Corporate Accountability News Highlights: Hungarian government entrusts Russian company with user data, social media crackdowns in France and China, and new smartphone security concerns emerge

Corporate Accountability News Highlights (we are still experimenting with the name) is a new series by Ranking Digital Rights that highlights key news related to tech companies, freedom of expression, and privacy issues around the world.

Hungarian Government in Hot Water Over Data Privacy

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Russian President Vladimir Putin (Image via Kremlin.ru, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license)

The Hungarian government’s recent national consultation about EU policies on immigration and economic issues, “Let’s Stop Brussels!,” has come under fire not just for its skewed survey design, but also for the way that its website originally handled individuals’ data. As reported by the Hungarian investigative reporting outlet 444, the online survey portal originally included code for Yandex Metrika, a website analytics tool offered by Russian internet company Yandex (the code was removed from the site after the 444 story was published).The choice of a Russian website analytics tool is interesting in light of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s moves for closer ties with Russia, which also prompted an opposition party campaign to place stickers on top of the government’s billboards about the consultation so they instead read “Let’s Stop Moscow!”

In addition to raising eyebrows over the potential geopolitical significance, the Hungarian government’s use of Yandex’s code also raised significant privacy concerns. Yandex Metrika includes a feature called “webvisor” which, when enabled, allows administrators to track mouse movements, clicks, keystrokes, entries, and other data to monitor how users interact with their sites. According to 444, not only was this feature enabled on the consultation website, but it was also set up to capture the information a user typed into all fields on the website—including name, age, and email address—potentially violating the site’s privacy policy, which stated that users’ personal data would not be shared with any third parties.

Although the 2017 Corporate Accountability Index did not examine Yandex Metrika as a service, we did evaluate Yandex as a company and several other services. We found that overall, Yandex had limited disclosure of its policies for collecting, using, sharing, and retaining user data. As noted in the Index’s Russian company analysis, Russian law enforcement authorities may have direct access to communications data through a mass surveillance system known as SORM.

This incident also highlights the importance of writing a clear and specific privacy policy and ensuring that all services used on the site are in compliance with the policy, so that users are aware of with whom they are sharing their data.

Facebook Cracks Down on Content

Facebook recently announced in a blog post that as part of its efforts in combatting spam, fake accounts, and “deceptive content,” it had taken action against over 30,000 accounts in France. This move comes shortly before the French presidential election, which according to Reuters, was a key motivator for the company’s efforts to combat misinformation on the platform.

In the 2017 Index, while Facebook received credit for disclosing some data about content that it restricts in response to government requests, the company was found to disclose no information about content and accounts it restricts for violating its terms of service. Although the disclosure in the recent blog post is a step in the right direction, the company should include such information in its transparency report, and also include data on actions it has taken to restrict content due to other reasons.

We (can’t) Chat – Citizen Lab Research on WeChat and Weibo Content Filtering

New research from Citizen Lab examining content filtering on two Chinese messaging and social networking platforms, WeChat (operated by Tencent, which was included in the 2017 Index) and Sina Weibo (not included in the 2017 Index), found evidence of image-based filtering on WeChat. Although it is understood that WeChat, along with other Chinese internet platforms and apps, filters sensitive keywords, this is the first documented instance of similar filtering based on images deemed “sensitive” (in this case, content relating to the detention of Chinese lawyers and activists).

In our 2017 Index, we noted that Tencent had limited disclosure on processes it uses to identify content or accounts that violate the company’s rules, and almost no disclosure on its processes for responding to third party requests for content removals. Both Chinese companies in the Index, Baidu and Tencent, had more limited disclosures on policies relating to users’ freedom of expression than for privacy.

New study claims the angle users hold their phones can help hackers guess PINs

New research from Newcastle University reveals how motion sensor data from when a user types a PIN into their phone can help hackers identify what that PIN is. This data alone is not enough for a would-be hacker to gain access, especially without also knowing how an individual holds his/her phone when typing in certain numbers. However, the study’s authors also noted that unlike other a phone’s camera or microphone, many mobile apps and websites can access motion sensor data without asking a user’s permission, and that “people were far more concerned about the camera and GPS than they were about the silent sensors.”

This study is one example of why app permissions are important, as many apps may have access to this type of user data, and how information that’s not treated as sensitive for app permissions may help give away more private information than users may think. It’s important that mobile ecosystems serve as better gatekeepers for user privacy in their app stores. The Index looks for company disclosure that they review privacy policies of apps in a way that provides adequate privacy safeguards for users.

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