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A woman looks at the Facebook logo on an iPad in this photo illustration.
Facebook separates security tool from friend suggestions
20 December 2019, 9:17 AM

Facebook Inc will no longer feed user phone numbers provided to it for two-factor authentication into its “people you may know” feature, as part of a wide-ranging overhaul of its privacy practices, the company told Reuters.

Revelations last year that Facebook was using personal data obtained for two-factor authentication to serve advertisements enraged privacy advocates, who called the practice deceptive and said it eroded trust in an essential digital security tool.

It had already stopped allowing those phone numbers to be used for advertising purposes in June, the company said, and is now beginning to extend that separation to friend suggestions.

Facebook initiated the updates in connection with its $5 billion settlement with the US Federal Trade Commission, which required it to boost safeguards on user data to resolve a government probe into its privacy practices.

The FTC order, which is still pending approval in court, said Facebook failed to disclose that the phone numbers provided for two-factor authentication also would be used for advertising, and specifically barred that approach to security tools.

Michel Protti, a long-time Facebook executive who took over as chief privacy officer for product this summer and is leading the overhaul, told Reuters the two-factor authentication update was an example of the company’s new privacy model at work.

The change – which is happening in Ecuador, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Libya and Cambodia this week and will be introduced globally early next year – will prevent any phone numbers provided during sign-up for two-factor authentication from being used to make friend suggestions.

Existing users of the tool will not be affected, but can de-link their two-factor authentication numbers from the friend suggestion feature by deleting them and adding them again.

The separation of two-factor authentication from advertising this summer applied to both new and existing users, a company spokeswoman said.

Before the latest change, Facebook conducted a review to ensure “the system updates supporting our privacy statements were done correctly,” said Protti, which “adds more layers of process and rigor to the vetting of our technical work to make sure our public statements match our operations.”

The beefed-up reviews of new products aim to minimize any data collected, document where the data goes and provide sufficient transparency around how products work, he said.

That process led to changes in the phrasing Facebook used to inform people of the update, the spokeswoman added, although Facebook declined to specify how the disclosures were altered.

Protti, who along with Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg will sign quarterly privacy certifications to the FTC, said his team has completed an assessment begun in August of Facebook’s privacy risks and started cataloguing protections in place to mitigate those risks.

Protti declined to share the assessment’s findings, but said examples included areas where Facebook should make its policies clearer, invest in training and institute “stronger technical controls over how the data flows through our pipes.”

Gennie Gebhart, a researcher at the Electronic Frontier Foundation who gave feedback to Facebook on its two-factor authentication updates, said she welcomed those changes as well as the new privacy protocols, but found them “incomplete.”

She cited other examples of “phone number abuse,” such as the ability to find users by uploading their two-factor authentication phone numbers, and called for public disclosure around the review process and any certifications Facebook submits to the FTC.

“It’s not enough for only Facebook and the government to have this information,” said Gebhart. “Does Facebook really expect us to take it at its word?”

Prompts on how to use Amazon's Alexa personal assistant are seen as a wifi-equipped Roomba begins cleaning a room in an Amazon ‘experience center’ in Vallejo, California.
Tech giants partner to make smart home devices more compatible
19 December 2019, 7:34 AM

Amazon.com Inc, Apple Inc and Alphabet Inc’s Google are partnering to lay the groundwork for better compatibility among their smart home products, the companies said on Wednesday.

Zigbee Alliance, whose members include IKEA and NXP Semiconductors among others, will also contribute to the project, titled “Connected Home over IP”.

The rare partnership comes against the backdrop of an intensified competition among global technology companies to dominate the market for voice assistants and other smart devices.

The group aims to make it easier for device manufacturers to build products that are compatible with smart home and voice services such as Alexa, Siri and Google Assistant.

Earlier this year, another consortium led by Amazon had launched an initiative to let users access Alexa, Microsoft Corp’s Cortana and other voice-controlled virtual assistant services from a single device.

Donald Trump
Trump becomes third US president to be impeached
19 December 2019, 6:44 AM

Donald Trump on Wednesday became the third US president to be impeached as the House of Representatives formally charged him with abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, in a historic step that will inflame partisan tensions across a deeply divided America.

The Democratic-led House’s passage of two articles of impeachment on a mostly party-line vote sets the stage for a trial next month in the Republican-controlled Senate – friendlier terrain for Trump – on whether to convict and remove him from office.

No president in the 243-year history of the United States has been removed from office by impeachment. That would require a two-thirds majority in the 100-member Senate, meaning at least 20 Republicans would have to join Democrats in voting against Trump – and none have indicated they will.

The Senate’s top Republican, Mitch McConnell, has predicted there is “no chance” his chamber will remove Trump when it holds its trial. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said after the vote she would wait to name the House managers, or prosecutors, until she knew more about the procedures for the Senate trial. She did not specify when she would send the articles to the Senate.

“So far, we haven’t seen anything that looks fair to us,” Pelosi told reporters.

Trump, 73, is accused of abusing his power by pressuring Ukraine to investigate political rival Joe Biden, a leading contender for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, as well as a discredited theory that Democrats conspired with Ukraine to meddle in the 2016 election.

Democrats said Trump held back $391 million in security aid intended to combat Russia-backed separatists and a coveted White House meeting for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy as leverage to coerce Kiev into interfering in the 2020 election by smearing Biden.

The second article accused Trump of obstruction of Congress by directing administration officials and agencies not to comply with lawful House subpoenas for testimony and documents related to impeachment.

Trump, who is seeking another four-year term in the November 2020 presidential election, has denied wrongdoing and called the impeachment inquiry launched by Pelosi in September a “witch hunt.”

At a raucous rally for his re-election in Battle Creek, Michigan, as the House voted, Trump said the impeachment would be a “mark of shame” for Democrats and Pelosi, and cost them in the 2020 election.

“This lawless, partisan impeachment is a political suicide march for the Democrat Party,” Trump said. “They’re the ones who should be impeached, every one of them.”

‘HERE TO DEFEND DEMOCRACY’

During a day long debate before the vote, Pelosi read the US Pledge of Allegiance and said: “We are here to defend democracy for the people.”

“If we do not act now, we would be derelict in our duty. It is tragic that the president’s reckless actions make impeachment necessary,” Pelosi said.

As the debate unfolded, Republicans accused Democrats of seeking to use an unfair, rigged process to nullify the 2016 election and influence the 2020 vote.

“The matter before the House today is based solely on a fundamental hatred of our president. It’s a sham, a witch hunt – and it’s tantamount to a coup against the duly elected president of the United States,” Republican Representative Mike Rogers said.

Republican Representative Mike Kelly compared the impeachment to the Japanese attack on Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor in 1941, calling the House proceedings another “date that will live in infamy” – similar to the words Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt used to describe the raid that killed about 2,400 people and led to America’s entry into World War Two.

The abuse of power article was passed on a 230-197 vote and the obstruction article was passed 229-198. All of the House Republicans opposed the articles, and two Democrats, Collin Peterson and Jeff Van Drew, voted no on both. Democrat Jared Golden voted against the obstruction charge but for abuse of power.

“The only part of the vote that was bipartisan was in opposition. The President is just getting stronger while support for the Democrats’ political theater has faded,” Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale said in a statement.

US Representative Tulsi Gabbard, a Democratic presidential candidate, voted present on both articles, declaring in a statement: “I could not in good conscience vote either yes or no.”

POLARIZED COUNTRY

Trump’s election has polarised the United States, dividing families and friends and making it more difficult for politicians in Washington to find middle ground as they try to confront pressing challenges like the rise of China and climate change.

The impeachment vote comes ahead of Trump’s re-election campaign, which will pit him against the winner among a field of Democratic contenders, including Biden, who have repeatedly criticised Trump’s conduct in office and promised to make it a key issue.

“President Trump abused his power, violated his oath of office, and betrayed our nation,” Biden said on Twitter after the vote, adding: “In the United States of America, no one is above the law — not even the president.”

Reuters/Ipsos polls show that while most Democrats want to see him impeached, most Republicans do not. Televised hearings last month that were meant to build public support for impeachment appear to have pushed the two sides further apart.

The House vote on Wednesday was just the latest, but also unquestionably the biggest, in a string of controversies that have buffeted the turbulent presidency of the New York real estate mogul and former reality TV personality.

Central to the impeachment inquiry was a July 25 telephone call in which Trump asked Zelenskiy to investigate Biden and his son Hunter Biden, who had joined the board of Ukrainian energy company Burisma while his father was US vice president.

Trump has accused the Bidens of corruption without offering evidence. They have denied wrongdoing.

A rough transcript of the call released by the White House showed Trump asking Zelenskiy, elected only three months earlier and eager for American support, to “do us a favour” and conduct the investigations in coordination with his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani.

Giuliani in the prior months had engaged in a concerted effort to persuade Ukraine to carry out the investigations. Testimony before House committees showed that Giuliani helped engineer Trump’s removal last May of the US ambassador to Ukraine, who was perceived as a roadblock to those investigations.

Impeachment is a remedy devised by the United States’ founders, wary of a monarch on American soil after breaking away from Britain and King George III in the 18th century, to enable Congress to remove a president who has committed “high crimes and misdemeanours.”

Only two previous presidents have been impeached. The House in 1998 impeached President Bill Clinton on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice arising from a sexual relationship he had with a White House intern, but the Senate acquitted him. The House impeached President Andrew Johnson in 1868, focused on his removal of the secretary of war, but he was acquitted by one vote in the Senate.

In 1974, President Richard Nixon resigned after the House Judiciary Committee approved articles of impeachment in the Watergate corruption scandal but before the full House could pass them.

A pair of male elephants is seen in the Okavango Delta, Botswana.
Botswana bans hunters after killing of research elephant
15 December 2019, 2:46 PM

Botswana’s government has revoked the licenses of two professional hunters who shot dead a research elephant and then destroyed its collar to try to hide the evidence.

In a statement late on Saturday, the environment and tourism ministry said that professional hunters Michael Lee Potter and Kevin Sharp had surrendered their licenses after shooting the elephant at the end of in November.

Their nationalities could not be immediately established.

Potter was banned for an indefinite period and Sharp for three years.

Neither hunter was available for comment.

“In addition, the two hunters will replace the destroyed collar,” the ministry said. “The ministry will work with the hunting industry to ensure that the necessary ethical standards are upheld.”

The shooting recalled the killing of ‘Cecil the lion’ by an American hunter in neighbouring Zimbabwe in 2015, also an animal that had a research collar and was supposed to be protected. His death provoked outrage on social media.

Botswana President Mokgweetsi Masisi sparked global controversy when he lifted a ban on elephant hunting in May. The ban had been installed five years earlier by his predecessor, Ian Khama, an ardent conservationist.

Africa’s overall elephant population is declining due to poaching but Botswana, home to almost a third of the continent’s elephants, has seen numbers grow to 130 000 from 80 000 in the late 1990s.

Officials in the southern African country say the animals are causing problems for farmers by ripping up their crops, so hunting is necessary to reduce their numbers.

The mostly arid country, the size of France, has a human population of around 2.3 million, and its expanses of wilderness draw millions of foreign tourists to view its wildlife.

There were no immediate reports of injuries, but the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) said damage and aftershocks could be expected.
Strong earthquake shakes southern Philippines
15 December 2019, 11:05 AM

A powerful earthquake struck near the Philippines city of Davao on Sunday, the US Geological Survey has said.

The tremor is the latest to strike the southern part of the country in recent months, causing damage to buildings.

The magnitude 6.8 quake was centered 61 km (38 miles) southwest of Davao on the island of Mindanao, at a depth of 28.2 km, the USGS said, revising down the magnitude from an earlier 6.9.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre says there’s no tsunami threat from the quake, based on available data.

There were no immediate reports of injuries, but the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) says damage and aftershocks could be expected.

Radio DZMM reported power was out in General Santos City, where patients at a local hospital were being evacuated.

Video footage of the latest quake posted by users on Twitter showed overhead electrical wires swaying and erupting in a shower of sparks. Another video showed water sloshing out of a residential swimming pool.

One picture said to be from Padada, close to the epicentre in the province of Davao del Sur, showed a building collapsed onto a car. Reuters could not immediately verify the images.

Mindanao was shaken by four powerful quakes in October and November, which together killed at least 20 people.

The Philippines sits on the geologically active Pacific “Ring of Fire” and experiences frequent tremors.

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