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Posts Tagged ‘#spy’


Demystifying Online Privacy, Through the Story of the Man Who Took On Silicon Valley

August 20, 2018

By Nicholas Confessore
Aug. 18, 2018

Times Insider delivers behind-the-scenes insights into how news, features and opinion come together at The New York Times.

I usually think of myself as a politics reporter, the job I’ve had, on and off, for most of my career. But in the last year or so, I’ve had to add another title, one I never thought I’d have: tech reporter.

In the Trump era, those two topics are increasingly hard to separate. In the last year, I’ve written about the booming business of “bots” and fake accounts on Twitter and how Russian agents used fake Facebook pages to sow division and shape the 2016 presidential election. I also worked on a Times investigation, in partnership with The Guardian and The Observer of London, into Cambridge Analytica, the British-American political data firm that improperly exploited the personal Facebook data of tens of millions of American voters. To study political power today, you have to understand technology.

That’s what drew me to the story of Alastair Mactaggart, the central character in this Sunday’s magazine cover story about the war over privacy. In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, it has become clear that tech companies like Google and Facebook not only collect extraordinary amounts of information about everyone, but sometimes deceive or mislead their own users about what information is being collected and how it is used.
My colleagues and I have reported extensively over the last year on the enormous power wielded by tech companies over politics and commerce and on the ways in which that power can be abused. Our reporting has shed light on how poorly tech companies protect the integrity of their platforms and of the data you hand them for free, with profound consequences.

Yet both Facebook and Google, and the broader tech industry of which they are a part, have escaped any major regulation or seriously punitive government action in the United States. (In Europe, Google was recently hit with a $5 billion fine for antitrust violations.) Even after a cascade of scandals, Washington had done almost nothing. Why?

Mr. Mactaggart, who last year began organizing to pass a California ballot initiative restricting the abuse of personal data, turned out to be an ideal way to answer the question. For one thing, his campaign was happening in real time, and as a political neophyte, he was encountering Silicon Valley’s political machine for the first time, much as most readers would be. Mr. Mactaggart was not an expert on privacy when he started; he was a wealthy real estate developer from Oakland, whose main interaction with people in the tech world was at Bay Area birthday parties and his neighborhood dog run. He more or less fell into a rabbit hole and became a little obsessed. That journey allowed me to turn an arcane and often boring subject into a compelling yarn; his education — as a political campaigner and as a consumer — becomes the reader’s.

That was important for me, too, as a reporter. I often write about complex policy issues, and questions surrounding data collection, advertising and privacy can be challenging to unspool in a compelling, accessible way.

I used to write about campaign finance; that’s a complicated topic, too, and it was easy to lose readers’ attention. But writing about data and privacy is harder. Presidential campaigns lend a certain innate drama to stories about donors and fund-raising. Tech and social media, while in one sense nearer to people’s daily lives, can seem distant and abstract. For those who have no background in programming or data science, the industry they animate can seem impenetrable.
This is no accident. One reason Big Tech faces so little resistance from policymakers is that Silicon Valley’s business seems so daunting. I find that Big Tech’s lobbyists and “thought leaders” — and some journalists — implicitly and sometimes explicitly promote the idea that policymakers are too dumb, slow or unsophisticated to understand how it all works, let alone regulate something like data collection practices. This notion also helps insulate the industry from accountability.

The story of how Mr. Mactaggart forced California lawmakers to pass a landmark consumer privacy law is, in part, a story of the power of this idea — and also of its flimsiness. The law he helped pass is not a panacea, and won’t solve every problem raised by the encroaching powers of Big Tech. Some critics believe the law doesn’t go far enough. (And many in the industry believe it goes way too far.) But the fact of it — the political proof of concept — has already stirred intense debate and pressure to produce even more protections for consumers, not only in other states but in Washington.

That matters not only for consumers, but also for readers. Mr. Mactaggart is a smart guy, and he had time and resources most people don’t. But he’s not an expert on politics or technology. If he can figure it out, so can you.

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DJI drones to gain privacy mode after US Army ban

August 15, 2017

The world’s best-selling drone-maker is adding a privacy mode to its aircraft to prevent flight data being shared to the internet.
The announcement comes a fortnight after it emerged that the US Army had prohibited its troops from using the Chinese firm’s equipment because of unspecified cyber-security concerns.
DJI told the BBC that it had already been working on the new facility, but had speeded up development after the ban.
The mode should be launched next month.
“It will provide an enhanced level of data assurance for security flights, such as those involving critical infrastructure, commercial trade secrets, governmental functions or other similar options,” the Shenzhen-headquartered company added in a blog.
Disabled features
DJI previously faced security fears in 2016 after a member of its staff told reporters that the firm had repeatedly shared customer data with the Chinese authorities.
The company issued a clarification shortly afterwards, saying a junior member of its team had “misspoke” and that it only handed over information if there was a valid legal request from Beijing or any other government.

DJI’s drones are the best-selling brand in North America
DJI says it is unable to collect flight logs or captured images anyway, unless users opt to share the information via its Go apps, which are used to track and control its aircraft.
But the latest move is designed to provide further reassurance.
If the privacy mode is enabled, however, users will lose access to several features including the ability to:
livestream videos to YouTube
automatically install map and geofencing boundary updates, which are designed to prevent owners flying within banned zones
receive notifications about newly issued flight restrictions from the authorities
As a consequence, DJI said it might not be able offer the new mode in countries where pilots are required by law to have the latest information.
New memo
The US armed forces decided in July that using DJI’s drones posed “operational risks”, leading the US Army to detail its ban on 2 August.
The memo said that its use of the aircraft should cease, all DJI apps should be uninstalled from its computers and that all batteries and storage media should be removed from the drones while they were kept in storage.
However, the SUAS news site – which was the first to reveal the development – has since reported on a follow-up memo dated 11 August.
It indicates the army will grant exceptions to the ban once a DJI plug-in to its own drone software has been properly vetted.

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Facebook’s ads just keep creeping into new apps

July 27, 2017

Scrolling through an ad-free Instagram is now a distant memory, much like the once ad-free Facebook itself. Soon, users of its Messenger app will begin to see advertisements, too — and WhatsApp may not be too far behind.

Welcome to the Facebook ad creep.

The world’s biggest social media company has squeezed about as many ads onto its main platform as it can. The fancy term for this is “ad load,” and Facebook warned investors back in 2016 that it has pretty much maxed it out . Put any more ads in front of users and they might start complaining — or worse, just leave.

As such, Facebook, a free service that relies almost completely on ads to make money, has to keep finding new and creative ways to let businesses hawk their stuff on its properties.

One solution is to spread ads beyond Facebook itself, onto the other popular messaging and photo-sharing apps it owns.

So far, it’s working. On Wednesday, Facebook posted a 71 percent increase in net income to $3.89 billion, or $1.32 per share, from $2.28 billion, or 78 cents a share, a year ago.

Revenue for the three months that ended on June 30 rose 45 percent to $9.32 billion from $6.44 billion. The Menlo Park, California-based company’s monthly active user base grew 17 percent to 2.01 billion.


Ads began arriving on Instagram, which Facebook bought in 2012 for $1 billion, in 2013. It was a slow and careful rollout, and tells us a lot about Facebook’s subsequent ad strategy.

The company didn’t want to upset Instagram’s loyal fans, who were used to scrolling through beautiful landscapes, stylized breakfast shots and well-groomed kittens in their feed. An ad for headache pills would have interrupted the flow. So Instagram started off with just a few ads it considered “beautiful,” selected from hand-picked businesses. For a while, CEO Kevin Systrom reviewed every ad before it went live.

Four years later, things have changed a bit, although to Instagram’s credit, not so much as to alienate significant numbers of its 700 million users (up from 100 million in 2013). There are more ads now, Systrom no longer inspects them before publication, and while many could still be called “beautiful,” users are also likely to see generic ads not specifically created for Instagram.

By this point, though, people seem to have gotten used to them.


Facebook has already been testing ads on its primary chat app, and earlier this month it announced it will expand this test globally. Paralleling its experience with Instagram, Facebook told developers and businesses they can start showing ads — specifically for brands that people “love” or that offer an “opportunity to discover experiences” — to Messenger’s 1.2 billion users.

A tsunami it won’t be. Facebook product manager Ted Helwick wrote in a blog post that a “small percentage” of Messenger users will start seeing ads by the end of July. The company will then study that limited rollout to ensure that it’s delivering “the best experience.”

Of course, even a small percentage of 1.2 billion users could be tens of millions of people. But this gives Facebook a chance to see what works and what doesn’t without mass revolt.

And it highlights the importance of Facebook’s decision to spin out the Messenger app from its main Facebook app (and to start pressuring people to use it ). While Facebook billed its decision as a way to make Messenger easier to use, it also essentially doubled the available real estate for its mobile ads.

In a conference call with analysts on Wednesday, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said he wants to see the company “move a little faster” when it comes to ads on Messenger, but added that he is “confident that we’re going to get this right over the long term.”


With its popularity outside the U.S. and in developing countries, WhatsApp might be a harder nut to crack when it comes to ads. But there are signs it’s coming. It’s true that WhatsApp’s CEO Jan Koum promised users they can count on ” absolutely no ads interrupting your communication” when Facebook bought the company in 2014 for $19 billion.

But last August, WhatsApp updated its privacy policy to reflect that the service would be sharing user data with Facebook so that it could “offer better friend suggestions” and “show you more relevant ads” on Facebook and its other properties.

That doesn’t mean that ads will appear on WhatsApp right away. But in the same post, the company also said it wants people to be able to communicate with businesses, not just people. That’s exactly how Messenger began dabbling in the advertising business.

What else can Facebook do?

“One, they will raise their rates on ads,” said Matt Britton, CEO of social media marketing company CrowdTap. “Because they can. The value is tremendous for advertisers right now, including for video ads.”

For eMarketer analyst Debra Aho Williamson, Facebook video presents the biggest opportunity for ad-business growth. How people will respond to Messenger ads remains uncertain, she said. But with video, Facebook is doing what people already know, taking short and long-form programs and inserting ads in the middle.

That lets Facebook attract money from “traditional video advertisers,” she said — meaning the folks who honed their talents inserting ads into prime-time shows.

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Amazon, Walmart urged to stop selling “spying” doll

December 20, 2016

Consumer advocates are pressing retailers including Amazon.com (AMZN) and Walmart (WMT) to stop selling a doll that can eavesdrop on children and families.

The groups are asking the retailers to discontinue sales of the doll My Friend Cayla following a complaint they filed earlier this month with the Federal Trade Commission. The complaint alleges the doll and another toy, which isn’t sold in the U.S., can send recordings to Nuance Communications (NUAN). The speech-to-text software company has contracts with military and law enforcement agencies, among other customers.
The doll, made by interactive toy maker Genesis, are no laughing matter, according to the consumer privacy advocates, who say that these and other wireless-enabled devices can open the door to hackers, privacy violations and other unsavory behavior. In the case of My Friend Cayla, the doll is programmed to respond to a child’s questions; it uses equipment including a Bluetooth microphone and a mobile application, which requests access to the parents’ or child’s devices, such as its hardware, storage and Wi-Fi connections.

“My Friend Cayla poses significant security risks that could place children in physical danger,” Josh Golin, executive director of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, wrote in a letter sent Tuesday to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. “Genesis fails to require basic authentication mechanisms to prevent unauthorized Bluetooth connections between the doll and a smartphone or tablet.”

He added, “As a result, a stranger or potential predator within a 50-foot range can easily establish a Bluetooth connection with the doll, eavesdrop on the child, and even converse with the child through the doll.”

A similar letter, also signed by the Center for Digital Democracy and the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), were also sent to Walmart, Target (TGT) and Toys ‘R’ Us. Toys R Us said the doll is no longer for sale at its stores or through its website.
Claire Gartland, who directs the Consumer Privacy Project at EPIC, told CBS MoneyWatch earlier this month that the toys “normalize surveillance to young children,” teaching them that it’s not unusual to have a trusted toy recording their conversations and relaying their words to corporations.

My Friend Cayla, which costs $59.93 at Walmart, is described as “a wonderful choice for a young child who needs a companion.” Customers who reviewed the doll on the retailer’s site give it an average of four stars out of five. Complaints tend to focus on issues such as the quality of the doll’s construction, rather than privacy concerns.

Retailers in Europe that have pulled My Friend Cayla and another toy made by Genesis, a robot called i-Que, include Jollyroom and Amazon Spain, while others such as Top-Toy are offering refunds, the consumer advocacy groups said in the letter.

“When companies collect personal information from children, they incur serious legal obligations to protect children’s privacy,” the letter said. “It is incumbent upon retailers like Amazon to act swiftly to ensure these harms are mitigated to the greatest extent possible.”

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Donald Trump is about to control the most powerful surveillance machine in history

November 15, 2016

The US intelligence agencies are among the most powerful forces to ever exist, capable of ingesting and retaining entire nations’ worth of data, or raining down missiles on targets thousands of miles away. As of January 20th, all that power will be directly answerable to Donald Trump.

It’s still early, but a picture is starting to emerge of how the president-elect could use those powers — and it’s not a pretty sight. Since the September 11th attacks, the US government gives the president almost unlimited discretion in matters of national security, with few limitations or mechanisms for oversight. That includes NSA surveillance, as well as the expanding powers of the drone program. And from what Trump has said on the campaign trail, his targets for using those powers may cut against some of America’s most important civil rights.

The crown jewel of that system is the NSA, and there’s reason to think it will grow even more secretive and voracious in the Trump administration. Trump’s current transition team includes two of the NSA’s foremost defenders — Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) and former congressman Mike Rogers — a move that suggests the agency will be moving toward more invasive collection and less transparency than ever before.

To a large degree, those changes can be carried out completely in secret, without authorization from Congress or even the FISA court. The majority of the NSA’s operations are authorized under a little-known presidential mandate called Executive Order 12333, which authorizes collection of data inside and outside US borders for national security purposes. Because it’s an executive order rather than a law, it can’t be challenged in court or overturned by Congress, and it places almost no limits on what the NSA can collect.

“Executive Order 12333 contains nothing to prevent the NSA from collecting and storing all such communications — content as well as metadata — provided that such collection occurs outside the United States in the course of a lawful foreign intelligence investigation,” a former State Department section chief wrote in 2014, explaining the importance of the order. “No warrant or court approval is required, and such collection never need be reported to Congress. None of the reforms that Obama announced earlier this year will affect such collection.”

We don’t know how thoroughly the NSA has exploited that authorization in the past, but, EO 12333 will give Trump a clear path to push the authorization even further. More importantly, because of the secrecy shrouding even the most routine NSA policies, we might not have any idea when a change in policy is made. “It’s very much within the authority of the president to make changes there,” says the Brennan Center’s Elizabeth Goitein, who co-directs the center’s Liberty and National Security Program. “There could be a significant expansion of those activities without the public having any knowledge of it.”

Secrecy is crucial because it enables more invasive and disruptive forms of surveillance, according to University of Washington Professor Ryan Calo, who has written extensively on the topic. As long as surveillance programs are secret, it’s nearly impossible to hold them in check — and without a steady stream of whistleblowers, any new programs are likely to stay secret. As Calo told The Verge, “It’s very difficult for the public to resist surveillance that they don’t know about.”

That blank check is particularly troubling given the views Trump expressed on the campaign trail. At a rally last November, he stated explicitly, “I want surveillance of certain mosques,” a view he maintained in later speeches. Trump also stated he would take similar measures toward the Black Lives Matter movement, calling the group a “threat” and saying “At a minimum, we’re going to have to be watching.”

There’s also concern about Trump’s penchant for personal feuds, seen on the campaign trail against the Khan family and Alicia Machado. “This is a person who does not suffer criticism particularly well, and holds grudges against political enemies,” Goitein says. “One of the things we saw when we had unfettered intelligence agencies in the past, like J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, was surveillance and harassment of political enemies. I certainly think that’s something we need to be on the lookout for.”

Beyond surveillance, the Trump administration will also inherit unprecedented powers to unilaterally kill suspected terrorists. Since the drone programs began, US drone strikes have killed as many as 5,000 people, including at least one US citizen, and none of those powers have been meaningfully weakened under the Obama administration. There’s an involved chain of command when those strikes are made through the Joint Special Operations Command, but the CIA operates a separate drone strike program that’s far more malleable. The ACLU had urged Obama to curtail those powers before leaving office, but he declined to do so. The result, two ACLU lawyers wrote earlier this year, is that “whoever prevails in November will inherit a sweeping power to use lethal force against suspected terrorists and militants, including Americans.” Combined with Trump’s outspoken enthusiasm for torture and targeting terrorists’ families, the result could go beyond many of the most barbaric elements of the Bush-era War on Terror.

Trump’s first hurdle in carrying out that agenda may be simple workforce issues. A report last week in The Washington Post found significant opposition to Trump in the intelligence community, stoked by the president-elect’s refusal to accept the Director of National Intelligence’s conclusion that the Russian government was responsible for the theft and leaking of emails from the DNC. Because of that bad blood, insiders predict a significant backlash if the incoming president scrapped the previous administration’s rules on drone strikes or attempted to restart the CIA’s torture program. The Daily Beast found similar unrest at the Pentagon, as old guard officials anticipated being replaced by a younger generation. Still, with the power to promote and dismiss leaders at will, it’s difficult to say whether staff unrest will end up being more than a speed bump for Trump’s ambitions.

There’s also Congress, still controlled by Republicans but arguably containing as many surveillance opponents as ever. “I think the relationship between the Trump administration and the Republicans will be interesting,” says Calo. “A congressman like Justin Amash is going to be just as vehement about the need for citizen privacy as he was under Obama.” Still, it seems unlikely that those efforts will be more effective under Trump than they were under Obama.

In some ways, the problem is larger than even Trump himself. These presidential powers are still new, and Obama is the only president to enter office with them already in place. For scholars like Goitein, that sweeping power is the real issue. “Before 9/11, the law required suspicion of criminal or terrorist activity before we could conduct surveillance, and that’s no longer the case,” she says. “We have taken some pretty dramatic steps to expand executive power, and I’d say no matter who had won the election, we’ve reached a point where we really need to rethink whether that’s in our best interests.”

It’s a point that was echoed by none other than Edward Snowden, who responded to Trump’s electoral win in a livestream on Thursday. An occasional critic of Hillary Clinton, Snowden struck a tone of hope and resilience, putting the election in the context of troubling new surveillance laws in Russia and China.

“Something we need to remember is that we are never farther than a single election away from a change in government, a change in policy, a change in the way the powers in our system are used,” he said from an undisclosed location in Russia.

“What we need to start thinking about now is not, How do we defend against a President Donald Trump?” he continued. “How do we defend everyone everywhere?”

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