Axios Login

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July 05, 2022

Over the weekend I had the pleasure of attending the wedding of loyal Login reader (and longtime friend) Sharyn and her girlfriend Jan. Congrats you two!

Situational awareness: The European Parliament has officially passed the Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act, Reuters reports, landmark tech legislation aimed at regulating anticompetitive practices, online misinformation and data collection.

Today’s newsletter is 1,058 words, a 4-minute read.

1 big thing: Roe's overturn is tech's privacy apocalypse

Illustration of a search bar being illuminated by a spotlight.
Illustration: Gabriella Turrisi/Axios

America's new abortion reality is turning tech firms' data practices into an active field of conflict — a fight that privacy advocates have long predicted and company leaders have long feared, Axios' Scott Rosenberg writes.

Why it matters: A long legal siege in which abortion-banning states battle tech companies, abortion-friendly states and their own citizens to gather criminal evidence is now a near certainty.

  • The once-abstract privacy argument among policy experts has transformed overnight into a concrete real-world problem, superheated by partisan anger, affecting vast swaths of the U.S. population, with tangible and easily understood consequences.

Driving the news: Google announced Friday a new program to automatically delete the location data of users who visit "particularly personal" locations like "counseling centers, domestic violence shelters, abortion clinics, fertility centers, addiction treatment facilities, weight loss clinics, cosmetic surgery clinics, and others."

  • Google tracks the location of any user who turns on its "location services" — a choice that's required to make many of its programs, like Google Search and Maps, more useful.
  • That tracking happens even when you're logged into non-location-related Google services like YouTube, since Google long ago unified all its accounts.

Between the lines: Google's move won cautious applause but left plenty of open concerns.

  • It's not clear how, and how reliably, Google will identify the locations that trigger automatic data deletion.
  • The company will not delete search requests automatically — users who want to protect themselves will have to do so themselves.
  • A sudden gap in location data could itself be used as evidence in court.

Yes, but: Location data is only one piece of a huge mosaic of data now in abortion-ban enforcers' crosshairs.

  • One obvious target is medical info like period-tracking data, private text messages and emails and broader individual usage records like search queries and site visits.
  • Another is general public information about abortion itself, and how to find and use abortion providers' services.

The big picture: Tech giants grew big and rich by accumulating and monetizing gigantic hoards of personal user data that drove the industry's rise and shape everything it does — including marketing, ad targeting, AI research, content selection and more.

  • The volume of data in companies' hands means that creative prosecutors will find other incriminating items in people's online records that no one ever imagined might be seized in this context.

The intrigue: Tech companies don't want to take sides in the abortion fight but won't be able to avoid being drawn in.

  • As Axios has reported, these firms will likely surrender user data when they receive legitimate requests from law enforcement authorities — although Google says it will "push back on overly broad demands."
  • Determined anti-abortion advocates are likely to challenge companies' policies and even try to pass laws requiring data retention.

Each tech company drawn into this conflict starts from a different position.

  • Apple, unhappy with previous instances of law enforcement demands to unlock or decrypt suspects' iPhones, has long promoted policies that provide users with greater levels of encryption and local data storage.
  • Facebook is known for collecting tons of personal information and in the past has had trouble keeping it safe even when the authorities aren't demanding the data. This new conflict is also arriving just as the company is trimming spending and shifting its attention to metaverse-building.

Be smart: Congress won't save us, or these companies, from this battle.

  • A national privacy law could, depending on its provisions, offer citizens and firms a clearer set of principles to fall back on as individual states crank up their abortion prosecutions.
  • But long efforts by legislators to pass a national privacy law — an effort many companies support — remain stalemated this summer, as they have been for years.

What's next: Expect companies to ramp up plans to encrypt more user data in ways that hand the keys to individuals, insulating the firms from some of the legal crossfire.

2. Hackers claim 1B Chinese citizens’ data

An unidentified hacker or group of hackers say they have 23 terabytes of personal information on as many as 1 billion Chinese citizens and seek 10 bitcoin (around $200,000) in exchange for the data, per Bloomberg.

Why it matters: It's said to be the the largest data leak ever in China, whose authoritarian government is known for gathering and storing enormous volumes of data on citizens.

Details: The data is said to have come via the breach of a Shanghai police database.

  • Binance's CEO tweeted about the hack over the weekend, without naming China specifically.

Our thought bubble: It's an awfully small ransom demand for a billion people’s data. Not that I am in the market.

3. Musk mocks Twitter content labels

A copy of Elon Musk's tweet
Screenshot: @elonmusk (Twitter)

In a July 4 tweet, Elon Musk suggested that if Twitter had been around in the era of the American Revolution, it would have appended a pro-British label to a message from Paul Revere warning that the Redcoats were coming.

Why it matters: The tweet suggests that Musk is still not a fan of labeling posts, even those containing election misinformation.

Driving the news: Musk posted an image of a fictitious tweet from Paul Revere that the British were coming with a message encouraging people to read about the benefits of British taxation.

Be smart: Musk's analogy is strained at best. Twitter doesn't tell people to learn more about government benefits, though it does sometimes append warnings to misleading posts and misinformation about elections, COVID and other topics.

Between the lines: Musk, usually a prolific tweeter, took a long break recently from the site he aims to buy, before returning with a photo of himself and several of his children meeting with Pope Francis.

4. Take note

On tap

  • The powers that be are choosing which vests to pack for Allen & Co.'s annual Sun Valley shindig, which officially kicks off on Wednesday. Among those invited, per Deadline, are Elon Musk, Tim Cook, Mark Zuckerberg, Amazon CEO Andy Jassy and Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai. For more on Sun Valley, definitely check out this NYT profile on the town and its signature conference.

ICYMI

5. After you Login

Fireworks in New York seen from Manhattan
Photo courtesy Zach Edwards

Login reader Zach Edwards, from Utah but in New York, sent in this photo of last night's fireworks, taken from just north of the Empire State Building.