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Over 30 civil rights organizations have penned an open letter that calls on government officials to investigate Amazon Ring’s business practices and end the company’s numerous police partnerships. The letter follows a report by The Washington Post in August that detailed how over 400 police forces across the U.S. have partnered with Ring to gain access to homeowners’ camera footage.

These partnerships have already raised concerns with privacy advocates and civil liberties organizations, who claim the agreements turn neighbors into informants and subject innocent people to greater risk and surveillance.

Had the government itself installed a video network of this size and scope, it would have drawn greater scrutiny. But by quietly working with Ring behind the scenes, law enforcement gets to tap into a massive surveillance network without being directly involved in its creation.

The new letter from the civil rights groups demand that government officials put an end to these behind-the-scenes deals between Amazon and the police.

“With no oversight and accountability, Amazon’s technology creates a seamless and easily automated experience for police to request and access footage without a warrant, and then store it indefinitely,” the letter reads. “In the absence of clear civil liberties and rights-protective policies to govern the technologies and the use of their data, once collected, stored footage can be used by law enforcement to conduct facial recognition searches, target protesters exercising their First Amendment rights, teenagers for minor drug possession, or shared with other agencies like ICE or the FBI,” it says.

Additionally, the letter points out these police deals involve Amazon coaching cops on how to obtain surveillance footage without a warrant. It also notes that Ring allowed employees to share unencrypted customer videos with each other, including in offices based in Ukraine. And it raises concerns about Amazon’s potential plans to integrate facial recognition features into Ring cameras, based on patents it filed.

The groups also point to the map released by Amazon Ring, which now shows over 500 cities with Amazon-police partnerships across the U.S.

The groups’ letter is not the first to demand action.

Senator Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) also last month wrote to Amazon to get more information about Ring and its relationships with law enforcement agencies.

But unlike Sen. Markey’s investigative letter to Amazon’s Ring, today’s letter has specific demands for action. The groups are asking mayors and city council members to require their local police departments to cancel their Ring partnerships. The groups also want local government officials to pass new surveillance oversight ordinances that will ensure police departments can’t enter into any such partnerships in the future.

And they want Congress to investigate Ring’s dealings with police more closely.

The letter itself was published online and signed by the following organizations:

Fight for the Future, Media Justice, Color of Change, Secure Justice, Demand Progress, Defending Rights & Dissent, Muslim Justice League, X-Lab, Media Mobilizing Project, Restore The Fourth, Inc., Media Alliance, Youth Art & Self Empowerment Project, Center for Human Rights and Privacy, Oakland Privacy, Justice For Muslims Collective, The Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI), Nation Digital Inclusion Alliance, Project On Government Oversight, OpenMedia, Council on American-Islamic Relations-SFBA, Million Hoodies Movement for Justice, Wellstone Democratic Renewal Club, MPower Change, Mijente, Access Humboldt, RAICES, National Immigration Law Center, The Tor Project, United Church of Christ, Office of Communication Inc., the Constitutional Alliance, RootsAction.org, CREDO Action, Presente.org, American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, and United We Dream.

According to Evan Greer, Deputy Director at Fight for the Future, the letter has not yet been mailed. But the plan, going forward, is to use it in local organizing when groups on the ground make deliveries to local officials in cities where the partnerships are live.

“Amazon has created the perfect end-run around our democratic process by entering into for-profit surveillance partnerships with local police departments. Police departments have easy access to surveillance networks without oversight or accountability,” said Greer. “Amazon Ring’s customers provide the company with the footage needed to build their privately owned, nationwide surveillance dragnet. We’re the ones who pay the cost – as they violate our privacy rights and civil liberties. Our elected officials are supposed to protect us, both from abusive policing practices and corporate overreach. These partnerships are a clear case of both,” Greer added.


TechCrunch

Facebook has failed to clean up the brisk trade in fake product reviews taking place on its platform, an investigation by the consumer association Which? has found.

In June both Facebook and eBay were warned by the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) they needed to do more to tackle the sale of fake product reviews. On eBay sellers were offering batches of five-star product reviews in exchange for cash, while Facebook’s platform was found hosting multiple groups were members solicited writers of fake reviews in exchange for free products or cash (or both).

A follow-up look at the two platforms by Which? has found a “significant improvement” in the number of eBay listings selling five-star reviews — with the group saying it found just one listing selling five-star reviews after the CMA’s intervention.

But little appears to have been done to prevent Facebook groups trading in fake reviews — with Which? finding dozens of Facebook groups that it said “continue to encourage incentivised reviews on a huge scale”.

Here’s a sample ad we found doing a ten-second search of Facebook groups… (one of a few we saw that specify they’re after US reviewers)

Screenshot 2019 08 06 at 09.53.19

Which? says it found more than 55,000 new posts across just nine Facebook groups trading fake reviews in July, which it said were generating hundreds “or even thousands” of posts per day.

It points out the true figure is likely to be higher because Facebook caps the number of posts it quantifies at 10,000 (and three of the ten groups had hit that ceiling).

Which? also found Facebook groups trading fake reviews that had sharply increased their membership over a 30-day period, adding that it was “disconcertingly easy to find dozens of suspicious-looking groups in minutes”.

We also found a quick search of Facebook’s platform instantly serves a selection of groups soliciting product reviews…

Screenshot 2019 08 06 at 09.51.09

Which? says looked in detail at ten groups (it doesn’t name the groups), all of which contained the word ‘Amazon’ in their group name, finding that all of them had seen their membership rise over a 30-day period — with some seeing big spikes in members.

“One Facebook group tripled its membership over a 30-day period, while another (which was first started in April 2018) saw member numbers double to more than 5,000,” it writes. “One group had more than 10,000 members after 4,300 people joined it in a month — a 75% increase, despite the group existing since April 2017.”

Which? speculates that the surge in Facebook group members could be a direct result of eBay cracking down on fake reviews sellers on its own platform.

“In total, the 10 [Facebook] groups had a staggering 105,669 members on 1 August, compared with a membership of 85,647 just 30 days prior to that — representing an increase of nearly 19%,” it adds.

Across the ten groups it says there were more than 3,500 new posts promoting inventivised reviews in a single day. Which? also notes that Facebook’s algorithm regularly recommended similar groups to those that appeared to be trading in fake reviews — on the ‘suggested for you’ page.

It also says it found admins of groups it joined listing alternative groups to join in case the original is shut down.

Commenting in a statement, Natalie Hitchins, Which?’s head of products and services, said: ‘Our latest findings demonstrate that Facebook has systematically failed to take action while its platform continues to be plagued with fake review groups generating thousands of posts a day.

“It is deeply concerning that the company continues to leave customers exposed to poor-quality or unsafe products boosted by misleading and disingenuous reviews. Facebook must immediately take steps to not only address the groups that are reported to it, but also proactively identify and shut down other groups, and put measures in place to prevent more from appearing in the future.”

“The CMA must now consider enforcement action to ensure that more is being done to protect people from being misled online. Which? will be monitoring the situation closely and piling on the pressure to banish these fake review groups,” she added.

Responding to Which?‘s findings in a statement, CMA senior director George Lusty said: “It is unacceptable that Facebook groups promoting fake reviews seem to be reappearing. Facebook must take effective steps to deal with this problem by quickly removing the material and stop it from resurfacing.”

“This is just the start – we’ll be doing more to tackle fake and misleading online reviews,” he added. “Lots of us rely on reviews when shopping online to decide what to buy. It is important that people are able to trust they are genuine, rather than something someone has been paid to write.”

In a statement Facebook claimed it has removed 9 out of ten of the groups Which? reported to it and claimed to be “investigating the remaining group”.

“We don’t allow people to use Facebook to facilitate or encourage false reviews,” it added. “We continue to improve our tools to proactively prevent this kind of abuse, including investing in technology and increasing the size of our safety and security team to 30,000.”


TechCrunch

The groups behind a push to get the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to investigate YouTube’s alleged violation of children’s privacy law, COPPA, have today submitted a new letter to the FTC that lays out the appropriate sanctions the groups want the FTC to now take. The letter comes shortly after news broke that the FTC was in the final stages of its probe into YouTube’s business practices regarding this matter.

They’re joined in pressing the FTC to act by COPPA co-author, Senator Ed Markey, who penned a letter of his own, which was also submitted today.

The groups’ formal complaint with the FTC was filed back in April 2018. The coalition, which then included 20 child advocacy, consumer and privacy groups, had claimed YouTube doesn’t get parental consent before collecting the data from children under the age of 13 — as is required by the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, also known as COPPA.

The organizations said, effectively, that YouTube was hiding behind its terms of service which claims that YouTube is “not intended for children under 13.”

This simply isn’t true, as any YouTube user knows. YouTube is filled with videos that explicitly cater to children, from cartoons to nursery rhymes to toy ads — the latter which often come about by way of undisclosed sponsorships between toy makers and YouTube stars. The video creators will excitedly unbox or demo toys they received for free or were paid to feature, and kids just eat it all up.

In addition, YouTube curates much of its kid-friendly content into a separate YouTube Kids app that’s designed for the under-13 crowd — even preschoolers.

Meanwhile, YouTube treats children’s content like any other. That means targeted advertising and commercial data collection are taking place, the groups’ complaint states. YouTube’s algorithms also recommend videos and autoplay its suggestions — a practice that led to kids being exposed to inappropriate content in the past.

Today, two of the leading groups behind the original complaint — the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) and Center for Digital Democracy (CDD) — are asking the FTC to impose the maximum civil penalties on YouTube because, as they’ve said:

Google had actual knowledge of both the large number of child-directed channels on YouTube and the large numbers of children using YouTube. Yet, Google collected personal information from nearly 25 million children in the U.S over a period of years, and used this data to engage in very sophisticated digital marketing techniques. Google’s wrongdoing allowed it to profit in two different ways: Google has not only made a vast amount of money by using children’s personal information as part of its ad networks to target advertising, but has also profited from advertising revenues from ads on its YouTube channels that are watched by children.

The groups are asking the FTC to impose a 20-year consent degree on YouTube.

They want the FTC to order YouTube to destroy all data from children under 13, including any inferences drawn from the data, that’s in Google’s possession. YouTube should also stop collecting data from anyone under 13, including anyone viewing a channel or video directed at children. Kids’ ages also need to be identified so they can be prevented from accessing YouTube.

Meanwhile, the groups suggest that all the channels in the Parenting and Family lineup, plus any other channels or video directed at children, be removed from YouTube and placed into a separate platform for children. (e.g. the YouTube Kids app).

This is something YouTube is already considering, according to a report from The Wall Street Journal last week.

This separate kids platform would have a variety restrictions, including no commercial data collection; no links out to other sites or online services; no targeted marketing; no product or brand integration; no influencer marketing; and even no recommendations or autoplay.

The removal of autoplaying videos and recommendations, in particular, would be a radical change to how YouTube operates, but one that could protect kids from inappropriate content that slips in. It’s also a change that some employees inside YouTube itself were vying for, according to The WSJ’s report. 

The groups also urge the FTC to require Google to fund educational campaigns around the true nature of Google’s data-driven marketing systems, admit publicly that it violated the law, and submit to annual audits to ensure its ongoing compliance. They want Google to commit $ 100 million to establish a fund that supports the production of noncommercial, high-quality and diverse content for kids.

Finally, the groups are asking that Google faces the maximum possible civil penalties —  $ 42,530 per violation, which could be counted as either per child or per day. This monetary relief needs to be severe, the groups argue, so Google and YouTube will be deterred from ever violating COPPA in the future.

While this laundry list of suggestions is more like a wish list of what the ideal resolution would look like, it doesn’t mean that the FTC will follow through on all these suggestions.

However, it seems likely that the Commission would at least require YouTube to delete the improperly collected data and isolate the kids’ YouTube experience in some way. After all, that’s precisely what it just did with Tik Tok (previously Musical.ly) which earlier this year paid a record $ 5.7 million fine for its own COPPA violations. It also had to implement an age gate where under-13 kids were restricted from publishing content.

The advocacy groups aren’t the only ones making suggestions to the FTC.

Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass.) also sent the FTC a letter today about YouTube’s violations of COPPA — a piece of legislation that he co-authored.

In his letter, he urges the FTC take a similar set of actions, saying:

“I am concerned that YouTube has failed to comply with COPPA. I therefore, urge the Commission to use all necessary resources to investigate YouTube, demand that YouTube pay all monetary penalties it owes as a result of any legal violations, and instruct YouTube to institute policy changes that put children’s well-being first.”

His suggestions are similar to those being pushed by the advocacy groups. They include demands for YouTube to delete the children’s data and cease data collection on those under 13; implement an age gate on YouTube to come into compliance with COPPA; prohibit targeted and influencer marketing; offer detailed explanations of what data is collected if for “internal purposes;” undergo a yearly audit; provide documentation of compliance upon request; and establish a fund for noncommercial content.

He also wants Google to sponsor a consumer education campaign warning parents that no one under 13 should use YouTube and want Google to be prohibited from launching any new child-directed product until it’s been reviewed by an independent panel of experts.

The FTC’s policy doesn’t allow it to confirm or deny nonpublic investigations. YouTube hasn’t yet commented on the letters.


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