Trump Administration Announces Bans of TikTok, WeChat

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The Trump administration issued a sweeping ban Friday that will begin barring downloads and use of the Chinese-owned mobile apps WeChat and TikTok from U.S. app stores as of midnight Sunday. The announcement is the latest escalation in America’s tech fight with China.Officials from the U.S. Commerce Department cited national security and data privacy concerns over the move to ban the two popular internet platforms that serve more than 100 million people in the United States.Starting Monday, both apps will be removed from app stores and users will not be able to download the apps to their phones. For users who have the apps already installed, they will not be able to receive updates to the platforms. This restriction will quickly make the app obsolete on smartphones, as the inability to update will make it incompatible with Apple and Google smartphone software, which currently dominate the tech market.The order includes moves to render WeChat useless within the United States by banning American companies from hosting internet traffic or processing transactions from within the app as of midnight Sunday.WeChat serves millions of U.S. users who predominantly rely on the app to stay in touch and conduct business with people and companies in China.Like most social networking sites, both TikTok and WeChat collect user data, including location and messages to track what kind of targeted ad content is most applicable to them.As of now, TikTok will escape the most drastic sanctions until similar restrictions go into effect November 12 unless the company is able to resolve the administration’s national security concerns by the deadline. The order follows weeks of wrangling with the company, which recently struck a deal with U.S.-based software maker Oracle, the details of which have yet to be announced.The app, which has become especially popular among younger users, has proved useful in some political contexts, including for mischief.TikTok users made headlines earlier this year by working to inflate the expected turnout for a rally President Donald Trump held in Tulsa, Oklahoma — and making the actual attendance seem especially low by comparison.The deadline to comply with restrictions falls just after the November 3 presidential election in the United States.Prior to striking the deal, representatives of TikTok, which is owned by China’s ByteDance, were in talks with Microsoft. The partnership between Microsoft and ByteDance fell through earlier this month after reports estimated that the company would shell out up to $30 billion for the acquisition of the app.“We are confident our proposal would have been good for TikTok’s users, while protecting national security interests,” Microsoft said in a blog post Sunday. “We would have made significant changes to ensure the service met the highest standards for security, privacy, online safety and combating disinformation, and we made these principles clear in our August statement.”The move to ban the use of the apps in the United States follows an August 6 executive order by Trump, in which he argued that TikTok and WeChat collect data from American users that could be accessed by the Chinese government. Over the past several weeks, Trump has pressured the app’s owner to sell TikTok’s U.S. operations to a domestic company to satisfy these concerns.TikTok spokesman John Gartner said in a statement that the company is “disappointed” by the move and that it would continue to challenge the “unjust executive order.”The American Civil Liberties Union denounced the move as well, saying that the order is an infringement on Americans’ rights to free expression.While the Trump administration has accused the apps of collecting data used by the Chinese government to surveil Americans, the government has not provided specific evidence to support the allegations.ByteDance has repeatedly denied that it has partnered with the Chinese government to siphon U.S. user information. 

Officials: Trump to Block US Downloads of TikTok, WeChat on Sunday

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The U.S. Commerce Department said it will issue an order Friday that will bar people in the United States from downloading Chinese-owned messaging app WeChat and video-sharing app TikTok starting on September 20.Commerce officials said the ban on new U.S. downloads of TikTok could be still rescinded by President Donald Trump before it takes effect late Sunday as TikTok owner ByteDance races to clinch an agreement over the fate of its U.S. operations.ByteDance has been talks with Oracle Corp and others to create a new company, TikTok Global, that aims to address U.S. concerns about the security of its users’ data. ByteDance still needs Trump’s approval to stave off a U.S. ban.Commerce officials said they will not bar additional technical transactions for TikTok until Nov. 12, which gives the company additional time to see if ByteDance can reach a deal for its U.S. operations. “The basic TikTok will stay intact until Nov. 12,” Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross told Fox Business Network.The department said the actions will “protect users in the U.S. by eliminating access to these applications and significantly reducing their functionality.”Oracle shares fell 1.6% after the news in pre-market tradingThe Commerce Department order will “deplatform” the two apps in the United States and bar Apple Inc’s app store, Alphabet Inc’s Google Play and others from offering the apps on any platform “that can be reached from within the United States,” a senior Commerce official told Reuters.The order will not ban U.S. companies from doing businesses on WeChat outside the United States, which will be welcome news to U.S. firms like Walmart and Starbucks that use WeChat’s embedded ‘mini-app’ programs to facilitate transactions and engage consumers in China, officials said.The order will not bar transactions with WeChat-owner Tencent Holdings’ other businesses, including its online gaming operations, and will not prohibit Apple, Google or others from offering TikTok or WeChat apps anywhere outside the United States.The bans are in response to a pair of executive orders issued by Trump on August 6 that gave the Commerce Department 45 days to determine what transactions to block from the apps he deemed pose a national security threat. That deadline expires on Sunday.Commerce Department officials said they were taking the extraordinary step because of the risks the apps’ data collection poses. China and the companies have denied U.S. user data is collected for spying.Ross said in a written statement “we have taken significant action to combat China’s malicious collection of American citizens’ personal data, while promoting our national values, democratic rules-based norms, and aggressive enforcement of U.S. laws and regulations.”The order is set to be published at 8:45 a.m. EDT (1245 GMT) on Friday, Commerce said.Popular appsThe Trump administration has ramped up efforts to purge “untrusted” Chinese apps from U.S. digital networks and has called TikTok and WeChat “significant threats.”TikTok has 100 million users in the United States and is especially popular among younger Americans.WeChat has had an average of 19 million daily active users in the United States, analytics firms Apptopia said in early August. It is popular among Chinese students, ex-pats and some Americans who have personal or business relationships in China.WeChat is an all-in-one mobile app that combines services similar to Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram and Venmo. The app is an essential part of daily life for many in China and boasts more than 1 billion users.The Commerce Department will not seek to compel people in the United States to remove the apps or stop using them but will not allow updates or new downloads. “We are aiming at a top corporate level. We’re not going to go out after the individual users,” one Commerce official said.Over time, officials said, the lack of updates will degrade the apps usability.”The expectation is that people will find alternative ways to do these actions,” a senior official said. “We expect the market to act and there will be more secure apps that will fill in these gaps that Americans can trust and that the United States government won’t have to take similar actions against.”Commerce is also barring additional technical transactions with WeChat starting Sunday that will significantly reduce the usability and functionality of the app in the United States.The order bars data hosting within the United States for WeChat, content delivery services and networks that can increase functionality and internet transit or peering services.”What immediately is going to happen is users are going to experience a lag or lack of functionality,” a senior Commerce official said of WeChat users. “It may still be usable but it is not going to be as functional as it was.” There may be sporadic outages as well, the official said.Commerce will bar the same set of technical transactions for TikTok, but that will not take effect until Nov. 12 to give the company additional time to see if ByteDance can reach a deal for its U.S. operations. The official said TikTok U.S. users would not see “a major difference” in the app’s performance until Nov. 12.Commerce will not penalize people who use TikTok or WeChat in the United States.The order does not bar data storage within the United States for WeChat or TikTok.Some Americans may find workarounds. There is nothing that would bar an American from traveling to a foreign country and downloading either app, or potentially using a virtual private network and a desktop client, officials conceded.

China Data Leak Points to Massive Global Collection Effort

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A Chinese firm with suspected ties to the Chinese government has been amassing a database of detailed personal information on 2.4 million people, including more than 50,000 Americans, according to findings by an independent researcher and an Australia-based cybersecurity firm.       Christopher Balding, an American professor who taught at Peking University’s HSBC School of Business in Shenzhen for nine years, analyzed the data with Internet 2.0, a cybersecurity firm based in Canberra. They published their findings this week.      Balding said the database was leaked to him in 2019.   The cache, called the Overseas Key Information Database (OKIDB), contains the personal information of roughly 2.4 million people. Many of them are influential policymakers who can exert influence in their fields of specialty.   According to their report, the database was compiled by China’s Zhenhua Data Information Technology Co. The company was founded in 2017 and had offices in Shenzhen and Beijing. Its mission, according to a screen shot of their website, which was deleted not long ago, is to “aggregate global data and help the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”  Zhenhua Data’s marketing and recruiting documents characterize the company as a patriotic firm, with the military as its primary target customer.  Cybersecurity firm Internet 2.0 was able to recover the records of about 250,000 people from the leaked data, including 52,000 Americans, 35,000 Australians and nearly 10,000 British citizens. These include politicians and businessmen, scientists, tech experts, academics, bankers, journalists and lawyers. Information about family members, such as the 11-year-old daughter of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, was also recovered. FILE – An iPhone with Twitter, Facebook and other apps, May 21, 2013.Analysts say the data was extracted from social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, as well as news reports and criminal records.  Balding told VOA that apart from open source, there was also data extracted from illegal sources.  “We estimate about 80 percent of the data is what we call open source. There’s also data that appears to be hacked or stolen data that comes from other sources, nonpublic sources,” Balding said.  In a FILE – The logo for LinkedIn Corporation, a social networking networking website for people in professional occupations, is shown in Mountain View, California, Feb. 6, 2013.”It allows China to know which institutions or individuals they should be targeting. This is why, for instance, intelligence agencies in multiple countries have warned about Chinese recruitment through platforms such as LinkedIn,” Balding told VOA.  He added that the database also appears to be targeting policymakers, including influential figures in think tanks and relatives of key politicians. By doing this, China hopes to exert influence on these individuals and possibly shift policies to its liking, Balding said.  According to The Washington Post, which obtained part of OKIDB, the database also targets military officials.   For example, there is detailed information on former Chief of Naval Operations John Richardson; his service history and complete training were highlighted in Chinese.   Former U.S. Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly is also in the database, along with the names of his wife and four children, his educational background and his work history in the private sector.  A representative from Zhenhua Data told The Guardian that “the report is seriously untrue,” adding “there is no database of 2 million people,” while denying any links to the Chinese government or military.   Analysts say it is not surprising that a consultancy would collect detailed data on prominent figures in different sectors. What matters is how the data is used.  Arun Vishwanath, chief technology officer at Avant Research Group, a cybersecurity research firm, told VOA there are two concerns with a data operation of such scale and scope.  “One is propaganda, information and disinformation, and the other is being used for targeted attacks, which could have all manner of consequences,” Vishwanath said.  “We all need to have better cyber hygiene. We all need to be safer with how we share information online to store information about ourselves online. So this is a responsibility that each of us as individuals share,” he said. 

US Sanctions 2 Russians in Crypto Theft Scheme

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The U.S. government announced sanctions Wednesday on two Russian nationals for their role in the theft of at least $16.8 million worth of cryptocurrency.In the phishing scheme, which was conducted in 2017 and 2018, Danil Potekhin and Dmitrii Karasavidi allegedly created web sites that looked like legitimate currency exchange sites. Victims would enter their information, which was then used to access real accounts.The two, who were identified by the Treasury Department and the Department of Homeland Security, then allegedly laundered the stolen cryptocurrencies through multiple virtual currency exchanges using fake profiles.“The individuals who administered this scheme defrauded American citizens, businesses and others by deceiving them and stealing virtual currency from their accounts,” Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said in a statement. “The Treasury Department will continue to use our authorities to target cybercriminals and remains committed to the safe and secure use of emerging technologies in the financial sector.”According to the statement, the government seized millions of dollars in virtual currency and U.S. dollars in an account owned by Karasavidi.

Software Helps People Waiting in Lines to Social Distance

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Indonesia has had more than 220,000 COVID-19 cases and the country still hasn’t reached its peak. Social distancing is an important part of controlling the virus and new technology aims to help people stay safely apart. VOA’s Rendy Wicaksana reports from Bandung, West Java, Indonesia.
Camera: Rendy Wicaksana 
 

US Charges 5 Chinese Hackers, 2 Malaysian Businessmen in Global Computer Intrusion Campaign

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U.S prosecutors announced charges on Wednesday against five suspected Chinese hackers and two Malaysian businessmen in connection with cyber-attacks on more than 100 companies in the United States and abroad.The five Chinese hackers, one of whom allegedly bragged about ties to China’s civilian intelligence service, remain at large. The two Malaysian businessmen, accused of conspiring with two of the hackers to profit from hacks on gaming companies, were arrested in Malaysia on Sept. 14, the Justice Department announced.The Chinese hackers were charged in two separate indictments handed down in August 2019 and August 2020. The Malaysian businessmen were charged in a third indictment returned in August, 2020.U.S. prosecutors alleged the hackers targeted a wide range of entities, including software development firms, computer hardware manufacturers, telecommunications providers, social media companies, video game companies, non-profit organizations, universities, think tanks, and foreign governments, as well as pro-democracy politicians and activists in Hong Kong.”The Department of Justice has used every tool available to disrupt the illegal computer intrusions and cyberattacks by these Chinese citizens,” said Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey A. Rosen. “Regrettably, the Chinese communist party has chosen a different path of making China safe for cybercriminals so long as they attack computers outside China and steal intellectual property helpful to China.”In addition to charging the suspects, U.S. authorities seized hundreds of accounts, servers, domain names, and command-and-control (C2) “dead drop” web pages used by the defendants to conduct their computer intrusion offenses.The indictments are the latest in a series of charges against suspected Chinese hackers and come as amid growing tensions between the U.S. and China over the coronavirus pandemic, trade, and Hong Kong.President Donald Trump has repeatedly blamed China for the spread of the coronavirus and top administration officials have publicly called out China for cyber-intrusions and other alleged misbehavior on the global stage in support of its strategic objectives.In July, Attorney General William Barr accused China of engaging in an “economic blitzkrieg” to supplant the United States as the world’s only superpower, and he warned U.S. businesses not to bow to Chinese pressure in pursuit of profit.

Pompeo: Confident There Will Be Effective Competitors to Huawei from Western Vendors

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U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Tuesday he is confident there will be effective 5G competitors to China’s Huawei from Western vendors at comparable costs, adding that he believes Western technologies will come to dominate telecommunications.
“I am confident that there will be a cost-effective deliverables from Western trusted vendors that can deliver the same services, or better services, at comparative cost,” Pompeo said during an Atlantic Council event.
In what some observers have compared to the Cold War arms race, the United States is worried 5G dominance would give China an advantage Washington is not ready to accept.
With U.S.-China relations at their worst in decades, Washington has been pushing governments around to world to squeeze out Huawei Technologies Co, arguing that the firm would hand over data to the Chinese government for spying.
Huawei, founded in 1987 by a former engineer in China’s People’s Liberation Army, denies it spies for Beijing and says the United States is trying to smear it because Western firms are falling behind in 5G technology.
Pompeo said countries had come to recognize the costs of putting “untrusted” vendors in their systems.
“Over time, I think the world will come to recognize that’s not the right path and you will see Western technologies that are verifiable, trustworthy and transparent come to dominate the telecommunications markets,” he said.
5G, which will offer much faster data speeds and become the foundation of many industries and networks, is seen as one of the biggest innovations since the birth of the internet itself a generation ago.