Week in Review: August 3, 2016

by Grant Baker

Wisconsin Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Algorithms

The Wisconsin Supreme Court recently ruled that a lower court did not violate the rights of Eric Loomis, a man accused of acting as the driver in a drive-by shooting, by sentencing him to six years in prison in part on the basis of a predictive algorithm. Loomis appealed the sentence because the judge in the lower court used Correctional Offender Management Profiling for Alternative Sanctions (COMPAS) software, which predicts whether or not someone will commit a crime based on his or her past criminal, history, drug use, and psychological behavior. Earlier this year, ProPublica found a significant racial bias in similar software: black defendants were more likely to be mislabeled as future offenders, while white defendants were more likely to be mislabeled as “low risk.” These algorithms were initially developed as tools for making parole decisions, but they are increasingly being used in sentencing decisions. San Francisco courts announced recently that they have been testing an algorithm that sets bail. Enough judges are abstaining from using this algorithm, however, that it is at risk of being unable to collect sufficient data. Despite these concerns, Wisconsin’s Supreme Court upheld the use of COMPAS, though several judges emphasized that sentencing decisions should not be entirely reliant on the software. In her concurring opinion, Judge Shirley Abrahamson questioned whether or not judges in general are qualified to understand the technology that supports predictive software.

Netsweeper Drops Lawsuit Against Citizen Lab

Last year, Citizen Lab, a research center at the University of Toronto, published a report containing evidence that Canadian software company Netsweeper was providing rebels in Yemen with censorship technology. The initial report stated that the Houthi rebels had used this technology after they captured Sana’a and “took control of the main government internet provider, YemenNet.” Citizen Lab claimed that the Houthis used this filtering system extensively, censoring political content as well as more typically censored content that violates Sharia law. Last week, Ron Deibert, the director of Citizen Lab, penned a letter explaining that Netsweeper had sued Citizen Lab for over $3 million. He noted that the Protection of Public Participation Act (PPPA), which Canada passed into law last November, would have protected Citizen Lab in a suit against Netsweeper, but the company dropped its claim in April. Moreover, this is not the first time that Netsweeper has been accused of promoting filtering; it also provided a “national website filtering solution” to Bahrain in exchange for $1,175,000 as well as similar services to the governments of Pakistan, Qatar, and the UAE.

Human Rights Watch Criticizes Bahrain’s Decision to Imprison Nabeel Rajab

Human Rights Watch criticized Bahrain’s decision to charge Nabeel Rajab for his comments on Twitter. Since the 1990’s Rajab has fought for “democratic reforms” in the country; he founded the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights in 2002. Following the Arab Spring protests, authorities in Bahrain arrested him many times throughout 2012, culminating with an August arrest that led to two years in prison. After his release in 2014, he was tried in October of that same year for critical tweets. His trial was repeatedly delayed, and he spent another three months in prison in 2015. Most recently, he was arrested on June 13, 2016 for criticizing the government and given his first trial on July 7. Officially, the government has charged him with “spreading false or malicious news, statements or rumours,” “offending a foreign country” in response to tweets about Saudi Arabia, and “offending national institutions” because he criticized the Jaw Prison for torture, corroborating other reports. He potentially faces ten years for the first charge, two years for the second, and three years for the third, adding up to the total of fifteen years. His tweets about the conflict in Yemen included images that showed the aftermath of the bombing from the Saudi coalition. Bahrain is a member of the Saudi-led campaign against the Houthis in Yemen and unlike the rest of the Gulf countries, which are largely Sunni, Bahrain is largely-Shia. Because of this, the strikes enjoy even less popular support than in the other Gulf countries. Rajab’s second trial is scheduled for August 2, 2016.

A Group of Iranian Hackers Obtain Information from Telegram

Reuters reported that Rocket Kitten, a group of Iranian hackers, managed to hack Telegram, the popular instant messaging application, accessing “more than a dozen accounts on the Telegram instant messaging service and identif[ying] the phone numbers of almost fifteen million accounts.” Identifying phone numbers is not as harmful as hacking accounts, but it still allows the hackers to attach a name to some of these accounts and figure out who is using Telegram. Though Telegram offers end to end encryption, the application also sends an SMS message to users when they create an account. The Iranian hackers managed to hack these messages. Collin Anderson, a technology researcher, noted that there have been previous examples “in which Telegram accounts have been compromised through ways that sound basically like coordination with the cellphone company” and that this is much more likely to happen in countries, like Iran, where the telephone service companies and the state maintain a close relationship. Though researchers have not proved an official link to the government, the victims included political activists and journalists. If the Iranian government is involved, this would not be the first time that governments in the region have tried to take advantage of Telegram.

Hackers Steal Funds from Bitfinex

The value of Bitcoin dropped dramatically on Wednesday because hackers stole 119,756 Bitcoins from Bitfinex, the Hong Kong-based Bitcoin exchange. The hackers managed to steal the equivalent of approximately $72 million in bitcoins, an amount now worth closer to $65 million due to the fall created by the hack. Though $7 million is a large drop, the hack initially caused the currency to drop close to 20%; by Wednesday afternoon in Hong Kong, the currency had rebounded by about 10%. Bitfinex, one of the largest Bitcoin exchanges, stopped all transactions, contacted law enforcement, and attempted to identify the users who had lost money from their personal accounts. The company confirmed that the hackers had stolen money from users and pledged to address this issue. Earlier this year, Bitfinex partnered with the Silicon Valley-based BitGo, which provides security to other Bitcoin exchanges, to use BitGo’s multiple factor security system. BitGo believes that the hackers did not target its system to steal the funds.