Vietnam Tapping Hackers to Silence Critics, Experts Warn

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An international advocacy group’s claim that the Vietnamese government has tapped hackers to target activists shows that the communist Southeast Asian state is widening the use of technology to quash its biggest opponents, experts believe. Ocean Lotus, a shadowy group suspected of working with the Vietnamese government, is “behind a sustained campaign of spyware attacks,” London-based Amnesty International said in a statement on February 24 following two years of research. It says the attacks surfaced in 2014 and targeted rights activists and the private sector, inside Vietnam as well as abroad. The hack attacks would signal a growing use of technology to muzzle strong vocal opponents of Vietnam’s officials, country observers say. Police already use internet trolls and authorities have been known to damage people’s Facebook accounts, said James Gomez, regional director of the Asia Centre, a Bangkok-based think tank. The FILE – Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs deputy spokesperson Ngo Toan Thang speaks to media in Hanoi, Vietnam, Nov. 7, 2019.”This is groundless information,” deputy ministry spokesperson Ngo Toan Thang told a news conference in May, as quoted on the ministry’s website. “Vietnam strictly bans all cyber-attacks against organizations and individuals in any form.” The ministry’s English-language website does not address Amnesty International’s claims. Amnesty International’s Security Lab said in the February 24 statement it had found Ocean Lotus’s influence in phishing emails sent to two Vietnamese “human rights” advocates. One lives in Germany, the statement says, and the other was a Vietnamese nongovernmental organization in the Philippines. “The hacking group has been repeatedly identified by cybersecurity firms as targeting Vietnamese political dissidents, foreign governments and companies,” the statement adds.  Vietnam ‘cyber-troops’French journalism advocacy group Reporters Without Borders said in 2018 Vietnam had appointed 10,000 “cyber-troops” to fight online dissent. The journalism group called the deployment an “army of internet trolls” aimed at attacking independent media outlets. Authorities showed last year they can quickly shutter social media accounts registered in foreign countries.  After Vietnamese blogger Bui Thi Minh Hang livestreamed an interview with a woman whose 3-year-old child was exposed to tear gas, her posts quickly disappeared from Facebook and YouTube and she was arrested hours later. She lost access to her accounts.Vietnam Pressures Social Media Platforms to Censor Vietnam’s laws and requests for content removal are stifling free speech, bloggers and rights organizations say Jack Nguyen, a partner at the business advisory firm Mazars in Ho Chi Minh City, suggests that internet commentators stick to issues rather than targeting the state or the Communist Party. Pollution and drought are acceptable topics, he said, and it’s even OK to suggest policy changes. “Don’t criticize the party,” Nguyen said. “You can criticize some of the policies but don’t do anything that they can say that it’s counterrevolutionary.” 
 

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Learning a Dog’s Many Moods… With a Smart Collar

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From a smart dog collar that can tell you your pet’s emotional state to toys that automatically move, the pet tech industry is growing, especially during the pandemic when many people staying at home have been adopting dogs and cats.  VOA’s Elizabeth Lee has more on the latest tech devices for pets.Camera:  Elizabeth Lee, Sam Verma   
Producer: Elizabeth Lee

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What Is Clubhouse and Why Did It Get So Popular?

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There’s a new player in the social media webspace: it’s called Clubhouse. But unlike other social media platforms this one isn’t open to just anyone. Mariia Prus looked into why the platform got so popular so fast.
Camera: Oleksii Osyka

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US Judge Approves $650M Facebook Privacy Lawsuit Settlement

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A federal judge on Friday approved a $650 million settlement of a privacy lawsuit against Facebook for allegedly using photo face-tagging and other biometric data without the permission of its users.U.S. District Judge James Donato approved the deal in a class-action lawsuit that was filed in Illinois in 2015. Nearly 1.6 million Facebook users in Illinois who submitted claims will be affected.Donato called it one of the largest settlements ever for a privacy violation.”It will put at least $345 into the hands of every class member interested in being compensated,” he wrote, calling it “a major win for consumers in the hotly contested area of digital privacy.”Jay Edelson, a Chicago attorney who filed the lawsuit, told the Chicago Tribune that the checks could be in the mail within two months unless the ruling is appealed.“We are pleased to have reached a settlement so we can move past this matter, which is in the best interest of our community and our shareholders,” Facebook, which is headquartered in the San Francisco Bay Area, said in a statement.The lawsuit accused the social media giant of violating an Illinois privacy law by failing to get consent before using facial-recognition technology to scan photos uploaded by users to create and store faces digitally.The state’s Biometric Information Privacy Act allowed consumers to sue companies that didn’t get permission before harvesting data such as faces and fingerprints.The case eventually wound up as a class-action lawsuit in California.Facebook has since changed its photo-tagging system.

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Carter Center Targets Online Threats in Ethiopia

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With internet access increasing in many emerging democracies, use of social media is changing the ways that candidates and voters interact.  It’s also changing how the non-profit U.S.-based Carter Center assesses elections. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, monitoring online disinformation and threats to prevent political violence is a new front in the center’s democracy initiatives and is a focus ahead of elections in Ethiopia.Camera: Kane Farabaugh    Producer: Kane Farabaugh

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Tech Executives Warn Full Extent of US Cyber Breach Still Unknown

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U.S. lawmakers launched an investigation this week into the December 2020 SolarWinds hack that included a breach of many private and U.S. government computer systems. As VOA’s congressional correspondent Katherine Gypson reports, tech leaders are telling lawmakers the full scope of the breach is still not known.  Camera: Adam Greenbaum  Produced by: Katherine Gypson
  

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ByteDance Agrees to $92 Million Privacy Settlement with US TikTok Users

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ByteDance has agreed to a $92 million class-action settlement over data privacy claims from some U.S. TikTok users, according to documents filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Illinois. ByteDance, the Chinese company that owns the short video app that has more than 100 million U.S. users, agreed to the settlement after more than a year of litigation. “While we disagree with the assertions, rather than go through lengthy litigation, we’d like to focus our efforts on building a safe and joyful experience for the TikTok community,” TikTok said Thursday. The settlement still requires court approval. FILE – A man opens social media app TikTok on his cellphone, in Islamabad, Pakistan, July 21, 2020.The lawsuits claimed the TikTok app “infiltrates its users’ devices and extracts a broad array of private data including biometric data and content that defendants use to track and profile TikTok users for the purpose of, among other things, ad targeting and profit.” The settlement was reached after “an expert-led inside look at TikTok’s source code” and extensive mediation efforts, according to the motion seeking approval of the settlement. Separately, in Washington the Federal Trade Commission and U.S. Justice Department are looking into allegations that TikTok failed to live up to a 2019 agreement aimed at protecting children’s privacy. 
 

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Australia Approves Law to Make Facebook and Google Pay to Carry News Content

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Australia has become the world’s first nation to make digital companies such as Facebook and Google pay domestic news outlets for their content.Parliament approved the law Thursday that would allow a government arbitrator to decide the price a digital company should pay news outlets if the two sides fail to reach an agreement.The final legislation includes a set of amendments as part of an agreement reached Tuesday between the Australian government and Facebook. The amendments include a two-month mediation period that would give social media giants and news publishers extra time to broker agreements before they are forced to abide by the government’s provisions.The agreements ended a stalemate that prompted Facebook to block all Australian news content last week, preventing them from being viewed or shared. The websites of several public agencies and emergency services were also blocked on Facebook, including pages that include up-to-date information on COVID-19 outbreaks, brushfires and other natural disasters.

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Facebook Pledges $1B in News Investments Over 3 Years

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Facebook on Wednesday pledged to invest at least $1 billion to support journalism over the next three years as the social media giant defended its handling of a dispute with Australia over payments to media organizations.Nick Clegg, head of global affairs, said in a statement that the company was willing to support news media while reiterating its concerns about mandated payments.”Facebook is more than willing to partner with news publishers,” Clegg said after Facebook restored news links as part of a compromise with Australian officials. “We absolutely recognize quality journalism is at the heart of how open societies function — informing and empowering citizens and holding the powerful to account.”Clegg defended the U.S. social media giant in a blog post titled “The Real Story of What Happened With News on Facebook in Australia.”The social media platform came under fire after it blanked out the pages of media outlets for Australian users and blocked them from sharing any news content, rather than submit to the proposed legislation.Clegg contended in his post that at the heart of the controversy was a misunderstanding about the relationship between Facebook and news publishers.’Free referrals’News groups share their stories at the social network or make them available for Facebook users to share with features such as buttons designed into websites, Clegg noted.Facebook drove some 5.1 billion such “free referrals” to Australian news publishers last year, worth an estimated 407 million Australian dollars, according to Clegg.”The assertions — repeated widely in recent days — that Facebook steals or takes original journalism for its own benefit always were and remain false,” Clegg said. “We neither take nor ask for the content for which we were being asked to pay a potentially exorbitant price.”Clegg said that to comply with the law as originally proposed in Australia, “Facebook would have been forced to pay potentially unlimited amounts of money to multinational media conglomerates under an arbitration system that deliberately misdescribes the relationship between publishers and Facebook.”He maintained that in blacking out all news in the country, “we erred on the side of overenforcement” and acknowledged that “some content was blocked inadvertently” before being restored.  

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Facebook’s Oversight Board Has Received Appeal From ‘User’ in Trump Ban Case

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Facebook Inc.’s oversight board has received a “user statement” for the case it is deciding about whether the social media company was right to indefinitely suspend former President Donald Trump’s Facebook and Instagram accounts, a board spokeswoman confirmed on Tuesday. Facebook handed the case to its independent board in January after it blocked Trump’s access to his accounts over concerns of further violent unrest following the storming of the U.S. Capitol by the former president’s supporters. The board’s process gave administrators of Trump’s page the option to submit a statement challenging Facebook’s decision. The spokeswoman said the board would have no further comment until it had issued a decision. The appeal was first reported by the UK’s Channel 4 News. Earlier this month, the oversight board said it was extending the public comment period on the case for a week, citing “high levels of interest.” The oversight board spokeswoman said the board had received more than 9,000 comments on the Trump case, the most the board has had for any case. Several academics and civil rights activists have publicly shared their letters urging the board to ban Trump permanently. Republican lawmakers have railed against the ban and demanded Trump’s accounts be reinstated. 
 

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