Google search changes tackle fake news and hate speech

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Google said the changes should stop fake news and hate speech dominating results

Google is changing the way its core search engine works to help stop the spread of fake news and hate speech.

The changes involve different measures for ranking sites and people checking results are accurate.

In a blog, Google said the changes should thwart attempts to abuse its algorithms that let extremists promote their content.

Google was criticised last year for giving prominence to groups seeking to deny that the Holocaust took place.

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Ben Gomes, a vice-president of engineering at Google’s search division, said it was making “structural” changes to tackle the new ways people had found to trick its algorithms.

In particular, he said, many groups and organisations were using “fake news” to help spread “blatantly misleading, low quality, offensive or downright false information”.

To combat this, he said, Google had added new metrics to its ranking systems that should help to stop false information entering the top results for particular search terms.

In addition, he said, it had updated the guidelines given to the thousands of human raters it used to give feedback on whether results were accurate.

The guidelines included examples of low quality and fake news websites, said Mr Gomes, to help them pick out “misleading information, unexpected offensive results, hoaxes and unsupported conspiracy theories”.

Analysis: Rory Cellan-Jones, BBC technology correspondent

Google has done its best to play down the extent of fake news and hateful material – or what it prefers to call “low quality content” – in search results.

The company keeps repeating that this affects only 0.25% of queries.

But the fact that searches such as “Is Obama planning a coup?” – or even “Who invented stairs?” – produced such questionable results meant it had to act.

These searches threw up a prominent “snippets” box telling you that, yes, President Obama was planning a coup, or that stairs had been invented in 1948.

Now both boxes have gone, and Google’s almighty algorithm has been tweaked so that such content is less likely to rise to the top.

What’s interesting is that a company that has put such faith in technology solutions is turning to 10,000 humans to try to make search a better experience.

This giant focus group, which tests out changes in the search algorithm, has been told to pay more attention to the source of any pages rated highly in results, looking round the web to see whether they seem authoritative and trustworthy.

Questions are bound to be raised about whether this panel, which Google says is representative of its users, is impartial and objective.

Google’s Ben Gomes, a veteran who’s been wrestling with the intricacies of search since arriving as one of the earliest employees, believes it is now on the path to getting this right.

But with so many people trying to game the system, the battle to make search true and fair will never be over.

Google also planned to change its “autocomplete” tool, which suggests search terms, to allow users to more easily to flag up troubling content, he said.

Danny Sullivan, founder of the Search Engine Land news site, said the changes made sense and should not be taken to suggest that Google’s algorithms were failing to correctly index what they found online.

“It’s sort of like saying that a restaurant is a failure if it asks for people to rate the food it makes,” he said.

“The raters don’t rank results,” said Mr Sullivan.

“They simply give feedback about whether the results are good.

“That feedback is then used to reshape the algorithms – the recipes, if you will -that Google uses.”

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Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales creates news service Wikitribune

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Jimmy Wales hopes to get enough donations to hire a team of journalists

Wikipedia’s co-founder Jimmy Wales is planning a news service that combines the work of professional journalists and volunteers.

His goal is for Wikitribune to offer “factual and neutral” articles that help combat the problem of “fake news”.

The service is intended to be both ad-free and free-to-read, so will rely on supporters making regular donations.

One expert said it had the potential to become a trusted site, but suggested its influence might be limited.

Wikitribune shares many of the features already found in Mr Wales’s online encyclopaedia, including the need for writers to detail the source of each fact and a reliance on the public to edit articles to keep them accurate.

However, while anybody can make changes to a page, they will only go live if a staff member or trusted community volunteer approves them.

The other big difference is that the core team of writers will be paid, although there may also be instances in which a volunteer writes the initial draft and then a staff member edits it.

Regular donations

A demo version of the site, seen by the BBC, declared “the news is broken and we can fix it”.

Mr Wales explained that he believed the advertising-based model used by most of the media had led it to “chase clicks”, which affected standards.

“I think we’re in a world right now where people are very concerned about making sure we have high quality fact-based information, so I think there will be demand for this,” he told the BBC.

“We’re getting people to sign up as monthly supporters and the more monthly supporters we have the more journalists we can hire.

“In terms of minimums, if we could only hire two journalists then it would be a blog and not really worth doing.

“But I would love to start with a lot more – 10 to 20.”

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Lily Cole is serving as an adviser to the news site

The director of Harvard University’s Nieman Journalism Lab, however, suggested Wikitribune’s crowdfunded model might limit its potential.

“There are a variety of people who – if it does this right – will view it as a trusted platform,” commented Joshua Benton.

“But another 10 to 20 people are not going to ‘fix the news’.

“There’s certainly a model for non-profit news that can be successful if it’s done on a relatively small scale and produces a product that is unique enough.

“But I have a hard time seeing this scale up into becoming a massive news organisation.”

Mr Wales said he would be “100% hands-on” with the project in its early stages and would be likely to serve as Wikitribune’s chief executive for at least a year.

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Journalists must link to the source of a fact or provide full transcripts and recordings of their interviews

Other advisors to the scheme include:

  • Silicon Valley venture capitalist Guy Kawasaki
  • Journalism lecturer Prof Jeff Jarvis
  • US law professor Larry Lessig
  • Model/actress Lily Cole

Although staff members will decide the topics that get written about on a day-to-day basis, funders will get to influence the contents.

“If you can get together a certain number of people who are interested in Bitcoin [for example] and you flag that when you sign up as a monthly supporter, then we’ll hire a Bitcoin person to do the beat full-time,” Mr Wales explained.

“So, it’s the monthly supporters who will be able to determine what are the topics we are going to cover.

“But it is going to be neutral. They can’t pick their favourite hack, who pumps forward their agenda.

“That’s part of the editorial control.”

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Media captionJimmy Wales tells Today his site will employ professional journalists but its agenda will be driven by readers

By Amol Rajan, Media editor

Jimmy Wales’s interest in news media is nothing new. For years he has expressed concern about how to guarantee the future of quality journalism, and even been talked of as a potential investor in existing media companies.

But when I spoke to him yesterday, it was clear that there was something new – or rather three things – that finally turned his long-standing interest into the reality of Wikitribune.

The first is what we call fake news. Fake news is a multi-faceted thing, and not altogether new; but it is undoubtedly the case that the deliberate, viral spreading of misinformation, either for commercial or political ends, has radically spiked around some of the big news events of the past year. Moreover, efforts to tackle it have often been pathetic thus far, and less often successful. This really irks Wales, and quite right too.

The second recent development is the radical shift in online advertising, where the strength of Facebook and Google – who are gobbling up ever more digital advertising dollars – is creating a race to the bottom. “I’m very concerned by the advertising-funded model, which is creating a lot of clickbait”, he told me.

And third, mounting evidence that people are willing to pay for high-quality news. Wales cited New York Times subscriptions and Guardian membership. He might also have mentioned the Financial Times.

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Wikitribune thinks its mix of journalists and volunteers will engender trust

To address the first two of these developments, Wales is looking to the third: he wants to get users to pay for news, and then play a hugely active role in determining its focus.

I argued recently that charity is a poor basis for journalism; much better to get users to pay. Wales agrees. He thinks by asking users to invest financially, they are more likely to invest emotionally too. I think he’s onto something – but it depends on whether what they get as a result is worth investing in.

And here’s the rub.

Nobody, but nobody, has as much credibility as Jimmy Wales when it comes to proving the wisdom of crowds exists online, or that the sheer scale of the open web allows knowledge to be shared and chronicled. But can the spirit of public participation that drove an online encyclopaedia also drive online news?

We don’t know, because the fascinating thing about Wikitribune – whose name is redolent of old newspapers – is that it isn’t just reinventing the commercial model for journalism: it’s reinventing the editorial one too.

The function of an editor is mainly to select what to put in and what to leave out. News has traditionally been selected by editors, who are gatekeepers and curators. But Wales, who is the founding editor of this publication, doesn’t see it like that. “It’s more a management role than editorial vision or pursuing an agenda,” he told me.

This is fascinating, and sounds very similar indeed to the arguments Ben Smith, the editor-in-chief of Buzzfeed, deployed when he published a dossier on Donald Trump.

It is a curious fact that while setting out to save journalism, Jimmy Wales is abolishing one of its most traditional roles. He would argue, of course, that he is giving power back to the audience in a way they have never had before: letting them be the editors, rather than pompous blowhards who think they know best.

This might discomfort many a grandee in the news profession; but if the man from Wikipedia provides a business model that sustains top notch reporting, they might thank him eventually.

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Thai man kills baby on Facebook Live then takes own life

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The deaths took place at a deserted hotel in Phuket

A Thai man filmed himself killing his baby daughter on Facebook Live, before taking his own life, Thai police say.

The 21-year-old hanged his daughter, and then himself, at a deserted hotel in Phuket on Monday, reportedly after an argument with his wife.

Facebook sent condolences to the family for the “appalling” incident and said that the content had now been removed.

The company pledged a review of its processes after footage of a US killing stayed online for hours this month.

The footage of the Thai killing had also been available on video sharing website YouTube, but the company took it down after the BBC alerted it to its presence.

Social media anger

Relatives of the Thai man saw the distressing footage and alerted the police – but the authorities arrived too late to save the man and his daughter.

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The Facebook Live post was widely reported by Thai media, and went viral on social media, BBC Thai editor Nopporn Wong-Anan reports.

In a statement, a Facebook spokesperson said: “This is an appalling incident and our hearts go out to the family of the victim. There is absolutely no place for content of this kind on Facebook and it has now been removed.”

YouTube said it had taken down the video within 15 minutes of being told of its presence by the BBC.

Its statement read: “YouTube has clear policies that outline what’s acceptable to post and we quickly remove videos that break our rules when they’re flagged.”

Shortly before the BBC alerted YouTube, the video was showing 2,351 views.

Media captionUS ‘Facebook killer’ manhunt – what happened?

Thai social media users reacted with anger to the footage, while offering condolences to the family of the girl, our correspondent says.

Devastated relatives of the child, including the mother, picked up the body of the girl and her father from hospital on Tuesday.

Following the US killing, Facebook said it was “constantly exploring ways that new technologies can help us make sure Facebook is a safe environment”.

“We prioritise reports with serious safety implications for our community, and are working on making that review process go even faster,” blogged one of its executives last week.

Analysis: Leo Kelion, BBC technology desk editor

This latest atrocity comes less than a fortnight after a US man bragged on Facebook Live about his murder of a 74-year-old man in Cleveland, having also posted a video of the killing to the social network.

The platform’s chief, Mark Zuckerberg, subsequently acknowledged he had “a lot of work” to do after it emerged the murder clip had remained online for more than two hours despite Facebook having received complaints in the meantime.

Media captionMark Zuckerberg commented on the Cleveland killing at a conference last week

Prior to that, Facebook Live broadcast the death of a Chicago man who was shot in the neck and head last June, and then in July a woman streamed the death of her boyfriend after he was shot by police in Minneapolis.

There have also been reports of sexual assaults, animal abuse and teenage suicide having been shown.

For its part, Facebook is trying to find ways for its review team – which employs thousands of people – to react to such content more quickly.

In addition, the firm has developed software to prevent such footage being reshared in full on its service at a later point.

And it is also exploring the use of artificial intelligence to automatically flag videos and photos that need to be reviewed rather than waiting for other users to report them.

What it hasn’t discussed is the idea of scrapping Facebook Live altogether.

With Twitter and YouTube, among others, offering rival live-streaming products, doing so could put it at a disadvantage.

But as a result, there will inevitably be further outrages and criticism because Facebook Live’s popularity makes it all but impossible for the firm to keep a human eye over each broadcast.

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Computer pioneer Harry Huskey dies aged 101

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NPL, Science Museum

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Dr Huskey helped complete the computer that Alan Turing designed

Engineer Harry Huskey, who helped build many of the first ever computers, has died aged 101.

Dr Huskey was a key member of the team that built the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (Eniac) which first ran in February 1946.

Eniac is widely considered to be one of the first electronic, general purpose, programmable computers.

Dr Huskey also helped complete work on the Ace – the Automatic Computing Engine – designed by Alan Turing.

Founding father

The Eniac was built at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1940s and, once complete, was more than 100ft (30m) long, weighed 30 tonnes, used 18,000 valves and 1,500 relays. Programming the massive machine to do different computational tasks involved rewiring its various units. Eniac was built to calculate the trajectory of shells for the US army.

Dr Huskey became involved with the development effort to create Eniac soon after joining Pennsylvania to teach mathematics to Naval recruits. His task was to make the punched card reader for the machine work and to write technical manuals describing how to operate it.

After the war, Dr Huskey travelled to the UK to help Alan Turing refine and complete the Ace. This was built at the National Physical Laboratory and in 1950, when it ran its first program, it was the fastest computer in the world.

He also helped design and build two other machines – the Swac (Standards Western Automatic Computer) and the G-15 which, despite weighing almost a tonne. was known as a personal computer because it could be operated by one person.

Dr Huskey spent his entire academic career involved with computing teaching at the University of California, Berkeley and was one of the founders of the computer science faculty at UC Santa Cruz.

“Harry basically lived through and participated in the entire span of the history of electronic computing,” Dag Spicer, a curator at the Computer History Museum, told the New York Times.

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US Navy cracks down on sharing of intimate photographs

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The US Navy has issued new rules forbidding personnel from sharing intimate photographs without consent.

They ban the sharing of images when “the person depicted had a reasonable expectation of privacy” or “without legal justification or excuse”.

It follows the discovery that some marines were sharing photos of women in a private Facebook group.

Service personnel found to be violating the regulations will be dealt with by military courts.

The interim order, which was signed on Tuesday, is expected to be made permanent in the next edition of the US Navy regulations.

Taken without consent

The photos began to appear on the members-only Marines United group in January, when the first US Marine infantry unit began admitting women.

They were often accompanied by obscene comments and some of the women in the pictures were identified by name, rank and unit.

Membership of the group, now closed, was limited to active and retired male US Marines and Navy Corpsmen, and British Royal Marines.

A spokesperson for the Royal Navy said that as the images were posted by US Marines, it was “a matter for the US authorities”.

Some of the images appeared to have been taken covertly, while others are believed to have been taken with the women’s consent but posted without permission.

Facebook and Google closed the social media accounts of those posting the images, following a request from the US Marine Corps.

A Google Drive folder hosting the images was also deleted.

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Brain Tumour Charity cautious about Italy mobile phone ruling

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The Brain Tumour Charity has said there is insufficient scientific evidence linking mobile phone use with brain tumours, following a court ruling.

The Italian court, in Ivrea, agreed that a man’s brain tumour was linked to his mobile phone use.

It awarded Robert Romero 500 euros (£418/$535) a month in compensation.

He had claimed that using his business mobile phone for three or four hours a day, over a period of 15 years, led to the growth of the benign tumour.

The money will be paid by a body established to compensate people for work-based injuries.

There could yet be an appeal against the ruling, and the legal reasoning behind the judge’s decision is not due to be released for at least a few days.

“We know that many people are concerned about a possible connection between mobile phone use and the development of brain tumours,” said Dr David Jenkinson, chief scientific officer for the Brain Tumour Charity.

“However, the global research projects that have been conducted so far, involving hundreds of thousands of people, have found insufficient evidence that using a mobile phone increases the risk of developing a brain tumour.”

The decision of the court did not change the evidence, he added.

“Of course, it is right that researchers continue to explore whether any such link exists,” said Dr Jenkinson.

Mr Romero, whose profession was not reported, said he wanted people to be more aware about mobile phone use but did not want to “demonise” the devices.

His lawyer, Stefano Bertone from the law firm Ambrosio and Commodo, told the BBC his client currently has no plans to sue any of the handset manufacturers or the mobile phone industry itself.

He added that the firm has other cases in other parts of Italy.

“We have also been approached by an interesting number of people in the last 24 hours saying they have experienced the same kind of thing. And they can show they have accumulative use of mobile phones that’s exceeding 1,000 hours,” he said.

“No-one can pretend with definitive certainty to assess a legal case. Most opponents say there is no scientific certainty so therefore it is not true. That is not the case.”

Mr Bertone highlighted a continuing o study by the National Toxicology Program in the US.

Preliminary findings released in 2016 suggested a “low incidence” of brain and heart tumours in male rats exposed to doses of radiofrequency radiation totalling up to nine hours a day over a two-year period.

However, as it is not finished, the study has not yet been scrutinised by other scientists, a process known as peer reviewing, which is generally considered an essential stage of evaluating research.

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‘Benign’ worm seeks out vulnerable smart devices

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Net-connected cameras have helped attackers stage large-scale attacks

A “benign” worm is scouring the net seeking out poorly protected smart gadgets.

CCTV systems, routers, digital video recorders and other internet-of-things (IoT) devices are now believed to be harbouring the Hajime worm.

The fast-moving worm is currently outpacing malicious equivalents seeking the same vulnerable gear.

Security researchers say they do not know who created Hajime or how it might ultimately be used.

Attack code

Hajime was first discovered in October 2016 and, said security researchers, had been hunting down IoT devices with security vulnerabilities that could be exploited by a different worm, called Mirai.

Earlier the same month, a network of devices compromised by Mirai was responsible for knocking offline high-profile websites including Twitter, Spotify and Reddit.

Modest estimates suggested Hajime was now present on “tens of thousands” of devices, wrote Symantec researcher Waylon Grange in a blog.

Programs such as Hajime and Mirai must keep scouring the net for victims, because switching off a vulnerable device generally cleans out the infection.

Mr Grange noted that Hajime currently had no attack code built in so could not be used to mount the kinds of attacks Mirai had been implicated in.

The only action taken by Hajime is to regularly display a message from the worm’s author on the internal interface for each device.

The message says, among other things: “Just a white hat, securing some systems.”

The term “white hat” is typically applied to those hackers seeking to secure rather than exploit vulnerabilities.

Malicious or criminal hackers are known as “black hats”.

“There is a question around trusting that the author is a true white hat and is only trying to secure these systems, as they are still installing their own backdoor on the system,” wrote Mr Grange.

He added if the author’s intentions changed they could “potentially” turn the infected devices into a “massive” attack network.

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Jet-propelled sky taxi tested in Germany

A jet-propelled vehicle that can take off vertically has been tested in Germany.

Lilium, the company behind it, hopes to launch a five-seater version as an autonomous sky taxi service in the future.

Pictures from Lilium.

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Credit card with a fingerprint sensor revealed by Mastercard

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The fingerprint sensor draws power from the terminal meaning it does not need batteries of its own

A payment card featuring a fingerprint sensor has been unveiled by credit card provider Mastercard.

The rollout follows two successful trials in South Africa.

The technology works in the same way as it does with mobile phone payments: users must have their finger over the sensor when making a purchase.

Security experts have said that while using fingerprints is not foolproof, it is a “sensible” use of biometric technology.

‘Nine changes’

Mastercard’s chief of safety and security, Ajay Bhalla, said that the fingerprint technology would help “to deliver additional convenience and security. It is not something that can be taken or replicated.”

However, fingerprint sensors can be compromised.

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Card holders must place their finger over the square sensor when using the card for a transaction

Karsten Nohl, chief scientist at Berlin’s Security Research Labs, told the BBC: “All I need is a glass or something you have touched in the past.”

He adds that if that information is stolen, “you only have nine fingerprint changes before you run out of options”.

But Mr Nohl is cautiously optimistic about the technology, saying it is “better than what we have at the moment”.

“With the combination of chip and PIN, the PIN is the weaker element. Using a fingerprint gets rid of that.”

“Fingerprints have helped us avoid using terrible passwords, and even the most gullible person is not going to cut off their finger if [a criminal] asks nicely.”

No scanner needed

The cards are thought to be the first to include both the digital template of the user’s fingerprint and the sensor required to read their fingerprints at the point of sale.

Previous biometric payment cards only worked when used in conjunction with a separate fingerprint scanner.

That limited their usefulness, as only stores with the correct equipment could accept them.

Having both the data and the scanner on the same card means that they should be accepted everywhere a normal chip and PIN payment card can be used.

But the biometric verification can only be used for in-store purchases: online and other so-called “card not present” transactions will still require further security measures.

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‘WhatsApp child sex images’ led to arrests

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WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, has said that child exploitation “has no place” on the app

A network apparently using WhatsApp to distribute images of child sexual exploitation has been disrupted by dozens of arrests, according to police.

A total of 39 suspects were apprehended in Europe and South America, following action by the Spanish National Police, Europol and Interpol.

Spanish investigators discovered dark web sites directing users to private WhatsApp groups last year.

Researchers then verified these groups were used to share illegal images.

House searches conducted during the arrests had led to the seizure of “hundreds of devices containing several terabytes of child sexual exploitation material”, according to Europol.

Spanish police have added that this included more than 360,000 files.

International operation

Operation Tantalio involved co-ordinated action in Germany, Spain and Portugal as well as several South American countries including Argentina, Chile and Ecuador.

Interpol has said that “hundreds” of the images and videos discovered have been entered into its international child sexual exploitation (ICSE) database.

It allows investigators to compare such material and make connections between victims, abusers and locations by “analysing the digital, visual and audio content”.

Efforts are now being made by police to identify any child victims.

“These offenders are pushing the boundaries of modern technologies to try to avoid being caught by law enforcement,” said Rob Wainwright, director of Europol.

“This case is an excellent example of global law enforcement cooperation, led by the Spanish National Police.

“We need to continue to combine our joint resources and skills to tackle this threat to our children and bring these offenders to justice.”

A spokesperson for WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, said: “Child exploitation has no place on WhatsApp.

“When we’re made aware of these accounts, we investigate, disable users that violate our terms, and assist with law enforcement as they track down and prosecute criminals.”

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