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Why Is TikTok Banned From Government Phones – And Should The Rest Of Us Be Worried?




TikTok is wildly popular, with more than 1 billion people consuming its short video posts around the world. But the app is less favoured by politicians in key markets such as the US and UK, where it has been banned from government-issued phones over security fears. We answer your questions about why TikTok has become a lightning rod for suspicion of Chinese state espionage – and whether nationwide bans are likely.

Why has TikTok been banned from UK government phones?

The main concerns with TikTok relate to data and the fact that it is owned by the Beijing-based ByteDance, a Chinese internet company. Could the Chinese state demand access to data generated by TikTok’s global user base and, for instance, create profiles of people it is interested in, such as government employees in other countries?

The UK government raised data concerns in its statement explaining why it was taking the “prudent” step of removing TikTok from government-issued devices. It said the app was able to access user data from devices, including contacts and geolocation. According to a report by the Australian-US cybersecurity firm Internet 2.0, TikTok’s app can access a user’s calendar, other running applications, wifi networks, and even the sim card serial number.

Referring to similar bans by the US, Canada and the European Commission, the UK government said: “The government, along with our international partners, is concerned about the way in which this data may be used.”

TikTok maintains that its data is stored outside China in Singapore and the US. It is also proposing to store American and European user data in third-party servers in the US, Ireland and Norway. This has not been enough to assuage the concerns of critics, who also fear that the Chinese state could manipulate TikTok’s recommendation algorithm, which curates what people see on the app’s For You feed.

Why is it not being banned from personal phones in the UK?

The government said the “proportionate step” did not extend to personal devices for civil servants, ministers or the general public. However, it added that individuals should be aware of “each social media platform’s data policies” before downloading them.

TikTok has updated its privacy policy to tell European users that their data can be accessed in China – in specific circumstances. The decision to declare TikTok a risk on government devices but not on anyone else’s has led to experts calling for more clarity.

“The bottom line is that if there is a cybersecurity issue for the government users, the same applies to all of us,” says Alan Woodward, a professor of cybersecurity at Surrey University. “The only argument might be that boring users such as me are not of interest, but there are plenty of professionals outside government where confidentiality is very important. Journalism, legal, medical and so on. If there is a security issue that nobody has found – and many have looked – then please tell us all so we can all delete it.”

Why are there concerns about the Chinese state accessing TikTok data and its algorithm?

TikTok is owned by Beijing-based ByteDance, which has led to politicians in the US, the UK and elsewhere voicing fears that Chinese officials could demand access to TikTok’s user data and source code under domestic laws including the National Intelligence Law of 2017, which states that all organisations and citizens shall “support, assist and cooperate” with national intelligence efforts. TikTok says it has not received a request from the Chinese government for its data and that, if it did, it would refuse.

The US government does not believe TikTok, and this week confirmed that the Biden administration had asked TikTok’s Chinese owners to sell their stakes in the company or face a complete ban in a key market where it has more than 100 million users. TikTok says ByteDance is 60% owned by external investors including the US private equity firm KKR, 20% by its employees and 20% by its founders, Zhang Yiming and Liang Rubo, who carry stronger voting rights than the other shareholders.

Can TikTok user data be accessed within China, including by the Chinese state?

TikTok has long insisted that user data from western nations does not enter China, where ByteDance is based. But time and again, the company has admitted exceptions to this rule.

In a privacy policy update from late 2022, the company admitted that European users may have their data accessed by employees in China, “based on a demonstrated need to do their job, subject to a series of robust security controls and approval protocols”.

In 2022, a BuzzFeed investigation revealed a rash of situations in which engineers in China would have access to US data, lasting at least until January 2022. The data was “stored” in the US, but with access controls that allowed staff elsewhere to access it, according to the investigation.

The similar functionality of TikTok and its Chinese sister app Douyin suggests overlap between the engineering teams, but the extent to which resources are shared has remained fuzzy. Analysis of both apps suggests that they may share parts of their source code and are developed from a common code base, according to CitizenLab. TikTok’s credibility was also damaged last year when ByteDance admitted that employees had used the app to spy on reporters.

Can the recommendation algorithm be manipulated by a state actor?

The app’s much vaunted “For You” page has a complex recommendation algorithm that takes into account a huge range of signals, both explicit and implicit, to decide what content a given user should be shown. Despite efforts to introduce transparency to how the company operates, the “FYP” is, like many recommendation algorithms, a black box for users: the total count of signals, how they are applied, and how they result in any given piece of content appearing is ultimately impossible to see from the outside, and difficult even for TikTok itself to answer, given the nature of modern machine learning techniques.

That means it is also difficult for the company to counter fears that the recommendation algorithm could be silently tampered with by a state actor, either through pressure at a corporate level, or through corrupting a small number of employees directly. In 2019, the Guardian revealed that TikTok’s moderation guidelines helped promote Beijing’s view of foreign policy, banning the promotion of separatist agendas in Tibet and Northern Ireland; the company says it now writes its moderation guidelines locally, but some fear that a similar approach would be harder to uncover if applied through automatic selective promotion and demotion of videos.

Global Affairs

Boris Johnson says ‘partygate’ untruths were an honest mistake | International




Former U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson acknowledged Tuesday that he misled Parliament about rule-breaking government parties during the coronavirus pandemic — but insisted he never intentionally lied. Johnson said it never occurred to him that the gatherings — which variously included cake, wine, cheese and a “secret Santa” festive gift exchange — broke the restrictions his own government had imposed on the country.

Britain’s boisterous former leader is set to be grilled by lawmakers on Wednesday over whether he lied when he denied there had been parties in his Downing Street offices in violation of Covid-19 lockdown rules that barred socializing. If found to have lied deliberately, he could be suspended or even lose his seat in Parliament.

In a dossier of written evidence to the House of Commons Committee of Privileges, Johnson acknowledged that “my statements to Parliament that the Rules and Guidance had been followed at all times did not turn out to be correct.”

But he said his statements “were made in good faith and on the basis of what I honestly knew and believed at the time. I did not intentionally or recklessly mislead the House.”

The committee will quiz Johnson in person on Wednesday afternoon about “partygate,” the scandal over a string of gatherings in government offices in 2020 and 2021. Police eventually issued 126 fines over the late-night soirees, boozy parties and “wine time Fridays,” including one to Johnson, and the scandal helped hasten the end of his three years in office.

Revelations about the gatherings sparked anger among Britons who had followed rules imposed to curb the spread of the coronavirus, unable to visit friends and family or even say goodbye to dying relatives in hospitals.

Becky Kummer, spokesperson for the group Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, said Johnson’s claim to have acted in good faith was “sickening.”

“He isn’t fit for public office,” Kummer said.

When reports of the parties first emerged in late 2021, Johnson initially said that no rules had been broken. He later apologized and said there had been “misjudgments.”

But in the 52-page dossier he said he “honestly believed” the five events he attended, including a sendoff for a staffer and his own surprise birthday party, were “lawful work gatherings.”

“No cake was eaten, and no one even sang ‘Happy Birthday,’” he said of the June 19, 2020, celebration, for which he received a police fine. “The primary topic of conversation was the response to Covid-19.”

Johnson said suggestions that people in government considered themselves to be “in a guidance-free bubble where the requirements we imposed on the rest of the country did not apply” could not be further from the truth.

“Drinking wine or exchanging gifts at work and whilst working did not, in my view, turn an otherwise lawful workplace gathering into an unlawful one,” he said.

Johnson said he was assured by “trusted advisers” that no rules had been broken — assurances that turned out to be wrong. He said he was later “genuinely shocked” by the rule-breaking uncovered by police and by senior civil servant Sue Gray, who led an investigation into partygate.

Johnson and his supporters have also questioned the impartiality of Gray because she has now accepted a job as chief of staff to the leader of the opposition Labour Party.

If the committee finds Johnson in contempt, it could recommend punishments ranging from an oral apology to suspension or even expulsion from Parliament, or it could recommend no sanction at all. Any punishment would have to be approved by the House of Commons.

Johnson was forced to resign in July after a slew of scandals over money and ethics finally proved too much for Conservative colleagues, dozens of whom quit the government.

For Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, Wednesday’s televised hearing will be an unwelcome reminder of the turmoil that engulfed the Conservative government under Johnson — just as the party’s poll ratings are starting to edge upward.

Sunak took office in October, replacing Liz Truss, who stepped down within weeks of becoming prime minister after her tax-cutting budget plans caused turmoil on financial markets.

Johnson, once considered a secret weapon with voters, is now a liability, said Robert Hayward, a polling expert and Conservative member of the House of Lords.

“He is a serious negative for most people,” Hayward said. “Boris’s polling is far worse than is the case for Rishi (Sunak).”

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Drought caused 43,000 ‘excess deaths’ in Somalia last year, half of them young children | Global development




A new report released by the Somalian government suggests that far more children died in the country last year due to the ongoing drought than previously realised.

The study estimates that there were 43,000 excess deaths in 2022 in Somalia due to the deepening drought compared with similar droughts in 2017 and 2018.

Half of the deaths are likely to have been children under five. Up to 34,000 further deaths have been forecast for the first six months of this year.

Released on Monday by Somalia’s federal health ministry together with Unicef and the World Health Organization, the report was compiled by researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Imperial College London, who looked at retrospective estimates of mortality across Somalia from January to December 2022.

Accurate statistics are difficult to compile from a population spread across remote areas, and with about three million people displaced from their homes. The highest death rates are thought to be in the regions of south-central Somalia, including Bay, Bakool and Banadir, that are the worst hit by drought.

Somalia’s health minister, Dr Ali Hadji Adam Abubakar, found cause for optimism that famine had so far been averted.

“We continue to be concerned about the level and scale of the public health impact of this deepening and protracted food crisis in Somalia,” he said.

“At the same time, we are optimistic that if we can sustain our ongoing and scaled-up health and nutrition actions, and humanitarian response to save lives and protect the health of our vulnerable, we can push back the risk of famine for ever.”

If this did not happen, he said, “the vulnerable and marginalised will pay the price of this crisis with their lives.”

“We therefore urge all our partners and donors to continue to support the health sector in building a resilient health system that works for everyone and not for the few,” said Abubakar.

For the first time, a prediction model was developed from the study. A forecast from January to June 2023 estimates that 135 people a day might also die due to the crisis, with total deaths projected at being between 18,100 and 34,200 during this period.

The estimates suggest the crisis in Somalia is far from over and is already more severe than the 2017-18 drought.

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Wafaa Saeed, Unicef’s representative in Somalia, said he was saddened by the grim picture of the drought’s impact on families, but added: “We know there could have been many more deaths had humanitarian assistance not been scaled up to reach affected communities.

“We must continue to save lives by preventing and treating malnutrition, providing safe and clean water, improving access to lifesaving health services, immunising children against deadly diseases such as measles, and providing critical protection services.”

There have now been six consecutive failed rainy seasons in the climate crisis-induced drought, which coincides with global food price rises, intensified insecurity in some regions, and the aftermath of the pandemic.

The study is the first in a planned series and was funded by the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.

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War crimes committed on all sides in Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict, U.S. says | International




The Biden administration announced Monday that it has determined all sides in the brutal conflict in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region committed war crimes and crimes against humanity. The move carries no immediate U.S. policy implications but lends weight to calls for such allegations to be prosecuted.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced the determination less than a week after he returned from a visit to Ethiopia during which he met with Ethiopian government and Tigrayan officials as well as victims of the conflict, but said little about the U.S. view of prospects for accountability.

His determination covers members of the Ethiopian and Eritrean national armies as well as the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and forces aligned with the Amhara region. Blinken said those responsible for atrocities must be held accountable.

He said after “careful review of the law and facts” he had determined that members of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces, Eritrean Defense Forces, Tigray People’s Liberation Front forces and Amhara forces committed war crimes during the conflict in northern Ethiopia.

Members of the Ethiopian, Eritrean and Amhara forces also committed crimes against humanity, “including murder, rape and other forms of sexual violence, and persecution,” Blinken said. “Members of the Amhara forces also committed the crime against humanity of deportation or forcible transfer and committed ethnic cleansing in western Tigray.”

Blinken announced the determination as he rolled out the State Department’s annual global human rights reports, which cover 2022 and also called out Afghanistan, China, Cuba, Iran, Myanmar and Nicaragua for abuses.

“I condemn the unspeakable violence against civilians and destruction that occurred in northern Ethiopia,” he said. “Recognizing the atrocities committed by all parties is an essential step to achieving a sustainable peace.Those most responsible for atrocities, including those in positions of command, must be held accountable.”

The formal determination is more measured than his assertion early in the two-year conflict that “ethnic cleansing” was taking place in parts of Tigray.

Last year, a United Nations commission of inquiry said it had turned up evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity by Ethiopian government forces, Tigray forces and Eritrea’s military. But the commission also said Ethiopian forces had resorted to “starvation of civilians” as a tool of war and that Ethiopian and Eritrean forces were found to be responsible for “sexual slavery” — while Tigray forces were not.

The conflict, which ended with a peace deal in November, killed an estimated half-million civilians in Tigray alone, according to Ghent University researchers, a death toll echoed by U.S. officials.

Blinken called on all sides to respect the agreement and follow through on pledges “to implement an inclusive and comprehensive transitional justice process.”

He said Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban, which took power after the U.S. withdrawal from the country two years ago, “relentlessly discriminates against and represses women and girls” and has taken action that threatens humanitarian assistance to all Afghans.

On China, Blinken said Beijing continues abuses, including genocide and crimes against humanity, against Uyghur Muslims in it western Xinjiang area. It also continues the repression of Tibetans and pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, along with mainland Chinese citizens who have tried to exercise basic freedoms.

In Myanmar, also known as Burma, Blinken said human rights “have further eroded,” and in Nicaragua, he said “the authoritarian government continues to detain political prisoners and hold them in appalling prison conditions.”

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