Facebook will verify the location of U.S. election ad buyers by mailing them postcards

Facebook’s global director of policy programs says it will start sending postcards by snail mail to verify buyers of ads related to United States elections. Katie Harbath, who described the plan at a conference held by the National Association of Secretaries of State this weekend, didn’t reveal when the program will start, but told Reuters that it would be before the Congressional midterm elections in November.

The cards will be sent to people who want to purchase ads that mention candidates running for federal offices, but not issue-based political ads, Harbath said, and contain a code that buyers need to enter to verify that they are in the U.S. The program is similar to ones used by Google My Business and Nextdoor when they need to verify business owners or users who want to join closed neighborhood groups, respectively.

Harbath told Reuters that the postcards “won’t solve everything,” but were the most effective method the company came up with to prevent people from using false identities to purchase ads. In October, Facebook vice president of ads Rob Goldman published a blog post saying that the platform planned to create more transparency around ads by taking steps that include a searchable archive of federal-election ads and requiring political advertisers to verify their identity.

Facebook, Twitter and Google executives were called to testify in front of Senate last fall about how Russians used their platforms to spread misinformation intended to sway the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign. The companies have been criticized for not doing enough to prevent false advertising. The issue escalated last week when U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller handed down a set of indictments charging 13 Russian citizens and three Russian organizations, including a bot farm, with interfering in the presidential election through operations including fake social media accounts.

Featured Image: Elena Pezzini Photography/Getty Images

Digital nomads are hiring and firing their governments

The nation state has survived wars, plagues, and upheaval, but it won’t survive digital nomads, not if people like Karoli Hindriks have something to say about it. Hindriks is the founder of Jobbatical, a platform that allows digital nomads to find work in other countries and helps with the logistics of getting there.

The company also embodies a new world of highly-skilled, global migratory workers who work wherever they please. “Our own team today is forty people and they have flown in from sixteen different countries,” Hindriks explained about a recent all-hands gathering. “One of our engineers is from Colombia, and living in Talinn, and he was hosting a Couchsurfer who flew in from Malaysia and he was our engineer in Mexico, and he was now moving to Denmark. This is the perfect example of how the world should be, and how it will be in five or ten years.”

Benedict Anderson famously called the population of a nation state an “imagined community,” but today’s global workers have a very different community that they are imagining.

From cryptocurrency millionaires in Puerto Rico to digital nomads in hotspots like Thailand, Indonesia, and Colombia, there is increasingly a view that there is a marketplace for governance, and we hold the power as consumers. Much like choosing a cereal from the breakfast department of a supermarket, highly-skilled professionals are now comparing governments online — and making clear-headed choices based on which ones are most convenient and have the greatest amenities available.

“There is a shift happening where the country isn’t fixating, the talent is fixating,” Hindriks said. Governments — at least, some of them — are realizing that the generators of wealth today increasingly have infinite choice about where they live. A little more friction in the immigration process from an extra visa form could mean hundreds of digital nomads simply switch their plane tickets somewhere else, depriving a country of innovative thought and critical revenues.

As the nation state moves toward this new form of networked sovereignty though, what are the challenges that such transience cause? Is it possible to merge the growing excitement and wanderlust of today’s innovative thinkers with the needs of local communities?

2017 was a ferocious year in the talent wars

Like any marketplace, cities and governments are now being ranked and compared online. Pieter Levels, a leader in the digital nomad community, has built Nomad List as a Kayak-like aggregator for potential work destinations. The platform allows users to compare different locations on a range of factors, such as internet bandwidth, price, nightlife vitality, and safety.

Much as airlines ferociously compete for top billing on Kayak, governments are increasingly competing with each other to reach the top rankings and earn the business of these itinerant global workers.

That brain gain is a completely new development for much of the world. Brain drain, mostly to the United States, has been the story in the developing world for decades in the post-World War II global economy. No other country has mastered the pipeline of talent that America has built. Every year, a million international students come to the US and attend American universities. Many of these international students will ultimately stay and build a life in their adopted country.

Other countries have watched this pattern with envy, but have felt powerless to stop it. That is, until recently. Blame Trump, blame strapped research and university budgets, blame weariness of American culture, but there is a sense among politicians across the world that the best talent is suddenly available for the taking. Now, these governments are offering increasingly generous immigration terms to attract the next-generation of their startup, research, and professional workforces.

Networked sovereignty brings up complicated questions. For instance, what rights should be conferred on people who spend a quarter of their time in one city? Should they be considered “fractional citizens,” with perhaps a fractional right to vote?

Few countries have made quite as stark of an about-face as Japan, which has traditionally been among the most isolated countries in the world. In 2016, the country of 127 million only had 4,732 professional migrants on visas, or roughly 0.003%. Only 297 of those professionals hailed from North America.

Last year, the Abe government pushed for changes to the highly-skilled professional visa program that would allow professionals to gain permanent residency in as short as one year, down from ten years. In addition, the government has tried to elevate the brand recognition of Japanese universities, while also reforming its research grant program to make the system more competitive internationally.

We see a similar set of initiatives from Canada. It has made its startup visa program permanent, which will officially launch at the end of March this year. Plus, it is embarking on a massive expansion of research funding for artificial intelligence and other fields to attract superstar researchers.

The story is similar elsewhere. France is placing a huge emphasis on attracting startup talent to the country, particularly founders, business professionals, and investors. China has aggressively sought to bring back its citizens from abroad through outreach and better funding initiatives, and the country has just launched a national strategy around artificial intelligence that frankly dwarfs the plans of any other country.

More is coming. According to Hindriks of Jobbatical, Estonia and Malaysia are now considering digital nomad-style visas that would allow self-employed professionals to attain visas without an employer sponsor.

In short, 2017 was a watershed year for governments to transform their innovation ecosystems, and the keen competition for top talent is forcing countries to lower the friction to cross their borders. To be fair, it’s one thing to announce a new visa program, and another to actually implement it. Canada’s startup visa program only accepted 100 people total over a trial three year period. Nonetheless, the momentum behind these reforms isn’t going to abate any time soon.

The rise of networked sovereignty

With the increasing flows of migrant talent, we are witnessing the rise of a new “networked sovereignty,” where people have attachments to countries built up over a lifetime of mobility — and they may not even live there.

That is the challenge of the narcissism of today’s digital nomad: it’s about freedom of movement, but not responsibility to engage.

For instance, Estonia has its e-residency program, which allows the holder to use digital credentials that provide access to Estonian resources and programs, even when the bearer isn’t physically located inside the country. That creates a long-term relationship between a worker, who may move between different countries, and Estonia that can be quite substantial. Such programs blur the classic distinction between who is in and who is out at the heart of citizenship.

Networked sovereignty brings up complicated questions. For instance, what rights should be conferred on people who spend a quarter of their time in one city? Should they be considered “fractional citizens,” with perhaps a fractional right to vote? Estonia, which in many ways has been the vanguard in these movements, does allow foreign nationals with permanent residency to vote in local elections, although permanent residence is far different from a resident who spends a few weeks a year in a country.

Such a model has little precedent, but the theories behind it have been explored in fiction, such as in science fiction author Malka Older’s two novels, Infomocracy and Null State. In Older’s future world, nation states have been mostly abolished and replaced with what she calls “microdemocracy” of 100,000 person “centenals” with absolute freedom of movement for every person. Want to switch from a drug paradise to a militarized autocratic government? You could potentially just walk down the street and automatically switch borders.

The books are thrillers, but along the way, we can learn and experience the challenges and heady opportunities of what competitive governance looks like. To continue to exist, governments in each centental need to have 100,000 people, which means they need to attract a specific audience to their borders to remain in existence. Governments become franchises, and a global organization called Information (a sort of Google meets the United Nations hybrid) provides seemingly objective and continuous information about the world, so that citizens can make the best decisions.

In its ideal form, networked sovereignty lines up with liberal values of open trade, open borders, and human freedoms. Highly-skilled migrants have choices on where they want to live, and their demands for quality of life, amenities, rights, and freedoms create competition among governments to be more open and satiate those desires. A country that even implies that it is backtracking on that openness can suddenly find a gaping hole in its incoming stream of talent, one that might not be easy to repair. Mobility essentially becomes the new Bill of Rights.

What is local in a globalized world?

Former Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Tip O’Neill, once famously said that “All politics is local.” What he meant was that while the macro issues of the day of finance or foreign affairs may blare from the newspapers, the views of voters are fundamentally shaped by what they experience every day. A street light that has burnt out and isn’t repaired quickly is likely to have much more of an effect on a voter’s impression of government competence than an editorial in the New York Times.

What, then, is local politics if residents are never actually there to commit their time, talents, and energy to improve a neighborhood? Who sits on an architectural review board, or on a school board or city council? What does representation mean?

The pragmatic answer is that not everyone is migrating all the time (the pithy answer is “blockchain”). Migration is generally a youthful activity, and as people marry and have kids they are significantly less likely to move between countries on a regular basis. The idea that a majority of a city’s population is going to be cosmopolitan business travelers is a fantasy that simply doesn’t match reality.

A far more challenging question though is what happens when times go bad. A recession hits, or a disaster takes place, and suddenly some of the most important professionals in an urban ecosystem flee to their next ideal city, leaving the rest of the population to try to fix the problem.

That is the challenge of the narcissism of today’s digital nomad: it’s about freedom of movement, but not responsibility to engage. The loyalty of patriotism is replaced by a kind of brand loyalty, and there are dozens of other brands on the government shelf. There is a supposed mutualism between the digital nomad and the local population: the former brings prosperity and an innovative outlook, the latter provides for the quality amenities that attract the nomads. But ultimately, only one of these groups has the ability to leave.

Governments are competing better to get talent into their countries, but now they need to work with nomads and global talent, and vice versa. We need to move toward a more expansive view that people can have multiple nations, and nations can share a single person. We all need to engage deeper with the places we live globally, and realize that it is not someone else’s job to make our neighborhood right.

Featured Image: Thomas Trutschel/Photothek/Getty Images

Special counsel Robert Mueller indicts Russian bot farms for election meddling

Special Counsel Robert Mueller has just handed down a set of indictments, charging 13 Russian citizens and three Russian organizations with interference in the U.S. presidential election in efforts dating back to 2014.

The indictment names the Internet Research Agency, a bot farm and disinformation operation based out of St. Petersburg as one of the sources of the fake accounts meant to create divisions in American society. Those accounts were active on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and the indictment brings up specific examples from the internal review results that these tech companies handed over to Congress.

Congress has taken an active interest in these ads and the companies that facilitated their dissemination, calling the heads of Facebook, Google and Twitter to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee last October. The House and Senate Intelligence committees, both conducting their own parallel investigations into election interference, investigating the content of these fake accounts and the circumstances that led to their spread.

Mueller is spearheading the far-reaching ongoing investigation into meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. While these early charges are targeted at Russian nationals, Mueller has also taken an active interest in former members of the Trump campaign, including former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort who stands accused of money laundering.

The new indictments center around the allegation that those named violated laws that forbid foreign entities from contributing money to influence U.S. federal elections. The Russians face multiple charges, including one count of conspiracy to defraud the United States, one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and bank fraud and six counts of aggravated identity theft.

You can read the full text of the indictment, embedded below.

Featured Image: Ivan Osipov / EyeEm/Getty Images

Under Russian pressure to remove content, Instagram complies but YouTube holds off

Instagram has taken down content posted by Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny under pressure from a government agency, while YouTube has yet to do so. Navalny and others have criticized Instagram for complying to what they call a politically-motivated move to silence him.

The issue is around a video accusing a Russian official, deputy prime minister Sergei Prikhodko, of accepting a bribe from prominent businessman Oleg Deripaska — in the form of a trip on a yacht populated with upscale escorts. It uses footage posted (and later removed) by one of the alleged escorts to Instagram.

Deripaska sued in a local court, which turned around and ordered that the material be removed web-wide, recruiting the Russian communications regulator Roskomnadzor to enforce the order. The deadline was yesterday.

Among the sites and services complying with the order to remove the content in question is Instagram, which was the target of swift rebuke upon doing so, from Navalny and his supporters.

I’ve asked both YouTube and Instagram for comment on their actions (or future actions). Facebook confirmed to the BBC that it had complied with the regulator’s order, but did not offer any more than a blanket statement regarding how it handles government content takedown requests.

In addition to the Instagram and YouTube posts, the Russian court also ordered that Navalny’s own website be blocked, after he refused to take down the content in question. He and his supporters consider this a blatant attempt to silence him ahead of next month’s election, which Navalny was organizing a boycott of.

France’s telecom regulator thinks net neutrality should also apply to devices

The ARCEP, France’s equivalent of the FCC in the U.S., wants to go beyond telecommunications companies. While many regulatory authorities have focused on carriers and internet service providers, the French authority thinks Google, Apple, Amazon and all the big tech companies also need their own version of net neutrality.

The ARCEP just published a thorough 65-page report (embedded below) about the devices we use every day. The report says that devices give you a portion of the internet and prevent an open internet.

“With net neutrality, we spend all our time cleaning pipes, but nobody is looking at faucets,” ARCEP president Sébastien Soriano told me. “Everybody assumes that the devices that we use to go online don’t have a bias. But if you want to go online, you need a device just like you need a telecom company.”

With net neutrality, we spend all our time cleaning pipes, but nobody is looking at faucets

— Sébastien Soriano

Now that net neutrality has been laid down in European regulation, the ARCEP has been looking at devices for the past couple of years. And it’s true that you can feel you’re stuck in an ecosystem once you realize you have to use Apple Music on an Apple Watch, or the Amazon Echo assumes you want to buy stuff on Amazon.com when you say ‘Alexa, buy me a tooth brush’.

“The interface of the smartphone makes it much more comfortable than a computer,” Soriano said. “But they’re holding your hand — the size of the screen means that they don’t show you as many things.”

And smartphones are just the tip of the iceberg. Voice assistants and connected speakers are even less neutral than smartphones. Game consoles, smartwatches and connected cars all share the same issues.

The ARCEP doesn’t think we should go back to computers and leave our phones behind. This isn’t a debate about innovation versus regulation. Regulation can also foster innovation.

“This report has listed for the first time ever all the limitations you face as a smartphone user,” Soriano said. “By users, we mean both consumers and developers who submit apps in the stores.”

Some changes that would benefit end users

And of course, the ARCEP wants to be in charge of all those limitations so that users don’t end up being stuck forever in a closed ecosystem. You can also find a bunch of suggestions in the report. For instance, you should be able to uninstall all pre-installed apps on your phone

You should be able to use an alternative to the App Store or Play Store because Apple and Google have their own editorial and validation teams. It forces developers to play by their rules, even though some of those rules are just here to protect Apple or Google.

They curate content on 86 percent of what we do with our smartphones

— Sébastien Soriano

Even if Apple or Google don’t want to replace their stores, you could imagine alternative search engines that connect to the App Store or Play Store thanks to APIs. There’s no reason why we can switch from Google to Qwant or DuckDuckGo, but not from the Play Store to another search engine.

“Today, apps represent 86 percent of mobile internet traffic,” Soriano said. “They curate content on 86 percent of what we do with our smartphones.”

The ARCEP wants to look at exclusive services and content. Sometimes, it’s true that exclusive services foster competition sometimes. But the ARCEP wants to keep an eye on it.

“We looked at Progressive Web Apps. Those Progressive Web Apps look interesting because it lets you combine the best of the web and apps,” Soriano said. But the ARCEP is also aware that Progressive Web Apps still aren’t as nice and powerful as native apps. “It seems a bit premature at this stage to force this model as the default model on smartphones,” Soriano said.

There are other suggestions in the report to help developers and consumers. Those are just ideas for now, but the ARCEP plans to use them soon.

Turning those suggestions into a law

“Legally, those suggestions can be passed as a law in France,” Soriano said. “If a French politician wants to reuse our suggestions into a law, it’s possible. We’re just calling out a problem we identified and making propositions.” This would be just the first step before bringing the issue to a European level.

Soriano said France’s Secretary of State for Digital Affairs Mounir Mahjoubi could be interested in those discussions involving tech platforms. He also plans to go to Mobile World Congress in Barcelona to talk with European politicians and phone manufacturers.

In all cases, this is an interesting document that asks the right questions. If the FCC wants to reconsider its stance on net neutrality, it would be a good idea to look at tech companies in addition to telecom companies.

Featured Image: ARCEP - Stefen Meyer UNDER A CC BY-SA 4.0 LICENSE

UK accuses Russia of 2017’s NotPetya ransomware attacks

The UK government has directly accused Russia of being behind the so called NotPetya ransomware attack last year — which quickly spread around the globe, including affecting businesses in Spain, France and India, demanding payment in Bitcoin to unlock infected machines. The malware initially appeared targeted at Ukrainian networks.

“We have entered a new era of warfare, witnessing a destructive and deadly mix of conventional military might and malicious cyber-attacks,” UK defense secretary Gavin Williamson is quoted as saying (via The Guardian). “Russia is ripping up the rulebook by undermining democracy, wrecking livelihoods by targeting critical infrastructure and weaponising information… We must be primed and ready to tackle these stark and intensifying threats.”

Russia has made various military incursions into Ukrainian territory since 2014, when it annexed Crimea. Ukraine has also suffered a sustained cyberwarfare campaign apparently waged by Kremlin agents — though of course Russia denies all charges — including, in 2015, a cyber attack against the local energy grid that temporarily disrupted electricity supplies in the depths of winter.

Russia has denied Williamson’s latest charge too — as it also did last year, when the UK prime minister directly accused Vladimir Putin of seeking to weaponize information in order to sew social division and influence elections in the West, via the medium of fake news posted to social media platforms.

“We categorically dismiss such accusations; we consider them unsubstantiated and groundless. It’s not more than a continuation of the Russophobic campaign which is not based on any evidence,” a Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told the BBC.

The UK foreign office backed up Williamson’s remarks, with Lord Ahmad saying in a statement (via Reuters): “The decision to publicly attribute this incident underlines the fact that the UK and its allies will not tolerate malicious cyber activity.

“The UK government judges that the Russian government, specifically the Russian military, was responsible for the destructive NotPetya cyber attack. Its reckless release disrupted organisations across Europe costing hundreds of millions of pounds. The Kremlin has positioned Russia in direct opposition to the West yet it doesn’t have to be that way.”

“We call upon Russia to be the responsible member of the international community it claims to be rather then secretly trying to undermine it,” he added.

While the NotPetya malware was initially thought to be a strain of the Petya ransomware it turned out to be a new variant that reused only some code. (Hence NotPetya.) It also included code known as Eternal Blue — which is widely believed to have been stolen from the NSA, as was the exploit that fueled last year’s WannaCry/WannaCrypt attack.

UK parliamentarians are currently investigating the impact of Russian-backed Brexit meddling in the UK’s 2016 EU referendum, as part of a wider enquiry into fake news. And separately the UK Electoral Commission is also looking into digital campaigning activity funded by Russia during the referendum.

Last month the UK government announced plans to set up a dedicated national security unit to try to combat state-led disinformation campaigns.

Featured Image: Bryce Durbin

Senator calls on Tinder to fix a security flaw that lets randos snoop through your dates

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden is nervous about Tinder. He may not be swiping on the service this Valentine’s Day, but with a new letter demanding that Tinder resolve some security issues, Wyden is looking out for everyone who is.

Last month, a security report surfaced what it deemed “disturbing vulnerabilities” in the dating app. Wyden’s letter cites the research, demanding a fix for a security loophole that allows would-be attackers to view nearly everything about a user’s Tinder experience via an attack over unsecured wifi.

“Tinder can easily enhance privacy to its users by encrypting all data transmitted between its app and servers, and padding sensitive information to thwart snooping,” Wyden writes.

As the security firm Checkmarx explains:

“The vulnerabilities, found in both the app’s Android and iOS versions, allow an attacker using the same network as the user to monitor the user’s every move on the app. It is also possible for an attacker to take control over the profile pictures the user sees, swapping them for inappropriate content, rogue advertising or other type of malicious content (as demonstrated in the research).”

The report notes that stolen credentials are unlikely, but the vulnerability is a recipe for blackmail. TechCrunch reached out to Tinder for comment on Sen. Wyden’s letter and its plans to fix its security concerns but the company has not responded.

“Americans expect their personal information to remain private online,” Wyden writes. “To that end, I urge Tinder to address these security lapses, and by doing so, to swipe right on user privacy and security.”