Author: Grant Gross

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Conservative group takes credit for anti-net neutrality comments

A conservative group took credit for a barrage of anti-net neutrality comments posted on the U.S. Federal Communications Commission’s website this week, but it denied generating fake activism.

The Center for Individual Freedom said it did not use a bot to generate comments after news reports[1] raised questions about the legitimacy of the posts. Between Monday and early Wednesday afternoon, the FCC had received more than 128,000 comments duplicating the language provided[2] by CFIF.

Five people whose names and addresses are attached to the anti-net neutrality comments denied posting them when contacted by reporters at ZDNet[3] and TheVerge.com[4]. At this point, it’s unclear how many of the 128,000 comments were legitimate and how many were fake, and no one has determined how any fake comments were generated.

Making a fraudulent statement[5] to a U.S. government agency is a crime, with a maximum sentence of five years in prison.

CFIF said it has encouraged people to post comments, using its language, through a web-based form. Groups on both sides of the FCC net neutrality debate have employed similar web-based mass comment campaigns in recent years, and the agency accepts those comments, even as some critics question their value.

“CFIF is not using bots or any other automated tool to generate comments,” a representative of the group said by email. “CFIF’s effort requires people to opt-in by manually signing, confirming, and submitting their comment for delivery to the FCC. There are several safeguards in place to ensure the integrity of the opt-in process.”

The CFIF campaign follows a similar effort by comic and commentator John Oliver, who encouraged views of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight” to submit their own comments in support of net neutrality rules passed by the FCC in 2015. Oliver objected to new FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s recent proposal to kill the regulations.

Similar to CFIF, Oliver provided viewers a web URL, www.gofccyourself.com[6], where they can easily send comments to the FCC, although he didn’t provide specific language they should use. 

As of Tuesday night, more than 1,700 people had submitted comments using the name John Oliver, and more than 600 had used the name “1,” the Washington Free Beacon reported[7]. A handful of racist comments targeted Pai’s Indian heritage.

The apparently fake comments using the CFIF language, as well as the 1,700 people who submitted comments as John Oliver, demonstrate a weakness in the FCC comment system, and perhaps, in mass comment campaigns. The FCC comment system requires a name, email address, and physical address, but makes no other attempt to determine if comments are legitimate, and it appears that some web activism campaigns have the same holes.

An FCC spokesman declined to comment on the agency’s comment system Wednesday.

As of late Wednesday, the FCC had received more than 733,000 comments on Pai’s proposal to scrap the 2-year-old net neutrality rules. The search functionality on the FCC’s comment site didn’t appear to be working for most of Wednesday afternoon.

During the FCC’s 2014-15 debate on net neutrality, it received more than 4 million public comments, a majority in support of strong regulations. Many of those comments were generated using web-based mass comment campaigns, however.

To comment on this article and other PCWorld content, visit our Facebook[8] page or our Twitter[9] feed.

References

  1. ^ news reports (www.pcworld.com)
  2. ^ language provided (cfif.org)
  3. ^ at ZDNet (www.zdnet.com)
  4. ^ TheVerge.com (www.theverge.com)
  5. ^ fraudulent statement (www.law.cornell.edu)
  6. ^ www.gofccyourself.com (www.gofccyourself.com)
  7. ^ Washington Free Beacon reported (freebeacon.com)
  8. ^ Facebook (www.facebook.com)
  9. ^ Twitter (twitter.com)
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Bot-generated comments swamp FCC, urging overturn of net neutrality

Some supporters of a U.S. Federal Communications Commission plan to repeal its recent net neutrality rules[1] have apparently resorted to dirty tricks.

An apparent bot-generated campaign has posted more than 83,400 comments on the FCC’s website supporting the agency’s plan to gut its own net neutrality rules.

A handful of people whose names are on the bot-generated comments have denied making the comments, according to a report by ZDNet[5]. The 83,400 comments, filed to the FCC’s comment system between Monday and Wednesday, all contain the same text, reading in part:

“The unprecedented regulatory power the Obama Administration imposed on the internet is smothering innovation, damaging the American economy and obstructing job creation. I urge the Federal Communications Commission to end the bureaucratic regulatory overreach of the internet … and restore the bipartisan light-touch regulatory consensus that enabled the internet to flourish for more than 20 years.”

That argument echoes the criticism by broadband providers, conservative groups, and many Republicans about the FCC’s 2015 net neutrality rules. 

An FCC spokesman declined to talk about the apparent bot attack. “We’re not commenting on the comments at this time,” he said by email.

The FCC has received more than 730,000 public comments on Chairman Ajit Pai’s proposal to roll back the 2-year-old rules, which classified broadband as a regulated telecom-like service and prohibited providers from selectively blocking or slowing web traffic. These identical comments represent more than 11 percent of the total.

It’s not uncommon for the FCC to receive similar comments, or even the exact same language, in submissions from the public. Groups urging the public to comment on FCC proceedings, including net neutrality supporters, often provide sample language or partially automated ways to submit a comment. What’s different here is the people whose names are on these comments appear to have not filed them.

When the FCC first moved to pass the strict net neutrality rules in 2014, it received more than 4 million public comments, a record for the agency for any one proceeding. A large majority of comments then supported strong net neutrality regulations. This computer-generated campaign appears to be an attempt to change that narrative.

The flood of comments comes after commentator John Oliver, during his Sunday episode of “Last Week Tonight,” called on the public to flood the FCC with comments supporting the 2015 rules.

Late Sunday and early Monday, the FCC claimed to be hit[6] with a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack that may have prevented some people from filing comments, but some critics have suggested the FCC’s website may have simply buckled under the weight of the traffic from Oliver viewers.

On Tuesday, Senators Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, and Sen. Brian Schatz, a Hawaii Democrat, sent a letter[7] to the FCC with questions about the apparent DDoS attack.

The two, both supporters of the existing net neutrality rules, asked the FCC to provide details about the attack. “To the extent that the FCC already has evidence suggesting which actor(s) may have been responsible for the attacks, please provide that in your response,” they wrote.

The two also asked about the effect on people trying to comment on Pai’s proposal. “Do you have an estimate of how many individuals were unable to access the FCC website or submit comments during the attacks?” they asked. “Were any comments lost or otherwise affected?”

References

  1. ^ plan to repeal its recent net neutrality rules (www.infoworld.com)
  2. ^ 5 ways your ISP is screwing you (www.infoworld.com)
  3. ^ 5 more ways your ISP is screwing you (www.infoworld.com)
  4. ^ InfoWorld Daily newsletter (www.infoworld.com)
  5. ^ report by ZDNet (www.zdnet.com)
  6. ^ claimed to be hit (www.cio.com)
  7. ^ sent a letter (www.wyden.senate.gov)
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FCC hit with DDoS attacks after John Oliver takes on net neutrality

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission’s website slowed to a crawl after comic and political commentator John Oliver urged viewers to flood the agency with comments in support of net neutrality, in what appeared to be a repeat of a 2014 incident.

With the FCC headed toward a repeal of net neutrality rules[1] it passed in early 2015, Oliver on Sunday echoed[2] his “Last Week Tonight” commentary on the topic from three years ago. (Note to viewers: The link to Oliver’s new diatribe is not safe for work.) As in 2014, the FCC’s website seemed to buckle under the load late Sunday and early Monday, but the cause may have been more sinister than a flood of people expressing their support for net neutrality rules.

In this case, the FCC website was hit with a series of distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks starting about midnight Eastern Time, FCC CIO David Bray said Monday. 

“These were deliberate attempts by external actors to bombard the FCC’s comment system with a high amount of traffic to our commercial cloud host,” Bray said in an emailed statement. “These actors were not attempting to file comments themselves; rather they made it difficult for legitimate commenters to access and file with the FCC.”

The DDoS attacks “tied up the servers and prevented them from responding to people attempting to submit comments,” he said.

An FCC spokesman declined to speculate on the motivation for the DDoS attacks. If they were inspired by Oliver’s commentary, they acted against its purpose. The attacks would have prevented net neutrality supporters from filing comments.

“Once again, net neutrality is in trouble,” Oliver said Sunday night. “It seems, once more, we the people must take this matter into our own hands. Every internet group needs to come together like you successfully did three years ago.

Before its 2015 vote to impose net neutrality rules, the FCC received 4 million public comments on the issue, with a large majority supporting strong regulations.

Broadband providers and many Republicans oppose the net neutrality rules, saying they have slowed broadband investment and created unnecessary regulations. Some opponents of the 2015 version of the rules have pointed to small decreases in broadband investment in 2015 and 2016, but it’s unclear how much impact the rules had.

As of Monday afternoon, Oliver’s commentary had been viewed more than 900,000 times on YouTube.

To comment on this article and other PCWorld content, visit our Facebook[4] page or our Twitter[5] feed.

References

  1. ^ repeal of net neutrality rules (www.pcworld.com)
  2. ^ Oliver on Sunday echoed (www.youtube.com)
  3. ^ [ Further reading: How the new age of antivirus software will protect your PC ] (www.pcworld.com)
  4. ^ Facebook (www.facebook.com)
  5. ^ Twitter (twitter.com)
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US device searches at borders ignite resistance

Aaron Gach wasn’t expecting U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents to demand to search his smartphone when he returned to San Fransisco from Belgium in February.

The artist and magician, a U.S. citizen, had just attended an art event near Brussels and was targeted for advanced screening by CBP after his flight landed in the U.S. During a series of questions from CBP agents (“Did you pack your bag yourself?”), they repeatedly asked to search his smartphone, Gach said.

“Do you understand that if you choose not to unlock your phone we may need to detain your other personal effects?” one agent told him, according to a description of the encounter that Gach posted online[1].

Gach, who travels frequently, was shocked and surprised by the demand to search his device, he said in an interview. He initially resisted, saying a search would violate his privacy, but eventually relented by unlocking his phone for the agents, who then took the phone out of his sight for about 10 minutes.

Gach, working with the American Civil Liberties Union to protest the search[3], “felt pretty coerced” into turning over the phone, he said. “On the whole, I find that situation pretty upsetting.”

Why resist the search? The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, protecting residents against unreasonable searches and seizures is “pretty clear,” he said. 

“Either you have rights, or you don’t have rights,” Gach added. “Standing up for your rights is not an admission of guilt or innocence.”

Gach’s position is echoed by digital rights groups like the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Under current guidelines, CBP can search a device without “any suspicion” of a crime and with no court-ordered warrant, said Esha Bhandari, a staff attorney with the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project.

“We think that’s a Fourth Amendment violation,” she said. “They can essentially conduct these searches in a suspicionless manner for no reason at all.”

But CBP and the U.S. Supreme Court see fewer Fourth Amendment protections[4] for people, including U.S. citizens, when they’re crossing into the country. As the EFF notes, the Supreme Court allows for a “border search exception” to normal search warrant requirements because the government has an interest in protecting the “integrity of the border” by enforcing immigration and customs laws. 

CBP defends the device searches, saying the agency inspects the electronic devices of a tiny percentage[5] of people coming into the U.S. every year. The device searches are just one piece of information the CBP uses to evaluate travelers, a CBP spokeswoman said.

“Keeping America safe and enforcing our nation’s laws in an increasingly digital world depends on our ability to lawfully examine all materials entering the U.S.,” the spokeswoman said by email. “CBP’s electronic searches affect less than one hundredth of one percent of travelers.”

Device searches often help to show travelers’ intentions while they’re in the U.S., she added. The searches “are critical to the detection of evidence relating to terrorism and other national security matters, human and bulk cash smuggling, contraband, and child pornography,” she said.

While CBP searches the devices of far less than 1 percent of travelers crossing the U.S. border, the number of searches has ballooned in the last two years.

In CBP’s fiscal year 2015, the agency searched just 8,503 devices during 383.2 million border crossings. But in fiscal year 2016, the number of device searches jumped to 19,033, and in the first six months of FY2017, CBP searched 14,993 devices, putting the agency on pace to search nearly 30,000 devices during the year.

Separately, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has talked about demanding social media passwords[6] as part of President Donald Trump’s plan for advanced security checks for visa applicants from some Muslim-majority countries. The Department of State is also considering a plan[7] to ask some visa applicants for the social media user names, email addresses, and phone numbers (although not for social media passwords) that they’ve used for the past five years.

Some U.S. lawmakers have questioned the CBP’s device searches. In April, a bipartisan group of four lawmakers introduced the Protecting Data at the Border Act[8], which would require the agency to get a court-ordered warrant to search the electronic devices of U.S. citizens and legal residents like green-card holders.

It’s unclear, however, how a warrant process would work with travelers exiting an airplane or crossing the U.S. border in an automobile. But U.S. residents shouldn’t give up their privacy when crossing the border, the sponsors said.

“Americans’ Constitutional rights shouldn’t disappear at the border,” said Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat and sponsor of the bill. “By requiring a warrant to search Americans’ devices and prohibiting unreasonable delay, this bill makes sure that border agents are focused on criminals and terrorists instead of wasting their time thumbing through innocent Americans’ personal photos and other data.”

Gach, the artist whose smartphone was searched in February, supports legislation that would require a search warrant. “Right now, there’s just sort of a blanket authorization, and you have no idea what exactly they’re searching,” he said.

To comment on this article and other PCWorld content, visit our Facebook[9] page or our Twitter[10] feed.

References

  1. ^ posted online (docs.google.com)
  2. ^ [ Further reading: How the new age of antivirus software will protect your PC ] (www.pcworld.com)
  3. ^ protest the search (www.aclu.org)
  4. ^ fewer Fourth Amendment protections (www.eff.org)
  5. ^ tiny percentage (www.cbp.gov)
  6. ^ demanding social media passwords (www.cnbc.com)
  7. ^ considering a plan (www.reuters.com)
  8. ^ Protecting Data at the Border Act (www.wyden.senate.gov)
  9. ^ Facebook (www.facebook.com)
  10. ^ Twitter (twitter.com)
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How to prevent your data from being searched at the US border

During the past two years, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol has targeted ever larger numbers of travelers’ smartphones and laptops for searches as they cross the border into the country.

U.S. courts have generally upheld a so-called border search exception[1] to the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, allowing CBP to search electronic devices without a court-ordered warrant. In April, a group of lawmakers introduced legislation[2] to require warrants to search devices owned by U.S. citizens and other legal residents, but for now, the law allows for warrantless device searches.

It’s worth noting, however, that the odds of CBP searching any single traveler’s device are tiny, although they may increase if the traveler fits certain profiles. Even with increased device searches during the past two years, CBP still only checks the devices of a fraction of 1 percent[3] of all people crossing the U.S. border.

Still, travelers concerned about their privacy can take steps to protect their data as they cross the U.S. border. They should remember the old Boy Scout motto: Be prepared.

The best way to avoid sharing personal or confidential information with CBP agents as you cross the border is to scrub your devices before you travel, some privacy experts say.

While it’s difficult to fight a CBP search when you’re being questioned, there’s no requirement that your smartphone or laptop be loaded up with your data. Consider removing sensitive data from your devices by storing it in the cloud or on another device that stays home. 

“People should never lie to a CBP agent,” said Esha Bhandari, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project “If they’re asked a question, they should answer truthfully. But there’s no requirement you carry your data with you when you cross the border.”

If you don’t want CBP searching your work email, consider temporarily removing your email app from your smartphone. A cursory CBP search of your phone isn’t likely to discover what apps you’ve recently removed.

Also, consider keeping your devices off as you’re going through customs. If your smartphone is powered up, log out of apps that contain personal data.

If a CBP agent asks you to unlock your smartphone or laptop, you can refuse, but there are consequences. If you’re not a U.S. resident, CBP could prevent you from entering the country.

If you’re a U.S. resident, CBP could hold you for several hours, and they could seize your device. A seizure could lead to a forensic search of your device, and CBP may not return it for months, the Electronic Frontier Foundation noted in a recent advice document[5] for travelers.

CBP can detain you for refusing to allow a search but “we’re talking a matter of hours, certainly not an overnight detention,” Bhandari said. “There doesn’t seem to be a bright-line rule, but we’re talking hours, not days.”

Ultimately, if you’re a legal U.S. resident, CBP shouldn’t prevent you from entering the country, even if you refuse to allow the device search, Bhandari said.

Still, expect to have your device seized if you refuse to unlock it. Travelers will often have to choose, she said. “Would they rather turn over their password and have a quick search vs. refusing and having their device seized?” she added.

Finally, there’s been some discussion among technologies about using a separate encryption scheme for sensitive files on laptops or smartphones. While there’s no real consensus, some privacy experts suggest that having a separate encrypted section of your hard drive may raise a red flag for CBP agents. It may be safer to store those files on another device or in the cloud.

To comment on this article and other PCWorld content, visit our Facebook[6] page or our Twitter[7] feed.

References

  1. ^ border search exception (en.wikipedia.org)
  2. ^ introduced legislation (www.wyden.senate.gov)
  3. ^ fraction of 1 percent (www.cbp.gov)
  4. ^ [ Further reading: How the new age of antivirus software will protect your PC ] (www.pcworld.com)
  5. ^ recent advice document (www.eff.org)
  6. ^ Facebook (www.facebook.com)
  7. ^ Twitter (twitter.com)
       
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