Apple to add ‘lockdown’ safeguard on iPhones, iPads, Macs

The lockdown measure is considered a last resort for people targeted by spyware, since activating lockdown will disable many popular features. (Shutterstock image)
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Updated 11 July 2022

Apple to add ‘lockdown’ safeguard on iPhones, iPads, Macs

  • Apple adds 'lockdown' features for iPhones, iPads and Mac computers intended to protect against spyware

CUPERTINO, California: Apple said it will roll out a “lockdown” option for iPhones, iPads and Mac computers intended to protect against spyware unleashed by state-sponsored hackers — although enabling that protection will also make these devices less useful.
The safeguard announced Wednesday is a tacit acknowledgement that not even Apple — the world’s most valuable company — has been able to adequately shield the iPhone and its other products against intrusions from state-backed hackers and commercial spyware. Governments have used these tools to violate the privacy of journalists, political dissidents and human rights activists.
The new feature, called “lockdown mode,” will initially be offered as a test version so that security researchers can help Apple identify any bugs or weaknesses. Apple usually releases its major updates to its device operating systems in late September.
While only a handful of countries appear to have the resources to develop in-house mobile phone hacking tools, private companies like Israel’s NSO Group have been selling phone hacking software to government agencies around the world for years.
The growing hacker-for-hire problem prompted Apple to file a federal lawsuit late last year against NSO Group for breaking into iPhones and other Apple products. In its complaint, Apple accused NSO Group employees of being “amoral 21st century mercenaries who have created highly sophisticated cyber-surveillance machinery that invites routine and flagrant abuse.”
NSO, which has been blacklisted by the US Commerce Department, has denied any wrongdoing and said its products have been used to thwart child abusers and terrorists.
Unlike the security features that Apple builds into most of its software, the company’s lockdown feature is meant to serve as an emergency button that Apple expects will only be needed by a small number of its users.
The lockdown measure is considered a last resort for people targeted by spyware, since activating lockdown will disable many popular features. That includes sending attachments and links in texts, as well as the ability to receive FaceTime calls from new numbers. Web browsing will also be limited.
But Apple believes the extra layer of protection will be valuable to activists, journalists and other targets of hacking attacks launched by well-funded groups. Users will be able to activate and deactivate lockdown mode at will.
The growing use of encrypted communications through phone apps like WhatsApp and Signal have prompted governments to turn to commercial spyware vendors to gather information on targets.
Such mobile phone spyware vacuums up text messages, emails and photos while secretly controlling a smartphone’s microphones and cameras. Some of the more advanced tools can infect a phone using so-called “zero click” exploits that don’t depend on the user inadvertently activating them, such as by clicking on a malicious link.
Google, whose Android mobile phone platform is used by iPhone competitors, has also been targeted by commercial spyware vendors. The company’s Threat Analysis Group says it’s tracking more than 30 such companies and routinely publishes reports on exploits used to hack into phones, making them far less effective.
Google also offers an “Advanced Protection Program” that uses a special security key hardware to make user accounts harder to hack. The company said it strongly recommends the program for “journalists, activists, business executives, and people involved in elections.”
Separately, Apple also provided more details about a $10 million grant it pledged last November to help counter large-scale hacking attacks. The money will go to the Dignity and Justice Fund, a philanthropic arm of the Ford Foundation.


Rohingya seek reparations from Facebook for role in massacre

Updated 29 September 2022

Rohingya seek reparations from Facebook for role in massacre

  • “Meta — through its dangerous algorithms and its relentless pursuit of profit — substantially contributed to the serious human rights violations perpetrated against the Rohingya,” the report says

With roosters crowing in the background as he speaks from the crowded refugee camp in Bangladesh that’s been his home since 2017, Maung Sawyeddollah, 21, describes what happened when violent hate speech and disinformation targeting the Rohingya minority in Myanmar began to spread on Facebook.
“We were good with most of the people there. But some very narrow minded and very nationalist types escalated hate against Rohingya on Facebook,” he said. “And the people who were good, in close communication with Rohingya. changed their mind against Rohingya and it turned to hate.”
For years, Facebook, now called Meta Platforms Inc., pushed the narrative that it was a neutral platform in Myanmar that was misused by malicious people, and that despite its efforts to remove violent and hateful material, it unfortunately fell short. That narrative echoes its response to the role it has played in other conflicts around the world, whether the 2020 election in the US or hate speech in India.
But a new and comprehensive report by Amnesty International states that Facebook’s preferred narrative is false. The platform, Amnesty says, wasn’t merely a passive site with insufficient content moderation. Instead, Meta’s algorithms “proactively amplified and promoted content” on Facebook, which incited violent hatred against the Rohingya beginning as early as 2012.
Despite years of warnings, Amnesty found, the company not only failed to remove violent hate speech and disinformation against the Rohingya, it actively spread and amplified it until it culminated in the 2017 massacre. The timing coincided with the rising popularity of Facebook in Myanmar, where for many people it served as their only connection to the online world. That effectively made Facebook the Internet for a vast number of Myanmar’s population.
More than 700,000 Rohingya fled into neighboring Bangladesh that year. Myanmar security forces were accused of mass rapes, killings and torching thousands of homes owned by Rohingya.
“Meta — through its dangerous algorithms and its relentless pursuit of profit — substantially contributed to the serious human rights violations perpetrated against the Rohingya,” the report says.
A spokesperson for Meta declined to answer questions about the Amnesty report. In a statement, the company said it “stands in solidarity with the international community and supports efforts to hold the Tatmadaw accountable for its crimes against the Rohingya people.”
“Our safety and integrity work in Myanmar remains guided by feedback from local civil society organizations and international institutions, including the UN Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar; the Human Rights Impact Assessment we commissioned in 2018; as well as our ongoing human rights risk management,” Rafael Frankel, director of public policy for emerging markets, Meta Asia-Pacific, said in a statement.
Like Sawyeddollah, who is quoted in the Amnesty report and spoke with the AP on Tuesday, most of the people who fled Myanmar — about 80 percent of the Rohingya living in Myanmar’s western state of Rakhine at the time — are still staying in refugee camps. And they are asking Meta to pay reparations for its role in the violent repression of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, which the US declared a genocide earlier this year.
Amnesty’s report, out Wednesday, is based on interviews with Rohingya refugees, former Meta staff, academics, activists and others. It also relied on documents disclosed to Congress last year by whistleblower Frances Haugen, a former Facebook data scientist. It notes that digital rights activists say Meta has improved its civil society engagement and some aspects of its content moderation practices in Myanmar in recent years. In January 2021, after a violent coup overthrew the government, it banned the country’s military from its platform.
But critics, including some of Facebook’s own employees, have long maintained such an approach will never truly work. It means Meta is playing whack-a-mole trying to remove harmful material while its algorithms designed to push “engaging” content that’s more likely to get people riled up essentially work against it.
“These algorithms are really dangerous to our human rights. And what happened to the Rohingya and Facebook’s role in that specific conflict risks happening again, in many different contexts across the world,” said Pat de Brún, researcher and adviser on artificial intelligence and human rights at Amnesty.
“The company has shown itself completely unwilling or incapable of resolving the root causes of its human rights impact.”
After the UN’s Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar highlighted the “significant” role Facebook played in the atrocities perpetrated against the Rohingya, Meta admitted in 2018 that “we weren’t doing enough to help prevent our platform from being used to foment division and incite offline violence.”
In the following years, the company “touted certain improvements in its community engagement and content moderation practices in Myanmar,” Amnesty said, adding that its report “finds that these measures have proven wholly inadequate.”
In 2020, for instance, three years after the violence in Myanmar killed thousands of Rohingya Muslims and displaced 700,000 more, Facebook investigated how a video by a leading anti-Rohingya hate figure, U Wirathu, was circulating on its site.
The probe revealed that over 70 percent of the video’s views came from “chaining” — that is, it was suggested to people who played a different video, showing what’s “up next.” Facebook users were not seeking out or searching for the video, but had it fed to them by the platform’s algorithms.
Wirathu had been banned from Facebook since 2018.
“Even a well-resourced approach to content moderation, in isolation, would likely not have sufficed to prevent and mitigate these algorithmic harms. This is because content moderation fails to address the root cause of Meta’s algorithmic amplification of harmful content,” Amnesty’s report says.
The Rohingya refugees are seeking unspecified reparations from the Menlo Park, California-based social media giant for its role in perpetuating genocide. Meta, which is the subject of twin lawsuits in the US and the UK seeking $150 billion for Rohingya refugees, has so far refused.
“We believe that the genocide against Rohingya was possible only because of Facebook,” Sawyeddollah said. “They communicated with each other to spread hate, they organized campaigns through Facebook. But Facebook was silent.”


Netflix launches ‘New Saudi Voices’ collection to celebrate Saudi filmmakers

Updated 29 September 2022

Netflix launches ‘New Saudi Voices’ collection to celebrate Saudi filmmakers

  • 11 films will celebrate creativity and talent of emerging figures in the Kingdom

DUBAI: Netflix is releasing a collection titled “New Saudi Voices” consisting of 11 specially curated short films to celebrate the creativity of emerging Saudi filmmakers.

The collection comprises movies across genres including horror, fantasy and animation, in an attempt to capture the full scope of Saudi filmmakers’ creativity and talent.

The 11 films are part of the New Saudi/New Cinema Shorts showcased at the Red Sea Film Festival last year and encapsulate the work of some of the most promising new voices in the Kingdom.

The films include Mohamed Basalamah’s “Hallucinated,” which tells the story of a delivery worker who suffers from worsening insomnia until the line blurs between his reality and hallucinations; and Rami Alzayer’s “The Day I Lost Myself,” which explores how a young man with anxiety finds himself stuck in an elevator on his way to an interview.

Documentaries like “Arufea” by Abbas Alshuwayfie offer a peek into an old Saudi neighborhood, and Omar Al-Omirat’s “Covida the 19th” explores lifestyle changes post-pandemic.

The collection also includes an animated short called “Whisper Down the Lane” by Raghad Albarqi, “The Jakar” by Abdulaziz Saleh, “The Palm Witch” by Hala Alhaid, “Hide and Seek” by Mohammad Helal, “Red Circle” by Abdulaziz Sarhan and “Little Bird” by Khalid Fahad.

Nuha El-Tayeb, director of content acquisitions, Netflix, MENA and Turkey, said: “We’re very excited to amplify the voices of up-and-coming filmmakers in Saudi Arabia through this collection. There’s incredible talent in the Kingdom, and they have unique stories to tell. We hope that as people tune into the films, they learn more about these creators, and catch a glimpse of their passion, originality and creativity, as we have.”

It is not the first time that Netflix has shined the spotlight on Saudi cinema. Earlier this year, the company launched a specially curated collection of 21 Arab films, “Because She Created,” featuring movies from filmmakers across Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Egypt and more.

At the time, El-Tayeb told Arab News: “There’s incredible talent in Saudi Arabia. The entertainment landscape is rapidly evolving and Saudi women — like other women from the Arab world and globally — have beautiful, complex and layered stories to tell.”

The streaming giant has also worked with writer and director Hana Al-Omair on “Whispers,” an eight-part psychological thriller, as well as with Haifaa Al-Mansour on “Wadjda,” the first feature film made by a female Saudi director.

The “New Saudi Voices” collection will be available on Netflix on Sept. 29.

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Google announces host of updates and improvements

Updated 29 September 2022

Google announces host of updates and improvements

  • Company said during annual Search On event that the new features will be rolled out across its Search, Maps and other services

DUBAI: Google on Wednesday announced a host of updates and improvements to its Search, Maps and Shopping services.

The enhancements, announced during the company’s annual Search On virtual event, are “just the start of how we’re transforming our products to help you go beyond the traditional search box,” said Prabhakar Raghavan, a senior vice president at Google.

Some of the biggest updates are to Google Search, including multisearch, which enables users to search using text and images simultaneously. First introduced in beta mode in the US, it is now available in English worldwide and is being rolled out in 70 other languages.

Google will also introduce, initially only in the US, “multisearch near me,” which allows users to take photos of items and search for suppliers near them.

Every month, people use Google to translate text contained in images more than a 1 billion times across more than 100 languages, said Cathy Edwards, Google’s vice-president and general manager for Search.

“With major advancements in machine learning, we’re now able to blend translated text into complex images so it looks and feels much more natural,” she added. This improved experience will launch later this year.

In addition, shortcuts will be placed under the search bar that make it easy for users to shop their screenshots and translate images of text taken with their camera, among other things. This initially will be available on the Google app for iOS.

Google said its research has found that 40 percent of people already have a dish in mind when they search for food, so to help people find exactly what they are looking for, users will soon be able to search for any dish and find local establishments that have it on the menu.

These and other features, such as continuous scrolling, are designed to improve the search experience for users by making it quicker and more intuitive, the company said.

Improvements to Google Maps include new features such as a “neighborhood vibe check,” which will highlight popular landmarks and hot spots in a given area. The information will be based on a combination of artificial intelligence and photos and reviews uploaded by Google users.

This year, Google introduced Immersive View, which provides multi-dimensional views of an area along with information about the weather, traffic and businesses. Building on this feature, the company is launching more 250 photorealistic aerial views of global landmarks such as the Tokyo Tower and the Acropolis of Athens.

Using predictive modeling, Immersive View automatically learns and uses the historical trends for a location to determine what it will be like in the future. This means that users can search for additional information about each landmark, such as weather, nearby restaurants and parking, on specific future dates.

Neighborhood vibe check will be rolled out globally in the coming months while Immersive View will be launched in Los Angeles, London, New York, San Francisco and Tokyo on iOS and Android devices.

Other improvements to Maps include the expansion of the Live View search feature, and of eco-friendly routing to third-party developers.

The growth of online shopping in the past two years has resulted in many digital and social platforms creating tools designed to make the buying experience more seamless. Google is no exception, after launching almost 10 new features at this year’s event.

Most of them will only be available in the US at first and are aimed at enabling shopping from within Google products. For instance, users can choose to “shop the look,” with Google offering suggestions on complementary pieces in an outfit within Search.

Other features include trending products, 3D images, buying guides, new filters, page insights, and a “discover” section in the Google app that features shoppable styles and looks.

The updates aim to make the shopping experience on Google more intuitive, fun and easier, according to Lilian Rincon, senior director of product, shopping.

“Regardless of where you end up buying, these tools can help you find what you want more quickly and maybe even discover the next thing you’ll love,” she added.


Prior restraint: Elon Musk claims government-imposed muzzle unlawful

Updated 28 September 2022

Prior restraint: Elon Musk claims government-imposed muzzle unlawful

  • Court brief: Musk’s speech is chilled by the threat of SEC investigations and prosecution for contempt of court

DETROIT: US Securities regulators are unlawfully muzzling Tesla CEO Elon Musk, violating his free speech rights by continually trying to enforce a 2018 securities fraud settlement, Musk’s lawyer contends in a court brief.
The document, filed late Tuesday with the federal appeals court in Manhattan, was written to support Musk’s appeal of a lower court’s April decision to uphold the settlement with Securities and Exchange Commission.
The brief says that a provision in the settlement requiring Musk to get prior approval before tweeting about the electric car company is an illegal “government-imposed muzzle on Mr. Musk’s speech before it is made.”
The settlement required that his tweets be approved by a Tesla attorney before being published. The SEC is investigating whether Musk violated the settlement with tweets last November asking Twitter followers if he should sell 10 percent of his Tesla stock.
But in the brief, Musk attorney Alex Spiro contends that the SEC is continually investigating Musk for topics not covered by the settlement. It asks the Second Circuit Court of Appeals to strike or modify the prior approval provision.
“The pre-approval provision in the consent decree qualifies as a prior restraint on speech that runs afoul of the First Amendment,” Spiro wrote. “It forbids future lawful speech on a range of topics absent approval.”
Further, Musk’s speech is chilled by the threat of SEC investigations and prosecution for contempt of court, the brief said.
The whole dispute stems from an October 2018 agreement with the SEC that Musk signed. He and Tesla each agreed to pay $20 million in civil fines over Musk’s tweets about having the “funding secured” to take Tesla private at $420 per share.
The funding was far from locked up, and the electric vehicle company remains public, but Tesla’s stock price jumped. The settlement specified governance changes, including Musk’s ouster as board chairman, as well as pre-approval of his tweets.
In April, US District Judge Lewis Liman in New York rejected Musk’s bid to throw out the settlement that he signed with the SEC. He also denied a motion to nullify a subpoena of Musk seeking information about possible violations of the settlement.
Liman’s ruling said that Musk made the tweets without getting pre-approval, but the judge later wrote that he didn’t mean to pass judgment on that issue.
A message was left early Wednesday seeking comment from the SEC.
Spiro writes that Mr. Musk’s waiver of his First Amendment rights in the settlement was not voluntary because there was no way for Musk to know how far reaching it was. “The provision applies to future speech about circumstances no one could anticipate in advance,” he wrote.
Musk, he said, is under constant threat that the SEC will disagree with his interpretation of what he can say. Musk also agreed to the deal when Tesla was a smaller company and the SEC action could have jeopardized its financing.
“The SEC has maintained constant investigations into Mr. Musk’s speech, employing nebulous interpretations of the consent decree seemingly designed to curb and chill his future speech, all regarding speech entirely unrelated to the 2018 tweet for which the SEC initiated this action,” Spiro wrote.
Tesla is now the most valuable automaker in the world, and Musk is the world’s wealthiest person.
Liman ruled that Musk’s claim that economic duress caused him to sign the settlement is “wholly unpersuasive.”
Even if Musk was worried that litigation with the SEC would ruin Tesla financially, “that does not establish a basis for him to get out of the judgment he voluntarily signed,” Liman wrote.
The judge also said Musk’s argument that the SEC had used the settlement order to harass Musk and launch investigations was “meritless.”

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Google launches new tools to help travel industry in Middle East

Updated 27 September 2022

Google launches new tools to help travel industry in Middle East

  • The free tools, available in Arabic and English, provide insights that can help destinations and hotels quickly identify travel trends and plan accordingly

DUBAI: Google unveiled two new tools on Tuesday, World Tourism Day, designed to help travel-related businesses in the Middle East and North Africa region.

Destination Insights and Hotel Insights, which were launched on the Travel Insights With Google website, aim to help businesses quickly identify travel trends and plan accordingly. They are free to use and available in English and Arabic.

For example, in the past eight months internet users in Saudi Arabia searched for information about many countries, including Azerbaijan, Egypt, Georgia, Thailand, the UAE and the UK, according to Google Trends. In addition, searches for “booking tickets” increased by 153 percent in the Kingdom compared with the previous year.

Over the same period in the UAE, people searched for local entertainment destinations including the Dubai Fountain and Dubai Butterfly Garden, along with hotels in the Emirates and Saudi Arabia. The number of searches for “ticket prices” in the UAE increased by 122 percent compared with the previous year.

“From our continuous conversations with travel partners around the region, we heard that timely insights are very much necessary for the travel industry at this period, especially with many local and regional events coming up,” said Anthony Nakache, managing director of Google MENA.

“This is why we’re very excited to bring a new insights portal for the region’s travel and tourism sector, to help businesses reach regular and new travelers.”

Google said its Destination Insights tool provides travel businesses, governments and tourism boards with a clearer picture of the leading sources of demand for a destination, and the places and attractions within their countries that travelers are most interested in visiting.

It also allows businesses and authorities to explore the ways in which tourism demand is changing compared with previous months or years, and adjust their marketing campaigns accordingly.

According to Google, the Hotel Insights tool provides businesses with in-depth information about interest in their accommodations, aiding understanding about the sources of that interest and how best to attract new guests by creating a stronger digital presence.

The launch of the tools comes as the travel industry begins to bounce back following a challenging few years as a result of COVID-19 restrictions. The value of the travel and tourism sector in the Middle East alone is expected to reach $246 billion this year, based on a recent study, Nakache said.

Google said it will continue to develop tech-driven tools that can help businesses in the travel and tourism sector better engage with customers.

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