Felony Charges Are a First in Fatal Crash Involving Autopilot

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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. 

 

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US Telecom Carriers to Limit 5G Rollout Near Airports

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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.

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

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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. 

 

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CES-2022 Showcases the Latest Tech Innovations

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This year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Nevada, was smaller this year because of COVID, but, as usual, the event drew companies that are dreaming big. Mariia Prus was among the journalists covering CES-2022, which ended Jan. 8, and has this report narrated by Anna Rice.
Camera: Mariia Prus

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Microsoft Discloses Malware Attack on Ukraine Government Networks

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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.

 

 

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China Seen Backing ‘Digital Authoritarianism’ in Latin America 

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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.

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EU Condemns Cyberattack on Ukraine, NATO Pledges ‘Enhanced Cyber Cooperation’

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European Union officials have condemned Friday’s cyberattack on Ukraine that shut down government and emergency services websites and pledged to use EU resources to assist the nation.

Ukraine’s foreign ministry reported Friday the websites of the country’s cabinet — seven ministries, including the treasury, the national emergency service and the state services, where Ukrainians’ electronic passports and vaccination certificates are stored — were temporarily unavailable Friday as a result of the hack.

The websites contained a message in Ukrainian, Russian and Polish, saying Ukrainians’ personal data has been leaked into the public domain. The message said, in part, “Be afraid and expect the worst. This is for your past, present and future.”

Ukraine’s State Service of Communication and Information Protection told the Associated Press there was no evidence personal data has been leaked.

In a statement, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg strongly condemned the attacks, saying the alliance’s cyber experts have been exchanging information with their Ukrainian counterparts on “the current malicious cyber activities.” He said NATO allied experts in the country also are supporting the Ukrainian authorities.

“In the coming days, NATO and Ukraine will sign an agreement on enhanced cyber cooperation, including Ukrainian access to NATO’s malware information sharing platform,” Stoltenberg said in a statement.

Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brest, France, EU Foreign Affairs chief Josep Borrell issued the “strongest condemnation” of the attack and said an emergency meeting of the EU political committee would be held to discuss how to react. He pledged to “mobilize all our resources to help Ukraine” increase its cyberattack-resistance capability.

When asked if he knew who was behind the attack, Borrell said they are still investigating, noting it is often difficult to trace cyberattacks, though he added “I don’t have any proof, but one can guess …”

Ukraine’s foreign ministry said Russia has a long history of such attacks. The incident also follows weeks of apparently failed diplomatic efforts to de-escalate tensions on the border with Russia and Ukraine where Moscow has amassed an estimated 100,000 troops and equipment, raising fears of an imminent invasion.

Russia insists the troops are there for its own protection, but is demanding NATO provide guarantees it will stop its eastward expansion, beginning with not allowing Ukraine to join the alliance, a move Moscow perceives as a threat. NATO has repeatedly rejected that request, saying Russia has no veto over NATO membership.

Some information for this report was provided by The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse.

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SpaceX Rocket Lifts Off with South African Satellites on Board

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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. 

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Hong Kong COVID-19 Tracking App Spurs Opposition

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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.

 

 

 

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World Economic Forum Warns Cyber Risks Add to Climate Threat

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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.” 

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US Cyber Officials Bracing for ‘Log4j’ Vulnerability Fallout

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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. 

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

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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.”

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

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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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Wildlife Rangers Use AI to Predict Poachers’ Next Moves

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Rangers protecting threatened wildlife in Cambodia are using artificial intelligence to predict poachers’ next moves. Matt Dibble reports.

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