The cellphone used by the speaker in the Catalan regional parliament, Roger Torrent, was targeted with Pegasus, a spy program developed by an Israeli company named NSO, and which can only be purchased by governments and security forces and used to target crime and terrorism.
Torrent’s phone was attacked using Pegasus in 2019, according to a joint investigation by EL PAÍS and The Guardian.
The intrusion into the handset of the pro-Catalan independence politician, who belongs to the Catalan Republican Left (ERC) party, was possible due to a security fault in the WhatsApp messaging service that, between April and May 2019, could be used to install the NSO spy program in at least 1,400 cellphones across the world. The method for the attack was a missed video call, according to WhatsApp.
When you find a Pegasus target, you find the fingerprints of a government
Citizen Lab researcher John Scott-Railton
Pegasus took advantage of this weakness to attack Torrent’s phone, according to Citizen Lab, a cybersecurity group from the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto, which exclusively investigated the fault in the messaging application in 2019. WhatsApp supplied Citizen Lab with the numbers that had been targeted by the Israeli cyberespionage program, among which was that of Torrent, according to these researchers, who publicly revealed the existence of Pegasus.
EL PAÍS and The Guardian have had access to a certificate emitted by Citizen Lab that validates the fact that the speaker’s phone was attacked with the NSO spyware. “The investigation identified that the number belongs to Mr Roger Torrent,” the analysis states.
The document explains that the attackers resorted to a missed WhatsApp call “that did not require a response” to target the politician’s phone, and it contains “ample evidence that could establish that Torrent was monitored.”
Torrent’s phone figures on a list of a hundred or so cases across the world that were compiled by Citizen Lab of “representatives of civil society” who were indiscriminately attacked via the WhatsApp vulnerability, according to the Canadian institution. Citizen Lab states that 130 activists have been unjustified victims of the NSO program since 2016.
Pegasus permits conversations to be listened to, messages read, access to the phone’s memory, screenshots to be taken, browsing history to be tracked and for remote access of the device’s microphone and camera. This opens the door for the program to listen to the ambient sound in a room if a phone has been infected. The system even allows for encrypted messages and voice calls to be recorded, according to the Canadian experts.
In 2018, Pegasus was being used in 45 countries, targeting activists in Bahrain, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Mexico
The researchers connected the mysterious disappearance of WhatsApp messages from Torrent’s cellphone in 2019 with an indication that the phone “could have been manipulated by a third party and infected.” And while they cannot identify who ordered the attack, they point out that the Israeli firm that created Pegasus “exclusively sells its products to governments.” This fact is confirmed by NSO on its website, where it presents its services as solutions for the armed forces and the police to combat crime.
While Torrent’s cellphone was targeted by Pegasus, in 2019, the parliamentary speaker took part in dozens of political meetings and also appeared as a witness in Spain’s Supreme Court during the trial of the politicians and civil leaders who were involved in the 2017 independence drive in the Catalonia region, which saw an illegal referendum on secession from Spain held in October of that year. Among the sentences handed down by the court, Carme Forcadell, Torrent’s predecessor as speaker in the regional parliament, was given 11-and-a-half years in jail for the offense of sedition.
In May 2019, when he was being targeted with Pegasus, Torrent took part in a meeting in Strasbourg with the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatvic.
“I noticed strange things,” Torrent explains. “WhatsApp messages and chat histories would be deleted. It didn’t happen to the people around me.” The politician also says that he received “strange” SMS messages in 2019. Torrent says that he sees the hand of the “Spanish state” behind the Pegasus attack.
“The government has no evidence that the speaker of the Catalan parliament, Roger Torrent […] [has] been the targets of hacking via their mobiles,” says a spokesperson from the Spanish government, who points out that any monitoring of communications requires a court order.
A spokesperson from the CNI, Spain’s intelligence services, says that the organization acts “in full accordance with the legal system, and with absolute respect for the applicable laws.” The same spokesperson adds that the actions of the secret service are supervised by a magistrate from the Supreme Court.
EL PAÍS and The Guardian have unsuccessfully tried to obtain the versions of the Civil Guard, the National Police and the Interior Ministry as to what happened.
Citizen Lab recognizes the difficulty of proving the reach of the cyber attack on Torrent’s cellphone, given that, as it indicates, the NSO programs “have an erasing system on the devices.” “When you find a Pegasus target, you find the fingerprints of a government,” says the researcher from this group, John Scott-Railton.
We can confirm that Torrent’s telephone was targeted. However, additional investigation would be necessary to confirm that the phone was hacked
Citizen Lab researcher John Scott-Railton
According to the expert, “we can confirm that [Torrent’s] telephone was targeted. However, additional investigation would be necessary to confirm that the phone was hacked. At this time we have no reason to believe that it wasn’t.”
After being informed about the issue by this newspaper, Torrent’s team got in touch last Thursday with Scott-Railton. “They gave us the cellphone of the parliamentary speaker without us having asked for it and they said that it was among those attacked by Pegasus,” a spokesperson for the politician explains. “Was the infection successful? [Citizen Lab researcher John] Scott-Railton believes so because Torrent’s WhatsApp messages in 2019 were erased, which is one of the effects of Pegasus.”
Controlled by the London-based fund Novalpina Capital, NSO says that it has a policy for the investigation of the improper use of its systems.
NSO has refused to clarify if Spain is among its clients. “Due to confidentiality agreements, we cannot confirm which authorities use our technology,” the company replied via email. The firm has said that it will begin an investigation “if it is proved” that its products were used improperly in Spain.
The Israeli company has distanced itself in the United States’ courts from the improper use of its spy program. The firm attributes this responsibility to its clients, the governments who acquire its products. “If anyone installed Pegasus on any alleged ‘target devices’ it was not [the] defendants [NSO Group]. It would have been an agency of a sovereign government,” the company stated as a defense in a lawsuit that it is involved in with WhatsApp. The messaging application reported NSO in October of last year for using its platform to infect the cellphones of activists and diplomats around the world with Pegasus.
There is no evidence that Spain’s security forces are clients of NSO. The National Police and the CNI did hire their main competitor, Hacking Team from Italy, until at least 2015. This emerged after 400 gigabytes of internal emails from this company were stolen from its servers after they themselves were hacked.
In 2018, Pegasus was being used in 45 countries, according to Citizen Lab, targeting activists in Bahrain, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Mexico.
The cellphones of 25 Mexican politicians, activists and reporters, including the journalists Carmen de Arístegui (Arístegui Noticias), Andrés Villareal and Ismael Bojórquez (Río Doce) and Carlos Loret de Mola (Televisa) were targeted in 2019. As were three members of the organization Mexicans Against Corruption and Impunity, while the leaders of the National Action Party (PAN) Ricardo Anaya and Fernando Rodríguez Noval were also monitored. Omar Radi, a 33-year-old Moroccan journalist, also saw his phone infected by Pegasus after he criticized a judge.
English version by Simon Hunter.
Climate change: Floods, fires, smog: AI delivers images of how climate change could affect your city | USA
The full brunt of the devastating effects of climate change is still a long way off. If we don’t experience the impact directly, it’s difficult to fully internalize the extreme seriousness of the climate crisis.
That’s why a team at the Mila-Quebec Artificial Intelligence Institute, led by Professor Yoshua Bengio, wants to bring it home – right to your doorstep in fact. His team has developed a tool that makes it possible to visualize the effects of floods, wildfires and smog anywhere in the world. Their simulation does this by making use of a generative adversarial network (GAN), a type of machine-learning algorithm. GANs can also produce things such as deepfake images, which are digitally composed of millions of images to create realistic photos of something (or someone) new.
For two years, 30 scientists have worked on the project, which is named after thispersondoesnotexist.com, a website portfolio of deepfake faces. Bengio’s version is called “This Climate Does Not Exist.” All a user has to do is type in an address or select a marker on Google Street View, and then indicate what kind of catastrophe they want to see: flood, wildfire or smog. The algorithm works its magic and returns the image with the requested effect. These images are not intended to be an accurate portrayal of what would happen at each specific location if no action on climate change is taken, but rather are a recreation of the worst possible effects in the scenario of the user’s choice.
The realism is particularly striking in the flooding option, which was the most difficult for Bengio’s team to produce. The algorithm takes the location proposed by the user, automatically places a layer of water on it and then adapts it to the environment of the image itself. The result is hyperrealistic.
“One of the most important challenges has been getting the algorithm to simulate flooding in a wide variety of images,” explains Alex Hernandez-Garcia, one of the project’s lead researchers. “One module of the algorithm is in charge of detecting which parts of the image should be covered with water and another module is in charge of generating the water texture by incorporating the context of the image, for example, the reflection of buildings. Finally, these results are combined to generate the final image.”
To detect which parts to cover with water and which to leave unscathed, Hernandez-Garcia and his colleagues combined several artificial intelligence (AI) and machine-learning techniques. “We generated a virtual city that allowed us to make a series of images with and without water. We also adjusted an algorithm that was able to make good predictions in that virtual world, detecting the different parts of a scene: the ground, cars, buildings, trees, people and so on,” he explained. “However, the algorithm must be able to make good predictions based on real images [those from Google Street View].” For the latter, they used generative adversarial networks.
The process is completed in a few seconds, and before displaying the image to the user some information is provided about the causes and consequences of the selected weather phenomenon, and its relationship to climate change. For example, if a flood is chosen, it indicates that flash floods kill about 5,000 people a year, that sea levels are expected to rise by two meters by the end of the century and that this major disruption to the planet will forever alter the lives of at least one billion people by the end of 2050. “If we do nothing, soon we will face major climate catastrophes,” says Professor Bengio, the institute’s scientific director. “This website makes the risks of climate change much more real and personal to people,” he argues.
Generative adversarial networks
The quality of AI took a giant leap forward about a decade ago with the emergence and consolidation of machine learning and deep learning. These techniques are based on training a machine so that it is capable of performing complex tasks after reaching certain conclusions on its own. For example, if you want the algorithm to distinguish between blueberry muffins and chihuahuas, the programmer will feed it a series of examples of each category, followed by thousands of images that are not pre-sorted. The machine will establish which is which, and when it gets it wrong and is made aware of the error, will refine its criteria.
Bengio won the 2018 Turing Award, considered the Nobel Prize of computer science, along with Geoffrey Hinton and Yann LeCun, for their contribution to the development of neural networks. This is a further step in machine learning that attempts to mimic the functioning of the human brain: applying several simultaneous layers of processing to increase performance. Neural networks are behind the most complex classification systems, such as voice assistants or advanced prediction models.
Generative adversarial networks (GANs) go even further. They were invented at the Mila-Quebec Artificial Intelligence Institute in 2014 and are capable of generating new content that looks faultlessly real to the human eye. GANs are behind the increasingly sophisticated deepfake videos of Tom Cruise or Donald Trump now circulating online, in which politicians or celebrities say or act in whichever way their creator likes. They work thanks to competition between two neural networks: one tries to produce images that are as realistic as possible and the other tries to detect whether they are real or a fabrication. This tension is replicated thousands or millions of times and during this process, the generating network learns to create more and more successful images. When the first network succeeds in fooling the second, we have a winning image. From there, a perfectly rendered image of New York City’s Times Square inundated by flooding is just a click away.
The Quebec lab is now using a new type of GAN they have developed to generate the climate change images seen on their website. “In general, the limited availability of images and the need to adapt the algorithm to a multitude of situations have been the main technical challenges we have faced,” says Hernandez-Garcia.
Assad regime ‘siphons millions in aid’ by manipulating Syria’s currency | Global development
The Syrian government is siphoning off millions of dollars of foreign aid by forcing UN agencies to use a lower exchange rate, according to new research.
The Central Bank of Syria, which is sanctioned by the UK, US and EU, in effect made $60m (£44m) in 2020 by pocketing $0.51 of every aid dollar sent to Syria, making UN contracts one of the biggest money-making avenues for President Bashar al-Assad and his government, researchers from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the Operations & Policy Center thinktank and the Center for Operational Analysis and Research found.
Hit by new US sanctions and the collapse of the banking system in neighbouring Lebanon, cash-strapped Damascus is relying increasingly on unorthodox methods for raising funds – money either pocketed by officials in Damascus for their own personal wealth, or put towards the 10-year-old war effort.
Researchers analysed hundreds of UN contracts to procure goods and services for people living in government-held areas of Syria, where more than 90% of the population are living in poverty since the Syrian pound, or lira, crashed last year.
While the central bank’s official exchange rate has improved this year to SYP2,500 to the US dollar, the black market rate is SYP3,500. Legitimate traders and consumers prefer to use the black market rate, as they receive more Syrian pounds for foreign currency.
Since the UN is forced by the Syrian government to use the official rate, half of foreign aid money exchanged into Syrian pounds in 2020, when the rates were hugely divergent, was lost after being exchanged at the lower, official rate.
“This shows an incredibly systematic way of diverting aid before it even has a chance to be implemented or used on the ground,” said Natasha Hall, of the CSIS, a Washington-based thinktank that helped compile the research.
“If the goal of sanctions overall is to deprive the regime of the resources to commit acts of violence against civilians and the goal of humanitarian aid is to reach people in need then we have this instance … where aid is at complete contradiction to those two stated goals.”
After 10 years of civil war in Syria, international donor fatigue, already seen in decreasing aid pledges, has turned to more overt political re-engagement with Assad’s regime.
Without the US playing a strong role in finding a political solution in Syria, which Washington still publicly advocates, Arab nations – including the US-allied Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt – have recently restarted diplomatic talks, reopened borders for trade and signalled renewing economic cooperation.
The US allows Damascus to play a major role in funnelling Egyptian gas to Lebanon to power the country’s fuel-depleted power plants. Interpol allowed Syria to rejoin its network even as the fate of dissidents captured throughout the war remains unknown.
Examining 779 publicly available procurements for 2019 and 2020, listed on the UN Global Marketplace database, researchers found that up to $100m was lost in the exchange rate.
If salaries, cash-aid programmes and other funding streams not made public were included, the bank could be making hundreds of millions of dollars, according to researchers.
The funding has been channelled through various UN agencies – the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA); the World Food Programme; the UN Development Programme; the UNHCR; the Food and Agriculture Organisation; and Unicef.
The UN’s financial tracking system told the researchers it did not monitor the amount of money exchanged into Syrian pounds as “tracking such information was beyond the scope of their mission”.
In 2016, the UN was accused of aiding the regime by diverting billions of dollars in aid to government-held regions while leaving besieged areas without food and medicine.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has warned that UN agencies and governments risked complicity in human rights violations in Syria if they did not ensure transparency and effective oversight.
A Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office spokesperson said: “The UK does not provide any aid through the Assad regime … Robust processes are in place to ensure that our aid reaches those who need it most.”
Hall said there was a “reticence” about investigating how much aid had been diverted. She said donors were well aware of the problem. “I think it is about [them] choosing certain battles to fight. It’s just not clear to me that any battles are being fought when it comes to aid in Syrian government-held areas today,” she said.
“There’s really no way for us, as independent consultants, to know the full extent of how aid is spent inside the country … We just wanted to flag that, even through this limited portal to understanding how much is spent, it’s already tens of millions of dollars which is hoarded.”
She believes the UN should negotiate a preferential exchange rate with the Syrian government – – to at least reduce the amount siphoned off.
Sara Kayyali, of HRW, said “there was no due diligence in terms of human rights” within UN procurement to avoid bankrolling Syria.
“This should be a wake-up call to the UN … they need to revise the way they provide aid and revise how they consider their obligations to respect human rights in light of this, because it’s difficult to justify this idea that hundreds of millions of dollars are going to an abusive state apparatus,” she said.
Danielle Moylan, a spokesperson for the UN agencies mentioned, said: “The UN welcomes all independent scrutiny of humanitarian operations in Syria. Our foremost priority has, and always will be, assisting the people in need in Syria, guided by humanitarian principles, accountability to the affected populations, transparency, efficiency and effectiveness.
“The majority of UN’s procurement for our humanitarian response in Syria is made in international and regional markets and therefore not affected by the Syrian exchange rate. Otherwise, as is the case in any country, the UN in Syria is required to use the official exchange rate,” Moylan said.
“In the past, the UN and humanitarian partners have negotiated a ‘preferential’ exchange rate for humanitarian operations [and] continues to engage the Central Bank of Syria on the issue of ‘preferential’ exchange rates.”
Alexei Navalny wins 2021 Sakharov Prize
The European Parliament announced that Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny has won the Sakharov Prize for defending human rights. The parliament’s president David Sassoli wrote on Twitter: “Alexei Navalny is the winner of this year’s #SakharovPrize. He has fought tirelessly against the corruption of Vladimir Putin’s regime. This cost him his liberty and nearly his life. Today’s prize recognises his immense bravery and we reiterate our call for his immediate release.”
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