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This Week in Technology + Press Freedom: March 15, 2020

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  1. Policy

Here’s what the staff of the Technology and Press Freedom Project at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press is tracking this week.

Reporters Committee requests records from NYPD

Reporters Committee attorneys submitted a New York Freedom of Information Law request last week seeking records regarding the New York Police Department’s subpoena for data from the Twitter account of a New York Post reporter.

As we have previously discussed, the Post reported last month that the NYPD sought information from the paper’s police bureau chief, Tina Moore, as part of a leak investigation.

The NYPD’s subpoena referenced an obscure provision of the USA Patriot Act, a section of the law that actually amended the Cable Communications Policy Act. TPFP Director Gabe Rottman called the move “bizarre” in a special analysis on the incident. The NYPD withdrew the subpoena after the Post’s legal team contacted the department.

Among other records, the FOIL request asks for “All communications including emails, text messages, and all other electronic messages, mentioning or referring to the subpoena … including but not limited to records authorizing the issuance of the subpoena.” The request can be found here.

— Lyndsey Wajert

Quick Hits

Social media companies say they are trying to limit the spread of misinformation regarding COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Their efforts come as journalists grapple with how to use tools and technology to cover the outbreak, which the World Health Organization has officially designated as a “pandemic.” The Reporters Committee has issued its own response to the situation here.

Late last week, a federal judge ordered the release of Chelsea Manning, the former intelligence analyst who has been detained for 11 months for refusing to testify before a grand jury investigating Wikileaks and its founder, Julian Assange. The judge stated that the grand jury investigation is no longer active, but the release order comes after Manning reportedly tried to commit suicide in jail.

An Orange County Superior Court judge on Thursday reissued an order that prevents a local blogger from publishing confidential documents he accessed through an unprotected folder on the city of Fullerton’s file-sharing account. Attorneys for the Reporters Committee filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, and will follow up with additional analysis on the court’s prior restraint soon.

Twitter flagged a video of former Vice President Joe Biden as “manipulated media” because of the way it was deceptively edited. It marked the first time the social media platform used its new labeling policy to help combat the spread of misinformation from heavily edited videos and “deepfakes.” The move coincides with the news that a team of researchers from the University of California San Diego recently developed a simple method that would allow some AI-generated fakes to fool detectors.

A federal jury last Monday came out deadlocked on eight counts in the prosecution of Joshua Schulte, the accused “Vault 7” leaker, forcing the judge in the case to declare a mistrial on the Espionage Act charges. However, the former CIA employee was convicted of contempt of court and making false statements to the FBI.

Last Wednesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the EARN IT Act, a recently-introduced bill that supporters say is aimed at online child exploitation. Critics of the bill note, however, that it could severely impact the ability of technology companies to offer encrypted services to their users.

The NSO Group, an Israeli-based company that sells spyware, has responded to messenger service WhatsApp’s allegations that it violated federal hacking laws by allowing its spyware to be used to access WhatsApp users’ messages. Specifically, the NSO Group has requested a time extension in the proceedings to permit the company to raise a defense of “derivative foreign sovereign immunity,” based on the fact that all of their customers are foreign nations or their intelligence services.

A Spanish court recently ruled that while Google did not have to erase news articles about a man accused of sexual assault from its search results under the “right to be forgotten,” the company did have to list stories about the man’s acquittal in its top listings.

In a recently unsealed court document, a federal judge concluded that a lawsuit filed by Amazon over its unsuccessful bid for a cloud-computing project “is likely to succeed on the merits,” focusing on the argument that the Pentagon made a mistake in evaluating prices for competing proposals from Amazon and Microsoft. The opinion did not address Amazon’s claim that the White House interfered in the bidding process for the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure, or JEDI, project. Further, the U.S. Department of Defense late last week indicated in a court filing that it wishes to re-evaluate its decision to award the contract to Microsoft.

LinkedIn filed a petition for writ of certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court last week, asking the Court to hear its case and overturn a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit that barred the professional networking company from blocking the company hiQ Labs from “scraping” publicly available data from LinkedIn member profiles. The Reporters Committee published an explainer on the Ninth Circuit’s decision in September. If the Supreme Court chooses to hear the case, it could have significant repercussions for how courts interpret the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the federal “anti-hacking” law.

In early March, Vice reported that authorities across Utah had given a private artificial intelligence company, Banjo, access to information — traffic cameras, CCTV, 911 emergency systems — that the company promised it could match with data from other sources, including social media, to determine if individuals or groups were engaging in unusual behavior. Then this past week, several anonymous former employees explained that Banjo created a “secret company” to develop apps that would allow Banjo to scrape users’ social media data. Those apps no longer appear to be in use.

Gif of the Week: Sunshine Week reminder that while sunlight can be a powerful disinfectant, washing your hands regularly can be, too! Stay safe, readers!

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The Technology and Press Freedom Project at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press uses integrated advocacy — combining the law, policy analysis, and public education — to defend and promote press rights on issues at the intersection of technology and press freedom, such as reporter-source confidentiality protections, electronic surveillance law and policy, and content regulation online and in other media. TPFP is directed by Reporters Committee Attorney Gabe Rottman. He works with Stanton Foundation National Security/Free Press Fellow Linda Moon and Legal Fellows Jordan Murov-Goodman and Lyndsey Wajert.