Internet ‘freedom’ at its lowest in 11 years: study

The internet is an increasingly unwelcome place for many. A new study suggests that online “freedom” is in decline — for two very different reasons, depending on who you ask.

The annual report by Freedom House, a Washington, D.C.-based research and advocacy group, said this year is the 11th consecutive to see a global internet freedom decline.

The “Freedom on the Net” report rates countries on a 100-point scale, with the bottom considered least free. This year, scores internationally range from as low as 10 points in China to 96 points in Iceland. Scores 71 and above are designated “free,” while scores below 40 are “not free”; everything in the middle is considered “partly free.”

Considerations made in scoring include the extent to which free speech is legally protected, the proliferation of misinformation and hate speech and whether government authorities were known to target individual users, such as in India or Hungary where journalists and activists have been hit with state-supported spyware.

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IMF report suggests credit scores could soon be based on web browsing history

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has published the results of research conducted into how lenders are likely to be doing their business in the future, and what new information and personal data these companies plan to start asking from borrowers in order to determine their credit score.

The biggest takeaway is the seemingly inevitable shift from merely accessing credit information to also incorporating people’s online behavior into the process of deciding whether to lend them money necessary, for example, to buy a house.

Compared to the way the system now works in most countries – these changes, which are expected to be coming soon, look fairly invasive privacy-wise, and with no “vision” of proper safeguards. Banks and others will go as far as to access personal browsing and shopping history. This would be done by allowing automated systems, powered by algorithms, to harvest the data and turn it into credit reports.

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Hackers claim to have stolen trove of data from Epik, web host for multiple right-wing platforms

A hacktivist group claims to have stolen a decade’s worth of data from web company Epik. The firm is known for hosting conservative platforms such as Parler and sites belonging to organizations like the Proud Boys.

On Monday, independent journalist Steven Monacelli shared a press release from hacking group Anonymous in which it claimed to have successfully infiltrated web domain registrar Epik. 

The group says it has stolen “a decade’s worth of data,” including information on Epik’s clients and users. The data, Anonymous claims, is “all that’s needed to trace actual ownership and management of the fascist side of the Internet that has eluded researchers, activists, and, well, just about everybody.” 

Anonymous said that the 180 gigabytes of data recovered by the hackers would be released for free public download. It has since been made available.

The group also claims that Epik did not encrypt any data, noting that everything including logins was there in plain text. They state that Russian developers allegedly used by Epik were bad at their jobs: “they probably enjoyed snooping through all your s**t just as much as we did.” The statement notes that credit card data wasn’t taken, adding, “FBI, we’re not in that game.”

Epik is no stranger to controversy. The firm hosts sites like free-speech focused Twitter competitor Gab, imageboard website 8chan, and Alex Jones’ InfoWars. It also hosts websites linked to the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, a right-wing group that includes current and former military, law enforcement, and first-responder personnel who have sworn oaths to defend the US Constitution “from all enemies, foreign and domestic.” 

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A slice of the Pentagon’s internet space that was taken over by a Florida company minutes before Trump left office has been returned, but the mystery remains

Minutes before the official end of President Donald Trump’s term, a young company based in Florida reportedly took control over a large chunk of internet space owned by the Pentagon.

Eight months later, it has been returned to the Department of Defense, The Washington Post reported Friday, but questions remain about the program.

The company at one point held 175 million IP addresses, controlling more of the internet than some of the world’s largest internet companies, including Comcast and AT&T.

The company was identified as Global Resource Systems LLC, headquartered in Plantation, Florida, Insider’s Kevin Shalvey reported in April. The company appeared to have been founded in the fall of last year, filing paperwork in Florida in October, and was incorporated in Delaware.

When news of the transfer of the internet space broke in April, the Department of Defense told the Associated Press it was being done to “assess, evaluate and prevent unauthorized use of DoD IP address space.”

But AP said officials could not answer why Global Resource Systems, a company that seemed to only be in existence for less than six months, was chosen to take over the space.

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Internet Shutdown Emerging As Authoritarian Weapon Of Choice

Over the last decade, governments worldwide have intentionally shut down the internet at least 850 times, with a whopping 90% of those shutdowns taking place over just the last five years.

What’s behind this troubling trend? “More people are getting online and getting access to the internet,” said Marianne Díaz Hernández, a lawyer in Venezuela and a fellow with the nonprofit Access Now. “As governments see this as a threat, they start thinking the internet is something they need to control.”

These staggering statistics come from a new report released Wednesday by Access Now and Jigsaw, a division of Alphabet that focuses on addressing societal threats with technology. The report documents the history of internet shutdowns over the last decade, the economic toll shutdowns take on the countries that impose them and what governments and the broader business and civil society community can do to stop what has fast become a widespread and grave human rights violation.

Felicia Anthonio leads Access Now’s #KeepItOn campaign, which has been documenting internet shutdowns since 2016. “Internet shutdowns don’t ensure stability or resolve crises that are happening,” Anthonio said. “It’s actually endangering people’s lives.”

The report, published in Jigsaw’s publication The Current, traces the recent spate of internet shutdowns back to the five-day shutdown in Egypt in 2011. Though exact data on every shutdown that has ever happened is non-existent and smaller-scale blackouts had taken place before that, the authors write, “never before had an entire country, one where more than a quarter of the population was connected to the internet, simply severed itself from the open web.”

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Maybe You Missed It, but the Internet ‘Died’ Five Years Ago

If you search the phrase i hate texting on Twitter and scroll down, you will start to notice a pattern. An account with the handle @pixyIuvr and a glowing heart as a profile picture tweets, “i hate texting i just want to hold ur hand,” receiving 16,000 likes. An account with the handle @f41rygf and a pink orb as a profile picture tweets, “i hate texting just come live with me,” receiving nearly 33,000 likes. An account with the handle @itspureluv and a pink orb as a profile picture tweets, “i hate texting i just wanna kiss u,” receiving more than 48,000 likes.

There are slight changes to the verb choice and girlish username and color scheme, but the idea is the same each time: I’m a person with a crush in the age of smartphones, and isn’t that relatable? Yes, it sure is! But some people on Twitter have wondered whether these are really, truly, just people with crushes in the age of smartphones saying something relatable. They’ve pointed at them as possible evidence validating a wild idea called “dead-internet theory.”

Let me explain. Dead-internet theory suggests that the internet has been almost entirely taken over by artificial intelligence. Like lots of other online conspiracy theories, the audience for this one is growing because of discussion led by a mix of true believers, sarcastic trolls, and idly curious lovers of chitchat. One might, for example, point to @_capr1corn, a Twitter account with what looks like a blue orb with a pink spot in the middle as a profile picture. In the spring, the account tweeted “i hate texting come over and cuddle me,” and then “i hate texting i just wanna hug you,” and then “i hate texting just come live with me,” and then “i hate texting i just wanna kiss u,” which got 1,300 likes but didn’t perform as well as it did for @itspureluv. But unlike lots of other online conspiracy theories, this one has a morsel of truth to it. Person or bot: Does it really matter?

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Browser settings to change ASAP if you care about privacy: Chrome, Firefox and more

Privacy is now a priority among browser-makers, but they may not go as far as you want in fighting pervasive ad industry trackers on the web. Here’s a look at how you can crank up your privacy settings to outsmart that online tracking.

Problems like Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal have elevated privacy protection on Silicon Valley’s priority list by showing how companies compile reams of data as you traverse the internet. Their goal? To build a richly detailed user profile so that you can become the target of more accurate, clickable and thus profitable advertisements.

Apple and Google are in a war for the web, with Google pushing aggressively for an interactive web to rival native apps and Apple moving more slowly — in part out of concern those new features will worsen security and be annoying for users. Privacy adds another dimension to the competition and to your browser decision.

Apple has made privacy a top priority in all its products, including Safari. For startup Brave, privacy is a core goal, and Mozilla and Microsoft have begun touting privacy as a way to differentiate their browsers from Google Chrome. It’s later to the game, but Chrome engineers have begun building a “privacy sandbox” despite Google’s reliance on ad revenue.

For all of the browsers listed here, you can give yourself a privacy boost by changing the default search engine. For instance, try DuckDuckGo. Although its search results may not be as useful or deep as Google’s, DuckDuckGo is a longtime favorite among the privacy-minded for its refusal to track user searches.

Other universal options that boost privacy include disabling your browser’s location tracking and search engine autocomplete features, turning off password autofills, and regularly deleting your browsing history. If you want to take your privacy to the next level, consider trying one of the virtual private networks CNET has reviewed that work with all browsers. (You can also check out our roundup of browser-based VPNs to try.)

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OnlyFans changes show payment processors and banks are major players in deciding what’s allowed to exist online

In April, MasterCard announced a policy change set to take effect on October 15 requiring “the banks that connect merchants to our network…to certify that the seller of adult content has effective controls in place to monitor, block and, where necessary, take down all illegal content.”

The idea of payment processors and banks rejecting tech platforms, causing them to struggle to survive, is nothing new.

Alternative social network Gab has struggled to be able to maintain a bank account and has faced constant deplatforming by payment processors. It has also been blacklisted from the Visa payment processor.

While such groups as National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE) have praised the payment processor crackdown on platforms such as OnlyFans, it’s clear that there’s an obvious exploit in how platforms work – that payment processors, with enough pressure, can shut down entire platforms overnight. This is especially a problem when there’s a  Visa and MasterCard duopoly in the payment processor market and simply two companies ultimately deciding what’s allowed to exist online.

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The Internet of Bodies Will Change Everything, for Better or Worse

Ross Compton was there when a fire ravaged his $400,000 home in Middletown, Ohio, in September 2016. Fortunately, Compton told investigators, he was able to stuff a few bags with several possessions—including the charger for an external heart pump he needed to survive—before shattering a window with his cane and escaping.

But as the smoke cleared, police began to suspect that Compton’s story was a fabrication.

His statements were inconsistent. The rubble smelled of gasoline. And it seemed implausible that someone fleeing a burning house—especially someone with a medical condition like Compton’s—could execute such a complex escape plan.

Eventually, investigators were able to indict Compton on felony charges of aggravated arson and insurance fraud. Their star witness? His pacemaker.

Police obtained a warrant to retrieve data on Compton’s heart activity before, during, and after the fire. After reviewing this information, a cardiologist concluded that it was “highly improbable” Compton would’ve been able to escape the flames so quickly, while lugging so many belongings.

Compton pleaded not guilty. His attorney argued that the pacemaker data should be thrown out; including it would violate doctor-patient privilege and Compton’s constitutional right to privacy, the lawyer said.

The case was strange, arguably sad, and fraught with difficult questions. Regardless of whether Compton really torched his house, should a life-saving device inside someone’s body be part of a case that might put them behind bars?

We may not know the answer for some time. Compton passed away in July at the age of 62, leaving his case—and whatever precedent it might have set—unresolved.

This may seem like a one-of-a-kind chain of events, an aberration. But as industries usher in a new era of devices that track personal information by leveraging the internet and the human body in equal measure, it won’t be the last.

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World Economic Forum makes censorship pledge to “tackle harmful content and conduct online”

The World Economic Forum, an international group that works to “shape global, regional and industry agendas,” has formed a new “Global Coalition for Digital Safety” that’s made up of Big Tech executives and government officials and intends to come up with new “innovations” to police “harmful content and conduct online.”

The scope of so-called “harmful” content that will be targeted by this Global Coalition for Digital Safety is far-reaching and encompasses both legal content (such as “health misinformation” and “anti-vaccine content”) and illegal content (such as child exploitation and abuse and violent extremism).

Big Tech companies already censor millions of posts under their far-reaching rules that prohibit harmful content and misinformation. They also publish detailed quarterly reports about this censorship.

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