Tech news briefs

Staff & Wire Reports

FILE- In this Aug. 8, 2018, file photo a mobile phone displays a user's travels using Google Maps in New York. Days after an Associated Press investigation revealed that Google is storing the locations of users even if they turn a privacy setting called “Location History” off, the company has changed a help page that erroneously described how the setting works. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

FILE- In this Aug. 8, 2018, file photo a mobile phone displays a user's travels using Google Maps in New York. Days after an Associated Press investigation revealed that Google is storing the locations of users even if they turn a privacy setting called “Location History” off, the company has changed a help page that erroneously described how the setting works. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

Google clarifies location-tracking policy


Technology Writer

Friday, August 17

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Google has revised an erroneous description on its website of how its “Location History” setting works, clarifying that it continues to track users even if they’ve disabled the setting.

The change came three days after an Associated Press investigation revealed that several Google apps and websites store user location even if users have turned off Location History. Google has not changed its location-tracking practice in that regard.

But its help page for the Location History setting now states: “This setting does not affect other location services on your device.” It also acknowledges that “some location data may be saved as part of your activity on other services, like Search and Maps.”

Previously, the page stated: “With Location History off, the places you go are no longer stored.”

The AP observed that the change occurred midday Thursday, a finding confirmed by Internet Archive snapshots taken earlier in the day.

The AP investigation found that even with Location History turned off, Google stores user location when, for instance, the Google Maps app is opened, or when users conduct Google searches that aren’t related to location. Automated searches of the local weather on some Android phones also store the phone’s whereabouts.

In a Thursday statement to the AP, Google said: “We have been updating the explanatory language about Location History to make it more consistent and clear across our platforms and help centers.”

The statement contrasted with a statement Google sent to the AP several days ago that said in part, “We provide clear descriptions of these tools.”

Jonathan Mayer, a Princeton computer scientist and former chief technologist for the Federal Communications Commission’s enforcement bureau, said the wording change was a step in the right direction. But it doesn’t fix the underlying confusion Google created by storing location information in multiple ways, he said.

“The notion of having two distinct ways in which you control how your location data is stored is inherently confusing,” he said Thursday. “I can’t think off the top of my head of any major online service that architected their location privacy settings in a similar way.”

K. Shankari, a UC Berkeley graduate researcher whose findings initially alerted the AP to the issue, said Thursday the change was a “good step forward,” but added “they can make it better.” For one thing, she said, the page still makes no mention of another setting called “Web & App Activity.” Turning that setting off that would in fact stop recording location data.

Huge tech companies are under increasing scrutiny over their data practices, following a series of privacy scandals at Facebook and new data-privacy rules recently adopted by the European Union. Last year, the business news site Quartz found that Google was tracking Android users by collecting the addresses of nearby cellphone towers even if all location services were off. Google changed the practice and insisted it never recorded the data anyway.

Critics say Google’s insistence on tracking its users’ locations stems from its drive to boost advertising revenue. It can charge advertisers more if they want to narrow ad delivery to people who’ve visited certain locations.

Several observers also noted that Google is still bound by a 20-year agreement it struck with the Federal Trade Commission in 2011. That consent decree requires Google to not misrepresent to consumers how they can protect their privacy.

Google agreed to that order in response to an FTC investigation of its now-defunct social networking service Google Buzz, which the agency accused of publicly revealing users’ most frequent Gmail contacts.

A year later, Google was fined $22.5 million for breaking the agreement after it served some users of Apple’s Safari browser so-called tracking cookies in violation of settings that were meant to prevent that.

The FTC has declined to say whether it had begun investigating Google for how it has described Location History.

Opinion: A Time for Tech Transparency

By Rep. Kevin McCarthy

Millions of Americans use social media to get their news, and that number is growing rapidly by the year. But when they log on, they don’t always get the full story.

Powerful social media companies are filtering the information that users receive on their platforms. As a result, the picture we get of politics is partial and distorted, like a carnival mirror.

Last month, Vice reported that Twitter was limiting the visibility of conservative accounts.

Some tweets from these accounts did not appear in searches, and the accounts themselves were made more difficult to find through the search feature. This “shadow ban” made it harder for users to get information about certain public officials — or even to learn that their presence existed.

Twitter’s subtle censorship targeted conservatives, and seemingly only conservatives. Prominent officials like Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel and Congressman Devin Nunes were affected, along with countless ordinary citizens. Yet Twitter can’t point to a single prominent Democrat who was affected by this so-called glitch. Vice found that “not a single member” of the 78-person Progressive Caucus, the most liberal faction in the House of Representatives, was targeted by shadow banning.

Faced with the evidence, Twitter acknowledged that it limited the visibility of certain users but denied that this amounted to “shadow banning” because these users technically were still discoverable. This odd denial has been echoed uncritically by some mainstream publications.

Twitter also denied penalizing accounts based on their political beliefs. It did not offer a convincing explanation about why conservatives were predominantly harmed by its algorithms.

As one last irony, Twitter claimed that its censorship promoted “healthy conversations” on its platform. What it amounted to in reality was “one-sided conversations.”

This episode is the latest in an alarming trend of social media censorship against conservatives.

Just before California’s primary elections this summer, Google search results listed the ideology of the California Republican Party as “Nazism.”

During the 2016 election, Facebook “routinely suppressed” conservative stories on its trending news section.

Whether or not bias against conservatives is intentional, it does real damage to our public discourse and to the reputation of social media platforms in the eyes of their users. It is impossible to ignore the fact that only one party is being slammed by this censorship, over and over again. Far from promoting “healthy conversations,” this reality breeds resentment and distrust over time.

I am from California, which is home to Silicon Valley and its many impressive startups. I want these companies to succeed because their inventions have the potential to make life better for us all.

But censorship needs to be addressed if social media companies are going to live up to their promise of making us better informed and better connected.

Any solution to this problem must start with accountability from companies like Twitter, whose platforms have enormous potential to affect the national conversation — and unfortunately, enormous potential for abuse.

If social media companies are committed to a healthy conversation, they should establish clear and transparent standards for penalties against their users. And they should disclose more details about their algorithms so users can see whether they are living up to their promises.

Congress has a role to play to ensure Americans have full confidence in increasingly powerful social media platforms. Earlier this year, the House Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to find out about Facebook’s data and censorship practices. Recent developments show that more is needed to restore trust in social media platforms. That is why I have asked Chairman Greg Walden of the Energy and Commerce Committee to hold hearings with social media companies, including Jack Dorsey of Twitter, so that the American people can discover how the information they receive is being filtered and distorted.

I encourage leaders of other tech companies to accept Walden’s standing invitation to appear before his committee.

The American people are responsible for deciding the direction of our great country. In order to carry out this responsibility, we need to have important conversations about issues that affect us all — conversations about how to secure our borders, strengthen our military, and ensure that everyone benefits from the booming economy.

Social media censorship threatens our ability to have these conversations. When only one side is doing the talking, you don’t call it a dialogue. You call it a lecture.


Rep. Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, is the House majority leader. He wrote this for

The Conversation

Dr. Droegemeier goes to Washington? What could happen when a respected scientist joins Trump’s White House

August 17, 2018

Daniel Sarewitz

Professor of Science and Society, Co-Director of the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes, Arizona State University

Disclosure statement

Daniel Sarewitz has received funding from the US National Science Foundation to study the politics of science and technology policy. He is a registered Democrat and has contributed to Democratic candidates at the local, state, and national levels.


Arizona State University provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.

Leaders of the scientific community – most of whom are also Democrats – are voicing relief now that the Trump administration has nominated Kelvin Droegemeier to direct the White House Office of Science and Technology. This office has been leaderless since Trump assumed office.

Kelvin Droegemeier will have a fine line to walk if confirmed. AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki

Droegemeier, a well-respected meteorologist specializing in severe weather such as thunderstorms, has also served on the advisory board of the U.S. National Science Foundation. He would bring a mainstream scientific voice into an administration that is often portrayed as somewhere between apathetic and hostile about matters relating to science.

But those who expect Droegemeier to provide any sort of counterweight to administration policies will likely be disappointed. The history of presidential science advising shows that the effectiveness of science advisers is determined not by how much they know, but by how closely they are in step with the political priorities of the administration they serve.

Science advisers are on the team

The role of presidential science adviser was formalized in the shadow of the Sputnik launch, when President Eisenhower named MIT president James R. Killian to the newly created post of “special assistant to the president for science and technology” in November 1957. Killian, who in fact was not a scientist but had a mere bachelor’s degree in management, was expected not only to lend expertise to the White House but, according to a New York Times article at the time, to “allay public fears concerning scientific achievements by the Soviet Union.”

Killian helped to oversee a rapid expansion of government investment in science, an agenda that satisfied both his scientific colleagues and the political aims of President Eisenhower. But such alignment of science advice and presidential politics is far from inevitable.

Jerome Wiesner had a seat at the table (second from left) in the Kennedy White House. AP Photo/Byron Rollins

Several years later, President Kennedy’s science adviser, Jerome Wiesner, advised against sending a man to the moon, counsel that was decisively rejected, with momentous historical consequences. A decade later, President Nixon got so fed up with advice he was getting on missile defense and supersonic transport that in 1973 he eliminated the science adviser post.

With the support of Congress, Nixon’s successor, Gerald Ford, reestablished the position of science adviser in 1976, as head of a newly created Office of Science and Technology Policy. But the age of innocence was over, and only the most naïve observers could continue to believe that presidential science advice could somehow be held separate from national politics.

Under President Reagan, science adviser George Keyworth II, a nuclear physicist, aggressively advocated for the president’s highly controversial “star wars” missile defense system and notably attacked the news media as “a narrow fringe element on the far left of our society” because of alleged bias against administration policies.

More recently, President Obama’s science adviser, John Holdren, also a physicist, was an outspoken advocate for the president’s energy and environmental policies. In their times, Keyworth and Holdren were both subjected to energetic critique from those in politics and the media who disagreed with the positions that each advanced.

John Marburger (left) knew his job was to back up the president. AP Photo/White House, Chris Greenberg

Most notable in this regard, however, was John Marburger, also a physicist, and science adviser to Republican President George W. Bush. Marburger in fact was a Democrat, a respected scientist and university administrator, and unlike Keyworth and Holdren was a low-profile player in White House politics. But he was skewered by Democrats in Congress and their allies in the scientific community for failing to oppose Bush policies on issues such as stem cell research and climate change – even though he would surely have been fired had he done so.

Science advisers are not apolitical nerds, high-level versions of Bill Nye the Science Guy on tap to answer a president’s questions about why the sky is blue or how a bar-code scanner works. Science advisers are political players on a political team, and above all, Trump’s choice of Droegemeier must be understood in that vein.

A challenge ahead for nominee

Yet Droegemeier represents a somewhat bizarre choice. Trump could have chosen a science adviser with expertise relevant to administration policy priorities, such as defense buildup, restoring the manufacturing base or undoing environmental regulations. Given his skepticism about climate change, Trump could even have chosen a science adviser with similar views. Early rumors suggested he would do just that.

Instead, in Droegemeier he has selected an expert on weather and climate who seems – although his public statements on the matter are few – to agree with most other climate scientists that human activities are contributing to a changing climate. So Droegemeier comes into his job holding a view that sharply contradicts a conspicuous public position taken by the president. As we have seen, this is not a proven formula for success.

Perhaps vouching for now NASA Administrator James Bridenstine paid political dividends. AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

Why Droegemeier, then? For one thing, within the Trump administration he likely has the support of NASA director and fellow Oklahoman Jim Bridenstine, at least in part because Droegemeier supported Bridenstine’s nomination for the NASA directorship by providing public assurances that Bridenstine was not a climate skeptic. For another, Droegemeier has the endorsement of Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, a powerful Trump ally who is a climate skeptic.

So perhaps Droegemeier’s selection is just a matter of smart political triangulation: A man who has the confidence of political leaders of a state where Trump won with more than 65 percent of the vote, and also just happens to have unimpeachable scientific credentials, is a rare political commodity.

Assuming he’s confirmed by the Senate, whatever role Droegemeier ends up playing will be one of service to the political agenda of the Trump administration. Given that Democrats have over the past 15 years or more sought to portray themselves as the party of science, Droegemeier will find it difficult to maintain his stellar reputation as a scientist while also advocating policies that Democrats and their allies in the scientific community oppose. He should expect severe political weather for the next few years.

A bee economist explains honey bees’ vital role in growing tasty almonds

August 17, 2018

Brittney Goodrich

Assistant Professor and Extension Economist, Auburn University

Disclosure statement

Brittney Goodrich does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

It’s sometimes reported that one in every three bites of food depends on bees. As is often the case when an easy to grasp notion spreads, there’s a dose of truth and a dollop of exaggeration.

The stat is based on a 2007 study that found that 35 percent of the world’s food crops depend on animal pollinators of one kind or another to enable pollination and seed production.

While some crop pollination happens naturally, there’s a commercial side to this as well. And that’s where buzzing honey bees enter the picture. They represent by far the most commercialized provider of pollination services, with farmers across the world paying beekeepers to ferry their hives into fields of apples and almonds so that the bees flit from flower to flower, transferring pollen and allowing the fruit and nuts to develop.

My own research has focused on the vital importance of honey bees to California’s almond production, an industry worth US$11 billion to California’s economy. And in fact, almonds are also vital to the health of American beekeeping operations.

As the world celebrates Honey Bee Day on Aug. 18, I thought it’d be a good time to explore the economics of beekeeping.

The beekeeping business

Most of us do not think of honey bees as livestock. We tend to imagine them buzzing around flowers in the wild, minding their own business until we occasionally get in the way of their stingers. However, for the majority of honey bee colonies in the United States, thinking of them as livestock is the best characterization.

Beekeepers, also known as apiarists, utilize the natural population dynamics of honey bee colonies to produce honey and provide pollination services. Beekeepers move their colonies all over the country tracking forage to cut down on supplemental feeding costs and provide colonies with pest and disease treatments when necessary.

The more than 20,000 beekeepers in the U.S. differ in how they operate, but a typical migratory pattern might go as follows: The beekeeping year begins in January waiting for almonds to bloom in California. Once almond bloom is over, the beekeeper moves colonies up through the Pacific Northwest pollinating apples and other spring-blooming crops. In May, the beekeeper takes the colonies to North Dakota to produce honey from clover, canola and sunflowers.

As honey production slows in the fall, the beekeeper returns to California to await almond pollination in January, and the cycle begins all over again.

It is difficult to pinpoint how many beekeepers reside in each state due to the migratory nature of beekeeping operations, however most beekeepers have at least one of their home bases in either North Dakota or South Dakota. There is a lot of potential for honey production in these areas, in fact North Dakota typically produces at least twice as much honey as any other state.

Research has found that the beekeeping industry is dominated by large enterprises that manage, on average, around 4,000 colonies. Such operations control about half of all U.S. bee colonies.

But even as beekeepers move around to keep their bees healthy and happy, winter always takes a toll. Historically, beekeepers have expected around 15 percent of their colonies to die from October to April because of the cold temperatures and lack of winter forage. Loss rates have almost doubled to 28 percent since the early 2000s due to a combination of stress, pests, diseases and pesticide exposure.

The actual population of honey bee colonies, however, has been little affected. That’s because beekeepers have adjusted their practices by creating more colonies going into the winter months to deal with the high loss rates. Beekeepers can create more colonies by purchasing additional queens from honey bee queen breeders and splitting one colony into two.

This comes with a cost, however, and is making beekeeping less profitable, which could eventually drive many beekeepers out of business.

Bees love almonds

And more beekeepers closing down would be bad news for the world’s food supply because many crops, including apples, watermelon, cherries and cucumbers, currently rely on commercially raised honey bee colonies for pollination.

Perhaps no crop needs them more than California almonds. And likewise, no single crop matters more to beekeepers’ bottom lines than California almond pollination, which currently makes up over a third of U.S. beekeeping revenues.

California is the world’s biggest supplier of almonds, making up 77 percent of all production in 2017. If you have eaten an almond recently, chances are it came from a tree in California’s Central Valley.

Most varieties of almond trees require cross-pollination – the transfer of pollen from one tree variety to another – to produce any nuts at all. Almond trees are not wind pollinated easily, so for commercial orchards in California, this requires honey bee colonies to efficiently pollinate and produce nuts.

You may be envisioning a single honey bee hive in a beautiful orchard of flowering almond trees. If so, you are partly right, but the scale is hard to fathom.

Roughly 1 million acres of almond trees collectively bloom over a three-week period every February, creating spectacular scenic views but also putting enormous pressure on the farmers to pollinate them quickly. Each almond acre requires roughly two honey bee hives, each of which typically houses one colony of about 20,000 bees. With 2 million hives needed, that’s well more than half of the total U.S. hive population.

Hundred of hives in holding yard in the Central Valley in January waiting to go into almond orchards. Brittney Goodrich, Author provided

The logistics of pollinating almond trees

This is quite the logistical feat so let’s take a closer look to see how it’s done.

In 2017, beekeepers in North Dakota, Idaho, Florida and other states shipped 1.7 million colonies to California to pollinate almond trees, or about 64 percent of the total population as of Jan. 1. The bees travel in semi-truck loads of 400 to 500 colonies each.

One reason so many beekeepers make the long trek is because almond pollination fees are especially high. The average price of $171 per hive in 2017 was more than three times the rate for other crops later in the spring.

Now you might be wondering, how does a grower know the orchard is being effectively pollinated once the hives are in place? In other words, how can we tell if the bees are doing their jobs?

As you can imagine, an almond grower might not be very excited about sticking her head into a hive to make sure. Not to mention there are millions of blooms in an acre of almonds. With more than 33 billion bees buzzing about, tracking pollination is relatively difficult.

The way they do this is to hire a third-party inspector to measure “colony strength.” An inspector opens up some of the hives and estimates the number of bees within the hive by pulling out removable frames. The idea is that if a hive has eight frames covered with bees, it has enough strength to properly pollinate the trees in its vicinity.

Colony strength requirements are often written into almond pollination contracts, which is why colonies with more bees often receive higher pollination fees.

An inspector looks at a hive frame covered with bees, signaling ‘colony strength.’ Brittney Goodrich, Author provided

Be thankful for bees – and their keepers

It’s hard to overestimate the importance of California almonds to the stability of U.S. beekeepers’ overall health.

If the problems plaguing honey bee colonies continue or even worsen, this could make it a lot harder to supply enough bees for the February almond blooms, which would mean a sharp loss in beekeeping revenues. This in turn makes it harder to buy extra queens needed to keep the overall populations up and deal with bee health issues throughout the year.

It is important for scientists to continue doing research on colony health issues to ensure that the U.S. beekeeping industry can continue to thrive and provide our tables with fruit and vegetables – as well as honey, of course.

But it all comes back to those California almonds. So next time you eat one, be thankful for honey bees and their keepers.

FILE- In this Aug. 8, 2018, file photo a mobile phone displays a user’s travels using Google Maps in New York. Days after an Associated Press investigation revealed that Google is storing the locations of users even if they turn a privacy setting called “Location History” off, the company has changed a help page that erroneously described how the setting works. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File) In this Aug. 8, 2018, file photo a mobile phone displays a user’s travels using Google Maps in New York. Days after an Associated Press investigation revealed that Google is storing the locations of users even if they turn a privacy setting called “Location History” off, the company has changed a help page that erroneously described how the setting works. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

Staff & Wire Reports