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Why tech giants limited the spread of NY Post story on Biden

Inside Telecom Staff

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When Facebook and Twitter moved quickly this week to limit the spread of an unverified political story published by the conservative-leaning New York Post, it led to predictable cries of censorship from the right. But it also illustrated the slippery hold even the largest tech companies have on the flow of information, particularly in the midst of a raucous presidential election campaign.

While Facebook and Twitter have often been slow to combat apparent misinformation and other violations of their rules, their response in this case shows how quickly they can move when they want to. Misinformation frequently outpaces the truth on social networks, academic studies have found. But if social media titans aren’t careful, their attempts to clamp down on a story can amplify it further. And even when they exercise caution, they risk generating their own headlines with every move.

For the first time in recent memory, the two social media platforms enforced rules against misinformation on a story from a mainstream media publication. The story in question, which has not been confirmed by other publications, cited unverified emails from Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s son that were reportedly discovered by President Donald Trump’s allies.

Trump’s campaign seized on the report, although it raised more questions than answers, including whether emails at the center of the story were hacked or fabricated. Neither company responded when asked if they have previously taken similar action against a mainstream news article, although Facebook said demoting material while it awaits a fact check is common practice.

Facebook used the possibility of false information as the reason to limit the article’s reach, which means its algorithm shows it to fewer people, much the way you might not see as many posts from friends you don’t interact with often. Twitter, meanwhile, blocked users from tweeting out the link to the story and from sending it in private messages.

Though they acted quickly, both companies stumbled on communicating their decision to the public. In part because of this, and in part by the mere act of trying to limit the story, the tech platforms soon became the story, especially in conservative circles where purported bias from Big Tech is already a prime talking point. The fact that a major, big-city newspaper was getting the treatment usually reserved for more fringe outlets added extra fuel to the fire.

“I find this behavior stunning but not surprising from a platform that has censored the President of the United States,” wrote Senator Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) in a letter to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. Republican lawmakers on Thursday announced plans to subpoena Dorsey to testify about his platform’s actions.

In a somewhat unusual move Wednesday morning, a Facebook spokesman took to Twitter to announce that the company was “reducing” the story’s distribution on the platform while waiting for third-party fact-checkers to verify it. Facebook regularly does this with material that isn’t banned outright from its service, but that risks spreading lies or causing harm in other ways.

Later on Wednesday, Twitter began banning its users from sharing links to the article in tweets and direct messages because it violated the company’s policy that prohibits hacked content. But it didn’t alert its users as to why they couldn’t share the link until hours later.

In a Twitter thread, the company’s safety group said that the images in the article included personal and private information in violation of its rules, and said it considered material included in the article to be a violation of its hacked materials policy.

Dorsey tweeted shortly afterward that it was “unacceptable” that the company had not provided more context around its action.

The Post followed up Wednesday with an article focused on the tech platforms’ purported “censorship.” And Thursday’s print cover of the tabloid shows a photo of Biden and his son with a big blue “CENSORED” stamp and the headline “Facebook and Twitter block Post expose on Hunter Biden files.”

OAKLAND, California (AP) — By BARBARA ORTUTAY AP Technology Writer
Associated Press Writer Amanda Seitz contributed to this story from Chicago.

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Finland shocked by therapy center hacking, client blackmail

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Finland shocked by therapy center hacking, client blackmail

Finland’s interior minister summoned key Cabinet members into an emergency meeting Sunday after hundreds — and possibly thousands — of patient records at a private Finnish psychotherapy center were accessed by a hacker or hackers now demanding ransoms.

Finnish Interior Minister Maria Ohisalo tweeted that authorities would “provide speedy crisis help to victims” of the security breach at the Vastaamo psychotherapy center, an incident she called “shocking and very serious.”

Vastaamo, which has branches throughout the Nordic country of 5.5 million and operates as a sub-contractor for Finland’s public health system, said its client register with intimate patient information was likely stolen during two attacks that started almost two years ago.

The first incursion probably took place in November 2018 and “it is likely that our (data) systems were penetrated also between the end of November 2018 and March 2019,” Vastaamo said in a statement late Saturday.

The center said the unknown perpetrator or perpetrators had published at least 300 patient records containing names and contact information using the anonymous Tor communication software. “The blackmailer has started to approach victims of the security breach directly with extortion letters,” it said.

The National Bureau of Investigation said Sunday up to “tens of thousands” of Vastaamo clients may have had their personal data compromised. Police were looking for the possible culprits both in Finland and abroad.

It was not immediately clear if the stolen information included diagnoses, notes from therapy sessions or other potentially damaging information. Also, it wasn’t clear why the information was surfacing only now.

“What makes this case exceptional is the contents of the stolen material,” Marko Leponen, the National Bureau of Investigation’s chief investigator assigned to the case, told reporters.

Vastaamo urged clients who receive demands to pay money in exchange for keeping their information private — allegedly dozens already — to immediately contact Finnish police.

Finnish media reported that cyber-criminals have demanded ransoms of 200 euros ($240) paid in Bitcoin, with the amount increased to 500 euros unless paid within 24 hours. The psychotherapy center also reportedly received a ransom demand for 450,000 euros ($534,000) in Bitcoin.

Citizens reacted to the news with disbelief. It also prompted comments from Finland’s leaders. President Sauli Niinisto called the blackmailing “cruel” and “repulsive.” Prime Minister Sanna Marin said the hacking of such sensitive information was “shocking in many ways.”

The chief research officer of Finnish data security company F-Secure, Mikko Hypponen, told Finnish public broadcaster YLE that the case was exceptional even on an international level.

“I’m not aware of any such case anywhere in the world with such gross misuse of patient records,” said Hypponen, one of Finland’s leading data security experts and an internationally known lecturer on cyber-threats.

Hypponen also tweeted that he knew of “only one other patient blackmail case that would be even remotely similar: the Center for Facial Restoration incident in Florida in 2019. This was a different medical area and had a smaller number of victims, but the basic idea was the same.”

Various Finnish organizations have rapidly mobilized ways to help the victims of the breach, including direct dial-in numbers with churches and therapy services.


This version has been corrected to show a data security expert said the case is exceptional, not unexceptional.

HELSINKI (AP) — By JARI TANNER Associated Press.

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Facebook demands academics disable ad-targeting data tool

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Academics, journalists and First Amendment lawyers are rallying behind New York University researchers in a showdown with Facebook over its demand that they halt the collection of data showing who is being micro-targeted by political ads on the world’s dominant social media platform.

The researchers say the disputed tool is vital to understanding how Facebook has been used as a conduit for disinformation and manipulation.

In an Oct. 16 letter to the researchers, a Facebook executive demanded they disable a special plug-in for Chrome and Firefox browsers used by 6,500 volunteers across the United States and delete the data obtained. The plug-in lets researchers see which ads are shown to each volunteer; Facebook lets advertisers tailor ads based on specific demographics that go far beyond race, age, gender and political preference.

The executive, Allison Hendrix, said the tool violates Facebook rules prohibiting automated bulk collection of data from the site. Her letter threatened “additional enforcement action” if the takedown was not effected by Nov. 30.

Company spokesman Joe Osborne said in an emailed statement Saturday that Facebook “informed NYU months ago that moving forward with a project to scrape people’s Facebook information would violate our terms.” The company has long claimed protecting user privacy is its main concern, though NYU researchers say their tool is programmed so the data collected from participating volunteers is anonymous.

The outcry over Facebook’s threat was immediate after The Wall Street Journal first reported the news Friday considering the valuable insights the “Ad Observer” tool provides. It has been used since its September launch by local reporters from Wisconsin to Utah to Florida to write about the Nov. 3 presidential election.

“That Facebook is trying to shut down a tool crucial to exposing disinformation in the run up to one of the most consequential elections in U.S. history is alarming,” said Ramya Krishnan, an attorney with the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, which is representing the researchers. “The public has a right to know what political ads are being run and how they are being targeted. Facebook shouldn’t be allowed to be the gatekeeper to information necessary to safeguard our democracy. “

“The NYU Ad Observatory is the only window researchers have to see microtargeting information about political ads on Facebook,” Julia Angwin, editor of the data-centric investigative tech news website The Markup, tweet in disappointment.

The tool lets researchers see how some Facebook advertisers use data gathered by the company to profile citizens “and send them misinformation about candidates and policies that are designed to influence or even suppress their vote,” Damon McCoy, an NYU professor involved in the project, said in a statement.

After an uproar over its lack of transparency on political ads Facebook ran ahead of the 2016 election, a sharp contrast to how ads are regulated on traditional media, the company created an ad archive that includes details such as who paid for an ad and when it ran. But Facebook does not share information about who gets served the ad.

The company has resisted allowing researchers access to the platform, where right-wing content has consistently been trending in recent weeks. Last year, more than 200 researchers signed a letter to Facebook calling on it to lift restrictions on public-interest research and journalism that would permit automated digital collection of data from the platform.

By FRANK BAJAK AP Technology Writer – BOSTON (AP).

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Huawei sales up, but growth slows under virus, US pressure

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Chinese tech giant Huawei, one of the biggest makers of smartphones and switching equipment, said Friday its revenue rose 9.9% in the first nine months of this year, but growth decelerated in the face of U.S. sanctions and the coronavirus pandemic.

Huawei Technologies Ltd. gave no sales figure for the most recent quarter ending in September, but growth for the first three quarters was down from the 13.1% reported for the first half of the year.

Huawei is struggling with U.S. sanctions that cut off its access to most American components in a feud with Beijing over technology and security. The White House says Huawei is a threat and might facilitate Chinese spying, which the company denies.

Washington also is tightening curbs on access to U.S. markets or technology for other Chinese tech companies including telecom equipment maker ZTE Corp., video service TikTok and messaging app WeChat.

The conflict has fueled fears the global market might be dividing into competing U.S. and Chinese technology spheres with incompatible standards. Industry analysts warn that would slow down innovation and raise costs.

Executives have warned Huawei’s smartphone and network equipment sales would be affected. The company has launched smartphones based on its own chips and other components and says it is removing U.S. technology from its products.

On Thursday, the company unveiled its latest smartphone, the Mate 40, based on Kirin 9000 chips developed by Huawei.

Sales in the first nine months of 2020 rose to 671.3 billion yuan ($100.4 billion), Huawei reported. It said net profit was 8%, down from the first half’s 9.2% margin.

The company gave no details of its smartphone shipments. Sales outside China have weakened because its handsets no longer come preloaded with Google’s popular music, maps and other features. But sales in China, where Huawei phones already used local alternatives, have grown sharply.

Huawei’s global market share in smartphones rose to 19.6% in the three months ending in June, up from 17.7% a year earlier, according to Canalys. That was driven by strength in its home market, where Huawei had a 51% market share and sales rose 32% to 14.5 million handsets.

Huawei is owned by its Chinese employees who make up about 60% of its global workforce of 194,000. It began reporting financial results a decade ago in an attempt to appear more transparent and mollify foreign security fears.

BEIJING (AP) — By JOE McDONALD AP Business Writer.

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