Russians Hacked Federal Prosecutors, US Justice Department Says

The Russian hackers behind the massive SolarWinds cyberespionage campaign broke into the email accounts of some of the most prominent federal prosecutors’ offices around the country last year, the Justice Department said.The department said 80% of Microsoft email accounts used by employees in the four U.S. attorney offices in New York were breached. All told, the Justice Department said, in 27 U.S. attorney offices at least one employee’s email account was compromised during the hacking campaign.The Justice Department said in a statement Friday that it believes the accounts were compromised from May 7 to Dec. 27, 2020. Such a timeframe is notable because the SolarWinds campaign, which infiltrated dozens of private-sector companies and think tanks as well as at least nine U.S. government agencies, was first discovered and publicized in mid-December.The Biden administration in April announced sanctions, including the expulsion of Russian diplomats, in response to the SolarWinds hack and Russian interference in the 2020 U.S. presidential election. Russia has denied wrongdoing.Jennifer Rodgers, a lecturer at Columbia Law School, said office emails frequently contained all sorts of sensitive information, including case strategy discussions and names of confidential informants, when she was a federal prosecutor in New York.”I don’t remember ever having someone bring me a document instead of emailing it to me because of security concerns,” she said, noting exceptions for classified materials.The Administrative Office of U.S. Courts confirmed in January that it was also breached, giving the SolarWinds hackers another entry point to steal confidential information like trade secrets, espionage targets, whistleblower reports and arrest warrants.The list of affected offices includes several large and high-profile ones like those in Los Angeles, Miami, Washington and the Eastern District of Virginia.The Southern and Eastern Districts of New York, where large numbers of staff were hit, handle some of the most prominent prosecutions in the country.”New York is the financial center of the world and those districts are particularly well known for investigating and prosecuting white-collar crimes and other cases, including investigating people close to the former president,” said Bruce Green, a professor at Fordham Law School and a former prosecutor in the Southern District.The department said all victims had been notified and it is working to mitigate “operational, security and privacy risks” caused by the hack. The Justice Department said in January that it had no indication that any classified systems were affected.The Justice Department did not provide additional detail about what kind of information was taken and what impact such a hack may have on ongoing cases. Members of Congress have expressed frustration with the Biden administration for not sharing more information about the impact of the SolarWinds campaign.The Associated Press previously reported that SolarWinds hackers had gained access to email accounts belonging to the then-acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf and members of the department’s cybersecurity staff, whose jobs included hunting threats from foreign countries. 

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Era of VHS Might Be Over, but Many Are Not Ready to Let Go

The last VHS player was produced five years ago by Funai Electric in Japan. But for many, the era of VHS tapes never ended. Karina Bafradzhian and Angelina Bagdasaryan have the story.Camera: David Gogokhia, Vazgen Varzhabitian.

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What Are Deep Fakes and Why Are They Dangerous?

Fake videos generated by artificial intelligence — also known as deep fakes — are becoming more common and harder to detect. But some deep fakes are being used for a good cause. Karina Bafradzhian has the story.

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Amazon Hit With Record EU Data Privacy Fine

Amazon.com Inc has been hit with a record $886.6 million (746 million euros) European Union fine for processing personal data in violation of the bloc’s GDPR rules, as privacy regulators take a more aggressive position on enforcement.The Luxembourg National Commission for Data Protection (CNPD) imposed the fine on Amazon in a July 16 decision, the company disclosed in a regulatory filing on Friday.Amazon will appeal the fine, according to a company spokesperson. The e-commerce giant said in the filing it believed CNPD’s decision was without merit.CNPD did not immediately respond to a request for comment.EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR, requires companies to seek people’s consent before using their personal data or face steep fines.Globally, regulatory scrutiny of tech giants has been increasing following a string of scandals over privacy and misinformation, as well as complaints from some businesses that they abuse their market power.Alphabet’s Google, Facebook Inc, Apple Inc and Microsoft Corp have drawn heightened scrutiny in Europe.In December, France’s data privacy watchdog handed out its biggest ever fine of 100 million euros ($118.82 million) to Google for breaching the nation’s rules on online advertising trackers.

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Israel’s NSO Under Fire for Spyware Targeting Journalists, Dissidents

There is growing international criticism of Israel following allegations that software from the private security company NSO was used to spy on journalists, dissidents, and even political leaders around the world. A group of American lawmakers is urging the U.S. government to take punitive action against the company, which denies any wrongdoing. In Israel, some experts are calling for better regulation of cyber exports. Linda Gradstein reports for VOA from Jerusalem.

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Big Tech Companies to Allow Only Vaccinated Employees into US Offices

Big tech companies are making it mandatory for employees in the United States to get COVID-19 vaccinations before entering campuses, as the highly infectious delta variant of the coronavirus drives a resurgence in cases.Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Facebook Inc. said on Wednesday all U.S. employees must get vaccinated to step into offices. Google is also planning to expand its vaccination drive to other countries in the coming months.According to a Deadline report, streaming giant Netflix Inc. has also implemented a policy mandating vaccinations for the cast and crew on all its U.S. productions.Apple Inc. plans to restore its mask requirement policy at most of its U.S. retail stores, both for customers and staff, even if they are vaccinated, Bloomberg News reported.Apple and Netflix did not immediately respond to requests for comments.Many tech companies, including Microsoft Corp. and Uber, have said they expect employees to return to their offices, months after pandemic-induced lockdowns forced them to shift to working from home.In April, Salesforce said it would allow vaccinated employees to return to some of its offices.Google also said on Wednesday it would extend its global work-from-home policy through Oct. 18 due to a recent rise in cases caused by the delta variant across different regions.”We’ll continue watching the data carefully and let you know at least 30 days in advance before transitioning into our full return-to-office plans,” the company said.   

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US Senate Starts Debate on Infrastructure Spending

The U.S. Senate is starting debate on a new infrastructure spending package after President Joe Biden and a group of centrist Republican and Democratic senators reached agreement on it after weeks of wrangling over what to include and how to pay for it.

The White House declared Wednesday that the roughly $1 trillion package, including $550 billion in new allocations, would add about 2 million jobs to the U.S. economy each year for a decade. Many of those will be in construction work to repair the country’s deteriorating roads and bridges, building new broadband connections in rural areas of the U.S. and improving transit and water infrastructure.

In a rare show of bipartisanship, the Senate voted 67-32 Wednesday evening to proceed with debate and votes on amendments to the legislation, although final overall congressional passage of the measure could be weeks away.

“This deal signals to the world that our democracy can function,” Biden said in a statement. “We will once again transform America and propel us into the future.”

The White House said the package, one of Biden’s biggest legislative priorities, “will grow the economy, enhance our competitiveness, create good jobs, and make our economy more sustainable, resilient, and just.”

While Biden had reached a basic agreement with five Republican and five Democratic centrist lawmakers a month ago, the lawmakers and White House negotiators stalemated over how much to spend on specific types of infrastructure.

The deal now, according to the White House, includes the biggest-ever federal investment in public transit, $39 billion, to upgrade and expand rail and bus systems, as well as the biggest-ever expenditure for passenger rail service since the creation of the existing Amtrak passenger rail system in 1971.

The spending plan calls for significant spending for bridges, clean drinking water and wastewater infrastructure, access for all Americans to high-speed internet, thousands more electric vehicle charging stations and improvements to the country’s electric grid.

“We now have an agreement on the major issues,” said Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, the lead Republican negotiator with Democrats. “We are prepared to move forward.”

Biden voiced his approval as he toured a truck plant in Pennsylvania. “I feel confident about it,” he said.

Biden, six months into his four-year presidency, views the infrastructure package as especially important to show voters that bipartisan deals can be worked out in politically fractious Washington.

Portman said the package will be “more than paid for,” although the White House was vague in describing the funding.

The White House said the deal “will generate significant economic benefits.” It said the package will be paid for with “a combination of redirecting unspent emergency relief funds, targeted corporate user fees, strengthening tax enforcement when it comes to crypto currencies, and other bipartisan measures, in addition to the revenue generated from higher economic growth as a result of the investments.”

Now, Biden is planning to advance, solely with the votes of Democratic lawmakers and no Republican support, a more ambitious $3.5 trillion human infrastructure package focusing on childcare, tax breaks and health care that touch almost every aspect of American life.

It would be paid for by raising the country’s corporate tax rate and taxes on individuals earning more than $400,000 annually, both of which Republicans oppose.

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Lawyer for Hong Kong Protester Asks Court for Shorter Term

A lawyer for the first person convicted under Hong Kong’s national security law asked Thursday for no more than 10 years in prison instead of the possible life sentence faced by the former restaurant waiter in a closely watched case as China’s ruling Communist Party tries to crush a pro-democracy movement.

Tong Ying-kit was convicted Tuesday of inciting secession and terrorism for driving his motorcycle into a group of police officers during a July 1, 2020, pro-democracy rally while carrying a flag bearing the banned slogan, “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times.”

Tong, 24, will be sentenced Friday, the Hong Kong High Court announced.

Beijing imposed the security law on the former British colony last year following anti-government protests that erupted in mid-2019. The crackdown prompted complaints the ruling party is violating the autonomy promised when Hong Kong returned to China in 1997 and hurting its status as a global business center. Officials reject the criticisms and say Beijing is restoring order and instituting national security protections similar to those of other countries.

At a hearing, Tong’s lead defense lawyer, Clive Grossman, asked the three-judge panel for a sentence of no more than 10 years. He said the court hadn’t found the attack was deliberate, no one was injured and Tong’s secession-related offense qualified as minor under the law.

The court ruled Tuesday that Tong’s actions were an act of violence aimed at coercing the Hong Kong and mainland governments and intimidating the public. It said carrying the flag was an act of incitement to secession, rejecting defense arguments that Tong couldn’t proven to be inciting secession just by using the slogan.

Prosecutor Ivan Cheung asked for at least three years.

Judge Anthea Pang said the court will follow the “usual statutory term” and legal interpretations of the national security law but gave no indication what that might be.

Tong, wearing a black shirt and tie with a blue blazer, talked with his lawyers before the hearing but didn’t address the court. Relatives waved to Tong as he left and said, “see you tomorrow.”

The last pro-democracy Hong Kong newspaper, Apple Daily, shut down last month after journalists and executives were arrested.

Tong’s trial was conducted by judges without a jury under rules that allow an exception to Hong Kong’s British-style common law system if state secrets need to be protected or foreign forces are involved. The judges were picked by Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam. 

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Afghan Biker Climbs Mountain for Education’s Uphill Battle

Farid Noori was teaching online from the United States to high school students in Kabul, Afghanistan, when a bomb attack started.

“At that very moment,” Noori said, “I had an online, remote class on Afghanistan’s environment with some of the school’s students. One of my students got injured. As days went by, the death toll climbed to 100, mostly schoolgirls, making this one of the deadliest attacks in Kabul’s history.”

At least 90 students were killed and 275 others were injured May 8 at Sayed Ul Shuhada high school, mostly girls and mostly Hazara, an ethnic minority often the target of Islamic fighters. Boys have class in the morning, and girls in the afternoon. The attack occurred around 4 p.m. as the girls were leaving school.

For Noori, who came to the U.S. for school, the attack was profound because it was an attempt to stymie advanced education.

Educated, competed in Vermont

Noori moved from Afghanistan on a high school scholarship in 2011 and graduated from Middlebury College in Vermont with a degree in economics. He discovered mountain biking while in high school and raced for Middlebury. Currently, he is a master’s candidate in business administration at the Sam M. Walton College of Business in Arkansas.

“It was an attack on education and Afghanistan’s future generation, particularly Afghan girls, attempting to stop them from going to school,” he said.

After the attack, there was national and international condemnation and heightened concern about the future for Afghan girls. Attempts were made to memorialize the victims, and the country came together in support and sympathy.

But the attack soon slipped from collective memory, a familiar pattern after repeated incidents of terrorism, he said. But society cannot afford to forget about this tragedy, he added.

“It was an attack on our brightest. And if, as ordinary citizens, we show that such barbaric acts of terrorism cannot be tolerated, that in response to such cruelties, we will double, triple our collective efforts to invest in the education of our children, then we will be sending a strong message to the terrorists behind this attack that our will and dedication to the future of our children is stronger than theirs,” he said.

More than violence

Noori said he wants Americans to know there’s more to Afghanistan than violence. To draw attention to Afghanistan, the education of its youth and its natural beauty, he rode 185 kilometers up Whiteface Mountain in New York state’s Adirondacks on Tuesday.

“It felt like [it was] a right of passage doing this ride because, you know, the challenge. I had a lot of time to think about them and that was the most incredible feeling, and it motivated me to push harder,” Noori said.

He rode 21 times up and down Whiteface Mountain to achieve the elevation of Afghanistan’s highest peak, named Naw Shakh.

It took 11 hours, 3 minutes to finish, raising nearly $9,000 of his $25,000 goal, crowdfunding under the title “Start Some Good, Education Will Prevail.” 

“An incredible day, the last four hours of which was in pouring cold rain,” Noori said. “But the amazing show of support from strangers and friends, and some who joined the ride, made the day go faster and easier.”

“It was a show of solidarity that meant a lot,” he said, thinking about those girls.

Symbol of overcoming challenges

Noori uses Naw Shakh, the 52nd-tallest mountain in the world that has been largely inaccessible to climbers because of Afghanistan’s political turmoil, as a symbol of overcoming challenges. He said it could become a tourism destination.

Noori has also encouraged biking in Afghanistan to empower Afghan youth “with the joy of riding and competing on mountain bikes.” He said the sport connects people across borders who  share a love of cycling, and he founded an organization — Mountain Bike Afghanistan — to foster that interest.

“We use the bike as a tool to bring joy and hope into the lives of Afghan youth and promote gender equality,” he said. “We believe the bike is the most effective tool for the emancipation of Afghan women and normalizing their freedom of movement in Afghan society. We organize events and provide equipment to get more Afghan women on bikes.”

In 2018, Noori and his team in Afghanistan launched the annual Hindu Kush Mountain Bike Challenge in response to the growing popularity of mountain biking among Afghan youth.

They kickstarted Afghanistan’s first official cross-country mountain bike race and kindled a culture of racing and community gathering. Hindu Kush is 805 kilometers of mountain range that stretches through Afghanistan into northern Pakistan and Tajikistan and is part of the Himalaya range of the world’s biggest, most challenging mountains, including the tallest, Mount Everest.

“Everyone concerned with peace and stability in Afghanistan has a responsibility to do more to show ongoing support to victims of such tragedies” as the attack on Sayed Ul Shuhada, Noori concluded.

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Sydney’s Coronavirus Lockdown Extended Another Month

The five million residents of Sydney, Australia will remain under strict lockdown orders for another four weeks as the number of new COVID-19 infections continues to rise.

The extension for Australia’s largest city was announced Wednesday when authorities in New South Wales state, of which Sydney is the capital, reported 177 new infections over a 24-hour period, slightly higher than the previous record of 172 new cases posted on Tuesday.

“I am as upset and frustrated as all of you that we were not able to get the case numbers we would have liked at this point in time but that is the reality,” New South Wales state Premier Gladys Berejiklian told reporters during a news conference.

The latest outbreak has been traced to a Sydney airport limousine driver who tested positive for the delta variant after transporting international air crews in late June. At least 11 people have died as a result of the surge, including a woman in her 90s on Wednesday.

Australia has been largely successful in containing the spread of COVID-19 through aggressive lockdown efforts, posting just 33,473 total confirmed cases and 921 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. But it has proved vulnerable to fresh outbreaks due to a slow rollout of its vaccination campaign, with only 13% of its citizens fully vaccinated.

In Japan, the Kyodo news agency is reporting that Tokyo, the host city of the pandemic-delayed Summer Olympics, recorded just over 3,000 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, breaking the single-day record of 2,848 new infections posted on Tuesday.  Olympics organizers also confirmed 16 new coronavirus infections related to the Games on Wednesday, bringing the total number to 169.  The Japanese capital is under a fourth state of emergency that will remain in effect until August 22.

South Korea also reported a new single-day record of 1,896 infections on Wednesday, surpassing the 1,842 recorded last Wednesday. South Korea now has a total of 193,427 COVID-19 infections, including 2,083 deaths.

In the United States, President Joe Biden is expected to issue an order Thursday for all federal government employees to either get a COVID-19 vaccine or undergo regular testing, according to anonymous administration officials. The president told reporters Tuesday the policy was “under consideration” during a visit to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI).

The Department of Veterans Affairs, which operates 1,700 medical centers and outpatient clinics for retired military personnel, became the first U.S. federal agency on Monday to impose such a demand on its employees, mainly on its health care providers.

The order would be part of a new overall strategy by the White House to encourage more Americans to get inoculated due to a steady rise of new infections, primarily among unvaccinated people, which has led to a repeat of hospitals overflowing with new coronavirus patients first seen at the start of the pandemic.

The latest figures from Johns Hopkins say 195.3 million people around the globe have been infected with COVID-19 since the first cases were detected in Wuhan, China in late 2019, including 4.1 million deaths.  The United States leads both categories with 34.6 million infections and 611,288 deaths.  A total of 3,926,883,424 vaccine doses have been administered around the world. 

(Some information for this report came from the Associated Press, Reuters and AFP.)

 

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18 Workers Killed in India as Truck Rams into Bus

Eighteen migrant laborers sleeping on a highway in northern India after their bus broke down died when a truck rammed into the vehicle, police said Wednesday. 

At least 19 others were injured in the accident in Uttar Pradesh state, a senior police officer told reporters. 

Most of the passengers were returning home to the eastern state of Bihar after working in the states of Punjab or Haryana. 

The passengers got off the bus after its axle shaft broke and were sleeping next to it when a truck crashed into it from behind. 

Rescue workers retrieved some of the bodies from under the mangled double-decker bus. 

“The district administration and the police have launched a probe and we are ensuring that the wounded receive the best medical treatment that’s available,” said police officer Satya Narayan Sabat. 

India’s vast network of roads is poorly maintained and notoriously dangerous. 

About 150,000 people are killed each year in traffic accidents in India, according to the government. 

Among the main factors contributing to the high number of fatalities are excessive speeding and people not using seatbelts or wearing crash helmets. 

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Turkey’s Independent Media Brace for New Crackdown

Rights groups are voicing alarm over a Turkish official’s announcement of new legislation and controls on the foreign funding of social media in Turkey.

Dokuz8 Haber is one of many Turkish news portals that have launched on social media in recent years, offering independent journalism.  

Like many others, it receives support from foreign sources. But this month, Fahrettin Altun, the head of the Turkish President’s Communication’s Directorate, accused foreign-funded media organizations of acting as a fifth column in Turkey, undermining the government, he claimed, at the bidding of foreign powers.  

Dokuz8 chief editor Gokhan Bicici dismisses the allegation, saying the attack is a response to the portal’s success in challenging what he says is the government’s grip on media.

“Ninety percent of mainstream media outlets are in control of the government (under government control). But they are facing the fact that these media outlets (are) no more effective to have a control over (to control) the public opinion. They want to make legislation that directly targets independent and critical media organizations. They defend these regulations with the thesis (that) those media outlets are supported by foreign governments to have the support of society,” Bicici said.

Altun, in a statement, said new regulations would be introduced to monitor and control foreign funding of media.  

The announcement drew swift condemnation from rights groups.  

This year, the Paris-based group Reporters Without Borders, RSF, ranked Turkey 143 out of 180 countries in terms of media freedoms.   

The group’s Turkey representative Erol Onderoglu says foreign funding plays a key role for independent media because fear of government retribution deters many Turkish citizens and companies from giving financial support.  

“I am concerned because it has always been very difficult in Turkey to develop a local system for funding independent journalism projects. Many of the serious news portals are so dynamic thanks to international donor contributions. I think the government knows very well where to target,” Onderoglu said.

Turkish officials have also announced they are considering new legislation to punish disseminating so-called fake news on social media.  

Atilla Yesilada, a political analyst for Global Source Partners, says the threat of new controls coincides with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s mounting political challenges.

“The main motivation is Erdogan’s approval ratings dropping as we speak. Erdogan understands one of the main pillars of his long reign is his ability is to control the news flow to the public. But social media, YouTube, and these alternative media (have) become the number one news source. And he is getting desperate; we have another COVID wave – I think it has started – and the economy is in a miserable condition, Yesilada said.

Turkey is scheduled to hold both presidential and parliamentary polls in 2023, although some observers see the increasing pressure on independent media as a sign that there could be early elections.  

But the government insists any new measures are aimed at only protecting the integrity of the media and will conform to international norms.

 

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Chinese Pair Outduels Russians to Win Mixed Team Pistol Gold

China’s Jiang Ranxin and Pang Wei out-dueled their Russian rivals in a riveting contest to secure gold in the 10-meter air pistol mixed team event at the Tokyo Olympics on Tuesday. 

The Chinese pair scored a 16-14 victory against newly minted women’s Olympic champion Vitalina Batsarashkina and Artem Chernousov at the Asaka Shooting Range. 

Jiang and Pang, bronze winners in their individual events in Tokyo, overcame an 8-4 deficit to lead 14-10 before the Russians staged a comeback to level the scores. 

The Chinese shooters, however, held their nerve to reach the 16-point mark and claim gold. 

Russian athletes are competing in Tokyo under the flag of the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) as part of sanctions for several doping scandals. 

Ukraine won the bronze medal match after Olena Kostevych and Oleh Omelchuk beat Serbians Zorana Arunovic and Damir Mikec 16-12. 

South Korean pistol great Jin Jong-oh will return empty-handed from his fifth, and possibly final, Olympics as his pairing could not get through the qualification round. 

The four-time Olympic gold medalist failed to qualify for the final of the men’s individual event on Saturday. 

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Protests Flare in Tunisia as Critics Accuse President of ‘Coup’

The United States and several other countries have called for calm in Tunisia after violent protests broke out following the suspension of parliament Sunday. Tunisia’s president invoked purported emergency powers to sack the prime minister following months of demonstrations over a worsening economic crisis. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

 Camera: Henry Ridgwell
 

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