As a prologue to the search engine’s plans to conjointly work with the government, Google announced on Thursday that it received around 20,000 geofence warrants from U.S. authorities, portraying a conceptualization on how these warrants are wielded into the system.
Geofence warrants, or as alternatively referred to as reverse-location warrants, are a controversial modern concept. By obtaining permission from a judge, they allow the police to acquire anonymized data from the search engine titan from almost any device, in a specific geographic area and time.
Any information provided to the police would be anonymous, but law enforcement entities can analyze the data and narrow it down to several devices it might deem important to the investigation. Then, the Police would ask Google to release the users’ names and other data.
A document published by the tech giant revealed an increase in the amounts of warrants asking Google to pinpoint some users based on location history. This can be managed by data collected by the company from users consuming its mobile services, which by design will strengthen the platform’s advertising business.
Since 2018, Google dealt with thousands of geofence warrants every quarter, and in some cases, the social networking company accounted for roughly one-quarter of all U.S. warrants received by authorities, according to the document.
Following the data, in 2018 alone, Google received 982 geofence warrants, 8,396 in 2019 and 11,554 in 2020. However, despite receiving an extensive sum of warrants, these numbers only portray a minimal glimpse into the mass of warrants received.
“We vigorously protect the privacy of our users while supporting the important work of law enforcement. We developed a process specifically for these requests that are designed to honor our legal obligations while narrowing the scope of data disclosed,” Google spokesperson, Alex Krasov, said in a statement.
Since Geofence warrants aim to distinguish people of interest’s location, authorities consider them as an asset in identifying a near vicinity during the same period of which a crime is committed.
When one warrant is required for an investigation, law enforcement units ask the court to order Google to provide the police with details regarding who was in a certain geographic area, to help identify probable defendants.
It is of value to highlight that in 2018, the Associated Press remarked that the social networking company could still have access to users’ location data, even if the feature is “paused” on users’ devices.
To deconstruct the scenario, what can be referred to as Google’s collaboration with law enforcement entities could be perceived as the titan’s latest attempt to demonstrate in good faith, undisclosed transparency towards U.S. authorities, as an endeavor to estrange regulatory examination.
New FTC memo will transform the way big tech operates
Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chair Lina Khan recently publicized her policy priorities and vision in a memo that was sent out to staff members on Wednesday.
Supervised by five commissioners who vote on enforcement actions and policy statements, Khan set in stone the main priorities of the agency in the recent FTC memo: fixing power imbalances, reducing harm on the consumers, and targeting “rampant consolidation.”
Khan laid out the main focus of the agency, as well as how it can adjust its strategic approach to overcome issues born by “next-generation technologies, innovations, and nascent industries across sectors.”
FTC’s new list of priorities indicates that tech giants, even though none of them were named, will be under extreme scrutiny going forward.
The five principles outlined in the FTC memo are the following:
- Conduct a “holistic approach to identifying harms.” Khan noted that the agency should acknowledge that employees, private corporations, as well as consumers, can be equally harmed by antitrust and consumer protection violations. The famous antitrust lawsuits have previously emphasized strictly on consumer harm, as it was mainly concerned with how to price a product to ensure fairness. However, Khan argued in her memo that a more productive approach could be utilized to better assess harm by tech giants, which often offer free of charge platforms in exchange to high levels of engagement.
- Keep an eye on “targeting root causes rather than looking at one-off effects.” Khan explained that the FTC workers should examine how business models or conflicts of interest go against the law.
- Incorporate more “analytical tools and skillsets” for an overall assessment of business methods.
- Enjoy “forward-looking” and work on stepping up quickly when harm is done, this includes focusing on “next-generation technologies, innovations, and nascent industries across sectors.”
- Democratize the FTC through ensuring it’s “in tune with the real problems that Americans are facing in their daily lives.”
“Research documents how gatekeepers and dominant middlemen across the economy have been able to use their critical market position to hike fees, dictate terms, and protect and extend their market power,” Khan wrote in the memo, adding that “deeply asymmetric relationships between the controlling firm and dependent entities can be ripe for abuse.”
The FTC chairwoman also included non-compete agreements in her memo, which she says have the ability to restrict workers from which jobs they can take on, as well as impose restrictions on consumer’s right-to-repair. Apple has been criticized in the past for the limit it imposed regarding the number of times users can repair Apple devices they purchased.
Earlier this year, the FTC vocalized its intentions to fighting these restrictions.
“Consumers, workers, franchisees, and other market participants are at a significant disadvantage when they are unable to negotiate freely over terms and conditions,” Khan wrote in the memo.
Facebook’s Oversight Board demands answers on celebrity rules
Facebook’s oversight board said on Tuesday that it will set in motion an urgent examination process to inspect whether the social networking platform is mitigating posts for famous personages, leading to a direct content rules breach, according to Wall Street inquiry.
Facebook’s oversight board is an independent group assigned by the platform to observe its moderation policies concerning politicians, athletes, celebrities, and other high-profile users.
The board revealed that it has already initiated an examination plan that demands Facebook executives to submit any data related to the Cross-Check Program, or popularly referred to as” XCheck.” It demanded proof of clarity to determine whether these allegations are true, and from there, it would work accordingly based on the findings.
“In light of recent developments, we are looking into the degree to which Facebook has been fully forthcoming in its responses in relation to cross-check, including the practice of whitelisting,” the board wrote in a statement.
Whitelisting is a cybersecurity strategy where users only act on their personal computers following exclusive administrator permission.
Initially, the XCheck program was initiated to take measures against all kinds of distinguished and famed accounts, which later exponentially grew to involve millions of accounts.
Presumably, Facebook’s program was established to prohibit “PR fires,” or any type of unwanted press caused by removing photos, posts, and other types of content on the platform. In this case, these high-profile users are immune to any outcome disclosed by XCheck, or any moderating process for that matter. It aims to deliver additional premium control over the platform’s posts.
Thus, by being excluded from the program’s functionality, millions of celebrities are safeguarded from any future regulation on their profile, meaning Facebook is perpetually and intentionally misleading its oversight board on its rules.
“Mark Zuckerberg has publicly said Facebook allows its more than three billion users to speak on equal footing with the elites of politics, culture, and journalism, and that its standards of behavior apply to everyone, no matter their status or frame. In private, the company has built a system that has exempted high-profile users from some or all of its rules,” according to the Wall Street Journal’s report.
At the moment, Facebook’s oversight board will monitor the social networking’s conduct by investigating its cross-check program and will eventually release the findings to the public.
The board’s decision will entirely be based on the tech giant’s transparency regarding its freedom of speech and human rights policies, be it supportive or opposing to its program’s own guidelines.
While Facebook has publicly vowed to follow the board’s demands on its users’ regulations, it also has the right not to submit itself to extensive recommendations as it is not compelled legally to abide by its rules.
U.S. Democrats push for tough data privacy regulations
The U.S. Congress surely returned to work with full force after a summer recess, asa group of Senate Democrats are now pushing the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to construct new regulations around data privacy protection.
Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal led the initiative after garnering eight signatures from his colleagues on a letter that was forwarded to agency Chair Lina Khan on Monday.
The letter’s details revolve around new rules that should be implemented to strengthen cybersecurity, which in return will improve civil rights and give back the consumer what’s rightfully theirs; their privacy.
The letter pointed the finger at Big Tech for having “unchecked access to private personal information” that they use to “create in-depth profiles about nearly all Americans and to protect their market position against competition from startups.”
The senators explained in the letter that previous attempts to hold big tech firms guilty for violating existing data privacy rules were not enough.
“We believe that a national standard for data privacy and security is urgently needed to protect consumers, reinforce civil rights, and safeguard our nation’s cybersecurity,” the senators wrote.
The news comes after U.S. President Joe Biden nominated vocal critic of privacy and facial recognition, Alvaro Bedoya, to acquire the job of the third Democratic FTC commissioner. Bedoya’s past experiences at Georgetown Law is highlighted in his research that delves into the aftermath of technologies like facial recognition on minority groups.
The professor at Georgetown Law’s Center for Privacy and Technology also created a number of surveys aimed at investigating tech’s capability for racial bias. In the past, Bedoya has also served as chief counsel to the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law under Chairman Senator. A confirmation hearing for Bedoya is yet to be scheduled. However, if it goes according to plan, Bedoya will be able to support the FTC’s mission in coming up with regulations when it comes to data privacy.
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