Government

Huawei employees reportedly aided African governments in spying

Posted by | africa, Government, huawei, Mobile | No Comments

A new report from The Wall Street Journal could be another damning piece of evidence for a company already under a good deal of international scrutiny. The paper is reporting that technicians working for Huawei helped members of government in Uganda and Zambia spy on political opponents.

The report cites unnamed senior surveillance officers. The paper adds that an investigation didn’t confirm a direct tie between the Chinese government or Huawei executives. It did, however, appear to confirm that employees for the tech giant played a part in intercepting communications.

The list includes encrypted messages, the use of apps like WhatsApp and Skype and tracking opponents using cellular data.

A representative for Zambia’s ruling party confirmed with the paper that Huawei technicians have helped in the fight against news sites with opposing stances in the country, stating, “Whenever we want to track down perpetrators of fake news, we ask Zicta, which is the lead agency. They work with Huawei to ensure that people don’t use our telecommunications space to spread fake news.”

Huawei has, naturally, denied any involvement, stating that it has “never been engaged in ‘hacking’ activities. Huawei rejects completely these unfounded and inaccurate allegations against our business operations. Our internal investigation shows clearly that Huawei and its employees have not been engaged in any of the activities alleged. We have neither the contracts, nor the capabilities, to do so.”

The company has, of course, been under international scrutiny in places like the U.S. and Europe over concerns that its telecommunications technologies could be used for spying on behalf of the Chinese government, allegations Huawei has strongly and often rebuffed.

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Huawei’s new OS isn’t an Android replacement… yet

Posted by | Android, China, Google, Government, hardware, HarmonyOS, huawei, Mobile, operating system, Policy, Tariffs, Trade war, trump | No Comments

If making an Android alternative was easy, we’d have a lot more of them. Huawei’s HarmonyOS won’t be replacing the mobile operating system for the company anytime soon, and Huawei has made it pretty clear that it would much rather go back to working with Google than go it alone.

Of course, that might not be an option.

The truth is that Huawei and Google were actually getting pretty chummy. They’d worked together plenty, and according to recent rumors, were getting ready to release a smart speaker in a partnership akin to what Google’s been doing with Lenovo in recent years. That was, of course, before Huawei was added to a U.S. “entity list” that ground those plans to a halt.

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Trump administration bans federal agencies from buying Huawei, ZTE tech

Posted by | 5g, Congress, Gadgets, Government, Hikvision, huawei, Hytera, Policy, Security, spokesperson, telecommunications, Trump administration, United States, zte | No Comments

The Trump administration has banned U.S. federal agencies from buying equipment and obtaining services from Huawei and two other companies as part of the government’s latest crackdown on Chinese technology amid national security fears.

Jacob Wood, a spokesperson for the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, was quoted as saying that the administration will “fully comply” with the legislation passed by Congress as part of a defense spending bill passed last year.

CNBC first reported the spokesperson’s remarks.

The new rule will take effect in a week — August 13 — and will also take aim at Chinese tech giants ZTE, Hytera, and Hikvision, amid fears that the companies could spy for the Chinese government. The rule comes in a year before Congress’ mandated deadline of August 2020 for all federal contractors doing business with Huawei, ZTE, Hytera and Hikvision.

The government will grant waivers to contractors on a case-by-case basis so long as their work does not pose a national security threat.

Huawei has long claimed it does not nor can it spy for the Chinese government. Critics, including the government and many lawmakers, say the company’s technology, primarily networking equipment like 5G cell stations, could put Americans’ data at risk of Chinese surveillance or espionage. Huawei has vigorously denied the allegations, despite findings from the U.K. government that gave a damning assessment of the technology’s security.

The company first came to focus in 2012 following a House inquiry, which labeled the company a national security threat.

Huawei spokesperson Chase Skinner said the news was “not unexpected” and that it continues to challenge the ban in court.

“The NDAA law and its implementing provisions will do nothing to ensure the protection of U.S. telecom networks and systems and rather is trade barrier based on country-of-origin, invoking punitive action without any evidence of wrong doing,” he said. “Ultimately, it will be rural citizens across the U.S. that will be most negatively impacted as the networks they use for digital connectivity rely on Huawei.”

ZTE did not respond to a request for comment.

Added statement from Huawei spokesperson.

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A closer look at China’s smartphone market

Posted by | Apple, Asia, China, Government, hardware, huawei, iPhone, Mobile, mobile phone, Policy, Samsung, smartphones, Tariffs, Tim Cook, Trade war | No Comments

In February 2013, China surpassed the United States to become the world’s largest smartphone market. More than half a decade on, it still proves an elusive target for international sellers. A glance at reports from the past several quarters reveals the top spots dominated by homegrown names: Huawei, Vivo, Oppo, Xiaomi.

Combined, the big four made up roughly 84% of the nearly 100 million smartphones shipped last quarter, per new numbers from Canalys. Even international giants like Apple and Samsung have trouble cracking double-digit market share. Of the two, Apple has generally done better, with around 6% of the market — around six times Samsung’s share.

But Apple’s struggles have been very visible nonetheless, as the company has invested a good deal of its own future success into the China market. At the beginning of the year, the company took the rare action of lowering its guidance for Q1, citing China as the primary driver.

“While we anticipated some challenges in key emerging markets, we did not foresee the magnitude of the economic deceleration, particularly in Greater China,” Tim Cook said in a letter to shareholders at the time. “In fact, most of our revenue shortfall to our guidance, and over 100 percent of our year-over-year worldwide revenue decline, occurred in Greater China across iPhone, Mac and iPad.”

When it came time to report, things were disappointing, as expected. The company’s revenue in the area dropped nearly $5 billion, year over year. On the tail of two rough quarters, things picked up a bit for Apple in the country. This week, Tim Cook noted “great improvement” in Greater China.

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Chinese space station Tiangong-2 is about to burn up over the Pacific

Posted by | China, CNSA, Gadgets, Government, hardware, Space, tiangong, tiangong-2 | No Comments

The final hours for China’s Tiangong-2 space station are at hand, as the 8-ton piece of hardware will fall to earth, or rather sea, some time in the next 20 hours or so in a controlled deorbit manuever.  But unlike with its predecessor, it isn’t a mystery where this particular piece of space debris is going to fall.

Tiangong-2 is a small space station that was put into orbit in 2016 to test a number of China’s orbital technologies; it was originally planned to stay up there for two years, but as many a well-engineered piece of space kit has done, it greatly exceeded its expected lifespan and has been operational for more than a thousand days now.

Chinese Taikonauts have visited the station to perform experiments, test tools, orbital refueling, and all that sort of thing. But it’s not nearly as well equipped as the International Space Station, nor as spacious — and that’s saying something — so they only stayed a month, and even that must have been pretty grueling.

The time has come, however, for Tiangong-2 to be deorbited and, naturally, destroyed in the process. The China National Space Administration indicated that the 18-meter-wide station and solar panels will mostly burn up during reentry, but that a small amount of debris may fall “in a safe area in the South Pacific,” specifying a rather large area that does technically include quite a bit of New Zealand. (160-190°W long by 30-45°S lat)

They did not specify when exactly it would be coming down, except that it would be during July 19 Beijing time (it’s already morning there at the time of publishing). It should produce a visible streak but not anything you’ll see if you aren’t looking for it. This visualization from The Aerospace Company shows how the previous, very similar station would break up:

It’ll be different this time around but you get a general idea.

That’s much better than Tiangong-1, which stopped responding to its operators after several years and as such could not be deliberately guided into a safe reentry path. Instead it just slowly drifted down until people were pretty sure it would be reentering sometime in the following few days — and it did.

There was never any real danger that the bus-sized station would land on anyone, but it’s just fundamentally a little unnerving not knowing where the thing would be coming down.

This isn’t the last Tiangong; Tiangong-3 is planned for a 2020 launch, and will further inform the Chinese engineers and astronauts in their development of a more full-featured space station planned for a couple years down the line.

Controlled deorbit is the responsible thing to do, not to mention just plain polite, and the CNSA is doing the right thing here. All the same, Kiwis should probably carry umbrellas tomorrow.

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FaceApp gets federal attention as Sen. Schumer raises alarm on data use

Posted by | Apps, artificial intelligence, charles schumer, FaceApp, Government, Mobile, privacy, TC | No Comments

It’s been hard to get away from FaceApp over the last few days, whether it’s your friends posting weird selfies using the app’s aging and other filters, or the brief furore over its apparent (but not actual) circumvention of permissions on iPhones. Now even the Senate is getting in on the fun: Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has asked the FBI and the FTC to look into the app’s data handling practices.

“I write today to express my concerns regarding FaceApp,” he writes in a letter sent to FBI Director Christopher Wray and FTC Chairman Joseph Simons. I’ve excerpted his main concerns below:

In order to operate the application, users must provide the company full and irrevocable access to their personal photos and data. According to its privacy policy, users grant FaceApp license to use or publish content shared with the application, including their username or even their real name, without notifying them or providing compensation.

Furthermore, it is unclear how long FaceApp retains a user’s data or how a user may ensure their data is deleted after usage. These forms of “dark patterns,” which manifest in opaque disclosures and broader user authorizations, can be misleading to consumers and may even constitute a deceptive trade practices. Thus, I have serious concerns regarding both the protection of the data that is being aggregated as well as whether users are aware of who may have access to it.

In particular, FaceApp’s location in Russia raises questions regarding how and when the company provides access to the data of U.S. citizens to third parties, including potentially foreign governments.

For the cave-dwellers among you (and among whom I normally would proudly count myself) FaceApp is a selfie app that uses AI-esque techniques to apply various changes to faces, making them look older or younger, adding accessories, and, infamously, changing their race. That didn’t go over so well.

There’s been a surge in popularity over the last week, but it was also noticed that the app seemed to be able to access your photos whether you said it could or not. It turns out that this is actually a normal capability of iOS, but it was being deployed here in somewhat of a sneaky manner and not as intended. And arguably it was a mistake on Apple’s part to let this method of selecting a single photo go against the “never” preference for photo access that a user had set.

Fortunately the Senator’s team is not worried about this or even the unfounded (we checked) concerns that FaceApp was secretly sending your data off in the background. It isn’t. But it very much does send your data to Russia when you tell it to give you an old face, or a hipster face, or whatever. Because the computers that do the actual photo manipulation are located there — these filters are being applied in the cloud, not directly on your phone.

His concerns are over the lack of transparency that user data is being sent out to servers who knows where, to be kept for who knows how long, and sold to who knows whom. Fortunately the obliging FaceApp managed to answer most of these questions before the Senator’s letter was ever posted.

The answers to his questions, should we choose to believe them, are that user data is not in fact sent to Russia, the company doesn’t track users and usually can’t, doesn’t sell data to third parties, and deletes “most” photos within 48 hours.

Although the “dark patterns” of which the Senator speaks are indeed an issue, and although it would have been much better if FaceApp had said up front what it does with your data, this is hardly an attempt by a Russian adversary to build up a database of U.S. citizens.

While it is good to see Congress engaging with digital privacy, asking the FBI and FTC to look into a single app seems unproductive when that app is not doing much that a hundred others, American and otherwise, have been doing for years. Cloud-based processing and storage of user data is commonplace — though usually disclosed a little better.

Certainly as Sen. Schumer suggests, the FTC should make sure that “there are adequate safeguards in place to protect the privacy of Americans…and if not, that the public be made aware of the risks associated with the use of this application or others similar to it.” But this seems the wrong nail to hang that on. We see surreptitious slurping of contact lists, deceptive deletion promises, third-party sharing of poorly anonymized data, and other bad practices in apps and services all the time — if the federal government wants to intervene, let’s have it. But let’s have a law or a regulation, not a strongly worded letter written after the fact.

Schumer Faceapp Letter by TechCrunch on Scribd

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Facebook’s regulation dodge: Let us, or China will

Posted by | Apps, blockchain, China, cryptocurrency, David Marcus, eCommerce, Facebook, Facebook Regulation, Finance, Government, Libra, Mark Zuckerberg, Mobile, Nick Clegg, payments, Policy, privacy, Sheryl Sandberg, TC | No Comments

Facebook is leaning on fears of China exporting its authoritarian social values to counter arguments that it should be broken up or slowed down. Its top executives have each claimed that if the U.S. limits its size, blocks its acquisitions or bans its cryptocurrency, Chinese company’s absent these restrictions will win abroad, bringing more power and data to their government. CEO Mark Zuckerberg, COO Sheryl Sandberg and VP of communications Nick Clegg have all expressed this position.

The latest incarnation of this talking point came in today’s and yesterday’s congressional hearings over Libra, the Facebook-spearheaded digital currency it hopes to launch in the first half of 2020. Facebook’s head of its blockchain subsidiary Calibra, David Marcus, wrote in his prepared remarks to the House Financial Services Committee today that (emphasis added):

I believe that if America does not lead innovation in the digital currency and payments area, others will. If we fail to act, we could soon see a digital currency controlled by others whose values are dramatically different.

Senate Banking Committee Holds Hearing On Facebook's Proposed Crypto Currency

WASHINGTON, DC – JULY 16: Head of Facebook’s Calibra David Marcus testifies during a hearing before Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee July 16, 2019 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The committee held the hearing on “Examining Facebook’s Proposed Digital Currency and Data Privacy Considerations.” (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Marcus also told the Senate Banking Subcommittee yesterday that “I believe if we stay put we’re going to be in a situation in 10, 15 years where half the world is on a blockchain technology that is out of reach of our national-security apparatus.”.

This argument is designed to counter House-drafted “Keep Big Tech Out of Finance” legislation that Reuters reports would declare that companies like Facebook that earn over $25 billion in annual revenue “may not establish, maintain, or operate a digital asset . . .  that is intended to be widely used as medium of exchange, unit of account, store of value, or any other similar function.”

The message Facebook is trying to deliver is that cryptocurrencies are inevitable. Blocking Libra would just open the door to even less scrupulous actors controlling the technology. Facebook’s position here isn’t limited to cryptocurrencies, though.

The concept crystallized exactly a year ago when Zuckerberg said in an interview with Recode’s Kara Swisher, “I think you have this question from a policy perspective, which is, do we want American companies to be exporting across the world?” (emphasis added):

We grew up here, I think we share a lot of values that I think people hold very dear here, and I think it’s generally very good that we’re doing this, both for security reasons and from a values perspective. Because I think that the alternative, frankly, is going to be the Chinese companies. If we adopt a stance which is that, ‘Okay, we’re gonna, as a country, decide that we wanna clip the wings of these companies and make it so that it’s harder for them to operate in different places, where they have to be smaller,’ then there are plenty of other companies out that are willing and able to take the place of the work that we’re doing.

When asked if he specifically meant Chinese companies, Zuckerberg doubled down, saying (emphasis added):

Yeah. And they do not share the values that we have. I think you can bet that if the government hears word that it’s election interference or terrorism, I don’t think Chinese companies are going to wanna cooperate as much and try to aid the national interest there.

WASHINGTON, DC – APRIL 10: Facebook co-founder, Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a combined Senate Judiciary and Commerce committee hearing in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill April 10, 2018 in Washington, DC. Zuckerberg, 33, was called to testify after it was reported that 87 million Facebook users had their personal information harvested by Cambridge Analytica, a British political consulting firm linked to the Trump campaign. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

This April, Zuckerberg went deeper when he described how Facebook would refuse to comply with data localization laws in countries with poor track records on human rights. The CEO explained the risk of data being stored in other countries, which is precisely what might happen if regulators hamper Facebook and innovation happens elsewhere. Zuckerberg told philosopher Yuval Harari that (emphasis added):

When I look towards the future, one of the things that I just get very worried about is the values that I just laid out [for the internet and data] are not values that all countries share. And when you get into some of the more authoritarian countries and their data policies, they’re very different from the kind of regulatory frameworks that across Europe and across a lot of other places, people are talking about or put into place . . . And the most likely alternative to each country adopting something that encodes the freedoms and rights of something like GDPR, in my mind, is the authoritarian model, which is currently being spread, which says every company needs to store everyone’s data locally in data centers and then, if I’m a government, I can send my military there and get access to whatever data I want and take that for surveillance or military.

I just think that that’s a really bad future. And that’s not the direction, as someone who’s building one of these internet services, or just as a citizen of the world, I want to see the world going. If a government can get access to your data, then it can identify who you are and go lock you up and hurt you and your family and cause real physical harm in ways that are just really deep.

facebook logo down glitch

Facebook’s newly hired head of communications, Nick Clegg, told reporters back in January that (emphasis added):

These are of course legitimate questions, but we don’t hear so much about China, which combines astonishing ingenuity with the ability to process data on a vast scale without the legal and regulatory constraints on privacy and data protection that we require on both sides of the Atlantic . . .  [and this data could be] put to more sinister surveillance ends, as we’ve seen with the Chinese government’s controversial social credit system.

In response to Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes’ call that Facebook should be broken up, Clegg wrote in May that “Facebook shouldn’t be broken up — but it does need to be held to account. Anyone worried about the challenges we face in an online world should look at getting the rules of the internet right, not dismantling successful American companies.”

He hammered home the alternative the next month during a speech in Berlin (emphasis added):

If we in Europe and America don’t turn off the white noise and begin to work together, we will sleepwalk into a new era where the internet is no longer a universal space but a series of silos where different countries set their own rules and authoritarian regimes soak up their citizens’ data while restricting their freedom . . . If the West doesn’t engage with this question quickly and emphatically, it may be that it isn’t ours to answer. The common rules created in our hemisphere can become the example the rest of the world follows.

COO Sheryl Sandberg made the point most directly in an interview with CNBC in May (emphasis added):

You could break us up, you could break other tech companies up, but you actually don’t address the underlying issues people are concerned about . . . While people are concerned with the size and power of tech companies, there’s also a concern in the United States about the size and power of Chinese tech companies and the … realization that those companies are not going to be broken up.

WASHINGTON, DC – SEPTEMBER 5: Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg testifies during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing concerning foreign influence operations’ use of social media platforms, on Capitol Hill, September 5, 2018 in Washington, DC. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg faced questions about how foreign operatives use their platforms in attempts to influence and manipulate public opinion. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Scared tactics

Indeed, China does not share the United States’ values on individual freedoms and privacy. And yes, breaking up Facebook could weaken its products like WhatsApp, providing more opportunities for apps like Chinese tech giant Tencent’s WeChat to proliferate.

But letting Facebook off the hook won’t solve the problems China’s influence poses to an open and just internet. Framing the issue as “strong regulation lets China win” creates a false dichotomy. There are more constructive approaches if Zuckerberg seriously wants to work with the government on exporting freedom via the web. And the distrust Facebook has accrued through the mistakes it’s made in the absence of proper regulation arguably do plenty to hurt the perception of how American ideals are spread through its tech companies.

Breaking up Facebook may not be the answer, especially if it’s done in retaliation for its wrong-doings instead of as a coherent way to prevent more in the future. To that end, a better approach might be stopping future acquisitions of large or rapidly growing social networks, forcing it to offer true data portability so existing users have the freedom to switch to competitors, applying proper oversight of its privacy policies and requiring a slow rollout of Libra with testing in each phase to ensure it doesn’t screw consumers, enable terrorists or jeopardize the world economy.

Resorting to scare tactics shows that it’s Facebook that’s scared. Years of growth over safety strategy might finally catch up with it. The $5 billion FTC fine is a slap on the wrist for a company that profits more than that per quarter, but a break-up would do real damage. Instead of fear-mongering, Facebook would be better served by working with regulators in good faith while focusing more on preempting abuse. Perhaps it’s politically savvy to invoke the threat of China to stoke the worries of government officials, and it might even be effective. That doesn’t make it right.

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Highlights from Facebook’s Libra Senate hearing

Posted by | Apps, blockchain, cryptocurrency, David Marcus, eCommerce, Education, Facebook, Finance, Government, Libra, Libra Association, Mobile, payments, Policy, privacy, Social, TC, U.S. Senate | No Comments

Facebook will only build its own Calibra cryptocurrency wallet into Messenger and WhatsApp, and will refuse to embed competing wallets, the head of Calibra David Marcus told the Senate Banking Committee today. While some, like Senator Brown, blustered that “Facebook is dangerous!,” others surfaced poignant questions about Libra’s risks.

Calibra will be interoperable, so users can send money back and forth with other wallets, and Marcus committed to data portability so users can switch entirely to a competitor. But solely embedding Facebook’s own wallet into its leading messaging apps could give the company a sizable advantage over banks, PayPal, Coinbase or any other potential wallet developer.

Other highlights from the “Examining Facebook’s Proposed Digital Currency and Data Privacy Considerations” hearing included Marcus saying:

  • The U.S. should “absolutely” lead the world in rule-making for cryptocurrencies
  • The Libra Association chose to be headquartered in Switzerland “not to evade any responsibilities of oversight” but since it’s where international financial groups like the Bank for International Settlements, though Calibra will be regulated by the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network
  • “Yes,” Libra will comply with all U.S. regulations and not launch until the U.S. lawmakers’ concerns have been answered
  • “You will not have to trust Facebook” because it’s only one of 28 current and potentially 100 or more Libra Association members and it won’t have special privileges
  • “Yes I would” accept compensation from Facebook in the form of Libra as a show of trust in the currency
  • It is “not the intention at all” for Calibra to sell or directly monetize user data directly, though if it offered additional financial services in partnership with other financial organizations it would ask consent to use their data specifically for those purposes
  • Facebook’s core revenue model around Libra is that more online commerce will lead businesses to spend more on Facebook ads
  • When repeatedly asked why Facebook is pushing Libra to happen, Marcus noted that blockchain technology is inevitable and if the U.S. doesn’t lead in building and regulating it, the tech will come from places “out of reach of our national security apparatus,” raising the spectre of China

But Marcus also didn’t clearly answer some critical questions about Libra and Calibra, and may be asked again when he testifies before the House Financial Services Committee tomorrow.

Unanswered Questions

Chairman Crapo asked if Facebook would collect data about transactions made with Calibra that are made on Facebook, such as when users buy products from businesses they discover through Facebook. Marcus instead merely noted that Facebook would still let users pay with credit cards and other mediums as well as Calibra. That means that even though Facebook might not know how much money is in someone’s Calibra wallet or their other transactions, it might know how much they paid and for what if that transaction happens over their social networks.

Senator Tillis asked how much Facebook has invested in the formation of Libra. TechCrunch has also asked specifically how much Facebook has invested in the Libra Investment Token that will earn it a share of interest earned from the fiat currencies in the Libra Reserve. Marcus said Facebook and Calibra hadn’t determined exactly how much it would invest in the project. Marcus also didn’t clearly answer Senator Toomey’s question of why the Libra Association is considered a not-for-profit organization if it will pay out interest to members.

Senator Menendez asked if the Libra Association would freeze the assets if terrorist organizations were identified. Marcus said that Calibra and other custodial wallets that actually hold users’ Libra could do that, and that regulated off-ramps could block them from converting Libra into fiat. But this answer underscores that there may be no way for the Libra Association to stop transfers between terrorists’ non-custodial wallets, especially if local governments where those terrorists operate don’t step in.

Perhaps the most worrying moment of the hearing was when Senator Sinema brought up TechCrunch’s article citing that “The real risk of Libra is crooked developers.” There I wrote that Facebook’s VP of product Kevin Weil told me that “There are no plans for the Libra Association to take a role in actively vetting [developers],” which I believe leaves the door open to a crypto Cambridge Analytica situation where shady developers steal users money, not just their data.

Senator Sinema asked if an Arizonan was scammed out of their Libra by a Pakistani developer via a Thai exchange and a Spanish wallet, would that U.S. citizen be entitled to protection to recuperate their lost funds. Marcus responded that U.S. citizens would likely use American Libra wallets that are subject to protections and that the Libra Association will work to educate users on how to avoid scams. But Sinema stressed that if Libra is designed to assist the poor who are often less educated, they could be especially vulnerable to scammers.

Here @SenatorSinema cites my article warning that we need protection from Facebook Libra’s unvetted developers https://t.co/gYeYIQVFLj pic.twitter.com/QSqVDztpCU

— Josh Constine (@JoshConstine) July 16, 2019

Crypto openness versus a dangerous Wild West

Overall, the hearing was surprisingly coherent. Many Senators showed strong base knowledge of how Libra worked and asked the right questions. Marcus was generally forthcoming, beyond the topics of how much Facebook has invested in the Libra project and what data it will glean from transactions atop its social network.

Some of the top concerns, such as terrorist money laundering, encompass the entire cryptocurrency ecosystem and can’t be solved even by strong rules around Libra. Little regard was given to how Libra could improve remittance or cut transaction fees that see corporations profit off families and small businesses.

Still, if Libra actually becomes popular and evolves as an open ecosystem full of unvetted developers, the currency could be used to facilitate scams. Precisely because of the lack of trust in Facebook that many Senators harped on, consumers could go seeking Libra wallet alternatives to the company that might push them into the hands of evildoers. The Libra Association may need to shift the balance further toward safety and away from cryptocurrency’s prevailing philosophies from openness. Otherwise, the frontiers of this Wild West could prove dangerous, even if its civilized regions are well-regulated.

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Facebook’s testimony to Congress: Libra will be regulated by Swiss

Posted by | Apps, blockchain, Calibra, Congress, cryptocurrency, David Marcus, eCommerce, Facebook, Finance, Government, house of representatives, Libra, Libra Association, Mobile, payments, Personnel, Social, TC, U.S. Senate | No Comments

The head of Facebook’s blockchain subsidiary Calibra David Marcus has released his prepared testimony before Congress for tomorrow and Wednesday, explaining that the Libra Association will be regulated by the Swiss government because that’s where it’s headquartered. Meanwhile, he says the Libra Association and Facebook’s Calibra wallet intend to comply will all U.S. tax, anti-money laundering and anti-fraud laws.

“The Libra Association expects that it will be licensed, regulated, and subject to supervisory oversight. Because the Association is headquartered in Geneva, it will be supervised by the Swiss Financial Markets Supervisory Authority (FINMA),” Marcus writes. “We have had preliminary discussions with FINMA and expect to engage with them on an appropriate regulatory framework for the Libra Association. The Association also intends to register with FinCEN [The U.S. Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network] as a money services business.”

Marcus will be defending Libra before the Senate Banking Committee on July 16th and the House Financial Services Committees on July 17th. The House subcomittee’s Rep. Maxine Waters has already issued a letter to Facebook and the Libra Association requesting that it halt development and plans to launch Libra in early 2020 “until regulators and Congress have an opportunity to examine these issues and take action.”

The big question is whether Congress is savvy enough to understand Libra to the extent that it can coherently regulate it. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s testimonies before Congress last year were rife with lawmakers dispensing clueless or off-topic questions.

Sen. Orin Hatch infamously demanded to know “how do you sustain a business model in which users don’t pay for your service?,” to which Zuckerberg smirked, “Senator, we run ads.” If that concept trips up Congress, it’s hard to imagine it grasping a semi-decentralized stablecoin cryptocurrency that took us 4,000 words to properly explain, and a six-minute video just to summarize.

Attempting to assuage a core concern that Libra is trying to replace the dollar or meddle in financial policy, Marcus writes that “The Libra Association, which will manage the Reserve, has no intention of competing with any sovereign currencies or entering the monetary policy arena. It will work with the Federal Reserve and other central banks to make sure Libra does not compete with sovereign currencies or interfere with monetary policy. Monetary policy is properly the province of central banks.”

Marcus’ testimony comes days after President Donald Trump tweeted Friday to condemn Libra, claiming that “Unregulated Crypto Assets can facilitate unlawful behavior, including drug trade and other illegal activity. Similarly, Facebook Libra’s ‘virtual currency’ will have little standing or dependability. If Facebook and other companies want to become a bank, they must seek a new Banking Charter and become subject to all Banking Regulations, just like other Banks, both National and International.”

TechCrunch asked Facebook for a response Friday, which it declined to provide. However, a Facebook spokesperson noted that the Libra Association won’t interact with consumers or operate as a bank, and that Libra is meant to be a complement to the existing financial system.

Regarding how Libra will comply with U.S. anti-money laundering (AML) and know-your-customer (KYC) laws, Marcus explains that “The Libra Association is similarly committed to supporting efforts by regulators, central banks, and lawmakers to ensure that Libra contributes to the fight against money laundering, terrorism financing, and more,” Marcus explains. “The Libra Association will also maintain policies and procedures with respect to AML and the Bank Secrecy Act, combating the financing of terrorism, and other national security-related laws, with which its members will be required to comply if they choose to provide financial services on the Libra network.”

He argues that “Libra should improve detection and enforcement, not set them back,” because cash transactions are frequently used by criminals to avoid law enforcement. “A network that helps move more paper cash transactions—where many illicit activities happen—to a digital network that features regulated on- and off-ramps with proper know-your-customer (KYC) practices, combined with the ability for law enforcement and regulators to conduct their own analysis of on-chain activity, will present an opportunity to increase the efficacy of financial crimes monitoring and enforcement.”

As for Facebook itself, Marcus writes that “The Calibra wallet will comply with FinCEN’s rules for its AML/CFT program and the rules set by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) . . . Similarly, Calibra will comply with the Bank Secrecy Act and will incorporate KYC and AML/CFT methodologies used around the world.”

These answers might help to calm finance legal eagles, but I expect much of the questioning from Congress will deal with the far more subjective matter of whether Facebook can be trusted after a decade of broken privacy promises, data leaks and fake news scandals like Cambridge Analytica.

That’s why I don’t expect the following statement from Marcus about how Facebook has transformed the state of communication will play well with lawmakers that are angry about how those changes impacted society. “We have done a lot to democratize free, unlimited communications for billions of people. We want to help do the same for digital currency and financial services, but with one key difference: We will relinquish control over the network and currency we have helped create.” Congress may interpret “democratize” as “screw up,” and not want to see the same happen to money.

Facebook and Calibra may have positive intentions to assist the unbanked who are indeed swindled by banks and money transfer services that levy huge fees against poorer families. But Facebook isn’t acting out of pure altruism here, as it stands to earn money from Libra in three big ways that aren’t mentioned in Marcus’ testimony:

  1. It will earn a share of interest earned on the Libra Reserve of traditional currencies it holds as collateral for Libra that could mount into the billions if Libra becomes popular.
  2. It will see Facebook ad sales grow if merchants seek to do more commerce over the internet because they can easily and cheaply accept online payments through Libra and therefore put marketing spend into those efficiently converting channels like Facebook and Google.
  3. It will try to sell additional financial services through Calibra, potentially including loans and credit where it could ask users to let it integrate their Facebook data to get a better rate, potentially decreasing defaults and earning Facebook larger margins than other players.

The real-world stakes are much higher here than in photo sharing, and warrant properly regulatory scrutiny. No matter how much Facebook tries to distance itself from ownership of Libra, it started, incubated and continues to lead the project. If Congress is already convinced “big is bad,” and Libra could make Facebook bigger, that may make it difficult to separate their perceptions of Facebook and Libra in order to assess the currency on its merits and risks.

Below you can read Marcus’ full testimony:

For full details on how Libra works, read our feature story on everything you need to know:

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Facebook answers how Libra taxes & anti-fraud will work

Posted by | Apps, blockchain, Calibra, cryptocurrency, donald trump, eCommerce, Facebook, Finance, Government, Libra, Libra Association, Mobile, payments, Policy, TC | No Comments

Facebook provided TechCrunch with new information on how its cryptocurrency will stay legal amidst allegations from President Trump that Libra could facilitate “unlawful behavior.” Facebook and Libra Association executives tell me they expect Libra will incur sales tax and capital gains taxes. They confirmed that Facebook is also in talks with local convenience stores and money exchanges to ensure anti-laundering checks are applied when people cash-in or cash-out Libra for traditional currency, and to let you use a QR code to buy or sell Libra in person.

A Facebook spokesperson said the company wouldn’t respond directly to Trump’s tweets, but noted that the Libra association won’t interact with consumers or operate as a bank, and that Libra is meant to be a complement to the existing financial system.

Trump had tweeted that “Unregulated Crypto Assets can facilitate unlawful behavior, including drug trade and other illegal activity. Similarly, Facebook Libra’s ‘virtual currency’ will have little standing or dependability. If Facebook and other companies want to become a bank, they must seek a new Banking Charter and become subject to all Banking Regulations, just like other Banks, both National and International.”

For a primer on how Libra works, watch our explainer video below or read our deep dive into everything you need to know:

In a wide-reaching series of interviews this week, the Libra Association’s head of policy Dante Disparte, Facebook’s head economist for blockchain Christian Catalini and Facebook’s blockchain project subsidiary Calibra’s VP of product Kevin Weil answered questions about regulation of Libra. Here’s what we’ve learned (their answers were trimmed for clarity but not edited):

Would Facebook’s Calibra Wallet launch elsewhere even if it’s banned in the USA by regulators?

Calibra’s Kevin Weil: We believe that creating a financial ecosystem that has significantly broader access where all it takes is a phone and lower transaction fees across the board is good for people. And we want to bring it to as many people around the world as we can. But as a custodial wallet we are regulated and will be compliant and we will only operate in markets where we’re allowed.

We want that to be as many markets as possible. That’s why we announced well in advance of actually launching a product — because we’ve been engaging with regulators. We’re continuing to engage with regulators and we can help them understand the effort that we’re taking to make sure that people are safe and also the value that accrues to the people in their countries when there’s broader access to financial services with lower transaction fees across the board.

Facebook Calibra Libra Wallet

TechCrunch: But what if you’re banned in the U.S.?

Weil: I’m hesitant to give a blanket answer. But in general, we believe that Libra is positive for people and we want to launch as broadly as possible. The world where the U.S. does that I think would probably cause other regulatory regimes to also be concerned about it. I think that’s very much a bridge that we’ll cross when we get there. But so far we’re having frank, open and honest discussions with regulators. Obviously, that continues next week with David’s testimony. And I hope it doesn’t come to that, because I think that Libra can do a lot of good for a lot of people.

TechCrunch’s Analysis: The U.S. House subcommittee has already submitted a letter to Facebook requesting that it cease development of Libra and Calibra until regulators can better examine it and take action. It sounds like Facebook believes a U.S. ban on Libra/Calibra would cause a domino effect in other top markets, and therefore make it tough to rationalize still launching. That puts even more pressure on the outcome of July 16th and 17th’s congressional hearings on Libra with the head of Facebook’s head of Calibra, David Marcus.

How will users cash-in and cash-out of Libra in person?

We already know that Facebook’s own Libra wallet called Calibra will be baked into Messenger and WhatsApp plus have its own standalone app. There, those with connected bank accounts and government ID that go through a Know Your Customer (KYC) anti-fraud/laundering check will be able to buy and sell Libra. But a big goal of Libra is to bring the unbanked into the modern financial system. How does that work?

Weil: Because Libra is an open ecosystem, any money exchange business or entrepreneur can begin supporting cash-in/cash-out without needing any permission from anyone associated with the Libra Association or member of the Libra Association. They can just do it. Today in a lot of emerging markets [there’s a service for matching you with someone to exchange cryptocurrency for cash or vice-versa called] LocalBitcoins.com and I think you’ll see that with Libra too.

Second, we can augment that by by working with local exchanges, convenience stores and other cash-in/cash-out providers to make it easy from within Calibra. You could imagine an experience in the Calibra app or within Messenger or WhatsApp, where if you want to cash in or cash out, you’ll pop up a map that highlights physical locations around that allow you to do it. You select one that’s nearby, you select an amount, and you get a QR code that you can take to them and complete the transaction.

I’d imagine that most of these businesses that we work with will support Libra more broadly, so even if we get these deals started it will benefit the whole ecosystem and every Libra wallet, not just Calibra.

Facebook Calibra

TechCrunch: Have you struck relationships with any convenience store operators or money exchangers like Western Union or MoneyGram, or Walgreens, CVS or 7-Eleven? Are you in talks with them yet?

Weil: I probably shouldn’t comment on any specific deals but we’re in conversation with a lot of the folks you might think, because ultimately being able to move between Libra and your local currency is critical to driving adoption and utility in the early days . . . If you’re banked there are easier ways to do that. If you’re not banked and you’re in cash — those are the people we really want to serve with Libra — we’re working very hard to make that process easy for people.

TechCrunch’s analysis: This approach will let Calibra largely avoid the complicated and potentially error-prone process of KYCing people in person or handing out cash by offloading the responsibility and liability to other parties.

How will Libra stop fraud or laundering while offering access to unbanked users without ID?

Weil: There are very important populations that don’t have an ID. People in a refugee camp may not, as an example, and we want Libra to serve them. So this is one example of many of why it’s important that Calibra isn’t the only option for people who want to participate in the Libra ecosystem  . . . Others of these will be run by local providers and they have programs to meet customers face-to-face and other ways to serve people and even KYC them that we may not . . .  We’re not going be the only wallet, we don’t want to be the only wallet.

This is one of the reasons NGOs have been members of the Libra association from the start, because we want to encourage the monetization of identity processes both through working with governments issuing credentials for more people and also making use of new types of information for identity and authentication. We hope this process will hep the last mile problem.

In the case of a non-custodial wallet, the user isn’t trusting anyone. The way the regulations have worked and this is evolving as we speak. The on-ramps and off-ramps to the crypto world are regulated and they have direct customer relationships and it’s their responsibility to KYC people. In our case we’ll be a custodial wallet and we’ll KYC people. There are a number of wallets in the Bitcoin or Ethereum ecosystem — non-custodial wallets that don’t have a direct relationships with the users. . . They have to get that Bitcoin somehow. Usually they’re going through an exchange where usually as part of the process they’re KYC’d.

In a lot of emerging markets you have LocalBitcoins.com where you can find a representative or agent who will meet you in person and exchange cash for bitcoin in whatever market you have to be in. And I believe that they just started making sure that they KYC everyone, but they’re doing it in person. And they have more flexibility in how they do it than you might otherwise. I think there are lots of ways that this will happen and the fact that Libra is an open ecosystem will enable people to be entrepreneurial about it.

There are lots an lots of people who are underserved by today’s financial ecosystem who have government ID. So even with requiring everyone go through a KYC process, we’ll be able to serve many, many people who are not well-served by today’s financial ecosystem. We want to find ways to support people who can’t KYC and the important part is that Calibra will fully interoperate with any other wallet, including ones that people in local markets are using because it’s a better fit for their needs.

TechCrunch: Through that interoperability, if someone with a non-custodial wallet receives Libra and then sends it a Calibra wallet user, does that mean you Libra coming into Calibra from users who weren’t KYC’d and could be laundering money?

Weil: So it’s part of the regulatory situation that’s evolving as we speak. There’s something called the Travel Rule . . . If there’s a transfer above a certain value you have to make sure that you understand both who the sender is, which you do if they’re using a custodial wallet, and who the receiver is. These are evolving regulations, but it’s something that obviously we’re going to make sure that we implement as regulations solidify.

TechCrunch’s Analysis: Calibra appears to be inviting regulation that it can strictly abide by rather than trying to guess at what the best approach is. But given it’s unclear when concrete rules will be established for transfers between non-custodial wallets and custodial wallets, or for in-person cashing, Facebook and Calibra may need to establish their own strong protocols. Otherwise they could be guilty of permitting the “unlawful behavior” Trump describes.

Libra Mission Statement

How will Libra be taxed?

Dante Disparte of Libra: Taxing of digital assets is something that’s being designed at the local level and at the jurisdiction level. Our view of the world is that like with any form of money or any form of payment or banking, the onus in terms of compliance with tax is with the individual user and consumer, and the same would hold true broadly here.

We expect that the many, many wallets and financial services providers building solutions on the Libra blockchain would begin to provide tools that make it much easier than it is today [to calculate and file taxes] for digital assets and cryptocurrencies more generally . . .  There’s plenty of time between now and Libra hitting the market to begin defining this more strictly at the jurisdictional level among providers.

TechCrunch’s Analysis: Again, here Facebook, Calibra and the Libra Association are hoping to avoid shouldering all the responsibility for taxes. Their position is that just as you have to take the initiative of paying your taxes whether or not you use a Visa card or your bank’s checks to transact, it’s on you to pay your Libra taxes.

TechCrunch: Do you think in the United States that it’s reasonable for the government to ask that Libra transactions be taxed?

Disparte: Tax treatments of digital assets broadly hasn’t been entirely clarified in most places around the world. And we hope that this is something that this project and the ecosystem around it helps to clarify.

Tax authorities will see a benefit from Libra at the consumption level and at the household level, while some cryptocurrencies have avoided taxes until the point they tried to cash out. But the nature of it and the lack of speculation and its design we think should give it a light tax treatment the way you would find with traditional currencies.

Calibra Transactions 2

Christian Catalini of Facebook: Cryptocurrencies are taxed right now every time you have a sale on the differences in gains and losses. Because Libra is designed to be a medium of exchange, those gains and losses are likely to be very tiny relative to your local currency . . . Sales tax would likely be implemented the exact same way on Libra as it is today when you pay with a credit card.

At launch giving current regulations, the Calibra wallet will have to track every purchase and sale of Libra for a U.S. user and those differences will have to be reported on tax day. You can think of the losses, albeit they may be very small gains and losses relative to USD, as similar to the what people do today when they have a Coinbase account with Bitcoin.

The sales tax I think could be implemented in the exact same way as it today with any other sort of digital payment, it would be no different. If you’re buying goods or services with Libra you’ll be paying sales tax the same way as if you used a different form of payment. Like today when you see a percentage, that is the sales tax on your total.

Disparte: Maybe the best way to frame how taxes work all over the world is that it’s not up to Libra, Calibra, Facebook or any company to make that determination. It’s up to regulators and authorities.

TechCrunch: Does Calibra already have plans in place for how to handle sales tax?

Weil: That’s also a pretty rapidly evolving part of the regulatory ecosystem right now. It’s really an ongoing discussion. We will do whatever the regulation says we need to do.

TechCrunch’s Analysis: Here we have the firmest answers of our interviews. Facebook, Calibra and the Libra Association believe the proper approach to taxes is that Libra transactions carry a country’s traditional sales tax, and that Libra you hold in your wallet will have to pay taxes based on the Libra stablecoin’s value (that’s pegged to a basket of international currencies) relative to the U.S. dollar.

If the Libra Association recommends all wallets and transactions follow these rules and Calibra builds in protocols to handle these taxes simply, at least the government can’t argue Libra is a method of dodging taxes and everyone paying their fair share.

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