On Wednesday’s broadcast of the Fox News Channel’s “The Story,” White House NSC Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby responded to Apple limiting the AirDrop file-sharing feature in China by stating that the White House isn’t “in the business of telling private companies how to execute their initiatives.” And the situation with Apple is different from the circumstances with Twitter that the White House has promised to watch.
Kirby stated, “Look, in general, and we’ve been clear about this all around the world, we want individual citizens, no matter what government they live under, to be able to communicate freely and openly, transparently and reliably. And we’ve made that clear with respect to Iran and we certainly continue to make that clear here with respect to China. Apple’s a private company, Martha, they have to make decisions and they have to speak for those decisions. But here at the White House, here in the administration, we want to see that individual citizens — whether they’re protesting or not, but in this case, I know that’s the context we’re talking about — are able to communicate freely and openly.”
Host Martha MacCallum then asked, “But why not say something to Apple? Because we were just told the other day that the White House is keeping an eye on Elon Musk and Twitter. So, why would you say that from the podium…and not call Apple out for helping the Chinese government to suppress their own people’s ability to communicate?”
Kirby responded, “Again, I think we’ve been very clear and consistent on this. Certainly, publicly, we’ve been very open about our desires to be able to see citizens communicate. And Apple, if this is a decision that they’re making, then they should have to speak to that. But we’re not — we can’t and we aren’t in the business of telling private companies how to execute their initiatives.”
MacCallum then cut in to ask, “Yeah, but Twitter’s a private company, too. So, why is Twitter getting one treatment and Apple’s getting another is my question?”
Kirby answered, “Well, those are completely two different circumstances. You’re talking about the potential for perhaps foreign investment and involvement in the management of Twitter. That’s a different issue than what we’re talking about here, which is a business decision by Apple with respect to how one of their applications is being utilized.”
| National Security
A Peek Inside the FBI’s Unprecedented January 6 Geofence Dragnet
Google provided investigators with location data for more than 5,000 devices as part of the federal investigation into the attack on the US Capitol
THE FBI’S BIGGEST-EVER investigation included the biggest-ever haul of phones from controversial geofence warrants, court records show. A filing in the case of one of the January 6 suspects, David Rhine, shows that Google initially identified 5,723 devices as being in or near the US Capitol during the riot. Only around 900 people have so far been charged with offenses relating to the siege.
The filing suggests that dozens of phones that were in airplane mode during the riot, or otherwise out of cell service, were caught up in the trawl. Nor could users erase their digital trails later. In fact, 37 people who attempted to delete their location data following the attacks were singled out by the FBI for greater scrutiny.
Geofence search warrants are intended to locate anyone in a given area using digital services. Because Google’s Location History system is both powerful and widely used, the company is served about 10,000 geofence warrants in the US each year. Location History leverages GPS, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth signals to pinpoint a phone within a few yards. Although the final location is still subject to some uncertainty, it is usually much more precise than triangulating signals from cell towers. Location History is turned off by default, but around a third of Google users switch it on, enabling services like real-time traffic prediction.
The geofence warrants served on Google shortly after the riot remained sealed. But lawyers for Rhine, a Washington man accused of various federal crimes on January 6, recently filed a motion to suppress the geofence evidence. The motion, which details the warrant’s process and scale, was first reported by journalist Marcy Wheeler on her blog, Emptywheel.
In a statement, a Google spokesperson defended the company’s handling of geofence warrants.
“We have a rigorous process for geofence warrants that is designed to protect the privacy of our users while supporting the important work of law enforcement,” the company said. “When Google receives legal demands, we examine them closely for legal validity and constitutional concerns, including overbreadth, consistent with developing case law. If a request asks for too much information, we work to narrow it. We routinely push back on overbroad demands, including overbroad geofence demands, and in some cases, we object to producing any information at all.”
Google requires a three-step process for geofence warrants to narrow their scope to only those most likely to be guilty of a crime. In the first and broadest step, the FBI asked Google to identify all devices in a 4-acre area, including the Capitol and its immediate surroundings, between 2 pm and 6:30 pm on January 6. Google initially found 5,653 active devices that “were or could have been” within the geofence at that time. When Google added in data from devices that only connected to its servers later that day, or the next, the number increased to 5,723. (Location History works in airplane mode because phones can continue to receive GPS satellite signals.)
In the second step, the FBI asked Google for a list of devices that were present at the Capitol from 12 pm to 12:15 pm on January 6, and from 9 pm to 9:15 pm. As there were no rioters in the Capitol during those times, these devices likely belonged to congressional members or staff, police, and other people authorized to be there. Over 200 such phones were excluded from the initial list, reducing its total to 5,518.
For the final step, the government sought subscriber information, including phone numbers, Google accounts, and email addresses, for two groups of users. The first was for devices that appeared to have been entirely within the geofence, to about a 70 percent probability. The second was any devices for which the Location History was deleted between January 6 and January 13.
From this, in early May 2021, the FBI received identifying details for 1,535 users, as well as detailed maps showing how their phones moved through the Capitol and its grounds. Geofence evidence has so far been cited in over 100 charging documents from January 6. In nearly 50 cases, geofence data seems to have provided the initial identification of suspected rioters.
Rhine was first flagged to the FBI by tipsters who had heard that he had been inside the Capitol. But investigators only identified him in surveillance footage after they matched it against the precise geofence coordinates of his phone. His lawyer is now trying to get the geofence evidence thrown out on a number of grounds, including that it was overly broad in who it rounded up, and that Rhine had a constitutional expectation of privacy in his Google data.
“The government enlisted Google to search untold millions of unknown accounts in a massive fishing expedition,” the attorneys wrote. “Just a small amount of Location History can identify individuals … engaged in personal and protected activities (such as exercising their rights under the First Amendment). And as a result, a geofence warrant almost always involves intrusion into constitutionally protected areas.”
If the judge tosses the geofence evidence in the Rhine case, there is a chance that he and other suspects identified using it could walk free.
BREAKING: Elon Musk releases files on Twitter’s censorship of Hunter Biden laptop story
On Wednesday, Musk revealed that Twitter has interfered with elections. It was in response to a report from Reuters about Twitter’s move to free speech under Musk, he replied that “The obvious reality, as long-time users know, is that Twitter has failed in trust & safety for a very long time and has interfered in elections. Twitter 2.0 will be far more effective, transparent and even-handed.”
In October 2020, in the lead up to the general presidential election in the US, Emma Jo Morris broke the story in the New York Post of a discarded laptop left at a Delaware computer repair shop. That laptop belonged to Hunter Biden, and on it, a treasure trove of explicit material was found. But what Morris wrote about was the evidence contained on that laptop that pointed to the Biden famliy having engaged in influence peddling as well as shady international business dealings.
The story was suppressed and censored by social media platforms Twitter and Facebook, both outlets assuming that the information was false. The reason they believed it to be false, then Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said, was because they had been contacted by agents with the FBI who said the platforms should be on the lookout for a so-called misinformation dump. When the laptop story broke, the platforms assumed that was it, and censored the story.
Those with the Biden campaign called it “Russian disinformation,” but the laptop was very real. The younger Biden had dropped the computer off at a Delaware repair shop and simply never came to pick it up. The repair shop, per their policy, takes possession of materials that are left in their possession for more than 90 days. The owner of the shop realized the potential bombshell he had on his hands, and managed to get the laptop to Rudy Giuliani.
Twitter claimed that they believed the data revealed by Morris and the Post had been hacked— it wasn’t. But under their terms of service, hacked material is not allowed on the platform. The New York Post’s Twitter account was locked, and many media outlets, from NPR to The New York Times to the Washington Post all issued explainers to readers as to why they refused to cover the story rather than actually cover the story. CBS only just admitted that it was real.
After the presidential election, in which the winning votes went to Joe Biden, it was revealed that nothing about the story was false, hacked, or misinformation, and that the social media platforms, which essentially operate as the American newsstand, had censored information that was essential for the American public. Polls after the election showed that many Americans would likely not have voted for Biden had they known about the contents of the laptop.
Elon Musk announced on Friday that that “What really happened with the Hunter Biden story suppression by Twitter will be published on Twitter at 5pm ET!” And then he spilled the tea.
The thread from Matt Taibbi reads:
“What you’re about to read is the first installment in a series, based upon thousands of internal documents obtained by sources at Twitter.
“The ‘Twitter Files’ tell an incredible story from inside one of the world’s largest and most influential social media platforms. It is a Frankensteinian tale of a human-built mechanism grown out the control of its designer.
“Twitter in its conception was a brilliant tool for enabling instant mass communication, making a true real-time global conversation possible for the first time.
“In an early conception, Twitter more than lived up to its mission statement, giving people “the power to create and share ideas and information instantly, without barriers.
“Slowly, over time, Twitter staff and executives began to find more and more uses for these tools. Outsiders began petitioning the company to manipulate speech as well: first a little, then more often, then constantly.
“By 2020, requests from connected actors to delete tweets were routine. One executive would write to another: ‘More to review from the Biden team.’ The reply would come back: ‘Handled.’
“Celebrities and unknowns alike could be removed or reviewed at the behest of a political party:
“Both parties had access to these tools. For instance, in 2020, requests from both the Trump White House and the Biden campaign were received and honored. However:
“This system wasn’t balanced. It was based on contacts. Because Twitter was and is overwhelmingly staffed by people of one political orientation, there were more channels, more ways to complain, open to the left (well, Democrats) than the right.
“The resulting slant in content moderation decisions is visible in the documents you’re about to read. However, it’s also the assessment of multiple current and former high-level executives.
“Okay, there was more throat-clearing about the process, but screw it, let’s jump forward
“The Twitter Files, Part One: How and Why Twitter Blocked the Hunter Biden Laptop Story
“On October 14, 2020, the New York Post published BIDEN SECRET EMAILS, an expose based on the contents of Hunter Biden’s abandoned laptop:
“Twitter took extraordinary steps to suppress the story, removing links and posting warnings that it may be ‘unsafe.’ They even blocked its transmission via direct message, a tool hitherto reserved for extreme cases, e.g. child pornography.
“White House spokeswoman Kaleigh McEnany was locked out of her account for tweeting about the story, prompting a furious letter from Trump campaign staffer Mike Hahn, who seethed: ‘At least pretend to care for the next 20 days.’
“This led public policy executive Caroline Strom to send out a polite WTF query. Several employees noted that there was tension between the comms/policy teams, who had little/less control over moderation, and the safety/trust teams:
“Strom’s note returned the answer that the laptop story had been removed for violation of the company’s “hacked materials” policy: https://t.co/EdTa2xbXn1
“Although several sources recalled hearing about a “general” warning from federal law enforcement that summer about possible foreign hacks, there’s no evidence – that I’ve seen – of any government involvement in the laptop story. In fact, that might have been the problem…
“The decision was made at the highest levels of the company, but without the knowledge of CEO Jack Dorsey, with former head of legal, policy and trust Vijaya Gadde playing a key role.
“’They just freelanced it,’ is how one former employee characterized the decision. ‘Hacking was the excuse, but within a few hours, pretty much everyone realized that wasn’t going to hold. But no one had the guts to reverse it.’
“You can see the confusion in the following lengthy exchange, which ends up including Gadde and former Trust and safety chief Yoel Roth. Comms official Trenton Kennedy writes, ‘I’m struggling to understand the policy basis for marking this as unsafe’:
“A fundamental problem with tech companies and content moderation: many people in charge of speech know/care little about speech, and have to be told the basics by outsiders. To wit:
“In one humorous exchange on day 1, Democratic congressman Ro Khanna reaches out to Gadde to gently suggest she hop on the phone to talk about the ‘backlash re speech.’ Khanna was the only Democratic official I could find in the files who expressed concern.
“Gadde replies quickly, immediately diving into the weeds of Twitter policy, unaware Khanna is more worried about the Bill of Rights:
“Khanna tries to reroute the conversation to the First Amendment, mention of which is generally hard to find in the files:
“NetChoice lets Twitter know a ‘blood bath’ awaits in upcoming Hill hearings, with members saying it’s a ‘tipping point,’ complaining tech has ‘grown so big that they can’t even regulate themselves, so government may need to intervene.’
“Szabo reports to Twitter that some Hill figures are characterizing the laptop story as ‘tech’s Access Hollywood moment’:
“Twitter files continued: ‘THE FIRST AMENDMENT ISN’T ABSOLUTE’ Szabo’s letter contains chilling passages relaying Democratic lawmakers’ attitudes. They want ‘more’ moderation, and as for the Bill of Rights, it’s ‘not absolute’
“An amazing subplot of the Twitter/Hunter Biden laptop affair was how much was done without the knowledge of CEO Jack Dorsey, and how long it took for the situation to get ‘unf*cked’ (as one ex-employee put it) even after Dorsey jumped in.
“While reviewing Gadde’s emails, I saw a familiar name – my own. Dorsey sent her a copy of my Substack article blasting the incident
“There are multiple instances in the files of Dorsey intervening to question suspensions and other moderation actions, for accounts across the political spectrum.
“The problem with the ‘hacked materials’ ruling, several sources said, was that this normally required an official/law enforcement finding of a hack. But such a finding never appears throughout what one executive describes as a “whirlwind” 24-hour, company-wide mess.
“It’s been a whirlwind 96 hours for me, too. There is much more to come, including answers to questions about issues like shadow-banning, boosting, follower counts, the fate of various individual accounts, and more. These issues are not limited to the political right.”
And with that, Matt Taibbi signed off, saying “Good night, everyone. Thanks to all those who picked up the phone in the last few days.”