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The Technology 202

A newsletter briefing on the intersection of technology and politics.

Hunter Biden laptop findings renew scrutiny of Twitter, Facebook crackdowns

The Technology 202

A newsletter briefing on the intersection of technology and politics.

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Happy Thursday! Today’s top was reported with our stellar tech news analysis writer Will Oremus. Below: A key tech nominee inches closer to confirmation, and the tech giants get fooled by hackers. First:

Hunter Biden laptop findings renew scrutiny of Twitter, Facebook crackdowns

Just weeks before the 2020 election, Twitter and Facebook took rare steps to limit the circulation of an article by the New York Post detailing emails supposedly from the laptop of Hunter Biden, son of President Biden.

Facebook limited the reach of the story while it attempted to look into the veracity of the report. Twitter went a step further, locking the New York Post account and blocking users from posting links to the story over concerns it was based on hacked materials.

The actions ushered in a wave of backlash from Republicans, who accused technology platforms of suppressing the material to shield Biden, that continues to fuel attacks on Silicon Valley.

Amid new reporting by The Washington Post, verifying the authenticity of thousands of emails purportedly from the laptop of Hunter Biden, and the New York Times, which authenticated some messages in the cache, the social media giants are facing fresh scrutiny.

On Wednesday, my colleagues Craig Timberg, Matt Viser and Tom Hamburger wrote that “thousands of emails purportedly from the laptop computer of Hunter Biden” are “authentic communications that can be verified through cryptographic signatures from Google and other technology companies,” based on an analysis two security experts conducted for The Post.

According to the report, “neither expert reported finding evidence that individual emails or other files had been manipulated by hackers, but neither was able to rule out that possibility.”

Republicans have seized on the laptop as proof of wrongdoing, while Democrats have suggested it could have been manipulated to include foreign misinformation. Ultimately, my colleagues wrote, the forensic analysis is “unlikely to resolve that debate,” given that the verdict on much of the purported laptop data remains inconclusive.

But the findings highlight the fact that technology companies appear to have acted both forcefully and preemptively against a perceived threat that to this day has not been publicly corroborated. Twitter and Facebook declined to comment on the new findings.

The findings are also resurfacing broader debates within civil society about where social media obligations to curtail suspected misinformation begin and end.

A crucial question is what role, if any, should they play in restricting articles by prominent news outlets, particularly when dealing with unverified or dubious sourcing?

“A company like Twitter should not be trying to make a determination on the veracity of information when it is impossible for them to have the type of information they would need to do so,” Evan Greer, director of digital activist group Fight for the Future, told The Technology 202.

Looming over Twitter and Facebook in 2020 were widespread fears of repeating the events of 2016, when Russian hackers leaked troves of emails from Democratic officials.

Former Facebook security chief Alex Stamos told my colleague Will Oremus that, in retrospect, the platforms “overreacted” against the New York Post coverage of Hunter Biden, but he understood why.

The “most effective Russian operation” in 2016 was the leak of hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee, and “this smelled like the exact same playbook,” he said Wednesday.

Stamos said the companies were in a “no win situation,” likely facing allegations of censorship if they limited the article or criticism of amplifying potential misinformation if they let it spread.

A slew of former intelligence officials expressed skepticism at the time about the veracity of the New York Post article and warned it could be Russian disinformation.

Twitter, which took more aggressive action, took the brunt of the heat in Washington.

While the company reversed its initial ruling that the article violated its policies against hacked materials, it continued to block users from posting it under a separate rule against publishing private user information. Twitter changed course again, saying it would allow users to share the link because the information was widely available in publications beyond the New York Post.

Ultimately, the episode underscores the risks social media platforms take when deciding whether to limit content where the risk of harm is unclear.

“This latest analysis shows how complex and difficult it can be to verify the authenticity of documents or digital files, regardless of how they have been obtained,” Greer said. “That is true whether material was allegedly hacked or just given to a journalist by a willing source.”

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Democrats inch closer to seizing majority at FTC

Democrat Alvaro Bedoya’s nomination to the Federal Trade Commission cleared a key procedural hurdle in the Senate on Wednesday, putting the party a step closer to retaking the majority at the agency.

The full chamber voted to discharge Bedoya’s nomination from the Senate Commerce Committee, which had split along party lines on advancing the nominee earlier this month. The move puts Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) in a position to soon schedule a vote to confirm Bedoya, whose nomination has been bogged down amid Republican opposition since September.

The expected addition of Bedoya, a renowned privacy scholar and surveillance critic, is poised to enable the agency's Democratic leadership to pursue more aggressive enforcement measures against the technology sector.

Apple and Meta forked over user data to hackers posing as law enforcement

Apple and Facebook parent company Meta provided “ customer's address, phone number and IP address” to hackers masquerading as law enforcement officials, Bloomberg's William Turton reports, citing three people with knowledge of the matter.

“Cybersecurity researchers suspect that some of the hackers sending the forged requests are minors located in the U.K. and the U.S. One of the minors is also believed to be the mastermind behind the cybercrime group Lapsus$, which hacked Microsoft Corp., Samsung Electronics Co. and Nvidia Corp., among others,” according to the report.

Meta spokesman Andy Stone said in a statement that the company reviews “every data request for legal sufficiency and use advanced systems and processes to validate law enforcement requests and detect abuse.” An Apple representative referred Bloomberg News to a section of its law enforcement guidelines.

Inside the industry

How Google and Amazon bankrolled a 'grassroots' activist group of small business owners to lobby against Big Tech oversight (CNBC)

The Silenced No More Act just became law in Washington state (Protocol)

How China's TikTok, Facebook influencers push propaganda

Spam Texts From Your Own Number? ‘Bad Actors’ Sent Them, Verizon Says. (New York Times)

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