The Defender’s Big Brother NewsWatch brings you the latest headlines related to governments’ abuse of power, including attacks on democracy, civil liberties and use of mass surveillance.
Miss a day, miss a lot. Subscribe to The Defender’s Top News of the Day. It’s free.
California Lifts COVID Vaccine Mandate for School Staff
On Tuesday, the state’s public health officer, Dr. Tomás Aragón, rescinded a public health order requiring that all school employees show proof of vaccination or be tested at least weekly. The new policy is effective Saturday.
The decision was made to align state and federal health guidelines and because most Californians have been vaccinated against the coronavirus, he said.
The testing requirement was also lifted for employees in healthcare and adult residential settings.
Meta, TikTok, YouTube and Twitter Dodge Questions on Social Media and National Security
Executives from four of the biggest social media companies testified before the Senate Homeland Security Committee Wednesday, defending their platforms and their respective safety, privacy and moderation failures in recent years.
Congress managed to drag in a relatively fresh set of product-focused executives this time around, including TikTok COO Vanessa Pappas, who testified for the first time before lawmakers, and longtime Meta executive Chris Cox. The hearing was convened to explore social media’s impact on national security broadly and touched on topics ranging from domestic extremism and misinformation to CSAM and China.
It’s no secret that social media moderation is patchy, reactive and uneven, largely because these companies refuse to invest more deeply in the teams that protect people on their platforms. “We’ve been trying to get this information for a long time,” Committee Chair Sen. Gary Peters said. “This is why we get so frustrated.”
All told this was another round of Congress getting stonewalled by top decision-makers from some of the world’s largest, most powerful and culturally influential companies. For his part as chair, Peters was realistic about the situation, noting that short of regulatory changes to the incentives that drive social media companies, nothing is going to change — including in these sessions.
Oregon Parents Rights Group Files Petition Against Oregon Health Authority Over School Vaccine Mandate
Oregon parents are rising up to challenge the state’s health department to repeal a ban on unvaccinated teachers, staff and parents from schools.
A parents’ rights group called the Oregon Moms Union on Monday filed a petition to the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) to repeal OAR 333-019-1030. OAR 333-019-1030 mandates a COVID-19 vaccination for teachers and school staff.
The petition was filed by the Oregon Moms Union President and founder MacKensey Pulliam. The petition blasts the OHA’s mandate for contradicting “CDC guidance.”
The petition goes on to say that CDC guidance “no longer differentiates between vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals when it comes to testing and isolation, therefore vaccinations should not be a requirement for teachers, staff and volunteers.”
Pentagon in ‘Potential Noncompliance’ With Law in Denying Religious Exemption Requests to Vaccine Mandate: Leaked Memo
The Department of Defense (DoD) has been in “potential noncompliance” with standards for reviewing and communicating denials of religious accommodation requests to the vaccine mandate, the Pentagon’s watchdog wrote to the secretary of defense in a June memo obtained by The Epoch Times.
The June 2 memo by Acting Inspector General (IG) Sean W. O’Donnell stated that after reviewing dozens of complaints from service members who were denied religious accommodation, the IG’s office “found a trend of generalized assessments rather than the individualized assessment that is required by Federal law and DoD and Military Service policies.”
The acting IG also noted that the volume and rate of denial decisions were “concerning.” An average of 50 denials per day were processed over a 90-day period, according to the memo.
Boston Handing out $75 Gift Cards to People Who Get COVID Vaccines, Boosters
Those who get vaccinated at the Boston Public Health Commission’s back-to-school COVID vaccination event on Saturday will be offered a $75 Visa gift card, regardless of the person’s age.
The new “bivalent” COVID boosters from Pfizer and Moderna, approved by the FDA two weeks ago, will be available during Saturday’s clinic. The new booster provides protection against the original COVID strain and the newer Omicron variants.
Also at Saturday’s vax event, free food, music and games will be available, and BPHC will give away backpacks to students and families for the new school year.
Fran Drescher’s Call to Review Vaccine Mandates Sparks Debate Inside SAG-AFTRA
It has been two years since Hollywood first implemented rules to help limit the spread of COVID-19 on film sets. By most accounts, the industry’s pandemic measures have worked, limiting the spread of the virus from film productions, according to data from the Motion Picture Assn.
But as the pandemic abates, the ongoing requirements — including vaccine mandates and social distancing rules — have triggered intense discussions inside Hollywood’s biggest union over whether and when those rules should be lifted as the film and TV industry looks to return to normal.
Tensions came to a head last weekend after SAG-AFTRA President Fran Drescher called a special meeting to discuss lifting vaccine mandates and other measures.
Prior to the Saturday board meeting, board members were given contrasting video presentations by two experts with opposing views on vaccines. One expert who in the video was interviewed by Drescher and Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, SAG-AFTRA’s national executive director — controversial Yale professor Dr. Harvey Risch — questioned the effectiveness of vaccines and boosters against the current COVID-19 variant.
After four hours of discussions, the nearly 80-member board did not make any changes to policies.
Of God and Machines
Miracles can be perplexing at first, and artificial intelligence is a very new miracle. “We’re creating God,” the former Google Chief Business Officer Mo Gawdat recently told an interviewer. “We’re summoning the demon,” Elon Musk said a few years ago, in a talk at MIT. In Silicon Valley, good and evil can look much alike, but on the matter of artificial intelligence, the distinction hardly matters. Either way, an encounter with the superhuman is at hand.
Early artificial intelligence was simple: Computers that played checkers or chess, or that could figure out how to shop for groceries. But over the past few years, machine learning — the practice of teaching computers to adapt without explicit instructions — has made staggering advances in the subfield of Natural Language Processing, once every year or so.
Even so, the full brunt of the technology has not arrived yet. You might hear about chatbots whose speech is indistinguishable from humans’, or about documentary makers re-creating the voice of Anthony Bourdain, or robots that can compose op-eds. But you probably don’t use NLP in your everyday life.
Or rather: If you are using NLP in your everyday life, you might not always know. Unlike search or social media, whose arrivals the general public encountered and discussed and had opinions about, artificial intelligence remains esoteric — every bit as important and transformative as the other great tech disruptions, but more obscure, tucked largely out of view.
Judge Shoots Down Twitter’s Attempt to Access Elon Musk’s Emails
Twitter is currently battling Musk in court over his attempt to cancel a previous offer to buy the social media platform for $44 billion. Lawyers representing Twitter have been attempting to compel the world’s richest man to provide messages from his Tesla and SpaceX accounts, which he had used to discuss the merger with advisers.
Delaware Chancery Court Chancellor Kathaleen McCormick denied the attorneys’ request on the grounds that such an arrangement would violate attorney-client privilege.
Flo Period-Tracking App Releases ‘Anonymous Mode,’ but Users Should Still Be Cautious
Period tracking app Flo is hoping its newly released “Anonymous Mode” will give users the confidence to continue using their product even as state law enforcement authorities around the country appear increasingly interested in soliciting data from apps to prosecute alleged abortion seekers.
Privacy experts speaking with Gizmodo welcomed Flo’s update but warned it still falls short of meeting the definition of fully anonymous. Similarly, the experts said privacy-preserving features like these are fundamental and shouldn’t come as add-on options, particularly given the potentially horrific consequences of that data getting in the wrong hands.
Speaking with Gizmodo, Surveillance Technology Oversight Project Executive Director Albert Fox Cahn applauded Flo’s effort, which he described as a “huge step forward,” but cautioned against overstating its capabilities. Though an improvement, Fox Cahn worried that referring to the mode as “fully anonymous,” misses the mark.
TikTok Won’t Commit to Stopping U.S. Data Flows to China
TikTok repeatedly declined to commit to U.S. lawmakers on Wednesday that the short-form video app will cut off flows of U.S. user data to China, instead promising that the outcome of its negotiations with the U.S. government “will satisfy all national security concerns.”
Testifying before the Senate Homeland Security Committee, TikTok Chief Operating Officer Vanessa Pappas first sparred with Sen. Rob Portman over details of TikTok’s corporate structure before being confronted — twice — with a specific request.
“Will TikTok commit to cutting off all data and data flows to China, China-based TikTok employees, ByteDance employees or any other party in China that might have the capability to access information on U.S. users?” Portman asked.
Pappas affirmed in Wednesday’s hearing that the company has said, on record, that its Chinese employees do have access to U.S. user data. She also reiterated that TikTok has said it would “under no circumstances … give that data to China” and denied that TikTok is in any way influenced by China. However, she avoided saying whether ByteDance would keep U.S. user data from the Chinese government or whether ByteDance may be influenced by China.
California Is Suing Amazon, Accusing It of Inflating Prices and Crushing Competition
The lawsuit was filed by California Attorney General Rob Bonta. Bonta argues in the lawsuit that Amazon coerced sellers into signing agreements that they wouldn’t sell their products for cheaper anywhere else. He argues Amazon’s market dominance meant sellers had no realistic alternative option but to comply.
The suit seeks to stop Amazon from enforcing contracts that restrict the prices sellers can set for their products off Amazon. It also seeks damages for sellers and penalties for Amazon but does not stipulate how much money that would equate to.