Archives November 9, 2019

Digital Authoritarianism Is On the Rise Around the World, Report Warns

Internet freedom declined for a ninth consecutive year as governments around the world used social media to monitor citizens and manipulate elections, according to a new study that warned of creeping “digital authoritarianism.” Thirty-three of the 65 countries surveyed were found to have experienced worsening internet freedom since June 2018, compared with 16 that were found to have improving conditions. The study, conducted by Freedom House, a nonprofit human rights advocacy, said domestic disinformation had grown as a threat to democracy with populist leaders and their online supporters using the internet to distort political discussions. The organization found domestic interference in 26 of the 30 countries that held elections over the past year.

The report said internet freedom in the U.S. had declined, in large part because law enforcement and immigration agencies used social media to monitor people, though the country was still deemed “free.” China was dubbed the “worst abuser of internet freedom” for a fourth consecutive year as the government tightened information controls because of the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre and protests in Hong Kong. Noting that the biggest platforms were American, Freedom House called on the U.S. to lead in the effort to fix social media transparency and accountability. “This is the only way to stop the internet from becoming a Trojan horse for tyranny and oppression,” wrote Adrian Shahbaz, one of the authors of the report.

Leaked Documents Show Facebook Leveraged User Data To Help Friends and Fight Rivals

A cache of leaked Facebook documents shows how the company’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, oversaw plans to consolidate the social network’s power and control competitors by treating its users’ data as a bargaining chip. This trove comprises approximately 7,000 pages in total, of which about 4,000 are internal Facebook communications such as emails, web chats, notes, presentations and spreadsheets, primarily from 2011 to 2015. About 1,200 pages are marked as “highly confidential.” Taken together, they show how Zuckerberg, along with his board and management team, found ways to tap Facebook users’ data — including information about friends, relationships and photos — as leverage over the companies it partnered with. In some cases, Facebook would reward partners by giving them preferential access to certain types of user data while denying the same access to rival companies.

For example, Facebook gave Amazon special access to user data because it was spending money on Facebook advertising. In another case the messaging app MessageMe was cut off from access to data because it had grown too popular and could compete with Facebook. All the while, Facebook planned to publicly frame these moves as a way to protect user privacy, the documents show. State and federal authorities are now closely scrutinizing Facebook’s business practices. In October, New York Attorney General Letitia James announced that 47 attorneys general from states and U.S. territories plan to take part in a New York-led antitrust probe into Facebook. Over the summer, the House Judiciary Committee held hearings over antitrust concerns in Silicon Valley while the Federal Trade Commission also continues to examine the firm’s practices.

United States’ Department of Homeland Security Will Soon Have Biometric Data On Nearly 260 Million People

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) expects to have face, fingerprint, and iris scans of at least 259 million people in its biometrics database by 2022, according to a recent presentation from the agency’s Office of Procurement Operations reviewed by Quartz. That’s about 40 million more than the agency’s 2017 projections, which estimated 220 million unique identities by 2022, according to previous figures cited by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a San Francisco-based privacy rights nonprofit.

A slide deck, shared with attendees at an Oct. 30 DHS industry day, includes a breakdown of what its systems currently contain, as well as an estimate of what the next few years will bring. The agency is transitioning from a legacy system called IDENT to a cloud-based system (hosted by Amazon Web Services) known as Homeland Advanced Recognition Technology, or HART. The biometrics collection maintained by DHS is the world’s second-largest, behind only India’s countrywide biometric ID network in size. The traveler data kept by DHS is shared with other U.S. agencies, state and local law enforcement, as well as foreign governments.

Mozilla Hits Google, Facebook For ‘Microtargeting’ Political Ads

Microtargeting, a method which uses consumer data and demographics to narrowly segment audiences, is used by political campaigns to specialize ads for different voting groups. The practice’s critics include Federal Election Commission Chairwoman Ellen Weintraub, who wrote in a Washington Post op-ed that microtargeting makes it “easy to single out susceptible groups and direct political misinformation to them with little accountability, because the public at large never sees the ad.” Mozilla’s call follows reports that Facebook has considered restricting politicians’ access to microtargeting.