News digest | Open Society Information Program | Week ending 9 February 2018

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News digest | Open Society Information Program | Week ending 9 February 2018


The Information Program NEWS DIGEST, published the second and fourth Thursdays of each month, aims to update colleagues in the Open Society Foundations and friends further afield about the news, opinions and events the Program team have been watching this fortnight. The views expressed in these stories do not necessarily reflect those of the Information Program or the OSF. Prepared by Wendy M. Grossman.

Our staff, advisers and major grantees tweet at Current and former grantees featured in this issue: Bits of Freedom, EDRi.

Digital Freedom Fund


The recently established Digital Freedom Fund, which supports strategic litigation to advance digital rights in Europe, is looking to recruit a part-time, Berlin-based legal officer and a a project-based remote consultant. Deadline for applications is 14 February.



For breaking news stories, visit:

Strava fitness app exposes jogging routes around military bases


The BBC reports that a heat map published by San Francisco-based Strava, maker of a GPS-enabled fitness app, exposes individual jogging routes, including those used by soldiers around military basis. The problem appears to be that although an opt-out mechanism is provided users do not always know to activate it or how to use the app's privacy settings. At Foreign Policy, Jenna McLaughlin gives background to the debate over the use of fitness apps in sensitive areas. The US National Security Agency allows wearable fitness monitors in some localities, but in general such decisions are left up to the special security officer in charge and therefore they are banned in some places.

App enables video face-swapping


At Motherboard, Samantha Cole reports that a user-friendly app is fueling an explosion of convincing face-swap pornography. The app, which began in late 2017 with manual efforts by a Reddit user, makes it easy to use machine learning to create convincing fake videos, with the result that people are using the app to create fake porn of their friends and classmates, as well as celebrities. Users only need one or two high-quality videos of the faces they want to fake. In a leader article, the Guardian argues that the technology, which is already expanding to other types of video simulations, will destroy trust within and between communities.

UK: Court of Appeal rules data retention illegal


At ZDNet, Steve Ranger reports that London's Court of Appeal has ruled that parts of the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act (2014) are unlawful; the result will be to require changes to the the Investigatory Powers Act, which replaced it in 2016 and includes many of the same powers. The three judges ruled that the Act was inconsistent with EU law because it granted the government access to retained data without prior independent review and allowed its use in cases that were not limited to fighting serious crime. Engadget reviews the background of the case, and notes that the European Court of Justice has already ruled that new legislation must follow in the spirit of its 2014 ruling that blanket data retention is illegal.

Russia: Kremlin plans to build an independent internet


At IEEE Spectrum, Tracy Staedter reports that Russia is building its own independent internet. The plan is perfectly possible, in that the internet's protocols and design are open and can be easily copied to create a separate network of interconnected networks if Russia is willing to duplicate the hardware and software currently managing internet traffic. It would need its own domain name system and numbering scheme; the hard part would be getting users to use them. In the meantime, Russia is forcing US companies to store data about its citizens on local servers.

Canada: Facebook rolls out advertising transparency plan


At ProPublica, Jennifer Valentino-DeVries reports that Facebook is responding to complaints about the lack of transparency in its political advertising by enabling users outside the advertiser's specified audience to see the ads. The approach is being rolled out now in Canada and will expand to other countries this summer.  Critics complain that the system is still too difficult for users to benefit from, and propose more effective ways of policing ads, such as making information more readily available about who is placing the ads and how they're targeted. Pro Publica believes its own tool, Political Ad Collector, launched in September 2017,  does the same job more accessibly. The Reuters Institute provides a factsheet that measures the reach of fake news and online disinformation in Europe. It finds that although most fake news websites attract smaller and less engaged audiences, on Facebook a few popular fake news sites generate greater interaction than more established news brands. At The Atlantic, Ethan Zuckerman argues that Facebook will only improve if others begin building better alternatives and introduces the project, which he describes as a "provocation, not a product".

Commercial industry of fraudulent accounts plagues social media


At the New York Times, Nicholas Confessore, Gabriel J.X. Dance, Richard Harris, and Mark Hansen uncover a multi-layer black market of fake Twitter followers. Celebrities, entertainers, businesses, and social media "experts", under pressure to deliver follower numbers, buy followers by the hundred thousand at relatively modest prices. Many of these are supplied by the Florida-based company Devumi, which itself buys bots for resale, but many are also counterfeit copies of disused accounts that use the real names, profile pictures, and hometown details of real Twitter users, some of them minors.



For more features and analysis selected by the Program team, visit:

George Soros: Open societies are in crisis


In this article in the Financial Times, Peter Wells and Katie Martin summarize the talk given at Davos by Open Society Foundation founder George Soros, who said open societies are in crisis due to the rise of "dictatorships and mafia states" and the obstacles to innovation posed by Facebook and Google, which are causing people to give up their autonomy. At the rate at which Facebook has been adding its billions of users, Soros believes it will run out of newcomers to sign up within three years. An alliance between these data-rich IT monopolies and their corporate surveillance systems with already-developed systems of state-sponsored surveillance could pose an alarming prospect. Soros believes that the platform giants will be broken soon by regulation, taxation, and the activities of EU competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager. At the Wall Street Journal, Natalia Drozdiak discusses Vestager's increasing concerns about the use of big data to lock competitors out of markets.

New York: Algorithmic accountability


In this letter to the mayor of New York City, NYU's AI Now Institute offers recommendations for subject matter expertise, staff, and organizations that should be included in the city's planned Automated Decision System Task Force. Among the less obvious areas of expertise they suggest are ethics, social work, peer review, and operations. They also recommend requiring appointees to publicly disclose any potential conflicts of interest with vendors of automated decision systems used in New York City government. Also at the Times, Dan Hurley inspects a predictive-analytics system in use in Pittsburgh to predict which of the children who come to the attention of social services should be further investigated. After careful study, this system appears to be making better screening decisions than humans can. Hurley gives three reasons: the companies developing the system are transparent about their methods; the criteria used in this case really do appear to be countering some of the historical bias; and the tool is used only for screening. Humans do follow-up investigations and make the final decisions about protecting the children.

Australia: Austerity is an algorithm


In this article at Logic, Gillian Terzis recounts the results of Australia's "robo-debt" scandal. In the interests of austerity, Australia turned its largely means-driven welfare system over to an error-prone scoring algorithm that can issue 20,000 debt notices a week. Terzis argues that these commercially-designed systems - a similar one in the US state of Michigan is showing similar results - are deliberately designed to discourage formal complaints, raise money, and make the system as punitive as possible. Using technology to impose "personal responsibility" on citizens is shredding the Australian social contract; means testing proved to be a lucrative opportunity for private firms to capitalize on a new market. A tool, she writes, is only as good as the politics that underpin it.

Africa: The Silicon Valley-funded quest to educate the world's poorest kids


In this feature at Quartz Africa, Jenny Anderson compares Silicon Valley-funded private education initiatives in Liberia, Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda, and India to each other and to government-provided public education. In developing countries, nearly 600 million children are either not in school or not learning; in some African countries as much as 40% of teachers were not in the classroom or not in school at all. Quartz visited schools in Kenya, Nigeria, and Liberia, and spoke to more than 40 people about Bridge, a highly scripted technology-based system that is currently educating about 100,000 students and losing $12 million a year. It hopes to educate 10 million children by 2025. Bridge and its methods are opposed by a number of civil society organizations and teachers on grounds of efficacy, transparency, and sustainability, but, says Anderson, shows that innovative models can improve education.

Is the target's citizenship a justified basis for different surveillance rules?


In this video clip from January's Computers, Privacy, and Data Protection conference in Brussels, privacy scholar Peter Swire, Stiftung Neue Verantwortgun's Thorsten Wetzling, Mario Oetheimer, Joseph Cannataci, and Access Now's Amie Stepanovich discuss whether nationality should be used as a criterion for surveillance. Swire believes it's justified to place foreigners under greater surveillance than domestic citizens; Wetzling believes that foreigners should have greater protection against surveillance; and Stepanovich argues that greater privacy rights for any group is a public good. In a net.wars posting, Wendy M. Grossman summarizes the discussion.

Could price manipulation be killing Bitcoin?


In this blog posting, the fourth in a series on Bitcoin, Tony Arcieri examines Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies for signs of price manipulation. Bitcoin's price peaked at $17,000 in November 2017, and slid as low as $7,178.65 in early February 2018, taking other virtual currencies along with it. Like other early Bitcoin investors, Arcieri desires a cryptocurrency system that delivers real value, but fears that instead some cryptocurrencies are Ponzi schemes. Arcieri begs regulators and journalists to look into Tether, which is pegged to the US dollar and makes specific claims about the reserves it holds and the auditing these undergo. CNBC expresses concerns that Tether may be propping up the rest of the cryptocurrency market. The Washington Post reports that in Kentucky poor, umemployed, and retired people are speculating in cryptocurrencies in the hope of finding better prospects. The South China Morning Post reports that China has announced it will block all websites related to cryptocurrency trading and initial coin offerings, and CNBC reports that the Indian finance minister wants to eliminate the use of digital currencies in criminal activity, suggesting tighter regulation in that country.

The right to not be addressed


In this blog posting at EDRi, Bits of Freedom summarizes a speech given by director Hans de Zwart as part of the Big Brother Awards 2017. Zwart proposes a "right to not be addressed" - that is, a right to advertising-free (and surveillance-free) public spaces. Airports  - "a high-dwell environment, delivering a captive audience" - exploit every available opportunity for both. Advertisers and companies like Facebook, Google, and Amazon steal our attention to their benefit rather than our own. The Dutch version includes images and links.




To see more events recommended by the Information Program team, visit: If you would like your event listed in this mail, email

Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency


February 23-24, 2018

New York, NY, USA

FAT* is an international and interdisciplinary peer-reviewed conference that seeks to publish and present work examining the fairness, accountability, and transparency of algorithmic systems. The FAT* conference solicits work from a wide variety of disciplines, including computer science, statistics, the humanities, and law. It intends to bring together the community that has grown through a number of workshops at other conferences.

Internet Freedom Festival


March 5-9, 2018

Valencia, Spain

The global unconference of the Internet freedom communities brings together those who defend digital rights around the world - journalists, activists, technologists, policy advocates, digital safety trainers, and designers - with the goals of creating an inclusive space, increasing diversity, and improving the services, strategies, and tools offered to the most vulnerable individuals on the frontlines.



March 10-15, 2018

San Juan, Puerto Rico

ICANN's Community Forum for 2018 will be focused on outreach, capacity building, and showcasing ICANN's work to a broader global audience.

We Robot 2018


April 12-14, 2018

Palo Alto, California, USA

This conference is the annual gathering of academics, policy makers, roboticists, economists, ethicists, entrepreneurs, and lawyers who care about robots and the future of robot law and policy. We Robot fosters conversations between the people designing, building, and deploying robots, and the people who design or influence the legal and social structures in which robots operate.


April 25, 2018

Winchester, UK

The fifth interdisciplinary Winchester conference on Trust, Risk, Information and the Law has as its overall theme "Public Law, Politics and the Constitution: A new battleground between the Law and Technology?"

Tomorrow's Transactions Forum


April 24-25, 2018

London, UK

The 21st edition of Tomorrow's Transactions will provide an opportunity to look back at the lessons that have been learned across the past decades and cast an eye toward the future to ask, where will technology and regulation, take our world of transactions? For 2018, topics will include AI, futures, open banking, and conversational and contextual commerce.

Internet Freedom Forum


April 24-26, 2018

Abuja, Nigeria

The sixth edition of the Internet Freedom Forum will present a unique platform for discussions and engagement around current trends and emerging issues affecting internet freedom in Africa. Participants at IFF include civil society organizations, policy actors/makers, legal/policy experts, academics, advocates, tech enthusiasts, industry representatives and active citizens among others.

Open Knowledge Summit 2018


May 3-6, 2018

Thessaloniki, Greece

For 2018, the Open Knowledge Foundation has replaced the OKFestival with a summit intended to gather the Open Knowledge network to collaboratively build the future of the Open Knowledge Network. The format and programming will be developed as a collaboration between Open Knowledge International, Open Knowledge Greece, and all other groups in the network.



May 16-18, 2018

Toronto, Ontario, Canada

RightsCon has become one of the world's largest gatherings on human rights and technology, and it's people like you that make it an engine for change. The 2018 event is staged in Canada for a conversation built on the principles of diversity, inclusion, and respect.

Workshop on Technology and Consumer Protection


May 24, 2018

San Francisco, CA, USA

ConPro #18 will explore computer science topics with an impact on consumers. This workshop has a strong security and privacy emphasis, with an overall focus on ways in which computer science can prevent, detect, or address the potential for technology to deceive or unfairly harm consumers. Participants will consist heavily of academic and industry researchers but are also expected to include researchers from the Federal Trade Commission - the U.S. government's primary consumer protection body - and other government agencies with a consumer protection mission.

Privacy Law Scholars


May 30-31

Washington, DC, USA

PLSC is a paper workshop with the goal of improving and providing support for in-progress scholarship. To achieve this, PLSC assembles a wide array of privacy law scholars and practitioners from around the world to discuss the papers. Scholars from many disciplines (psychology/economics, sociology, philosophy, political science, computer science, and even math) also participate.

LIBER Annual Conference


July 4-6, 2018

Lille, France

The 47th annual conference of the Association of European Research Libraries (LIBER) will include plenary sessions with top international speakers, presentations on current research, posters, and an exhibition of products and services for the library sector, as well as a comprehensive social programme.

The Circle of HOPE


July 20-22, 2018

New York, NY, USA

Organized by 2600 Magazine, the 12th biennial Hackers on Planet Earth conference celebrates the hacker spirit. Talks typically feature new ways of examining and dissecting technology to reveal inconvenient truths.



August 9-12, 2018

Las Vegas, NV, USA

The heart of the DEF CON 26 theme is the concept of the counterfuture. The counterfuture is the open-source alternative to totalitarian dystopia; a world where we use tech and ingenuity for empowerment and connection rather than isolation and control.

World Library and Information Congress


August 24-30, 2018

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

The 84th edition of the World Library and Information Congress has the theme, "Transform Libraries, Transform Societies" with the additional tagline, "Reaching out to the hard to reach", which was chosen in recognition of the critical role played by libraries in the development of a nation, particularly in their ability to transform societies.

International Conference of Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners


October 22-26, 2018

Brussels, Belgium

The 40th version of this event will be hosted by the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS), Giovanni Buttarelli and the chair of the Commission for Personal Data Protection of the Republic of Bulgaria, Ventsislav Karadjov. The conference is expected to focus on the recently launched international debate on the ethical dimension of data protection in the digital era. Accompanying conference events will also take place in Bulgaria.


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This page contains a single entry by Wendy M. Grossman published on February 10, 2018 4:44 PM.

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