Facebook

Facebook To Show Users Which Russian Propaganda They Followed (bloomberg.com) 253

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Bloomberg: Facebook will show people which Russian propaganda pages or accounts they've followed and liked on the social network, responding to a request from Congress to address manipulation and meddling during the 2016 presidential election. The tool will appear by the end of the year in Facebook's online support center, the company said in a blog post Wednesday. It will answer the user question, "How can I see if I've liked or followed a Facebook page or Instagram account created by the Internet Research Agency?" That's the Russian firm that created thousands of incendiary posts from fake accounts posing as U.S. citizens. People will see a list of the accounts they followed, if any, from January 2015 through August 2017. Facebook will only be showing people the names of the pages and accounts, not the content. A user will only see what they liked or followed, so if they simply saw IRA content in their news feeds, they won't be notified.
Businesses

Trump Administration Tightens Scrutiny of Skilled Worker Visa Applicants (inc.com) 261

wyattstorch516 writes: The Trump administration is tightening the scrutiny on the H-1B visa program (Warning: paywalled; alternative source). Changes would undo actions by the Obama administration. There are two big regulatory changes looming that would undo actions by the Obama administration. "The first change allowed spouses of H-1B workers the right to work. That regulation is being challenged in court and the Trump administration is expected to eliminate the provision rather than defend it," reports WSJ. "The second change affects the Optional Practical Training program, which allows foreign graduates from U.S. colleges in science and technology an extra two years of work authorization, giving them time to win an H-1B visa. The Trump administration could kill that benefit or reduce the two-year window, according to people familiar with the discussions." The Journal highlights a "series of more modest changes that have added scrutiny to visa processing":

- "USCIS directed last month that adjudicators no longer pay 'deference' to past determinations for renewal applications. This means an applicant's past approval won't carry any weight if he or she applies for a renewal.

- The agency is conducting more applicant interviews, which critics say slows the system. The agency spokesman says this process will ramp up over several years and is needed to detect fraud and make accurate decisions.

- In the spring, the agency suspended premium processing, which allowed for fast-track consideration to those who paid an extra fee. This option wasn't resumed until October, meaning many workers who qualified for a coveted H-1B visa had to wait months for a decision.

- State Department officials have been told to consider that Mr. Trump's 'Buy American, Hire American' executive order directs visa programs must 'protect the interests of United States workers.' And the Foreign Affairs Manual now instructs officers to scrutinize applications of students to ensure they plan to return to their home countries. A State Department official said the official rules haven't changed but said a 'comprehensive' review is under way."
Education

The House's Tax Bill Levies a Tax On Graduate Student Tuition Waivers (nytimes.com) 576

Camel Pilot writes: The new GOP tax plan -- which just passed the House -- will tax tuition waivers as income. Graduate students working as research assistants on meager stipends would have to declare tuition waivers as income on the order of $80,000 income. This will force many graduate students of modest means to quit their career paths and walk away from their research. These are the next generation of scientists, engineers, inventors, educators, medical miracle workers and market makers. As Prof Claus Wilke points out: "This would be a disaster for U.S. STEM Ph.D. education." Slashdot reader Camel Pilot references a report via The New York Times, where Erin Rousseau explains how the House of Representatives' recently passed tax bill affects graduate research in the United States. Rousseau is a graduate student at M.I.T. who studies the neurological basis of mental health disorders. "My peers and I work between 40 and 80 hours a week as classroom teachers and laboratory researchers, and in return, our universities provide us with a tuition waiver for school. For M.I.T. students, this waiver keeps us from having to pay a tuition bill of about $50,000 every year -- a staggering amount, but one that is similar to the fees at many other colleges and universities," he writes. "No money from the tuition waivers actually ends up in our pockets, so under Section 117(d)(5), it isn't counted as taxable income." Rousseau continues by saying his tuition waivers will be taxed under the House's tax bill. "This means that M.I.T. graduate students would be responsible for paying taxes on an $80,000 annual salary, when we actually earn $33,000 a year. That's an increase of our tax burden by at least $10,000 annually."
Businesses

Y Combinator Cuts Ties With Peter Thiel After Ending Part-Time Partner Program (buzzfeed.com) 67

An anonymous reader shares a report: Billionaire venture capitalist and Facebook board member Peter Thiel is no longer affiliated with startup accelerator Y Combinator, according to an edited company blog post. Thiel was formerly a part-time partner with the accelerator. BuzzFeed News confirmed his departure with a source familiar with Y Combinator's management structure. Thiel's departure from Y Combinator was not previously announced. It comes long after Y Combinator president Sam Altman defended Thiel's role at the accelerator, following criticism of Thiel's support of then-presidential candidate Donald Trump. A source close to Y Combinator said that the company ended its part-time partners program, which Thiel was a part of, some time last year. While some other part-time partners moved over to a program called "experts," which provides advice to Y Combinator entrepreneurs, Thiel did not join.
Social Networks

Report Claims That 18 Nation's Elections Were Impacted By Social Engineering Last Year (bbc.com) 235

sqorbit writes: Independent watchdog group Freedom House released a report that claims that 18 nation's elections were "hacked." Of the 65 countries that Freedom House monitors, 30 appear to be using social media in order to affect elections by attempting to control online discussions. The report covers fake news posts, paid online opinion writers and trolling tactics. Other items in the report speak to online censorship and VPN blocking that blocks information within countries to interfere with elections. The report says net freedom could be aided by: large-scale programs that showed people how to spot fake news; putting tight controls on political adverts; and making social media giants do more to remove bots and tune algorithms to be more objective.
Privacy

Federal Extreme Vetting Plan Castigated By Tech Experts (apnews.com) 160

An anonymous reader shares an Associated Press report: Leading researchers castigated a federal plan that would use artificial intelligence methods to scrutinize immigrants and visa applicants, saying it is unworkable as written and likely to be "inaccurate and biased" if deployed. The experts, a group of more than 50 computer and data scientists, mathematicians and other specialists in automated decision-making, urged the Department of Homeland Security to abandon the project, dubbed the "Extreme Vetting Initiative." That plan has its roots in President Donald Trump's repeated pledge during the 2016 campaign to subject immigrants seeking admission to the United States to more intense ideological scrutiny -- or, as he put it, "extreme vetting." Over the summer, DHS published a "statement of objectives" for a system that would use computer algorithms to scan social media and other material in order to automatically flag undesirable entrants -- and to continuously scan the activities of those allowed into the U.S.
The Internet

FCC Plans December Vote To Kill Net Neutrality Rules (bloomberg.com) 115

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Bloomberg: The U.S. Federal Communications Commission under its Republican chairman plans to vote in December to kill the net neutrality rules passed during the Obama era, said two people briefed on the plans. Chairman Ajit Pai in April proposed gutting the rules that he blamed for depressing investment in broadband, and said he intended to "finish the job" this year. The chairman has decided to put his proposal to a vote at the FCC next month, said the people. The agency's monthly meeting is to be held Dec. 14. The people asked not to be identified because the plan hasn't been made public. It's not clear what language Pai will offer to replace the rules that passed with only Democratic votes at the FCC in 2015. He has proposed that the FCC end the designation of broadband companies such as AT&T Inc. and Comcast Corp. as common carriers. That would remove the legal authority that underpins the net neutrality rules. One of the people said Pai may call for vacating the rules except for portions that mandate internet service providers inform customers about their practices. The current regulations forbid broadband providers from blocking or slowing web traffic, or from charging higher fees in return for quicker passage over their networks.
Google

Why Google Should Be Afraid of a Missouri Republican's Google Probe (arstechnica.com) 231

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Ars Technica: The Republican attorney general of Missouri has launched an investigation into Google's business practices. Josh Hawley wants to know how Google handles user data. And he plans to look into whether Google is using its dominance in the search business to harm companies in other markets where Google competes. It's another sign of growing pressure Google is facing from the political right. Grassroots conservatives increasingly see Google as falling on the wrong side of the culture wars. So far that hasn't had a big impact in Washington policymaking. But with Hawley planning to run for the U.S. Senate next year, we could see more Republican hostility toward Google -- and perhaps other big technology companies -- in the coming years. The Hawley investigation will dig into whether Google violated Missouri's consumer-protection and antitrust laws. Specifically, Hawley will investigate: "Google's collection, use, and disclosure of information about Google users and their online activities," "Google's alleged misappropriation of online content from the websites of its competitors," and "Google's alleged manipulation of search results to preference websites owned by Google and to demote websites that compete with Google." States like Missouri have their own antitrust laws and the power to investigate company business conduct independently of the feds. So Hawley seems to be taking yet another look at those same issues to see if Google's conduct runs afoul of Missouri law.

We don't know if Hawley will get the Republican nomination or win his challenge to Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) next year, but people like him will surely be elected to the Senate in the coming decade. Hawley's decision to go after Google suggests that he sees some upside in being seen as an antagonist to a company that conservatives increasingly view with suspicion. More than that, it suggests that Hawley believes it's worth the risk of alienating the GOP's pro-business wing, which takes a dim view of strict antitrust enforcement even if it targets a company with close ties to Democrats.

Security

About 15 Percent of US Agencies Detected Kaspersky Software on Networks (reuters.com) 81

Dustin Volz, reporting for Reuters: About 15 percent of U.S. federal agencies have reported some trace of Moscow-based Kaspersky Lab software on their systems, a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official told Congress on Tuesday. Jeanette Manfra, assistant secretary for cyber security at DHS, told a U.S. House of Representatives panel that 94 percent of agencies had responded to a directive ordering them to survey their networks to identify any use of Kaspersky Lab products and to remove them. But Manfra said DHS did "not currently have conclusive evidence" that any networks had been breached due to their use of Kaspersky Lab software. The administration of President Donald Trump ordered civilian U.S. agencies in September to remove Kaspersky Lab from their networks, amid worries the antivirus firm was vulnerable to Kremlin influence and that using its anti-virus software could jeopardize national security.
Security

The Computer Scientist Who Prefers Voting With Paper (theatlantic.com) 219

Geoffrey.landis writes: The Atlantic profiles a computer scientist: Barbara Simons, who has been on the forefront of the pushback against electronic voting as a technology susceptible to fraud and hacking. When she first started writing articles about the dangers of electronic voting with no paper trail, the idea that software could be manipulated to rig elections was considered a fringe preoccupation; but Russia's efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election have reversed Simons's fortunes. According to the Department of Homeland Security, those efforts included attempts to meddle with the electoral process in 21 states; while a series of highly publicized hacks -- at Sony, Equifax, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management -- has driven home the reality that very few computerized systems are truly secure. Simons is a former President of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM); and the group she helps run, Verified Voting, has been active in educating the public about the dangers of unverified voting since 2003.
China

China Spreads Propaganda to U.S. on Facebook, a Platform it Bans at Home (nytimes.com) 103

Paul Mozur, reporting for the New York Times: China does not allow its people to gain access to Facebook, a powerful tool for disseminating information and influencing opinion. As if to demonstrate the platform's effectiveness, outside its borders China uses it to spread state-produced propaganda around the world, including the United States (Editor's note: the link could be paywalled; alternative source). So much do China's government and companies value Facebook that the country is Facebook's biggest advertising market in Asia, even as it is the only major country in the region that blocks the social network. A look at the Facebook pages of China Central Television, the leading state-owned broadcast network better known as CCTV, and Xinhua, China's official news agency, reveals hundreds of English-language posts intended for an English-speaking audience. Each quarter China's government, through its state media agencies, spends hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy Facebook ads, according to a person with knowledge of those deals, who was unauthorized to talk publicly about the company's revenue streams. China's propaganda efforts are in the spotlight with President Trump visiting the country and American lawmakers investigating foreign powers's use of technology to sway voters in the United States.
Censorship

Afghanistan Clarifies It Will Not Block WhatsApp, Telegram (reuters.com) 18

The Afghan government will not block the instant messaging services WhatsApp and Telegram, a spokesman told news agency Reuters on Monday, following days of controversy after reports the services would be suspended. From a report: "Government of Afghanistan isn't going to ban any social media platforms. WhatsApp and Telegram to continue operating in Afghanistan," Javid Faisal, deputy spokesman to government Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah wrote on Twitter. The row over instant messaging services began after a letter from Afghanistan's telecoms regulator to Internet service providers telling them to block the services "without delay" was circulated on social media platforms last week.
Earth

The US Has Destroyed A Critical Sea Ice-Measuring Satellite (scientificamerican.com) 283

"A key polar satellite used to measure the Arctic ice cap failed a few days ago, leaving the U.S. with only three others, and those have lived well beyond their shelf lives," writes long-time Slashdot reader edibobb. The Guardian reports that all three of the remaining satellites "are all beginning to drift out of their orbits over the poles" and will no longer be operational by 2023. This could put an end to nearly 40 years of uninterrupted data on polar ice, notes the original submission, adding "It seems like there would be a backup satellite, right?

"In fact, there was a backup satellite ready to go." The $58 million satellite was dismantled in 2016 when the Republican-controlled Congress cut its funding. (The Guardian reports that many scientists "say this decision was made for purely ideological reasons.") Now Nature reports: The U.S. military is developing another set of weather satellites...but the one carrying a microwave sensor will not launch before 2022. That means that when the current three aging satellites die, the United States will be without a reliable, long-term source of sea-ice data... For now, the the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center is preparing for those scenarios by incorporating data from Japan's AMSR2 microwave sensor into its sea-ice record. Another, more politically fraught option is to pull in data from the China Meteorological Administration's Fengyun satellite series... Since 2011 Congress has banned NASA scientists from working with Chinese scientists -- but not necessarily from using Chinese data. One final possibility is finding a way to launch the passive-microwave sensor that scientists at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory salvaged from the dismantled DMSP satellite. The sensor currently sits at the Aerospace Corporation in El Segundo, California, where researchers are trying to find a way to get it into orbit.
Power

Republican Tax Plan Kills Electric Vehicle Credit (arstechnica.com) 481

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Ars Technica: The nascent market for electric cars will suffer a big setback if the Republican tax plan released on Thursday enters into law. Among the changes to the current tax code would be an end to the Plug-In Electric Drive Vehicle Credit. That's the tax incentive that currently means up to $7,500 back from the IRS when you purchase a new battery or plug-in hybrid electric vehicle. Since the start of 2010, the EV tax credit has been $2,500 for a plug-in vehicle with at least 5kWh battery capacity. Every extra kWh nets another $417 up to a maximum of $7,500, although you would need at least that amount in income tax liability -- the IRS won't cut you a check to make up the full amount. It was never meant to be permanent; once an automaker sells 200,000 qualifying vehicles (starting from January 1, 2010) its eligibility is phased out over a matter of months. But in the almost seven years since, no one has reached that limit yet. Tesla will almost certainly be first, with General Motors not far behind; between them, they've sold a lot of Model Ses and Chevrolet Volts. If this tax plan is enacted, it will surely mean pain for both companies, as well as anyone else hoping to sell a lot of EVs here in the U.S. The data is pretty clear -- tax incentives sell electric cars, and the market for EVs can dry up very fast when they're abolished, as Georgia's recent experience shows.
Facebook

Facebook, Twitter and Google Berated by Senators on Russia (bbc.com) 176

From a BBC report: Russian operatives, likely working from St Petersburg, provoked angry Americans to take to the streets, a US Senate committee heard on Wednesday. The May 2016 protest, arranged by a group named Heart of Texas, was one example of Kremlin-backed efforts to destabilise the American electoral process. Lawyers for three technology companies -- Facebook, Twitter and Google -- were told they were grossly underestimating the scale of the problem. "You just don't get it," said California Senator Dianne Feinstein. "What we're talking about is a cataclysmic change. What we're talking about is the beginning of cyber-warfare." She added: "We are not going to go away, gentlemen. This is a very big deal." [...] Several senators suggested that more hearings and consultation would be needed, expressing their frustration that the companies were not being represented by higher-ranking executives. "I'm disappointed that you're here, and not your CEOs," said independent senator Angus King. From a FastCompany report: Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) had one specific and simple question for Facebook's Colin Stretch. He wanted to know about 30,000 fake accounts Facebook discovered earlier this year that were trying to influence the French election. At the time, Facebook bragged that it was able to discover these accounts and swiftly took them down. Warner wanted to know if Facebook, after discovering these accounts, cross-checked to see if these same accounts also tried to tamper with the U.S. election. "Your leadership bragged about how proactively you were in the French election process," said Warner, "Did you check those accounts [with the U.S. election]?" Stretch couldn't give a straight answer. "The system that ran to take down those accounts -- which were fake accounts of all type and any purpose -- is now active worldwide," he said. Warner wasn't amused. "Just answer my question," he said. "Have you reviewed the accounts you took down in France that were Russian-related to see if they played any role in the American election?" Once again, Facebook couldn't answer.
Facebook

Facebook Says 126 Million Americans May Have Seen Russia-Linked Political Posts (reuters.com) 370

Facebook said on Monday that Russia-based operatives published about 80,000 posts on the social network over a two-year period in an effort to sway U.S. politics and that about 126 million Americans may have seen the posts during that time. Reuters reports: Facebook's latest data on the Russia-linked posts - possibly reaching around half of the U.S. population of voting age - far exceeds the company's previous disclosures. It was included in written testimony provided to U.S. lawmakers, and seen by Reuters, ahead of key hearings with social media and technology companies about Russian meddling in elections on Capitol Hill this week. Twitter separately has found 2,752 accounts linked to Russian operatives, a source familiar with the company's written testimony said. That estimate is up from a tally of 201 accounts that Twitter reported in September. Google, owned by Alphabet, said in a statement on Monday it had found $4,700 in Russia-linked ad spending during the 2016 U.S. election cycle, and that it would build a database of election ads. Facebook's general counsel, Colin Stretch, said in the written testimony that the 80,000 posts from Russia's Internet Research Agency were a tiny fraction of content on Facebook, equal to one out of 23,000 posts.
Facebook

Facebook Ends 'Dark Posts' -- All Ads Will Be Visible To The Public (seattletimes.com) 68

"Under pressure in advance of hearings on Russian election interference, Facebook is moving to increase transparency for everyone who sees and buys political advertising on its site," reports the Associated Press. Here's the official announcement from Facebook's "VP of ads" : Starting next month, people will be able to click "View Ads" on a Page and view ads a Page is running on Facebook, Instagram and Messenger -- whether or not the person viewing is in the intended target audience for the ad. All Pages will be part of this effort, and we will require that all ads be associated with a Page as part of the ad creation process... We know how important it is to our community that we get this feature just right -- and so we're first rolling it out in only one country. Testing in one market allows us to learn the various ways an entire population uses the feature at a scale that allows us to learn and iterate... We will start this test in Canada and roll it out to the U.S. by this summer, ahead of the U.S. midterm elections in November, as well as broadly to all other countries around the same time... During this initial test, we will only show active ads. However, when we expand to the U.S. we plan to begin building an archive of federal-election related ads so that we can show both current and historical federal-election related ads.
Facebook "will verify political ad buyers in federal elections, requiring them to reveal correct names and locations," adds the Associated Press, noting that the effort is "likely meant to head off bipartisan legislation in the Senate that would require social media companies to keep public files of election ads and try to ensure they are not purchased by foreigners."

In addition, Facebook insists that "For political advertisers that do not proactively disclose themselves, we are building machine learning tools that will help us find them and require them to verify their identity."
Security

Kaspersky CEO Says Hack Claims Cutting US Cyber Security Sales (reuters.com) 69

Eugene Kaspersky told news agency Reuters on Friday that his cyber security firm that bears his name would see a 'single digit' drop in U.S. sales this year as a result of suspicions about his company's ties to the Russian government, but global revenue should still increase. From a report: By turns frustrated and defiant in an 80-minute interview in his Moscow office, the founder and head of the embattled antivirus software maker denounced what he called an "information war" against his company, repeatedly asserting that "we've done nothing wrong." Anton Shingarev, Kaspersky Lab's vice president of public affairs, also told Reuters during the interview the company had abandoned efforts to sell its services to the U.S. government and that it would wind down its Washington-area subsidiary, KGSS. Kaspersky Lab has become a lightning rod in recent months as it has faced allegations by the U.S. government that its antivirus products can be used by Russian spies to conduct cyber espionage. Office Depot, Staples and Best Buy have stopped selling Kaspersky's security suite in their stores.
Government

Catalonia Declares Independence; Spain Approves Central Takeover Of Region (npr.org) 579

Readers share a report: Lawmakers in Catalonia have declared independence from Spain in a historic vote that prompted protests and celebration. The government in Madrid, vowing to halt any would-be secession, has authorized the Spanish prime minister to take over direct rule of the previously semi-autonomous region. The vote in the Catalan Parliament comes nearly a month after the region held a referendum on independence, over Spain's objections. The regional president then declared his support for separation from Spain but also called for talks with Madrid, in an ambiguous speech. Spain's central government, promising to crack down harshly if the declaration was real, told the region's leaders to make up their mind: Yes or no? Independence or not? Now it's final: Independence, Catalonia said.
Data Storage

US Voting Server At Heart of Russian Hack Probe Mysteriously Wiped (theregister.co.uk) 431

A computer at the center of a lawsuit digging into Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election has been wiped. "The server in question is based in Georgia -- a state that narrowly backed Donald Trump, giving him 16 electoral votes -- and stored the results of the state's vote-management system," reports The Register. "The deletion of its filesystem data makes analysis of whether the system was compromised impossible to ascertain." From the report: There is good reason to believe that the computer may have been tampered with: it is 15 years old, and could be harboring all sorts of exploitable software and hardware vulnerabilities. No hard copies of the votes are kept, making the electronic copy the only official record. While investigating the Kennesaw State University's Center for Election Systems, which oversees Georgia's voting system, last year, security researcher Logan Lamb found its system was misconfigured, exposing the state's entire voter registration records, multiple PDFs with instructions and passwords for election workers, and the software systems used to tally votes cast. Despite Lamb letting the election center knows of his findings, the security holes were left unpatched for seven months. He later went public after the U.S. security services announced there had been a determined effort by the Russian government to sway the presidential elections, including looking at compromising electronic voting machines.

In an effort to force the state to scrap the system, a number of Georgia voters bandied together and sued. They asked for an independent security review of the server, expecting to find flaws that would lend weight to their argument for investment in a more modern and secure system. But emails released this week following a Freedom of Information Act request reveal that technicians at the election center deleted the server's data on July 7 -- just days after the lawsuit was filed. The memos reveal multiple references to the data wipe, including a message sent just last week from an assistant state attorney general to the plaintiffs in the case. That same email also notes that backups of the server data were also deleted more than a month after the initial wipe -- just as the lawsuit moved to a federal court. It is unclear who ordered the destruction of the data, and why, but they have raised yet more suspicions of collusion between the Trump campaign team, the Republican Party, and the Russian government.

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