Category Archives: Business

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US Puts Cryptocurrency Industry on Notice Over Ransomware Attacks 

Suspected ransomware payments totaling $590 million were made in the first six months of this year, more than the $416 million reported for all of 2020, U.S. authorities said on Friday, as Washington put the cryptocurrency industry on alert about its role in combating ransomware attacks. 

The U.S. Treasury Department said the average amount of reported ransomware transactions per month in 2021 was $102.3 million, with REvil/Sodinokibi, Conti, DarkSide, Avaddon, and Phobos the most prevalent ransomware strains reported. 

President Joe Biden has made the government’s cybersecurity response a top priority for the most senior levels of his administration following a series of attacks this year that threatened to destabilize U.S. energy and food supplies. 

Avoiding  U.S. sanctions

Seeking to stop the use of cryptocurrencies in the payment of ransomware demands, Treasury told members of the crypto community they are responsible for making sure they do not directly or indirectly help facilitate deals prohibited by U.S. sanctions. 

Its new guidance said the industry plays an increasingly critical role in preventing those blacklisted from exploiting cryptocurrencies to evade sanctions. 

“Treasury is helping to stop ransomware attacks by making it difficult for criminals to profit from their crimes, but we need partners in the private sector to help prevent this illicit activity,” Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo said in a statement. 

The new guidance also advised cryptocurrency exchanges to use geolocation tools to block access from countries under U.S. sanctions. 

Hackers use ransomware to take down systems that control everything from hospital billing to manufacturing. They stop only after receiving hefty payments, typically in cryptocurrency. 

Large scale hacks

This year, gangs have hit numerous U.S. companies in large scale hacks. One such attack on pipeline operator Colonial Pipeline led to temporary fuel supply shortages on the U.S. East Coast. Hackers also targeted an Iowa-based agricultural company, sparking fears of disruptions to grain harvesting in the Midwest. 

The Biden administration last month unveiled sanctions against cryptocurrency exchange Suex OTC, S.R.O. over its alleged role in enabling illegal payments from ransomware attacks, officials said, in the Treasury’s first such move against a cyptocurrency exchange over ransomware activity.

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US Authorities Disclose Ransomware Attacks Against Water Facilities

U.S. authorities said on Thursday that four ransomware attacks had penetrated water and wastewater facilities in the past year, and they warned similar plants to check for signs of intrusions and take other precautions. 

The alert from the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) cited a series of apparently unrelated hacking incidents from September 2020 to August 2021 that used at least three different strains of ransomware, which encrypts computer files and demands payment for them to be restored. 

Attacks at an unnamed Maine wastewater facility three months ago and one in California in August moved past desktop computers and paralyzed the specialized supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) devices that issue mechanical commands to the equipment. 

The Maine system had to turn to manual controls, according to the alert co-signed by the FBI, National Security Agency and Environmental Protection Agency. 

A March hack in Nevada also reached SCADA devices that provided operational visibility but could not issue commands. 

CISA said it is seeing increasing attacks on many forms of critical infrastructure, in line with those on the water plants. 

In some cases, the water facilities are handicapped by low municipal spending on technology cybersecurity. 

The Department of Homeland Security agency’s recommendations include access log audits and strict use of additional factors for authentication beyond passwords.  

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Facebook Objects to Releasing Private Posts About Myanmar’s Rohingya Campaign

Facebook was used to spread disinformation about the Rohingya, the Muslim ethnic minority in Myanmar, and in 2018 the company began to delete posts, accounts and other content it determined were part of a campaign to incite violence. 

That deleted but stored data is at issue in a case in the United States over whether Facebook should release the information as part of a claim in international court. 

Facebook this week objected to part of a U.S. magistrate judge’s order that could have an impact on how much data internet companies must turn over to investigators examining the role social media played in a variety of international incidents, from the 2017 Rohingya genocide in Myanmar to the 2021 Capitol riot in Washington. 

The judge ruled last month that Facebook had to give information about these deleted accounts to Gambia, the West African nation, which is pursuing a case in the International Court of Justice against Myanmar, seeking to hold the Asian nation responsible for the crime of genocide against the Rohingya.

But in its filing Wednesday, Facebook said the judge’s order “creates grave human rights concerns of its own, leaving internet users’ private content unprotected and thereby susceptible to disclosure — at a provider’s whim — to private litigants, foreign governments, law enforcement, or anyone else.” 

The company said it was not challenging the order when it comes to public information from the accounts, groups and pages it has preserved. It objects to providing “non-public information.” If the order is allowed to stand, it would “impair critical privacy and freedom of expression rights for internet users — not just Facebook users — worldwide, including Americans,” the company said. 

Facebook has argued that providing the deleted posts is in violation of U.S. privacy, citing the Stored Communications Act, the 35-year-old law that established privacy protections in electronic communication. 

Deleted content protected? 

In his September decision, U.S. Magistrate Judge Zia M. Faruqui said that once content is deleted from an online service, it is no longer protected.

Paul Reichler, a lawyer for Gambia, told VOA that Facebook’s concern about privacy is misplaced. 

“Would Hitler have privacy rights that should be protected?” Reichler said in an interview with VOA. “The generals in Myanmar ordered the destruction of a race of people. Should Facebook’s business interests in holding itself out as protecting the privacy rights of these Hitlers prevail over the pursuit of justice?” 

But Orin Kerr, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley, said on Twitter that the judge’s ruling erred and that the implication of the ruling is that “if a provider moderates contents, all private messages and emails deleted can be freely disclosed and are no longer private.”

The 2017 military crackdown on the Rohingya resulted in more than 700,000 people fleeing their homes to escape mass killings and rapes, a crisis that the United States has called “ethnic cleansing.”

‘Coordinated inauthentic behavior’ 

Human rights advocates say Facebook had been used for years by Myanmar officials to set the stage for the crimes against the Rohingya. 

Frances Haugen, the former Facebook employee who testified about the company in Congress last week, said Facebook’s focus on keeping users engaged on its site contributed to “literally fanning ethnic violence” in countries. 

In 2018, Facebook deleted and banned accounts of key individuals, including the commander in chief of Myanmar’s armed forces and the military’s television network, as well as 438 pages, 17 groups and 160 Facebook and Instagram accounts — what the company called “coordinated inauthentic behavior.” The company estimated 12 million people in Myanmar, a nation of 54 million, followed these accounts. 

Facebook commissioned an independent human rights study  of its role that concluded that prior to 2018, it indeed failed to prevent its service “from being used to foment division and incite offline violence.” 

Facebook kept the data on what it deleted for its own forensic analysis, the company told the court. 

The case comes at a time when law enforcement and governments worldwide increasingly seek information from technology companies about the vast amount of data they collect on users. 

Companies have long cited privacy concerns to protect themselves, said Ari Waldman, a professor of law and computer science at Northeastern University. What’s new is the vast quantity of data that companies now collect, a treasure trove for investigators, law enforcement and government. 

“Private companies have untold amounts of data based on the commodification of what we do,” Waldman said.

Privacy rights should always be balanced with other laws and concerns, such as the pursuit of justice, he added.

Facebook working with the IIMM 

In August 2020, Facebook confirmed that it was working with the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar (IIMM), a United Nations-backed group that is investigating Myanmar. The U.N. Human Rights Council established the IIMM, or “Myanmar Mechanism,” in September 2018 to collect evidence of the country’s most serious international crimes.

Recently, IIMM told VOA it has been meeting regularly with Facebook employees to gain access to information on the social media network related to its ongoing investigations in the country. 

A spokesperson for IIMM told VOA’s Burmese Service that Facebook “has agreed to voluntarily provide some, but not all, of the material the Mechanism has requested.” 

IIMM head Nicholas Koumjian wrote to VOA that the group is seeking material from Facebook “that we believe is relevant to proving criminal responsibility for serious international crimes committed in Myanmar that fall within our mandate.”  

Facebook told VOA in an email it is cooperating with the U.N. Myanmar investigators. 

“We’ve committed to disclose relevant information to authorities, and over the past year we’ve made voluntary, lawful disclosures to the IIMM and will continue to do so as the case against Myanmar proceeds,” the spokesperson wrote. The company has made what it calls “12 lawful data disclosures” to the IIMM but didn’t provide details. 

Human rights activists are frustrated that Facebook is not doing more to crack down on bad actors who are spreading hate and disinformation on the site.

“Look, I think there are many people at Facebook who want to do the right thing here, and they are working pretty hard,” said Phil Robertson, who covers Asia for Human Rights Watch. “But the reality is, they still need to escalate their efforts. I think that Facebook is more aware of the problems, but it’s also in part because so many people are telling them that they need to do better.” 

Matthew Smith of the human rights organization Fortify Rights, which closely tracked the ethnic cleansing campaign in Myanmar, said the company’s business success indicates it could do a better job of identifying harmful content. 

“Given the company’s own business model of having this massive capacity to deal with massive amounts of data in a coherent and productive way, it stands to reason that the company would absolutely be able to understand and sift through the data points that could be actionable,” Smith said. 

Gambia has until later this month to respond to Facebook’s objections.

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Microsoft to Shut Down LinkedIn in China Over Censorship Concerns

Microsoft will close LinkedIn in China later this year, the company announced Thursday.

The professional networking site, which started operating in China in 2014, faces a “significantly more challenging operating environment and greater compliance requirements” in the country, it said in a blog post.

“We recognized that operating a localized version of LinkedIn in China would mean adherence to requirements of the Chinese government on Internet platforms,” the company said. “While we strongly support freedom of expression, we took this approach in order to create value for our members in China and around the world.”

However, it seems China’s regulatory burdens have become too much.

Chinese regulators told the company it had to better police content earlier this year, The Wall Street Journal reported. The company began blocking some content and profiles Chinese regulators prohibited, including profiles of journalists.

“While we’ve found success in helping Chinese members find jobs and economic opportunity, we have not found that same level of success in the more social aspects of sharing and staying informed,” LinkedIn said.

LinkedIn is not completely leaving the Chinese market. It will now offer something called InJobs, which will not have a social feed and will not allow users to share content, Reuters reported.

LinkedIn was the only U.S.-based social networking site still available to Chinese users.

Microsoft bought the company in 2016, and the site now boasts 774 million users.

Some information in this report comes from Reuters.

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Forum Urges Social Networks to Act Against Antisemitism

Social media giants were urged to act Wednesday to stem online antisemitism during an international conference in Sweden focused on the growing amount of hatred published on many platforms. 

The Swedish government invited social media giants TikTok, Google and Facebook along with representatives from 40 countries, the United Nations and Jewish organizations to the event designed to tackle the rising global scourge of antisemitism.

Sweden hosted the event in the southern city of Malmo, which was a hotbed of antisemitic sentiment in the early 2000s but which during World War II welcomed Danish Jews fleeing the Nazis and inmates rescued from concentration camps in 1945.

“What they see today in social media is hatred,” World Jewish Congress head Ronald Lauder told the conference. 

Google told the event, officially called the International Forum on Holocaust Remembrance and Combating Anti-Semitism, that it was earmarking 5 million euros ($5.78 million) to combat antisemitism online. 

“We want to stop hate speech online and ensure we have a safe digital environment for our citizens,” French President Emmanuel Macron said in a prerecorded statement.

European organizations accused tech companies of “completely failing to address the issue,” saying antisemitism was being repackaged and disseminated to a younger generation through platforms like Instagram and TikTok. 

Antisemitic tropes are “rife across every social media platform,” according to a study linked to the conference that was carried out by three nongovernmental organizations. 

Hate speech remains more prolific and extreme on sites such as Parler and 4chan but is being introduced to young users on mainstream platforms, the study said. 

On Instagram, where almost 70% of global users are aged 13 to 34, there are millions of results for hashtags relating to antisemitism, the research found. 

On TikTok, where 69% of users are aged 16 to 24, it said a collection of three hashtags linked to antisemitism were viewed more than 25 million times in six months. 

In response to the report, a Facebook spokesperson said antisemitism was “completely unacceptable” and that its policies on hate speech and Holocaust denial had been tightened. 

A TikTok spokesperson said the platform “condemns antisemitism” and would “keep strengthening our tools for fighting antisemitic content.” 

According to the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency, 9 out of 10 Jews in the EU say antisemitism has risen in their country and 38% have considered emigrating because they no longer feel safe. 

“Antisemitism takes the shape of extreme hatred on social networks,” said Ann Katina, the head of the Jewish Community of Malmo organization that runs two synagogues. 

“It hasn’t just moved there, it has grown bigger there,” she told AFP. 

Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven has made the fight against antisemitism one of his last big initiatives before leaving office next month and has vowed better protection for Sweden’s 15,000-20,000 Jews. 

Reports of antisemitic crimes in the Scandinavian country rose by more than 50% between 2016 and 2018, from 182 to 278, according to the latest statistics available from the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention. 

The Jewish community in Malmo has fluctuated over the years, from more than 2,000 in 1970 to just more than 600 now. 

In the early 2000s, antisemitic attacks in Malmo made global headlines. Incidents included verbal insults, assaults and Molotov cocktails thrown at the synagogue.

In response, authorities vowed to boost police resources and increase funding to protect congregations under threat. 

Mirjam Katzin, who coordinates antisemitism efforts in Malmo schools, the only such position in Sweden, said there was “general concern” among Jews in the city. 

“Some never experience any abuse, while others will hear the word ‘Jew’ used as an insult, jokes about Hitler or the Holocaust or various conspiracy theories,” she said. 

 

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US Staging Global Conference to Combat Ransomware Attacks

The White House is holding a two-day international conference starting Wednesday to combat ransomware computer attacks on business operations across the globe that cost companies, schools and health services an estimated $74 billion in damages last year.

U.S. officials are meeting on Zoom calls with their counterparts from at least 30 countries to discuss ways to combat the clandestine attacks. Russia, a key launchpad for many of the attacks, was left off the invitation list as Washington and Moscow officials engage directly on attacks coming from Russia.

This year has seen an epidemic of ransomware attacks in which hackers from distant lands remotely lock victims’ computers and demand large extortion payments to allow normal operations to resume.

Ransomware payments topped $400 million globally in 2020, the United States says, and totaled more than $81 million in the first quarter of 2021.

Two U.S. businesses, the Colonial Pipeline Company that delivers fuel to much of the eastern part of the country and the JBS global beef producer, were targeted in major ransomware attacks in May.

Colonial paid $4.4 million in ransom demands, although U.S. government officials were soon able to surreptitiously recover $2.3 million of the payment. JBS said it paid an $11 million demand.

Other U.S. companies were also attacked, including CNA Financial, one of the country’s biggest insurance carriers; Applus Technologies, which provides testing equipment to state vehicle inspection stations; ExaGrid, a backup storage vendor that helps businesses recover after ransomware attacks; and the school system in the city of Buffalo, New York.

Attackers have also targeted victims in other countries, including Ireland’s health care system, the Taiwan-based computer manufacturer Acer and the Asia division of the AXA France cyber insurer.

A senior White House official, briefing reporters ahead of the ransomware conference, said the U.S. views the meetings “as the first of many conversations” on ways to combat the attacks.

At a summit in Geneva in June, U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin created a working group of experts to deal with ransomware attacks.

“We do look to the Russian government to address ransomware criminal activity coming from actors within Russia,” the White House official said. “I can report that we’ve had, in the experts group, frank and professional exchanges in which we’ve communicated those expectations. We’ve also shared information with Russia regarding criminal ransomware activity being conducted from its territory.”

“We’ve seen some steps by the Russian government and are looking to see follow-up actions,” the official said, without elaborating.

While U.S. officials say they know the identity of some of the attackers in Russia, Moscow does not extradite its citizens for criminal prosecutions.

One of the major topics at the conference, the Biden official said, will be how countries can cooperate to trace and disrupt criminal use of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin.

The countries scheduled to join the U.S. at the ransomware conference are Australia, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, the Czech Republic, the Dominican Republic, Estonia, France, Germany, India, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Lithuania, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Nigeria, Poland, the Republic of Korea, Romania, Singapore, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland, Ukraine, the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom. The European Union will also be represented.

The senior White House official said, “I think that list of countries highlights just how pernicious and transnational and global the ransomware threat has been.”

Aside from government action, the Biden administration has called on private businesses, which most often are blindsided by the ransomware attacks, to modernize their cyber defenses to meet the threat.

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Facebook-backed Group Launches Misinformation Adjudication Panel in Australia

A tech body backed by the Australian units of Facebook, Google and Twitter said on Monday it has set up an industry panel to adjudicate complaints over misinformation, a day after the government threatened tougher laws over false and defamatory online posts. 

Prime Minister Scott Morrison last week labeled social media “a coward’s palace,” while the government said on Sunday it was looking at measures to make social media companies more responsible, including forcing legal liability onto the platforms for the content published on them.   

The issue of damaging online posts has emerged as a second battlefront between Big Tech and Australia, which last year passed a law to make platforms pay license fees for content, sparking a temporary Facebook blackout in February.   

The Digital Industry Group Inc. (DIGI), which represents the Australian units of Facebook Inc., Alphabet’s Google and Twitter Inc., said its new misinformation oversight subcommittee showed the industry was willing to self-regulate against damaging posts. 

The tech giants had already agreed a code of conduct against misinformation, “and we wanted to further strengthen it with independent oversight from experts, and public accountability,” DIGI Managing Director Sunita Bose said in a statement. 

A three-person “independent complaints sub-committee” would seek to resolve complaints about possible breaches of the code conduct via a public website, DIGI said, but would not take complaints about individual posts.   

The industry’s code of conduct includes items such as taking action against misinformation affecting public health, which would include the novel coronavirus.   

DIGI, which also represents Apple Inc. and TikTok, said it could issue a public statement if a company was found to have violated the code of conduct or revoke its signatory status with the group. 

Reset Australia, an advocate group focused on the influence of technology on democracy, said the oversight panel was “laughable” as it involved no penalties and the code of conduct was optional. 

“DIGI’s code is not much more than a PR stunt given the negative PR surrounding Facebook in recent weeks,” said Reset Australia Director of tech policy Dhakshayini Sooriyakumaran in a statement, urging regulation for the industry. 

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Facebook Unveils New Controls for Kids Using Its Platforms

Facebook, in the aftermath of damning testimony that its platforms harm children, will be introducing several features including prompting teens to take a break using its photo sharing app Instagram, and “nudging” teens if they are repeatedly looking at the same content that’s not conducive to their well-being.  

The Menlo Park, California-based Facebook is also planning to introduce new controls on an optional basis so that parents or guardians can supervise what their teens are doing online. These initiatives come after Facebook announced late last month that it was pausing work on its Instagram for Kids project. But critics say the plan lacks details, and they are skeptical that the new features would be effective.  

The new controls were outlined on Sunday by Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president for global affairs, who made the rounds on various Sunday news shows including CNN’s “State of the Union” and ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos” where he was grilled about Facebook’s use of algorithms as well as its role in spreading harmful misinformation ahead of the Jan. 6 Capitol riots. 

“We are constantly iterating in order to improve our products,” Clegg told Dana Bash on “State of the Union” Sunday. “We cannot, with a wave of the wand, make everyone’s life perfect. What we can do is improve our products, so that our products are as safe and as enjoyable to use.” 

Clegg said that Facebook has invested $13 billion over the past few years in making sure to keep the platform safe and that the company has 40,000 people working on these issues. And while Clegg said that Facebook has done its best to keep harmful content out of its platforms, he says he was open for more regulation and oversight.  

“We need greater transparency,” he told CNN’s Bash. He noted that the systems that Facebook has in place should be held to account, if necessary, by regulation so that “people can match what our systems say they’re supposed to do from what actually happens.” 

The flurry of interviews came after whistleblower Frances Haugen, a former data scientist with Facebook, went before Congress last week to accuse the social media platform of failing to make changes to Instagram after internal research showed apparent harm to some teens and of being dishonest in its public fight against hate and misinformation. Haugen’s accusations were supported by tens of thousands of pages of internal research documents she secretly copied before leaving her job in the company’s civic integrity unit. 

Josh Golin, executive director of Fairplay, a children’s digital advocacy group, said that he doesn’t think introducing controls to help parents supervise teens would be effective since many teens set up secret accounts. 

He was also dubious about how effective nudging teens to take a break or move away from harmful content would be. He noted Facebook needs to show exactly how they would implement it and offer research that shows these tools are effective.  

“There is tremendous reason to be skeptical,” he said. He added that regulators need to restrict what Facebook does with its algorithms.  

He said he also believes that Facebook should cancel its Instagram project for kids. 

When Clegg was grilled by both Bash and Stephanopoulos in separate interviews about the use of algorithms in amplifying misinformation ahead of Jan. 6 riots, he responded that if Facebook removed the algorithms people would see more, not less hate speech, and more, not less, misinformation.  

Clegg told both hosts that the algorithms serve as “giant spam filters.” 

Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who chairs the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Competition Policy, Antitrust, and Consumer Rights, told Bash in a separate interview Sunday that it’s time to update children’s privacy laws and offer more transparency in the use of algorithms. 

“I appreciate that he is willing to talk about things, but I believe the time for conversation is done,” said Klobuchar, referring to Clegg’s plan. “The time for action is now.” 

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