LEAD STORY: Pegasus hacking scandal - even World Leaders aren’t immune. Are you on the list? Talk Liberation - Your Worldwide INTERNET REPORT (Issue 3, 2021)

Shocking revelations about spyware on smartphones, concerns about social media monitoring and censorship, health passports, facial recognition, and new technology that tracks users while they sleep.

Image: Talk Liberation title card. Color: Purple. Direction: Left to Right. Talk Liberation: Your Worldwide Internet Report.
Issue 3, 2021

NSO Group’s Hacking Spyware Pegasus Targets Journalists, Activists and World Leaders

An investigation into the Israeli surveillance company NSO Group, reveals journalists, human rights activists and lawyers have been targeted by purchasers of NSO’s hacking spyware Pegasus, around the world. The software was installed on the targets’ devices to steal photos, emails, keystrokes, record phone calls and activate microphones and cameras.

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As part of their investigation into Pegasus, Amnesty International and the Paris-based non-profit Forbidden Stories distributed the leaked listed of targeted phone numbers to various news outlets. It is reported that the phone numbers may indicate potential targets but not all are yet confirmed to have had the malware installed on their devices.

Those targeted by NSO’s spyware include business executives, academics, presidents, prime ministers, NGO employees and their families and associates. It has subsequently been revealed that French President Emmanuel Macron and assassinated Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi were among those targeted.

Lawyers representing NSO Group released a statement denying any fault on their behalf. Several countries have launched an investigation into Pegasus spyware including Hungary, France and Algeria. High profile privacy advocates such as Edward Snowden have called for a moratorium on the sale of Pegasus software, tweeting:

“Let me be clear: export regulations, licensing, and reviews have been in place for years. They did not work, and cannot work. A moratorium on the trade in intrusion software is the bare minimum for a credible response—mere triage. Anything less and the problem gets worse.”

Biden Administration Coordinates with Big Tech

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki has admitted the US government wants social media companies to coordinate to take down user profiles across all services and not just a single platform. “It shouldn’t come as any surprise that we’re in regular touch with social media platforms,” said Psaki during a White House press briefing.

Additionally, Psaki suggested that social media companies, like Facebook, should take a more active role in ensuring that the public understands the impact of spreading misinformation. Psaki indicated that the White House has flagged 12 Facebook accounts which are responsible for spreading harmful content.

Fox News reporter, Peter Doocy, went viral when he questioned Psaki about the Administration’s spying on social media users. During the exchange, Psaki denied the allegations stating that the posts were public, however, it was made clear that the White House is flagging certain posts and encouraging social media companies to remove them.

It is worth noting that several top officials serving under the Biden Administration, particularly in the White House, have close, professional ties to Big Tech. The Washington Post reports that 13 aides, some very close to the President, have previously worked for Amazon, Apple, Twitter, Facebook, Microsoft and others.

Former President Trump Sues Big Tech CEOs

Former President Donald Trump is suing the CEOs of several Big Tech companies for online censorship. Class action lawsuits have been filed against Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey and Google CEO Sundar Pichai in the Southern District of Florida. 

In an opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal, Trump claims that he is suing Big Tech to restore free speech for himself and every American. The former president says that the Internet is the new public sphere and criticized Big Tech for “manipulating and controlling the political debate itself.” 

According to a report in Axios, the court filing seeks an immediate injunction to restore Trump’s social media accounts and to issue punitive damages against the three companies. Trump is currently banned from Twitter and is banned from Facebook for an additional two years.

However, the lawsuit has been met with criticism. Some legal experts have pointed to Trump’s history of frivolous lawsuits for media attention while others have criticized the merits of his claim. 

The social media companies involved have yet to respond to the lawsuits.

ACLU vs Chicago Police Department

The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois is suing the Chicago Police Department for failure to release information concerning its social media monitoring task force. The lawsuit, filed in Cook County Circuit Court, seeks an order which requires the CPD to release the records and pay for relief. The ACLU claims the CPD violated the Illinois Freedom of Information Act when it did not release documents in response to a FOIA request related to its new social media monitoring task force. 

The task force was announced in August 2020 after weeks of mass protests aimed at ending police brutality following the death of George Floyd. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot claimed that social media platforms were being used to organize and carry out illegal activity. As part of the new monitoring task force, Lightfoot stated that the Crime Prevention and Information Center, a fusion center, would engage in 24-hour social media monitoring through key term searches of profiles of interest.

The FOIA request submitted by the ACLU was intended to understand the purpose of the new task force, how it would determine which accounts to monitor and how the data would be utilized. CPD responded to the ACLU claiming that providing such information would compromise the integrity of its investigative work.

France Introduces Health Passport System

French President Emmanuel Macron announced that a health passport including a QR code or certificate will be required to gain entry to bars, restaurants, cafes and shopping centers beginning in August, France24 reports. One must show proof of vaccination, a negative test or recent recovery from Covid-19 to gain entry to non-essential businesses. 

In an address to the nation, President Macron stated the regulations are in response to the Delta variant, which is responsible for an increase in cases. As a result, he announced that the Covid-19 vaccine will be mandatory for all healthcare workers by September 15. Those who choose not to get vaccinated will not receive a salary nor will they be permitted to work after the September 15 deadline, according to French Health Minister Olivier Véran. Following the address, France’s online health portal doctolib.fr crashed as citizens began booking their vaccination appointments.

According to the report, the goal is to achieve a higher percentage of fully vaccinated individuals within the French population. To create additional incentive, PCR tests will no longer be free of charge and citizens will need a prescription in order to obtain a test. Therefore, citizens would need to rely on a QR code to gain entry to certain facilities, which can only be obtained through vaccination. 

While some welcomed the new measures, President Macron’s address was met with widespread criticism.

Image: Tweet of Protests in France. Color: Blue. Direction: Left to Right. C. WATCH -- Groups of French Police Officers have joined the protest against Macron's plans to force-vaccinate health workers and #PassSanitaire (EU Green Health Pass) to enter bars, restaurants and other public areas. Video from July 17th during nationwide protests in Europe.

More than 100,000 protestors, including Gilets Jaunes activists (Yellow Vests), took to the streets to demonstrate their outrage over the new mandates, Reuters reports.

Vaccine Passports May Collect, Store and Sell Data

Similar restrictions may be implemented in the United States as businesses and other organizations begin to roll out their own health passport systems, Newsweek reports. The Commons Project Foundation, American Airlines and United Airlines are among a few organizations implementing health passport systems. 

This comes at a time when democratic states including Hawaii, New York and California have launched their own vaccine passport programs, while Republican states including Florida, Utah and Texas have passed legislation banning the implementation of such systems. 

But with the further digitization of healthcare, there are growing privacy concerns. According to the privacy policies of these companies and organizations, such as United Airlines and The Commons Project Foundation, the data collected and stored in the system can be shared with or sold to third parties including marketing providers, border officials, and contractors. 

For example, The Commons Project Foundation created Common Pass, a digital health app that allows one to show proof of vaccination or a negative Covid-19 test. According to its privacy policy, the Common Pass will collect and share your data. A portion of its policy states:

“We may share information with vendors, consultants, and other service providers who need access to such information to carry out work for us… we may also disclose personal data to border control officials, law enforcement, regulators or others…”

John Morris, a cybersecurity and privacy expert at the Brookings Institute, told Newsweek that these privacy policies may remove any legal liability on behalf of the company. Additionally, Morris says that there is no guarantee one’s health information would not be shared or sold to third parties.

Hospitals Collaborate to Sell Patient Data 

A group of 17 hospitals are teaming up to raise $95 million for a new startup, Truveta. The company will allow hospitals to monetize patient health data, with the stated claim that the money will be used to improve treatments and develop new medical technology.

According to a report in Forbes, due to Covid-19, hospitals had to reconcile sitting on a wealth of patient data while not having the ability to extract the necessary information from the data to research effective treatments.

Truveta enters the market with a wide range of competition as healthcare becomes more digitized. The new startup is just one of several digital health companies  intending to commercialize patient medical data.

Twitter Verification Under Scrutiny

Twitter Verification, which recently reopened for the first time since 2017, has raised questions among users on the platform after it verified at least six accounts that appear to be fake. The accounts, which were all created on the same day in June 2021, share several suspicious similarities.

Image: Fake User Profile of Cat Verified By Twitter with Blue Check. Color: Blue. Direction: Left to Right. Anlamislar @anlamislar Anslamislar official twitter account. Joined June 2021. 0 Following. 1,039 Followers.

A Twitter spokesperson told Gizmodo that its system mistakenly verified the accounts and upon realizing the profiles were not authentic, Twitter removed verification and suspended the accounts. It is unclear who is responsible for the creation of the accounts.

This comes at a time when Twitter is receiving criticism for its verification standards and practices. Typically, users who are denied verification will receive a generic email notifying them that they did not meet the criteria. However, Twitter plans to personalize rejection emails by providing users with an explanation of why their account did not meet the standards.

With the re-opening of Twitter verification, the company says it aims for the process to be more transparent. However, it remains unclear how accounts that were obvious fakes received blue ticks.

Amazon to Create Sleep Tracking Device

Amazon has received federal approval to begin manufacturing a device that monitors one’s sleep patterns, according to a report in the LA Times. The device’s radar sensors and possible emission of radiation has raised both health and privacy concerns.

The report features several radar technology experts who agree that the radiation emission from the device is not significant enough to cause harm. In fact, Amazon claims that the device intends to improve one’s sleep, thus improving health.  The report’s author, David Lazarus posed the question “Clever, or creepy?”

In its request for approval by the Federal Communications Commission it states, “The use of Radar Sensors in sleep tracking could improve awareness and management of sleep hygiene, which in turn could produce significant health benefits for many Americans.”

However, privacy experts say this device can gather a significant amount health data on the user. Gaia Bernstein, director of the Institute for Privacy Protection at Seton Hall University School of Law, told the LA Times that it is particularly concerning since companies like Amazon are not regulated by federal privacy or health laws.

Another expert, Andrew Guthrie Ferguson, a law professor at American University, says in the report, “The privacy of your bedroom is a place that deserves the utmost protection from outside forces, especially from private companies without much regulation or oversight.”

Nevertheless, the introduction of radar-equipped technology demonstrates the rapid advancements of Big Tech and its efforts to integrate technology into daily life.

Clearview AI First Amendment Concerns

The start-up, Clearview AI, claims to have a database of three billion photos of individuals collected from various social networking sites. It provides services to more than 1,800 law enforcement agencies, including ten federal agencies such as the FBI and the Secret Service.

Law enforcement agencies have used Clearview’s facial recognition technology to target activists involved with the Black Lives Matter movement among others. In fact, the company’s product is deemed illegal in Canada and its services may be in violation of the First Amendment, according to the Electronic Frontiers Foundation (EFF).

Regarding Clearview AI technology, EFF says, "This does grave harm to privacy, free speech, information security, and racial justice.”

Clearview now faces several class action lawsuits and investigations by the UK and Australia, according to The New York Times. One of the United States lawsuits includes a case from Illinois, which claims Clearview violated the Biometric Information Privacy Act, which requires  companies to obtain permission from the subjects in order to use their data and place it on facial recognition databases.

That concludes Your Worldwide INTERNET REPORT for this week! 

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This issue of Your Worldwide INTERNET REPORT was written by Taylor Hudak; Edited by Suzie Dawson and Sean O’Brien; Graphics by Kimber Maddox; with production support by David Sutton.

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