Protego Press Round Up: May 21, 2019

It’s the last week before Memorial Day, and while Game of Thrones fans are digesting the series finale, the tech policy world continues forward.  Be it energy espionage, regulation of facial recognition, Huawei, disinformation and bias, catch up on all the latest news in this week’s Protego Press Round Up.

In Case You Missed It: In “Chinese Energy Innovation Espionage: What’s At Stake And What We Can Do About It ?”, Sarah Hunt writes that “Corporate espionage agents from China are ramping up their efforts to target the U.S. energy sector. Left unchecked, this threat poses a threat to our economy, energy security, and energy innovators,” and lays out several ways that the United States can protect itself.  Read more here.

Facial Recognition Regulation? San Francisco took the step last week to ban facial recognition technology.  The action makes San Francisco the first major American city to block a tool that many police forces are turning to in the search for both small-time criminal suspects and perpetrators of mass carnage.  And, other local governments are exploring similar prohibitions, so as to deal with the potential Orwellian risks that the technology may harm people’s privacy. San Francisco’s ban will not affect federal agencies, including agents at the airport and ports.  The passage of local regulation may increase the urgency for a national bill to preempt any state or local regulations and instead introduce regulation that is evenly enforced across all the states. And, given the prevalence of this type of technology, expect to see more tension between citizens and law enforcement, such as this incident.

Huawei’s Crazy Week First, Huawei was in the news, as Business Insider reported that the Chinese company was about to unveil an AI-powered rival to databases from Oracle, Microsoft and IBM, that an analyst calls the ‘first salvo in US-Chinese database wars’.   

Then, on Wednesday, the Trump administration released an “Executive Order on Securing the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) and Services Supply Chain.”   The E.O. does not name any specific companies/persons but does authorize the Secretary of Commerce to block or require conditions for transactions involving ICT products or services even tenuously linked to a “foreign adversary”.  Following that, Huawei “and its affiliates”, including HiSilicon, were added to the Commerce Department’s Entity List, which means U.S. companies are now required to obtain licenses to export many of their products to Huawei/HiSilicon.

In response, Alphabet Inc’s Google suspended business with Huawei that requires the transfer of hardware, software and technical services except those publicly available via open source licensing.  In practice, this means Huawei won’t be able to license Google’s Android operating system, so Huawei phone users will lose access to updates. Future versions of Huawei smartphones running Android won’t be able to access popular Google apps including Gmail, YouTube, and the Google Play store – which lets users easily download third-party apps.

However, on Monday, the U.S. Commerce Department granted Huawei a license to buy U.S. goods until Aug. 19 to maintain existing telecoms networks and provide software updates to Huawei smartphones, a move intended to give telecom operators that rely on Huawei time to make other arrangements. And on Tuesday, Google announced that it plans to work with Huawei over the next 90 days, shortly after the U.S. temporarily eased some trade restrictions on the world’s second-largest smartphone maker.

Twitter’s Attempt to Counter Disinformation: As measles outbreaks in the United States and other countries continue to get worse, Twitter is introducing new search tools meant to help users find credible resources about vaccines. It will also stop auto-suggesting search terms that would lead users to misinformation about vaccines.  Twitter VP of Trust and Safety, Del Harvey, wrote that Twitter “understand[s] the importance of vaccines in preventing illness and disease and recognize the role that Twitter plays in disseminating important public health information. We think it’s important to help people find reliable information that enhances their health and well-being.”

Tech Bias?  The White House has launched an online form asking people to share their experiences if they think political partisanship has led them to be silenced by social media sites. Announced via tweet, the Trump administration is “fighting for free speech online no matter your views, if you suspect political bias has caused you to be censored or silenced online, we want to hear about it!” The move follows months of sparring between Trump and social media platforms including Twitter, Facebook and Google. Trump has repeatedly accused these platforms of censoring conservative voices, which the companies have vehemently denied. The president has even threatened to regulate the platforms through government intervention.  Not everyone is in favor of this move, including the Electronic Privacy Information Center, who said there is no evidence that the government ever conducted and published a report on its data-collection activities, a mandatory inquiry called a Privacy Impact Assessment. Absent that, the Washington-based watchdog organization said the administration’s social media campaign may be “unlawful.”

Bad Acting App?  Researchers at Upstream say VidMate, an Android app that enables them to download videos from YouTube, WhatsApp, and other platforms which more than 500 million people have downloaded, subjects its users to a range of suspicious behavior that could be costing them money, draining their phone batteries, and exposing their personal information.

The app, which has ties to Chinese tech giant Alibaba, includes a hidden component that delivers invisible ads, generates fake clicks and purchases, installs other suspicious apps without consent and collects personal users’ information. Consequently, it depletes users’ data allowance and brings unwanted charges. If not blocked, they would have subscribed users to premium digital services potentially costing them up to $170 million in unwanted charges.  With regulators increasingly watching mobile devices for consumer privacy violations, expect to see a crackdown on backdoor actions such as those described by Upstream.

Additional Quick Hits:

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says his country’s welcoming immigration policy is behind a tech boom in the economy.

Future of Privacy Forum has a new infographic highlighting emerging issues such as advertising practices, content standards, global data flows, concerns about civil rights, law enforcement cooperation, ethics, community engagement, research standards, and more.

While there is talk of breaking up Facebook, the COO of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg highlighted that China’s own tech companies will not be broken up.

Microsoft Launches Decentralized Identity Tool: Microsoft is launching the first decentralized infrastructure implementation by a major tech company that is built directly on the bitcoin blockchain.

The Dutch government reiterated a European desire for tougher rules for big technology companies like Apple Inc. and Google to acquire small competing startups.

A new report  from SecurityScorecard reveals a range of obvious and ongoing security flaws that could leave political parties and campaigns in the US and EU vulnerable to attack.