Opinion | California’s Privacy Law

To the Editor:

“Worried About Privacy? Steer Clear of Facebook,” by Nicholas Confessore (Tech We’re Using, Jan. 24), is a reminder that even savvy internet users face obstacles in protecting their digital privacy.

California recently enacted the most comprehensive privacy law in the country, the California Consumer Privacy Act of 2018, which I sponsored. It will go into effect next year and gives users more tools to control and safeguard their personal information online. Still, there is a desire at the federal level to establish a national standard for regulating consumer privacy that could erase those protections.

With the European Union gradually integrating its own privacy laws (the General Data Protection Regulation), do we really want to go backward in the United States?

It will take a combination of personal responsibility, media education and both legislative and legal advances to help Americans avoid losing all control of their personal information through their phones and computers while using the web. If we as a society want privacy online, we need to demand it now and demand it loudly, or risk losing it forever.

Ed Chau
The writer is chairman of the California Assembly Committee on Privacy and Consumer Protection.

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Hangout with ST: Spat between Gojek driver and passenger, CNY celebrations

SINGAPORE – Hangout with ST, a video series by The Straits Times, is broadcast live at 8pm every Thursday on the paper’s Facebook and YouTube pages.

The series adopts a casual, talk-show format and is helmed by multimedia journalists Alyssa Woo and Hairianto Diman.

In this week’s episode, they discuss with MP Ang Hin Kee, executive adviser to both National Taxi Association and National Private Hire Vehicles Association, how private-hire car drivers can protect themselves during disagreements with passengers; flexible working arrangement for seniors; and this year’s Chinese New Year celebrations.

Talking points covered in previous episodes include the death of actor Aloysius Pang from injuries suffered in an overseas military exercise, the secret to Japanese decluttering expert Marie Kondo’s success and the HIV Registry data leak that saw the confidential information of more than 14,200 people with HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) compromised.

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Facebook's data gathering without users' consent hit by German anti-trust clampdown

BONN (REUTERS) – Germany’s antitrust watchdog ordered a crackdown on Facebook’s data collection practices after ruling the world’s largest social network abused its market dominance to gather information about users without their knowledge or consent.

Facebook said it would appeal the landmark ruling on Thursday (Feb 7) by the Federal Cartel Office, the culmination of a three-year probe, saying the watchdog underestimated the competition it faced and undermined Europe-wide privacy rules that took effect last year.

“In future, Facebook will no longer be allowed to force its users to agree to the practically unrestricted collection and assigning of non-Facebook data to their Facebook accounts,”Cartel Office chief Andreas Mundt said.

The findings follow fierce scrutiny of Facebook over a series of privacy lapses, including the leak of data on tens of millions of Facebook users, as well as the extensive use of targeted ads by foreign powers seeking to influence elections in the United States.

The cartel office objected in particular to how Facebook acquires data on people from third-party apps – including its own WhatsApp and Instagram services – and its online tracking of people who are not even members.

That includes tracking visitors to websites with an embedded Facebook “like” or share button – and pages where it observes people even though there is no obvious sign the social network is present.

The ruling does not yet have legal force and Facebook has a month to appeal, which the social network said it would do.

“We disagree with their conclusions and intend to appeal so that people in Germany continue to benefit fully from all our services,” Facebook said in a blog post.

“The Bundeskartellamt underestimates the fierce competition we face in Germany, misinterprets our compliance with the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation), and threatens the mechanism European law provides for ensuring consistent data protection standards across the EU.”


In its order, the Cartel Office said it would only be possible to assign data from WhatsApp or Instagram to Facebook subject to the voluntary consent of users.

Collecting data from third-party websites and assigning them to Facebook would only be allowed if users give their voluntary consent.

If consent is withheld, Facebook would have to substantially restrict its collection and combining of data, and should develop proposals for solutions to do this within 12 months, Mr Mundt said.

Facebook, responding, said the Cartel Office failed to recognise that it competes with other online services, such as video app YouTube or Twitter, the short-messaging service, for people’s attention.

It also faults the antitrust body for encroaching in areas properly dealt with by data protection regulators under the EU’s GDPR, a broad privacy regime that entered force last May.

“We support the GDPR and take our obligations seriously. Yet the Bundeskartellamt’s decision misapplies German competition law to set different rules that apply to only one company,”Facebook said in its blog.

As part of complying with the GDPR, Facebook said it had rebuilt the information its provides people about their privacy and the controls they have over their information, and improved the privacy ‘choices’ that they are offered. It would also soon launch a “clear history” feature.

“The (Cartel Office) has overlooked how Facebook actually processes data and the steps we take to comply with the GDPR,” Facebook said.

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Apple bans Facebook from tech tools for tracking teen browsing habits

(Reuters) – Apple Inc (AAPL.O) said on Wednesday it had banned Facebook Inc (FB.O) from a program designed to let businesses control iPhones used by their employees, saying the social networking company had improperly used it to track the web-browsing habits of teenagers.

Apple offers what are known as certificates that let businesses have deep controls over iPhones, with the potential to remotely install apps, monitor app usage and access, and delete data owned by a business on an iPhone. Apple designed the program for organizations whose staff use iPhones for official duties, when privacy needs are different from phones for personal use.

On Tuesday, technology news site TechCrunch reported that Facebook was paying users as young as 13 years old to install an app called Facebook Research. The app used Apple’s business tools to ask for an iPhone user’s permission to install so-called virtual private network software that can track browsing habits.

Apple ejected Facebook from the business app program, saying in a statement on Wednesday the program was “solely for the internal distribution of apps within an organization.”

“Facebook has been using their membership to distribute a data-collecting app to consumers, which is a clear breach of their agreement with Apple,” Apple said in the statement.

The ban does not affect Facebook’s apps in Apple’s App Store, which Facebook depends on to distribute Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram apps to iPhone users. But it does mean that Facebook will not be able to distribute internal apps to its own employees.

In a statement, Facebook said key aspects of the research program were being ignored and that it had secured users’ permission.

“Despite early reports, there was nothing ‘secret’ about this,” Facebook said in a statement. “It was literally called the Facebook Research App. It wasn’t ‘spying’ as all of the people who signed up to participate went through a clear on-boarding process asking for their permission and were paid to participate.”

Facebook said fewer than 5 percent of the participants in the program were teens and that all of those teens had signed parental consent forms.

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Facebook's Instagram back up after partial outage

(Reuters) – Facebook Inc’s photo-sharing social network Instagram said on Monday the service is fully functional now after an issue that caused an outage for some users was resolved.

However, Instagram did not specify the number of people or the regions affected.

Users took to Twitter to complain about the outage, tweeting jokes and comments along with the #instagramdown hashtag.

“Hi five! If you come to twitter and checking if the Instragram is down,” @kneelonyeahtea tweeted.

DownDetector.com, a website which monitors outages, showed that there were over 32,000 incidents of people reporting issues with Instagram at its peak but that figure quickly dropped to about 500 reports. Instagram had started having issues at 7:21 p.m. ET on Monday (0021 GMT Tuesday), according to the web site.

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Zuckerberg plans to integrate WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook Messenger: NYT

(Reuters) – Facebook Inc Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg is planning to unify the underlying messaging infrastructure of its WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook Messenger services and incorporate end-to-end encryption to these apps, the New York Times reported on Friday.

The three services will, however, continue as stand alone apps, the report said, citing four people involved in the effort.

The company is still in the early stages of the work and plans to complete it by the end of this year or in early 2020, the report said.

Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

After the changes, a Facebook user, for instance, will be able send an encrypted message to someone who has only a WhatsApp account, according to the report.

End-to-end encryption protects messages from being viewed by anyone except the participants in the conversation.

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Facebook is giving $406 million for local journalism

WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON POST) – Facebook announced on Tuesday (Jan 15) it will commit US$300 million (S$406 million) to journalism projects to help local outlets strengthen their news-gathering operations and build their readership and subscription models.

“We’re going to continue fighting fake news, misinformation, and low-quality news on Facebook,” said Campbell Brown, Facebook’s head of news partnerships in a company blog post. “But we also have an opportunity, and a responsibility, to help local news organisations grow and thrive.”

Among the funded initiatives are: a US$20 million investment in a program to help local outlets design and execute subscription and membership models; a US$5 million endowment to create a grant program with the Pulitzer Center for local multimedia reporting projects; and a US$2 million investment in Report for America, an initiative to recruit and fund journalists to cover under-covered topics in local newsrooms across the country.

Facebook’s financial commitment comes a year after Google pledged the same dollar amount, over the same timeline, to combat misinformation and support journalism, with a focus on boosting subscriptions to local news outlets. The pair’s investments are significant because of the tech giants’ dominance in the market for online advertising, which has exacerbated the decline of American newsrooms. Together, the two companies command about 58 per cent of the digital ad market, steering massive amounts of ad dollars to their platforms.

The two companies have also come under intense scrutiny over the role their platforms played in the spread of a Russian disinformation campaign during the 2016 US presidential election and after. Critics have said that Facebook and Google were too slow to understand the foreign interference. But the companies have since cracked down on such threats.

Meanwhile, with restricted advertising revenue and an abundance of competing free news content and entertainment on the Web, employment in newspaper newsrooms has declined by nearly half since 2008. And local news has been especially hit by the collapsing news media ecosystem, with fewer customers willing to spend subscription dollars.

As The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan recently wrote, the decline of local reporting has profound consequences for communities and for self-governance. “One problem with losing local coverage is that we never know what we don’t know. Corruption can flourish, taxes can rise, public officials can indulge their worst impulses,” she said. Local reporting can also help establish a foundation of common information, easing polarisation and misinformation, owing to high levels of trust that local outlets have with their audiences, she said.

Facebook said it decided to commit to the journalism initiatives based on feedback from users on what they wanted to see on the platform and from news outlets who told the company how to better boost their audience impact.

“We heard one consistent answer: people want more local news, and local newsrooms are looking for more support,” Brown said. Facebook added that, over time, these initiatives can elevate civic engagement, which in turn can boost interest in local news.

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Suicide watch on Facebook raises issues

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) – A police officer on the late shift in an Ohio town recently received an unusual call from Facebook.

Earlier that day, a local woman wrote a Facebook post saying she was walking home and intended to kill herself when she got there, according to a police report on the case. Facebook called to warn the police department about the suicide threat.

The officer who took the call quickly located the woman, but she denied having suicidal thoughts, the police report said. Even so, the officer believed she might harm herself and told the woman that she must go to a hospital – either voluntarily or in police custody.

He ultimately drove her to a hospital for a mental health work-up, an evaluation prompted by Facebook’s intervention. The New York Times withheld some details of the case for privacy reasons.

Police stations from Massachusetts to Mumbai have received similar alerts from Facebook over the past 18 months as part of what is most likely the world’s largest suicide threat screening and alert programme.

The social network ramped up the effort after several people livestreamed their suicides on Facebook Live in early 2017. It now utilises both algorithms and user reports to flag possible suicide threats.

Facebook’s rise as a global arbiter of mental distress puts the social network in a tricky position at a time when it is under investigation for privacy lapses by regulators in the United States, Canada and the European Union – as well as facing heightened scrutiny for failing to respond quickly to election interference and ethnic hatred campaigns on its site.

Even as Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, has apologised for improper harvesting of user data, the company grappled last month with fresh revelations about special data-sharing deals with tech companies.

The anti-suicide campaign gives Facebook an opportunity to frame its work as a good news story.

Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among people ages 15 to 29 worldwide, according to the World Health Organisation. Some mental health experts and police officials said Facebook had aided officers in locating and stopping people who were clearly about to harm themselves.

Facebook has computer algorithms that scan the posts, comments and videos of users in the United States and other countries for indications of immediate suicide risk. When a post is flagged, by the technology or a concerned user, it moves to human reviewers at the company, who are empowered to call local law enforcement.

“In the last year, we’ve helped first responders quickly reach around 3,500 people globally who needed help,” Zuckerberg wrote in a November post about the efforts.

But other mental health experts said Facebook’s calls to police could also cause harm – such as unintentionally precipitating suicide, compelling nonsuicidal people to undergo psychiatric evaluations, or prompting arrests or shootings.

And, they said, it is unclear whether the company’s approach is accurate, effective or safe. Facebook said that, for privacy reasons, it did not track the outcomes of its calls to police. And it has not disclosed exactly how its reviewers decide whether to call emergency responders.

Facebook, critics said, has assumed the authority of a public health agency while protecting its process as if it were a corporate secret.

“It’s hard to know what Facebook is actually picking up on, what they are actually acting on, and are they giving the appropriate response to the appropriate risk,” said Dr. John Torous, director of the digital psychiatry division at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Centre in Boston. “It’s black box medicine.”

Facebook said it worked with suicide prevention experts to develop a comprehensive programme to quickly connect users in distress with friends and send them contact information for help lines.

It said experts also helped train dedicated Facebook teams, who have experience in law enforcement and crisis response, to review the most urgent cases. Those reviewers contact emergency services only in a minority of cases, when users appear at imminent risk of serious self-harm, the company said.

“While our efforts are not perfect, we have decided to err on the side of providing people who need help with resources as soon as possible,” Emily Cain, a Facebook spokesman, said in a statement.

In a September post, Facebook described how it had developed a pattern recognition system to automatically score certain user posts and comments for likelihood of suicidal thoughts. The system automatically escalates high-scoring posts, as well as posts submitted by concerned users, to specially trained reviewers.

“Facebook has always been way ahead of the pack,” said John Draper, director of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, “not only in suicide prevention, but in taking an extra step toward innovation and engaging us with really intelligent and forward-thinking approaches.” Vibrant Emotional Health, the nonprofit group administering the Lifeline, has advised and received funding from Facebook.

Facebook said its suicide risk scoring system worked worldwide in English, Spanish, Portuguese and Arabic – except for in the European Union, where data protection laws restrict the collection of personal details like health information. There is no way of opting out, short of not posting on, or deleting, your Facebook account.

A review of four police reports, obtained by The Times under Freedom of Information Act requests, suggests that Facebook’s approach has had mixed results. Except for the Ohio case, police departments redacted the names of the people flagged by Facebook.

In one case in May, a Facebook representative helped police officers in Rock Hill, South Carolina, locate a man who was streaming a suicide attempt on Facebook Live.

On a recording of the call to the police station, the Facebook representative described the background in the video – trees, a street sign – to a police operator and provided the latitude and longitude of the man’s phone.

The Police Department credited Facebook with helping officers track down the man, who tried to flee and was taken to a hospital.

“Two people called the police that night, but they couldn’t tell us where he was,” said Courtney Davis, a Rock Hill police telecommunications operator, who fielded the call from Facebook. “Facebook could.”

The Police Department in Mashpee, Massachusetts, had a different experience. Just before 5.16am on Aug 23, 2017, a Mashpee police dispatcher received a call from a neighbouring Police Department about a man who was streaming his suicide on Facebook Live.

Officers arrived at the man’s home a few minutes later, but by the time they got to him, he no longer had a pulse, according to police records.

At 6.09am, the report said, a Facebook representative called to alert police to the suicide threat.

Scott W. Carline, chief of the Mashpee Police Department, declined to comment. But he said of Facebook, “I’d like to see them improve upon the suicide prevention tools they have in place to identify warning signs that could potentially become fatal.”

Facebook spokesman Cain said that, in some cases, help unfortunately did not arrive in time. “We really feel for those people and their loved ones when that occurs,” she said.

The fourth case, in May 2017, involved a teenager in Macon, Georgia, who was streaming a suicide attempt. Facebook called police after officers had already found the teenager at her home, a spokesman for the Bibb County sheriff’s office said. The teen survived the attempt.

Some health researchers are also trying to predict suicide risk, but they are using more transparent methodology and collecting evidence on the results.

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has developed a suicide risk prediction program that uses AI to scan veterans’ medical records for certain medicines and illnesses.

If the system identifies a veteran as high risk, the VA offers mental health appointments and other services. Preliminary findings from a VA study reported fewer deaths overall among veterans in the program compared with nonparticipating veterans.

In a forthcoming article in a Yale law journal, Mason Marks, a health law scholar, argues that Facebook’s suicide risk scoring software, along with its calls to police that may lead to mandatory psychiatric evaluations, constitutes the practice of medicine. He says government agencies should regulate the programme, requiring Facebook to produce safety and effectiveness evidence.

“In this climate in which trust in Facebook is really eroding, it concerns me that Facebook is just saying, ‘Trust us here,'” said Marks, a fellow at Yale Law School and New York University School of Law.

Cain disagreed that the programme amounted to health screening. “These are complex issues,” she said, “which is why we have been working closely with experts.”

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Shutdown, Markets, Facebook: Your Thursday Evening Briefing

(Want to get this briefing by email? Here’s the sign-up.)

Good evening. Here’s the latest.

1. The partial shutdown of the federal government will run into the new year.

Outgoing House Republicans informed lawmakers there will be no votes Friday or Monday, and no relief for the 800,000 federal workers who are either furloughed or working without pay.

House Democrats, who assume control next Thursday, are weighing three approaches to getting federal funds flowing, none of which would include $5 billion for President Trump’s demand for a wall on the southern border. Above, near Santa Teresa, N.M.

Here’s how the shutdown affects federal departments.


2. President Trump’s $1.5 trillion in tax cuts went into effect one year ago. What happened?

Our reporter covering economic and tax policy takes stock of what companies promised, and what has come to pass.

Some workers reaped rewards from the law, he found, as companies followed through on promises to raise wages and pay bonuses. Above, Walmart employees in Houston.

But other firms announced layoffs, despite reporting higher profits and billions of dollars in tax savings.


3. There was a shake-up in Saudi Arabia’s government.

The nation’s ruler, King Salman, right, named new ministers and security chiefs. But power remains firmly in the hands of his son and designated heir, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, left.

Saudi Arabia and the crown prince have been under international scrutiny since October, when Saudi agents killed and dismembered the Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi inside the country’s consulate in Istanbul.

Western intelligence agencies have concluded that Prince Mohammed knew about and most likely ordered the plot to kill Mr. Khashoggi. And the crown prince has directed the Saudi military campaign in Yemen that has contributed to a humanitarian crisis and drawn growing opposition in the West.

Separately, rioters stormed an Ebola triage center in eastern Congo in a new wave of violent protests, aggravated by delays in an election scheduled for Sunday.


4. Wall Street’s roller-coaster ride continued, with stocks staging a late-day recovery after an earlier decline.

There were mixed signals about the U.S. economy’s health: Weekly jobless claims were lower, a positive sign, but the monthly consumer confidence index hit a five-month low. Above, outside the New York Stock Exchange.

Trading volume was lower than normal as a result of the holiday week, but one expert cautioned against playing down this week’s swings.

“This is driven by rising uncertainty about the fundamentals: earnings, the economy and interest rates,” he said.


5. How does Facebook monitor billions of posts per day?

The company, which makes about $5 billion in profit per quarter, says it is doing everything it can to get rid of posts that sow social division and even violence.

But it must also continue to attract more users from more countries and try to keep them on the site longer to maintain the endless expansion that is core to its business.

The company’s solution: a network of low-skilled moderators using a maze of PowerPoint slides spelling out what’s forbidden. Above, in Berlin.

Our review of the company’s rule books revealed gaps, biases and outright errors. As Facebook employees search for the right answers, we found, they have allowed extremist language to flourish in some countries while censoring mainstream speech in others.


6. Cosmetology students are tangled up in debt.

For-profit cosmetology schools use state governments to keep training requirements high — then benefit from students’ uncompensated work in their salons.

In visits to a dozen salons and in conversations with former cosmetology students, we heard a variety of opinions about how much training the profession requires and the financial returns it offers.

And we heard again and again how the dream of becoming a professional hairstylist, or someday owning a salon, can be stymied by debt. Above, Tracy Lozano still owes more than $8,000, 13 years after graduating.

“I’ll be paying it off for the rest of my life,” said one graduate, whose student debt has ballooned to $29,000.


7. Only one house was left on its block.

The devastating Camp Fire last month was the worst wildfire in California’s history and nearly consumed the entire town of Paradise, population 26,000.

One resident’s home, above, narrowly escaped the fire, and now it’s one of the few structures left standing as residents return, after weeks of waiting, to assess what remains.

In maps and images, our journalists survey the swath of devastation and the daunting task of recovery.

“Paradise deserves to be rebuilt and maybe even better than it was before,” one resident told us.


8. “It’s not Mayberry, but there’s a lot of opportunity.”

The mayor of Fergus Falls, Minn., was among residents upset by an article in a respected German newsmagazine that portrayed the city as a backward, racist place whose residents blindly supported President Trump.

In a damning point-by-point rebuttal, residents proved that the article was a fabrication. And before long the reporter was exposed and fired for fabricating the story — and many others, on multiple continents.

Another Der Spiegel reporter visited Minnesota in recent days to set the record straight. He found that residents seemed unwilling to hold a grudge. Fergus Falls, he said, might be “the most forgiving city in the Western Hemisphere.”

“We’re taking the high road,” the mayor said. “We’ve moved on.”


9. A celebrity duck. Yanny vs. Laurel. The outsize steer named Knickers.

Outrage, arguing, depressing news and other bad things were easy to find on the internet this year. Our writer decided to celebrate some of the exceptions.

Here five shining internet moments (and some runners-up) of 2018.


10. Finally, a 71-year-old Frenchman who has crossed the Atlantic four times in a sailboat has found a new way to try to conquer the ocean: in a barrel, above.

He describes his venture, which is predicted to take three months, as a “crossing during which man isn’t captain of his ship, but a passenger of the ocean.”

Have a buoyant evening.

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Facebook bug may have exposed private photos of up to 6.8 million users

Facebook Inc. said it had fixed a bug that may have exposed private photos of up to 6.8 million users, the latest in a string of glitches that have caused regulators around the world to investigate the social media giant’s privacy practices.

The bug allowed some 1,500 applications to access private photos for 12 days ending Sept. 25, Facebook said.

“We’re sorry this happened,” it said in a blog targeted at developers who build apps for its platform.

The problem is the latest in a string of security and privacy issues that have caused complaints from users and led to investigations by regulators and lawmakers. The issues include the massive Cambridge Analytica scandal and a security breach that affected nearly 30 million users.

The company said it would send an alert through Facebook to notify users whose photos may have been exposed by the latest issue. The alert will direct them to a link where they will be able to see if they have used any apps that the bug allowed to access private photos.

Facebook shares fell 1.2 percent early trading, compared to a 0.9 percent decline in the Nasdaq composite index.

The incident initially appears to be relatively minor but could prompt privacy regulators in Europe to start investigations of Facebook, said Brian Wieser, an analyst with Pivotal Research.

“We already have a lot of evidence to reinforce the idea that Facebook is sloppy,” he said in an email, adding that the company prioritizes prioritizing growth at expense at other considerations.

George Salmon, an analyst with Hargreaves Lansdown, said that new reports of bugs and breaches raise the likelihood that governments will impose new regulations on Facebook’s business practices.

“Facebook is sensibly trying hard to regain the trust of its user base but all that effort will be to no avail if stories like this keep emerging,” he said.

The bug affected users who give third-party applications permission to access their photos.

The company typically only grants such apps access to photos shared on a user’s timeline.

The bug potentially gave developers access to other photos including ones that were uploaded but not posted as well as ones shared on Marketplace and Facebook Stories, the company said.

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