War censorship exposes Putin’s leaky Internet controls

War censorship exposes Putin’s leaky Internet controls
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with his Belarus' counterpart at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 11, 2022. (AFP)
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Updated 14 March 2022

War censorship exposes Putin’s leaky Internet controls

War censorship exposes Putin’s leaky Internet controls
  • Russians from the free flow of information, aiding the Kremlin’s propaganda war

BOSTON: Long before waging war on Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin was working to make Russia’s Internet a powerful tool of surveillance and social control akin to China’s so-called Great Firewall.
So when Western tech companies began cutting ties with Russia following its invasion, Russian investigative journalist Andrei Soldatov was alarmed. He’d spent years exposing Russian censorship and feared that well-intentioned efforts to aid Ukraine would instead help Putin isolate Russians from the free flow of information, aiding the Kremlin’s propaganda war.
“Look, guys the only space the Russians have to talk about Ukraine. and what is going on in Russia. is Facebook,” Soldatov, now exiled in London. wrote on Facebook in the war’s first week. “You cannot just, like, kill our access.”
Facebook didn’t, although the Kremlin soon picked up that baton, throttling both Facebook and Twitter so badly they are effectively unreachable on the Russian Internet. Putin has also blocked access to both Western media and independent news sites in the country, and a new law criminalizes spreading information that contradicts the government’s line. On Friday, the Kremlin said it would also restrict access to Instagram.
Yet the Kremlin’s latest censorship efforts have also revealed serious shortcomings in the government’s bigger plans to straightjacket the Internet. Any Russian with a modicum of tech smarts can circumvent Kremlin efforts to starve Russians of fact.
That puts providers of Internet bandwidth and associated services sympathetic to Ukraine’s plight in a tough spot. On one side, they face public pressure to punish the Russian state and economic reasons to limit services at a time when bills might well go unpaid. On the other, they’re wary of helping stifle a free flow of information that can counter Kremlin disinformation — for instance, the state’s claim that Russia’s military is heroically “liberating” Ukraine from fascists.
Amazon Web Services, a major provider of cloud computing services, continues to operate in Russia, although it says it’s not taking on any new customers. Both Cloudflare, which helps shield websites from denial-of-service attacks and malware, and Akamai, which boosts site performance by putting Internet content closer to its audience, also continue to serve their Russian customers, with exceptions including cutting off state-owned companies and firms under sanctions.
Microsoft, by contrast, hasn’t said whether it will halt its cloud services in the country, although it has suspended all new sales of products and services.
US-based Cogent, which provides a major “backbone” for Internet traffic, has cut direct connections inside Russia but left open the pipes through subsidiaries of Russian network providers at exchanges physically outside the country. Another major US backbone provider, Lumen, has done the same.
“We have no desire to cut off Russian individuals and think that an open Internet is critical to the world,” Cogent CEO Dave Schaeffer said in an interview. Direct connections to servers inside Russia, he said, could potentially “be used for offensive cyber efforts by the Russian government.”
Schaeffer said the decision didn’t reflect “financial considerations,” although he acknowledged that the ruble’s sharp drop, which makes imported goods and services more expensive in Russia, could make it difficult to collect customer payments. Meanwhile, he said, Cogent is providing Ukrainian customers free service during the conflict.
Schaeffer said these moves might impair Internet video in Russia but will leave plenty of bandwidth for smaller files.
Other major backbone providers in Europe and Asia also continue to serve Russia, a net importer of bandwidth, said Doug Madory, director of Internet analysis for the network management firm Kentik. He has noted no appreciable drop in connectivity from outside providers.
Cloudflare continues to operate four data centers in Russia even though Russian authorities ordered government websites to drop foreign-owned hosting providers as of Friday. In a March 7 blog post the company said it had determined “Russia needs more Internet access, not less.”
Under a 2019 “sovereign Internet” law, Russia is supposed to be able to operate its Internet independent of the rest of the world. In practice, that has brought Russia closer to the kind of intensive Internet monitoring and control practiced by China and Iran.
Its telecommunications oversight agency, Rozkomnadzor, successfully tested the system at scale a year ago when it throttled access to Twitter. It uses hundreds of so-called middleboxes — router-like devices run and remotely controlled by bureaucrats that can block individual websites and services — installed by law at all Internet providers inside Russia.
But the system, which also lets the FSB security service spy on Russian citizens, is a relative sieve compared to China’s Great Firewall. Andrew Sullivan, president of the nonprofit Internet Society, said there’s no evidence it has the ability to successfully disconnect Russia from the wider Internet.
“Walling off a country’s Internet is complicated, culturally, economically and technologically. And it becomes far more complicated with a country like Russia, whose Internet, unlike China’s, was not originally built out with government control in mind,” he said.
“When it comes to censorship, the only ones who can really do it are the Chinese,” said Serge Droze, a senior security engineer at Swiss-based Proton Technologies, which offers software for creating “virtual private networks,” or VPNs, a principal tool for circumventing state censorship.
ProtonVPN, which Droze says has been inventive in finding ways to circumvent Russian blocking, reports clocking ten times as many daily signups than before the war. VPN services tracked by researchers at Top10VPN.com found Facebook and Twitter downloads surging eight times higher than average. Its research found the Kremlin to have blocked more than 270 news and financial sites since the invasion, including BBC News and Voice of America’s Russian-language services.
Russia’s elites are believed to be big VPN users. No one expects them to disconnect.
Russian authorities are also having some success blocking the privacy-protecting Tor browser, which like VPNs lets users visit content at special ”.onion” sites on the so-called dark web, researchers say. Twitter just created a Tor site; other outlets such as The New York Times also have them.
The Kremlin has not, however, blocked the popular Telegram messaging app. It’s an important conduit for Ukrainian government ministries and also for Meduza, the Latvia-based independent Russian-language news organization whose website is blocked in Russia. Meduza has 1 million followers on Telegram.
One reason may be that Telegram is also a vital conduit for Kremlin propagandists, analysts say.
Additionally, Telegram does not feature default end-to-end encryption, which renders messages unreadable by the company and outsiders, as the popular US-based messaging apps Signal and WhatsApp do. WhatsApp is owned by Facebook’s parent, Meta. Telegram does offer users fully encrypted “private chats,” although users have to make sure to activate them.
After the invasion, Signal founder Moxie Marlinspike tweeted a reminder that sensitive communication on insecure apps can literally be a matter of life and death in war. A Signal spokesman would not share user numbers, but WhatsApp has an estimated 63 million users in Russia.
Being able to access outside websites and apps vital to staying informed depend, however, on foreign-based VPN services that Russians say they are having trouble paying for since Visa and Mastercard cut off their country.


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.


Saudi government’s digital activity comes under scrutiny in new report

Saudi government’s digital activity comes under scrutiny in new report
Updated 12 August 2022

Saudi government’s digital activity comes under scrutiny in new report

Saudi government’s digital activity comes under scrutiny in new report
  • Ministry of Health found to have ‘most engaging’ social media content
  • Education Ministry has ‘top-performing website’

DUBAI: The Kingdom’s health, education and sports ministries were among the government’s top social media performers in 2021, according to a report analyzing their digital activity.

The “State of Digital Government” report was put together by social media marketing company Emplifi in partnership with advertising network Extend.

“Social media is a valuable tool for government agencies to communicate with citizens and residents, to build and establish trust, share important information quickly and in real-time, answer questions and engage at a more personal level,” Christian Bechara, Emplifi’s vice-president for the Middle East and Africa, told Arab News.

“The world is increasingly social first, and public sector organizations compete with private sector brands for the same attention and awareness,” he added.

“Saudi Arabia recognizes that digitization and innovation in governmental services are necessary to provide capabilities at scale, to lead as a G20 country, and to keep up with the shift in information consumption.”

According to the report, the Ministry of Health had the top-performing social media accounts, while the Ministry of Education had the top-performing website and the Ministry of Sports ranked first in terms of “e-participation.”

It said also that the Ministry of Municipal Rural Affairs was the most active, the Ministry of Education the most mentioned and the Ministry of Health the most followed, as well as having the most engaging content, most new followers and most engaged users.

According to Bechara, the report analyzed the digital performance of 24 ministries across 81 social media accounts and 24 websites.

“In 2021, we saw exponential growth in followers across all ministerial social media accounts, and in particular, 7.1 million new followers,” he said.

In terms of the people talking about and engaging with Saudi ministries, the report found that about two-thirds were aged 18 to 35 and about 75 percent were male.

“Around 66 percent of social media users are Gen Z, which is no surprise — they’ve grown up with the internet and social networks at their fingertips. In their eyes, government agencies are another brand competing in the same space,” Bechara said.

When looking at the content, the report found that while 62 percent of all posts used photos, the most appealing format was video, which accounted for 42 percent of all engagements.

That picture was similar to what was happening in the private sector, Bechara said.

“Short-form video as a means to share information and updates, plus the use of influencers is a common strategy across all organizations and part of a successful marketing mix.”

 

Saudi Arabia’s young, highly connected population, coupled with the Kingdom’s digitization and modernization efforts has positioned social media as the ideal channel for the government to connect with its citizens.

Bechara advised ministries to “continue focusing on your audience, using data and metrics to tailor content.”

But he said governments should not use social media for all their messaging. Rather they should think about the relevancy and value of social media content “and how it will be perceived.”

“Lastly, always engage with your followers,” Bechara said. “Social media is very much here to stay, and it’s great to see government agencies pushing boundaries.”


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.