Whistleblower: China, India had agents working for Twitter

Peiter “Mudge” Zatko, former head of security at Twitter, testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on data security at Twitter, on Capitol Hill, September 13, 2022 in Washington, DC. (AFP)
Peiter “Mudge” Zatko, former head of security at Twitter, testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on data security at Twitter, on Capitol Hill, September 13, 2022 in Washington, DC. (AFP)
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Updated 14 September 2022

Whistleblower: China, India had agents working for Twitter

Whistleblower: China, India had agents working for Twitter
  • Zatko said he spoke with “high confidence” about a foreign agent that the government of India placed at Twitter to “understand the negotiations” between India’s ruling party and Twitter about new social media restrictions

WASHINGTON: Twitter’s former security chief told Congress Tuesday there was “at least one agent” from China’s intelligence service on Twitter’s payroll and that the company knowingly allowed India to add agents to the company roster as well, potentially giving those nations access to sensitive data about users.
These were some of the troubling revelations from Peiter “Mudge” Zatko, a respected cybersecurity expert and Twitter whistleblower who appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee to lay out his allegations against the company.
Zatko told lawmakers that the social media platform is plagued by weak cyber defenses that make it vulnerable to exploitation by ” teenagers, thieves and spies” and put the privacy of its users at risk.
“I am here today because Twitter leadership is misleading the public, lawmakers, regulators and even its own board of directors,” Zatko said as he began his sworn testimony.
“They don’t know what data they have, where it lives and where it came from and so, unsurprisingly, they can’t protect it,” Zatko said. “It doesn’t matter who has keys if there are no locks.”
“Twitter leadership ignored its engineers,” he said, in part because “their executive incentives led them to prioritize profit over security.”
In a statement, Twitter said its hiring process is “independent of any foreign influence” and access to data is managed through a host of measures, including background checks, access controls, and monitoring and detection systems and processes.
One issue that didn’t come up in the hearing was the question of whether Twitter is accurately counting its active users, an important metric for its advertisers. Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who is trying to get out of a $44 billion deal to buy Twitter, has argued without evidence that many of Twitter’s roughly 238 million daily users are fake or malicious accounts, aka “spam bots.”
Even so, “that doesn’t mean that Musk won’t use Zatko’s allegation that Twitter was disinterested in removing bots to try to bolster his argument for walking away from the deal,” said Insider Intelligence analyst Jasmine Enberg.
The Delaware judge overseeing the case ruled last week that Musk can include new evidence related to Zatko’s allegations in the high-stakes trial, which is set to start Oct. 17. During the hearing, Musk tweeted a popcorn emoji, often used to suggest that one is sitting back in anticipation of unfolding drama.
Separately on Tuesday, Twitter’s shareholders voted overwhelmingly to approve the deal, according to multiple media reports. Shareholders have been voting remotely on the issue for weeks. The vote was largely a formality, particularly given Musk’s efforts to nullify the deal, although it does clear a legal hurdle to closing the sale.
Zatko’s message echoed one brought to Congress against another social media giant last year. But unlike that Facebook whistleblower, Frances Haugen, Zatko hasn’t brought troves of internal documents to back up his claims.
Zatko was the head of security for the influential platform until he was fired early this year. He filed a whistleblower complaint in July with Congress, the Justice Department, the Federal Trade Commission and the Securities and Exchange Commission. Among his most serious accusations is that Twitter violated the terms of a 2011 FTC settlement by falsely claiming that it had put stronger measures in place to protect the security and privacy of its users.
Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat who heads the Judiciary Committee, said Zatko has detailed flaws “that may pose a direct threat to Twitter’s hundreds of millions of users as well as to American democracy.”
“Twitter is an immensely powerful platform and can’t afford gaping vulnerabilities,” he said.
Unknown to Twitter users, there’s far more of their personal information disclosed than they — or sometimes even Twitter itself — realize, Zatko testified. He said Twitter did not address “basic systemic failures” brought forward by company engineers.
The FTC has been “a little over its head”, and far behind European counterparts, in policing the sort of privacy violations that have occurred at Twitter, Zatko said.
Zatko’s allegation that Twitter was more concerned about foreign regulators than the FTC, Enberg said, “could be a wakeup call for US lawmakers,” who have been unable to pass meaningful regulation on social media companies.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, said one positive result that could come out of Zatko’s findings would be bipartisan legislation to set up a tighter system of regulation of tech platforms.
“We need to up our game in this country,” he said.
Many of Zatko’s claims are uncorroborated and appear to have little documentary support. Twitter has called Zatko’s description of events “a false narrative ... riddled with inconsistencies and inaccuracies” and lacking important context.
Still, Zatko came off as a convincing whistleblower who has “a lot of credibility in this space,” said Ari Lightman, professor of digital media and marketing at Carnegie Mellon University. But he said many of the problems he raised can likely be found at many other digital technology platforms
“They avoid security protocols in a sense of innovating and running really fast,” Lightman said. “We gave digital platforms so much autonomy at the beginning to grow and develop. Now we’re at a point where we’re, ‘Wait a minute ... This has gotten out of hand.’
Among the assertions from Zatko that drew lawmaker attention was Twitter’s apparent negligence in dealing with governments that sought to get spies a job inside the company. Twitter’s inability to log how employees accessed user accounts made it hard for the company to detect when employees were abusing their access, Zatko said.
Zatko said he spoke with “high confidence” about a foreign agent that the government of India placed at Twitter to “understand the negotiations” between India’s ruling party and Twitter about new social media restrictions and how well those negotiations were going.
Zatko also revealed Tuesday that he was told about a week before his firing that “at least one agent” from the Chinese intelligence service MSS, or the Ministry of State Security, was “on the payroll” at Twitter.
He said he was similarly “surprised and shocked” by an exchange with current Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal about Russia — in which Twitter’s current CEO, who was chief technology officer at the time, asked if it would be possible to “punt” content moderation and surveillance to the Russian government, since Twitter doesn’t really “have the ability and tools to do things correctly.”
“And since they have elections, doesn’t that make them a democracy?” Zatko recalled Agrawal saying.
Sen. Charles Grassley, the committee’s ranking Republican, said Tuesday that Agrawal declined to testify at the hearing, citing the ongoing legal proceedings with Musk. But the hearing is “more important than Twitter’s civil litigation in Delaware,” Grassley said. Twitter declined to comment on Grassley’s remarks.
In his complaint, Zatko accused Agrawal as well as other senior executives and board members of numerous violations, including making “false and misleading statements to users and the FTC about the Twitter platform’s security, privacy and integrity.”
Zatko, 51, first gained prominence in the 1990s as a pioneer in the ethical hacking movement and later worked in senior positions at an elite Defense Department research unit and at Google. He joined Twitter in late 2020 at the urging of then-CEO Jack Dorsey.
 

 


Taliban silence Voice of America broadcasts in Afghanistan

Taliban silence Voice of America broadcasts in Afghanistan
Updated 01 December 2022

Taliban silence Voice of America broadcasts in Afghanistan

Taliban silence Voice of America broadcasts in Afghanistan
  • Voice of America and Radio Free Europe are funded by the US government, though they claim editorial independence
  • Afghanistan has lost 40 percent of its media outlets and 60 percent of its journalists since the Taliban takeover

WASHINGTON: The Voice of America said Wednesday that Taliban authorities have banned FM radio broadcasts from VOA and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Afghanistan, starting Thursday.
VOA said Taliban authorities cited “complaints they have received about programming content” without providing specifics.
VOA and RFE are funded by the US government, though they claim editorial independence.
The Taliban overran Afghanistan in August 2021 as American and NATO forces were in the final weeks of their pullout from the country after 20 years of war.
Despite initially promising a more moderate rule, they have restricted rights and freedoms and widely implemented their harsh interpretation of Islamic law, or Sharia.
Abdul Qahar Balkhi, the spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said Thursday that Afghanistan has press laws and any network found “repeatedly contravening” these laws will have their privilege of working in the country taken away.
“VOA and Azadi Radio (Radio Liberty) failed to adhere to these laws, were found as repeat offenders, failed to show professionalism and were therefore shut down,” he said.
The advocacy group Reporters Without Borders said recently that Afghanistan has lost 40 percent of its media outlets and 60 percent of its journalists since the Taliban takeover.


YouTube reveals year’s top-trending regional creators and content

YouTube reveals year’s top-trending regional creators and content
Updated 01 December 2022

YouTube reveals year’s top-trending regional creators and content

YouTube reveals year’s top-trending regional creators and content
  • The video-sharing platform unveiled five lists covering general videos, music videos, short-form videos, top creators and breakout creators in the Middle East and North Africa

DUBAI: YouTube has released five lists that reveal the top-trending videos, music videos, shorts and creators in the Middle East and North Africa region over the past year.

The growth of popularity in short-form video platforms such as TikTok prompted YouTube to launch Shorts, its own version of the format, globally in 2020 and in MENA in 2021. The platform said more than 1.5 billion logged-in users watch Shorts each month, with an average of more than 30 billion daily views.

This year, for the first time, YouTube has released a top shorts list, which was topped by Omani football freestyler, Mohammed Alnoufali.

Meanwhile, YouTube’s top-trending videos list is based on a range of factors, including total views, engagement, shares and likes, that the platform said indicate how “trending” a video is.

A video by comedy creator Abdo Asalsily, which has racked up 20 million views, topped this list.

The top music video in the region this year was “Aleky Eyoun” by Ahmed Saad, followed by “El-Bakht” by Egyptian rapper Wegz, and “Hatha El-Helo” by Lebanese singer Myriam Fares.

The list revealed a growing interest in regional performers, with North African rap and hip-hop artists, including Mc Artisan, Didine Canon 16, and Marwa Loud, taking almost half of the spots.

Entertainment and gaming creator AboFlah was not only the top creator for a second year in a row but also appeared in Asalsily’s top-trending video of the year. Football specialist Mohamad Adnan took second spot, followed by cooking channel Afnanrecipes in third.

The top creators list includes producers active all formats — shorts, long-form and multiformat — and is based on the number of subscribers acquired during 2022 in the MENA region.

The final list unveiled by YouTube was its Breakout Creators list, which ranks channels that have at least tripled in size based on number of subscribers gained in the region this year compared with 2021.

With nearly 2 million subscribers, Mr. Beast in Arabic topped the list, followed by UAE-based Husam Kwaik in second place and Egypt-based Omar Migo in third.

“Every year, the YouTube End-of-Year Top Lists give us a glimpse into emerging trends and the diverse interests of people in the Middle East and North Africa,” said Tarek Amin, director of partnerships at YouTube MENA.

“Whether it’s the growing North African rap scene or creators helping people fall in love with learning and reading, one thing is for certain — no matter what your interest or curiosity is there is probably a community on YouTube for it.”

YouTube said it has has paid more than $50 billion to creators, artists and media companies in the region in the three years up to June 2022.


As crypto collapses in US, is Middle East going through digital renaissance?

As crypto collapses in US, is Middle East going through digital renaissance?
Updated 01 December 2022

As crypto collapses in US, is Middle East going through digital renaissance?

As crypto collapses in US, is Middle East going through digital renaissance?
  • NFT startups in region seem to think so

DUBAI: OasisX, the nascent curated multichain non-fungible token marketplace, which aims to drive adoption of NFTs in the Middle East and North Africa region is embracing Web3 in several ways integrating NFTs, blockchain, and cryptocurrencies within its platform.

Jimi Ibrahim, one of the co-founders of the company, who has described the new iteration of the internet as a digital renaissance, said: “Web3 has four pillars: Blockchain as a secure infrastructure, tokens like NFTs for proof of ownership and provenance, cryptocurrencies for store of value and transactions, and the metaverse, which is a combination of augmented reality and virtual reality.”

The adoption of Web3, however, has witnessed a slowdown as cryptocurrency and NFT scams have become rampant in markets such as the US. Despite the promise of a more secure internet, cryptocurrencies can be used and abused for fraudulent activities, as evidenced by the recent FTX scandal.

Founded by Sam Bankman-Fried in 2019, FTX is a cryptocurrency exchange, that rose to popularity thanks to celebrity endorsements and an aggressive marketing strategy.

In November, the crypto news site CoinDesk published the balance sheet of Alameda Research, a crypto investing firm also owned by Bankman-Fried, showing that Alameda held a large amount of a digital currency created by FTX called FTT.

“While there is nothing per se untoward or wrong about that, it shows Bankman-Fried’s trading giant Alameda rests on a foundation largely made up of a coin that a sister company invented, not an independent asset like a fiat currency or another crypto,” the article said.

However, if the value of the FTT were to drop, Alameda would essentially be at risk of insolvency.

The article set in motion a series of legal actions against Bankman-Fried, FTX, and the celebrities who promoted the crypto exchange, resulting in one of the biggest financial scandals.

The incident has slowed down the adoption of crypto, diminished faith in the industry, and cost a lot of people a lot of money. Although Ibrahim noted that it had “hurt the industry,” he pointed out that it had acted as a purge of sorts.

He said: “Foul play has to be shed light on, and such players have to be removed from the playing field so that the environment is much more safe and secure for natural growth.” He added that, ultimately, was the future where “decentralized finance is going to change the world for the better.”

The global NFT industry alone reached a market capitalization of $41 billion by the end of 2021, according to blockchain data company Chainalysis.

The space was also growing to include non-fungible assets, Ibrahim said, which would see it extending into the real world. For example, the real estate and NFT industries have been merging with several properties being sold as NFTs.

In February, US-based real estate company Propy sold an NFT-backed property, a 2,164-square-foot house in Florida, for $653,000 with the winning bidder receiving a NFT as proof of the home’s ownership.

“This is the future we’re looking to tap into, facilitate and expedite because it only makes sense to secure everything on the blockchain,” Ibrahim added.

OasisX aims to bring a new layer of security and accessibility to the world of NFTs in the MENA region for both artists and businesses.

Ibrahim along with co-founders Najib Khanafer and Ramzi Mneimneh started working on the platform more than one year ago and officially launched it at the NFT LB event in Lebanon in September.

The event featured the work of 23 artists, half of which were sold out during the event, as well as served as a platform for panel discussions, movie screenings, and AR and VR experiences.

The company’s marketplace features only vetted artists, unlike platforms such as OpenSea, which avoids any “bogus projects,” Ibrahim said.

Anyone can create and sell NFTs on OpenSea. Since the platform does not vet artists, many fraudulent NFTs end up on it. Earlier this year, OpenSea reported that more than 80 percent of the items on the platform were plagiarized works, fake collections, and spam.

“We want to keep the art community safe and secure with the right projects,” Ibrahim added.

Available in English and Arabic, the platform currently has 250 vetted artists and aims to grow into the biggest MENA-based marketplace. It also works with galleries through a referral program where the gallery receives a royalty over the first sale of any artist that gets onboarded and vetted on the platform.

It only charges 2 percent in transaction fees — among the lowest in the industry — because “artists should make the most of the sale of their hard work,” Ibrahim said. That was also why, he added, the company would never remove royalties.

Often, the technical skills needed to create NFTs can serve as a barrier to entry for both artists and brands. The company, therefore, created LaunchX, an NFT generator powered by artificial intelligence.

Recognizing that there are some still wary of NFTs and cryptocurrencies, the company has integrated options such as paying through credit cards, to make it more accessible.

The entire process is secured through a smart contract on the blockchain. Ibrahim said it was more secure than using traditional banking, especially in countries such as Lebanon, where the banking system was a shambles leaving many unable to use credit cards.

It was almost impossible to corrupt information on the blockchain making it more secure than traditional transaction methods used in Web2, he added.

Despite resistance and reluctance, Ibrahim forecasted that Web3, and cryptocurrencies, would become the norm in the next five to 10 years with people using it just as seamlessly as they use debit and credit cards today.
 


BeIN Sports racks up record number of viewers for World Cup broadcasts

BeIN Sports racks up record number of viewers for World Cup broadcasts
Updated 01 December 2022

BeIN Sports racks up record number of viewers for World Cup broadcasts

BeIN Sports racks up record number of viewers for World Cup broadcasts
  • More than 1bn viewers tuned in for opening ceremony and first round of matches

DUBAI: BeIN Sports has released initial viewing numbers for its World Cup coverage, which reveals a 113 percent increase when compared to the Qatar-based network’s coverage at Russia four years ago.

The official opening ceremony was watched by 111.7 million viewers across the Middle East and North Africa region, according to data from research company Ipsos.

More than 900 million fans then tuned in to see the first 16 group stage matches, with 99.2 million viewers watching the opening match between Qatar and Ecuador, an increase of 86 percent compared to the opener at Russia 2018.

Mohammad Al-Subaie, CEO of beIN MENA, said: “We are not surprised that the first World Cup in the Middle East is shattering regional viewership records, with more than 1 billion cumulative views of the opening ceremony and first 16 matches.”

Saudi Arabia drew a total of 99.3 million viewers for their unforgettable victory against Argentina.

In addition to live TV, sports fans in the region also turned to social media channels to catch up on the action.

BeIN Sports’ social media content published between Nov. 20 and 27 generated 1.7 billion impressions; some 235 million were generated throughout the previous World Cup.

Video was the most popular content format with such posts being viewed more than 330 million times.

Al-Subaie added: “Football fans across the Arab world are some of the most passionate, and we are delighted to be screening the tournament across the region as we continue to inspire, educate, and entertain as the tournament’s official broadcaster in MENA.”


Spotify Wrapped reveals the 2022 soundtrack to Saudi lives

Spotify Wrapped reveals the 2022 soundtrack to Saudi lives
Updated 01 December 2022

Spotify Wrapped reveals the 2022 soundtrack to Saudi lives

Spotify Wrapped reveals the 2022 soundtrack to Saudi lives
  • The annual campaign reveals the most-streamed songs, artists and podcasts in the Kingdom over the past 12 months
  • Canadian superstar The Weeknd topped the list of the most popular artists in Saudi Arabia, followed by Taylor Swift and K-Pop group BTS

DUBAI: Audio streaming service Spotify has released its annual Wrapped campaign, which includes a roundup of the most popular artists, songs, albums and podcasts streamed in each country over the past year, as well as a personalized experience for each user based on their own activity on the platform during that time.

“Wrapped is such an exciting time of the year where we celebrate the role music and podcasts play in soundtracking our lives,” said Mark Abou Jaoude, Spotify’s head of music.

“This year, once again, we saw how open Saudi listeners are to different genres of music and it was great to see local artists making huge splashes.”

Canadian superstar The Weeknd topped the list of the most-streamed artists in Saudi Arabia, followed by Taylor Swift and K-Pop group BTS. Another Canadian, Drake, was fourth, followed by veteran rapper Eminem. Billie Eilish, The Neighbourhood, Justin Bieber, Imagine Dragons and Lana Del Rey completed the top 10.

Local artists experienced a growth in listeners, Spotify said, with Abdullah Al-Farwan the most-streamed Saudi performer in the country, followed by Abdul Majeed Abdullah and Sheilat artist Badr Al-Ezzi.

Spotify reported that there has been a massive growth in the popularity of Sheilat, lyrically driven folkloric songs, in recent years. According to 2021 data from the company, 80 percent of Sheilat listeners on the platform stream the music while they are gaming. This year, the top 10 list of most-streamed Saudi artists included a higher number of Sheilat singers, including Ghareeb Al-Mukhles, Fahad bin Fasla, Abdullah Al-Mukhles, and Mohammed bin Grman, alongside popular household names such as Abdul Majeed Abdullah, Mohammed Abdu and Rashed Al-Majed.

Most-streamed Saudi artists in Saudi Arabia

Abdullah Al-Farwan

Abdul Majeed Abdullah

Badr Al-Ezzi

Ghareeb Al-Mukhles

Mohammed Abdu

Rashed Al-Majed

Khaled Abdul Rahman

Fahad Bin Fasla

Abdullah Al-Mukhles

Mohammed Bin Grman

In terms of the year’s most-popular songs, “Ya Ibn Khamash” by Mohammed Al-Najm is the most-streamed Khaleeji track in Saudi Arabia this year. Assala Nasri and Badr Al-Ezzi each have two songs in the top 10: “Henain” and “Al-Sourah” from the former, and “Kalemni” and “Zikrayat” from the latter.

Most-streamed Khaleeji songs in Saudi Arabia

“Ya Ibn Khamash” by Mohammed Al-Najm

“Kalemni” by Badr Al-Ezzi

“Henain” by Assala Nasri

“Al-Sourah” by Assala Nasri

“Ghazal Ma Yensady” by Abdul Majeed Abdallah

“Shoft El-Nejoum” by Lamiya Almalki

“Qalby Jobarny” by Yasser Abdul Wahab

“Ashofak Kil Youm” by Mohamed Abdu

“Adaaj Oyoun” by Majd Al-Raslani

“Zikrayat” by Badr Al-Ezzi

 

Most-streamed songs in Saudi Arabia

“Another Love” by Tom Odell

“As It Was” by Harry Styles

“Middle of the Night” by Elley Duhe

“Enemy” by Imagine Dragons featuring J.I.D.

“Heat Waves” by Glass Animals

“Sweater Weather” by The Neighbourhood

“After Dark” by Mr. Kitty

“Close Eyes” by DVRST

“Save Your Tears” by The Weeknd

“Industry Baby” by Lil Nas X featuring Jack Harlow

A number of educational, motivational and cultural podcasts also proved very popular with Spotify listeners in Saudi Arabia this year, including “Kanabet El-Sebt,” “Finjan” and “Podcast Tanafuss.”

Most popular podcasts in Saudi Arabia:

Kanabet El-Sebt

Finjan

Podcast Tanafuss

Abajoura

Sa7eb

E7tiyal

Al-Salfah

Jinayah

Sokrat

Areeka

Spotify users can access their personalized Wrapped experience on the platform’s mobile app now.