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Advocates Push For Higher Age Privacy Threshold As COPPA Proposal Hits Senate

Advocates want age 13 and over for privacy protection as Senate sees COPPA reform proposal.

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Photo of Richard Blumenthal, Chair of Subcommittee On Consumer Protection

May 19, 2021 — Witnesses in front of a Senate hearing on internet privacy for children recommended a more comprehensive age threshold to encompass more children they say are having their rights violated online, as a proposed bipartisan Senate bill is introduced to include better protections.

Beeban Kidron, a children’s rights advocate, told the Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Data Security on Tuesday that current Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) legislation that consider only those under the age of 13 to be children is harming a swath of other children above that threshold.

Kidron said a better age to start with is 18 and below, arguing that no parent would consider a 13-year-old an adult.

On Friday, Senators Ed Markey, D-Massachusetts, and Bill Cassidy, R-Louisiana,  introduced new bipartisan legislation meant to extend greater online consumer protections to minors, including making it illegal for companies to collect data from anyone 13-15 years old without their consent. Additionally, it would create what the bill refers to as an online “Eraser Button,” which would allow consumers to request that they scrub collected data from a child or teen.

The bill is known as the “Children and Teens’ Online Privacy Protection Act,” and is designed to update COPPA, which was passed in 2000.

The proposed bill would establish the Youth Privacy and Marketing Division at the Federal Trade Commission, which would be tasked with ensuring that the consumer and privacy rights of children and teens. It would also ban targeted advertising for children, which uses browser and purchase history, economic status, consumer values, and numerous other variables to direct consumers to ads.

The bill would also raise cybersecurity standards for online devices marketed at children and require that they clearly label what kind of data is collected or transmitted. More broadly, this legislation would require all online companies to disclose what kind of data is being collected from consumers and how it is used.

New legislation is a product of a new environment

Children are being drawn to apps such as Tik Tok, YouTube, Instagram, and other social media platforms, spending more and more time online as education and entertainment becomes increasingly virtual. This raises concerns about how their data is being used, how marketers are targeting them, and even how their social identities are being developed online.

In her opening statement, ranking member Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tennessee, said, “Social media is causing our children to become more distressed than ever before.” She accused platforms of illegally tracking children, as well as exposing minors to harmful and manipulative content.

In his opening statement, Chair of the Subcommittee Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, said, “Eventually, the tech platforms must be held accountable. They must bear liability for obvious violations of criminal and civil law.”

A letter drafted by the committee and sent to Facebook came back with no meaningful commitments; Tik Tok was reprimanded several times throughout the hearing for refusing to appear before the Senate.

COPPA limitations

Serge Egelman, research director of the Usable Security and Privacy Group at the International Computer Science Institute, testified that in a study he conducted, around half of apps marketed towards children violate COPPA.

These ads often promote extreme, unhealthy weight loss and unrealistic beauty and body standards that can be markedly impactful on their mental health and personal identities. These ads can even include age-illegal activities such as drinking or vaping, Egelman said, adding social media platforms demonstrate “grooming” behavior that can lead to a “perilous web” of behavior.

Angela Campbell, professor emeritus of Georgetown Law, said ads directed toward children can also be “unfair marketing” and “manipulative.”

Campbell noted that in 21 years, the Federal Trade Commission has moved to prosecute those in violation of COPPA law only 34 times. In leu of the platforms’ apparent apathy on the subject, the bipartisan committee and witnesses alike are in agreement that the best way forward involves not only expansion of current policy but increased legal and public pressure for tech companies to comply with legal code.

With files from Benjamin Kahn

Reporter Tyler Perkins studied rhetoric and English literature, and also economics and mathematics, at the University of Utah. Although he grew up in and never left the West (both Oregon and Utah) until recently, he intends to study law and build a career on the East Coast. In his free time, he enjoys reading excellent literature and playing poor golf.

Cybersecurity

Microsoft Executive Calls For Improved Information Sharing Between Governments and Companies

Brad Smith said information sharing is critical for preventative measures against cyberattacks.

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Microsoft Vice Chair Brad Smith

WASHINGTON, September 20, 2021—Microsoft Vice Chair Brad Smith called for improved information sharing between countries to prevent cyberattacks on critical infrastructure.

While participating in a Washington Post Live discussion on September 20, Smith pointed toward certain sectors and aspects of society that should be protected from cyberwarfare. He specifically mentioned that a country’s digital supply chains, healthcare systems, and electoral processes should be considered off limits.

“I think the sobering fact of life is that unfortunately the world typically comes together to do what needs to be done only after it has experienced some kind [disaster],” he said.

“If we said we won’t harm civilians in a time of war, why should we for a moment, tolerate this kind of harm to civilians in what is supposed to be a time of peace?” Smith likened the SolarWinds attack to tampering with a blood supply to harm recipients.

A webinar in June hosted by the Stimson Center heard that a cybersecurity framework between countries is key to combatting cyberattacks.

Information sharing with private companies

In addition to reaffirming a commitment to not cause civilian harm, Smith also called for improving coordination and information sharing between private companies and stated that these efforts are enhanced by government leadership.

“I think any day when we’re sitting down and talking about how we can collaborate more closely among companies, that’s probably a good day.” Smith lauded efforts by the Biden Administration to facilitate information sharing between tech companies to prevent further attacks like the one SolarWinds suffered, “We are going to need a government that can work as a single well-coordinated team and the team is going to need to include participants in an appropriate way from the private sector as well. I’m hopeful, encouraged and I would dare say even optimistic.”

Last month, Comcast Cable’s chief product and information officer Noopur Davis said the private sector is falling behind on information sharing during cyberattacks, and that companies in the tech industry are reevaluating their strategies and how they share information to prevent such acts. Some have noted that companies are still not prioritizing cybersecurity.

Senator Angus King, I-Maine, has even called for new rules requiring companies to disclose when they’ve been breached in a hack.

Shortage of cybersecurity workforce

Smith noted, however, that there is still a lot of work that needs to be done. He described a “substantial shortage” of cybersecurity professionals, which he stated is one of the reasons organizations are not able to move quickly enough to keep pace with bad actors and implement best practices.

“There is a real opportunity for us to work together for community colleges to do more [and] for businesses to do more to train their people,” he said.

Overall, Smith stated that things are moving in the right direction but emphasized that the international community—governments and otherwise—need to establish better methods of federating data that is secure from bad actors but accessible to the necessary parties.

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Cybersecurity

Private Sector Falling Behind on Information Sharing During Cyberattacks, Says Comcast Rep

Comcast’s Noopur Davis says cyber attackers share information better than the private sector.

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Noopur Davis, Chief Product and Information Officer at Comcast Cable.

ASPEN, Colorado, August 23 — In the wake of an influx of ransomware attacks on critical infrastructure and cyberattacks on private carriers, entities across the technology industry are revaluating their strategies and how they share information to prevent such acts.

T-Mobile announced on August 15 that as many as 50 million consumers had their private data compromised during a data breach. Days later, on August 17, as part of Technology Policy Institute’s 2021 Aspen Forum, Noopur Davis, Chief Product and Information Officer at Comcast Cable, sat down for a fireside chat to discuss what the industry was doing to address this event and events like it.

Join in Broadband Breakfast Live Online’s Discussion on “Cybersecurity: Reviewing the Biden Administration’s Executive Order,” on Wednesday, August 25, 2021, at 12 Noon ET.

When Davis was asked how she felt about the current state of cybersecurity, she said it was okay, but that the telecom community at large would have to do more.

She referenced the mean time of comfort—that is, the average duration between the time that a service becomes connected to the internet and when it is targeted by bad actors. While in the early days of the internet cybersecurity experts could expect to have significant mean times of comfort, she stated that this is no longer the case.

“The second you connect [to the internet] you are attacked,” she said.

As soon as a successful breach is recognized, Davis explained that the target companies begin to revaluate their “TTP,” or tactics, techniques, and procedures.

Information sharing is crucial

Though one company may find a remedy to their breach, other companies may remain vulnerable. To combat this, Davis said that it is critical for companies to share information quickly with their counterparts, but she indicated that this is a race that the private sector is currently losing.

“[Attackers] share information better than [the private industry does].”

She went further, revealing that there is now a sophisticated market for malware as a service, where various platforms publish reviews for their products and services and even offer tech support to those struggling to get the most out of their purchases.

Growing market for hacking tools

She pointed to the Colonial Pipeline attack as an example where hackers did not even create the malware themselves—they just purchased it from a provider online. She explained that this marketplace has significantly lowered the barriers of entry and deskilled the activity for would be attackers, and that theoretically anyone could engage in such nefarious acts today.

Though Davis was in favor of collaboration between companies to address these attacks, she made it clear that this would not mean that responses and capabilities would become standardized, and that every company would maintain their own unique strategies to ensure that their services and data remain uncompromised.

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Robocall

Associations Press FCC to Keep Robocall Extension for Facilities-Based Carriers

Organizations say preponderance of illegal calls don’t come from facilities-based providers.

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Acting FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel

August 11, 2021 – In submissions to the Federal Communications Commission on Monday, associations representing smaller telecom are asking the agency to keep an extension specifically for facilities-based carriers to comply with new robocall rules.

In May, the FCC voted to push up by a year, from 2023 to 2022, the deadline for small carriers to comply with the STIR/SHAKEN regime, which requires telephone service providers to put in place measures – including analytics services to vet calls – to drastically reduce the frequency of scam, illegal robocalls, and ID spoofing that misleads Americans to believe the call is legitimate. Large carriers, however, had a deadline of June 30 this year.

But in submissions to the FCC this week, the Competitive Carriers Association, NTCA, and USTelecom said the preponderance of illegal robocalls come from smaller providers – those with fewer than 100,000 lines – that don’t have networks and, because of that, facilities-based carriers should have the additional year to comply with the rules, which is reportedly a highly technical and complex endeavor.

To appreciate the effort, providers must tag or label all calls on their network, using analytics tools, to ensure that the calls are legitimate. All illegitimate calls must be tagged as potential spam or blocked completely. Even still, the possibility of “false positives” can occur. Failure to comply with the rules could result in hefty penalties.

‘Good faith’ actors shouldn’t be penalized

“Commenters recognize as well that care must be taken to correctly identify this group of small providers in a surgical and precise manner that does not sweep in innocent actors and compel them to adopt this standard on a timeframe they had neither anticipated nor budgeted for,” the NTCA said in its submission to the FCC on Monday.

“A more targeted and effective way of capturing the parties that prompted these proposals can be found in the record – specifically, the Commission should require operators that are not ‘facilities-based’ voice providers…to adopt STIR/SHAKEN on a more accelerated timeframe,” the NTCA continued.

Burden of proof on non-facilities providers to show need for extension

USTelecom, however, added that the non-facilities-based providers – which generally originate calls over the public internet – should be able to request the full two-year extension, but they must show why they need it.

“It’s also critical that they are required to explain in detail and specificity why their robocall mitigation plans are sufficient to protect consumers and other voice service providers from illegal and unwanted robocalls,” USTelecom said in its Monday submission.

“Such a requirement would offer the right balance between affording non-facilities-based small providers the opportunity for the full extension if truly needed, but without creating an opportunity for the small VoIP providers responsible for illegal robocalls to abuse the process in order to continue to send unsigned illegal traffic downstream to the detriment of other providers and consumers,” USTelecom added.

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