Are Your Gadgets Spying On You?
IRA FLATOW, host:
You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.
Up next: privacy and your gadgets. You going out to see Grandma for Mother's Day? Remember the old days, when you'd take a road trip, piling the kids in the back of a station wagon, grabbing those dusty, folded-up roadmaps, heading out the door? And don't forget some quarters for the tollbooth.
Well, these days, a trip to Grandma's or the Grand Canyon might be a little easier. You've got your GPS system to navigate, your cell phone so you can call someone if you get lost. You've got an E-ZPass to get you through the tollbooth, all these modern conveniences.
But they do come at the cost of your privacy. Is it okay with you for the companies that make these gadgets to keep track of where you're heading that day or how fast you got there? Should consumers have some say over who collects data on these gadgets and how it's used?
That's what we'll be talking about next. We want to hear from you. Are you okay with your gadgets keeping track of where you are? A number of bills are in Congress seeking to protect your privacy. Senator Al Franken of Minnesota is holding a hearing on the issue next week. He'll be joining us in just a little bit.
On the other hand, maybe you're glad your phone can check you in on foursquare or on Facebook and keep track of where you're going, and you are willing to give up some of your privacy.
In any case, tell us what you think. Our number is 1-800-989-8255. You can tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. Or go to our Facebook page that's /scifri on Facebook and get a conversation going right there, also.
Let me introduce my guests. Justin Brookman is the director of consumer privacy at the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington. He joins us from our NPR studios there. Thanks for talking with us today.
Mr. JUSTIN BROOKMAN (Director of Consumer Privacy Center, Democracy and Technology): Sure, anytime.
FLATOW: Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY. Larry Downes is the author of "The Laws of Disruption: Harnessing the New Forces that Govern Life and Business in the Digital Age." He's also a blogger: CNET and Forbes. He's a senior fellow at the think tank TechFreedom. He joins us from the campus of U.C. Berkeley. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.
Mr. LARRY DOWNES (Author, "The Laws of Disruption"): Thank you.
FLATOW: You're welcome. Edward Felten is the chief technologist for the Federal Trade Commission. He is currently on leave from Princeton University, and he's talking to us today from the campus. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Felten.
Dr. ED FELTEN (Chief Technologist, Federal Trade Commission): Thanks. I'm happy to be here.
FLATOW: Let me begin the conversation with some of the events that happened during the last few weeks. Larry Downes, tell us what Apple did and why people were so angry with that.
Mr. DOWNES: Well, it's not entirely clear what they did. They've told us now what they did, and I tend to believe these reports. But some researchers discovered that there were files on the iPhones that seemed to have some location information stored on them. And people jumped to the conclusion that that information was information about the phone itself and the user.
It took Apple a few days to respond. When they did, they explained that no, it was a file of hotspots and cell towers near where the phone had been, collected from other devices. But in the meantime, of course, the panic had set in.
FLATOW: And you wrote an article in CNET basically about this incident, saying that people have made a mountain out of a molehill here.
Mr. DOWNES: Yeah, it's a natural, I think visceral response we have in the age where new applications and services do make use of personal information in interesting new ways.
We always have what I refer to as the queasy factor when we first start using those applications. But over time, as we understand what they do and the benefits of them, we tend to adapt very quickly.
FLATOW: Justin Brookman, your take on this?
Mr. BROOKMAN: Yeah, so I thought what Apple did - I thought they did a good job in quickly dialing back and said: You know what? This is a bug. This is a mistake. But I think there were real privacy issues here.
I mean, there's a file in your phone that was saying pretty much where you were over an extended period of time, and the researchers found those up to over a year in some instances. And the file wasn't organized that way. It's just however many places you check in whenever you have a new file come in is delete the oldest one.
But it could be potentially very invasive to think that, you know, here, sitting on your phone, that the government could get, that a jealous spouse could get, a pretty detailed record of the places that you'd been over the course of a year or more.
I thought Apple did a great job in saying: You know what? Let's just limit this to maybe seven days. And then that'll be enough to do what we need to do with it to check you in to locations, to tell you your location easier. But over a year, perhaps, I think, too much.
FLATOW: And I think they put out already a little patch for the iPhone.
Mr. BROOKMAN: They responded pretty quickly to fix then what they called a bug.
FLATOW: How do you define privacy? Some people like being able to check into Facebook or foursquare and, you know...
Mr. BROOKMAN: Yeah, I think it's just a question of control, right. I mean, I think people generally understand that Apple and Google can generate geolocation information. And if I want to share on Twitter that I'm tweeting live from Washington, D.C., that's fine. If I want to use a map program to tell me how to get to New York, I think that's fine.
It's just when it's being collected and used in ways that you don't know or don't understand, I think then the privacy concerns come in. That's when people say: Hey, you know, I told Apple this. Apple, I expect them to tell me, kind of ephemerally, where I am or how to get someplace. I wasn't expecting they were going to keep a log about me for an extended period of time of all those places that someone could then, you know, read and printout and perhaps embarrass me or perhaps use for malicious purposes.
FLATOW: Ed Felten, what role do you think the government should play in any of this, in defining privacy and protecting privacy?
Dr. FELTEN: Well, one of the things that the government does is to protect consumers in situations where their privacy is at risk. And so it's natural to ask questions about what consumers were told about what was happening, what responsibilities does the company have and what harms could result.
And depending on the circumstances, government may decide to act to enforce the law against a company that has stepped outside the law.
FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number, and if you'd like to tweet us, we're at @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. Let's see if we can take a phone call or two right at the beginning. Let's go to Chip(ph) in Oklahoma. Hi, Chip.
CHIP (Caller): Yeah. Hi, how are you doing?
FLATOW: Hi there.
CHIP: I drive a truck for a living. So I'm all over the United States. And I have an iPhone. And I use the map feature, and I use the restaurant feature, and I use all the other little features. But it seems like every time I open up one of those things, it asks me a question: Can we use your current position, yes or no?
So to me it doesn't seem like this is just arbitrarily collecting the data. You're still having to say yes or no. And so I don't understand why everybody is making such a big deal about it. It's not like it's just, you know, Big Brother's watching you, and you don't have any choice.
FLATOW: Do you think that - but peripherally to that, do you prefer that apps give you the option of saying yes or no, or just should you be opting out as the default and then opt in when you want to?
CHIP: Well, that's what's happening is - I mean, if I say no, dont use my current location, then it's just going to give me a very general, homogenized request. And I'm looking for restaurants in Chickasha, Oklahoma, and I say no, I don't want to use my current location, then it's just going to show me the restaurants in Chickasha, Oklahoma.
If I say yes, use my current location, then it's going to show me restaurants just right, real close to where I'm at.
FLATOW: All right, thanks for the call.
FLATOW: Ed, any comment on that?
Dr. FELTEN: Sure. Well, certainly when you use a location-based service like a mapping service, you'll know that information about where you are is being used. And it makes sense for companies to get your consent. And you'll probably know that some information might be revealed by the fact that your device is downloading a map for a particular area where you happen to be.
But then you can ask: What happens with the information after that? Is it accumulated? Is it sold? Is it correlated with other information about you? And you might also worry about whether the information about your location is being gathered even in cases where you're not asked or where you haven't consented. All of these things are possibilities that we need to think about.
FLATOW: But there's no way you can legislate, can you, all these different possibilities?
Dr. FELTEN: Well, certainly, you wouldn't want to make super-detailed rules that cover every particular case. But I think there are basic principles of disclosure and consent that make sense in terms of giving consumers a deal that they can understand and protecting people from being surprised by what happens as a consequence of the choices they make in the market.
FLATOW: Larry, what about cases where the government is collecting information and you have no control about it? You know, we're - here in New York and other big cities, and they're taking our picture all the time on the streets. Even when you go through a tollbooth, they're taking your pictures in case you, you know, not paying, and they want to send you a ticket or something. Do you worry about that?
Mr. DOWNES: Well, and there's also a lot of data collection that's involved with law enforcement and protecting us from terrorist attacks, as well.
Of course I worry about that, and frankly, I worry about government data collection much more than I do private-corporation data collection. The law is much clearer that the government is more restricted in terms of what kind of data it can collect.
The Fourth Amendment in particular protects the kinds of information and the way in which government can collect it. But the courts have been relatively generous, particularly since 9/11, in allowing government to expand the kinds of data collection it can do without warrants, without certain court procedures, and that is a source of considerable concern.
FLATOW: The privacy rights of consumers has gotten a lot of attention of Congress, certainly after this iPhone and other incidents that have been happening recently.
Senators McCain and Kerry have a new privacy bill they're working on, and next week, a new Senate subcommittee will be holding a hearing on consumers and privacy.
Joining me now to talk more about it is Minnesota Senator Al Franken. He is the chairman of that new committee, the Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law.
Welcome to the program, Senator Franken.
Senator AL FRANKEN (Democrat, Minnesota): Thank you, Ira.
FLATOW: Tell us about the hearing. What are you going to be covering in that hearing?
Sen. FRANKEN: Well, mainly mobile devices like - well, for example, we had this thing with Apple with iPhones and iPads that were tracking your location and then storing it in an unencrypted way on a file, and let's say you hooked up to your own laptop and all that information then went on your laptop, so it had stored this information for, you know, almost a year of pretty much everywhere you'd been with your device. And we're talking about other kinds of mobile devices as well and privacy concerns.
FLATOW: And you invited representatives from Apple and Google to come to the hearing.
Sen. FRANKEN: That's right.
FLATOW: Have they - are they coming?
Sen. FRANKEN: Oh, they are. Yeah. We have the vice president of software technology from Apple, and we have the director of public policy from Google.
FLATOW: Is this more of a fact-finding hearing, or do you pretty much know the facts and want to see how the industry is going to respond to them?
Sen. FRANKEN: I think it's kind of both. We know certain facts that are troubling, and we also want to find out some of their practices. And we want to get facts from experts on technology and experts on the law and privacy, so it's kind of - it's fact-finding for ourselves.
It's partly about getting facts out to the public, so the public is aware of, you know, certain things like what third parties or how third parties are - get information that probably most people don't think they get.
So if you go on an app or if you buy an app, that app will know your -very well know your location, and a lot of people don't know that.
Or we - I mean, it gets - or, for example, when I wrote a letter to Apple about this operating system that stored the data about where you've been, we got a call immediately from the Minnesota Battered Women's Coalition saying that this is exactly the kind of thing that they worry about.
And in fact, the DOJ says that 25,000 cases of GPS stalking last year, and some of those were on, you know, mobile - this kind of wireless technology, mobile phones et cetera or mobile devices.
And not to alarm people, but we just want people to be aware of exactly what - how their information, including location but other kinds of information too are put out there and give people the knowledge and then the right to make sure that that knowledge isn't shared, that they don't want shared.
You know, we believe that, you know, it's great that - you know, I'm going to tell the guy from Google, I love Googling...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Sen. FRANKEN: ...you know?
Sen. FRANKEN: The Internet has spawned all this unbelievable terrific fabulous innovation, and we want that. We just want also to make sure that when we're doing this we strike the right balance, and that we have our privacy laws keep up with technology in a way that, you know, allows this innovation to continue but doesn't have this effect of private third parties getting information about you that you don't necessarily want them to have.
Some people are fine. You know, I don't care if you know where I am. I don't care if you, you know, if a third party shares my, you know, information that I gave to a dating, you know, dot-com, and said, you know, where I like to go to dinner and...
FLATOW: That you like Chianti or something.
Sen. FRANKEN: You know...
FLATOW: Let me just...
Sen. FRANKEN: But some people wouldn't want that information shared, and they should have the right not to have third parties spreading that information out wherever they want it to go.
FLATOW: Let me just remind everybody that I'm Ira Flatow, and this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR, talking with Senator Al Franken.
In the minute or two left we have, Senator, any thoughts about people's fear of the government knowing everything about them from these devices?
Sen. FRANKEN: Well, that's sort of a separate thing, and that obviously - I mean, this kind of - they're obviously connected. I mean, you know, when Madison and those guys wrote the Constitution, they probably didn't foresee, for example, that people would have phones. In fact, I can almost say for certain they didn't.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Sen. FRANKEN: And at some point, the Supreme Court had to say, hmm, can the government do wiretapping? What are people's expectations? And they decided that wiretapping was a violation of the Fourth Amendment. So, yes.
But we're looking more into commercial uses of - and the private entities, corporations et cetera knowing your information, and because basically what this whole committee is about is keeping our privacy laws - having them keep up with technology.
And even since the phone was invented, as we know, the technology is just accelerating and accelerating, and that's why this new committee, I think, is so important.
FLATOW: Well, thank you for taking time to be with us today and good luck on your hearings.
Sen. FRANKEN: Thank you, Ira.
FLATOW: That's Senator Al Franken, the senator from Minnesota, chairman of a new committee, the Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law, and he will - he and his committee will be holding hearings on that next week.
We're going to take a quick break, but we'll come back and talk more with Justin Brookman, Larry Downes and Ed Felten. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. You can also tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. Join the discussion on our Facebook page or on our website at sciencefriday.com. As I say, we'll have a short break and be back. Stay with us.
(Soundbite of music)
FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.
We're talking this hour about consumer electronics and privacy and the corporations that want data from you, what happens to them, where - do you know what's going on with them, what do they do with them.
Our guests are Justin Brookman, who is director of consumer privacy at the Center for Democracy and Technology; Larry Downes, author of "The Laws of Disruption: Harnessing the New Forces that Govern Life and Business in the Digital Age"; Edward Felten is chief technologist for the Federal Trade Commission.
Our number, 1-800-989-8255.
Justin, you know, a lot of times, people, as they are telling us, they don't mind giving out the information if they know what's happening to it. But isn't the case that some companies own many other companies, they're like an umbrella group, and you really don't know where the other stuff may be going to?
Mr. BROOKMAN: Yes. It's not just for umbrella companies; it's any company. So you think about on mobile phones, like Android does a pretty good job of explaining what you're going to give to Angry Birds or to Yelp, where they say they're going to access your location. They're going to access maybe your phone number, and then you say, yeah, I'm fine with that.
But then, like what Yelp does with that on the backend, you have no control over, no insight into. I mean, most of these apps don't even have privacy policies. So if you want to find the fine print and look and see who they're selling it to or what other purpose that they might be using it for or how long they're keeping your data, you really can't even figure it out.
FLATOW: And there are companies that, for example, Urban Dictionary or a third party, they are all owned by the same people, and, well, let's say you may give your data for restaurants, stuff and winds up going to some - a dating service or something like that?
Mr. BROOKMAN: Right. I think the company that owns match.com also owns, like, dictionary.com and college humor, and, you know, all these media companies aggregate, and they have all these different properties. And it's pretty easy for them to share without consumers having any idea what's going on. But at the same token, you know, it doesn't really matter if they're owned or not. They can sell the information back and forth in ways that aren't at all transparent to you.
FLATOW: Now, you're going to be testifying in front of that - Senator Franken's committee next week, correct?
Mr. BROOKMAN: I am.
FLATOW: And what do you want to tell them, and what do you want to hear from that committee?
Mr. BROOKMAN: Well, I think they asked me talk about the existing law in this area, and you heard Senator Franken talk about how the law hasn't really keep up with technology. The law - we don't really have much of privacy law here in this country. We're like one of two of developed nations, us and Turkey, that don't have a, you know, baseline privacy law that requires companies to tell you, you know, what they're taking from you, who are they giving it to, you know, giving you some basic control over that information. And then when they're done with it, getting rid of it, right? Like in the Apple example, maybe they shouldn't have been keeping it as long as they did without having a real legitimate business purpose.
And so, you know, this has been the case for a long time. You know, this has been the case since the '70s, when data brokers first came up.
But in an online environment, in the mobile environment, especially the information sharing is getting much more promiscuous, there are a lot of intermediaries who collect and sell data about you, who see information about you. The information about you gets sent around much more quickly. And because storage costs are so low these days, they just keep it around forever, right?
You know, a couple - last week or a couple days ago, I testified on the Sony data breach, right? They were keeping credit card information from four years ago. They weren't using it. They were just keeping it around because it's rarely someone's job in a company to go around and just go get rid of data, to delete data. It's just - as the FTC has often said it's sometimes cheaper to just keep it around.
FLATOW: Ed Felten, how - tell us a little bit more about how strict the laws in Europe are compared to what they are here.
Dr. FELTEN: Well, the Europeans in some respects take a different view. European law is built around the concept of data protection, which to them means that companies often have different sorts of responsibilities about data that they're holding.
The U.S. tends to rely more on a sort of notice and a model of notice and tends to allow a more freewheeling market. And so it's a balance that's drawn in some cases in a slightly different way. Although obviously companies that operate across international barriers have to be compliant with all the laws wherever they're doing business.
FLATOW: Here's a tweet that came in from Ashley(ph) who says: If you're not doing anything illegal, what's the big idea? If people are so worried about it, they still make unsmartphones.
I guess you could use those if you don't want to use a smartphone. Anything unusual about that?
Dr. FELTEN: There's a...
Mr. BROOKMAN: Look...
Dr. FELTEN: Sorry. Sure. While there a bunch of reasons why you might care about this even if you have nothing to hide, even if you have perhaps nothing to hide, nothing that you're doing that's improper, there are things that you're doing that you wouldn't want the whole world to know about when you got the doctor and which doctor you go to. That's an example. Or if you have kids, your kid might have a smartphone and you may be concerned about what information your kid is revealing or what information is being collected about your kid. So in cases like that, people do have this feeling that they want to understand what's happening with their data and they want to keep it under control.
And it would be a shame if people were scared away from a technology as valuable as smartphones because they felt that using that technology would lose control of their information.
FLATOW: Well, could they also not find out that, let's say, for example, in certain neighborhoods, people speed? They drive very quickly here. And maybe if you live - and a car insurance finds out that this is that kind of neighborhood, if you live there, maybe your auto rates should go up. Your car insurance rates should go up. Is that sort of - am I making that up or is that sort of a legitimate fear?
Mr. FELTEN: I mean, that's the thing that...
Mr. BROOKMAN: (Unintelligible) happen - I mean, there are like (unintelligible) specific laws in this country, and so there's something called the Fair Credit Reporting Act which governs some of that. And so I think it's an open question whether that would be permitted or not, although there are - but for things that are really important like credit or insurance. But prices (unintelligible) could be an issue, right? If they look at your car, they see you driving around the fancier parts of town, they might charge you different prices, right? When you go to buy an airline tickets, they say this guy has money, so let's charge him a higher price.
I mean, look, you might like that, right? You might like ads targeted to who you are. You might want people to watch what you're doing and to send you content based on that, but you might not, right? And all we're asking for is to give people from basic controls over that.
Mr. FELTEN: And there can be some benefit to it as well. I mean, if the people who designed the roads and bridges know much more specifically what traffic patterns are, they can make use of that to decide where to expand roads, where to build new bridges, where to create alternate routes when there's, you know, lots of congestion. Those - obviously, there's very valuable uses for this information as well that would benefit most if not all consumers.
Mr. BROOKMAN: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, the thing about when you use Google Maps, right, and you see this traffic up ahead, I mean you can see there's traffic up ahead because other people up ahead of you are using Google Maps, right, and their car's going slow. And there's a secondary use of that data that when you're sending back to Google repeated requests and you're saying, hey - effectively you're saying, hey, I'm moving five miles per hour, everyone kind of benefits from that. And then the question is, you know, how long is that used by Google? Do they keep it in identifiable form for years, right? Do they use it for other purposes to sell to people in order to market you?
If you drive very quickly, you'll get ads from Mustang or something. I mean, again, you may want that. I personally don't care what sort of decision you make. I just want your right to make that decision.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let's go to Eric(ph) in Denver. Hi, Eric. Eric, are you there? Eric? Denver? No? Yes, no? I guess Eric - maybe Eric can't hear.
1-800-989-8255 is our number. If if - where do we see the arc of this happening? Is there going to be an outcry, do you think, and we're going to settle on something? Or do you think - is industry going to cooperate voluntarily? It's the old song we hear over all kinds of things, whether it's drugs or something like that - get voluntary cooperation. If not, then you might have to regulate it. Where do you think that might wind up here, gentlemen? Justin?
Mr. BROOKMAN: Yeah. So - I mean, this had happened before, right? So around - in the '90s, when online advertising first started to be a big deal, the FTC got really interested in these issues and they held hearings and there was laws proposed. And industry said, don't worry. We're going to take care of it. You don't have to worry about it. Then a new administration comes in, 9/11 happens, you know, privacy is not as sexy or interesting anymore.
It's harder to make the case about hiding data when people are focused on terrorists. So there's kind of a lull for several years. And then, like starting around 2004 or so, there's been like, you know, kind of increasing interests in this area as data sharing and information, they got more and more permanent. People started using Facebook and they're seeing what the real ramifications of putting information out there it's there forever, right? The Internet's written in ink.
And so people are starting to get more and more concerned. And we reached this kind of - it's gotten louder and louder and louder, the privacy shout(ph) since around 2004. And I think it's going to keep getting worse, right? I mean, worse or better, depending on how you look at it. The Apple issue, I think, raises people's awareness of how much information they're sharing and how much can be stored about them.
So I really think we have to see some sort of - just basic legislative solution, say, hey, here's what we're doing, here's where we're taking -we're going to get rid of it when we're done. Is that cool, right? They don't even have to do that right now. The only law governing most privacy in this country today is don't go out of your way to lie to people about what you're doing...
FLATOW: But, you know - but sometimes there - then people are not lying. They're making you read 50 pages...
Mr. BROOKMAN: Right.
Mr. BROOKMAN: Right. No, exactly.
FLATOW: ...of an agreement.
Mr. BROOKMAN: Right.
FLATOW: And you know, it's all in the agreement if you just read it.
And FTC said, hey, if you're going to do something like that, right that someone might not expect - you really got to be clear and conspicuous about what you're doing and just tell them up front. Some people might like that, right?
There are programs where, like, I can publish my credit card activity to the Web and - hey, there are people like that. They want to share, over-share or under-share - God bless them. I just want you to know that they're sharing.
FLATOW: But Ed Felten, aren't there going to be companies that are not going to be playing by the rules and always find some way, you know, cat and mouse, to get around some of these regulations?
Mr. FELTEN: Well, certainly there are some companies whose behavior is not good. And the at FTC we're an enforcement agency and we do enforce against companies that's step over the line.
But I also think there are a lot of companies out there that recognize more and more that privacy is a core part of their relationship with their customers. And if they want to build the trust of their customers, it's an issue where they want to - where they want to straight with their customers and make sure that people understand what they're doing and what they're not.
FLATOW: Larry Downes, any comments?
Mr. DOWNES: Yeah. I don't expect actually any significant privacy legislation before the 2012 election, and I don't think that's a problem. These privacy panics come and they go with pretty much predictability. You know, when Amazon first started recommending what other books you might like based on what other people have bought, there was a panic. When Gmail was first released. And it's, you know, part of the software looks at your messages to put up contextual advertising. Several organizations and the government asked Google to remove that product altogether.
We got used to those things and we will continue to get used to these things. Now, I do think it's important for corporations to do a good job - I think a better job - of educating the public about what kind of information they're collecting and what they're doing with it. I think they do need to be transparent, but of course there is the problem of the 50-page terms of service agreement.
But I think most important, they need to do a better job of both predicting and explaining how they're going to secure the data that they're collecting. And I think that's where several of these recent events have shown a real problem, that they really are not following good security practices - the International Standards Organization security features for customer data, for example. If they did a better job of that, we'd have fewer of these panics, and I think things would go much more smoothly.
FLATOW: All right. We've run out of time. We'll see what the government has to say about that in the coming weeks and months. Justin Brookman is director of consumer privacy at the Center for Democracy and Technology. Larry Downes is the author of "The Laws of Disruption: Harnessing the New Forces That Govern Life and Business in the Digital Age." He's also a blogger for CNET and Forbes. Edward Felten is chief technologist for the Federal Trade Commission. Gentlemen, thank you all for taking time to be with us today.
Mr. BROOKMAN: Thank you.
Mr. DOWNES: Thank you.
Mr. FELTEN: Thanks, Ira.
FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.
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