Australian bid to force tech firms to hand over encrypted data passes first hurdle

SYDNEY (REUTERS) – The Australian Parliament’s Lower House passed a Bill to force tech firms such as Alphabet’s Google, Facebook and Apple to give police access to encrypted data on Thursday (Dec 6), pushing it closer to becoming a precedent-setting law.

However, the proposal, staunchly opposed by the tech giants because Australia is seen as a test case as other nations explore similar rules, faces a sterner test in the Upper House Senate, where privacy and information security concerns are sticking points.

The Bill provides for fines of up to A$10 million (S$9.9 million) for institutions and prison terms for individuals for failing to hand over data linked to suspected illegal activities.

Earlier in the week, it appeared set to secure enough support from both major political parties, with some amendments, to secure passage. However, the main opposition Labor party said on Thursday the Bill could undermine data security and jeopardise future information sharing with United States authorities.

“A range of stakeholders have said there is a real risk that the new powers could make Australians less safe… (by) weakening the encryption that protects national infrastructure,” Labor’s Mark Dreyfus told Parliament.

The proposed laws could also scupper cooperation with US authorities because they lack sufficient privacy safeguards, Mr Dreyfus said. Labor voted the Bill through the Lower House but was still negotiating with the government on the issue and would debate it in the Senate, he said.

Thursday was the last parliamentary sitting day of the year until a truncated session in February, meaning the impasse could delay the laws for months.

The government has said the proposed laws are needed to counter militant attacks and organised crime, and that security agencies would need to seek warrants to access personal data.

“I will fight to get those encryption laws passed,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters in Canberra after Mr Dreyfus spoke. “I want to see our police have the powers they need to stop terrorists.”

Technology companies have strongly opposed efforts to create what they see as a back door to users’ data, a stand-off that was propelled into the public arena by Apple’s refusal to unlock an iPhone used by an attacker in a 2015 shooting in California.

Representatives of Google, Amazon and Apple did not respond immediately to a request for comment.

Apple has said in a public submission to lawmakers access to encrypted data would necessitate weakening the encryption and increase the risk of hacking.

A Facebook spokesman directed Reuters to a statement made by the Digital Industry Group Inc (DIGI), of which Facebook as well as Apple, Google, Amazon and Twitter, are members.

“This legislation is out of step with surveillance and privacy legislation in Europe and other countries that have strong national security concerns,” the DIGI statement said.

“Several critical issues remain unaddressed in this legislation, most significantly the prospect of introducing systemic weaknesses that could put Australians’ data security at risk,” it said.

If the Bill becomes law, Australia would be one of the first nations to impose broad access requirements on technology companies, although others, particularly so-called Five Eyes countries, are poised to follow.

The Five Eyes intelligence network, comprising the United States, Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand, have each repeatedly warned that national security was at risk because the authorities were unable to monitor the communications of suspects.

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Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg asked for info on billionaire critic George Soros

WASHINGTON (AFP) – Facebook’s No. 2 executive Sheryl Sandberg, long seen as the “adult” at the youthfully-managed firm, has found herself the centre of controversy over her role in pushing back at a growing chorus of criticism of the social media giant.

A prominent feminist and author with strong political connections, Sandberg has drawn fire in particular over an embarrassing effort to probe George Soros, the billionaire investor, after he assailed the online network as a “menace to society”.

Facebook acknowledged on Thursday (Nov 29) that Sandberg asked her staff to conduct research on the Hungarian-born billionaire, following his remarks early this year, out of concern that he held a “short” position that would profit from a decline in shares.

“Mr Soros is a prominent investor and we looked into his investments and trading activity related to Facebook,” a spokesman said, when asked by AFP after a New York Times report on the matter.

“That research was already underway when Sheryl sent an email asking if Mr Soros had shorted Facebook’s stock.”

Sandberg previously denied the use of nefarious tactics against Facebook critics with the company under fire for enabling the spread of misinformation, including Russian-led propaganda, during the 2016 US election campaign.

STABILISING FORCE, OR NOT?

The 49-year-old Sandberg has long been seen as a stabilising force at Facebook, led by 34-year-old chairman and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, whose early mantra had been to “move fast and break things”.

Among the tech whiz kids, Sandberg as chief operating officer offered a steadier hand as a result of her background working for former US Treasury secretary Larry Summers and the philanthropic arm of Google.

Author of the feminist bestseller Lean In, Sandberg also drew attention in 2015 after the sudden death of her husband David Goldberg, a management consultant, at age 47.

Earlier this year she was dispatched to testify in Congress to defend Facebook’s efforts in dealing with misinformation and manipulation, in the wake of a scandal over user data hijacked by the Cambridge Analytica consultancy linked to Donald Trump.

But the latest controversy over opposition research raised questions about whether Sandberg is living up to her role.

Roger Kay, an analyst and consultant at Endpoint Technologies Associates who follows the tech sector, said the moves by Facebook and Sandberg showed “extraordinarily poor judgment” from a corporate governance view.

“She’s not behaving as the adult she should have been,” Kay said. “Maybe they need another adult in the room.”

New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, whose office has shares in Facebook, said the latest developments highlight the need for an independent board chair to oversee Zuckerberg and Sandberg.

“Where is Facebook’s board? The silence from the board of directors in the midst of continuous scandals is deafening,” Stringer tweeted following the Times report on research efforts on Soros.

Others defended Sandberg, saying she was correct to look into powerful interests opposing Facebook and noting that Soros – who notoriously made a fortune by betting against the British pound in 1992 – is known as a highly sophisticated investor.

“FB management would have been absolutely remiss to not look into whether Soros was (again) manipulating a security for personal profit, to the detriment of the FB shareholder,” tweeted Antonio Garcia Martinez, a former Facebook product manager and author of a book on Silicon Valley.

“He’s a hedge fund pirate answerable to no one, as bad as anyone on Wall Street. Why wouldn’t they check?”

Some questioned whether Sandberg’s story had shifted since she said earlier this month she was unaware that the Facebook had hired Definers Public Affairs to conduct research on company critics.

“Despite public claims to the contrary, Sheryl Sandberg knew @facebook had hired Definers to run opposition research,” tweeted the group Freedom From Facebook, one of the activist organisations which has led efforts to regulate or break up the social network.

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Mark Zuckerberg a no-show at rare international lawmakers meeting on Facebook

LONDON — A cohort of international lawmakers is trying to turn up the pressure on Facebook, grilling one of its executives and making a show of founder Mark Zuckerberg’s refusal to explain to them why his company failed to protect users’ data privacy.

The rare “international grand committee” of lawmakers from nine countries gathered in London to get answers about Facebook’s handling of personal data and made a point of leaving an empty seat with Zuckerberg’s name tag.

Richard Allan, the company’s vice president for policy solutions, said he volunteered to attend because Zuckerberg had already appeared before other committees this year, including in Washington and, briefly, Brussels.

A view of the International Grand Committee with representation from nine countries’ parliaments and Mark Zuckerberg’s non-attendance at the UK Parliament in London, Britain Nov., 27, 2018.

Lawmakers from Canada, Ireland, Brazil, Argentina, Singapore, Belgium, France and Latvia joined their British counterparts at the parliamentary select committee hearing — the first such cross-border event in London since 1933.

British select committees are used to investigate major issues and have the powerful — from CEOs to government officials — explain their decisions in a public forum. They don’t have the power to make laws but the government takes their recommendations into account when formulating new policies.

Allan appeared after the committee’s chairman, Damian Collins, took the unusual move of seizing a trove of confidential internal Facebook documents from a visiting U.S. tech executive. The committee wanted the files, which have been sealed by a California judge, in the hope they would shed light on Facebook’s privacy policies.

Collins, who has not yet made the documents public, asked Allan about one item he said was of considerable public interest that suggests Facebook was alerted to possible Russian hacking years before it became a major issue. He said the document indicates a Facebook engineer notified his superiors in October 2014 that “entities with Russian IP addresses” were pulling more than 3 billion data points a day from Facebook.

Allan said that information was “at best partial and at worst potentially misleading.”

Facebook said in a statement that the “the engineers who had flagged these initial concerns subsequently looked into this further and found no evidence of specific Russian activity.”

The committee obtained the files from Theodore Kramer, CEO of app maker Six4Three, after they discovered he was in London, threatening him with prison if he refused. Kramer’s company acquired the files as part of a legal discovery process in a lawsuit against Facebook.

Allan apologized frequently but revealed little new about Facebook and its operations. He acknowledged that the company has not been without blame in how it handled various scandals.

“I’m not going to disagree with you that we’ve damaged public trust with some of the actions we’ve taken,” he said.

Allan was responding to Canadian lawmaker Charlie Angus, who said the social media giant has “lost the trust of the international community to self-police,” and that governments have to start looking at ways to hold the company accountable. Facebook accepts that a regulatory framework is needed, Allan said.

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Opinion | Lean Out

Suddenly, everyone wants Sheryl Sandberg to lean out.

Apologies for using that obvious turn of phrase to describe the precarious situation the chief operating officer of Facebook now finds herself in. But it works perfectly for Ms. Sandberg, the author of “Lean In,” which made her very famous and helped burnish her reputation as a management wizard.

Now she finds herself facing intense criticism for how she and the company handled the Cambridge Analytica scandal, account hacks, Russians running wild over its platform and the hiring of a communications firm called Definers Public Affairs (which really sounds like something a bunch of toxic bros would come up with after too many beer bongs down at Faber College’s Omega Theta Pi) to slime various and sundry detractors. Many are even calling for her to be pushed out of the company.

To be clear, as the No. 2 in charge, Ms. Sandberg deserves much blame for the bad decisions at Facebook. But it’s notable that she is under much more fire than Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive. While he underwent some scrutiny at Congressional hearings and in interviews, he has somehow managed to come off like a geek who has lost his way in the woods. Whatever blame he got has dissipated quickly.

Ms. Sandberg dodged many of the Facebook controversies this year. But no longer. A recent New York Times article that laid bare the last months at the company began with the line: “Sheryl Sandberg was seething,” and went on to show her yelling at the company’s security chief, Alex Stamos, trying to slow roll the utterance of the word “Russia” in a report and alternately sweet-talking and strong-arming lawmakers to Facebook’s will.

And this week, in news dropped on the day before Thanksgiving, Ms. Sandberg admitted she did know a thing or two about the hiring of the Definers, after previously saying that she did not.

One of her lieutenants, Elliot Schrage, wrote a post in which he admitted — as everyone who knows him and the company already assumed — that he was the one who hired and directed the firm. But Ms. Sandberg somehow looked even worse in an addendum. “Some of their work was incorporated into materials presented to me,” she wrote, “and I received a small number of emails where Definers was referenced.”

Whoops. And so now come the calls for her comeuppance, which have been growing louder. Ms. Sandberg is especially vulnerable because she has long been cast as the professional — who came from Google no less — in contrast to “Zuck,” the founder, the dude whom no one thought had the people skills or altruistic motives to deal with these high stakes political decisions.

And yet he is the one with the power at Facebook. He is its top executive, its visionary founder and, most of all, its controlling shareholder. Mr. Zuckerberg, if you want to use a comic-book reference here, is a combination of Wolverine and Deadpool with a little bit of zombie magic thrown in.

Mr. Schrage, the one who actually made the bad call on the press strategy, is also somehow evading censure: He is now seen as the loyal guy who fell on his sword, while Ms. Sandberg looks more like the one who pushed him onto the blade.

And that is one of the key lessons to learn here about the tech industry today: Everyone expects so little from the male leaders who are often seen as the fulcrum of the digital worlds they create, while the female leaders — who are not usually the inventors — are held to a tougher line.

Ms. Sandberg, of course, has power over much of Facebook’s business operations, advertising and also the critical communications and policy units. Perhaps it’s only fair that, as women rise to power, they pay the price for failure.

But what is more often true in tech is that men are seen as the key players, and women are just not seen as crucial to a company's success. That inequity has become a theme of a wide range of employment issues across Silicon Valley of late, including the phenomenon of “underleveling” — hiring women and people of color at a lower level than they deserve.

In a podcast I did this week with six of the organizers of the Google walkout to protest sexual harassment policies and pay inequity, one of them, Stephanie Parker, described her situation compared to similarly qualified men.

“I, as a black woman at Google, came in with an undergraduate and master’s degree from Stanford and three years’ worth of experience working in the tech industry, and they chose to put me into an entry-level six-month contract position in recruiting,” she said.

She said Google managers insist that the company isn’t diverse enough because of the “pipeline problem.” They say: “We need to go to more schools and teach them how to code. There’s something wrong with these students and something wrong with the pipeline.” But she argued there’s a bigger problem at Google that has nothing to do with the pipeline. “Black women have the highest attrition rate. They’re leaving Google at higher rates than any other group, all over the industry.”

She and the other organizers blamed this on opportunities that were not offered as readily, on tougher hurdles to leap over, on pay that was consistently lower and, most of all, on a system that forgave the men for their mistakes, and did not forgive the women.

That was underscored at Google by an astonishing $90 million payout to the top executive Andy Rubin when he left in a cloud of controversy.

Ms. Parker, who now works at YouTube, described succinctly the issue of who really paid the price for his sins. At the walkout, she said she asked the crowd: “Where do you think Google got that $90 million they used to pay out Andy Rubin? They got it from every time you worked late. Every promotion you didn’t get because they said there’s not enough budget, you have to wait. It’s from every contractor who came to work sick because they have no paid time off. These are conscious decisions that the company is making, and abusers are getting rich off of our hard work. It’s just not fair, and they completely know what they’re doing.”

They completely do. Ms. Sandberg is hardly blameless, but notice that she is the one facing the real firing line and not Mr. Zuckerberg. Which is to say, no matter his responsibility, he is unkillable, unfireable and untouchable and no amount of leaning in by Ms. Sandberg or any other woman in tech is going to change that.

Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram, and sign up for the Opinion Today newsletter.

Kara Swisher, editor at large for the technology news website Recode and producer of the Recode Decode podcast and Code Conference, is a contributing opinion writer. @karaswisher Facebook

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Singapore lawmaker blasts Facebook over refusal to take down 'false' post

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – A Singapore lawmaker hit out at Facebook (FB.O) on Tuesday, saying it had reneged on a promise to help rein in fake news and calling for tougher regulations, which the social media firm has cautioned against.

The criticism follows Facebook’s refusal this month of a government request to remove an online article about the city-state’s banks and Malaysia’s scandal-linked 1MDB state fund, which the government said was false and malicious.

“Facebook has…given assurances that it would work closely with the Singapore authorities to swiftly address online falsehoods. And yet, when there is an actual falsehood that attacks Singapore, Facebook refuses to remove the content,” Edwin Tong told parliament.

It was not immediately clear what assurances he was referring to.

“It (Facebook) will allow itself to be a platform for the spread of lies, falsity, to poison and divide society through such lies, encourage xenophobia, and profit from that,” added Tong, who is Singapore’s senior minister of state for law.

This month’s incident “reinforces” the need for legislation, said Tong, who is also on a panel of lawmakers that has recommended the government consider legislation to tackle the spread of online falsehoods or ‘fake news’.

Regarding its refusal to take down the post, Facebook earlier said in an emailed statement it did not have a policy “that prohibits alleged falsehoods, apart from in situations where this content has the potential to contribute to imminent violence or physical harm”.

Contacted for comment following Tong’s remarks, a Facebook spokeswoman referred Reuters to the firm’s previous statement.

Also on Tuesday, Singapore police said in a statement they are investigating a local blog, The Online Citizen, in relation to an allegedly defamatory article.

“The Online Citizen article…made serious allegations that the government’s highest officers are corrupt and that the constitution has been tampered with,” the police said, adding that laptops and handphones were seized in connection with the case.

The Online Citizen’s editor Terry Xu could not be immediately reached for comment.

FALSEHOODS

Singapore’s Infocomm Media Development Authority this month said Facebook had declined its request to take down a post linking to the 1MDB article by an Australian-based independent blogger.

“Facebook has declined to take down a post that is clearly false, defamatory and attacks Singapore, using falsehoods,” the law ministry said in a statement on its website at the time.

Facebook, which has its Asia-Pacific headquarters in Singapore and recently unveiled plans to invest $1 billion in its first Asian data center in the city-state, has previously sparred with the government over fake news.

In March, Law Minister K Shanmugam questioned during a parliamentary debate whether social media networks were capable of regulating themselves, while senior Facebook executives pushed back at the idea of further laws to battle fake news.

Singapore ranks 151 among 180 countries rated by the World Press Freedom Index of Reporters Without Borders, a non-government group that promotes freedom of information.

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US lawmaker says Facebook cannot be trusted to regulate itself

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) – Democratic US Representative David Cicilline, expected to become the next chairman of House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust panel, said on Wednesday (Nov 14) that Facebook Inc cannot be trusted to regulate itself and Congress should take action.

Cicilline, citing a report in the New York Times on Facebook’s efforts to deal with a series of crises, said on Twitter: “This staggering report makes clear that @Facebook executives will always put their massive profits ahead of the interests of their customers.” “It is long past time for us to take action,” he said.

Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg said a year ago that the company would put its “community” before profit, and it has doubled its staff focused on safety and security issues since then. Spending also has increased on developing automated tools to catch propaganda and material that violates the company’s posting policies.

Other initiatives have brought increased transparency about the administrators of pages and purchasers of ads on Facebook. Some critics, including lawmakers and users, still contend that Facebook’s bolstered systems and processes are prone to errors and that only laws will result in better performance.

The New York Times said Zuckerberg and the company’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, ignored warning signs that the social media company could be “exploited to disrupt elections, broadcast viral propaganda and inspire deadly campaigns of hate around the globe.” And when the warning signs became evident, they “sought to conceal them from public view.” (https://nyti.ms/2OJWpnc)

“We’ve known for some time that @Facebook chose to turn a blind eye to the spread of hate speech and Russian propaganda on its platform,” said Cicilline, who will likely take the reins of the subcommittee on regulatory reform, commercial and antitrust law when the new, Democratic-controlled Congress is seated in January.

“Now we know that once they knew the truth, top @Facebook executives did everything they could to hide it from the public by using a playbook of suppressing opposition and propagating conspiracy theories,” he said.

“Next January, Congress should get to work enacting new laws to hold concentrated economic power to account, address the corrupting influence of corporate money in our democracy, and restore the rights of Americans,” Cicilline said.

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Mum-run firms organise pop-up event to encourage shoppers to buy local this Black Friday

Five small businesses are joining forces at a two-day event to encourage consumers to buy local, and Irish, this Black Friday.

Owner of online store CHAOS+HARMONY Roisin Scott is behind the ‘Indi Pop-Up Shop’, where herself and four other “hard working mamas” will set up stall and sell their wares.

“I’ve been in business just over two years now, set up just before Black Friday 2016, so I know what the pinch feels like at this time of year,” she told Independent.ie.

“I’ve met other small firms whose sales have suffered similarly, and consumers who follow us on social media know how hard we need to work, so I decided to do something about it.”

Roisin has participated in a number of SME events previously, including with Google and Facebook, but she decided to organise her own pop-up, and asked a number of businesses in her network to come along.

“As the mother of two smallies [Saoirse (4) and Cuán (2)] I thought it would be a nice idea to work alongside other mothers who run businesses, either full-time or on the side, and sell products that complement each other,” she said.

“There are so many other business I would loved to have on the day but were limited due to the space we had available.”

Irish shoppers have embraced ‘Black Friday’ and ‘Cyber Monday’, eagerly participating in the traditional American shopping bonanza, which falls on November 22 this year.

A recent PWC survey of 1,000 adults found that one in five Irish people will do the majority of their Christmas shopping on the Black Friday/Cyber Monday weekend, while a further 37pc are considering it.

The other stores taking part in the ‘Indi Pop-Up Shop’ at The Baths, Clontarf on November Friday 23 and Saturday 24 are Goose and Gander, My Higher Shelf, Primp & Style, and Under The Willow Paper Co.

Leather baby moccasins, children’s books, handmade Italian leather handbags, illustrated prints and children’s clothing will be sold over the two days “with a few bits and pieces for adults too”.

“We want to encourage people to shop local but we also want to push the idea that buying something as a quick gift to simply tick the box shouldn’t be the main goal,” said Roisin.

“Make an effort to buy something of more substance, something that won’t be forgotten, that will stand the test of play time and will be handed down again and again.”

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Facebook blocks 115 accounts after FBI tip-off on eve of polls

SAN FRANCISCO • Facebook Inc blocked about 115 user accounts after the US authorities tipped it off to suspicious behaviour that may be linked to a foreign entity, the company said on Monday, hours before US voters headed to the polls.

The social network said in a blog post that it needed to do further analysis to decide if the accounts are linked to Russia’s Internet Research Agency or another group. The US has accused the Russian government body of meddling in US politics with social media posts meant to spread misinformation and sow discord.

Eighty-five of the removed accounts were posting in English on Facebook’s Instagram service, and 30 more were on Facebook and associated with pages in French and Russian, the post said.

Some accounts “were focused on celebrities” and others on “political debate”, it added.

The tip-off came from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) on Sunday night, Mr Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cyber security policy, wrote in the post.

The company announced its actions earlier in its investigation than typical “given that we are only one day away from important elections in the US,” he added.

“Americans should be aware that foreign actors, and Russia in particular, continue to try to influence public sentiment and voter perceptions through actions intended to sow discord”, including through social media, federal authorities said in a statement on Monday.

Social media companies say they are now more vigilant against foreign and other potential election interference after finding themselves unprepared to tackle such activity in the US presidential election two years ago.

REUTERS

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