Why Fast Food Is Racing To Ditch The Dining Room

Five hours into a long drive through New England last week, I needed coffee. I pulled up to a Dunkin’ in Gorham, New Hampshire, parked, and got out of the car. Mistake. In the donut-scented interior, I learned that this Dunkin’ wasn’t taking orders in the store—only at the drive-thru and via the app. Reluctantly, I downloaded Dunkin’, selected a large cold brew, tapped in my credit card number, and watched in silence as two workers prepared and placed the coffee on the largely obsolete counter.

Seven days later, I got an email—“Are Your Cravings Calling?”—that left me unsure if I’d signed up for DD or AA. I was part of the Dunkin’ digital universe now, which is right where the company, owned by Atlanta-based Inspire Brands, wants me. Certainly more than in the actual store. Last August, Dunkin’ opened its first “digital” location on Beacon Street in Boston. There are no cashiers, replaced by touchscreens and mobile ordering, and no seats or tables.

Dunkin’ is far from alone. Name a fast-food restaurant and the odds are the company has recently developed a branch without any restaurant at all. Chipotle’s first “Digital Kitchen,” which opened in upstate New York in 2020, has no dining room. A branch that opened last year in the Cleveland suburbs doesn’t even let customers inside the store.

This summer, Taco Bell opened something it calls Taco Bell Defy, which is not a restaurant at all but a purple taco tollbooth powered by QR code readers and dumbwaiters that bring the food down from a second-story kitchen. The operation is, by most accounts, astoundingly efficient. Wingstop’s “restaurant of the future” doesn’t have seats or take cash.

What’s driving this trend? Partly savings on real estate and labor. But mostly it’s a response to consumer preference. Pushed by pandemic restrictions and pulled by the increasing ease of mobile transactions, customers have rushed into drive-thrus, delivery, and mobile ordering. Even with coronavirus fears in most Americans’ rear-view mirror, Chipotle’s in-restaurant sales now account for just a third of its business. At Panera, which opened its first to-go-only locations this summer, that figure is under 20 percent.

“It’s a way to cater to changing customer-order behaviors,” explains Emma Beckett, an editor at Restaurant Dive, an industry publication. While smaller store footprints and radical new designs are mostly reserved for new locations, she says, the arms race is on to remodel older stores with drive-thru lanes. “Everyone wants double or triple drive-thrus, so those parcels are becoming competitive, because there are only so many corner lots that can accommodate that.”

Everything is moving in the direction of Checkers and Rally’s, two drive-thru chains that were early to this idea. Take Salad And Go, the nine-year-old budget salad chain that now has dozens of locations in Arizona and Texas. Salad And Go has no inside at all, nor does it usually bother with picnic benches or even parking spots, like Sonic. Founder Roushan Christofellis has said the stores’ “microfootprints” are the secret to their super-affordable salads. As a bonus, no public interior space means you don’t need to build customer parking.

Wherever Americans are eating, it isn’t inside fast-food joints. To meet this shift, some chains, like Wendy’s and Qdoba, have embraced “ghost kitchens,” unmapped, closed-door facilities where food for delivery might be prepared for a dozen different brands at once.

Increasingly, the logic behind ghost kitchens is finding its way into public-facing retail design too. Last year, I wrote about how the rise in digital ordering was messing up the fast-casual experience, as restaurant workers struggled under a workload that depended little on the number of customers in the store. The good news is they are working on solving the problem. The bad news is: I am the problem.

Like the parallel remote-work phenomenon, the rise of what McDonald’s calls the Three D’s—digital, drive-thru, and delivery—may reflect an ongoing social atomization as the shared spaces that emptied out during the pandemic are slow to fill back up, to the point that walk-up, dine-in customers like me are no longer the focus, and might even be a nuisance. Often lauded as a vital “third space” for seniors, teenagers, and families in communities that lack friendly public spaces, McDonald’s unveiled a concept store in 2020 that has no seating at all.

It does, however, have algorithms inside the My McDonald’s App. “Imagine what can happen once we start to know, ‘Oh, Brian’s coming to the restaurant,’ and what we can do,” McDonald’s digital engagement head Lucy Brady told Wired in 2020. It’s like a 21st-century version of the waitress asking if you’ll have the usual.

On the other hand, to-go orders might not be replacing meals with friends as much as they’re eating into grocery-store spending. In the 2010s, American restaurant spending surpassed grocery spending for the first time, a dramatic shift from the 1990s when U.S. consumers spent $3 at the grocery for every $2 at the restaurant. “Breakfast spending is the fastest-growing daypart,” one industry analyst observed, “and that’s the ultimate utility. No one is sitting down for breakfast.”

That’s probably what’s motivating coffee-centric chains, among which Panera isn’t the only one scrambling to scrap seating areas. As Jonathan Maze wrote this summer in Restaurant Business Online, “Dutch Bros, which went public last year, rocketed to become the third-largest coffee chain with a model that features no seating. The fifth largest is Scooters Coffee, which is also a drive-thru-only concept. The fourth largest, Minneapolis-based Caribou, is focusing all its attention on growing drive-thru-only locations.” The occasion for Maze’s piece was the first drive-thru-only Tim Horton’s.

Something similar is happening at Starbucks. Despite its roots as an urban gathering place whose comfy chairs, Wi-Fi, and bathrooms invite customers to linger, on-and-off closures related to COVID have helped accelerate a business shift toward mobile, delivery, and drive-thru, which now make up almost three quarters of the brand’s U.S. revenue. And that’s just fine with Starbucks brass: Those customers make bigger purchases than the ones who walk in and order at the counter.

Starbucks opened its first “Starbucks Pickup” store in 2019, in Manhattan, and the model has since expanded to cities across the country. “These stores center on convenience and illustrate one way we can meet evolving customer behaviors in dense, urban locations,” a spokesperson says. As for Starbucks’ role as social infrastructure, the company has said it is “creating the digital third space.” “We plan to create a series of branded NFT collections, the ownership of which initiates community membership, and allows for access to exclusive experiences and perks,” chief marketing officer Brady Brewer wrote in May. Your Viennese coffee house could never.

You can see the zeitgeist in the rise of another coffee chain, Blank Street, whose New York locations rewards mobile pre-orders and often eschew seating altogether in favor of tiny, low-rent retail footprints. Most don’t have bathrooms, but then Howard Schultz has said Starbucks may reverse its own open-bathroom policy, citing problematic customer behavior. After closing a store in Philadelphia due to “safety” issues, Starbucks’ new Center City location has neither seating nor restrooms.

Perhaps we shouldn’t take these seatless concept stores too seriously. After all, they represent only a tiny experiment compared to the nation’s tens of thousands of existing fast-food restaurants, which, the Dunkin’ in Gorham, New Hampshire excepted, continue to offer old-fashioned thrills such as ordering with a human cashier and sitting at a table to eat. And let’s be honest, fast food’s appeal has always been the food—not the human connection and certainly not the ambiance.

“Pre-pandemic, about 50 percent of food was consumed on premise and 50 percent was drive-thru and delivery,” said Mark Landini, a retail designer who has worked with McDonald’s and other brands. “Because of the pandemic, that’s now changed to 20-80.” Landini specializes in eye-catching designs, and he suggested that further streamlining the fast-food experience might not be good for workers or, in the long run, brands.

(Or, obviously, his firm.) “I think ghost kitchens are a big mistake,” he said. “You’re effectively putting your business in someone else’s hands and the less a brand can manifest its personality, the less you’ll experience it emotionally. If you’re going to reduce that physical interaction for operational economics, or to reach a broader audience, the long-term effect is your product becomes a commodity on someone else’s shelf.”

Then again, the futuristic Taco Bell Defy and its ilk—as well as these companies’ earnings reports—show us where Americans are going, or more precisely, how. It’s not just mobile apps that are making these changes attractive, but an older technology that also promised both freedom and a kind of anti-social isolation: the automobile. The pandemic-fueled rise of the drive-thru just isn’t going away. Maybe it’s because remote work has pushed fast-food spending into suburban, car-dependent locations.

Maybe it’s because sitting down at Chipotle only seemed like a good idea relative to returning to the office, but nothing beats the kitchen table. Maybe it’s because there are more fun things to do at home, online, than ever before. One way or another, vehicle miles traveled are back to where they were in 2020, even though many white-collar workers aren’t in the office five days a week. They’re still going to the drive-thru, though.

Source: Fast-food chains like Taco Bell, Dunkin’, and Panera are ditching dining areas for drive-thrus and mobile ordering.

Critics by deliverect

we’ll discuss some key challenges of digital ordering and online food delivery for restaurants and how to address them.

1. You punch in delivery orders manually, losing time and sometimes making errors 

Many restaurants assign one of their employees to online orders, accepting delivery and takeout orders on the aggregators’ tablets and entering them in your restaurant’s point-of-sale system by hand. This manual task, which is both time and labor intensive, creates a delay in the order flow.

By automating the online order process, you can eliminate human error and free up your staff’s time, to focus on improving the customer experience. With tickets printed in the kitchen in a consistent format, your delivery operation will run much smoother.

2. The more online ordering platforms, the more tablet mayhem

When you deliver food, working with multiple third-party food ordering players is a smart strategy to scale up your business. Each delivery service your restaurant works with will send you their own device, usually a tablet, with platform-specific software.

You can solve this issue by integrating your delivery orders into your point-of-sale system, automatically pulling in all your orders to your POS.

3. Managing your menus across different online ordering platforms takes up a LOT of time

Never before have there been so many restaurants offering delivery and takeout. Therefore it’s crucial to stand out, and one sure-fire way to do this is with a menu adapted for delivery that is clear, attractive, and customizable.

Fortunately, it’s possible to quickly and efficiently manage multi-location and multi-platform menus from one screen. Deliverect’s omnichannel restaurant solution comes with an easy menu builder that enables you to create, duplicate and automate menu items, and publish them to multiple channels with a few clicks.

4. You don’t have real-time sales data, and you don’t know what’s been sold online

Analyzing your sales data is one of the best and fastest ways to optimize and grow. If your restaurant is available on multiple online ordering platforms, however, it can be challenging to get a complete overview of all your online sales. 

Seamless integration between your online sales channels and your POS system is all it takes to solve this pain. Connecting all your online ordering platforms to your point of sale means you’ll see all your sales data in real-time, on one screen.

5. Customers can order out-of-stock items because your stock isn’t synced with your online channels

Replenishing your inventory can be a complicated job if your stock isn’t automatically updated in your restaurant inventory software or point-of-sale system after an order has been placed online.

Many modern POS systems already include stock management, but to sync with your online sales platforms, restaurants need an active POS integration.

6. Your online orders aren’t in your POS – you’re not VAT compliant

Hospitality businesses are subjected to rigid tax regulations worldwide. In some countries, restaurants and catering services are required to work with a registered cash system – the so-called “white cash register” to avoid fraud.

Automate your online order flow to ensure your online orders, no matter which platform they come from will be sent to your POS system without you having to do anything. It’s that simple!

7. Your restaurant is crowded with riders

Food delivery couriers need to make as many deliveries as possible to earn a living. For them, there’s nothing more frustrating than waiting for a meal that’s not ready for pickup.

One solution is to rethink your restaurant’s design and flow to accommodate specially designed waiting areas for riders. You may also want to think about a screen displaying order statuses that are ideally placed in your delivery pickup area. This will increase the efficiency of your pickup.

8. Customers don’t find your restaurant in the app

Cities like London, Madrid, Amsterdam, Dubai, and New York count thousands of eateries with delivery services. With many of those signed up with platforms like Uber Eats, Postmates, Talabat, and Deliveroo, the number of in-app restaurant listings, and thus competition, is huge.

Faster preparation times, faster delivery times, higher acceptance and online rates,… in short, a better delivery performance will lead to more positive customer reviews and a better position of your listing.

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Is It the ‘Single Worst Time To Buy Real Estate in History’? Depends on Who You Ask

There’s a reason why the phrase “timing is everything” doesn’t make us cringe quite as hard as other real estate cliches. (We’re looking at you, “location, location, location.”) Here’s why: It’s accurate. Homebuyers are always trying to time the real estate market so they can make the best possible deal—and it’s often difficult to do.

Time is the common thread between questions about mortgage rates (Should I lock in my mortgage rate now before they rise in a month’s time?), housing inventory (Should I put off buying until next month to see if there are more houses for sale?), and even relocating (Should we buy now so we can move before the new school year starts?).

At the current moment, homebuyers face a perplexing mix of realities: mortgage rates are still up and inflation is still putting pressure on everyone’s bottom line, but the median listing price actually fell (yes, fell) to $435,000 in August, down from an all-time high of $450,000 in June. So with all these question marks in the air, it’s hard not to wonder if it would be downright foolish to buy a house right now, or if the timing is actually good.

This week we clocked a particularly interesting discussion floating around on the r/RealEstate subreddit after one user posted the following question point-blank: “I was just told it’s the single worst time to buy real estate in U.S. history. How far off are they?”Reddit users chimed in with a variety of entertaining hot takes and personal anecdotes on the matter.

What experts think about buying a house right now

We’ve heard what the people have to say, now let’s bring a little data into the mix.“It’s true that home prices are high in 2022, so that perspective suggests that now might not be a great time to buy,” says Realtor.com Chief Economist Danielle Hale. “On top of that, the cost to borrow money right now—the interest rate you’ll pay on a mortgage—is also not far off of its highest level in more than 13 years.

This means that borrowing to buy a home is more expensive than it has been.”But Hale says these shouldn’t be buyers’ only considerations. With rents at an all-time high and still rising, buying a home and being your own landlord has advantages.

“You may think of owning a house as not having to pay rent, but economists view this as paying rent to yourself,” says Hale. “Taking on a mortgage with a fixed rate of interest (at least for a period of time) means that the homeowner has locked in the lion’s share of their housing costs—a nice hedge against inflation that is still running at just under 9%.”

She says that even if you don’t see any future home price appreciation, it can make more sense to buy than rent, especially in markets where the monthly cost of owning a home is lower than the monthly cost of rent.

“There aren’t as many of those markets, but there are still some, predominantly in the South and Midwest, as we found in our recent rental report,” Hale says.

Is it a good or bad time to buy a house?

With that information in mind, let’s go back to our initial question: Is now the worst time in history to buy a house?

“The data points to the ‘worst’ being behind us,” says Hale. “The number of homes for sale is up more than 26% compared to one year ago, which means that today’s shoppers have more homes to choose from than last year’s shoppers. Perhaps more importantly, the share of sellers making a price cut has risen, suggesting that today’s shoppers may have more negotiating room than before.”

Hale does acknowledge that homes are still more expensive than last year, but the price growth rate is slowing and is likely to slow further. Another positive indicator for buyers? Homes are lingering on the market longer.

“Time on market is beginning to increase, signaling that the days of having to make an offer as soon as possible—perhaps even before seeing the home—are behind us,” Hale says.Ultimately, buying a home is a wholly personal decision and the right timing varies from buyer to buyer.

“While market conditions couldn’t be called the best for buyers, they are somewhat improved,” says Hale. “Each of these indicators points to better balance than the housing market has seen over the last year, an advantage for today’s shoppers.”

By Natalie Way

Natalie Way is the senior editor at Realtor.com who covers news and advice stories about real estate, design, and celebrity homes. Natalie produces and co-hosts the “House Party” podcast. She can be reached at natalie.way@move.com.

Source: Is It the ‘Single Worst Time To Buy Real Estate in History’? Depends on Who You Ask

Critics By Michael Yardney

Property investment is a process, not just an event. So rather than just talking about going out and buying a property in 2022, the right time for you to consider investing is when you have all your ducks in a row.

This means you have:

  • a strategic property plan, so you know where you’re heading and what you need to do to achieve your financial goals,
  • set up the right ownership structures to protect your assets and legally minimise your tax,
  • a robust finance strategy with a rainy day buffer in place to buy you time

Of course, for some 2022 will be a great year to invest, but in a moment I’ll explain why that will not be the case for others. Sure interest rates are rising, but there is more to property price growth than that. It’s likely that you’ve heard me talk about the drivers of property price growth over the years.

There are so many things that determine a property’s price performance and growth trajectory, many of which are well outside of your control, and some of which also have nothing to do with the property itself. These include, but are not limited to:

  1. The economy – the performance and state of the broader economy impact people’s ability to buy and sell property as well as …
  2. Consumer Confidence – when people feel comfortable about their financial situation and their future job prospects they are more likely to make big purchases like moving home or buying an investment property.
  3. Employment levels – if the community at large is experiencing high levels of unemployment, then fewer people can afford to pay a mortgage, which reduces demand for property
  4. Government policy – aspects to do with tax, depreciation, and homeownership grants will work to boost or reduce demand for property, particularly new property in recent years, which is where the federal government’s primary agenda has been.
  5. Population growth – or household formation to be more exact, as when more people move into an area this equals more demand for housing, whether it’s to buy or rent.
  6. Local Demographics – things like average incomes, average age, household structure, crime rates, and employment opportunities.
  7. Supply – The basic economic principle of supply and demand is a fundamental property market driver of price growth.
  8. Availability of credit – property investment is a game of finance with some houses thrown in the middle, but even owner-occupier demand is very much driven by the availability of finance and the cost of money, in other words, interest rates.

Now, as a result of these factors – which are by no means an exhaustive list, but they give you a general indication of some of the major influences on property prices – our property markets move through cycles, from booms to busts and back again.

Last year rising property values around Australia were driven by a combination of pent-up demand and historically low-interest rates leading to FOMO (fear of missing out), which led many home buyers and investors to make take shortcuts just to get in the market.

.

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Monitoring Employees Makes Them More Likely to Break Rules

As remote work becomes the norm, more and more companies have begun tracking employees through desktop monitoring, video surveillance, and other digital tools. These systems are designed to reduce rule-breaking — and yet new research suggests that in some cases, they can seriously backfire. Specifically, the authors found across two studies that monitored employees were substantially more likely to break rules, including engaging in behaviors such as cheating on a test, stealing equipment, and purposely working at a slow pace.

They further found that this effect was driven by a shift in employees’ sense of agency and personal responsibility: Monitoring employees led them to subconsciously feel less responsibility for their own conduct, ultimately making them more likely to act in ways that they would otherwise consider immoral. However, when employees feel that they are being treated fairly, the authors found that they are less likely to suffer a drop in agency and are thus less likely to lose their sense of moral responsibility in response to monitoring.

As such, the authors suggest that in cases where monitoring is necessary, employers should take steps to enhance perceptions of justice and thus preserve employees’ sense of agency. In April 2020, global demand for employee monitoring software more than doubled. Online searches for “how to monitor employees working from home” increased by 1,705%, and sales for systems that track workers’ activity via desktop monitoring, keystroke tracking, video surveillance, GPS location tracking, and other digital tools went through the roof.

Some of these systems purport to use employee data to improve wellbeing — for example, Microsoft is developing a system that would use smart watches to collect data on employees’ blood pressure and heart rate, producing personalized “anxiety scores” to inform wellness recommendations. But the vast majority of employee monitoring tools are focused on tracking performance, increasing productivity, and deterring rule-breaking.

For example, a social-media marketing company in Florida installed software on employees’ work computers that takes screenshots of their desktop every 10 minutes and records how much time they spend on different activities. The company then uses this data to determine productivity levels and identify rule-breakers. Similarly, Amazon tracks smartphone data for its delivery drivers to monitor their efficiency and identify unsafe driving practices.

Given their prevalence, one might expect that these sorts of systems would be effective in reducing harmful workplace behavior. And indeed, studies have shown that in some contexts, monitoring can deter certain specific behaviors, such as theft by restaurant workers. However, our recent research suggests that in many cases, monitoring employees can seriously backfire.

When Monitoring Backfires

In our first study, we surveyed more than 100 employees across the U.S., some of whom were subject to monitoring at work and some of whom were not. We found that monitored employees were substantially more likely to take unapproved breaks, disregard instructions, damage workplace property, steal office equipment, and purposefully work at a slow pace, among other rule-breaking behaviors. Of course, this survey only determined correlation — so to prove causation, we ran a second, experimental study.

We asked another 200 U.S.-based employees to complete a series of tasks, and told half of them that they would be working under electronic surveillance. We then gave them an opportunity to cheat, and found that those who were told they were being monitored were actually more likely to cheat than those who didn’t think they were being monitored.

What drove this effect? In general, people are motivated to do the right thing by a combination of external factors (such as the threat of punishment or promise of reward) and their internal moral compass. Prior studies in support of employee monitoring generally focus on the former: situations in which targeted monitoring informs an immediate external response to a specific form of misconduct, such as retail workers who know they will be fired if they’re caught stealing on camera. But in many workplace contexts, employers cannot rely on carrots and sticks alone.

In these cases, employers must also depend on employees’ internal sense of morality — and our studies showed that monitoring employees causes them to subconsciously feel that they are less responsible for their own conduct, thus making them more likely to act immorally. Specifically, when we surveyed the participants in our studies, we found that those who were monitored were more likely to report that the authority figure overseeing their surveillance was responsible for their behavior, while the employees who weren’t monitored were more likely to take responsibility for their actions.

This reduction in agency in turn made the monitored employees more likely to act contrary to their own moral standards, ultimately leading them to engage in behavior that they would otherwise consider immoral.

To Boost Agency, Treat Employees Justly

Clearly, monitoring can have some major negative side effects. But is it possible to gain the benefits of monitoring employees without pushing them to abandon their morals? Being monitored is likely to always have at least some negative impact on people’s sense of agency and moral responsibility, but our studies did identify one mechanism that can reduce this effect: When employees feel that they are being treated fairly, they are less likely to suffer a drop in agency and are thus less likely to lose their sense of moral responsibility in response to monitoring.

In our experiment, we increased perceptions of employer fairness both by varying how respectfully the administrator interacted with the participants, and whether they received the cash reward they had been promised, and we found that monitored participants were less likely to cheat if they felt they were treated justly.

So what does this mean for employers? There are countless ways leaders can enhance perceptions of justice (and thus preserve employees’ sense of agency). As a starting point, rather than unilaterally implementing a monitoring system, leaders should find ways to give employees visibility and input into when surveillance is appropriate and when it should be off-limits — and then stick to those boundaries.

For example, financial services instant messaging platform Symphony enables managers to monitor employee conversations only to the extent necessary for record-keeping and legal compliance, with strict guidelines in place preventing any surveillance without a strong justification. Leaders should also find ways to give employees access to their own data, as well as aggregated, anonymized data collected from relevant teams. That data should in turn be used in ways that benefit employees (for example, to inform wellness initiatives or professional development opportunities).

And of course, leaders should do their best to communicate openly and transparently with employees about what data will be collected and how it will be used — in fact, one survey found that even just explaining the scope and purpose of monitoring can boost employees’ acceptance of the practice by about 70%.

When used right, monitoring employees can prevent accidents, boost performance, and improve overall wellbeing. But our research demonstrates that it can also reduce employees’ sense of agency and personal responsibility, potentially increasing the prevalence of the very behaviors that these systems are meant to deter. To mitigate this risk, leaders must ensure that they treat employees fairly, foster accountability, and frame monitoring as a tool for empowering — not punishing — employees.

By: Chase Thiel, Julena M. Bonner,John Bush, David Welsh, and Niharika Garud

Source: Monitoring Employees Makes Them More Likely to Break Rules

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Government Secretly Orders Google To Identify Anyone Who Searched A Sexual Assault Victim’s Name, Address Or Telephone Number

The U.S. government is secretly ordering Google to provide data on anyone typing in certain search terms, an accidentally unsealed court document shows. There are fears such “keyword warrants” threaten to implicate innocent Web users in serious crimes and are more common than previously thought.

In 2019, federal investigators in Wisconsin were hunting men they believed had participated in the trafficking and sexual abuse of a minor. She had gone missing that year but had emerged claiming to have been kidnapped and sexually assaulted, according to a search warrant reviewed by Forbes. In an attempt to chase down the perpetrators, investigators turned to Google, asking the tech giant to provide information on anyone who had searched for the victim’s name, two spellings of her mother’s name or her address over 16 days across the year. After being asked to provide all relevant Google accounts and IP addresses of those who made the searches, Google responded with data in mid-2020, though the court documents do not reveal how many users had their data sent to the government.

It’s a rare example of a so-called keyword warrant and, with the number of search terms included, the broadest on record. (See the update below for other, potentially even broader warrants.) Before this latest case, only two keyword warrants had been made public. One revealed in 2020 asked for anyone who had searched for the address of an arson victim who was a witness in the government’s racketeering case against singer R Kelly. Another, detailed in 2017, revealed that a Minnesota judge signed off on a warrant asking Google to provide information on anyone who searched a fraud victim’s name from within the city of Edina, where the crime took place.

While Google deals with thousands of such orders every year, the keyword warrant is one of the more contentious. In many cases, the government will already have a specific Google account that they want information on and have proof it’s linked to a crime. But search term orders are effectively fishing expeditions, hoping to ensnare possible suspects whose identities the government does not know. It’s not dissimilar to so-called geofence warrants, where investigators ask Google to provide information on anyone within the location of a crime scene at a given time.

“As with all law enforcement requests, we have a rigorous process that is designed to protect the privacy of our users while supporting the important work of law enforcement,” a Google spokesperson said.

The latest case shows Google is continuing to comply with such controversial requests, despite concerns over their legality and the potential to implicate innocent people who happened to search for the relevant terms. From the government’s perspective in Wisconsin, the scope of the warrant should have been limited enough to avoid the latter: the number of people searching for the specific names, address or phone number in the given time frame was likely to be low. But privacy experts are concerned about the precedent set by such warrants and the potential for any such order to be a breach of Fourth Amendment protections from unreasonable searches. There are also concerns about First Amendment freedom of speech issues, given the potential to cause anxiety amongst Google users that their identities could be handed to the government because of what they searched for.

“Trawling through Google’s search history database enables police to identify people merely based on what they might have been thinking about, for whatever reason, at some point in the past. This is a virtual dragnet through the public’s interests, beliefs, opinions, values and friendships, akin to mind reading powered by the Google time machine,” said Jennifer Granick, surveillance and cybersecurity counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). “This never-before-possible technique threatens First Amendment interests and will inevitably sweep up innocent people, especially if the keyword terms are not unique and the time frame not precise. To make matters worse, police are currently doing this in secret, which insulates the practice from public debate and regulation.”

The Wisconsin case was supposed to have remained secret, too. The warrant only came to light because it was accidentally unsealed by the Justice Department in September. Forbes reviewed the document before it was sealed again and is neither publishing it nor providing full details of the case to protect the identities of the victim and her family. The investigation is ongoing, two years after the crimes occurred, and the DOJ didn’t comment on whether or not any charges had been filed.

Forbes was able to identify one other, previously unreported keyword warrant in the Northern District of California in December 2020, though its existence was only noted in a court docket. It also has the potential to be broad. The order, currently under seal, is titled “Application by the United States for a Search Warrant for Google Accounts Associated with Six Search Terms and Four Search Dates.”

There’s more that the government can get with such requests than simple Google account identities and IP addresses. In Wisconsin, the government was hopeful Google could also provide “CookieIDs” belonging to any users who made the searches. These CookieIDs “are identifiers that are used to group together all searches conducted from a given machine, for a certain time period. Such information allows investigators to ascertain, even when the user is not logged into a Google account, whether the same individual may have conducted multiple pertinent searches,” the government wrote.

There was another disturbing aspect to the search warrant: the government had published the kidnapping victim’s name, her Facebook profile (now no longer accessible), her phone number and address, a potential breach of a minor’s privacy. The government has now sealed the document, though was only alerted to the leak after Forbes emailed the Justice Department for comment. That mistake—of revealing the identity of minor victims of sexual abuse in court documents—has become a common one in recent years. As in the latest case, the FBI and DHS have been seen choosing pseudonyms and acronyms for victims, but then publishing their full Facebook profile link, which contains the name of the minor.

UPDATE: After publication, Jennifer Lynch, surveillance litigation director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), highlighted three other Google keyword warrants that were used in the investigation into serial Austin bombings in 2018, which resulted in the deaths of two people.

Not widely discussed at the time, the orders appear even broader than the one above, asking for IP addresses and Google account information of individuals who searched for various addresses and some terms associated with bomb making, such as “low explosives” and “pipe bomb.” Similar orders were served on Microsoft and Yahoo for their respective search engines.

As for what data the tech companies gave to investigators, that information remains under seal.

You can read the orders on Google here, here and here. The Microsoft and Yahoo orders can be found here and here. Follow me on Twitter. Check out my website. Send me a secure tip

By: Thomas Brewster

I’m associate editor for Forbes, covering security, surveillance and privacy. I’m also the editor of The Wiretap newsletter, which has exclusive stories on real-world surveillance and all the biggest cybersecurity stories of the week. It goes out every Monday and you can sign up here: https://www.forbes.com/newsletter/thewiretap

I’ve been breaking news and writing features on these topics for major publications since 2010. As a freelancer, I worked for The Guardian, Vice, Wired and the BBC, amongst many others. 

Tip me on Signal / WhatsApp / whatever you like to use at +447782376697. If you use Threema, you can reach me at my ID: S2XY9B9U.

If you want to tip me with something sensitive? Get in contact on Signal or Threema, and we can use OnionShare. It’s a great way to share documents privately. See here: https://onionshare.org/

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“Sexual Assault”. Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. Retrieved 11 May 2019.

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Romans, Sarah; Mullen, Paul; O’Shea, Martine (1993). “Asking about child sexual abuse: Methodological implications of a two stage survey”. Child Abuse & Neglect. 17 (3): 383–92. doi:10.1016/0145-2134(93)90061-9. PMID8330225.

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Facebook Still ‘Secretly’ Tracks Your iPhone This Is How To Stop It

Despite Apple’s public crackdown on Facebook data harvesting, the social media giant will store your iPhone’s location even when you have set it “never” to do that. Now you can stop Facebook in its tracks, ensuring your phone can’t be secretly tracked.

Facebook is reeling as it becomes clear that Apple’s privacy innovations are throttling some of its most lucrative revenue streams. But while stopping cross-app and cross-site tracking is a huge plus for a billion-plus iPhone users, when you use apps provided by the likes of Facebook and Google, you still share way too much of your data.

This should be well understood—there have been enough warnings. But even when users think they’ve done the right things—changed settings to opt for privacy, there are still backdoors, such as with private photos you upload to Facebook and Instagram.

The photos you take on your iPhone include metadata, data about the photos that is embedded into the photo file itself. When you send the photo in its original form, the metadata goes along. That data includes the model of your phone, the way your camera was set up, the date and time the photo was taken, and, critically, where it was taken.

That location data is very precise—and it’s very useful, because you can search photos on your phone by place, logically collating your memories. But when you upload photos to Facebook or Instagram, that metadata is stripped away. If you save photos from either back to your device, you’ll see that there is no embedded location data.

So, does Facebook delete the location data after it has been stripped? No, of course not. Why would the world’s most avaricious data harvester throw away valuable information that it can use to monetize you even further? Facebook stores the data in its multi-billion-dollar data vault, against your profile.

No surprises there. What is surprising, though, is that Facebook strips and stores this data even when you’ve told the platform (both online and on your iPhone) “never” to track your location. Why Facebook thinks this is okay, I fail to understand.

You can see this for yourself. If you upload a photo to Facebook and then download “your Facebook information,” you will see Facebook has stored the exact GPS location stripped from the photo, as well as your IP address when you uploaded the image.

The data “we collect,” Facebook says in its privacy policy, “can include information in or about the content that you provide (e.g., metadata), such as the location of a photo or the date a file was created.” This location data is used “to provide, personalize and improve our products, including ads.

Until now, fixing this issue has been painful. You need to either disable your iPhone camera’s photo location tagging or use a third-party app to strip the metadata before uploading images. Thankfully, Apple has just fixed the problem.

In your photo album, swipe up any image or select the “i” in the bottom menu bar, and select “Adjust.” You can then change the location to one of your choice or delete it.

This isn’t just a great option for Facebook, of course. While many messaging apps, including WhatsApp and Signal, strip (but don’t save) metadata, iMessage and email attachments retain embedded data, as do photos added to shared albums.

If you’re sharing photos, there are many reasons you might not want to share the exact location. Putting safety aside, many a person has been caught out by inadvertently revealing where they are (and where they are not) via this invisible metadata.

I have warned on this Facebook and Instagram loophole before, and when I have asked Facebook about this, it has confirmed that the platform “collects and processes” such data. When asked if this is used for advertising, “regardless of the privacy settings selected by a user,” I was told it was fine to proceed with those assumptions.

Facebook has enough of your data. This is a great example of where you can hold something back without any detrimental impact to you whatsoever. If you’ve taken the trouble to stop Facebook capturing your location, make sure it’s doing as it’s told.

Zak is a widely recognized expert on surveillance and cyber, as well as the security and privacy risks associated with big tech, social media, IoT and smartphone platforms. He is frequently cited in the international media and is a regular commentator on broadcast news, with appearances on BBC, Sky, NPR, NBC, Channel 4, TF1, ITV and Fox, as well as various cybersecurity and surveillance documentaries.

Zak has twenty years experience in real-world cybersecurity and surveillance, most recently as the Founder/CEO of Digital Barriers, which develops advanced surveillance technologies for front line security and defense agencies as well as commercial organizations in the US, Europe and Asia. The company is at the forefront of AI-based surveillance and works closely with flagship government agencies around the world on the appropriate and proportionate use of such technologies. As well as analyzing security and surveillance stories, Zak is co-creator of Forbes’ award winning Straight Talking Cyber video series. Zak can be reached at zakd@me.com.

Source: Facebook Still ‘Secretly’ Tracks Your iPhone—This Is How To Stop It

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