Economy & business
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Hit by Sanctions, Asia’s Iran Crude Oil Imports Drop to 3-Year Low in 2018

Iranian crude oil imports by Asia’s top four buyers dropped to the lowest volume in three years in 2018 amid U.S. sanctions on Tehran, but China and India stepped up imports in December after getting waivers from Washington.

Asia’s top four buyers of Iranian crude — China, India, Japan and South Korea — imported a total 1.31 million barrels per day (bpd) in 2018, down 21 percent from the previous year, data from the countries showed.

That was the lowest since about 1 million bpd in 2015, when a previous round of sanctions on Iran led to a sharp drop in Asian imports, Reuters data showed.

The United States reimposed sanctions on Iran’s oil exports last November as it wants to negotiate a new nuclear deal with the country. U.S. officials have said they intend to reduce the Islamic Republic’s oil exports to zero.

On a monthly basis, Asia’s imports from Iran rebounded to a three-month high of 761,593 bpd in December as China and India stepped up purchases after Washington granted eight countries waivers from the Iranian sanctions for 180 days from the start of November.

“We expect Iranian exports to Asia to remain stable at around 800,000 barrels per day until May, when the waivers expire,” said Energy Aspects analyst Riccardo Fabiani.

In December, China’s imports climbed above 500,000 bpd for the first time in three months, while India’s imports rose above 302,000 bpd.

Japan and South Korea did not import any Iranian crude that month because they were still sorting out payment and shipping issues, but the countries have resumed oil lifting from Iran this month.

During the 180-day period, China can import up to 360,000 bpd of Iranian oil, while India’s imports are restricted to 300,000 bpd. South Korea can import up to 200,000 bpd of Iranian condensate.

“After May, it will all depend on the U.S. administration’s decisions, which at the moment remain completely obscure. On balance, they are likely to extend the current waivers, although rumors are that there could be a significant cut in waivered volumes,” Fabiani said.

As a precaution, Indian Oil Corp, the country’s top refiner, is looking for an annual deal to buy U.S. crude as it seeks to broaden its oil purchasing options, its chairman said Wednesday.

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Silicon Valley & Technology
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Facebook Takes Down Vast Iran-Led Manipulation Campaign

Facebook said Thursday it took down hundreds of “inauthentic” accounts from Iran that were part of a vast manipulation campaign operating in more than 20 countries.

The world’s biggest social network said it removed 783 pages, groups and accounts “for engaging in coordinated inauthentic behavior tied to Iran.”

The pages were part of a campaign to promote Iranian interests in various countries by creating fake identities as residents of those nations, according to a statement by Nathaniel Gleicher, head of cybersecurity policy at Facebook.

The announcement was the latest by Facebook as it seeks to stamp out efforts by state actors and others to manipulate the social network using fraudulent accounts.

“We are constantly working to detect and stop this type of activity because we don’t want our services to be used to manipulate people,” Gleicher said.

“We’re taking down these pages, groups and accounts based on their behavior, not the content they post. In this case, the people behind this activity coordinated with one another and used fake accounts to misrepresent themselves, and that was the basis for our action.”

The operators “typically represented themselves as locals, often using fake accounts, and posted news stories on current events,” including “commentary that repurposed Iranian state media’s reporting on topics like Israel-Palestine relations and the conflicts in Syria and Yemen,” Gleicher said.

“Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities, our manual review linked these accounts to Iran.”

The operation dating back to as early as 2010 had 262 pages, 356 accounts, and three groups on Facebook, as well as 162 accounts on Instagram and were followed by about two million users.

Facebook said the fake accounts were part of an influence campaign that operated in Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Libya, Mexico, Morocco, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, South Africa, Spain, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, U.S., and Yemen.

Facebook began looking into these kinds of activities after revelations of Russian influence campaigns during the 2016 U.S. election, aimed at sowing discord.

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Science & Health
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US Researchers Looking For Long Lasting Ebola Vaccine

The World Health Organization reports that more than 700 people have been sickened with Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo. And now, neighboring countries of South Sudan and Rwanda are bracing for the virus to spread. But, half a world away, U.S. researchers are hoping to develop a new, long-lasting vaccine against Ebola. VOA’s Carol Pearson has more.

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Arts & Entertainment
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King Tut Tomb Restored to Prevent Damage From Visitors

The tomb of Egypt’s famed boy pharaoh, King Tutankhamun, has undergone restoration to help minimize damage by tourists.

The work, done by the Getty Conservation Institute after years of research and officially presented Thursday, aims to minimize scratches, dust damage and microbiological growth from breath and humidity brought in by tourists.

The nearly intact tomb of King Tut, who ruled Egypt more than 3,000 years ago, was discovered in 1922 by Howard Carter in the Valley of the Kings, located on the west bank of the Nile River in Luxor.

For many, King Tut embodies ancient Egypt’s glory, because his tomb was packed with the glittering wealth of the 18th Dynasty, which ruled from 1569 to 1315 B.C.

 

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Science & Health
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Nearly Half of US Adults Have Heart or Blood Vessel Disease

A new report estimates that nearly half of all U.S. adults have some form of heart or blood vessel disease, a medical milestone that’s mostly due to recent guidelines that expanded how many people have high blood pressure.

 

The American Heart Association said Thursday that more than 121 million adults had cardiovascular disease in 2016. Taking out those with only high blood pressure leaves 24 million, or 9 percent of adults, who have other forms of disease such as heart failure or clogged arteries.

 

Measuring the burden of diseases shows areas that need to improve, the heart association’s chief science and medical officer, Dr. Mariell Jessup, said in a statement.

 

High blood pressure, which had long been defined as a top reading of at least 140 or a bottom one of 90, dropped to 130 over 80 under guidelines adopted in 2017. It raises the risk for heart attacks, strokes and many other problems, and only about half of those with the condition have it under control.

 

Being diagnosed with high blood pressure doesn’t necessarily mean you need medication right away; the first step is aiming for a healthier lifestyle, even for those who are prescribed medicine. Poor diets, lack of exercise and other bad habits cause 90 percent of high blood pressure.

 

The report is an annual statistics update by the heart association, the National Institutes of Health and others.

 

Other highlights:

 

Heart and blood vessel disease is linked to 1 of every 3 deaths in the United States and kills more Americans than all forms of cancer and respiratory diseases like pneumonia combined.
Certain groups have higher rates than others; 57 percent of black women and 60 percent of black males.
Coronary heart disease, or clogged or hardened arteries, caused 43 percent of cardiovascular deaths in the U.S., followed by stroke (17 percent), high blood pressure (10 percent) and heart failure (9 percent).

 

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Economy & business
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Ghirardelli, Russel Stover Fined over Chocolate Packaging

Ghirardelli and Russell Stover have agreed to pay $750,000 in fines after prosecutors in California said they offered a little chocolate in a lot of wrapping.

Prosecutors in Sacramento, San Joaquin, Shasta, Fresno, Santa Cruz and Yolo counties sued the candy makers, alleging they misled consumers by selling chocolate products in containers that were oversized or “predominantly empty.”

Prosecutors also alleged that Ghirardelli offered one chocolate product containing less cocoa than advertised.

The firms didn’t acknowledge any wrongdoing but agreed to change their packaging under a settlement approved earlier this month. Some packages will shrink or will have a transparent window so consumers can look inside.

San Francisco-based Ghirardelli and Kansas City-based Russell Stover are owned by a Swiss company, Lindt & Sprungli.

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Silicon Valley & Technology
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Apple Busts Facebook for Distributing Data-Sucking App

Apple says Facebook can no longer distribute an app that paid users, including teenagers, to extensively track their phone and web use.

In doing so, Apple closed off Facebook’s efforts to sidestep Apple’s app store and its tighter rules on privacy.

The tech blog TechCrunch reported late Tuesday that Facebook paid people about $20 a month to install and use the Facebook Research app. While Facebook says this was done with permission, the company has a history of defining “permission” loosely and obscuring what data it collects.

“I don’t think they make it very clear to users precisely what level of access they were granting when they gave permission,” mobile app security researcher Will Strafach said Wednesday. “There is simply no way the users understood this.”

He said Facebook’s claim that users understood the scope of data collection was “muddying the waters.”

Facebook says fewer than 5 percent of the app’s users were teens and they had parental permission. Nonetheless, the revelation is yet another blemish on Facebook’s track record on privacy and could invite further regulatory scrutiny.

And it comes less than a week after court documents revealed that Facebook allowed children to rack up huge bills on digital games and that it had rejected recommendations for addressing it for fear of hurting revenue growth.

For now, the app appears to be available for Android phones, though not through Google’s main app store. Google had no comment Wednesday.

Apple said Facebook was distributing Facebook Research through an internal-distribution mechanism meant for company employees, not outsiders. Apple has revoked that capability.

TechCrunch reported separately Wednesday that Google was using the same privileged access to Apple’s mobile operating system for a market-research app, Screenwise Meter. Asked about it by The Associated Press, Google said it had disabled the app on Apple devices and apologized for its “mistake.”

The company said Google had always been “upfront with users” about how it used data collected by the app, which offered users points that could be accrued for gift cards. In contrast to the Facebook Research app, Google said its Screenwise Meter app never asked users to let the company circumvent network encryption, meaning it is far less intrusive.

Facebook is still permitted to distribute apps through Apple’s app store, though such apps are reviewed by Apple ahead of time. And Apple’s move Wednesday restricts Facebook’s ability to test those apps — including core apps such as Facebook and Instagram — before they are released through the app store.

Facebook previously pulled an app called Onavo Protect from Apple’s app store because of its stricter requirements. But Strafach, who dismantled the Facebook Research app on TechCrunch’s behalf, told the AP that it was mostly Onavo repackaged and rebranded, as the two apps shared about 98 percent of their code.

As of Wednesday, a disclosure form on Betabound, one of the services that distributed Facebook Research, informed prospective users that by installing Facebook Research, they are letting Facebook collect a range of data. This includes information on apps users have installed, when they use them and what they do on them. Information is also collected on how other people interact with users and their content within those apps, according to the disclosure.

Betabound warned that Facebook may collect information even when an app or web browser uses encryption.

Strafach said emails, social media activities, private messages and just about anything else could be intercepted. He said the only data absolutely safe from snooping are from services, such as Signal and Apple’s iMessages, that fully encrypt messages prior to transmission, a method known as end-to-end encryption.

Strafach, who is CEO of Guardian Mobile Firewall, said he was aghast to discover Facebook caught red-handed violating Apple’s trust.

He said such traffic-capturing tools are only supposed to be for trusted partners to use internally. Instead, he said Facebook was scooping up all incoming and outgoing data traffic from unwitting members of the public — in an app geared toward teenagers.

“This is very flagrantly not allowed,” Strafach said. “It’s mind-blowing how defiant Facebook was acting.”

 

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Arts & Entertainment
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Chicago Police Still Looking for Video of Attack on Actor

Detectives have recovered more surveillance footage of “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett walking in downtown Chicago before and after he says he was attacked by two masked men, but they still haven’t found video of the attack, a police spokesman said Thursday.

 

Spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said there are hundreds of surveillance cameras in the area, which is home to many high-end hotels and restaurants, and that the hope is that detectives will be able to piece them together to capture most if not all of Smollett’s trip from a Subway restaurant to his apartment at about 2 a.m. Tuesday, when Smollett said the attack occurred.

 

Guglielmi said piecing together the private and public surveillance video is tedious work that is made more difficult by the fact that the time stamps on various cameras may not be in sync, meaning detectives have to figure out the exact times of events.

 

“It’s like putting together a puzzle,” he said.

 

Guglielmi also said police have recovered video that shows the 36-year-old actor walking into his apartment, but that he hasn’t seen it and doesn’t know if Smollett appeared to be in any distress when he arrived home.

 

He said that Smollett and his manager told detectives they were talking on the phone at the time of the attack, but that Smollett declined to turn over his phone records to the detectives, who routinely ask for such information during criminal investigations.

 

Meanwhile, police are hoping to identify and talk to the two people who were walking in the area at the time of the attack and whose images police released to the public late Wednesday. Guglielmi stressed that the people are not considered suspects and that police want to question them because they were in the vicinity and might have information that could be useful to the investigation.

 

Smollett, who is black and gay and plays the gay character Jamal Lyon on the hit Fox television show, said the men beat him, subjected him to racist and homophobic insults, threw an “unknown chemical substance” on him and put a thin rope around his neck before fleeing. Smollett returned to his apartment afterward and his manager called police from there about 40 minutes later, Guglielmi said.

When officers arrived, the 36-year-old actor had cuts and scrapes on his face and the rope around his neck that he said had been put there by his assailant. According to Guglielmi, Smollett later went to Northwestern Memorial Hospital after police advised him to do so.

 

Reports of the attack drew a flood of outrage and support for Smollett on social media. Some of the outrage stemmed from Smollett’s account to detectives that his attackers yelled that he was in “MAGA country,” an apparent reference to the Trump campaign’s “Make America Great Again” slogan.

 

The FBI is investigating a threatening letter targeting Smollett that was sent last week to the Fox studio in Chicago where “Empire” is filmed, Guglielmi said. The FBI has declined to comment on the investigation.

 

Guglielmi said Wednesday that detectives, who are investigating the allegations as a possible hate crime, have looked at hundreds of hours of surveillance video from that section of the Streeterville neighborhood. But he said they still needed to collect and view more in the hopes of finding footage of the attack or of the men who match Smollett’s description of the suspects.

 

In addition to his acting career, Smollett has a music career and is a noted activist, particularly on LBGTQ issues. Smollett’s representative said his concert scheduled for Saturday in Los Angeles will go on as planned. Smollett has not spoken publicly about the attack, but his representative told The Associated Press on Wednesday night that the actor “is at home and recovering.”

 

Now in its fifth season, the hourlong drama “Empire” follows an African-American family as they navigate the ups and downs of the record industry. Smollett’s character is the middle son of Empire Entertainment founder Lucious Lyon and Cookie Lyon, played by Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson, respectively.

 

Chicago has one of the nation’s most sophisticated and extensive video surveillance systems, including thousands of cameras on street poles, skyscrapers, buses and in train tunnels.

 

Police say the cameras have helped them make thousands of arrests. In one of the best-known examples of the department’s use of the cameras, investigators in 2009 were able to recreate a school board president’s 20-minute drive through the city, singling out his car on a succession of surveillance cameras to help them determine that he committed suicide and had not been followed and killed by someone else, as his friends speculated.

 

 

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