Media Law Roundup: November 21st

Welcome to the November 21, 2014  Media Law Roundup — a survey of the week’s developing media news.

Amnesty International Spyware Detection App

Amnesty International has released a new application designed to spot spyware hidden on a computer. The Detekt software scans computers for anything that might be used to monitor journalists, political activists, and others who might be at risk of government surveillance. Amnesty International developed the software along with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Privacy International, and Digital Gesellschaft. The application has been in development for two years and was prompted by the rise of government surveillance both in repressive regimes and democratic governments. Detekt’s creator, Germany security researcher Claudio Guarnieri, said, “People think the uses of spyware by governments are isolated cases. They are not. Their discovery is isolated.” The application is available free of charge, and is currently able to run on computers using the Windows operating system.


Whatsapp End-to-End Encryption

The popular messaging app Whatsapp, which was bought by Facebook earlier this year for $19 billion, has announced that its service will now be end-to-end encrypted. The use of end-to-end encryption means that encrypted messages will be sent from one user and will not be decrypted until received by another user, as opposed to only being encrypted between a sender and the Whatsapp server. Whatsapp is encrypting messages through use of the open-source software Textsecure. Its new encryption implementation means that Whatsapp has launched one of the largest encrypted messaging systems in the world. Law enforcement warned against this and similar advancements, stating that encrypted systems will allow crime to flourish. “At some future date, a child will die, and police will say they would have been able to rescue the child, or capture the killer, if only they could have looked inside a certain phone.”


Russian Wikipedia

Russia has announced its plan to create a regional online encyclopedia that is cultivated by the Russian Presidential Library. The new site is described as being an alternative to Wikipedia, which, in a statement from the library, was criticized as “not hav[ing] enough detailed and reliable information about Russian regions and the life of the country.” This announcement marks the latest in a series of changes to the internet that reflect growing state control of how Russia is portrayed in the media, but does not mark the first time that Russia has sought to present an alternate version of itself via online encyclopedia. For example, a Russian television and radio company was discovered to have edited a Wikipedia article on the Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 disaster to assign responsibility to Ukrainian soldiers. The alternative Russian Wikipedia, according to the statement issued by the Presidential Library, “Will allow to objectively and accurately present the country and its population, the diversity of the state, the national system of Russia.”


New York Payphone-to-Hotspot Transition

The remaining payphones in New York city are being converted into free, public Wi-Fi hotspots. CityBridge, a group of telecommunications companies that includes Qualcomm and Titan, are developing the project, which will cost over $200 million. Areas that once housed payphones will now provide free Wi-Fi, free domestic calls for users with cell phones, mobile powering stations, and city information. The broadband access provided at these hotspots will be up to twenty times faster than home broadband access in the city; for example, a two-hour movie would take only thirty seconds to download.  The payphone conversion is also being framed as an effort by Mayor Bill de Blasio to reduce inequality. Said Maya Wiley, counsel to the mayor, “It’s going to help us close the digital divide.” New York’s public advocate criticized the conversion as being rushed and a “monopolistic arrangement,” but Mayor de Blasio’s administration has pointed out that CityBridge is a consortium of several companies. The administration also addressed privacy concerns, saying that the city would “never share or sell any personal protected information” retrieved during use of the payphone hotspots. This is the largest reported conversion of metropolitan payphones since a series of six payphone boxes in London were converted to solar-powered mobile charging stations in October.


Hong Kong Sites Suffer Largest Cyber-Attack in History

Pro-Hong Kong democracy websites have been hit with what Matthew Prince, the CEO of cyber-protection company Cloudflare, is deeming the largest cyber-attack in history. Apple Daily and PopVote, both of which are protected by Cloudflare, have been hit with 500 gigabits (Gbps) per second attacks, the largest since 400 Gbps attacks against US and European sites in February. Both Apple Daily and PopVote have been supportive of Hong Kong’s Occupy Central protesters, with the latter site holding a mock referendum on universal suffrage rights for Hong Kong. Attackers have targeted the sites through their domain name servers (DNS), “forcing [internet service providers] to look up their IP addresses via the DNS global infrastructure.” Prince said that Cloudflare has seen “over 250 million DNS requests per second, which is probably on par with the total DNS requests for the entire internet in a normal second.” The sheer volume of requests has led service providers such as Virgin to block all connection the sites. Cloudflare has had to contact individual ISPs to show them methods for allowing regular visitors onto the sites, but that is about all that can be done. “There’s no technical solution that Cloudflare can create to solve this problem unless we re-architect the internet,” said Prince.


Cybersecurity Initiative

The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation has granted MIT, Stanford University, and the University of California at Berkeley $15 million each as funding for an initiative on cybersecurity policy. The three universities will use the grants to brainstorm policy framework changes. The president of the Hewlett Foundation, Larry Kramer, said, “We view these grants as providing seed capital to begin generating thoughtful options.” The three initiatives will take different but complementary routes as they address the issue of cybersecurity. The MIT Cybersecurity Policy Initiative will benefit policymakers by focusing on metrics and models, Stanford’s Cyber-X Initiative will explore trustworthiness and governance, and UC Berkeley’s Center for Internet Security and Policy will look toward the future of cybersecurity.


State Control of the Internet on the Rise in Iran

A new report released on November 17, 2014 found that Iranian citizens’ rights to freedom of speech, access to information, and privacy are threatened by a series of government policies and technology initiatives, including but not limited to: restriction of internet access, user account surveillance, and “the prosecution of individuals for their peaceful online activities.” The report, Internet in Chains: The Front Line of State Repression in Iran, also details efforts by the Iranian government to create a “national internet.” Hadi Ghaemi is the Executive Director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. He explained the Iranian government’s interest in a national internet as being “motivated by its growing realization that as internet users proliferate in Iran, the State’s grip on the social and cultural narrative inside the country is rapidly loosening.” To view the report in its entirety, click here.


Government Aerial Surveillance

The United States Department of Justice has been using surveillance planes equipped with devices known as “dirtboxes” to gather information from citizens’ cell phones. The dirtboxes “mimic cellphone towers” and are capable of retrieving location data within ten feet of a user, jamming cell signals, and pulling text messages and photos. The interception of location data allows the planes to determine registration information, even for encrypted phones like the newly default-encrypted ones from Apple and Google. A Justice Department official speaking to the Wall Street Journal refused to either confirm or deny the existence of the program on the grounds of national security, but did state that all Justice Department programs are legal and subject to court approval. Similar devices such as the Stingray, however, have seen civil rights groups sue the law enforcement. It remains to be seen whether the aerial surveillance revelations will lead to a lawsuit.


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