Category Archives: Technology

silicon valley & technology news

Proof-of-Concept Hyperloop to Open Soon

The Boring Company, based in California, is close to opening its first exciting venture – a 3.2 kilometer underground tunnel designed to convince Californians that traveling underground at high speed may solve their state’s ubiquitous traffic jams. It is the brainchild of Elon Musk, the U.S. billionaire who founded the electric car company Tesla and the rocket company SpaceX. VOA’s George Putic has more.

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New US Neutrality Rules Repealed; Supporters, Critics of Move Wonder What’s Next

The Federal Communications Commission’s repeal of the United States’ net neutrality rules — which mandated internet service providers to not discriminate in their handling of internet traffic — took effect Monday, reigniting fears from internet freedom advocates of potential manipulation of consumers’ internet access.

The FCC voted in December to overturn its net neutrality rule, first put in place by the Obama administration in 2015. With its repeal, the door is now open for internet service providers to block content, slow data transmission, and create “fast lanes” for consumers who pay premiums.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, a staunch critic of net neutrality, wrote Sunday that while he “support[s] a free an open internet,” the overturning of the Obama-era rule will allow the FTC [Federal Trade Commission] to “once again be able to protect Americans consistently across the internet economy.”

In 2004, then-FCC Chairman Michael Powell announced the commission’s support of what he called the “four internet freedoms,” including the freedom of consumers to access content. Since 2005, the FCC had enforced net neutrality rules in some regard, with the support of both Republican and Democratic chairmen. In 2015, the regulations were codified into law. 

“We’re actually in a brave new world where no protections for a free internet currently exist, whereas they have for the majority of the history of the internet,” Tim Karr, senior director of strategy and communications of media watchdog Free Press, told VOA on Monday. 

Karr said based on the prior actions of internet service providers, he feared we could see restrictions placed on such free internet access.

In 2007, the Associated Press reported that telecommunications giant Comcast was stifling connection to file-sharing websites such as BitTorrent. In 2011, fellow communication company Verizon blocked the download of Google Wallet, a payment app, on its mobile devices.

Verizon spokesman Rich Young told VOA that the company “strongly supports open internet rules,” and the recent FCC decision does not change the company’s support of full internet access.

Since the December FCC decision, two states — Washington and Oregon — have passed their own net neutrality laws, whereas governors of five other states — Hawaii, New Jersey, New York, Montana and Vermont — have issued executive orders mandating that internet service providers for government agencies abide by net neutrality regulations.

In May, the U.S. Senate voted 52-47 to reinstate the FCC’s 2015 net neutrality rules. Every Democratic senator voted for the proposal, as did three Republicans: John Kennedy of Louisiana, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.

The bill is now in the House of Representatives, where outgoing Speaker Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, has not yet announced any plans to bring the bill to the floor for a vote.

Congressman Mike Doyle, a Pennsylvania Democrat, filed a petition in May to force a vote on the matter. Doyle spokesperson Matt Dinkel said of the 218 signees for the petition needed to force a vote, the petition currently has 170.

“If enough representatives sign the discharge petition to bring the bill to the floor, odds are that it will pass,” Dinkel told VOA.

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Award-winning Smart Drones to Take on Illegal Fishing

Drones guided by artificial intelligence to catch boats netting fish where they shouldn’t were among the winners of a marine protection award on Friday and could soon be deployed to fight illegal fishing, organizers said.

The award-winning project aims to help authorities hunt down illegal fishing boats using drones fitted with cameras that can monitor large swaths of water autonomously.

Illegal fishing and overfishing deplete fish stocks worldwide, causing billions of dollars in losses a year and threatening the livelihoods of rural coastal communities, according to the United Nations.

The National Geographic Society awarded the project, co-developed by Morocco-based company ATLAN Space, and two other innovations $150,000 each to implement their plans as it marked World Oceans Day on Friday.

The aircraft can cover a range of up to 700 km (435 miles) and use artificial intelligence (AI) technology to drive them in search of fishing vessels, said ATLAN Space’s founder, Badr Idrissi.

“Once (the drone) detects something, it goes there and identifies what it’s seeing,” Idrissi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

Idrissi said the technology, which is to be piloted in the Seychelles later this year, was more effective than traditional sea patrols and allowed coast guards to save money and time.

From satellites tracking trawlers on the high seas to computer algorithms identifying illegal behaviors, new technologies are increasingly coming to the aid of coast guards worldwide.

AI allows the drones to check a boat’s identification number, establish whether it is fishing inside a protected area or without permit, verify whether it is known to authorities and count people on board, Idrissi said.

If something appears to be wrong, it can alert authorities.

Other winners were Marine Conservation Cambodia, which uses underwater concrete blocks to impede the use of bottom-dragged nets, and U.S.-based Pelagic Data Systems, which plans to combat illegal fishing in Thailand with tracking technologies.

“The innovations from the three winning teams have the potential to greatly increase sustainable fishing in coastal systems,” National Geographic Society’s chief scientist Jonathan Baillie said in a statement.

Much of the world’s fish stocks are overfished or fully exploited, according the U.N. food agency, and fish consumption rose above 20 kilograms per person in 2016 for the first time.

Global marine catches have declined by 1.2 million tons a year since 1996, according to The Sea Around Us, a research initiative involving the University of British Columbia and the University of Western Australia.

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French Emergency Room Tests Virtual Reality Path to Pain Relief

The very thought of visiting a hospital emergency department is stressful enough for many people, even without the discomfort or pain of an examination or treatment.

Enter an immersive virtual-reality program created by three graduates being used in France to relax patients and even increase their tolerance of pain, without resorting to drugs.

“What we offer is a contemplative world where the patient goes on a guided tour, in interactive mode, to play music, do a bit of painting or work out a riddle,” said Reda Khouadra, one of the 24-year-olds behind the project.

As patients are transported by chunky VR goggles into a three-dimensional world of Japanese zen gardens or snowy hillsides, they become more tolerant of minor but painful procedures such as having a cut stitched, a burn treated, a urinary catheter inserted or a dislocated shoulder pushed back into place.

“The virtual reality project … enables us to offer patients a technique to distract their attention and curb their pain and anxiety when being treated in the emergency room,” said Olivier Ganansia, head of the emergency department at the Saint-Joseph Hospital in Paris. “I think in 10 years, virtual reality won’t even be a question anymore, and will be used in hospitals routinely.”

The Healthy Mind startup is not a world first but has landed a $20,000 prize from a university in Adelaide, Australia — which will now pay for the three founders to present their project at Microsoft’s headquarters in Seattle.

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Sheryl Sandberg Uses Facebook’s Woes as Lesson for MIT Grads

Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg didn’t shy away from her company’s ongoing privacy scandal in a Friday commencement speech at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Instead, she turned it into a lesson about accountability.

Sandberg, the company’s chief operating officer, repeatedly warned graduates that even technology created with the best intentions can be twisted to do harm, a lesson that she said hits close to home, “given some of the issues Facebook has had.”

“At Facebook, we didn’t see all the risks coming, and we didn’t do enough to stop them,” Sandberg said. “It’s hard when you know you let people down.”

Echoing previous comments from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Sandberg went on to emphasize the importance of taking full responsibility for mistakes.

“When you own your mistakes, you can work hard to correct them, and even harder to prevent the next ones,” she said at the campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “That’s my job now. It won’t be easy, and it’s not going to be fast, but we will see it through.”

Facebook has faced backlash in the wake of a privacy scandal involving British data-mining firm Cambridge Analytica. In April, Zuckerberg appeared before Congress to apologize for the site’s role in foreign interference in the 2016 election.

The furor continued with recent revelations that Facebook shared user data with device makers including China’s Huawei, and that an unrelated software bug made some private posts public for up to 14 million users over several days in May.

Sandberg said she’s still proud of the company, noting its power to help organize movements like the Women’s March and Black Lives Matter. But she warned graduates that technology has a flipside, and isn’t always used for the sake of good.

“It also empowers those who would seek to do harm,” she said. “When everyone has a voice, some raise their voices in hatred. When everyone can share, some share lies. And when everyone can organize, some organize against the things we value the most.”

Sandberg, an alumna of Harvard University, is a former vice president at Google and was chief of staff for the U.S. Treasury Department under President Bill Clinton. She has written three bestselling books on leadership and resilience.

Much of her speech was about the role of technology in society, a common topic at MIT, a school known for its tech prowess. But her advice also drew on broader topics that have captured the nation’s attention, including tensions tied to race and gender.

“Build workplaces where everyone — everyone — is treated with respect,” she said. “We need to stop harassment and hold both perpetrators and enablers accountable. And we need to make a personal commitment to stop racism and sexism.”

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Report: Chinese Hackers Breach US Navy Computers

Chinese government hackers breached the computer system of a Navy contractor and stole large amounts of sensitive data, The Washington Post reports.

The Post said the hacking took place in January and February, according to U.S. officials speaking on the condition of anonymity.

It said the stolen information amounted to 614 gigabytes of material, including secret plans to develop a supersonic anti-ship missile for use on U.S. submarines by 2020.

Other information stolen included signal and sensor data for submarines, information relating to cryptographic systems, and a Navy electronic warfare library. The Post said details on hundreds of mechanical and software systems were compromised in the hacking.

The paper said the data was highly sensitive despite being on a contractor’s unclassified computer network. It said U.S. officials did not identify the contractor, but said he worked for the Naval Undersea Warfare Center, a U.S. military organization headquartered in Newport, Rhode Island.

The Navy is investigating the breach along with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, according to the Post. Investigators told the paper the hack was carried out by the Chinese Ministry of State Security, a civilian spy agency.

U.S. officials believe China has for years carried out hacking attacks on the U.S. military, the U.S. government and U.S. companies.

China has recently made it a priority to increase its development of undersea warfare to diminish the gap in the U.S. superiority in this area.

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North Korea Uses US Tech for ‘Destructive Cyber Operations’

North Korea’s senior leadership has been exploiting loopholes in international sanctions to obtain the U.S. technology that Pyongyang uses to conduct “destructive cyber operations,” according to a global cyberthreat intelligence company.

Recorded Future, based in Massachusetts, found that while export bans and restrictions are somewhat effective in keeping North Korea from acquiring technology for its nuclear weapons program, sanctions fail when it comes to regulating computer products from entering into North Korea.

“Because of the globalized nature of technology production and distribution, the traditional export control is not really working for [computer] technology,” said Priscilla Moriuchi, one of the authors of “North Korea Relies on U.S. Technology for Internet Operations.” “It may work quite well for ballistic missile parts or fissile material, but the system is not designed to limit technology transfer, and it’s not optimized for that.”

​Upcoming summit

In the report, Moriuchi and her co-author, Fred Wolens, call for a “globally robust unified effort to impose comprehensive sanctions” on North Korea, warning that without this Pyongyang “will be able to continue its cyberwarfare operations unabated with the aid of Western technology.”

The report was released days before North Korean leader Kim Jung Un and U.S. President Donald Trump are scheduled to meet in Singapore for a summit focused on ending the North’s nuclear weapons program in exchange for economic incentives and security guarantees.

But some consider North Korea’s cyberthreat capabilities as damaging as the threat of its nuclear weapons, Morgan Wright, a former a senior adviser in the U.S. State Department Antiterrorism Assistance Program, wrote in The Hill.

Even as advance teams prepared for the June 12 summit, North Korean cyberattacks continued, Moriuchi told Cyberscoop. On May 28, it reported the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI released a joint alert about Hidden Cobra, which is associated with North Korea’s hacking activities.

FireEye, a Silicon Valley cybersecurity company, detected cyberattacks by Lazarus, the North Korean hacking effort responsible for stealing millions of dollars from the Bangladesh Central Bank in 2016. Lazarus is also believed responsible for the 2014 Sony Picture’s hack and last year’s WannaCry ransomware attack.

​Defining ‘luxury goods’

How did U.S. technology reach North Korea? Part of the answer lies in “international inconsistencies in the definition of the term ‘luxury goods,’” according to the Recorded Future report. The U.S. “effort to restrict technology exports at the national and international level” has not reaped results because of “varied definitions by nations and [their] inconsistent implementations,” said Moriuchi, a former East Asia analyst for the National Security Agency.

While the United Nations did not include electronics in Resolution 2321, which covered exports to North Korea, when it was issued in 2016, each member nation was allowed to interpret luxury goods. The U.S. has defined luxury goods to include laptop computers, digital music players, large flat-screen televisions and electronic entertainment software. China, in particular, does not “honor the luxury goods listed by other countries when it exports to” North Korea, according to the report.

US exports OK

Another factor is that for seven years in the period spanning 2002 to 2017, “the United States allowed the exportation of ‘computer and electronic products’ to North Korea,” according to the report. The total for those seven years was more than $430,000 of legal exports, and according to Recorded Future, “at its peak in 2014, the U.S. exported $215,862 worth of computers and electronic products to North Korea.”

The Recorded Future report, citing the U.S. Department of Commerce (DOC), said that category includes “computers, computer peripherals (including items like printers, monitors and storage devices), communications equipment (such as wired and wireless telephones), and similar components for these products.”

Much of that equipment remains in use, according to Recorded Future, and North Korea’s ruling elites, including party, military, and intelligence leaders and their families, have long been known to use products manufactured by U.S. companies such as Apple, Microsoft and IBM to access the internet.

A third element in how the U.S. tech went astray is what the report called North Korea’s “sophisticated sanctions evasion operation, which uses intermediaries and spoofs identities online.”

As an example, the study points to North Korea’s shell company Glocom with which Pyongyang “used a network of Asian-based front companies to buy computer components from electronic resellers, and the payment was even cleared through a U.S. bank account.” The United Nations found that Glocom was tied to Pan Systems Pyongyang, whose director, Ryang Su Nyo, reports to Liaison Office 519 in the North Korean intelligence agency’s Reconnaissance General Bureau.

​Just like us

North Korea’s elites surfed and browsed just like users outside North Korea until recently when the Recorded Future researchers found “a stark change” in the elite’s usage patterns as they “migrated almost completely” from Facebook, Google and Instagram “to their Chinese equivalents — Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu,” and over the course of a few months “dramatically increased” their use of internet obfuscation services, such as virtual private networks (VPN), virtual private servers (VPS), transport layer security (TLS) and the Onion Router (Tor).

While tracking the change in activity from December 2017 to April 2018, researchers found “the overwhelming presence of American hardware and software on North Korea networks and in daily use by senior North Korean leaders.”

While U.S. exporters are responsible for understanding and adhering to export regulations, the study indicates even the implementation of robust compliance procedures were insufficient in preventing banned U.S. computer products from reaching North Korea.

U.S. export enforcement rests with the Office of Foreign Asset Control, the Office of Export Enforcement and Homeland Security Investigations. The U.S. is one of the only countries that enforces its export laws outside of its national boundaries, placing federal agents in foreign countries to work with local authorities.

Widespread international sanctions were imposed beginning in 2006, when North Korea conducted its first nuclear weapons test. In response, the U.N. passed two resolutions (Resolution 1695 and 1718) banning a broad range of exports to North Korea by any U.N. member states. The U.N. subsequently expanded those sanctions through a number of resolutions that prohibit and restrict exporting items ranging from missile material to oil to North Korea.

The case of ZTE

The Recorded Future report mentions Chinese manufacturer ZTE (Zhongxing Telecommunications Equipment) as a case where the implementation of export regulation failed, pointing out that the U.S. had the chance to enforce its export laws when the company was under Export Administration Regulation (EAR), a dense set of laws regulating exports.

ZTE was initially placed on the so-called Entities List for violating U.S. sanctions for selling products containing U.S. goods to Iran and North Korea in March 2016. For two years, the company and the U.S. government attempted to reach an agreement over penalties and how to verify that ZTE had stopped violating U.S. sanctions.

The Department of Commerce (DOC) ended the negotiations and imposed a denial order that banned U.S. companies from selling to ZTE for seven years.

In May, the DOC lifted the denial order, which would have put ZTE out of business, and allowed ZTE to purchase components from U.S. companies. The move came after threats of a trade war and Trump’s intervention.

Moriuchi said if the U.S. had let ZTE fail, it would have sent “a huge message to the rest of the world that there is no [company] too big to fail” and that “the U.S. government takes export control very seriously.”

In the end, “an opposite message ended up being sent with the administration’s deal with China, and that there are companies too big to fail especially if that company … has significant interest with the United States,” she said, adding the case demonstrated that “you can circumvent U.S. export control as a company and in the end, survive.”

The U.S. enforces its export laws through the DOC and regulates them through EAR, which not only restricts commercial goods and technologies from reaching hostile countries but also regulates the re-export of U.S. goods and technologies from one foreign country to another.

Until 2008, U.S. sanctions prohibiting exports to North Korea were implemented through the Trading with the Enemy Act, through which the U.S. government banned any exports to designated countries including North Korea.

Subsequently, the Obama administration issued the North Korea Sanctions Regulations and a number of Executive Orders (13551, 13570, 13687, and 13722) to further prohibit various measures, including exports of “goods, services or technology to North Korea.”

Additionally, numerous U.S. sanctions were imposed against North Korea under Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign, especially in 2017 during Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles tests, which also saw the U.N. issue new sanctions.

VOA’s Christy Lee contributed to this report.

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Fog Catchers Conjure Water Out of Moroccan Mist

Growing up on Mount Boutmezguida in southwest Morocco on the edge of the Sahara desert, Khadija Ghouate never imagined that the fog enveloping the nearby peaks would change her life.

For hours every day and often before sunrise, Ghouate and other women from nearby villages would walk 5 km (3 miles) to fetch water from open wells, with girls pulled out of school to help and at risk of violence on the lonely treks.

But with groundwater levels dropping due to overuse, drought and climate change, the challenge to get enough water daily was becoming harder, and almost half of people in the local area sold up and quit rural life after generations for the city.

As the future of the traditional Berber region by Mount Boutmezguida floundered, a mathematician whose family came from the area had a eureka moment gleaned from living overseas – using fog to make water.

Now Ghouate’s village is connected to the world’s largest functioning fog collection project, alleviating the need to collect water that fell mainly on women, and with state-of-the-art equipment setting an example for other projects globally.

“You always had to go to the wells, always be there, mornings, evenings,” said Ghouate, a mother-of-three, as she prepared lunch for her family, showing off the tap in her home.

“But now water has arrived in our house. I like fog a lot.

The project, running since 2015 after nine years of surveys and tests, was founded by the Moroccan non-government organization Dar Si Hmad, which works to promote and preserve local culture, history, and heritage.

It was the brainchild of mathematician and businessman Aissa Derhem whose parents were originally from Mount Boutmezguida where the slopes are covered in mist on average 130 days a year.

Derhem first came across fog collection when he learned of one of the world’s first projects – in Chile’s Atacama Desert – while he living in Canada in the 1980s studying for his PhD.

But it was not until visiting his parents’ village years later that he realized the mountainous location, situated at the edge of the Sahara and about 35 km (22 miles) from the Atlantic Ocean, was perfect for fog.

Ideal Location

Mist accumulates in coastal areas where a cold sea current, an anticyclone and a land obstacle, such as a mountain range, combine.

“When the sea water evaporates, the anticyclone … stops it from becoming rain, and when it hits the mountain, that’s where it can be gathered,” Derhem told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, looking out from the top of Mount Boutmezguida besides a small building used as a fog observatory and tool deposit.

“If we look at the planet, we see this happening in all tropical regions … In Chile and Peru in Latin America. The Kalahari desert in Africa. In Western Australia. Around the Thar desert in India and in California,” he listed as examples.

Developed in South America in the 1980s, fog collection projects have since spread globally to countries including Guatemala, Ghana, Eritrea, Nepal and the United States.

In Morocco, Dar Si Hmad has built a system of nets stretching about 870 square metres – about 4.5 tennis courts.

These nets are hung between two poles and when wind pushes the fog through the mesh, water droplets are trapped, condense and fall into a container at the bottom of the unit with pipes connecting the water to reservoirs.

Derhem hopes the success of the Mount Boutmezguida scheme can help other areas in West Africa and in North Africa – where the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says fresh water resources are among the world’s lowest.

Studies show climate change impacting water patterns globally and Derhem said in Morocco levels have dropped to about 500 cubic meters a person a year from about 1,500 cubic meters a person in the 1960s on calculations based on government figures.

Challenges Too

The principles behind fog collection are simple, and throughout nature examples exist of creatures capturing moisture from the air in the most arid conditions, ranging from beetles in the Namib Desert to lizards in the Australian outback.

But creating a water collection project on a large scale comes with challenges, as the research and development, as well as the infrastructure and technology involved in expanding and developing fog collection projects, can be costly.

The project at Mount Boutmezguida, however, has been a trailblazer for other projects due to its equipment, according to its founders.

The original nets used were insufficiently resistant to the high winds and tore but a partnership with the German non-profit Water Foundation allowed Dar Si Hmad to develop a stronger net.

The CloudFisher was described by the WaterFoundation as the first maintance-free fog collector that can withstand wind speeds of up 120 kph with flexible troughs following the movement of the net in the wind.

Now collected water is filtered and combined with underground water before being distributed to villages on the grid with homes paying for water through a pre-paid system.

The initial pilot project served five villages. At present, the 870 square metres of nets installed reach about 140 families – 14 villages – while a second set of nets is being built.

“Fog is like aeroplanes at the start. At the beginning they were only little toys but, with some effort, things have changed … but it needs investment,” said Derhem.

“Along the coast, there is three times as much fog as there is available on Mount Boutmezguida. The government spends millions for water desalination processes. This is something that is worth exploring.”

For with dry wells comes anxiety and risk but also the unraveling of traditional livelihoods and communities.

Mohamed Zabour, president of the local municipality, said more than 60 percent of the inhabitants of the region live without running water in their homes.

Between 2004 and 2014, 2,000 of the 5,000 local residents moved to cities.

“Our region is rich but it needs infrastructure. And water is one of the priorities,” said Zabour.

“If we don’t find a solution in the next 10 years, it’s going to be a catastrophe … It’s going to be like a desert. Empty.”

For Ghouate, the fog scheme has improved village life.

“When we were kids, we didn’t even know what it meant to need water  … Now there is less rain and if I still had to go to the wells, I wouldn’t find much water now,” she said. “Everything is about water, everything. I don’t have to worry about it anymore.”

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Facebook Says Privacy-setting Bug Affected as Many as 14M

Facebook said a software bug led some users to post publicly by default regardless of their previous settings. The bug affected as many as 14 million users over several days in May.

 

The problem, which Facebook said it has fixed, is the latest privacy scandal for the world’s largest social media company.

 

It said the bug automatically suggested that users make new posts public, even if they had previously restricted posts to “friends only” or another private setting. If users did not notice the new default suggestion, they unwittingly sent their post to a broader audience than they had intended.

 

Erin Egan, Facebook’s chief privacy officer, said the bug did not affect past posts. Facebook is notifying users who were affected and posted publicly during the time the bug was active, advising them to review their posts.

 

The news follows recent furor over Facebook’s sharing of user data with device makers, including China’s Huawei. The company is also still recovering from the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which a Trump-affiliated data-mining firm got access to the personal data of as many as 87 million Facebook users.

 

Jonathan Mayer, a professor of computer science and public affairs at Princeton University, said on Twitter that this latest privacy gaffe “looks like a viable Federal Trade Commission/state attorney general deception case.” That’s because the company had promised that the setting users set in their most recent privacy preferences would be maintained for future posts. In this case, this did not happen for several days.

 

Facebook’s 2011 consent decree with the FTC calls for the company to get “express consent” from users before sharing their information beyond what they established in their privacy settings. Even if the bug was an accident on Facebook’s part, Mayer said in an email that the FTC can bring enforcement action for privacy mistakes.

 

Facebook, which has 2.2 billion users, says the bug was active from May 18 until May 27. While the company says it stopped the error on May 22, it was not able to change all the posts back to their original privacy parameters until later.

 

The mistake happened when the company built a new way for people to share “featured items” on their profiles. These items, which include posts and photo albums, are automatically public. In the process of creating this feature, Facebook said it accidentally made the suggested audience for all new posts public.

 

When people post to Facebook, the service suggests a default distribution for their posts based on past privacy settings. If someone made all posts “friends only” in the past, it will set their next post to “friends only” as well. People can still manually change the privacy level of the posts — anywhere from “public” to “only me” — and this was the case while the bug was active as well.

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