clicked the “Unfriend” button. Why should Facebook remember the people I’ve cut off from my life?

Facebook’s explanation was dissatisfying. The company said it might use my list of deleted friends so that those people did not appear in my feed with the feature “On This Day,” which resurfaces memories from years past to help people reminisce. I’d rather have the option to delete the list of deleted friends for good.

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Your Facebook account keeps a record not only of ads you have clicked on, but also of advertisers that have your contact information, which can also be viewed in your archive.

The Ad Industry Has Eyes Everywhere

What Facebook retained about me isn’t remotely as creepy as the sheer number of advertisers that have my information in their databases. I found this out when I clicked on the Ads section in my Facebook file, which loaded a history of the dozen ads I had clicked on while browsing the social network.

Lower down, there was a section titled “Advertisers with your contact info,” followed by a list of roughly 500 brands, the overwhelming majority of which I had never interacted with. Some brands sounded obscure and sketchy — one was called “Microphone Check,” which turned out to be a radio show. Other brands were more familiar, like Victoria’s Secret Pink, Good Eggs or AARP.

Facebook said unfamiliar advertisers might appear on the list because they might have obtained my contact information from elsewhere, compiled it into a list of people they wanted to target and uploaded that list into Facebook. Brands can upload their customer lists into a tool called Custom Audiences, which helps them find those same people’s Facebook profiles to serve them ads.

Brands can obtain your information in many different ways. Those include:

■ Buying information from a data provider like Acxiom, which has amassed one of the world’s largest commercial databases on consumers. Brands can buy different types of customer data sets from a provider, like contact information for people who belong to a certain demographic, and take that information to Facebook to serve targeted ads, said Michael Priem, chief executive of Modern Impact, an advertising firm in Minneapolis.

Last month, Facebook announced that it was limiting its practice of allowing advertisers to target ads using information from third-party data brokers like Acxiom.

■ Using tracking technologies like web cookies and invisible pixels that load in your web browser to collect information about your browsing activities. There are many different trackers on the web, and Facebook offers 10 different trackers to help brands harvest your information, according to Ghostery, which offers privacy tools that block ads and trackers. The advertisers can take some pieces of data that they have collected with trackers and upload them into the Custom Audiences tool to serve ads to you on Facebook.

■ Getting your information in simpler ways, too. Someone you shared information with could share it with another entity. Your credit card loyalty program, for example, could share your information with a hotel chain, and that hotel chain could serve you ads on Facebook.

The upshot? Even a Facebook lurker, like myself, who has barely clicked on any digital ads can have personal information exposed to an enormous number of advertisers. This was not entirely surprising, but seeing the list of unfamiliar brands with my contact information in my Facebook file was a dose of reality.

I tried to contact some of these advertisers, like Very Important Puppets, a toymaker, to ask them about what they did with my data. They did not respond.

What About Google?

Let’s be clear: Facebook is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what information tech companies have collected on me.

Knowing this, I also downloaded copies of my Google data with a tool called Google Takeout. The data sets were exponentially larger than my Facebook data. For my personal email account alone, Google’s archive of my data measured eight gigabytes, enough to hold about 2,000 hours of music. By comparison, my Facebook data was about 650 megabytes, the equivalent of about 160 hours of music.

Here was the biggest surprise in what Google collected on me: In a folder labeled Ads, Google kept a history of many news articles I had read, like a Newsweek story about Apple employees walking into glass walls and a New York Times story about the editor of our Modern Love column. I didn’t click on ads for either of these stories, but the search giant logged them because the sites had loaded ads served by Google.

In another folder, labeled Android, Google had a record of apps I had opened on an Android phone since 2015, along with the date and time. This felt like an extraordinary level of detail.

Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

On a brighter note, I downloaded an archive of my LinkedIn data. The data set was less than half a megabyte and contained exactly what I had expected: spreadsheets of my LinkedIn contacts and information I had added to my profile.

Yet that offered little solace. Be warned: Once you see the vast amount of data that has been collected about you, you won’t be able to unsee it.

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Tech Tip: Setting Options for Ad Blockers


Q. I installed ad-blocking software on my computer, but I still see advertisements on some pages, even though the site did not ask me to turn off the blocker. Why is this?

A. Even when you have the software enabled, browser utilities like AdBlock or AdBlock Plus may still display less-intrusive advertisements from companies that have been approved by the independent Acceptable Ads Committee. The Acceptable Ads initiative was started by AdBlock Plus, which makes money by allowing the ads through its filters.

The initiative attempts to balance the needs of web surfers who do not want to be pelted with aggressive online ads and the needs of websites that rely on advertising revenue to support their content. (Google recently began to filter intrusive ads in its Chrome browser in a similar manner.)

“Acceptable” ads include those that lack animation and do not jam themselves into the middle of the reader’s experience on the site. Even if the ad-blocker program is set to allow nonintrusive ads by default, you can disable the feature in the program’s settings. However, if you use a site frequently and find it worthwhile, you may want to consider allowing its advertising through your filter by allowing acceptable ads or by adding the site to the ad-blocking program’s white list.

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If you are seeing some web ads even with ad-blocking software installed, the program may be set to let certain unobtrusive advertisements get through.

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The New York Times

To “white-list” a site basically means to make an exception for it in your ad-blocking program to allow advertising to appear. While advertising on some web pages can be distracting, excessive and sometimes even laden with malware, most sites run ads because they need the money to sustain themselves.

Some sites have put in ad-blocker detection tools and will stop your browser from loading the page you want to see unless you white-list the site. Some sites ask you to white-list them in exchange for displaying a minimal amount of advertising. If you need to white-list the site you are trying to visit, click the ad-blocker icon in the browser’s tool bar and look for the option to pause or disable the current filtering. The program’s tool-bar menu might have a list of sites you have white-listed, along with controls for fine-tuning your ad filters.

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‘Ready Player One’ Overcomes Challenges to Dominate Box Office


Although Mr. Spielberg has found box office success in recent years with historical dramas like “The Post” and “Bridge of Spies,” his would-be crowd-pleasers, including the motion-capture fantasies “The BFG” and “The Adventures of Tintin,” have been ticket-selling disappointments. Even “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” was widely viewed as a misfire; longtime fans loathed the story, leaving that whip-cracking franchise on wobbly footing.

In contrast, “Ready Player One” drew the most positive audience response for any fantasy or science-fiction movie directed by Mr. Spielberg since “Minority Report” in 2005, according to Rotten Tomatoes, which boils down reviews from critics and ticket buyers into “fresh” or “rotten” scores. Critics also gave “Ready Player One” high marks, although some were annoyed by the source material’s reliance on 1980s pop culture.

‘Ready Player One’ Is a Vintage Pop Bonanza

Here’s a rundown of some of the bigger references you need to know before watching Steven Spielberg’s film.


Paul Dergarabedian, a senior analyst at comScore, noted that ticket-buyer surveys conducted by PostTrak, a service operated by comScore and Screen Engine, showed “really, really high marks” for “Ready Player One” from teenagers and people in their late thirties. “This film has momentum,” he said.

“Ready Player One,” rated PG-13 and produced by a team that included Donald De Line, Kristie Macosko Krieger and Bruce Berman, was the first movie directed by Mr. Spielberg to arrive in the less-competitive spring since “The Sugarland Express” in 1974. Warner had initially scheduled “Ready Player One” for release in December but moved it to a safer spot after Disney unexpectedly dropped “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” on the same winter date.

Mr. Spielberg’s godlike status in Hollywood was cemented long ago. He is, perhaps, the only director (or star) whose career is no longer impacted by ticket sales — good, bad, mediocre. But the robust response to “Ready Player One” is meaningful for him nonetheless. If ticket sales continue to hold up in the weeks ahead — and they should, given school spring breaks — Mr. Spielberg will have given Warner Bros. what it wants most: a new franchise.

Mr. Cline is notably working on a sequel to his novel.

For the weekend in North America, “Tyler Perry’s Acrimony” (Lionsgate) was second, collecting $17 million, a sturdy total for one of Mr. Perry’s movies that does not feature Madea, his gunslinging granny. “Acrimony,” a thriller starring Taraji P. Henson, cost less than $15 million to make.

Third place went to “Black Panther” (Disney), which took in about $11.3 million, for a seven-week domestic total of $650.7 million. “Black Panther” has taken in $1.27 billion worldwide.

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Hey, Alexa, What Can You Hear? And What Will You Do With It?


One application details how audio monitoring could help detect that a child is engaging in “mischief” at home by first using speech patterns and pitch to identify a child’s presence, one filing said. A device could then try to sense movement while listening for whispers or silence, and even program a smart speaker to “provide a verbal warning.”

A separate application regarding personalizing content for people while respecting their privacy noted that voices could be used to determine a speaker’s mood using the “volume of the user’s voice, detected breathing rate, crying and so forth,” and medical condition “based on detected coughing, sneezing and so forth.”

The same application outlines how a device could “recognize a T-shirt on a floor of the user’s closet” bearing Will Smith’s face and combine that with a browser history that shows searches for Mr. Smith “to provide a movie recommendation that displays, ‘You seem to like Will Smith. His new movie is playing in a theater near you.’”

In a statement, Amazon said the company took “privacy seriously” and did “not use customers’ voice recordings for targeted advertising.” Amazon said that it filed “a number of forward-looking patent applications that explore the full possibilities of new technology,” and that they “take multiple years to receive and do not necessarily reflect current developments to products and services.”

Google said it did not “use raw audio to extrapolate moods, medical conditions or demographic information.” The company added, “All devices that come with the Google Assistant, including Google Home, are designed with user privacy in mind.”

Tech companies apply for a dizzying number of patents every year, many of which are never used and are years from even being possible.

Still, Jamie Court, the president of Consumer Watchdog, a nonprofit advocacy group in Santa Monica, Calif., which published a study of some of the patent applications in December, said, “When you read parts of the applications, it’s really clear that this is spyware and a surveillance system meant to serve you up to advertisers.”

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A diagram included with an Amazon patent application showed how a phone call between friends could be used to identify their interests.

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United States Patent and Trademark Office

The companies, Mr. Court added, are “basically going to be finding out what our home life is like in qualitative ways.”

Google called Consumer Watchdog’s claims “unfounded,” and said, “Prospective product announcements should not necessarily be inferred from our patent applications.”

A recent Gallup poll found that 22 percent of Americans used devices like Google Home or Amazon Echo. The growing adoption of smart speakers means that gadgets, some of which contain up to eight microphones and a camera, are being placed in kitchens and bedrooms and used to answer questions, control appliances and make phone calls. Apple recently introduced its own version, called the HomePod.

But many consumers are also becoming increasingly nervous that tech companies are eavesdropping on them in order to serve them targeted ads, no matter how often the companies deny it. The recent revelations that a British political data firm, Cambridge Analytica, improperly harvested the information of 50 million Facebook users has only added to the public’s wariness over the collection and use of personal information.

Facebook, in fact, had planned to unveil its new internet-connected home products at a developer conference in May, according to Bloomberg News, which reported that the company had scuttled that idea partly in response to the recent fallout.

Both Amazon and Google have emphasized that devices with Alexa and Google Assistant store voice recordings from users only after they are intentionally triggered. Amazon’s Echo and its newer smart speakers with screens use lights to show when they are streaming audio to the cloud, and consumers can view and delete their recordings on the Alexa smartphone app or on Amazon’s website (though they are warned online that “may degrade” their experience). Google Home also has a light that indicates when it is recording, and users can similarly see and delete that audio online.

Amazon says voice recordings may help fulfill requests and improve its services, while Google says the data helps it learn over time to provide better, more personalized responses.

But the ecosystem around voice data is still evolving.

Take the thousands of third-party apps developed for Alexa called “skills,” which can be used to play games, dim lights or provide cleaning advice. While Amazon said it didn’t share users’ actual recordings with third parties, its terms of use for Alexa say it may share the content of their requests or information like their ZIP codes. Google says it will “generally” not provide audio recordings to third-party service providers, but may send transcriptions of what people say.

And some devices have already shown that they are capable of recording more than what users expect. Google faced some embarrassment last fall when a batch of Google Home Minis that it distributed at company events and to journalists were almost constantly recording.

In a starker example, detectives investigating a murder at an Arkansas home sought access to audio on an Echo device in 2016. Amazon resisted, but the recordings were ultimately shared with the permission of the defendant, James Bates. (A judge later dismissed Mr. Bates’s first-degree murder charge based on separate evidence.)

Kathleen Zellner, his lawyer, said in an interview that the Echo had been recording more than it was supposed to. Mr. Bates told her that it had been regularly lighting up without being prompted, and had logged conversations that were unrelated to Alexa commands, including a conversation about football in a separate room, she said.

“It was just extremely sloppy the way the activation occurred,” Ms. Zellner said.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center has recommended more robust disclosure rules for internet-connected devices, including an “algorithmic transparency requirement” that would help people understand how their data was being used and what automated decisions were then being made about them.

Sam Lester, the center’s consumer privacy fellow, said he believed that the abilities of new smart home devices highlighted the need for United States regulators to get more involved with how consumer data was collected and used.

“A lot of these technological innovations can be very good for consumers,” he said. “But it’s not the responsibility of consumers to protect themselves from these products any more than it’s their responsibility to protect themselves from the safety risks in food and drugs. It’s why we established a Food and Drug Administration years ago.”

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Tiger Woods Is Back. Will Sponsors Buy In?


Some brands had already bet on a Tiger Woods comeback, even when it looked unlikely. Bridgestone reached out to Mr. Woods about playing its golf ball in September 2016, shortly after Nike announced that it would no longer be selling golf equipment (though it would continue its Woods-branded clothing line). It hardly mattered that Mr. Woods had not appeared in a tournament in 13 months.

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The mug shot of Tiger Woods after he was taken into custody in Jupiter, Fla., in May 2017.

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Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office

Angel Ilagan, Bridgestone Golf’s chief executive, said in a recent interview that the company had sent 12 dozen balls to Mr. Woods, hoping he would attach his name and endorsement to the product, which he eventually did, signing a multi-year contract in December of that year

“We know Tiger’s brand strength,” Mr. Ilagan said. “Whether he does play or not doesn’t really matter. That’s just icing on the cake.”

With Mr. Woods apparently close to his previous form — he is the betting favorite to win his fifth green jacket at the Masters — that icing is already tasting sweet. Already in 2018, Bridgestone’s sales of golf balls have increased 115 percent over the same period a year ago. Mr. Ilagan attributed that to Mr. Woods; Bridgestone has already begun to market a Woods edition golf ball, which it introduced on Wednesday.

TaylorMade, which signed Mr. Woods to use its clubs in January last year, said it saw no need to build a marketing campaign around the star, because the mere fact that he plays with the clubs or talks about their performance in interviews does the selling job.

“When Tiger says something, the world takes notice,” David Abeles, the company’s chief executive, said. “Because it’s true. We’re excited just when he talks in his own words.”

Mr. Ilagan suggested that Mr. Woods’s rebound from the dramatic turn his career took in 2009 had made him more relatable and perhaps likable for fans. “His absence showed what was missing when he wasn’t there,” Mr. Ilagan said.

Martin Buckley, global vice president and general manager of Nike Golf, which sells a full line of Woods-branded clothing, including shoes, shirts and sweaters, said that fans would be seeing a lot more of him in Nike advertisements this summer.

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Nike stood by Mr. Woods throughout his tabloid troubles over the past decade, even as other sponsors fell away. He was last No. 1 in the world golf rankings in 2014.

Credit
Nike, via Associated Press

“He’s a unique, integral part of the Nike family,” Mr. Buckley wrote in an email, “and we don’t see that changing any time soon.”

But while performance brands remain aligned with Mr. Woods, more mainstream companies have not yet jumped back on the bandwagon. Peter Land, a partner at Finsbury, the strategic communications firm, suspects a reason could be that Mr. Woods likely alienated women when news about his extramarital affairs surfaced.

“Brands with a strong female stakeholder base will continue to be a struggle for Tiger,” said Mr. Land, who was with PepsiCo when Gatorade, which PepsiCo owns, decided to drop Mr. Woods. “There are so many other successful and charismatic global athletes to partner with — and they come with a lower risk profile.”

The companies that might benefit most from Mr. Woods’s resurgence could be the ones that got onboard a few years ago, seizing on a “buy low” opportunity, said Mr. Carter, the University of Southern California professor.

Full Swing Golf, which makes golf simulators, started a relationship with Mr. Woods in 2014, when he was rehabbing from injury. Its chief executive, Ryan Dotters, thought Mr. Woods could use the simulator to train indoors, and Mr. Woods was receptive.

“It was definitely a strategic move,” Mr. Dotters said. “We felt no matter what Tiger had gone through in the past, we knew his brand was extremely strong. We thought there was a big opportunity there.”

The relationship has not always been easy. Last May, Mr. Woods was arrested and charged with driving under the influence after being found asleep behind the wheel of his Mercedes-Benz. A toxicology report found several powerful painkillers in his system that he said he was taking to cope with his fourth back surgery that spring.

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Mr. Woods after a birdie putt at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March, part of his comeback after missing a significant part of last year’s season. “His absence showed what was missing when he wasn’t there,” said an executive at Bridgestone Golf, one of Mr. Woods’s sponsors.

Credit
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Mr. Woods pleaded guilty to reckless driving and agreed to enter a diversion program, which included a year on probation and 50 hours of community service. He had already completed treatment at a clinic for help in dealing with his prescription medications.

This time, his sponsors stood by him.

“I didn’t consider dropping him at all,” Mr. Ilagan said. “We looked into the situation and ascertained that what he did was the right thing. People realized he was about as responsible as he could have been in that situation.”

Bridgestone did conduct a survey after the arrest to gauge the public’s reaction, Mr. Ilagan said. “The results were that the consumers were very supportive of him,” he said.

Mr. Abeles, TaylorMade’s chief executive, said: “We’re all human. We believed in Tiger, and we continue to believe in Tiger.”

Mr. Carter said there would continue to be a certain amount of mistrust when it came to Mr. Woods and the brands he represented.

“Regardless of the circumstances, corporate partners don’t want to see a mug shot,” he said. “It’s not surprising if it may take a little bit of time for mainstream brands to want to hitch their representation to his.”

With that said, though, most fans assumed that Mr. Woods would never recover from his injuries. The golfer with 14 major championships has proved repeatedly throughout his career that it is never safe to count him out.

“I think people in this country are very quick to forgive and forget,” Mr. Carter said. “They want to give people the benefit of the doubt and a second chance. And when you’re a beloved figure like Tiger Woods, I think fans really want to see him come back. He still has this halo effect.”

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Wine School: Ideal Ripeness Varies by Opinion, Not by the Moment


These were the three Rosso di Montalcinos: La Torre, Le Potazzine and Lisini.

Each wine, as is required of all Rossos and Brunellos di Montalcino, was made entirely of the sangiovese grape. At times this rule has caused frustration among some Montalcino producers, who 20 years ago were seeking to soften sangiovese’s naturally high acidity, darken its characteristically ruby color and relax its often angular austerity by adding international grapes like merlot, syrah or cabernet sauvignon.

Those efforts outside the rules came crashing down in scandal in 2008. Since then, Montalcino producers have, outwardly at least, reconciled themselves to the sangiovese rule and have turned to legal, if not always palatable, methods to achieve their aims.

Among those methods, they might age the wine in small barrels of new oak, which can intensify the color. Frankly, I’ve never understood the fixation with dark colors in red wine. Some of the greatest Burgundy, Barolo and sangiovese-based wines are fairly pale.

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From left, La Torre Rosso di Montalcino 2015, Le Potazzine Rosso Di Montalcino 2015 and Lisini Rosso di Montalcino 2015.

Credit
Alessandra Montalto/The New York Times

You would think that producers would aim for pale rather than dark. But they have heard from consultants that consumers prefer darker reds. The nonsense apparently flows in both directions.

Producers might also try to address some of their concerns in the vineyard, through how they manage the canopy of leaves, which can be arranged not only to allow a steady movement of air, reducing susceptibility to diseases, but also to shade grapes from the sun or to permit more direct sunlight, affecting the rate at which the grapes ripen. They can vary the yield of the vines, through pruning or thinning grape bunches, which can ultimately achieve greater or lesser intensity in the wines. And they can manipulate aromas, flavors and textures simply by deciding when to pick the grapes.

I’m happy to say that I do not think that any of these three producers is troubled by the natural characteristics of sangiovese, one of the world’s great grapes. Each of these wines showed ample evidence of sangiovese’s vibrant acidity. They were also naturally tannic, meaning that they demonstrated the true tannins of the grape rather than the bitter tannins that can be imparted by new oak barrels. And they showed the true flavors and character of sangiovese, unmitigated by new oak.

But each bottle seemed to adhere to a different definition of ripeness. It seemed to me, judging strictly by the wine, that the Rosso from La Torre had been picked the earliest. Its dominant characteristics were freshness and purity of aromas and flavors.

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Credit
Serge Bloch

I loved its liveliness, its dusty, earthy red fruit flavors with a touch of minerality and bitterness. In current wine parlance, sommeliers might refer to this wine as “crunchy,” like biting into a juicy apple in which the sweetness and the acidity were precisely balanced.

At the other end of this admittedly narrow spectrum, the Lisini Rosso seems much riper. The fruit is a little bit sweeter, as if you are not biting into a piece of fresh fruit but maybe dipping into some compote. It’s also more tannic, as if the juice of the freshly crushed grapes had macerated longer with the tannin-bearing skins, or perhaps the grape skins were a bit thicker and contained more tannic compounds.

I would not call these grapes overripe by any means. Wines made from overripe grapes would be overtly jammy, with less acidity. They can feel thick, give an impression of sweetness and lack zest. Some people enjoy them, but not me.

The Rosso from Le Potazzine seemed to stake out a middle ground. It offered the acid snap of the La Torre but was even more tannic than the Lisini. The fruit was not sweet, but the flavors seemed darker, with almost a licorice tinge.

All of these wines improved with food, fettuccine Bolognese, but Le Potazzine really blossomed, melding beautifully with the rich, meaty sauce.

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Credit
Serge Bloch

Rosso, as I said, is the younger sibling of Brunello di Montalcino. What’s the difference?

Brunello is aged longer, for one thing, four years before it can be released, of which a minimum of two must be in casks. Rosso need only be aged one year before release.

reader perspectives

Eric Asimov, The New York Times
wine critic, is talking about
Rosso di Montalcino this month.
If you would like to join the conversation,
try one of the bottles listed here and as you try them, ask yourself these questions.

Oak

These are generally aged in oak barrels. Do they smell or taste oaky?

Vibrancy

Sangiovese is a naturally acidic grape. Can you sense the acidity?

Food

How does it go with your meal?

respond

Producers often choose to use the fruit from younger vines or from lesser sites in their Rosso, or grapes that simply did not fit into the blend of their Brunello.

Though marketers often try to capitalize on the fame of Brunello by referring to Rossos as “Baby Brunellos,” it’s better to accept Rossos on their own terms. They are lighter, fresher, more easygoing wines, more accessible without aging, though some will evolve and improve over the years. They generally do not require contemplation, and what’s wrong with that? Deliciousness is its own reward.

I have noticed among some consumers a tendency to dismiss Montalcino wines in general as somehow not being authentic enough, much in the same way that many have sneered at Bordeaux. Please. Like any wine region in the world, Montalcino has its share of poseurs, manipulators and fabricators. But the good wines are beautiful and should not be missed.

Readers seemed to enjoy these wines, although several remembered days when they cost $10, not $30. Of course, we could have that conversation about a lot of wines. One reader, VSB in San Francisco, who drank the 2015 La Torre, seemed surprised about one thing, though.

“Oddly, tasted better with the food than by itself,” he said.

Welcome to Italy, where wine is especially constructed to go with food. On their own, most traditionally made Italian reds can taste acidic, tannic and bitter without food. They are meant for the table, not as cocktails or aperitifs. In Italy, that’s what sparkling wine is for.

While I seized on these three wines for the opportunity they offered to talk about ripeness, other factors also play a role. Soils will influence the flavors; those grapes coming from heavier clay sites will be fruitier and denser, while those from sites with more limestone may be more aromatic and less fruity. The altitude of the vineyard plays a role, as does luck.

By that I mean that some things are out of a grower’s control. A crew of grape pickers might not be available at the moment a grower wants to harvest. That unexpected delay can result in riper grapes than envisioned.

But the most important factor is intent. Each of these wines, I believed, represented the intent of the producer, and each differed. So when you hear the next marketer crowing about the “perfect ripeness” of the grapes, simply know that the marketers should add a clause to their claim: “in our opinion.”

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