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ENCRYPTION BATTLE RESUMES: The Trump administration is planning to urge Facebook to hold off on incorporating end-to-end encryption across its various messaging services until the company can address “public safety” issues with law enforcement agencies around the world.
In an open letter that will be published Friday, Attorney General William Barr and Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan joined with UK Home Secretary Priti Patel and the Australian Minister for Home Affairs, Peter Dutton, in warning Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg about what they see as the risks to widespread encryption.
“We must find a way to balance the need to secure data with public safety and the need for law enforcement to access the information they need to safeguard the public, investigate crimes, and prevent future criminal activity,” the letter, first reported by Buzzfeed, reads. “Not doing so hinders our law enforcement agencies’ ability to stop criminals and abusers in their tracks.”
The group argued in the letter that Facebook’s massive platform of public profiles combined with encrypted messaging services could prove useful to criminals like child predators and frustrate law enforcement’s efforts to go after them.
The big picture: The letter is a significant escalation in the administration’s criticism of encryption technologies and threatens to inflame long-simmering public tensions between the government and Silicon Valley, which sees the technology as an essential privacy protection for users.
Facebook’s response: A spokesperson for Facebook said in a statement to The Hill that the company believes “people have the right to have a private conversation online, wherever they are in the world.”
“We respect and support the role law enforcement has in keeping people safe,” the spokesperson said. “Ahead of our plans to bring more security and privacy to our messaging apps, we are consulting closely with child safety experts, governments and technology companies and devoting new teams and sophisticated technology so we can use all the information available to us to help keep people safe.
2020 DEMS VS. SOCIAL MEDIA: The social media giants are stuck in a vise as both Democrats and the Trump campaign look for an edge by accusing the platforms of favoring the other side.
On one side are Democrats, who are demanding that Facebook and Twitter censor President Trump and his campaign.
This week, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) sent a letter to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey demanding that Trump be suspended and the Democratic National Committee (DNC) ripped Facebook for refusing to fact check — and remove — Trump campaign ads it said are misleading.
Democrats are deeply worried that Trump will spend hundreds of millions of dollars and leverage his massive social media following to distort public perceptions, echoing concerns from 2016 when foreign agents used the platforms to promote misinformation.
On the other end are Trump and Republicans, who have long held that conservative voices are being suppressed by Silicon Valley liberals reacting to elite media outrage at the president and his supporters.
Underscoring the pressure on the social media giants — this week, both Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a top contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, and Donald Trump Jr., a top surrogate for his father’s reelection campaign — renewed their calls for the government to dismantle the tech giants, albeit for very different reasons.
“The prevailing view from both sides now is that these companies have become so large and so important in political and social life that there needs to be some sort of government intervention,” said Shannon McGregor, a professor of communications at the University of Utah. “What that looks like could depend on the outcome of the election.”
The Trump campaign’s move to put $10 million behind ads alleging that former Vice President Joe Biden pushed for a Ukrainian prosecutor to be fired to protect his son Hunter Biden, who served on the board of a Ukrainian energy company that was under investigation, was a tipping point for many Democrats.
The Obama administration has long said it wanted the prosecutor fired for not doing enough to root out corruption. There is no evidence that Biden acted to protect his son, although the appearance of a conflict of interest has become a drag on his campaign.
Democrats are furious over the ads, which are running across cable news and on Facebook, Google, YouTube, Spotify and Pandora.
PLEASE REMOVE: The European Union’s highest court Thursday ruled that lower courts in Europe can order Facebook to remove user comments that have been declared illegal.
The ruling follows a case brought to an Austrian court by a former politician who demanded Facebook take down a post concerning her that the court said was harmful to her reputation and was public for any user to see.
“EU law does not preclude a host provider like Facebook from being ordered to remove identical and, in certain circumstances, equivalent comments previously declared to be illegal,” the European Court of Justice said said in a statement.
“In addition, EU law does not preclude such an injunction from producing effects worldwide, within the framework of the relevant international law.”
The court explained that host providers like Facebook are not liable for stored information if they are unaware of its illegal nature or if it swiftly removes it, but that that exemption does not prevent courts from ordering the host to take down or disable access to such posts.
The court’s order also prohibits any requirement that a host monitor information it stores or actively seek out facts or circumstances “indicating illegal activity.”
The big picture: The enforcement of defamation, libel and privacy laws varies from country to country, underscoring the difficulty of creating universal standards in the EU. Critics warned before the court’s decision that letting a single nation order a host to delete material could limit free speech and that implementing such a plan could require the use of automatic content filters.
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MESSENGER… BUT FOR INSTAGRAM: Instagram on Thursday released Threads, a new stand-alone photo messaging app that builds on Instagram’s “close friends” feature, BuzzFeed News reports.
The app reportedly functions in much the same way Snapchat does, without all of the fancy filters.
When first opened, Threads is populated with everyone in the user’s “close friends” list on Instagram, according to BuzzFeed. From there, the user can send pictures individually or to a larger group. If the recipient of the message isn’t on the sender’s “close friends” list or doesn’t have Threads downloaded, then the message will be sent to the recipient’s Instagram direct messages.
One reported feature that deviates from Instagram and is unique to Threads is that the user can set a status with an emoji to describe their current mood or activity. If a user doesn’t want to constantly update what they’re doing, then Threads’ auto status can be turned on.
Using location information gathered by the user’s phone, Threads can also show if you’re on the road, at the gym or at a restaurant.
PSA: The FBI on Wednesday warned U.S. businesses and organizations of the increasing threat posed by ransomware cyberattacks, following several high-profile attacks on government offices and other public entities.
The agency said the attacks, which involve encrypting a computer before demanding money in return for unlocking it, are “becoming more targeted, sophisticated, and costly.”
“Since early 2018, the incidence of broad, indiscriminate ransomware campaigns has sharply declined, but the losses from ransomware attacks have increased significantly,” the FBI wrote.
The agency has issued similar warnings of malicious actors trying to hack into websites seen as more “secure” and has warned of business email compromises, but this was the first in 2019 highlighting ransomware attacks.
Wednesday’s warning follows attacks on more than 20 Texas small towns and other entities, and attacks on multiple school districts in Louisiana that led Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) to declare a statewide emergency.
The city governments of Baltimore and Atlanta have also been hit by ransomware attacks over the past year, with both cities refusing to pay the attackers and instead paying millions to recover from disruptions.
The FBI acknowledged the full scope of the ransomware attacks, writing that “although state and local governments have been particularly visible targets for ransomware attacks, ransomware actors have also targeted health care organizations, industrial companies, and the transportation sector.”
HAND ‘EM OVER: The House Judiciary Committee has requested Facebook files from a defunct startup that critics of the social media company say show it unfairly used its power to take out competing companies.
The committee is asking for all filings relating to the startup Six4Three’s lawsuit against Facebook, including thousands of internal Facebook documents and emails, The Associated Press reported. The documents were previously sealed by a California judge.
The documents associated with Six4Three could bring new light to the debate about the social media mogul’s competitive strategies and whether they are overreaching, according to the AP.
Critics say the documents suggest that Facebook narrowed access to user data from certain apps that competed against the company.
Several hundred pages of the documents have already been made public after British officials requested them from Six4Three Managing Director Ted Kramer.
Kramer claims that Facebook destroyed Six4Three’s startup by limiting access to user data. The startup app called Pikinis found swimsuit photos from users’ friends on Facebook, the AP reported.
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AN OP-ED TO CHEW ON: In the AI era, privacy and democracy are in peril
NOTABLE LINKS FROM AROUND THE WEB:
Political operatives are faking voter outrage with millions of made-up comments to benefit the rich and powerful. (Buzzfeed News)
Egypt is using apps to track and target its citizens, report says. (The New York Times)
Facebook’s new legal team scores early victory in war against fraud. (The Washington Post)