Overnight Technology

Hillicon Valley: Senators raise concerns over government surveillance of protests | Amazon pauses police use of its facial recognition tech | FBI warns hackers are targeting mobile banking apps

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Welcome! Follow our cyber reporter, Maggie Miller (@magmill95), and tech reporter, Chris Mills Rodrigo (@chrisismills), for more coverage.

PROTEST SURVEILLANCE CONCERNS: Three Democratic senators are raising concerns about government surveillance of anti-police brutality protests that have erupted across the nation following the death of George Floyd.

In a letter to departments of Justice and Homeland Security, the lawmakers pointed to reports that the agencies may be using facial recognition technology to identify individuals participating in the peaceful demonstrations.

In particular, they noted that some police departments have partnered with Clearview AI, a controversial facial recognition company that has been under intense scrutiny since it was discovered to have amassed a database of more than 3 billion photos collected by scraping social media.

“The federal government’s use of technology to identify each individual at a demonstration en masse has a chilling effect on all of our protected First Amendment activities,” Democratic Sens. Cory Booker (N.J.), Sherrod Brown (Ohio) and Ron Wyden (Ore.) wrote to Attorney General William Barr and Acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf.

“Identifying Americans who are peacefully demonstrating using existing facial recognition technology is particularly dangerous because this information would be of dubious accuracy and could be stolen or otherwise leaked,” they continued.

Read more about the senators’ concerns here.


AMAZON HITS PAUSE: Amazon on Wednesday announced that it is placing a one-year moratorium on police use of its facial recognition technology, Rekognition.

“We’ve advocated that governments should put in place stronger regulations to govern the ethical use of facial recognition technology, and in recent days, Congress appears ready to take on this challenge,” the company wrote in a blog post.

“We hope this one-year moratorium might give Congress enough time to implement appropriate rules, and we stand ready to help if requested.”

Amazon said it will still allow organizations to use Rekognition for work tracking human trafficking victims and finding missing children.

The company’s decision to block police use of its facial recognition comes amid concern from activists and civil rights groups that law enforcement may be using the technology to identify individuals participating in the anti-police brutality demonstrations that have erupted across the nation since the death of George Floyd.

It also comes on the heels of IBM ending its own facial recognition business.

Read more about the decision here.

HACKERS WANT YOUR MONEY, AS USUAL: The FBI on Wednesday warned that malicious cyber actors are targeting mobile banking apps in an attempt to steal money as more Americans have moved to online banking during the coronavirus pandemic.

In a public service announcement, the FBI noted it expects to see hackers “exploit” mobile banking platforms, which have seen a 50 percent surge in use since the beginning of the pandemic.

“With city, state, and local governments urging or mandating social distancing, Americans have become more willing to use mobile banking as an alternative to physically visiting branch locations,” the agency wrote. “The FBI expects cyber actors to attempt to exploit new mobile banking customers using a variety of techniques, including app-based banking trojans and fake banking apps.”

The FBI specifically pointed to the threat of banking trojans, which involve a malicious virus hiding on a user’s mobile device until a legitimate banking app is downloaded. Once the real app is on the device, the banking trojan then overlays the app, tricking the user into clicking on it and inputting their banking login credentials.

Fake banking apps were also cited as a threat, with users in danger of being tricked into downloading malicious apps that also steal sensitive banking information. 

In order to combat these threats, the FBI recommended that Americans only download banking apps from official app stores or from banking websites, and that banking app users enable two-factor authentication on their accounts and use strong passwords.

“If you encounter an app that appears suspicious, exercise caution and contact that financial institution,” the FBI emphasized. “Major financial institutions may ask for a banking PIN number, but will never ask for your username and password over the phone.”

Read more about the threat to banking apps here.


ZUCKERBERG UNDER PRESSURE: The Democratic members of the House Homeland Security committee sent a letter to Mark Zuckerberg Wednesday urging him to take action against President Trump‘s Facebook posts.

The lawmakers pointed to posts in the last few weeks where the president suggested without evidence that “Morning Joe” co-host Joe Scarborough was involved in the death of one of his former congressional staffers and one where he said “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” about anti-police brutality protests following the killing of George Floyd.

Zuckerberg has been under intense internal and external pressure on the second post, which the Facebook CEO chose to leave untouched, despite it soliciting responses from Twitter and Snapchat.

Facebook employees have staged digital walk outs in protest, and civil rights leaders have criticized Zuckerberg’s unwillingness to budge. 

“[I]n recent weeks, you have had the opportunity to receive informed, experienced advice of civil rights leaders and had the ear of the President, but you have failed to take responsibility to use your privilege to stand up for the people the President targets with his violent rhetoric,” the Democratic lawmakers, led by Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), wrote.

Read more about the letter to Zuckerberg here.


READ TO THE END: Twitter is testing a new tool that prompts users to open articles before retweeting them.

The pilot program announced Wednesday is currently limited to Android users in English. 

The test will be run “for at least a few weeks to get enough data to make an informed decision on next steps,” a company spokesperson told The Hill.

“Sharing an article can spark conversation, so you may want to read it before you Tweet it,” Twitter Support tweeted.

“To help promote informed discussion, we’re testing a new prompt on Android — when you Retweet an article that you haven’t opened on Twitter, we may ask if you’d like to open it first,” it added.

This is the latest in a series of tests Twitter has run aimed at improving discourse on the platform and limiting misinformation.

Read more about the policy here.


COPYCAT CONCERNS: Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) urged the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) on Wednesday to investigate Zynn, a clone of short-form video app TikTok that pays users to watch videos and has rocketed up app store charts.

Zynn’s layout is nearly identical to that of TikTok, an app from rival Beijing-based company ByteDance that has well over 100 million downloads in the United States. Zynn is created by Kuaishou, another Chinese company.

Kuaishou runs the second biggest video app in China, only trailing Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok. Unlike TikTok, however, Zynn claims to pay users both to watch videos and get their friends to sign up.

Hawley said in his letter to the FTC that Zynn’s payment system “smacks of a textbook predatory-pricing scheme.”

“The most substantial payments come from referrals: just like a traditional pyramid scheme, users receive exponentially larger payouts once they successfully convince others to install Zynn on their own devices,” he wrote. “The more devices on which Zynn is installed, the more money early adopters can make.”

The Republican senator also raised concerns about the company’s ties to China.

He said that the app may be used to “empower Chinese leadership to pry into the private affairs of Americans by hoovering up enormous amounts of information,” alluding to a 2017 law that requires Chinese companies to comply with data requests for state intelligence work. 

Read more about Hawley’s concerns here.


BAD NEWS FOR ROBOCALLERS: The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on Tuesday proposed its largest-ever fine against two health insurance telemarketers for spamming 1 billion people with robocalls using fake phone numbers.

The FCC said in documents on the $225 million fine that John Spiller and Jakob Mears were responsible for the calls through two different companies: Rising Eagle and JSquared Telecom.

Spiller and Mears will have the opportunity to respond to the FCC’s proposed fine.

The state attorneys general of Arkansas, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio and Texas all sued the two men, along with their companies, in federal court in Texas, where Spiller and Mears reside, for violation of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act.

The FCC said the robocalls offered plans from insurers like Aetna or UnitedHealth via an automated message. However, if consumers pressed a button, they would be transferred to a call center that sold unrelated plans.

The communications regulator added that last year, the attorney general of Missouri sued Rising Eagle’s biggest client, Health Advisors of America, over telemarketing violations.

The FCC said that for more than four months in the early part of 2019, the telemarketers concealed their caller ID using fake numbers, with the intent to deceive customers while purposefully calling people on the national do-not-call list.

Read more about the FCC fine here.


JUNETEENTH CELEBRATIONS: Twitter and Square will make Juneteenth a company holiday, CEO Jack Dorsey announced Tuesday.

The holiday, celebrated June 19th, marks the day Gen. Gordon Granger in 1865 read the Emancipation Proclamation to former slaves in Texas, the final state where emancipation was announced after the proclamation was issued in 1863.

The holiday has been observed among African Americans as a celebration of emancipation since at least 1866 and is recognized as a state holiday or observance in 47 states.

In a pair of tweets Tuesday, Dorsey confirmed the companies would make the day a holiday every year going forward, adding “Countries and regions around the world have their own days to celebrate emancipation, and we will do the work to make those dates company holidays everywhere we are present.”

Read more about the new company policy here.


ONGOING HEADACHE: Senate Republicans are facing new headaches from an old source: President Trump’s Twitter account.

The president this month has weighed in on the handling of protesters, called out several Republican senators by name and, most recently, amplified a conspiracy theory about a 75-year-old man injured by police in Buffalo, N.Y.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) distanced himself from the president’s latest tweets on Tuesday but acknowledged that GOP senators would also largely prefer to not have to talk about Trump’s social media habits.

“Most of us up here would rather not be political commentators on the president’s tweets because that’s a daily exercise,” Thune said.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who is retiring, said he would leave it up to others, including the “distinguished media,” to evaluate Trump’s tweets.

“The voters can evaluate that,” he added. “I’m not going to give a running commentary on the president’s tweets.”

Trump’s Twitter account has been a persistent headache for congressional Republicans, many of whom outsource their own message-disciplined social media accounts to their staff. But Trump’s tweets have been a key source for news, with the president using it to fire top staff, announce executive orders, opine on legislation and even vent against members of his own party.

The president tweets, sometimes hundreds of times a day. GOP lawmakers are then asked to weigh in, forcing them to decide whether to break with Trump, support him or, in many cases, say they haven’t seen the tweet in question — extending the news cycle.

Read more about the tweets here.


Lighter click: Little bit of tech humor for you all

An op-ed to chew on: Websites need to become ‘places of public accommodation’ under the Americans with Disabilities Act


Amazon, Facebook and Google turn to deep network of political allies to battle back antitrust probes (Washington Post / Tony Romm)

Facebook helped the FBI hack a child predator (Vice Motherboard / Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai) 

Facebook should face liability over ads, top House Democrat says (Bloomberg / Rebecca Kern and Ben Brody)

Just Eat Takeaway.com nears all-stock deal for Grubhub (Wall Street Journal / Cara Lombardo, Dana Cimilluca and Ben Dummett)

Zoom closes account of U.S.-based Chinese activist after Tiananmen event (Axios / Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian)

Congress seeks answers on Juniper Networks breach amid encryption fight (Reuters / Joseph Menn) 

Tags Bennie Thompson Chad Wolf Cory Booker Donald Trump Joe Scarborough John Thune Josh Hawley Lamar Alexander Mark Zuckerberg Ron Wyden Sherrod Brown William Barr

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