Future Tense Newsletter: You Can’t Clean Up a Data Spill

An visitor passes a mural depicting various social media in Bangalore.
MANJUNATH KIRAN/Getty Images

Debates over consumers’ digital privacy often boil down to one key question: Who can use our personal data? The answer isn’t always clear, as this week’s news demonstrated. For one, there were the revelations that users of the popular gay dating app Grindr are still susceptible to security flaws that can expose a user’s location (an issue, Alex Barasch points out, that cybersecurity specialists flagged in 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017) and, even more recently, that some had their HIV status shared with third parties without explicit notification.

This week, Facebook also revealed that the personal information of 87 million users may have been improperly shared with Cambridge Analytica, nearly 40 million more than the number the company originally said were at issue in the scandal. As Slate’s April Glaser explains, the big problem with these massive data spills is that there is no way to actually clean them up. Regardless of vague promises made by CEO Mark Zuckerberg that the company will further tighten how much data developers can access about users, it’s impossible to comprehensively track where the personal information that’s already been shared with third parties like Cambridge Analytica actually went.

It’s not just private companies that can infringe on data privacy either. As the recent passage of the Clarifying Lawful Overseas Use of Data Act (better known as the “CLOUD” Act), which makes it easier for U.S. and foreign governments to access electronic data stored in other countries, shows, governments can also violate our perceived protections. Sharon Bradford Franklin explains how the new law threatens both privacy and human rights.

One entity allegedly not interested in your personal data? The Google-affiliated driverless car company Waymo—or, at least according to recent comments by their CEO. Rachel Withers breaks down whether this is a promise Waymo can and should keep. Elsewhere on Slate, Henry Grabar also weighs in on the company and how its emphasis on private ownership could be bad for the future of driverless cars.

Other things we read while pondering how Silicon Valley’s famous obsession with speed is coming back to haunt us:

Abandoned broadband: Having a good map of U.S. broadband access is essential for improving services, so why is the Federal Communications Commission working off a bad one? Eric Null explains.

MyFitness foul: Last week, Under Armour suffered a data breach that may have impacted up to 150 million users of its popular wellness app MyFitnessPal. Christina Bonnington explains what the hack means for users and why this hacked data—dietary, fitness, and exercise stats, plus user passwords—may be worth more than credit card numbers on the digital black market.

Crash into me: As more autonomous vehicle crashes are making headlines, Henry Grabar asks whether bad maps—not just bad tech—may be to blame.

Logging in for duty: Brad Allenby separates the fact from fiction regarding recent news reports that the army is considering drafting middle-aged coders for cyberwar.

Targeted ads: Facebook prohibits ads for firearms and firearm accessories. So why does the site still allow advertisers to target users interested in illegal firearms? Slate’s Mark Stern investigates.

Seeking a Disney Princess to write this newsletter,

Tonya Riley

For Future Tense

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University.