UN Experts Seek Halt to Use of Spyware in Mexico, Want Full Probe

U.N. human rights experts called on the government of Mexico on Wednesday to “cease the surveillance immediately” of activists and journalists and to conduct a fully impartial investigation into the illegal spying.

In the latest case, an international probe into the 2014 disappearance of 43 students in Mexico was targeted with spying software sold to governments to fight criminals and terrorists, according to a report published last week.

Civilians in Mexico have been targeted by the software known as Pegasus, which Israeli company NSO Group only sells to governments, according to the report by Citizen Lab, a group of researchers based at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs.

“We urge the Government to commit to cease the surveillance immediately,” the independent U.N. experts said in a joint statement demanding effective controls over the security and intelligence services.

“The allegations of surveillance, which represent a serious violation of the rights to privacy, freedom of opinion and expression, and freedom of association, are highly concerning and are evidence of the hostile and threatening environment that human rights defenders, social activists and journalists face in Mexico today,” they said.

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto has asked the attorney general’s office to investigate previous charges that the government spied on private citizens, saying he wanted to get to the bottom of the accusations that he called “false.”

“We are concerned about the alleged implication in the purchase and use of Pegasus of the same authorities that are now in charge of conducting the investigations”, the U.N. experts said. “In that sense, we call on the Government to take all the necessary steps to ensure the impartiality of the investigating organ.”

Citizen Lab said it had found a trace of the Pegasus software in a phone belonging to a group of experts backed by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights who investigated the 2014 disappearance of the students that marked one of Mexico’s worst atrocities.

The U.N. experts include those on human rights defenders, enforced disappearances, freedom of opinion, and the right to privacy.

Teen Robot Builders from 157 Countries Compete

Robots from around the world clashed in Washington, DC (this week, July 17-18). It’s part of a global competition bringing high school students together to learn tech, but also to learn to cooperate to solve important problems. VOA’s Steve Baragona reports.

Uber-style App ‘Careem’ Goes Off Beaten Track in Palestinian West Bank

Careem, a Middle Eastern rival to Uber, has become the first ride-hailing firm to operate in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Dubai-based Careem, whose name is a play on the Arabic word for generous or noble, launched in Ramallah in June, aiming to bring digital simplicity to the Palestinian territory.

There is certainly a market for easier ride-hailing among the nearly 3 million Palestinians living in the West Bank, but the fact the mobile network is still 2G, that electronic payments are not the norm and that Israeli checkpoints are common, make using the service somewhat cumbersome.

Yet Careem is optimistic about the potential.

“We are planning to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars within the coming year in the (Palestinian) sector,” Kareem Zinaty, operations manager for the Levant region said. “After the investment, it is also an opportunity to create jobs.”

Careem, which launched in 2012 and now operates in 12 countries and more than 80 cities across the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia, has said it aims to provide work for one million people across the region by 2018.

Careem’s captains

While a version of Uber and Israeli app Gett already operate in Israel, they do not venture into Palestinian territory. Drivers are excited to work with Careem, which they hope will help boost their incomes, especially with unemployment in the West Bank running at nearly 20 percent.

“It’s a very wonderful opportunity,” said one of the more than 100 new drivers, known as “captains” by Careem. “Most of the people who use it are young and happy with the price.”

Palestinians have limited self rule in parts of the West Bank, which they want for a future state alongside East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. Israel captured those areas in the 1967 Middle East war. It withdrew from Gaza in 2005, but still occupies the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Under interim peace accords, Israel still controls 60 percent of the West Bank, where most of its settlements are located. Careem’s drivers have Palestinian license plates, meaning they usually cannot enter Israeli-controlled areas.

In 2015, Israel and the Palestinian Authority agreed to expand 3G mobile access to the West Bank by 2016, but have yet to implement the agreement. In the meantime, the Ramallah municipality has set up public Wi-Fi in parts of the city center, allowing Apps like Careem to be used more easily.

Despite 2G’s slower service, Zinaty said their model was an opportunity for telecommunication companies to look into expanding services and technologies to better serve Palestinian start ups and businesses.

Story of Afghan Girls’ Team Just One of Many at Robotics Event

An international robotics competition in Washington was in its final day Tuesday, with teams of teenagers from more than 150 nations competing. The team getting the most attention at the FIRST Global Robotics Challenge was a squad of girls from Afghanistan who were twice rejected for U.S. visas before President Donald Trump intervened. But there are even more stories than there are teams. Here are a few:

Girl power

Sixty percent of the teams participating in the competition were founded, led or organized by women. Of the 830 teens participating, 209 were girls. And in addition to the Afghan squad, there were five other all-girl teams, from the United States, Ghana, Jordan, the Palestinian territories and the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu. Vanuatu’s nickname: the “SMART Sistas.”

Samira Bader, 16, on the Jordanian team, said “it’s very difficult for us because everyone thinks” building robots is “only for boys.” She said her team wanted to prove that “girls can do it.”

The three-girl U.S. team included sisters Colleen and Katie Johnson of Everett, Washington, and Sanjna Ravichandar of Plainsboro, New Jersey.

Colleen Johnson, 16, said her team looked forward “to a day when an all-girls team is going to be no more special than an all-boys team or a co-ed team, just when that’s completely normal and accepted.”

The team competing from Brunei was also all female, though a male member previously worked on the project.

An unusual alliance

The United States and Russia were on the same side Tuesday. During the fourth round of the competition, the U.S. team was paired with teams from Russia and Sudan to work as an alliance.

The robots all the teams in the competition created were designed with the same kit of parts and did the same task: pick up and distinguish between blue and orange balls. To score points, teams deposited the blue balls, which represented water, and the orange balls, which represented contaminants, into different locations. Each three-nation alliance competed head to head in 2½-minute games.

Both U.S. and Russian teams paid their counterparts compliments after their game Tuesday. Russian team member Aleksandr Iliasov said of the U.S. team: “They cooperate well.” And U.S. team member Colleen Johnson called the Russian team’s robot “very innovative,” saying they had smartly used extra wheels and gears and zip ties to keep balls inside their robot.

Despite their good collaboration, U.S.-Russia-Sudan fell short, losing 40 to 20 to Zimbabwe, Moldova and Trinidad and Tobago.

A little help

The team from Iran got some help building their robot from American students. It turns out that the competition’s kit of robot parts, including wheels, brackets, sprockets, gears, pulleys and belts, was not approved for shipment to Iran because of sanctions involving technology exports to the country. So the competition recruited a robotics team at George C. Marshall High School in Falls Church, Virginia, to help. Iran’s team designed the robot, and about five Marshall students built it in the United States.

The team explained on its competition web page that “our friends in Washington made our ideas as a robot.”

Because of the time difference between the countries, the three-member team and its mentor were sometimes up at midnight or 3 a.m. in Iran to talk to their collaborators.

Amin Dadkhah, 15, called working with the American students “a good and exciting experience for both of us.” Kirianna Baker, one of the U.S. students who built the robot, agreed. “Having a team across the world with a fresh set of eyes is very valuable,” she said.

A robot refugee

A group of three refugees from Syria competed as Team Refugee, also known as Team Hope. All three fled Syria to Lebanon three years ago because of violence in their country.

Mohamad Nabih Alkhateeb, Amar Kabour and Mahir Alisawaui named their robot “Robogee,” a combination of the words “robot” and “refugee.”

Alkhateeb, 17, and Kabour, 16, said they wanted to be robotics engineers, and Alisawui wanted to be a computer engineer. Kabour said it’s important to the team to win, to “tell the world” refugees are “here and they can do it.”

Alkhateeb also said that living as a refugee had been difficult, but he hoped to someday return home.

“I will go back after I have finished my education so I can rebuild Syria again,” he said.

Eleven million people — half the Syrian population — have been forced from their homes by the civil war.

Afghan All-girls Robotics Team Impressed by ‘Friendly’ US

It took an intervention from U.S. President Donald Trump and other officials to allow the girls of the Afghan robotics team to receive visas after two rejections, letting them travel to the United States for a robotics competition.

One of the biggest surprises once in Washington? The tight security.

“The security that we see here is not in Herat, Afghanistan,” Kawsar Roshan, a 13-year-old member of the high-profile team, told VOA during the last day of their competition at FIRST Global Challenge, where teenagers from around the world demonstrate their skills in designing, building and programming robotic devices.

“This is a peaceful city. People are not fighting each other, and it is a friendly environment,” said Afghan player Fatima Qaderian.

Her homeland has been entangled in almost ceaseless cycles of war and violence for more than 35 years. The United Nations reported Monday that more than 1,660 civilians, many of them women and children, were killed in the war between January and June 2017.

The all-girls Afghan team made it to Washington only a day before the games were launched. Their initial visa applications had been refused by the U.S. embassy in Kabul, but they were granted entry to the country after a request by Trump, U.S. officials said.

On Tuesday, Trump’s eldest daughter and senior adviser, Ivanka Trump, paid a special visit to the team and their sponsors. She had previously tweeted that she was looking forward to welcoming them.

The annual international robotics event aims to build bridges between high school students with different backgrounds, languages, religions and customs, and to ignite in them a passion for the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Afghan team member Lida Azizi said she learned “unity and teamwork” at the robotics games.

This year’s competition was related to a practical problem that threatens more than a billion people worldwide: inadequate access to clean, drinkable water.

The task of the robots was to pick up and distinguish between blue and orange balls. To score points, teams deposit the blue balls, which represent water, and the orange balls, which represent pollutants, into different locations. The teams play in groups of three nations, with two groups competing head to head. The three-robot alliance that scores the most points in a game wins.

Some information in this report was provided by the Associated Press.

China Users Report WhatsApp Disruption Amid Censorship Fears

Users of WhatsApp in China and security researchers have reported widespread service disruptions amid fears that the popular messaging service may be at least partially blocked by authorities in the world’s most populous country.

WhatsApp users in the country reported Tuesday on other social media platforms that the app was partly inaccessible unless virtual private network software was used to circumvent China’s censorship apparatus, known colloquially as The Great Firewall.

WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook and offers end-to-end encryption, has a relatively small but loyal following among Chinese users seeking a greater degree of privacy from government snooping than afforded by popular domestic app WeChat, which is ubiquitous but closely monitored and filtered.

Questions over WhatsApp’s status come at a politically fraught time in China. The government is in the midst of preparing for a sensitive party congress while Chinese censors this week revved up a sprawling effort to scrub all mention of Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who died Thursday in government custody.

A report this week by the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab detailed how Chinese censors were able to intercept, in real time, images commemorating Liu in private one-on-one chats on WeChat, a feat that hinted at the government’s image recognition capabilities.

It appeared that pictures were also the focus of the move to censor WhatsApp. Late Tuesday, users in China could send texts over WhatsApp without the use of VPNs, but not images.

Nadim Kobeissi, a cryptography researcher based in Paris who has been investigating the WhatsApp disruption, said he believed The Great Firewall was only blocking access to WhatsApp servers that route media between users, while leaving servers that handle text messages untouched.

Kobeissi said voice messages also appeared to be blocked. But there was no evidence to suggest that Chinese authorities were decrypting WhatsApp messages, he added.

A Chinese censorship researcher known by his pseudonym Charlie Smith said that authorities appeared to be blocking non-text WhatsApp messages wholesale precisely because they have not been able to selectively block content on the platform like they have with WeChat, which is produced by Shenzhen-based internet giant Tencent and legally bound to cooperate with Chinese security agencies.

Two Iranians Charged in US for Hacking, Selling Weapons Software

Two Iranian nationals have been charged in the United States in an alleged scheme to steal and resell software to Iran, including a program to design bullets and warheads.

According  to an indictment unsealed Monday, Mohammed Saeed Ajily, 35, recruited Mohammed Reza Rezakhah, 39, to break into companies’ computers to steal their software for resale to Iranian universities, the military and the government.

The two men — and a third who was arrested in 2013 and handed back to Iran in a prisoner swap last year — allegedly broke into the computers of Vermont-based Arrow Tech Associates.

The stolen software included Arrow Tech’s Projectile Rocket Ordnance Design and Analysis System (PRODAS), which is protected by U.S. controls on the export of sensitive technologies, and its distribution to Iran is banned by U.S. sanctions on the country.

According to the indictment, Rezakhah conducted the hacking and cracking operations and Ajily was in charge of marketing and selling the programs.

The two men were charged in the Rutland, Vermont, federal district court, which issued arrest warrants for the two, who are believed to be in Iran.

Afghan Girls Robotics Team Competes after Visa Obstacles

Their team shirts didn’t say “Afghanistan” and their name badges were handwritten, not typed, suggesting the last-minute nature of their entry into the United States. But the Afghan girls competing Monday in an international robotics competition in Washington were clearly excited to be representing their nation.

The team of six teenage girls was twice rejected for U.S. visas before President Donald Trump intervened at the last minute. They arrived in Washington from their hometown of Herat, Afghanistan, early Saturday, and their ball-sorting robot competed in its first round Monday morning.

“We were so interested, because we find a big chance to show the talent and ability of Afghans, show that Afghan women can make robots, too,” said Rodaba Noori, one of the team members. She acknowledged, though, that the team “hadn’t long, or enough time to get ready for competition.”

The girls’ struggle to overcome war, hardship and U.S. bureaucracy on their journey to the U.S. capital has made their team stand out among more than 150 competing in the FIRST Global Challenge, a robotics competition designed to encourage youths to pursue careers in math and science.

The U.S. won’t say why the girls were rejected for visas, citing confidentiality rules. But Afghan Ambassador Hamdullah Mohib said that based on discussions with U.S. officials, it appears the girls, who are 14 to 16 years old, were turned away due to concerns they would not return to Afghanistan.

Speaking with the assistance of a translator who summarized their remarks, 14-year-old team member Fatemah Qaderyan, said that she was “grateful” to be able to compete. Her teammate, 15-year-old Lida Azizi, said she was a little “nervous” but also excited to be playing and “proud.”

Though there was a crush of media attention, the girls looked much like other competitors, wearing jeans along with white headscarfs. Their microwave-sized robot, like that of other teams, displayed their country’s black, red and green flag.

“I’m so happy they can play,” said their mentor Alireza Mehraban, a software engineer. He added: “They are so happy to be here.”

While teams had up to four months to build their robots, the Afghan team built theirs in two weeks before it had to be shipped to reach the competition in time, Mehraban said. He said the girls had a day to test the robot in Afghanistan before it needed to be mailed.

On Monday, they were making adjustments and practicing in between rounds. When a chain seemed to come loose on a part of the robot that moves up and down, a competition judge recommended a larger part, and another team provided one.

Like others in the competition, the girls’ robot can pick up and distinguish between blue and orange balls. To score points, teams deposit the blue balls, which represent water, and the orange balls, which represent pollutants, into different locations. The teams play in alliances of three nations, with two alliances competing head to head. The three-robot alliance that scores the most points in a game wins.

Mehraban, the team’s mentor, said their robot managed to score one or two points in the first game. The team has two more games to play Monday and three games Tuesday.