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Ethical Tech

Urgent investigation into WhatsApp, Facebook data sharing

Karim Husami

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whatsapp

The EU’s national data protection regulators have called on the Irish watchdog to conduct an urgent investigation into the recent changes in WhatsApp’s privacy policy and how it shares data with parent company Facebook, amid concerns the companies have violated privacy law.

The regulators stopped short of taking action against Facebook, saying it was still too unclear how the company was using data on WhatsApp users.

The European Data Protection Board, a panel of EU authorities, said Facebook’s practices linked to WhatsApp data should be examined “as a matter of priority” by the Irish privacy watchdog, its main regulator in the region.

Updated terms had been set to be imposed upon users of the Facebook-owned messaging app early this year — but in January Facebook delayed the WhatsApp terms update until May after a major privacy backlash and ongoing confusion over the details of its user data processing.

“Considering the high likelihood of infringements in particular for the purpose of safety, security and integrity of WhatsApp” and other Facebook units “the EDPB considered that this matter requires swift further investigations,” the EU body said in statement.

In Thursday’s decision, the EDPB stopped short of imposing a provisional EU-wide ban on data access, as requested by the Hamburg data privacy commissioner.

The German authority in May imposed a three-month banning order on Facebook to stop it collecting German users’ data from its WhatsApp unit, and asked EU regulators to take a bloc-wide decision.

The Indian government, for example, has repeatedly ordered Facebook to withdraw the new terms. While, in Europe, privacy regulators and consumer protection organizations have raised objections about how opaque terms are being pushed on users — and in May a German data protection authority issued a temporary (national) blocking order.

The Irish data protection commission “has already carried out an in-depth inquiry into WhatsApp’s privacy policy user facing material in the context of its transparency inquiry,” it said in an emailed statement on Thursday.

A draft of its decision was sent to its EU counterparts in December, needing their approval before being able to finalize the probe.

That decision is currently stuck in a EU dispute resolution procedure, failing to get the full backing of all European data watchdogs.

Journalist for 8 years in print media, with a bachelor degree in Political Science and International Affairs. Masters in Media communications.

Ethical Tech

PayPal, ADL announce initiative against criminal funding

Daryn Kara Ali

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In PayPal’s most recent efforts to fight racism and extremism across the industry, the financial gateway partners up with the Anti-Defamation League to investigate how extremists adopt financial platforms to fund their activity.  

PayPal and Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) atypical collaboration initiates the first step to divert focus towards the importance of recognizing how extremists are leveraging financial platforms for criminal funding. 

The initiative will be guided through ADL’s Center on Extremism, one of the main authorities that addresses extremism, terrorism, and hate.  

“By identifying partners across sectors with common goals and complementary resources, we can make an even greater impact than any of us could do on our own,” said PayPal’s chief compliance officer Aaron Karczmer in a statement.  

“We are excited to partner with the ADL, other non-profit and law enforcement in our fight against hate in all its forms,” he added. 

The Financial platform alongside the ADL will create a partnership with civil rights organizations to secure marginalized communities from extremists.  

ADL’s fight against extremism has been going for decades, with its team of investigators, analysts, researchers, and technical experts who are constantly monitoring, and aiming to expose radical threats, whether on the internet or on the ground.  

Various civil rights organizations encouraged the developed efforts PayPal and ADL are putting to spread awareness and develop key insights that would optimistically minimize extremists’ efforts in funding their activities through any financial platform. 

One of the initiative’s biggest advocates is the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). It considered this new partnership between the financial platform and the ADL as a stepping point to motivate such organizations to take initiative to proceed or initiate its own fight against extremism.   

“All of us, including in the private sector, have a critical role to play in fighting the spread of extremism and hate. With this new initiative, we’re setting a new standard for companies to bring their expertise to critical social issues,” said ADL’s CEO Jonathan Greenblatt. 

This is a clear demonstration how PayPal is working on broadening its reach on financial crimes capabilities, which will take place through multi-sector collaborations concerning any vital societal and community issues. 

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Ethical Tech

Why the Anthony Bourdain voice cloning creeps people out

Associated Press

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Anthony Bourdain

The revelation that a documentary filmmaker used voice-cloning software to make the late chef Anthony Bourdain say words he never spoke has drawn criticism amid ethical concerns about use of the powerful technology.

The movie “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain” appeared in cinemas Friday and mostly features real footage of the beloved celebrity chef and globe-trotting television host before he died in 2018. But its director, Morgan Neville, told The New Yorker that a snippet of dialogue was created using artificial intelligence technology.

That’s renewed a debate about the future of voice-cloning technology, not just in the entertainment world but in politics and a fast-growing commercial sector dedicated to transforming text into realistic-sounding human speech.

“Unapproved voice cloning is a slippery slope,” said Andrew Mason, the founder and CEO of voice generator Descript, in a blog post Friday. “As soon as you get into a world where you’re making subjective judgment calls about whether specific cases can be ethical, it won’t be long before anything goes.”

Before this week, most of the public controversy around such technologies focused on the creation of hard-to-detect deepfakes using simulated audio and/or video and their potential to fuel misinformation and political conflict.

But Mason, who previously founded and led Groupon, said in an interview that Descript has repeatedly rejected requests to bring back a voice, including from “people who have lost someone and are grieving.”

“It’s not even so much that we want to pass judgment,” he said. “We’re just saying you have to have some bright lines in what’s OK and what’s not.”

Angry and uncomfortable reactions to the voice cloning in the Bourdain case reflect expectations and issues of disclosure and consent, said Sam Gregory, program director at Witness, a nonprofit working on using video technology for human rights. Obtaining consent and disclosing the technowizardry at work would have been appropriate, he said. Instead, viewers were stunned — first by the fact of the audio fakery, then by the director’s seeming dismissal of any ethical questions — and expressed their displeasure online.

“It touches also on our fears of death and ideas about the way people could take control of our digital likeness and make us say or do things without any way to stop it,” Gregory said.

Neville hasn’t identified what tool he used to recreate Bourdain’s voice but said he used it for a few sentences that Bourdain wrote but never said aloud.

“With the blessing of his estate and literary agent we used AI technology,” Neville said in a written statement. “It was a modern storytelling technique that I used in a few places where I thought it was important to make Tony’s words come alive.”

Neville also told GQ magazine that he got the approval of Bourdain’s widow and literary executor. The chef’s wife, Ottavia Busia, responded by tweet: “I certainly was NOT the one who said Tony would have been cool with that.”

Although tech giants like Microsoft, Google and Amazon have dominated text-to-speech research, there are now also a number of startups like Descript that offer voice-cloning software. The uses range from talking customer service chatbots to video games and podcasting.

Many of these voice cloning companies prominently feature an ethics policy on their website that explains the terms of use. Of nearly a dozen firms contacted by The Associated Press, many said they didn’t recreate Bourdain’s voice and wouldn’t have if asked. Others didn’t respond.

“We have pretty strong polices around what can be done on our platform,” said Zohaib Ahmed, founder and CEO of Resemble AI, a Toronto company that sells a custom AI voice generator service. “When you’re creating a voice clone, it requires consent from whoever’s voice it is.”

Ahmed said the rare occasions where he’s allowed some posthumous voice cloning were for academic research, including a project working with the voice of Winston Churchill, who died in 1965.

Ahmed said a more common commercial use is to edit a TV ad recorded by real voice actors and then customize it to a region by adding a local reference. It’s also used to dub anime movies and other videos, by taking a voice in one language and making it speak a different language, he said.

He compared it to past innovations in the entertainment industry, from stunt actors to greenscreen technology.

Just seconds or minutes of recorded human speech can help teach an AI system to generate its own synthetic speech, though getting it to capture the clarity and rhythm of Anthony Bourdain’s voice probably took a lot more training, said Rupal Patel, a professor at Northeastern University who runs another voice-generating company, VocaliD, that focuses on customer service chatbots.

“If you wanted it to speak really like him, you’d need a lot, maybe 90 minutes of good, clean data,” she said. “You’re building an algorithm that learns to speak like Bourdain spoke.”

Neville is an acclaimed documentarian who also directed the Fred Rogers portrait “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and the Oscar-winning “20 Feet From Stardom.” He began making his latest movie in 2019, more than a year after Bourdain’s death by suicide in June 2018.

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Ethical Tech

Online racial abuse targets England’s football players

Rim Zrein

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Euro 2020

England’s loss against Italy in the UEFA Euro 2020 final on Sunday night did not only crush the dream of millions who believed the championship was coming home, but it also unleashed a wave of deeply rooted racism that remains embedded in today’s modern world. 

Social media, including Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, were flooded with racial abuse and slurs targeted towards England’s Black football players.  

As anger boiled among England fans, many social media users decided to express their frustration by issuing racist comments and messages towards the young team members. Some online users even decided it was humorous to post monkey and banana emojis on the football player’s personal social media accounts. 

England and Italy played to a 1-1 tie until Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho, and Bukayo Saka began the penalty-kick showdown on the wrong foot. All three players, who enjoy a darker skin color than their teammates, missed their shots. 

The online racism was so severe, the country’s Football Association (FA) had to intervene and publish a statement on Twitter condemning the abuse and explaining how appalled it is to see the amount of online racism directed at the England players. 

“We could not be clearer that anyone behind such disgusting behavior is not welcome in following the team,” the association said in the statement published on Twitter and the official website. “We will do all we can to support the players affected while urging the toughest punishments possible for anyone responsible.” 

Matters, however, did not end there.   

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson also condemned on Monday the racist abuse, writing that the players “deserve to be lauded as heroes, not racially abused on social media.” 

This issue raises a very important question. Are social media platforms doing enough to combat the racial abuse online? 

A Twitter spokesperson told The Verge that since the end of the game on Sunday, Twitter removed more than 1,000 tweets and permanently suspended multiple accounts for violating several rules that forbid harassment and hateful content.  

While Facebook did not share the exact number of posts deleted, a Facebook spokesperson did enclose to The Verge that the platform “quickly removed comments and accounts directing abuse at England’s footballers last night and we’ll continue to take action against those that break our rules.” 

However, this may not be enough, as the FA highlighted the fact that social media platforms are not implementing maximum protection to shield social media users from abhorrent content. 

 “Social media companies need to step up and take accountability and action to ban abusers from their platforms, gather evidence that can lead to prosecution and support making the platforms free from this type of abhorrent abuse,” the FA’s statement read. 

This incident comes after Raheem Sterling, a member of England’s national football team spoke out on his experience with racism following protests that broke out in the UK to support the Black Lives Matter movement. 

“The only disease right now is the racism that we are fighting,” The 25-year-old English football player told BBC. “This is the most important thing at this moment in time because this is something that is happening for years and years.” 

Sterling is not the only football player to show support for the Black Lives Matter movement, as all of England’s football team continuously showcase their support by kneeling ahead of every kickoff during the Euro 2020 tournament.   

England’s football coach Gareth Southgate explained the reason behind the team member’s kneeling, citing that football is more than just a sport, as the young players are viewed as role models who uphold great power and influence on society.  

“It’s their duty to continue to interact with the public on matters such as equality, inclusivity and racial injustice, while using the power of their voices to help put debates on the table, raise awareness and educate,” Southgate wrote in an article published by The Players’ Tribune.   

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