International Police Operation Shuts Down ‘Andromeda’ Malware System

A joint operation involving Germany, the United States and Belarus has taken down a malware system known as “Andromeda” or “Gamarue” that infected more than 2 million computers globally, Europol said on Tuesday.

Andromeda is best described as a “botnet,” or group of computers that have been infected with a virus that allows hackers to control them remotely without the knowledge of their owners.

The police operation, which involved help from Microsoft, was significant both for the number of infected computers and because Andromeda had been used over a number of years to distribute new viruses, said Europol spokesman Jan Op Gen Oorth.

“Andromeda was one of the oldest malwares on the market,” added the spokesman for Europol, the EU’s law enforcement agency.

Authorities in Belarus said they had arrested a man on suspicion of selling malicious software and also providing technical support services. It did not identify the suspect.

Officers had seized equipment from his offices in Gomel, the second city in Berlaus, and he was cooperating with the investigation, the country’s Investigative Committee said.

Op Gen Oorth said the individual is suspected of being “a ringleader” of a criminal network surrounding Andromeda.

German authorities, working with Microsoft, had taken control of the bulk of the network, so that information sent from infected computers was rerouted to safe police servers instead, a process known as “sinkholing.”

Information was sent to the sinkhole from more than 2 million unique internet addresses in the first 48 hours after the operation began on November 29, Europol said.

Owners of infected computers are unlikely to even know or take action. More than 55 percent of computers found to be infected in a previous operation a year ago are still infected, Europol said.

Information about the operation has been gradually released by Europol, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and Belarus’s Investigative Committee over the past two days.

Reporting by Toby Sterling; Editing by Keith Weir.

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Trump Delays Announcement on Whether US Embassy to Be Moved to Jerusalem

President Donald Trump will not announce a decision on Monday on whether he will again delay moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, a White House spokesman said, despite Monday’s deadline for doing so.

An announcement on the decision will be made “in coming days,” White House spokesman Hogan Gidley told reporters aboard Air Force One as Trump was returning from a trip to Utah.

Temporary order expected

Trump had been due to decide whether to sign a waiver that would hold off relocating the embassy from Tel Aviv for another six months, as every U.S. president has done since Congress passed a law on the issue in 1995.

Senior U.S. officials have said that Trump is expected to issue a temporary order, the second since he took office, to delay moving the embassy despite his campaign pledge to go ahead with the controversial action.

No final decision yet  

But the officials have said Trump is likely to give a speech on Wednesday unilaterally recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, a step that would break with decades of U.S. policy and could fuel violence in the Middle East. They have said, however, that no final decisions have been made.

“The president has been clear on this issue from the get-go; that it’s not a matter of if, but a matter of when,” Gidley said.

The Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state, and the international community does not recognize Israel’s claim on all of the city, home to sites holy to the Jewish, Muslim and Christian religions.

 

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Immigrants Become Illegal While Waiting to Serve in US Military

They have raised their right hands, and sworn an oath to support and defend the U.S. Constitution. They have college degrees, and have enlisted in the U.S. Army.

They have also fallen out of their immigration status, exposing them to deportation.

“I did everything I could to stay with valid status,” A.M., an Army reservist, told VOA.

A.M., 35 years old, who asked not to be identified because she is afraid of deportation, enlisted in the Army in March 2015 under the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest program, or MAVNI.

MAVNI was launched in 2009 to bring immigrants with medical or language skills into the armed services.

The program also allowed foreign-born military recruits to earn a fast-track path to American citizenship.

But nearly two years after enlisting, A.M. is still waiting to ship out to basic training and her student visa has expired.

The reason: The Pentagon, citing national security concerns, ordered intensive background checks on MAVNI service members and recruits.

In September 2016, the U.S. government retroactively required background checks on anyone who enlisted in the military through the MAVNI program, including anyone who was currently serving or waiting to be shipped to basic training. The government also stopped recruiting legal aliens.

October 2016 was when A.M. was scheduled to leave for basic training.

A.M. was told she had to maintain her visa status until a shipping date. She did. But her first shipping date was canceled. Her second shipping date, April 2017, has come and gone — and she has fallen out of status.

Without basic training, A.M.’s expedited naturalization process does not move forward. 

“Ever since I raised my hand, I go to every single drill,” A.M. said.

VOA spoke to seven people who have enlisted as active and reserve Army members and have also fallen out of status. All have signed enlistment contracts, have gone through the necessary background checks and have been waiting for more than two years to ship out.

Backlog on background checks

Everyone who wants to serve in the military has to go through background checks.

“They check to make sure you are not a criminal or a terrorist. They check your credit records. They run your fingerprints. They ask you a whole bunch of questions. That’s required before you can sign an enlistment contract,” Margaret Stock, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who created the MAVNI program back in 2008, told VOA.

With the MAVNI’S, she said, the government expanded the background check.

“I should tell you they already were doing a lot more background checking on the MAVNIs anyway. They are the most checked group of people that entered the U.S. military,” Stock said.

The MAVNIs, in addition to the regular screening, were being individually approved by the Department of Homeland Security.

“DHS was approving every single one of the enlistments individually. After checking all their immigration documents. … They were also doing something on the MAVNIs called a single scope background investigation, which is not done on most U.S. citizens who join the military,” Stock said.

This is an investigation normally done on someone getting top-secret clearance with the U.S. government.

These additional checks were being done before September 2016, when the Pentagon decided to run counterintelligence screening on each MAVNI.

“Basically, this caused the system to collapse. Because the government doesn’t have enough resources to do all these types of background checks on 10,000 people [the number accepted to MAVN],” Stock said.

The Department of Defense estimates it has a clearance backlog of 700,000, a figure that also includes civilians and contractors.

The backlog is causing “extreme” delays in shipping people to basic training. MAVNIs are not allowed to go to training until they have gone through these checks.

“But they didn’t have the resources to do them. So it caused two years, three years delays in people being shipped to training. And as of today, they still haven’t completed the background checks on everybody,” Stock said.

Without completed background checks, MAVNIs cannot ship to basic training. Without basic training, they do not qualify for expedited U.S. naturalization.

Changes in expedited citizenship

In mid-October, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis told reporters that an assessment of MAVNI found the program had problems.

“We are taking the steps, obviously, to save the program if it can be saved, and I believe it can,” he said.

Within days, the U.S. Department of Defense toughened the requirements for expedited naturalization, requiring enlistees to serve at “least 180 consecutive days of active-duty service, or at least one year of satisfactory service in the selected reserve.”

This is a change from the current practice, where a service member would qualify for “expedited naturalization” after one day of service.

Stock says there are legal reasons why the one-day policy was the original choice.

“They deploy overseas a lot. Sometimes they might go to their own original country and, if they’re not American citizens, they would be subjected to that country’s laws,” she said.

And naturalization could always be taken away. “If you don’t serve honorably for five years, you can lose your citizenship. … That’s a trade-off. They can let you have it right away, but you can lose it,” Stock said.

Staying legal

A.M. moved to the U.S. in 2005 with a J-1 visa to work as an au pair. After that, she got a sponsor, attended college and changed to an F-1 student visa.

“I saw as an opportunity to start a life here, to study, and from there maybe other doors would open for me to stay here,” A.M. said.

In Brazil, her home country, A.M. had a bachelor’s degree in translation. In the U.S., she earned an associate’s degree in early childhood education.

“Once I graduated, I started to teach. … I had my own classroom. The kids, they were wonderful, and working with parents, it was a great job,” she said.

She was eligible to work in the U.S. under Optional Practical Training, temporary employment that is directly related to an F-1 student’s major area of study.

During that time, she worked on getting a sponsor for a longer-term work visa.

“I taught [for] about 10 months because I was trying to get a work visa, but the school I was working did not want to sponsor anybody,” she said.

A.M. heard about MAVNI in 2015.

“After I enlisted, I had to keep my student visa so I went back to school once again,” she said.

A.M says all together, she spent about $50,000 in American schools to keep her student visa valid.

There were times, she said, things were “so difficult that I was eating food from the dollar store, so that I could pay for college and could stay here.

“I am so close, though. But at the same time, I am so tired because my life is on hold,” she said. “At this point I was supposed to be a citizen already. I never thought it would take this long, and all the stress we’re going through.”

A.M.’s biggest worry is her enlistment contract being terminated since she has yet to go to basic training. The Washington Post reported in September that U.S. Army recruiters had “abruptly canceled enlistment contracts for hundreds of foreign-born military recruits.”

A.M. fears deportation.

“I’m a very independent person here,” she said. “I see so much violence in my home country, so much injustice. … My life is here.”

VOA reached out to the U.S. Department of Defense, but the department did not respond to a request for comment.

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Mattis Urges Pakistan to Redouble Efforts Against Terrorists

Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi on Monday insisted his country is “committed” to the war against terrorism. The comment came during a meeting in Islamabad with U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Outwardly, there were no signs of tension between the two men. However, it’s a different story behind the scenes, reports VOA’s Bill Gallo, who is traveling with the Pentagon chief.

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Lawmaker: Support for Brazil’s Pension Reform More Organized

The government of Brazil’s President Michel Temer is far from assembling the coalition needed to pass a landmark pension reform, but potential supporters of the measure are now more organized, a key legislator said on Monday.

“We’re still enormously far (from having the needed votes), but we have a party leader committed, a party president committed, one party that’s set to commit,” Brazil’s lower house speaker, Rodrigo Maia, told journalists after an event in Rio de Janeiro.

Pension reform is the cornerstone policy in President Temer’s efforts to bring Brazil’s deficit under control. But the measure is widely unpopular with Brazilians, who are accustomed to a relatively expansive welfare net.

In order to curry support from Congress, Temer and his allies watered down their original proposal in November, requiring fewer years of contributions by private sector workers to receive a pension.

According to several government sources, Temer’s allies have grown more optimistic in the last week about the reform’s chances.

However, speed is essential for the bill’s passage. A congressional recess begins on Dec. 22, and lawmaking thereafter will be hampered by politics, as lawmakers ramp up their campaigns for 2018 elections.

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Facebook Launches Parent-controlled Messenger App for Kids

Facebook is coming for your kids.

The social media giant is launching a messaging app for children to chat with their parents and with friends approved by their parents.

The free app is aimed at kids under 13, who can’t yet have their own accounts under Facebook’s rules, though they often do.

Messenger Kids comes with a slew of controls for parents. The service won’t let children add their own friends or delete messages — only parents can do that. Kids don’t get a separate Facebook or Messenger account; rather, it’s an extension of a parent’s account.

A kids-focused experience

While children do use messaging and social media apps designed for teenagers and adults, those services aren’t built for them, said Kristelle Lavallee, a children’s psychology expert who advised Facebook on designing the service.

“The risk of exposure to things they were not developmentally prepared for is huge,” she said.

Messenger Kids, meanwhile, “is a result of seeing what kids like,” which is images, emoji and the like. Face filters and playful masks can be distracting for adults, Lavallee said, but for kids who are just learning how to form relationships and stay in touch with parents digitally, they are ways to express themselves.

Lavallee, who is content strategist at the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard University, called Messenger Kids a “useful tool” that “makes parents the gatekeepers.” But she said that while Facebook made the app “with the best of intentions,” it’s not yet known how people will actually use it.

As with other tools Facebook has released in the past, intentions and real-world use do not always match up. Facebook’s live video streaming feature, for example, has been used for plenty of innocuous and useful things, but also to stream crimes and suicides.

Hooked on Facebook

Is Messenger Kids simply a way for Facebook to rope in the young ones?

Stephen Balkam, CEO of the nonprofit Family Online Safety Institute, said “that train has left the station.”

Federal law prohibits internet companies from collecting personal information on kids under 13 without their parents’ permission and imposes restrictions on advertising to them. This is why Facebook and many other social media companies prohibit younger kids from joining. Even so, Balkam said millions of kids under 13 are already on Facebook, with or without their parents’ approval.

He said Facebook is trying to deal with the situation pragmatically by steering young Facebook users to a service designed for them.

Facebook said Messenger Kids won’t show ads or collect data for marketing. Facebook also said it won’t automatically move users to the regular Messenger or Facebook when they get old enough, though the company might give them the option to move contacts to Messenger down the line.

Messenger Kids is launching Monday in the U.S. on Apple devices — the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch. Versions for Android and Amazon’s tablets are coming later.

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Apple, Google at China Internet Fest Shows Lure of Market

The high-profile attendance of the leaders of Apple and Google at a Chinese conference promoting Beijing’s vision of a censored internet highlights the dilemma for Western tech companies trying to expand in an increasingly lucrative but restricted market.

 

The event in Wuzhen, a historic canal town outside Shanghai, marked the first time chiefs of two of the world’s biggest tech companies have attended the annual state-run World Internet Conference.

 

Apple CEO Tim Cook told the gathering as the conference opened Sunday that his company was proud to work with Chinese partners to build a “common future in cyberspace.”

 

His and Google CEO Sundar Pichai’s presence along with other business leaders, diplomats and other experts, some analysts say, helped bestow credibility on Beijing’s preferred version of an internet sharply at odds with Silicon Valley’s dedication to unfettered access.

 

Chinese President Xi Jinping vowed, in remarks to the conference conveyed by an official, that “China’s door to the world will never close, but will only open wider.”

 

As in previous years, organizers allowed attendees unrestricted access to the internet, contrary to official policy under which internet users face extensive monitoring and censorship and are blocked from accessing many overseas sites by the so-called Great Firewall of China.

 

Since Xi came to power in 2013, he has tightened controls and further stifled free expression, activists say.

 

Beijing’s restraints also extend to Western companies like Google, Twitter and Facebook, which have largely been shut out from the market, leaving it to homegrown internet giants like Tencent.

Apple has a large production base in China, which is one of its biggest markets, though domestic smartphone makers are catching up.

 

It has been criticized by some app developers for complying with Chinese censorship demands. In July, companies that let people get around the government’s internet filters – known as virtual private network providers – said their programs had been removed from Apple’s app store in China. One such company, ExpressVPN, said Apple was “aiding China’s censorship effort.”

 

Apple said that China began requiring this year that developers of virtual-private networks have a government license. The California-based tech giant said it had removed apps “in China that do not meet the new regulations.” Two Apple spokeswomen couldn’t be reached by phone for comment.

 

“The problem is that these companies are between a rock and a hard place,” said Rogier Creemers, a China researcher at Leiden University who attended the conference. They covet China’s huge market but if they do make it in, as in Apple’s case, local law “requires things that Western observers generally are uncomfortable with,” he said.

 

Cook’s speech drew a big crowd. He said the company supports more than 5 million jobs in China, including 1.8 million software developers who have earned more than 112 billion yuan ($17 billion).

 

It’s Apple’s responsibility to ensure that “technology is infused with humanity,” he said, avoiding mention of any sensitive topics.

 

Google shut the Chinese version of its search engine in 2010 over censorship concerns. Pichai has talked about wanting to re-enter China, and he told a panel discussion in Wuzhen that small and mid-sized Chinese businesses use Google services to get their products to other countries, according to a report in the South China Morning Post. A Google spokesman declined to comment.

 

The tech giants may have chosen to appear at the conference because the current political climate in the United States encourages a pragmatic approach in pursuing business regardless of other concerns, said Jonathan Sullivan, director of the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute.

 

“There has never been a time when an American company is less likely to be called out by the White House for pursuing a business-first approach,” said Sullivan.

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Portugal’s Finance Chief Tapped to Lead Eurozone Group

The finance ministers from the 19 countries that use the euro are deciding who should lead their regular meetings, with Portugal’s Mario Centeno widely tipped to take the helm of a group that has led the currency bloc’s crisis-fighting efforts.

The decision of who will succeed Dutchman Jeroen Dijsselbloem as president of the so-called eurogroup is expected later Monday. Dijsselbloem, who has held the post for nearly five years, has been one of the most high-profile European politicians during a period that saw a number of countries, notably Greece, teeter on the edge of bankruptcy and the euro currency itself come under threat.

 

Three other candidates are in the frame, too: Luxembourg’s Pierre Gramegna, Slovakia’s Peter Kazimir and Latvia’s Dana Reizniece-Ozola.

 

Whoever gets the presidency will inherit a eurozone in far better shape than the one that existed during Dijsselbloem’s tenure. The economy is growing strongly while worries over Greece’s future in the bloc have subsided and the country is poised to exit its bailout era next summer.

 

A victory for Centeno, who in Portugal has favored easing off budget austerity policies, has the potential to mark a new era for the eurozone.

 

While eurozone governments still insist that countries must keep their public finances in shape, there’s a greater acknowledgement that many people, particularly in southern Europe, have grown weary of austerity. Following the departure of long-time German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, a Centeno victory would encapsulate that shift.

 

Portugal was one of four eurozone countries that had to be bailed out during the region’s debt crisis. In 2011, the country required a 78 billion-euro rescue after its budget deficit grew too large and bond market investors asked for hefty premiums to lend to the government. In return for the financial lifeline, Portuguese governments had to enact a series of spending cuts and economic reforms.

 

Though the strategy may have worked in bringing Portugal’s public finances into better shape, austerity accentuated a recession and raised unemployment. Since Centeno took office in the Socialist government that came to power in December 2015, Portugal’s deficit has fallen to 2 percent, the lowest in more than 40 years while the unemployment rate is down to an almost 10-year low of 8.5 percent, after peaking at a record 16.2 percent in 2013.

 

Ahead of the meeting where the vote will take place, Centeno said his aim, should he come out on top, would be to “generate consensus” in the “challenging” period ahead.

 

“We have showed everyone that we can reach consensus, we can work with other parties, we can work with institutions,” he said. “Portugal is an example of that.”

 

Dijsselbloem said keeping the eurogroup “together and united” should be the primary purpose of the eurogroup president.

 

“It’s the only way we take decisions in the eurogroup,” he said.

 

 

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Ongoing Labor Abuse Found in Pepsi’s Indonesian Palm Oil Plantations

Workers at several Indonesian palm oil plantations that supply Pepsi and Nestle suffer from a variety of labor abuses, including lower-than-minimum wages, child labor, exposure to pesticides, and union busting, according to a new report from the Rainforest Action Network (RAN).

The report covers three palm oil plantations operated by Indofood, the biggest food company in Indonesia and the country’s only producer of PepsiCo-branded snacks, and follows up on previous reports from the same groups of plantation workers. Indofood remains certified as “sustainable” by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) despite ongoing labor abuses, which activists say raises the question of what possible incentives there are for a mega-corporation to reform its labor practices.

“Since our first report in June 2016, which broke the scandal, to this one nearly one and a half years later, hardly anything has changed,” said Emma Lierley, RAN’s Communications Manager. “Pepsi hasn’t even issued a public response.”

Pepsi Co., Indofood, and RSPO could not be reached for comment.

Widespread abuse

Workers at palm oil plantations on the islands of Kalimantan and Sumatra reported the same catalog of abuses that they suffered 17 months ago, such as exposure to dangerous pesticides with inadequate protective equipment. They also complain of withheld wages and unpaid overtime, as well as frequent use of daily contract workers and unpaid laborers (like workers’ wives), which the study authors say are all also risk factors for child labor.

“We’re asking that Indofood reform labor practices on its plantations immediately,” said Lierley. “PepsiCo has a significant amount of leverage.” “Indofood could certainly move the needle” as well, she said.

But the RSPO has no clear path forward, admitted Robin Averbeck, a RAN campaigner.

“The RSPO has failed to include workers as critical stakeholders in its system since its creation up until this very day,” said Averbeck. “Fundamentally it will never address labor rights issues in a meaningful way unless workers are integrated as key constituents in the system and play an active role in monitoring and enforcing the standard themselves.”

RSPO has never revoked a company’s sustainability certification for labor violations.

“After nearly a year and a half of an official RSPO complaint containing indisputable evidence documenting widespread labor violations on multiple Indofood plantations, the RSPO has failed to sanction or suspend Indofood,” said Averbeck, who said the inaction was a “fundamental failure” and suggested that the RSPO suspend Indofood immediately.

The palm oil problem

Labor abuse in Indonesia is not unique to the palm oil industry — it has been documented widely across the garment, domestic work, and mining sectors, among others — but in recent years, palm oil has become particularly ripe for exploiting workers.

Palm oil is found in countless household products and foods, from lipstick to potato chips, and it grows very well in the tropical rainforest of Southeast Asia. It is cheap and easy to plant at great scale and swathes of the Borneo rainforest in both Indonesia and Malaysia, have been transformed in recent years into the trademark bright green grids of a palm oil plantation.

But the crop has displaced dozens of indigenous communities and employed thousands of child laborers and unpaid, underpaid, and abused workers. Global demand for palm oil shows no sign of slowing down — the industry is estimated to be worth $93 billion by 2021.

Difficulty of labor reform

The best mechanism for workers’ rights remains trade unions, but there are a number of obstacles to effective organizing among palm oil workers, according to Andriko Otang of Indonesia’s Trade Union Rights Commission.

“For one thing, there is the sheer difficulty of organizing,” said Otang. “A worker has to spend 400,000 rupiah (about $28) for a one-way ticket to the regional capital.” A roundtrip could turn out to be half their monthly salary, he said.

Another factor is the logistical barriers to organizing in places like rural Kalimantan, where there is weak cell signal and low access to information. “If you want to organize even a single strike, it’s so difficult,” said Otang.

Beyond discriminating against actual and potential union members, according to the RAN report, Indofood employs a large impermanent workforce, who cannot unionize. According to its 2016 Sustainability Report, Indofood’s plantation arm, IndoAgri, reported 38,104 permanent workers and 34,782 casual workers.

Despite the formidable odds, said Otang, there have been success stories for palm oil workers: in South Kalimantan and Palembang, workers have organized multi-company collective bargaining agreements and abolished the practice of casual work.

“As long as you have a strong independent union and solidarity between officials and members, labor reform is possible,” he said.

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