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.”
 


Iran conservative media hail Salman Rushdie attacker

Iran conservative media hail Salman Rushdie attacker
Updated 13 August 2022

Iran conservative media hail Salman Rushdie attacker

Iran conservative media hail Salman Rushdie attacker
  • Rushdie was on a ventilator after the attack during a literary event in New York state on Friday, more than 30 years after he went into hiding following late supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s fatwa

TEHRAN: Iranian ultra-conservative newspaper Kayhan on Saturday hailed the man who stabbed British author Salman Rushdie — the target of a 1989 Iranian fatwa calling for his death.
Rushdie was on a ventilator after the attack during a literary event in New York state on Friday, more than 30 years after he went into hiding following late supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s fatwa.
“Bravo to this courageous and duty-conscious man who attacked the apostate and depraved Salman Rushdie in New York,” wrote the paper, whose chief is appointed by current supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
“Let us kiss the hands of the one who tore the neck of the enemy of God with a knife,” the daily added.
With the exception of reformist publication Etemad, Iranian media followed a similar line, describing Rushdie as an “apostate.”
State-owned paper Iran said that the “neck of the devil” had been “cut by a razor.”
Iranian authorities have yet to make any official comment on the stabbing attack against Rushdie.
But Mohammad Marandi, an adviser to the negotiating team for Iran’s nuclear talks in Vienna, wrote on Twitter: “I won’t be shedding tears for a writer who spouts endless hatred and contempt for Muslims and Islam.”
“But, isn’t it odd that as we near a potential nuclear deal, the US makes claims about a hit on Bolton... and then this happens?” he questioned.
The attack came after Iran hinted earlier on Friday that it may accept a final compromise to revive its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. This followed the European Union’s submission of a “final text” in Vienna.
The US Justice Department said Wednesday that it had indicted a member of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards over allegations he had offered to pay an individual in the United States $300,000 to kill former White House national security adviser John Bolton.
Iran dismissed the allegations as “fiction.”
Rushdie, 75, was propelled into the spotlight with his second novel “Midnight’s Children” in 1981, which won international praise and Britain’s prestigious Booker Prize for its portrayal of post-independence India, where he was born.
But his 1988 book “The Satanic Verses” transformed his life when Khomeini issued a religious decree ordering his killing.
In 1998, the government of Iran’s reformist president Mohammad Khatami assured Britain that Iran would not implement the fatwa.
But Khamenei said in 2005 he still believed Rushdie was an apostate whose killing would be authorized by Islam.


Google plays smart with plan to stop answering ‘silly questions’

A Google sign is pictured outside the Google office in Berlin, Germany, August 31, 2021. (REUTERS)
A Google sign is pictured outside the Google office in Berlin, Germany, August 31, 2021. (REUTERS)
Updated 12 August 2022

Google plays smart with plan to stop answering ‘silly questions’

A Google sign is pictured outside the Google office in Berlin, Germany, August 31, 2021. (REUTERS)
  • Tech giant's revamped featured snippets service aims to provide more accurate answers to users

LONDON: In a move designed to improve its search engine’s “featured snippets” service, Google announced on Thursday that it will stop answering users’ “silly questions.”

A user who asks Google, “When did Snoopy assassinate Abraham Lincoln?” for example, would receive a fairly detailed response, explaining the location, date and time of assassination, the target and even the type of attack.

However, while the information provided is correct, quite obviously the question makes no sense.

“This clearly isn’t the most helpful way to display this result,” Google’s head of search, Pandu Nayak, said in a statement.

“We’ve trained our systems to get better at detecting these sorts of false premises, which are not very common, but there are cases where it’s not helpful to show a featured snippet. We’ve reduced the triggering of featured snippets in these cases by 40 percent with this update,” he added.

The upgrade aims to address a problem that has long posed problems for Google.

In 2017, the tech giant came under fire for allegedly disseminating fake news after a highlighted snippet for the question “Is Obama planning a coup?” led to its voice assistant jokingly telling users: “Obama may, in fact, be preparing a communist coup d’etat at the end of his term in 2016.”

The snippet, which was automatically generated, was taken from a conspiracy theory website.

To avoid this kind of situation, Google’s search engine revamp is intended to improve replies’ accuracy and sidestep queries for which there is no clear-cut right or wrong response.

Google will also introduce an “about this result” option and alert users in case of low-quality data.

“This doesn’t mean that no helpful information is available, or that a particular result is low-quality,” Nayak said. “These notices provide context about the whole set of results on the page, and you can always see the results for your query, even when the advisory is present.”

So, next time you ask Google: “How do you get in touch with the Illuminati?” expect something more helpful than, “Want to get rich? Apply today and join the Illuminati!”


Meta tracks users across websites, research reveals

Meta tracks users across websites, research reveals
Updated 12 August 2022

Meta tracks users across websites, research reveals

Meta tracks users across websites, research reveals
  • Although there is no indication the tech giant uses the feature to collect sensitive data, it does not make this information known to users

LONDON: Meta is accused of altering website codes its users view, enabling the tech giant to follow them throughout the web after they click links in its apps, new research revealed on Thursday.

Felix Krause, a former Google employee who conducted the research, said that Meta exploits the “in-app browser” — a feature that allows Facebook and Instagram users to visit a third-party website without leaving the platform — to “inject” the tracking code.

“The iOS Instagram and Facebook app render all third-party links and ads within their app using a custom in-app browser. This causes various risks for the user, with the host app being able to track every single interaction with external websites, from all form inputs like passwords and addresses to every single tap,” Krause said.

“Injecting custom scripts into third-party websites allows them to monitor all user interactions, like every button & link tapped, text selections, screenshots, as well as any form inputs, like passwords, addresses and credit card numbers,” he added.

This practice of adding extra code to a webpage before it is displayed to a user is called “Javascript injection,” and in most cases is considered a type of malicious attack, Krause said.

His investigation concentrated on Facebook and Instagram for iOS, after he discovered the code injection by chance while developing a tool that could list all the extra commands added to a website by the browser.

Starting with iOS 14.5, Apple introduced App Monitoring Transparency, which enables users to choose whether or not to enable app tracking when they first open an app. The feature, according to Meta, could impact the company’s revenue by more than $10 billion.

Meta said that the injected tracking code respected users' preferences on ATT.

“The code allows us to aggregate user data before using it for targeted advertising or measurement purposes,” a spokesperson said.

“We do not add any pixels. Code is injected so that we can aggregate conversion events from pixels. For purchases made through the in-app browser, we seek user consent to save payment information for the purposes of autofill.”

Although there is no indication that Meta employed Javascript injection to gather sensitive data, the company does not make this information known to users. 

Krause also said that WhatsApp’s in-app browser does not have the code. As a result, he advised that Meta should do the same with Facebook and Instagram, or redirect users to another browser to open links.

“It’s what’s best for the user, and the right thing to do,” he said.


Russian journalist who staged anti-war protest placed under house arrest

Russian journalist who staged anti-war protest placed under house arrest
Updated 12 August 2022

Russian journalist who staged anti-war protest placed under house arrest

Russian journalist who staged anti-war protest placed under house arrest
  • Marina Ovsyannikova faces decade in prison if convicted over Kremlin demonstration
  • TV figure said last week that her fate was ‘unenviable,’ but would keep speaking out

LONDON: Russian journalist Marina Ovsyannikova, who staged a protest against the invasion of Ukraine on live TV in March, was placed under house arrest on Thursday after being charged with spreading false information.

However, her detention is related to a different incident that took place last month when the former Channel One journalist demonstrated alone near the Kremlin holding a placard which criticized the war and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Ovsyannikova was detained on Wednesday after police raided her Moscow home. 

The journalist spent the night in pre-trial detention before appearing on Thursday in court, where she was charged with disseminating false information about Russian military forces. The court ordered Ovsyannikova to be placed under house arrest until Oct. 9, pending her trial.

“They scared my little daughter,” the 44-year-old said in a Telegram post. Ovsyannikova added that 10 officers from the Investigative Committee raided her house at 6 a.m. in the morning while she and her daughter were asleep.

“Over 350 children who died in Ukraine, are they fakes … How many children have to die before you stop?” She added.

Ovsyannikova could face 10 years in prison if convicted of the charges.

Her lawyer, Dmitry Zakhvatov, said on Wednesday that “a criminal case has been filed” and added that they were awaiting the decision of investigators on the journalist’s pre-trial measures.

During the court hearing, Ovsyannikova continued her protest, holding a sign that read “Let the dead children haunt you in your dreams.”

Notably, it is the second time that Ovsyannikova has been detained in relation to the charges. In July, Russian police detained and later released the journalist, charging her with “discrediting the actions of the army of Russia.” 

Due to rigid laws introduced by the government since the beginning of the war, the journalist’s actions expose her to criminal prosecution for “publishing false information” and “denigrating the army,” which can carry heavy prison sentences under Russian law.

In March, Ovsyannikova became famous worldwide for interrupting the set of Russia’s Channel One news program while holding a poster that said in Russian: “Stop the war. Don’t believe propaganda. They are lying to you.”

The stunt cost her a brief detention and a fine, prompting Russian opposition circles to question the validity of her actions.

“I was skeptical about what Channel One editor Marina Ovsyannikova had done — and it turns out I was wrong,” said anti-Kremlin satirist and radio host Viktor Shenderovich. “Today Marina pays a serious price for this, and deserves both respect and support.”

In the months following her protest, Ovsyannikova spent time abroad, including a brief period working for German newspaper Die Welt.

In early July, Ovsyannikova announced that she was returning to Russia to settle a dispute over the custody of her children.


Australian court orders Google to pay $43 mln for misleading users

Australian court orders Google to pay $43 mln for misleading users
Updated 12 August 2022

Australian court orders Google to pay $43 mln for misleading users

Australian court orders Google to pay $43 mln for misleading users
  • The court found Google misled some customers about personal location data collected through their Android mobile devices between January 2017 and December 2018

LONDON: Australia's competition watchdog said on Friday that Alphabet Inc's Google unit was ordered by the country's Federal Court to pay A$60 million ($42.7 million) in penalties for misleading users on collection of their personal location data.

The court found Google misled some customers about personal location data collected through their Android mobile devices between January 2017 and December 2018.

Google misled users into believing “location history” setting on their android phones was the only way location data could be collected by it, when a feature to monitor web and applications activity also allowed local data collection and storage, the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission (ACCC) said.

The watchdog, which estimates that 1.3 million Google account users in Australia may have been affected, had started the proceedings against the company and its local unit in October 2019.

Google took remedial measures in 2018, the regulator said.

In an emailed statement, Google said it had settled the matter and added it has made location information simple to manage and easy to understand.

The search engine giant has been embroiled in legal action in Australia over the past year as the government mulled and passed a law to make Google and Meta Platforms' Facebook pay media companies for content on their platforms.