By KELVIN CHAN AP Business Writer
LONDON (AP) — Britain scrapped plans to launch its own coronavirus contact tracing smartphone app because of technical problems and will now work on building one using technology supplied by Apple and Google, health authorities said Thursday.
The app had been undergoing trials on the Isle of Wight, off the southern coast of England, with plans to roll it out to the rest of the country later, but the program went quiet in recent weeks.
Officials overseeing the U.K. app’s development said they couldn’t overcome technical challenges found during field tests.
Even though it worked well on Google’s Android devices, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the government was abandoning the prototype app and instead putting its efforts into developing one using a special interface jointly developed by Apple and Google, which itself had problems.
“Apple software prevents iPhones from being used effectively for contact tracing unless you’re using Apple’s own technology,” Health Secretary Matt Hancock said at the government’s daily briefing.
“Our app won’t work because Apple won’t change their system,” Hancock said. He wasn’t able to say when a new app would be ready.
Britain has the highest coronavirus death toll in Europe, at over 42,000, and the Conservative government has been sharply criticized for what many see as its slow, muddled response to fighting the pandemic.
Authorities in Britain and elsewhere have been trying to harness new technology to help manage fresh virus flareups as lockdowns ease. However, efforts to develop mobile apps to help with manual contact tracing, a pillar of infection control, have been dogged by technical problems and privacy concerns.
Various contact tracing apps being rolled out across Europe use low-energy Bluetooth signals to anonymously log anyone who comes within close contact to a user — usually two meters for 15 minutes or more.
Britain initially opted to develop its own “centralized” tracing app that would send data about contacts to government servers for analysis, alarming privacy experts. The app is part of a broader British “test, track and trace” program that includes 27,000 people hired to track down anyone who’s been in contact with an infected person, so they can be told to get tested or self-isolate.
The Android version of the British app was fairly accurate at identifying other devices, but the Apple iPhone version wasn’t, picking up only 4% of contacts. The problem is that Apple’s iOS normally won’t let apps use Bluetooth in the background, so it can’t constantly scan for other users.
U.K. authorities started developing a second app in parallel that uses the Google-Apple interface, Hancock said. It was highly accurate at detecting other users, but poor at judging how far away they were, a feature Hancock said was “mission critical to any contact tracing app.”
“We’ve now got problems with both versions but there’s parts of each that can come together to build something that’s stronger than either version.”
Other European nations such as Switzerland, Germany and Italy and some U.S. states have adopted the Google-Apple system, which uses experts say is better for privacy because it keeps data on phones.
Data rights expert Ravi Naik said Britain’s app posed privacy risks and welcomed the government’s U-turn.
“It’s a shame they didn’t do so sooner as the spread of COVID-19 could have been mitigated if they hadn’t been so committed to going it alone,” he said.
However, the Google-Apple system has its weaknesses, said Emily Taylor, CEO of Oxford Information Labs, a cyber intelligence company.
“It won’t achieve the epidemiological goals of understanding hot spots of infection or identifying a second wave,” she said.
Danica Kirka and Pan Pylas contributed to this report.
Amazon says email to employees banning TikTok was a mistake
Roughly five hours after an internal email went out Friday to Amazon employees telling them to delete the popular video app TikTok from their phones, the online retailing giant appeared to backtrack, calling the ban a mistake.
“This morning’s email to some of our employees was sent in error,” Amazon emailed reporters just before 5 p.m. Eastern time. “There is no change to our policies right now with regard to TikTok.”
Company spokeswoman Jaci Anderson declined to answer questions about what caused the confounding turnaround or error.
The initial internal email, which was disseminated widely online, told employees to delete TikTok, a video app increasingly popular with young people but also the focus of intensifying national-security and geopolitical concerns because of its Chinese ownership. The email cited the app’s “security risks.”
An Amazon employee who confirmed receipt of the initial email but was not authorized to speak publicly had not seen a retraction at the time of Amazon’s backtrack.
Amazon is the second-largest U.S. private employer after Walmart. Moving against TikTok could have escalated pressure on the app in a big way, particularly if other companies did the same. The U.S. military already bans TikTok on employee phones and the company is subject to a national-security review of its merger history.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said this week that the government was “certainly looking” at banning the app, setting off confused and irritated posts as well as jokes by TikTok users.
Chinese internet company ByteDance owns TikTok, which is designed for users outside of China; it also makes a Chinese version called Douyin. Like YouTube, TikTok relies on its users for the videos that populate its app. It has a reputation for fun, goofy videos and is popular with young people, including millions of Americans.
But critics have cited concerns, including the possibility of TikTok censoring videos, such as those critical of the Chinese government, sharing user data with Chinese officials, and violating kids’ privacy. TikTok has said it doesn’t censor videos based on topics sensitive to China and it would not give the Chinese government access to U.S. user data even if asked.
TikTok said earlier in the day that Amazon did not notify it before sending the initial email around midday Eastern time Friday. That email read, “The TikTok app is no longer permitted on mobile devices that access Amazon email.” To retain mobile access to company email, employees had to delete the TikTok app by the end of the day.
“We still do not understand their concerns,” TikTok said at the time, adding that the company would welcome a dialogue to address Amazon’s issues. A TikTok spokeswoman declined to comment further Friday evening.
TikTok has been trying to appease critics in the U.S. and distance itself from its Chinese roots, but finds itself caught in an increasingly sticky geopolitical web.
It recently named a new CEO, former Disney executive Kevin Mayer, a move experts said could help it navigate U.S. regulators. And it is stopping operations in Hong Kong because of a new Chinese national security law that led Facebook, Google and Twitter to also stop providing user data to Hong Kong authorities.
Pompeo said the U.S. government remains concerned about TikTok and referred to the administration’s crackdown on Chinese telecom firms Huawei and ZTE. Washington has tried to convince allies to root Huawei out of telecom networks with mixed success. President Donald Trump has also said he is willing to use Huawei as a bargaining chip in trade talks. Huawei has denied that it enables spying by the Chinese government.
A U.S. national-security agency has been reviewing ByteDance’s purchase of TikTok’s precursor, Musical.ly. Meanwhile, privacy groups say TikTok has been violating children’s privacy, even after the Federal Trade Commission fined the company in 2019 for collecting personal information from children without their parents’ consent. Concerns aren’t limited to the U.S. India this month banned dozens of Chinese apps, including TikTok, citing privacy concerns, amid tensions between the countries.
Amazon may have been concerned about a Chinese-owned app’s access to employee data because the U.S. government says China regularly steals U.S. intellectual property, said Susan Ariel Aaronson, a professor at George Washington University and a data governance and national-security expert.
Part of Amazon’s motivation with the ban, now apparently reversed, may also have been political, Aaronson said, since Amazon “doesn’t want to alienate the Trump administration.”
Seattle-based Amazon and its founder, Jeff Bezos, are frequent targets of Trump. Bezos personally owns The Washington Post, which Trump has called “fake news.” Last year, Amazon sued the U.S. government, saying that Trump’s “personal vendetta” against Amazon, Bezos and the Post led it to lose a $10 billion cloud computing contract with the Pentagon to rival Microsoft. Meanwhile, federal regulators as well as Congress are pursuing antitrust investigations at Amazon as well as other tech giants.
By TALI ARBEL AP Technology Writer.
AP Business Writer Joseph Pisani contributed to this report.
Germany seizes server hosting pilfered US police files
BOSTON (AP) — At the behest of the U.S. government, German authorities have seized a computer server that hosted a huge cache of files from scores of U.S. federal, state and local law enforcement agencies obtained in a Houston data breach last month.
The server was being used by a WikiLeaks-like data transparency collective called Distributed Denial of Secrets to share documents — many tagged “For Official Use Only” — that shed light on U.S. police practices.
The data, dating back to 1996, include emails, audio and video files and police and FBI intelligence reports. DDoSecrets founder Emma Best said the data, dubbed “BlueLeaks,” comes from more than 200 agencies. It has been stripped of references to sexual assault cases and references to children, but names, phone numbers and emails of police officers were not redacted, said Best, who uses they/their pronouns.
Best said that DDoSecrets obtained the data from an outside individual who sympathized with nationwide protests against police killings of unarmed Black people. Some of the files offer insights into the police response to those protests, they said.
While hacking into computers and stealing data is a federal crime, U.S. courts have consistently ruled that journalists may publish stolen documents as long as they are not involved in their theft. DDoSecrets says it is a journalistic organization that shares documents in the public interest.
The documents came to light via a breach of Houston web-design company Netsential, which hosts portals for law enforcement agencies and “fusion centers,” state-run operations created after the 9/11 attacks to share threat intelligence with local and state police and private-sector partners.
The prosecutor’s office in Zwickau, a German city near the Czech border, said in an emailed statement Wednesday that the server was confiscated July 3 in the town of Falkenstein following a request from U.S. authorities.
The FBI declined to comment. A U.S. Embassy spokesperson in Berlin did not respond to phone calls and emails seeking comment.
The Zwickau prosecutors’ statement said it would be up to German judicial authorities to decide whether to hand the server over to U.S. authorities. It said it would not disclose the reason for the U.S. request. Neither would a representative of Hetzner Online, the company that hosted the server.
Best said they assume the seizure was related to the posting of the BlueLeaks documents. They said the files show “a lot of things that are entirely legal and normal and horrifying,” including police surveillance and police intelligence of dubious origin. Best said none were classified.
The document dump helps expose “the United States’ overdeveloped police intelligence apparatus,” said Brendan McQuade, a criminology professor at the University of Southern Maine who has viewed the documents. The files do not include high-level intelligence but provide a window into the relationship between law enforcement at all levels, he said — one that he believes the FBI doesn’t want the public to see lest it “add more fuel to the protests” against police brutality and racism in policing.
Best said the files remain publicly accessible through more complicated means such as BitTorrent and the Tor network, both of which complicate censorship efforts. Best said the organization is now rebuilding its infrastructure for public access. “All they cost us is time,” they said.
Shortly after DDoSecrets posted the data, Twitter permanently suspended the organization’s account for publishing links and images from the collection, citing a ban on the posting of hacked material.
One U.S. law enforcement agency affected by the breach is the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy. Its director, Judy Bradshaw, told The Associated Press the breach revealed names of students in academy courses and their drivers licenses, but no financial information.
She said Netsential had scores of clients in law enforcement, where it was a strong niche provider. Netsential itself confirmed the breach in an undated statement on its bare-bones website and said it was assisting the investigation but would provide no further information “due to the sensitivity of client information.”
Executives of the National Fusion Centers Association did not respond to emails and phone calls seeking comment on whether any sensitive investigations may have been compromised by the breach. But Maine State Police said in a statement on June 26 that the FBI was investigating and that affected bulletins may “contain identifying information, such as full name and date of birth of people under investigation by other law enforcement agencies.” It said they “may also involve individuals wanted for criminal activity.”
DDoSecrets was created in late 2018 by Best, a journalist specializing in freedom-of-information petitions. It has worked on various investigations with established media organizations including the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel and the U.S. news organization McClatchy.
Previous DDoSecrets releases include data on offshore Bahamas accounts used as tax havens, files hacked from Chilean police and data from a British provider of offshore financial services that has drawn comparisons, on a smaller scale, to the 2016 Panama Papers leak.
By FRANK BAJAK AP Technology Writer.
Facebook civil rights audit: ‘Serious setbacks’ mar progress
A two-year audit of Facebook’s civil rights record found “serious setbacks” that have marred the social network’s progress on matters such as hate speech, misinformation and bias.
Facebook hired the audit’s leader, former American Civil Liberties Union executive Laura Murphy, in May 2018 to assess its performance on vital social issues. Its 100-page report released Wednesday outlines a “seesaw of progress and setbacks” at the company on everything from bias in Facebook’s algorithms to its content moderation, advertising practices and treatment of voter suppression.
The audit recommends that Facebook build a “civil rights infrastructure” into every aspect of the company, as well as a “stronger interpretation” of existing voter suppression policies and more concrete action on algorithmic bias. Those suggestions are not binding, and there is no formal system in place to hold Facebook accountable for any of the audit’s findings.
“While the audit process has been meaningful, and has led to some significant improvements in the platform, we have also watched the company make painful decisions over the last nine months with real world consequences that are serious setbacks for civil rights,” the audit report states.
Those include Facebook’s decision to exempt politicians from fact-checking, even when President Donald Trump posted false information about voting by mail. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has cited a commitment to free speech as a reason for allowing such posts to remain on the platform, even though the company has rules in place against voter suppression it could have used to take down — or at least add warning labels to — Trump’s posts.
Last month, Facebook announced it would begin labeling rule-breaking posts — even from politicians — going forward. But it is not clear if Trump’s previous controversial posts would have gotten the alert. The problem, critics have long said, is not so much about Facebook’s rules as how it enforces them.
“When you elevate free expression as your highest value, other values take a back seat,” Murphy told The Associated Press. The politician exemption, she said, “elevates the speech of people who are already powerful and disadvantages people who are not.”
More than 900 companies have joined an advertising boycott of Facebook to protest its handling of hate speech and misinformation.
Civil rights leaders who met virtually with Zuckerberg and other Facebook leaders Tuesday expressed skepticism that recommendations from the audit would ever be implemented, noting that past suggestions in previous reports had gone overlooked.
“What we get is recommendations that they end up not implementing,” said Rashad Robinson, the president of Color for Change, one of several civil rights nonprofits leading an organized boycott of Facebook advertising.
Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, said in a Facebook newsroom post that the company has a long way to go, but is making progress.
“This audit has been a deep analysis of how we can strengthen and advance civil rights at every level of our company — but it is the beginning of the journey, not the end,” she wrote. “What has become increasingly clear is that we have a long way to go. As hard as it has been to have our shortcomings exposed by experts, it has undoubtedly been a really important process for our company.”
By BARBARA ORTUTAY AP Technology Writer.
Associated Press Writer Amanda Seitz contributed to this story.
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