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Police reports, social media shamings: Coronavirus has turned some citizens into social distance …

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In fact, concern about the highly contagious virus has turned some area residents into social distance vigilantes — cranky and over the top in some cases, justifiably worried in others.

Some call city quality-of-life hot lines. Others dial 911. The most bold send public tweets or Facebook messages to authorities, or surreptitiously snap photos and videos and report them directly to police, demanding they clear parks, halt soccer games, and disperse those they consider scofflaws.

“They probably won’t listen to you or me,” said Cambridge resident Cynthia Haynes. “But if a police officer came out, a state trooper came out, they’d probably leave.”

Haynes, a chef in her 50s whose outdoor exposure is limited now to solitary walks with her dog three times a day and occasional grocery store jaunts, worries about the well-being of residents most vulnerable to the virus, including her mother, who’s in her 80s. So when Haynes sees people clustered in parks or in public, she takes action.

The first surveillance video she sent to police captured some teens playing basketball at Hoyt Field in Cambridge. A police officer, Haynes said, told her the basketball rims would soon be gone.

Another video captured adults at a park along Memorial Drive using an outdoor fitness station — without wiping down the equipment. That prompted her to ask the city to put fencing around the area.

Records show hundreds of annoyed citizens from all over the Boston area have logged similar complaints in recent weeks, with calls to municipal 311 services or in social media posts directed at police.

One complaint from Allston read: “Landscape people with leaf blowers during a crisis? Can we stop this air blown COVID-19 spread? Please send Cops.”

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Another featured a photo shot through a window screen in South Boston showing a half-dozen people chatting outside a home “No Social distancing?? What happened to 6 feet apart? I’m concerned for neighbors and passers-by. . . . One or two are coughing quite a bit too.”

Barbara Anthony, former Massachusetts undersecretary for consumer affairs, got into the mix recently, tweeting a photo of a gathering of people in Harvard Square on a sunny day, along with the tag #StayHome.

A former prosecutor, Anthony is no stranger to levying criticism and said extraordinary times call for people to speak out, loudly. “That lack of responsibility [by people who don’t social distance] doesn’t just impact a single individual, it impacts entire communities . . . it affects all of us,” she said. “I think we need stricter enforcement.”

But if you thought the accused would go down without a fight, you’d be wrong. Some have fired back at their complainants.

One person in Roslindale wrote in to Boston’s 311 service: “News flash folks — a family playing baseball at Fallon field is not going [to] spread COVID-19. Mind your own business and [find] something else to complain about.”

Still, law enforcement has taken notice of the illicit gatherings. After a resident tweeted at the City of Somerville about people “not practicing social distancing in the park,” the city quickly responded, and dispatched an officer to the scene.

Spokesmen for area police agencies said people have generally been cooperative when officers have responded to calls and asked groups to disperse.

To be clear: It’s not a crime to be near someone else or gather in large groups in Massachusetts. Social distancing here is a health recommendation from state and local leaders.

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But other states have enacted strict rules and bulked up enforcement. Police have charged pastors for holding church services, broken up weddings and parties, and more, according to media reports. Lithuania’s capital city launched drones to patrol and prevent gatherings in public spaces.

In Massachusetts, Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh and Governor Charlie Baker have repeatedly urged residents to stay home, except in emergencies or to get groceries, medicine, and other essentials. They’ve encouraged going outside for exercise and mental well-being, but stressed that when residents leave their homes they should maintain proper distance from people they’re not living with.

Both leaders have so far resisted issuing orders that can actually be enforced. There are no fines or other penalties for being socially adjacent. That could change, officials have warned, particularly if there’s a lack of compliance.

“I know the mayor in New York is imposing a $500 fine if people don’t practice social distancing,” Walsh said Monday. “I hope we don’t have to do that.”

He also worried that the temptation to relax distancing discipline could be heightened with warmer weather.

In response to Walsh’s guidance, city workers have taken steps to curb recreational gatherings, including posting signs encouraging social distancing at parks and closing playground and tot lots. They’ve removed street hockey, soccer, and tennis court nets.

City workers zip-tied basketball nets, but some players persisted. The city then bolted pieces of plywood together to cover the rims, according to a parks spokesman.

South Boston resident Taralynn Asack, 29, was propelled to document and point out violators on her social media accounts in part out of a sense of public service, in part out of boredom.

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“I’ve taken it upon myself to be neighborhood watch,” said Asack, an on-air sports reporter for DraftKings. “I’ve been going a bit stir crazy without any news. So I’ve just been going around Boston exposing people.”

But Asack said her posts trend toward the positive and supportive and are designed to raise awareness.

“Who wants to be screamed at right now?” she said. “There’s too much uncertainty to be mean to each other. . . . We need all the kindness we can get.”


Matt Rocheleau can be reached at matthew.rocheleau@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mrochele

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Meta Launches New Legal Proceedings Against Data Scraping, Helping to Establish Precedent Around Misuse

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Meta Implements New Changes to Housing, Employment and Credit Ads to Eliminate Potential Discrimination

Meta has launched two new legal actions against data scraping sites, which have extracted user data from both Instagram and Facebook for unauthorized use, while it’s also seen a new victory in its battle against platform misuse, with a court ruling in its favor in another case related to clone sites.

First off, on its new actions – Meta has launched legal proceedings against two companies that offer data scraping services, which illegally use people’s uploaded info for unintended purpose.

As explained by Meta:

The first action is against a company called Octopus, a US subsidiary of a Chinese national high-tech enterprise that claims to have over one million customers. Octopus offers scraping services and access to software that customers can use to scrape any website. For a fee, Octopus customers can launch scraping attacks from its cloud-based platform or hire Octopus to scrape websites directly. Octopus offers to scrape data from Amazon, eBay, Twitter, Yelp, Google, Target, Walmart, Indeed, LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram.”

Meta says that Octopus’ system is able to extract data about people’s Facebook Friends ‘such as email address, phone number, gender and date of birth, as well as Instagram followers and engagement information, such as name, user profile URL, location and number of likes and comments per post’.

That’s information that users never intended to be utilized in this way, and Meta’s looking to establish clearer legal standing on this type of misuse.

The second company that Meta has launched legal action against is managed by a single operator in Turkey, and has been using automated Instagram accounts to scrape data from the profiles of over 350,000 Instagram users.

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“These profiles were viewable to logged-in Instagram users. The Defendant published the scraped data on his own websites or “clone sites.” A clone site is a website that copies and displays Instagram profiles, posts and other information without authorization.”

Both seem like fairly clear-cut violations of Meta’s terms of service, but the legal technicalities of online data scraping are not so definitive, with LinkedIn currently engaged in a years-long battle over a similar data-scraping case, in which users’ publicly available LinkedIn info is being used to power an external employee database and recruitment site.

In the most recent finding in this case, the Ninth Circuit of Appeals ruled that scraping data that’s publicly accessible on the internet isn’t in violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, despite users not explicitly providing consent for their information to be utilized by third-party providers in this way.

That case will no doubt also be used in the defense against Meta’s latest legal actions – but as Meta outlines, there is a variance here in that the information gathered by these tools is not publicly accessible, as such, which is part of the reason why Meta has gradually locked down Facebook and Instagram data more and more over the years, giving the company more definitive legal grounding in any such misuse.

That could lead to a new legal precedent for such, which may not necessarily help in LinkedIn’s case – but then again, LinkedIn has also been moving to lock down more of its user data to combat the same, which could eventually see any ruling apply to all such cases.

Either way, the misuse of user data in this way is clearly a violation of privacy, as it’s taking people’s personal info without consent. One way or another, it seems that the laws around such need to be updated – and maybe, these new cases from Meta can advance the argument in this respect.

Which is what Meta’s been trying to do with its various legal cases against platform misuse. And recently, it had a victory, with a court ruling that another operator that had been scraping Instagram user data to fuel clone sites was guilty of misuse.

As per Meta:

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In 2020, we filed an action against a defendant scraping people’s publicly-visible information from Instagram in order to create a network of clone sites. This was a violation of our Terms of Service and we filed a lawsuit in order to protect our users. The Court recently issued a final judgment in our favor and found Defendant liable for scraping data from Instagram users and republishing it on his clones sites. The Defendant was ordered by the Court to pay over $200,000 and is banned from using Facebook or Instagram.”

Each ruling in Meta’s favor helps to establish clearer precedent, and as it continues to launch new legal proceedings in order to reiterate the significance of data scraping and misuse, that, ideally, will further build Meta’s broader case load to solidify legal standing.

Which will see more of this type of activity outlawed and penalized, and will ultimately disincentive fraud in the space. It takes time, as each case needs to go through the legal process (as per this recent ruling), but Meta continues to establish stronger foundations for future cases with every step.

Which is another way to evolve the laws around such, embedding rulings by proxy, which will help to address such as clear legal violations in future. 

There’s a way to go, on several fronts, but Meta’s legal procedures help to build the foundations of law around these evolving forms of data misuse.

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