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UK urged to regulate how tech giants like Facebook and Google target you with content

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The U.K. should regulate internet platforms like Facebook and Google over their use of online targeting algorithms and force them to share data with researchers, an advisor to the government has said.

The Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation (CDEI), an advisory body set up by the government in 2018, released a 121-page report on Tuesday calling on London to implement new rules on how social media firms target users with posts, videos and ads. It said a year-long review into the practice found “existing regulation is out of step with the public’s expectations.”

Content-sharing apps like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Snapchat and TikTok all use machine learning algorithms to tailor content to users, based on other posts they’ve interacted with. The CDEI was tasked by the government with looking into the practices of such platforms and putting forward advice on how to regulate artificial intelligence to ensure it’s being deployed ethically.

Research conducted by the CDEI with Ipsos Mori found that internet users generally distrust tech platforms when it comes to targeting, with only 29% of people in the U.K trusting them to target them in a responsible way. It said that 61% of Britons want more regulatory oversight while only 17% support tech platforms regulating themselves.

Britain is expected soon to start cracking down on big tech companies over how they deal with harmful content. Proposals laid out by the government last year would introduce an independent regulator with the ability to potentially slap tech firms with heavy fines and impose liability on senior executives for failing to limit the distribution of such content.

Regulation of social media became a particular priority for the country after the death of U.K. teen Molly Russell, who took her own life in 2017 after watching self-harm material online. Separately, the sharing of a video of the massacre at two New Zealand mosques last year hastened global efforts to curb the dispersion of toxic content and terrorist material online.

“Most people do not want targeting stopped. But they do want to know that it is being done safely and responsibly. And they want more control,” said CDEI Chair Roger Taylor.

“Tech platforms’ ability to decide what information people see puts them in a position of real power. To build public trust over the long-term it is vital for the Government to ensure that the new online harms regulator looks at how platforms recommend content, establishing robust processes to protect vulnerable people.”

A.I. ethics

Experts have increasingly been urging companies and regulators to bring about frameworks to ensure artificial intelligence is developed ethically. The European Union set out its own guidelines for achieving “trustworthy” AI last year, while tech firms from Google to Microsoft have recently been calling for global rules on the technology.

In its report, the CDEI said it aims to “create the conditions where ethical innovation using data-driven technology can thrive.” It highlighted the potential for AI-based targeting in swaying public opinion — especially among “vulnerable” people — influencing voting behavior and facilitating discrimination as key risks that needed to be addressed by the government.

It echoed a call from the Royal College of Psychiatrists to force tech companies to hand data over to researchers to help them better understand how internet users are impacted by online content. The CDEI said this could help inform research into the possible links between social media usage and declining mental health as well as the spread of fake news.

“We completely agree that there needs to be greater accountability, transparency and control in the online world,” said Dr Bernadka Dubicka, chair of the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ child and adolescent faculty.

“It is fantastic to see the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation join our call for the regulator to be able to compel social media companies to give independent researchers secure access to their data,” she added.

Political ads

The report also recommended requiring online platforms to make “high-risk” ads available on public archives. Such ads would cover marketing material related to politics, “opportunities” like jobs and housing and age-restricted products.

While Facebook has gone some way toward increasing transparency in political ads with its Ad Library, the company has so far refused to limit targeting for such posts and has drawn heavy criticism for continuing to allow false claims to appear in them.

Lastly, the report also calls on the government to give people greater control over how they’re targeted with online content. It said there was very little awareness on how such platforms target users, with only 7% of Britons it surveyed saying they expected information on people they interact with online to be used in targeting algorithms.

The use of such algorithms to direct people to certain content on the internet has become particularly controversial in a post-Cambridge Analytica world. Revelations of how the now-defunct political consultancy improperly gained the data of 87 million Facebook users to sway voters in the 2016 U.S. presidential election led to a huge privacy scandal that continues to haunt the social media giant.

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Community work for police employee who leaked confidential files that wound up on Facebook

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Community work for police employee who leaked confidential files that wound up on Facebook

The National Intelligence Application holds a wealth of information about millions of New Zealanders. Photo / Peter McIntosh

A police employee who used intelligence software to pry into the lives of people her friend thought were suspicious has been sentenced to 80 hours community work.

Kayla Watson also took photos of four people’s secure police files and sent them to her friend, who then posted them in a Facebook chat group.

Early last year she was acting manager for the crime reporting line in Auckland when her friend contacted her about letterboxes being damaged and residents being harassed in her Massey neighbourhood.

“Dodge house was in our carpark attaching [sic] cars, breaking our letterboxes and fighting again last night,” she said to Watson over text.

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According to the Crown summary of facts supplied to NZME, Watson responded with: “What’s the address, I’ll have a look?” She then logged into the police’s National Intelligence Application (NIA) and searched the address her friend had supplied.

The NIA is a secure police record system used to store information about millions of New Zealanders. It includes flags for firearms licence holders, people known by police to be HIV (Aids) positive, and alerts for paedophiles and convicted murderers.

Access requires a security clearance and its use is audited to ensure employees aren’t misusing it. When new employees are given access, they are warned they can only use it for work purposes and must have a reason for everything they search within the system.

Alerts within the system can be placed on addresses and occupants of that same address can be linked to it.

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Watson clicked on four people associated with the address and then took photos on her phone of their files, which included the last three months of police callouts at the address.

“There is aaaalloooot [sic] against their address,” Watson said in a follow-up message to her friend. “Family violence, disorder, drug searches … the list goes on.”

She then sent the photographs she’d taken of the NIA files to her friend via Facebook messenger. Shortly after, the friend posted the images to a Facebook chat group containing 10 other people within the Massey area.

At least five of them had viewed it before police became aware. The photos were later removed from the group.

Watson’s lawyer, Todd Simmonds, told the court that he was seeking a discharge without conviction for his client and that the consequences for her employment with the police would be significant-enough as a punishment.

“Those consequences would be out of proportion to the overall gravity of what she foolishly did on the morning in question,” he told the court.

Simmonds said that it was likely Watson would be dismissed from the police if she was convicted and rejected the Crown’s submission that the offending had been premeditated.

Crown lawyer Rob MacDonald said that a key part of the offending was the harm Watson had caused to the community and the public’s trust and confidence in police and their ability to keep confidential information a secret.

He argued that there was an element of premeditation in her offending because it was several hours after her friend texted her that she logged onto NIA.

“It gave her several hours to contemplate her actions, it wasn’t knee-jerk offending reacting to events happening at that time,” he told the court this afternoon.

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“This isn’t a street fight that happened in the heat of the moment.”

MacDonald said consequences for Watson were already under way and police would be awaiting the outcome of today’s hearing to see whether she had been convicted.

“This goes to the heart of the defendant’s role at the police and the access that sworn and non-sworn officers have to private information. It’s something the police audit themselves every year as they appreciate the consequences of unauthorised access,” MacDonald said.

Ultimately in the Manukau District Court this afternoon Judge Penelope Ginnen declined to grant Watson a discharge without conviction, but she didn’t agree with the Crown’s view that her offending had been premeditated.

“It is my view there was not a great deal of premeditation, it was a spontaneous decision and you acted on it with too little thought,” she said.

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“Your position in the NZ Police requires a degree of trust to not misuse your position…you’ve breached that trust. You’ve worked for the police for a long time. You know that while things are monitored and audited the very nature of the work means it needs to be a high trust environment.”

Judge Ginnen said it was lucky that the information wasn’t shared further than the chat group.

“In this digital age it just takes a few clicks of a button for information to be distributed around the world.”

Judge Ginnen said Watson’s actions had damaged the police’s integrity, their trust within the community as well as the privacy of the individuals whose photos and files she shared.

“It was an appalling lapse of judgment on your part. But I do take into account that you didn’t do this for personal gain and you didn’t know your friend would share the information with the chat group,” she said.

“But it was a serious thing you did.”

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In sentencing Watson to 80 hours community work Judge Ginnen said she took into account Watson’s early guilty plea, complete lack of criminal history and her otherwise exemplary record during eight years working for the police.

However, the aggravating factors around the breach of privacy and the privileged position Watson was in for having access to the information in NIA meant that she could not escape a conviction.

Watson was placed on restrictive duties after the discovery of the information breach and returned to work within a month.

The police told NZME in an emailed statement that they could not comment on Watson’s case as it was still an active employment investigation.

Since the NIA was introduced in 2001, there have been several instances of police misusing the system, including one sworn police officer who gave information to gangs. Another used it to access information about his Tinder matches.

According to data released to NZME under the Official Information Act, four breaches of the NIA have resulted in criminal charges in the past five years – two of which were uniformed staff and the others were civilians, with Watson being one of those people.

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There are still 20 ongoing investigations into misuses of the NIA, with 13 of those involving sworn constabulary members.

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Facebook, Twitter, and Other Social Platforms Go Offline

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Facebook, Twitter, and Other Social Platforms Go Offline

Everything is down. Wednesday afternoon, widespread outages began to affect many of the internet’s most popular services, both social networks and otherwise. As of this writing, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pokemon Go, and the McDonald’s mobile application a just a handful of the many services suffering from log-in difficulties. According to DownDetector, there’s no regional basis for the services going offline and reports are coming in from all corners of the country.

Meta—the parent company of Facebook—is only reporting “Major disruptions” with its ad service while Twitter says all of its systems are operational. Despite the difficulties, all other status pages for the aforementioned services suggest everything is operational. Keep scrolling to see what people are saying.

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Wannabe Blackpool councillor suspended by Tories after civil service staff called 'pedos' in Facebook post

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Wannabe Blackpool councillor suspended by Tories after civil service staff called 'pedos' in Facebook post

A prospective Blackpool councillor has been suspended from the Conservative Party following a series of offensive posts on social media that called …

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