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US Used Patriot Act To Gather Logs of Website Visitors

The government has interpreted a high-profile provision of the Patriot Act as empowering F.B.I. national security investigators to collect logs showing who has visited particular web pages, documents show. But the government stops short of using that law to collect the keywords people submit to internet search engines because it considers such terms to be content that requires a warrant to gather, according to letters produced by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The disclosures come at a time when Congress is struggling with new proposals to limit the law, known as Section 215 of the Patriot Act. The debate ran aground in the spring amid erratic messages from President Trump, but is expected to resume after President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. takes the oath of office in January.

In May, 59 senators voted to bar the use of Section 215 to collect internet search terms or web browsing activity, but negotiations broke down in the House. During that period, Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon and one of the sponsors of the proposal ban, wrote to the director of national intelligence seeking clarity about any such use. Six months later, the Trump administration finally replied — initially, it turned out, in a misleading way. In a Nov. 6 letter to Mr. Wyden, John Ratcliffe, the intelligence director, wrote that Section 215 was not used to gather internet search terms, and that none of the 61 orders issued last year under that law by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court involved collection of “web browsing” records. Mr. Wyden’s office provided that letter to The New York Times, arguing that it meant Mr. Wyden’s proposal in May — which he sponsored with Senator Steve Daines, Republican of Montana — could be enacted into law without any operational costs.

But The Times pressed Mr. Ratcliffe’s office and the F.B.I. to clarify whether it was defining “web browsing” activity to encompass logging all visitors to a particular website, in addition to a particular person’s browsing among different sites. The next day, the Justice Department sent a clarification to Mr. Ratcliffe’s office, according to a follow-up letter he sent to Mr. Wyden on Nov. 25. In fact, “one of those 61 orders resulted in the production of information that could be characterized as information regarding browsing,” Mr. Ratcliffe wrote in the second letter. Specifically, one order had approved collection of logs revealing which computers “in a specified foreign country” had visited “a single, identified U.S. web page.” Mr. Ratcliffe expressed regret “that this additional information was not included in my earlier letter” to the senator, and suggested his staff might take further “corrective action.” In a statement, Mr. Wyden said the letters raise “all kinds of new questions, including whether, in this particular case, the government has taken steps to avoid collecting Americans’ web browsing information.” “More generally,” Mr. Wyden continued, “the D.N.I. has provided no guarantee that the government wouldn’t use the Patriot Act to intentionally collect Americans’ web browsing information in the future, which is why Congress must pass the warrant requirement that has already received support from a bipartisan majority in the Senate.”

Google Illegally Spied On Workers Before Firing Them, US Labor Board Alleges

Google violated US labor laws by spying on workers who were organizing employee protests, then firing two of them, according to a complaint to be filed by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) today. The complaint names two employees, Laurence Berland and Kathryn Spiers, both of whom were fired by the company in late 2019 in connection with employee activism. Berland was organizing against Google’s decision to work with IRI Consultants, a firm widely known for its anti-union efforts, when he was let go for reviewing other employees’ calendars. Now, the NLRB has found Google’s policy against employees looking at certain coworkers’ calendars is unlawful. “Google’s hiring of IRI is an unambiguous declaration that management will no longer tolerate worker organizing,” Berland said in a statement. “Management and their union busting cronies wanted to send that message, and the NLRB is now sending their own message: worker organizing is protected by law.”

Spiers was fired after she created a pop-up for Google employees visiting the IRI Consultants website. “Googlers have the right to participate in protected concerted activities,” the notification read, according to The Guardian. The company said Spiers had violated security policies, a statement that hurt her reputation in the tech community. Now, the NLRB has found the firing was unlawful. “This week the NLRB issued a complaint on my behalf. They found that I was illegally terminated for trying to help my colleagues,” Spiers said. “Colleagues and strangers believe I abused my role because of lies told by Google management while they were retaliating against me. The NLRB can order Google to reinstate me, but it cannot reverse the harm done to my credibility.”

Human ‘Stuff’ Now Outweighs All Life on Earth

It’s not just your storage unit that’s packed to the gills. According to a new study, the mass of all our stuff — buildings, roads, cars, and everything else we manufacture — now exceeds the weight of all living things on the planet. And the amount of new material added every week equals the total weight of Earth’s nearly 8 billion people. “If you weren’t convinced before that humans are dominating the planet, then you should be convinced now,” says Timon McPhearson, an urban ecologist at the New School who was not involved with the research. “This is an eye-catching comparison,” adds Fridolin Krausmann, a social ecologist at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna, who also was not involved in the work. There are many measures of humanity’s impact on the planet. Fossil fuels have sent greenhouse gases soaring to levels not seen in at least 800,000 years. Agriculture and dwellings have altered 70% of land. And humans have wiped out untold numbers of species in an emerging great extinction. The transformations are so great that researchers have declared we’re living in a new human-dominated age: the Anthropocene.

Report Claims America’s CIA Also Controlled a Second Swiss Encryption Firm

Swiss politicians have voiced outrage and demanded an investigation after revelations that a second Swiss encryption company was allegedly used by the CIA and its German counterpart to spy on governments worldwide. “How can such a thing happen in a country that claims to be neutral like Switzerland?” co-head of Switzerland’s Socialist Party, Cedric Wermuth, asked in an interview with Swiss public broadcaster SRF late Thursday. He called for a parliamentary inquiry after an SRF investigation broadcast on Wednesday found that a second Swiss encryption firm had been part of a spectacular espionage scheme orchestrated by U.S. and German intelligence services.

A first investigation had revealed back in February an elaborate, decades-long set-up, in which the CIA and its German counterpart creamed off the top-secret communications of governments through their hidden control of a Swiss encryption company called Crypto.

SRF’s report this week found that a second but smaller Swiss encryption firm, Omnisec, had been used in the same way.

That company, which was split off from Swiss cryptographic equipment maker Gretag in 1987, sold voice, fax and data encryption equipment to governments around the world until it halted operations two years ago. SRF’s investigative program Rundschau concluded that, like Crypto, Omnisec had sold manipulated equipment to foreign governments and armies. Omnisec meanwhile also sold its faulty OC-500 series devices to several federal agencies in Switzerland, including its own intelligence agencies, as well as to Switzerland’s largest bank, UBS, and other private companies in the country, the SRF investigation showed.

The findings unleashed fresh outrage in Switzerland, which is still reeling from the Crypto revelations.

Microsoft Also Patented Tech to Score Meetings Using Filmed Body Language, Facial Expressions

Newly surfaced Microsoft patent filings describe a system for deriving and predicting “overall quality scores” for meetings using data such as body language, facial expressions, room temperature, time of day, and number of people in the meeting. The system uses cameras, sensors, and software tools to determine, for example, “how much a participant contributes to a meeting vs performing other tasks (e.g., texting, checking email, browsing the Internet).”

The “meeting insight computing system” would then predict the likelihood that a group will hold a high-quality meeting. It would flag potential challenges when an organizer is setting the meeting up, and recommend alternative venues, times, or people to include in the meeting, for example… A patent application made public Nov. 12 notes, “many organizations are plagued by overly long, poorly attended, and recurring meetings that could be modified and/or avoided if more information regarding meeting quality was available.” The approach would apply to in-person and virtual meetings, and hybrids of the two…

The filings do not detail any potential privacy safeguards. A Microsoft spokesperson declined to comment on the patent filings in response to GeekWire’s inquiry. To be sure, patents are not products, and there’s no sign yet that Microsoft plans to roll out this hypothetical system. Microsoft has established an internal artificial intelligence ethics office and a companywide committee to ensure that its AI products live by its principles of responsible AI, including transparency and privacy. However, the filings are a window into the ideas floating around inside Microsoft, and they’re consistent with the direction the company is already heading.

Conspiracy Theorists Who’d First Popularized QAnon Now Accused of Financial Motives

In November 2017, a small-time YouTube video creator and two moderators of the 4chan website, one of the most extreme message boards on the internet, banded together and plucked out of obscurity an anonymous and cryptic post from the many conspiracy theories that populated the website’s message board. Over the next several months, they would create videos, a Reddit community, a business and an entire mythology based off the 4chan posts of “Q,” the pseudonym of a person claiming to be a high-ranking military officer. The theory they espoused would become Qanon, and it would eventually make its way from those message boards to national media stories and the rallies of President Donald Trump.

Now, the people behind that effort are at the center of a fractious debate among conspiracy enthusiasts, some of whom believe the three people who first popularized the Qanon theory are promoting it in order to make a living. Others suggest that these original followers actually wrote Q’s mysterious posts…

Qanon was just another unremarkable part of the “anon” genre until November 2017, when two moderators of the 4chan board where Q posted predictions, who went by the usernames Pamphlet Anon [real name: Coleman Rogers] and BaruchtheScribe, reached out to Tracy Diaz, according to Diaz’s blogs and YouTube videos. BaruchtheScribe, in reality a self-identified web programmer from South Africa named Paul Furber, confirmed that account to NBC News. “A bunch of us decided that the message needed to go wider so we contacted Youtubers who had been commenting on the Q drops,” Furber said in an email… As Diaz tells it in a blog post detailing her role in the early days of Qanon, she banded together with the two moderators. Their goal, according to Diaz, was to build a following for Qanon — which would mean bigger followings for them as well… Diaz followed with dozens more Q-themed videos, each containing a call for viewers to donate through links to her Patreon and PayPal accounts. Diaz’s YouTube channel now boasts more than 90,000 subscribers and her videos have been watched over 8 million times. More than 97,000 people follow her on Twitter.

Diaz, who emerged from bankruptcy in 2009, says in her YouTube videos that she now relies on donations from patrons funding her YouTube “research” as her sole source of income. Diaz declined to comment on this story. “Because I cover Q, I got an audience,” Diaz acknowledged in a video that NBC News reviewed last week before she deleted it.

To reach a more mainstream audience (older people and “normies,” who on their own would have trouble navigating the fringe message boards), Diaz said in her blog post she recommended they move to the more user-friendly Reddit. Archives listing the three as the original posters and moderators show they created a new Reddit community… Their move to Reddit was key to Qanon’s eventual spread. There, they were able to tap into a larger audience of conspiracy theorists, and drive discussion with their analysis of each Q post. From there, Qanon crept to Facebook where it found a new, older audience via dozens of public and private groups…

As Qanon picked up steam, growing skepticism over the motives of Diaz, Rogers, and the other early Qanon supporters led some in the internet’s conspiracy circles to turn their paranoia on the group. Recently, some Qanon followers have accused Diaz and Rogers of profiting from the movement by soliciting donations from their followers. Other pro-Trump online groups have questioned the roles that Diaz and Rogers have played in promoting Q, pointing to a series of slip-ups that they say show Rogers and Diaz may have been involved in the theory from the start.

Those accusations have led Diaz and Rogers to both deny that they are Q and say they don’t know who Q is.

Demand For Employee Surveillance Increased As Workers Transitioned To Home Working

A new study shows that the demand for employee surveillance software was up 55% in June 2020 compared to the pre-pandemic average. From webcam access to random screenshot monitoring, these surveillance software products can record almost everything an employee does on their computer. VPN review website Top10VPN used its global monitoring data to analyze over 200 terms related to employee surveillance software. It took into account both generic and brand-specific queries for its study which compared searches during March-May 2020 with internet searches in the preceding year. Global demand for employee monitoring software increased by 108% in April, and 70% in May 2020 compared with searches carried out the preceding year. Queries for “How to monitor employees working from home” increased by 1,705% in April and 652% in May 2020 compared with searches carried out the preceding year.

The surge in popularity of such an open-ended phrase like this reveals how unprepared many companies were for the abrupt shift to mass home-working. The most popular surveillance tools are Time Doctor, Hubstaff, and FlexiSPY. The tools with the biggest increase in demand include Teramind, DeskTime, Kickidler, and Time Doctor, with interest for the latter tripling compared to the pre-pandemic levels. The top three tools account for almost 60% of global demand in surveillance software because of the range of features offered. The radical shift away from office-working has clearly made employers nervous about a reduction in productivity and its potential impact on their business. Greater surveillance, however, may actually reduce long-term productivity. Your boss watching your every move may make you less productive in the long run and could significantly impact your feelings about the company itself.

Swiss Government Long in Dark Over CIA Front Company

The Swiss intelligence service has known since at least 1993 that Switzerland-based encryption device maker Crypto AG was actually a front for the CIA and its German counterpart, according to a new report released by the Swiss Parliament, but Swiss leaders were in the dark until last year. From a report:
Switzerland’s intra-governmental information gap is unlikely to be welcome news in Europe, which already looks warily upon the U.S.’ expansive surveillance practices. Still, Crypto AG provided information of incalculable value to U.S. policymakers over many decades. Crypto AG was controlled from 1970 on by the CIA and the West German BND intelligence agency. It sold encryption devices — often employed in diplomatic communications — that were used by over 120 countries through the 2000s.

Six Reasons Why Google Maps Is the Creepiest App On Your Phone

VICE has highlighted six reasons why Google Maps is the creepiest app on your phone. An anonymous reader shares an excerpt from the report:

1. Google Maps Wants Your Search History: Google’s “Web & App Activity” settings describe how the company collects data, such as user location, to create a faster and “more personalized” experience. In plain English, this means that every single place you’ve looked up in the app — whether it’s a strip club, a kebab shop or your moped-riding drug dealer’s location — is saved and integrated into Google’s search engine algorithm for a period of 18 months. Google knows you probably find this creepy. That’s why the company uses so-called “dark patterns” — user interfaces crafted to coax us into choosing options we might not otherwise, for example by highlighting an option with certain fonts or brighter colors.

2. Google Maps Limits Its Features If You Don’t Share Your Search History: If you open your Google Maps app, you’ll see a circle in the top right corner that signifies you’re logged in with your Google account. That’s not necessary, and you can simply log out. Of course, the log out button is slightly hidden, but can be found like this: click on the circle > Settings > scroll down > Log out of Google Maps. Unfortunately, Google Maps won’t let you save frequently visited places if you’re not logged into your Google account. If you choose not to log in, when you click on the search bar you get a “Tired of typing?” button, suggesting you sign in, and coaxing you towards more data collection.

3. Google Maps Can Snitch On You: Another problematic feature is the “Google Maps Timeline,” which “shows an estimate of places you may have been and routes you may have taken based on your Location History.” With this feature, you can look at your personal travel routes on Google Maps, including the means of transport you probably used, such as a car or a bike. The obvious downside is that your every move is known to Google, and to anyone with access to your account. And that’s not just hackers — Google may also share data with government agencies such as the police. […] If your “Location History” is on, your phone “saves where you go with your devices, even when you aren’t using a specific Google service,” as is explained in more detail on this page. This feature is useful if you lose your phone, but also turns it into a bonafide tracking device.

4. Google Maps Wants to Know Your Habits: Google Maps often asks users to share a quick public rating. “How was Berlin Burger? Help others know what to expect,” suggests the app after you’ve picked up your dinner. This feels like a casual, lighthearted question and relies on the positive feeling we get when we help others. But all this info is collected in your Google profile, making it easier for someone to figure out if you’re visiting a place briefly and occasionally (like on holiday) or if you live nearby.

5. Google Maps Doesn’t Like It When You’re Offline: Remember GPS navigation? It might have been clunky and slow, but it’s a good reminder that you don’t need to be connected to the internet to be directed. In fact, other apps offer offline navigation. On Google, you can download maps, but offline navigation is only available for cars. It seems fairly unlikely the tech giant can’t figure out how to direct pedestrians and cyclists without internet.

6. Google Makes It Seem Like This Is All for Your Own Good: “Providing useful, meaningful experiences is at the core of what Google does,” the company says on its website, adding that knowing your location is important for this reason. They say they use this data for all kinds of useful things, like “security” and “language settings” — and, of course, selling ads. Google also sells advertisers the possibility to evaluate how well their campaigns reached their target (that’s you!) and how often people visited their physical shops “in an anonymized and aggregated manner”. But only if you opt in (or you forget to opt out).

Your Computer Isn’t Yours

On modern versions of macOS, you simply can’t power on your computer, launch a text editor or eBook reader, and write or read, without a log of your activity being transmitted and stored. It turns out that in the current version of the macOS, the OS sends to Apple a hash (unique identifier) of each and every program you run, when you run it. Lots of people didn’t realize this, because it’s silent and invisible and it fails instantly and gracefully when you’re offline, but today the server got really slow and it didn’t hit the fail-fast code path, and everyone’s apps failed to open if they were connected to the internet. Because it does this using the internet, the server sees your IP, of course, and knows what time the request came in. An IP address allows for coarse, city-level and ISP-level geolocation, and allows for a table that has the following headings: Date, Time, Computer, ISP, City, State, Application Hash; Apple (or anyone else) can, of course, calculate these hashes for common programs: everything in the App Store, the Creative Cloud, Tor Browser, cracking or reverse engineering tools, whatever.

This means that Apple knows when you’re at home. When you’re at work. What apps you open there, and how often. They know when you open Premiere over at a friend’s house on their Wi-Fi, and they know when you open Tor Browser in a hotel on a trip to another city. “Who cares?” I hear you asking. Well, it’s not just Apple. This information doesn’t stay with them: These OCSP requests are transmitted unencrypted. Everyone who can see the network can see these, including your ISP and anyone who has tapped their cables. These requests go to a third-party CDN run by another company, Akamai. Since October of 2012, Apple is a partner in the US military intelligence community’s PRISM spying program, which grants the US federal police and military unfettered access to this data without a warrant, any time they ask for it. In the first half of 2019 they did this over 18,000 times, and another 17,500+ times in the second half of 2019.

This data amounts to a tremendous trove of data about your life and habits, and allows someone possessing all of it to identify your movement and activity patterns. For some people, this can even pose a physical danger to them. Now, it’s been possible up until today to block this sort of stuff on your Mac using a program called Little Snitch (really, the only thing keeping me using macOS at this point). In the default configuration, it blanket allows all of this computer-to-Apple communication, but you can disable those default rules and go on to approve or deny each of these connections, and your computer will continue to work fine without snitching on you to Apple. The version of macOS that was released today, 11.0, also known as Big Sur, has new APIs that prevent Little Snitch from working the same way. The new APIs don’t permit Little Snitch to inspect or block any OS level processes. Additionally, the new rules in macOS 11 even hobble VPNs so that Apple apps will simply bypass them.

LidarPhone Attack Converts Smart Vacuums Into Microphones

A team of academics has detailed this week novel research that converted a smart vacuum cleaner into a microphone capable of recording nearby conversations. Named LidarPhone, the technique works by taking the vacuum’s built-in LiDAR laser-based navigational component and converting it into a laser microphone. […] They tested the LidarPhone attack with various objects, by varying the distance between the robot and the object, and the distance between the sound origin and the object. Tests focused on recovering numerical values, which the research team said they managed to recover with a 90% accuracy. But academics said the technique could also be used to identify speakers based on gender or even determine their political orientation from the music played during news shows, captured by the vacuum’s LiDAR.

But while the LidarPhone attack sounds like a gross invasion of privacy, users need not panic for the time being. This type of attack revolves around many prerequisites that most attacks won’t bother. There are far easier ways of spying on users than overwriting a vacuum’s firmware to control its laser navigation system, such as tricking the user on installing malware on their phone. The LidarPhone attack is merely novel academic research that can be used to bolster the security and design of future smart vacuum robots. In fact, the research team’s main recommended countermeasure for smart vacuum cleaning robot makers is to shut down the LiDAR component if it’s not rotating. Additional details about the research are available in a research paper titled “Spying with Your Robot Vacuum Cleaner: Eavesdropping via Lidar Sensors.”

Cheating-Detection Software Provokes ‘School-Surveillance Revolt’

New webcam-based anti-cheating monitoring is so stressful, it’s made some students cry, the Washington Post reports.

“Online proctoring” companies saw in coronavirus shutdowns a chance to capitalize on a major reshaping of education, selling schools a high-tech blend of webcam-watching workers and eye-tracking software designed to catch students cheating on their exams. They’ve taken in millions of dollars, some of it public money, from thousands of colleges in recent months. But they’ve also sparked a nationwide school-surveillance revolt, with students staging protests and adopting creative tactics to push campus administrators to reconsider the deals. Students argue that the testing systems have made them afraid to click too much or rest their eyes for fear they’ll be branded as cheats…

One system, Proctorio, uses gaze-detection, face-detection and computer-monitoring software to flag students for any “abnormal” head movement, mouse movement, eye wandering, computer window resizing, tab opening, scrolling, clicking, typing, and copies and pastes. A student can be flagged for finishing the test too quickly, or too slowly, clicking too much, or not enough. If the camera sees someone else in the background, a student can be flagged for having “multiple faces detected.” If someone else takes the test on the same network — say, in a dorm building — it’s potential “exam collusion.” Room too noisy, Internet too spotty, camera on the fritz? Flag, flag, flag.

As an unusually disrupted fall semester churns toward finals, this student rebellion has erupted into online war, with lawsuits, takedowns and viral brawls further shaking the anxiety-inducing backdrop of college exams. Some students have even tried to take the software down from the inside, digging through the code for details on how it monitors millions of high-stakes exams… Some students said the experience of having strangers and algorithms silently judge their movements was deeply unnerving, and many worried that even being accused of cheating could endanger their chances at good grades, scholarships, internships and post-graduation careers. Several students said they had hoped for freeing, friend-filled college years but were now resigned to hours of monitored video exams in their childhood bedrooms, with no clear end in sight….

[T]he systems’ technical demands have made just taking the tests almost comically complicated. One student at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario shared the instructions for his online Introduction to Linear Algebra midterm: five pages, totaling more than 2,000 words, requiring students to use a special activity-monitoring Web browser and keep their face, hands and desk in view of their camera at all times…

Students who break the rules or face technical difficulties can be investigated for academic misconduct. “The instructions,” the student said, “are giving me more anxiety than the test itself.”

Company executives “say a semester without proctors would turn online testing into a lawless wasteland” according to the article. But one long-time teacher counters that “the most clear value conveyed to students is ‘We don’t trust you.'”

Yet the education tech nonprofit Educause reported that 54% of higher education institutions they’d surveyed “are currently using online or remote proctoring services.

“And another 23% are planning or considering using them.”

Seeing no longer means believing

Manipulated images, whether for entertainment or disinformation, are common on social media. But with millions of images and thousands of hours of video uploaded every day, how to sort the real from the fake?

If you use social media, the chances are you see (and forward) some of the more than 3.2 billion images and 720,000 hours of video shared daily. When faced with such a glut of content, how can we know what’s real and what’s not? While one part of the solution is an increased use of content verification tools, it’s equally important we all boost our digital media literacy. Ultimately, one of the best lines of defence — and the only one you can control — is you.

Misinformation (when you accidentally share false content) and disinformation (when you intentionally share it) in any medium can erode trust in civil institutions such as news organisations, coalitions and social movements. However, fake photos and videos are often the most potent.

For those with a vested political interest, creating, sharing and/or editing false images can distract, confuse and manipulate viewers to sow discord and uncertainty (especially in already polarised environments). Posters and platforms can also make money from the sharing of fake, sensationalist content.

Only 11-25% of journalists globally use social media content verification tools, according to the International Centre for Journalists.
Could you spot a doctored image?

Consider this photo of Martin Luther King Jr. pic.twitter.com/5W38DRaLHr This altered image clones part of the background over King Jr’s finger, so it looks like he’s flipping off the camera. It has been shared as genuine on Twitter, Reddit and white supremacist websites.

In the original 1964 photo, King flashed the “V for victory” sign after learning the US Senate had passed the civil rights bill.

Beyond adding or removing elements, there’s a whole category of photo manipulation in which images are fused together.

Earlier this year, a photo of an armed man was photoshopped by Fox News, which overlaid the man onto other scenes without disclosing the edits, the Seattle Times reported.

Similarly, the image below was shared thousands of times on social media in January, during Australia’s Black Summer bushfires. The AFP’s fact check confirmed it is not authentic and is actually a combination of several separate photos.

Fully and partially synthetic content

Online, you’ll also find sophisticated “deepfake” videos showing (usually famous) people saying or doing things they never did. Less advanced versions can be created using apps such as Zao and Reface.

A team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology created this fake video showing US President Richard Nixon reading lines from a speech crafted in case the 1969 moon landing failed. (Youtube)

Or, if you don’t want to use your photo for a profile picture, you can default to one of several websites offering hundreds of thousands of AI-generated, photorealistic images of people.
AI-generated faces.
These people don’t exist, they’re just images generated by artificial intelligence.
Generated Photos, CC BY
Editing pixel values and the (not so) simple crop

Cropping can greatly alter the context of a photo, too.

We saw this in 2017, when a US government employee edited official pictures of Donald Trump’s inauguration to make the crowd appear bigger, according to The Guardian. The staffer cropped out the empty space “where the crowd ended” for a set of pictures for Trump.
Views of the crowds at the inaugurations of former US President Barack Obama in 2009 (left) and President Donald Trump in 2017 (right).
AP

But what about edits that only alter pixel values such as colour, saturation or contrast?

One historical example illustrates the consequences of this. In 1994, Time magazine’s cover of OJ Simpson considerably “darkened” Simpson in his police mugshot. This added fuel to a case already plagued by racial tension, to which the magazine responded:

No racial implication was intended, by Time or by the artist.

Tools for debunking digital fakery

For those of us who don’t want to be duped by visual mis/disinformation, there are tools available — although each comes with its own limitations (something we discuss in our recent paper).

Invisible digital watermarking has been proposed as a solution. However, it isn’t widespread and requires buy-in from both content publishers and distributors.

Reverse image search (such as Google’s) is often free and can be helpful for identifying earlier, potentially more authentic copies of images online. That said, it’s not foolproof because it:

relies on unedited copies of the media already being online
doesn’t search the entire web
doesn’t always allow filtering by publication time. Some reverse image search services such as TinEye support this function, but Google’s doesn’t.
returns only exact matches or near-matches, so it’s not thorough. For instance, editing an image and then flipping its orientation can fool Google into thinking it’s an entirely different one.

Most reliable tools are sophisticated

Meanwhile, manual forensic detection methods for visual mis/disinformation focus mostly on edits visible to the naked eye, or rely on examining features that aren’t included in every image (such as shadows). They’re also time-consuming, expensive and need specialised expertise.

Still, you can access work in this field by visiting sites such as Snopes.com — which has a growing repository of “fauxtography”.

Computer vision and machine learning also offer relatively advanced detection capabilities for images and videos. But they too require technical expertise to operate and understand.

Moreover, improving them involves using large volumes of “training data”, but the image repositories used for this usually don’t contain the real-world images seen in the news.

If you use an image verification tool such as the REVEAL project’s image verification assistant, you might need an expert to help interpret the results.

The good news, however, is that before turning to any of the above tools, there are some simple questions you can ask yourself to potentially figure out whether a photo or video on social media is fake. Think:

was it originally made for social media?
how widely and for how long was it circulated?
what responses did it receive?
who were the intended audiences?

The Pandemic Has Created a Middle Class Private Jet Boom

While the commercial airline industry has been largely grounded following various global lockdowns — with outbound international travel from the UK set to be banned on Thursday — private aviation has soared among new customers. Many of them are families. Once the preserve of millionaires and A-listers, business planes have been taken up by holidaying households looking to make quick, Covid-secure getaways. “We’ve flown more families than ever,” explains Adam Twidell, CEO of jet booker PrivateFly. “Those who can afford have thought, ‘This is the time to use wealth to travel safely.'” Despite aviation’s ongoing gloom, Twidell says that PrivateFly is actually up over this time last year. Much of that has been driven by family bookings over the summer holidays, with 20 per cent of all passengers being children.

The fresh influx of jet-setting customers has also included the ‘pet set.’ Recent animals on board PrivateFly planes have included dogs, parrots and snakes — while one recent flight saw a family fly with 13 cats. “Those who might have gone on holiday with friends are now doing so with extended family,” Twidell says. It was in March, as most of the planet went into lockdown, that private aviation boomed. As more and more commercial airliners ceased routes around the world, families began booking business planes to rush them home. Alain Leboursier, managing director of Swiss charter LunaJets, says that such repatriation missions meant business tripled. “Our best period of the last decade came in the final ten days of March. We had flights around the world taking people home.” With the new lockdown imminent, and much of Europe effectively closing its borders, Leboursier believes there’ll be a further spike in demand. “However, it won’t be as dramatic as what we saw in spring because local lockdowns and restrictions aren’t as strict.” But any surge in numbers will be very welcome in business aviation. “Usually, between September and Christmas, it’s just corporate flights,” adds Leboursier. “Those clients aren’t flying at all now.”

Police Will Pilot a Program to Live-Stream Amazon Ring Cameras

The police surveillance center in Jackson, Mississippi, will be conducting a 45-day pilot program to live stream the Amazon Ring cameras of participating residents.

While people buy Ring cameras and put them on their front door to keep their packages safe, police use them to build comprehensive CCTV camera networks blanketing whole neighborhoods. This serves two police purposes. First, it allows police departments to avoid the cost of buying surveillance equipment and to put that burden onto consumers by convincing them they need cameras to keep their property safe. Second, it evades the natural reaction of fear and distrust that many people would have if they learned police were putting up dozens of cameras on their block, one for every house.

Now, our worst fears have been confirmed. Police in Jackson, Mississippi, have started a pilot program that would allow Ring owners to patch the camera streams from their front doors directly to a police Real Time Crime Center. The footage from your front door includes you coming and going from your house, your neighbors taking out the trash, and the dog walkers and delivery people who do their jobs in your street. In Jackson, this footage can now be live streamed directly onto a dozen monitors scrutinized by police around the clock. Even if you refuse to allow your footage to be used that way, your neighbor’s camera pointed at your house may still be transmitting directly to the police.

New Age communities are driving QAnon conspiracy theories in Brazil

These spiritual, pseudoscientific groups are domesticating QAnon narratives for non-American audiences.

QAnon emerged in the US, but its plasticity makes it easily adaptable in a Brazilian context. President Bolsonaro — a Trump-worshipping, coronavirus-skeptic — rode to power on the promise of ridding Brazil of corruption, leftism, and other evils, and whose legion of highly-connected supporters vehemently distrust traditional media.

It isn’t surprising that QAnon terms would eventually be slapped onto protest signs at a pro-Bolsonaro gathering in Copacabana beach. What is perhaps somewhat surprising is the name of one YouTube channel, written on one of the signs amid a list of must-follow QAnon YouTubers: “Ensinamentos da era de Aquário,” or “Teachings of the age of Aquarius” in Portuguese.

Although that name doesn’t immediately signal QAnon lore, this is one of the largest YouTube channels that openly supports QAnon in Brazil. Its owner, Luciano Cesa, has amassed a legion of 200,000 subscribers in less than two years, and his success signals a growing interest — especially among Brazilian New Age groups — in the movement’s beliefs.

These spiritual and pseudoscientific communities, which encompasses a range of practices such as shamanism, crystal healing, reiki, yoga, and numerology, are playing a prominent role in introducing and domesticating QAnon narratives to non-American audiences.

New Age communities have a few things in common with QAnon members, who often describe themselves as “researchers” open to new truths. QAnon conspiracies are often presented in incomplete tidbits — collections of loose terms and concepts which potential adherents are invited to explore on their own, and which they decontextualize and remix as they share their findings.

The idea of a secret government that rules everything from the shadows is also rife in New Age circles. “Those are communities that distrust institutions, such as conventional science and dogmatic religions,” Campanha says, “so, I can definitely see this culture easily transferring themselves to those conspiracy ideas, with politicians who portray themselves as “outsiders,” such as Trump and Bolsonaro, being seen as antagonists against this shadow government.”

New Age communities, international in scope, provide a safe avenue for QAnon theories to spread from the US and adapt to contexts such as Brazil, while tapping into an audience that may or may not be part of Bolsonaro’s main support base.

In fact, it is precisely communities who claim to be apolitical, such as New Agers, who are especially vulnerable to the influence of fascist movements.

On August 20, at a White House briefing, Donald Trump was asked directly about QAnon for the first time. “I don’t know much about them, except that they like me very much,” he said. When a reporter followed up with an explanation that the crux of the theory was that the US President was fighting a cabal elite of child abusers, he answered: “I don’t know about that, but is that supposed to be a bad thing?”

Trump’s clever reply — which simultaneously evaded the question while appearing to express support for the movement — highlighted the challenges that both reporters and society at large face when confronting conspiracy theorists.

New Survey Reveals Teens Get Their News from Social Media and YouTube

Celebrities, influencers, and personalities have as much influence as a source of current events as friends, family, and news organizations.

Teens today are not only getting the majority of their news online, but they are turning away from traditional media organizations to find out about current events on social media sites and YouTube, often from online influencers and celebrities, according to a new poll by Common Sense and SurveyMonkey.

The survey found that more than half of teens (54%) get news at least a few times a week from social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter and 50% get news from YouTube.

Teens’ news habits reflect the diversity of the modern media landscape. And, while most news organizations maintain accounts on social media and other platforms, they are competing for attention with corporate brands, celebrities, influencers, and personal connections. Of those teens who get their news from YouTube, for example, six in 10 say they are more likely to get it from celebrities, influencers, and personalities rather than from news organizations utilizing the platform.

What’s noteworthy is that, even with so many relying on alternative sources for the majority of their news, teens are more confident in the news they get directly from news organizations. Of teens who get news of current events from news organizations, 65% say it helps them better understand what is going on. In contrast, just 53% of teens who get news from social media say it helps them better understand what is going on, while 19 percent say it has made them more confused about current events.

Amid ongoing concerns about the impact of information disseminated through social media on elections, older teens’ news habits may have political implications. Of the teens age 16 and 17 who say they’ll be eligible to vote in the 2020 election, 85% are likely to cast a ballot, including 61% who say they’re “very likely.”

“These findings raise concerns about what kind of news the next generation is using to shape their decisions,” said James Steyer, CEO of Common Sense. “There are few standards for what constitutes news and how accurately it’s portrayed on the platforms teens use. With the 2020 election coming up, we need to make sure teens are getting their news from reliable sources, thinking critically, and making informed decisions.”

This latest survey is part of a Common Sense partnership with SurveyMonkey to examine media and technology trends affecting kids and their parents and to share actionable data and insights with families.

“While it’s notable that teens rely heavily on platforms such as Facebook and YouTube to stay informed, their reliance on news from celebrities and influencers rather than journalists may have pernicious implications,” said Jon Cohen, chief research officer at SurveyMonkey. “It’s a bit of a paradox: Overwhelmingly teens say they are interested in keeping up with the news, but they’re not seeking out either traditional or new media to do so.”

Selected key findings

  1. A large majority of teens age 13 to 17 in the U.S. (78%) say it’s important to them to follow current events.
  2. Teens get their news more frequently from social media sites (e.g., Facebook and Twitter) or from YouTube than directly from news organizations. More than half of teens (54%) get news from social media, and 50% get news from YouTube at least a few times a week. Fewer than half, 41%, get news reported by news organizations in print or online at least a few times a week, and only 37% get news on TV at least a few times a week.
  3. YouTube recommendations drive news consumption. Among all teens who get their news from YouTube—regardless of how often—exactly half (50%) say they most often find news on YouTube because it was recommended by YouTube itself (i.e., as a “watch next” video or in the sidebar). Almost half as many (27%) say they follow or subscribe to a specific channel for news on YouTube, and fewer say they find their news on YouTube through search (10%) or because it was shared by someone they know in real life (7%).
  4. Sixty percent of teens who get news from YouTube say they are more likely to get it from celebrities, influencers, and personalities as compared to news organizations (39%). The difference is even more apparent among daily YouTube news consumers (71% vs. 28%).
  5. Nearly two in three teens (65%) who get news directly from news organizations say doing so has helped them better understand current events, compared with 59% of teens who get their news from YouTube (56%) and 53% who get their news from social media sites (53%). Nearly two in 10 teens (19%) say that getting news from social media has made them more confused about current events.
  6. Teens clearly prefer a visual medium for learning about the news. A majority (64%) say that “seeing pictures and video showing what happened” gives them the best understanding of major news events, while just 36% say they’d prefer to read or hear the facts about what happened.
  7. Politically, teens are more likely to be moderate and identify as Democrats, but they are open to ideas from sources whose opinions differ from their own. Just under half of teens (45%) say they get news from sources that have views different from their own once a week or more, and only 14% say they never get news from sources with different views. Slightly fewer (35%) say they discuss political issues with people who have different views once a week or more, and 19% say they never discuss politics with people who have opposing views.

The study comes on the heels of the release of Common Sense’s revamped Digital Citizenship Curriculum, which gives teachers lessons to help students develop skills to be critical consumers of news at a time when they are navigating a fast-changing digital terrain fraught with fake media, hate speech, cyberbullying, and constant digital distraction.

Methodology: This SurveyMonkey Audience survey was conducted June 14 to 25, 2019, among 1,005 teenagers age 13 to 17 in the United States. Respondents for these surveys were selected from more than 2 million people who take surveys on the SurveyMonkey platform each day. The modeled error estimate for the full sample is +/-4.0 percentage points. Data has been weighted for age and sex using the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey to reflect the demographic composition of people in the United States age 13 to 17. Find the full survey results and more information about Common Sense research here.

Google is Giving Data To Police Based on Search Keywords, Court Docs Show

There are few things as revealing as a person’s search history, and police typically need a warrant on a known suspect to demand that sensitive information. But a recently unsealed court document found that investigators can request such data in reverse order by asking Google to disclose everyone who searched a keyword rather than for information on a known suspect.

In August, police arrested Michael Williams, an associate of singer and accused sex offender R. Kelly, for allegedly setting fire to a witness’ car in Florida. Investigators linked Williams to the arson, as well as witness tampering, after sending a search warrant to Google that requested information on “users who had searched the address of the residence close in time to the arson.”

The July court filing was unsealed on Tuesday. Detroit News reporter Robert Snell tweeted about the filing after it was unsealed. Court documents showed that Google provided the IP addresses of people who searched for the arson victim’s address, which investigators tied to a phone number belonging to Williams. Police then used the phone number records to pinpoint the location of Williams’ device near the arson, according to court documents. The original warrant sent to Google is still sealed, but the report provides another example of a growing trend of data requests to the search engine giant in which investigators demand data on a large group of users rather than a specific request on a single suspect. “This ‘keyword warrant’ evades the Fourth Amendment checks on police surveillance,” said Albert Fox Cahn, the executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project. “When a court authorizes a data dump of every person who searched for a specific term or address, it’s likely unconstitutional.”

Many Amazon Returns Are Just Destroyed or Sent to Landfills

Experts say hundreds of thousands of returns don’t end up back on the e-commerce giant’s website for resale, as customers might think. Marketplace journalists posing as potential new clients went undercover for a tour at a Toronto e-waste recycling and product destruction facility with hidden cameras. During that meeting, a representative revealed they get “tons and tons of Amazon returns,” and that every week their facility breaks apart and shreds at least one tractor-trailer load of Amazon returns, sometimes even up to three to five truckloads…

To further investigate where all those online returns end up, Marketplace purchased a dozen products off Amazon’s website — a faux leather backpack, overalls, a printer, coffee maker, a small tent, children’s toys and a few other household items — and sent each back to Amazon just as they were received but with a GPS tracker hidden inside… Of the 12 items returned, it appears only four were resold by Amazon to new customers at the time this story was published. Months on from the investigation, some returns were still in Amazon warehouses or in transit, while a few travelled to some unexpected destinations, including a backpack that Amazon sent to landfill…

Marketplace asked Amazon what percentage of its returns are sent to landfill, recycling or for destruction. The company wouldn’t answer. A television investigation in France exposed that hundreds of thousands of products — both returns and overstock — are being thrown out by Amazon. As a result of public outcry, a new French anti-waste law passed earlier this year will force all retailers including e-giants like Amazon to recycle or donate all returned or unused merchandise. Shortly after the show aired in 2019, Amazon also introduced a new program in the U.S. and U.K. known as Fulfillment by Amazon Donations, which Amazon says will help sellers send returns directly to charities instead of disposing of them. No such program exists in Canada.

Why Teens Are Falling for TikTok Conspiracy Theories

TikTok–the platform skews young—reportedly one-third of its daily users in the US are 14 or younger—and celebrity gossip has long been the lingua franca of social media for people of all ages. Right-wing conspiracy groups like QAnon have been spreading made up stories about those in power on networks like Facebook for years. Now those ideas have jumped to TikTok where they’re being metabolized by much younger consumers. Those things all scan. What doesn’t, however, is why teens believe them.

The short answer? TikTok is full of crazy ideas—conspiracies are no different. They’ve been normalized by the platform where many young people spend most of their time. “Many of these conspiracy sites and stories are entertaining. They are social gathering spots. They are exciting,” says Nancy Rosenblum, Senator Joseph S. Clark Professor of Ethics in Politics and Government at Harvard University and co-author of A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy. “It’s small wonder that teenagers who ‘live on the screen’ would be drawn to the drama.”

Easy access to social media’s redistribution tools worsens this problem. With every like, share, send, and retweet, teenagers are popularizing this content worldwide. “On social media, repetition substitutes for validation,” says Russel Muirhead, a professor of democracy and politics at Dartmouth College and Rosenblum’s co-author. “Repetition is what breathes air into conspiracy theories, and social media is all about repetition. But repeating something that’s false does not make it more true! Teenagers are just as vulnerable to this as grown ups.”

This wouldn’t be such a problem if teenagers weren’t so attached to social media. So fond, in fact, that some 54 percent of teens get the bulk of their news from it. If this sounds concerning, that’s because it is. With teenagers relying on TikTok as their sole source of information, it makes sense for my generation to become absorbed in webs of falsities and to live as largely uninformed citizens.