Monthly Archives: November 2019

Election 2019: What big tech isn’t telling us about ads

Social media ads

All over the country, voters, reporters and other observers have been going through something of an awakening about the extent that political parties are using social media to target us.

In a post-Cambridge Analytica-scandal world there’s suspicion about how we might be being manipulated.

To address concerns, the tech giants have created databases to show what political adverts are being run and by whom.

There’s no doubt that more is being disclosed than in previous campaigns, but critics say there’s still much more that “big tech” could reveal.

Let’s start with Facebook.

In October last year, it launched its Ad Library in the UK. Since then, more than 131,400 adverts related to politics, elections, and social issues have been added to the database. That’s almost £11m worth, according to the firm.

Image copyright Facebook
Image caption Facebook launched its political ads library in the UK a year ago

The library is free to use and easy to navigate. And recently it began including ads run on the firm’s photo-centric app, Instagram.

You can look up roughly how many times an ad was seen, its approximate cost, the gender and age of those targeted and who made and paid for the advert.

You can also see whether an ad was aimed at people in England, Scotland, Wales and/or Northern Ireland.

Image copyright Facebook
Image caption This is the data Facebook provided for one ad run by the Labour Party

However, there’s still much that is not shared.

We know that political parties target voters in very specific areas, such as marginal seats, but the library doesn’t reveal where exactly an ad was shown.

We also know that people are targeted by personal details – for example, interested in “the environment” or “yoga” or more political interests, like “GMB union”. But that information, too, is not shared to the wider public.

Image copyright Facebook
Image caption Facebook allows users to be targeted by interests including environmentalism and specific trade unions

Facebook has previously said that transparency is important to “prevent future interference in elections”.

So reporters recently pressed it about these shortcomings. The firm said it planned to improve the database but would not be drawn on whether it intended to divulge the missing information about geographic or interest-based targeting.

When shown an ad, Facebook users can ask for more specific information about how it came to be shown to them.

The BBC and other news organisations have been trying to crowdsource the information from those targeted. But that only gives a fragmented view of what is going on – an unsatisfactory state of affairs, according to the co-founder of the Coalition for Reform of Political Advertising.

“Voters having the full picture of how they’re targeted is important, as it may impact their evaluation of the information being conveyed to them,” Benedict Pringle told the BBC.

“If a voter knows they are being targeted because of their age, sex or occupation it might encourage them to question the message and think, ‘Yes, well you would be saying that to me, wouldn’t you?’

“Also, if techniques deployed by political actors are unavailable for scrutiny by watchdogs and journalists it can enable malpractice.”

But Facebook claims that it is now “more transparent” about ads than those behind more traditional outlets, such as billboards, direct mail, leaflets or targeted email campaigns.

“This is the first UK general election since we introduced these changes and we’re already seeing many journalists using these transparency tools to scrutinise the adverts which are running during this election,” said Rebecca Stimson, head of Facebook’s UK Public Policy.

“This is something we welcome and it’s exactly why we introduced these changes.”

In the 2017 general election, more than £3m was spent by all parties on Facebook.

But a further £1m or so went to another often overlooked source – Google.

Image copyright Google
Image caption Google lets users select whether they want to see ads run as text, video or images

Ads can be purchased to appear at the top of its search results, within its YouTube videos or placed on third-party webpages via its ad tech platforms.

So, for example, a user might have been shown brief text-based messages by the Conservative Party promising to make “our streets safer” or the Brexit Party promising to “stand up for democracy”.

Google launched its own version of a political ad library in March, and has so far listed more than 1,400, totalling £144,500.

But it is far more vague than Facebook about the details.

When it lists the amount spent, it does so only in large bands, for example “from £500-£25,000”.

Likewise, the range for the number of people reported to have seen an ad is very broad- for example, “between 10,000 and 100,000”.

Moreover, the site says the details are updated “generally” only every week.

Image copyright Google
Image caption Google provides less detail about how ads were targeted than Facebook

There is a way to get more information.

You can find out how ads are targeted by gender, postcode and age. But to do so, you have to download a large, complex set of spreadsheets.

One thing you can’t find out is the crucial “key words” that parties have bought up to ensure their ads are seen when someone searches for certain topics, even those containing rival parties’ names.

Google says it is “thinking hard” about the feedback it’s receiving but has not made any specific commitments.

“We believe that our transparency report helps provide valuable information to voters, public bodies and researchers,” said UK spokesman Elijah Lawal.

He added that it had gone further than Facebook and banned searches based on people’s “interests” in certain sensitive topics, as well as paying regard to the legal protections given against profiling users for having the traits themselves.

“We don’t enable advertisers to target ads to citizens based on their inferred political leanings; nor do we allow ads to be personalised to people based on sensitive information, such as their religion, sexual orientation, or membership in a trade union.”

Snapchat is also running political adverts in this election and it, too, offers detailed targeting to politicians and parties.

The company also has an ad library, albeit only in spreadsheet form.

Earlier this month, Twitter announced it would ban outright political advertising from 22 November. It seems already to have had an effect in the UK, as we’ve not yet seen advertising from any of the main political parties on the platform.

It follows LinkedIn, which introduced a ban in June 2018. TikTok announced a similar measure last month.

For now, all the commitments are voluntary. But some think that it’s time the sector faced official scrutiny.

“Parliament needs to legislate to appoint or create a political-advertising regulator and update laws relating to political advertising,” said Mr Pringle.

“A political-content regulator could then develop a code based on legislation, which would require oversight by Parliament.”

But that won’t happen before this election, and it will be up to the next batch of MPs to decide whether to make it a priority.

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Google set to offer banking current accounts

Google CEO Sundar PichaiImage copyright Getty Images
Image caption Google is expanding its financial offerings

Google has become the latest big tech firm to move into banking by offering current accounts.

The firm said it plans to partner with banks and credit unions in the US to offer the “smart checking” accounts.

It said the service, to be launched via Google Pay, will allow users to add Google’s analytic tools to traditional banking products.

The move follows offerings of credit cards, payment systems and loans by Facebook, Uber, Apple and Amazon.

While the products and arrangements differ, the tech giants entering the world of banking share an underlying motive: making themselves indispensable, says Gerard du Toit, a partner at the Bain & Co consulting firm.

“They’re all competing for consumer attention and for their ecosystem and platform to win,” he says.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Facebook has said its payment tool is a natural outgrowth of its broader aim of connecting people

Amazon’s credit card and business loans are aimed at boosting its e-commerce business, while Uber Money is providing credit cards, debit accounts and money tracking tools to serve the company’s taxi operations.

Facebook has said its Facebook Pay service will complement its messaging tools.

And both Google and Apple, which has teamed up with Goldman Sachs’ new consumer arm, Marcus, on a credit card as part of its Apple Pay and Wallet service, want to to make iPhones and Androids essential.

Wading into financial services will also provide Google and Facebook information for their advertising business, helping to track what ads lead to purchases, Mr du Toit said.

The moves into banking are likely to add to the debates over the tech giants, which are already facing probes related to competition, data protection and privacy.

Some officials have also expressed worry about gaps in financial oversight as growing activity occurs outside of traditional banking. And in recent days, New York announced it would investigate Apple, after accusations that its credit card relied on “sexist” algorithms.

Mr du Toit said regulatory concerns represent the “fly in the soup” for tech firms.

“They will have to be very careful,” he said.


In many cases, the tech firms are working with traditional banks – a sign they are aware of the potential issues, he said.

Google said its US partners, which reportedly include Citigroup, would start to offer the accounts by 2020.

“We believe our partners’ regulatory and financial know-how is a great complement to our experience in building helpful tools and technology for our users,” it said in a statement.

Image copyright STR
Image caption Chinese tech giants have had success with financial services

Lagging China

Amazon has offered small business loans since 2011 and launched its credit card with JP Morgan Chase in 2017.

But in some ways, the flurry of announcements by companies this year, is a sign that the US is late to the party.

In China and some other countries, the tech firms moved quickly into banking, motivated by the need to fill the gaps left by traditional finance industry that created hurdles for their businesses, whether they were e-commerce firms or food delivery companies.

In the US, however, the need was less pressing, thanks in part to the ubiquity of credit cards and other “good enough solutions”, Mr du Toit said.

Big tech payment services provided by the likes of Alibaba’s Ant Financial and Tencent’s WeChat account for roughly 16% of China’s GDP, compared to less than 1% in the US, according to the Bank for International Settlements, an organisation backed by 60 of the world’s central banks.

Tech companies “are now increasingly getting into it because they do believe they can offer a materially better solution to customers,” he said.

Image copyright Getty Images

Last month, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg evoked the threat of Chinese competition while defending his firm’s interest in developing a cryptocurrency before Congress last month.

“I view the financial infrastructure in the US as outdated,” he said.

‘Darwinian experiment’

As the tech companies start to make use of their massive reach, close customer relationships and giant data sets, banks “have woken up” to the threat, leading to collaborations and other uneasy “frenemy” arrangements, Mr du Toit said.

With tech firms moving beyond credit cards, regional banks will get left behind, while smaller financial technology firms are forced out or acquired, Mr du Toit said.

“I sometimes describe this as a giant Darwinian experiment of different couplings of the banks and the big techs,” he says. “There will be some mutations that succeed and others that fail.”

While Google’s earlier efforts to build up Google Pay failed to gain much traction in the US, the firm has developed significant payment business in India, where a Bain & Co survey found that more than half of respondents had used the platform in the last 12 months.

“I would not count them out,” Mr du Toit said.

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A doctor shows a patient medical information on a tablet computerImage copyright Getty Images
Image caption Google’s deal with Ascension, a major health firm, has attracted criticism from some

Google is to be investigated over how it is accessing US patient data via a major health firm, the Wall Street Journal reports.

An office of the US Department of Health and Human Services will examine the details of a deal dubbed “Project Nightingale”.

Google said patient data was “secure”.

Separately, in the UK, the Financial Times (FT) reports that popular health websites are sharing sensitive data with firms including Google.

The Project Nightingale deal with Ascension – a firm that runs 2,600 hospitals in the US – attracted criticism from some when the Wall Street Journal revealed that Google could access patient data without them being notified.

Among those who expressed concern was Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski.

“Privacy protections, particularly when it comes to personal info like your health, is a high priority of mine,” she said via Twitter.

However, in a blog, Google argued that the deal “adheres to industry-wide regulations” and that access to patient data by its employees was controlled.

The tech giant said patient data would not be combined with customer data from other parts of its business.

It added that it was “happy to co-operate” with the federal inquiry.

In its own blog, Ascension said it looked forward to developing artificial intelligence tools for medical purposes with Google’s help.

Websites’ data shared

News of Project Nightingale coincided with an FT investigation that revealed how popular health websites in the UK frequently shared personal data with companies including Google, Amazon and Facebook.

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A female surgeon with a tablet computerImage copyright Getty Images
Image caption Google has access to patient data from thousands of US hospitals thanks to the deal

Google has gained access to a huge trove of US patient data – without the need to notify those patients – thanks to a deal with a major health firm.

The scheme, dubbed Project Nightingale, was agreed with Ascension, which runs 2,600 hospitals.

Google can access health records, names and addresses without telling patients, according to the Wall Street Journal, which first reported the news.

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Ascension said the deal would help it to “optimise” patient care and would include the development of artificial intelligence (AI) tools to support doctors.

The company also said it would begin using Google’s cloud data storage service and business applications known as G Suite.

Privacy concerns

However, Project Nightingale has already attracted criticism from those who argue that it takes away patients’ control of their own data.

“There’s a massive issue that these public-private partnerships are all done under private contracts, so it’s quite difficult to get some transparency,” said Prof Jane Kaye at the University of Oxford.

“Google is saying they don’t link it to their other data but what they’re doing all the time is refining their algorithms, refining what they do and giving them[selves] market advantage.”

Health organisations are under increasing pressure to improve efficiency and quality of care. Many are turning to AI in an effort to sharpen their services, but such moves have sometimes faced criticism over how sensitive patient data is handled.

In the UK, Google’s AI-focused subsidiary DeepMind was found to have broken the law when it failed to explain properly to patients how their data would be used in the development of a kidney disease app.

The tool, called Streams, was designed to flag up patients at risk of developing acute kidney injury.

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