Microsoft says state-sponsored Chinese hackers could be laying groundwork for disruption

A security surveillance camera is seen near the Microsoft office building in Beijing, China, on July 20, 2021. (AP File Photo)
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Updated 25 May 2023
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Microsoft says state-sponsored Chinese hackers could be laying groundwork for disruption

  • Active since mid-2021, the group of hackers has been seeking persistent access to organizations in various industries, says Microsoft
  • It said the intrusion campaign seeks to blend into normal network activity by hacking small-office network equipment, including routers

BOSTON: State-backed Chinese hackers have been targeting US critical infrastructure and could be laying the technical groundwork for the potential disruption of critical communications between the US and Asia during future crises, Microsoft said Wednesday.

The targets include sites in Guam, where the US has a major military presence, the company said.
Hostile activity in cyberspace — from espionage to the advanced positioning of malware for potential future attacks — has become a hallmark of modern geopolitical rivalry.
Microsoft said in a blog post that the state-sponsored group of hackers, which it calls Volt Typhoon, has been active since mid-2021. It said organizations affected by the hacking — which seeks persistent access — are in the communications, manufacturing, utility, transportation, construction, maritime, information technology and education sectors.
Separately, the National Security Agency, the FBI, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) and their counterparts from Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Britain published a joint advisory sharing technical details on “the recently discovered cluster of activity.”
A Microsoft spokesman would not say why the software giant was making the announcement now or whether it had recently seen an uptick in targeting of critical infrastructure in Guam or at adjacent US military facilities there, which include a major air base.
John Hultquist, chief analyst at Google’s Mandiant cybersecurity intelligence operation, called Microsoft’s announcement “potentially a really important finding.”
“We don’t see a lot of this sort of probing from China. It’s rare,” Hultquist said. “We know a lot about Russian and North Korean and Iranian cyber-capabilities because they have regularly done this.” China has generally withheld use of the kinds of tools that could be used to seed, not just intelligence-gathering capabilities, but also malware for disruptive attacks in an armed conflict, he added.
Microsoft said the intrusion campaign placed a “strong emphasis on stealth” and sought to blend into normal network activity by hacking small-office network equipment, including routers. It said the intruders gained initial access through Internet-facing Fortiguard devices, which are engineered to use machine-learning to detect malware.
The maker of Fortiguard devices, Fortinet, did not immediately respond to an email seeking further details.
“For years, China has conducted aggressive cyber operations to steal intellectual property and sensitive data from organizations around the globe,” said CISA Director Jen Easterly, urging mitigation of affected networks to prevent possible disruption. Bryan Vorndran, the FBI cyber division assistant director, called the intrusions “unacceptable tactics” in the same statement.
Tensions between Washington and Beijing — which the US national security establishment considers its main military, economic and strategic rival — have been on the rise in recent months.
Those tensions spiked last year after then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to democratically governed Taiwan, leading China, which claims the island as its territory, to launch military exercises around Taiwan.
US-China relations became further strained earlier this year after the US shot down a Chinese spy balloon that had crossed the United States.


Cosmetics brand Garnier partners with Snapchat to celebrate Saudi National Day

Updated 23 September 2023
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Cosmetics brand Garnier partners with Snapchat to celebrate Saudi National Day

  • Their environmental-themed campaign includes limited-edition Bitmoji merchandise and an augmented reality experience
  • Snapchat users can also design a tote bag and share it for a chance to influence the next Garnier tote design, which will be available at Panda stores

DUBAI: Cosmetics company Garnier is teaming up with Snapchat for new campaign, “Shop Greener Because Saudi Deserves Green,” to celebrate Saudi Arabia’s 93rd National Day on Sept. 23 and encourage people in the Kingdom to choose sustainable beauty products.

The campaign, which runs until Sept. 27, features two exclusive experiences for Snapchat users: limited-edition Bitmoji merchandise that can be unlocked by scanning a QR code on Snapchat, and an immersive augmented reality lens featuring a customizable tote bag.

According to a Snapchat report titled Augmentality Shift, 77 percent of consumers surveyed in the Kingdom agreed that they feel closer to brands or products that offer AR experiences.

“We take pride in collaborating with Garnier Green to help reduce environmental impact through the power of AR, and to raise awareness and catalyze change on environmental issues that can have an even bigger influence to champion real change,” said Mariam Koumaiha, brand strategist at Snap Inc. for the Middle East and North Africa region.

As part of the campaign, Snapchat users are invited to design a tote bag and share it for a chance to influence the next Garnier tote design, which will be available at Panda stores.

Users will also receive a complimentary tote bag with the purchase of any Garnier product, and receive a cashback of SR5 ($1.33) when they return with the reusable tote and buy Garnier products worth at least SR50.

“Garnier’s unwavering commitment to a greener and more sustainable Saudi Arabia has been our driving force for years,” said Ahmed Wagih, general manager of Garnier Middle East’s Consumer Product division.

“As we celebrate Saudi Arabia’s heritage, we also celebrate our shared responsibility towards a greener future.”

Snapchat said it has a monthly addressable audience of 22 million users in Saudi Arabia and reaches 90 percent of people in the country between the ages of 13 and 34.


Advanced Media to launch Arabic edition of CINE digital filmmaking workshops in Riyadh

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Updated 22 September 2023
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Advanced Media to launch Arabic edition of CINE digital filmmaking workshops in Riyadh

  • The event on Oct. 6-7 aims to give industry professionals, content creators and enthusiasts a chance to learn about the latest industry trends in digital cinema

LONDON: Advanced Media, a company that distributes video, photographic, broadcast and cinema equipment, will host an Arabic version of its biannual digital cinema community event, CINE, in Riyadh next month.

Titled CINESeason, the event on Oct. 6 and 7 aims to give industry professionals, content creators and enthusiasts a chance to learn about the latest industry trends in digital cinema. Organizers said the comprehensive program will teach participants about various aspects of cinematic filmmaking, including video acquisition, lighting for film and TV drama, shooting in high-resolution formats, workflow, and the post-production process.

Workshops will be led by leading industry experts in the region, they added, including cinematographer Fouad Aoun, editor Mostafa Salah, and renowned Egyptian director of photography Ayman Abou El-Makarem.

As the entertainment sector in Saudi Arabia has opened up in recent years as part of the Vision 2030 plan to develop and diversify the national economy, the country has emerged as a rapidly expanding market for filmmaking and content creation, which is driving demand for professional equipment and skilled operators.

Established in 2020 by UAE-based Advanced Media, CINESeason provides a unique opportunity for filmmakers in the Kingdom to gain hands-on experience with the latest equipment, and network with fellow professionals.

 

 


Iranian filmmakers protest official Oscar entry, call for new submission

Updated 22 September 2023
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Iranian filmmakers protest official Oscar entry, call for new submission

  • IIFMA said shortlist was not representative of Iran’s creative body of work
  • Iran selected Reza Mirkarimi’s “The Night Guardian” as country submission to the 96th Academy Awards

LONDON: Dissident Iranian filmmakers have protested the country’s official Oscars entry for 2024 and called on the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to consider an alternative film to represent Iran.

The Iranian government-controlled Farabi Cinema Foundation has selected Reza Mirkarimi’s “The Night Guardian” as Iran’s submission to the 96th Academy Awards.

However, the Iranian Independent Filmmaker Association has opposed the decision, arguing that Farabi maintains close ties with the Islamic Republic’s government and that “Iranian cinema’s representative at the Oscars” should not be announced by the state-controlled entity.

In a statement, the IIFMA accused the government of leveraging Farabi to put “terrifying pressure on Iranian artists” and that the Oscars entry shortlist is not reflective of the creative body of work this year by Iranian filmmakers.

It added that Farabi also excluded several Iranian films that were critically acclaimed internationally this year from consideration as Iran’s Oscars entry.

The IIFMA pointed out that Farabi admitted to working with Iranian intelligence agencies to choose the films for the shortlist, adding that the organization has been banned from several film festivals, such as Berlin and Cannes, because of its close ties to the regime.

The IIFMA was formed on the eve of the Berlin Film Festival last February, in the wake of the “Woman, Life, Freedom” protests, to represent filmmakers who are not affiliated with the Iranian government.

AMPAS has not yet commented on the IIFMA’s protest or on the calls for an alternative Oscars entry for Iran.

However, the academy has a history of supporting filmmakers working in repressive environments.

In 2021, exiled Iranian filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi wrote to it suggesting the creation of a special entry in the category representing exiled artists.


Tunisia frees cartoonist after his arrest over drawings mocking PM

Updated 22 September 2023
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Tunisia frees cartoonist after his arrest over drawings mocking PM

  • Tawfiq Omrane could face one year in prison if convicted

TUNIS: Tunisia’s public prosecutor on Friday released the cartoonist Tawfiq Omrane, after he was detained for hours over drawings mocking the prime minister, fueling concern among free speech advocates.
Omrane is well known for publishing satirical cartoons featuring President Kais Saied, who seized almost all powers two years ago after he shut down Tunisia’s elected parliament in a move that the opposition described as a coup.
“They interrogated me on suspicion of insulting the prime minister. They showed a drawing that they considered offensive,” Omrane told Diwan FM Tunisian radio.
Omrane pledged that he would continue his satirical drawings.
“The police interrogated him (Omrane) for hours without the presence of lawyers on suspicion of insulting through social networks ... over cartoons mocking the prime minister,” his lawyer, Anas Kadoussi, told Reuters. Kadoussi said the cartoonist could face one year in prison if convicted.
Interior Ministry officials declined to comment immediately.
Ahmed Hachani is the prime minister, appointed last month to replace Najla Bouden.
Many Tunisians see free speech as a principal reform won after the 2011 revolution that toppled dictatorial President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Activists, journalists and politicians have warned this freedom is under threat.
“Omrane’s arrest reinforces authorities’ efforts to suppress critical voices of the president,” said Amira Mohamed, a senior official at the country’s Journalists’ Syndicate.
Kais Saied strongly criticized state TV in a speech this week, including the arrangement of headlines in a bulletin, in a move that the Journalists Syndicate said was “blatant interference.”
Saied rejects accusations of targeting freedoms and has said he will never be a dictator.
Police have detained more than 20 political figures this year, including opposition leader Rached Ghannouchi, head of the Ennahda party, accusing some of plotting against state security.


YouTube announces AI-powered tools to enhance content

Updated 22 September 2023
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YouTube announces AI-powered tools to enhance content

  • Dream Screen enables users to generate backgrounds and videos
  • YouTube Studio to use generative AI to help users produce ideas based on audience viewing habits

DUBAI: YouTube has unveiled several AI-powered tools, to be rolled out over the next year, to help creators enhance their content with videos or images.

The tools were showcased at the platform’s annual event “Made on YouTube” on Thursday.

“The creativity of content creators on YouTube across the Middle East and North Africa is truly inspiring and we’re excited to see how they will leverage YouTube’s new AI-powered features to continue pushing the boundaries of creative expression,” Tarek Amin, director of YouTube in MENA, told Arab News.

Since the launch of Shorts in 2020, the short-form content format has been capturing audiences’ attention, garnering over 70 billion daily views globally.

To make Shorts even more appealing for creators, YouTube announced the launch of Dream Screen, an experimental feature that allows creators to add AI-generated video or image backgrounds to their Shorts simply by typing an idea into a prompt.

“Given the mobile-first creator and audience for Shorts, it made sense for Dream Screen to start there,” a YouTube spokesperson told Arab News, adding that the feature would be developed further based on community feedback.

YouTube Studio will use generative AI to help creators brainstorm and come up with ideas based on audiences’ viewing habits and content interests. The insights will be personalized for each channel or creator, YouTube said.

The company has been testing early versions of AI-powered tools in YouTube Studio with creators, and more than 70 percent of those surveyed said it has helped them develop and test ideas for videos.

For now, the feature will be deployed experimentally in the US later this year, and will be expanded to other creators next year, the spokesperson said.

YouTube also launched YouTube Create, a production and editing mobile app for creators. Early tests were conducted in India and Singapore, and the app is currently in beta for creators in the US, UK, France, Germany, South Korea and Indonesia.

It is currently available only on Android devices but is expected to launch on iOS next year.

The company also announced other products and features including an AI-powered music recommendation system that will take a written description of a creator’s video and suggest which soundtrack matches best, as well as an AI dubbing feature that will allow creators to dub their videos into other languages.

The latter is powered by Aloud, which is part of Area 120, Google’s in-house incubator for experimental projects.

It currently supports dubbing from English to Portuguese and Spanish.

The YouTube spokesperson told Arab News: “Translation and transcription quality is different across languages; we will increase language coverage — including starting from a non-English source — as we gain higher confidence over the translation and transcription accuracy of the dubs.”