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The Technology 202: Tech giants are teaming up to build digital vaccine records

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Health agencies have relied on paper vaccination certificates to fight epidemics for more than a century. 

But Microsoft, Salesforce and Oracle are now teaming up with the health-care nonprofit Mayo Clinic and other major health-care companies to develop technology that would bring such certifications to people's phones. The companies envision that such “vaccine passports” could allow business, schools, concert venues and airlines to screen whether people have proof of vaccination. 

The companies — which otherwise fiercely compete — together unveiled the Vaccination Credential Initiative. 

The group's goal is to help develop a secure copy of immunization records, which could be stored in the digital wallet feature on smartphones. The group also plans to provide papers printed with QR codes that would allow people who don't have smartphones to still access a secure record and gain entry to places that might require such a certificate. 

“We wanted to build something that will empower consumers to take charge and have control and be able to manage their vaccination information in the way that they feel most comfortable, but will give them the freedom to start to get back to their life,” said Joan Harvey, president of care solutions at Evernorth, Cigna’s health services business and a partner in the coalition. 

The announcement signals the role that Silicon Valley could play in the next phase of the pandemic — for better or worse. 

A digital and secure format could ensure that people can keep track of their credentials in one place, and it could prevent people from creating fraudulent copies of the paper vaccination cards that health agencies distribute. 

But health experts and privacy advocates questioned the timing of the initiative — especially as technical and other problems are inhibiting many vulnerable Americans from getting vaccines in the first place. 

Bioethicists are concerned about developing vaccination certification tools before immunizations are more widely available. 

Schools and some workplaces have long required proof of vaccination among students and some employees. But Nita Farahany, a professor and director of the Initiative for Science & Society at Duke University, warned against businesses and others requiring proof of vaccination too soon. 

“I'm just opposed to it right now, when there is a significant limitation on the number of people who can get access to covid vaccines," Farahany said. She said it could make sense to explore such systems later this year, when the vaccine is expected to be more widely available and there will be more data to support its efficacy. 

Farahany has warned that such requirements could result in a  “two-tiered society,” where vaccinated people have access to jobs and public places and others don't. She also worries that putting such requirements in place before more data is available about the vaccine could give people a false sense of security. 

The partners in the Vaccination Credential Initiative say it will be up to business and schools to determine how they would use such credentials. 

Some businesses are already thinking about it. Already airlines have introduced a health passport app called CommonPass. The app initially checked the status of travelers' coronavirus screening tests, and new vaccination passport apps could work similarly. 

Privacy advocates questioned whether such records needed to be digitized. 

Albert Fox Cahn, the founder and executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, questioned why tech companies are focused on building vaccine passports and not the technical problems that are currently hampering the rollout of the vaccine. He said the industry should wait for direction from public health officials before jumping to develop solutions. 

“It's completely unnecessary,” Fox Cahn said. “It's more of the same failed technosolutionism that we've seen throughout this pandemic.”

It's not the first time that tech companies have collaborated during the pandemic. Apple and Google teamed up to build systems to notify people if they had been exposed to the virus, but those tools have not been widely adopted in the United States. 

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Human rights groups want Facebook to do more to address violence on its platform abroad. 

Facebook and Twitter have largely rebuffed calls to take down hate speech from politicians, but now they're under pressure to do more around the world after suspending Trump's accounts, Adam Satariano reports for the New York Times.  Human rights groups say it's particularly urgent for the company to act in smaller countries where the platforms dominate communication. 

In Sri Lanka and Myanmar, Faceboook did not remove posts that it was warned contribute to violence. Activists have been pressuring Facebook to moderate posts by politicians in India that target Muslims. And in Ethiopia, groups have pressured the companies to do more to address hate speech after hundreds were killed in violence inflamed by social media. 

“When I saw what the platforms did with Trump, I thought, ‘You should have done this before, and you should do this consistently in other countries around the world,’” said Javier Pallero, policy director at Access Now, a human rights group. “Around the world, we are at the mercy of when they decide to act.”

“When I saw what the platforms did with Trump, I thought, ‘You should have done this before, and you should do this consistently in other countries around the world,’” said Javier Pallero, policy director at Access Now, a human rights group involved in the Ethiopia letter. “Around the world, we are at the mercy of when they decide to act.”

Facebook declined to comment. It has said that it actions to suspend Trump's account do not represent a new global policy. 

People spreading lies about the 2020 election are evading Facebook's crackdown on “stop the steal.”

They're altering the names of their groups and abusing core feature's of Facebook's services, CNN's Brian Fung and Donie O'Sullivan report. The new research underscores how Facebook's commitments to do more to stamp out election fraud in the wake of the Capitol violence have resultedin a game of whack-a-mole.

Extremism experts at the left-leaning activist group Avaaz identified 90 Facebook groups that have continued to advance falsehoods about the election, with 166,000 total members. A half dozen of those groups appear to have successfully evaded Facebook's recent crackdown on posts and groups mentioning “stop the steal." They initially had that phrase in their names, but have since altered their names so they can blend in with other activity on Facebook, CNN found. 

"So instead of 'Stop the Steal,' they became 'Stop the Fraud' or 'Stop the Rigged Election' or 'Own the Vote,'" Fadi Quran, campaign director at Avaaz, told CNN. 

Some of the groups Avaaz identified appeared to be mobilizing Trump supporters. One post identified by the researchers included a promotional flier for the events on Jan. 6, with the banner "Operation Occupy the Capitol: Taking back our country from corrupt politicians."

Facebook removed three of the groups on Thursday. Facebook spokesman Andy Stone told CNN that the company has banned over 250 white supremacist groups to date and is also restricting content related to militia groups and QAnon. 

"We work with experts in global terrorism and cyber intelligence to identify calls for violence and remove harmful content that could lead to further violence," Stone said. "We are continuing all of these efforts and working with law enforcement to prevent direct threats to public safety."

A new class action lawsuit accuses Amazon of fixing the prices of e-books through anti-competitive agreements. 

The suit alleges that the e-commerce giant colluded with so-called “Big Five” publishers – Penguin Random House, Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan and Simon & Schuster. It was brought by the same law firm successfully sued Apple and the same publishers for the same reason a decade ago, the Guardian's Sian Cain reports. 

The lawsuit, filed in a district court in New York, alleges Amazon and the publishers keep ebook prices artificially high. Amazon and the publishers are agreeing to price restraints that force consumers to pay more for ebooks purchased on retail platforms that are not, the Seattle firm Hagens Berman argued. 

“Amazon’s agreement with its Co-conspirators is an unreasonable restraint of trade that prevents competitive pricing and causes Plaintiffs and other consumers to overpay when they purchase ebooks from the Big Five through an ebook retailer that competes with Amazon," the lawsuit says. "That harm persists and will not abate unless Amazon and the Big Five are stopped.”

Connecticut announced earlier this week that it was investigating Amazon for potential anticompetitive behavior in ebook sales. 

Amazon declined to comment on the New York lawsuit when approached by Reuters. (Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Post.) 

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