Politwoops uploads record of politicians’ gaffes to Internet Archive

Politwoops might be dead, but the tweets it collected will live on.
The service was devoted to archiving tweets published — and later deleted — by politicians in an effort to hold them accountable for their public statements. But the service violated Twitter’s developer guidelines, so the social network revoked Politwoops’ access to its APIs in 30 countries at the end of August, to the dismay of various human rights organizations from around the world.
Open State Foundation operated Politwoops in 35 countries throughout the Middle East and Europe. However, today the organization announced that it has uploaded the tweets it collected — some “1,106,187 deleted tweets by 10,404 politicians collected in 35 countries and parliaments over a period of five years” — to the Internet Archive where they are expected to remain available in perpetuity.
The group also said that rights organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Human Rights Watch, and many others have indicated their support for Politwoops regaining access to Twitter’s APIs. These organizations are joined by “a number of politicians” who think the service provided value, even though it targeted public gaffes made by a group of which they’re a part.
Yet, when I spoke to Open State Foundation and the Sunlight Foundation, which ran the United States version of Politwoops before it was shut down earlier this year, both said there are no negotiations between them and Twitter. Open State Foundation director Arjan El Fassad did, however, tell me that he’s “exploring a number of legal and technical options” to keep Politwoops going.
Today’s update comes off as more of a symbolic gesture than anything. Maybe there is some value in surfacing deleted tweets from five years ago, but it seems like Politwoops was at its most useful when it was surfacing up-to-the-minute evidence of a politician’s mistakes. (Then again, I’ve never trawled through the million-plus trove of tweets, so there’s a chance I’m missing out on something.)
It’s a little bit like whac-a-tweet: Twitter might be able to stop Politwoops from gathering more information on a country-by-country basis, but Open State is showing that all the tweets it’s already collected won’t be thrust into oblivion. Sunlight Foundation did something similar with its tweet archive, only instead of uploading them to Internet Archive, it made them available on its website.
While that might show these groups’ dedication to their mission, it also helps justify Twitter’s point of view. The whole point of shutting down Politwoops was to make sure Twitter users — even those who happen to hold public office — could trust that their deleted tweets wouldn’t remain available elsewhere. All this is doing is showing that people really don’t control their information.
Of course, there are two sides to this debate. These groups have pointed out that they are specifically targeting public statements from elected officials, which should be held to a different standard than most of Twitter’s users. Others, like myself, have argued that it’s reasonable for people to expect that Twitter will advocate for their right to privacy regardless of their status.
Now, even though Politwoops is shambling along, that debate will live on thanks to the decision to make these tweets available via the Internet Archive. The tweets and the debate keep popping up no matter how many times they’re smacked down by the metaphorical mallet, and it looks like this particular game isn’t going to end any time soon.

Facebook launches collaborative threat-detection framework

It might be a bit more difficult for hackers to launch coordinated attacks against several different companies at the same time thanks to a new collaborative threat-detection framework by Facebook called ThreatExchange.

The new security framework, which Facebook plans to announce on Wednesday, works like an online hub where multiple organizations can sign up and deposit data pertaining to the types of hacks and malicious activities they may have experienced. This type of data includes malicious URLs, bad domains, malware and any sort of analytical data a company might have that’s related to that malware, explained Mark Hammell, [company]Facebook[/company]’s manager of threat infrastructure and the author of the blog post detailing the framework.

Once all that information is dumped in, Facebook’s graph-database technology can correlate all the data points together and figure out new relationships, such as which malware seems to be talking to a particular domain or if a domain happens to be hosted on a bad IP address, said Hammell. The point is for the framework to ingest all the different security data points between companies so they can keep each other abreast of threats they are experiencing in real-time. If the technology does its job right, users can discover patterns from the data that could help them prevent future attacks.

“We needed to have a platform that lets us share this data in real-time so that when the next attack comes online we are all aware simultaneously,” said Hammell.

The idea behind the new framework came about when Facebook, along with other big tech companies, suffered an attack last year (Hammell said the situation was quickly remedied, which is why there was little mention in the press) from some sort of Windows-related malware “that would try to hijack a variety of social-sharing accounts and use those accounts to propagate.” Essentially, the malware could spread itself across the various services of each company because of the way each service happens to be connected to one another.

For example, Hammell said that the attack might have started out from a private Facebook message that sent a corrupted link to a Tumblr blog that happened to be created with a [company]Yahoo[/company] account.

Although the malware was eventually stopped, Facebook decided to build upon its existing
ThreatData framework and open it up to other companies to use through APIs. It’s similar to how developers can connect to Facebook through APIs and create applications on its platform, explained Hammell.

[company]Pinterest[/company], Tumblr, [company]Twitter[/company], and Yahoo all gave Facebook feedback on the new framework and Bitly and Dropbox have now signed on to contribute as well.

As an example of how someone might use ThreatExchange, Hammell said participants will be able to search for any “malicious domains that have been added in the past day to the system.” If they want to add to ThreatExchange a malicious domain that they might have discovered, they can put it into the system and the underlying graph database technology can spew out a list of urls that it might associate with the bad domain, which could be be an indication that the malware is trying to spread across numerous sites.

Now that users can see who else might be affected, they can then ping the appropriate parties within the framework, said Hammell.

“Where we see the most success is when folks start taking the attacks they are seeing and share those with the folks they think might be affected,” Hammell said.

ThreatExchange is now available in beta and interested participants will have to fill out a form on Facebook’s site if they want to partake.

Facebook takes on Twitter with real-time Super Bowl hub

Looks like Facebook has decided it can do Twitter’s job better.

The social media site has built a live news hub for Sunday’s upcoming Super Bowl. It will feature user posts as they occur in real time, along with Super Bowl attendees’ videos and photos, content from the NFL, players and media companies, and the current score. It’s a shot across the bow to Twitter, the king of real-time content.

Twitter has struggled to build an easy, clear onboarding system for new users, leaving a hole Facebook can easily fill. Even during its Analyst Day, CEO Dick Costolo fielded a complaint from an analyst in the audience who tried to sign up for Twitter during the presentation and couldn’t figure it out.

In contrast, Facebook has more than 152 million users in the United States and Canada alone, many of whom aren’t on Twitter yet. It can parlay them into its own Super Bowl hub for their fix of social connecting while the event unfolds. According to Reuters, Facebook is even selling targeted ad units that it will show to people discussing the Super Bowl on the site.

The experiment could potentially set the precedent for more event-based, real-time hubs down the line. It will also show that Twitter isn’t the only social network that can do live.

Assuming Facebook’s Super Bowl hub is a success, of course. The company doesn’t have a lot of experience with live channels and people on it are used to the algorithmic nature of the newsfeed. The company may not be able to expand its brand to include real-time posting.

A screenshot of Facebook's Superbowl hub on Wednesday, January 28th

A screenshot of Facebook’s Superbowl hub on Wednesday, January 28th

Is Facebook considering venture investing?

Facebook considered investing in Chinese mobile conglomerate Xiaomi, according to sources that dished to Reuters. The deal didn’t pan out for a range of reasons, from political concerns to investment conflicts, but could point toward a new focus for Facebook on strategic investments.

Smartphone maker Xiaomi is one of China’s most promising tech companies, and China is a market that Facebook has been eyeing for some time now. An investment in Xiaomi would potentially give Facebook more power in its ongoing campaign to enter China, where the social media site is currently banned. But such an investment could also anger the Chinese government, causing problems for Xiaomi. Ultimately that concern, plus the fact that Facebook competitor Google is a key Xiaomi partner with its Android platform, kept the deal from going through.

Strategic corporate investing isn’t a new tactic for major corporations. Companies from Google to Intel to Samsung have venture investing arms that do this full time. Even the likes of Walgreens and 7-Eleven have them. It’s actually kind of surprising it’s taken Facebook this long to get in the game. It has served as a partner in venture funds administered by other firms before, like Kleiner Perkins’ sFund and the seed fbFund run by Accel and Founders Fund, but hasn’t built its own branch.

The purpose of corporate investing is two-fold. It’s an investment that can return dividends for a company down the line — see: Yahoo and Alibaba, or even Microsoft and Facebook — but it’s also an opportunity to open doors to partnerships, new talent, and technology; see: Google Maps and Uber. It helps corporations stay on the cutting edge of new developments and keep themselves relevant. But in the past Facebook hasn’t developed this tactic, choosing instead to acquire companies for its fresh talent, technology, and vision needs.

Now might be the time to change that strategy. Facebook is bigger than its ever been before and it’s experimenting with an unprecedented level of new ideas, whether virtual reality (see Oculus Rift) or mobile app development (see Parse). By adding a investment arm, the company can more quickly and easily explore new markets, geographies, and industries, while potentially bringing in returns for itself in the future.

And as others have pointed out, a venture investment arm would also help Facebook retain long-time talent, product managers, designers, and executives who are looking to take the next step in their career and wind up leaving Facebook to do so.

Shady but smart: Secret’s CES feed copies Yik Yak for a new crowd

That savvy Secret. The anonymous sharing network, which recently redesigned its entire product to save itself, isn’t going quietly into that dark night.

It unrolled a new feature Monday allowing people at CES to view and post to an exclusive CES feed on Secret. Only those in the Las Vegas area can add content, turning Secret into a geofenced members-only club for whining about Mandalay Bay Wi-Fi, discovering the best after party, and mocking Samsung’s keynote.

A location based social feed — it’s like Twitter circa SXSW 2007. But where Twitter grew too large and noisy to deliver on its initial events flair, Secret’s geofencing makes sure the party stays small.

Yik Yak peek feature

Yik Yak’s Peek Anywhere list, with featured themes and events at the top

As others have said, it’s a “fun experiment“, one that “could give Secret an edge over Yik Yak.” There’s just one caveat: Yik Yak already has this feature. It created it months ago. (For a primer on Yik Yak, a college campus staple, read here).

In its “Peek Anywhere” section, Yik Yak users are prompted to check out feeds from geofenced areas around events like college football games and music festivals. The Featured peeks change day-by-day depending on what’s happening, and allow people to get a glimpse of the action on the ground somewhere. Yik Yak, in turn, probably got its Featured Peeks idea from Snapchat’s Featured Stories.

Secret, for its part, says it has been thinking about event-based feeds since March 2013, when it played with a location feature at SXSW. When I asked Secret co-founder Chrys Bader whether Secret copied Yik Yak with its redesign a few weeks ago, he deferred.

“If you look at any text-based social network, it’s all text,” Bader pointed out. “I suspect Yik Yak and Secret will diverge a lot over the next six months.” He wouldn’t elaborate, but hinted that Secret’s upcoming design and feature changes will focus on other contexts besides location.

Regardless of whether Secret is ripping off Yik Yak, it’s a time honored truism that the tech company that succeeds is the one that executes the best, not necessarily the one that executes first (see: Facebook v. MySpace; iPad v. many tablets that came before).

If Secret can spread through the tech crowd to other demographics, perhaps it could beat Yik Yak at its own game. After all, Yik Yak has largely ignored the Silicon Valley audience until this point. Instead, it has grown virally the way Facebook did, through college campuses.

By launching an events based feed at CES, Secret might get a leg up on the early adopter audience. Assuming that Twitter circa SXSW 2007 is still something people in tech want.

How this Instagram-for-doctors is helping the ebola fight

Doctors without Borders, the esteemed non-profit that sends medics into developing countries, has found an unlikely ally in the war against ebola. It’s using Figure 1, a social network that bills itself as the “Instagram for doctors,” to recruit physicians to the cause. Figure 1 is giving Doctors without Borders free advertising in order to raise awareness of the mounting ebola crisis and prod potential volunteers to help in whatever way they can.

A nurse helps an ebola patient in Doctors without Borders' Figure 1 ad

A nurse helps an ebola patient in Doctors without Borders’ Figure 1 ad

The app pinned this picture of a nurse in New Guinea to the top of its feed, putting it front and center of its users. “It got a crazy amount of attention, over 15,000 views in 24 hours, which for us is quite good,” Figure 1 co-founder Dr. Greg Levy said. “All kinds of favorites and comments.”

Figure 1 was started to make it easy for doctors to educate themselves about new illnesses, procedures, and technology. Doctors and med students peruse a feed of injury and ailment images uploaded by other doctors, with all patient identifying features blurred.

“We had studied workflow behaviors of young physicians, keeping track of cases by taking pictures with their phones and sharing with their colleagues,” Figure 1 co-founder Dr. Josh Landy said. “We took a workflow that already existed and gave them away to have it searchable and protect patient privacy.”

Social networking, when developed for a particular profession, can sometimes create substantial value for their users. And as the Figure 1 – Doctors without Borders partnership shows, it can also create an unparalleled opportunity to reach a wide swath of such professionals.

As Figure 1’s user base grows, so does its power to reach medical professionals. Figure 1 has 150,000 doctors on the app, so it still has a ways to go. There aren’t a ton of up-to-date numbers on how many doctors are in the U.S., but the 2012 Bureau of Labor Statistics puts it at roughly 700,000.

The initial positive reaction to the Figure 1 ebola ad convinced Doctors without Borders to expand its partnership. The app is now helping it advertise new types of health techniques in Papa New Guinea. To combat tuberculosis, drones are bringing specimens from remote rural areas to the nearest hospitals for testing. Showing that activity to doctors in the U.S. keeps them abreast of the latest technology and — in theory — piques their interest in joining Doctors without Borders.

The drones that send TB specimen from rural areas in Papa New Guinea

The drones that send TB specimen from rural areas in Papa New Guinea

Kik’s new hashtags reveal the potential of a chat network

Kik continues to ship new features for its chatting application. Following on the heels of Promoted Chats and its in-app browser comes the hashtag. It’s an easy way to create a group chat and invite people to join it within the Kik app. You send them the hashtag name (like #SFSoccerMoms or #CollegeDebateFriends). When they click it they’re taken to a group chatting page, which allows up to 50 participants.

“It’s a way to let you be whoever you want to be, with whoever wants to talk to you,” Kik CEO Ted Livingston wrote in a blog post announcing it. “It’s a social network on your terms.”

Kik’s group hashtag isn’t news that will particularly excite many people over the age of 25 (Kik’s prime demographic is under that age). But it’s a compelling feature, if only because of what it represents.

Group hashtags offer a rudimentary look of what could constitute a social network focused on “chatting.”

It’s almost a Path-like feature, recreating the intimacy of the Facebook of yore. With a chat cap of 50 people, it keeps conversations to smaller, more contextual groups. You don’t have to worry about sharing the details of your weekend with the world, trying to whitewash it for grandma, while simultaneously entertaining your friends. Instead, you can embody your particular sense of self with each individual group.

Group chatting is nothing new of course, and as a standalone feature, it’s not a company. But in conjunction with Kik’s other features, like individual messaging, promoted chats, and an in-app browser, the group hashtag element has great promise. It allows users to communicate easily, without the hassle of an administrator having to invite select members. It provides the same kind of thematic discovery and social organization that hashtags do on Twitter, for tracking news events, or on Instagram, for exploring similar images.

This is what a social network with a core of texting, instead of a newsfeed, could look like.

Animated Gif showing how Kik's hashtags feature works

Animated Gif showing how Kik’s hashtags feature works






Check out Nextdoor’s crowdsourced map for holiday lights

If you wanted to know where all the best holiday spots are in town, this might be your year. Social networking application Nextdoor has reached out to its users in 47,000 neighborhoods to map their cities’ best lights and attractions.

Nextdoor is an application where neighbors can connect to each other, share safety warnings, plan local events, and sell items ala Craigslist. It has grown in popularity in the United States, and using census data, the company estimates that one in four neighborhoods are on it.

The holiday map is a feature of the app. Little icons tell you where to find the best Christmas tree lots, best light displays, charity locations, Santa sightings, and holiday events. Find your neighborhood here.

Neighborhoods join the Nextdoor network when someone applies to draw their neighborhood boundary (and gets a handful of people to sign up with them). Some areas are far more active on Nextdoor than others, so the strength of your holiday cheer map might vary. Here’s a snapshot of San Francisco’s:

San Francisco's holiday cheer map on Nextdoor

San Francisco’s holiday cheer map on Nextdoor

Should we expect every messaging app to offer full privacy?

Earlier this week a bunch of former Skype employees launched a new app called Wire, which offers Skype-esque voice calls, messaging, and the ability to embed things like YouTube videos and SoundCloud tracks in conversations.

I, like many others, wrote a piece about the release, noting that the company’s Swiss jurisdiction is relatively privacy-friendly. Someone quickly commented, pointing out – correctly – that this is “no replacement for full, end-to-end encryption.” Fair enough, but I’ll admit my initial take on Wire put very little emphasis on security or privacy, because the company itself didn’t either.

Sure, if you scroll down a lot on Wire’s homepage you’ll see a nondescript promise that “Wire interactions are secure and we comply with European privacy laws and regulations,” but it’s not an angle that Wire even mentioned in its press release, nor in its initial blog posts.

That said, Joseph Cox at Vice Motherboard took a good look into Wire’s small print and noted that, while Wire’s FAQs said voice calls enjoy full end-to-end encryption over its networks, messages and media are only encrypted between the user and Wire’s data centers – not while at rest in those data centers.

This didn’t fit with a separate statement in Wire’s support section, which claimed that “your messages and conversation history can only be seen by you and the people in those conversations”, a statement that Wire removed after Cox flagged up the contradiction. The episode prompted some to accuse Wire of being a security snake oil vendor.

Now, if Wire’s claim about the privacy of conversations had been more prominent and not simultaneously debunked by the company itself, it would look an awful lot like a lie. The company should also be much clearer on its homepage about what it means by “secure”: that is to say, pretty secure against hackers, but not hiding personal data from the company itself and its various commercial arrangements.

However — and perhaps I’m feeling overly generous in the run-up to the holiday season — I think we need to look at what Wire actually is and consider the tradeoffs it’s making, before calling it a dud.

As a messaging service, Wire appears to be a very different beast from, say, WhatsApp, which is comparatively streamlined. Billed as a “communications network,” if anything Wire resembles a framework for small, closed social networks – think Google+ minus the public stuff — built around messaging rather than posting.

Wire’s text communications service is not designed primarily to be a secure channel (and here we’re in the linguistic gray zone where “secure” blurs into “private”), but rather for integration with third-party services such as YouTube and SoundCloud. For that reason, I don’t find it in the least bit surprising that, while WhatsApp can offer end-to-end encryption, Wire messages aren’t encrypted in the company’s data centers.

As Wire’s privacy policy states:

Through the Service, you may be able to link to technology, software and services owned and controlled by third parties (the “Third Party Features”) such as, but not limited to Youtube and SoundCloud. You may be permitted or required to submit personal information to access Third Party Features. These Third Party Features may collect information about you when you visit them or otherwise communicate or interact with them.

Third-party services are Facebook’s excuse, too. Maybe someone will at some point succeed in marrying genuine end-to-end encryption with a complex ecosystem approach, but I’ve not seen an example yet. As Wire’s founders suggested in a recent Guardian interview, their algorithmically ordered group chat and search functionality also don’t play nicely with cryptographic keys. Will Wire even consider encrypting its users’ data at rest? “We’ve made technical design and product choices to provide Wire users with the benefits of a certain feature set and are constantly reviewing those choices with security in mind,” a spokeswoman told me by email. Let’s take that as a “no,” for now.

Another reason not to treat Wire like something it isn’t: The terms state that, if Wire gets sold, its users’ personal information could be part of the package, and that includes the contents of chat conversations. The company also hasn’t yet decided how it will make money. The spokeswoman told me that the firm is “considering a number of monetization options” that will include paid-for premium features – I can’t see any guarantee that they won’t also include more Facebook-style data mining.

Strong privacy advocates will rightly turn their noses up, but here’s the question: Should people avoid Wire? That depends entirely on the person. Apart from that errant phrase at launch (again, perhaps I’m being too generous), Wire doesn’t tout itself as the privacy enthusiast’s choice. That doesn’t mean it won’t provide value to some people, like Facebook does.

As I’ve suggested before, privacy is a sliding scale. Some people want very high levels of privacy, while others are happier giving up some of these things for various perks, such as free services, or the potential for deep integration with third parties that are more about sharing than privacy.

Sometimes a person (like me) wants more privacy from one service, and can live with less from another. Wire looks interesting from a user experience standpoint, but as with Facebook — which I do use, because people who are dear to me use it — I’d be wary of putting anything too sensitive on there.

It’s perfectly alright for different products and services to occupy different points on the privacy spectrum, as long as their users know what to expect. On that point, Wire’s launch was shaky, but not necessarily a dealbreaker. Here’s hoping the company offers a clear and consistent message about its limitations from here on.