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Salesforce to face trial after software used by Backpage ‘to track sex traffickers, pimps, johns on social media’ • The Register

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Salesforce should face trial after its software was allegedly used by Backpage.com to track sex traffickers, pimps, and their johns online, a judge has ruled.

The SaaS CRM giant was accused of a whole host of wrongdoing in a civil lawsuit [PDF] filed last year in southern Texas. Insisting the allegations were unfounded, Salesforce filed to have the entire case against it dismissed.

While allowing some facets of the case to go ahead, federal district Judge Andrew Hanen this week agreed to dismiss the lawsuit’s claims of negligence, gross negligence, and civil conspiracy.

That leaves allegations that Salesforce broke state and federal laws on sex trafficking having supplied its tools and services to Backpage.com even after law enforcement publicly called out the dot-com for its seedy operations. The judge said Salesforce was, in this case, not necessarily shielded by Section 230 of America’s Communications Decency Act.

Backpage.com was shut down in 2018 after it was seized by the US Department of Justice. Its CEO, Carl Ferrer, admitted charges including conspiracy to facilitate prostitution and money laundering. His classified ads website was, simply put, a nexus of child sex trafficking in America.

Screengrab of the Backpage takedown notice

Humanitarian champ or sex-trafficking profiteer? Fresh sueball argues Salesforce is the latter

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Judge Hanen’s 11-page order [PDF] on Monday gave an overview of the civil lawsuit, brought in April by anonymous plaintiffs, who said they were trafficked via Backpage.com using Salesforce’s technology. They claimed Salesforce’s software was used to “actively obtain and monitor data and additional information related to pimps and sex traffickers that were using Backpage.”

Since it began supplying software to Backpage.com in 2013, Salesforce knowingly assisted and supported sex trafficking, the plaintiffs continued.

Specifically, the cloud-based software was used by Backpage.com to gather and manage information from traffickers and pimps’ social media activity, including their “likes and dislikes and what they were saying and sharing about Backpage and its competitors,” it was claimed. This intelligence would have been used by the classified ads site to tune and improve its business.

It was further claimed Salesforce’s software was used to develop “an infrastructure for a trafficker and pimp database as well as tracking and collecting trafficker and john data across multiple platforms including phone, email, websites and social media.” Salesforce also provided payment processing and data analyses which resulted in targeted email campaigns for Backpage.com “to advertise and promote illegal prostitution,” according to the plaintiffs.

In their court paperwork, the young women argued that “any reasonable prudent examination of Backpage’s business operations or a simple google search [sic] would have indicated Backpage was not a general online marketplace but was actually the predominant force in online sex trafficking.”

From 2015, Salesforce’s relationship with Backpage survived intense law enforcement scrutiny, lawsuits, investigations, and even the arrest of Ferrer for “conspiracy to commit pimping” by Kamala Harris, then California Attorney General and now vice president of the United States of America.

Salesforce denied any wrongdoing, the judge noted, “especially that it had any knowledge that Backpage was planning to incorporate the use of its operational support into a sex-trafficking venture.”

A spokesperson for the cloud giant was not available for comment. ®

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SSD belonging to Euro-cloud Scaleway was stolen from back of a truck, then turned up on YouTube • The Register

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In brief Deepmind and the European Bioinformatics Institute released a database of more than 350,000 3D protein structures predicted by the biz’s AI model AlphaFold.

That data covers the 20,000 or so proteins made in the human body, and is available for anyone to study. The proteomes of 20 other organisms, from Zebrafish to E.coli bacteria, are also in there, too, and hundreds of millions of more structures will be added over time, we’re told.

“In the hands of scientists around the world, this new protein almanac will enable and accelerate research that will advance our understanding of these building blocks of life,” said DeepMind’s CEO Demis Hassabis. He hopes that it will be a valuable resource that will be used in the discovery of new drugs and our understanding of diseases.

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Reid Hoffman to join board of electric air-taxi start-up Joby

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Reid Hoffman. Image: ReidHoffman.org

LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman is helping to take Joby, which is being billed as ‘Tesla meets Uber in the air’, public through a SPAC deal.

Electric air-taxi start-up Joby Aviation will add Silicon Valley figure Reid Hoffman to its board as the company prepares to go public via a merger with a blank-cheque firm.

LinkedIn co-founder Hoffman, who is now a partner at venture capital firm Greylock, has a key connection to the 12-year-old start-up. Earlier this year, it was announced that Joby is going public through a $6.6bn reverse merger deal with Reinvent Technology Partners, the special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) Hoffman set up with Zynga founder Mark Pincus and investor Michael Thompson.

The deal is expected to close in this summer. Joby is the first aerial vehicle start-up to go public via the SPAC route, and the deal will provide the company with $1.6bn in cash.

SPACs have been growing in popularity this year as they can provide a quicker way of bringing a company public rather than the traditional route of an initial public offering.

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Hoffman will be added by the Joby board once the deal is complete, alongside Google general counsel Halimah DeLaine Prado and former Southwest Airlines CFO Laura Wright.

Toyota Motor Corporation board member and operating officer James Kuffner and Zoox CEO Aicha Evans have already been added to the board in recent months.

“We are incredibly humbled to have been able to assemble such a remarkable and diverse group of world-class leaders to guide and support Joby as we plan to enter the public market,” said JoeBen Bevirt, Joby CEO and founder.

Joby acquired Uber’s Elevate flying car business at the end of December and now plans to begin a commercial passenger ‘air taxi’ service in 2024. Hoffman described the venture as “Tesla meets Uber in the air” in a recent interview.

The company will work with Toyota from its California-based manufacturing facility to build its electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft. Toyota led the company’s $620m Series C funding round last year, with other investors including Intel Capital and JetBlue Technology Ventures.

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Virtual contact worse than no contact for over-60s in lockdown, says study | Coronavirus

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Virtual contact during the pandemic made many over-60s feel lonelier and more depressed than no contact at all, new research has found.

Many older people stayed in touch with family and friends during lockdown using the phone, video calls, and other forms of virtual contact. Zoom choirs, online book clubs and virtual bedtime stories with grandchildren helped many stave off isolation.

But the study, among the first to comparatively assess social interactions across households and mental wellbeing during the pandemic, found many older people experienced a greater increase in loneliness and long-term mental health disorders as a result of the switch to online socialising than those who spent the pandemic on their own.

“We were surprised by the finding that an older person who had only virtual contact during lockdown experienced greater loneliness and negative mental health impacts than an older person who had no contact with other people at all,” said Dr Yang Hu of Lancaster University, who co-wrote the report, published on Monday in Frontiers in Sociology.

“We were expecting that a virtual contact was better than total isolation but that doesn’t seem to have been the case for older people,” he added.

The problem, said Hu, was that older people unfamiliar with technology found it stressful to learn how to use it. But even those who were familiar with technology often found the extensive use of the medium over lockdown so stressful that it was more damaging to their mental health than simply coping with isolation and loneliness.

“Extensive exposure to digital means of communication can also cause burnout. The results are very consistent,” said Hu, who collected data from 5,148 people aged 60 or over in the UK and 1,391 in the US – both before and during the pandemic.

“It’s not only loneliness that was made worse by virtual contact, but general mental health: these people were more depressed, more isolated and felt more unhappy as a direct result of their use of virtual contact,” he said.

The report, Covid-19, Inter-household Contact and Mental Wellbeing Among Older Adults in the US and the UK, analysed national data from the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council-funded Understanding Society Covid-19 survey and the US Health and Retirement Study.

Hu said more emphasis needed to be placed on safe ways to have face-to-face contact in future emergencies. There must also, he added, be a drive to bolster the digital capacity of the older age groups.

“We need to have disaster preparedness,” he said. “We need to equip older people with the digital capacity to be able to use technology for the next time a disaster like this comes around.”

The findings outlined the limitations of a digital-only future and the promise of a digitally enhanced future in response to population ageing in the longer term, added Hu.

“Policymakers and practitioners need to take measures to pre-empt and mitigate the potential unintended implications of household-centred pandemic responses for mental wellbeing,” he said.

Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK, welcomed the report. “We know the virtual environment can exacerbate those feelings of not actually being there with loved ones in person,” she said.

“It’s essential therefore that government makes preventing and tackling loneliness a top policy priority, backed up with adequate funding.

“It’s not over the top to point out that in the worst cases, loneliness can kill in the sense that it undermines resilience to health threats of many kinds, as well as leading to older people in the twilight of their lives losing all hope, so they lack a reason to carry on.”

Patrick Vernon, associate director at the Centre for Ageing Better, said he saw many examples of older people using technology to stay connected in “really positive ways”.

But he was also doubtful: “We know that even for those who are online, lack of skills and confidence can prevent people from using the internet in the ways that they’d like to.”

Previous research by the Centre for Ageing Better found that since the pandemic, there had been significant increases in the use of digital technology among those aged 50-70 years who were already online.

But there are still 3 million people across the UK who are offline, with a significant digital divide affecting low-income households. Twenty-seven per cent of people aged 50-70 with an annual household income under £25,000 were offline before the pandemic.

Vernon said: “Our research has found that some people who were offline found it difficult to connect with family, friends and neighbours during the pandemic – and even those who were online said technology didn’t compensate for missing out on physical social interactions.”

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