As the technological realm becomes more pervasive, whom can we trust? Each week, Liberty Nation brings new insight into the fraudulent use of personal data, breaches of privacy, and attempts to filter our perception.
Tech Monopolies – Not That Bad?
Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon – are these companies going to reign over the 21st century in a monopoly that oversees every aspect of our lives? That is the question now being asked by people from Donald Trump to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). In more than one country, antitrust investigations of several Silicon Valley giants are underway.
One tech CEO recently insisted that his company does not hold a monopoly but implied that, perhaps, it wouldn’t be so bad if it did. Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, told the Nikkei Asian Review: “A monopoly by itself isn’t bad if it’s not abused. The question for those companies is, do they abuse it? And that is for regulators to decide, not for me to decide.”
Apple has indeed been accused of anti-competitive behavior including by music streaming service Spotify, which in March filed a complaint with the European Commission. In May, the U.S. Supreme Court voted to allow an antitrust lawsuit, Apple Inc. v. Pepper, to proceed, and Apple, as well as other tech giants, this year faced questions from the House Judiciary Committee.
The Department of Justice is currently investigating the big tech platforms for anti-competitive practices – an inquiry that Attorney General William Barr on Dec. 10 said he hopes to wrap up in 2020. It is not known what evidence has been turned up but Barr has indicated a pro-big business stance, arguing that larger companies can provide some benefits. “Big is not bad,” he said. “I think in certain network industries you can be too Balkanized and no one has the scale necessary for the kind of innovation that we’re seeing.”
Seeking to separate Apple’s public image from growing disaffection with Google and Facebook and their associated privacy scandals, Cook “expressed resentment at Apple being lumped together with similarly sized tech companies,” according to the Nikkei Asian Review.
Interestingly, Cook also told the paper that he predicts Apple’s greatest contribution to mankind will be in the field of health care, citing the ECG monitor in some Apple watches: A surprising vocation, perhaps, for a business that got its popularity from the iTunes music service, the iPod, and handheld computers and phones. And perhaps more evidence that Silicon Valley has ambitions far beyond those it usually reveals to the public.
FTC, Facebook, and Cambridge Analytica
In another antitrust story, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) may be weighing action against Facebook’s plans to fuse with WhatsApp and Instagram. Sources reportedly informed The Wall Street Journal that the FTC may seek a court injunction to prevent the merge – a move that would require the agreement of a majority of FTC commissioners and the instigation of a federal lawsuit.
The FTC began investigating Facebook after concerns over its plans to meld the other apps into one big service that would also allow end-to-end encryption for all messages. According to the WSJ, the commission is worried that such a consolidation would make Facebook harder to break up in a future antitrust case. Facebook already agreed in July to pay a record-breaking $5 billion fine to the FTC, resulting from an investigation into privacy practices.
Speaking of the FTC and Facebook, the commission on Dec. 6 announced a final order on Cambridge Analytica, the company that seemingly triggered an avalanche of privacy concerns. The agency concluded that the consulting firm had deceived Facebook customers for several years about its collection of information through GSRApp (aka thisisyourdigitallife) within Facebook. It confirmed the allegations made in a complaint “that app users were falsely told the app would not collect users’ names or other identifiable information,” and said that Cambridge Analytica had falsely claimed it was following E.U.-U.S. Privacy Shield data transfer agreement protections.
App developer Aleksandr Kogan and former Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix agreed to obey the FTC’s order prohibiting the company from continuing such misrepresentations and to delete the information it had gathered. Since it went bankrupt and closed down in 2018, however, the ruling is unlikely to have much effect.
How Our DNA Is Accessed and Used By the State
The fad for sending DNA samples to genealogy companies has satisfied the curiosity of many who wanted to know more about their family histories but this has turned out to be a dangerous game. Not for the first time, samples are set to be passed on to law enforcement agencies. GEDMatch, one of the world’s largest genealogy DNA collectors, was recently purchased by a company “solely dedicated to forensic science.” The GEDMatch site holds over 1.3 million DNA profiles, reportedly with up to 1,000 being added daily, as users can upload the profiles created by 23andMe and other genealogy services.
Law enforcement authorities in California used the crowdsourced database in 2017 – without the knowledge of site users or founder Curtis Rogers – to crack the case of the Golden State Killer. Police used DNA evidence taken from crime scenes and compared it to samples on the database, in order to identify some of the criminal’s relatives.
The method has since been used to locate dozens of rapists, reports Technology Review. The Review in 2018 ran a profile of one Cece Moore, former genealogy enthusiast, now professional DNA investigator for Parabon Nanolabs, who sits on her sofa in her pajamas and solves cases by searching the database and locating her targets’ relatives. “If you are the perpetrator,” she says, “I will find you from a second cousin.” The service, among others, is offered to police, though much of Moore’s work relates to finding the birth parents of children who were adopted or who were born from sperm back donations.
According to a Columbia University study, a search of the site could identify 60% of white Americans from a DNA sample, even though GEDMatch only has information from 0.5% of the U.S. adult population. Once 2% of Americans provide their information, it could allow the identification, through relatives, of over 90% of Americans of European descent. “In a few years, it’s really going to be everyone,” says study leader Yaniv Erlich, a computational geneticist at Columbia University.
The implications for privacy are staggering – but back to the purchase of GEDMatch, the depository to which people voluntarily submitted their DNA samples for genealogy purposes. It was bought by Verogen, a company that exists to sell genomic forensic information to law enforcement and whose technology, as of May 2019, is being used by the FBI for DNA profiling. Verogen and GEDMatch insist that users’ privacy will not be affected since passing information to law enforcement is currently subject to an opt-in.
“Never before have we as a society had the opportunity to serve as a molecular eyewitness, enabling law enforcement to solve violent crimes efficiently and with certainty,” said Verogen CEO Brett Williams in a statement. “Still, our users have the absolute right to choose whether they want to share their information with law enforcement by opting in. We are steadfast in our commitment to protecting users’ privacy and will fight any future attempts to access data of those who have not opted in.”
Rogers added: “As we grow, we want to enhance the customer experience by making the site more user-friendly and by ensuring data is protected. Verogen can help us do that.”
Despite the opt-in guarantee, a Florida police detective in November claimed he had been granted a warrant by the 9th Judicial Circuit Court of Florida to access the entire database.
That’s all for this week from Tech Tyranny. Check back in next Monday to find out what’s happening in the digital realm and how it impacts you.
Read more from Laura Valkovic.