Moscow rounds up stray animals, kills rats over coronavirus fears

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Moscow authorities are rounding up stray animals and exterminating rats as a precaution against the new coronavirus, actions that animal rights campaigners decried as cruel and scientifically groundless.

Russia has imposed an array of measures to stop the virus gaining a foothold in Russia, ranging from restrictions on flights to China and South Korea to visa curbs for Iranian and Chinese citizens.

“We are currently carrying out a large-scale complex (of measures) for the total deratization of the city, catching wild animals, strays,” Elena Andreeva, the Moscow head of the Rospotrepnadzor consumer health watchdog, was quoted as saying by the RIA news agency.

She did not explain the reasoning for the moves but said they were part of measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Hundreds of people have been quarantined across Russia and authorities in Moscow have carried out raids on potential carriers of the virus and used facial recognition technology to enforce quarantine measures.

Barking News, a Russian media outlet that covers news about animals, decried the action against stray dogs and cats as “stupid, unscientific and simply cruel”.

It cited a Moscow-based virologist, Nikolai Nikitin, as saying there was no evidence stray dogs and cats could contract the new coronavirus or subsequently transmit it to people.

Moscow used to have a large population of stray dogs and cats, but they have become a rare sight in central Moscow though packs of stray dogs are sometimes seen outside the center. Stray cats are more common.

Three Russian nationals are receiving treatment in Russia after they contracted the coronavirus on a cruise ship in Japan and were subsequently repatriated, authorities have said.

Before that, two Chinese nationals were hospitalized in Russia with the virus, but they have since recovered and been discharged.

(Reporting by Tom Balmforth; editing by Timothy Heritage)

China to Russia: End discriminatory coronavirus measures against Chinese

By Gabrielle T├ętrault-Farber

MOSCOW (Reuters) – China’s embassy in Russia has demanded authorities in Moscow end what it said are discriminatory anti-coronavirus measures against Chinese nationals, saying they are damaging relations and alarming Chinese residents of the Russian capital.

The complaint, detailed in an embassy letter to the city’s authorities and published by Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta late on Tuesday, deplored what it called “ubiquitous monitoring” of Chinese nationals, including on public transport in Moscow.

Russia, which enjoys strong political and military ties with Beijing, does not currently have any confirmed cases of coronavirus, but has temporarily barred many categories of Chinese nationals from entering the country.

Authorities in Moscow have also been carrying out raids on potential carriers of the virus – individuals at their homes or hotels – and using facial recognition technology to enforce quarantine measures.

The Chinese embassy letter followed unconfirmed local media reports that Mosgortrans, which runs Moscow’s vast bus, trolleybus and tram networks, had told drivers to try to identify Chinese passengers and inform police of their presence.

“The special monitoring of Chinese nationals on Moscow’s public transportation does not exist in any country, even in the United States and in Western states,” the Chinese Embassy letter, dated Feb. 24, read.

“Given an improvement in the epidemiological situation in China, Moscow residents and Chinese people living in Moscow will be worried and won’t understand, and it will harm the good atmosphere for developing Chinese-Russian relations.”

The embassy said it was asking Moscow authorities to refrain from taking what it called excessive measures and to embrace “proportionate and non-discriminatory measures” instead.

The Kremlin said it was unaware of the embassy letter, but that Moscow valued its relations with Beijing and there should be no discriminatory measures against Chinese nationals.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry, the Moscow city government and a representative of the Chinese Embassy did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry said this week that four Taiwanese visiting Moscow were picked up by police and health officials for wearing masks and being mistaken for Chinese, and were forcibly quarantined.

Global Times, published by the official People’s Daily newspaper of China’s ruling Communist Party, reported that 23 tourists from Hong Kong had been put into quarantine for two weeks after they were spotted by Moscow police.

Russia has had two confirmed cases of coronavirus so far. Both were Chinese nationals who have since recovered and been released from hospital.

Asia reported hundreds of new cases on Wednesday, including the first U.S. soldier to be infected, as the United States warned of an inevitable pandemic, and outbreaks in Italy and Iran spread to more countries.

(Reporting by Gabrielle T├ętrault-Farber; additional reporting by Tom Balmforth in Moscow, Ben Blanchard in Taipei and Hallie Gu in Beijing; Editing by Andrew Osborn and Mark Heinrich)

Facial recognition at Indian cafe chain sparks calls for data protection law

A visitor drinks coffee at the 'International Coffee Festival 2007' in the southern Indian city of Bangalore February 25, 2007. REUTERS/Jagadeesh Nv (INDIA) - GM1DURPKFSAA

By Rina Chandran

BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – The use of facial recognition technology at a popular Indian cafe chain that triggered a backlash among customers, led to calls from human rights advocates on Monday for the government to speed up the introduction of laws to protect privacy.

Customers at Chaayos took to social media during the last week to complain about the camera technology they said captured images of them without their consent, with no information on what the data would be used for, and no option to opt out.

While the technology is marketed as a convenience, the lack of legislative safeguards to protect against the misuse of data can lead to “breaches of privacy, misidentification and even profiling of individuals”, said Joanne D’Cunha, associate counsel at Internet Freedom Foundation, a digital rights group.

“Until India introduces a comprehensive data protection law that provides such guarantees, there needs to be a moratorium on any technology that would infringe upon an individual’s right to privacy and other rights that stem from it,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation from New Delhi.

A statement from Chaayos said the technology was being tested in select cafes and was aimed at reducing purchase times for customers.

The data was encrypted, would not be shared, and customers could choose to opt out, it added.

“We are extremely conscious about our customers’ data security and privacy and are committed to protecting it,” the statement said.

A Personal Data Protection Bill is scheduled to be introduced by lawmakers in the current parliamentary session to Dec. 13.

The draft of the bill proposed strict conditions for requiring and storing personal data, and hefty penalties for misuse of such data.

But digital rights activists had criticised a recent consultation on the bill they said was “secret and selective”.

The ministry for information technology did not respond to a request for comment.

Worldwide, the rise of cloud computing and artificial intelligence technologies have popularised the use of facial recognition for a range of applications from tracking criminals to catching truant students.

In India, facial recognition technology was installed in several airports this year, and the government plans to roll out a nationwide system to stop criminals and find missing children.

But digital rights experts say it could breach privacy and lead to increased surveillance.

India’s Supreme Court, in a landmark ruling in 2017 on the national biometric identity card programme Aadhaar, said individual privacy is a fundamental right.

There is a growing backlash elsewhere: San Francisco and Oakland have banned the use of facial recognition technology, and “anti-surveillance fashion” is becoming popular.

(Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran; Editing by Michael Taylor. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Votes for women? Not without facial recognition technology in Afghanistan

Votes for women? Not without facial recognition technology in Afghanistan
By Rina Chandran

KABUL (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – The first female founder of an Afghan political party has urged the country to rethink the use of facial recognition technology in elections amid concerns it stopped large numbers of women from voting this year.

Authorities photographed all voters in September’s presidential election and used facial recognition software, a measure designed to combat fraud that women’s rights activists say deterred female voters from participating.

“Women should be able to vote – it is their right. So anything that impedes that right is a problem,” the politician and women’s rights campaigner Fawzia Koofi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in Kabul.

“Security and fraud are serious issues, but perhaps there are alternatives like iris scans that are more acceptable to women,” said Koofi, leader of the Movement of Change for Afghanistan party and a former deputy speaker of parliament.

“We have to find a way that is sensitive to their needs.”

A spokesman for Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission (IEC) said biometric images of women were taken by female staff where possible and the pictures were stored securely in a digital database.

“This was part of the election reforms we have undertaken to curb fraud and for greater transparency. In the past, men were voting in the name of women without any checks,” said IEC spokesman Abdul Aziz Ibrahimi.

“Some women agreed to have their pictures taken, others did not. Perhaps our awareness campaign on the technology did not reach everyone, but that can be addressed in future.”

Only a quarter of eligible voters cast their ballots in September’s election after threats of violence by the Taliban who considered it to be illegitimate and warned people not to take part.

The photo requirement is particularly difficult for women, especially in conservative areas, where most adult women and older girls cover their faces outside the home and do not show themselves to men who are not their relatives.

No official data for female voter turnout in the September elections is available, but Sheila Qayumi at the non-profit Equality for Peace and Democracy in Kabul said women made up only a fraction of voters.

“They were not comfortable showing their faces in public, or were not sure how their pictures would be used,” she said.

“These cultural sensitivities must be taken into account, and women informed properly. Or we risk losing their say in the affairs of the country,” said Qayumi, whose organisation works on raising women’s participation in politics.

The roll-out of facial recognition technology in airports, metro stations and other public places around the world poses a challenge to women who veil their face anywhere, said Areeq Chowdhury, founder of London-based think tank Future Advocacy.

He said governments must ensure this is done in a respectful and culturally sensitive manner so the rights and freedoms of minority groups are not impacted.

“If there is no suitable opt-out, and women are forced to show their face in public in order to exercise their democratic right, then this is hugely problematic,” he said.

“I would seriously question the need to have such stringent voter ID requirements for any election in any country.”

Women were already underrepresented in Afghanistan’s election process, accounting for a third of more than 9.6 million registered voters, according to the IEC.

During their strict Islamist rule from 1996-2001, the Afghan Taliban banned women from education, voting and most work. Women were not allowed to leave their homes without permission and a male escort.

(Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran; Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Maryland man denied bail in newsroom rampage that killed five

A police car blocks the road in front of the Capital Gazette a day after a gunman opened fire at the newspaper, killing five people and injuring several others in Annapolis, Maryland, U.S., June 29, 2018. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

By Warren Strobel

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (Reuters) – A Maryland man charged with rampaging through a newsroom in Annapolis with a pump-action shotgun and killing five people was denied bail on Friday after one of the deadliest attacks on journalists in U.S. history.

Jarrod Ramos, suspected of killing five people at the offices of the Capital Gazette newspaper office in Annapolis, Maryland, U.S., June 28, 2018 is seen in this Anne Arundel Police Department booking photo provided June 29, 2018. Anne Arundel Police/Handout via REUTERS

Jarrod Ramos, suspected of killing five people at the offices of the Capital Gazette newspaper office in Annapolis, Maryland, U.S., June 28, 2018 is seen in this Anne Arundel Police Department booking photo provided June 29, 2018. Anne Arundel Police/Handout via REUTERS

Jarrod Ramos, 38, from Laurel, 25 miles (40 km) west of Annapolis, is not cooperating with investigators, authorities said, and did not speak as he appeared by video link from a detention facility for a brief court hearing at Anne Arundel County criminal court.

Ramos had a longstanding grudge against the newspaper that was targeted and unsuccessfully sued it for defamation in 2012 over an article that reported how he harassed a former high school classmate, court records showed.

He is accused of entering the Capital Gazette office on Thursday afternoon and opening fire through a glass door, hunting for victims and spraying the newsroom with gunfire as reporters hid under their desks and begged for help on social media. Prosecutors said he barricaded a back door to stop people from fleeing.

“The fellow was there to kill as many people as he could,” Anne Arundel County Police Chief Timothy Altomare told a news conference, adding that the suspect was identified using facial-recognition technology.

Altomare said evidence found at the suspect’s home showed he planned the attack, and that the pump-action 12 gauge shotgun used by the shooter was legally purchased about a year ago.

Rob Hiaasen, 59, Wendi Winters, 65, Rebecca Smith, 34, Gerald Fischman, 61, and John McNamara were shot and killed. All were journalists except for Smith who was a sales assistant, police said. Hiaasen was the brother of best-selling author Carl Hiaasen.

The Capital newspaper, part of the Gazette group, published an edition on Friday with photographs of each of the victims and a headline “5 shot dead at The Capital” on its front page.

The newspaper’s editors left the editorial page blank with a note saying that they were speechless.

Photographs that were widely shared on social media showed newspaper staffers working on laptops in a parking garage to produce Friday’s edition while they waited to learn the fate of colleagues after the shooting.

‘LIKE A WAR ZONE’

Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley said he was so proud of the journalists who had “soldiered on.”

“These guys, they don’t make a lot of money. They do journalism because they love what they do. And they got a newspaper out today,” Buckley told Fox News.

A vigil for the victims was planned for 8:00 p.m. EDT on Friday. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan ordered state flags to be lowered to half-staff.

Ramos brought a defamation lawsuit in 2012 against Eric Hartley, a former staff writer and columnist with Capital Gazette, and Thomas Marquardt, then its editor and publisher, a court filing showed.

Neither Hartley nor Marquardt is still employed by the paper or were at its office on Thursday.

An article by Hartley had contended that Ramos had harassed a woman on Facebook and that he had pleaded guilty to criminal harassment, according to a legal document.

The court agreed the article was accurate and based on public records, the document showed. In 2015 Maryland’s second-highest court upheld the ruling, rejecting Ramos’s suit.

Ramos tweeted at the time that he had set up a Twitter account to defend himself, and wrote in his biographical notes that he was suing people in Anne Arundel County and “making corpses of corrupt careers and corporate entities.”

According to a WBAL-TV reporter who said she spoke with the woman who was harassed, Ramos became “fixated” with her for no apparent reason, causing her to move three times, change her name, and sleep with a gun.

Phil Davis, a Capital Gazette crime reporter, recounted how he was hiding under his desk along with other newspaper employees when the shooter stopped firing, the Capital Gazette reported on its website.

The newsroom looked “like a war zone,” he told the Baltimore Sun. “I don’t know why he stopped.”

Authorities responded to the scene within a minute of the shooting, and Ramos was arrested while also hiding under a desk with the shotgun on the floor nearby, police said.

He will face either a preliminary court hearing or grand jury indictment within the next 30 days.

Capital Gazette runs several newspapers out of its Annapolis office. They include one of the oldest newspapers in the United States, The Gazette, which traces its origins back to 1727.

(Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee, Doina Chiacu in Washington, and Gina Cherelus in New York; Writing by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Richard Balmforth and Jeffrey Benkoe)