Vulnerabilities Galore

Specialized social networking sites see growth; Facebook continues to tip the scales for the far-right; and more.


  • This is civic tech: Here’s a report from Personal Democracy Forum 2018’s online community manager Darshana Narayanan, on how we used two software tools, Discourse and Slido, to increase engagement before, during and after the conference.

  • Niche social networks like Yonder for outdoor enthusiasts and Untappd for beer drinkers are steadily growing in popularity, Molly McHugh writes for the Ringer, suggesting that general dissatisfaction with larger platforms like Facebook is having an effect. AllTrails claims 7 million users up from 200,000 in 2012, and Untappd on says it had 3.2 million in 2016, up from 1 million two years earlier.

  • Trump watch: Security expert Thomas Rid writes for Politico that President Trump’s obsession with the DNC’s server makes no sense: “Live hard drive and memory snapshots of blinking, powered-on machines in a network reveal significantly more forensic data than some powered-off server removed from a network. It’s the difference between watching a house over time, carefully noting down who comes and goes and when and how, versus handing over a key to a lonely boarded-up building. By physically handing over a server to the FBI as Trump suggested, the DNC would in fact have destroyed evidence.” Furthermore, Rid describes in detail many of the ways the FBI has been able to forensically expose the many facets of Russia’s operation.

  • The Brennan Center’s Lawrence Norden points out that last Friday’s indictment of 12 Russian military intelligence officers shows “the reach of Russia’s infiltration of election systems likely went deeper than we’d understood.” He warns that the 2018 election may be targeted in more serious ways, including hacking of electronic poll books (used in 32 states) that allow poll workers to look up voters’ registration information, hacking of voter registration lists, and hacking of voting machines themselves. Some states already have strong backup systems in place, he notes, but only 17 of the 32 using e-poll books require paper backup poll books, and 13 states use machines that have no paper trail.

  • Related: Election Systems and Software, the nation’s top voting machine maker, has admitted in a letter to Senator Ron Wyden that between 2000 and 2006 it installed remote access software on the systems it was selling, Kim Zetter reports for Motherboard. The company refused to send a representative to testify at a hearing on election security last week before the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration. Wyden commented: “ES&S needs to stop stonewalling and provide a full, honest accounting of equipment that could be vulnerable to remote attacks. When a corporation that makes half of America’s voting machines refuses to answer the most basic cyber security questions, you have to ask what it is hiding.”

  • One of the founders of Sleeping Giants, an online network that has led boycott campaigns against advertisers on Breitbart, has been unmasked by Peter Hasson, a reporter for The DailyCaller. Matt Rivitz confirmed the story in a series of tweets, saying he has nothing to hide.

  • Brave new world: Open Migration has built a chronology of investigations and stories illustrating how rescues of refugees in the Mediterranean happens, who takes care of it, who coordinates it, what NGOs do and what the laws say. (h/t Antonella Napolitano)

  • Google is being fined $5 billion by the European Union for uncompetitive behavior in the way it puts search and web browser apps on Android mobile devices. The company says it will challenge the ruling.

  • Privacy, shmivacy: More than 100 summer camps are using facial recognition technology sold by Waldo Photos to help parents stay up to date on their kids, Elizabeth Weise and Molly Horak report for USA Today. It costs a few dollars a day for families who opt in; otherwise they have to click through the hundreds of photos that camps post every day. The camps also get analytics to help track how often campers are photographed to help insure they get shots of every child. (I am going to start a company teaching kids at summer camp how to paint their faces so they can’t be recognized.)

  • Related: Health insurers like Aetna are partnering with data brokers like LexisNexis to collect information like your race, education level, TV habits, marital status, net worth, social media postings, and bill paying records to help determine how much your health care could cost them, Marshall Allen reports for ProPublica. LexisNexis sent Allen a 182 page file filled with details of 25 years of his own life that it had captured; notably each home address location it listed had a field to show whether the address was “high risk.” You can request your own file here.

  • Annals of astroturfing: New York Governor Andrew Cuomo must have been stung by the news that almost none of his massive campaign warchest comes from small donors, because in his latest filing several “aides, relatives, roommates, allies, appointees and lobbyists” with close ties to Cuomo gave tiny sums like $1 and $5. As Shane Goldmacher reports for The New York Times, “The cumulative effect of these donations was negligible: of the $6 million raised in the last six months, only 1 percent came from those donating $250 or less. All told, Mr. Cuomo earned more in interest payments on his campaign war chest (nearly $154,000) than he collected in total contributions from donors who gave less than $1,000 (just under $110,000).”

  • Life in Facebookistan: An investigative journalist went undercover as a moderator at Facebook in the UK and found a host of problems with how the company moderates extreme content. The investigation, done by Firecrest Films for Channel 4, focused on a third-party called Cpl Resources in Dublin that Facebook has used since 2010 for content moderation. It found:

    • Violent content such as graphic images and videos of assaults on children, remaining on the site, despite being flagged by users as inappropriate and requests to have it removed.

    • Thousands of reported posts remained unmoderated and on the site …beyond Facebook’s stated aim of a 24-hour turnaround, including potentially posts relating to suicide threats and self-harm.

    • Moderators told not to take any action if content shows a child who is visibly below Facebook’s 13-year-old age limit, rather than report it as posted by underage users, even if the content includes self-harming.

    • Pages belonging to far-right groups, with large numbers of followers, allowed to exceed deletion threshold, and subject to different treatment in the same category as pages belonging to governments and news organisations.

    • Policies allowing hate speech towards ethnic and religious immigrants, and trainers instructing moderators to ignore racist content in accordance with Facebook’s policies.

  • Monica Bickert, Facebook’s VP for global policy management, quickly responded to the report with a blog post admitting that “we don’t always get it right, but insisting that “we have clear rules about what’s acceptable on Facebook and established processes for applying them.” Where have we heard this before? She added, “We take these mistakes incredibly seriously and are grateful to the journalists who brought them to our attention. We have been investigating exactly what happened so we can prevent these issues from happening again. For example, we immediately required all trainers in Dublin to do a re-training session — and are preparing to do the same globally.”

  • BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith asked Facebook’s global news partnerships head Campbell Brown why “trash” like the DailyCaller site were included in a biannual meeting the company runs with a variety of publishers the company works with, Kara Swisher and Kurt Wagner write for ReCode. As they note, “The company doesn’t want to help spread disinformation, but it also won’t decide what’s true or what’s false.” One media exec summed up the situation well: “Those engineers who run that place are completely unprepared to deal with what they have created.”

  • This interactive report from the New York Times illustrates vividly how WhatsApp is fueling rumors and killings by mobs in India.

  • The top political spender on Facebook currently is President Trump’s political action committee, according to a new study done by a group of researchers at NYU, Sheera Frankel reports for The New York Times.

  • Facebook is buying up lots of artificial intelligence researchers, Jeremy Kahn reports for Bloomberg.

  • Food for thought on the end of reality: Take six minutes to watch Hyper-Reality by Keiichi Matsuda, and then listen to Mark Pesce explain it all. I don’t think I will ever view shopping the same way…