UK lawmakers question tech attempts to stem coronavirus conspiracies

UK lawmakers question tech attempts to stem coronavirus conspiracies

UK lawmakers question tech attempts to stem coronavirus conspiracies

UK lawmakers questioned whether social media giants are doing enough to stop the spread of false information, after a conspiracy theory that 5G technology is contributing to the Covid-19 pandemic led to a spate of attacks on telecom masts and engineers.

Representatives from Facebook Inc, Alphabet Inc’s Google and Twitter Inc were asked to appear before the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee on Thursday to explain how their companies are tackling disinformation. It didn’t go well.

“We will be writing to all of your organisations with a series of questions and, frankly, we will be expressing our displeasure at the quality of the answers – well, the lack of answers – we received today,” chairman Julian Knight concluded after more than an hour of questioning via conference call.

The Silicon Valley giants outlined measures they’ve taken to combat fake news, such as Facebook’s move to restrict WhatsApp message forwarding and promote official guidance on the pandemic. But the panel of British lawmakers often interjected bluntly and deemed the testimony unsatisfactory.

Legislators demanded to know how Twitter was cracking down on world leaders, including US President Donald Trump, if they spread misinformation. The company’s UK head of government relations, Katy Minshall, was also grilled about the prevalence of bots on the site, which are automated accounts that perform repetitive tasks, such as sharing fake news stories.

“We’re really proud of the progress we’ve made over the past couple of years,” said Minshall, responding to a question about online abuse.

“Well I don’t know why,” interrupted member of Parliament John Nicolson.

Google public policy manager Alina Dimofte was asked why YouTube didn’t tackle 5G conspiracy videos earlier. It banned such videos on April 7 after a spate of attacks on towers and telecom engineers.

‘Astonished’

MP Steve Brine said that, during the session, he found a Facebook post from his district inciting the destruction of a 5G mast, which has been baselessly linked to the spread of Covid-19.

More than 60 telecom masts have been attacked in the UK in the past few weeks as the theory has gained traction and even made it onto mainstream TV shows.

Brine added that he was “astonished” that Facebook’s UK Public Policy Manager Richard Earley had not personally discussed the issues with chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg or its vice president for global affairs and communication, Nick Clegg. Clegg is also the former UK deputy prime minister.

TikTok, the most downloaded app in the world outside of China during the crisis, avoided questioning. The relatively new social media site was not asked to appear despite also hosting conspiracy theories. – Bloomberg

Tech giants struggle to stem ‘infodemic’ of false coronavirus claims | World news

Click over to Google, type in “coronavirus”, and press enter.

The results you see will bear little resemblance to any other search.

There are no ads, no product recommendations, and no links to websites that have figured out how to win the search engine optimisation game. Government, NGO and mainstream media sources dominate.

Algorithms and user-generated content are out; gatekeepers and fact checking are in.

Silicon Valley has responded to the “infodemic” with aggressive intervention and an embrace of official sources and traditional media outlets.

Across the social web – on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Reddit, Instagram and Pinterest – search results related to Covid-19 are similarly predetermined.


Instagram delivers a pop-up urging US users to go to the website for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – or UK users to the NHS – rather than look at the memes and pictures tagged with #coronavirus.

On Facebook, a dedicated “Information Center” includes a mix of curated information and official medical advice. On Pinterest, the only infographics and memes to be found on topics such as “Covid-19” or “hydroxychloroquine” are those made by internationally recognised health organisations, such as the WHO.

It is a stark contrast to how social media platforms have dealt with misinformation in the past.

US-based platforms, shaped by Silicon Valley’s libertarian ethos and protected by the first amendment, have long been reluctant to take a proactive editorial role or censor speech that could be considered political.

They have had to be pushed, prodded, cajoled, protested, and shamed into addressing hate speech, anti-vaxx propaganda and the harassment of victims of mass shootings.

On coronavirus, they have competed to be responsible and reliable sources of information. Yet still misinformation continues to adapt and spread, largely on social media.

Research by Oxford’s Reuters Institute looking at the spread of 225 false or misleading claims about coronavirus found 88% of the claims had appeared on social media platforms, compared with 9% on television or 8% in news outlets.

Nearly 30% of US adults believe Covid-19 was developed in a lab, according to a survey by Pew Research Center.

A conspiracy theory falsely linking 5G to the coronavirus pandemic has led to real-world consequences, including threats and harassment against telecom engineers and petrol bomb attacks on telephone poles.

A 5G mast damaged by fire in Birmingham, UK.



A 5G mast damaged by fire in Birmingham, UK.

Photograph: Carl Recine/Reuters

Carl Bergstrom, a University of Washington professor of biology who also studies and has written a book about misinformation, says the efforts of the social media companies are too little, too late.

“They’ve built this whole ecosystem that is all about engagement, allows viral spread, and hasn’t ever put any currency on accuracy,” he said. “Now all of a sudden we have a serious global crisis, and they want to put some Band-Aids on it. It’s better than not acting, but praising them for doing it is like praising Philip Morris for putting filters on cigarettes.”

Some of the more radical steps taken by tech companies include Twitter’s new policy to remove misinformation that contradicts official public health advice, such as tweets encouraging people not to follow physical distancing guidelines, and WhatsApp’s strict new limits on message forwarding.

The platforms feel they can be much more aggressive on coronavirus misinformation than they have been on political misinformation, said Claire Wardle of the non-profit organisation First Draft.

“There are no two sides with coronavirus, so they don’t have people on the other side saying: ‘We want this,’ the way you do with anti-vaxxers or political misinformation,” said Wardle. “They are freer to act.”

It is also relatively simple and straightforward for the platforms to select trusted sources of authoritative information – the WHO, NHS, CDC, etc – without appearing politically biased.

Wardle faulted the tech companies for not being better prepared for the crisis, however. Facebook has long ignored the conspiracy communities that organise using Facebook groups, such as anti-vaxxers, followers of QAnon, and people who believe 5G is harmful. Coronavirus misinformation is rampant in those communities.

“The sad thing is to see those kinds of conspiracies moving to neighbourhood groups, and family groups,” said Wardle. “It’s like sparks are flying off the bigger [conspiracy] groups and moving into other groups. Everyone is so frightened right now that it’s a tinderbox and these sparks are coming off and catching fire.”

And while the scientific nature of the crisis may lessen some of the external political pressures over how to moderate speech, it also brings with it a slew of challenges. The coronavirus is brand new, and the scientific understanding of it changes daily.

Bergstrom described this conundrum as an “uncertainty vacuum”. “Any reasonable authority will not give you a straight answer” to certain questions about the pandemic, “not because they’re trying to mislead you, but because they don’t know yet,” he said.


Another complicating factor is that normally trustworthy sources are not providing reliable information.

“We’ve seen the US government, particularly the White House, becoming a significant purveyor of misinformation around the virus,” Bergstrom said.

Facebook and Twitter have removed posts by prominent and powerful people over coronavirus misinformation, including the Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, but the real test of their resolve will be whether they ever take action against misinformation by Trump.

“We planned for years for this pandemic, but we never realised that we would be fighting a war on two fronts,” said Bergstrom. “One against the pandemic, and one against all the disinformation and hate and fear that is being amped up and enflamed by political opportunists.”

Europe eyes smartphone location data to stem coronavirus spread - Latest News

Europe eyes smartphone location data to stem coronavirus spread – Latest News

The Czech Republic has become the first European country to announce plans to deploy a powerful but potentially intrusive location-tracking tool for fighting the coronavirus pandemic, as others consider similar moves bound to put public health in conflict with individual privacy. The effort announced by the head of a Czech government crisis team will use real-time phone-location data to track the movements of virus carriers and people they come in contact with.

The aim is to pinpoint where infections are flaring up, how they are spreading and when health authorities need to order quarantines and other containment measures to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Britain, Germany and Italy are among countries similarly considering enlisting individual location data in the fight against the virus.

That worries privacy advocates, who fear such ubiquitous surveillance could be abused in the absence of careful oversight, with potentially dire consequences for civil liberties.

“These are testing times, but they do not call for untested new technologies,” a group of mostly British activists said in an open letter Monday to the country’s National Health Service.

The letter noted that such measures could put human rights at risk and may not work.

Czech officials said Tuesday that they will use data from wireless carriers for a voluntary app in which the movements of people who test positive for the virus will be mapped out and the people with whom they have intersected in the previous five days would be individual contacted by phone so that they can get tested. Officials said they expect to launch in mid-April.

The new tool marks a substantial departure from existing European disease-surveillance efforts, which have focused on tracking people’s movements with aggregated phone location data designed not to identify individuals. Italian police also began mobilizing drones on Monday to enforce restrictions on citizens’ movements.

But there is a powerful argument in favor of more powerful digital tools, even if they shred privacy: They have been used by several of the Asian governments most successful at containing the pandemic, including in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea and Singapore.

Last week, Israel took the most extreme step yet by charging its Shin Bet domestic security agency with using smartphone location data to track the movements of virus carriers for the prior two weeks, using historical data to identify possible transmission. Epidemiologists call this process “contact tracing,” which has traditionally relied on infected people’s memories to identify individuals with whom they came into contact.

So far, there’s no indication the U.S. government plans to track identifiable individuals for disease surveillance. A spokesperson for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy said it was not currently working on such an app.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did not immediately respond to questions from The Associated Press.

The White House has reached out to Big Tech companies for help in the worst pandemic in a century, but Google and Facebook both told the AP they are not sharing people’s location data with governments.

A Google spokesperson said the company was exploring ways to use aggregated location information against COVID-19, but added that the location data Google normally gathers from phone users isn’t accurate enough for contact tracing.

An AT&T spokesperson said the company was not sharing real-time location tracking with U.S. government virus-trackers. Sprint declined to comment and Verizon did not immediately respond to a query.

Israel’s effort and the newly announced Czech initiative go well beyond what Europe’s governments are currently getting from wireless carriers to identify “hot spots” of disease and human concentration. While legal safeguards exist in most democracies to protect digital privacy, the danger of the coronavirus could quickly compel policymakers to override them.

On Friday, the European Union’s Data Protection Authority cautiously endorsed putting privacy on pause during the public health emergency.

Italy’s Lazio region, which includes Rome and is home to 5.9 million people, rolled out a voluntary app over the weekend to assist people placed under quarantine or who think they’ve been in contact with others infected by the coronavirus. Privacy advocates worry that such apps can be used to track people.

Poland has introduced a more intrusive app – its instructions say it’s voluntary – to enforce 14-day quarantine for an estimated 80,000 people. Privacy advocates are concerned that it will fill a government database with the geo-located photos it compels users to take.

Jens Wille, CEO of the Hamburg digital mapping company UbiLabs, developed an opt-in app prototype for contact tracing that he said German officials evaluated but chose not to adopt. Officials at the Robert Koch Institute, which is managing the country’s COVID-19 response, told the AP they did not yet have anything to say on the issue. “They are working on something,” said Wille.

The chief executive of the innovation arm of Britain’s National Health Service, Matthew Gould, said in a statement that his office was “looking at whether app-based solutions might be helpful in tracking and managing coronavirus, and we have assembled expertise from inside and outside the organisation to do this as rapidly as possible.”

In South Korea, a compulsory app enforces self-isolation for those ordered to maintain it. Anyone violating quarantine could face a $8,400 fine or up to a year in prison.

Taiwan and Singapore also use smartphone apps to enforce quarantines via “electronic fences” that alert authorities when someone moves out of quarantine.

Hong Kong health authorities use electronic wristbands to monitor all overseas travelers ordered into self-isolation.

Italy’s minister of technological innovation, Paola Pisano, said in an interview Monday that a government task force is putting out a request for tracking-app candidates on Tuesday and expects to evaluate them by the end of the week.

Pisano said she expects Italy’s app to be voluntary and for the government to protect individual privacy. One-sixth of Italy’s 60 million people don’t use the internet, she said, and older people – those most susceptible to being killed by the virus – are generally disinclined to download a new app, and might rebel if forced to do so.

Europe eyes smartphone location data to stem virus spread - Latest News

Europe eyes smartphone location data to stem virus spread – Latest News

Several European nations are evaluating powerful but potentially intrusive tools for fighting the coronavirus pandemic, a move that could put public health at odds with individual privacy.

The tools in question are apps that would use real-time phone-location data to track the movements of virus carriers and the people they come in contact with. The aim would be to develop a better sense of where infections are flaring up, how they are spreading and when health authorities need to order quarantines and related measures to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Britain, Germany and Italy are among the nations considering the enlistment of individual location data in the fight against the virus. That worries privacy advocates, who fear such ubiquitous surveillance could be abused in the absence of careful oversight, with potentially dire consequences for civil liberties.

“These are testing times, but they do not call for untested new technologies,” a group of mostly British activists said in an open letter Monday to the country’s National Health Service. The letter noted that such measures could put human rights at risk and may not work.

Unless the data in question can be effectively anonymized, the new tools would mark a substantial departure from existing European disease-surveillance efforts, which have focused on tracking people’s movements with aggregated phone location data designed not to identify individuals. Italian police also began mobilizing drones on Monday to enforce restrictions on citizens’ movements.

But there is a powerful argument in favor of more powerful digital tools, even if they shred privacy: They have been used by several of the Asian governments most successful at containing the pandemic, including in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea and Singapore.

Last week, Israel took the most extreme step yet by charging its Shin Bet domestic security agency with using smartphone location data to track the movements of virus carriers for the prior two weeks, using historical data to identify possible transmission. Epidemiologists call this process “contact tracing,” although traditionally it involves questioning newly diagnosed individuals about their contacts with others.

So far, there’s no indication the U.S. government plans to track identifiable individuals for disease surveillance. A spokesperson for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy said it was not currently working on such an app. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did not immediately respond to questions from The Associated Press.

The White House has reached out to Big Tech companies for help in the worst pandemic in a century, but Google and Facebook both told the they are not sharing people’s location data with governments.

A Google spokesperson said the company was exploring ways to use aggregated location information against COVID-19, but added that the location data Google normally gathers from phone users isn’t accurate enough for contact tracing.

An AT&T spokesperson said the company was not sharing real-time location tracking with U.S. government virus-trackers. Sprint declined to comment and Verizon did not immediately respond to a query.

Contact-tracing apps being considered by European governments would, like Israel’s effort, go well beyond what those governments are currently getting from wireless carriers to identify “hot spots” of disease and human concentration.

While legal safeguards exist in most democracies to protect digital privacy, the danger of the coronavirus could quickly compel policymakers to override them. On Friday, the European Union’s Data Protection Authority cautiously endorsed putting privacy on pause during the public health emergency.

Italy’s Lazio region, which includes Rome and is home to 5.9 million people, rolled out a voluntary app over the weekend to assist people placed under quarantine or who think they’ve been in contact with others infected by the coronavirus. Privacy advocates worry that such apps can be used to track people. Poland has introduced a more intrusive app – its instructions say it’s voluntary – to enforce 14-day quarantine for an estimated 80,000 people.

Jens Wille, CEO of the Hamburg digital mapping company UbiLabs, developed an opt-in app prototype for contact tracing that he said German officials evaluated but chose not to adopt. Officials at the Robert Koch Institute, which is managing the country’s COVID-19 response, told the AP they did not yet have anything to say on the issue. “They are working on something,” said Wille.

The chief executive of the innovation arm of Britain’s National Health Service, Matthew Gould, said in a statement that his office was “looking at whether app-based solutions might be helpful in tracking and managing coronavirus, and we have assembled expertise from inside and outside the organisation to do this as rapidly as possible.”

In South Korea, a compulsory app enforces self-isolation for those ordered to maintain it. Anyone violating quarantine could face a $8,400 fine or up to a year in prison. Taiwan and Singapore also use smartphone apps to enforce quarantines via “electronic fences” that alert authorities when someone moves out of quarantine. Hong Kong health authorities use electronic wristbands to monitor all overseas travelers ordered into self-isolation.

Italy’s minister of technological innovation, Paola Pisano, said in an interview Monday that a government task force is putting out a request for tracking-app candidates on Tuesday and expects to evaluate them by the end of the week.

Pisano said she expects Italy’s app to be voluntary and for the government to protect individual privacy. One-sixth of Italy’s 60 million people don’t use the internet, she said, and older people – those most susceptible to being killed by the virus – are generally disinclined to download a new app, and might rebel if forced to do so.

Europeans are closely examining the South Korean model of contact tracing, which involves the use of personal information such as immigration, public transportation and credit-card records in addition to location-tracking GPS data.

But the Korean government disclosed so much ostensibly anonymous personal data that digital sleuths were able to identify virus carriers based on such information as where patients visited just before testing positive. Some people boycotted businesses, stigmatized carriers and even used the data to track alleged marital infidelity. On Friday, South Korea’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it was drafting new guidelines to scale back such abuses.

Michael Parker, an ethicist on an Oxford University team, said people are more likely to contact-tracing app if they’re not coerced – and the greater the participation the better the odds of identifying ‘hot spots’ and containing the virus.

“Identification and notification could be done anonymously,” he said. “You wouldn’t need to have to tell people where their possible infection came from.”

But Ashkan Soltani, a former U.S. Federal Trade Commission chief technologist, cautioned that contact tracing via app needs to be complemented with other means of disease surveillance, as in South Korea. That begins with universal testing for the virus, which the U.S. doesn’t have yet.

There are other problems. Location data from wireless carriers alone can produce a lot of false positives. Even phone-based GPS data is often inaccurate, Soltani noted, and could inaccurately identify strangers as meeting when they’re actually just in the same high-rise apartment building.

Israel’s Army Radio reported Monday that some people had been erroneously forced into quarantine as a result of location errors. It did not say how many. Adi Carmi, a former Shin Bet official, told the station that such anomalies happen with any large scale system. “It’s reasonable to assume that there will be mistakes here and there,” he said.

Amid the uproar, the Israeli health ministry launched a smartphone app that lets users opt into tracking system so it can notify them if they have overlapped with any virus carriers over the past 14 days. The app is constantly updated with epidemiological data.

The closest analogues in the U.S. are apps from startups K Health and Buoy Health that let people self-diagnose with an online questionnaire. If their symptoms are consistent with COVID-19, the individual can be connected with medical professionals to determine next steps.

New York-based K Health shares data with the government for a “heat map” of virus spread but says it is keeping personal data private.

STEM, International Women's Day Claire Fitzpatrick ConsenSys

STEM, International Women’s Day Claire Fitzpatrick ConsenSys

Interview with Claire Fitzpatrick, Global Director of Strategy and Operations at ConsenSys, ahead of International Women’s Day

What is your own background briefly?

I started my career as a chartered accountant training in PWC. I was attracted to the tech sector after my first role out of practice in a scaling software business.  I also spent a decade at O2 in various financial and operational leadership roles before co-founding Red Planet an innovation consultancy (sold to Deloitte 2017). So my route to becoming Global Director of Strategy and Operations at ConsenSys has taken a few twists and turns along the way!

Does it seem like a logical background to what you do now?

Yes, my varied background and exposure in emerging technologies has been of great advantage in the work I do. Blockchain is a new technology. We still are very much understanding the applications and opportunities it presents. This means we are continuously pivoting and realigning our strategy and focus. I liken it to the early days in the mobile industry, a time in which we were building what we knew to be era-defining infrastructure, but the market had not yet completely understood all of the possibilities that it would soon present.

Secondly, it always comes back to the numbers, so my finance background aids me in understanding the metrics, what they mean for the business now and what they mean for the future.

How was the last 12 months?

The last 12 months have been a time for building and consolidating our core product stack (PegaSys, Codefi, Infura and MetaMask), building and consolidating a team and delivering for our enterprise clients.  In Ireland, we have been building awareness of our brand and a big highlight of the year was our involvement in the inaugural Blockchain Ireland week last May, in which fifty events were held promoting knowledge and awareness of blockchain.

1 min pitch for what you are doing now?

I am the Global Director of Strategy and Operations at ConsenSys. As part of this role I work with our global leadership team to scale and deliver enterprise grade software solutions which are built on the  Ethereum blockchain. I guide an international team developing applications for new economic systems that are more open, efficient, and secure. I am mandated with driving the scaling and operations of our business effectively and efficiently.

Why do you feel women have a faltering status in technology?

I have seen first hand the incredible impact that women have in the technology industry. And while this impact cannot be understated, there are many disappointing facts that we must confront : Girls Who Code estimates there will be an estimated 1.4 million computing-related jobs in the U.S. alone, and women will likely only fill 3% of those.

It’s clear that companies must commit to adopt recruitment and retention practices to create a more diverse tech workforce, setting clear goals and being transparent about results. Until there is a systematic and all-of-industry approach to tackling inequality, I think it will be difficult for women to rid ourselves of this faltering status. However, the disappointing statistics encourage me to highlight the incredible things women are doing in the Irish tech space in the hope that we can bolster the career development of women in this industry.

We recently reviewed this book https://irishtechnews.ie/invisible-women-data-bias-in-a-world-designed-for-men-reviewed/ – have you read it / what are your thoughts on this topic?

I have; I think Perez does a fantastic job at highlighting the gender imbalance when it comes to not only the technology industry, but to technology in general. The myriad of examples that this book offers bears food for thought – most offices are five degrees too cold for women; most smartphones are too large for the average female hand and pockets designed for women are too small to comfortably fit these phones, women are frequently misdiagnosed because the symptoms of their heart attacks don’t confirm to those of men.

Car crash safety tests too often solely rely on male approximated dummies meaning that when a female is involved in a car crash she is 17% more likely to die and 47% more likely to be seriously injured than a man. The statistics offered in Perez’ book underscore a world in which data bias which guides so many of the decisions which affect our lives daily, can be unconsciously rigged to favour men.

This brings challenges for women in every industry, and such statistics implore us all to make a more active effort to make a difference. We are fighting an uphill battle, and though it may be daunting, I feel empowered to aid that change in whatever way I can.

What are your opinions around how we can advance equality in STEM?

There are ample opportunities to reduce inequality in STEM. Companies must commit to adopt recruitment and retention practices that support a more diverse workforce, setting clear goals and being transparent about results. Gender inequity doesn’t merely equate to women feeling overlooked –  it’s a missed opportunity for business and wider society. And to affect material change, we all need to step up to the plate – male allies have an equally essential part to play in reducing gender imbalances and inequalities.

As an industry, we need to actively foster and develop the skills and careers of women and ensure our workplaces offer an inclusive environment where all staff feel they can thrive.

Why did you get involved with Consensys?

I got involved with ConsenSys because we are developing the products that will enable society and enterprises to advance blockchain adoption to the next level. I am very excited about the bigger picture. In the future, you won’t even know you’re interacting with blockchain. It will be just like the Internet where nobody really thinks about or considers the infrastructure or protocols – they just see the applications.

I believe blockchain will be as transformational as mobile telecommunications was 25 years ago. We are part of a new industry, a new technology, with new products, and a market which we have to create and educate. That’s a big challenge, but a very exciting one.

In what ways is blockchain being used in an innovative way, especially in the fintech sector?

Blockchain is transforming the fintech sector in a wide variety of ways. Our technology, Codefi, for instance,  is a platform to create, issue, and manage the lifecycle of tokenised assets and digital financial instruments on a blockchain network.

Built on Ethereum, Codefi provides the ability to digitise business processes, payments, and assets such as equities, loans, and real estate. This solves many of the current problems that institutions in the capital markets industry face on a daily basis. I strongly believe that innovative blockchain solutions like Codefi will transform the way our financial systems operate for the better.

Why do you think it is such a powerful idea?

I think blockchain is an incredibly powerful idea due to the sheer magnitude of the benefit it brings. It allows for trusted data coordination, shared IT infrastructure, tokenization, attack resistance and built-in incentivization. Aside from these aspects, it has the capability to enhance every industry and change the way we live for the better; from aircraft leasing to purchasing goods in a supermarket, blockchain offers a benefit.

How can people find out more about you personally & your work?

I would strongly encourage following ConsenSys on social media. We regularly post really useful content that highlights the groundbreaking work being done in the blockchain space and how it is disrupting a range of different industries. Also Blockchain Ireland week will take place in Ireland 24th May to 31st May where lots of events will take place across the country to bring together and grow the blockchain ecosystem in Ireland – you’ll catch me dropping into as many of these as I can manage!

Who and where do you get inspiration from?

Inspiration comes from the privileged life I was lucky enough to be born into and am lucky enough to get to live everyday.  I love walking whether it be to work in the city centre or a long beach walk. I find I get great thoughts and inspiration when I do this.  Cheezy answer but it’s the truth!

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