Tech News

Facebook says Trump’s ban could end before 2024 presidential election

Facebook says Donald Trump’s account could be reinstated in 2023 — a year before the next US presidential election.

The company announced on Friday that Trump‘s Facebook and Instagram accounts will remain suspended for two years, effective from the date of their initial ban on January 7.

Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice-president of global affairs, said the company will then consider allowing him back on the platforms:

At the end of this period, we will look to experts to assess whether the risk to public safety has receded. We will evaluate external factors, including instances of violence, restrictions on peaceful assembly and other markers of civil unrest. If we determine that there is still a serious risk to public safety, we will extend the restriction for a set period of time and continue to re-evaluate until that risk has receded.

He added that once the suspension is lifted, “there will be a strict set of rapidly escalating sanctions” that will be triggered if Trump commits further violations. Clegg said these could include the permanent removal of his pages and accounts.

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The former president’s accounts were suspended following the riots at the US Capitol building. They were initially blocked for 24 hours, but the ban was later made indefinite.

At the time, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the ban had been extended due to “the use of our platform to incite violent insurrection against a democratically elected government.”

Clegg announced that the company had reviewed this decision following criticism from Facebook’s Oversight Board, which had criticized the open-ended nature of the suspension:

In establishing the two-year sanction for severe violations, we considered the need for it to be long enough to allow a safe period of time after the acts of incitement, to be significant enough to be a deterrent to Mr Trump and others from committing such severe violations in future, and to be proportionate to the gravity of the violation itself.

The two-year suspension will disappoint the many people who had called for a permanent ban — particularly as it opens the door for Trump to return to the platforms before the 2024 election campaign.

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Tech News

Facebook Oversight Board upholds ban on Donald Trump’s accounts, for now

Facebook’s Oversight Board has upheld the platform’s decision to ban Donald Trump‘s accounts, but says the company broke its own rules by imposing an indefinite suspension.

Trump’s Facebook and Instagram accounts were suspended indefinitely in the wake of the US Capitol riots over fears that he would use the platforms to encourage further violence.

The social network had already blocked Trump from posting for 24 hours, but then extended the ban until at least Joe Biden replaced him as president on January 20.

“We believe the risks of allowing the President to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great,” Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said in a blog post at the time.”

The Oversight Board upheld the decision, but added that the “indeterminate and standardless penalty” of indefinite suspension was inappropriate.

Facebook’s normal penalties include removing the violating content, imposing a time-bound period of suspension, or permanently disabling the page and account,” the board said in a blogpost.

“The board insists that Facebook review this matter to determine and justify a proportionate response that is consistent with the rules that are applied to other users of its platform. Facebook must complete its review of this matter within six months of the date of this decision.”

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Often called “Facebook’s Supreme Court”, the board was designed to provide independent judgments on Facebook’s policies and decisions, but the restrictions on its powers have led critics to call it toothless.

A group of academics, lawmakers, and activists known as the Real Facebook Oversight Board said the new Trump ruling was a “PR smokescreen” that “kicked the decision back to Facebook.”

The decision will prove decisive. Campaigners have called for a permanent ban over concerns that Trump’s return would make the platform unsafe, while free speech advocates argued that unelected tech giants shouldn’t unilaterally determine who can speak on their platforms. But the verdict leaves the door ajar for Trump’s return.

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Biden should double down on Trump’s policy of promoting AI within government

President Biden is signing a flurry of executive actions during his first few weeks in office, many of them overturning Trump policies. Trump’s recent executive order on promoting the use of artificial intelligence in government agencies, however, presents a rare bipartisan sentiment and promises to improve government policies and services across the board. The current administration should not only maintain this policy, it should make it a priority.

AI is fundamentally changing the way people engage with technology, and the advantages of AI — enhanced problem solving and pattern detection, autonomously operated machines, and so on — extend beyond the private sector. AI can help governments produce informed and effective policy, optimize processes, improve quality of services, and engage the public.

The pandemic has made this even clearer. Many government agencies rely on AI to monitor and treat COVID. The Pentagon is using AI to predict water, medicine, and supply shortages. AI is even helping the Department of Energy identify molecules to test in the lab as potential COVID treatments. The list goes on.

AI also has its uses outside of the pandemic. For example, Pittsburgh used AI to cut down on traffic, reducing travel times by 25% and cutting emissions. Chicago is even using AI to prevent crimes by predicting when and where they are likely to happen (no Precogs needed). Unfortunately, pre-COVID examples like these are scarce.

This is why the previous administration’s executive order is important. It lays out a plan for establishing government-wide guidance (or standards) for the adoption of AI within federal agencies. This represents a break from traditional policy, which lumped AI in with other technologies, relying on old standards for a new, invariably different technology.

The Biden administration should prioritize this policy because standards set the tone for agency staff. Standards not only indicate that the use of certain tools is permitted or encouraged, but they also provide the roadmaps necessary for staff to feel comfortable adopting the technology — and to do so effectively. Creating a common set of standards across all agencies will improve information sharing between agencies, too. This will conceivably increase agency effectiveness and efficiency, as well as the quality of the standards.

Consider a government-wide AI standard for public documents. This standard might require agencies to make all public documents machine readable and include tags, allowing users to quickly and easily sort by topic, search for keywords, or aggregate data from related documents. This would open up large swaths of data for use by the public and private sectors. For example, business owners could quickly identify regulations that apply to their businesses without having to read the nearly 200,000 pages of regulations currently on the books. And that’s just one of countless possibilities for new standards.

Another reason to prioritize this policy is that it promotes goals outlined in the Biden administration’s executive actions. The goal of one such action is “to make evidence-based decisions guided by the best available science and data.” In today’s day and age, AI is often the best scientific tool and provides the best data.

This Biden action also instructs agencies to “expand open and secure access to Federal data,” including a mandate to make collected data available in machine-readable format. This is already one step toward common AI standards across agencies. The administration could even take this a step further by extending it to all documents.

In another executive order, the Biden administration states its goal to produce “a set of recommendations for improving and modernizing regulatory review.” With hundreds of thousands of regulatory pages on the books, one way to modernize review would be to begin with outdated or duplicative regulations, which agencies can identify using AI (a recommendation from the previous administration’s AI policy).

AI also presents new ways to evaluate the success and broader effects of existing regulations. Agencies could use this knowledge to inform a modernized regulatory review process and develop more effective regulations.

Expanding the use of AI in government is bipartisan policy — while people on either side of the aisle may prefer more or fewer policies in any specific area, everyone wants policies to be more informed and better constructed. However, there is a danger that the policy on AI standards for government gets lumped in with the Trump administration’s policy on AI regulations and standards for the private sector.

The private sector AI policy is not as bipartisan and has its critics. In fact, we responded to the original plan back in 2019, arguing that instead of developing standards for the private sector, the administration should turn its focus to government-wide standards for federal agencies. This is just what the previous administration did with the new AI policy.

Developing government-wide standards specific to AI will promote more and better use of AI within government agencies, leading to higher-quality policies and services. Those in the new administration should not let the origin of this policy blind them to its benefits and bipartisan nature. The Biden administration can use this opportunity to prioritize an effort that both parties can agree on — an effort that will expand the scientific grounding of government policies. That’s an effort that will mean a more effective government, as Biden would say, “for all Americans.”

Patrick McLaughlin is the director of policy analytics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, where he created and leads the RegData and QuantGov projects, deploying machine learning and other data-science tools to quantify governance indicators found in federal and state regulations and other policy documents.

Tyler Richards is the research coordinator of policy analytics at the Mercatus Center.


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Trump’s chaos made America a sitting duck for cyberattacks

On Sunday night, as news broke of one of the broadest state-sponsored cyberattacks in recent memory, former civilian cybersecurity chief Christopher Krebs was stuck tweeting. A state-sponsored attacker linked to Russia had compromised senior-level cabinet agencies, implicating huge portions of the government and private sector. Fired in November from his role leading the Cyber and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) after a political spat with President Trump, Krebs had to watch it all take place from the outside.

“I have the utmost confidence in the CISA team and other Federal partners,” Krebs said. “I’m sorry I’m not there with them, but they know how to do this.”

While it’s hard to say if he would have handled the hack differently, Krebs’ position on the sidelines underscores just how ill-prepared the United States is for a compromise of this scale. For the past four years, Trump has treated the federal cybersecurity effort as one more partisan battleground, with attacks and vulnerabilities embraced or rejected largely on the basis of their value as a political cudgel. Faced with a government-spanning compromise that will require deep analysis and careful cooperation, there’s little trust left to draw on, which could make a bad problem even worse.

To understand the challenge facing CISA and the rest of the government, it helps to understand the frustrating structure of this latest hack. The early headlines focussed on agencies like the departments of treasury and commerce, but the hack is much broader than that, and we still don’t know precisely which systems may have been compromised and what data may have been taken. Digging out every possible compromise will take discretion and trust — the kind of qualities Krebs had been building up in his role and lost when he was abruptly shown the door.

The heart of the hack is a network management tool from a company called SolarWinds. State-sponsored attackers compromised that tool, enabling them to deploy malicious code to anyone using the system, disguised as a software update. Experts are still piecing through the details (there’s a detailed technical writeup from Microsoft researchers here and a more accessible explanation from the journalist Kim Zetter here), but the gist is that anyone who used the product was potentially exposed. In a financial filing earlier today, SolarWinds estimated that roughly 33,000 clients were vulnerable to the malicious updates, with “fewer than 18,000” actually infected. (It’s also been linked to last week’s compromise at the cybersecurity firm FireEye.) It’s a huge hack, spanning vast and sensitive portions of both the federal government and the private sector — and we’re still in the process of figuring out what’s affected.

As you might expect, CISA (Krebs’ former agency) has been at the heart of the government response. In an emergency alert sent late on Sunday night, the agency called on every federal agency to assess their exposure, with reports due at noon on Monday. There’s a natural inclination to hide the damage (no one likes seeing headlines about how they might have been hacked), but an effective response depends on agencies being brutally honest. It’s the only way to understand the scale of the mess and start to clean it up.

Tackling that mess will take a lot of work and trust. Cybersecurity is a difficult job under the best of circumstances, and while the National Security Agency keeps military secrets locked down, civilian agencies (like treasury and commerce) are often left with few resources to fend for themselves. The result has been an embarrassing string of hacks, from the China-linked compromise of the Office of Personnel Management in 2015 (which, among other things, leaked the fingerprints of every federal employee) to a string of hacks at the State Department. Federal agencies have a terrible record of protecting data over the past five years.

Given a renewed mandate in 2018 to address the disastrous security at US civilian agencies, CISA hasn’t had much time to work — but under Krebs, the agency was gaining trust. The director had bipartisan support and was seen by the cybersecurity community as an impartial arbiter, someone who would be honest about the facts on the ground even if it was politically inconvenient. Then, a few weeks ago, he was fired for displaying exactly these qualities. As Trump raised groundless claims of election fraud to distract from his loss at the polls, Krebs issued a clear statement on the issue, saying he had seen no evidence of vote tallies being changed in the election. In a matter of days, he was out of a job.

We shouldn’t overstate Krebs’ work in preventing the hack itself. The SolarWinds compromise dates back to March, so it happened on his watch. There’s no indication that the past few months of compromise would be any less ugly if Krebs were still in the director’s chair. But the incident response would be less ugly. Acting director Brandon Wales hasn’t been confirmed and has held his position for less than a month. In the midst of an unusually chaotic transition, he’s asking agency infosec leads to trust him through one of the most sensitive events of their working lives. It’s a difficult position under the best of circumstances, and it would be much, much easier with a trusted hand in charge.

It’s all the worse because Krebs’ firing is just the latest in a long chain of similar incidents. President Trump took office actively denying the role of Russian active measures in the 2016 election, despite an unusually definitive attribution by US intelligence agencies. In the years since, he’s taken any suggestion of Russian influence as a personal incident and made denying it a kind of loyalty test.

Put simply, this is no way to run the world’s most powerful intelligence apparatus. I am not naive enough to call for a return to bipartisan comity, but we should be able to agree on basic facts like threats, vulnerabilities, and attackers. But the hazy nature of attribution has turned cybersecurity into a partisan battleground and ensured that nothing gets done on either side. Over the past four years, far too many Republicans have responded to persistent Russian attacks by insisting that there is no war in Ba Sing Se.

We may hope that when Trump leaves office in January, however begrudgingly, this pattern will start to change. President-elect Biden has made promising moves in his federal cybersecurity staffing, and at the very least, we can expect a return to the mild competence of the Obama era. But the past four years have taught us that institutions only improve through active effort, and the government only works when we insist on it working. In the wake of one of the most devastating compromises in federal history, it’s time to insist.

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Tech News

Twitter confirms Trump’s ban is permanent, even if he runs again

Wikimedia Commons

When Twitter said it had banned Trump, some wondered how permanent the move really was. After all, Twitter long used the justification of “public intestest” when explaining why the president was allowed to remain on the platform after saying things that would get other users banned. Following the Capitol riot, and as Trump would no longer be president just a few days following the ban, the public interest excuse didn’t mean much.

But what if he were to run for the position — or another government seat — again?

The company today clarified that ban is indeed permanent. In an interview with CNBC, Twitter CFO Ned Segal said “when you’re removed from the platform, you’re removed from the platform.” He further elaborated “our policies are designed to make sure that people are not inciting violence. He was removed when he was president and there’d be no difference for anybody who’s a public official once they’ve been removed from the service.”

So that’s that. While it seems unlikely Trump will stay silent forever — the Trump organization apparently tried to buy a major stake in Parler — at least we won’t have to see another tweetstorm from the former president again.

Facebook, for its part, has not yet clarified how long Trump’s ban will remain in effect. Although Zuckerberg said the president had been banned “indefinitely,” that doesn’t necessarily mean the same as “permanently.” For that, we’ll likely have to wait for a ruling from the company’s oversight board — the social media’s network’s equivalent of a supreme court on topics of moderation — which is currently reviewing the ban.

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Tech News

Trump’s ‘key money’ request complicates Microsoft-TikTok deal

Microsoft confirmed on Sunday that it is interested in buying the American business of ByteDance’s popular TikTok social-networking service, pending a review by the Trump administration, with the intention of closing the deal by mid-September. President Trump, however, had his own demands.

Microsoft’s announcement caps off an eventful weekend that began Friday night with President Trump stating that he would ban TikTok, the Chinese short-form social video service. Rumors then began swirling that Microsoft was interested in aquiring the company, but that Trump’s opposition to the service might prevent the deal from occurring. A Sunday-night blog post from Microsoft confirms that the deal is, in fact, in the works.

According to Microsoft, Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella and President Donald Trump spoke, with Trump apparently giving his approval for a potential acquisition to proceed. “Microsoft fully appreciates the importance of addressing the President’s concerns,” Microsoft said. “It is committed to acquiring TikTok subject to a complete security review and providing proper economic benefits to the United States, including the United States Treasury.”

Trump, however, on Monday threw an unexpected wrench into the deal, claiming that Microsoft would be forced to pay a finder’s fee of sorts to the government.

“I did say that if you buy it, whatever the price is… I said a very substantial portion of that price is going to have to come into the Treasury of the United States, because we’re making it possible for this deal to happen,” Trump said. “Right now they don’t have any rights, unless we give it to them. SO if we’re going to give them the rights, then it has to come into this country.

Trump compared the arrangement to a landlord-tenant arrangement. “Without a lease, the tenant has nothing. So they pay what’s called ‘key money’ or they pay something.”

TikTok deal set to close by September

Microsoft said Sunday that it hoped to complete the deal by Sept. 15, 2020, pending discussions with TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance. Microsoft would in fact buy TikTok’s operations in several English-speaking countries, including the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, and would result in Microsoft owning and operating TikTok in these markets. 

According to reports, the Trump administration was concerned that data collected by TikTok was being transferred to the Chinese government. (ByteDance has denied these allegations.) Microsoft said that all data collected by the TikTok operations it would acquire would remain within the United States, and any data that was stored or backed up outside the United States will be transferred to its servers within the United States. The data residing on those servers outside the U.S. would then be deleted, it said.

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Security researcher claims to have hacked Trump’s Twitter account

A security researcher claims he hacked President Donald Trump’s Twitter account earlier this month, guessing that his password was “maga2020!” and possibly posting a tweet where Trump appeared to take a satirical article seriously. Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant and magazine Vrij Nederland reported the news earlier today, citing screenshots and interviews with the researcher, Victor Gevers.

But when reached for comment, both Twitter and the White House vigorously denied the claim.

“We’ve seen no evidence to corroborate this claim, including from the article published in the Netherlands today,” a Twitter spokesperson told The Verge. “We proactively implemented account security measures for a designated group of high-profile, election-related Twitter accounts in the United States, including federal branches of government.”

White House deputy press secretary Judd Deere also denied the report. “This is absolutely not true,” he told The Verge, “but we don’t comment on security procedures around the President’s social media accounts.”

Vrij Nederland reported last month that Gevers and two other hackers had successfully breached Trump’s Twitter account in October 2016. According to its new report, Gevers decided to run a new security test in 2020 by plugging in the old password. That password (“yourefired”) didn’t work, but Gevers discovered that Trump didn’t have two-factor authentication enabled — a remarkable weakness for a hugely important account. He guessed a handful of other passwords and was granted access after five other tries.

Twitter didn’t specify exactly what security measures had been implemented for Trump’s account. The company began requiring strong passwords and seriously encouraging two-factor security in September following a breach of several high-profile accounts, but it’s theoretically possible that the Trump campaign disabled that additional measure.

Vrij Nederland also suggests that Gevers was responsible for a strange tweet sent by Trump on October 16th. The tweet cited the satirical publication The Babylon Bee in an apparently serious capacity. Gevers apparently wouldn’t confirm this to Vrij Nederland, but he said that if he had, then “Trump will need to either admit to never having read the Babylon Bee article and posting this bullshit tweet, OR he will need to acknowledge that someone else posted the tweet.”

Trump claimed during a speech earlier this week that “nobody gets hacked,” except by someone with a “197 IQ” and “about 15 percent of your password.” Trump has previously admitted that a hacker breached his Twitter account in 2013.

Gevers — a respected security expert and co-founder of the nonprofit GDI Foundation — says he made numerous attempts to contact Trump about the vulnerability. de Volkskrant reports that the American Secret Service in the Netherlands reached out to Gevers and “took the report seriously,” according to correspondence seen by the reporters. (A US Secret Service spokesperson declined to comment on the claims, directing us to the White House.) In a direct message to The Verge, Gevers says he also attempted to contact Twitter multiple times with “zero luck.”

Gevers didn’t confirm whether he sent the Babylon Bee tweet. But he says that despite gaining access to Trump’s account, he didn’t make changes to it. “That is not ethical and goes too far. That is not covered by a responsible disclosure / coordinated vulnerability disclosure,” he said. “Or, in plain English, a dick move.”

Update 3:00PM ET: Added response from US Secret Service.

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Trump’s campaign website hit with cryptocurrency scam

President Trump’s campaign website was hacked Tuesday afternoon in an apparent cryptocurrency scam, the New York Times reports. “This site was seized,” the fake FBI notice read, before claiming without proof to have gained access to Trump’s private communications containing evidence of wrongdoing. Two cryptocurrency wallet addresses were then listed, asking visitors to send funds and effectively vote on whether these documents should be released.

In a statement posted on Twitter, the Trump campaign’s communications director Tim Murtaugh confirmed the defacement. He said “there was no exposure to sensitive data because none of it is actually stored on the site” and that the organization was “working with law enforcement authorities to investigate the source of the attack.” TechCrunch reports that the website’s original content was restored, “within a few minutes.”

According to The New York Times, journalist Gabriel Lorenzo Greschler was among the first to spot the hack and post screenshots of it to Twitter.

The notice posted on the site in broken English claimed to have proof that the Trump government was involved in the origins of the coronavirus, and that the president has been involved with “foreign actors manipulating the 2020 elections.”

It provided two Monero wallet addresses for visitors to send money to, allowing them to effectively vote on whether the hackers should release the incriminating evidence. One wallet was labeled with “Yes, share the data” and the other “No, do not share the data.” Monero cryptocurrency is particularly difficult track, according to both the NYT and TechCrunch.

The notice referred to a “deadline” after which the amount of funds in the two addresses would be compared, but provides no information on when the deadline is. It also showed a PGP encryption key which TechCrunch notes corresponds to an email address at, a website that doesn’t exist.

This is not the only cryptocurrency scam to have affected one of contenders in this year’s election. Back in July, Joe Biden’s Twitter account was among the victims of a bitcoin scam in which numerous high-profile accounts were hacked.

There’s no evidence that anything other than the website itself was affected by the hack, and it’s unclear who was behind it. However, it’s notable that it occurred just a week before an election in which foreign interference has been such a concern.

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Dutch prosecutors say Donald Trump’s Twitter account was really hacked

Dutch prosecutors believe a security researcher hacked President Donald Trump’s Twitter account in October, despite earlier denials from the White House and Twitter. According to The Guardian, a specialist police team investigated hacker Victor Gevers, who claimed to have guessed Trump’s password as “maga2020!” and breached his account. “We believe the hacker has actually penetrated Trump’s Twitter account, but has met the criteria that have been developed in case law to go free as an ethical hacker,” a public prosecutor’s office spokesperson told The Guardian.

The BBC reports that Dutch law enforcement alerted US authorities to the findings. It’s unclear exactly what evidence Gevers provided to police; he previously offered screenshots that apparently showed him logged into Trump’s account. (Vice published an article casting additional doubt on Gevers’ story, pointing out a missing emoji in Trump’s bio, but that could be explained by factors like using a browser plugin.) Gevers said he’d guessed Trump’s password during a routine check on major public figures’ account security, and he didn’t deface or otherwise compromise the account.

Twitter denied the original hacking reports in October, saying that it saw “no evidence to corroborate this claim” from Gevers. “Our original statement still stands and we have nothing further to share,” a spokesperson told The Verge in response to the prosecutor’s new conclusion. The White House has also strenuously denied the report.

Trump has admitted at least one breach of his personal Twitter account, which he’s continued to use in office. But Gevers allegedly hacked Trump’s account just a month after Twitter ramped up security for high-profile users, and Twitter said it had “proactively implemented account security measures” for high-profile government accounts. The hack would have required Trump to break Twitter’s best practices and disable two-factor authentication, a basic security precaution.

That said, the Trump administration’s response to far more serious cybersecurity threats hasn’t inspired much confidence. And at least one law enforcement agency is taking Gevers’ admission seriously.

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