Overnight Technology

Hillicon Valley: Instagram seen as top 2020 disinformation target | Facebook to let users opt out of facial recognition on photos | Dozens of states looking at Google antitrust probe | Senate panel to hold hearings on tech mergers

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Welcome! Follow the cyber team, Maggie Miller (@magmill95), and the tech team, Harper Neidig (@hneidig) and Emily Birnbaum (@birnbaum_e).


DISINFORMATION STATION: Instagram will likely be the main social media platform used to disseminate disinformation during the 2020 election, while altered “deepfake” videos of candidates will also pose a threat, according to a new report.

The report on disinformation tactics during the 2020 election, put together by New York University’s (NYU) Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, also pinpointed China, Russia and Iran as countries likely to launch such attacks against the U.S. in the lead-up to the elections.{mosads}

But foreign states will not be alone, with NYU finding that domestic sources of disinformation, such as users within the U.S. creating and circulating it, will be more prevalent than overseas sources.

Voter suppression will be the main target of both streams of disinformation, with the report warning that “unwitting Americans” could also be manipulated into participating in rallies and protests. 

Pressure on tech companies: The report from NYU emphasized that while “social media companies are playing better defense than they did in 2016,” it called on them “to step up their games in anticipation of 2020.”

Michael Posner, the director of NYU’s Stern Center, said in a statement that “taking steps to combat disinformation isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s in the social media companies’ best interests as well.”

“Fighting disinformation ultimately can help restore their damaged brand reputations and slows demands for governmental content regulation, which creates problems relating to free speech,” Posner added. “The platforms should seize this opportunity to implement sensible, necessary reforms that help build public trust and confidence in them while safeguarding our elections against improper interference.” 

Try this: The NYU report includes a list of recommendations that social media companies can consider to defend themselves against the spread of disinformation. 

These include improving the identification of deepfake videos, removing false content instead of opting not to promote it, stepping up efforts to patrol for disinformation on Instagram and WhatsApp, and hiring a senior content overseer to report to the CEO of each platform on efforts to guard against disinformation. 

Read more here. 


REMOVE TAG: Facebook plans to discontinue its photo-tagging suggestions feature and will allow all users to say they don’t want Facebook to use facial recognition technology on their photos, the company announced on Tuesday.

The social media giant’s announcement came after it began unveiling its face recognition feature two years ago. Face recognition tells users when a photo has been uploaded which includes their face.

Under the new system, Facebook will ask users whether they want to turn on the face recognition feature. This “opt-in” model will allow users to have more control over what Facebook does with data about their face.

“Starting today, people who newly join Facebook or who previously had the tag suggestions setting will have the face recognition setting and will receive information about how it works,” Facebook artificial intelligence (AI) researcher Srinivas Narayanan wrote in the blog post.

“The tag suggestions setting, which only controls whether we can suggest that your friends tag you in photos or videos using face recognition will no longer be available,” he added.

The face recognition feature will effectively replace the “tag suggestions” feature, which has been at the center of ongoing litigation.

Court battle: Last month, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Facebook must face a class-action lawsuit over whether it violated user privacy with its facial recognition tools.

The plaintiffs in the case have argued that Facebook violated an Illinois law — the most expansive of its kind in the country — when the company instituted “Tag Suggestions” without users’ explicit consent in 2010.

Facebook’s “Tag Suggestions” used facial recognition technology to suggest which users might be in the photo.

Read more here.


FACEBOOK VS DHS: Facebook said proposed plans by the Department of Homeland Security to create fake profiles to monitor foreign nationals’ social media activity would violate the platform’s rules, the Associated Press reported.

A Friday report indicated that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services rolled back a ban on officers using fake social media identities, with DHS saying the accounts will aid them in reviewing green card, visa and citizenship applications.

“Law enforcement authorities, like everyone else, are required to use their real names on Facebook and we make this policy clear,” Facebook spokeswoman Sarah Pollack told the AP. “Operating fake accounts is not allowed, and we will act on any violating accounts.”

The proposal would also violate Twitter rules against impersonation, but the platform told the AP it is still reviewing the practice.

Background: The State Department first began requiring visa applicants to submit their social media usernames in June, according to the AP. 

More on the controversy here.


SILICON VALLEY IN THE SPOTLIGHT: A Senate panel will hold a hearing later this month to examine antitrust concerns about Silicon Valley mergers as tech giants face heightened scrutiny over their market power.

The Senate Judiciary subcommittee on antitrust announced Tuesday that it would hold a hearing on Sept. 24 to “explore issues relating to competition in technology markets and the antitrust agencies’ efforts to root out anticompetitive conduct.”

“Acquisitions of nascent or potential competitors by dominant digital platforms can be pro-competitive, but they also run the risk of eliminating the very competition that may challenge the incumbent firm’s leading position in the future,” Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), chairman of the panel, said in a statement. “We are holding this hearing to gain a better understanding of the various concerns raised by these transactions and to examine how the antitrust agencies analyze such mergers.”

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), the subcommittee’s ranking Democrat and a 2020 presidential candidate, said the series of acquisitions that have propelled tech giants’ rapid growth over the years raise “serious competition issues.”

“Big technology companies have become some of the most powerful organizations in the world,” she said in a statement. “They face little competition and there are numerous examples of the companies purchasing startup competitors in various lines of business.”

What we don’t know: Who will testify. Lee said that, beyond the hearing, he’s interested in speaking with “policy analysts, market participants, and other stakeholders.”

Read more here. 


THE CALIFORNIA LAWMAKER TAKING ON UBER: A heated debate over a proposed California measure that would force employers such as Uber and Lyft to treat app-based workers as employees has sparked a million-dollar lobbying battle in the heart of the gig economy, a fight that could spill over to the ballot box next year.

The proposal, policy and economic analysts say, could cost some of California’s hottest tech companies such as Uber, Lyft and DoorDash billions of dollars in benefits and salaries they would have to begin paying for app-based workers.

Supporters of the bill say it is necessary to prevent mistreatment of workers who are misclassified as independent contractors when their employers should be treating them as employees who deserve benefits and a minimum wage.

The driving force behind the bill is Lorena Gonzalez, 47, a former labor organizer who represents parts of San Diego in the California Assembly. In an interview in her office in Sacramento, Gonzalez said she hoped to create clarity for businesses and workers in a rapidly evolving economy.

“In some ways, it’s appropriate for it to happen in California. We created the problem. Big tech is the reason we’ve been successful in so many ways, but it’s also the reason we have enormous and growing income inequality, homelessness and other problems in California,” Gonzalez said.

“It’s not about the future of work. It’s about the future of workers,” she said. “We as middle-class taxpayers are actually subsidizing these multibillion-dollar corporations who just are not paying their workers enough to get by.”

More on Gonzalez’s bill and what it could mean here. 


BAD NEWS FOR GOOGLE: Google will be the target of an antitrust investigation by a broad coalition of state attorneys general set to be announced as early as next week, The Washington Post reported on Tuesday.

According to the Post, more than half of the nation’s state attorneys general will be participating in the Google investigation, though it’s unclear which states are involved.

An investigation has been rumored for months amid the growing federal scrutiny that Silicon Valley is facing over potential antitrust violations.

A small group of state law enforcers met with Makan Delrahim, head of the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Antitrust Division, earlier this summer to discuss competition issues in Silicon Valley.

“Google’s services help people every day, create more choice for consumers, and support thousands of jobs and small businesses across the country,” a Google spokesman said in a statement. “We continue to work constructively with regulators, including attorneys general, in answering questions about our business and the dynamic technology sector.”

Read more on the announcement here.


MORE SECURITY PLEASE: Former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler stressed the need to zero in on protecting 5G wireless networks from cyber threats in a new paper published Tuesday by the Brookings Institution.

The paper, co-authored by David Simpson, the former chief of the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, makes the case for putting “equivalent – if not greater – focus on the security” of 5G networks as there is on the possibilities of the “connected future.”

“To build 5G on top of a weak cybersecurity foundation is to build on sand,” Wheeler and Simpson wrote in the paper. “This is not just a matter of the safety of network users, it is a matter of national security.” 

In an interview with The Hill, Wheeler highlighted the threat to 5G networks posed by the increasing number of internet-connected devices, many of which may not be secure against cyberattacks. 

“We shouldn’t be surprised that the networks of the 21st century are the new attack vectors, but these are different because they are expanded to an almost infinite number of attack vectors,” Wheeler said.

The former officials recommended two “key steps” to ensure the security of 5G networks. They said companies should be held responsible for a cybersecurity “duty of care.” The second step, they wrote, involves government establishing a new “cyber regulatory paradigm” to encourage government and industry to work together to address threats to 5G networks. 

Read more here. 


BYE BYE BYE: YouTube said Tuesday that it has removed more than 100,000 videos marked as hate speech under the platform’s new policy against bigoted and supremacist content.

The video-sharing giant said it removed more than 17,000 channels and 100,000 videos for violating its hate speech policy between April and June — the month in which the policy was instituted — a five-time increase in the number of removals in the first three months of the year.

Google-owned YouTube also said it has removed more than 500 million comments for hate speech, double the amount of removals in the first quarter of the year.

“The spikes in removal numbers are in part due to the removal of older comments, videos and channels that were previously permitted,” YouTube wrote in the post.

Overall in the second quarter of this year, YouTube removed more than 4 million channels — mostly for violating its policies against scams and spam — and more than 9 million videos. 

YouTube emphasized that it is focused on removing harmful or offensive content before it is viewed by any users on the site. According to the post, YouTube’s efforts have resulted in an 80 percent reduction in views on content that is later removed for violating the platform’s policies. 

Read more here. 


BYE BYE BYE, PART TWO: PayPal on Friday suspended an account used by an offshoot of the Ku Klux Klan nearly a week after activists flagged it, according to BBC News.

The company, which had pledged to “evaluate all sites” that could be using its service to fundraise for the hate group, suspended the account six days after it was first pointed out, according to the outlet.

The Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, which formed around 2012, linked on its website to a donation page which does not specifically reference the group but says it is intended to give “a donation blessing for the cause,” according to BBC News.

The page now displays a message that says it is “currently unable to receive money.”

The nearly weeklong delay from PayPal in suspending the account caused concern for some activists.

“I have tons of concerns that PayPal is not able to act quickly and decisively on hate groups,” Nandini Jammi of the activist group Sleeping Giants told BBC News.

“There are some examples of them acting in a fairly timely manner. But they’re not applying [their anti-hate policy] in a consistent enough manner,” she added.

Read more here.


AN INTERNATIONAL AFFAIR: The U.S. and Poland signed an agreement to cooperate on new 5G technology on Monday, the Associated Press reported.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki signed the deal with Vice President Mike Pence, who is filling in for President Trump on the trip while he stays in the U.S. due to Hurricane Dorian.

The agreement comes amid a global battle between the U.S. and Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei over network security.

The cooperation deal endorses principles to secure the next generation mobile network.

“Protecting these next generation communications networks from disruption or manipulation and ensuring the privacy and individual liberties of the citizens of the United States, Poland, and other countries is of vital importance,” the agreement says, according to AP.

Pence reportedly said the agreement would “set a vital example for the rest of Europe.

Read more here. 


LIGHTER CLICK: That didn’t go according to plan.


AN OP-ED TO CHEW ON: Politicians put too much weight on government’s “social media branch.



How to stop Russia from attacking and influencing the 2020 election. (Mother Jones)

Life in an Internet shutdown: crossing borders for email and contraband SIM cards. (The New York Times)

Amazon’s next-day delivery system has brought chaos and carnage to America’s streets–but the world’s biggest retailer has a system to escape the blame. (Buzzfeed News)

Tags Amy Klobuchar Donald Trump Google Mike Lee Mike Pence

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