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Data brokers track everywhere you go, but their days may be numbered

Everywhere you go, you are being followed. Not by some creep in a raincoat, but by the advertisers wanting to sell you things.

The more advertisers know about you — where you go, which shops you visit, and what purchases you make — the more they can profile you, understand your tastes, your hobbies and interests, and use that information to target you with ads. You can thank the phone in your pocket — the apps on it, to be more accurate — that invisibly spits out gobs of data about you as you go about your day.

Your location, chief among the data, is by far the most revealing.

Apps, just like websites, are filled with trackers that send your real-time location to data brokers. In return, these data brokers sell on that data to advertisers, while the app maker gets a cut of the money. If you let your weather app know your location to serve you the forecast, you’re also giving your location to data brokers.

Don’t be too surprised. It’s all explained in the privacy policy that you didn’t read.

By collecting your location data, these data brokers have access to intensely personal aspects of your life and can easily build a map of everywhere you go. This data isn’t just for advertising. Immigration authorities have bought access to users’ location data to help catch the undocumented. In one case, a marketing firm used location data harvested from phones to predict the race, age, and gender of Black Lives Matter protesters. It’s an enormous industry, said to be worth at least $200 billion.

It’s only been in recent years that it was possible to learn what these data brokers know about us. But the law is slowly catching up. Anyone in Europe can request access to obtain or delete their data  under the GDPR rules. California’s new consumer privacy law grants California residents access to their data.

But because so many data brokers collect and resell that data, the data marketplace is a fragmented mess, making it impossible to know which companies have your data. That can make requesting it a nightmare.

Jordan Wright, a senior security architect at Duo Security, requested his data from some of the biggest data brokers in the industry, citing California’s new consumer privacy law. Not all went to plan. As an out-of-state resident, only one of the 14 data brokers approved his request and sent him his data.

What came back was a year’s worth of location data.

Wright works in cybersecurity and knows better than most how much data spills out of his phone. But he takes precautions, and is careful about the apps he puts on his phone. Yet the data he got back knew where he lives, where he works, and where he took his family on holiday before the pandemic hit.

“It’s frustrating not fully knowing what data has been collected or shared and by whom,” he wrote in a blog post. “The reality is that dozens of companies are monitoring the location of hundreds of millions of unsuspecting people every single day.”

Avoiding this invasive tracking is nearly impossible. Just like with web ad tracking, you have little choice but to accept the app’s terms. Allow the tracking, or don’t use the app.

But the winds are changing and there is an increasing appetite to rein in the data brokers and advertising giants by kneecapping their data collection efforts. As privacy became a more prominent selling point for phone consumers, the two largest smartphone makers, Apple and Google, in recent years began to curb the growing power of data brokers.

Both iPhones and Android devices now let you opt-out of ad tracking, a move that doesn’t reduce the ads that appear but prevents advertisers from tracking you across the web or between apps.

Apple threw down the gauntlet last month when it said its next software update, iOS 14, would let users opt-out of app tracking altogether, serving a severe blow to data brokers and advertisers by reducing the amount of data that these ad giants collect on millions without their explicit and direct consent. That prompted an angry letter from the Interactive Advertising Bureau, an industry trade group that represents online advertisers, expressed its “strong concerns” and effectively asked it to back down from the plans.

Google also plans to roll out new app controls for location data in its next Android release.

It’s not the only effort taking on data brokers but it’s been the most effective — so far. Lawmakers are scrambling to find bipartisan support for a proposed federal data protection agency before the end of the year, when Congress resets and enters a legislative session.

Shy of an unlikely fix by Washington, it’s up to the tech giants to keep pushing back.

Elon Musk sets update on brain-computer interface company Neuralink for August 28

Elon Musk said on Twitter this week that Neuralink, the company he founded in 2016 to develop computer-brain interfaces for the explicit purpose of helping humans keep pace with advanced artificial intelligence, will provide an update on its progress on August 28. The last major update from Neuralink came roughly a year ago, when it shared that it will be using a surgical robot to implant gossamer-thin wires into a person’s brain, connected to an external computer processing unit, and that ultimately it hopes to make the connection between the two wireless for maximum freedom and flexibility.

Neuralink revealed in July 2019 that it had already performed successful tests of its technology on mice and even apes, and that it would be pursuing testing on its first human subjects starting as early as the following year – which is this year, 2020, if you’re keeping track.

C-founded by Musk and led by CEO Jared Birchall, Neuralink is headquartered in San Francisco and has been conducting research in partnership with UC Davis. The company’s goal initially is to use its technology to help mitigate the effects of neurological disorders in patients with severe impacts to mobility and other daily functioning, but ultimately the company also hopes to use its technology to essentially ‘upgrade’ humans to be able to interact with computing devices at the speed of thought.

Musk has consistently pointed out how ‘lossy’ the process of translating thought to input via conventional means including keyboard and mouse is, and believes that a tighter, more high-fidelity bond between people and computers can help decrease the risk that advanced AI surpasses the capabilities of human intelligence. Musk has stated on a number of occasions that he believes uncontrolled, unregulated advanced general artificial intelligence poses an existential risk to humanity, and Neuralink is intended to be a means of protection against that threat.

We don’t yet know what Musk and Neuralink will be sharing about the company’s progress since its last update in 2019, but hopefully we’re hear something about its plans to begin human trials. Musk also shared what he calls Neuralink’s “mission statement” alongside the date of the company update: “If you can’t beat em, join em.”

Sunrun’s $3.2 billion Vivint Solar bid challenges Tesla’s energy ambitions

Tesla’s 2014 acquisition of SolarCity turned the electric vehicle manufacturer into the undisputed largest player in residential solar, but that lead has steadily eroded as its major competitor, Sunrun, surged ahead with more aggressive plans. Now with the $3.2 billion dollar acquisition of the residential solar installation company, Vivint Solar, Sunrun looks to solidify its place in the top spot.

From Tesla’s very early days Elon Musk has tried to define the company as an energy company rather than just a manufacturer of electric vehicles. When Tesla made its $2.6 billion bid for SolarCity the move was viewed as the culmination of the first phase of its “master plan,” which called for Tesla to “provide zero emission electric power generation options.”

Now that plan faces a major test from a publicly traded competitor that’s focused solely on providing residential solar power and the ability to lower costs for its panels through greater efficiencies of scale, according to analysts who track the solar energy sector.

Sunrun will be freaking big,” Joe Osha, an analyst at JMP Securities, told Bloomberg News. “They are clearly looking for ways to get scale and efficiency.”

Indeed, the combined companies will save roughy $90 million per year thanks to operational efficiencies, according to a statement from Sunrun. And the economies of scale will give the companies even more leverage when they contract with utilities on feeding power into the electric grid.

As Sunrun acknowledged in the announcement of its acquisition of the Blackstone-backed Vivint, the combined customer base of 500,000 homes represents over 3 gigawatts of solar assets. That figure still is only 3% penetration of the total market for residential solar in the United States.

Sunrun had already edged out Tesla for the top spot in residential solar installations and together the two companies account for 75% of new residential solar leases each quarter, according to data from Bloomberg NEF.

“Americans want clean and resilient energy. Vivint Solar adds an important and high-quality sales channel that enables our combined company to reach more households and raise awareness about the benefits of home solar and batteries,” Sunrun CEO and co-founder Lynn Jurich said in a statement. “This transaction will increase our scale and grow our energy services network to help replace centralized, polluting power plants and accelerate the transition to a 100% clean energy future.”

Even as Sunrun’s $1.46 billion stock (and the assumption of about $1.8 billion in debt) creates a massive competitor to Tesla’s solar business, there’s an opportunity for Tesla to sell more batteries through its residential solar competitor.

Sunrun and Vivint will likely be pushing their customers to add energy storage to their solar installations and that means using either Tesla’s Powerwall batteries or its own Brightbox batteries manufactured in partnership with LG Chem .

Investors have responded to Sunrun’s latest maneuver by pouring money into the stock. Sunrun’s shares were up over $5 in midday trading.

Image Courtesy: Yahoo Finance

“Vivint Solar and Sunrun have long shared a common goal of bringing clean, affordable, resilient energy to homeowners,” said David Bywater, Chief Executive Officer of Vivint Solar, in a statement. “Joining forces with Sunrun will allow us to reach a broader set of customers and accelerate the pace of clean energy adoption and grid modernization. We believe this transaction will create value for our customers, our shareholders, and our partners.”