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High Court blocks iPhone data breach class action against Google

The High Court has blocked a mass legal action against Google over claims that it collected sensitive personal data from more than four million iPhone users.

Mr Justice Warby, sitting in London, announced his decision on Monday.

The litigation was brought by campaign group Google You Owe Us, led by former Which? director Richard Lloyd.

The tech giant faced claims that it bypassed privacy settings on Apple iPhone handsets between August 2011 and February 2012 and used data to divide people into categories for advertisers.

The campaign group hoped to win at least £1 billion in compensation for an estimated 4.4 million users of the device in the UK.

At the first hearing of the case in London in May, lawyers for Mr Lloyd told the court that information collected by Google included racial or ethnic origin, physical and mental health, political affiliations or opinions, sexuality and sexual interests and social class.

They said information about an individual’s financial situation, shopping habits and their geographical location were also obtained.

Hugh Tomlinson QC, representing Mr Lloyd, said information was then “aggregated” and users were put into groups such as “football lovers” or “current affairs enthusiasts”.

These were then offered to subscribing advertisers to choose from when deciding who to direct their marketing to.

Mr Tomlinson said the data was gathered through “clandestine tracking and collation” of information relating to internet usage on iPhone users’ Safari browser – known as the “Safari Workaround”.

He told Mr Justice Warby the activity was exposed by a PhD researcher in 2012 and Google has already paid 39.5 million US dollars to settle claims in the United States.

Google argued that the type of “representative action” being brought against it by Mr Lloyd is unsuitable and should not go ahead.

Lawyers for the California-based company said there is no suggestion that the Safari Workaround resulted in any information being disclosed to third parties.

They also said it is not possible to identify those who may have been affected and the claim has no prospect of success.

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Clifford Chance to hire ‘tech trainees’

Magic circle firm Clifford Chance has set-up an alternative training contract for would-be solicitors with a specialised focus on technology. The firm claims the IGNITE contract will offer applicants with an ’aptitude for tech’ a route to qualify as solicitors. It is designed for people that have an interest in areas including fintech, coding and artificial intelligence, and an interest in how law tech and digitisation are changing the legal working environment. It will run separately to the firm’s usual trainee programme, which takes place twice a year.

Trainees will be given time away from fee-earning to gain the necessary training, support and expertise the firm said. They will be paid £46,600 in their first year, £52,500 in their second and up to £91,000 as a newly-qualified solicitor, including bonus.

Michael Bates, regional managing partner, said: ‘Law tech is changing the face of our industry and we want to be at the forefront of that change. We’re committed to driving a culture that embraces digital thinking across each of our practice areas and we hope that these trainees will go to make significant change in their practice areas upon qualifying.’

The firm said it hopes to hire five individuals to join the firm in 2021.

Meanwhile international firm Withersworldwide said today it had acquired tech law firm JAG Shaw Baker to create Withers tech, a dedicated team advising on tech.

JAG Shaw Baker was established in 2013 to advise UK and US entrepreneurs, companies and investors across high-growth technology sectors including life sciences and digital technology. Withersworldwide said the new legal offering would fully meet the needs of entrepreneurs, investors and technology companies.

Should mind reading technology be used in court?

A man is charged with stealing a very distinctive blue diamond. The man claims never to have seen the diamond before. An expert is called to testify whether the brain responses exhibited by this man indicate he has seen the diamond before. The question is – should this information be used in court?

Courts are reluctant to admit evidence where there is considerable debate over the interpretation of scientific findings. But a recent study from researchers in the US has noted that the accuracy of such “mind reading” technology is improving.

There are various methods of detecting false statements or concealed knowledge, which vary greatly. For example, traditional “lie detection” relies on measuring physiological reactions such as heart rate, blood pressure, pupil dilation and skin sweat response to direct questions, such as “did you kill your wife?” Alternatively, a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) approach uses brain scans to identify a brain signature for lying.

However, the technology considered by the US researchers, known as “brain fingerprinting”, “guilty knowledge tests” or “concealed information tests”, differs from standard lie detection because it claims to reveal the fingerprint of knowledge stored in the brain. For example, in the case of the hypothetical blue diamond, knowledge of what type of diamond was stolen, where it was stolen, and what type of tools were used to effect the theft.

This technique gathers electrical signals within the brain through the scalp by electroencephalography (EEG), signals which indicate brain responses. Known as the P300 signal, those responses to questions or visual stimuli are assessed for signs that the individual recognises certain pieces of information. The process includes some questions that are neutral in content and used as controls, while others probe for knowledge of facts related to the offence.

The P300 response typically occurs some 300 to 800 milliseconds after the stimulus, and it is said that those tested will react to the stimulus before they are able to conceal their response. If the probes sufficiently narrow the focus to knowledge that only the perpetrator of the crime could possess, then the test is said to be “accurate” in revealing this concealed knowledge. Proponents of the use of this technology argue that this gives much stronger evidence than is possible to get through human assessment.

Assuming this technology might be capable of showing that someone has hidden knowledge of events relevant to a crime, should we be concerned about its use?

Potential for prejudice

Evidence of this sort has not yet been accepted by the English courts, and possibly never will be. But similar evidence has been admitted in other jurisdictions, including India.

In the Indian case of Aditi Sharma, the court heard evidence that her brain responses implicated her in her former fiancé’s murder. After investigators read statements related and unrelated to the offence, they claimed her responses indicated experiential knowledge of planning to poison him with arsenic, and of buying arsenic with which to carry out the murder. The case generated much discussion, and while she was initially convicted, this was later overturned.

However, the Indian Supreme Court has not ruled out the possibility of such evidence being used if the person being tested freely consents. We should not forget that people may knowingly conceal knowledge of facts relevant to a crime for all sorts of reasons, such as protecting other people or hiding illicit relationships. These reasons for hiding knowledge may have nothing to do with the crime. You could have knowledge relevant to a crime but be totally innocent of that crime. The test is for knowledge, not for guilt.

Context is key

The US researchers looked at whether brain-based evidence might unduly influence juries and prejudice the fair outcome of trials. They found the concerns that neuroscientific evidence may adversely influence trials could be overstated. In their experiment, mock jurors were influenced by the existence of brain based evidence, whether it indicated guilty knowledge or the absence of it. But the strength of other evidence, such as motive or opportunity, weighed more heavily in the hypothetical jurors’ minds.

This is not surprising, as our case-based research demonstrates the importance of the context in which neuroscientific evidence is introduced in court. It could help support a case, but the success is dependent on the strength of all the evidence combined. In no case was the use of neuroscientific evidence alone determinative of the outcome, though in several it was highly significant.

Memory detection technologies are improving, but even if they are “accurate” (however we choose to define that term) it does not automatically mean they will or should be allowed in court. Society, legislators and the courts are going to have to decide whether our memories should be allowed to remain private or whether the needs of justice trump privacy considerations. Our innermost thoughts have always been viewed as private; are we ready to surrender them to law enforcement agencies?

China dominates top supercomputers list

China has overtaken the US to have the most supercomputers in the list of the world’s fastest 500 systems.

The communist nation accounted for 202 of the globe’s highest performance machines, according to the latest Top500 survey.

By contrast, the US had 143. That marks its lowest level since the bi-annual study began, 25 years ago, but still secured it second place.

Japan placed third with 35 systems, and Germany fourth with 20.

In the previous survey, published in June, the US still had a lead of 169 supercomputers to China’s 160.

The reversal of fortunes reflects China’s increased investment in research and development – according to a recent study, the country now accounts for about 20% of the world’s total R&D expenditure.

Supercomputers are typically large, expensive systems featuring tens of thousands of processors designed to carry out specialised calculation-intensive tasks.

Examples Include:

– Climate change studies
– Nuclear weapons simulations
– Oil prospecting
– Weather forecasting
– DNA sequencing
– Modelling biomolecules

Performance is measured in petaflops (one thousand trillion floating point operations per second).

A flop can be thought of as a step in a calculation.

China’s fastest computer – the Sunway TaihuLight – maintained its lead as the world’s speediest, performing at 93 petaflops.

By contrast, the US’s fastest – Titan – ranks fifth in the world, with a maximum performance of 17.6 petaflops.

The list’s authors said the latest figures also indicated China had overtaken the United States in terms of aggregate performance, accounting for 35.4% of the list’s total processing power versus the US’s 29.6%.

Erich Strohmaier – one of the survey’s co-founders – told the BBC that many of the Chinese systems had been created to earn money, with the owners renting out their processing power to local and international firms.

“At the very high end – the systems in the top 10 – those are there for two reasons,” he added.

“One is simply the prestige attached with [being in the lead] in a market that used to be a prime example of US technology dominance.

“The other is to do with scientific exploration and national security – a lot of these systems are used for calculations related to weapons systems.”

Twitter halts ‘broken’ verified-profile system

Twitter has suspended its verified-profile scheme and described it as “broken”, following complaints over the type of accounts being verified.

Typically, prominent people, including musicians, journalists and company executives, get a blue icon on their profile after proving their identity.

However, some far-right and white-supremacist accounts have now also been verified.

Twitter founder Jack Dorsey said the scheme would now be “reconsidered”.

In a statement, the company said: “Verification was meant to authenticate identity and voice, but it is interpreted as an endorsement or an indicator of importance.

“We recognise that we have created this confusion and need to resolve it.”

The company said no further “general” accounts would be verified, while it worked on a fix.

Twitter has been making a series of changes to address abuse and harassment on the social network.

Last week, it published a rewritten version of its rules, which it said would make them easier to understand.

Social media firms under scrutiny for ‘Russian meddling’

Facebook, Twitter and Google lawyers defended themselves to US lawmakers probing whether Russia used social media to influence the 2016 election.

The three firms faced hard questions at a Senate panel on crime and terrorism about why they missed political ads bought with Russian money.

Lawmakers are eyeing new regulations for social media firms in the wake of Russia’s alleged meddling in 2016.

The firms said they would tighten advertising policies and guidelines.

Senator Al Franken, a Democrat from Minnesota, asked Facebook – which absorbed much of the heat from lawmakers – why payment in Russian rubles did not tip off the firm to suspicious activity.

“In hindsight, we should have had a broader lens,” said Colin Stretch, general counsel for Facebook. “There are signals we missed.”

A day earlier Facebook said as many as 126m US users may have seen Russia-backed content over the last two years.

Lawyers for the three firms are facing two days of congressional hearings as lawmakers consider legislation that would extend regulations for television, radio and satellite to also cover social media platforms.

The firms said they are increasing efforts to identify bots and spam, as well as make political advertising more transparent.

Facebook, for example, said it expects to have 20,000 people working on “safety and security” by the end of 2018 – double the current number.

“I do appreciate these efforts, but I don’t think it’s enough,” said Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota.

Ms Klobuchar has proposed legislation that she says would make social media firms subject to the same disclosure rules for political and issue pages as print, radio and television companies.

The companies said they would work with her on the bill, but did not say they would support it.

Senators questioned whether the firms are up to the task of weighing free speech and privacy rights against concerns over terrorism and state-sponsored propaganda.

“I think you do enormous good, but your power sometimes scares me,” said Senator John Kennedy, a Republican from Louisiana.

What happened during the election?

Russia has repeatedly denied allegations that it attempted to influence the last US presidential election, in which Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton.

But Facebook revealed as many as 126m American users may have seen content uploaded by Russia-based operatives.

The social media company said about 80,000 posts published between June 2015 and August 2017 and were seen by about 29m Americans directly.

These posts, which Facebook says were created by a Kremlin-linked company, were amplified through likes, shares and comments, and spread to tens of millions of people.

That company, Internet Research Agency, was also linked to about 2750 Twitter accounts, which have been suspended, Twitter said.

The firm also said it had identified more than 36,000 Russian bots that generated 1.4m automated, election-related Tweets, which may have been viewed as many as 288m times.

Google also revealed on Monday that Russian trolls had uploaded more than 1,000 political videos on YouTube on 18 different channels. The company said they had very low view counts and there was no evidence they had been targeting American viewers.

Most of the posts focused on sowing political and social divisions, the firms have said.

The companies said they used a combination of staff and big data to police that content, disabling fake and spam accounts.

Key recent developments:

Nov 2016: Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg says “the idea that fake news on Facebook influenced the (US) election in any way is a pretty crazy idea”
Aug 2017: Facebook says it will fight fake news by sending more suspected hoax stories to fact-checkers and publishing their findings online
Oct 2017: Google finds evidence that Russian agents spent tens of thousands of dollars on ads in a bid to sway the election, reports say
Oct 2017: Twitter bans Russia’s RT and Sputnik media outlets from buying advertising amid fears they attempted to interfere in the election