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US Dismantles Ransomware Network Responsible for More Than $100 Million in Extortion

An international ransomware network that extorted more than $100 million from hundreds of victims around the world has been brought down following a monthslong infiltration by the FBI, the Department of Justice announced Thursday.

The group known as Hive targeted more than 1,500 victims, including hospitals, school districts and financial firms in more than 80 countries, the Justice Department said. Officials say the most recent victim in Florida was targeted about two weeks ago.

In a breakthrough, FBI agents armed with a court order infiltrated Hive’s computer networks in July 2022, covertly capturing its decryption keys and offering them to victims, saving the targets $130 million in ransom payments, officials said.

“Cybercrime is a constantly evolving threat. But as I have said before, the Justice Department will spare no resource to identify and bring to justice, anyone, anywhere, who targets the United States with a ransomware attack,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said at a press conference.

Working with German and Dutch law enforcement, the FBI on Wednesday took down the servers that power the Hive network.

“Simply put, using lawful means, we hacked the hackers,” Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said.

While no arrests have been made in connection with the takedown, FBI Director Christopher Wray warned that anybody involved with Hive should be concerned, because this investigation is very much ongoing.

“We’re engaged in what we call ‘joint sequenced operations’ … and that includes going after their infrastructure, going after their crypto and going after the people who work with them,” Wray said.

In a ransomware attack, hackers lock in a victim’s network and then demand payments in exchange for providing a decryption key.

Hive used a “ransomware-as-a-service” model where so-called “administrators” develop a malicious software strain and recruit “affiliates” to deploy them against victims.

Officials said Hive affiliates targeted critical U.S. infrastructure entities.

In August 2021, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hive affiliates attacked a Midwest hospital’s network, preventing the medical facility from accepting any new patients, Garland said.

It was only able to recover the data after it paid a ransom.

Hive’s takedown is the latest in the Biden administration’s crackdown on ransomware attacks that are on the rise, costing businesses and organizations billions of dollars.

U.S. banks and financial institutions processed nearly $1.2 billion in suspected ransomware payments in 2021, more than double the amount in 2020, the Department of the Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCen) reported in November.

Roughly 75% of the ransomware attacks reported in 2021 had a nexus to Russia, its proxies or persons acting on its behalf, according to FinCen.

The top five highest-grossing ransomware tools used in 2021 were connected to Russian cyber actors, according to FinCen.

Officials would not say whether Hive had any link to Russia.

The Biden administration views ransomware attacks not just as a “pocketbook issue” that affects ordinary Americans but increasingly as a growing national security threat that calls for a coordinated response.

Last year, the White House hosted a two-day international ransomware summit where participants from 36 countries agreed to create a fusion cell at the Regional Cyber Defense Center in Lithuania, followed by an International Counter Ransomware Task Force later this year.

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Ancient Tomb Discovered in Egypt

An excavation team in Egypt has unearthed an ancient tomb containing a mummy believed to be 4,300 years old. It is among dozens of artifacts recently discovered.

After a year-long excavation, renowned archaeologist Zahi Hawass announced the findings at Gisr al-Mudir, also known as the Great Enclosure, one of the oldest known stone structures in Egypt. Among them – Khmumdjedef – a priest from the fifth dynasty, Meri, a palace official who held the title “keeper of the secrets,” and a man named Hekashepes.

“This mummy may be the oldest and most complete mummy found in Egypt to date,” Hawass said about Hekashepes, in a statement. Other major discoveries from the excavation included statues, amulets, and a well-preserved sarcophagus.

“I put my head inside to see what was inside the sarcophagus: A beautiful mummy of a man completely covered in layers of gold,” said Hawass.

Over the past week, researchers have made many other discoveries, such as dozens of burial sites from the New Kingdom Era, which dates from 1800 to 1600 B.C., near the southern city of Luxor.   

Additionally, a group of scientists from Cairo University announced details Tuesday about a previously uncovered mummified teenage boy. Through the use of CT scans, they were able to shed new light on the boy’s high social status by examining the intricate details of the amulets inserted in his mummified body as well as the type of burial he received.

The Egyptian tombs are a large tourist draw and the North African country often advertises them as a way to bring in more money. The number of visitors, however, has been negatively affected since an uprising in 2011, the coronavirus pandemic, and, most recently, the war in Ukraine. 

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters.   

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Late Poet Credited with Rescue of Kashmiri Language 

The literary world of Indian-administered Kashmir is mourning the death of a beloved poet and champion of the Kashmiri language, which he is largely credited with rescuing from obscurity.

Abdur Rehman Rahi, an acclaimed writer and professor of literature who died earlier this month at age 97, is being hailed as a living testament to Kashmir’s literary prestige who helped establish a unique identity for the once-endangered language.

“With Rahi’s death, we have lost one of the crown jewels from Kashmir’s literary landscape. His death marks an end of an era,” remarked Shad Ramzan, himself a highly regarded writer and Kashmiri-language scholar.

Rahi’s talents were recognized with numerous awards, including India’s leading literary prize, the Jnanpith Award, in 2007 for his poetic collection Siyah Rood Jaeren Manz (In Black Drizzle), and India’s fourth-highest civilian honor, the Padma Shri, in 2000.

But his more lasting legacy will stem from his tireless efforts to preserve and popularize the Kashmiri language, which is spoken today by some 6 million people in the Kashmir Valley and surrounding region.

The native tongue had fallen into deep decline in the decades after the end of British rule in 1947, with the federal government discontinuing its teaching in elementary schools in 1955.

The language “has always been given less preference from the rulers of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir. There is no mention from the political parties in their manifestos regarding the planning and development of the Kashmiri language,” says an article in the Interdisciplinary Journal of Linguistics, a publication of the University of Kashmir.

Ramzan says a key to Kashmiri’s renewed life was the establishment 1974 of a research cell for the study of the language at the University of Kashmir. Five years later, Rahi oversaw the conversion of the research cell into a full-fledged postgraduate department.

“Rahi introduced critical thinking of East and West poetry in the curriculum of the postgraduate program,” Ramzan said in an interview.

Continued agitation by Rahi and other scholars, social and cultural groups led to the language being taught more broadly, and by 2008, it had become mandatory in the former state of Jammu and Kashmir for students enrolled in kindergarten through eighth grade.

Outside the classroom, Rahi also worked to introduce the language to a global audience through his poetry. “He shifted the focus from the classical Kashmiri poetry that had previously dominated the literary landscape,” explained Salim Salik, an editor at the Jammu and Kashmir Academy of Art, Culture and Languages.

Muhammad Maroof Shah, another Kashmiri writer, agreed that Rahi’s success lay in his ability to write Kashmiri-language poetry worthy of international attention in the contemporary idiom. He praised Rahi for presenting the Kashmiri tradition in terms that could be understood and appreciated universally.

Despite his unquestioned literary genius, Rahi was criticized at times for not applying his talents to the political tensions that bedevil Kashmir, the focus of a long-running insurgency and repeated wars between India and Pakistan.

“I felt that he observed self-censorship fearing reprisal from both state and non-state actors,” said Bilal A. Jan, an award-winning filmmaker from Srinagar who directed a biographical documentary on Rahi’s life and works titled, “The Poet of Silence.”

“Rahi shared some incidents with me when he was threatened for his work,” added Jan, who told VOA he believes Rahi’s poetry was influenced by Marxist ideology while focused on the human predicament and day-to-day life issues of humans.

One of Rahi’s colleagues at the University of Kashmir, Shafi Shauq, challenged the notion that Rahi avoided the most challenging issues, saying, “One of his best poems is ‘Thyanvi Ros Sadaa’ (A Call without Sound) which speaks of the contemporary situation.”

Rahi was essentially a distinguished poet who tried to create his own style by mixing personally coined words, archaisms, allusions and verbal rhythms, Shauq told VOA.

“Although his popularity is based on a few lyrics sung by our best singers, the serious poetry contained in his three collections is beyond the comprehension of common readers. His two collections of literary essays are in keeping with his individual notion of poetic composition.”

Rahi is survived by three sons, all of whom work in the medical profession, and a daughter who worked for a time at the Jammu and Kashmir Academy of Art, Culture and Languages.

One of the sons, Dildar Ahmad, told VOA his father was a gentle and soft-spoken man who used to treat people equally irrespective of class, caste or age.

The daughter, Rubina Ellahi, said Rahi had been not only a father but also her best friend. “We used to discuss poetry for hours together,” she said in an interview. “He has left some unpublished work, which I will publish at an appropriate time.”

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Lloyd Morrisett, Who Helped Launch ‘Sesame Street,’ Dies

Lloyd Morrisett, the co-creator of the beloved children’s education TV series Sesame Street, which uses empathy and fuzzy monsters like Abby Cadabby, Elmo and Cookie Monster to charm and teach generations around the world, has died. He was 93.

Morrisett’s death was announced Monday by Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit he helped establish under the name the Children’s Television Workshop. No cause of death was given.

In a statement, Sesame Workshop hailed Morrisett as a “wise, thoughtful, and above all kind leader” who was “constantly thinking about new ways” to educate.

Morrisett and Joan Ganz Cooney worked with Harvard University developmental psychologist Gerald Lesser to build the show’s unique approach to teaching that now reaches 120 million children. Legendary puppeteer Jim Henson supplied the critters.

“Without Lloyd Morrisett, there would be no Sesame Street. It was he who first came up with the notion of using television to teach preschoolers basic skills, such as letters and numbers,” Cooney said in a statement. “He was a trusted partner and loyal friend to me for over 50 years, and he will be sorely missed.”

 

Sesame Street is shown in more than 150 countries, has won 216 Emmys, 11 Grammys and in 2019 received the Kennedy Center Honor for lifetime artistic achievement, the first time a television program got the award (Big Bird strolled down the aisle and basically sat in Tom Hanks’ lap).

Born in 1929 in Oklahoma City, Morrisett initially trained to be a teacher with a background in psychology. He became an experimental educator, looking for new ways to educate children from less advantaged backgrounds. Morrisett received his bachelor’s at Oberlin College, did graduate work in psychology at UCLA, and earned his doctorate in experimental psychology at Yale University. He was an Oberlin trustee for many years and was chair of the board from 1975-81.

The seed of Sesame Street was sown over a dinner party in 1966, where he met Cooney.

“I said, ‘Joan, do you think television could be used to teach young children?’ Her answer was, ‘I don’t know, but I’d like to talk about it,’” he recalled to The Guardian in 2004.

The first episode of Sesame Street, sponsored by the letters W, S and E and the numbers 2 and 3, aired in the fall of 1969. It was a turbulent time in America, rocked by the Vietnam War and raw from the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. the year before.

Children’s programming at the time was made up of shows like Captain Kangaroo, Romper Room and the often-violent cartoon skirmishes between Tom & Jerry. Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was mostly teaching social skills.

Sesame Street was designed by education professionals and child psychologists with one goal: to help low-income and minority students aged 2-5 overcome some of the deficiencies they had when entering school. Social scientists had long noted kids who were white and from higher-income families were often better prepared.

The show was set on an urban street with a multicultural cast. Diversity and inclusion were baked into the show. Monsters, humans and animals all lived together peacefully.

It became the first children’s program to feature someone with Down syndrome. It’s had puppets with HIV and in foster care, invited children in wheelchairs, dealt with topics like jailed parents, homelessness, women’s rights, military families and even girls singing about loving their hair.

It introduced the bilingual Rosita, the first Latina Muppet, in 1991. Julia, a 4-year-old Muppet with autism, came in 2017 and the show has since offered help for kids whose parents are dealing with addiction and recovery, and children suffering as a result of the Syrian civil war. To help kids after 9/11, Elmo was left traumatized by a fire at Hooper’s store but was soothingly told that firefighters were there to help.

The company said upon the news of his death that Lloyd left “an outsized and indelible legacy among generations of children the world over, with Sesame Street only the most visible tribute to a lifetime of good work and lasting impact.”

He is survived by his wife, Mary; daughters Julie and Sarah; and granddaughters Frances and Clara.

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Trump Reinstated to Facebook After 2-Year Ban

Facebook parent Meta is reinstating former President Donald Trump’s personal account after a two-year suspension following the January 6, 2021, insurrection. 

The company said in a blog post Wednesday it is adding “new guardrails” to ensure there are no “repeat offenders” who violate its rules. 

“In the event that Mr. Trump posts further violating content, the content will be removed and he will be suspended for between one month and two years, depending on the severity of the violation,” said Meta, which is based in Menlo Park, California. 

Trump, in a post on his own social media network, blasted Facebook’s decision to suspend his account as he praised his own site, Truth Social. 

“FACEBOOK, which has lost Billions of Dollars in value since “deplatforming” your favorite President, me, has just announced that they are reinstating my account. Such a thing should never again happen to a sitting President, or anybody else who is not deserving of retribution!” he wrote. 

He was suspended on January 7, a day after the deadly 2021 insurrection. Other social media companies also kicked him off their platforms, though he was recently reinstated on Twitter after Elon Musk took over the company. He has not tweeted. 

Banned from mainstream social media, Trump has been relying on Truth Social, which he launched after being blocked from Twitter. 

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Olive Pits Fuel Flights in Spain

The war in Ukraine has exposed Europe’s energy dependence on Russia and is spurring the development of new, cleaner-burning biofuels. Spain is emerging as a leader in this effort, with the introduction late last year of airplane fuel made from olive pits. Marcus Harton narrates this report from Alfonso Beato in Seville.

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Microsoft Reports Outage for Teams, Outlook, Other Services

Microsoft said it’s seeing some improvement to problems with its online services including the Teams messaging platform and Outlook email system after users around the world reported outages Wednesday. 

In a status update, the tech company reported “service degradation” for a number of its Microsoft 365 services. 

Thousands of users reported problems with Teams, Outlook, the Azure cloud computing service and XBox Live online gaming service early Wednesday on the Downdetector website, which tracks outage reports. Many users also took to social media to complain that services were down. 

By later in the morning, Downdetector showed the number of reports had dropped considerably. 

“We’re continuing to monitor the recovery across the service and some customers are reporting mitigation,” the Microsoft 365 Status Twitter account said. “We’re also connecting the service to additional infrastructure to expedite the recovery process.” 

It tweeted earlier that it had “isolated the problem to a networking configuration issue” and that a network change suspected to be causing the problem was rolled back. 

It comes after Microsoft reported Tuesday that its quarterly profit fell 12%, reflecting economic uncertainty that the company said led to its decision this month to cut 10,000 workers. 

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BBC Film About India’s PM Modi, 2002 Riots Draws Government Ire

Days after India blocked a BBC documentary that examines Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s role during 2002 anti-Muslim riots and banned people from sharing it online, authorities are scrambling to halt screenings of the film at colleges and universities and restrict clips of it on social media. Critics decry the move by as an assault on press freedom.

Tensions escalated in the capital, New Delhi, on Wednesday at Jamia Millia University where a student group said it planned to screen the banned documentary, prompting dozens of police equipped with tear gas and riot gear to gather outside campus gates.

Police, some in plain clothes, scuffled with protesting students and detained at least half a dozen of them, who were taken away in a van.

Jawaharlal Nehru University in the capital cut off power and the internet on its campus on Tuesday before the documentary was scheduled to be screened by a students’ union. Authorities said it would disturb peace on campus, but students nonetheless watched the documentary on their laptops and mobile phones after sharing it on messaging services like Telegram and WhatsApp.

The documentary has caused a storm at other Indian universities too.

Authorities at the University of Hyderabad, in India’s south, have begun a probe after a student group showed the banned documentary earlier this week. In the southern state of Kerala, workers from Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party held demonstrations on Tuesday after some student groups affiliated with rival political parties defied the ban and screened the film.

The two-part documentary “India: The Modi Question” has not been broadcast in India by the BBC, but India’s federal government blocked it over the weekend and banned people from sharing clips on social media, citing emergency powers under its information technology laws. Twitter and YouTube complied with the request and removed many links to the documentary.

The first part of the documentary, released last week by the BBC for its U.K. audiences, revives the most controversial episode of Modi’s political career when he was the chief minister of western Gujarat state in 2002. It focuses on bloody anti-Muslim riots in which more than 1,000 people were killed.

The riots have long hounded Modi because of allegations that authorities under his watch allowed and even encouraged the bloodshed. Modi has denied the accusations, and the Supreme Court has said it found no evidence to prosecute him. Last year, the country’s top court dismissed a petition filed by a Muslim victim questioning Modi’s exoneration.

The first part of the BBC documentary relies on interviews with victims of the riots, journalists and rights activists, who say Modi looked the other way during the riots. It cites, for the first time, a secret British diplomatic investigation that concluded Modi was “directly responsible” for the “climate of impunity.”

The documentary includes the testimony of then-British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who says the British investigation found that the violence by Hindu nationalists aimed to “purge Muslims from Hindu areas” and that it had all the “hallmarks of an ethnic cleansing.”

Suspicions that Modi quietly supported the riots led the U.S., U.K. and E.U. to deny him a visa, a move that has since been reversed.

India’s Foreign Ministry last week called the documentary a “propaganda piece designed to push a particularly discredited narrative” that lacks objectivity and slammed it for “bias” and “a continuing colonial mindset.” Kanchan Gupta, a senior adviser in the government’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, denounced it as “anti-India garbage.”

The BBC in a statement said the documentary was “rigorously researched” and involved a wide range of voices and opinions.

“We offered the Indian Government a right to reply to the matters raised in the series — it declined to respond,” the statement said.

The second part of the documentary, released Tuesday in the U.K., “examines the track record of Narendra Modi’s government following his re-election in 2019,” according to the film’s description on the BBC website.

In recent years, India’s Muslim minority has been at the receiving end of violence from Hindu nationalists, emboldened by a prime minister who has mostly stayed mum on such attacks since he was first elected in 2014.

The ban has set off a wave of criticism from opposition parties and rights groups that slammed it as an attack against press freedom. It also drew more attention to the documentary, sparking scores of social media users to share clips on WhatsApp, Telegram and Twitter.

“You can ban, you can suppress the press, you can control the institutions … but the truth is the truth. It has a nasty habit of coming out,” Rahul Gandhi, a leader in the opposition Congress party, told reporters at a press conference Tuesday.

Mahua Moitra, a lawmaker from the Trinamool Congress political party, on Tuesday tweeted a new link after a previous one was taken down. “Good, bad, or ugly — we decide. Govt doesn’t tell us what to watch,” Moitra said in her tweet, which was still up Wednesday morning.

Human Rights Watch said the ban reflected a broader crackdown on minorities under the Modi government, which the rights group said has frequently invoked draconian laws to muzzle criticism.

Critics say press freedom in India has declined in recent years and the country fell eight places, to 150 out of 180 countries, in last year’s Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders. It accuses Modi’s government of silencing criticism on social media, particularly on Twitter, a charge senior leaders of the governing party have denied.

Modi’s government has regularly pressured Twitter to restrict or ban content it deems critical of the prime minister or his party. Last year, it threatened to arrest Twitter staff in the country over their refusal to ban accounts run by critics after implementing sweeping new regulations for technology and social media companies.

The ban on the BBC documentary comes after a proposal from the government to give its Press Information Bureau and other “fact-checking” agencies powers to take down news deemed “fake or false” from digital platforms.

The Editors Guild of India urged the government to withdraw the proposal, saying such a change would be akin to censorship.

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