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The U.S. government resigned itself last week to an app that allows women to track their periods based on claims that they shared their users’ health information with Google and Facebook. A photo storage app has also backed up claims that it used people’s pictures to set up a facial recognition system.

These app makers got into trouble not because what they were doing looked creepy – but because they weren’t open about it.

In the US, as long as companies don’t mislead their customers, there aren’t many legal restrictions on what they can do with our private information.

That’s not great, is it? But California has a relatively new data protection law that, while cumbersome and flawed, shows interesting ways to empower Americans to limit the use of our data.

Last week, the Federal Trade Commission said the women’s app Flo Health broke its promise to its users to keep their information private when sharing sensitive information, including women’s pregnancy status, with other companies.

Under the terms of the settlement, Flo must now get people’s consent before sharing their health information. (Flo did not admit anything was done wrong. The company stated that it would not disclose users’ health records without permission.)

People should be able to choose which companies to share our personal information with, as long as they are honest about what they do. However, it is often an all or nothing confusing decision: either say yes to a vaguely worded data protection document or not use the website or app at all.

And I find it bizarre that if Flo only publishes a new privacy policy, it could share women’s confidential information. But that’s how it works most of the time in the US. Organizations can do pretty much anything they want to do with their users’ data if they first describe their actions in a privacy policy.

California’s Consumer Protection Act, which came into effect a year ago, is beginning to embark on a promising alternative path.

By law, citizens – and in some cases all Americans – can require large corporations to show people what information they have about you and who they’ve shared it with. Employees can also instruct companies to delete and not “sell” the information they hold about you. (There is no consensus on the legal definition of “selling”.)

The law isn’t perfect and it’s complicated. Employees need to go to any organization whose data may be deleted in order to delete or limit the possibilities.

However, California law also allowed “agents” to exercise data rights on our behalf. Instead of filling out 100 forms to ask 100 companies to delete your data, you would choose a privacy assistant to do it for you. Last month, Consumer Reports offered to offer a data protection assistant as a test project.

The most intriguing idea is that the privacy assistant might just be a web browser where you check a box once and it will automatically notify each website you visit to prevent the personal information it collects from being shared or sold. Think of this as a version of the telemarketers’ do not call list.

Economy & Economy


Jan. 19, 2021, 2:00 p.m. ET

So far, some websites have started adding this privacy agent functionality. (The New York Times is among the organizations involved that help both develop the browser specs and get people to act on it.) If California finds this type of privacy officer legally binding, I expect this project to expand becomes.

These data protection ideas are only just getting underway. But I am fascinated by the possibility of giving Americans real power over our digital lives.

Tip of the week

Many Americans who worked from home during the pandemic bought printers – and that often came with curses and screams. Brian X. Chen, the New York Times personal technology columnist, is here to help:

Printers are probably the worst technology product ever made. My first job outside of college was reviewing printers for a small tech magazine. So I know more about the machines than I ever wanted to. Here are some common problems and solutions:

My wireless printing has stopped working: Last week, you printed this Amazon return label over your Wi-Fi network. You can’t today. Why?

Occasionally, printers go into sleep mode and disconnect from your Internet network. Sometimes when you restart the printer it will come back online.

Another possibility is that the printer has changed its IP address – the identification number assigned to every device connected to the Internet – and now your computer cannot find it. You can fix this by setting a static IP address for the printer in the advanced settings of your internet router. (Do a Google search for your router make and model and instructions on how to set a static IP.)

An error message appears while printing: It’s common and crazy. Often the problem is out of date software. Do a web search on your printer model to check for any new drivers or firmware updates, and then follow the instructions to update the software.

I’m running out of ink too quickly: This can happen if you bought a different brand of ink cartridge. If this becomes a recurring problem, try switching to a different brand – preferably the printer manufacturer’s ink cartridge.

Another possibility is that the printer software is failing and the printer is incorrectly reporting that it is out of ink. A firmware or driver update can also be helpful here.

Finally, remember the golden rule of printers: if in doubt, restart your printer and the device you want to print from. That sometimes makes the problems go away.

  • More on a possible smoking weapon in Google’s antitrust lawsuit: One of the intriguing claims in a government antitrust case against Google is that the company and Facebook have teamed up to help their businesses at everyone else’s expense. New reports from my colleagues Dai Wakabayashi and Tiffany Hsu found that Google gives Facebook priority in computerized advertising auctions and that the two companies feared they might be investigated to reduce competition.

  • Saying you are doing something is not the same as doing it: Facebook has said that it has stopped automatically recommending people to join party political or social groups that sometimes lead people to extreme ideas. An analysis of the newsfeeds of some Facebook users through the markup showed that the website did not stop these automatic recommendations.

  • It’s an opportune time to wallow in nostalgia: Indulge in a childhood love from Sassy magazine on eBay.

Two groups of penguins – one walks to the water and the other comes back – stop to chat. (OK, I don’t know if they’re talking. Use my imagination.)

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