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‘Don’t know if they are alive’: anguish of Tigrayan families cut off by telecom shutdown | Global development

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When the Ethiopian long-distance runner Gotytom Gebreslase won the women’s marathon gold at the World Athletics Championships in Oregon this month, her jubilation was tinged with sadness: she had broken the championship record, but could not celebrate with her family.

“My mother and father would have been delighted,” she said in a brief interview with the BBC, before bursting into tears.

Three of Ethiopia’s four gold medallists at the championships, including Gotytom, are from Tigray. Their success has has shone a light on one of the world’s longest communications shutdowns, which a senior EU official in June called a “partial blockade”.

“The Tigrayan athletes have still not got the opportunity to contact their families,” said Derartu Tulu, head of the Ethiopian Athletics Federation, at a ceremony in Addis Ababa to welcome the return of the national athletics team on Thursday. “It is my expectation that our honoured president will surely solve this problem.”

Tigray’s links to the outside world were severed when war broke out between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the federal government in November 2020, with all phone and internet links cut. Phone services were mostly restored last year but were shut down again after the TPLF recaptured most of Tigray from federal forces in June 2021.

The conflict has killed tens of thousands of people and uprooted millions from their homes. Most of it happened in out of sight of the outside world, with human rights researchers and journalists later uncovering evidence of massacres and rape.

All sides have been accused of committing abuses as the conflict spread beyond Tigray last year.

Most Tigrayans living outside the region, such as Gotytom, have not been able to contact families for a year or more. The region is in the grip of a humanitarian crisis that has left 90% of its 5.5 million people in need of aid.

A Tigrayan now living in Arizona in the US, and who did not wished to be named, says she last spoke to her parents a week before the conflict began, in October 2020. They live in a rural area, 15 miles south of Axum, the site of a massacre by Eritrean troops during the early weeks of the war, which left hundreds dead.

“I worry about them, because you don’t know if they are alive. There is always a fear that something is happening,” she says. “Recently I had my second baby, and it’s hard not being able to share that with them.”

In February 2021 she read reports there had been a massacre near her family’s village. Days later she got a call from her brother, who had walked to the regional capital, Mekelle.

Protesters in Eugene, Oregon
Protesters at the World Athletics Championships highlight the situation in Tigray region, specifically the plight of the distance runner Letesenbet Gidey. Photograph: Étienne Laurent/EPA

“He told me everyone was running away and a lot of people had been killed, but he wasn’t sure who. I kept listing names of relatives and friends to ask him if they were OK, but he didn’t know. I later found out that 50 people were killed. Many of them were my schoolmates, my neighbours, people I know.”

Mekelle’s phone network has since been shut down again, but people still manage to smuggle messages out of Tigray. A common method is to travel to towns bordering neighbouring states that get fleeting reception. Another is to send voice notes, via Bluetooth, to local staff of aid organisations who have rare satellite internet access. These are then shared with relatives over messaging apps.

Money is also sent to the region by Tigrayans living elsewhere through a network of middlemen and smugglers, who carry cash over the border. Commissions can be as high as 50%.

“It’s completely dependent on trust,” says Temesgen Kahsay, a Tigrayan academic in Oslo who last spoke to his parents in June 2021. “It can take more than two weeks, and there’s a risk: I know some people who sent money that didn’t arrive.”

Temesgen has not been able to sleep properly since the war started. “We worry every day about what is happening in Tigray,” he says. “My brother has sent me some WhatsApp messages through someone with internet, but it is very occasional. I don’t have any direct contact with my family.”

The Red Cross runs a service that allows people in Tigray to call family members for two minutes. It operates in two cities: Mekelle and Shire. About 600 people a day use the service, which relies on six satellite phones.

A Tigrayan civil servant in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, said his 68-year-old father tried to contact him in August through the Red Cross, but the call did not go through.

“I feel very bad about missing that call, he is old and he walked a long way to talk to me,” the civil servant says.

Girls are seen through a glass at the compound of the Agda Hotel, in the city of Semera, Afar region, Ethiopia
Eritrean refugee girls who fled the conflict look through a window of a hotel in Semera, Afar, Ethiopia. Photograph: Eduardo Soteras/AFP/Getty

Around the world, 34 countries restricted internet access in 2021, according to the campaign groups Access Now and #KeepItOn. But the Tigray shutdown ranks as one of the world’s most severe, alongside recent blackouts in Pakistan, Kashmir and Myanmar.

The civil servant spent two weeks in prison last year as he was swept up in a nationwide crackdown that the national human rights commission later said appeared to target Tigrayans “based on ethnicity”.

“After the news reached my parents I [had been] arrested, for weeks they thought I might be dead. It was very bad for them,” he says.

The government declared a ceasefire in March and since then both sides have said they are prepared to negotiate, raising hopes that families will be able to talk to each other again.

The federal government sees the communications blackout as essential to disrupting the operations of the TPLF, which it has outlawed as a terrorist group.

After Gotytom won the marathon in Oregon, Voice of America’s (VOA) local language service broadcast an interview with the athlete’s mother in Tigray.

“Under these circumstances, when your people are suffering, when you can’t get in touch with your brothers and sisters, the fact that she was able to reach such levels is due to the power of God,” her mother told the broadcaster.

In a subsequent interview with VOA, after watching the clips of her mother, Gotytom said: “If the phone was working, I would have called my mother first … I [only] saw my mother because I won.”

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Meditation app Calm sacks one-fifth of staff | Meditation

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The US-based meditation app Calm has laid off 20% of its workforce, becoming the latest US tech startup to announce job cuts.

The firm’s boss, David Ko, said the company, which has now axed about 90 people from its 400-person staff, was “not immune” to the economic climate. “In building out our strategic and financial plan, we revisited the investment thesis behind every project and it became clear that we need to make changes,” he said in a memo to staff.

“I can assure you that this was not an easy decision, but it is especially difficult for a company like ours whose mission is focused on workplace mental health and wellness.”

The Calm app, founded in 2012, offers guided meditation and bedtime stories for people of all ages. It received a surge of downloads triggered by the 2020 Covid lockdowns. By the end of that year, the software company said the app had been downloaded more than 100 million times globally and had amassed over 4 million paying subscribers.

Investors valued the firm, which said it had been profitable since 2016, at $2bn.

In the memo, Ko went on: “We did not come to this decision lightly, but are confident that these changes will help us prioritize the future, focus on growth and become a more efficient organization.”

More than 500 startups have laid off staff this year, according to layoffs.fyi, a website that tracks such announcements.

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Let there be ambient light sensing, without data theft • The Register

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Six years after web security and privacy concerns surfaced about ambient light sensors in mobile phones and notebooks, browser boffins have finally implemented defenses.

The W3C, everyone’s favorite web standards body, began formulating an Ambient Light Events API specification back in 2012 to define how web browsers should handle data and events from ambient light sensors (ALS). Section 4 of the draft spec, “Security and privacy considerations,” was blank. It was a more carefree time.

Come 2015, the spec evolved to include acknowledgement of the possibility that ALS might allow data correlation and device fingerprinting, to the detriment of people’s privacy. And it suggested that browser makers might consider event rate limiting as a potential mitigation.

By 2016, it became clear that allowing web code to interact with device light sensors entailed privacy and security risks beyond fingerprinting. Dr Lukasz Olejnik, an independent privacy researcher and consultant, explored the possibilities in a 2016 blog post.

Olejnik cited a number of ways in which ambient light sensor readings might be abused, including data leakage, profiling, behavioral analysis, and various forms of cross-device communication.

He described a few proof-of-concept attacks, devised with the help of security researcher Artur Janc, in a 2017 post and delved into more detail in a 2020 paper [PDF].

“The attack we devised was a side-channel leak, conceptually very simple, taking advantage of the optical properties of human skin and its reflective properties,” Olejnik explained in his paper.

“Skin reflectance only accounts for the 4-7 percent emitted light but modern display screens emit light with significant luminance. We exploited these facts of nature to craft an attack that reasoned about the website content via information encoded in the light level and conveyed via the user skin, back to the browsing context tracking the light sensor readings.”

It was this technique that enabled the proof-of-concept attacks like stealing web history through inferences made from CSS changes and stealing cross origin resources, such as images or the contents of iframes.

Snail-like speed

Browser vendors responded in various ways. In May 2018, with the release of Firefox 60, Mozilla moved access to the W3C proximity and ambient light APIs behind flags, and applied further limitations in subsequent Firefox releases.

Apple simply declined to implement the API in WebKit, along with a number of other capabilities. Both Apple and Mozilla currently oppose a proposal for a generic sensor API.

Google took what Olejnik described his paper as a “more nuanced” approach, limiting the precision of sensor data.

But those working on the W3C specification and on the browsers implementing the spec recognized that such privacy protections should be formalized, to increase the likelihood the API will be widely adopted and used.

So they voted to make the imprecision of ALS data normative (standard for browsers) and to require the camera access permission as part of the ALS spec.

Those changes finally landed in the ALS spec this week. As a result, Google and perhaps other browser makers may choose to make the ALS API available by default rather than hiding it behind a flag or ignoring it entirely. ®



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4 supports that can help employees outside of work

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Everyone has different situations to deal with outside of the workplace. But that doesn’t mean the workplace can’t be a source of support.

Employers and governments alike are often striving to make workplaces better for everyone, whether it’s workplace wellbeing programmes or gender pay gap reporting.

However, life is about more than just the hours that are spent in work, and how an employer supports those other life challenges can be a major help.

Family-friendly benefits

Several companies have been launching new benefits and policies that help families and those trying to have children.

Job site Indeed announced a new ‘family forming’ benefit package earlier this year, which is designed to provide employees with family planning and fertility-related assistance.

The programme includes access to virtual care and a network of providers who can guide employees through their family-forming journey.

Vodafone Ireland introduced a new fertility and pregnancy policy in February 2022 that includes extended leave for pregnancy loss, fertility treatment and surrogacy.

And as of the beginning of 2022, Pinterest employees around the world started receiving a host of new parental benefits, including a minimum of 20 weeks’ parental leave, monetary assistance of up to $10,000 or local equivalent for adoptive parents, and four weeks of paid leave to employees who experience a loss through miscarriage at any point in a pregnancy.

Helping those experiencing domestic abuse

There are also ways to support employees going through a difficult time. Bank of Ireland introduced a domestic abuse leave policy earlier this year, which provides a range of supports to colleagues who may be experiencing domestic abuse.

Under the policy, the bank will provide both financial and non-financial support to colleagues, such as paid leave and flexibility with the work environment or schedule.

In emergency situations where an employee needs to immediately leave an abusive partner, the bank will help through paid emergency hotel accommodation or a salary advance.

In partnership with Women’s Aid, the company is also rolling out training to colleagues to help recognise the symptoms of abuse and provide guidance on how to take appropriate action.

Commenting on the policy, Women’s Aid CEO Sarah Benson said employers who implement policies and procedures for employees subjected to domestic abuse can help reduce the risk of survivors giving up work and increase “feelings of solidarity and support at a time when they may feel completely isolated and alone”.

A menopause policy

In 2021, Vodafone created a policy to support workers after a survey it commissioned revealed that nearly two-thirds of women who experienced menopause symptoms said it impacted them at work. A third of those who had symptoms also said they hid this at work. Half of those surveyed felt there is a stigma around talking about menopause, which is something Vodafone is seeking to combat through education for all staff.

Speaking to SiliconRepublic.com last year, Vodafone Ireland CEO Anne O’Leary said the company would roll out a training and awareness programme to all employees globally, including a toolkit to improve their understanding of menopause and provide guidance on how to support employees, colleagues and family members.

In Ireland, Vodafone employees are able to avail of leave for sickness and medical treatment, flexible working hours and additional care through the company’s employee assistance programme when going through the menopause.

Support hub for migrants

There are also initiatives to help people get their foot on the employment ladder.

Earlier this year, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, TD launched a new service with education and employment supports for refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants.

The Pathways to Progress platform is part of the Open Doors Initiative supporting marginalised groups to access further education, employment and entrepreneurship in Ireland.

As part of the initiative, member company Siro offered a paid 12-week internship programme for six people who are refugees. The internships include job preparation, interview skills and access to the company’s online learning portals.

Open Doors Initiative CEO Jeanne McDonagh said the chance to land a meaningful job or establish a new business is key to people’s integration into Ireland, no matter what route they took to get here.

“Some are refugees, some are living in direct provision, some will have their status newly regularised, and others will come directly for work,” she said. “Our new service aims to support all migrants in finding a decent job as they prepare to enter the Irish workforce, and to support employers as they seek to build an inclusive culture in their workplaces.”

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