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Facebook again overhauls privacy settings after outcry over data breach

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Facebook on Wednesday launched a fresh effort to quell the firestorm over the hijacking of personal data, once again unveiling new privacy tools and settings to give users more control over how their information is shared.

The new features follow fierce criticism of the social network giant after it was revealed that the personal data of tens of millions of users was harvested by a British firm linked to Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.

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The company acknowledged that it needed to “do more to keep people informed,” but said the changes have been “in the works for some time.”

“We’ve heard loud and clear that privacy settings and other important tools are too hard to find,” chief privacy officer Erin Egan and deputy general counsel Ashlie Beringer said in a blog post.

“We’re taking additional steps in the coming weeks to put people more in control of their privacy.”

The updates include easier access to Facebook’s user settings and tools to easily search for, download and delete personal data stored on the site used by two billion people.

Facebook said a new privacy shortcuts menu will allow users to quickly increase account security, manage who can see their information and activity on the site, and control advertisements they see.

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Facebook’s terms of service and data policy are being updated to improve transparency about how the site collects and uses information, according to Beringer and Egan.

The social network said it is also shutting down ‘Partner Categories,’ a feature which enables more precise targeting of ads by combining information from Facebook with data aggregated by outside companies such as Experian and Acxiom.

“This product enables third-party data providers to offer their targeting directly on Facebook,” product marketing director Graham Mudd said in a statement posted online.

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“While this is common industry practice, we believe this step, winding down over the next six months, will help improve people’s privacy on Facebook.”

Earlier this month, whistleblower Christopher Wylie revealed political consulting company Cambridge Analytica had obtained profiles on 50 million Facebook users via an academic researcher’s personality prediction app.

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The app was downloaded by 270,000 people, but also scooped up their friends’ data without consent — as was possible under Facebook’s rules at the time.

– Lukewarm praise –

Yet some analysts said Facebook and its chief Mark Zuckerberg have made similar promises in the past.

“Zuck promised easier, better privacy controls ‘in the coming weeks’ eight years ago,” Zeynep Tufekci, a University of North Carolina professor who studies social media, said on Twitter.

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“The solution isn’t shifting the burden to the user because the problem is the negative externalities of the business model.”

Jennifer Grygiel, a Syracuse University professor of communications, said the new privacy settings and tools “are so obviously important to users that one has to wonder why this wasn’t already done.”

She said Facebook has “some of the best talent in the industry” and that “their old interface was not a mistake, it was by design.”

Dylan Gilbert of the consumer group Public Knowledge said Facebook’s moves “are welcome steps forward” but “do little to remedy a larger systemic problem.”

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“Online platforms currently lack meaningful legal incentives to protect users before their privacy is violated,” Gilbert said in a statement.

“Facebook similarly lacks business incentives to engage in responsible data collection because disgruntled advertisers don’t have anywhere comparable to go.”

– Deepening tech crisis –

Facebook’s move comes as authorities around the globe investigate how the social network handles and shares private data, and after its shares have tumbled more than 15 percent, wiping out tens of billions in market value.

The crisis also threatens the Silicon Valley tech industry whose business model revolves around data collected on internet users.

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The US Federal Trade Commission this week said it had launched a probe into whether Facebook violated consumer protection laws or a 2011 court-approved agreement on protecting private user data.

US lawmakers are trying to get Zuckerberg to come to Washington to testify on the matter.

Authorities in Britain have meanwhile seized data from Cambridge Analytica in their investigation, and EU officials have warned of consequences for Facebook.

Facebook has apologized and vowed to fix the problem.

On Wednesday, six consumer and privacy organizations called upon Facebook to cease all campaign contributions and election activity until they ensure the integrity of all apps on the platform.

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“A company whose platform is self-admittedly powerful enough to influence elections, must stay out of them,” said a letter from the groups including Consumer Watchdog, Electronic Privacy Information Center and the Center for Digital Democracy.


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COVID-19

Texas hospitals are running out of drugs, beds, ventilators and even staff

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Many Texas hospitals are no longer accepting transfer patients in order to maintain space for a surge that’s expected to come. In some parts of the state, it’s already here.

A coronavirus patient in Anahuac was flown by helicopter to a hospital in El Campo — 120 miles away — because closer facilities could not take him.

Ambulances are waiting up to 10 hours to deliver patients to packed Hidalgo County emergency rooms.

And short-staffed hospitals in Midland and Odessa have had to turn away ailing COVID-19 patients from rural West Texas facilities that can’t offer the care they need.

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2020 Election

Donald Trump makes last-minute pitches for Tony Gonzales, Ronny Jackson in Texas congressional runoffs

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The president held tele-town halls Monday night with the two candidates he has endorsed in two of Texas' most heated Republican primary runoffs.

President Donald Trump made a late push Monday night for two candidates he has endorsed in hotly contested Republican primary runoffs in Texas.

With hours until polls open, Trump joined tele-town halls for Tony Gonzales and Ronny Jackson, who are vying for the nominations to replace retiring Reps. Will Hurd, R-Helotes, and Mac Thornberry, R-Clarendon, respectively. Hurd's seat is one of Democrats' top pickup opportunities nationwide, while Thornberry's is one of the reddest in the country — and gives Trump the opportunity to install a loyal ally in Jackson, the former White House doctor.

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US prosecutors say Epstein’s ex-girlfriend Ghislaine Maxwell should not be granted bail

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Ghislaine Maxwell cannot be trusted to be freed on bail while facing charges she helped advance Jeffrey Epstein's sexual abuse, and deserves no "special treatment" because she might contract Covid-19 in jail, U.S. prosecutors said on Monday.

Prosecutors urged Maxwell's continued detention one day before her scheduled arraignment on charges she helped the late financier recruit and eventually abuse girls from 1994 to 1997, and lied about her role in depositions in 2016.

Maxwell is in federal custody at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn. She was arrested on July 2 in Bradford, New Hampshire, where authorities said she had been hiding out at a 156-acre (63-hectare) property she bought last December.

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