In case you needed more reasons to cease or reduce your Facebook usage, the social network provided a pair last week.

First, Facebook confirmed that when you share a phone number with the company strictly for security reasons--such as for two-factor authentication, which requires your phone to login on a new device--advertisers can target that number in their campaigns. The same is true for phone numbers you've given to friends, but not to Facebook. If a friend lets Facebook access their address book, those numbers become fair game for targeted ads.

How does your number get used for targeting? Let's say you've shopped online or donated to a political campaign, and provided a phone number as part of the transaction. Those entities can then advertise to whatever Facebook is account associated with that numbers.

Because Facebook only lets you manage contact information that you've shared on your own, there's no way to stop this ad targeting when it's based on someone else's address book. And with two-factor authentication, the only way to prevent targeting against your phone number is to use an authenticator app instead of text message verification.

Granted, this policy might not be noticeable in day-to-day use, and it might not have been a big deal if Facebook had disclosed its behavior and provided tools for opting out. In this case, however, Facebook only fessed up after being caught by Gizmodo reporter Kashmir Hill and a group of academics. This is a serious breach of trust regardless of the practical implications.

If that wasn't bad enough, on Friday Facebook also disclosed a security breach that exposed personal information for nearly 50 million users. This wasn't a garden-variety case of password theft--which, in theory, you could mitigate by setting up two-factor authentication--but rather a chain of vulnerabilities that allowed attackers to secretly access users' accounts as if they were the actual users themselves.

The attackers could then view private messages, download data, and even access third-party services such as Instagram or Spotify if the user had logged into those sites with a Facebook account. While it's impossible to be truly hack-proof, a breach of this kind is practically unheard of for a tech company of this size.

At the moment, there's no sure way to tell whether you're affected, but one possible sign is whether you've been asked to sign back into your account since Friday. That's when Facebook reset the logins for all 50 million affected users, plus another 40 million who recently used the "View Profile As" feature that's at the heart of the vulnerability. I assume Facebook will begin notifying affected users once it's gathered more information.

As with the Cambridge Analytica scandal earlier this year, in which Facebook admitted that an outside analytics firm had harvested data on 87 million users without permission, I don't expect mass defections to result from these new problems. Likewise, I wouldn't implore you to quit the network cold turkey if it plays a big role in your social life.

I do, however, suggest finding ways to reduce your dependence on Facebook where possible. That means avoiding Facebook as a login option for third-party sites (try using a password manager instead), using alternative tools for ancillary services (such as Nuzzel for news and Paperless Post for events), staying logged out of Facebook when you're not using it (Firefox's Facebook Container extension can help with that when you're accessing the site from a desktop web browser), and even taking small steps to reduce your overall usage.

For more on that last point, let's head to this week's tip ...

If you've recently installed iOS 12 on an iPhone or iPad, you might've skipped over the part about "Screen Time" during the initial setup. As the name suggests, this is a new tool for monitoring and even limiting how much you spend on your devices.

To set it up, head to Settings, then select Screen Time from the main menu. From here, you can schedule "Downtime," which prevents you from using apps during certain hours. (You can select which apps to block in the "Always Allowed" section.) You can also set time limits for different categories of apps--including social media--under the "App Limits" section.

Once you've exceeded an App Limit or have arrived at Downtime, app icons will dim, and opening the app will bring up a message saying you're reached your daily limit. While you can keep using an app by hitting the "ignore limit" button, you'll probably feel just a little bit guilty for doing so. (Alternatively, you can prevent yourself from overriding the limits by having a friend or spouse set a PIN under the "Use Screen Time Passcode" setting.)

Android phones offer a similar feature called "Digital Wellbeing," but only with the latest Android 9 software, and it's currently in a limited beta on Google's Pixel phones. Pixel users can join the beta here.


Alexa gadgets galore: Amazon will soon be selling a lot more devices powered by its Alexa voice assistant. At a press event earlier this month, the company announced a louder, fabric-clad Echo Dot speaker; a larger Echo Show with a 10-inch touchscreen; a new Echo Plus speaker that can control ZigBee smart home devices without a separate hub or bridge; a subwoofer that pairs with existing Echo speakers; an amplifier for high-end speakers; a non-amplified hi-fi Alexa system for speakers; a device for putting Alexa in your car; and a device that adds voice controls to other speakers via Bluetooth or 3.5mm cable. Amazon is also making more of its own gadgets that you can control with those Echo speakers, including a smart plug, a microwave, a DVR for cord-cutters, and a wall clock that displays Alexa's alarms.

That's a lot to take in, but the overarching theme is that Amazon is trying to inject Alexa into more places where you might have previously used someone else's software. Maybe you don't need Apple's CarPlay or Google's Android Auto if Alexa is on your car dashboard, and maybe you don't need a stereo pair of Apple's HomePods when you can get an Echo subwoofer and two satellite speakers for less than half the price.

Google Search's new deal: Over the last decade or so, Google has gradually de-emphasized links as the primary form of search results, and has instead put more information directly on its own results pages. Last week, Google announced several Search changes that continue the trend. Look up a celebrity, for instance, and you might see a "story" link where you can scroll through highlights of that person's life. Search for a breed of dog, and you'll see extra results tabs for things like "Buy or Adopt" and "How to Train." Meanwhile, Google's mobile home page is moving way from the search engine's iconic minimalism, presenting updates on topics you've previously searched for.

Not having to click a bunch of links for basic information will certainly be convenient, but the downside is that you're inherently placing more trust in Google to provide the facts, and Google's algorithms haven't always been up to the task. (See: Google Assistant speakers pushing conspiracy theories in 2017.) I also worry that as Google takes more information from websites and puts them on its own results pages, those sites will begin losing the traffic--and corresponding ad revenue--that allows them to produce the information in the first place. My hope is that search users continue to see the value in links, even if Google increasingly doesn't.


Once again, TP-Link's smart plugs are on sale, this time for just $20. That's $5 less than the Alexa-enabled smart plugs that Amazon recently announced, and TP-Link's plugs have the advantage of working with both Alexa and Google Assistant. Connect a lamp, coffee maker, humidifier, or anything else that turns on with outlet power to add your own automation and voice controls.

Some other deals worth considering:

As always, I'd love to answer any questions you have about this issue's topics, cord-cutting, or any other tech issues that are on your mind. Let's schedule this week's chat room for the same day and time as the last one: This Friday, October 5, at 3 p.m. Eastern time. Here's the link to the room, and if you'd like an email shortly beforehand, click here to join the reminder list.

Keep in mind that I'm also offering a $10 referral credit for you and anyone you bring on board as an Advisorator subscriber. Just email me for details.

Catch you in a couple weeks,

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