U.S. steps up campaign to purge ‘untrusted’ Chinese apps

By Humeyra Pamuk and David Brunnstrom

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration said on Wednesday it was stepping up efforts to purge “untrusted” Chinese apps from U.S. digital networks and called the Chinese-owned short-video app TikTok and messenger app WeChat “significant threats.”

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said expanded U.S. efforts on a program it calls “Clean Network” would focus on five areas and include steps to prevent various Chinese apps, as well as Chinese telecoms companies, from accessing sensitive information on American citizens and businesses.

Pompeo’s announcement comes after U.S. President Donald Trump threatened to ban TikTok. The hugely popular video-sharing app has come under fire from U.S. lawmakers and the administration over national security concerns, amid intensified tensions between Washington and Beijing.

“With parent companies based in China, apps like TikTok, WeChat and others are significant threats to personal data of American citizens, not to mention tools for CCP (Chinese Communist Party) content censorship,” Pompeo said.

In an interview with state news agency Xinhua on Wednesday, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi said the United States “has no right” to set up the “Clean Network” and calls the actions by Washington as “a textbook case of bullying”.

“Anyone can see through clearly that the intention of the U.S. is to protect it’s monopoly position in technology and to rob other countries of their proper right to development,” said Wang.

TikTok currently faces a deadline of Sept. 15 to either sell its U.S. operations to Microsoft Corp. or face an outright ban.

In the run-up to Trump’s November re-election bid, U.S.-China ties are at the lowest ebb in decades. Relations are strained over the global coronavirus pandemic, China’s military buildup in the South China Sea, its increasing control over Hong Kong and treatment of Uighur Muslims, as well as Beijing’s massive trade surpluses and technological rivalry.

Pompeo said the United States was working to prevent Chinese telecoms firm Huawei Technologies Co Ltd from pre-installing or making available for download the most popular U.S. apps on its phones.

“We don’t want companies to be complicit in Huawei’s human rights abuses, or the CCP’s surveillance apparatus,” Pompeo said, without mentioning any specific U.S. companies.

Pompeo said the State Department would work with other government agencies to protect the data of U.S. citizens and American intellectual property, including COVID-19 vaccine research, by preventing access from cloud-based systems run by companies such as Alibaba, Baidu, China Mobile, China Telecom, and Tencent.

Pompeo said he was joining Attorney General William Barr, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, and Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf in urging the U.S. telecoms regulator, the Federal Communications Commission, to terminate authorizations for China Telecom and three other companies to provide services to and from the United States.

He said the State Department was also working to ensure China could not compromise information carried by undersea cables that connect the United States to the global internet.

The United States has long been lobbying European and other allies to persuade them to cut out Huawei from their telecommunications networks. Huawei denies it spies for China and says the United States wants to frustrate its growth because no U.S. company offers the same technology at a competitive price.

Pompeo’s comments on Wednesday reflected a wider and more accelerated push by Washington to limit the access of Chinese technology companies to U.S. market and consumers and, as one U.S. official put it, to push back against a “massive campaign to steal and weaponize our data against us.”

A State Department statement said momentum for the Clean Network program was growing and more than 30 countries and territories were now “Clean Countries” and many of the world’s biggest telecommunications companies “Clean Telcos.”

It called on U.S. allies “to join the growing tide to secure our data from the CCP’s surveillance state and other malign entities.”

Huawei Technologies and Tencent declined to comment. Alibaba, Apple, China Telecom, China Mobile and Baidu did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk, David Brunnstrom and Matt Spetalnick; Additional reporting by Yew Lun Tian and Yingzhi Yang in Beijing, Josh Horwitz in Shanghai, Pei Li in Hong Kong and David Kirton in Shenzhen; Editing by Mary Milliken, Rosalba O’Brien and Michael Perry)

Facebook suspends 200 apps over data misuse investigation

FILE PHOTO: Silhouettes of mobile users are seen next to a screen projection of Facebook logo in this picture illustration taken March 28, 2018. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo

(Reuters) – Facebook Inc has so far suspended around 200 apps in the first stage of its review into apps that had access to large quantities of user data, in a response to a scandal around political consultancy Cambridge Analytica.

The apps were suspended pending a thorough investigation into whether they misused any data, said Ime Archibong, Facebook’s vice president of product partnerships.

Facebook said it has looked into thousands of apps till date as part of an investigation that Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg announced on March 21.

Zuckerberg had said the social network will investigate all apps that had access to large amounts of information before the company curtailed data access in 2014.

“There is a lot more work to be done to find all the apps that may have misused people’s Facebook data – and it will take time,” Archibong said.

“We have large teams of internal and external experts working hard to investigate these apps as quickly as possible.”

Facebook was hit by the privacy scandal in mid-March after media reports that Cambridge Analytica improperly accessed data to build profiles on American voters and influence the 2016 presidential election.

The incident led to backlash from celebrities and resulted in the company losing billions in market value. Zuckerberg apologized for the mistakes his company made and testified before the U.S. lawmakers.

The company, however, regained much of its lost market value after it reported a surprisingly strong 63 percent rise in profit and an increase in users when it announced quarterly results on April 25.

Shares of the company were up 0.4 percent at $187.65 in premarket trading on Monday.

(This version of the story corrects share price in last paragraph.)

(Reporting by Supantha Mukherjee in Bengaluru; Editing by Saumyadeb Chakrabarty and Arun Koyyur)

ISIS tells supporters to quit messaging apps for fear of U.S. bombs

A man holds a smartphone showing the Islamic State logo in front of a screen showing the Telegram logo in this picture illustration taken in Zenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina

By Ali Abdelaty

CAIRO (Reuters) – Islamic state has told its members to stop using internet-based communication apps like WhatsApp and Telegram on smartphones, suspecting they are being used by the U.S.-led coalition to track and kill its commanders.

Until recently, the hardline group used such apps to chat with members and supporters outside its main areas of control in Syria, Iraq and Libya — including, say French officials, the assailants who staged attacks across Paris a year ago, killing at least 130 people.

A U.S.-led military coalition has been bombing Islamic State positions since 2014, when the group proclaimed a caliphate in Syria and Iraq. Twenty commanders of the group were killed this year, including spokesman Abu Muhammad Al-Adnani.

“If you get onto the programs like WhatsApp and Telegram or others from Mosul, and get in touch with a person being tracked, the crusaders will start thinking about you … assessing your importance and identifying the locations of the (Islamic State) centers by following you,” said an article in the group’s weekly newspaper, Al-Naba, published online.

The new instructions came as the group tries to fight off a U.S.-backed offensive on Mosul, its last major stronghold in Iraq, by far the biggest city it controls.

Islamic State members already avoid communicating directly with each other on Twitter, which they used 2-3 years ago to spread their ideology and attract new followers.

The group has used Telegram, a messaging service, but its account has become a lot less active. While Telegram offers private messaging, its main use to Islamic militants has been as a distribution tool to share propaganda with backers to repost on Twitter for the wider world.

Pro-IS sites on Telegram frequently remind readers that Telegram is for sharing messages only among supporters, and “not a media platform for (preaching) to all Muslims and the West”, in other words for recruiting sympathizers to join their cause.

Dozens more alternative messaging apps exist, offering various degrees of anonymity and security, but the phones required to use them are seen as increasingly risky possessions.

Al-Naba called on the militants to shut down their mobile phones before entering any of the group’s bases to avoid exposing them to air strikes by the U.S.-led coalition.

“Switch off your phone after you finish your communication and beware of the greatest disobedience of all – switching it on when your are in one of the offices,” it said. “As long as it has power, the phone is spying on you.”

In Mosul, Islamic State is cracking down on communication with the outside world to prevent residents from helping the forces advancing on the city, executing people for using mobile phones. Earlier this year, it confiscated satellite dishes to prevent people from seeing the progress made by the Iraqi army.

Islamic State has executed 42 people from local tribes, caught with SIM cards, Iraqi intelligence officers said last month. This could not be independently confirmed.

WhatsApp bars Islamic State supporters for a litany of violations of its terms of service. But identifying violators in private conversations is difficult since the Facebook-owned company implemented strict end-to-end encryption earlier this year.

Telegram, which has a long history of anti-censorship battles with governments around the world, says its policy is to block terrorist channels open to the public, and other illegal public content. Private communications between individuals are not blocked on the service, as these conversations are also encrypted.

Despite the company’s ban, this week pro-Islamic State Telegram channels claimed responsibility for a knife attack at Ohio State University and detailed Islamic State fighters’ plans in the Philippines to expand into southeast Asia.

(Additional reporting by Eric Auchard in Frankfurt; Editing by Maher Chmaytelli and Peter Graff)

Israel Red Alert App Drives Some To Prayer; Drives Others Nuts

It’s an app that tells residents of Israel it’s time to take cover because a terrorist rocket is headed their way.

In other parts of the world, it’s an app that some people use to pray for the people of Israel…and for others, it’s a siren that’s driving them crazy.

Red Alert Israel has been downloaded over 780,000 times in the last week, with about half of the downloads happening outside of Israel.  The app was created in 2012 by software developer Ari Sprung and his partner Kobi Snir, who feared that some residents would not be able to hear the new “Red Color” emergency sirens in their homes.

“People were having a hard time,” said Sprung. “They couldn’t really sleep because they were too afraid they were going to miss the sirens. The app allows them to go to bed knowing the phone will wake them up in case of an emergency.”

The app gives a 15 to 90 second warning dependent on how close the resident lives to Gaza.

Some users, however, say the app is driving them crazy because of the amount of times it goes off during the recent terrorist assault.

“Every time a rocket was launched, my phone went haywire,” Dor Eldar, a 22-year-old dance instructor from Tel Aviv, told the Daily Beast. “I finally had to get rid of it. It was driving me nuts.”

In America and other western nations, users of the app have been seeing the app’s siren song as a call to prayer for the Jewish people.  William Koenig recently praised the app on the Jim Bakker Show.

“The beauty of this (almost a million people now have this app on their iPhone and I’ve been reading it very closely) is the prayer of support from Christians that go on. They can respond to these alerts and encourage people through prayers and comments. And it’s beautiful to see how many Christians right now have this on their iPhones so they can pray – so they can pray to God to cover and protect the state of Israel as these rockets fall,” Koenig said.

The app is available in the iPhone app store.

Israelis Using Smartphone To Track Rocket Attacks

Under attack from Hamas rockets?  There’s an app for that.

A new app has been made available for smartphones that allow Israelis to track the incoming rockets from Hamas and give themselves time to get to shelter.  Half a million people have already downloaded the app in just three days.

Many Israelis are seeing the app as vital because the traditional ways to inform citizens about incoming rockets was radio stations and television interrupting programming.  However, with the increased use of satellite radio, iPod and other electronic devices, many Israelis do not have a television or radio on 24 hours a day.

“It gives us a sense of control in a situation where there is no control,” writer and journalist Debra Kamim, who lives in Tel Aviv, told the Washington Post. “It’s especially useful at night because people are worried they won’t hear the sirens while they sleep, and this way they can have the phone next to their beds.”

The app includes a social element where users can post comments about attacks in their area, damage from any rockets that land and requests for help if necessary.

The app is available in English for users in the West to keep track of the rockets if they wish to pray for Israelis when a rocket is approaching them.  The app is available for iPhones, iPad and Android.