Sacha Baron Cohen’s criticism of Facebook is his funniest joke

Yes, there is hate speech on social media, but is that all there is to it?

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Sacha Baron Cohen arrives at the 71st Primetime Emmy Awards in Los Angeles, California on September 22, 2019 [Reuters/Mario Anzuoni]
Sacha Baron Cohen arrives at the 71st Primetime Emmy Awards in Los Angeles, California on September 22, 2019 [Reuters/Mario Anzuoni]

In late November, actor and comedian Sacha Baron Cohen gave a talk at the Anti-Defamation League about hate speech and anti-Semitism on social media. He called Big Tech and social media “the greatest propaganda machine in history,” adding: “Just think what Goebbels could have done with Facebook.”

Shortly after, Facebook rejected the accusation, releasing a statement saying that hate speech is banned on the platform.

Baron Cohen’s speech has received much attention and widespread support, particularly in mainstream media which echoed and disseminated his observations.

The charge of being “the greatest propaganda machine in history” is, of course, loaded and draws our attention to other propaganda machines that existed long before Facebook and which might have a claim to that dubious distinction. Among them are the American war machine and the Israeli hasbara, neither of which Baron Cohen seems to reject. 

State propaganda and monopoly of information

There is some element of truth to what Baron Cohen says. There are people on the racist, xenophobic, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic and white supremacist lunatic fringe that take advantage of social media to propagate hate.

But is that all there is to Facebook?

Has it, perhaps inadvertently, also provided a venue for those at the mercy of state and corporate propaganda to talk back at it, reasserting alternative narratives to those presented by, let’s say, the BBC and the New York Times?

I would daresay that those media organisations are, if not the greatest, then certainly major propaganda machines supporting a settler colony that the UK and US have been chiefly responsible for creating and sustaining. They have had that monopoly for decades – deciding and determining the terms of debate on Israel’s colonisation of Palestine.

Facebook and other social media platforms have, all their troubling dimensions notwithstanding, offered sites of resistance to their hegemony.

For those of us old enough to remember the mode of media coverage prior to the emergence of the internet, Baron Cohen’s observations actually sound quite ludicrous.

I remember vividly when the Iranian Revolution of 1977-1979 broke out. Then a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, I felt despair at being at the mercy of the New York Times, the Washington Post, or any one of the three major US networks (ABC, CBS or NBC) – or particularly BBC radio – to tell me what was happening in Iran.

I remember driving to a Radio Shack shop in the King of Prussia suburb of Philadelphia to buy a short-wave device in order to listen to Tehran Radio and find out what was happening in my homeland. This is not to say that Tehran Radio told the truth and the New York Times spread lies. It just means we all needed more than one dominant and hegemonic source of news to make up our own minds.

Books have been written on how the New York Times and other major corporate media have helped state propaganda machineries. Consider Edward S Herman and Noam Chomsky’s 1988 classic Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media or Richard Falk and Howard Friel’s 2007 book The Record of the Paper: How the New York Times Misreports US Foreign Policy. They both document how monopoly over information, whether state or corporate, has helped justify to the public enormous atrocities and kept it purposefully ignorant of the truth.

Breaking the monopoly

Perhaps the case of the Palestinian national liberation struggles of the last 70 years is the most potent example of how the internet and social media has enabled Palestinians and supporters of the Palestinian cause to counter the sustained course of Israeli propaganda in order to put the history of their dispossession and the robbery of their homeland on the global stage.

The internet started to break the powerful monopoly on how Palestine was portrayed in the 1990s. At first, it gave dissenting voices access to a wider audience.

I remember how one day, shortly after he had started his column for the Egyptian Al-Ahram Weekly in 1993, my colleague and eminent literary theorist Edward Said came to me on campus at Columbia University and declared, “Al-Ahram has liberated me!”

Forget about the New York Times, the chief organ of liberal Zionism, even the so-called progressive outlets like The Nation would not publish his critical assessments of Israeli thievery pre- and post-Oslo Accords.

What was the print circulation of Al-Ahram Weekly? Rather small. But its website gave people around the globe access to Said’s emancipatory writings.

Baron Cohen would most probably not like that. Said’s voice was not racist or anti-Semitic. It was and remains liberating and empowering for the dispossessed around the world.

Then social media not only opened up spaces for wider discussion on the Palestinian cause, connecting the diaspora and foreign supporters to Palestinians in Palestine, but also enabled grassroots organising and public documentation of Israeli violations and crimes.

Take the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign. Founded in 2005, a year after Facebook started and a year before Twitter was launched, it has managed to grow exponentially thanks to social media, which has helped spread its message and boost the effectiveness of its campaigns. It can rally support for boycott action across the world through a network of organisations and volunteers maintained on social media platforms.

The campaign has managed to make enough noise on social media and otherwise to get major artists to cancel events in Israel, including Snoop Dogg, Shakira, Laurin Hill and many others. In 2017, in response to an online BDS letter, New Zealand artist Lorde tweeted: “Noted! Been speaking w many people about this and considering all options. Thank u for educating me I am learning all the time too” before cancelling her concert in Tel Aviv.

The success of the BDS campaign has much to do with the increasing access to information about Israeli crimes on the internet, and especially on social media. Over the past decade, Palestinians and supporters of their cause have increasingly been able not only to document daily Israeli oppression but to post it online for the world to see.

Whether it is shocking images of children killed by Israeli fire in Gaza, videos of Israeli snipers shooting an unarmed Palestinian and celebrating it, or footage of Israeli soldiers carrying out an extrajudicial killing – Palestinians can broadcast to the world Israeli violence in real-time on social media.

If it were up to the New York Times and BBC, it is unlikely any of these crimes would be properly reported. It is only because Palestinian voices have been empowered and amplified online that we hear in detail about what is happening in Palestinian lands.

Who is to throw the first stone?

I have no love lost for Big Tech. To me, they are big corporations and as such, are as immoral and hazardous as every other big corporation. And there is no doubt of the enormity of the horror of white supremacy and its proponents’ use of these platforms to promote hatred.

But social media and the interconnectedness it has encouraged also mean we are not at the mercy of any state or corporate media to decide what is “fit to print”.

The question is not whether Facebook is or is not vulnerable to abuse by racist and xenophobic groups. Of course it is. But who is the person levelling these charges and where is the podium from which he launches this attack.

Baron Cohen makes money out of perpetuating the worst stereotypes about Arabs and Muslims in his films and shows. And the ADL, where he gave the speech, is itself known for its racist activism

The cause of Zionism that Baron Cohen and the ADL fully embrace has totally discredited the charge of anti-Semitism and weaponised it against those who dare criticise the horrors of the settler colony against Palestinians.

But none of that in and of itself discredits what he says. Even a broken clock is accurate twice a day.

There is rampant racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia, etc and social media can be a cesspool for entertaining such nefarious ideas. But we need to be even and identical in our criticism of all of these terrorising forms of racism in one breath. We cannot denounce just one while trading in the others.

The internet is a blessing and it is a curse. But it has made the world a more level playing ground to oppose and end abuse of power.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance. 

Google is gathering health data on millions of people: WSJ

The data involved in the project reportedly includes laboratory results, doctor diagnoses and hospitalisation records.

The Wall Street Journal newspaper is calling Alphabet Inc's effort a 'secret project' to collect complete health histories for millions of Americans [File: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg]
The Wall Street Journal newspaper is calling Alphabet Inc’s effort a ‘secret project’ to collect complete health histories for millions of Americans [File: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg]

Alphabet Inc’s Google is teaming up with a healthcare company on a secret project to collect personal health-related information of millions of United States residents across 21 states, the Wall Street Journal newspaper reported on Monday.

Google launched Project Nightingale last year with St Louis-based Ascension, according to the report, which cited people familiar with the matter and internal documents. Google and Ascension did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.

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Google and Ascension announced later on Monday that they had signed a healthcare data and cloud computing deal, which would give Google access to the datasets it could use to tune potentially lucrative artificial intelligence tools.

The partnership will also explore artificial intelligence and machine-learning applications to help improve clinical effectiveness as well as patient safety, Ascension said in a statement.

Google Cloud Chief Executive Officer Thomas Kurian has made it a priority in his first year on the job to aggressively chase business from leaders in six industries, including healthcare.

The company previously had touted smaller healthcare clients, such as the Colorado Center for Personalized Medicine.

Google has spent several years developing artificial intelligence to automatically analyse magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans and other patient data to identify diseases and make predictions aimed at improving outcomes and reducing costs.

Ascension, which operates 150 hospitals and more than 50 senior-living facilities across the US said the partnership was in compliance with the US data privacy act HIPPA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act), which safeguards medical information.

The Journal reported that the data involved in the project includes laboratory results, doctor diagnoses and hospitalisation records, among other categories and amounts to a complete health history, complete with patient names and dates of birth.

The news follows an earlier announcement from Google that it would buy Fitbit Inc for $2.1bn, aiming to enter the market for wearables and invest in digital health.

Trump impeachment inquiry: 10 developments you may have missed

Transcripts, scheduled public hearings and more depositions: What happened this week in the Trump impeachment inquiry?

FILE - In this Dec. 13, 2018, file photo, President Donald Trump listens during a meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington. New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood and Trump’s charitable foundation reached a deal on Tuesday, Dec. 18 to dissolve the foundation and distribute its remaining assets to other nonprofit groups. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File) [The Associated Press]

FILE – In this Dec. 13, 2018, file photo, President Donald Trump listens during a meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington. New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood and Trump’s charitable foundation reached a deal on Tuesday, Dec. 18 to dissolve the foundation and distribute its remaining assets to other nonprofit groups. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File) [The Associated Press]

Democrats leading the House of Representatives’s impeachment inquiry of US President Donald Trump took a significant step this week, announcing the first public hearings of the probe.

The hearings, scheduled for next week, come after House investigators released the transcripts from closed-door sessions with a number of key witnesses.

More:

This week’s developments also included a witness revising his testimony after his memory was “refreshed”, and a report that Trump sought a public declaration from the Department of Justice clearing him of any wrongdoing – a report the US president denied.

The impeachment investigation is focused on a July 25 phone call in which Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to investigate former Vice President Biden, a leading Democratic rival, and his son Hunter, who was on the board of a Ukrainian gas company that had been investigated for corruption. There has been no evidence of wrongdoing by the Bidens.

Trump froze nearly $400m in US military assistance to Ukraine shortly before speaking to Zelenskyy, prompting accusations from Democrats that he had misused taxpayer dollars destined for a vulnerable US ally for personal gain.

Trump has repeatedly said there was no “quid pro quo” (Latin for a “favour for a favour”) and labelled the inquiry a “witch-hunt”.

As the impeachment probe prepares to enter the public hearing phase, here are 10 key developments related to the probe from this week.

1. Public hearing schedule

Adam Schiff, who is leading the impeachment investigation, said the committee will hear from top Ukraine diplomat William Taylor and career department official George Kent next Wednesday and from former US Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch next Friday.

All three state department officials had previously appeared in the closed-door sessions.

Stay up-to-date on the public hearing schedule here.

2. Gordon Sondland: A ‘refreshed’ memory

Gordon Sondland, a top ally of Trump and the US ambassador to the EU, had initially denied knowledge of any link between the Ukraine military aid and Trump’s request that the Eastern European country investigate the Bidens. But he revised his testimony this week, saying that “in the absence of any credible explanation for the suspension of aid, I presumed that the aid suspension had become linked to the proposed anti-corruption statement”.

The details appeared to bolster the initial whistle-blower complaint that led to the investigation by three US House of Representatives committees. The testimony also corroborated other witnesses who said Trump sought to pressure the Ukrainians into conducting investigations that appeared to be aimed at helping his re-election campaign.

sondland
Sondland, arrives for a joint interview with the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and House Committee on Oversight and Reform on Capitol Hill [File: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo]

The White House said the Sondland transcript undermined the impeachment inquiry. White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham pointed to Sondland’s inability to say who ordered the aid to Ukraine be withheld and that he admitted he “presumed” there was a link between the demand for a statement from the Ukrainians and releasing the aid.

Trump ally Sondland admits tying Ukraine aid to Biden probe

“No amount of salacious media-biased headlines, which are clearly designed to influence the narrative, change the fact that the president has done nothing wrong,” Grisham said in a statement.

Sondland sent a text message in September in which he said Trump insisted there was “no quid pro quos”.

But according to his testimony, he told a Ukrainian presidential adviser that the “resumption of US aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anti-corruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks”.

Read more about Sondland’s testimony here.

3. Transcripts, transcripts and more transcripts

The transcripts of Kurt Volker, Michael McKinely, Marie Yovanovitch, William Taylor, George Kent, Fiona Hill and Alexander Vindman were also released this week.

Kurt Volker

Volker, Trump’s former special representative for Ukraine negotiations, detailed what he described as the role of Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, as a conduit between Washington and Kyiv.

Volker and Sondland, with Trump’s secretary of energy, Rick Perry, were known as the “three amigos”, responsible for Trump’s unofficial channel to Ukrainian government officials, witnesses testified.

Volker
Kurt Volker, a former special envoy to Ukraine, arrives for a closed-door interview with House investigators, as House Democrats proceed with the impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump [File: Scott Applewhite/AP Photo]

Volker said his decision to resign on September 27 was because of the impeachment inquiry.

“I didn’t think I would be able to go to Ukraine or meet with Russians and be able to carry out those duties in that way anymore,” he said. He also said he wanted to provide testimony “with as much candour and integrity as I possibly could”.

Marie Yovanvitch

Yovanovitch, who was abruptly removed from her post as the US ambassador to Ukraine in May, told the inquiry on October 11 that she felt threatened by Trump describing her on the call to Zelenskyy as “bad news” a transcript showed.

“I was very concerned,” she said. “I still am.”

Yovanovitch
Former US Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, arrives on Capitol Hill [J Scott Applewhite/AP Photo]

A previously released White House summary of the call showed that Trump told Zelenskyy that the ambassador was “bad news” and was going to “go through some things”.

Trump impeachment inquiry: What do the first transcripts show?

Yovanovitch also told investigators she had been told to “watch my back” and that people were “looking to hurt” her.

Michael McKinley

McKinley told the inquiry last month that he recommended a statement of support for the now-removed US ambassador to Ukraine, Yovanovitch, but was told US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo decided “better not to … at this time”.

“The timing of my resignation was the result of two overriding concerns: the failure, in my view, of the State Department to offer support to Foreign Service employees caught up in the impeachment inquiry; and, second, by what appears to be the utilisation of our ambassadors overseas to advance domestic political objectives,” McKinley said, according to the transcript released by House committees.

William Taylor

Taylor, the top US diplomat in Ukraine, told the investigators he understood that the security assistance, and not just a White House meeting for Ukraine’s new president, was conditioned on the country committing to investigations of Joe Biden and the 2016 election.

“That was my clear understanding, security assistance money would not come until the president committed to pursue the investigation,” Taylor said.

Amassador impeach
Ambassador William Taylor is escorted by US Capitol Police as he arrives to testify before House committees [File: J Scott Applewhite/AP Photo]

Politicians asked if he was aware that “quid pro quo” meant “this for that”.

US diplomat had ‘clear understanding’ of Ukraine quid pro quo

“I am,” Taylor replied.

George Kent

Kent, a deputy assistant secretary of state, told the Trump impeachment inquiry that he was subject to attacks by Giuliani but was told to “keep my head down” by a senior State Department official.

Giuliani is central to the inquiry and has been mentioned frequently in testimony by State Department diplomats who have painted a picture of the former New York City mayor running a shadow US policy toward Ukraine to pressure it to carry out a corruption investigation into Biden and his son.

George Kent
George Kent, deputy assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasian Affairs, arrives to testify at a closed-door deposition as part of the impeachment inquiry into US President Donald Trump [File: Carlos Jasso/Reuters]

Kent mentioned Giuliani 73 times.

“His assertions and allegations against former Ambassador Yovanovitch were without basis, untrue, period,” Kent testified, referring to the Trump lawyer.

“Mr Giuliani, at that point, had been carrying on a campaign for several months full of lies and incorrect information about Ambassador Yovanovitch, so this was a continuation of his campaign of lies,” Kent said.

Giuliani has not commented on Kent’s testimony, but has said he played a role in the effort to remove Yovanovitch.

Kent said Ukrainian officials understood when they met Giuliani that he was not a regular private citizen and understood he represented Trump.

“Giuliani was not consulting with the State Department about what he was doing in the first half of 2019. And to the best of my knowledge, he’s never suggested that he was promoting US policy,” Kent said.

Kent also said that “POTUS wanted nothing less than President Zelenskyy to go to the microphone and say investigations, Biden and Clinton”.

According to the transcripts, he added: “That was the message … Zelenskyy needed to go to a microphone and basically, there needed to be three words in the message, and that was the shorthand.”

Fiona Hill

Hill, a former White House Russia adviser, said that during a White House meeting, Trump’s then-National Security Adviser John Bolton “immediately stiffened” as Sondland “blurted out: Well, we will have an agreement” with Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, “for a meeting if these investigations in the energy sector start” – a reference to the firm, Burisma, where Biden’s son was on a board.

Hill said then Bolton abruptly ended the meeting.

Alexander Vindman

Vindman, an Army officer assigned to the National Security Council, said he alerted superiors on two occasions, including after he listened to the July 25 call between Trump and Zelenskyy.

He also said there was “no ambiguity” that Sondland told Ukrainian officials to investigate the Bidens.

“There was no ambiguity. I guess, in my mind. He was calling for something, calling for an investigation that didn’t exist into the Bidens,” Vindman said.

He added that the US-Ukraine relations “is damaged” and “will continue to be damaged and undercut”.

4. More no-shows

A number of current and former Trump administration officials did not show up for their scheduled testimony this week, heeding to White House instructions to not comply with the investigation.

Among them was John Bolton, the former national security adviser who was forced out by Trump earlier this year.

A US House of Representatives Intelligence Committee official said that Bolton has threatened to take the committee to court if it subpoenas him. A congressional source to Reuters news agency said the inquiry is unlikely to go down that route.

The Washington Post, citing people familiar with Bolton’s views, said although he is willing, he wants to see how a court battle between Congress and the White House over the constitutionality of the subpoenas shakes out first. The battle is likely to go to the Supreme Court and could spill into next year.

President Donald  J. Trump (L) speaks as National security advisor John Bolton (R) listens during a meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington
rump speaks as then-National Security Adviser John Bolton listens during a meeting [File: Oliver Contreras/EPA-EFE]

Members of the committees conducting the inquiry have said they want to see if Bolton will corroborate previous witnesses’ testimony that he was alarmed at Trump asking a foreign government to get involved in domestic politics.

On Friday, the New York Times reported that Bolton’s lawyer said that his client was “part of many relevant meetings and conversations” pertaining the the impeachment inquiry.

Charles Cooper made the revelation in a letter that suggests Bolton will appear before Congress only if a judge orders him to do so.

The letter, addressed to the top lawyer for the House of Representatives, seeks to distinguish Bolton and former deputy Charles Kupperman from other current and former White House officials who have testified so far to impeachment investigators. The letter said that Bolton and Kupperman, unlike the other witnesses, provided direct advice to Trump regularly and would be asked during any congressional appearance to disclose sensitive foreign policy and national security information.

“As I emphasised in my previous responses to letters from the House Chairs, Dr Kupperman stands ready, as does Ambassador Bolton, to testify if the Judiciary resolves the conflict in favour of the legislative branch’s position respecting such testimony,” Cooper wrote.

Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s acting chief of staff, also failed to appear for a scheduled deposition.

Democrats subpoenaed Mulvaney late on Thursday as the White House signalled that he would not appear.

An official working on the inquiry told the Associated Press that Mulvaney’s lawyer informed the committees leading the impeachment probe one minute before the deposition was supposed to start that Mulvaney had been directed not to comply with the subpoena. The person said Mulvaney’s lawyer said he has “absolute immunity”, a claim that Democrats have challenged in court for other administration witnesses.

Mick Mulvaney - White House
Trump listens as Director of the Office of Management and Budget Mick Mulvaney delivers a report during a Cabinet meeting [Shawn Thew/EPA]

Mulvaney said in a news conference last month that the Trump administration’s decision to hold up military aid was linked to Trump’s demand for the investigations. He later walked back his remarks, but Democrats said that was tantamount to a confession and have cited it as evidence in their inquiry.

5. Who did appear?

Jennifer Williams, a career foreign service officer and special adviser to Vice President Mike Pence for Europe and Russia, did testify in a closed-door hearing in front of members of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs, Intelligence and Oversight committees after receiving a subpoena to compel her testimony.

Williams was one of a handful of US officials who listened in on the call between Trump and the Ukrainian leader.

Williams told investigators she found Trump’s July call with Zelenskyy unusual because it was political, not diplomatic in nature, CNN reported, citing an unnamed source.

But she did not raise concerns about the call with her superiors and, when asked what Pence knew, said she never heard him mention anything about investigations of the 2016 elections, Burisma or the Bidens.

Pence aide
Jennifer Williams, special adviser for Europe and Russia in the Office of US Vice President Mike Pence arrives on Capitol Hill [File: Tom Brenner/Reuters]

The State Department’s third-ranking official also testified this week.

David Hale met with investigators for more than six hours. He was expected to tell the House committees that political considerations were behind the State Department’s refusal to deliver a robust defence of former Ambassador to Ukraine Yovanovitch.

6. Lev Parnas will comply: Reuters

Lev Parnas, an indicted Ukrainian American businessman who has ties to President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, Giuliani, is now prepared to comply with requests for records and testimony from congressional impeachment investigators, his lawyer told Reuters News Agency this week.

Parnas helped Giuliani look for dirt on Biden.

Rudy Giuliani has coffee with  Lev Parnas
Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani has coffee with Ukrainian American businessman Lev Parnas at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, DC [File: Aram Roston/Reuters]

His apparent decision to work with the congressional committees represents a change of heart. Parnas rebuffed a request from three House of Representatives committees last month to provide documents and testimony.

“We will honour and not avoid the committee’s requests to the extent they are legally proper, while scrupulously protecting Mr Parnas’s privileges including that of the Fifth Amendment,” said the lawyer, Joseph Bondy, referring to his client’s constitutional right to avoid self-incrimination.

7. Trump may release summary of April call with Zelenskyy

Trump said on Friday that he is considering releasing the transcript of an April call he had with Zelenskyy.

He says that if House investigators want to see a summary of the April 21 call, he has “no problem” giving it to them.

That call came three months before the July 25 call that sparked the impeachment inquiry.

U.S. President Trump meets with Ukraine's President Zelenskiy in New York City, New York
Zelenskyy speaks during a bilateral meeting with Trump on the sidelines of the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly [File: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters]

Trump on Friday also dismissed the significance of the impeachment inquiry testimony that has been released so far.

He said, “No one seems to have any first-hand knowledge” and claims that, “Every one of those people cancelled themselves out.”

He’s criticised Democrats in the House for planning public hearings, even though the White House pushed for them to happen.

8. Did Trump ask DOJ to publicly clear him?

Trump on Thursday denied a report that he wanted Attorney General William Barr to hold a news conference to declare he broke no laws during a July phone call in which Trump pressed his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate Democrats.

Trump denies he wanted Barr to publicly clear him

Trump tweeted just after midnight that the story, first reported by The Washington Post, “is totally untrue and just another FAKE NEWS story with anonymous sources that don’t exist”.

The Washington Post reported that Barr rebuffed the request, which came in September around the time the White House released a rough transcript of Trump’s July 25 call. The paper, citing unidentified people familiar with the effort, said the request was relayed from the president to White House officials, and then to the Justice Department.

Read more here.

9. White House adds aides to deal with impeachment investigation

The White House is beefing up its communications staff as it tries to grapple with the ongoing House impeachment investigation.

Pam Bondi, the former attorney general of Florida, and Tony Sayegh, a former Treasury Department spokesman, are expected to join the White House communications team to work on “proactive impeachment messaging” and other special projects, a senior administration official told The Associated Press.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal staffing, said that the roles would be temporary and that Bondi and Sayegh would be working as special government employees.

10. Whistle-blower offers to take written questions

The whistle-blower has offered to answer written questions submitted by House Republicans, his lawyers said.

The surprise offer on Sunday, made to Devin Nunes, the top Republican on the intelligence committee leading the inquiry, would allow Republicans to ask questions of the whistle-blower without having to go through the committee’s Democratic chairman, Adam Schiff.

 

Haley Said Kelly and Tillerson Told Her to Work Against Trump

H4 haley said kelly tillerson work against trump us ambassador united nations nikki haley white house chief staff john kelly

Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley says former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told her to work against President Trump, reportedly saying they were “trying to save the country.” That’s according to Haley’s new book entitled “With All Due Respect.” Haley also writes that Tillerson told her people would die if Trump were allowed to govern unchecked.

California announces probe of Facebook privacy practices

The social network is under fire in the US state for giving third parties data access and not disclosing its practices.

California attorney general Xavier Becerra, right, speaks as California Governor Gavin Newsom looks on during a news conference in Sacramento [File: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images/AFP]
California attorney general Xavier Becerra, right, speaks as California Governor Gavin Newsom looks on during a news conference in Sacramento [File: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images/AFP]

The attorney general of California – the most populous state in the United States – says he has been investigating Facebook privacy practices since 2018.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra offered few details about the probe and said he was disclosing it only because his office was making a public court filing to force Facebook to answer subpoenas, to which he said Facebook had thus far failed to respond adequately.

According to the filing, Facebook took a year to fully respond to an initial June 2018 subpoena related to the scandal in which Cambridge Analytica obtained the data of more than 50 million Facebook users – and used that data to influence political outcomes in the US in 2016.

The attorney general then asked for more information, including communications among executives related to developers’ access to user data and privacy-related news stories.

The filing said that Facebook “broadly refuses to answer the interrogatories or comply with the subpoena”, adding that the company has refused to search the emails of top executives Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg in response to the second subpoena.

Facebook didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The investigation is into Facebook’s practices related to privacy, disclosures and third-party access to user data.

The state is looking into whether Facebook violated California law by deceiving users and misrepresenting privacy practices.

Officials say the probe began in early 2018 as a response to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, but has since expanded.

The court filing says Facebook has not yet given answers for 19 of the attorney general’s questions, or provided any new documents in response to six document requests.

The filing says Facebook is dragging its feet and also simply not complying with subpoenas or responding to questions.

California did not join a separate probe involving attorneys general from New York and other US states. The New York probe is looking into Facebook’s dominance and any resulting anticompetitive conduct.

The US Federal Trade Commission recently fined Facebook $5bn over privacy violations, though the penalty was criticised by consumer advocates and a number of public officials as being too lenient.

 

SOURCE: AP NEWS AGENCY

Apple pledges $2.5bn to address US’s California housing crisis!

Apple pledges $2.5bn to address US’s California housing crisis

As homelessness reaches chronic levels in California, Apple and other tech companies pledge funds to fix the problem.

by

Technology giant Apple says it will set aside $2.5bn to provide affordable homes in California which has more homeless people in the state than anywhere else in the United States.

Tech companies have been blamed for contributing to the state’s housing crisis as they set up shop there, pushing house prices up beyond the reach of many residents.

US allies’ government officials hacked via Facebook’s WhatsApp

Victims are spread across at least 20 countries on five continents, sources close to the investigation told Reuters.

WhatsApp says a vulnerability in the app let phones be infected with spyware with a missed in-app call alone [Patrick Sison/AP]

WhatsApp says a vulnerability in the app let phones be infected with spyware with a missed in-app call alone [Patrick Sison/AP]

Senior government officials in multiple countries allied with the United States were hit earlier this year with hacking software that used Facebook Inc’s WhatsApp messaging system to take over users’ phones, according to people familiar with the company’s investigation.

Sources familiar with WhatsApp’s internal investigation into the breach told the Reuters news agency that a “significant” portion of the known victims are high-profile government and military officials spread across at least 20 countries on five continents.

More:

Many of the nations are US allies, the people said.

The hacking of a wider group of top government officials’ smartphones than previously reported suggests the WhatsApp cyber-intrusion could have broad political and diplomatic consequences.

Israeli surveillance firm NSO Group was the target of a lawsuit filed by WhatsApp on Tuesday. The Facebook-owned firm alleged that NSO Group built and sold a hacking platform that exploited a flaw in WhatsApp-owned servers to help clients hack into the mobile phones of at least 1,400 users between April 29, 2019, and May 10, 2019.

The total number of WhatsApp users hacked could be even higher. A London-based human rights lawyer, who was among the targets, sent Reuters photographs showing attempts to break into his phone dating back to April 1.

While it is not clear who used the software to hack officials’ phones, NSO has said it sells its spyware exclusively to government customers.

Some victims are in the US, United Arab EmiratesBahrainMexicoPakistan and India, said people familiar with the investigation. Reuters could not verify whether the government officials were from those countries or elsewhere.

Some Indian nationals have gone public with allegations they were among the targets over the past couple of days; they include journalists, academics, lawyers and defenders of India’s Dalit community.

NSO said in a statement that it was “not able to disclose who is or is not a client or discuss specific uses of its technology.” Previously it has denied any wrongdoing, saying its products are only meant to help governments catch groups involved in violent campaigns and criminals.

Cybersecurity researchers have cast doubt on those claims over the years, saying NSO products were used against a wide range of targets, including protesters in countries under authoritarian rule.

Citizen Lab, an independent watchdog group that worked with WhatsApp to identify the hacking targets, said on Tuesday at least 100 of the victims were civil society figures such as journalists and dissidents, not criminals.

John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher at Citizen Lab, said it was not surprising that foreign officials would be singled out as well.

“It is an open secret that many technologies branded for law enforcement investigations are used for state-on-state and political espionage,” Scott-Railton said.

Prior to notifying victims, WhatsApp checked the target list against existing law enforcement requests for information relating to criminal investigations, such as violent campaigns or child exploitation cases. But the company found no overlap, said a person familiar with the matter. Governments can submit such requests for information to WhatsApp through an online portal the company maintains.

WhatsApp has said it sent warning notifications to affected users earlier this week. The company has declined to comment on the identities of NSO Group’s clients, who ultimately chose the targets.

SOURCE: REUTERS NEWS AGENCY