Police roll up crime networks in Europe after infiltrating popular encrypted chat app

Posted by | encrochat, encryption, Government, Mobile, Security | No Comments

Hundreds of alleged drug dealers and other criminals are in custody today after police in Europe infiltrated an encrypted chat system reportedly used by thousands to discuss illegal operations. The total failure of this ostensibly secure method of communication will likely have a chilling effect on the shadowy industry of crime-focused tech.

“Operation Venetic” was reported by various police agencies, major local news outlets, and by Motherboard in especially vibrant form, quoting extensively people apparently from within the groups affected.

The operation involved hundreds of officers working across numerous agencies in France, the Netherlands, the U.K., and other countries. It began in 2017, and culminated two months ago when a service called EncroChat was hacked and the messages of tens of thousands of users exposed to police scrutiny.

EncroChat is a step up in some ways from encrypted chat apps like Signal and WhatsApp. Rather like Blackberry once did, EncroChat provided customized hardware, a dedicated OS, and its own servers to users, providing an expensive service costing thousands per year rather than a one-time purchase or download.

Messages on the service were supposedly very secure and had deniability built in by letting conversations be edited later — so theoretically a user could claim after the fact they never said something. Motherboard’s Joseph Cox has been following the company for some time and has far more details on its claims and operations.

Image Credits: EncroChat /

Needless to say those claims were not entirely true, as at some point in early 2020 police managed to introduce malware into the EncroChat system that completely exposed the conversations and images of its users. Because of the trusted nature of the app, people would openly discuss drug deals, murders, and other crimes, making them sitting ducks for law enforcement.

Throughout the spring criminal operations were being cracked open with alarming (to them) regularity, but it wasn’t until May that users and EncroChat managed to put the pieces together. The company attempted to warn its users and issue an update, but the cat was out of the bag. Seeing that its operation was now exposed, the Operation Venetic teams struck.

Arrests across the several countries involved (there were numerous sub-operations but France and the Netherlands were the primary investigators) total near a thousand, but exact numbers are not clear. Dozens of guns, tons (metric, naturally) of drugs and the equivalent of tens of millions of dollars in cash were seized. More importantly, the chat logs seem to have provided access to people higher up the food chain than ordinary busts would have.

That the reportedly most popular of encrypted chat companies focused on illegal activities could be so completely subverted by international authorities will likely put a damper on its competition. But like other, more domestic challenges to encryption, such as the perennial complaints by the FBI, this event is more likely to strengthen the tools in the long run.

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China’s GPS competitor is now fully launched

Posted by | Asia, Beidou, China, Government, gps, Logistics, Mobile, Policy | No Comments

For decades, the United States has had a monopoly on positioning, navigation and timing technology with its Global Positioning System (GPS), a constellation of satellites operated by the military that today provides the backbone for location on billions of devices worldwide.

As those technologies have become not just key to military maneuvers but the very foundation of modern economies, more and more governments around the world have sought ways to decouple from usage of the U.S.-centric system. Russia, Japan, India, the United Kingdom and the European Union have all made forays to build out alternatives to GPS, or at least, to augment the system with additional satellites for better coverage.

Few countries, though, have made the investment that China has made into its Beidou (北斗) GPS alternative. Over 20 years, the country has spent billions of dollars and launched nearly three dozen satellites to create a completely separate system for positioning. According to Chinese state media, nearly 70% of all Chinese handsets are capable of processing signals from Beidou satellites.

Now, the final puzzle piece is in place, as the last satellite in the Beidou constellation was launched Tuesday morning into orbit, according to the People’s Daily.

It’s just another note in the continuing decoupling of the United States and China, where relations have deteriorated over differences of market access and human rights. Trade talks between the two countries have reached a standstill, with one senior Trump administration advisor calling them off entirely. The announcement of a pause in new issuances of H-1B visas is also telling, as China is the source of the second largest number of petitions, according to USCIS, the country’s immigration agency.

While the completion of the current plan for Beidou offers Beijing new flexibility and resiliency for this critical technology, ultimately, positioning technologies are mostly not adversarial — additional satellites can offer more redundancy to all users, and many of these technologies have the potential to coordinate with each other, offering more flexibility to handset manufacturers.

Nonetheless, GPS spoofing and general hacking of positioning technologies remains a serious threat. Earlier this year, the Trump administration published a new executive order that would force government agencies to develop more robust tools to ensure that GPS signals are protected from hacking.

Given how much of global logistics and our daily lives are controlled by these technologies, further international cooperation around protecting these vital assets seems necessary. Now that China has its own fully working system, they have an incentive to protect their own infrastructure as much as the United States does to continue to provide GPS and positioning more broadly to the highest standards of reliability.

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US Commerce Dept. amends Huawei ban to allow for development of 5G standards

Posted by | 5g, Android, Google, Government, hardware, huawei, iran, Policy, smartphone, technology, telecommunications, U.S. Department of Commerce, United States, wireless technology | No Comments

The United States Department of Commerce today issued a change to its sweeping Huawei ban. Proponents of the move note that the change in policy ought not be regarded as a softening on the government’s stance toward the embattled hardware maker, but instead is an attempt to develop more streamlined standards for 5G, along with the company, which has been one of the primary forces in its development 

According to the Department:

This action is meant to ensure Huawei’s placement on the Entity List in May 2019 does not prevent American companies from contributing to important standards-developing activities despite Huawei’s pervasive participation in standards-development organizations.

The change is designed to allow Huawei and U.S. to both play a role in hashing out the parameters for the next-generation wireless technology. “The United States will not cede leadership in global innovation. This action recognizes the importance of harnessing American ingenuity to advance and protect our economic and national security,” Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said in a statement. “The Department is committed to protecting U.S. national security and foreign policy interests by encouraging U.S. industry to fully engage and advocate for U.S. technologies to become international standards.”

The new  Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) rule essentially allows companies to share information about technologies in order to develop a joint standard without requiring an export license. Beyond that, however, the DOC has no stated plans to ease up after placing Huawei on its entities list last year.

The Chinese smartphone maker was included in the blacklist over a litany of ongoing complaints, including its ties to national government, concerns over spying and alleged sanction violations with Iran. The move has had a profound impact on the company, including a severing of its ties to Google, which formed the software backbone of its mobile line through Android and a suit of included apps. Subsequent handsets, including the recently released P40 Pro+, have been shipped without the software on board.

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Robocallers face $225M fine from FCC and lawsuits from multiple states

Posted by | FCC, Government, lawsuit, Mobile, robocalls | No Comments

Two men embodying the zenith of human villainy have admitted to making approximately a billion robocalls in the first few months of 2019 alone, and now face an FCC fine of $225 million and a lawsuit from multiple attorneys general that could amount to as much or more — not that they’ll actually end up paying that.

John Spiller and Jakob Mears, Texans of ill repute, are accused of (and have confessed to) forming a pair of companies to make millions of robocalls a day with the aim of selling health insurance from their shady clients.

The operation not only ignored the national Do Not Call registry, but targeted it specifically, as it was “more profitable to target these consumers.” Numbers were spoofed, making further mischief as angry people called back to find bewildered strangers on the other end of the line.

These calls amounted to billions over two years, and were eventually exposed by the FCC, the offices of several attorneys general and industry anti-fraud associations.

Now the pair have been slapped with a $225 million proposed fine, the largest in the FCC’s history. The lawsuit involves multiple states and varying statutory damages per offense, and even a conservative estimate of the amounts could exceed that number.

Unfortunately, as we’ve seen before, the fines seem to have little correlation with the amounts actually paid. The FCC and FTC do not have the authority to enforce the collection of these fines, leaving that to the Department of Justice. And even should the DoJ attempt to collect the money, they can’t get more than the defendants have.

For instance, last year the FTC fined one robocaller $5 million, but he ended up paying $18,332 and the market price of his Mercedes. Unsurprisingly, these individuals performing white-collar crimes are no strangers to methods to avoid punishment for them. Disposing of cash assets before the feds come knocking on your door is just part of the game.

In this case the situation is potentially even more dire: the DoJ isn’t even involved. As FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel put it in a statement accompanying the agency’s announcement:

There’s something missing in this all-hands effort. That’s the Department of Justice. They aren’t a part of taking on this fraud. Why not? What signals does their refusal to be involved send?

Here’s the signal I see. Over the last several years the FCC has levied hundreds of millions in fines against robocallers just like the folks we have here today. But so far collections on these eye-popping fines have netted next to nothing. In fact, it was last year that The Wall Street Journal did the math and found that we had collected no more than $6,790 on hundreds of millions in fines. Why? Well, one reason is that the FCC looks to the Department of Justice to collect on the agency’s fines against robocallers. We need them to help. So when they don’t get involved—as here—that’s not a good sign.

While the FCC’s fine and the lawsuit will certainly put these robocallers out of business and place further barriers to their conducting more scam operations, they’re not really going to be liable for nine figures, because they’re not billionaires.

It’s good that the fines are large enough to bankrupt operations like these, but as Rosenworcel put it back in 2018 when another enormous fine was levied against a robocaller, “it’s like emptying the ocean with a teaspoon.” While the FCC and states were going after a pair of ne’er-do-wells, a dozen more have likely popped up to fill the space.

Industry-wide measures to curb robocalls have been underway for years now, but only recently have been mandated by the FCC after repeated warnings and delays. Expect the new anti-fraud frameworks to take effect over the next year.

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India’s contact-tracing app is going open-source

Posted by | Android, Apps, Asia, coronavirus, COVID-19, GitHub, Government, india | No Comments

India said it will publicly release the source code of its contact-tracing app, Aarogya Setu, to the relief of privacy and security experts who have been advocating for this ever since the app launched in early April.

Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology Secretary Ajay Prakash Sawhney made the announcement on Tuesday, dubbing the move “opening the heart” of the Aarogya Setu app to allow engineers to inspect and tinker with the code. The app has amassed over 114 million users in less than two months  — an unprecedented scale globally.

The source code of Aarogya Setu’s Android app will be published on GitHub at midnight Tuesday (local time), and code of iOS and KaiOS apps would be released in a “few weeks.” Nearly 98% of the app’s users are on the Android platform. Sawhney said the government will also offer cash prizes of up to $1,325 to security experts for identifying and reporting bugs and vulnerabilities. (Updated at 12:16am IST on May 27: The source code of Aarogya Setu’s Android app is now live.)

Several privacy and security advocates, as well as India’s opposition party, had urged the government to release the code of the app for public auditing after some alleged lapses in the app were found — which New Delhi dismissed as app features at the time.

Sawhney said today’s move should allay people’s concerns with the app. Earlier this month, Sawhney said the government was not open-sourcing Aarogya Setu, as it worried that it would overburden the team, mostly comprising volunteers, that is tasked to develop and maintain it.

The ministry said today that two-thirds of Aarogya Setu users had taken the self-assessment test to evaluate their risk of exposure. More than half a million Indians have been alerted to have made contact with someone who is likely ill with the disease, it said.

The app, which uses both Bluetooth and location data to function, has advised more than 900,000 users to quarantine themselves or get tested for the disease. Almost 24% of them have confirmed to be positive with COVID-19, the ministry said.

“Opening the source code to the developer community signifies our continuing commitment to the principles of transparency and collaboration,” the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology said in a statement. “Aarogya Setu’s development has been a remarkable example of collaboration between government, industry, academia and citizens.”

Aarogya Setu, unlike the contact-tracing technology developed by smartphone vendors Apple and Google, stores certain data in a centralized server. Privacy experts, including researcher Baptiste Robert, had argued that this approach would result in leakage of sensitive details of several Indians if that server was ever compromised.

“Open-sourcing Aarogya Setu is a unique feat for India. No other government product anywhere in the world has been open-sourced at this scale,” said Amitabh Kant, chief executive of government-run think-tank NITI Aayog, in a press conference today.

New Delhi-based digital advocacy group Software Law and Freedom Centre (SFLC) said it welcomes India’s move to open- source the app. “We are happy that the government has at last agreed to do what we have been asking all long,” it said.

More than 145,300 coronavirus infections (with about 4,100 resultant deaths) have been reported in India to date.

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Health APIs usher in the patient revolution we have been waiting for

Posted by | APIs, Apps, biotech, Cloud, Column, Developer, digital health, Enterprise, Extra Crunch, Government, Health, Market Analysis, Mobile, patient data, Policy, Startups | No Comments
Rish Joshi

Rish is an entrepreneur and investor. Previously, he was a VC at Gradient Ventures (Google’s AI fund), co-founded a fintech startup building an analytics platform for SEC filings and worked on deep-learning research as a graduate student in computer science at MIT.

If you’ve ever been stuck using a health provider’s clunky online patient portal or had to make multiple calls to transfer medical records, you know how difficult it is to access your health data.

In an era when control over personal data is more important than ever before, the healthcare industry has notably lagged behind — but that’s about to change. This past month, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) published two final rules around patient data access and interoperability that will require providers and payers to create APIs that can be used by third-party applications to let patients access their health data.

This means you will soon have consumer apps that will plug into your clinic’s health records and make them viewable to you on your smartphone.

Critics of the new rulings have voiced privacy concerns over patient health data leaving internal electronic health record (EHR) systems and being surfaced to the front lines of smartphone apps. Vendors such as Epic and many health providers have publicly opposed the HHS rulings, while others, such as Cerner, have been supportive.

While that debate has been heated, the new HHS rulings represent a final decision that follows initial rules proposed a year ago. It’s a multi-year win for advocates of greater data access and control by patients.

The scope of what this could lead to — more control over your health records, and apps on top of it — is immense. Apple has been making progress with its Health Records app for some time now, and other technology companies, including Microsoft and Amazon, have undertaken healthcare initiatives with both new apps and cloud services.

It’s not just big tech that is getting in on the action: startups are emerging as well, such as Commure and Particle Health, which help developers work with patient health data. The unlocking of patient health data could be as influential as the unlocking of banking data by Plaid, which powered the growth of multiple fintech startups, including Robinhood, Venmo and Betterment.

What’s clear is that the HHS rulings are here to stay. In fact, many of the provisions require providers and payers to provide partial data access within the next 6-12 months. With this new market opening up, though, it’s time for more health entrepreneurs to take a deeper look at what patient data may offer in terms of clinical and consumer innovation.

The incredible complexity of today’s patient data systems

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Air Force gives a rare look at the research going to orbit in its X-37B spaceplane

Posted by | aerospace, Air Force, air force research lab, Boeing, Defense Department, department of defense, Gadgets, Government, hardware, military, NASA, science, Space, Space Force, TC, x-37b | No Comments

The X-37B spaceplane sounds like something out of a sci-fi novel, and its mysterious past is equally evocative. What does the military put in this long-term orbital vehicle? Turns out it’s exactly the kind of neat, but not mind-blowing, science you’d expect to find in such a thing — though solar-powered masers do sound pretty cool.

Also known as the Orbital Test Vehicle, the Boeing -designed X-37B has performed five prior missions, amounting to a total of nearly eight years in orbit; the last mission alone was 780 days. But while the craft’s owners (the Air Force, though it is used by many others) are proud to tout its remarkable longevity and reliability, they rarely if ever admit what they’re sending up, or what (if anything) it brings down.

While it’s fun to think that it may be truly top secret Area 51-type stuff, it’s much more likely that it’s just run-of-the-mill classified military research. The Defense Department bankrolls an enormous amount of basic science as well as advanced technology, and some of that is bound to require testing in space. While we love and respect our Russian friends with whom we share the ISS, the Pentagon would seem to prefer they didn’t run its experiments, so they have the X-37B.

On one occasion the Air Force said that the craft tests “advanced guidance, navigation and control, thermal protection systems, avionics, high temperature structures and seals, conformal reusable insulation, lightweight electromechanical flight systems, advanced propulsion systems, advanced materials and autonomous orbital flight, reentry and landing,” which narrows it down a bit.

For the spaceplane’s sixth mission, the various departments involved have broken tradition and given details on the payloads. That’s no small feat, given it’s an operation combining the resources of the Air Force, Space Force, Naval Research Lab and NASA.

The most broadly interesting experiment has to be a solar-powered microwave laser, or maser, built by the NRL. The device “will transform solar power into radio frequency microwave energy which could then be transmitted to the ground.”

Image Credits: U.S. Air Force courtesy photo

The key word there is could, as this type of wireless energy transmission has been pursued for decades. It’s doubtful that a foot-wide solar cell can produce enough energy to be beamed to the surface in measurable levels, but proving the concept piece by piece is something that has to be done in space. And for all we know they’ve already sent multiple precursor device up there on previous missions.

Don’t worry that this is some kind of orbital beam weapon that fries surface-dwellers: The total amount of energy collected by a foot-wide cell would be difficult to change into a form that’s harmful a few feet away, let alone 200 miles up through the entire atmosphere. It could, however, be used to beam power to receptive spacecraft or (conceivably) to interfere with poorly protected adversary spacecraft.

Two other experiments on board are from NASA, and they have to do with seeing how various items react to being exposed to the space environment. “One is a sample plate evaluating the reaction of select significant materials to the conditions in space. The second studies the effect of ambient space radiation on seeds,” said Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett.

Last — that we know of — is FalconSat-8, an Air Force Academy satellite that will be performing its own unspecified experiments once released into its own orbit by the X-37B. It is itself “an educational platform that will carry five experimental payloads for USAFA to operate

This rather large number of items being brought to space is made possible by a “service module” attached for the first time to the aft of the craft and containing some of the hardware.

It’s unknown how long this mission will be, but if it’s anything like the others, it will be on the order of months or years.

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The US is formalizing Team Telecom rules to restrict foreign ownership of internet and telecom assets

Posted by | Asia, CFIUS, China, China Mobile, Government, Mobile, Policy, Team Telecom | No Comments

It has the simplest name, but the sort of shadowy overtones that national security writers lust after.

Team Telecom, a mostly informal working committee of the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security and Justice (along with affiliated agencies) has for years been quietly tasked with evaluating and maintaining the security of America telecom infrastructure in concert with the FCC. Its primary objective as far as we have been able to ascertain is to monitor the ownership of key telecom assets to ensure they don’t fall into the hands of suspect nations (think China, Russia, etc).

Last year, Mark Harris over on Extra Crunch took an in-depth look at the extreme delays companies can experience going through a Team Telecom review (membership required), which in the case of China Mobile’s expansion into the U.S., extended up to seven years before the Team rejected the Chinese bid for market entry.

That informal arrangement is disappearing, as the administration over the weekend published a new executive order formally instantiating Team Telecom as a legal process for reviewing applications for telecom licenses, deals and other requests made to the FCC.

Under a newly christened “Committee for the Assessment of Foreign Participation in the United States Telecommunications Services Sector” (CAFPUSTSS?), the Committee will be charged with assisting “the FCC in its public interest review of national security and law enforcement concerns that may be raised by foreign participation in the United States telecommunications services sector.”

Like its Team Telecom forerunner, the Committee will be made up of the heads of Justice, Defense and Homeland Security, with the attorney general playing the role of chair. Applications to the Committee will be referred to the U.S. government’s highest-ranking intelligence officer, the Director of National Intelligence, for analysis.

Unlike in the past, where the timeline for reviews was anything but standardized, the executive order provides for a 120-day adjudication process, with a 90-day extension if the Committee has additional concerns and goes through a secondary review.

In a brief press statement, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said, “I applaud the President for formalizing Team Telecom review and establishing a process that will allow the Executive Branch to provide its expert input to the FCC in a timely manner.” The FCC intends to finish its own rulemaking around Team Telecom, a process which was first proposed at the tail end of the Obama administration and has been on-going ever since.

These reforms to Team Telecom are in line with similar reforms made to CFIUS, the Committee for Foreign Investment in the United States, which were finalized at the beginning of this year after Congress passed a reform bill in 2018.

While the new rules will provide some certainty to areas of telecom like fiber optic cable expansion and wireless services, expect the new rules to be used to put even more restrictions on countries like China hoping to get a slice of the U.S. infrastructure market. Indeed, in the FCC’s statement today, the agency said, “As we demonstrated last year in rejecting the China Mobile application, this FCC will not hesitate to act to protect our networks from foreign threats.”

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FCC mandates strict caller ID authentication to beat back robocalls

Posted by | FCC, Government, Mobile, robocalls, stir/shaken | No Comments

The FCC unanimously passed a new set of rules today that will require wireless carriers to implement a tech framework to combat robocalls. Called STIR/SHAKEN, and dithered over for years by the carriers, the protocol will be required to be put in place by summer of 2021.

Robocalls have grown from vexation to serious problem as predictable “claim your free vacation” scams gave way to “here’s how to claim your stimulus check” or “apply for coronavirus testing here” scams.

A big part of the problem is that the mobile networks allow for phone numbers to be spoofed or imitated, and it’s never clear to the call recipient that the number they see may be different from the actual originating number. Tracking and preventing fraudulent use of this feature has been on the carriers’ roadmap for a long time, and some have gotten around to it in some ways, for some customers.

STIR/SHAKEN, which stands for Secure Telephony Identity Revisited / Secure Handling of Asserted information using toKENs, is a way to securely track calls and callers to prevent fraud and warn consumers of potential scams. Carriers and the FCC have been talking about it since 2017, and in 2018 the FCC said it needed to be implemented in 2019. When that hadn’t happened, the FCC gave carriers a nudge, and at the end of the year Congress passed the TRACED Act to spur the regulator into carrying out its threat of mandating use of the system.

Rules to that effect were proposed earlier this month, and at the FCC’s open meeting today (conducted remotely), the measure passed unanimously. Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who has been vocal about the lack of concrete action on this issue, gladly approved the rules but vented her frustration in a statement:

It is good news that today the Federal Communications Commission adopts rules to reduce robocalls through call authentication. I only wish we had done so sooner, like three years ago when the FCC first proposed the use of STIR/SHAKEN technology.

Commissioner Brendan Starks called the rules a “good first step,” but pointed out that the carriers need to apply call authentication technology not just on the IP-based networks but all over, and also to work with each other (as some already are) to ensure that these protections remain in place across networks, not just within them.

Chairman Ajit Pai concurred, pointing out there was much work to do:

It’s clear that FCC action is needed to spur across-the-board deployment of this important technology…Widespread implementation of STIR/SHAKEN will reduce the effectiveness of illegal spoofing, allow law enforcement to identify bad actors more easily, and help phone companies identify—and even block—calls with illegal spoofed caller ID information before those calls reach their subscribers. Most importantly, it will give consumers more peace of mind when they answer the phone.

There’s no silver bullet for the problem of spoofed robocalls. So we will continue our aggressive, multi-pronged approach to combating it.

Consumers won’t notice any immediate changes — the deadline is next year, after all — but it’s likely that in the coming months you will receive more information from your carrier about the technology and what, if anything, you need to do to enable it.

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TikTok brings in outside experts to help it craft moderation and content policies

Posted by | Apps, censorship, China, content moderation, Government, Mobile, moderation, Security, tiktok | No Comments

In October, TikTok href=””> tapped corporate law firm K&L Gates to advise the company on its moderation policies and other topics afflicting social media platforms. As a part of those efforts, TikTok said it would form a new committee of experts to advise the business on topics like child safety, hate speech, misinformation, bullying and other potential problems. Today, TikTok is announcing the technology and safety experts who will be the company’s first committee members.

The committee, known as the TikTok Content Advisory Council, will be chaired by Dawn Nunziato, a professor at George Washington University Law School and co-director of the Global Internet Freedom Project. Nunziato specializes in free speech issues and content regulation — areas where TikTok has fallen short.

“A company willing to open its doors to outside experts to help shape upcoming policy shows organizational maturity and humility,” said Nunziato, of her joining. “I am working with TikTok because they’ve shown that they take content moderation seriously, are open to feedback and understand the importance of this area both for their community and for the future of healthy public discourse,” she added.

TikTok says it plans to grow the committee to around a dozen experts in time.

According to the company, other committee members include:

Rob AtkinsonInformation Technology and Innovation Foundationbrings academic, private sector, and government experience as well as knowledge of technology policy that can advise our approach to innovation

Hany FaridUniversity of California, Berkeley Electrical Engineering & Computer Sciences and  School of Information, is a renowned expert on digital image and video forensics, computer vision, deep fakes, and robust hashing

Mary Anne FranksUniversity of Miami Law School, focuses on the intersection of law and technology and will provide valuable insight into industry challenges including discrimination, safety, and online identity

Vicki HarrisonStanford Psychiatry Center for Youth Mental Health and Wellbeing, is a social worker at the intersection of social media and mental health who understands child safety issues and holistic youth needs

Dawn Nunziato, chair, George Washington University Law School, is an internationally recognized expert in free speech and content regulation

David Ryan PolgarAll Tech Is Human, is a leading voice in tech ethics, digital citizenship, and navigating the complex challenge of aligning societal interests with technological priorities

Dan SchnurUSC Annenberg Center on Communication and UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies, brings valuable experience and insight on political communications and voter information

Nunziato’s view of TikTok — of a company being open and willing to change — is a charitable one, it should be said.

The company is in dangerous territory here in the U.S., despite its popularity among Gen Z and millennial users. TikTok today is facing a national security review and a potential ban on all government workers’ phones. In addition, the Dept. of Defense suggested the app should be blocked on phones belonging to U.S. military personnel. Its 2017 acquisition of U.S.-based may even come under review.

Though known for its lighthearted content — like short videos of dances, comedy and various other creative endeavors — TikTok has also been accused of things like censoring the Hong Kong protests and more, which contributed to U.S. lawmakers’ fears that the Chinese-owned company may have to comply with “state intelligence work.” 

TikTok has also been accused of having censored content from unattractive, poor or disabled persons, as well as videos from users identified as LGBTQ+. The company explained in December these guidelines are no longer used, as they were an early and misguided attempt to protect users from online bullying. TikTok had limited the reach of videos where such harassment could occur. But this suppression was done in the dark, unasked for by the “protected” parties — and it wasn’t until exposed by German site NetzPolitik that anyone knew these rules had existed.

In light of the increased scrutiny of its platform and its ties to China, TikTok has been taking a number of steps in an attempt to change its perception. The company released new Community Guidelines and published its first Transparency Report a few months ago. It also hired a global General Counsel and expanded its Trust & Safety hubs in the U.S., Ireland and Singapore. And it just announced a Transparency Center open to outside experts who want to review its moderation practices.

TikTok’s new Advisory Council will meet with the company’s U.S. leadership to focus on the key topics of importance starting at the end of the month, with an early focus on creating policies around misinformation and election interference.

“All of our actions, including the creation of this Council, help advance our focus on creating an entertaining, genuine experience for our community by staying true to why users uniquely love the TikTok platform. As our company grows, we are focused on reflection and learning as a part of company culture and committed to transparently sharing our progress with our users and stakeholders,” said TikTok’s U.S. general manager, Vanessa Pappas. “Our hope is that through thought-provoking conversations and candid feedback, we will find productive ways to support platform integrity, counter potential misuse, and protect the interests of all those who use our platform,” she added. 

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