NEW DELHI: WhatsApp has confirmed that Israeli spyware was being used to snoop on several Indian journalists and activists. A report in The Indian Express states Israeli spyware was used to snoop on two dozen academics, lawyers, Dalit activists and journalists in India. The IT Ministry headed by Ravi Shankar Prasad has asked WhatsApp to respond by 4th November.
Several of them were contacted and informed that their phones had been under surveillance for a two-week period in May 2019.
The company told Indian Express: “Indian journalists and human rights activists have been the target of surveillance and while I cannot reveal their identities and the exact number, I can say that it is not an insignificant number.”
WhatsApp sued an Israeli firm in a San Francisco for targeting over 1400 users with Pegasus.
Who are the NSO group and who asked them to target it?
The NSO Group is an Israeli tech company whose services are used by governments and forces of law and order to track terror rings, sex trafficking and other such heinous crimes.
Israeli tech company NSO disputed the allegations and said it will fight it. They said their technology wasn’t for use against human rights activists and journalists.
According to its own website, the NSO states: “NSO Group develops best-in-class technology to help government agencies detect and prevent terrorism and crime. Our products help licensed government intelligence and law-enforcement agencies lawfully address the most dangerous issues in today’s world. NSO’s technology has helped prevent terrorism, break up criminal operations, find missing persons, and assist search and rescue teams.”
It added: “NSO products are used exclusively by government intelligence and law enforcement agencies to fight crime and terror.”
It further said on its site: “Our products have been successfully used to:
Prevent terrorism, including gun violence, car bombs, and suicide bombers at transportation hubs, public parks, markets, concert venues, sports arenas, and other public areas
Break up paedophilia, sex- and drug-trafficking rings, and money-laundering operations
Find and rescue kidnapped children
Assist emergency search and rescue (SAR) teams in locating survivors trapped under collapsed buildings in the wake of natural disasters or construction failures
This further brings up the question, if NSO was indeed just for ‘government intelligence and law enforcement agencies to fight crime and terror’, who ordered them to snoop on human rights activists and journalists?
What is the Pegasus Method?
In this technique, a Pegasus operator gets people to click on a specially crafted link which allows the operator to penetrate the phone’s defences. Once Pegasus is installed, it begins contacting the operators command to receive and execute operator commands, sending back the target’s private data – including passwords, contact lists and other information. It can even use the phone’s camera and microphone to spy on the vicinity.
Incidentally, the NSO group terminated its contract with Saudi Arabia following Khashoggi’s killing and information that the spyware might have played a role in tracking the dissident.
So far what’s not known is – who ordered the snooping? Was it successful? Who was snooped upon? Why were certain individuals handpicked? So far, the government hasn’t responded to the allegations or made a comment on the matter.
TikTok Underlines Need For Data Protection Bill
India needs to set up a grievance redressal mechanism for all the social media applications.
TikTok is a new social media trend amongst youngsters. This app showcases self-made videos from anywhere and about everything, from comedy to lip-syncs and cook recipes to personal grooming tips that users create and share to gain likes and followers. In India alone, there has been a record download of about 466.8 million. This quirky and funny app has hooked youngsters around the world.
However, what is worrisome is the lack of understanding about the long-term implications of such social media apps with regard to data protection and national security.
Origin of TikTok:
Zhang Yiming, the founder of TikTok, was a Microsoft engineer and Chinese entrepreneur who first set up a company called ByteDance in 2012 to carry forward his ambition of running a global company. Bytedance was ranked as one of China’s top tech companies in 2018.
Following the launch of ByteDance, Zhang launched a mobile app called Toutiao or Jinri Tautiao ‘today’s headline,’ an artificial intelligence (AI) enabled newsfeed that caters to the likes and dislikes of the users.
In 2016, he developed a video sharing app called Douyin ‘shaking sound’ for the Chinese market. The global equivalent of the same app, called TikTok, was launched in 2017. It has since gained immense popularity. This was soon followed by the acquisition of another video-sharing app based in Shanghai, called Musical.ly.
The idea was to blend “TikTok’s AI-fed streams and monetisation track record with Musical.ly’s product innovation and grasp of users’ needs and tastes in the West.” This simultaneously increased the user base as well as the profit margin for the TikTok App.
TikTok overtook Facebook as the most downloaded social networking application globally in the first quarter of 2019.
In India, both Facebook and Twitter saw a market shrink as Tiktok saw a sharp surge. Tiktok’s reach in India rose from 1.12 per cent in January 2018 to 28 per cent in August this year. Even in terms of monthly active users and amount of time spent per day, Tiktok saw an exponential increase as compared to other social media applications.
With more than 200 million active users, the app has found considerable popularity among the Indian youth. This 15-second video-making application is enough to create a star (equivalent of a local celebrity) out of an individual. While all the social media platforms carry a cautionary note stating that they are not directed at children, TikTok’s target audience encompasses preteens and adolescents.
The desperation to get more people to like and follow the video has often led to youngsters attempting dangerous acts, causing serious injuries and even death in many cases.
Over the last one year, at least 27 people are reported to have died while filming TikTok videos and another five for undertaking TikTok challenges.
Additionally, there have been several cases of objectionable content being uploaded which eventually led to banning of TikTok in several countries, including Indonesia, Bangladesh and India.
In April 2019, the app was briefly banned in India on the ground that it was being used as a platform for spreading of obscene and illicit content, and with the primary target consumer being children and young adults. The court ruling had also questioned the impact on mental health that the app was having on the average consumer.
Another concern regarding the app has been that of data collection and censorship. A report by The Guardian revealed that TikTok tends to censor videos on issues that do not please China such as the Tiananmen Square incident, Hong Kong protests and Tibetan independence. This came to light through leaked documents outlining the site’s moderation guidelines. This has led the United States (US) to launch a national security review of TikTok.
The US believes that China is advancing its policy of control and censorship abroad through the app which is against the American value system that promotes free speech and competing ideologies.
The parent company ByteDance has also been accused of possible links with the Chinese Government.
The company has denied these allegations and has reported that the user data of US is stored domestically and the backup data in Singapore. However, with the parent company based in Beijing, TikTok is subjected to the Chinese jurisdiction and laws that often compel the private agencies to share information when needed. This is due in part to the Chinese Government’s deliberate integration of the public and private digital landscape through Article 7 of its National Intelligence Law that requires Chinese citizens and organisations to cooperate with state intelligence work.
This has been further fortified by China’s 2017 Cybersecurity Law. As public policy researchers noted last year, these laws “[entail] strict provisions requiring data to be housed inside China, as well as spot inspections and even black-box security audits.”
The recent incident of WhatsApp (despite being end-to-end encrypted) being used by the NSO Group, via a spyware, to spy on people has once again brought forth the concerns about data protection.
One often tends to ignore the importance of protecting the personal data voluntarily disseminated on social media apps. With such data becoming a critical resource, the first question to be asked is where is the user data being stored?
Currently, the TikTok data for Indian users is being stored in the third-party data centres located in the US and Singapore. In July 2019, ByteDance proposed setting up a data centre in India itself.
However, no definitive timeline for the proposed plan has been given yet. Moreover, there is no clear indication as to what level the data would still be accessible or what set of security measures would be in place for data protection.
It is important to note that if a company stores Indian data overseas then that data is subjected to that country’s legislation which may or may not be in line with India’s interest. Furthermore, Indian lawmakers and citizens possess even less insight into data security practices of foreign-owned technology practices.
The dearth of information with regard to real-time data collection, storage, levels of access, server locations, and third party partnerships present a national security risk.
Without a deeper insight and greater transparency regarding storage and handling of data of the Indian users, there could also be concerns regarding possible backdoors or even introduction of security flaws.
TikTok app has been blamed for censoring politically sensitive information with respect to China in the name of content moderation. The same has not been true for other countries. In India, the app has been blamed for aggravating religious and caste-based hatred and political differences in the country.
Although TikTok has community guidelines against hateful or violent content, and a moderation team that flags and removes problematic videos, the extent of their implementation remains far from satisfactory.
Earlier, during the ban in April 2019, it had stated that around 250 people have been employed for the same, that is, 250 people for content moderation in a country with approximately 120 million active users. One can easily do the math and estimate the quality of content moderation.
However, TikTok is not the sole case of a social media app misusing data or fomenting hatred and violence. The same has been true for other apps too. With most of the social media apps originating abroad, it is often difficult for the social media app makers to fully grasp the cultural complexities or sensitivities attached to certain social and political issues in other countries. This is where effective civil rights audit is required to ensure that misinformation or messages likely to incite hatred and violence are not proliferated through these applications.
It is noteworthy that a civil rights audit was undertaken by Facebook in the US in May 2018 pertaining to concerns raised by more than 90 civil rights organisations.
Till date, the company has been putting in place policies that protect against misinformation, identifies hate slogans and symbols connected to white nationalism and separatism, and prevents voter suppression.
Furthermore, with the availability of a variety of user data including data with high commercial value (biometric and behavioural patterns), private companies tend to lobby against strict data protection laws.
With increasing data thefts and applications often becoming tools for spying, there is a dire need for a data protection bill to come into play. India needs to set up a grievance redressal mechanism for all the social media applications available in the country. It is also vital that the privacy rules of apps cater to the sensitivities of its Indian users and have their data centres within the country.
The draft Personal Data Protection Bill 2019 was recently introduced in the Lok Sabha and would now be examined by a joint select committee. The Bill emphasises the need for data localisation and the importance of treating data as a national property. Data is a strategic asset and should be handled with utmost security.
It is important to ensure that customers are secure with respect to their data. Although the draft Bill may not be foolproof at this juncture, nevertheless, a beginning has been made towards having a stronger framework for the protection and security of data.
Disclaimer: The facts and opinions expressed in this article are strictly the personal opinions of the author. League of India does not assume any responsibility or liability for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information in this article.
The Final Peak? Google CEO Sundar Pichai Named CEO Of Google’s Parent Company Alphabet
An alumnus of Wharton, Stanford and IIT Kharagpur, Pichai was born in Madurai, Tamil Nadu.
SAN FRANSISCO (United States): Google’s India-born Chief Executive Officer Sundar Pichai will assume the leadership role at its parent firm Alphabet after the internet giant’s co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin stepped down from its active management, making him one of the most powerful corporate leaders of the world.
Page and Brin stepped down as CEO and president, respectively, of Alphabet, the company announced on Tuesday. Pichai, 47, the current CEO of Google and a longtime executive at the company, will take over as CEO of Alphabet in addition to his current role.
Considered as a significant shakeup in the Silicon Valley company, the shuffle comes at a time when Google is facing mounting scrutiny over its size, data privacy practices and potential impact on society.
With Alphabet now well-established, and Google and ‘Other Bets’ operating effectively as independent companies, it’s the natural time to simplify our management structure, the two Google co-founders wrote in a public letter.
“We’ve never been ones to hold on to management roles when we think there’s a better way to run the company,” they said. “And Alphabet and Google no longer need two CEOs and a President. Going forward, Sundar will be the CEO of both Google and Alphabet. He will be the executive responsible and accountable for leading Google, and managing Alphabet’s investment in our portfolio of Other Bets,” said Page and Brin.
The co-founders will continue to serve on Alphabet’s board of directors. “We are deeply committed to Google and Alphabet for the long term, and will remain actively involved as Board members, shareholders and co-founders. In addition, we plan to continue talking with Sundar regularly, especially on topics we’re passionate about!” they wrote.
Page and Brin, who founded the internet giant over two decades ago, took lesser roles in day-to-day operations in the company in 2015 when they turned Google into Alphabet.
In his statement, Pichai made it clear that the transition will not affect the Alphabet structure or the work they do day-to-day.
“I will continue to be very focused on Google and the deep work we’re doing to push the boundaries of computing and build a more helpful Google for everyone,” he wrote. “At the same time, I’m excited about Alphabet and its long term focus on tackling big challenges through technology,” he said in his email.
Pichai took over as CEO of Google in 2015 as part of the company’s broader corporate restructuring to create Alphabet.
Prior that, Pichai had held a variety of roles at the company, including overseeing Chrome, product chief of Google and head of the Android operating system. Endorsing the leadership role played by Pichai ever since he was made Google CEO, Page and Sergey said the Indian-American brings humility and a deep passion for technology to their users, partners, and employees every day. “He’s worked closely with us for 15 years, through the formation of Alphabet, as CEO of Google, and a member of the Alphabet Board of Directors.
He shares our confidence in the value of the Alphabet structure, and the ability it provides us to tackle big challenges through technology,” they wrote. “There is no one that we have relied on more since Alphabet was founded, and no better person to lead Google and Alphabet into the future,” they said.
Pichai was born in Madurai, Tamil Nadu. He is an alumnus of Wharton business school, Stanford University and Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur.
Facebook Has Removed 5.4 Billion Fake Accounts This Year
As much as 5% of its monthly user base of nearly 2.5 billion consists of fake accounts, the company said.
SAN FRANCISCO (United States): Digital media giant Facebook says it has stopped 5.4 billion fake accounts so far this year, in a sign of a persistent battle on social media against manipulation and disinformation.
The company said it removed more than 3.2 billion fake accounts between April and September, compared with more than 1.5 billion during the same period last year. The company also said it removed 11.4 million pieces of hate speech, compared to 5.4 million in the same six-month period in 2018.
As much as 5% of its monthly user base of nearly 2.5 billion consists of fake accounts, the company said, despite advances in technology that have allowed Facebook to catch more fake accounts the moment they are created.
The disclosure highlights the scale of the challenge before Facebook as it prepares for a high-stakes election season in the United States, as well as the 2020 US census.
Analysts and watchdogs are bracing for a wave of fake and misleading content on social media following revelations about election meddling in 2016.
In its latest transparency report, the Internet firm said it has improved its ability to detect and block attempts to create fake and abusive accounts.
The detailed report also showed that government demands for user information hit a new high led by the US.
For the first time, Facebook included Instagram in the report. The company said it made progress in detecting child nudity and sexual exploitation, removing more than 1.2 million pieces of content between April and September.
Instagram spokesperson Stephanie Otway told VOA that Instagram previously had different ways of measuring enforcement on their community standards policies.
“We brought our methodology in line with Facebook and that alignment meant we were able to share metrics for the first time today,” Otway said.
Overall, requests by governments for Facebook user data rose 16 per cent to 128,617 in the first half of this year.
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