Google Stops Mining Education Data and Moves Toward Transparency

Today Google announced that it will no longer scan Gmail or use mined data from its Apps for Education in targeted advertising. This decision comes after the policy was recently challenged in a 2013 California court case. Students and other users claimed the email scanning policy violated wiretap laws.

Bram Bout, Google’s Education Sales Director, said that the company will no longer scan Gmail in Apps for Education or collect the data for targeted advertising. This is an excellent move for Google and increases the company’s transparency.

Although Google has noted that its scanning is completely automated, critics still insist that user profile data might be attractive to the government and other malicious groups pending security breaches.

Beyond the critics, it is useful to consider why Google is making this move. Are users concerned about privacy or trust? The SXSW conference noted that privacy will be a major trend this year

Millennials are very open in sharing and communicating with trusted brands. A recent survey by the USC Annenberg Center of Digital Future and Bovitz Inc. suggests that Millennials are completely confused about the concept of privacy. 70% reported that no one should have access to their online data. However, 56% are willing to share their data for reimbursement.

I suspect that Google wants to avoid the “big data” label and distance itself from other organizations (i.e., the NSA) that have been secretly collecting data. It’s no longer a matter of collecting data, but a mater of trust. Do you trust Google?




Is Confide a Snapchat for Professionals?

We love the idea of privacy. In the era of big data it is comforting to believe that there is a communication channel that will allow us to securely send and receive sensitive data. This idea has fueled a number of developers to create mobile apps that promise anonymity.

Readers are well associated with with the popular picture sharing app, Snapchat. Snapchat is a mobile app that allows users to share photos or short videos. After the picture or video has been received it automatically self-destructs in a matter of seconds.

While Snapchat has been a huge hit in among teenagers and young adults, a new startup, Confide, is creating a “Snapchat” for professionals.

Confide differs from Snapchat as it allows users to send text messages. In addition, it applies end-to-end encryption and promises that messages are never stored on their servers.

Although this is an intriguing product, lets examine why Confide and other “anonymous” apps are far from secure or anonymous.

Confide’s Security Features

Confide offers several “unique” security features to deter receivers from taking screen shots. It sends an alert to both parties if someone attempts a screen shot and each line of text is concealed until you swipe your finger over the line. Although these are interesting features, an alert might not be received if you do not have a cellphone signal.

In addition, the swipe feature does not keep someone from recording the message with another device. Users can feel slightly securer knowing that the company uses end-to-end encryption, however given enough time any encryption scheme can be broken. Recent reports by cryptography experts also suggest that ‘end-to-end encryption’ is quickly becoming a pointless security feature.

The Promise of Anonymity

Hopefully, the above rundown has given you a slight pause about using an encryption app. I would like to take a moment to review the general myth behind these types of apps. These apps promise you a sense of privacy and anonymity. I think these myths are believed due to a general lack of knowledge about how technology and the Internet works.

The idea of anonymity goes against a primary rule of using the Internet. Everything you post or send online is public. When you send something through the Internet it goes through a number of servers and locations. Copies are created and information is saved. Even if the private sector is not storing your data  you have no idea which governmental agencies are saving your data for future analysis.

Who’s Collecting Information?

Remember the saying “There’s no such thing as a free lunch?”. Nothing is free, a business has to make money, if not the business goes bankrupt. Frequently companies that offer “free services” are gathering and selling your personal data to other companies and third parties. Have you ever actually read an app’s Terms of Service or Privacy Policy?

Once again I question whether the general public realizes an exchange is taking place. You are buying the “free app” with your personal information. For example, a very popular Android flashlight app is under investigation by the FTC for transmitting users’ precise location and device identifier to other companies.

What this means for PR

The idea that technology (specifically the Internet) provides a secure and private means of transmitting confidential information is a myth. As public relations professionals we should realize the potential damages and ethical issues surrounding the use of these types of “anonymous” communication apps.

We should undertake an advocacy role in explaining the weaknesses of these apps to our various stakeholders and administrators. In fact, like social media, it might be necessary to address these types of technologies in our digital communication policies. Do you use an encryption app? If so I would like to hear your comments and thoughts on this topic.


Google’s Field Trip App Opens New Paths

Today, Google announced that Field Trip will grant free admission to 13 U.S. museums for a limited time. Never heard of Field Trip? Lets take a look at this app and its potential as a PR tool.

Field Trip (iOS and Android) was developed by Google’s Niantic Labs. It offers users location relevant information while on the move. The app runs in the background on your phone and can provide notifications when you are in close proximity to a “point of interest”. Currently the app groups points of interest into several broad categories including historic spots, museums, restaurants, and events.

The Potential

Open houses and company tours are special events that are designed to strengthen public opinion. Typically, PR pros use traditional media to publicize the event, however Google’s Field Trip provides a new opportunity to reach key publics.

The GPS activated notification service can help potential customers “discover” your company. How many times have potential customers walked by your company’s office and not realized it? Field Trip offers another avenue to digitize your brand.

Beyond simple GEO tagging, Field Trip offers brands a new channel for promotions. The app is a perfect platform for launching special “walk-by/walk-in” discounts and timed promotions. It is also available in 30+ languages which gives you more flexibility.

The Catch

Although you cannot petition Field Trip directly for a listing, SEO, social media mentions, and user feedback can increase the likelihood of getting your brand listed. Google also allows users to post new locations on Google+ and after an unknown magical number of “likes” Google will add the location to Field Trip.

Hopefully in the future Google will release more information regarding the submission of potential locations. In the meantime I would keep an eye on this app.


Is The New Yorker Strongbox the New Wikileaks?

Yesterday the New Yorker unveiled Strongbox, a tool for users to submit files anonymously. Since we live in the era of citizen journalism, more reporters are relying upon tips and story ideas from readers. However, does Strongbox offer both media practitioners and citizens a truly anonymous way to communicate sensitive information?

Security Features

Strongbox was developed by Aaron Swartz and Kevin Poulsen. It is essentially an anonymous in-box. It offers users “a reasonable amount of anonymity,” said Amy Davidson, a Senior Editor for The New Yorker. The designers have incorporated a number of security features, including the TOR network and PGP to increase the potential level of anonymity. See the image below for a basic explanation of the process.

How Strongbox Works

In addition, the code for the Strongbox (DeadDrop) is completely open source allowing other individuals to modify the code for their own projects. More details on the security features can be found at Github.

Reality and Anonymity

History has shown that other supposedly anonymous information sharing services (i.e., Wikileaks) has failed to provide adequate insurance in protecting the identify of whistle-blowers and others from government agencies. Remember Bradley Manning, the U.S. Army solider who was charged with numerous offenses for submitting classified video footage of diplomatic cables? He submitted the classified videos “anonymously” to Wikileaks. Although Wikileaks did not name Manning as the source of the leak, the information surfaced and Wikileaks faced considerable pressure including cyber attacks, financial trouble, and various lawsuits.

While Strongbox may fill the void left by Wikileaks, it is idealistic to think that The New Yorker will be protected from interference of the government and exempt from legal issues.

Potential Strongbox users should use caution and common sense. Consider recent events and the current political climate. For example, the recent subpoena of phone records from The Associated Press bureaus and reporters calls into question the security of media outlets. It is also no secret that the Obama administration has prosecuted more whistle-blowers than any other administration in history (Time).

The Skeleton Key to Strongbox

One additional cautionary note should be mentioned regarding Strongbox. Strongbox is TOR based, which raises two issues. First, TOR is not user friendly and may pose a small learning curve to set-up. Secondly, while the TOR network is a great platform for communicating anonymously it is not 100% secure and individuals need to be fully aware of what TOR’s software can and cannot do.

If the Department of Justice can obtain phone records why would an anonymous app such as Strongbox be immune?


Top 10 Free Social Media Tools

Social Media is a commitment. It requires constant monitoring and special attention. Over the past decade social media measurement has evolved from collecting simple statistics to predicting trends, extracting intelligence, and responding to consumer needs.

In PR we know good strategic planning involves identifying your target publics, competitors, and stakeholders. Social media can be a useful tool in identifying these publics, however you need to determine the right tool(s) for the job. For solo PR professionals or small firms here are 10 free social media tools that can help you identify your key publics and help you achieve those strategic objectives.

1.Buffer | Is an online application that allows you to schedule tweets and measure their success. Buffer will analyze your followers and suggest scheduling recommendations for your posts.

2. Google Alerts |Google Alerts have been around for a long time, but still serves as an excellent environmental scanning tool. Google will track specific keywords and send you an email alert whenever relevant information is added to Google.

3. HooteSuite | Provides an all-in-one management system for your social media accounts. The free plan allows you to add up to 5 accounts, gives you basic scheduling features and analytical reports.

4. Social Mention | Is a real-time analysis app that aggregates content from across the Internet. It offers basic sentiment analysis of web content (i.e., negative, neutral, positive) and daily email alerts for your brand or company.

5. Pluggio | Is a Twitter and Facebook management app that helps users keep track of multiple accounts, automate tweets and follow-backs/thanks, and provide friend suggestions.

6. Mention | A robust media monitoring app that will track mentions of you or your brand name across social media and the web. Think of it as an alternative to Google Alerts.

7. | Tracking link traffic is an often overlooked part of social media measurement. is a link shorting service that provides you with data including the number of link clicks, who shared the link, and the geographic distribution of clicks.

8. | A central part of content creation is distribution. will monitor your website or blog and automatically post your content to social media (Google+, Twitter, LinkedIn) networks.

9. ManageFilter | Offers users a set of easy to use tools so that you can sort your followers/lists, know when your followers are most active, schedule tweets, and track keywords

10. Social Crawlytics | Is a social media tool that analyzes URLs. It can tell you how many times your page was shared and on what social media platform.


Adobe Kills Creative Suite, Revives CS in the Cloud

Adobe has discontinued the Creative Suite (CS). Starting June 17 it will be replaced by the Creative Cloud (CC) , a subscription based service only accessible through the cloud.

Adobe made the recent announcement at it’s MAX Conference and has since received mixed reviews across the Internet. While experts and consumers are still anxious to see how Adobe will launch its newest service, this move holds some beneficial opportunities for PR professionals.

The Upside

Adobe is following an emerging trend of companies that are re-conceptualizing software as a service (SaaS) not product. This shift away from stand-alone products to cloud based services presents some advantages for PR professionals who rely on the Creative Suite for message construction and design.

The primary upside to this new service is the subscription plan.The subscription plan offers some definite advantages over the one-time purchase model. Adobe offers a number of pricing plans to accommodate individuals, businesses, teams and educators.

For example, an individual subscription for the entire CC suite will cost you $49.99 per month with a one-year contract or $74.99 per month with an option to cancel at any time. If you consider that the current stand alone CS6 will cost you $1,299.00, the new CC plans are available at a much lower price point, $599.88 or $899.88 depending on the annual commitment fee.

After reviewing the numbers, Adobe’s shift to the CC may actually save you or your firm money in the long run. Instead of purchasing a new upgrade every two years or so (i.e., CS5 to CS6), you pay a fixed monthly fee and have access to the latest updates and patches.

The Downside

The Achilles heel in Adobe’s new subscription model is the subscription plans geared towards infrequent/amateur user. An individual who only uses two programs is almost forced into purchasing the complete CC suite because of the restrictive pricing option for single apps. For example, each single app is $19.99 or $29.99 a month. If a user only needs two apps, such as Photoshop and Illustrator, he would be paying $720.00 annually. At this point it would be more cost effective to just subscribe to the complete CC suite at $599.88 per year.


For many PR professionals, Adobe’s new CC subscription model will be more cost effective than the previous one-time purchase model. However, the new model presents a roadblock for smaller PR firms with limited resources.

Keep in mind however that the CS6 suite will still be available for purchase. “We plan to continue to support and sell Creative Suite 6 and customers can continue to purchase that for the foreseeable future,” said David Wadhwani, Senior Vice President, Digital Media.

Hopefully Adobe will identify this limitation in their sales model and offer a wider range of pricing options in the future. If not other companies may see this move as an opportunity to create a new stand-alone product at a lower price point.

You can find more information about the Adobe CC at the official website.


3 Tips for Social Media Security

Jeep, Burger King, McDonalds. Although these three names may at first appear unrelated, if you have watched any recent news, you probably are aware of the recent hacking attacks on these three organizations.

Regardless of the industry, hacking attacks are a very real threat to a businesses’ online security and reputation. According to Symantec’s 2012 Norton Cybercrime Report, worldwide cybercrime cost both business and consumers an estimated $110 billion annually. When malicious individuals start targeting social media accounts it’s a good time to evaluate your social media security strategy. Below are three simple security tips to consider when accessing your social media accounts outside of the workplace.

Public WiFi Hotspots

WiFi hotspots are everywhere, they can be found at coffee shops, airports, libraries and even fast-food restaurants. Although WiFi hotspots may appear innocent, these networks are an open invitation for trouble. You have no way of knowing whether the WiFi hotspot is secure and even if it is the “real” network setup by the business. Hackers can easily set-up duplicate WiFi networks pretending to be a business and simply wait for unsuspecting users to connect. Just because a WiFi network’s SSID looks legitimate doesn’t mean its the real deal.

As a PR professional you need to use common sense when thinking about using an open WiFi hotspot. Treat all hotspots as security risks. If you decide to use a hotspot you should limit the amount of activity and take additional security steps such as employing a virtual private network before connecting.

Virtual Private Network

A second security tactic that you can employ to keep your social media updates more secure is a virtual private network or VPN. A VPN allows users to send and receive encrypted data and prevents other users from pishing your data. The National Security Agency (NSA) even recommends employing personal VPNs as a best practice to keep your devices secure.

VPN software can be found on most mobile operating systems including iOS and Android. Using a VPN can greatly increase the security of your device when sending that last minute tweet. Your IT department would be more than happy to help you set-up this easy security measure.

Passwords and More Passwords

Our final security tip involves examining what most people would consider the first line of defense, passwords. “Passwords are, by and large, not a great security paradigm. They’re easy to forget, often pretty easy to guess, and a hassle to use.” said Jon Xavier, Web-Producer of Silicon Valley Business Journal.

Passwords should be only one cog in your social media security policy. Many social media platforms such as Facebook offer a two-factor authentication that requires additional information. This can significantly increase your social media security.

Beyond multiple authentication measures, your social media account passwords should be changed periodically and you should have a different password for each social media account. A common/shared password can jeopardize multiple accounts. Another common suggestion is to avoid the short “1234″ or common “password” passwords. The length of the password and use of additional characters (numbers, special characters) can help deter hackers.  A good password does not equal security, however it helps protect your online accounts and password guidelines should be included in your online or social media policy.

Common Sense

Although the above steps can increase the security of your social media activity, it is important to remember that individuals are the weakest link in your social media security. Proactive education can inform your employees of the online risks and best security practices. In addition, PR professionals should plan in advance for a hacking attack, this falls into the 86% of predictable/smoldering crises and work with both IT and administration to establish a reaction plan to activate when necessary. Keep in mind however, it is impossible to have a completely secure social media environment. It’s not called “private” media.