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Facebook’s Election Ad Overhaul Takes Crucial First Steps


Facebook has agreed to give Congressional investigators roughly 3,000 political ads it found linked to Russian accounts that ran during the 2016 election. The company will also overhaul the way it approaches campaign ads altogether, seeking to create a “new standard for transparency,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in an address on Facebook Live Thursday.

This unexpected announcement from Facebook suggests the company has finally started listening to its many critics in Congress, the media, and at large. Less than a year ago, in the immediate aftermath of the election, Zuckerberg dismissed the idea that Facebook’s fake news problem had anything to do with the results. Today’s address suggests that the billionaire founder, who built a platform that two billion people rely on for news and political interactions, is finally starting to appreciate that his creation can do as much harm as good in this world.

Going forward, Facebook will require political advertisers to disclose the pages that have paid for the ad. Today, no law requires political advertisers to do this online, even though such disclosures are required on television. Facebook was unable to clarify whether this new rule applies only to official campaign organizations and PACs, or if it will apply more broadly to all political content.

Intriguingly, the company will also allow any user to visit an advertiser’s page and see all of the ads they’ve sent to segmented parts of the Facebook universe. Until now, advertisers, including President Trump’s campaign, have been able to target certain users on Facebook with highly tailored messages that others can’t see. While these ads, often referred to as “dark posts,” are commonplace in digital advertising, they pose a serious transparency threat when it comes to politics and government.

Facebook also plans to add 250 people to its election integrity team, and to work more closely with election commissions around the world to report any risks or unusual behavior it identifies.

“Now, I wish I could tell you we’re going to be able to stop all interference, but that wouldn’t be realistic,” Zuckerberg said. “There will always be bad people in the world, and we can’t prevent all governments from all interference. But we can make it harder. We can make it a lot harder. And that’s what we’re going to do.”

Reactive Measures

The company’s election integrity makeover and its commitment to share more information with Congress comes amid a growing backlash from leading senators like Mark Warner, vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Richard Burr, the committee’s chairman. They and others have asked Facebook for access to the ads ever since the company revealed it had discovered them weeks ago. Since then, Facebook has offered the ads only to special counsel Mueller’s team, leaving investigators on Capitol Hill largely in the dark.

“We believe it is vitally important that government authorities have the information they need to deliver to the public a full assessment of what happened in the 2016 election,” Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch wrote in a blog post Thursday. “That is an assessment that can be made only by investigators with access to classified intelligence and information from all relevant companies and industries—and we want to do our part.”

Even so, the move represents but a half-step toward transparency for Facebook. The company says it has not yet agreed to meet with Congress for an open hearing about Russian interference in the 2016 election, as Twitter plans to do next Wednesday.

In Thursday’s livestream, Zuckerberg explained the company’s reticence about the issue. “As a general rule, we are limited in what we can discuss publicly about law enforcement investigations, so we may not always be able to share our findings publicly,” he said. “But we support Congress in deciding how to best use this information to inform the public, and we expect the government to publish its findings when their investigation is complete.”

Zuckerberg acknowledged also that the company’s own investigation is far from complete, and that it “may find more,” in which case Facebook will continue to work with the government. What’s still unclear is whether either Mueller’s team or Congressional investigators will be able to see what exactly Facebook’s internal investigation entails.

First Steps

Whatever comes of the investigation into the 2016 election, the measures Zuckerberg announced today are vital toward fending off similar threats in future campaigns. Allowing citizens to see who pays for campaign ads on Facebook, and what their candidates and elected officials are saying to different subsets of the population, is an unprecedented move in the internet age. As a platform for two billion people, Facebook is well-poised to set that precedent.

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It’s clear, though, that none of these decisions can fully prevent malicious foreign actors from spreading their influence online. There are, of course, ways that they can organically spread content with coordinated hashtag campaigns and fake news stories, carefully shared with select Facebook groups. Since the election, Facebook has created ways that users can flag fake news, and it’s taken steps toward cracking down on accounts that share fake news multiple times. But it’s unclear still how efficiently those moves have cleaned up people’s News Feeds.

And despite these changes, Zuckerberg acknowledged, Facebook’s advertising platform remains vulnerable. The majority of ads on Facebook are bought programmatically, meaning machines do most of the buying, without human involvement. That, he says, is how the Russia-linked ads were purchased. While the company says it plans to develop new levels of human oversight, Zuckerberg was clear that Facebook does not want to be in a position of policing speech. The more Facebook involves itself in what people can and cannot say, the more it risks taking a hit not only from communities that argue they’re being censored, but also to its bottom line.

“We don’t check what people say before they say it, and frankly, I don’t think our society shouldn’t want us to,” Zuckerberg said. “Freedom means you don’t have to ask permission first, and that by default you can say what you want. If you break our community standards or the law, then you’re going to face consequences afterwards.”

That seems like an appropriate bar to set. So far, in the case of Russian meddling, it hasn’t proven true.

Google’s New Street View Cameras Will Help Algorithms Index The Real World


Steve Silverman helped build cameras for two NASA rovers that went to Mars. In the less exotic landscape of a Google parking lot, he looks up fondly at his latest creation, bolted onto the roof of a Hyundai hatchback. The gawky assemblage almost doubles the car’s height: four white legs holding up a vertical black stalk sporting eight cameras. “We thought about covering it up, but we’re kind of nerds,” Silverman says. “We’re proud of it.”

Silverman and his team build the hardware that captures imagery for Google Street View, the project that since 2007 has put panoramas of more than 10 million miles of roads, buildings, and the occasional act of public urination online for all to see. The new camera design, the first major upgrade in eight years, started regularly patrolling the streets last month. The data that’s just starting to come back will strengthen Google’s digital grip on the world.

As you might expect if you think back to the camera in your 2009 cell phone, Street View imagery is about to get a lot clearer. Look forward to sliding through the world from your couch in higher resolution and punchier colors. But Google’s new hardware wasn’t designed with just human eyes in mind. The car-top rig includes two cameras that capture still HD images looking out to either side of the vehicle. They’re there to feed clearer, closer shots of buildings and street signs into Google’s image recognition algorithms.

Those algorithms can pore over millions of signs and storefronts without getting tired. By hoovering up vast amounts of information visible on the world’s streets—signs, business names, perhaps even opening hours posted in the window of your corner deli—Google hopes to improve its already formidable digital mapping database. The company, built on the back of algorithms that indexed the web, is using the same strategy on the real world.

Samsung Galaxy Note 8 review: one for the fans


A year ago, I wrote that the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 was the best big phone ever made. It had excellent performance, a great camera, and a refined design that was surprisingly manageable for a device with a large screen. But that glory was short-lived: as everyone knows, the Note 7 had a defective internal battery design that caused it to randomly catch fire. In the most embarrassing episode of modern tech history, Samsung was forced to recall the phone, not once, but twice, and pull it from the market.

The upshot of all of this is Samsung was also forced to reevaluate how it designed and manufactured phone batteries, and it now uses different processes and chemistries that produce more durable batteries that also degrade less over time.

That’s good, because now we have the Galaxy Note 8 and Samsung wants it to permanently put the Note 7 fiasco in the rearview mirror. The new Note is much like its predecessor in that it’s an exceptional large-screened device with few obvious faults. In fact, in all of the important areas, the Note 8 is a better device than even the Note 7 was.

But the climate around big phones has changed dramatically since last year. While the Note 7 was head and shoulders above everything else before its fall from grace, the Note 8 isn’t obviously better than many of the other big phones out this year, including Samsung’s own Galaxy S8 Plus. Further, the Note 8 is one of the most expensive phones you can buy, starting at $930 for a model with 64GB of storage.

Ask Samsung, though, and it will say Galaxy Note fans don’t care about any of those things. They don’t want just any big phone, they want a Note, complete with its over-the-top size, top-of-the-line specs, and, of course, its stylus. And because of what happened with the Note 7, these fans have been waiting a long time for this.

The Galaxy Note 8 wasn’t built for everyone. It was built for them.

The Galaxy Note has always been an unapologetically big phone, but the Note 8 takes big to new dimensions.

It starts with its 6.3-inch Infinity Display that stretches to the very edges of the phone’s frame, leaving just a small bezel above and below the screen. This HDR-capable display is everything you’d expect from a high-end Samsung panel: it’s crisp, vibrant, and super bright, so it’s visible outdoors in direct sunlight. The sheer size of it sucks you in when watching video, and the 18.5:9 aspect ratio lets it display lots of content at once or easily run two apps at the same time in split-screen multitasking mode.

Equifax compromised 143 million people’s Social Security numbers and other data


Equifax announced today that 143 million US-based users had their personal information compromised this year. Attackers reportedly exploited a vulnerability on Equifax’s website to steal names, Social Security numbers, birthdates, addresses, and, in some cases, driver’s license numbers. Credit card numbers for approximately 209,000 people and certain dispute documents with personal identifying information for approximately 182,000 people were also accessed. Although Equifax operates in other countries, it didn’t detect any stolen personal information abroad.

The company says it discovered the breach on July 29th this year, and has since plugged the security hole. The company also set up a dedicated website — www.equifaxsecurity2017.com — for possible victims to sign up for credit file monitoring and identity theft protection.

Data breaches are fairly common, although those impacting Social Security and driver’s license numbers are rarer and more serious. The fact that Social Security numbers are included in the breach makes it likely that victims will be targeted for identity theft. Equifax says it’s working with both an independent cybersecurity firm and law enforcement to investigate.

FEC commissioner calls for more disclosure after Russia bought political ads on Facebook


Ellen L. Weintraub, a member of the Federal Elections Commission, has submitted a vote on revamping disclaimer rules around political ads on the internet following Facebook’s admission yesterday that Russia bought $100,000 worth of ads on the social network to influence the US presidential election last year. Weintraub, who posted her letter to the FEC on Twitter, says the goal is to decide whether the “American people deserve to know who’s paying for the political info they see on the internet?”

“It is imperative that we updated the Federal Elections Commission’s regulations to ensure that the American people know who is paying for the internet political communications they see,” Weintraub writes. “Given the revelations of the past few days regarding the secret purchase of thousands of internet political ads by foreign actors during the 2016 presidential election, there can no longer reasonably be any doubt that we need to revise and modernize our internet disclaimer regulations.” The letter was sent to Chairman Steven T. Walthier, and Weintraub says she intends to include input from Facebook, Twitter, and Google, among other tech companies, once a new 30-day public comment period has taken place and a new hearing is scheduled.

The ad campaign, which was conducted by a notorious Russian “troll farm” with a history of using online tools and campaigns to spread state propaganda, was relatively small. However it’s yet more incontrovertible proof that foreign actors with ties to the Russian government attempted to meddle in the US presidential election.

The news, and the public concern of an official member of the FEC, only further undermines the defensive positions of President Donald Trump and his administration, which have long sought to discredit claims of Russian interference in the election as “fake news.” It also undermines a past position Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who called the notion that his company’s service influenced the election “crazy” last November.

In last year or so, Zuckerberg’s outlook on the role and influence of Facebook public and political life has shifted. His company has since taken a number of measures to cut down on the presence of bad actors, clickbait, and misinformation campaigns on the site, while Zuckerberg himself has owned up to Facebook’s outsize role in politics and acknowledged its corporate responsibility to modern civic discourse.

Equifax breach exposes 143 million Americans to identity theft


SAN FRANCISCO: Credit monitoring company Equifax has been hit by a high-tech heist that exposed the Social Security numbers and other sensitive information about 143 million Americans. Now the unwitting victims have to worry about the threat of having their identities stolen.

The Atlanta-based company, one of three major U.S credit bureaus, said Thursday that “criminals” exploited a U.S website application to access files between mid-May and July of this year.

The theft obtained consumers’ names, Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses and, in some cases, driver’s license numbers. The purloined data can be enough for crooks to hijack the identities of people whose credentials were stolen through no fault of their own, potentially wreaking havoc on their lives. Equifax said its core credit-reporting databases don’t appear to have been breached.

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“On a scale of one to 10, this is a 10 in terms of potential identity theft,” said Gartner security analyst Avivah Litan. “Credit bureaus keep so much data about us that affects almost everything we do.”

Lenders rely on the information collected by the credit bureaus to help them decide whether to approve financing for homes, cars and credit cards. Credit checks are even sometimes done by employers when deciding whom to hire for a job.

Equifax discovered the hack July 29, but waited until Thursday to warn consumers. The Atlanta-based company declined to comment on that delay or anything else beyond its published statement. It’s not unusual for U.S. authorities to ask a company hit in a major hack to delay public notice so that investigators can pursue the perpetrators.

The company established a website, https://www.equifaxsecurity2017.com/ , where people can check to see if their personal information may have been stolen. Consumers can also call 866-447-7559 for more information. Experian is also offering free credit monitoring to all U.S. consumers for a year.

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“This is clearly a disappointing event for our company, and one that strikes at the heart of who we are and what we do,” Equifax CEO Richard Smith said in a statement. “I apologize to consumers and our business customers for the concern and frustration this causes.”

This isn’t the biggest data breach in history. That indignity still belongs to Yahoo, which was targeted in at least two separate digital burglaries that affected more than 1 billion of its users’ accounts throughout the world.

But no Social Security numbers or drivers’ license information were disclosed in the Yahoo break-in.

Equifax’s security lapse could be the largest theft involving Social Security numbers, one of the most common methods used to confirm a person’s identity in the U.S. It eclipses a 2015 hack at health insurer Anthem Inc. that involved the Social Security numbers of about 80 million people .

Any data breach threatens to tarnish a company’s reputation, but it is especially mortifying for Equifax, whose entire business revolves around providing a clear financial profile of consumers that lenders and other businesses can trust.