Federal anti-terror unit investigated journalists: Watchdog

A U.S. Department of Homeland Security plaque is displayed a podium as international passengers arrive at Miami international Airport where they are screened by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Nov. 20, 2020, in Miami. (AP)
A U.S. Department of Homeland Security plaque is displayed a podium as international passengers arrive at Miami international Airport where they are screened by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Nov. 20, 2020, in Miami. (AP)
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Updated 12 December 2021

Federal anti-terror unit investigated journalists: Watchdog

A U.S. Department of Homeland Security plaque is displayed a podium as international passengers arrive at Miami international Airport where they are screened by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Nov. 20, 2020, in Miami. (AP)
  • Rambo complained to Yahoo News that Customs and Border Protection has not stood by him and that he has been unfairly portrayed in news reports

WASHINGTON: A special Customs and Border Protection unit used sensitive government databases intended to track terrorists to investigate as many as 20 US-based journalists, including a Pulitzer Prize-winning Associated Press reporter, according to a federal watchdog.
Yahoo News, which published an extensive report on the investigation, also found that the unit, the Counter Network Division, queried records of congressional staffers and perhaps members of Congress.
Jeffrey Rambo, an agent who acknowledged running checks on journalists in 2017, told federal investigators the practice is routine. “When a name comes across your desk you run it through every system you have access too, that’s just status quo, that’s what everyone does,” Rambo was quoted by Yahoo News as saying.
The AP obtained a redacted copy of a more than 500-page report by the Homeland Security Department’s inspector general that included the same statement, but with the speaker’s name blacked out. The border protection agency is part of Homeland Security.
The revelations raised alarm in news organizations and prompted a demand for a full explanation.
“We are deeply concerned about this apparent abuse of power,” Lauren Easton, AP’s director of media relations, said in a statement. “This appears to be an example of journalists being targeted for simply doing their jobs, which is a violation of the First Amendment.”
In its own statement, Customs and Border Protection did not specifically address the investigation, but said, “CBP vetting and investigatory operations, including those conducted by the Counter Network Division, are strictly governed by well-established protocols and best practices. CBP does not investigate individuals without a legitimate and legal basis to do so.”
An employee at Storymakers Coffee Roasters, a small storefront shop Rambo owns in San Diego’s Barrio Logan neighborhood, said Saturday that Rambo was not immediately available to comment. He lives in San Diego.
The new disclosures are just the latest examples of federal agencies using their power to examine the contacts of journalists and others.
Earlier this year Attorney General Merrick Garland formally prohibited prosecutors from seizing the records of journalists in leak investigations, with limited exceptions, reversing years of department policy. That action came after an outcry over revelations that the Trump Justice Department had obtained records belonging to journalists, as well as Democratic members of Congress and their aides and a former White House counsel, Don McGahn.
During the Obama administration, federal investigators secretly seized phone records for some reporters and editors at the AP. Those seizures involved office and home lines as well as cellphones.
Rambo’s and the unit’s use of the databases was more extensive than previously known. The inspector general referred possible criminal charges for misusing government databases and lying to investigators, but the Justice Department declined to prosecute Rambo and two other Homeland Security employees.
Rambo complained to Yahoo News that Customs and Border Protection has not stood by him and that he has been unfairly portrayed in news reports.
“What none of these articles identify me as, is a law enforcement officer who was cleared of wrongdoing, who actually had a true purpose to be doing what I was doing,” he said, “and CBP refuses to acknowledge that, refuses to admit that, refuses to make that wrong right.”
Rambo had previously been identified as the agent who accessed the travel records of reporter Ali Watkins, then working for Politico, and questioned her about confidential sources. Watkins now writes for The New York Times.
Rambo was assigned to the border agency unit, part of the National Targeting Center in Sterling, Virginia, in 2017. He told investigators he initially approached Watkins as part of a broader effort to get reporters to write about forced labor around the world as a national security issue.
He also described similar efforts with AP reporter Martha Mendoza, according to an unredacted summary obtained by Yahoo News. Rambo’s unit “was able to vet MENDOZA as a reputable reporter,” the summary said, before trying to establish a relationship with her because of her expertise in writing about forced labor. Mendoza won her second Pulitzer Prize in 2016 as part of a team that reported on slave labor in the fishing industry in Southeast Asia.
Dan White, Rambo’s supervisor in Washington, told investigators that his unit ran Mendoza through multiple databases, and “CBP discovered that one of the phone numbers on Mendoza’s phone was connected with a terrorist,” Yahoo News reported. White’s case also was referred for prosecution and declined.
In response, AP’s Easton said, “The Associated Press demands an immediate explanation from US Customs and Border Protection as to why journalists including AP investigative reporter Martha Mendoza were run through databases used to track terrorists and identified as potential confidential informant recruits.”
It was Rambo’s outreach to Watkins that led to the inspector general’s investigation. While he ostensibly sought her out to further his work on forced labor, Rambo quickly turned the focus to a leak investigation. Rambo even gave it a name, “Operation Whistle Pig,” for the brand of whiskey he drank when he met Watkins at a Washington, D.C., bar in June 2017.
The only person charged and convicted stemming from Rambo’s efforts is James Wolfe, a former security director for the Senate Intelligence Committee who had a personal relationship with Watkins. Wolfe pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with reporters.
In the course of conversations with FBI agents, Rambo was questioned extensively about his interest in Watkins. He used the travel records to confront her about her relationship with Wolfe, asserting that Wolfe was her source for stories. Watkins acknowledged the relationship, but insisted Wolfe did not provide information for her stories.
Rambo said Watkins was not the only reporter whose records he researched through government databases, though he maintained in his interviews with the FBI that he was looking only at whether Wolfe was providing classified information. Rambo said he “conducted CBP record checks” on “15 to 20 national security reporters,” according to a FBI summary of the questioning that was contained in the inspector general’s report.
New York Times spokeswoman Danielle Rhoades-Ha said new details about the investigation of Watkins raised fresh concerns.
“We are deeply troubled to learn how US Customs and Border Protection ran this investigation into a journalist’s sources. As the attorney general has said clearly, the government needs to stop using leak investigations as an excuse to interfere with journalism. It is time for Customs and Border Protection to make public a full record of what happened in this investigation so this sort of improper conduct is not repeated.”
Watkins said she, too, was “deeply troubled at the lengths CBP and DHS personnel apparently went to try and identify journalistic sources and dig into my personal life. It was chilling then, and it remains chilling now.”
 


VMLY&R consolidates three brands under one offering

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Photo/Supplied
Updated 57 min 6 sec ago

VMLY&R consolidates three brands under one offering

Photo/Supplied
  • VMLY&R, VMLY&R Commerce, and GTB to merge under Nick Walsh’s leadership

DUBAI: Advertising group WPP is consolidating three brands — VMLY&R, VMLY&R Commerce, and GTB — under the VMLY&R umbrella to form one, connected brand.

Nick Walsh, CEO of VMLY&R Commerce will now become the CEO of VMLY&R MENA, working closely with chief creative officer Miguel Bemfica, who joined from McCann Worldgroup in January this year.

“The three agencies bring different expertise and capabilities to the table: Creativity, commerce, experience, data, technology and more; but more importantly, they all focus on culture,” Andrew Dimitriou, EMEA CEO of VMLY&R, told Arab News.

Andrew Dimitriou, EMEA CEO of VMLY&R

He called the merger “a natural next step” that “will allow better and simpler collaboration between our brilliant client teams and capability practices and open a new world of possibilities for our clients and anyone in the business.”

In 2018, WPP merged creative agency Y&R and digital agency VML to create VMLY&R, and in 2021, Geometry was merged into the group to form VMLY&R Commerce.

Since then, “integrating the agencies’ teams and capabilities has been an ongoing global effort,” Dimitriou said.

“A deeper level of integration has happened in markets across Europe, and offices such as New York and London, as we move closer as a network to accelerate growth and future-proof our clients’ businesses,” he added.

In the region, Dubai is the “principal office” serving the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and North Africa, and “we will expand our presence on-ground in line with upcoming client’s needs and opportunities,” Dimitriou said.

Since 2020, e-commerce has seen explosive growth as brands have had to adapt to a new hybrid reality. In the UAE, 55 percent of purchases happen online through websites, social media, games, communities etc. and e-commerce spending grew at double the rate of point of sale in Q1 this year compared to the same quarter last year, he said.

Now, “the way we think about commerce is being transformed, and we’re witnessing the rise of creative commerce,” Dimitriou added.

“Creative commerce is laser-focused on generating a response, which results in conversion. And at its best, creativity turbocharges commerce, lifting a simple activation to an emotionally charged moment that drives both brand and demand.

“So, it is about inspiring conversion in the moment, regardless of channel, everywhere life intersects with commerce. It is an interaction; an experience that builds brand and demand.”

Brands not only need to stay connected with their audiences, but also remain relevant in an ever-evolving digital culture.

The hottest topic in today’s digital culture is the metaverse. By 2026, 25 percent of people will spend at least one hour a day in the metaverse for work, shopping, education, social, or entertainment, according to Gartner.

“I expect more focus — and scrutiny — on this platform as clients explore how they could leverage this new space and monitor opportunities for brand interaction and creative commerce solutions,” Dimitriou said.

He added: “At VMLY&R, we will keep our eyes on the real prize: To create connected brands through positive experiences and emotional connections powered by creativity and technology to deliver growth.”


Emerging company XGUARD to educate local Saudi businesses on new tech

Emerging company XGUARD to educate local Saudi businesses on new tech
Updated 05 July 2022

Emerging company XGUARD to educate local Saudi businesses on new tech

Emerging company XGUARD to educate local Saudi businesses on new tech

RIYADH: Non-fungible tokens and blockchain technologies took the world by storm, dominating everything from the art space to advertising. Web3, a new blockchain-based version of the internet, and the metaverse are still fairly new concepts, but it seems like they are here to stay with more and more people — and businesses — experimenting with them.

XGUARD, for example, is an emerging company with offices in Riyadh, Dubai and Vienna, helping organizations and individuals navigate Web3 and the virtual space “one block at a time.”

In Riyadh, the company has been actively hosting informational sessions and workshops to help equip Saudis with the skills and tools needed to venture into Web3, open their own wallet, invest in or sell NFTs, grow their businesses and engage in virtual experiences. 

XGUARD first started as a sports promotion company in Dubai. After its founder Omar Aridi began venturing into these emerging technologies, his interest in them grew.

The industry in Saudi is still at a nascent stage, Aridi told Arab News.

He said: “I was planning on working in a very decentralized way. Saudi wasn’t just my focus, but then after reading the market and seeing how things are going, I think Saudi has the most appetite when it comes to [this space].” 

Just last month, the Saudi Tourism Ministry and Saudi Tourism Authority created NFT souvenirs that were presented to the heads of delegations participating in the 116th session of the UN World Tourism Organization executive council, held in Jeddah.

“Vision 2030 and the whole direction of digital transformation and blockchain technologies and artificial intelligence — this makes it the perfect platform for us,” Aridi said. “The only bottleneck that we had were the cryptocurrency regulations, which I know are on the way. I think it’s better to be the first movers from now and the first adopters. When things get regulated, we know we will be the go-to consulting company here.”

Since cryptocurrencies are the most commonly used mode of payment in the metaverse, their lack of regulation has resulted in businesses being wary of entering this space. 

“The lack of trust comes from the lack of regulation, not from the technology,” Aridi said. “You need to pay with cryptocurrency, and that is the element that has not yet been regulated.”

In the Gulf region, the UAE has been spearheading the regulation of NFTs and cryptocurrencies by issuing the first cryptocurrency law and establishing the Dubai Virtual Assets Regulatory Authority.

For businesses, enterprise NFT technologies themselves are key. “It brings a very well authenticated ownership documented on the blockchain. Nobody can erase it, and nobody can penetrate it,” Aridi said. 

In certain industries, having verified proof of ownership and secured data records can cut down on processing time, reduce fraud and error risks, provide immutable authenticity of products, manage critical data and ease the supply chain process.

Although the NFT, bitcoin and Ethereum markets are currently down as a result of cryptocurrencies crashing, Aridi is optimistic. “​​This is very good because the market has to [course] correct,” he said. “Hopefully, only the few proper solid value propositions will be sustained and XGUARD will be one of those because we are thinking of NFTs as a technology, not as a hype.” 

XGUARD provides companies with Web3 consulting, marketing, art and blockchain development, all under one roof. “In terms of competition, I don’t see anyone offering the value proposition that we provide, which is advisory, A-to-Z solutions. Nobody in Saudi Arabia is doing that yet,” said Aridi. 

For now, the company is adopting a predominantly educational approach. It has collaborated with local spaces and businesses, such as AlMashtal Creative Space in Riyadh and The Music Space in Jeddah, to build communities across the country. 

“We have a lot of artists, in Saudi Arabia specifically, that really want to be heard, that really want to improve their business,” Aridi said. “For entrepreneurs, if they have an idea, we sit with them, we scope it, we shape it, we come up with a strategy together and we help them launch it. The idea is to basically create success stories.”


TikTok ad policy is ‘clear abuse’ of EU law: activists

TikTok ad policy is ‘clear abuse’ of EU law: activists
Updated 05 July 2022

TikTok ad policy is ‘clear abuse’ of EU law: activists

TikTok ad policy is ‘clear abuse’ of EU law: activists
  • Activists accuse TikTok of breaching EU laws by co-opting users into sharing their data for targeted advertising

PARIS: Rights activists on Tuesday accused social media giant TikTok of breaching EU laws by co-opting users into sharing their data for targeted advertising.
TikTok said it would change its policy next week to allow data to be gathered from over-18s in Europe whether or not they had consented, claiming the move was allowed under Europe’s data protection law (GDPR).
But digital rights group Access Now wrote to the company asking for clarity on the legal basis, calling it a “clear abuse” of several European laws including GDPR.
“TikTok wants to strip away the rights of people who use the platform to bump its ad revenue,” said Estelle Masse of Access Now.
Masse said other social media platforms also had problems with their consent mechanisms but TikTok was “taking a step further” by “effectively suggesting that we should not have a say in deciding how our information is used.”
Social media firms gather vast troves of data on individuals’ online habits and use it to sell highly targeted advertising.
But the GDPR forces firms to give detailed justifications for gathering data, something social media platforms have struggled to do.
TikTok has said its policy change relies on a principle in the GDPR called “legitimate interest,” which allows companies to process data without giving a specific justification.
However, regulators have already begun to limit the use of legitimate interest.
They ruled in February that websites relying on the principle to opt-in users to targeted advertising were acting illegally.
AFP has asked TikTok for a response to the criticism.
TikTok, whose parent company ByteDance is Chinese, is also under pressure from lawmakers in the United States over its use of data after reports suggested it allowed its staff in China to access data on US-based users.
The social media company confirmed the reports last week in a letter to US Congress but said it would never allow Communist Party officials to access data on US users.


UK announces new measures to curb ‘state-linked’ disinformation on social media

UK announces new measures to curb ‘state-linked’ disinformation on social media
Updated 05 July 2022

UK announces new measures to curb ‘state-linked’ disinformation on social media

UK announces new measures to curb ‘state-linked’ disinformation on social media
  • Social media firms must tackle material from fake accounts set up by individuals or groups acting on behalf of a foreign state

LONDON: The UK government revealed on Monday that social media firms will face hefty fines if they fail to curb “state-linked” disinformation, particularly from the Kremlin, as part of its forthcoming Online Safety Bill.

According to the UK Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, social media companies will be legally obligated to “proactively” prevent and remove attempts by Russia and other countries to interfere with the UK’s political system. 

This means that social media firms must tackle material from fake accounts set up by individuals or groups acting on behalf of a foreign state that is designed to influence democratic processes.

If they fail to tackle such content, Ofcom, the UK’s communication regulator, will have the power to fine social media firms up to 10 percent of their global annual turnover. 

“The invasion of Ukraine has yet again shown how readily Russia can and will weaponize social media to spread disinformation and lies about its barbaric actions often targeting the very victims of its aggression,” Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries said. 

“We cannot allow foreign states or their puppets [to use] the internet to conduct hostile online warfare unimpeded,” she added. “That’s why we are strengthening our new internet safety protections to make sure social media firms identify and root out state-backed disinformation.”

The new laws come as part of the UK government’s overhaul of the national security laws that will make foreign interference a criminal offense with a maximum jail sentence of 14 years.

As per the new Online Safety Bill, foreign interference will become one of 10 online criminal offenses, alongside child abuse, revenge porn, terrorism, fraud, promotion of people smuggling and sexual exploitation. 

Security Minister Damian Hinds highlighted: “Online information operations are now a core part of state threats activity. The aim can be variously to spread untruths, confuse, undermine confidence in democracy, or sow division in society.”

The Online Safety Bill is expected to become law by the end of the year.

Last week, Ofcom found that young people do not report harmful content as much as they encounter it on social media platforms. 

According to the research, 67 percent of people aged between 13 and 24 had seen potentially harmful content online, but only 17 percent reported it.


Anghami expands into live events with acquisition of Spotlight

Anghami expands into live events with acquisition of Spotlight
Updated 04 July 2022

Anghami expands into live events with acquisition of Spotlight

Anghami expands into live events with acquisition of Spotlight
  • Platform aims to bridge the gap between online and offline channels

DUBAI: Music streaming platform Anghami has announced the acquisition of Spotlight Events, a company serving the Middle East.

Spotlight Events will become Anghami’s live event and concert arm. Its scope will include offline activities to expand Anghami's footprint in the music and entertainment ecosystem while also bridging the online and offline worlds.

The events arm will provide a stage for artists to perform and reach their audiences offline through live events and concerts, while the Anghami platform will provide access to exclusive concerts through its live video streaming capabilities and create immersive experiences through augmented reality and virtual reality.

The company envisions the acquisition as providing more opportunities for brands to collaborate with artists, and an enhanced experience for listeners including access to private concerts, VIP lounges, meet and greets, and backstage access.

“Our vision is to expand from music streaming to a fully integrated entertainment platform that meets our goal of building our own unique category that no other provider can compete with,” said Eddy Maroun, co-founder and CEO of Anghami.

Last year, Anghami partnered with hospitality company Addmind to launch the entertainment venue Anghami Lab in Dubai followed by Riyadh and other major cities.

“Spotlight and Anghami Lab are among a number of initiatives we plan to develop as new business extensions to accelerate our growth and improve our margins while widening the gap with our competitors,” added Maroun.

Spotlight Events has recently confirmed its program of upcoming concerts and events in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Paris, Cairo, and Riyadh, including Beat the Heat, a seven-concert festival organized in collaboration with Dubai’s Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing.

It also has six concerts planned in Abu Dhabi for the rest of the year and a live concert by Arab superstar Wael Kfoury in Paris.

Spotlight will be responsible for executing all Anghami events, including Amr Diab Live.

“Anghami is the largest music platform in the MENA region with an incredible number of users and a unique network of partnerships that, once connected to Spotlight, will open doors to amazing opportunities,” said Maher Khawkhaji, founder and CEO of Spotlight. “Our offline expertise, complemented by Anghami’s reach, data, and technical capabilities, is the perfect recipe for success.”