Top Tech News You Need to Know: Whisper, The F.B.I. and More

Happy Friday, everyone! Per usual, before the weekend begins, we’ve gathered up the top tech and big data news stories to make sure you’re caught up before you sign off. This week, between Whisper app’s big privacy blunder, the F.B.I. getting riled up over Apple and Google’s new encryption policies and more, there was a lot of attention paid to data rights in general. We expect data rights to take off as full-blown policy and law in the near future, and become a keystone of our country’s relationship with the Internet. 

In the meantime, here’s what you need to know about this week’s biggest stories. 

Big Data Knows Who You Are, Where You Shop and More – And Esri Can Prove It

There’s a new big data tool out on the market, and it can break down your idiosyncrasies based solely on your zip code. That’s right: type in your zip to Esri’s database, and the site will reveal the top three (of a total 67) consumer groups that particular area falls into. 

Sound like 67 total consumer groups for all of the United States is making things a bit too, simple? Not so: the explanations for these groups have thus far proven to hit, um, a little too close to home for some. For example, Catie Keck, writer at Bustle, typed in her own Williamsburg, Brooklyn zip code, 11211, and received this response:

“Dressed head to toe in the most current fashions, we fill our weeknights and weekends with discovering local art and culture, dining out, or exploring new hobbies. We must be connected at all times; texting and social media are essential for communication and keeping up with our social lives. E-readers and tablets are preferred for everything except women’s fashion and epicurean magazines which must be in print.” 

Her comment on which was as follows:

Whoa, slow your roll there Esri before you hit the nail on the head too hard.”

Others have been equally impressed with Esri, and the site gained news coverage from nearly all audience sector publications this week. 

“The level of detail is striking and — from what I could tell based on cross-referencing some of my own last several zip codes of residence — pretty accurate, too,” wrote Adrienne Lafrance for The Atlantic’s CityLabs. “Anyone can plug a zip code into Esri’s database, which makes for an addictive game of ‘guess my identity.’ The database is also a way to see how neighborhoods gradually change from one zip code to the next.”

The real genius of the database, though, is in how marketers can use this information to better understand their audience and craft their messaging. 

After all, we’ve always known that getting the attention of a resident of Manhattan’s Upper West Side and one that lives on Austin’s East Side is a whole different ball game. This database now just proves it. 

Millennials are to Big Data as Peanut Butter is to Jelly

Not coming as too big of a surprise, but millennials as it turns out are totally cool with big data, and are much more data literate than they get credit for. 

A full two-thirds of them report, in a new study, that they understand the types of data being collected about them, and how that data is used. And nearly 80% of young adults aged 18-30 feel in control of their personal online data, according to the findings of a Telefónica-commissioned survey of 6,700 Millennials across 18 countries.

The one place these data savvy adults do express concern though? Data privacy and security. A full 90% reported having taken active steps toward protecting themselves online. 

We all agree that data is the lifeblood of digital technologies. It is therefore vital that the reform of the legal framework for data protection results in a trusted digital environment,” said Dr Richard Benjamins, Telefónica’s Group Director of Big Data. “Policy makers should take a risk-based approach which considers not only how data is collected but also how it is used. They should aim to protect people first, rather than data, and must prevent the use of data in ways that might negatively impact individual people’s lives.”

In all, millennials are digital and data optimists, but they are full and ready for to fight back if their data rights are compromised. 

You’re Never Anonymous Online – And Whisper is Proof

On Thursday, The Guardian released a story highlighting that Whisper, the social media app that promises users anonymity and claims to be “the safest place on the internet”, is tracking the location of its users, many of whom specifically opted out of location tracking. 


The Guardian alerted Whisper to the upcoming story, an on Monday, three days before the story went live and four days after Whisper received The Guardian’s alert, the app updated its terms of service to include permitting the company to establish the broad location of people who have disabled the app’s geolocation feature. 

Just how specific does Whisper’s geotracking get? Well, it knows where you were within 500 meters of when you posted to the app. 

“The technology, for example, enables the company to monitor all the geolocated messages sent from the Pentagon and National Security Agency. It also allows Whisper to track an individual user’s movements over time,” reported The Guardian. “When users have turned off their geolocation services, the company also, on a targeted, case-by-case basis, extracts their rough location from IP data emitted by their smartphone.”

The news trended on Twitter nationwide on Thursday after the story was released, with many users wholly leaving Whisper to create their own, actually anonymous apps. Buzzfeed announced that it is halting their partnership with the app until the privacy terms are cleared up. The Guardian itself has also ended its relationship with Whisper. 

“Now, Whisper seems to be about the complete absence of trust.”

This news itself comes after two Guardian reporters were invited to the Whisper offices and shown the technology, with no one at the company expressing any concern for the privacy violations. The reporters were at no time told they could not report on the information being shared with them. 

“Whisper isn’t actually about concealing identity. It’s about a complete absence of identity,” the company’s co-founder and CEO, Michael Heyward, recently told Entrepreneur magazine. “The concept around Whisper is removing the concept of identity altogether, so you’re not as guarded.” 

Now, Whisper seems to be about the complete absence of trust. 

The F.B.I. is Seriously Not Cool with Apple and Google’s New Encryption Policies

James B. Comey, the director of the F.B,I., announced on Thursday that Apple and Google’s encryption policies in this “post-Snowden” era have “gone too far.” In response, he hinted that the administration may enact their own policies forcing companies to create a way for the government to unlock photos, emails and contacts stored on phones.

Comey, however, failed to comment on critics’ questions concerning the ability for the NSA, terrorists, hackers, spies and the like to also, then, be able to access the same type of information. After all, if there were a way for Apple and Google to allow the government to get information off of a phone, then that method could then be hacked and used for non-law enforcement purposes. 

“Apple and Google’s encryption policies in this ‘post-Snowden’ era have ‘gone too far,’ says F.B.I. director.” 

“F.B.I. agents see the encryption as a beachhead they cannot afford to lose,” wrote David E. Sanger for the New York Times. “With the latest software, the new phones will be the first widely used consumer products to encrypt data by default. If that is allowed to stand, investigators fear other technology companies will follow suit. If all desktop computers and laptops were encrypted, it would stymie all kinds of criminal investigations, they say.”

Ten months ago, President Obama’s advisory committee recommended the increased use of encryption and that the government encourage companies to do the same. Comey did not reference this that report and White House officials have said that they are still working on an official policy for Obama to approve. 

Apple and Google have declined to respond to Comey’s comments, however, Colin Stretch, the general counsel for Facebook, called encryption “a key business objective” for technology companies. “I’d be fundamentally surprised if anybody takes the foot off the pedal of building encryption into their products,” he said.