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Some prominent exposure apps are slowly rolling back freedoms

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Many countries launched contact tracing and exposure notification apps early in the pandemic to help slow the spread of covid-19. Now some of the most prominent are beginning to change their approach to privacy and transparency, according to MIT Technology Review’s covid tracing tracker.

The tracker, which launched in May, looks at the policies and safeguards around contact tracing apps worldwide. It collects information on the use and policies around these new technologies, including how they approach privacy.

We recently changed the entries for several apps after finding that they had made significant changes to how they use and store personal data.

Singapore was the first country to launch a significant digital contact tracing system, and its TraceTogether technology has been picked up by several other countries. But while the program was initially voluntary, that has slowly shifted as the world has fallen deeper into the pandemic and cases have risen.

Around 45% of the nation’s 5.6 million residents currently use TraceTogether, and the country has tied it to its digital check-in system, called SafeEntry, which allows it to monitor people’s movements. But the government plans to make the use of these systems mandatory by the end of December. Residents will have to use the smartphone app or a wearable device and use SafeEntry, or they will not be allowed access to shops, schools, or other public places without checking in.

According to reports, education minister Lawrence Wong said that the country believes 70% adoption could help push it to its next level of reopening, phase three—but that this could be achieved only through legal compulsion.

“When we have both a higher take-up rate of TraceTogether and wider deployment of TraceTogether-only SafeEntry … and community transmission throughout this period remains low, then there is a good chance of us entering phase three … by the end of the year,” he said.

Singaporeans are already required by law to upload their health information through TraceTogether when contacted by the government. As a result, the tracker now reflects that Singapore’s system is mandatory.

In India, meanwhile, the country is making mixed progress with its huge digital contact tracing system. The Aaroyga Setu app has been downloaded more than 160 million times since launching in April, and came in for early criticism for its lack of transparency and murky “voluntary” status. But the government in Delhi has made progress on several fronts since then, first making the app’s code open source so that it can be more easily interrogated by outsiders, and this week announcing that it would share the system’s back-end code for the same reason. 

Its rating for data limitations—how other agencies can use health data captured through the app—has been upgraded because it made its policies more clear recently.

But despite these changes, trust between the government and users remains low. The country’s National Informatics Center has been unresponsive or unhelpful with inquiries, which has led to ongoing confusion over who developed Aarogya Setu. After a review, India’s transparency rating has been downgraded.

In the Philippines, there has been controversy over the way the app uses data. One report earlier this year called the national app “borderline spyware,” and there are particular concerns that the regime of President Rodrigo Duterte—who is notorious for supporting extra-judicial killings—may use data it collects. Because that information will be retained for an undetermined period of time, we have downgraded the country’s rating accordingly.

Not every country is rolling back freedoms, though. Several European countries were upgraded in the latest round of changes. Germany and France have both had their ratings on data limitation upgraded thanks to privacy policies that prevent health data from being shared with other government or law enforcement agencies. In the UK, meanwhile, the tracker has upgraded ratings in several areas, including limitation, data destruction, and transparency.

—This story is part of the Pandemic Technology Project, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation.

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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Elon Musk says Tesla Semi is ready for production, but limited by battery cell output

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Tesla CEO Elon Musk said on the company’s 2020 Q4 earnings call that all engineering work is now complete on the Tesla Semi, the freight-hauling semi truck that the company is building with an all-electric powertrain. The company expects to begin deliveries of Tesla Semi this year, the company said in its Q4 earnings release, and Musk said the only thing limiting their ability to produce them now is the availability of battery cells.

“The main reason we have not accelerated new products – like for example Tesla Semi – is that we simply don’t have enough cells for it,” Musk said. “If we were to make the Semi right now, and we could easily go into production with the Semi right now, but we would not have enough cells for it.”

Musk added that the company does expect to have sufficient cell volume to meet its needs once it goes into production on its 4680 battery pack, which is a new custom cell design it created with a so-called ‘tables’ design that allows for greater energy density and therefore range.

“A Semi would use typically five times the number of cells that a car would use, but it would not sell for five times what a car would sell for, so it kind of would not make sense for us to do the Semi right now,” Musk said. “But it will absolutely make sense for us to do it as soon as we can address the cell production constraint.”

That constraint points to the same conclusion for the possibility of Tesla developing a van, Musk added, and the lifting of the constraint will likewise make it possible for Tesla to pursue the development of that category of vehicle, he said.

Tesla has big plans for “exponentially” ramping cell production, with a goal of having production capacity infrastructure in place for a Toal of 200 gigawatt hours per year by 2022, and a target of being able to actually produce around 40% of that by that year (with future process improvements generating additional gigawatt hours of cell capacity  in gradual improvements thereafter).

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Pro-Trump Twitter figure arrested for spreading vote-by-text disinformation in 2016

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The man behind a once-influential pro-Trump account is facing charges of election interference for allegedly disseminating voting disinformation on Twitter in 2016.

Federal prosecutors allege that Douglass Mackey, who used the name “Ricky Vaughn” on Twitter, encouraged people to cast their ballot via text or on social media, effectively tricking others into throwing away those votes.

According to the Justice Department, 4,900 unique phone numbers texted a phone number Mackey promoted in order to “vote by text.” BuzzFeed reported the vote-by-text scam at the time, noting that many of the images were photoshopped to look like official graphics from Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

Some of those images appeared to specifically target Black and Spanish-speaking Clinton supporters, a motive that tracks with the account’s track record of white supremacist and anti-Semitic content. The account was suspended in November 2016.

At the time, the mysterious account quickly gained traction in the political disinformation ecosystem. HuffPost revealed that the account was run by Mackey, the son of a lobbyist, two years later.

“… His talent for blending far-right propaganda with conservative messages on Twitter made him a key disseminator of extremist views to Republican voters and a central figure in the alt-right’ white supremacist movement that attached itself to Trump’s coattails,” HuffPost’s Luke O’Brien reported.

Mackey, a West Palm Beach resident, was taken into custody Wednesday in Florida.

“There is no place in public discourse for lies and misinformation to defraud citizens of their right to vote,” Acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York Seth D. DuCharme said.

“With Mackey’s arrest, we serve notice that those who would subvert the democratic process in this manner cannot rely on the cloak of Internet anonymity to evade responsibility for their crimes.”

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Tesla is willing to license Autopilot and has already had “preliminary discussions” about it with other automakers

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Tesla is open to licensing its software, including its Autopilot highly-automated driving technology, and the neural network training it has built to improve its autonomous driving technology. Tesla CEO Elon Musk revealed those considerations on the company’s Q4 earnings call on Wednesday, adding that the company has in fact already “had some preliminary discussions about licensing Autopilot to other OEMs.”

The company began rolling out its beta version of the so-called ‘full self-driving’ or FSD version of Autopilot late last year. The standard Autopilot features available in general release provide advanced driver assistance (ADAS) which provide essentially advanced cruise control capabilities designed primarily for use in highway commutes. Musk said on the call that he expects the company will seek to prove out its FSD capabilities before entering into any licensing agreements, if it does end up pursuing that path.

Musk noted that Tesla’s “philosophy is definitely not to create walled gardens” overall, and pointed out that the company is planning to allow other automakers to use its Supercharger networks, as well as its autonomy software. He characterized Tesla as “more than happy to license” those autonomous technologies to “other car companies,” in fact.

One key technical hurdle required to get to a point where Tesla’s technology is able to demonstrate true reliability far surpassing that of a standard human driver is transition the neural networks operating in the cars and providing them with the analysis that powers their perception engines is to transition those to video. That’s a full-stack transition across the system away from basing it around neural nets trained on single cameras and single frames.

To this end, the company has developed video labelling software that has had “a huge effect on the efficiency of labeling,” with the ultimate aim being enabling automatic labeling. Musk (who isn’t known for modesty around his company’s achievements, it should be said) noted that Tesla believes “it may be the best neural net training computer in the world by possibly an order of magnitude,” adding that it’s also “something we can offer potentially as a service.”

Training huge quantities of video data will help Tesla push the reliability of its software from 100% that of a human driver, to 200% and eventually to “2,000% better than the average human,” Musk said, while again suggesting that it won’t be a technological achievement the company is interested into keeping to themselves.

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