WELCOME to Connected Rights, your slice in the toaster of digital rights news and analysis.
MICROSOFT HAS DONE SOMETHING VERY UNUSUAL FOR a big tech firm. It has warned that a recent, popular technological development – facial recognition – is dangerous and needs regulating.
In a blog post, Microsoft legal chief Brad Smith said facial recognition “can catalog your photos, help reunite families or potentially be misused and abused by private companies and public authorities alike”.
“Facial recognition technology raises issues that go to the heart of fundamental human rights protections like privacy and freedom of expression,” he wrote. “Imagine a government tracking everywhere you walked over the past month without your permission or knowledge. Imagine a database of everyone who attended a political rally that constitutes the very essence of free speech. Imagine the stores of a shopping mall using facial recognition to share information with each other about each shelf that you browse and product you buy, without asking you first. This has long been the stuff of science fiction and popular movies – like ‘Minority Report,’ ‘Enemy of the State’ and even ‘1984’ – but now it’s on the verge of becoming possible.”
Smith also noted the issue of imperfect facial recognition technology identifying people inaccurately – particularly people of colour.
It’s astonishing to see this kind of warning come not from a whistleblower or a social scientist, but from one of the largest software firms out there. But these are strange times, particularly in the US. And so a corporate president feels the need to write: “As a general principle, it seems more sensible to ask an elected government to regulate companies than to ask unelected companies to regulate such a government.”
THE EU AND JAPAN ARE GOING TO RECOGNISE EACH OTHER’S data protection systems as “equivalent”, meaning personal data will be able to flow between the bloc and country unimpeded.
Interestingly, the European Commission is pitching the mutual recognition deal as creating “the world’s largest area of safe data flows”. If Privacy Shield – the EU-U.S. arrangement that acts as a stand-in for mutual recognition on data protection regimes – wasn’t such a creaky, doomed device, then the Commission probably wouldn’t be characterising the Japanese deal in this way.
THE US, EU AND CHINA ARE ALL SPONSORING STATE SURVEILLANCE around the world, according to a new report from Privacy International. With the US, it’s part of security aid programmes. With the EU, it’s part of an effort to build up border management capabilities in other countries so as to deter migration to Europe. With China, it’s part of the Belt and Road initiative.
The group notes: “These programmes also come at the expense of other foreign expenditure, particularly aid and development spending. The EU, for example, is diverting billions of euros in development money towards projects aimed at increasing surveillance and border controls to tackle issues around migration. In effect, the EU is spending billions to fund foreign countries, including authoritarian leaders, if they promise to keep people from Europe’s shores. And it is now planning to increase this by billions more.”
A BEYOND-CREEPY OUTFIT CALLED SPINNER is using standard online advertising technology to offer “frustrated husbands” the ability to “influence [their wives] on a subconscious level to initiate sex”. WTF, I hear you ask. Well, as this piece in The Register explains, people buying this service get a link that they must then trick their partners into clicking. The “targets” will then find themselves being regularly shown ads for articles such as “3 reasons why you should initiate sex with your husband”.
Yesterday Spinner emailed me their pitch, with the subject line “Surveillance Capitalism: Frustrated husbands use microtargeted native ads to manipulate wives”, and citing that Register article as… positive coverage? It’s hard to tell. Anyhow, they’ve incorporated it into their pitch, leading article writer Beki Hill to say she doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
I find Spinner’s model borderline abusive, so I emailed their PR guy back to ask what is wrong with them. His response: “When brands do it it’s ok?” There’s a lot to criticise about surveillance capitalism, for sure, but brands are generally not trying to manipulate women into having sex with them.
NORMALLY, HATE SPEECH ON FACEBOOK WOULD BE DEALT WITH by the platform’s contractor moderators, but it turns out that some far-right pages are being shielded from deletion at this level, with their output being referred to a “second tier of moderation” by in-house staff. This treatment is normally reserved for news organisations and governments, but the UK’s Channel 4 investigations team found it was also benefiting the likes of Tommy Robinson.
Is this being done because high-profile neo-fascist pages bring in a lot of revenue for Facebook? The company says no.
FACEBOOK HAD A GAPING PRIVACY HOLE in its closed-groups function that made it possible to discover the names of everyone in such groups. There was even a Chrome extension for marketers to exploit this flaw.
What prompted Facebook to fix the situation? According to CNBC: “Facebook’s decision came after members of a private group for women with a gene mutation associated with a higher risk breast cancer complained, concerned that their names might be exposed and open them to discrimination from insurers or other privacy violations.”
A GERMAN COURT HAS FORCED FACEBOOK to give a dead girl’s parents full access to her account, so they can read her private messages and figure out whether it was bullying that led her to die under a Berlin U-bahn train.
This latest ruling was from Germany’s Federal Court of Justice, the country’s highest civil court, and it reverses a judgement that in turn reversed an earlier ruling from a Berlin district court. The first and third rulings essentially agreed that a person’s chat records are like physical letters, which an heir would receive after the person dies.
“We empathize with the family. At the same time, Facebook accounts are used for a personal exchange between individuals, which we have a duty to protect,” the company said. “While we respectfully disagree with today’s decision by the FCJ, the lengthy process shows how complex the issue under discussion is.”
If you’d like me to speak about digital rights at your event or provide advice for your business, drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“ANONYMISED” PERSONAL DATA ISN’T REALLY ANONYMISED, as this worrying Guardian article explains.
RUSSIA’S INTERIOR MINISTER WOULD VERY MUCH LIKE people to volunteer to scour the interwebs for banned material, so the country’s censors can have the offending sites blocked.