Sep 14, 2021

Axios Login

It's a nervous time for millions of older iPhones, who are all wondering if they are about to be swapped for a newer model.

Situational awareness: Amazon said it plans to hire 125,000 at locations across the U.S.

Today's newsletter is 1,148 words, a 4-minute read.

1 big thing: Privacy advocate will be new Big Tech threat at FTC

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Ty B Photos

The Biden administration sent another warning to Big Tech yesterday in nominating longtime privacy advocate Alvaro Bedoya to the Federal Trade Commission, Axios' Margaret Harding McGill reports.

Why it matters: Bedoya's expertise on data collection and surveillance — combined with Biden's pick to lead the FTC, tech antitrust legal scholar Lina Khan — signals aggressive action from both the consumer protection and antitrust arms of the agency.

Driving the news: As Axios first reported, Bedoya was tapped to fill the third Democratic seat on the five-member commission, expected to be vacated by commissioner Rohit Chopra, who's been nominated by Biden to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

  • Bedoya, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Peru, is the founding director of the Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown Law School, a think tank focused on privacy and surveillance policy.
  • He has worked on facial recognition and algorithmic bias, including a 2016 report that found that one in two American adults is in a law enforcement facial recognition system.
  • Bedoya was an aide to former Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and chief counsel of the Senate Judiciary privacy subcommittee.
  • "I expect him to aggressively scrutinize Big Tech and other companies that are exploiting people's data," said Charlotte Slaiman, who worked with Bedoya in Franken's office and is now competition policy director at Public Knowledge.

Yes, but: During his time on the Hill, Bedoya maintained an open channel with tech companies, and even during disagreements, it was never "vitriolic," said Adam Kovacevich, the CEO of tech industry group Chamber of Progress and a former leader of Google's U.S. policy strategy and external affairs team.

  • "He is someone that recognizes that in making progress, it can be easier if you invite industry in to chat, rather than shouting at them from the sidewalk," Kovacevich said.

What they're saying: Bedoya's nomination was cheered by civil rights and anti-monopoly groups.

  • "Alvaro has been a firm advocate for accountability in the deployment of algorithmic systems," Algorithmic Justice League founder Joy Buolamwini said. "I expect he will steer the FTC towards establishing redlines and guidelines for a range of facial recognition technologies." 

What's next: Bedoya will have to be confirmed by the Senate, which also must vote on Chopra's nomination to lead the CFPB.

2. Apple rushes patch to fix hole used by spyware

Apple store front. Photo: Wang Gang/VCG via Getty Images

Apple released emergency security updates yesterday after researchers discovered that an Israeli cyber surveillance company's spyware could infect iPhones and other devices without the owner even clicking on a link, Axios' Ivana Saric and I report.

Why it matters: The fix to the intrusion by the NSO Group's Pegasus software came the day before Apple is expected to introduce its latest crop of iPhones. The company touts the security and privacy of its smartphones among its key selling points.

The big picture: The security flaw was discovered by researchers at watchdog group Citizen Lab, which found that the phone of a Saudi political activist had been infected with the Pegasus spyware via iMessage.

  • The device had been hacked using a "zero-click" method that had allowed the spyware to live on the Saudi's phone since February without detection, according to the Washington Post.
  • The same security flaw would enable the software to infect other Apple iPhones, watches and MacBooks, per the Post.

An Apple spokesperson told the New York Times that it is planning to add new spyware barriers to its next software update, due out later this year.

State of play: The NSO Group's Pegasus software made news earlier this summer after an international consortium of investigative journalists revealed it had become a valuable tool for governments to spy on journalists and critics.

3. Facebook allows prominent users to break rules

Facebook has long said that it applies the same rules to all posts, but internal documents obtained by the Wall Street Journal paint a picture of a company that allowed millions of politicians, celebrities and other high-profile users to break those rules without consequence.

Why it matters: It's hard to limit misinformation on a platform when you give a free pass to those with the most reach.

Details: According to the Journal report, Facebook's XCheck program, established to make sure that content reviews of posts by high-profile users were handled with extra care, often gave VIPs a free pass to violate the company's rules.

  • Some were "whitelisted" and allowed to post whatever they want.
  • For others, content issues were passed along to a separate team, which often failed to take action or sometimes even follow-up on reports.
  • By 2020, there were 5.8 million accounts included in the program, the Journal said.

Between the lines: A confidential internal review in 2019 found the practice was both widespread and "not publicly defensible," the Journal reported.

The other side: Facebook, for its part, told the Journal that criticism of the system was "fair" but added that the company is phasing out the practice of whitelisting.

  • "A lot of this internal material is outdated information stitched together to create a narrative that glosses over the most important point: Facebook itself identified the issues with cross check and has been working to address them," Facebook spokesman Andy Stone said in a statement to the Journal.
4. Anti-deepfake startup gets $26M led by Microsoft

A faked photo showing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Elvis meeting. (They didn't.) Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Microsoft's M12 fund is leading a $26 million investment round for Truepic, a San Diego-based startup trying to fight the emerging wave of digitally altered photos and videos, known colloquially as deepfakes.

Why it matters: Already a problem, manipulated media is expected to become an even bigger threat in the coming years, as technology makes it easier to modify video to make anyone say anything.

How it works: Truepic's core system works to ensure that digital images and videos haven't been modified since capture, confirming not only that the pixels have not been altered, but also the metadata, such as the date and location, haven't been changed.

  • Truepic also acquired another technology designed to determine if a captured image is authentic.
  • The company has decided, however, that it is essential to verify media as it is captured.

"Doing detection of a manipulated media post-capture is not a viable path forward," Truepic CEO Jeffrey McGregor told Axios. "It cannot happen at scale, and it cannot happen in a way that is accurate enough to provide business value."

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Continuing the feel-good tradition, check out these calendars made up of images taken by Anthony Schmidt, a 13-year-old boy with autism who photographs miniature cars in settings that make them appear real and life size.