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Facebook, Instagram Remove Chinese Accounts Over Fake ‘Swiss Biologist’ COVID-19 Origin Claims

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Facebook owner Meta Platforms said on Wednesday it had removed accounts used by an influence operation originating in China that promoted claims of a fake “Swiss biologist” saying the United States was interfering in the search for COVID-19’s origins.

Meta said in a report the social media campaign was “largely unsuccessful” and targeted English-speaking audiences in the United States and Britain and Chinese-speaking audiences in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Tibet.

Claims by “Swiss biologist” Wilson Edwards were widely quoted by Chinese state media in July. In August, several Chinese newspapers removed comments and deleted articles quoting him after the Swiss embassy in Beijing said it had found no evidence of him as a Swiss citizen.

Meta said Facebook removed the Wilson Edwards account in August and has since removed 524 Facebook accounts, 20 Pages, four Groups and 86 Instagram accounts as part of its investigation. Such removals also take down content that these entities have posted.

“We…were able to link the activity to individuals in mainland China, including employees of a particular company in China, the Sichuan Silence Information Technology Company Limited, as well as some individuals associated with Chinese state infrastructure companies around the world,” Meta’s head of global threat disruption David Agranovich told Reuters.

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Sichuan Silence Information Technology Co did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The Chinese foreign ministry and internet regulator Cyberspace Administration of China also did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Meta said it had not found any connection between Sichuan Silence Information Technology and the Chinese government.

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Silence Information’s website describes itself as a network and information security company that provides network security services to China’s Ministry of Public Security activities and China’s CNCERT, the key coordination team for China’s cybersecurity emergency response.

On July 24, 10 hours after its creation, the “Wilson Edwards” Facebook account uploaded a post saying he had been informed the United States was seeking to discredit the qualifications of World Health Organization scientists working with China to probe the origins of COVID-19.

Meta said the account’s operators used virtual private network (VPN) infrastructure to conceal its origin and made efforts to give Edwards a rounded personality.

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The persona’s original post was initially shared and liked by fake Facebook accounts, and later forwarded by authentic users, most of which belonged to employees of Chinese state infrastructure companies in over 20 countries, Meta said.

“This is the first time we have observed an operation that included a coordinated cluster of state employees to amplify itself in this way,” the report said. Meta said it did not find evidence that the network gained any traction among authentic communities.

China’s state-run media, from China Daily to TV news service CGTN, cited the July post widely as evidence that US President Joe Biden’s administration was politicising the WHO. The administration had said the joint WHO-China investigation lacked transparency.

The origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 remains a mystery and a source of tension between China, the United States and other countries.

© Thomson Reuters 2021

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    December 28, 2021 at 12:49 am

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WhatsApp ‘Delete for Everyone’ Feature Gets Extension to Over 2 Days

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WhatsApp ‘Delete for Everyone’ feature has got an extension. You can now delete your wrongly sent messages within a longer time frame — over two days — after transmitting it. Until now, the Meta-owned instant messaging platform allowed its users to delete a wrongly sent message within one hour, eight minutes, and 16 seconds’ time frame. The first mention of this extension was in February this year. The development comes as WhatsApp announced three new privacy features in order to provide a more secure conversation experience on the app.

WhatsApp shared a post on Twitter announcing that “you will have a little over 2 days to delete your messages from your chats after you hit send.” WhatsApp rolled out the over one-hour time limit to delete messages from the chat in 2018. The feature to delete messages for everyone in the chat originally had a time limit of seven minutes after hitting send. WABetainfo, a platform that tests WhatsApp features before they are released to the masses, replied to WhatsApp’s post on Twitter explicitly mentioning that the new time limit for “Delete Message for Everyone” is 2 hours and 12 hours.

In order to be able to delete messages within two days, you as well as all the recipients should have the latest version of WhatsApp. There is no clarification whether this feature is only available for Android or iOS users. However, it should be available to both WhatsApp for Android and WhatsApp for iOS. Deleting a message for everyone should be simple. You just need to tap and hold the message (image, video, or document) you want to remove, and tap Delete > select “Delete for everyone”.

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As mentioned, the development comes as WhatsApp introduced three new privacy features with an aim to provide more control over conversations and offer more privacy. These new features are: exit group chats without notifying everyone, control who can see when you’re online, and prevent screenshots on view once messages.

WhatsApp already provides other features such as default end-to-end protection for calls and messages, disappearing messages, end-to-end encrypted backups, 2-step verification, and the ability to block and report unwanted chats.

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Is India at Risk of Chinese-Style Surveillance Capitalism?: Andy Mukherjee

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After five years of negotiations involving the government, tech companies, and civil society activists, the world’s largest democracy is sending its debate on privacy back to the drawing board. The Indian government has junked the personal data protection bill, and decided to replace it with “a comprehensive legal framework.” If the current anarchy wasn’t bad enough, nobody knows what the revamped regime will contain — whether it it will put individuals first, like in Europe, or promote vested commercial and party-state interests, like in China.

Back in 2017, India’s liberals were hopeful. In July that year, New Delhi set up a panel under retired Justice B.N. Srikrishna to frame data protection norms. The very next month, the country’s Supreme Court held privacy to be a part of a constitutionally guaranteed right to life and liberty. But the optimism didn’t take long to fade. The law introduced in parliament in December 2019 gave the government unfettered access to personal data in the name of sovereignty and public order — a move that will “turn India into an Orwellian State,” Srikrishna cautioned.

Those fears are coming true even without a privacy law. Razorpay, a Bengaluru-based payment gateway, was compelled by the police recently to supply data on donors to Alt News, a fact-checking portal. Although the records were obtained legally — as part of an investigation against the website’s cofounder — there was no safeguard against their misuse. The risk that authorities could target opponents of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party led to howls of protests about the stifling of dissent under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

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The backdrop to India’s privacy debate has changed. Six years ago, mobile data was expensive, and most people — especially in villages — used feature phones. That’s no longer the case. By 2026, India will have 1 billion smartphone users, and the consumer digital economy is poised for a 10-fold surge in the current decade to $800 billion (roughly Rs. 63,71,600 crore). To get a loan from the private sector or a subsidy from the state, citizens now need to part with far too much personal data than in the past: Dodgy lending apps ask for access to entire lists of phone contacts. The Modi government manages the world’s largest repository of biometric information and has used it to distribute $300 billion (roughly Rs. 23,89,440 crore) in benefits directly to voters. Rapid digitization without a strong data protection framework is leaving the public vulnerable to exploitation.

Europe’s general data protection regulation isn’t perfect. But at least it holds natural persons to be the owners of their names, email addresses, location, ethnicity, gender, religious beliefs, biometric markers, and political opinion. Instead of following that approach, India sought to give the state an upper hand against both individuals and private-sector data collectors. Large global tech firms, such as Alphabet, Meta Platforms, and Amazon, were concerned about the now-dropped bill’s insistence on storing “critical” personal data only in India for national security reasons. Not only does localization get in the way of efficient cross-border data storage and processing, but as China has shown with Didi Global, it can also be weaponised. The ride-hailing app was forced to delist in the U.S. months after it went public there against Beijing’s wishes and eventually slapped with a $1.2 billion (roughly Rs. 9,550 crore) fine for data breaches that “severely affected national security.”

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Still, the scrapping of the Indian bill will bring little cheer to Big Tech if its replacement turns out to be even more draconian. Both Twitter and Meta’s WhatsApp have initiated legal proceedings against the Indian government — the former against “arbitrary” directions to block handles or take down content and the latter against demands to make encrypted messages traceable. The government’s power to impose fines of up to 4 percent of global revenue — as envisaged in the discarded data protection law — can come in handy to make tech firms fall in line; so it’s unlikely that New Delhi will dilute it in the new legislation.

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For individuals, the big risk is the authoritarian tilt in India’s politics. The revamped framework may accord even less protection to citizens from a Beijing-inspired mix of surveillance state and surveillance capitalism than the abandoned law. According to the government, it was the 81 amendments sought by a joint parliamentary panel that made the current bill untenable. One such demand was to exempt any government department from privacy regulations as long as New Delhi is satisfied and state agencies follow just, fair, reasonable and proportionate procedures. That’s too much of a carte blanche. To prove overreach, for instance in the Alt News donors case, citizens would have to mount expensive legal battles. But to what end? If the law doesn’t bat for the individual, courts will offer little help.

Minority groups in India have the most at stake. S. Q. Masood, an activist in the southern city of Hyderabad, sued the state of Telangana, after the police stopped him on the street during the COVID-19 lockdown, asked him to remove his mask and took a picture. “Being Muslim and having worked with minority groups that are frequently targeted by the police, I’m concerned that my photo could be matched wrongly and that I could be harassed,” Masood told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. The zeal with which authorities are embracing technologies to profile individuals by pulling information scattered across databases shows a hankering for a Chinese-style system of command and control.

The abandoned Indian data protection legislation also wanted to allow voluntary verification of social-media users, ostensibly to check fake news. But as researchers at the Internet Freedom Foundation have pointed out, collection of identity documents by platforms like Facebook would leave users vulnerable to more sophisticated surveillance and commercial exploitation. Worse still, what starts out as voluntary may become mandatory if platforms start denying some services without identity checks, depriving whistleblowers and political dissidents of the right to anonymity. Since that wasn’t exactly a bug in the rejected law, expect it to be a feature of India’s upcoming privacy regime as well.

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© 2022 Bloomberg LP

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Snap Launches Parental Control Tool Family Center, Lets Parents Check Teens’ Contacts

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Snap, owner of the popular messaging app Snapchat, rolled out its first parental control tools on Tuesday, which will allow parents to see who their teens are talking to, but not the substance of their conversations.

The new feature called Family Center is launching at a time when social media companies have been criticised over a lack protection for kids. In October, Snap and its tech peers TikTok and YouTube testified before US lawmakers accusing the companies of exposing young users to bullying or steering them toward harmful content.

Instagram also testified in a Senate hearing in December over children’s online safety, after a Facebook whistleblower leaked internal documents that she said showed the app harmed some teens’ mental health and body image.

Parents can invite their teens to join Family Center on Snapchat, and once the teens consent, parents will be able to view their kids’ friends list and who they have messaged on the app in the past seven days. They can also confidentially report any concerning accounts.

However, parents will not be able to see private content or messages sent to and from their teens, said Jeremy Voss, Snap’s head of messaging products, in an interview.

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“It strikes the right approach for enhancing safety and well-being, while still protecting autonomy and privacy,” he said.

Snap said it plans to launch additional features in the coming months, including notifications to parents when their teen reports abuse from a user.

Prior to Family Center, Snap already had some teen protection policies in place. By default, profiles for Snapchat users under 18 are private, and they only show up as a suggested friend in search results when they have friends in common with another user. Users must be at least 13 years old to sign up.

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Snap’s new tools follow a similar move by Instagram, which launched its Family Center in March, allowing parents to view what accounts their teens follow and how much time they spend on the app.

© Thomson Reuters 2022

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