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Main article: Government

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Google’s Dataset Search comes out of beta

23:28 | 23 January

Google today announced that Dataset Search, a service that lets you search for close to 25 million different publicly available datasets, is now out of beta. Dataset Search first launched in September 2018.

Researchers can use these datasets, which range from pretty small ones that tell you how many cats there were in the Netherlands from 2010 to 2018 to large annotated audio and image sets, to check their hypotheses or train and test their machine learning models. The tool currently indexes about 6 million tables.

With this release, Dataset Search is getting a mobile version and Google is also adding a few new features to Dataset Search. The first of these is a new filter that lets you choose which type of dataset you want to see (tables, images, text, etc.), which makes it easier to find the right data you’re looking for. In addition, the company has added more information about the datasets and the organizations that publish them.

A lot of the data in the search index comes from government agencies. In total, Google says, there are about 2 million U.S. government datasets in the index right now. But you’ll also regularly find Google’s own Kaggle show up, as well as a number of other public and private organizations that make public data available as well.

As Google notes, anybody who owns an interesting dataset can make it available to be indexed by using a standard schema.org markup to describe the data in more detail.

 


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UK watchdog sets out “age appropriate” design code for online services to keep kids’ privacy safe

15:33 | 22 January

The UK’s data protection watchdog has today published a set of design standards for Internet services which are intended to help protect the privacy of children online.

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has been working on the Age Appropriate Design Code since the 2018 update of domestic data protection law — as part of a government push to create ‘world-leading’ standards for children when they’re online.

UK lawmakers have grown increasingly concerned about the ‘datafication’ of children when they go online and may be too young to legally consent to being tracked and profiled under existing European data protection law.

The ICO’s code is comprised of 15 standards of what it calls “age appropriate design” — which the regulator says reflects a “risk-based approach”, including stipulating that setting should be set by default to ‘high privacy’; that only the minimum amount of data needed to provide the service should be collected and retained; and that children’s data should not be shared unless there’s a reason to do so that’s in their best interests.

Profiling should also be off by default. While the code also takes aim at dark pattern UI designs that seek to manipulate user actions against their own interests, saying “nudge techniques” should not be used to “lead or encourage children to provide unnecessary personal data or weaken or turn off their privacy protections”.

“The focus is on providing default settings which ensures that children have the best possible access to online services whilst minimising data collection and use, by default,” the regulator writes in an executive summary.

While the age appropriate design code is focused on protecting children it is applies to a very broad range of online services — with the regulator noting that “the majority of online services that children use are covered” and also stipulating “this code applies if children are likely to use your service” [emphasis ours].

This means it could be applied to anything from games, to social media platforms to fitness apps to educational websites and on-demand streaming services — if they’re available to UK users.

“We consider that for a service to be ‘likely’ to be accessed [by children], the possibility of this happening needs to be more probable than not. This recognises the intention of Parliament to cover services that children use in reality, but does not extend the definition to cover all services that children could possibly access,” the ICO adds.

Here are the 15 standards in full as the regulator describes them:

  1. Best interests of the child: The best interests of the child should be a primary consideration when you design and develop online services likely to be accessed by a child.
  2. Data protection impact assessments: Undertake a DPIA to assess and mitigate risks to the rights and freedoms of children who are likely to access your service, which arise from your data processing. Take into account differing ages, capacities and development needs and ensure that your DPIA builds in compliance
    with this code.
  3. Age appropriate application: Take a risk-based approach to recognising the age of individual users and ensure you effectively apply the standards in this code to child users. Either establish age with a level of certainty that is appropriate to the risks to the rights and freedoms of children that arise from your data processing, or apply the standards in this code to all your users instead.
  4. Transparency: The privacy information you provide to users, and other published terms, policies and community standards, must be concise, prominent and in clear language suited to the age of the child. Provide additional specific ‘bite-sized’ explanations about how you use personal data at the point that use is activated.
  5. Detrimental use of data: Do not use children’s personal data in ways that have been shown to be detrimental to their wellbeing, or that go against industry codes of practice, other regulatory provisions or Government advice.
  6. Policies and community standards: Uphold your own published terms, policies and community standards (including but not limited to privacy policies, age restriction, behaviour rules and content policies).
  7. Default settings: Settings must be ‘high privacy’ by default (unless you can demonstrate a compelling reason for a different default setting, taking account of the best interests of the child).
  8. Data minimisation: Collect and retain only the minimum amount of personal data you need to provide the elements of your service in which a child is actively and knowingly engaged. Give children separate choices over which elements they wish to activate.
  9. Data sharing: Do not disclose children’s data unless you can demonstrate a compelling reason to do so, taking account of the best interests of the child.
  10. Geolocation: Switch geolocation options off by default (unless you can demonstrate a compelling reason for geolocation to be switched on by default, taking account of the best interests of the child). Provide an obvious sign for children when location tracking is active. Options which make a child’s location visible to others must default back to ‘off’ at the end of each session.
  11. Parental controls: If you provide parental controls, give the child age appropriate information about this. If your online service allows a parent or carer to monitor their child’s online activity or track their location, provide an obvious sign to the child when they are being monitored.
  12. Profiling: Switch options which use profiling ‘off’ by default (unless you can demonstrate a compelling reason for profiling to be on by default, taking account of the best interests of the child). Only allow profiling if you have appropriate measures in place to protect the child from any harmful effects (in particular, being fed content that is detrimental to their health or wellbeing).
  13. Nudge techniques: Do not use nudge techniques to lead or encourage children to provide unnecessary personal data or weaken or turn off their privacy protections.
  14. Connected toys and devices: If you provide a connected toy or device ensure you include effective tools to enable conformance to this code.
  15. Online tools: Provide prominent and accessible tools to help children exercise their data protection rights and report concerns.

The Age Appropriate Design Code also defines children as under the age of 18 — which offers a higher bar than current UK data protection law which, for example, puts only a 13-year-age limit for children to be legally able to give their consent to being tracked online.

So — assuming (very wildly) — that Internet services were to suddenly decide to follow the code to the letter, setting trackers off by default and not nudging users to weaken privacy-protecting defaults by manipulating them to give up more data, the code could — in theory — raise the level of privacy both children and adults typically get online.

However it’s not legally binding — so there’s a pretty fat chance of that.

Although the regulator does make a point of noting that the standards in the code are backed by existing data protection laws, which it does regulate and can legally enforceable (and which include clear principles like ‘privacy by design and default’) — pointing out it has powers to take action against law breakers, including “tough sanctions” such as orders to stop processing data and fines of up to 4% of a company’s global turnover.

So, in a way, the regulator appears to be saying: ‘Are you feeling lucky data punk?’

Last April the UK government published a white paper setting out its proposals for regulating a range of online harms — including seeking to address concern about inappropriate material that’s available on the Internet being accessed by children.

The ICO’s Age Appropriate Design Code is intended to support that effort. So there’s also a chance that some of the same sorts of stipulations could be baked into the planned online harms bill.

“This is not, and will not be, ‘law’. It is just a code of practice,” said Neil Brown, an Internet, telecoms and tech lawyer at Decoded Legal, discussing the likely impact of the suggested standards. “It shows the direction of the ICO’s thinking, and its expectations, and the ICO has to have regard to it when it takes enforcement action but it’s not something with which an organisation needs to comply as such. They need to comply with the law, which is the GDPR [General Data Protection Regulation] and the DPA [Data Protection Act] 2018.

“The code of practice sits under the DPA 2018, so companies which are within the scope of that are likely to want to understand what it says. The DPA 2018 and the UK GDPR (the version of the GDPR which will be in place after Brexit) covers controllers established in the UK, as well as overseas controllers which target services to people in the UK or monitor the behaviour of people in the UK. Merely making a service available to people in the UK should not be sufficient.”

“Overall, this is consistent with the general direction of travel for online services, and the perception that more needs to be done to protect children online,” Brown also told us.

“Right now, online services should be working out how to comply with the GDPR, the ePrivacy rules, and any other applicable laws. The obligation to comply with those laws does not change because of today’s code of practice. Rather, the code of practice shows the ICO’s thinking on what compliance might look like (and, possibly, goldplates some of the requirements of the law too).”

Organizations that choose to take note of the code — and are in a position to be able to demonstrate they’ve followed its standards — stand a better chance of persuading the regulator they’ve complied with relevant privacy laws, per Brown.

“Conversely, if they want to say that they comply with the law but not with the code, that is (legally) possible, but might be more of a struggle in terms of engagement with the ICO,” he added.

Zooming back out, the government said last fall that it’s committed to publishing draft online harms legislation for pre-legislative scrutiny “at pace”.

But at the same time it dropped a controversial plan included in a 2017 piece of digital legislation which would have made age checks for accessing online pornography mandatory — saying it wanted to focus on a developing “the most comprehensive approach possible to protecting children”, i.e. via the online harms bill.

How comprehensive the touted ‘child protections’ will end up being remains to be seen.

Brown suggests age verification could come through as a “general requirement”, given the age verification component of the Digital Economy Act 2017 was dropped — and “the government has said that these will be swept up in the broader online harms piece”.

It has also been consulting with tech companies on possible ways to implement age verification online.

The difficulties of regulating perpetually iterating Internet services — many of which are also operated by companies based outside the UK — have been writ large for years. (And are mired in geopolitics.)

While the enforcement of existing European digital privacy laws remains, to put it politely, a work in progress

 


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India likely to force Facebook, WhatsApp to identify the originator of messages

01:33 | 22 January

New Delhi is inching closer to recommend regulations that would require social media companies and instant messaging app providers operating in the country to help law enforcement agencies trace the messages back to their originator, two people familiar with the matter told TechCrunch.

India will submit the suggested change to the local intermediary liability rules to the nation’s apex court later this month. The suggested change, the conditions of which may be altered before it is finalized, currently says that law enforcement agencies will have to produce a court order before exercising such request, sources who have been briefed on the matter said.

But regardless, asking companies to comply with such requirement would be “devastating” for international social media companies, a New Delhi-based policy advocate said. WhatsApp executives have insisted in the past that they would have to compromise end-to-end encryption of every user to meet such a demand — a move they are willing to fight over.

The government did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday evening.

More to follow…

 


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Capella Space reveals new satellite design for real-time control of high-resolution Earth imaging

16:27 | 21 January

Satellite and Earth observation startup Capella Space has unveiled a new design for its satellite technology, which improves upon its existing testbed hardware platform to deliver high-resolution imaging capable of providing detail at under 0.5 meters (1.6 feet). Its new satellite, cod-named “Sequoia,” will also be able to provide real-time tasking, meaning Capella’s clients will be able to get imaging from these satellites of a desired area basically on demand.

Capella’s satellites are ‘synthetic aperture radar’ (SAR for short) imaging satellites, which mean they’re able to provide 2D images of the Earth’s surface even through cloud cover, or when the area being imaged is on the night side of the planet. SAR imaging resolution is typically much higher than the 0.5-meter range that Capella’s new design will enable – and it’s especially challenging to get that kind of performance from small satellites, which is what Sequoia will be.

The new satellite design is a “direct result of customer feedback,” Capella says, and includes advancements like an improved solar array for faster charging and quicker recycling; better thermals to allow it to image for longer stretches at a time; a much more agile targeting array that means it can switch targets much more quickly in response to customer needs; and a higher bandwidth downlink, meaning it can transfer more data per orbital pass than any other SAR system from a commercial company in its size class.

This upgrade led to Capella Space locking in contracts with major U.S. government clients, including the  U.S. Air Force and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). And the tech is ready to fly – it’ll be incorporated into Capella’s next six commercial satellites, which are set to fly starting in March.

 


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The US government should stop demanding tech companies compromise on encryption

01:12 | 16 January

In a tweet late Tuesday, President Trump

for refusing “to unlock phones used by killers, drug dealers and other violent criminal elements.” Trump was specifically referring to a locked iPhone that belonged to a Saudi airman who killed three U.S sailors in an attack on a Florida base in December.

It’s only the latest example of the government trying to gain access to a terror suspect’s device it claims it can’t access because of the encryption that scrambles the device’s data without the owner’s passcode.

The government spent the past week bartering for Apple’s help. Apple said it had given to investigators “gigabytes of information,” including “iCloud backups, account information and transactional data for multiple accounts.” In every instance it received a legal demand, Apple said it “responded with all of the information” it had. But U.S. Attorney General William Barr accused Apple of not giving investigators “any substantive assistance” in unlocking the phone.

 


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India orders investigation into alleged anti-competitive practices by Amazon and Walmart’s Flipkart

16:28 | 13 January

India ordered a large-scale investigation into Flipkart and Amazon India on Monday after a group of local retailers alleged the e-commerce giants had secured arrangements with companies to exclusively launch certain smartphones and gave preferences to select sellers on their marketplaces. The retailers also alleged that Amazon India and Walmart offer deep discounting on their platforms and promote their own private labels.

More to follow…

 


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Homeland Security warns businesses to brace for Iranian cyberattacks

06:04 | 7 January

Homeland Security is warning U.S. companies to “consider and assess” the possible impacts and threat of a cyberattack on their businesses following heightened tensions with Iran.

It’s its first official guidance published the government’s dedicated cyber advisory unit, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, just days after the killing of a leading Iranian military commander, Qasem Soleimani, which the U.S. government has accused of targeting and killing U.S. personnel across the Middle East.

Soleimani, an Iranian general who was slated as second-in-command in Iran’s leadership, was killed on Friday by a U.S drone strike authorized by President Trump. The same drone strike killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a deputy in a coalition of Iran-backed militias in neighboring Iraq.

CISA said in its latest advisory, posted late Monday, that the increased geopolitical tensions “may result in cyber and physical attacks against the homeland and also destructive hybrid attacks by proxies against U.S. targets and interests abroad.”

The agency said Iran and its allies could launch “disruptive and destructive cyber operations” against strategic targets, such as phone and energy companies, and also carry out “cyber-enabled espionage” that aim to better understand U.S. foreign policy decision making.

CISA also warned of disinformation campaigns, as well as kinetic attacks — including bombings. Companies should take precautions in the event of cyberattacks — such as setting up offline backups, the agency advised.

The warnings come shortly after security experts in the private sector warned of the possibility of retaliatory action following the drone strikes.

“We will probably see an uptick in espionage, primarily focused on government systems, as Iranian actors seek to gather intelligence and better understand the dynamic geopolitical environment,” said John Hultquist, director of intelligence analysis at cybersecurity firm FireEye. “We also anticipate disruptive and destructive cyberattacks against the private sphere,” he said.

Iran is one of the world’s most powerful adversaries in cyberspace, experts say.

Tehran has a considerable arsenal of offensive cyber tools, including wipers — malware designed to infiltrate computers and destroy data. Hackers associated with Iran have been active in targeting facilities in the Middle East in recent years. Dmitri Alperovitch, who co-founded security firm Crowdstrike, said

that Iran may target critical infrastructure, such as energy grids and financial institutions.

More recently, Microsoft said it had notified thousands of customers over the past year who have been targeted by nation-state attackers, including hackers associated with Iran. The software and services giant previously took legal action against Iranian-controlled domains in an effort to disrupt their cyber activities. In October, Microsoft said Iranian hackers targeted a 2020 presidential candidate, which Reuters later confirmed was President Trump’s reelection campaign.

The move to assassinate Soleimani was widely panned by both opponents and allies of the Trump administration. Critics say the government had not thought of the consequences of the strike, including both Iranian retaliation with kinetic force but also cyberattacks.

Sen. Ron Wyden, a senior lawmaker on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the killing was “a reckless escalation that will take us further down the road to ruinous war.” Meanwhile in a

, Rep. Elissa Slotkin, a former CIA analyst who served under President Bush, also criticized the action.

 


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China Roundup: TikTok receives most government requests from India and US

19:00 | 5 January

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China Roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world. This week, TikTok, currently the world’s hottest social media app, welcomed the new decade by publishing its first transparency report as it encounters rising scrutiny from regulators around the world.

TikTok tries to demystify 

The report, which arrived weeks after it tapped a group of corporate lawyers to review its content moderation policy, is widely seen as the short video app’s effort to placate the U.S. government. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, or CFIUS, is currently probing the app for possible national security risks.

TikTok is owned by Beijing-based tech upstart ByteDance and has been rapidly gaining popularity away from its home turf, especially in the U.S. and India. As of November, it had accumulated a total of 1.5 billion downloads on iOS and Android devices, according to data analytics firm Sensor Tower, although how many materialized into active users is unknown.

The transparency report reveals the number of requests TikTok received from local regulators during the first half of 2019. Such orders include government requests to access user information and remove content from the platform. India topped the list with 107 total requests filed, followed by the U.S. with 79 requests and Japan at 35.

The numbers immediately sparked debates over the noticeable absence of China among the list of countries that had submitted requests. This could be because TikTok operates as a separate app called Douyin in China, where it claimed to have more than 320 million daily active users (in Chinese) as of last July.

TikTok has taken multiple measures to ease suspicions of international markets where it operates, claiming that it stores data of U.S. users in the U.S. and that the app would not remove videos even at the behest of Beijing’s authority.

Whether skeptics are sold on these promises remains to be seen. Meanwhile, one should not overlook the pervasive practice of self-censorship among China’s big tech.

“Chinese internet companies know so well where the government’s red line is that their self-regulation might even be stricter than what the government actually imposes, so it’s not impossible that [the TikTok report] showed zero requests from China,” a person who works at a Chinese video streaming platform suggested to me.

It’s worth revisiting why TikTok has caused a big stir on various fronts. Besides its nationality as a Chinese-owned app and breathtaking rise, the app presents a whole new way of creating and consuming information that better suits smartphone natives. It’s been regarded as a threat to Facebook and compared to Youtube, which is also built upon user-generated content. However, TikTok’s consumers are much more likely to be creators as well, thanks to lower barriers to producing and sharing videos on the platform, venture capitalist David Rosenthal of Wave Capital observed. That’s a big engagement driver for the app.

Another strength of TikTok, seemingly trivial at first sight, is the way it displays content. Videos are shown vertically, doing away the need to flip a phone. In a company blog post (in Chinese) on Douyin’s development, ByteDance recounted that most short-video apps budding in 2016 were built for horizontal videos and required users to pick from a list of clips in the fashion of traditional video streaming sites. Douyin, instead, surfaces only one video at a time, full-screen, auto-played and recommended by its well-trained algorithms. What “baffled” many early employees and interviewees turned out to be a game-changing user experience in the mobile internet age.

Douyin’s ally and enemy 

A recent change in Douyin’s domestic rival Kuaishou has brought attention to the intricate links between China’s tech giants. In late December, video app Kuaishou removed the option for users to link e-commerce listings from Taobao, an Alibaba marketplace. Both Douyin and Kuaishou have been exploring e-commerce as a revenue stream, and each has picked its retail partners. While Kuaishou told media that the suspension is due to a “system upgrade,” its other e-commerce partners curiously remain up and running.

Left: Douyin lets creators add a “shop” button to posts. Right: The clickable button is linked to a Taobao product page.

Some speculate that the Beijing-based company could be distancing itself from Alibaba and moving closer to Tencent, Alibaba’s nemesis and a majority shareholder in Kuaishou. Yunfeng Capital, a venture firm backed by Alibaba founder Jack Ma, has also funded Kuaishou but holds a less significant equity stake. That Douyin has long been working with Alibaba on e-commerce might have also been a source of discordance between Kuaishou and Alibaba.

 


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India’s ruling party accused of running deceptive Twitter campaign to gain support for a controversial law

20:48 | 4 January

Bharatiya Janata Party, the ruling party in India, has been accused of running a highly deceptive Twitter campaign to trick citizens into supporting a controversial law.

First, some background: The Indian government passed the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) last month that eases the path of non-Muslim minorities from the neighboring Muslim-majority nations of Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan to gain Indian citizenship.

But, combined with a proposed national register of citizens, critics have cautioned that it discriminates against minority Muslims in India and chips away at India’s secular traditions.

Over the past few weeks, tens of thousands of people in the country — if not more — have participated in peaceful protests across the nation against the law. The Indian government, which has temporarily cut down internet access and mobile communications in many parts of India to contain the protests, has so far shown no signs of withdrawing the law.

On Saturday, it may have found a new way to gain support for it, however.

India’s Home Minister Amit Shah on Thursday

a phone number, urging citizens to place a call to that number in “support of the CAA law.”

Thousands of people in India today, many affiliated with the BJP party, began

with the promise that anyone who places a call would be offered job opportunities, free mobile data, Netflix credentials, and even company with “lonely women.”

Huffington Post India called the move latest “BJP ploy” to win support for its controversial law. BoomLive, a fact checking organization based in India, reported the affiliation of many of these people to the ruling party.

We have reached out to a BJP spokesperson and Twitter spokespeople for comment.

If the allegations are true, this won’t be the first time BJP has used Twitter to aggressively promote its views. In 2017, BuzzFeed News reported that a number of political hashtags that appeared in the top 10 Twitter’s trends column in India were the result of organized campaigns.

Pratik Sinha, co-founder of fact-checking website Alt News, last year demonstrated how easy it was to manipulate many politicians in the country to tweet certain things after he gained accessed to a Google document of prepared statements and tinkered with the content.

Last month, snowfall in Kashmir, a highly sensitive region that hasn’t had internet connection for more than four months, began trending on Twitter in the U.S. It mysteriously disappeared after many journalists questioned how it made it to the list.

When we reached out, a Twitter spokesperson in India pointed TechCrunch to an FAQ article that explained how Trending Topics work. Nothing in the FAQ article addressed the question.

 


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TRACED Act signed into law, putting robocallers on notice

21:22 | 31 December

The Pallone-Thrune TRACED Act, a bipartisan bit of legislation that should make life harder for the villains behind robocalls, was signed into law today by the President. It’s still possible to get things done in D.C. after all!

We’ve covered the TRACED Act several times previously, as robocalls are, in addition to being horribly annoying, a uniquely annoying high-tech threat. Using clever targeting and spoofing technology, scammers are placing millions of calls that at best irritate and at worst take advantage of the vulnerable.

The new law won’t end that practice overnight, but it does add some useful tools to regulators’ toolboxes. Here’s how I summarized the bill’s provisions earlier this month:

  • Extends FCC’s statute of limitations on robocall offenses and increases potential fines
  • Requires an FCC rulemaking helping protect consumers from spam calls and texts (this is already underway)
  • Requires annual FCC report on robocall enforcement and allows for it to formally recommend legislation
  • Requires adoption on a reasonable timeline of the STIR/SHAKEN framework for preventing call spoofing
  • Prevents carriers from charging for the above service, and shields them from liability for reasonable mistakes
  • Requires the Attorney General to convene an interagency task force to look at prosecution of offenders
  • Opens the door to Justice Department prosecution of offenders
  • Establishes a handful of specific cutouts and studies to make sure the rules work and interested parties are giving feedback

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai was effusive in his praise in a statement:

I applaud Congress for working in a bipartisan manner to combat illegal robocalls and malicious caller ID spoofing.  And I thank the President and Congress for the additional tools and flexibility that this law affords us.  Specifically, I am glad that the agency now has a longer statute of limitations during which we can pursue scammers and I welcome the removal of a previously-required warning we had to give to unlawful robocallers before imposing tough penalties.

And I thank the American people for never letting us forget how fed up they are with scam, spoofed robocalls.  It’s their voices that power our never-ceasing push to fight back against the scourge of robocalls and malicious spoofing.

The FCC is limited in what it can do, and even major fines like this $120 million one have had a negligible effect on the nefarious industry. “Like emptying the ocean with a teaspoon,” said Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel at the time.

Here’s hoping the TRACED Act amounts to more than a bigger spoon. We’ll find out as regulators and the mobile industry grow into their new capabilities and begin the long process of actually applying them to the problem. It may take months or more to see any real abatement, but at least we’re taking concrete steps.

 


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