News, Tech

Apple ‘sorry’ that workers listened to Siri voice recordings

Apple has apologised following revelations that it paid third-party workers to listen to voice recordings of Siri users. The practice known as “grading” has been used by several tech firms as a way of improving the quality of speech recognition.

However, Apple, Google and Microsoft all halted such work recently, following public outcry. Apple said it plans to resume grading – but only for Siri users who opt in. The firm added that in the future only its own employees will be able to access recordings, not third-party workers at contracted firms.

Earlier this month, the company said it had halted grading following reports that workers had heard recordings containing intimate remarks made by Siri users. Such recordings can be made accidentally, for example when the Siri app interprets another word or noise as the utterance “Hey Siri”, which is used to launch voice recognition.

Now, Apple says it has completed a review of such work. “As a result of our review, we realise we haven’t been fully living up to our high ideals, and for that we apologise,” the firm said in a statement.

Up until grading was halted, 0.2% of Siri audio recordings was reviewed by human workers, Apple added. The company said that three main changes would take place before human grading of Siri recordings was resumed. It said:

  • audio recordings would no longer be retained by default. Instead, Apple employees would rely on computer-generated transcripts of speech
  • Siri users would be able to opt in to share audio recordings – and would be able to opt out “at any time”
  • only Apple employees would have access to recordings, and any recordings that had been made “inadvertently” would be deleted

The turnaround was an unusual move from Apple, said Adam Wright, a tech analyst at market research firm IDC. “I think they’ve been caught off-guard a little bit,” he told the BBC. “I don’t think they’ve been completely forthcoming or transparent in their use of data.”

Part of the controversy over using humans to grade voice recordings was that Siri users may not always have been aware that their conversations could be listened to in this way. The Irish data protection authority, Apple’s lead data privacy regulator in Europe, had previously said it was looking into the matter of grading. A spokeswoman for the commission said it had noted Apple’s latest statement.

Games, News, Tech

Gaming faces is #MeToo moment

Game developers are highlighting sexual harassment in the industry after several people accused colleagues and peers of assault and abuse. Many women came forward and shared their experiences online, after a developer posted a blog alleging she was raped by a colleague.

The allegations cannot be detailed for legal reasons. But the wave of posts has been compared to the “me too” movement, which exposed harassment in the film industry.

“Video games are having a #metoo moment. The toxicity from fans has been well documented for years but the toxic, abusive, predatory behavior between developers has mostly been spoken in whispers between trusted friends,” said media critic and writer Anita Sarkeesian.

“I’m in awe of the bravery of those who have spoken up today.” The “me too” movement took off after a number of women accused film executive Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment, abuse or rape. Mr Weinstein denies the charges.

#TimesUp

The current wave of allegations from within the games industry started on Monday after one developer posted a detailed account of rape and abusive behavior by a former colleague. It was followed by several accounts of sexual harassment from other developers.

Many women described being groped or grabbed at industry networking events. Others said men had tried to lure them to hotel rooms with the promise of work opportunities or collaborations. Some of the accounts detail long periods of emotional manipulation and abuse by senior colleagues.

Many of those posting said they felt “dehumanized” by the experiences, which had a lasting effect on their mental health. The allegations have been made shortly before the Pax West gaming conference, which will see thousands of indie game developers head to Seattle, Washington, on 30 August.

The “Times Up” campaign group, which fights sexual harassment, called the actions described in the posts as “disturbing” and “unconscionable”. “This should be a moment of reckoning for the industry. This culture of sexual harassment, gas-lighting and retaliation cannot go on any longer,” the group said.

News, Tech

US still to grant any Huawei trade licences

US officials have not granted any licences to trade with blacklisted Chinese firm Huawei, despite receiving more than 130 requests, Reuters says. The US restricted companies from selling to the electronics giant in May, citing national security concerns, which have been dismissed by Huawei.

President Donald Trump said last month that some exemptions would be allowed. A spokesman for the commerce department insisted that requests concerning Huawei were “ongoing”. One industry source suggested to the BBC that a lack of clear guidelines from the Trump administration is to blame for the current standstill.

The US is locked in a trade war with China
Image caption The US is locked in a trade tariff battle with China

William Reinsch, a former US commerce department official, claims that officials are “afraid” to make a decision. “Nobody in the executive branch knows what Trump wants and they’re all afraid to make a decision without knowing that,” he told Reuters.

A spokesman for the commerce department insisted that requests concerning Huawei were “ongoing”. The US recently added a further 45 businesses associated with Huawei to an export blacklist.

It is the latest in a string of mixed signals from the president, who said this week that crucial trade talks with China would resume “very shortly”. His surprise announcement came after the the US revealed that it would be adding trade tariffs to $550bn (£449bn) worth of Chinese imports.

Huawei is the world’s second-largest smartphone marker behind Samsung Electronics, but it has so far failed to make a dent in the US, where it currently holds less than a 1% market share. The company has laid off more than 600 of its US staff since it was blacklisted by the US.

The US Department of Justice has claimed that its close ties with the Chinese government open it up to the the risk of its equipment being used to spy on other countries. Huawei’s future in the UK is also up for debate, with an announcement revealing whether it should be excluded from the roll out of 5G mobile networks by the end of the year. Digital Secretary Nicky Morgan told the BBC that she hoped the government “could do something by the autumn”.

News, Tech

Facebook tightens rules amid 2020 US election fears

Facebook has unveiled new political advertising rules ahead of next year’s US presidential election amid fears the platform will be exploited. Political advertisers will now have to verify their identity before being given a “confirmed organisation” label.

It marks the latest in a series of attempts to address incidents where users placed misleading or inaccurate ads to influence voters. The rules will also apply to Instagram, which is owned by Facebook.

Paid-for Facebook ads have become a popular tool for political campaigns and other organisations to target voters. The platform previously revealed that the 2016 Trump campaign had spent in the region of $70m (£57.3m) on ads over the election period.

The company wants to stop organisations influencing elections

Facebook has been rolling out transparency tools on a country-by-country basis ever since reports claimed that Russia-based agents had uploaded content to influence voters during the 2016 presidential election.

Facebook has required political advertisers in the US to put a “paid for” disclaimer on their ads since 2018, but the changes have not completely stamped out improper use.

The company recently banned the Falun Gong-linked Epoch News outlet after a report from NBC News claimed it had used falsely labelled pages to push pro-Trump adverts. Previously journalists at Vice News managed to place ads on the site purporting to be on behalf of US Vice President Mike Pence.

Sarah Schiff, product manager at Facebook, said the new rules were in direct response to such loopholes being exploited. “In 2018 we did see evidence of misuse in these disclaimers and so this is our effort to strengthen the process,” she told the Newcastle Herald.

Aaron Reike, managing director at digital justice organisation Upturn, told the BBC he was “surprised” it had taken the platform so long to implement such rules. Facebook’s former chief security officer, Alex Stamos, has suggested it would be tough for the company to implement the new rules across all its platforms.

“Instagram has some of the same problems Twitter has in that you can have a pseudo-anonymous identity,” he told The Verge. “So, ‘Is Instagram ready?’ is actually a big question.”

News, Tech

Huddersfield woman jailed for abusing children for money online

A woman who abused children over the internet for paying customers has been jailed for 12 years and four months. Jodie Little, 30, committed the offences on a website providing adult escort and webcam services.

Little was originally from Huddersfield but was living in Northern Cyprus when she committed the crimes. At Isleworth Crown Court in west London, she admitted a string of offences, including offering to sell videos of child sexual abuse.

The National Crime Agency (NCA) described her actions as “utterly abhorrent”. In June last year, the NCA passed intelligence to police in Northern Cyprus and Little, whose visa had expired, was deported to the UK.

Little, who used the online names “devil bitch 666” and “Queen of Tabbo”, admitted nine offences including sexual activity with a boy under 13 and sexually assaulting a girl under 13. Section 72 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, which allows British nationals to be prosecuted in the UK for offences committed overseas, was used in relation to eight of the charges.

“There is no greater priority for us than protecting children – distance is no barrier to us,” said NCA operations manager Jason Booth. “We did everything we could in this case using our investigators, international staff and child protection experts to stop Little’s offending.”

News, Tech

Pinterest to direct vaccine searches to health sites

Pinterest users searching for vaccine-related information will be directed to results from “public health organisations”. Last year, the social platform stopped showing results for vaccine searches to tackle the spread of misinformation.

Social media companies are facing increasing scrutiny over how they moderate content on their sites. In recent months, other firms including Facebook have taken some steps to address vaccine misinformation.

Under the new policy, Pinterest said searches for “measles,” “vaccine safety” and other related health terms will return results from public health bodies including the World Health Organization (WHO), the Centres for Disease Control and the WHO-established Vaccine Safety Net.

“We’re taking this approach because we believe that showing vaccine misinformation alongside resources from public health experts isn’t responsible,” the firm said in a statement.

“As we continue to tackle health misinformation, we remove it and the accounts that spread it from our service,” Pinterest said. The firm also said it won’t show ads, comments or recommendations on results pages for vaccine searches.

Content crackdown

The WHO said anti-vaccine views were a “top 10 global health threat” in 2019. The volume of anti-vaccine sentiment on social media has risen in recent years, sparking concern that it is having a negative impact on immunization rates in some countries.

In recent months, some platforms have taken steps to counter false information about vaccines. The move in February followed protests from companies who discovered their adverts were running alongside the controversial videos. In a statement in March, Facebook said it was working to “tackle vaccine misinformation… by reducing its distribution and providing people with authoritative information on the topic”.

The company said measures to be taken included rejecting ads with misinformation about vaccines and not showing misleading content on hashtag pages. Instagram – which is owned by Facebook – said in May it would block hashtags being used to spread “verifiably false” information about vaccinations.

Amazon fires: Brazil bans land clearance blazes for 60 days
News, Tech

Amazon fires: Brazil bans land clearance blazes for 60 days

Brazil has banned setting fires to clear land for 60 days in response to a massive increase in the number of fires in the Amazon rain forest. The decree was signed by President Jair Bolsonaro, who has faced intense criticism at home and abroad for failing to protect the rain forest.

A leading Brazilian environmentalist warned on Wednesday that the “worst of the fire is yet to come”. South American countries will meet next week to discuss the crisis.

It remains unclear what impact the ban will have, as environmentalists say the overwhelming majority of forest clearance in the Brazilian Amazon is already illegal and enforcement is lax.

The Amazon – a vital carbon store that slows down the pace of global warming – has seen more than 80,000 fires break out so far this year – a 77% rise on the same period in 2018. Environmentalists say the increase is due in part to policies enacted by Mr Bolsonaro’s administration.

What is in the decree?

Prosecutors have been investigating allegations that some of the fires were triggered by the illegal clearing of land and the decree now bans setting fires for this purpose across the entire country.

It allows three exceptions: when fires are authorized by environmental authorities for reasons relating to plant health; as a preventative measure to fight wildfires; and as part of traditional subsistence agriculture practiced by indigenous people.

Media caption Why the Amazon rain forest helps fight climate change

Why could ‘the worst be yet to come’?

Writing in O Glob newspaper, Tasso Acevedo – who runs the deforestation monitoring group Mapbiomas – said those clearing the forest would cut down trees and vegetation before leaving it for a few weeks until it is drier and easier to set fire to.

The current fires were the result of forest clearing in April, May and June, he wrote, but the rate of clearing in July and August jumped sharply, suggesting that there was a lot of combustible fuel on the ground waiting to be ignited.

illegally felled amazon tree, Para state
Image caption Trees are illegally felled and then left to dry before being set alight

Mr Acevedo called for a ban on the use of fire in the Amazon region until the end of the dry season in November. He also called for urgent action to end deforestation, which he said was largely illegal and linked to criminal groups involved in timber theft, gold mining and land grabbing.

“What we are experiencing is a real crisis, which can turn into a tragedy that will feature fires much larger than the current ones if not stopped immediately,” he said.

What else is Brazil doing?

Mr Bolsonaro has accepted Chile’s offer of four planes to fight the fires, the most in Brazil since 2010 – but he has refused a G7 offer of $22m (£18m) following a spat with French President Emmanuel Macron.

The government says it has deployed 44,000 soldiers to seven states to combat the fires. That came after Mr Bolsonaro last week said the authorities did not have the resources to fight the blazes.

felled trees in para state
Image caption The rate of tree-cutting jumped sharply in July and August, environmentalists say

The justice ministry says that federal police officers would be sent to the fire zones to assist other state agencies in combating “illegal deforestation”. On Monday Brazil’s Defence Minister Fernando Acevedo e Silva told local media that the situation was “not simple, but it is under control and cooling down nicely”.

Are there more fires than in recent years?

Data published by Brazil’s space agency suggests there are. The agency, known as Inpe, says there have been more than 83,000 fires between 1 January 2019 and 27 August 2019. That is a 77% rise compared to the same period in 2018.

BBC map

NASA has also warned that the “2019 fires season has the highest fire count since 2012”. BBC analysis has also found that the high number of fires being recorded coincides with a sharp drop in fines being handed out for environmental violations.