Latest attacks on privacy by Big Tech and a small but important win. Talk Liberation - Your Worldwide INTERNET REPORT (Issue 2, 2021)
Who’s helping themselves to your data, who’s suppressing information, and a surprising Supreme Court First Amendment win!
Increase in Law Enforcement Requests for User Data
Law enforcement requests for user data from the world’s largest social media companies have more than tripled since 2015, AP reports. If provided the data, police have access to users’ photos, emails, texts, phone calls, location and more. During the first half of 2020, Apple, Google, Facebook and Microsoft combined had 112,000 data requests from law enforcement, including local, state and federal officials. In 85% of cases, the companies agreed to provide the data. Cindy Cohn, executive director of the Electronic Frontiers Foundation told AP, “this is the Golden Age of government surveillance.”
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As more people become dependent on technology in their everyday lives, law enforcement has become more tech savvy, developing the ability to more easily track a person’s online activity. There are ways to collect a user’s data in secret either by making warrantless data requests or by issuing a gag order which prevents the company from notifying the user of their data being transmitted.
Additionally, the authorities can request the tech companies to preserve the information of any user without any legal basis or warrant. Therefore, if in the future, law enforcement has legal grounds to conduct a search, they can issue a warrant and gain access to the preserved data.
Critics of these practices argue that this allows police to circumvent the constitutional protections that prohibit unlawful searches. Additionally, others suggest tech companies use encryption technology to ensure all Personally Identifiable Information and data has added protection while in transit between devices.
NSA Spying on US Citizens Continues
A surveillance program exposed by NSA whistleblower, Edward Snowden is confirmed still to be in effect eight years after its exposure, according to a member of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB), The Washington Post reports. The NSA’s XKeyscore program provides an interface that allows intelligence analysts to search across a broad range of databases of Internet traffic taken from various sources to obtain the user profiles, chat and browsing history of specific people, including personal communications such as emails.
The program was under a five-year investigation by the independent government privacy watchdog group, which concluded in December. According to its website, PCLOB exists to ensure that policies and practices intended to protect the national security do not infringe on civil liberties and privacy.
Travis LeBlanc, a democratic appointee of PCLOB, was the only member of the board’s five appointees to vote against the approval of the panel’s classified report on the investigation into the XKeyscore program. LeBlanc claims that the board failed to sufficiently investigate and address the program’s surveillance and data gathering activities. LeBlanc released a 10-page redacted statement addressing the board’s investigation where he stated:
“It is with deep regret that I must write in opposition to the release of a report that the former majority of the Board in 2020 (“former Board” or “former Board majority”) rushed last year to approve without adequate investigation, analysis, review, or process.”
According to a report in The New York Times, an NSA spokesperson said the general counsel thoroughly and regularly reviews its practices to ensure it is in compliance with the law and that it had “conducted an appropriate legal review of the use of XKeyscore.”
However, among the list of concerns regarding the investigation into XKeyscore, LeBlanc claims that the board failed to appropriately investigate and examine the NSA’s EO12333 collection activities.
Media Blackout on Significant Developments in DOJ case against Julian Assange
A star witness for the US prosecution against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has admitted to lying to investigators in exchange for immunity. In an interview with the Icelandic publication, Stundin, Sigurdur “Siggi” Thordarson reveals that he fabricated various accusations against Assange including hacking.
Thordarson claims that Assange never requested he hack into the cell phones of Icelandic MPs to access phone recordings or to hack into any devices in Iceland. These accusations, that Thordarson now claims to be false, were used to broaden the scope of the conspiracy to commit computer intrusion charge included in the superseding indictment against Assange. Thordarson, who is frequently referenced throughout the indictment, is referred to as “Teenager” and Iceland as “NATO country 1.”
Despite these revelations, the US mainstream media has remained silent on this new development in the case. According to Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR), as of Friday July 2, there has been no coverage of this story in the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, NBC News, Fox News or NPR despite it trending on Twitter and being shared on social media by prominent accounts including WikiLeaks, Glenn Greenwald and Edward Snowden.
Seven months following a UK judge’s decision to block the US extradition request, The UK High Court has agreed to hear the US appeal on limited grounds. The High Court rejected the US government’s argument to challenge the judge’s decision against extradition on medical evidence.
If extradited, the US government assures that Assange will not be held under special administrative measures, or SAMs, during pre-trial or while serving his sentence, if convicted. During the six week long extradition hearings in London, the prosecution did not provide this assurance.
Supreme Court Rules in Favor of First Amendment to Protect Student Speech
The Supreme Court ruled that a Pennsylvania school district exceeded its authority after punishing a high-school cheerleader for including a curse-word in her Snapchat post. In an 8-to-1 ruling the court determined that the school’s intention to teach good manners did not outweigh the student’s right to free expression, the Wall Street Journal reported.
The case involves a Snapchat post from May 2017 where a high school student posted an image of her and a friend which included several curse-words in the accompanying text. The school suspended the student from junior varsity cheerleading for a year in order to maintain a “team-like environment.” The student then sued the school district and won in the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia. According to The New York Times, this is the “first time in more than 50 years that a high school student won a free-speech case in the Supreme Court.”
Historically, the court has upheld that students on campus have First Amendment protections to speak on controversial issues as long as the speech does not cause a significant disturbance. Justice Stephen Breyer wrote that once off school grounds the authority to regulate student speech is diminished.
Tech Giants’ Privacy Violations
Facebook’s failure to adhere to German and European privacy laws has led Germany’s Federal Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information, Ulrich Kelber, to take bold action requiring German government organizations to close their Facebook pages by the end of 2021, according to Yahoo. Kelber says Facebook’s data-gathering and lax privacy regulations do not allow for the institutions to have Facebook pages which users can subscribe to in a way that is compliant with EU legislation.
Under EU law, personal data from users in the EU can only leave the jurisdiction if the data is transferred to a jurisdiction with equally strict privacy and data gathering laws. Additionally, Kelber says it is impossible to have a Facebook page which will not send user data to the United States, which does not meet their standard for privacy and data security. However, these privacy concerns are not limited to Facebook. Kelber says that the Clubhouse and TikTok apps as well as the Instagram website are security risks. He recommends government organizations refrain from using these social media outlets.
In addition to Facebook, Amazon is under fire for privacy violations. The mega corporation may face a $425 million fine by the Luxembourg-based National Data Protection Commission, its lead privacy regulator, for alleged violations of Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation, The Wall Street Journal reported. The case stems from Amazon’s collection and use of personal data, yet the specific allegations against Amazon are unknown. However, according to the report, people familiar with the matter say this could be the largest penalty for violation of EU privacy laws to date. Amazon declined to comment.
Possible LinkedIn Data Breach
The data of 700 million LinkedIn users, which accounts for 90% of its total user base, has been placed on the dark web for sale, Computer Weekly reported. This data includes full names, phone numbers, email addresses, gender and employment information. While the data dump does not include passwords or financial records, the information that is included in the data dump is sufficient for scammers to commit identity theft or social engineering attacks.
In response, LinkedIn released a statement on its website ensuring that it had conducted an investigation and is committed to holding accountable those who misuse members’ data. However, the social networking site denies fault claiming that this was a scraping by “malicious actors” and not a data breach. Principal security strategist at the Synopsys Cybersecurity Research Centre (CyRC) says that while LinkedIn is correct in its evaluation, LinkedIn users are still impacted by their data being sold whether or not the company is at fault.
Facebook Tests New Feature to Combat Extremism
Facebook is a testing a new feature in the US aimed at targeting online extremism, the BBC reports. The new system is part of Facebook’s Redirect Initiative, which seeks to combat hate speech, racism, violence and extremism. When logging into Facebook, some users received notifications stating, “Are you concerned that someone you know is becoming an extremist?” or “You may have been exposed to harmful extremist content recently.”
Many Facebook users took to social media to express their disdain for this new experimental system with several users calling the warnings “disturbing” and “creepy.” Facebook says the moderation system targets users who may have been exposed to content which violates its guidelines as well as users who may have been penalized for breaching the community guidelines.
According to Reuters, a representative of Facebook said these efforts to combat online extremism were part of the Christchurch Call to Action. This was an initiative where Big Tech platforms took measures to counter online extremism in response to the 2019 Mosque attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand, which were live-streamed on Facebook. A spokesperson for Facebook told Reuters that the social media company intends to partner with NGOs and academics and hopes to share more information regarding its efforts to combat online extremism.
That concludes Your Worldwide INTERNET REPORT for this week!
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This issue of Your Worldwide INTERNET REPORT was written by Taylor Hudak; Edited by Suzie Dawson and Sean O’Brien; Graphics by Kimber Maddox; with production support by David Sutton and Kitty Hundal.
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