Facebook Removes Ukraine Political ‘Influence for Hire’ Network

Facebook has taken down a network of hundreds of fake accounts and pages targeting people in Ukraine and linked to individuals previously sanctioned by the United States for efforts to interfere in U.S. elections, the company said Thursday.Facebook said the network managed a long-running deceptive campaign across multiple social media platforms and other websites, posing as independent news outlets and promoting favorable content about Ukrainian politicians, including activity that was likely for hire. The company said it started its probe after a tip from the FBI.Facebook attributed the activity to individuals and entities sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department, including politician Andriy Derkach, a pro-Russian lawmaker who was blacklisted by the U.S. government in September over accusations he tried to interfere in the 2020 U.S. election won by President Joe Biden. Facebook said it removed Derkach’s accounts in October 2020.Derkach told Reuters he would comment on Facebook’s investigation on Friday. Facebook also attributed the network to political consultants associated with Ukrainian politicians Oleh Kulinich and Volodymyr Groysman, Ukraine’s former prime minister. Kulinich did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Groysman could not immediately be reached for comment.Facebook said that as well as promoting these politicians, the network also pushed positive material about actors across the political spectrum, likely as a paid service. It said the activity it investigated began around 2015, was solely focused on Ukraine, and posted anti-Russia content.”You can really think of these operators as would-be influence mercenaries, renting out inauthentic online support in Ukrainian political circles,” Ben Nimmo, Facebook’s global influence operations threat intelligence lead, said on a call with reporters.Facebook’s investigation team said Ukraine, which has been among the top sources of “coordinated inauthentic behavior” that it removes from the site, is home to an increasing number of influence operations selling services.Facebook said it removed 363 pages, which were followed by about 2.37 million accounts, and 477 accounts from this network for violating its rules. The network also spent about $496,000 in Facebook and Instagram ads, Facebook said.

Twitter to Point Out Mean Tweets Before They Are Sent

Twitter wants to curb what the company calls “potentially harmful or offensive” tweets.  The social media company announced Wednesday it has released a feature that can detect a mean tweet and prompt a user to be sure they really want to send it. “People come to Twitter to talk about what’s happening, and sometimes conversations about things we care about can get intense, and people say things in the moment they might regret later,” the company said in a blog post. “That’s why in 2020, we tested prompts that encouraged people to pause and reconsider a potentially harmful or offensive reply before they hit send.” The prompt says: “Want to review this before tweeting?” Users can then decide whether to send, edit or delete the tweet. Twitter did not specify what would be considered “potentially harmful or offensive.” The company currently has a similar feature that asks users if they went to read an article before retweeting a link to the article. Twitter’s new mean tweet detector has been tested for the past year and will be rolled out soon to English-language Twitter. The company said that while testing, 34% of users, when prompted, either edited the offensive tweet or did not send it at all. Last week, Twitter stock plunged 10% on lower-than-expected user growth. 

With Trump Decision, Facebook Pushed to Make Better Rules for World Leaders

The recent decision about Facebook and former President Donald Trump sends a signal to world leaders everywhere that to use social media, they have to play by a set of rules that are still forming. Tina Trinh has more.Produced by: Matt Dibble 

60 Years Since 1st American in Space: Tourists Lining Up

Sixty years after Alan Shepard became the first American in space, everyday people are on the verge of following in his cosmic footsteps.Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin used Wednesday’s anniversary to kick off an auction for a seat on the company’s first crew spaceflight — a short Shepard-like hop launched by a rocket named New Shepard. The Texas liftoff is targeted for July 20, the date of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic aims to kick off tourist flights next year, just as soon as he straps into his space-skimming, plane-launched rocketship for a test run from the New Mexico base.And Elon Musk’s SpaceX will launch a billionaire and his sweepstakes winners in September. That will be followed by a flight by three businessmen to the International Space Station in January.”We’ve always enjoyed this incredible thing called space, but we always want more people to be able to experience it as well,” NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough said from the space station Wednesday. “So I think this is a great step in the right direction.”It’s all rooted in Shepard’s 15-minute flight on May 5, 1961. Shepard was actually the second person in space — the Soviet Union launched cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin three weeks earlier, to Shepard’s everlasting dismay. The 37-year-old Mercury astronaut and Navy test pilot cut a slick sci-fi figure in his silver spacesuit as he stood in the predawn darkness at Cape Canaveral, looking up at his Redstone rocket. Impatient with all the delays, including another hold in the countdown just minutes before launch, he famously growled into his mic: “Why don’t you fix your little problem and light this candle?”His capsule, Freedom 7, soared to an altitude of 116 miles (186 kilometers) before parachuting into the Atlantic.Twenty days later, President John F. Kennedy committed to landing a man on the moon and returning him safely by decade’s end, a promise made good in July 1969 by Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. Shepard, who died in 1998, went on to command Apollo 14 in 1971, becoming the fifth moonwalker — and lone lunar golfer.Since Gagarin and Shepard’s pioneering flights, 579 people have rocketed into space or reached its fringes, according to NASA. Nearly two-thirds are American and just over 20% Soviet or Russian. About 90% are male and most are white, although NASA’s crews have been more diverse in recent decades. A Black community college educator from Tempe, Arizona, sees her spot on SpaceX’s upcoming private flight as a symbol. Sian Proctor uses the acronym J.E.D.I. for “a just, equitable, diverse and inclusive space.”NASA wasn’t always on board with space tourism, but is today.”Our goal is one day that everyone’s a space person,” NASA’s human spaceflight chief, Kathy Lueders said following Sunday’s splashdown of a SpaceX capsule with four astronauts. “We’re very excited to see it starting to take off.” Twenty years ago, NASA clashed with Russian space officials over the flight of the world’s first space tourist.California businessman Dennis Tito paid $20 million to visit the space station, launching atop a Russian rocket. Virginia-based Space Adventures arranged Tito’s weeklong trip, which ended May 6, 2001, as well as seven more tourist flights that followed.”By opening up his checkbook, he kicked off an industry 20 yrs ago,” Space Adventures co-founder Eric Anderson tweeted last week. “Space is opening up more than it ever has, and for all.”There’s already a line.A Russian actress and movie director are supposed to launch from Kazakhstan in the fall. They’ll be followed in December by Space Adventures’ two newest clients, also launching on a Russian Soyuz rocket. SpaceX will be next up in January with the three businessmen; the flight from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center was arranged by Axiom Space, a Houston company run by former NASA employees. And as early as 2023, SpaceX is supposed to take a Japanese entrepreneur and his guests around the moon and back.While no fan of human spaceflight — he prefers robotic explorers — Duke University emeritus history professor Alex Roland acknowledges the emergence of spaceflight companies might be “the most significant change in the last 60 years.” Yet he wonders whether there will be much interest once the novelty wears off and the inevitable fatalities occur.Then there’s the high price of admission.The U.S., Canadian and Israeli entrepreneurs flying SpaceX early next year are paying $55 million — each — for their 1 1/2-week mission.Virgin Galactic’s tickets cost considerably less for minutes versus days of weightlessness. Initially $250,000, the price is expected to go up once Branson’s company starts accepting reservations again.Blue Origin declined Wednesday to give a ticket price for future sales and would not comment on who else — besides the auction winner — will be on board the capsule in July. A couple more crew flights, each lasting minutes, would follow by year’s end.As for SpaceX’s private flight on a fully automated Dragon capsule, tech entrepreneur Jared Isaacman won’t say what he’s paying. He considers his three-day flight a “great responsibility” and is taking no shortcuts in training; he took his crewmates hiking up Mount Rainier last weekend to toughen them up.”If something does go wrong, it will set back every other person’s ambition to go and become a commercial astronaut,” Isaacman said recently.John Logsdon, professor emeritus at George Washington University, where he founded the Space Policy Institute, has mixed feelings about this shift from space exploration to adventure tourism.”It takes the romance and excitement out of going to space,” Logsdon said in an email this week. Instead of the dawn of a new era like so many have proclaimed, it’s “more like the end of the era when space flight was special. I guess that is progress.”

Facebook Oversight Upholds Trump Ban Linked to Storming of US Capitol 

Facebook’s oversight board on Wednesday upheld the social media company’s decision to ban former U.S. President Donald Trump from posting comments to his Facebook and Instagram accounts, a measure imposed after he posted incendiary remarks as hundreds of his supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6.The quasi-independent panel, however, left open the possibility that Trump could eventually return to the popular website, saying it “was not appropriate for Facebook to impose the indeterminate and standardless penalty of indefinite suspension.”   The oversight group gave Facebook executives six months to re-examine the “arbitrary penalty” it imposed the day after the insurrection, when Trump urged followers to confront lawmakers as they certified Joe Biden’s election victory. The review said Facebook executives should decide on another penalty that reflects the “gravity of the violation and the prospect of future harm.” Facebook management responded by saying it “will now consider the board’s decision and determine an action that is clear and proportionate. In the meantime, Mr. Trump’s accounts remain suspended.” There was no immediate reaction from Trump about the panel’s decision, but on Tuesday, the former president unveiled a new website, “From the Desk of Donald J. Trump,” to communicate with his supporters. It looked much like a Twitter feed, with posts written by Trump that could be shared on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. During his four years in the White House, Trump broke new ground with thousands of tweets on issues of the day, endorsements of Republican candidates he favored over those who had attacked him, and acerbic comments about opposition Democrats. A letter submitted to the oversight panel on Trump’s behalf asked the board to reconsider the Facebook suspension, contending it was “inconceivable” that either of his January 6 posts “can be viewed as a threat to public safety, or an incitement to violence.”  The letter also claimed all “genuine” Trump supporters at the Capitol on January 6 were law-abiding, and that “outside forces” were involved. However, more than 400 people inside the Capitol that day, including many wearing Trump-emblazoned hats and shirts and carrying pro-Trump flags and signs, have been arrested and charged with an array of criminal offenses. The oversight board found that Trump’s two posts in the midst of the chaos at the Capitol that left five people dead severely violated Facebook’s Community Standards and Instagram’s Community Guidelines. “We love you. You’re very special” in the first post, and “great patriots” and “remember this day forever,” in the second post violated Facebook’s rules prohibiting praise or support of people engaged in violence, the review panel said. The oversight group went on to say that “in maintaining an unfounded narrative of electoral fraud and persistent calls to action, Mr. Trump created an environment where a serious risk of violence was possible. At the time of Mr. Trump’s posts, there was a clear, immediate risk of harm, and his words of support for those involved in the riots legitimized their violent actions.” “As president, Mr. Trump had a high level of influence,” the panel concluded. “The reach of his posts was large, with 35 million followers on Facebook and 24 million on Instagram. “Given the seriousness of the violations and the ongoing risk of violence, Facebook was justified in suspending Mr. Trump’s accounts on January 6 and extending that suspension on January 7,” the panel said. “However, it was not appropriate for Facebook to impose an ‘indefinite’ suspension.” In one of his posts during the insurrection, Trump said, “These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly unfairly treated for so long. Go home with love in peace. Remember this day forever!” Facebook removed the post and decided the next day to extend Trump’s ban indefinitely, at least past Biden’s January 20 inauguration. “His decision to use his platform to condone rather than condemn the actions of his supporters at the Capitol building has rightly disturbed people in the U.S. and around the world,” Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said in a January 7 statement. “We removed these statements yesterday because we judged that their effect — and likely their intent — would be to provoke further violence.” The 20-member review panel was composed of legal scholars, human rights experts and journalists. A five-member panel prepared a decision, which had to be approved by a majority of the full board, and which Facebook was then required to implement unless the action could violate the law. The board says its mission is to “answer some of the most difficult questions around freedom of expression online: what to take down, what to leave up, and why.” The Facebook Oversight Board was created last October after the company faced criticism it was not quickly and effectively dealing with what some feel has been problematic content. The board announced its first decisions in January, supporting Facebook’s decision to remove content in one case, but overruling the company and ordering it to restore posts in four other cases. 

Facebook Oversight Panel to Rule on Trump Ban

Facebook’s quasi-independent Oversight Board is set to announce Wednesday whether the social media company was correct to indefinitely prohibit former U.S. President Donald Trump from posting to his Facebook and Instagram accounts.The board is made up of 20 members, including legal scholars, human rights experts and journalists. A panel of five members prepares a decision, which must be approved by a majority of the full board, and which Facebook is then required to implement unless the action could violate the law.The board says its mission is to “answer some of the most difficult questions around freedom of expression online: what to take down, what to leave up, and why.”Trump’s ban dates to the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by his supporters that came as members of Congress were meeting to certify the results of the November presidential election.In this Jan. 6, 2021, file photo, Trump supporters participate in a rally in Washington.He made several posts during the attack continuing his false claims that the election was “stolen.” Facebook removed two of Trump’s posts and initially banned him from posting for 24 hours.“These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly unfairly treated for so long,” Trump posted about two hours before police and National Guard troops secured the Capitol. “Go home with love in peace. Remember this day forever!”Facebook decided the next day to extend Trump’s ban indefinitely, at least past the inauguration of President Joe Biden.“His decision to use his platform to condone rather than condemn the actions of his supporters at the Capitol building has rightly disturbed people in the US and around the world. We removed these statements yesterday because we judged that their effect — and likely their intent — would be to provoke further violence,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a January 7 statement.Twitter instituted a permanent ban against Trump, saying several of his posts “are likely to inspire others to replicate the violent acts that took place on January 6, 2021, and that there are multiple indicators that they are being received and understood as encouragement to do so.”The Facebook Oversight Board was created last October after the company faced criticism it was not quickly and effectively dealing with what some feel is problematic content.The board announced its first decisions in January, supporting Facebook’s decision to remove content in one case, but overruling the company and ordering it to restore posts in four other cases.

Bill Gates and Melinda Gates Announce ‘Decision to End’ Marriage

Billionaire Bill Gates and Melinda Gates said in a joint statement on Monday that they have made the decision to end their marriage. “After a great deal of thought and a lot of work on our relationship, we have made the decision to end our marriage,” the two said in a statement posted by Bill Gates’ Twitter account. “We no longer believe we can grow together as a couple in the next phase of our lives. We ask for space and privacy for our family as we begin to navigate this new life,” their statement said. 

Facebook Oversight Board to Announce Ruling on Trump May 5

Facebook’s oversight board will soon be announcing its decision about whether to uphold the company’s ban on former President Donald Trump’s account.The quasi-independent body said the announcement will be made May 5 in a Twitter post.The Oversight Board will announce its decision on the case concerning former US President Trump on its website at https://t.co/NNQ9YCrcrh on May 5, 2021 at approximately 9:00 a.m. EDT.
— Oversight Board (@OversightBoard) May 3, 2021Facebook banned Trump’s account in the wake of the Jan. 6 violent pro-Trump protests at the U.S. Capitol.The board says it has received over 9,000 public comments on the Trump case.The board was created last October after the company faced criticism it was not quickly and effectively dealing with what some feel is problematic content.Decisions by the board are binding and cannot be overturned. 

Internet Trailblazers Yahoo and AOL Sold, Again, for $5B

AOL and Yahoo are being sold again, this time to a private equity firm.  
Verizon will sell Verizon Media, which consists of the pioneering tech platforms, to Apollo Global Management in a $5 billion deal.
Verizon said Monday that it will keep a 10% stake in the new company, which will be called Yahoo.
Yahoo at the end of the last century was the face of the internet, preceding the behemoth tech platforms to follow, such as Google and Facebook.  
And AOL was the portal, bringing almost everyone who logged on during the internet’s earliest days.  
Verizon had hoped to ride the acquisition of AOL to a quick entry into the mobile market, spending more than $4 billion on the company in 2015. The plan was to use the advertising platform pioneered by AOL to sell digital advertising. Two years later, it spent even more to acquire Yahoo and combined the two.  
However the speed at which Google and Facebook have grown dashed those hopes and it became clear very quickly that it was unlikely to reach Verizon’s highest aspirations for the two.  
The year after buying Yahoo, Verizon wrote down the value of the combined operation, called “Oath,” by more than the $4.5 billion it had spent on Yahoo.  
As part of the deal announced Monday, Verizon will receive $4.25 billion in cash, preferred interests of $750 million and the minority stake. The transaction includes the assets of Verizon Media, including its brands and businesses such as Yahoo and AOL.
The deal is expected to close in the second half of the year.  
Shares of Verizon Communications Inc., based in New York, rose slightly before the opening bell Monday.

Apple Faces Trial Over Its App Store as Gatekeeper

On Monday, Apple faces one of its most serious legal threats in recent years: A trial that threatens to upend its iron control over its app store, which brings in billions of dollars each year while feeding more than 1.6 billion iPhones, iPads, and other devices.The federal court case is being brought by Epic Games, maker of the popular video game Fortnite. Epic wants to topple the so-called “walled garden” of the app store, which Apple started building 13 years ago as part of a strategy masterminded by co-founder Steve Jobs.Epic charges that Apple has transformed a once-tiny digital storefront into an illegal monopoly that squeezes mobile apps for a significant slice of their earnings. Apple takes a commission of 15% to 30% on purchases made within apps, including everything from digital items in games to subscriptions. Apple denies Epic’s charge.Apple’s highly successful formula has helped turn the iPhone maker into one of the world’s most profitable companies, one with a market value that now tops $2.2 trillion.Privately held Epic is puny by comparison, with an estimated market value of $30 billion. Its aspirations to get bigger hinge in part on its plan to offer an alternative app store on the iPhone. The North Carolina company also wants to break free of Apple’s commissions. Epic says it forked over hundreds of millions of dollars to Apple before Fortnite was expelled from its app store last August, after Epic added a payment system that bypassed Apple.Epic then sued Apple, prompting a courtroom drama that could shed new light on Apple’s management of its app store. Both Apple CEO Tim Cook and Epic CEO Tim Sweeney will testify in a Oakland, California federal courtroom that will be set up to allow for social distancing and will require masks at all times.Neither side wanted a jury trial, leaving the decision to U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers, who already seems to know her ruling will probably be appealed, given the stakes in the case.Much of the evidence will revolve around arcane but crucial arguments about market definitions.Epic contends the iPhone has become so ingrained in society that the device and its ecosystem have turned into a monopoly Apple can exploit to unfairly enrich itself and thwart competition.Apple claims it faces significant competition from various alternatives to video games on iPhones. For instance, it points out that about 2 billion other smartphones don’t run iPhone software or work with its app store — primarily those relying on Google’s Android system. Epic has filed a separate case against Google, accusing it of illegally gouging apps through its own app store for Android devices.Apple will also depict Epic as a desperate company hungry for sources of revenue beyond the aging Fortnite. It claims Epic merely wants to freeload off an iPhone ecosystem in which Apple has invested more than $100 billion over the past 15 years.Estimates of Apple’s app store revenue range from $15 billion to $18 billion annually. Apple disputes those estimates, although it hasn’t publicly disclosed its own figures. Instead, it has emphasized that it doesn’t collect a cent from 85% of the apps in its store.The commissions it pockets, Apple says, are a reasonable way for the company to recoup its investment while financing an app review process it calls essential to preserving the security of apps and their users. About 40% of the roughly 100,000 apps submitted for review each week are rejected for some sort of problem, according to Kyle Andeer, Apple’s chief compliance officer.Epic will try to prove that Apple uses the security issue to disguise its true motivation — maintaining a monopoly that wrings more profits from app makers who can’t afford not to be available on the iPhone.But the smaller company may face an uphill battle. Last fall, the judge expressed some skepticism in court before denying Epic’s request to reinstate Fortnite on Apple’s app store pending the outcome of the trial. At that time, Gonzalez Rogers asserted that Epic’s claims were “at the frontier edges of antitrust law.”The trial is expected to last most of May, with a decision to come in the ensuing weeks. 

EU Hits Apple with Music Streaming Charge in Boost for Spotify

EU regulators accused Apple on Friday of distorting competition in the music streaming market, siding with Spotify in a case that could lead to a hefty fine and changes in the iPhone maker’s lucrative business practices.
The preliminary findings are the first time Brussels has leveled anti-competitive charges against Apple, although the two sides have had bruising clashes in the past, most notably a multibillion-dollar tax dispute involving Ireland.
Apple, Spotify and other parties can now respond. If the case is pursued, the EU could demand concessions and potentially impose a fine of up to 10% of Apple’s global turnover – as much as $27 billion, although it rarely levies the maximum penalty.
Apple found itself in the European Commission’s crosshairs after Sweden-based Spotify complained two years ago that the U.S. tech giant unfairly restricted rivals to its own music streaming service Apple Music on iPhones.
The EU competition enforcer, in its so-called statement of objections setting out the charge, said the issue related to Apple’s restrictive rules for its App Store that force developers to use its own in-app payment system and prevent them from informing users of other purchasing options.
European Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager said there were clear signs Apple’s App Store rules were affecting music streaming rivals’ business development and affecting app developers more widely.
“They [app developers] depend on Apple App Store as a gatekeeper to access users of Apple’s iPhones and iPads. This significant market power cannot go unchecked as the conditions of access to the Apple App Store are key for the success of app developers,” she told a news conference.
Vestager said Apple should end restrictive practices and refrain from doing anything that would replicate them.
She also said other authorities were looking into the issue. “We have contact with other jurisdictions doing similar
cases, that could be the Dutch, the Australians, the Americans,”she said, adding she  also was interested in the app gaming market, although it was early days.
Apple rebuffed the EU charge. “Spotify has become the largest music subscription service in the world, and we’re proud of the role we played in that,” it said in a statement.
“They want all the benefits of the App Store but don’t think they should have to pay anything for that. The Commission’s argument on Spotify’s behalf is the opposite of fair competition,” it added.  
 Internet Gatekeepers
Spotify welcomed the EU move, describing it as “a critical step toward holding Apple accountable for its anticompetitive behavior, ensuring meaningful choice for all consumers and a level playing field for app developers.”
Reuters was first to report about the imminent EU antitrust charge in March.
Spotify, one of Europe’s few global success stories in consumer technology, is the market leader in music streaming with 356 million active users and 158 million paid subscribers.  
Apple Music, launched more recently in 2015, is estimated to have more than 70 million subscribers although the company does not give a separate figure for that part of its business.
Competition between the two companies has intensified in recent weeks, with both seeking to build their customer base via supremacy in the market for podcasts.
“Europe’s consumers expect and deserve access to a full range of music streaming services without their choices being restricted or prices being inflated unfairly by internet gatekeepers,” said European consumer organization BEUC.
The EU charge comes a week before Apple’s face off with Epic Games in a U.S. antitrust trial following a lawsuit by the “Fortnite” creator alleging that Apple has abused its dominance in the market for mobile apps.
Epic has complained to the Commission on the same issues. Last month, the UK Competition and Markets Authority opened an investigation into Apple after complaints the iPhone maker’s terms and conditions for app developers were unfair.

YouTube Child Stars Top Charts but Raise Concerns

Videos of kids having fun are among the most popular on YouTube. They are also a fast-growing business, one that critics say comes with little regulation and oversight to protect children on either side of the screen. Michelle Quinn reports.
Producer: Michelle Quinn

Kid YouTube Stars Top the Charts but Raise Concerns

Videos of kids having fun are among the most popular on YouTube. They are also a fast-growing business, one that critics say comes with little regulation and oversight to protect children on either side of the screen. Michelle Quinn reports.
Producer: Michelle Quinn

US Government Probes VPN Hack Within Federal Agencies, Races to Find Clues

For at least the third time since the beginning of this year, the U.S. government is investigating a hack against federal agencies that began during the Trump administration but was only recently discovered, according to senior U.S. officials and private sector cyber defenders.  It is the latest supply chain cyberattack, highlighting how sophisticated, often government-backed groups are targeting vulnerable software built by third parties as a steppingstone to sensitive government and corporate computer networks.  The new government breaches involve a popular virtual private network (VPN) known as Pulse Connect Secure, which hackers were able to break into as customers used it.  More than a dozen federal agencies run Pulse Connect Secure on their networks, according to public contract records. An emergency cybersecurity directive last week demanded that agencies scan their systems for related compromises and report back.  The results, collected Friday and analyzed this week, show evidence of potential breaches in at least five federal civilian agencies, said Matt Hartman, a senior official with the U.S. Cybersecurity Infrastructure Security Agency.  “This is a combination of traditional espionage with some element of economic theft,” said one cybersecurity consultant familiar with the matter. “We’ve already confirmed data exfiltration across numerous environments.”  The Ivanti logo and cyber binary codes are seen in this illustration taken April 20, 2021.The maker of Pulse Connect Secure, Utah-based software company Ivanti, said it expected to provide a patch to fix the problem by this coming Monday, two weeks after it was first publicized. Only a “very limited number of customer systems” had been penetrated, it added.  Over the last two months, CISA and the FBI have been working with Pulse Connect Secure’s maker and victims of the hack to kick out the intruders and uncover other evidence, said another senior U.S. official who declined to be named but is responding to the hacks. The FBI, Justice Department and National Security Agency declined to comment.  The U.S. government’s investigation into the Pulse Connect Secure activity is still in its early stages, said the senior U.S. official, who added the scope, impact and attribution remain unclear.  Security researchers at U.S. cybersecurity firm FireEye and another firm, which declined to be named, say they’ve watched multiple hacking groups, including an elite team they associate with China, exploiting the new flaw and several others like it since 2019.  FILE – Security firm FireEye’s logo is seen outside the company’s offices in Milpitas, California.In a statement last week, Chinese Embassy spokesperson Liu Pengyu said China “firmly opposes and cracks down on all forms of cyberattacks,” describing FireEye’s allegations as “irresponsible and ill-intentioned.”  The use of VPNs, which create encrypted tunnels for connecting remotely to corporate networks, has skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet with the growth in VPN usage so too has the associated risk.  “This is another example in a recent pattern of cyber actors targeting vulnerabilities in widely used VPN products as our nation largely remains in remote and hybrid work postures,” Hartman said.  Three cybersecurity consultants involved in responding to the hacks told Reuters that the victim list is weighted toward the United States and so far includes defense contractors, civilian government agencies, solar energy companies, telecommunications firms and financial institutions.  The consultants also said they were aware of fewer than 100 combined victims so far between them, suggesting a fairly narrow focus by the hackers.  Analysts believe the malicious operation began around 2019 and exploited older flaws in Pulse Connect Secure and separate products made by cybersecurity firm Fortinet before invoking the new vulnerabilities.  Hartman said the civilian agency hacks date to at least June 2020.  Hacking the supplyA recent report by the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank, studied 102 supply chain hacking incidents and found they surged the last three years. Thirty of the attacks came from government-backed groups, primarily in Russia and China, the report said.  The Pulse Connect Secure response comes as the government is still grappling with the fallout of three other cyberattacks.  FILE – The SolarWinds logo is seen outside its headquarters in Austin, Texas, Dec. 18, 2020.The first is known as the SolarWinds hack, in which suspected Russian government hackers commandeered the company’s network management program to burrow inside nine federal agencies.  A weakness in Microsoft’s email server software, named Exchange, exploited by a different group of Chinese hackers, also required a massive response effort, although there was ultimately no impact to federal networks, according to U.S. officials.  Then a weakness at a maker of programming tools called Codecov left thousands of customers exposed inside their coding environments, the company disclosed this month.  Some government agencies were among the customers whose credentials were taken by the Codecov hackers for further access to code repositories or other data, according to a person briefed on the investigation. Codecov, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security declined to comment on that case.  The U.S. plans to address some of these systemic issues with an upcoming executive order that will require agencies to identify their most critical software and promote a “bill of materials” that demands a certain level of digital security across products sold to the government.  “We think [this is] the most impactful way to really impose costs on these adversaries and make it that much harder,” said the senior U.S. official. 

Social Media Giants Comply with Turkish Demands

The decision by global media giants to comply with demands by the Turkish government to open offices in Turkey is prompting concerns about media freedoms. Press freedom advocates say because the companies will now be subject to Turkish laws, that could mean Turkey’s people will no longer have a venue to freely express their views. For VOA, Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul. 

US Government Taking Creative Steps to Counter Cyberthreats

An FBI operation that gave law enforcement remote access to hundreds of computers to counter a massive hack of Microsoft Exchange email server software is a tool that is likely to be deployed “judiciously” in the future as the Justice Department, aware of privacy concerns, develops a framework for its use, a top national security official said Wednesday.The department this month announced that it had obtained a warrant from a federal judge in Texas to remove web shells, or malicious code that gives hackers a foothold into networks, from hundreds of vulnerable computers affected by a hack that Microsoft has blamed on a group operating from China.The FBI operation was designed to disrupt the effects of a hack that affected many thousands of servers running the Microsoft Exchange email program. Many victims took steps on their own to safeguard their systems, but for those that who did not, the Justice Department stepped in to do it for them with a judge’s approval.It was the virtual equivalent of police going around the neighborhood locking doors that criminals had opened remotely.”We have a decision to make, which is are we going to go ahead and do that action ourselves or are we just going to leave that malware there, sort of unremediated,” said Assistant Attorney General John Demers, speaking at a virtual discussion hosted by the Project for Media & National Security at George Washington University.He said the operation was one of the very first of its kind and was the subject of extensive discussion by the FBI and the Justice Department. The department is figuring out how it plans to use that capability in the future.”We don’t yet have sort of worked out what our criteria are going to be going forward,” Demers said. “Now that we’ve had this experience, that’s the kind of discussion we’re having internally now.”This is not a tool of first resort that we’re going to be using a couple times a week as different intrusions come up,” he added. “This does require working with the private sector on the right solution. It does require testing to be sure that you’re not going to otherwise disrupt someone’s computer system.”Such operations will be done judiciously in the future, he said.Demers acknowledged concerns from some privacy advocates that the government, without permission of the computer system operators, had gained remote access and removed the web shells.But he pointed out that the department did obtain a judge’s permission and said the government felt compelled to act because, after a period of several weeks, there were still unremediated web shells that continued to serve as access point for “hackers of all stripes.””And so the choice that the government had was just continue to leave those open or take the court-authorized action that we did, and ultimately we decided to move ahead,” Demers said. “But to the extent possible before then, we had been notifying every victim that we could identify of the intrusion.”