FAA, Telecom Companies to Turn On More 5G Towers

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration announced Friday U.S.-based telecommunications companies AT&T and Verizon can activate more of their fifth-generation, or 5G, transmitters after consultation with the agency. 

Earlier this month, the telecommunication companies agreed they would delay launching the new wireless service near key airports after weeks of legal wrangling with the nation’s largest airlines and U.S. government regulators that feared the 5G service would interfere with aircraft technology and cause massive flight disruptions. 

But in its release Friday, the FAA said both companies provided additional data about the exact location of wireless transmitters and supported more thorough analysis of how 5G C-band signals interact with aircraft instruments. 

The agency said it used that data to precisely map the size and shape of the areas around airports where 5G signals might interfere with aircraft, allowing the regulators to shrink the areas where wireless operators had to delay their antenna activations. 

The FAA said that will allow wireless providers to safely turn on more towers as they deploy new 5G service in major markets across the country. The agency expressed its appreciation for the “collaborative approach” AT&T and Verizon took in providing the data. 

The FAA says it is continuing to work with helicopter operators and others in the aviation community to ensure they can safely operate in areas of current and planned 5G deployment. 

Some information for this report came from Reuters. 

 

Toyota Heading to Moon with Cruiser, Robotic Arms, Dreams

Toyota is working with Japan’s space agency on a vehicle to explore the lunar surface, with ambitions to help people live on the moon by 2040 and then go live on Mars, company officials said Friday.

The vehicle being developed with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency is called Lunar Cruiser, whose name pays homage to the Toyota Land Cruiser sport utility vehicle. Its launch is set for the late 2020’s.

The vehicle is based on the idea that people eat, work, sleep and communicate with others safely in cars, and the same can be done in outer space, said Takao Sato, who heads the Lunar Cruiser project at Toyota Motor Corp.

“We see space as an area for our once-in-a-century transformation. By going to space, we may be able to develop telecommunications and other technology that will prove valuable to human life,” Sato told The Associated Press.

Gitai Japan Inc., a venture contracted with Toyota, has developed a robotic arm for the Lunar Cruiser, designed to perform tasks such as inspection and maintenance. Its “grapple fixture” allows the arm’s end to be changed so it can work like different tools, scooping, lifting and sweeping.

Gitai Chief Executive Sho Nakanose said he felt the challenge of blasting off into space has basically been met but working in space entails big costs and hazards for astronauts. That’s where robots would come in handy, he said.

Since its founding in the 1930s, Toyota has fretted about losing a core business because of changing times. It has ventured into housing, boats, jets and robots. Its net-connected sustainable living quarters near Mount Fuji, called Woven City, where construction is starting this year.

Japanese fascination with the moon has been growing.

A private Japanese venture called ispace Inc. is working on lunar rovers, landing and orbiting, and is scheduled for a moon landing later this year. Businessman Yusaku Maezawa, who recently took videos of himself floating around in the International Space Station, has booked an orbit around the moon aboard Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s Starship.

Toyota engineer Shinichiro Noda said he is excited about the lunar project, an extension of the automaker’s longtime mission to serve customers and the moon may provide valuable resources for life on Earth.

“Sending our cars to the moon is our mission,” he said. Toyota has vehicles almost everywhere. “But this is about taking our cars to somewhere we have never been.” 

Nigerian Language Advocates Seek Inclusion of African Languages in Tech Devices

Voice-activated virtual assistant technologies, such as Siri and Alexa, are becoming increasingly common around the world, but in Africa, with its many languages, most people are at a digital disadvantage. To address the problem, some African researchers are creating translation tools to recognize and promote indigenous languages, such as Yoruba. 

Yoruba language teacher Oluwafemi Awosanya resumes a day’s classes with his students. He has been teaching the language for 10 years, but says he often struggles to migrate his class modules to an online students’ blogsite he created because there is no speech recognition technology for Yoruba.  

“Yoruba language is a language that has to do with signs at the top, so I need to go (the) extra mile. When typing my notes, I have to first type on Microsoft Word and even when I type on Microsoft Word it gives me best highlighting, like your words are not correct,” Awosanya said.

Awosanya spends several hours manually editing and correcting his notes before uploading them to his blog. 

He says despite technological advances in Africa, languages like Yoruba, one of the most commonly spoken in Nigeria, remain neglected, affecting his students.  

“It limits knowledge. There are things you wish you want to educate the children on, things you want to exhibit in the classes…” Awosanya said.

More than 2,000 distinct languages are spoken in Africa. Researchers say two-thirds of the native speakers miss out on emerging technologies due to language limitations in the tech world. 

Nigerian writer and language advocate Kola Tubosun says the issue threatens Africa’s technological future. He has since been trying to promote inclusivity for his native Yoruba tongue. 

He created an online Yoruba dictionary as well as a text-to-speech machine that translates English to Yoruba. He said the initiative was partly inspired by his grandfather, who could not read or write in English. 

“If a language doesn’t exist in the technology space, it is almost as if it doesn’t exist at all. That is the way the world is structured today and in that you spend all your time online every day and the only language you encounter is English, Spanish or Mandarin or whatever else, then it tends to define the way you interact with the world. And over time you tend to lose either the interest in your own language or your competence [competency in that language],” Tubosun said. 

Tubosun, who advocates for including African languages in technology, says the tech giants are starting to pay attention even though the gap remains very wide.    

“There are lots of obstacles. Some languages are not written down at all; some don’t have scripts. Some have scripts but don’t have so many people using the languages or writing them in education or using them in daily conversations,” Tubosun said. 

Language experts say it will take a long time before African languages are widely adopted in voice-driven technology.    

In the meantime, researchers like Tubosun and Awosanya will be working to adapt the Yoruba language for technology users.  

Nigerian Language Advocates Call for Including African Languages in High Tech Devices

Voice activated virtual assistant technologies, such as Siri and Alexa, are becoming increasingly common around the world but in Africa, with its many languages, most people are at a digital disadvantage.  To address the problem, some African researchers are creating translation tools to recognize and promote indigenous languages, such as Yoruba. Timothy Obiezu in Abuja has details.

Camera: Emeka Gibson  

Delay in Creating New US Cybersecurity Board Prompts Concern

It’s a key part of President Joe Biden’s plans to fight major ransomware attacks and digital espionage campaigns: creating a board of experts that would investigate major incidents to see what went wrong and try to prevent the problems from happening again — much like a transportation safety board does with plane crashes.

But eight months after Biden signed an executive order creating the Cyber Safety Review Board it still hasn’t been set up. That means critical tasks haven’t been completed, including an investigation of the massive SolarWinds espionage campaign first discovered more than a year ago. Russian hackers stole data from several federal agencies and private companies.

Some supporters of the new board say the delay could hurt national security and comes amid growing concerns of a potential conflict with Russia over Ukraine that could involve nation-state cyberattacks. The FBI and other federal agencies recently released an advisory — aimed particularly at critical infrastructure like utilities — on Russian state hackers’ methods and techniques.

“We will never get ahead of these threats if it takes us nearly a year to simply organize a group to investigate major breaches like SolarWinds,” said Sen. Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat who leads the Senate Intelligence Committee. “Such a delay is detrimental to our national security and I urge the administration to expedite its process.”

Biden’s order, signed in May, gives the board 90 days to investigate the SolarWinds hack once it’s established. But there’s no timeline for creating the board itself, a job designated to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.

In response to questions from The Associated Press, DHS said in a statement it was far along in setting it up and anticipated a “near-term announcement,” but did not address why the process has taken so long.

Scott Shackelford, the cybersecurity program chair at Indiana University and an advocate for creating a cyber review board, said having a rigorous study about what happened in a past hack like SolarWinds is a way of helping prevent similar attacks.

“It sure is taking, my goodness, quite a while to get it going,” Shackelford said. “It’s certainly past time where we could see some positive benefits from having it stood up.”

The Biden administration has made improving cybersecurity a top priority and taken steps to bolster defenses, but this is not the first time lawmakers have been unhappy with the pace of progress. Last year several lawmakers complained it took the administration too long to name a national cyber director, a new position created by Congress.

The SolarWinds hack exploited vulnerabilities in the software supply-chain system and went undetected for most of 2020 despite compromises at a broad swath of federal agencies and dozens of companies, primarily telecommunications and information technology providers. The hacking campaign is named SolarWinds after the U.S. software company whose product was exploited in the first-stage infection of that effort.

The hack highlighted the Russians’ skill at getting to high-level targets. The AP previously reported that SolarWinds hackers had gained access to emails belonging to the then-acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf.

The Biden administration has kept many of the details about the cyberespionage campaign hidden.

 

The Justice Department, for instance, said in July that 27 U.S. attorney offices around the country had at least one employee’s email account compromised during the hacking campaign. It did not provide details about what kind of information was taken and what impact such a hack may have had on ongoing cases.

The New York-based staff of the DOJ Antitrust Division also had files stolen by the SolarWinds hackers, according to one former senior official briefed on the hack who was not authorized to speak about it publicly and requested anonymity. That breach has not previously been reported. The Antitrust Division investigates private companies and has access to highly sensitive corporate data.

The federal government has undertaken reviews of the SolarWinds hack. The Government Accountability Office issued a report this month on the SolarWinds hack and another major hacking incident that found there was sometimes a slow and difficult process for sharing information between government agencies and the private sector, The National Security Council also conducted a review of the SolarWinds hack last year, according to the GAO report.

But having the new board conduct an independent, thorough examination of the SolarWinds hack could identify inconspicuous security gaps and issues that others may have missed, said Christopher Hart, a former National Transportation Safety Board chairman who has advocated for the creation of a cyber review board.

“Most of the crashes that the NTSB really goes after … are ones that are a surprise even to the security experts,” Hart said. “They weren’t really obvious things, they were things that really took some deep digging to figure out what went wrong.”

California Nursing Homes Use Robotic Pets to Help the Elderly

In a California senior care community, very special pets are helping residents keep their spirits up, fight anxiety and feel loved. Officials say these animals are therapeutic, low-maintenance and never get moody. Angelina Bagdasaryan has the story, narrated by Anna Rice.

Camera: Vazgen Varzhabetian             

UAE Bans Flying of Recreational Drones After Fatal Attack

The United Arab Emirates has banned the flying of drones in the country for recreation after Yemen’s Houthi rebels claimed a fatal drone attack on an oil facility and major airport in the country.

As of Saturday, drone hobbyists and other operators of light electric sports aircraft face “legal liabilities” if caught flying the objects, the Interior Ministry said, adding it may grant exemptions to businesses seeking to film.

A rare drone and missile strike on the capital of Abu Dhabi blew up several fuel tankers and killed three people last week.

The Houthis, who hold Yemen’s capital and have fought a bloody, yearslong war with a Saudi-led military coalition that includes the UAE, claimed the assault. While the UAE has largely withdrawn troops from the stalemated conflict, the country continues to be a major player and support local militias on the ground.

The UAE said the Houthis targeted the country with bomb-laden drones and cruise and ballistic missiles, adding the country had intercepted some of the projectiles. In response to the strike, the Saudi-led coalition has escalated attacks on the rebel-held parts of Yemen in the last week.

Government regulations in the UAE already restrict flying drones in residential areas as well as near, around and over airports. Drone users typically must obtain a certificate from the civil aviation authorities. 

 

Facebook Removes Kurdish Pages Linked to Misinformation on Belarus Migrant Crisis

Meta, the parent company of Facebook, has removed two popular Kurdish Facebook pages accused of spreading misinformation that helped convince thousands of Kurds to mass along the border of Belarus and Poland late last year.

The two accounts, one from a Kurdish lawmaker with 143,000 followers and another belonging to a Kurdish journalist with nearly 270,000 followers, were spreading misinformation that falsely claimed Kurds who went to the Belarus-Poland border would be allowed into the European Union.

There was no such immigration plan. Instead, frustrated crowds clashed with border guards and thousands were later deported. 

The false posts were among many seen by Kurds who traveled to the border area and were interviewed by VOA.

“We followed the crowd towards the Polish borders after rumors on Facebook. It resulted in nothing more than adversity for this destitute people,” said Hersh Saeed Ahmad, a Kurdish migrant in Belarus.

But the accounts on Facebook continued to publish widely read posts until earlier this month when VOA contacted Meta asking if the pages were violating the company’s policies. 

“Meta has decided both pages violated our policies for misinformation under Violence & Incitement Community Standards, and both have been taken down,” a spokesperson from the company told VOA in an email.

The episode illustrates how the social media network continues to struggle to police even well-known spreaders of misinformation who are involved in high-profile news events, especially when misinformation is being published in languages other than English.

Spreading misinformation 

The Belarus-EU border crisis began last July and worsened by November, when thousands of migrants from the Middle East, North Africa and Iraqi Kurdistan, attempted to cross into the EU from Belarus.

In mid-November, violence broke out at the Polish border when security forces used tear gas and water cannons to prevent migrants from breaking the border fencing. Polish police at the time reported several injuries in their ranks from migrants throwing stones at them.

At the time, Facebook told news outlets that it was working to shut down information about human trafficking in the region.

But two prominent Kurdish Facebook pages continued to traffic in misinformation about the situation at the border until earlier this month.

Sirwan Baban, a member of the Kurdistan Regional Parliament, and Ranj Pshdary, a Kurdish journalist based in Greece, used their pages on Facebook to tell their followers in early November that the EU and Germany had decided to open their borders to let in migrants stranded on a Belarus-Poland border point.

 

It was a claim denied by EU officials at the time, but thousands of migrants, mostly Kurds, still stormed the Polish border fence and clashed with police.

VOA interviews with officials in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and Kurdish migrants in Belarus confirmed that misinformation on Facebook, including from Baban and Pshdary, helped to lure thousands of people towards the Polish border.

Hersh Saeed Ahmad, a 36-year-old Kurd from Sulaimani province, is among those migrants who, after reading posts on social media, took his wife and 4-year-old child to the Polish border in November.

“Our situation after the storming turned from bad to worse,” he said. “Our admission by Germany was nothing more than lies and rumors on Facebook.”

Another migrant, Bahadin Muhsin Qadir, said they were told the Polish security at the border had announced through loudspeakers that they will be transferred through buses to Germany.

The standoff at the border during extreme weather conditions left more than a dozen people dead, according to human rights activists, who say the total number is likely higher but hard to confirm due to restricted access to the area.

Ari Jalal, the head of Kurdish foundation Lutka for Refugees and Migrants, told VOA that his group registered two deaths among the Kurds at the border. He said about 4,000 migrants have since returned to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, with about 1,100 people remaining in Belarus camps.

“In addition to bodily and material damage, the Kurdish migrants are also psychologically broken down completely,” said Jalal, while expressing his frustration at “how gullible Kurdish youth can be manipulated by livestream videos on social media.” 

Facebook’s efforts 

Working with independent experts, Meta says it works to detect and remove harmful false claims that could contribute to the risk of imminent violence or physical harm ­— such as claims in Arabic and Kurdish that either the Polish border is open to migrants or Germany is sending buses for the migrants to the border. 

In November, The New York Times reported that an account belonging to a Kurdish-German influencer widely known online as Karwan Rawanduzy was disabled on Facebook for frequently promoting bogus stories that fueled the crisis.

In early December, Meta released a threat report saying it removed 38 Facebook accounts, five groups and four Instagram accounts linked to the Belarusian KGB that were inflaming the migrant crisis. It also reported taking down 31 Facebook accounts, four groups, two Facebook events and four Instagram accounts that originated in Poland and targeted Belarus and Iraq.

Despite those high-profile takedowns, the social media giant missed other far-reaching pages that were still being used to mislead migrants.

False claim of open border 

In the case of Sirwan Baban, a lawmaker, and Ranj Pshdary, who calls himself a journalist, both with thousands of followers, Facebook for months served as their main medium to encourage migrants to amass at the Polish border.

Pshdary, 32, from Iraqi Kurdistan’s Qaladza town, has gained recognition in Kurdish media for his role in covering the Belarus crisis. On November 13, he went live on Facebook to tell migrants “the great news” that the EU was going to open its doors to let them in. In the video, viewed and shared by thousands, people claiming to be migrants in Belarus or their relatives, joined Pshdary’s call in encouraging the migrants to prepare to cross into Poland “in the next couple of days.”

“The Polish border will be opened to migrant on November 15 and the migrants will be sent to Germany via buses,” Pshdary said.

Three days later, thousands of migrants, mostly Kurds, headed from a Belarus forest to the Polish border, anticipating a crossing into Poland. They clashed with the Polish police, but no migrants crossed over.

Pshdary, in another live Facebook video titled “I confess that we failed,” admitted he had intentionally misled people.

“I don’t want to conceal from you that I was the organizer of the crowd. On Friday, [Nov. 12, 2021], I met with the representatives of the migrants… Seeing that the Belarus police were torturing a lot of young migrants, there was no option but to encourage those people to cut the barbed wire fence so that those young people can be seen as perpetrators and violated against [by the Polish security].”

Pshdary said in his Facebook Live he believed that falsely saying the border was open would have created a spectacle with women, children and older migrants out in the cold, thus embarrassing EU politicians and forcing them to open their doors on a humanitarian basis.

When reached by VOA, Pshdary insisted that his plan was “good intentioned” and aimed at helping the migrants who desperately reached out to him for a way out.

Lawmaker resigns from diaspora committee

Lawmaker Sirwan Baban, who served as a member of the Kurdistan Regional Parliament’s diaspora committee at the time of the crisis, gave similar false hopes to migrants on Facebook and on TV.

On November 8, he appeared in a live interview with the Kurdish media network Rudaw, which was streamed live on Facebook with 755,000 views, claiming he had access to a “proclamation” from the EU: “It says the migrant situation in Belarus has escalated and become tragedy and a global issue. Therefore, the European Union has met tonight, telling Poland, ‘Let Belarus continue its dictatorship. You open your borders and allow the migrants in. Once in Poland, we will distribute them among other European countries.'” 

In an interview with VOA, Baban denied coordinating his false information about border openings with Pshdary, claiming that he had received reliable information that the EU’s refugee committee and some German officials had made a “recommendation” to let in the migrants. However, he declined to share the source of his information with VOA.

“This issue is portrayed this way in Kurdistan only to implicate me,” he added. 

In addition to using his Facebook page, Baban also went live on several Facebook groups and other social media pages to promote the story which — at the time — was also denied by Kurdish Foreign Relations officer Safin Dizayee in an interview with VOA Kurdish Service.

Among videos Baban posted of alleged migrants celebrating and thanking him for his efforts to influence EU officials is a young girl introducing herself as Saya and saying, “Mr. Sirwan Baban, the parliamentarian, thank you very much for such a great news … I will see you in Germany.”

The Kurdistan Regional Parliament’s diaspora committee in an urgent statement on November 11 accused Baban of spreading misinformation “that pushes the youth into harm’s way.”

The head of the committee, Rebwar Babkai, told VOA that Baban has since been forced to resign from the committee due to his role in spreading the misinformation.

“I hope this is a lesson to all of us holding a public position to feel the responsibility of our jobs,” Babkai said, adding it was unclear if his region’s government was going to take further action against Baban.

Limits of Facebook’s enforcement? 

Some social media observers say Facebook’s failure to detect those pages after months of misinformation shows “a gap” that needs to be filled particularly in non-English content.

“I think Facebook needs to do more when it comes to content in local languages,” said Dlshad Othman, a Kurdish cybersecurity expert based in Washington.

Othman said the social media company has improved over the years in moderating content in major Middle Eastern languages such as Arabic, often at the expense of languages for smaller populations like the Kurds. A Facebook representative declined to answer VOA questions about how many Kurdish-literate moderators the company employs. 

Moustafa Ayad is the executive director for Africa, Middle East and Asia at the UK-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a research group that monitors online extremism and disinformation. He told VOA that while Facebook’s technical advances such as the development of artificial intelligence have been helpful in countering disinformation, the company needs to do more.

“I believe all of these issues can be fixed with effective moderation in those languages,” he said. “It is not only just language skills but also an understanding of what is happening in those countries in a geopolitical and social level.” 

Facebook says it works with law enforcement, academics, non-profit organizations and others to detect and remove harmful false claims, ads, posts, pages and groups about people smuggling over international borders, and did so during the crisis in Belarus. It uses technology, human review and “reports from our users and trusted partners to detect and remove such content,” said a Meta spokesperson in an email to VOA.

“We remove this content as soon as we become aware of it regardless of who posts the content,” the spokesperson said.

 

While their pages were removed, the journalist and lawmaker still have a presence on Facebook.

As of January 19, Pshdary, the journalist, has a personal account with 3,600 followers. 

The lawmaker Baban’s personal account has over 15,000 followers. On a recent post, he invites viewers to like his new page created on January 22.

 

Biden Pushes Expansion of Domestic Semiconductor Manufacturing

U.S. President Joe Biden touted a $20 billion investment by American technology company Intel to build a semiconductor factory in Ohio to address a global shortage that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the U.S.-China trade war.

In a speech from the White House on Friday, Biden said the Intel factory, part of the administration’s effort to work with the private sector, would create thousands of jobs. He urged Congress to pass legislation to further expand domestic chip manufacturing, framing it in the context of strategic competition with China.

“Today 75% of the production takes place in East Asia; 90% of the most advanced chips are made in Taiwan,” Biden said. “China is doing everything it can to take over the global market so they can try to outcompete the rest of us.”

Semiconductor chips function as the brains of cars, medical equipment, household appliances and electronic devices.

The $20 billion factory is an initial investment, said Patrick Gelsinger, chief executive officer of Intel, at the White House event.

“This site alone could grow to as much as $100 billion of total investment over the decade,” he said.

The White House pointed to other investments in semiconductor manufacturing in the United States earlier this year by Samsung, Texas Instruments and Micron.

“Congress can accelerate this progress by passing the U.S. Investment and Competition Act, also known as USICA, which the president has long championed and which he called for action on today,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki, referring to legislation that aims to strengthen research, development and manufacturing for critical supply chains to address semiconductor shortages.

Driven by Washington’s desire to retain an edge over China’s technological ambitions, USICA was passed with rare bipartisan Senate support in June but still needs to be passed by the House of Representatives. It includes full funding for the CHIPS for America Act, which provides $52 billion to catalyze more private sector investments in the semiconductor industry.

“The Chinese have been really clear. They want an indigenous chip industry. They want to be globally dominant, and that means displacing the U.S. and others,” James Lewis, director of the technology and public policy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told VOA.

The U.S. share of global semiconductor production has fallen from 37% to 12% over the past 30 years, according to government data.

Pandemic impact

The COVID-19 pandemic and extreme changes in consumer demand during lockdowns have exacerbated fragility in the global semiconductor supply chain.

“Consumer demand increased rapidly for items such as home computers, while supply could not keep up and many Chinese manufacturers were locked down,” Nada Sanders, professor of supply chain management at the D’Amore-McKim School of Business at Northeastern University, told VOA.

Meanwhile, the U.S.-China tariff war that began under the Trump administration and geopolitical conflicts between the two global rivals have made the environment even less conducive for cooperation, Sanders said.

The Intel factory will not be operational until 2025, but analysts say the initiative will still be effective to secure the supply of chips in the long run.

“You cannot underestimate demand for this stuff. It grows at about 10% a year,” Lewis said.

As the U.S. expands its domestic chip manufacturing capacity, analysts say a key component is working with international partners, including South Korea, Taiwan and Japan, to fill in the supply gap.

Earlier Friday, Biden discussed semiconductor supply chain resilience in his virtual summit with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.

“The leaders did discuss the importance of cooperation on supply chain security, including semiconductors, and the president described what we are doing at home and underscored the importance of working together on it,” a National Security Council spokesperson told VOA.

The spokesperson added that the two countries have been working closely in this area bilaterally through the Quad, a security dialogue forum involving the U.S., Australia, India and Japan.

“The new ministerial-level Economic Policy Consultative Committee (the Economic ‘2+2’) established by the leaders today will also cover this important issue,” the spokesperson said.

Taiwan, home to the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) and the leading producer of advanced chips in the world, is another key partner.

“If China was to take over Taiwan, and use TSMC as a leverage point, that would be hugely disruptive,” Lewis said. “Taiwan and its proximity to China and China’s hostility drives a lot of the concern.”

The global chip shortage has pushed up inflation rates and hamstrung the administration’s economic recovery efforts. It contributed to the sharp increases in the price of new and used automobiles, which account for one-third of the annual price increases in the consumer price index.

Biden’s approval in the polls has been lagging recently, partly driven by inflation. Consumer prices jumped 7% in December compared with a year earlier, the highest inflation rate in 40 years. It has dampened economic recovery in a year that the administration says has shown the biggest job growth in American history.

Israel Probes Allegations Police Cyber-Spied on Citizens

Israel on Thursday launched an investigation into allegations police used the controversial Pegasus spyware on the country’s citizens.

In a letter sent to police commander Koby Shabtai, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit asked to receive all wiretapping and computer spying orders from 2020 and 2021 in order to “verify allegations made in the media.”

The Israeli business daily Calcalist reported Thursday that Israeli police used Pegasus software to spy on an Israeli they considered a potential threat and attempt to gather evidence that could be used as leverage in future investigations.

According to the newspaper, which did not cite any sources, the police action represents a “danger to democracy.”

Police commissioner Yaakov Shabtai, reacting to the story, said that “the police have not found any evidence to support this information.”

“The Israeli police are fighting crime with all the legal means at their disposal,” Shabtai added in a statement.

Israeli security forces have wide leeway to conduct surveillance within Israel with judicial approval.

On Wednesday, Israel’s justice ministry pledged a full investigation into allegations that Pegasus spyware was used on Israeli citizens, including people who led protests of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Pegasus, a surveillance product made by the Israeli firm NSO that can turn a mobile phone into a pocket spying device, has remained a source of global controversy following revelations last year it was used to spy on journalists and dissidents worldwide.

Once installed in a mobile phone, Pegasus allows access to the user’s messaging and data, as well as remote activation of the device for sound and image capture.

NSO would neither confirm nor deny it sold technologies to Israeli police, stressing that it does “not operate the system once sold to its governmental customers and it is not involved in any way in the system’s operation.”

“NSO sells its products under license and regulation to intelligence and law enforcement agencies to prevent terror and crime under court orders and the local laws of their countries,” it said in a statement sent to AFP.

Israel’s defense ministry, which must approve all exports of Israeli-made defense industry products, has also opened an investigation into sales of Pegasus overseas. 

 

Senate Panel Moves Forward With Bill Targeting Big Tech

Legislation that would bar technology companies from favoring their own products in a way that undermines competitiveness moved forward Thursday after a Senate panel voted to move the bill to the Senate floor. 

The American Innovation and Choice Online Act received bipartisan support in a 16-6 vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee. 

The bill targets Amazon; Alphabet, the parent company of Google; Apple; and Meta, which was formerly called Facebook. 

The companies had worked strenuously to sink the bill, arguing it could disrupt their services. 

Smaller tech companies that supported the bill argued it will benefit consumers through adding competition. 

“This bill is not meant to break up Big Tech or destroy the products and services they offer,” said Senator Chuck Grassley, the top Republican on the judiciary panel. “The goal of the bill is to prevent conduct that stifles competition.” 

Matt Schruers, president of the Computer and Communications Industry Association, was critical of the bill and said he thought it would not pass the full Senate. 

“Antitrust policy should aim to promote consumer welfare — not punish specific companies,” he said in a statement. 

Another bill aimed at Big Tech, which has bipartisan sponsorship, is also working its way through Congress. The Open App Markets Act would prevent the Apple and Google app stores from requiring app makers to use their payment systems. 

The House of Representatives is also considering versions of both bills. 

Some information for this report came from Reuters. 

US Air Travel Safety Questions Linger Amid 5G Rollout

An unresolved disagreement between U.S. wireless communications carriers and commercial airlines over the rollout of new 5G networks continues to generate confusion about whether air travel is safe in the United States. 

On Wednesday, AT&T and Verizon, the two largest providers of mobile voice and internet service in the U.S., began turning on new wireless towers across the United States, making the ultra-fast 5G spectrum available to consumers, primarily in the more densely populated parts of the country.

Up until the last moment, there was a dispute between the carriers and major U.S. airlines over whether or not the new service would be deployed near airports. This caused a handful of international carriers, including British Airways, Lufthansa, All Nippon, Japan Airlines and Emirates, to announce that they would suspend some service to the United States until the issue was resolved.

Emirates President Tim Clark described the situation as “utterly irresponsible,” speaking earlier this week on CNN.

By Thursday morning, most of the concern about international flights had been resolved, but lingering questions remain for the United States’ vast system or regional air travel.

Interference with landing instruments possible

The 5G C-band spectrum signal used for mobile communications – for which mobile carriers paid more than $80 billion in an auction last year – is similar to the signal that commercial airlines use to measure the altitude of planes landing during inclement weather. Airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration have expressed concern that some aircraft devices, called radar altimeters, could experience interference from the new 5G signals, creating dangerous conditions.

On Wednesday, in a deal brokered by the Biden administration, mobile carriers said they would delay activating 5G towers near airport runways, leaving about 10% of the planned rollout inactive. In addition, the FAA specifically cleared several kinds of radar altimeters, including those commonly used in the Boeing 777, saying the data shows that 5G signals do not interfere with their systems.

In a press release Wednesday, the FAA said its new approvals “allow an estimated 62 percent of the U.S. commercial fleet to perform low-visibility landings at airports where wireless companies deployed 5G C-band.”

Regional airports waiting for answers

While the FAA’s steps to clear large passenger planes for continued use following the 5G rollout have helped prevent problems at large airports, the new technology is causing concern about safety at regional airports across the country, which are served by a wide variety of passenger planes, typically smaller than those that fly into major hub airports.

As of Wednesday, the FAA had not updated guidance for many smaller planes. Because there were relatively few severe weather systems in the U.S. on Wednesday, that did not translate into major delays. However, industry representatives said that it was only a matter of time before challenging weather conditions would begin causing problems.

Faye Malarkey Black, the president and CEO of the regional Airline Association, used Twitter to air her concerns about the situation, saying, “Situational update: 0% of the regional airline fleet has been cleared to perform low visibility landings at #5G impacted airports if/when weather drops below minimums. Today’s fair weather is saving rural America from severe air service disruption.”

Not a new problem

The battle between the airlines and mobile carriers is particularly frustrating to many in the U.S., because it is a problem that has been successfully resolved in other countries around the world. China, the U.K., and France, for example, have managed to roll out 5G service without any significant impact on air travel. That was achieved by agreements between the parties that limited the number of cell towers near airports and the power levels at which they operate.

In a warning to its members, the International Federation of Airline Pilots’ Associations noted that, in the U.S., “The power levels and proximities of the 5G signals are at higher power levels than any other deployment currently in use elsewhere in the world.”

The situation in the U.S. was complicated by the fact that the slice of spectrum being used for 5G services is slightly different here than it is in Europe. In the U.S., mobile carriers bought the rights to the band between 3.7 and 3.98 gigahertz, putting their signals somewhat closer to the 4.2 to 4.4 GHz being used by airlines than the European mobile carriers, which are limited to a range of 3.4 to 3.8 GHz.

The issue was raised during a press conference that U.S.President Joe Biden held at the White House on Wednesday afternoon. After being asked whether his administration bore part of the blame for confusion about flight safety, Biden characterized it as a fight between two private entities, over which the federal government exerts limited control.

“The fact is that you had two enterprises — two private enterprises — that had one promoting 5G and the other one are airlines,” Biden said. “They’re private enterprises. They have government regulation, admittedly.”

“And so, what I’ve done is pushed as hard as I can to have 5G folks hold up and abide by what was being requested by the airlines until they could more modernize over the years so that 5G would not interfere with the potential of the landing,” he said. “So, any tower — any 5G tower within a certain number of miles from the airport should not be operative.”

Bureaucratic dysfunction

The confusion resulting from the 5G rollout this week is at least partly attributable to dysfunction within the federal bureaucracy. Analysts say lines of authority between agencies responsible for auctioning off the rights to the wireless spectrum and those charged with managing conflicts are unclear. 

The Federal Communications Commission is responsible for spectrum auctions, but it is the Federal Aviation Administration, a part of the Department of Transportation, which makes decisions about airline safety. Further complicating matters is that the agency in charge of mediating spectrum disputes, which is located within the Commerce Department, was without a director for two-and-a-half-years, until President Biden’s nominee was confirmed last week.

That situation has led to multiple problems in the rollout of new communications technology over the years, including a recent battle during the Trump administration over whether new spectrum auctions would interfere with the satellite-based Global Positioning System

Explainer: How Sweeping EU Rules Would Curb Tech Companies

Online companies would have to ramp up efforts to keep harmful content off their platforms and take other steps to protect users under rules that European Union lawmakers are set to vote on Thursday.

The 27-nation bloc has gained a reputation as a trendsetter in the growing global push to rein in big tech companies as they face withering criticism over misinformation, hate speech and other harmful content on their platforms.

Here’s a look at the proposed EU rules, known as the Digital Services Act, and why they would make an impact:

WHAT IS THE DIGITAL SERVICES ACT?

The legislation is part of a sweeping overhaul of the European Union’s digital rules aimed at ensuring online companies, including tech giants like Google and Facebook parent Meta, protect users on their platforms and treat rivals fairly. It’s an update of the EU’s two-decade-old e-commerce directive.

“The Digital Services Act could now become the new gold standard for digital regulation, not just in Europe but around the world,” the lead EU lawmaker on the bill, Christel Schaldemose, said during a debate Wednesday. “Big tech nations like the U.S. or China are watching closely to see what we’re now going to agree.”

The proposals are one-half of flagship digital regulations drafted by the bloc. EU lawmakers are also working on a separate proposal, the Digital Markets Act, which is aimed at reining in the power of the biggest online “gatekeepers.” Both still face further negotiations with EU bodies before taking effect.

WHAT WILL IT COVER?

The Digital Services Act includes a raft of measures aimed at better protecting internet users and their “fundamental rights online.” Tech companies will be held more responsible for content on their platforms, with requirements to beef up flagging and removal of illegal content like hate speech or dodgy goods and services sold online like counterfeit sneakers or unsafe toys.

But lawmakers have been battling about the details of such takedowns, including whether court orders would be required.

Online platforms will have to be more transparent about their algorithms that recommend the next video to watch, product to buy or news item at the top of people’s social media feeds. So-called recommender systems have been criticized for leading people to more increasingly extreme or polarizing content.

Some amendments to the legislation proposed giving users the option of turning recommendations off or using third-party systems.

There are also measures to ban platforms from using “dark patterns” — deceptive techniques to nudge users into doing things they didn’t intend to — as well as requiring porn sites to register the identities of users uploading material.

ARE THERE ANY CONTROVERSIAL POINTS?

One of the legislation’s biggest battles is over surveillance-based advertising, also known as targeted or behavioral advertising. Such ads would be banned for children, but digital and consumer rights groups say the proposals don’t go far enough and have called for prohibiting them outright. That idea has faced fierce resistance from the digital ad industry dominated by Google and Meta.

Surveillance ads track online behavior, such as the websites visited or products bought online by a user, to serve them more digital ads based on those interests.

Groups such as Amnesty International say ad tracking undermines the rights that the legislation is supposed to protect, because it involves a massive invasion of privacy and indiscriminate data harvesting as part of a system that manipulates users and encourages ad fraud.

WHAT HAPPENS TO OFFENDERS?

The EU’s single market commissioner, Thierry Breton, took to Twitter on Wednesday to portray the proposed rules as the start of a new era for tough online enforcement.

“It’s time to put some order in the digital ‘Wild West,'” he said. “A new sheriff is in town — and it goes by the name #DSA,” he said, posting a mashup of video clips from a Clint Eastwood spaghetti Western film.

Under the Digital Services Act, violations could be punished with hefty fines of up to 6% of a company’s annual revenue. Some amendments have pushed for raising that amount.

Security Scanners Across Europe Tied to China Government, Military

At some of the world’s most sensitive spots, authorities have installed security screening devices made by a single Chinese company with deep ties to China’s military and the highest levels of the ruling Communist Party.

The World Economic Forum in Davos. Europe’s largest ports. Airports from Amsterdam to Athens. NATO’s borders with Russia. All depend on equipment manufactured by Nuctech, which has quickly become the world’s leading company, by revenue, for cargo and vehicle scanners.

Nuctech has been frozen out of the U.S. for years due to national security concerns, but it has made deep inroads across Europe, installing its devices in 26 of 27 EU member states, according to public procurement, government and corporate records reviewed by The Associated Press.

The complexity of Nuctech’s ownership structure and its expanding global footprint have raised alarms on both sides of the Atlantic.

A growing number of Western security officials and policymakers fear that China could exploit Nuctech equipment to sabotage key transit points or get illicit access to government, industrial or personal data from the items that pass through its devices.

Nuctech’s critics allege the Chinese government has effectively subsidized the company so it can undercut competitors and give Beijing potential sway over critical infrastructure in the West as China seeks to establish itself as a global technology superpower.

“The data being processed by these devices is very sensitive. It’s personal data, military data, cargo data. It might be trade secrets at stake. You want to make sure it’s in right hands,” said Bart Groothuis, director of cybersecurity at the Dutch Ministry of Defense before becoming a member of the European Parliament. “You’re dependent on a foreign actor which is a geopolitical adversary and strategic rival.”

He and others say Europe doesn’t have tools in place to monitor and resist such potential encroachment. Different member states have taken opposing views on Nuctech’s security risks. No one has even been able to make a comprehensive public tally of where and how many Nuctech devices have been installed across the continent.

Nuctech dismisses those concerns, countering that Nuctech’s European operations comply with local laws, including strict security checks and data privacy rules.

“It’s our equipment, but it’s your data. Our customer decides what happens with the data,” said Robert Bos, deputy general manager of Nuctech in the Netherlands, where the company has a research and development center.

He said Nuctech is a victim of unfounded allegations that have cut its market share in Europe nearly in half since 2019.

“It’s quite frustrating to be honest,” Bos told AP. “In the 20 years we delivered this equipment we never had issues of breaches or data leaks. Till today we never had any proof of it.”

‘It’s not really a company’

As security screening becomes increasingly interconnected and data-driven, Nuctech has found itself on the front lines of the U.S.-China battle for technology dominance now playing out across Europe.

In addition to scanning systems for people, baggage and cargo, the company makes explosives detectors and interconnected devices capable of facial recognition, body temperature measurement and ID card or ticket identification.

On its website, Nuctech’s parent company explains that Nuctech does more than just provide hardware, integrating “cloud computing, big data and Internet of Things with safety inspection technologies and products to supply the clients with hi-tech safety inspection solution.”

Critics fear that under China’s national intelligence laws, which require Chinese companies to surrender data requested by state security agencies, Nuctech would be unable to resist calls from Beijing to hand over sensitive data about the cargo, people and devices that pass through its scanners. They say there is a risk Beijing could use Nuctech’s presence across Europe to gather big data about cross-border trade flows, pull information from local networks, like shipping manifests or passenger information, or sabotage trade flows in a conflict.

A July 2020 Canadian government security review of Nuctech found that X-ray security scanners could potentially be used to covertly collect and transmit information, compromise portable electronic devices as they pass through the scanner or alter results to allow transit of “nefarious” devices.

The European Union put measures in place in late 2020 that can be used to vet Chinese foreign direct investment. But policymakers in Brussels say there are currently no EU-wide systems in place to evaluate Chinese procurement, despite growing concerns about unfair state subsidies, lack of reciprocity, national security and human rights.

“This is becoming more and more dangerous. I wouldn’t mind if one or two airports had Nuctech systems, but with dumping prices a lot of regions are taking it,” said Axel Voss, a German member of the European Parliament who works on data protection. “This is becoming more and more a security question. You might think it’s a strategic investment of the Chinese government.”

The U.S. — home to OSI Systems, one of Nuctech’s most important commercial rivals — has come down hard against Nuctech. The U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, the U.S. National Security Council, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration, and the U.S. Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security all have raised concerns about Nuctech.

The U.S. Transportation Security Administration told AP in an email that Nuctech was found ineligible to receive sensitive security information. Nuctech products, TSA said, “are not authorized to be used for the screening of passengers, baggage, accessible property or air cargo in the United States.”

In December 2020, the U.S. added Nuctech to the Bureau of Industry and Security Entity List, restricting exports to them on national security grounds.

“It’s not just commercial,” said a U.S. government official who was not authorized to speak on the record. “It’s using state-backed companies, with state subsidies, low-ball bids to get into European critical infrastructure, which is civil airports, passenger screening, seaport and cargo screening.”

 

In Europe, Nuctech’s bids can be 30-50% below their rivals’, according to the company’s competitors, U.S. and European officials and researchers who study China. Sometimes they include other sweeteners like extended maintenance contracts and favorable loans.

In 2009, Nuctech’s main European competitor, Smiths Detection, complained that it was being squeezed out of the market by such practices, and the EU imposed an anti-dumping duty of 36.6% on Nuctech cargo scanners.

“Nuctech comes in with below market bids no one can match. It’s not a normal price, it’s an economic statecraft price,” said Didi Kirsten Tatlow, and co-editor of the book, China’s Quest for Foreign Technology. “It’s not really a company. They are more like a wing of a state development drive.”

Nuctech’s Bos said the company keeps prices low by manufacturing in Europe. “We don’t have to import goods from the U.S. or other countries,” he said. “Our supply chain is very efficient with local suppliers, that’s the main reason we can be very competitive.”

Nuctech’s successes abound. The company, which is opening offices in Brussels, Madrid and Rome, says it has supplied customers in more than 170 countries and regions. Nuctech said in 2019 that it had installed more than 1,000 security check devices in Europe for customs, civil aviation, ports and government organizations.

In November 2020, Norwegian Customs put out a call to buy a new cargo scanner for the Svinesund checkpoint, a complex of squat, grey buildings at the Swedish border. An American rival and two other companies complained that the terms as written gave Nuctech a leg up.

The specifications were rewritten, but Nuctech won the deal anyway. The Chinese company beat its rivals on both price and quality, said Jostein Engen, the customs agency’s director of procurement, and none of Norway’s government ministries raised red flags that would have disqualified Nuctech.

“We in Norwegian Customs must treat Nuctech like everybody else in our competition,” Engen said. “We can’t do anything else following EU rules on public tenders.”

Four of five NATO member states that border Russia — Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland — have purchased Nuctech equipment for their border crossings with Russia. So has Finland.

Europe’s two largest ports — Rotterdam and Antwerp, which together handled more than a third of goods, by weight, entering and leaving the EU’s main ports in 2020 — use Nuctech devices, according to parliamentary testimony.

Other key states at the edges of the EU, including the U.K., Turkey, Ukraine, Albania, Belarus and Serbia have also purchased Nuctech scanners, some of which were donated or financed with low-interest loans from Chinese state banks, according to public procurement documents and government announcements.

Airports in London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Athens, Florence, Pisa, Venice, Zurich, Geneva and more than a dozen across Spain have all signed deals for Nuctech equipment, procurement and government documents, and corporate announcements show.

Nuctech says it provided security equipment for the Olympics in Brazil in 2016, then President Donald Trump’s visit to China in 2017 and the World Economic Forum in 2020. It has also provided equipment to some U.N. organizations, procurement records show.

Rising concerns

As Nuctech’s market share has grown, so too has skepticism about the company.

Canadian authorities dropped a standing offer from Nuctech to provide X-ray scanning equipment at more than 170 Canadian diplomatic missions around the world after a government assessment found an “elevated threat” of espionage.

Lithuania, which is involved in a diplomatic feud with China over Taiwan, blocked Nuctech from providing airport scanners earlier this year after a national security review found that it wasn’t possible for the equipment to operate in isolation and there was a risk information could leak back to China, according to Margiris Abukevicius, vice minister for international cooperation and cybersecurity at Lithuania’s Ministry of National Defense.

Then, in August, Lithuania approved a deal for a Nuctech scanner on its border with Belarus. There were only two bidders, Nuctech and a Russian company — both of which presented national security concerns — and there wasn’t time to reissue the tender, two Lithuanian officials told AP.

“It’s just an ad hoc decision choosing between bad and worse options,” Abukevicius said. He added that the government is developing a road map to replace all Nuctech scanners currently in use in Lithuania as well as a legal framework to ban purchases of untrusted equipment by government institutions and in critical sectors.

Human rights concerns are also generating headwinds for Nuctech. The company does business with police and other authorities in Western China’s Xinjiang region, where Beijing stands accused of genocide for mass incarceration and abuse of minority Uyghur Muslims.

Despite pressure from U.S. and European policymakers on companies to stop doing business in Xinjiang, European governments have continued to award tens of millions of dollars in contracts — sometimes backed by European Union funds — to Nuctech.

Nuctech says on its Chinese website that China’s western regions, including Xinjiang, are “are important business areas” for the company. It has signed multiple contracts to provide X-ray equipment to Xinjiang’s Department of Transportation and Public Security Department.

It has provided license plate recognition devices for a police checkpoint in Xinjiang, Chinese government records show, and an integrated security system for the subway in Urumqi, the region’s capital city. It regularly showcases its security equipment at trade fairs in Xinjiang.

“Companies like Nuctech directly enable Xinjiang’s high-tech police state and its intrusive ways of suppressing ethnic minorities. This should be taken into account when Western governments and corporations interface with Nuctech,” said Adrian Zenz, a researcher who has documented abuses in Xinjiang and compiled evidence of the company’s activities in the region.

Nuctech’s Bos said he can understand those views, but that the company tries to steer clear of politics. “Our daily goal is to have equipment to secure the world more and better,” he said. “We don’t interfere with politics.”

Complex web of ownership

Nuctech opened a factory in Poland in 2018 with the tagline “Designed in China and manufactured in Europe.” But ultimate responsibility for the company lies far from Warsaw, with the state-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission of the State Council in Beijing, China’s top governing body.

Nuctech’s ownership structure is so complex that it can be difficult for outsiders to understand the true lines of influence and accountability.

Scott Kennedy, a Chinese economic policy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said that the ambiguous boundaries between the Communist Party, state companies and financial institutions in China — which have only grown murkier under China’s leader, Xi Jinping — can make it difficult to grasp how companies like Nuctech are structured and operate.

“Consider if the roles were reversed. If the Chinese were acquiring this equipment for their airports they’d want a whole variety of assurances,” Kennedy said. “China has launched a high-tech self-sufficiency drive because they don’t feel safe with foreign technology in their supply chain.”

What is clear is that Nuctech, from its very origins, has been tied to Chinese government, academic and military interests.

Nuctech was founded as an offshoot of Tsinghua University, an elite public research university in Beijing. It grew with backing from the Chinese government and for years was run by the son of China’s former leader, Hu Jintao.

Datenna, a Dutch economic intelligence company focused on China, mapped the ownership structure of Nuctech and found a dozen major entities across four layers of shareholding, including four state-owned enterprises and three government entities.

Today the majority shareholder in Nuctech is Tongfang Co., which has a 71% stake. The largest shareholder in Tongfang, in turn, is the investment arm of the China National Nuclear Corp. (CNNC), a state-run energy and defense conglomerate controlled by China’s State Council. The U.S. Defense Department classifies CNNC as a Chinese military company because it shares advanced technologies and expertise with the People’s Liberation Army.

Xi has further blurred the lines between China’s civilian and military activities and deepened the power of the ruling Communist Party within private enterprises. One way: the creation of dozens of government-backed financing vehicles designed to speed the development of technologies that have both military and commercial applications.

In fact, one of those vehicles, the National Military-Civil Fusion Industry Investment Fund, announced in June 2020 that it wanted to take a 4.4% stake in Nuctech’s majority shareholder, along with the right to appoint a director to the Tongfang board. It never happened — “changes in the market environment,” Tongfeng explained in a Chinese stock exchange filing.

But there are other links between Nuctech’s ownership structure and the fusion fund.

CNNC, which has a 21% interest in Nuctech, holds a stake of more than 7% in the fund, according to Qichacha, a Chinese corporate information platform. They also share personnel: Chen Shutang, a member of CNNC’s Party Leadership Group and the company’s chief accountant serves as a director of the fund, records show.

“The question here is whether or not we want to allow Nuctech, which is controlled by the Chinese state and linked to the Chinese military, to be involved in crucial parts of our border security and infrastructure,” said Jaap van Etten, a former Dutch diplomat and CEO of Datenna.

Nuctech maintains that its operations are shaped by market forces, not politics, and says CNNC doesn’t control its corporate management or decision-making.

“We are a normal commercial operator here in Europe which has to obey the laws,” said Nuctech’s Bos. “We work here with local staff members, we pay tax, contribute to the social community and have local suppliers.”

But experts say these touchpoints are further evidence of the government and military interests encircling the company and show its strategic interest to Beijing.

“Under Xi Jinping, the national security elements of the state are being fused with the technological and innovation dimensions of the state,” said Tai Ming Cheung, a professor at UC San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy.

“Military-civil fusion is one of the key battlegrounds between the U.S. and China. The Europeans will have to figure out where they stand.” 

 

 

Felony Charges Are a First in Fatal Crash Involving Autopilot

California prosecutors have filed two counts of vehicular manslaughter against the driver of a Tesla on Autopilot who ran a red light, slammed into another car and killed two people in 2019.

The defendant appears to be the first person to be charged with a felony in the United States for a fatal crash involving a motorist who was using a partially automated driving system. Los Angeles County prosecutors filed the charges in October, but they came to light only last week. 

The driver, Kevin George Aziz Riad, 27, has pleaded not guilty. Riad, a limousine service driver, is free on bail while the case is pending. 

The misuse of Autopilot, which can control steering, speed and braking, has occurred on numerous occasions and is the subject of investigations by two federal agencies. The filing of charges in the California crash could serve notice to drivers who use systems like Autopilot that they cannot rely on them to control vehicles.

The criminal charges aren’t the first involving an automated driving system, but they are the first to involve a widely used driver technology. Authorities in Arizona filed a charge of negligent homicide in 2020 against a driver Uber had hired to take part in the testing of a fully autonomous vehicle on public roads. The Uber vehicle, an SUV with the human backup driver on board, struck and killed a pedestrian. 

By contrast, Autopilot and other driver-assist systems are widely used on roads across the world. An estimated 765,000 Tesla vehicles are equipped with it in the United States alone.

In the Tesla crash, police said a Model S was moving at a high speed when it left a freeway and ran a red light in the Los Angeles suburb of Gardena and struck a Honda Civic at an intersection on December 29, 2019. Two people who were in the Civic, Gilberto Alcazar Lopez and Maria Guadalupe Nieves-Lopez, died at the scene. Riad and a woman in the Tesla were hospitalized with non-life-threatening injuries.

Criminal charging documents do not mention Autopilot. But the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which sent investigators to the crash, confirmed last week that Autopilot was in use in the Tesla at the time of the crash.

Riad’s defense attorney did not respond to requests for comment last week, and the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office declined to discuss the case. Riad’s preliminary hearing is scheduled for February 23. 

‘Automation complacency’

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board have been reviewing the widespread misuse of Autopilot by drivers, whose overconfidence and inattention have been blamed for multiple crashes, including fatal ones. In one crash report, the NTSB referred to its misuse as “automation complacency.”

The agency said that in a 2018 crash in Culver City, California, in which a Tesla hit a firetruck, the design of the Autopilot system had “permitted the driver to disengage from the driving task.” No one was hurt in that crash. 

Last May, a California man was arrested after officers noticed his Tesla moving down a freeway with the man in the back seat and no one behind the steering wheel.

Teslas that have had Autopilot in use also have hit a highway barrier or tractor-trailers that were crossing roads. NHTSA has sent investigation teams to 26 crashes involving Autopilot since 2016, involving at least 11 deaths.

Messages have been left seeking comment from Tesla, which has disbanded its media relations department. Since the Autopilot crashes began, Tesla has updated the software to try to make it harder for drivers to abuse it. The company also tried to improve Autopilot’s ability to detect emergency vehicles.

Tesla has said that Autopilot and a more sophisticated Full Self-Driving system cannot drive themselves and that drivers must pay attention and be ready to react at any time. Full Self-Driving is being tested by hundreds of Tesla owners on public roads in the U.S. 

Bryant Walker Smith, a law professor at the University of South Carolina who studies automated vehicles, said this is the first U.S. case to his knowledge in which serious criminal charges were filed in a fatal crash involving a partially automated driver-assist system. Tesla, he said, could be “criminally, civilly or morally culpable” if it is found to have put a dangerous technology on the road. 

Donald Slavik, a Colorado lawyer who has served as a consultant in automotive technology lawsuits, including many against Tesla, said he, too, is unaware of any previous felony charges being filed against a U.S. driver who was using partially automated driver technology involved in a fatal crash. 

Lawsuits against Tesla, Riad

The families of Lopez and Nieves-Lopez have sued Tesla and Riad in separate lawsuits. They have alleged negligence by Riad and have accused Tesla of selling defective vehicles that can accelerate suddenly and that lack an effective automatic emergency braking system. A joint trial is scheduled for mid-2023. 

Lopez’s family, in court documents, alleges that the car “suddenly and unintentionally accelerated to an excessive, unsafe and uncontrollable speed.” Nieves-Lopez’s family further asserts that Riad was an unsafe driver, with multiple moving infractions on his record, and couldn’t handle the high-performance Tesla. 

Separately, NHTSA is investigating a dozen crashes in which a Tesla on Autopilot ran into several parked emergency vehicles. In the crashes under investigation, at least 17 people were injured, and one person was killed.

Asked about the manslaughter charges against Riad, the agency issued a statement saying there is no vehicle on sale that can drive itself. And whether or not a car is using a partially automated system, the agency said, “every vehicle requires the human driver to be in control at all times.” 

NHTSA added that all state laws hold human drivers responsible for the operation of their vehicles. Though automated systems can help drivers avoid crashes, the agency said, the technology must be used responsibly.

Rafaela Vasquez, the driver in the Uber autonomous test vehicle, was charged in 2020 with negligent homicide after the SUV fatally struck a pedestrian in suburban Phoenix in 2018. Vasquez has pleaded not guilty. Arizona prosecutors declined to file criminal charges against Uber. 

 

US Telecom Carriers to Limit 5G Rollout Near Airports

Major U.S. telecommunications companies Verizon and AT&T agreed Tuesday to delay their deployment of new 5G mobile services around key airports after airline executives contended that the technology posed safety threats to airliners.

U.S. President Joe Biden said in a statement that the government’s agreement with the telecom companies would “avoid potentially devastating disruptions to passenger travel, cargo operations, and our economic recovery” while allowing them to deploy more than 90% of their wireless towers on Wednesday as they had planned.

“This agreement protects flight safety and allows aviation operations to continue without significant disruption,” Biden said, “and will bring more high-speed internet options to millions of Americans.”

The two telecom firms reached agreement with federal authorities after major U.S. air carriers warned Monday that the country’s commerce would “grind to a halt” if the 5G mobile technology were deployed near major airports. The White House did not say at how many airports the 5G technology is being delayed.

Biden thanked the mobile carriers for the delay and said negotiations would continue.

“My team has been engaging nonstop with the wireless carriers, airlines and aviation equipment manufacturers to chart a path forward for 5G deployment and aviation to safely coexist,” he said. “And, at my direction, they will continue to do so until we close the remaining gap and reach a permanent, workable solution around these key airports.”

The airlines say the new technology will interfere with safe flight operations, while the mobile carriers claim the airlines have known about the problem and failed to upgrade equipment on their aircraft to prevent flight problems.

The new high-speed 5G mobile service uses a segment of the radio spectrum that is close to that used by altimeters — devices in cockpits that measure the height of aircraft above the ground.

AT&T and Verizon argue that their equipment will not interfere with aircraft electronics and that technology is being safely used in many other countries.

In a letter Monday to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, chief executives at Delta Air Lines, American Airlines, United Airlines and seven other passenger and cargo carriers protested the mobile carriers’ plan to roll out their upgraded service on Wednesday.

While the Federal Aviation Administration previously said it would not object to deployment of the 5G technology because the mobile carriers had pledged to address safety issues, the airline executives said aircraft manufacturers subsequently warned them that the Verizon and AT&T measures were not sufficient to allay those concerns.

The mobile companies said they would reduce power at 5G transmitters near airports, but the airlines have asked that the 5G technology not be activated within 3.2 kilometers of 50 major airports. The details of the telecoms’ pullback around airports were not immediately known.

If the 5G technology is used, the airline executives contended, “multiple modern safety systems on aircraft will be deemed unusable. Airplane manufacturers have informed us that there are huge swaths of the operating fleet that may need to be indefinitely grounded.”

“Immediate intervention is needed to avoid significant operational disruption to air passengers, shippers, supply chain and delivery of needed medical supplies,” the airline industry executives said.

Some information in this report came from The Associated Press.

US Airlines, Telecom Carriers Feuding Over Rollout of 5G Technology

Major U.S. air carriers are warning that the country’s “commerce will grind to a halt” if Verizon and AT&T go ahead with plans to deploy their new 5G mobile internet technology on Wednesday.

The airlines say the new technology will interfere with safe flight operations. 

The dispute between two major segments of the U.S. economy has been waged for months in Washington regulatory agencies, with the airline industry contending that the mobile carriers’ technology upgrade could disrupt global passenger service and cargo shipping, while the mobile carriers claim the airlines failed to upgrade equipment on their aircraft to prevent flight problems.

The new high-speed 5G mobile service uses a segment of the radio spectrum that is close to that used by altimeters — devices in cockpits that measure the height of aircraft above the ground. 

AT&T and Verizon argue that their equipment will not interfere with aircraft electronics and that the technology is being safely used in many other countries. 

In a letter Monday to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, chief executives at Delta Air Lines, American Airlines, United Airlines and seven other passenger and cargo carriers protested the mobile carriers’ plan to roll out their upgraded service on Wednesday. 

While the Federal Aviation Administration previously said it would not object to deployment of the 5G technology because the mobile carriers said they would address safety concerns, the airline executives said aircraft manufacturers have subsequently warned them that the Verizon and AT&T measures were not sufficient to allay safety concerns.

The mobile companies said they would reduce power at 5G transmitters near airports, but the airlines have asked that the 5G technology not be activated within 3.2 kilometers of 50 major airports. 

The airline executives contended that if the 5G technology is used, “Multiple modern safety systems on aircraft will be deemed unusable. Airplane manufacturers have informed us that there are huge swaths of the operating fleet that may need to be indefinitely grounded.” 

The airline industry executives argued that “immediate intervention is needed to avoid significant operational disruption to air passengers, shippers, supply chain and delivery of needed medical supplies.” 

After the airlines’ latest protests, AT&T said Tuesday it would postpone its new wireless service near some airports but did not say at how many or where. Verizon had no immediate comment. 

In a statement Monday, the FAA said it “will continue to keep the traveling public safe as wireless companies deploy 5G” and “continues to work with the aviation industry and wireless companies to try and limit 5G-related flight delays and cancellations.” 

The White House said Tuesday that the Biden administration is continuing discussions with the airline and telecommunications companies about the dispute.

Some material in this report came from The Associated Press. 

 

Microsoft Discloses Malware Attack on Ukraine Government Networks

Microsoft said late Saturday that dozens of computer systems at an unspecified number of Ukrainian government agencies have been infected with destructive malware disguised as ransomware, a disclosure suggesting an attention-grabbing defacement attack on official websites was a diversion. The extent of the damage was not immediately clear.

The attack comes as the threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine looms and diplomatic talks to resolve the tense stand-off appear stalled.

Microsoft said in a short blog post that amounted to the clanging of an industry alarm that it first detected the malware on Thursday. That would coincide with the attack that simultaneously took some 70 government websites temporarily offline.

The disclosure followed a Reuters report earlier in the day quoting a top Ukrainian security official as saying the defacement was indeed cover for a malicious attack.

Separately, a top private sector cybersecurity executive in Kyiv told The Associated Press how the attack succeeded: The intruders penetrated the government networks through a shared software supplier in a so-called supply-chain attack in the fashion of the 2000 SolarWinds Russian cyberespionage campaign targeting the U.S. government.

Microsoft said in a different, technical post that the affected systems “span multiple government, non-profit, and information technology organizations.” It said it did not know how many more organizations in Ukraine or elsewhere might be affected but said it expected to learn of more infections.

“The malware is disguised as ransomware but, if activated by the attacker, would render the infected computer system inoperable,” Microsoft said. In short, it lacks a ransom recovery mechanism.

Microsoft said the malware “executes when an associated device is powered down,” a typical initial reaction to a ransomware attack.

Microsoft said it was not yet able to assess the intent of the destructive activity or associate the attack with any known threat actors. The Ukrainian security official, Serhiy Demedyuk, was quoted by Reuters as saying the attackers used malware similar to that used by Russian intelligence. He is deputy secretary of the National Security and Defense Council.

A preliminary investigation led Ukraine’s Security Service, the SBU, to blame the web defacement on “hacker groups linked to Russia’s intelligence services.” Moscow has repeatedly denied involvement in cyberattacks against Ukraine.

Tensions with Russia have been running high in recent weeks after Moscow amassed an estimated 100,000 troops near Ukraine’s border. Experts say they expect any invasion would have a cyber component, which is integral to modern “hybrid” warfare.

Demedyuk told Reuters in written comments that the defacement “was just a cover for more destructive actions that were taking place behind the scenes and the consequences of which we will feel in the near future.” The story did not elaborate and Demedyuk could not immediately be reached for comment.

Oleh Derevianko, a leading private sector expert and founder of the ISSP cybersecurity firm, told the AP he did not know how serious the damage was. He said also unknown is what else the attackers might have achieved after breaking into KitSoft, the developer exploited to sow the malware.

In 2017, Russia targeted Ukraine with one of the most damaging cyberattacks on record with the NotPetya virus, causing more than $10 billion in damage globally. That virus, also disguised as ransomware, was a so-called “wiper” that erased entire networks.

Ukraine has suffered the unfortunate fate of being the world’s proving ground for cyberconflict. Russia state-backed hackers nearly thwarted its 2014 national elections and briefly crippling parts of its power grid during the winters of 2015 and 2016.

In Friday’s mass web defacement, a message left by the attackers claimed they had destroyed data and placed it online, which Ukrainian authorities said had not happened.

The message told Ukrainians to “be afraid and expect the worst.”

Ukrainian cybersecurity professionals have been fortifying the defenses of critical infrastructure since 2017, with more than $40 million in U.S. assistance. They are particularly concerned about Russian attacks on the power grid, rail network and central bank.

 

 

China Seen Backing ‘Digital Authoritarianism’ in Latin America 

Chinese technology and expertise is making it possible for Venezuela and Cuba to exercise suffocating control over digital communications in the two countries, according to insider accounts and several international investigations. 

Venezuela and Cuba do more to block internet access than any other governments in Latin America, according to the U.S.-based advocacy group Freedom House, which has documented what it describes as “digital authoritarianism” in the region since 2018. 

“Whoever believes that privacy exists in Venezuela through email communications, Twitter, WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram is wrong. All these tools” are totally subject to government intervention, said Anthony Daquin, former adviser on computer security matters to the Ministry of Justice of Venezuela. 

Daquin participated between 2002 and 2008 in delegations sent by former President Hugo Chávez to China to learn how Beijing uses software to identify Chinese citizens, and to implement a similar system in Venezuela. 

Key to those efforts was the introduction in 2016 of the “carnet de la patria” or homeland card, developed by the Chinese company ZTE. While theoretically voluntary, possession of the cards is required to access a vast range of goods and services, ranging from doctor’s appointments to government pensions. 

The cards were presented as a way to make public services and supply chains more efficient, but critics denounced them as a form of “citizen control.” 

Daquin said China’s role in recent years has been to provide technology and technical assistance to help the Venezuelan government process large amounts of data and monitor people whom the government considers enemies of the state. 

“They have television camera systems, fingerprints, facial recognition, word algorithm systems for the internet and conversations,” he said. 

Daquin said one of the few means that Venezuelans have to communicate electronically free from government monitoring is the encrypted messaging platform Signal, which the government has found it very costly to control. 

The former adviser said Venezuela’s digital surveillance structure is divided into five “rings,” with “Ring 5 being the most trusted, 100 percent Chinese personnel supervising.” 

According to Daquin, the government receives daily reports from the monitors that become the basis for decisions on media censorship, internet shutdowns and arbitrary arrests. 

US accusations against Chinese companies 

Several Chinese technology companies are active in Venezuela, including ZTE, Huawei and the China National Electronics Import & Export Corp. (CEIEC). The latter was sanctioned in 2020 by the U.S. Treasury Department on the grounds that its work in Venezuela had helped the government of President Nicolas Maduro “restrict internet service” and “conduct digital surveillance and cyber operations against political opponents.”

The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee also issued an alert in 2020. In a report, Big Brother, China Digital Authoritarianism, it accused Chinese telecommunications companies of facilitating “digital authoritarianism” around the world and cited Venezuela as a case study. 

Specifically, the committee mentions the existence of a team of ZTE employees working within the facilities of the state telecommunications company CANTV, which manages the homeland card database. 

The document cites an investigation by the Reuters news agency, which reported it was told by CANTV employees that the card system allows them to monitor a vast range of information about individuals, including “birthdays, family information, employment and income, property owned, medical history, state benefits received, presence on social media, membership of a political party and whether a person voted.” 

“Maduro takes full advantage of Chinese hardware and services in his effort to control Venezuelan citizens,” the report says. 

Sophisticated and simple internet blockades 

The Maduro government’s efforts to block access to the internet by domestic opponents are “very crude,” according to Luis Carlos Díaz, president of the Venezuelan chapter of the Internet Society, a U.S.-based nonprofit that advocates for open development of the internet. 

He said it takes nothing more than a phone call from a government official to the operator of a web portal to have a website or social media outlet blocked for a time. 

However, in 2019, Venezuela blocked The Onion Router, or TOR, one of the most sophisticated systems used globally to allow internet users to remain anonymous and bypass censorship. The platform directs messages through a worldwide network of servers so the origin of a message cannot be identified. 

Diaz said that, unlike other recurrent blockades in Venezuela, the TOR hack did require a higher level of knowledge. 

“There, we raised alerts because it was excessively serious,” he told VOA. “It meant that the Venezuelan government was using technology like the one used in China to block users who had TOR, a tool used to circumvent censorship.” 

The TOR blockade lasted a week, and Díaz said he doubts that the Venezuelan government did it by itself, because it lacks the highly trained people needed for such a complex operation. 

China’s role in Cuba 

The internet infrastructure in Cuba was also built with equipment acquired from Chinese companies. The Swedish organization Qurium, in a report published at the beginning of 2020, said it had detected Huawei eSight network management software on the Cuban internet. The purpose of the software is to help filter web searches, according to this organization. 

Cuban dissidents say the only way to access pages censored by the government on the island is through a virtual private network or VPN, which tricks the system into believing that the user is in another country. 

This “is the only way to enter any controlled website,” said journalist Luz Escobar, who converts web content into PDF format or newsletters and sends those by email to users of 14yMedio, an independent digital news outlet that is blocked from uploading its content to the internet. In Cuba, however, “few people master this technique,” she said. 

Internet censorship in Cuba was investigated in 2017 by the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI), a volunteer-based organization that monitors internet censorship around the world. The group said it was able to determine that a Chinese company had developed software for public Wi-Fi portals on the island “because they left comments in the source code in Chinese.” 

“We also found a wide use of Huawei equipment,” said Arturo Filastó, a project leader at OONI who had traveled to Cuba and tested various Wi-Fi connection points provided by the government. 

Voice of America asked for comments from the three government entities in question — Cuba, Venezuela and China — but did not receive responses from any of them before publication. 

China continues to tutor countries with an “authoritarian tendency” 

In a 2021 report on internet censorship, Freedom House said Venezuelan officials, along with representatives from 36 other countries including Saudi Arabia and Syria, participated in Chinese government training and seminars on new media and information management. 

China has organized forums such as the World Internet Conference in 2017 “where it imparts its norms to authoritarian-leaning governments,” the report concluded. 

Justin Sherman, an information security expert at the Atlantic Council’s Cyber Statecraft Initiative, told VOA that Chinese companies like Huawei and ZTE have “been involved all over the world, not just in Venezuela, in creating programs of internet censorship surveillance for governments, intelligence services and police agencies.” 

Sherman said it is not clear whether Chinese companies sell their surveillance technology to authoritarian governments solely for profit. The thesis of the 2020 Senate Relations Committee report is that there is an interest in China to go beyond the sale of its technology services to extend its policy of “digital authoritarianism in the world.” 

This article originated in VOA’s Latin America Division.

‘Be Afraid’: Ukraine Hit by Cyberattack, Russia Moves More Troops

Ukraine was hit by a massive cyberattack warning its citizens to “be afraid and expect the worst”, and Russia, which has massed more than 100,000 troops on its neighbor’s frontier, released TV pictures on Friday of more forces deploying in a drill.

The developments came after no breakthrough was reached at meetings between Russia and Western states, which fear Moscow could launch a new attack on a country it invaded in 2014.

“The drumbeat of war is sounding loud,” said a senior U.S. Diplomat.

Russia denies plans to attack Ukraine but says it could take unspecified military action unless demands are met, including a promise by the NATO alliance never to admit Kyiv.

Russia said troops in its far east would practice deploying to far-away military sites for exercises as part of an inspection. Defense Ministry footage released by RIA news agency showed numerous armored vehicles and other military hardware being loaded onto trains in the Eastern Military District.

“This is likely cover for the units being moved towards Ukraine,” said Rob Lee, a military analyst and a fellow at the U.S.-based Foreign Policy Research Institute.

The movements indicated Russia has no intention of dialing down tensions over Ukraine, having used its troop build-up to force the West to the negotiating table and press sweeping demands for “security guarantees” – key elements of which have been described by the United States as non-starters.

Ukrainian authorities were investigating a huge cyberattack, which hit government bodies including the ministry of foreign affairs, cabinet of ministers, and security and defense council.

“Ukrainian! All your personal data was uploaded to the public network. All data on the computer is destroyed, it is impossible to restore it,” said a message visible on hacked

government websites, written in Ukrainian, Russian and Polish.

“All information about you has become public, be afraid and expect the worst. This is for your past, present and future.”

Ukraine’s foreign ministry spokesperson told Reuters it was too early to say who could be behind the attack but said Russia had been behind similar strikes in the past. Russia did not immediately comment but has previously denied being behind cyberattacks on Ukraine.

The Ukrainian government said it had restored most of the affected sites and that no personal data had been stolen. Several other government websites had been suspended to prevent the attack from spreading.

The European Union’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, condemned the attack and said the EU’s political and security committee and cyber units would meet to see how to help Kyiv: “I can’t blame anybody as I have no proof, but we can imagine.”

The message left by the cyberattack was peppered with references that echoed long-running Russian state allegations, rejected by Kyiv, that Ukraine is in the thrall of far-right nationalist groups. It referenced Volhynia and Eastern Galicia, the site of killings carried out in Nazi German-occupied Poland by Ukrainian insurgents, a point of contention between Poland and Ukraine.

The United States warned on Thursday that the threat of a Russian military invasion was high. Russia has consistently denied that. 

Moscow said dialogue was continuing but was hitting a dead end as it tried to persuade the West to bar Ukraine from joining NATO and roll back decades of alliance expansion in Europe.

The United States and NATO have rejected those demands but said they are willing to talk about arms control, missile deployments, confidence-building measures and limits on military exercises.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Friday that Moscow was awaiting a point-by-point written response to its proposals.

SpaceX Rocket Lifts Off with South African Satellites on Board

A SpaceX rocket launch Thursday carried three small South African-made satellites that will help with policing South African waters against illegal fishing operations.

Produced at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, the satellites could also be used to help other African countries to protect their coastal waters.

SpaceX’s billionaire boss Elon Musk has given three nano satellites produced in his birth country, South Africa, a ride into space.

The company’s Falcon rocket launched from Cape Canaveral in the U.S. state of Florida with 105 spacecraft on board. All three South African satellites deployed successfully.

This mission, known as Transporter 3, is part of SpaceX’s rideshare program which in two previous outings has put over 220 small satellites into orbit.

The three South African nano satellites on this trip were designed at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology’s Africa Space Innovation Centre.

The institution’s deputy vice chancellor for research, technology and innovation Professor David Phaho says “it marks a quantum leap in terms of South Africa’s capability to participate in the space sector. As you can imagine the issue of oceans economy has become topical globally. And the fact that we’ve developed this capacity in South Africa, and we are launching this (sic) satellites will go a long way in enhancing our capabilities to monitor our coastline and grow our economy.”

Phaho notes the university has been building up to the launch of these satellites, known collectively as MDASat-1, with a previous satellite launch in 2018.

“These three satellites, there was a precursor to these current three satellite constellation. Zcube2 is the most advanced nano satellite developed on the African continent and it was launched in December 2018 so these ones are basically part and parcel of that development. And they are probably the most advanced nano satellites developed on the African continent,” Phaho expressed.

Stephen Cupido studied at the space center and graduated in 2014. Today, he works here as a software engineer and points out that “it’s been a ride, it’s been amazing, ups and downs but this is definitely an up today. Just to get everything ready for today has been a lot of pressure.”

And the interaction with SpaceX has been complicated he says laughing “but it’s necessary. We are putting objects in space and space is for everyone, we have to keep it safe for everybody so we understand the paperwork involved but we’ve got all the information through to them. They’re launching our satellite so everything is in order.”

The university paid almost $260,000 to secure its spot on the SpaceX craft. It says it hopes to continue the relationship with Elon Musk’s company. 

Hong Kong COVID-19 Tracking App Spurs Opposition

A new Hong Kong mandate that restaurants and other establishments require use of an app aimed at recording people’s locations and telling them if they have been near a COVID-19 patient has spurred opposition from the city’s pro-democracy voices.

The LeaveHomeSafe app scans a two-dimensional QR barcode at taxis and other locations. If a COVID-19 patient has been there, the app will alert users and provide health advice. The government required the use of the app Dec. 9 in all indoor premises including government buildings, restaurants, public facilities, and karaoke venues. Those over the age of 65, 15 years or younger, the homeless and those with disabilities are exempt.

Previously Hong Kongers could record these movements using a paper form, but the cursive characters written by opposition Hong Kongers or pro-democracy activists expressing their distrust in government were often illegible for authorities.

Hong Kongers believe the app can be a tool used by authorities to monitor citizens, according to a human rights advocate.

“Given Beijing’s use of mass surveillance in China, many Hong Kong people suspect that the app is one way for the Hong Kong and Beijing governments to normalize the use of government surveillance in Hong Kong,” Human Rights Watch senior China researcher Maya Wang told VOA by email.

An office worker in her 20s entering a Taiwanese restaurant recently was one of the Hong Kongers harboring doubts about the app. Before entering the restaurant, she said she stopped texting on her phone to use a second phone to scan the restaurant’s QR code using LeaveHomeSafe.

“It’s an act of human right and privacy violation as we can no longer choose the way we live and the app is part of the digital surveillance system,” she told VOA, referring to the government app.

Government officials sought to allay such privacy concerns last February, as health secretary Sophia Chan said the COVID-19 tracking app would not send personal data to the authorities.

“The fact is there is no issue of data privacy, because the data would be just stored in the phone of the person. There is no platform that collects those data,” Chan told reporters.

Hong Kong also has a new Health Code app for people to show they have not been exposed to COVID-19 to travel to mainland China, using LeaveHomeSafe records. The LeaveHomeSafe privacy statement says users are required to upload their visit records from the app to the health code system “only with their express consent” and “at their sole discretion.”

 

“The visit record, which by itself in isolation is not personal data, will be kept in users’ mobile phones for 31 days and will then be erased automatically,” the privacy statement adds.

The government announced the requirement for broader use of the LeaveHomeSafe app in November, before the omicron variant and when Hong Kong’s confirmed infection number was in single digits.

The government said in a statement then it had made the decision “amid the severe COVID-19 pandemic situation across the world” and that “it strives to foster favourable conditions for resuming cross-boundary travel with the Mainland and cross-border travel in the future.”

Wang said Hong Kongers are right to be suspicious of the government’s intentions with the tracing app.

Even though Hong Kong differs from China in significant ways, such as a privacy ordinance that protected people’s privacy for many years, she said, “these legal protections are increasingly being undermined as Beijing and Hong Kong governments do away with other protections of civil liberties, such as a free press and freedom of expression.”

The announcement of the mandate followed a clampdown on the use of the fake version of the app in the same month. The police arrested five people for using fake apps.

Two were confirmed to be arrested on suspicion of using false instruments — the same charge for using a falsified passport or fabricated visa to enter the city — that can send offenders to prison for up to 14 years and incur up to about $19,000 in penalty.

Officials have long been wary of certain residents’ opposition to the use of the app. In September, the police arrested three core members, aged 18-20, of the pro-democracy student activism group Student Politicism under the national security law.

They have been charged with conspiracy to incite subversion for “stirring hatred towards the government … including urging people not to use the LeaveHomeSafe app and to fill in fake [personal] information on the paper forms,” Steve Li Kwai-wah, superintendent of the police national security department told media in a September press conference.

Eric Lai, researcher at Georgetown University’s Center for Asian Law, said the measure seeks to “repress” Hong Kongers’ rights.

“The government of Hong Kong has a track record of using COVID-preventive measures to repress the exercise of citizen’s rights, such as the use of social distancing rules to criminalize citizens protesting in public sites” he told VOA by email.

The police were accused of targeting restaurants and shops that support democracy by conducting checks only in such shops, according to local media StandNews, which is now closed.

Many of such shops complained about losing the freedom not to use the app and said they would offer carry-out orders that do not require its use instead.

 

 

 

World Economic Forum Warns Cyber Risks Add to Climate Threat

Cyberthreats and the growing space race are emerging risks to the global economy, adding to existing challenges posed by climate change and the coronavirus pandemic, the World Economic Forum said in a report Tuesday.  

The Global Risks Report is usually released ahead of the annual elite winter gathering of CEOs and world leaders in the Swiss ski resort of Davos, but the event has been postponed for a second year in a row because of COVID-19. The World Economic Forum still plans some virtual sessions next week. 

Here’s a rundown of the report, which is based on a survey of about 1,000 experts and leaders:  

World outlook 

As 2022 begins, the pandemic and its economic and societal impacts still pose a “critical threat” to the world, the report said. Big differences between rich and poor nations’ access to vaccines mean their economies are recovering at uneven rates, which could widen social divisions and heighten geopolitical tensions. 

By 2024, the global economy is forecast to be 2.3% smaller than it would have been without the pandemic. But that masks the different rates of growth between developing nations, whose economies are forecast to be 5.5% smaller than before the pandemic, and rich countries, which are expected to expand 0.9%.  

Digital dangers 

The pandemic forced a huge shift — requiring many people to work or attend class from home and giving rise to an exploding number of online platforms and devices to aid a transformation that has dramatically increased security risks, the report said.  

“We’re at the point now where cyberthreats are growing faster than our ability to effectively prevent and manage them,” said Carolina Klint, a risk management leader at Marsh, whose parent company Marsh McLennan co-authored the report with Zurich Insurance Group and SK Group.  

Cyberattacks are becoming more aggressive and widespread, as criminals use tougher tactics to go after more vulnerable targets, the report said. Malware and ransomware attacks have boomed, while the rise of cryptocurrencies makes it easy for online criminals to hide payments they have collected.  

While those responding to the survey cited cybersecurity threats as a short- and medium-term risk, Klint said the report’s authors were concerned that the issue wasn’t ranked higher, suggesting it’s a “blind spot” for companies and governments. 

Space race 

Space is the final frontier — for risk.  

Falling costs for launch technology has led to a new space race between companies and governments. Last year, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ space tourism venture Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson took off, while Elon Musk’s Space X business made big gains in launching astronauts and satellites.  

Meanwhile, a host of countries are beefing up their space programs as they chase geopolitical and military power or scientific and commercial gains, the report said.  

But all these programs raise the risk of friction in orbit.  

“Increased exploitation of these orbits carries the risk of congestion, an increase in debris and the possibility of collisions in a realm with few governance structures to mitigate new threats,” the report said.  

Space exploitation is one of the areas that respondents thought had among the least amount of international collaboration to deal with the challenges.  

Experts and leaders responding to the survey “don’t believe that much is being done in the best possible way moving forward,” World Economic Forum’s managing director, Saadia Zahidi, said at a virtual press briefing from Geneva.  

Other areas include artificial intelligence, cyberattacks and migration and refugees, she said.  

Climate crisis  

The environment remains the biggest long-term worry.  

The planet’s health over the next decade is the dominant concern, according to survey respondents, who cited failure to act on climate change, extreme weather, and loss of biodiversity as the top three risks.  

The report noted that different countries are taking different approaches, with some moving faster to adopt a zero-carbon model than others. Both approaches come with downsides. While moving slowly could radicalize more people who think the government isn’t acting urgently, a faster shift away from carbon intense industries could spark economic turmoil and throw millions out of work.  

“Adopting hasty environmental policies could also have unintended consequences for nature,” the report added. “There are still many unknown risks from deploying untested biotechnical and geoengineering technologies.” 

US Cyber Officials Bracing for ‘Log4j’ Vulnerability Fallout

U.S. cybersecurity officials are still sounding an alarm about the so-called Log4j software vulnerability more than a month after it was first discovered, warning some criminals and nation state adversaries may be waiting to make use of their newfound access to critical systems.

The U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) said Monday that the vulnerability, also known as Log4shell, has been subject to widespread exploitation by criminals over the past several weeks, but that more serious and damaging attacking could still be in the works.

“We do expect Log4Shell to be used in intrusions well into the future,” CISA Director Jen Easterly told reporters during a phone briefing, adding, “at this time we have not seen the use of Log4shell resulting in significant intrusions.”

“This may be the case because sophisticated adversaries have already used this vulnerability to exploit targets and are just waiting to leverage their new access until network defenders are on a lower alert,” she said.

The vulnerability in the open-source software produced by the U.S.-based Apache Software Foundation, was first discovered in late November by the Chinese tech giant Alibaba. The first warnings to the public went out in early December. 

Cybersecurity officials and experts initially described the flaw in the software as perhaps the worst vulnerability ever discovered, noting the software’s widespread use – in at least 2,800 products used by both private companies and governments around the world.

CISA on Monday said the vulnerability has impacted hundreds of millions of devices around the world, with many software vendors racing to issue security patches to their customers.

So far, U.S. agencies appear to be unscathed.

“We, at this point, are not seeing any confirmed compromises of federal agencies across the broader country, including critical infrastructure,” CISA Executive Assistant Director for Cybersecurity Eric Goldstein told reporters.

But he cautioned the danger has not yet passed despite the lack of destructive attacks by sophisticated hacking groups and foreign adversaries.

“It is certainly possible that that may change, that adversaries may be utilizing this vulnerability to gain persistent access that they could use in the future, which is why we are so focused on remediating the vulnerability across the country and ensuring that we are detecting any intrusions if and when they arise,” he said.

Yet there are reports that other countries have already been targeted by cyber actors seeking to exploit the software vulnerability.

Belgium’s Ministry of Defense said last month that some of its computer systems went down last month following an attack, in which the Log4j vulnerability was believed to be exploited.

And some security experts warn other countries, including China, Iran, North Korea and Turkey, have sought to exploit Log4j.

“This activity ranges from experimentation during development, integration of the vulnerabilities to in-the-wild payload deployment, and exploitation against targets to achieve the actor’s objectives,” Microsoft’s Threat Intelligence Center wrote in a blog post last week.

In particular, Microsoft said the Iran cyber threat actor known as Phosphorus, known for launching ransomware attacks, has already modified the Log4j vulnerability for use in attacks, while the Chinese group known as Hafnium has also used it for some targeting activities.

The private cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike separately assessed that a Chinese-based group called Aquatic Panda sought to use the Log4j vulnerability to target an unnamed academic institution.

CISA on Monday said it could not independently confirm such reports, and further said it had yet to discover any ransomware attacks in which the attackers used the Log4j vulnerability to penetrate the victim’s systems.

CISA’s director said one reason could be that “there may be a lag between when this vulnerability is being used and when it is being actively deployed.”

Easterly also warned about information that U.S. officials are unable to see due to the failure of Congress to pass legislation that would require private companies to report cyberattacks – something the White House and many lawmakers have been advocating for some time.

“We are concerned that threat actors are going to start taking advantage of this vulnerability and having impacts in particular on critical infrastructure, and because there is no legislation in place, we will likely not know about it,” she said. 

Indian Muslim Women ‘Auction’ App Shows Tech Weaponized for Abuse

Six months ago, pilot Hana Khan saw her picture on an app that appeared to be auctioning scores of Muslim women in India. The app was quickly taken down, no one was charged, and the issue shelved – until a similar app popped up on New Year’s Day.

Khan was not on the new app called Bulli Bai – a slur for Muslim women – that was hawking activists, journalists, an actor, politicians and Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai as maids.

Amid growing outrage, the app was taken down, and four suspects arrested this week.

 

The fake auctions that were shared widely on social media are just the latest examples of how technology is being used – often with ease, speed and little expense – to put women at risk through online abuse, theft of privacy or sexual exploitation.

For Muslim women in India who are often abused online, it is an everyday risk, even as they use social media to call out hatred and discrimination against their minority community.

“When I saw my picture on the app, my world shook. I was upset and angry that someone could do this to me, and I became angrier as I realized this nameless person was getting away with it,” said Khan, who filed a police complaint against the first app, Sulli Deals, another pejorative term for Muslim women.

“This time, I felt so much dread and despair that it was happening again to my friends, to Muslim women like me. I don’t know how to make it stop,” Khan, a commercial pilot in her 30s, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Mumbai police said they were investigating whether the Bulli Bai app was “part of a larger conspiracy”.

A spokesperson for GitHub, which hosted both apps, said it had “longstanding policies against content and conduct involving harassment, discrimination, and inciting violence.

“We suspended a user account following the investigation of reports of such activity, all of which violate our policies.”

 

Misconception

Advances in technology have heightened risks for women across the world, be it trolling or doxxing with their personal details revealed, surveillance cameras, location tracking, or deepfake pornographic videos featuring doctored images.

Deepfakes – or artificial, intelligence-generated, synthetic media – are used to create porn, with apps that let users strip clothes off women or swap their faces into explicit videos.

Digital abuse of women is pervasive because “everybody has a device and a digital presence,” said Adam Dodge, chief executive of EndTAB, a U.S.-based nonprofit tackling tech-enabled abuse.

“The violence has become easier to perpetrate, as you can get at somebody anywhere in the world. The order of magnitude of harm is also greater because you can upload something and show it to the world in a matter of seconds,” he said.

“And there is a permanency to it because that photo or video exists forever online,” he added.

The emotional and psychological impact of such abuse is “just as excruciating” as physical abuse, with the effects compounded by the virality, public nature, and permanence of the content online, said Noelle Martin, an Australian activist.

At 17, Martin discovered her image had been photoshopped into pornographic images and distributed. Her campaign against image-based abuse helped change the law in Australia.

But victims struggle to be heard, she said.

“There is a dangerous misconception that the harms of technology-facilitated abuse are not as real, serious, or potentially lethal as abuse with a physical element,” she said.

“For victims, this misconception makes speaking out, seeking support, and accessing justice much more difficult.”

 

Persecution

Tracking lone creators and rogue coders is hard, and technology platforms tend to shield anonymous users who can easily create a fake email or social media profile.

Even lawmakers are not spared: in November, the U.S. House of Representatives censured Republican Paul Gosar over a photoshopped anime video that showed him killing Democrat Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. He then retweeted the video.

 

“With any new technology we should immediately be thinking about how and when it will be misused and weaponized to harm girls and women online,” said Dodge.

“Technology platforms have created a very imbalanced atmosphere for victims of online abuse, and the traditional ways of seeking help when we are harmed in the physical world are not as available when the abuse occurs online,” he said .

Some technology firms are taking action.

Following reports that its AirTags – locator devices that can be attached to keys and wallets – were being used to track women, Apple launched an app to help users shield their privacy.

In India, the women on the auction apps are still shaken.

Ismat Ara, a journalist showcased on Bulli Bai, called it “nothing short of online harassment.”

It was “violent, threatening and intending to create a feeling of fear and shame in my mind, as well as in the minds of women in general and the Muslim community,” Ara said in a police complaint that she posted on social media.

Arfa Khanum Sherwani, also featured for sale, wrote on Twitter: “The auction may be fake but the persecution is real.”

Biden Touts Deal Delaying 5G Rollout by AT&T, Verizon

President Joe Biden touted an agreement Tuesday between wireless carriers and U.S. regulators to allow the deployment of 5G wireless technology in two weeks.

AT&T and Verizon said Monday they would delay activating the new service for two weeks following a request by Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. He cited airline industry concerns that the technology’s rollout could interfere with sensitive electronic systems on aircraft and disrupt thousands of daily flights.

The telecommunications giants’ announcement came one day after they maintained they would not postpone the introduction of the service. But they agreed to the delay amid pressure from the White House and aviation unions, and concerns expressed by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.

Biden said in a statement Tuesday the “agreement ensures that there will be no disruptions to air operations over the next two weeks and puts us on track to substantially reduce disruptions to air operations when AT&T and Verizon launch 5G on January 19th.”

In an email Tuesday to employees, Verizon Chief Executive Hans Vestberg said the company saw no aviation safety issue with 5G, but added the FAA “intended to disrupt an already difficult time for air travel if we move ahead with our planned activation… We felt that it was the right thing to do for the flying public, which includes our customers and all of us, to give the FAA a little time to work out its issues with the aviation community.”

Buttigieg and FAA Administrator chief Steve Dickson said in a letter sent Monday to AT&T and Verizon that the agencies would not seek any further delays beyond January 19 if there are not any “unforeseen aviation safety issues,” according to Reuters.

The letter also reportedly said the agreement “will give us additional time and space to reduce the impacts to commercial flights.”

Some information in this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters.

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