Domestic online interference mars global elections: report

Domestic online interference mars global elections: report
By Elizabeth Culliford

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – Domestic governments and local actors engaged in online interference in efforts to influence 26 of 30 national elections studied by a democracy watchdog over the past year, according to a report released on Monday.

Freedom House, which is partly funded by the U.S. government, said that internet-based election interference has become “an essential strategy” for those seeking to disrupt democracy.

Disinformation and propaganda were the most popular tools used, the group said in its annual report. Domestic state and partisan actors used online networks to spread conspiracy theories and misleading memes, often working in tandem with government-friendly media personalities and business figures, it said.

“Many governments are finding that on social media, propaganda works better than censorship,” said Mike Abramowitz, president of Freedom House.

“Authoritarians and populists around the globe are exploiting both human nature and computer algorithms to conquer the ballot box, running roughshod over rules designed to ensure free and fair elections.”

Some of those seeking to manipulate elections had evolved tactics to beat technology companies’ efforts to combat false and misleading news, the report said.

In the Philippines, for example, it said candidates paid social media “micro-influencers” to promote their campaigns on Facebook Inc, Twitter Inc.  and Instagram, where they peppered political endorsements among popular culture content.

Online disinformation was prevalent in the United States around major political events, such as the November 2018 midterm elections and the confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, the report said.

Freedom House also found a rise in the number of governments enlisting bots and fake accounts to surreptitiously shape online opinions and harass opponents, with such behavior found in 38 of the 65 countries covered in the report.

Social media was also being increasingly used for mass surveillance, with authorities in at least 40 countries instituting advanced social media monitoring programs.

China was ranked as the world’s worst abuser of internet freedom for a fourth consecutive year, after it enhanced information controls in the face of anti-government protests in Hong Kong and ahead of the 30th anniversary of Tiananmen Square.

For instance, Beijing blocked individual accounts on WeChat for “deviant” behavior, which encouraged self-censorship, the report said.

The Philippine and Chinese embassies in Washington, D.C., did not immediately respond to requests for comment outside of normal business hours.

(Reporting by Elizabeth Culliford; editing by Richard Pullin)

Megaphones and more: Mueller details Russian U.S. election meddling

By Doina Chiacu

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – From breaking into computers to paying for a megaphone, Russian efforts to undermine the U.S. political system have been spelled out in detail by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who has described an elaborate campaign of hacking and propaganda during the 2016 presidential race.

While Mueller has yet to submit to U.S. Attorney General William Barr a final report on his investigation into Russia’s role in the election, the former FBI director already has provided a sweeping account in a pair of indictments that charged 25 Russian individuals and three Russian companies.

Key questions still to be answered are whether Mueller will conclude that Trump’s campaign conspired with Moscow and whether Trump unlawfully sought to obstruct the probe. Trump has denied collusion and obstruction. Russia as denied election interference.

FILE PHOTO: Robert Mueller (R) , serving as Federal Bureau of Investigation director, is seen on a TV monitor at the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee at an oversight hearing about the FBI on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 19, 2013. REUTERS/Larry Downing/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Robert Mueller (R) , serving as Federal Bureau of Investigation director, is seen on a TV monitor at the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee at an oversight hearing about the FBI on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 19, 2013. REUTERS/Larry Downing/File Photo

Here is an explanation of Mueller’s findings about Russian activities and U.S. intelligence assessments of the ongoing threat.

WHAT IS KNOWN ABOUT RUSSIAN “TROLL FARMS”?

On Feb. 16, 2018, Mueller charged 13 Russian individuals and three Russian entities with conspiracy to defraud the United States, wire and bank fraud and identity theft. It said the Internet Research Agency, a Russian-backed propaganda arm known for trolling on social media, flooded American social media sites Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram to promote Trump and spread disparaging information about his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton. The indictment said the Russian efforts dated to 2014, before Trump’s candidacy, and were intended to sow discord in the United States. [nL2N1Q61CL]

The St. Petersburg-based so-called troll farm employed hundreds of people for its online operations and had a multimillion-dollar budget, according to the indictment. It had a management group and departments including graphics, data analysis and search-engine optimization. Employees worked day and night shifts corresponding to U.S. time zones.

Its funding was provided by Evgeny Prigozhin, a businessman who U.S. officials have said has extensive ties to Russia’s military and political establishment, and companies he controlled including Concord Management and Consulting and Concord Catering. Prigozhin has been described by Russian media as being close to President Vladimir Putin. He has been dubbed “Putin’s cook” because his catering business has organized banquets for Russia’s president.

The Russians targeted Americans with information warfare, adopting false online personas and creating hundreds of social media accounts to push divisive messages and spread distrust of candidates and America’s political system in general, the indictment said. They aimed to denigrate Clinton and support the candidacies of Trump, who won the Republican presidential nomination, and Bernie Sanders, her rival for the Democratic nomination.

HOW WERE AMERICANS UNWITTINGLY RECRUITED?

In Florida, a pivotal state in U.S. presidential elections, the Russians steered unwitting Americans to pro-Trump rallies they conceived and organized. The indictment said the Russians paid “a real U.S. person to wear a costume portraying Clinton in a prison uniform at a rally” and another “to build a cage large enough to hold an actress depicting Clinton in a prison uniform.”

The accused Russians used false Facebook persona “Matt Skier” to contact a real American to recruit for a “March for Trump” rally, offering “money to print posters and get a megaphone,” the indictment said. They created an Instagram account “Woke Blacks” to encourage African-Americans not to vote for “Killary,” saying, “We’d surely be better off without voting AT ALL.” Fake social media accounts were used to post messages saying American Muslims should refuse to vote for Clinton “because she wants to continue the war on Muslims in the Middle East.” Alternatively, they took out Facebook ads promoting a June 2016 rally in Washington, “Support Hillary. Save American Muslims” rally. They recruited an American to hold up a sign with a quote falsely attributed to Clinton that embraced Islamic sharia law, the indictment said.

Some of the accused Russians traveled around the United States to gather intelligence, the indictment said, visiting at least 10 states: California, Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, New York and Texas.

WHAT ROLE DID RUSSIAN MILITARY OFFICERS PLAY?

On July 13, 2018, Mueller charged 12 Russian military intelligence officers with hacking Democratic Party computer networks in 2016 to steal large amounts of data and then time their release to damage Clinton. The Russian hackers broke into the computer networks of the Clinton campaign and Democratic Party organizations, covertly monitoring employee computers and planting malicious code, as well as stealing emails and other documents, according to the indictment. [nL1N1U90YU]

Using fictitious online personas such as DCLeaks and Guccifer 2.0, the hackers released tens of thousands of stolen emails and documents. The Guccifer 2.0 persona communicated with Americans, including an unidentified person who was in regular contact with senior members of the Trump campaign, the indictment said. Guccifer 2.0 cooperated extensively with “Organization 1” – the WikiLeaks website – to discuss the timing of the release of stolen documents to “heighten their impact” on the election.

On or about July 27, 2016, the Russians tried to break into email accounts used by Clinton’s personal office and her campaign, the indictment said. The same day, candidate Trump told reporters: “Russia, if you are listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” referring to emails from a private server Clinton had used when she was secretary of state.

To hide their identity, the Russians laundered money and financed their operation through cryptocurrencies including bitcoin, Mueller’s team said.

IS THE THREAT OVER?

The U.S. intelligence community’s 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment report cited Russia’s continuing efforts to interfere in the American political system. It stated, “Russia’s social media efforts will continue to focus on aggravating social and racial tensions, undermining trust in authorities, and criticizing perceived anti-Russia politicians. Moscow may employ additional influence toolkits – such as spreading disinformation, conducting hack-and-leak operations or manipulating data – in a more targeted fashion to influence U.S. policy, actions and elections.”

The report said Russia and “unidentified actors” as recently as 2018 conducted cyber activity targeting U.S. election infrastructure, though there is no evidence showing “any compromise of our nation’s election infrastructure that would have prevented voting, changed vote counts or disrupted the ability to tally votes.”

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Will Dunham)

Facebook removes fake accounts tied to Iran that lured over 1 million followers

FILE PHOTO: A woman looks at the Facebook logo on an iPad in this photo illustration taken June 3, 2018. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau/Illustration/File Photo

By Christopher Bing and Munsif Vengattil

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Facebook Inc said on Friday it had deleted accounts originating in Iran that attracted more than 1 million U.S. and British followers, its latest effort to combat disinformation activity on its platform.

Social media companies are struggling to stop attempts by people inside and outside the United States to spread false information on their platforms with goals ranging from destabilizing elections by stoking hardline positions to supporting propaganda campaigns.

The fake Facebook accounts originating in Iran mostly targeted American liberals, according to the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, a think tank that works with Facebook to study propaganda online.

Facebook said it removed 82 pages, groups and accounts on Facebook and Instagram that represented themselves as being American or British citizens, then posted on “politically charged” topics such as race relations, opposition to U.S. President Donald Trump and immigration, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy, Nathaniel Gleicher, said in a blog post.

In total, the removed accounts attracted more than 1 million followers. The Iran-linked posts were amplified through less than $100 in advertising on Facebook and Instagram, Facebook said.

While the accounts originated in Iran, it was unclear if they were linked to the Tehran government, according to Facebook, which shared the information with researchers, other technology companies and the British and U.S. governments.

The Iranian U.N. mission did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The action follows takedowns in August by Facebook, Twitter Inc and Alphabet Inc of hundreds of accounts linked to Iranian propaganda.

The latest operation was more sophisticated in some instances, making it difficult to identify, Gleicher said during a press conference phone call on Friday.

Although most of accounts and pages had existed only since earlier this year, they attracted more followers than the accounts removed in August, some of which dated back to 2013. The previously suspended Iranian accounts and pages garnered roughly 983,000 followers before being removed.

“It looks like the intention was to embed in highly active and engaged communities by posting inflammatory content, and then insert messaging on Saudi and Israel which amplified the Iranian government’s narrative,” said Ben Nimmo, an information defense fellow with the Digital Forensic Research Lab.

“Most of the posts concerned divisive issues in the U.S., and posted a liberal or progressive viewpoint, especially on race relations and police violence,” Nimmo said.

Social media companies have increasingly targeted foreign interference on their platforms following criticism that they did not do enough to detect, halt and disclose Russian efforts to use their platforms to influence the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential race.

Iran and Russia have denied allegations that they have used social media platforms to launch disinformation campaigns.

(Reporting by Chris Bing in Washington and Munsif Vengattil in Bengalaru, additional reporting by Jack Stubbs in London and Michelle Nichols in New York; Editing by Steve Orlofsky, Bernadette Baum and Susan Thomas)

Protest camps quiet as Gazans fast and fill sandbags

A Palestinian man reads the Koran inside a tent during the holy month of Ramadan, at a protest camp near the Israel-Gaza border in the central Gaza Strip May 17, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) – Young men filled sandbags to prepare for future protests at encampments along Gaza’s Israeli border on Thursday, though tents were mostly empty as Palestinians joined Muslims around the world observing the daylight fast at the start of Ramadan.

After the bloodiest day for Palestinians in years on Monday, when 60 were killed by Israeli gunfire during mass demonstrations that Israel said included attempts to breach its frontier fence, calm and a heatwave descended on the area.

Organisers of the protests that began on March 30 set Friday as a day to honour the dead and urged Gazans to flock again to the tent cities. But Ramadan traditions – prayer, family visits and feasts – seemed to keep crowds away during the hot hours.

At one encampment, about 70 young men filled sandbags in anticipation of people returning to the protest sites.

“We are making a sand barrier so people can feel a bit safer,” one of the men said, declining to give his name.

Ramadan is usually a time of celebration, but after dozens of funerals during the week the mood was bleak in Gaza.

Israel’s intelligence minister, Israel Katz, said on Wednesday neighboring Egypt had put pressure on Hamas, the armed Islamist faction that controls the Gaza Strip, to scale back the protests.

Hamas denied it had come under Egyptian pressure to curb the protests, which provoked international condemnation of Israel’s deadly tactics in putting down the unrest. The organizing committee for the demonstrations said Muslims’ abstinence from food and drink during the hot mornings and afternoons of Ramadan would be taken into account in further protests.

The “March of Return” demonstrations advocate the return of Palestinians to lands lost to Israel during its founding in 1948, and are also intended to draw attention to harsh conditions in Gaza, where the economy has collapsed under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade since Hamas took power in 2007.

Israel, with U.S. backing, says Hamas is behind the protests, deliberately provoking violence for propaganda aims. Hamas says the demonstrations are a popular outpouring of anger, and Israel carried out a “massacre” in response.

ISRAELI AIR STRIKE

Dawoud Shehab, a member of the organizing committee, said activities at the encampments would get under way only in the late afternoon when temperatures drop. Late-night prayers will also be held there, he said.

“The marches are continuing and there are calls on people to gather in mass on Friday in a day we have dedicated to glorifying the martyrs,” Shehab told Reuters.

The message was echoed in appeals blared by loudspeakers on vehicles that drove into Gaza neighborhoods to urge people to turn out. Organisers said the protest would stretch into June.

Violence along the border has been comparatively limited over the past two days, with no casualties reported by either side since Tuesday, when two Palestinians were killed while dozens of others were buried.

Early on Thursday, Israeli aircraft hit four Hamas targets in the northern Gaza Strip in response to heavy machine gun fire that struck houses in the Israeli town of Sderot, the Israeli military said.

Israel and Hamas have fought three wars in the past decade since Gaza fell under control of the militant group that denies Israel’s right to exist. Israel and Egypt say their de facto blockade of the strip is necessary for security reasons.

The World Bank says it has driven Gaza to economic collapse, with one of the highest unemployment rates in the world. Eighty percent of Gaza’s 2 million people are now dependent on aid.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Editing by Peter Graff)

Back to the future: Rejuvenating China pushes Marxism as ‘true path’

A man walks in front of the statue of German philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels at a park in Shanghai, China May 3, 2018. REUTERS/Aly Song

By Christian Shepherd

BEIJING (Reuters) – With chat shows claiming “Marx was Right” and cartoons of his wild youth, China has gone to great lengths to show that the theories of German philosopher Karl Marx are still relevant today, ahead of the 200th anniversary of his birth on Saturday.

Since coming to power in 2012, President Xi Jinping, widely seen as the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, has said the party must not forget its socialist roots as it works to bring about the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”.

Today, China, the largest self-identified socialist country, outwardly displays all the trappings of a modern capitalist society, from rampant consumption to a massive gap between the urban elite and rural poor.

The apparent contradiction between party rhetoric and appearance has led many observers to suggest that the party is no longer really motivated by Marxism and instead places practical and economic concerns above all else.

But Xi has embraced the party’s founding ideology and has re-introduced study sessions that hark back to the Mao era, as he stresses the need for China to be confident of its revolutionary history and political system.

In a Wednesday visit to the prestigious Peking University, Xi said the institution should be proud of its role in spreading Marxism, which led to the founding of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921.

“We must grasp Marxist theory and education, deepen students’ understanding of the theoretical and practical meaning of Marxism, as well as its historic necessity and scientific accuracy,” Xi said, according to the official Xinhua news agency.

Much of the propaganda around the anniversary has cast Marx as being appealing to the young.

A chat show called “Marx was Right” from the state broadcaster released this week introduced his theories to students who then told the host why Marx mattered to them.

After an essay from the 17-year-old Marx was read to the audience, the host asked if the audience were as moved by his words as she was.

“I think Marx truly is really amazing,” Xing Kaichen, a student at the Communication University of China, replied. “I think all people should learn from him.”

The official publication of China’s top anti-graft watchdog invited readers to learn about Marx’s human side in a series of cartoons about his marriage and his youth – including when he was detained for being disorderly while drunk.

Aside from popularizing Marx, the propaganda has also attempted to show how his ideas are still relevant today.

“The world is at a crossroads,” the official People’s Daily said in a front page commentary on Wednesday, with Brexit, constant terrorist attacks and fighting in Syria demonstrating the “political deficiencies” of the West.

China’s governance, in contrast, “elegantly proves that Marxism has not stopped being true but has rather led to the true path”, it added.

(Reporting by Christian Shepherd; Editing by Nick Macfie)

U.S. imposes major sanctions on Russian oligarchs, officials

FILE PHOTO: Russian tycoon and President of RUSAL Oleg Deripaska listens during the "Regions in Transformation: Eurasia" event in Davos, Switzerland January 22, 2015. REUTERS/Ruben Sprich/File Photo

By Lesley Wroughton and Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States imposed major sanctions on Friday against 24 Russians, striking at allies of President Vladimir Putin in one of Washington’s most aggressive moves to punish Moscow for what it called a range of “malign activity,” including alleged meddling in the 2016 U.S. election.

The action, taken under pressure from the U.S. Congress, freezes the U.S. assets of “oligarchs” such as aluminum tycoon Oleg Deripaska, a close associate of Putin, and lawmaker Suleiman Kerimov, whose family controls Russia’s largest gold producer, Polyus.

The sanctions are largely a reply to what U.S. intelligence agencies say was Russian interference in the presidential election, although the Treasury Department painted them as a response to a series of adversarial actions by Moscow.

U.S. President Donald Trump has been under fire for not taking strong action against Russia after a series of diplomatic disputes reminiscent of the Cold War era and the sanctions could complicate his hopes for good relations with Putin.

The sanctions are aimed at seven Russian oligarchs and 12 companies they own or control, plus 17 senior Russian government officials. They freeze the U.S. assets of the people and companies named and forbid Americans in general from doing business with them.

Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev said, however, Moscow’s contacts with the U.S. government would not be brought to an end by the sanctions. Russia denies interfering in the U.S. election.

They could hurt the Russian economy, especially the aluminum, financial and energy sectors, and are a clear message to Putin and his inner circle of U.S. displeasure.

In announcing the sanctions, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said in a statement, “The Russian government operates for the disproportionate benefit of oligarchs and government elites.”

He said Moscow “engages in a range of malign activity around the globe, including continuing to occupy Crimea and instigate violence in eastern Ukraine, supplying the Assad regime with material and weaponry as they bomb their own civilians, attempting to subvert Western democracies, and malicious cyber activities.”

Shares in Russian aluminum producer Rusal were down 2.2 percent on Moscow’s exchange after the company was named on the sanctions list.

Russian state companies under the U.S. sanctions will receive additional government support, Russian Industry and Trade Minister Denis Manturov said, according to Interfax.

MUELLER INVESTIGATION

U.S. intelligence agencies last year accused Russia of using hacking and disseminating false information and propaganda to disrupt the 2016 elections and eventually try to ensure Trump defeated Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller is investigating whether Trump’s election campaign colluded with Russia, something that Trump denies. Mueller has indicted 13 Russians and three organizations in his probe.

Elizabeth Rosenberg, a former senior U.S. Treasury Department official who is now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security think tank, said the sanctions were significant, although there is more to do.

“I’m impressed by how aggressive this is,” she said. “I thought it would be serious and this is certainly a very serious statement of U.S. policy.

“I would hasten to say that Russia hawks may welcome this but wouldn’t find it satisfying. And by no means would this be the sum total of what the U.S. government should do to advance its concerns.”

Trump has faced fierce criticism – including from fellow Republicans – for doing too little to punish Russia for the election meddling, aggression in Ukraine, and support of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s civil war.

He angered many members of Congress by failing for months to implement sanctions on Russia that lawmakers passed nearly unanimously last year.

But pressure for the United States to take action against Russia, especially from U.S. lawmakers, has been increasing.

Putin’s government has been blamed for the poisoning of a former Russian double agent living in Britain last month and the United States and several European states announced plans to expel more than 100 Russian diplomats in response.

In February, the White House blamed Russia for the international “NotPetya” cyber attack, which has been called the most destructive and costly in history.

On March 15, the Trump administration said it would impose sanctions on 19 people and five entities, including Russian intelligence services, for cyber attacks stretching back at least two years.

Friday’s sanctions were authorized by the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, known as CAATSA, which Trump reluctantly signed into law in August.

Chris Painter, the former top cyber diplomat at the U.S. State Department, said the latest sanctions are unlikely to deter the Kremlin unless Trump formally condemns Putin.

Painter, who left government last year, criticized Trump’s rhetoric toward Putin – including a congratulatory call last month when Putin won another presidential term in a widely criticized election.

“We need the head of our country saying, ‘This is not going to happen,'” Painter said. “That’s a critical piece.”

(Reporting by Lesley Wroughton and Patricia Zengerle; Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu, Tim Ahmann and Susan Heavey; Writing by Alistair Bell; Editing by Yara Bayoumy and Bill Trott)

North Korea warns against U.S.-South Korea military drills after Olympics

North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho departs after addressing the 72nd United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., September 23, 2017.

By Christine Kim

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea has warned that if the United States goes ahead with delayed military exercises with South Korea after the Winter Olympics it will not “sit idle”, the North’s foreign minister said in a letter to the United Nations.

North Korea has not tested a missile since late November 2017 and entered into inter-Korean dialogue in January, the first talks in two years, which have eased tensions after a year of escalating rhetoric between the Pyongyang and Washington.

Whenever joint military exercises took place “the peace and security of the Korean peninsula were gravely threatened and the inter-Korean mistrust and confrontation reached the top, thus creating great difficulties and obstacles ahead of hard-won dialogues,” North Korea’s Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho said in the letter published by the official North Korean news agency.

“We will make every effort to improve inter-Korean relations in future, too, but never sit idle with regard to sinister act of throwing a wet blanket over our efforts.”

The United States and South Korea have agreed to push back a routine early-year joint military drill until after the South holds the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics and Paralympics. The Games begin next week and run until March 18.

In the letter, Ri said the United States was misleading public opinion by claiming its pressure campaign, including “their harshest sanctions,” had brought about the inter-Korean talks, when the “dramatic turning point” was entirely thanks to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

In a commentary on Friday, North Korea’s state media said Washington was attempting to create a “stage of confrontation” at the Olympics by saying that inter-Korean talks and positive results that had stemmed from them could “disappear” after the Games.

Asked to comment, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department, Mike Cavey, said: “The United States and our allies and partners in the region have long conducted routine exercises to maintain readiness. These exercises ensure we are trained for combined joint operations.”

U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has warned that all options are on the table, including military ones, to resolve the crisis over North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons capable of hitting the United States.

While it has repeatedly said it prefers a diplomatic solution, Trump has exchanged threats with Kim and U.S. officials have said Trump and his advisers have discussed a preventative “bloody nose” strike on North Korea, alarming experts who warn that this could trigger catastrophic retaliation, especially on South Korea.

U.S. officials have said the debate on military action has lost some momentum as a result of the intra-Korean talks, which Trump has called a “good thing” and credited to his tough stance.

Joseph Yun, the U.S. special envoy on North Korea, said on Thursday he did not think the administration was close to triggering military action.

The White House said on Friday that Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spoke by telephone and discussed an expanded missile defense system and other efforts to boost Japan’s defenses amid the tensions over North Korea’s nuclear program.

Trump also spoke to South Korean President Moon Jae-in about human rights in North Korea and trade between the United States and South Korea, the White House said.

North Korea also criticized U.S. Vice President Mike Pence’s pending visit to the Olympics, accusing Washington of halting improvements in inter-Korean relations.

Last month, a White House official said Pence planned to use his attendance to try to counter Kim Jong Un’s efforts to “hijack” the games with a propaganda campaign.

North Korea has agreed with South Korea to send a 230-strong cheering squad to the Winter Olympics, as well as an orchestra and taekwondo performance team.

A joint cultural performance planned in a North Korean mountain resort was called off this week by Pyongyang, which blamed South Korean media for encouraging “insulting” public sentiment regarding the North.

Twenty-two North Korean athletes will compete in the Olympics, including 12 who will play in a unified women’s ice hockey team. The other 10, including a figure skating pair, arrived in South Korea on Thursday.

(Reporting by Christine Kim; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom, Susan Heavey and Doina Chiacu in Washington; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and James Dalgleish)

‘Brainwashed’ children of Islamist fighters worry Germany-spy chief

Math and English textbooks found in Islamic State facility that trained children

By Andrea Shalal and Sabine Siebold

BERLIN (Reuters) – Germany’s domestic intelligence chief wants the government to review laws restricting the surveillance of minors to guard against the children of Islamist fighters returning to the country as “sleeper agents” who could carry out attacks.

Hans-Georg Maassen, head of the BfV agency, told Reuters that security officials were preparing for the return of Islamic State fighters to Germany along with potentially “brainwashed” children, although no big wave appeared imminent.

Nearly 1,000 people are believed to have left Germany to join up with the Islamist militants. As the group’s presence in the Middle East crumbles, some are returning with family members.

Only a small number of the 290 toddlers and children who left Germany or were born in Syria and Iraq had returned thus far, Maassen said. Many were likely to still be in the region, or perhaps moving to areas such as Afghanistan, where Islamic State remains strong.

He said Germany should review laws restricting surveillance of minors under the age of 14 to prepare for the increased risk of attacks by children as young as nine who grew up in Islamic State schools.

“We see that children who grew up with Islamic State were brainwashed in the schools and the kindergartens of the IS,” he said. “They were confronted early with the IS ideology … learned to fight, and were in some cases forced to participate in the abuse of prisoners, or even the killing of prisoners.”

He said security officials believed such children could later carry out violent attacks in Germany.

“We have to consider that these children could be living time bombs,” he said. “There is a danger that these children come back brainwashed with a mission to carry out attacks.”

Maassen’s comments were the first specific estimate of the number of children affected, following his initial warning in October that such children could pose a threat after being indoctrinated in battlefield areas.

The radicalization of minors has been a big topic in Germany given that three of five Islamist attacks in Germany in 2016 were carried out by minors, and a 12-year-old boy was also detained after trying to bomb a Christmas market in Ludwigshafen.

The German government says it has evidence that more than 960 people left Germany for Iraq and Syria through November 2017 to fight for the Islamic State jihadist group, of which about a third are believed to have returned to Germany. Another 150 likely died in combat, according to government data.

Maassen said Islamic State also continued to target vulnerable youths in Germany through the Internet and social media, often providing slick advertising or age-appropriate propaganda to recruit them to join the jihadist group.

“Islamic State uses headhunters who scour the Internet for children that can be approached and tries to radicalize these children, or recruit these children for terrorist attacks,” he said.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Vietnam unveils 10,000-strong cyber unit to combat ‘wrong views’

Men use computers at an internet cafe in Bim Son town, outside Hanoi, Vietnam May 15, 2017.

HANOI (Reuters) – Vietnam has unveiled a new, 10,000-strong military cyber warfare unit to counter “wrong” views on the Internet, media reported, amid a widening crackdown on critics of the one-party state.

The cyber unit, named Force 47, is already in operation in several sectors, Tuoi Tre newspaper quoted Lieutenant General Nguyen Trong Nghia, deputy head of the military’s political department, as saying at a conference of the Central Propaganda Department on Monday in the commercial hub of Ho Chi Minh City.

“In every hour, minute, and second we must be ready to fight proactively against the wrong views,” the paper quoted the general as saying.

Communist-ruled Vietnam has stepped up attempts to tame the internet, calling for closer watch over social networks and for the removal of content that it deems offensive, but there has been little sign of it silencing criticism when the companies providing the platforms are global.

Its neighbor China, in contrast, allows only local internet companies operating under strict rules.

The number of staff compares with the 6,000 reportedly employed by North Korea. However, the general’s comments suggest its force may be focused largely on domestic internet users whereas North Korea is internationally focused because the internet is not available to the public at large.

In August, Vietnam’s president said the country needed to pay greater attention to controlling “news sites and blogs with bad and dangerous content”.

Vietnam, one of the top 10 countries for Facebook users by numbers, has also drafted an internet security bill asking for local placement of Facebook and Google servers, but the bill has been the subject of heated debate at the National Assembly and is still pending assembly approval.

Cyber security firm FireEye Inc  said Vietnam had “built up considerable cyber espionage capabilities in a region with relatively weak defenses”.

“Vietnam is certainly not alone. FireEye has observed a proliferation in offensive capabilities … This proliferation has implications for many parties, including governments, journalists, activists and even multinational firms,” a spokesman at FireEye, who requested anonymity, told Reuters.

“Cyber espionage is increasingly attractive to nation states, in part because it can provide access to a significant amount of information with a modest investment, plausible deniability and limited risk,” he added.

Vietnam denies such charges.

Vietnam has in recent months stepped up measures to silence critics. A court last month jailed a blogger for seven years for “conducting propaganda against the state”.

In a separate, similar case last month, a court upheld a 10-year jail sentence for a prominent blogger.

(Reporting by Mi Nguyen in HANOI; Additional reporting by Amy Sawitta Lefevre in BANGKOK and Eric Auchard in FRANKFURT; Editing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Nick Macfie)

London attack a ‘wake-up’ call for tech firms to put house in order: police

Police on horseback patrol near Westminster Bridge in London, Britain, March 29, 2017. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

By Michael Holden

LONDON (Reuters) – The London attack which left four people dead was a “wake up call” for technology firms to get their house in order over extremist material being circulated on the internet, the acting head of London’s police force said on Wednesday.

The comments from Craig Mackey, acting Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, come after calls from politicians for tech firms, mainly based in the United States, to cooperate more with the authorities.

“I think these sorts of incidents and the others we’ve seen in Europe are probably a bit of a wake-up call for the industry in terms of trying to understand what it means to put your own house in order,” Mackey told the London Assembly’s Police and Crime Committee.

“If you are going to have ethical statement and talk about operating in an ethical way, it actually has to mean something. That is the sort of thing that obviously politicians and others will push now.”

The British government and a series of well-known British brands such as Marks and Spencer Group Plc had already suspended digital advertising with Alphabet Inc’s before the attack because ads were appearing alongside videos on its YouTube platform with homophobic or anti-Semitic messages.

They have since been joined by U.S. wireless carriers Verizon Communications Inc and AT&T Inc. The action has prompted Google to apologize and review its advertising practices.

London police already have a specialist unit which aims to remove extremist material but Mackey said “the internet was never designed to be policed as such”.

British officials have also demanded tech firms do more to allow police access to smartphone communications after reports that Khalid Masood had used encrypted messaging via WhatsApp before he drove a rented car into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge and stabbed to death a police officer by parliament.

“We work hard with the industry to highlight the challenges of these very secure applications,” Mackey said. “It’s a challenge when you are dealing with companies that are global by their very nature because they don’t always operate under the same legal framework as us.”

Regarding the police’s ongoing inquiry into last week’s attack, Mackey said detectives still believed Masood had acted alone. So far 12 people have been arrested, with two still in police custody.

Mackey also said there had been a “slight uplift” in hate crimes directed at Muslims but not on the scale seen after previous similar incidents.

(Editing by Stephen Addison)