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Facebook Fights US Government Demand to Break Messenger Encryption in Criminal Case

Facebook is contesting a demand from the U.S. government that it break the encryption of its popular Messenger app so that law enforcement can listen in to a suspect’s conversations as part of an ongoing investigation into the MS-13 gang.

The U.S. Department of Justice’s demand is in relation to a case proceeding in a federal court in California that is currently under seal, so public files are unavailable. However, Reuters‘ sources said the judge in the case heard arguments on Tuesday on a government motion to hold Facebook in contempt of court for refusing to carry out the surveillance request.

Facebook says it can only comply with the government’s request if it rewrites the code relied upon by all its users to remove encryption or else hacks the government’s current target, according to Reuters.

Legal experts differed over whether the government would likely be able to force Facebook to comply. However, if the government gets its way in the case, experts say the precedent could allow it to make similar arguments to force other tech companies to compromise their encrypted communications services.

Messaging platforms like Signal, Telegram, Facebook’s WhatsApp and Apple’s iMessage all use end-to-end encryption that prevents communications between sender and recipient from being accessed by anyone else, including the service providers.

Tech companies have pushed back against previous attempts by authorities to break encryption methods, such as the FBI’s request that Apple help it hack into the iPhone owned by Syed Farook, one of the shooters in the December 2015 attacks in San Bernardino.

In February 2016, a U.S. federal judge ordered Apple to help the FBI, but Apple opposed the order in an open letter penned by Tim Cook, who said the FBI’s request would set a “dangerous precedent” with serious implications for the future of smartphone encryption.

Apple’s dispute with the FBI ended on March 28, 2016 after the government found an alternate way to access the data on the iPhone with the help of a private contractor and withdrew the lawsuit.

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Movado Group acquires watch startup MVMT

The Movado Group, which sells multiple brands, including Lacoste, Tommy Hilfiger and Hugo Boss, has purchased MVMT, a small watch company founded by Jacob Kassan and Kramer LaPlante in 2013. The company, which advertised heavily on Facebook, logged $71 million in revenue in 2017. Movado purchased the company for $100 million.

“The acquisition of MVMT will provide us greater access to millennials and advances our Digital Center of Excellence initiative with the addition of a powerful brand managed by a successful team of highly creative, passionate and talented individuals,” Movado Chief Executive Efraim Grinberg said.

MVMT makes simple watches for the millennial market in the vein of Fossil or Daniel Wellington. However, the company carved out a niche by advertising heavily on social media and being one of the first microbrands with a solid online presence.

“It provides an opportunity to Movado Group’s portfolio as MVMT continues to cross-sell products within its existing portfolio, expand product offerings within its core categories of watches, sunglasses and accessories, and grow its presence in new markets through its direct-to-consumer and wholesale business,” said Grinberg.

MVMT is well-known as a “fashion brand,” namely a brand that sells cheaper quartz watches that are sold on style versus complexity or cost. Their pieces include standard three-handed models and newer quartz chronographs.

Facebook awards $200K to Internet Defense Prize winners

Facebook announced today the winners of its annual Internet Defense Prize and awarded first-, second- and third-place winners a total of $200,000 for research papers that addressed topics of internet security and privacy. Combined with $800,000 in Secure the Internet Grants awarded to security and privacy researchers earlier this week, the company has now completed its 2018 goal to invest $1 million toward securing the internet.

The Internet Defense Prize first started in 2014, but this year the prize quadrupled from its original $50,000 award to $200,000 spread across three groups. In a statement announcing the winners, Facebook said that the increase of this year’s prize money reflected not just the company’s ongoing (and in light of the its privacy catastrophes this year, seemingly increased) interest in security and privacy, but also the quality of work submitted.

“Over the years we’ve gotten higher and higher quality of submissions,” Pete Voss, Facebook’s Security Communications Manager told TechCrunch. “[But] the criteria has always been the same, and that’s making practical research. Making this go beyond theory and making it so you can actually apply security in real life.”

The first prize, $100,000, was taken home by a team from Belgium for a paper entitled “Who Left Open the Cookie Jar? A Comprehensive Evaluation of Third-Party Cookie Policies” that proposed improvements to browser security that would make users less susceptible to having their internet trail tracked from site to site.

Second- and third-place prizes (for $60,000 and $40,000 each) were awarded to research teams in the U.S. and China, respectively, for papers focusing on proper use of cryptography for app development and for strengthening the algorithm behind single sign-on security systems.

Voss says the entries this year are a great example of the award’s mission to fund research that benefits not just Facebook’s interests in security and privacy, but the internet’s as a whole.

“We’re investing in not just Facebook security but in public security for the entire internet,” said Voss. “We want to keep the internet strong and the only way we can do that is by making it secure.”

As for the recipients of the Secure the Internet Grants, the $800,000 was divided between 10 teams whose research ranged from sociological approaches (like “Understanding the Use of Hijacked Facebook Accounts in the Wild” and “Enhancing Online & Offline Safety During Internet Disruptions in Times of War”) to more technical ones like improving the strength of encryption methods.

Voss told TechCrunch that Facebook has no plans to announce at this time regarding its next steps toward providing funding for researchers in this space (unlike last summer when the company laid out its $1 million goal), but says that the company is “always looking at incentivizing this kind of research” and providing support.

Facebook finally stops surfacing opioid-related posts

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Facebook says birthday fundraisers have raised more than $300 million over the past year

Facebook marked the first anniversary of its birthday fundraisers by revealing that more than $300 million in donations have been raised through the feature, which lets users mark their birthdays by creating a donation drive for an organization of their choice. About 750,000 non-profits currently have access to Facebook’s fundraising tools (but not every user, since they haven’t rolled out to all countries).

The company also said that it is adding several new features based on feedback. These include allowing Pages to create and donate to fundraisers, as well as the ability to add matching donations and co-organizers to fundraisers. Donors will also be able to choose if they want to set up a recurring monthly contribution.

For people who want to create a birthday fundraiser but don’t have an organization in mind already, Facebook plans to include more information about charities in the feature’s selection tool. The company said its fundraising feature’s top beneficiaries include St. Jude, the Alzheimer’s Association, the American Cancer Society, Share Our Strength—No Kid Hungry and the ASPCA.

Last November, Facebook removed its 5% fee on donations, which means all money goes to non-profits. For many charities, Facebook fundraisers are now the most frictionless way to raise donations, including from people who might otherwise never visit the charity’s own donation links. Facebook fundraisers are a notable example of how social media activism can actually translate into tangible results instead of yet more memes–but, of course, whenever Facebook releases any self-congratulatory announcements, it’s a good idea to take a step back and look at the potential downsides.

As with almost every other Facebook feature, its fundraising tools have prompted concerns about privacy, particularly donor privacy, which is considered sacrosanct by many organizations (Facebook lets users decide if they want to share their donation with friends). Some charities also have qualms about benefiting from Facebook fundraisers until the company does a better job of policing hate speech, especially if the purpose of their work is aiding marginalized or persecuted minority groups.

In an insightful blog post from last November, fundraising consultant Jeremy Hatch argued that fundraising on Facebook also eliminates the relationship between donors and organizations, “where there are established norms and ethical practices.” He added that non-profits should reconsider before they grow increasingly reliant on a company whose ultimate goal is to gather and monetize user data.

At the same time, Facebook’s reach leaves many organizations with little choice but to use the platform so they don’t miss out on much-needed funds. One notable example of how effective Facebook fundraisers can be is the more than $20 million raised by users on behalf of RAICES to help migrant families separated at the U.S.-Mexico border by the Trump administration.