with Aaron Schaffer

Facebook’s back-and-forth with the Biden administration got ugly over the weekend. 

The social network scrambled to respond to the president’s striking accusation that the company is “killing people” for allowing the spread of misinformation about coronavirus vaccines. Shortly after President Biden’s comments to reporters, Facebook spokeswoman Dani Lever said the company wouldn’t respond to accusations that weren’t “supported by the facts.” 

Lever then said that more than 2 billion people have viewed authoritative information about the coronavirus and vaccines on Facebook. The company also put out a lengthy blog post headlined “Moving Past the Finger Pointing,” in which Guy Rosen, Facebook’s vice president of integrity, said that vaccine acceptance has been rising on Facebook since January, according to survey data collected through a partnership the company has with Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Maryland. 

But Facebook still isn’t sharing a key statistic: how many people have seen vaccine misinformation on the platform. 

It's part of a broader pattern of little transparency from the company, which has sought to downplay its role in spreading vaccine misinformation amid growing pressure from the White House and the surgeon general. Independent researchers and journalists have pressed the company for years to make more data available so they can study the impact of Facebook on society.

Critics say the United States can't have a meaningful debate about vaccine misinformation on social media unless the company makes these statistics available.  

In a widely read Twitter thread, one professor called the company's blog post “a textbook example of bluster, obfuscation and agnatogenesis.” 

“It would be nice to be able to rely on facts,” tweeted Carl T. Bergstrom, a biology professor at the University of Washington. “Unfortunately, Facebook has exclusive access to the data we need to know what the facts are, and is not forthcoming with those facts.”

Rob Flaherty, the White House digital strategy director, said the exchange with the company left him with the “simple question" of how many people have viewed vaccine misinformation on the social network. And a top misinformation researcher, Joan Donovan, called on reporters to pressure the company to release the number of people who engaged with the 18 million pieces of misinformation the company took down. 

Lever didn't respond to request for calls to make such data available, referring The Technology 202 to the Saturday blog post. 

A former top executive says Facebook does have access to such data. 

Brian Boland, a former vice president at Facebook, said in an interview yesterday on CNN the company is leaving the White House in the dark. 

“There’s this saying at Facebook, which is: Data wins arguments,” Boland told CNN's Brian Stetler. “And you could understand whether this is a massive problem or a smaller problem if everyone was looking at the same data. And that’s part of the problem is I feel like the president is left without the data that he needs to really understand what role Facebook is playing in the issue.”

Boland told CNN the company absolutely has that data and looks at it. 

“But do they look at it the right way?” Boland said. “Do they look at it enough? Are they investing in the teams as fully as they should and getting other partners to look at that data the way they should? I don’t think so.”

Another top researcher said it was time for the public to get involved.

Renee DiResta, a technical research manager at Stanford Internet Observatory who has studied vaccine misinformation on social media, says tech companies, governments and the media need to work together “to create an environment in which people are able to make decisions with the most accurate information available.” 

“People being actively misled [about] vaccines is having consequences for society,” she tweeted. “But more broadly: there are going to be other, possibly worse, pandemics. There are other major issues on which misinfo will negatively impact collective social decisions. The status quo is not working.”

Our top tabs

The United States and top allies accused China of hacking Microsoft's email server software.

The United States, European Union, NATO and others accused the Chinese government of cyberattacks, my colleagues John Hudson and Ellen Nakashima report. It's the first time NATO, a 30-nation alliance, has condemned alleged Chinese hacking. 

The statements, however, stop short of punishing Beijing for these actions, highlighting the challenges of responding to the world's second largest economy. China’s “pattern of irresponsible behavior in cyberspace is inconsistent with its stated objective of being seen as a responsible leader in the world,” the White House said in a statement Monday.

Tech companies called for Congress to protect “dreamers” in the wake of a court ruling.

Twitter, Google and Adobe say Congress needs to act, with Google calling for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program to be “cemented” in law, Kanishka Singh of Reuters writes. The program, also known as DACA, was created during the Obama administration to give undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children work permits and reprieves from deportation.

A federal judge in Texas on Friday prohibited the Biden administration from approving new applications under the program. President Biden, who was vice president in the Obama administration when DACA was created, said the ruling was “deeply disappointing” and the Justice Department would appeal it.

“While the court’s order does not now affect current DACA recipients, this decision nonetheless relegates hundreds of thousands of young immigrants to an uncertain future,” Biden said. Major technology companies have for years defended the program.

Private Israeli spyware was used to hack the phones of journalists, activists and others worldwide.
An investigation by a consortium of media organizations has found that military-grade spyware licensed by an Israeli firm has been used to hack smartphones. (Jon Gerberg/The Washington Post)

NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware was used to hack 37 smartphones belonging to journalists, human rights activists, business executives and women close to murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, my colleagues report in an investigation alongside more than a dozen other news organizations. The company says the software, which it licenses to governments around the world, is intended to target terrorists and major criminals. 

The investigation calls into question pledges by NSO Group to police clients for human rights abuses. The firm called the investigation exaggerated and baseless. An attorney for the company also said that “NSO does not have insight into the specific intelligence activities of its customers.” NSO Group CEO Shalev Hulio told The Post that some of the allegations were “disturbing” and pledged to investigate. 

The cybersurveillance industry got a boost after the 2013 disclosures of highly classified documents by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. As the demand for surveillance technology grew among foreign governments, technology companies expanded their deployment of end-to-end encryption technology. As a result, officials complained that they lost access to surveillance targets, prompting a boost in investment in tools like Pegasus.

Even iPhones with Apple’s latest security updates were hacked, challenging the company’s privacy marketing pitch.

NSO Group’s spyware can infect iPhone users even with the latest version of Apple’s iOS software, Craig Timberg, Reed Albergotti and Elodie Gueguen report. The successful hacks come amid Apples marketing pitch that its devices have superior privacy and security compared with its industry rivals.

In all, researchers from Amnesty’s Security Lab found 23 iPhones that showed signs of a successful Pegasus infection and 11 iPhones showing signs of an attempted hack.

Apple defended the security of its software and said it “unequivocally condemns cyberattacks against journalists, human rights activists, and others seeking to make the world a better place.” 

“Attacks like the ones described are highly sophisticated, cost millions of dollars to develop, often have a short shelf life, and are used to target specific individuals,” said Ivan Krstic, Apple’s head of security engineering and architecture. “While that means they are not a threat to the overwhelming majority of our users, we continue to work tirelessly to defend all our customers, and we are constantly adding new protections for their devices and data."

Rant and rave

Employees at major technology companies called for action in the wake of the investigation. WhatsApp head Will Cathcart:

The Google Threat Analysis Group’s Shane Huntley:

Cristin Goodwin, the general manager of Microsoft’s Digital Security Unit:

Workforce report

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Daybook

  • A House Intelligence Committee panel holds a hearing on microelectronics security and innovation at 10 a.m. Tuesday.
  • Patreon policy head Laurent Crenshaw discusses patent policy at an Engine seminar at 4 p.m. Tuesday.
  • The Computer and Communications Industry Association hosts an event on the 10th anniversary of the America Invents Act at 1 p.m. Thursday.
  • Twitter discusses its second-quarter earnings on a call at 6 p.m. Thursday.
  • Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.) speaks at a Brookings Institution event on cross-border data transfers on Friday at 12:30 p.m.

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