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Norway ends virus tracing app over privacy concerns

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Norway ends virus tracing app over privacy concerns

OSLO, Norway (AP) — Norway has suspended use of its smartphone app meant to track and trace coronavirus contagions after a public spat between health authorities and the information watchdog.

Geir Bukholm, an official at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health (NIPH), said the decision Monday to delete data and halt any further information gathering from the app “weakened the country’s preparedness” should the infection rate increase. The app was being tested in three municipalities.

But the Norwegian Data Protection Agency said, amongst other things, that the low infection rate meant data gathering on the app could no longer be justified against privacy concerns.

Norway currently has between 50 and 100 confirmed cases of the COVID-19 virus, according to the NIPH. There are between 20 and 50 new cases each week.

Fearing a second wave or localized spread of the infection, the health directorate will argue in a meeting with the data watchdog on Friday that the technology should be turned back on.

European governments have been rolling out smartphone tracing apps to help beat back any fresh coronavirus outbreaks. Norway was one of the first out of the blocks but its “Smittestopp” raised concerns because it used GPS tracking and uploaded data to central servers every hour.

The app was suspended ahead of an Amnesty International report analyzing contact tracing apps from Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, which found that the Norwegian app was one of the most alarming for privacy because of its “live or near-live tracking of users’ locations.” The rights group said it shared its findings with authorities earlier this month and urged them to change course.

“This episode should act as a warning to all governments rushing ahead with apps that are invasive and designed in a way that puts human rights at risk,” said Claudio Guarnieri, head of Amnesty’s Security Lab.

Other countries such as Germany, Italy, Switzerland and Latvia are adopting a “decentralized” approach using a Google-Apple software interface that experts say is better for privacy because keeps data about contacts on iPhones and Android devices.

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Facebook civil rights audit: ‘Serious setbacks’ mar progress

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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.”

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By BARBARA ORTUTAY AP Technology Writer.
Associated Press Writer Amanda Seitz contributed to this story.

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Civil rights groups denounce Facebook over hate speech

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Civil rights groups denounce Facebook over hate speech

Facebook keeps telling critics that it is doing everything it can to rid its service of hate, abuse and misinformation. And the company’s detractors keep not buying it.

On Tuesday, CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg met with a group of civil rights leaders, including the organizers of a growing advertising boycott over hate speech on Facebook. One of those leaders, NAACP President Derrick Johnson, said Facebook’s executives offered little but cheap talk that skirted major commitments to new rules or actions that would curb racism and misinformation on its platform.

“We’ve watched the conversation blossom into nothingness,” Johnson said. “They lack the cultural sensitivity to understand that their platform is actually being used to cause harm. Or, they understand the harm their platform is causing and they’ve chosen to take the profit.”

The NAACP was one of several groups that sent Facebook a list of 10 demands for policy change. Those included hiring a civil rights executive; banning private groups that promote white supremacy, vaccine misinformation or violent conspiracy theories; and ending an exemption that allows politicians to post voting misinformation.

Such calls have the support of big-name companies like Coca-Cola and Unilever who have yanked their Facebook ads in recent days. But nothing concrete will change for Facebook’s 2.6 billion users.

In a statement following the meeting, Facebook largely reiterated its existing policies against voter and census interference, also noting the white supremacist groups it has banned and other recent changes.

“This meeting was an opportunity for us to hear from the campaign organizers and reaffirm our commitment to combating hate on our platform,” the statement read. “We know we will be judged by our actions not by our words and are grateful to these groups and many others for their continued engagement.”

Facebook did agree to install a civil rights vice president, but didn’t say how long that would take, Jessica J. González — the co-CEO of Free Press, a group behind the boycott — told The Associated Press.

President Donald Trump frequently skirts Facebook’s posting rules, yet faces no consequences, dismaying both civil rights leaders and some of Facebook’s own employees. The president made several misleading claims about mail-in-voting in May and June posts, including one that pushed a far-fetched theory that foreign countries plan to print millions of bogus ballots. Trump also used the platform to threaten violence against racial injustice protesters in Minneapolis when he wrote “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” in a May post.

The posts have gone unchecked on Facebook. Twitter, meanwhile, has fact checked, removed or obscured some of Trump’s controversial tweets.

“When a politician, no matter who that politician is, when he makes a post that says ‘shoot the looters,’ it is not only racially insensitive, it could incite violence across the country,” Johnson said.

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 label.

On Wednesday, Facebook will release the final results of its own “civil rights audit” of its U.S. practices.

The audit was led by former American Civil Liberties Union executive Laura Murphy, who was hired by Facebook in May 2018 to assess its performance on vital social issues.

More than 900 companies have joined the ad boycott, which runs through the end of July, although some companies plan to withhold their ad dollars for longer.

In a Facebook post Tuesday, Sandberg emphasized what she called the company’s years of effort to “minimize the presence of hate” on Facebook and the billions of dollars it has spent “to find and remove hate — as well as protect the integrity of our platform more generally.”

Facebook’s 2019 revenue was more than $70 billion, nearly all of it from advertising.

Facebook’s inaction will only encourage companies to continue their boycott of advertising on the site for longer, said Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League.

“The list is growing every day,” Greenblatt said of companies joining the boycott. “It’s unfortunate to go back to them and say we haven’t seen the progress we expected.”

By BARBARA ORTUTAY and AMANDA SEITZ Associated Press.

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COVID-19 data on Medicare’s nursing home site is incomplete

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COVID-19 data on Medicare's nursing home site is incomplete

WASHINGTON (AP) — When the Trump administration required nursing homes to report their COVID-19 cases, it also promised to make the data available to residents, families and the public in a user-friendly way.

But some facilities that have had coronavirus cases and deaths turn up as having none on Medicare‘s COVID-19 nursing home website. Those data may be incomplete because the reporting requirements don’t reach back to the start of the pandemic. Numbers don’t necessarily portray the full picture.

“The biggest thing that needs to be taken away … is in its current form, it is really leaving consumers in the dark,” Sam Brooks, project manager for Consumer Voice, said of the website, maintained by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Consumer Voice is a national advocacy group for improved quality in long-term care.

Nursing homes are only required to provide CMS with data on coronavirus cases and deaths among residents and staff as of May 8, or more than two months after the first outbreak in a U.S. facility was reported. Nursing homes have the option of full disclosure, but not all have taken it, and there is no penalty for withholding older data that may reflect poorly.

The missing information from early in the pandemic leads to some puzzling results on the website.

For example, a nursing home that had one of the first major reported outbreaks in the country — Life Care Center of Kirkland, Washington — shows no confirmed COVID-19 cases and no deaths on the CMS data page.

A spokesman for Life Care Centers of America, a major chain, said the company is providing the information the government requested.

“We are reporting what CMS is asking us to report to them,” said Tim Killian. “We are not evading them in any way.

“The Kirkland facility is now COVID-free and it has been for some time,” Killian added. The data showing no cases “is a snapshot of what is currently in the facility.”

The company said its cumulative count shows 100 residents tested positive, and 34 died. “You can ask us directly and we’ll give you the exact numbers,” said Killian.

But consumer advocate Brooks said that information should be on the government website.

As it stands, the site “doesn’t tell the whole picture,” he said. “You are not going to be able to look at a home and make an informed decision.”

CMS, which sets standards for nursing homes, said protecting residents is a top priority, and “transparency and information sharing has proven to be one of the keys to the battle against this pandemic.”

But the agency said it lacked the legal authority to require nursing homes to disclose COVID-19 information from before the effective date of its reporting rule in May.

On Capitol Hill, there is pressure for more information.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, recently introduced legislation that would require nursing homes to report coronavirus cases and deaths going back to Jan. 1, a push that has bipartisan support.

The estimated 1.4 million people living in some 15,500 nursing homes represent a tiny share of the U.S. population, but they have borne a disproportionate share of coronavirus deaths. Nursing homes are only now starting to emerge from a national lockdown that took effect in mid-March.

According to the latest CMS figures, more than 33,000 nursing home residents have died in the pandemic. A running tally by The Associated Press, which also includes other long-term care facilities and staff as well as residents, shows more than 57,000 deaths.

Depending on the total count, that translates from about one-fourth of the deaths to more than 40%, strikingly high proportions in either case.

Coronavirus data for nursing homes do not appear directly on Medicare’s NursingHomeCompare website, the main portal for consumers trying to research a facility on behalf of a family member or friend. Instead, a link takes users to a different COVID-19 site that features statistics and a national nursing home locator map.

Finding information on individual nursing homes via the data website can be confusing.

If users type in a ZIP code or the name of a nursing home, the website’s locator map will display some small red dots near a larger marker icon, which also has a big dot in the middle.

Instructions say click on one of the dots. But which one?

The data is under the small red dots, not the larger locator, which instinctively draws the user’s eye.

“I would click on the big dot,” said policy attorney Toby Edelman of the Center for Medicare Advocacy, which represents enrollees. “Why would I look for this thing that I can barely see?”

CMS said it has received no reports related to search problems although more than 100,000 individuals accessed the site in June.

The agency says it will continue to evaluate the usability of the website to ensure it meets consumer needs.


By RICARDO ALONSO-ZALDIVAR Associated Press.
AP investigative researcher Randy Herschaft in New York contributed.

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