Amid Hacking Fears, Key Caucus States to Use App for Results

Two of the first three states to vote in the Democratic presidential race will use new mobile apps to gather results from thousands of caucus sites — technology intended to make counting easier but that raises concerns of hacking or glitches.

Democratic Party activists in Iowa and Nevada will use programs downloaded to their personal phones to report the results of caucus gatherings to the state headquarters. That data will then be used to announce the unofficial winners. Paper records will later be used to certify the results.

The party is moving ahead with the technology amid warnings that foreign hackers could target the 2020 presidential campaign to try to sow chaos and undermine American democracy. Party officials say they are cognizant of the threat and taking numerous security precautions. Any errors, they say, will be easily correctable because of backups.

“We continue to work closely with security experts to test our systems and identify incidents, including disinformation monitoring, and we are confident in the security systems we have in place,” said Iowa Democratic Party Chair Troy Price.

The technology aims to produce a more efficient and reliable way of calculating and releasing results to the public than the complicated math and thousands of phone calls that the caucus system has long relied upon.

But the use of a new app by an unidentified developer, coupled with the high stakes of the contests, has concerned some observers. They worry that unofficial results could be inaccurate if hackers or other problems taint the data. That’s a problem even if the paper backups eventually provide an accurate tally.

“Scary would be a darn good word,” said Brandon Potter, chief technology officer of ProCircular, an Iowa company that has done vulnerability assessments for local elections officials. “If it’s secure, awesome. But it opens up all kinds of questions.”

Party officials in both states declined to identify the vendor that developed their apps, saying they did not want to create a potential target for hackers.

Microsoft developed an app that was used by both political parties in the 2016 Iowa caucuses and credited with helping obtain results from 95% of precincts within four hours. During that cycle, Microsoft’s role was announced months beforehand, and the company discussed security measures.

Some critics say the party should again identify the developers, along with the certification and security testing they have gone through, to boost public confidence.

“It would be really nice to know who developed it, how competent they are and what oversight they were subjected to,” said Douglas Jones, a University of Iowa computer science professor and election security expert. “The caucus night reporting, which is so important in determining which candidates drop out, which continue, who gets a boost from the caucus — all of that is definitely vulnerable to an attack on the app.”

Jones said hacking could take several forms. Hackers could try to corrupt the app before it’s downloaded, activate malware that might be lurking on phones or target the server that houses the app. Another concern: The app could crash amid heavy use as precincts report results.

He and others agreed that the official results of the Feb. 3 Iowa and Feb. 22 Nevada caucuses will eventually be accurate. Each precinct keeps paper copies of the results and numerous participants at each site will know the precise outcome.

Because of hacking concerns, the Democratic National Committee scrapped the Iowa party’s plan to hold a virtual caucus in which those unable to attend in person could use smartphones to record their preferences. Party officials said the risks posed by the reporting apps were much lower than with electronic voting.

The state parties worked with the technical team at the DNC to vet developers and design security protocols around the use of the app.

The Belfer Center at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government conducted simulation and training exercises with Iowa officials that included scenarios in which there were problems with a mobile reporting app. The training emphasized the importance of using authentication, secure networks to transmit data and encryption to guard against attacks.

“I do think that we need to give the Iowa team a lot of credit for how seriously they looked at all these issues,” said Eric Rosenbach, co-director of the Belfer Center.

DNC spokesman David Bergstein said national officials were coordinating with the Iowa party and the Department of Homeland Security “to run efficient and secure caucuses.” He said he is confident that state Democrats are “taking the security of their caucuses extremely seriously from all perspectives.”

Party officials said they would not be sending the app to precinct chairs for downloading until just before the caucus — to narrow the window for any interference. And while using the app is encouraged, precinct chairs still have the option of phoning in results.

Democrat Ruth Thompson, who will chair a Des Moines precinct, said she was not concerned about security risks related to the app.

“The Russians don’t care what’s on my phone,” she said. “I know we’ve got the app, but we have a paper backup. If there is a hack or something, there is the opportunity to correct it.”

Hacking fears aren’t new. In 2012, a video purporting to be from the hacking collective Anonymous called on supporters to “peacefully shut down” the Republican caucuses. In response, party leaders increased their security measures for the website where the results were posted.

Ultimately, it was old-fashioned data errors that tainted the results that year: The party chairman on caucus night declared Mitt Romney the winner by eight votes over Rick Santorum. Two weeks later, Santorum was declared the winner by 34 votes when results were certified.

From: MeNeedIt

Putin’s Moves Leave Russian Opposition With Few Options

Russian President Vladimir Putin played it differently this time.

Instead of openly declaring plans to extend his rule like he did in 2011, Putin proposed constitutional amendments to appear to give more power to Russia’s parliament.

Instead of announcing the move as a fait accompli, he said the people should vote and decide.

And then he executed a swift, unexpected reshuffle of Russia’s leadership, putting a low-profile official with no political aims in charge of the government.

Putin announced what many see as a strategy for staying in power well past the end of his term in 2024. And the proposed constitutional reforms that might allow him to remain in charge as prime minister or as head of the State Council didn’t elicit much public outrage.

Neither did the resignation of Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s prime minister, whom Putin quickly replaced with the little-known tax chief, Mikhail Mishustin.

There was a smattering of calls for protest: One opposition supporter urged people to join his one-man picket in front of the Presidential Administration on Saturday, while another called for protesters to turn out against the “constitutional coup” at a Sunday rally in honor of two slain activists.

It was very different from what happened in 2011-2012, when efforts to engineer Putin’s return to the presidency crushed Russian hopes for liberalization and sparked massive protests in Moscow.

In his speech Wednesday, Putin presented his plan to amend the constitution as a way to improve democracy. By suggesting that lawmakers could name prime ministers and Cabinet members, he also curtailed the authority of the president, who currently holds that power.

Putin also said the constitution could specify a greater role for the State Council, an obscure consultative body of regional governors and federal officials, indicating that he might take a leading position there.

He also sought to prioritize the primacy of Russian laws, so that the European Court of Human Rights would no longer have the authority to issue rulings that Moscow opposed.

All this would “strengthen the role of civil society, political parties and regions in making key decisions about the development of our state,” Putin said Thursday in discussing the amendments with lawmakers.

New Prime Minister Mishustin was praised by government officials and commentators as an “effective manager” with expertise in finance who would be able to drive Russia’s stagnating economy out of a slump.

Many Russians might see that as a positive change rather than a sophisticated political plot. According to a survey released Friday by Russia’s state-funded pollster VTsIOM, 45% of the respondents saw the shakeup as Putin’s genuine desire to change the existing power structure.

But opposition leaders like Alexei Navalny said the changes are not the kind that people are looking for. Putin is looking to “remain a lifelong, ultimate leader” and run Russia as “property” divided between himself and his backers, Navalny tweeted.

And the announced changes do nothing to address what Russians really want, said Navalny ally Lyubov Sobol.

“People demand to end corruption, people demand to improve their living conditions. They demand a reform of the health care system, they’re worried about pension reform. All these demands, they are not going anywhere,” Sobol told The Associated Press.

Vladimir Milov, an opposition politician, echoed that sentiment. Russians are willing to put up with worsened living conditions if they see potential for growth in the future — but Putin’s address shows he’s not interested in that, he said.

“This is the main conflict between Putin and society right now,” Milov said. “Society can’t wait for economic growth to start again, and Putin doesn’t care, he’s occupied with other things. At some point, this will backfire.”

Still, the announced constitutional reforms are unlikely to trigger a new wave of protests.

“All recent protests happened when discontent that has been building up for a while spilled out, triggered by something. Amending the constitution is unlikely to be a trigger,” Milov said.

Denis Volkov, a sociologist with the independent Levada polling center, said the government shakeup is so vague it is unlikely to spur public anger.

“What is happening is not clear. Is this about a presidency? About some other governing body? It is unclear what people should express their unhappiness about,” Volkov said. “It is hard to protest against something that’s unclear.”

In addition, Volkov noted, back in 2011-2012 Putin’s approval ratings were much lower — more than half of the country wanted him out. “Right now there is no urge to replace the country’s leader,” he said.

And the question remains whether the opposition will be able to galvanize people to protest. The Kremlin last year turned up the pressure on activists and politicians, sandbagging them with high-figure fines and exhausting them with arrests and trials.

There are several criminal cases open against Sobol and other Navalny allies. Sobol said she owes the government more than $400,000 in fines, and expects more fines to be imposed on opposition figures.

“There is a high probability that political pressure on us will continue this year,” she said.

Still, Sobol vowed the opposition will continue the fight — by protesting, contesting the government’s actions in court and exposing corrupt officials.

On Thursday, Navalny said in a post online that Mishustin’s wife earned some $12 million over the past nine years, according to her tax returns, even though she never owned nor ran a business. He demanded answers from Mishustin, who headed Russia’s tax service until he was named prime minister this week, and alleged there was corruption involved.

Dmitry Gudkov, a former lawmaker turned opposition politician, believes an early parliamentary election is likely, since he says the Kremlin would want the vote to be this year instead of next.

“They’re in a rush and want to (pass the proposed constitutional amendments) with the sitting parliament, which they fully control,” Gudkov. “Clearly that changes our strategy.”

From: MeNeedIt

US to Screen Passengers at Airports for Signs of New China Virus

U.S. health officials announced Friday that the United States will begin screening airline passengers arriving from central China for signs of a new virus outbreak that has killed two people and sickened dozens of others.

Officials with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the screenings will take place at airports in San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles, and will focus on direct or connecting flights from Wuhan, the central Chinese city at the heart of the outbreak.

A CDC spokesman, Scott Pauley, told VOA that only people traveling from Wuhan would be screened at this time.

Chinese health officials say many of those who became sick from the virus worked at or visited a food market in the suburbs of Wuhan. Three cases have been detected outside China — two in Thailand and one in Japan – with health officials saying those patients had visited Wuhan prior to becoming sick.

Health authorities have identified the virus as a new type of coronavirus, part of a large family of viruses that includes the common cold as well as the more serious illness SARS. Scientists say the new virus strain appears most similar to SARS, but say it seems to be weaker than that disease.

Two people in China have died from the mysterious virus and 45 others have been infected in Wuhan and nearly 50 have been infected worldwide. Chinese officials say five people remain in serious condition.

The CDC says upon arrival in the United States, travelers from Wuhan will answer a health questionnaire and have their temperatures taken for signs of illness. Those who are determined to be at risk of the virus will be taken to a nearby hospital and isolated for further assessment.

CDC officials told reporters during a conference call Friday that they expect more cases will be reported outside of China. They said the risk of the virus to the American public is low, but said they want to take proper precautions.

Health officials believe the virus spread in China from animals to humans. It is not clear if the virus is now capable of human-to-human transmission, but CDC officials say there are some indications that people may be able to spread the virus in a limited way. Scientists say that it is also possible that the virus could mutate to become more dangerous.

At least a half-dozen countries in Asia have also started health screenings for incoming airline passengers from central China.

This time of year is one of the busiest travel seasons in China, with people flying both to and from the country to celebrate the Lunar New Year.

Pauley said the CDC anticipates a higher number of Chinese travelers to the United States for the New Year and has factored this into its planning.

China said it has increased disinfection efforts in major transportation hubs to help ensure the virus does not spread. Wuhan is a main hub in China’s railway network.

A State Department spokesman said the United States is closely monitoring the outbreak in China as well as actively working with governments across the region to combat spread of the virus.

The World Health Organization is warning that a wider outbreak of the virus is possible and has given guidance to hospitals worldwide. However, in a statement Thursday, the WHO said that it does not recommend instituting any trade or travel restrictions on China at this time.

The most common symptoms of the newly identified virus are fever, cough and difficulty breathing.

VOA State Department correspondent Nike Ching contributed to this report.

From: MeNeedIt

Six Somali Soldiers Killed in Al-Shabab Attacks

Six Somali government soldiers and 19 militants were killed when Islamist group al-Shabab attacked two bases before dawn Friday, according to officials and residents.

Local security officials and residents told VOA Somali that the attackers targeted a Somali government military base in Haji Ali village, near the Indian Ocean coastal town of Addale, in Middle Shabelle region.

Somali government forces at the base responded to the attack, sparking a deadly gun battle.

Local sources said five government soldiers were killed, including a military commander. The Somali National Army Headquarters, in a statement, put the death toll at four soldiers, with two others injured.

The statement said 15 al-Shabab militants were killed and 26 were injured.

Al-Shabab said its fighters overran the base and seized weapons and vehicles.

Separately, one government soldier and four militants were killed in another al-Shabab attack Friday in the town of Hosingow, Lower Juba region.

Residents told VOA that the militants briefly entered a Somali military camp near the town. Troops launched a counterattack and retook the base, killing four militants and a soldier, residents say.

U.S. airstrike

Meanwhile, the U.S. military has confirmed killing two al-Shabab militants in an airstrike near the town of Kunyo Barrow in Lower Shabelle region on Thursday. It is the second U.S. airstrike in Somalia in 2020.

Last year, U.S. Africa Command conducted a record 63 strikes in Somalia.

Al-Shabab has conducted several high-profile attacks in recent weeks, including one on a Kenyan military base housing U.S. forces. The militants killed three Americans in the Jan. 5 attack.

From: MeNeedIt

Antibiotic Resistance Growing With No New Drugs on Horizon

At least 700,000 people die every year due to drug-resistant diseases, including 230,000 from multidrug resistant tuberculosis, according to the World Health Organization.  

Last year, a U.N. report predicted growing antimicrobial resistance could cause 10 million deaths each year by 2050 and trigger a financial crisis.

The WHO said the health threat affects everyone, but those most at risk include people whose immune system is compromised, the elderly, and patients undergoing chemotherapy, surgery and organ transplants.

Fifty antibiotics are in the pipeline, said WHO’s Senior Adviser on Antimicrobial Resistance, Peter Beyer, but the majority only have limited benefits when compared to existing antibiotics.

“We are actually running out of antibiotics that are effective against these resistant bacteria,” he said. “It takes maybe 10 years to develop a new antibiotic, so if you go back to phase one, we know exactly what, at best, what we can get in the next 10 years. And we really see that it is insufficient to counter the current threat.” 

Scientifically, Beyer said, it is very difficult to come up with truly new innovative antibiotics. In addition, there is little financial incentive for pharmaceutical companies to develop a new drug because it is risky, it takes a lot of time and money, and the monetary returns are likely to be poor, he said.


However, he added, he hopes the industry changes its position and develops new antibiotics because drug companies also need these new medications.

“For example, if they want to sell products for chemotherapy, they really need effective antibiotics because otherwise you cannot do effective chemotherapy, in particular in countries like India or Bangladesh where infection prevention control is not that good,” Beyer said. “So, I do think that the industry, at one point in time, they will turn around. That is our hope. And, we, of course, try to convince governments to invest as well.”  

In the meantime, Beyer said, one of the most cost-effective, life-saving measures is better prevention control in hospitals. Instead of inventing new drugs to treat people who get infected in hospitals, he said, it makes more sense to protect them from getting infected in the first place.  

From: MeNeedIt

Freedom, History and Inspiration

VOA Connect Episode 105 – A formerly homeless man turned-pizza- mogul discusses the importance of giving back, a body-positive yoga instructor shows that yoga isn’t just for the slim, and a group of US military veterans reflect on service and war.

From: MeNeedIt

Pizza and People

Hakki Akdeniz was living on the street when he arrived to the US in 2001. He went from being homeless to running a successful pizza business in New York, and now gives back to the streets.

Reporter: Anna Nelson, Camera:  Vladimir Badikov, Dmitrii Vershinin, Natalia Latukhina; Adapted by: Philip Alexiou; VOA Russian Service

From: MeNeedIt

Analysts: Africa Faces Promising Decade, But With Obstacles

2020 marks the beginning of a promising decade for Africa, according to African experts and global policymakers who gathered this week for the release of the Brookings Institution’s annual publication on Africa. VOA correspondent Mariama Diallo reports on some of the six key priorities, including climate change, regional integration, and the need to develop the energy and private sectors.

From: MeNeedIt

Pompeo Silent on Reports of Surveillance of Former US Ambassador to Ukraine

Ukrainian authorities say they have opened an investigation into whether Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Kyiv, was illegally spied on before U.S. President Donald Trump abruptly recalled her from her post last year. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the State Department have not replied to repeated requests for comment on the alleged surveillance and potential physical threats to the 33-year career diplomat. VOA’s Diplomatic Correspondent Cindy Saine reports from the State Department.

From: MeNeedIt

Pentagon Defends Track Record in Afghanistan

The Pentagon is rejecting accusations that military leadership “incentivized lying” to portray a more optimistic picture of U.S. efforts in the nearly two-decade-long war in Afghanistan.

“The idea that there was some … effort to hide the truth or the reality on the ground just doesn’t hold water,” chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman told reporters Thursday.

“This idea that there were somehow misstatements or lies, I don’t think that really gels,” he added.

Hoffman’s response took aim at comments by U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko, who testified Wednesday before the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

FILE – John Sopko, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 10, 2014.

“We have incentivized lying to Congress,” Sopko told lawmakers. “The whole incentive is to show success and to ignore the failure. And when there’s too much failure, classify it or don’t report it.”

Lawmakers created the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, in 2008 and it has been producing quarterly reports on U.S. reconstruction efforts ever since.

Many of the reports have been critical of U.S. efforts, criticism that gained momentum following the release late last year of the Afghanistan Papers — a collection of previously undisclosed SIGAR interviews and notes obtained by The Washington Post.

Hoffman said Thursday that much of the material Sopko cited had been shared willingly, with the understanding it would be shared with Congress.

He also made no apology for how defense officials shared information with the public outside the SIGAR process.

“We have people who are working incredibly hard on incredibly difficult projects, and when they’re asked to take on a difficult task, they look for ways to make it happen,” he said. “If our people are being too forward leaning and trying to be optimistic about what we think we can accomplish, and to be honest and open with the Congress, we’ll continue to do that.”

From: MeNeedIt