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Digital evidence -- such as emails, location data and cellphone videos -- is increasingly essential to law enforcement investigations. But state and local police often don’t know which tech companies hold certain types of data, or even how to request it.
That’s why Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.) is introducing bipartisan legislation that would create a new federal office to facilitate law enforcement’s access to data from tech companies.
Demings, a former Orlando police chief, says she knows firsthand how essential this data can be to solving everything from financial crimes to child endangerment, and she wants to make sure law enforcement at every level can access it.
“You can’t fight today’s battles using yesterday’s weapons, and the weapon of choice for criminals has changed,” Demings told me. “We need to make sure that we have a workforce that has the proper training and has proper support to be able to investigate those cases and solve those crimes.”
The Office of Digital Law Enforcement, which would reside at the Department of Justice, would train and support cops and investigators from across the country on how to handle evolving technology in investigations. The bill would also create a Center of Excellence for Digital Forensics, which would be a resource as a central hub for tech expertise and legal assistance.
This kind of federal clearinghouse could improve the law enforcement community’s icy relationship with Silicon Valley. Historically there has been a low level of trust between the two communities: Technology companies grappling with pressure to protect users’ privacy at times have resisted broad or invasive requests from law enforcement. That's contributed to a perception among law enforcement officials that the tech industry makes it difficult to access evidence and isn’t willing to work with them.
The bill follows a Center for Strategic and International Studies report last year that found federal, state and local level encounter barriers to “effectively accessing, analyzing, and utilizing” digital evidence in one-third of cases that rely on such data. Jennifer Daskal, one of the report's authors, said talking with law enforcement and tech companies about digital evidence “was like having two separate conversations.”
The report's recommendation to create a new digital evidence office to work with law enforcement at all levels of government shaped the bill, which Reps. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.), John Rutherford (R-Fla.) and Brian Babin (R-Tex.) are co-sponsoring. The bill would also create a new program that would guide DOJ grants to help local law enforcement handle digital evidence and stand up a new Technology Policy Advisory Board to coordinate between the tech industry and law enforcement.
Demings said her office has not yet been in touch with the tech companies about this, but she hopes they and consumers will be engaged in discussions about the bill going forward.
The bill's timing is especially interesting, since law enforcement agencies around the world have been warning against Facebook’s plans to expand encryption across its messaging services. Investigators are concerned they’ll be cut off from accessing a key trove of data.
But Daskal and her co-authors argue that while the communities duke it out over encryption, a federal digital evidence office would make sure law enforcement has access to low-hanging fruit that's more easily accessible. She said in many instances, investigators just need IP address and other basic identifying information.
“As that debate rages on, there are a range of things that can and should be done to tackle this problem and ensure law enforcement has ability to access evidence that it is legally authorized to access,” Daskal said.
Daskal said more training at the federal level could also ensure that law enforcement is properly weighing privacy concerns in its requests from tech companies. "Better-trained law enforcement have the information needed to make better tailored and thus more privacy protective requests," she said.
Demings says she is optimistic a new office could help unite law enforcement and the tech industry in a common goal of keeping people safe online.
“This is a new, ever-changing world we’re all living in,” she said, despite “bumps and hiccups in the road.”
BITS, NIBBLES AND BYTES
BITS: Apple promotes its App Store as a “safe and trusted” place. But my colleagues Reed Albergotti and Al Johri uncovered more than 1,500 reports of unwanted sexual approaches — many targeting children -- in reviews of six popular apps.
The Post investigation found the “digital cries for help” in the reviews of so-called "random chat apps," or social media platforms that connect strangers in video conversations. “A man who is sick in the head and disgusting decided to show some things that shouldn’t have been shown,” read one review of the app Monkey in September. Another review from last month warned, “This is a lawsuit waiting to happen. Predators are all over this site."
My colleagues identified the 1,500 mentions of uncomfortable situations after conducting a machine learning review of more than 130,000 reviews of six random chat apps, including Monkey, Yubo, ChatLive, Chat for Strangers, Skout and Holla. About 2 percent of all Apple reviews of Monkey, ranked 10th most popular in Apple’s social networking category earlier this month, contained reports of unwanted sexual experiences, according to Reed and Al. At least 19 percent of the reviews on ChatLive reported unwanted sexual approaches.
My colleagues write their findings raise questions about Apple's efforts to police the App Store: “ … The prevalence of unwanted sexual content involving minors raises questions about whether Apple can continue to offer a protective cocoon to its customers as its platform grows. Apple has a financial interest in a bigger platform: It earns a cut of all revenue generated by apps.”
Apple told my colleagues it scans 100,000 apps a week using a mix of software and humans. “We created the App Store to be a safe and trusted place for our customers to get apps and we take all reports of inappropriate or illegal contact extremely seriously,” Apple spokesman Fred Sainz said in a statement. Sainz said if the purpose of the apps isn't inappropriate, the company gives developers a chance to ensure their services are complying with Apple's rules. If they aren't, the company doesn't hesitate to remove them. The age rating for Monkey was changed to 17 and older from 12 and older after my colleagues' inquiries.
NIBBLES: Both Democratic and Republican strategists worry that Google's decision to restrict political advertisers from targeting based on political affiliation could strip them of a crucial tool for finding new supporters and gathering donations just ahead of the 2020 elections, my colleagues Tony Romm and Isaac Stanley-Becker report.
In additional to no longer allowing candidates to upload potential voters for ad targeting, the policy change will not allow campaigns to track and advertise to people after they visit a campaign's website.
“This is bad for everybody,” one top aide on a 2020 Democratic presidential campaign told Tony and Isaac.
The rules won't go into effect in the United States until early next year, but strategists worry they could significantly ding campaigns reliant on small-dollar donations as well as campaigns that can't afford a full advertising program.
“This is a bad day for campaigns trying to reach voters online, especially given that Google represents half of a duopoly in the online advertising market,” said Eric Wilson, a Republican strategist.
The move could also pressure Facebook to take a similar approach. The company recently met with political advertisers to weigh changing its policy to limit microtargeting, Emily Glazer at the Wall Street Journal reported.
BYTES: A former Fox News executive hired foreign operatives to write for his high-traffic network of sites and Facebook pages meant to drive the partisan divide in the United States, Nicole Perlroth at the New York Times reports. The network demonstrates how a cottage industry of sites — including those funded by U.S. actors — continues to profit off the playbook pioneered by Russians to influence Americans opinions ahead of the 2016 elections.
The network included both a “Conservative Edition News” Facebook page and “Liberal Edition News” page that played to visceral responses from both political leanings. Ken LaCorte, the executive behind the pages, defended his work, telling the Times that the stories were edited by U.S. editors and that it was “fair news” and “real.”
Facebook shut down the pages after the Times flagged them — but not because of the content. LaCorte violated Facebook's terms of service by buying and exchanging site privilege and engaging well-known Macedonian “troll farms,” a Facebook spokeswoman told the Times.
The pages, which reached 3 million followers on the social network and 30 million unique visitors to his sites, raises concerns about how federal officials plan to address influence operations run by Americans. While agencies such as the FBI have dedicated increased resources to addressing online interference by foreign actors, pages such as LaCorte's fall into a gray area.
“This slow and steady mainstreaming of disinformation-like tactics is normalizing things we would otherwise identify as inauthentic behavior,” says Cindy Otis, director of analysis and threat investigations at Nisos, the security firm that helped identify the pages.
RANTS AND RAVES
Tesla unveiled its long-awaited "Cybertruck," a futuristic pickup truck last night, my colleague Faiz Siddiqui reports. But the sci-fi themed event quickly turned more into sci-fi parody when during a demonstration of the car's new "breakable glass" ... broke the car's windows.
So uh Tesla tested out the Cybertruck's "unbreakable glass" on stage as Musk watched. It broke. https://t.co/QiUiIZkgZM— Faiz Siddiqui (@faizsays) November 22, 2019
“Maybe that was a little too hard,” Musk said. Unfazed, he proceeded to shoot the vehicle.
After they took a sledgehammer to the truck to prove its strength, Elon quips "let's shoot it"— Faiz Siddiqui (@faizsays) November 22, 2019
"We're in California, unfortunately," he adds, showing photos of the door w/ a bullethole
The tech press corps was impressed. But maybe not for the reasons Musk hoped. WIRED's Lauren Goode:
One time early in my tech reporting career I went to one of those expos with rows of booths and a rep from one of the largest PC makers boasted about unbreakable glass and punched a tablet and to his horror it spiderwebbed and I never forgot it and this is like that but a truck— Lauren Goode (@LaurenGoode) November 22, 2019
BuzzFeed's Ryan Mac riffed on a popular meme:
Gonna tell my kids this is Elon’s cybertruck pic.twitter.com/2oYCkwnI7g— Ryan Mac 🙃 (@RMac18) November 22, 2019
-- A group of Democratic House members is seeking a meeting with Airbnb executives following media reports that private companies have set up networks of fake profiles on the site to evade local laws and the site’s fraud policies.
“It seems clear that you have failed to authenticate host identities in a way that would prevent bad actors from continuing to rent through your platform under false identities after being banned,” Reps. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.), along with Reps. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), Robin L. Kelly (D-Ill.), G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.) and Yvette D. Clarke (D-N.Y.) wrote in a letter to Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky.
Airbnb promised earlier this month to verify 100 percent of its more than 7 million listings by the end of 2020, following a VICE investigation by Allie Conti uncovering a nationwide network of hosts scamming users with fake listings. The letter asks the company how it will verify hosts and that units meet safety protocols. Additionally, members of Congress want to know whether efforts to categorize “high-risk reservations” will consider age, race, gender or other personal traits.
“This letter was written from hotel industry talking points, is being distributed by shady hotel industry front groups, and is the latest example of the big hotels’ campaign to attack any form of competition,” said Steve Shur, president of the Travel Technology Association, a lobbying group whose members include Airbnb.
— News from the public sector:
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U.S. Chief Technology Officer Michael Kratsios added another new hire to his team yesterday:
I’m excited to welcome Dr. Eric Burger as our new Assistant Director for Telecom and Cybersecurity, covering our 5G, broadband, and telecom portfolios.— Michael Kratsios (@USCTO) November 21, 2019
Eric was previously the CTO @FCC and Research Professor of CS @Georgetown.
Thrilled to add his expertise to the @USCTO team!
— Coming up:
- The House Energy and Commerce Committee will host an Federal Communications Commission oversight hearing on December 5.