Author: Natasha Lomas

Is Europe closing in on an antitrust fix for surveillance technologists?

The German Federal Cartel Office’s decision to order Facebook to change how it processes users’ personal data this week is a sign the antitrust tide could at last be turning against platform power. One European Commission source we spoke to, who was commenting in a personal capacity, described it as “clearly pioneering” and “a big deal”, even without Facebook being fined a dime. The FCO’s decision instead bans the social network from linking user data across different platforms it owns, unless it gains people’s consent (nor can it make use of its services contingent on such consent). Facebook is also prohibited from gathering and linking data on users from third party websites, such as via its tracking pixels and social plugins. The order is not yet in force, and Facebook is appealing, but should it come into force the social network faces being de facto shrunk by having its platforms siloed at the data level. To comply with the order Facebook would have to ask users to freely consent to being data-mined — which the company does not do at present. Yes, Facebook could still manipulate the outcome it wants from users but doing so would open it to further challenge under EU data protection law, as its current approach to consent is already being challenged. The EU’s updated privacy framework, GDPR, requires consent to be specific, informed and freely given. That...

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Tech platforms called to support public interest research into mental health impacts

The tech industry has been called on to share data with public sector researchers so the mental health and psychosocial impacts of their service on vulnerable users can be better understood, and also to contribute to funding the necessary independent research over the next ten years. The UK’s chief medical officers have made the call in a document setting out advice and guidance for the government about children’s and young people’s screen use. They have also called for the industry to agree a code of conduct around the issue. Concerns have been growing in the UK about the mental...

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German antitrust office limits Facebook’s data-gathering

A lengthy antitrust probe into how Facebook gathers data on users has resulted in Germany’s competition watchdog banning the social network giant from combining data on users across its own suite of social platforms without their consent. The investigation of Facebook data-gathering practices began in March 2016. The decision by Germany’s Federal Cartel Office, announced today, also prohibits Facebook from gathering data on users from third party websites — such as via tracking pixels and social plug-ins — without their consent. Although the decision does not yet have legal force and Facebook has said it’s appealing. In both cases...

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Fabula AI is using social spread to spot ‘fake news’

UK startup Fabula AI reckons it’s devised a way for artificial intelligence to help user generated content platforms get on top of the disinformation crisis that keeps rocking the world of social media with antisocial scandals. Even Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has sounded a cautious note about AI technology’s capability to meet the complex, contextual, messy and inherently human challenge of correctly understanding every missive a social media user might send, well-intentioned or its nasty flip-side. “It will take many years to fully develop these systems,” the Facebook founder wrote two years ago, in an open letter discussing the scale of the challenge of moderating content on platforms thick with billions of users. “This is technically difficult as it requires building AI that can read and understand news.” But what if AI doesn’t need to read and understand news in order to detect whether it’s true or false? Step forward Fabula, which has patented what it dubs a “new class” of machine learning algorithms to detect “fake news” — in the emergent field of “Geometric Deep Learning”; where the datasets to be studied are so large and complex that traditional machine learning techniques struggle to find purchase on this ‘non-Euclidean’ space. The startup says its deep learning algorithms are, by contrast, capable of learning patterns on complex, distributed data sets like social networks. So it’s billing its technology as a...

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UK moves towards driverless car tests without safety drivers

The UK government has announced it’s working on a process to support so-called ‘advanced trials’ of autonomous vehicles — i.e. trials without human safety drivers. It also says it will be beefing up the existing Code of Practice for testing driverless cars to provide a framework to support the evolution of the tech, saying it’s on track to meet its goal of fully driverless cars being tested on public roads by 2021. Commenting in a statement, Richard Harrington, automotive minister, said: “We want to ensure through the Industrial Strategy Future of Mobility Grand Challenge that we build on this success...

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Europe’s highest human rights court to hear challenge to UK’s bulk surveillance regime

The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has agreed to hear a legal challenge to the use of bulk data collection surveillance powers by UK intelligence agencies. Last September a lower chamber of the ECHR ruled that UK surveillance practices violated human rights law but did not find bulk collection itself to be in violation of the convention. The civil and digital groups and charities behind the challenge, which include Liberty, Privacy International and Amnesty International, are hoping for a definitive judgement against bulk collection from Europe’s highest human rights court. The legal challenge dates...

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Thriva expands its range of test-at-home kits to add female hormone and cortisol stress tests

UK home health analysis kit startup Thriva is adding three more products to its range later this month: A saliva-based cortisol stress test and two female hormone kits. The Seedcamp-backed UK startup has been offering blood-prick-based health monitoring kits since 2016, and says it’s had more than 50,000 customers sign up to stab their own finger with its spring-loaded plastic lancet and massage a drop of blood into a tube to post away for lab-based analysis. The new saliva kit lowers the barrier to entry for DIY ‘quantified selfers’ by only requiring the recipient chew on a piece of material,...

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Instagram’s Adam Mosseri to meet UK health secretary over suicide content concerns

The still fresh-in-post boss of Instagram, Adam Mosseri, has been asked to meet the UK’s health secretary, Matt Hancock, to discuss the social media platform’s handling of content that promotes suicide and self harm, the BBC reports. Mosseri’s summons follows an outcry in the UK over disturbing content being recommended to vulnerable users of Instagram, following the suicide of a 14 year old schoolgirl, Molly Russell, who killed herself in 2017. After her death, Molly’s family discovered she had been following a number of Instagram accounts that encouraged self-harm. Speaking to the BBC last month Molly’s father said he did not doubt the...

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