Indian journalists ‘targeted’ by Whatsapp spyware

WhatsApp has 1.5bn users, but it believed the attacks were highly-targeted
WhatsApp has 1.5bn users, but it believed the attacks were highly-targeted

Messaging app WhatsApp has said Indian journalists and activists are among some 1,400 people worldwide who were targeted with Israeli-made spyware.

WhatsApp filed a lawsuit against NSO Group  on Wednesday, alleging it was behind cyber-attacks that infected devices in April and May.

The Israeli company, which makes software for surveillance, has strongly disputed the allegations.

India has 400 million WhatsApp users, making the country its biggest market.

Hackers were able to remotely install surveillance software on phones and other devices by using a major vulnerability in the messaging app.

“We believe this attack targeted at least 100 members of civil society, which is an unmistakable pattern of abuse,” WhatsApp said in a statement.

After discovering the cyber-attacks in May, WhatsApp quickly rolled out a fix, adding “new protections” to their systems and issuing updates.

Cyber experts at Toronto-based internet watchdog Citizen Lab helped WhatsApp identify cases where the suspected targets of this attack were members of civil society, such as human rights defenders or journalists.

Citizen Lab said it had identified more than 100 cases of “abusive targeting of human rights defenders and journalists in at least 20 countries across the globe, ranging from Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and North America”.

WhatsApp says its steps to combat the spread of rumours is working
India has 400 million WhatsApp users, making the country the service’s biggest market.

“Indian journalists and human rights activists have been the target of surveillance and while I cannot reveal their identities and the exact number, I can say that it is not an insignificant number,” WhatsApp spokesperson Carl Woog told The Indian Express newspaper.

Mr Woog said the service had contacted each of the people targeted and informed them about the cyber attack.

WhatsApp promotes itself as a “secure” communications app because messages are encrypted end-to-end. This means they should only be displayed in a legible form on the sender or recipient’s device.

The firm, which was acquired by Facebook in 2014, said this was the first time an encrypted messaging provider had taken legal action of this kind.

Israel’s NSO Group said it would fight the allegations.

“In the strongest possible terms, we dispute today’s allegations and will vigorously fight them,” the company said in a statement to the BBC.

Microsoft does more research and development in China than it does anywhere else outside the United States. But, as US-China relations continue to sour on issues of trade and cyber-security, the decades-long ties Microsoft has in China are coming under close scrutiny.

“The question is, how do you ensure that these weapons don’t get created? I think there are multiple mechanisms. The first thing is we, as creators, should start with having a set of ethical design principles to ensure that we’re creating AI that’s fair, that’s secure, that’s private, that’s not biased.”

He said he felt his company had sufficient control over how the controversial emerging technologies are used, and said the firm had turned down requests in China – and elsewhere – to engage in projects it felt were inappropriate, due to either technical infeasibility or ethical concerns.

“We do have control on who gets to use our technology. And we do have principles. Beyond how we build it, how people use it is something that we control through Terms of Use. And we are constantly evolving the terms of use.

“We also recognise whether it’s in the United States, whether it’s in China, whether it’s in the United Kingdom, they will all have their own legislative processes on what they accept or don’t accept, and we will abide by them.”

‘Leaves me wondering…’

Matt Sheehan, from the Paulson Institute, studies the relationship between California’s technology scene and the Chinese economy. He said Microsoft’s efforts, particularly its Beijing office, have had tremendous impact.

“It dramatically advanced the field, advances that have helped the best American and European AI research labs push further,” he said.

“But those same advances feed into the field of computer vision, a key enabler of China’s surveillance apparatus.”

He cites one particular paper as highlighting the complexity of working with, and within, China. Deep Residual Learning for Image Recognition

, published in 2016, was a research paper produced by four Chinese researchers working at Microsoft.

According to Google Scholar, which indexes research papers, their paper was cited more than 25,256 times between 2014-2018 – more than any other paper in any other field of research.

“The lead author now works for a US tech company in California,” said Mr Sheehan, referring to Facebook.

“Two other authors work for a company involved in Chinese surveillance. And the last author is trying to build autonomous vehicles in China.

“What do we make of all that? Honestly, it leaves me – and I think it should leave others – scratching their heads and wondering.”

Brexit: Northern Ireland farmers warn of no deal risks

Dean Wright
Image captionDean Wright says the government is dragging its heels

At Dean Wright’s farm in Northern Ireland, the young dairy cows are mooing as they wait to be fed but he worries that a no-deal Brexit may limit his herd’s ability to earn its feed.

The milk from these calves will supply Dean’s cheese business, Ballylisk of Armagh, which sells its “triple cream” cheese over the border in Ireland.

And for that reason, the future for dairy businesses is far from certain, says Mr Wright.

He, like many food producers in Northern Ireland, fears that if the UK leaves the EU without a deal, it could have a severe impact on his ability to send his products across the border to the Republic of Ireland.

Food enterprises like his would face “potentially insurmountable challenges” from a no-deal Brexit, according to a joint report from the Chartered Institute for Environmental Health and the Food Research Collaboration.

The government insists that it will keep an open border in Northern Ireland and says that it will not impose checks of any kind.

“We have a highly-resilient food supply chain that is well versed at dealing with testing scenarios, which enables our consumers across the UK to have access to a wide range of sources of food,” a spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said.

But farmers that sell to the EU are worried that the paperwork that they would be required to provide after a no-deal Brexit would delay deliveries.

Some food businesses have said they could go out of business within three days of leaving the EU without an agreement, according to the report, leading its authors to urge the government to avoid a no-deal Brexit.

The problem is particularly acute in Northern Ireland because supply chains freely run across the border. Sometimes a product will cross the border several times during processing.

Northern Ireland border
Image copyrightGETTY IMAGES
Sometimes a product will cross the border several times during processing

A quarter of all milk produced on Northern Ireland’s farms is exported for processing in the Republic of Ireland, the report notes.

After a no-deal exit, shipments of animals and animal products exported to the Republic of Ireland from Northern Ireland would need to have a so-called export health certificate (EHC).

The documents certify that produce meets EU food standards and must be signed by an environmental health officer or a vet for every consignment.

“Goods delivered without such certification would be rejected,” the report’s authors write.

But, they say, there are not enough inspectors to deal with the amount of agricultural goods that move across the border each day. And there is not enough time to recruit and train new ones.

Two million forms

Gary McFarlane, the Northern Ireland director for the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, told BBC Radio 4’s PM programme that the number of officers required was “unserviceable”.

The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in Northern Ireland told the BBC it was “still assessing the needs of industry” but said it estimated there “would be a very significant increase in the number of EHCs needed” which would create “additional pressure on staff”.

Stephen Kelly, the chief executive of Manufacturing NI, told the BBC that officials had estimated that two million of the forms would need to be filled in and signed each year in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

Not enough staff

Seamus Leheny, a policy manager for the Freight Transport Association, has said Newry, Mourne and Down expected the seafood business alone would submit a total of 60,000 EHCs each year after a no-deal exit.

Shipments will be held up, disrupting supply chains and leaving perishable goods to rot if there are not enough officials to sign the forms.

And it’s unlikely that vets would be able to step in and make up the expected shortfall in environmental health officers.

Simon Doherty
Image copyrightSIMON DOHERTY
Simon Doherty warns about a shortage of vets

The British Veterinary Association’s Simon Doherty said there were not enough vets to cover increases in EHCs.

The CBI pointed to one Irish firm alone that estimated it would need 35 vets each day to certify the food it sends across the border. Mr Doherty said that was the equivalent to between 4% and 5% of all the vets in Northern Ireland.

In his office, dairy farmer Mr Wright thinks things could be moving a little more quickly. And he’s not alone.