The Download: Twitter denies shadow banning

This is The Download,  a weekday recap of the top technology headlines.

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Jack Dorsey denies Twitter “shadows bans” users based on politics

Twitter HQ

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey called into Sean Hannity’s radio show on Wednesday in the wake of recent accusations that Twitter was shadow banning right-wing users and criticism over allowing Alex Jones to remain on the platform after Apple, Facebook, YouTube, and Spotify removed him.

“We do not shadow ban according to political ideology, or viewpoint, or content.”

Jack Dorsey; Twitter CEO, on Sean Hannity’s radio show

The accusations come after some prominent Republicans weren’t showing up in Twitter’s drop-down search results, with the company explaining that it was an error and the accounts weren’t purposefully left out of search results and were always available.

Dorsey also spoke about Twitter’s process of deciding to suspend certain users.

“We have to really understand what the context of the conversation is. Some cultural contexts enable some speech that other cultural contexts don’t.”

Jack Dorsey

He added that algorithms and humans both have trouble always getting those contexts right.

Documents show Google compiling list of sites blocked by China for rumored Chinese search engine

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Confidential documents seen by The Intercept revealed that Google analyzed search terms entered into Google’s Beijing-based web directory service 265.com to help develop blacklists for its rumored Chinese search engine, codenamed Dragonfly.

After gathering these sample searches, Google engineers used them to review website lists that people would see in response to their searches. The developers used a tool called “BeaconTower” to check if the sites are blocked by the Great Firewall. A list of thousands of websites that were found to be banned were compiled, and the information was integrated into a censored version of Google that would automatically manipulate the site’s search results, purging links to websites prohibited in China from the first page shown to users.

According to The Intercept, teams of Google programmers and engineers have already created a functioning version of the censored search engine. Google plans for the search platform to be made accessible through a custom Android app that has seen version codenames like “Maotai” and “Longfei.”

The app has been designed to filter out content that China’s authoritarian government views as sensitive, like information about political opponents, free speech, democracy, human rights, and peaceful protest. The censored search app will “blacklist sensitive queries” so “no results will be shown” at all when people enter certain words or phrases, according to internal Google documents.

The documents shown to The Intercept say that the search project, which will be a joint venture with a Chinese company, will “have the ability” to blacklist websites and “sensitive queries.”

New York City Council votes to cap Uber & Lyft, imposing 12-month freeze on new licenses

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The New York City Council has voted to cap the number of licenses for ride-hailing services like Uber & Lyft in the first such cap of any major US city.

The package is aimed at reducing traffic congestion and increasing driver paychecks.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said that he intends to make the bills law, starting a 12-month period where no new for-hire vehicles licenses would be issued except for wheelchair-accessible vehicles.

“This action will stop the influx of cars contributing to the congestion grinding our streets to a halt.”

Bill de Blasio; New York City mayor, in a statement

According to New York City’s Taxi and Limousine Commission, the number of ride-hailing vehicles operating in the city has jumped from 12,600 in 2015 to about 80,000 this year. That’s in addition to about 14,000 yellow cabs in the five boroughs.

Uber and Lyft were strongly opposed to the bill.

“The city’s 12-month pause on new vehicle licenses will threaten one of the few reliable transportation options while doing nothing to fix the subways or ease congestion.”

Uber, in a statement

“These sweeping cuts to transportation will bring New Yorkers back to an era of struggling to get a ride, particularly for communities of color and in the outer boroughs.”

Lyft, in a statement

Meanwhile, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance which represents 18,000 New York City taxi drivers, called the vote a victory.

“New York City is the first city in the country [to] enact drivers’ demands into legislation.”

The New York Taxi Workers Alliance, in a statement

Comcast flaws exposed partial home addresses, Social Security numbers of over 26.5M customers; Comcast patches vulnerabilities

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According to security researcher Ryan Stevenson, Comcast inadvertently exposed the partial home addresses and Social Security numbers of over 26.5 million customers with two previously unreported vulnerabilities in the internet provider’s online customer portal.

Comcast patched the flaws after BuzzFeed News reported it to them.

“We quickly investigated these issues and within hours we blocked both vulnerabilties, eliminating the ability to conduct the actions described by these researchers. We take our customers’ security very seriously, and we have no reason to believe these vulnerabilities were ever used against Comcast customers outside of the research described in this report.”

David McGuire; Comcast spokesperson, to BuzzFeed News

However, Comcast’s review is ongoing.

One of the flaws could be exploited by going to an “in-home authentication” page where customers can pay their bill without logging in. Customers were asked to verify their account by choosing from one of four suggested home addresses if the device appeared to be connected to the customer’s home network. If a hacker obtained a customer’s IP address and spoofed Comcast, they could repeatedly refresh the page and figure out the customer’s location because one address – the right address – would stay the same.

Eventually, the page would show the first digit of the street number and first three letters of the correct street name with asterisks hiding the remaining characters.

After discovering the vulnerability, Comcast disabled in-home authentication and now requires customers to manually input personal information to verify their accounts.

In the second vulnerability, a sign-up page through the website for Comcast’s Authorized Dealers (sales agents stationed at non-Comcast owned retail locations) revealed the last four digits of customers’ Social Security numbers. With a customer’s billing address, a hacker could repeatedly guess until they figure out the customer’s actual four-digit social security number because the login page didn’t limit the number of attempts.

Comcast has put a strict rate limit on the portal in light of the vulnerability.

“An attacker having partial address information and combining it with partial Social Security numbers information is a recipe for disaster.

“We really need to move away from using those kinds of information.”

Jessy Irwin, Tendermint head of security

Anki unveils Vector home robot that detects face, answers questions, play games

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Anki is taking its knowledge from making the Cozmo robot for kids and putting it into the more powerful Vector home robot.

Vector is meant to be always on, always listening, and always ready to play. Once you get it connected to a WiFi network with your phone, no other device is needed to use it. You could sit back and watch it explore its immediate environment or treat it as a virtual assistant by asking questions like “What’s the weather in Atlanta?”

At launch, Vector is comparable to Alexa or Siri for tasks like setting a timer or general questions, but it can also memorize your face with its camera and learn your name when you say it aloud. This lets it say hello to you when you come home after a long day at the office without prompting.

According to Anki co-founder and CEO Boris Sofman, the robot will get even smarter over time since it has a constant connection to the cloud. Internally, there’s a quad-core Qualcomm APQ8009 processor that includes support for the robot’s AI capabilities and its ultra-wide 120-degree HD camera.

Vector will ship for $249 when it launches on October 12, but early adopters can snag it for $199 through Anki’s Kickstarter campaign in the US until September 6. Backers will receive their robot before the general public on October 9 as well.

In other news…

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