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Facebook has a playbook for handling some of the most prominent critics of its privacy practices: It hires them.

Kevin Bankston, an Internet rights advocate at New America’s Open Technology Institute, announced Tuesday he will join Facebook as its new director of privacy policy. Facebook hired three other prominent consumer privacy advocates for policy roles in recent months from organizations including the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Access Now, as policymakers around the globe accuse companies of improperly sharing data or exposing sensitive information. 

“I think that [Facebook is] working with a significant trust deficit as a company,” said Alex Howard, a government transparency advocate who previously served as deputy director of the nonprofit Sunlight Foundation. “One way to address that is to acquire people who come with trust in their reputations, in their integrity, in their careers.”  

Facebook's new hires may be jumping at a chance to try to shake up a technology company that has suffered repeated privacy scandals from the inside. And the hiring blitz suggests the company recognizes it needs more manpower dedicated to privacy as it grapples with tougher data laws in the European Union and soon California. 

“They see a company that is gravely in need of change, and I think they are attracted to the idea of being on the ground floor and affecting that change,” said Jen King, director of consumer privacy at the Stanford University Center for Internet and Society.

But some experts are skeptical that a handful of new hires will be able to have a major impact within a top-down company that is repeatedly under scrutiny for its mishandling of consumers’ data. After all, they will be joining as Facebook and the Federal Trade Commission are negotiating a settlement following the agency's probe into the company's privacy lapses surrounding Cambridge Analytica, which could require Facebook to pay a multi-billion dollar fine and change some of its business practices.

From former Federal Trade Commission chief technologist Ashkan Soltani:

Soltani told me in an interview that the hires could signal that Facebook is getting serious about its commitment to reorient its business toward privacy and encryption. But, he said, “I’d be curious to see how much they can get done given what we know about that top-down structure of the company." 

Soltani said he’s also questioning the company’s decision to announce Bankston’s hire just a day after naming Jennifer Newstead its new general counsel. Newstead is known for her work in shaping the Patriot Act, which granted the U.S. government broader surveillance capabilities in the aftermath of 9/11. Bankston, on the other hand, is a prominent advocate for greater transparency about government surveillance. He was the lead counsel in the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s lawsuits against the National Security Agency and AT&T, challenging the legality of a wiretapping program first revealed in 2005.

Howard noted that Bankston is not in the C-Suite, so it's unclear how much decision-making power he will have within the large company. He also said "a cynical person might say they’re taking away some of the most prominent advocates" from the national privacy debate -- pointing out that Bankston and the other recent hires will no longer be able to speak freely from their positions outside the company. 

Bankston declined to be interviewed for this story, but in a blog post announcing his hire, Bankston acknowledged he had a history of criticizing the company. Despite its scandals in recent years, he still thinks the company has the opportunity to change the world for the better. 

“My answer is simply this: I am not going to Facebook despite the fact that I have been a critic,” Bankston said. “I am going because I have been.” 

Rob Sherman, Facebook’s deputy chief privacy officer, said the company is "excited" for Bankston to join in a statement. “We think it's important to bring in people with new perspectives, including people who can look at our products, policies and processes with a critical eye," he said. 

Bankston follows Facebook’s hires of his former OTI colleague Robyn Greene, former EFF staff attorney Nate Cardozo and former Access Now senior legislative manager Nathan White.

Howard said he’ll be watching to see whether Facebook will come to the table to work with policymakers on privacy changes or whether they try to fight them.

“My standard caution here is that actions always mean more than hires and statements,” Howard said.


BITS: As Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey huddled with President Trump at the White House yesterday, a significant portion of the meeting focused on Trump's concern that Twitter has deliberately limited or removed some of his followers, according to a person with direct knowledge of the conversation who spoke to my colleague Tony Romm

Trump also said he heard from other conservatives who say their follower counts have suspiciously fluctuated in recent months. Twitter explained that these changes are a result of its efforts to stamp out fraudulent behavior on the service. Dorsey said even his own follower count was affected by some of the recent changes the company made. 

Dorsey and Trump sat down just hours after Trump reignited his criticism of the company, tweeting that the company is "discriminating" against him. But later, the president seemed to take a softer tone, saying it was a “great meeting." 

Dorsey replied: 

NIBBLES: Alphabet's Nest devices are designed to keep intruders out of people's homes, but the company effectively allowed hackers to get in, my colleague Reed Albergotti writes. 

"Software designed to help people break into websites and devices has gotten so easy to use that it’s practically child’s play, and many companies, including Nest, have effectively chosen to let some hackers slip through the cracks rather than impose an array of inconvenient countermeasures that could detract from their users’ experience and ultimately alienate their customers," Reed writes. "The result is that anyone in the world with an Internet connection and rudimentary skills has the ability to virtually break into homes through devices designed to keep physical intruders out."

Technology companies are finding themselves in a dilemma where they have to weigh limiting consumer convenience against the reputational damage high-profile hacks can cause. Nest could make changes to its log-in process that would make the devices more secure, but that would also introduce "friction" for users -- more cumbersome tasks that Silicon Valley designers try to avoid, sometimes at a cost. 

In one harrowing example, Reed details how Tara Thomas thought her 3-year-old daughter was having nightmares when she would point at the Nest camera installed in her room and say, "There's a monster in my room."

"Then Thomas realized her daughter’s nightmares were real. In August, she walked into the room and heard pornography playing through the Nest Cam, which she had used for years as a baby monitor in their Novato, Calif., home," Reed writes. "Hackers, whose voices could be heard faintly in the background, were playing the recording, using the intercom feature in the software."

BYTES: Democrat and Republican leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee want answers from Google about a database the company maintains of users’ precise location information, according to a letter to CEO Sundar Pichai, Joseph Marks writes in the Cybersecurity 202. 

The House committee’s Chairman Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) and ranking Republican Greg Walden (Ore.) want to know how Google uses the database, what privacy protections it applies and whether it’s storing other databases of location information.

“The potential ramifications for consumer privacy are far reaching and concerning when examining the purposes for the Sensorvault database and how precise location information could be shared with third parties," the lawmakers wrote. 

The New York Times’s Jennifer Valentino-DeVries profiled the database, which the company calls “Sensorvault” and which law enforcement frequently seeks information from during criminal investigations, earlier this month.

Here are details from that report: “For years, police detectives have given Google warrants seeking location data tied to specific users’ accounts.”

“But the new warrants, often called 'geofence' requests, instead specify an area near a crime. Google looks in Sensorvault for any devices that were there at the right time and provides that information to the police.... Google first labels the devices with anonymous ID numbers, and detectives look at locations and movement patterns to see if any appear relevant to the crime. Once they narrow the field to a few devices, Google reveals information such as names and email addresses.”


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American companies continue to build surveillance tools that are used to violate human rights. Workers who refuse to comply deserve protections.
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