UN Food Chief: Billions Needed to Avert Unrest, Starvation

Without billions of dollars more to feed millions of hungry people, the world will see mass migration, destabilized countries, and starving children and adults in the next 12-18 months, the head of the Nobel prize-winning U.N. World Food Program warned Friday.

David Beasley praised increased funding from the United States and Germany last year, and urged China, Gulf nations, billionaires and other countries “to step up big time.”

In an interview before he hands the reins of the world’s largest humanitarian organization to U.S. ambassador Cindy McCain next week, the former South Carolina governor said he’s “extremely worried” that WFP won’t raise about $23 billion it needs this year to help an estimated 350 million people in 49 countries who desperately need food.

“Right at this stage, I’ll be surprised if we get 40% of it, quite frankly,” he said.

WFP was in a similar crisis last year, he said, but fortunately he was able to convince the United States to increase its funding from about $3.5 billion to $7.4 billion and Germany to raise its contribution from $350 million a few years ago to $1.7 billion, but he doesn’t think they’ll do it again this year.

Other countries need to step up now, he said, starting with China, the world’s second-largest economy which gave WFP just $11 million last year.

Beasley applauded China for its success in substantially reducing hunger and poverty at home, but said it gave less than one cent per person last year compared to the United States, the world’s leading economy, which gave about $22 per person.

China needs “to engage in the multilateral world” and be willing to provide help that is critical, he said. “They have a moral obligation to do so.”

Beasley said they’ve done “an incredible job of feeding their people,” and “now we need their help in other parts of the world” on how they did it, particularly in poorer countries including in Africa.

With high oil prices Gulf countries can also do more, especially Muslim nations that have relations with countries in east Africa, the Sahara and elsewhere in the Middle East, he said, expressing hope they will increase contributions.

Beasley said the wealthiest billionaires made unprecedented profits during the COVID-19 pandemic, and “it’s not too much to ask some of the multibillionaires to step up and help us in the short-term crisis,” even though charity isn’t a long-term solution to the food crisis.

In the long-term, he said what he’d really like to see is billionaires using their experience and success to engage “in the world’s greatest need – and that is food on the planet to feed 8 billion people.”

“The world has to understand that the next 12 to 18 months is critical, and if we back off the funding, you will have mass migration, and you will have destabilization nations and that will all be on top of starvation among children and people around the world,” he warned.

Beasley said WFP was just forced to cut rations by 50% to 4 million people in Afghanistan, and “these are people who are knocking on famine’s door now.”

“We don’t have enough money just to reach the most vulnerable people now,” he said. “So we are in a crisis over the cliff stage right now, where we literally could have hell on earth if we’re not very careful.”

Beasley said he’s been telling leaders in the West and Europe that while they’re focusing everything on Ukraine and Russia, “you better well not forget about what’s south and southeast of you because I can assure you it is coming your way if you don’t pay attention and get on top of it.”

With $400 trillion worth of wealth on the planet, he said, there’s no reason for any child to die of starvation.

The WFP executive director said leaders have to prioritize the humanitarian needs that are going to have the greatest impact on stability in societies around the world.

He singled out several priority places — Africa’s Sahel region as well as the east including Somalia, northern Kenya, South Sudan and Ethiopia; Syria which is having an impact on Jordan and Lebanon; and Central and South America where the number of people migrating to the United States is now five times what it was a year-and-a-half ago.

Namibia Looks East for Green Hydrogen Partnerships

The administrator of the National Energy Administration of China, Zhang Jinhua, on Friday paid a visit to Namibia President Hage Geingob. The visit is aimed at establishing cooperation in the area of green hydrogen production.

Namibia is positioning itself as a future green hydrogen producer to attract investment from the globe’s leading and fastest growing producer of renewable energy — China.

James Mnyupe, Namibia’s green hydrogen commissioner and economic adviser to the president, told VOA that although Namibia has not signed a partnership with China on green hydrogen, officials are looking to the Asian country as a critical partner. But it isn’t talking to China alone.

“We have an MOU [Memo of Understanding] with Europe; we are also discussing possibilities of collaboration with the United States,” he said. “If you look at any of these green hydrogen projects as I mentioned, simply they will use components from all over the world.”

He said in the face of rising energy demands around the globe and increased tensions between the East and West, Namibia will not be drawn into picking sides. He was referring to the conflict in Ukraine and its effect on international relations

“So today Europe’s biggest trading partner is China, China’s biggest markets are the U.S. and Europe so if Namibia trades with Europe, China or the U.S. for that matter, that is not a reason for involving Namibia in any political or conflict-related discussions between those countries,” he said.

Presidential spokesperson Alfredo Hengari said the visit by U.S. Ambassador to Namibia Randy Berry on Tuesday was aimed at cementing relations in major areas of interest, among them green hydrogen and oil exploration.

“Namibia is making tremendous advances in the areas of green energy but also in hydrocarbons,” he said. “American companies are drilling off the coast of the Republic of Namibia and so it was a courtesy visit just to emphasize increasing cooperation in these areas.”

Speaking through an interpreter, China’s administrator for its National Energy Administration on Friday said China is ready to partner with Namibia in all areas of green hydrogen.

Hydrogen is an alternative fuel that industrialized nations hope can help them reach their ambitious goal of net-zero carbon emission by 2050.

Mnyupe says Namibia is looking to learn from China on how best to use its experience in producing renewable energy and renewable energy components. Friday’s visit is an indication of China’s interest in partnering with Namibia and participating in the countries green-hydrogen value chain.

Italy Temporarily Blocks ChatGPT Over Privacy Concerns

Italy is temporarily blocking the artificial intelligence software ChatGPT in the wake of a data breach as it investigates a possible violation of stringent European Union data protection rules, the government’s privacy watchdog said Friday.

The Italian Data Protection Authority said it was taking provisional action “until ChatGPT respects privacy,” including temporarily limiting the company from processing Italian users’ data.

U.S.-based OpenAI, which developed the chatbot, said late Friday night it has disabled ChatGPT for Italian users at the government’s request. The company said it believes its practices comply with European privacy laws and hopes to make ChatGPT available again soon.

While some public schools and universities around the world have blocked ChatGPT from their local networks over student plagiarism concerns, Italy’s action is “the first nation-scale restriction of a mainstream AI platform by a democracy,” said Alp Toker, director of the advocacy group NetBlocks, which monitors internet access worldwide.

The restriction affects the web version of ChatGPT, popularly used as a writing assistant, but is unlikely to affect software applications from companies that already have licenses with OpenAI to use the same technology driving the chatbot, such as Microsoft’s Bing search engine.

The AI systems that power such chatbots, known as large language models, are able to mimic human writing styles based on the huge trove of digital books and online writings they have ingested.

The Italian watchdog said OpenAI must report within 20 days what measures it has taken to ensure the privacy of users’ data or face a fine of up to either 20 million euros (nearly $22 million) or 4% of annual global revenue.

The agency’s statement cites the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation and pointed to a recent data breach involving ChatGPT “users’ conversations” and information about subscriber payments.

OpenAI earlier announced that it had to take ChatGPT offline on March 20 to fix a bug that allowed some people to see the titles, or subject lines, of other users’ chat history.

“Our investigation has also found that 1.2% of ChatGPT Plus users might have had personal data revealed to another user,” the company had said. “We believe the number of users whose data was actually revealed to someone else is extremely low and we have contacted those who might be impacted.”

Italy’s privacy watchdog, known as the Garante, also questioned whether OpenAI had legal justification for its “massive collection and processing of personal data” used to train the platform’s algorithms. And it said ChatGPT can sometimes generate — and store — false information about individuals.

Finally, it noted there’s no system to verify users’ ages, exposing children to responses “absolutely inappropriate to their age and awareness.”

OpenAI said in response that it works “to reduce personal data in training our AI systems like ChatGPT because we want our AI to learn about the world, not about private individuals.”

“We also believe that AI regulation is necessary — so we look forward to working closely with the Garante and educating them on how our systems are built and used,” the company said.

The Italian watchdog’s move comes as concerns grow about the artificial intelligence boom. A group of scientists and tech industry leaders published a letter Wednesday calling for companies such as OpenAI to pause the development of more powerful AI models until the fall to give time for society to weigh the risks.

The president of Italy’s privacy watchdog agency told Italian state TV Friday evening he was one of those who signed the appeal. Pasquale Stanzione said he did so because “it’s not clear what aims are being pursued” ultimately by those developing AI.

India’s Five-Decade Battle to Save Tiger Succeeding, but Road Ahead Challenging

Five decades ago, a count of tigers in India revealed that their numbers had plummeted from tens of thousands to about 1,800 as they fell prey to recreational hunting or lost habitat to a growing population pressing into forests.  

That prompted India to launch one of the world’s most ambitious conservation projects.  In April 1973, the tiger was declared the country’s national animal and protected areas were set up to conserve a species that lies at the top of the food chain. Hunting had been outlawed months earlier. 

In its 50 years, Project Tiger has seen many ups and downs. But the nearly 3,000 tigers that now roam India’s forests show the mighty cat has been saved from extinction, although conservationists warn that it still counts as an endangered species. 

“I rate it as one of the finest examples in the annals of conservation globally. It is not matched anywhere in the magnitude, scale and effort,” said Rajesh Gopal, secretary-general of the Global Tiger Forum. 

“But we are still very much in project mode because the treasure you are guarding is unlocked and mobile and there is always a new challenge to overcome,” he told VOA.

Over the years, the number of sanctuaries has grown from nine to 54 and India is now home to 70% of the world’s tigers, which have disappeared from all except 13 countries in South and Southeast Asia.  

The battle was not easy. More than 30 years after the project was launched, a census in 2006 rang alarm bells when it indicated that the tiger population had declined to 1,411. The wake-up call led authorities to refocus strategies to save the species.

A major threat to tigers was the rampant poaching of the predator as rising affluence in China and East Asian countries fueled growing demand for tiger parts used in traditional Chinese medicine. 

But increased surveillance and better technology paid dividends in checking the thriving illegal trade in tigers and, while poaching has not ended, it no longer poses a significant threat, according to wildlife experts. 

They say, though, that the challenges over the next 50 years could be greater than those of the past half century. The most pressing is the risk to tiger habitats from the ever-growing demand for land and resources in a rapidly developing country.

“There is the enormous pressure of the economic transformation of India – the building of highways, roads and mines that are cutting off access to what once used to be wildlife corridors along which tigers moved unhindered between forest landscapes in search of territory,” said Mahesh Rangarajan, professor of environmental studies and history at Ashoka University in Haryana.

“This also raises a biological challenge – the danger of inbreeding of tiger populations as some of these reserves get cut off from one another,” he said. 

While tiger habitats have been secured, coexistence of the world’s second-largest population in a densely packed country of 1.4 billion with the world’s largest tiger population is not easy. Even though hundreds of villages have been relocated from sanctuaries to make space for the tigers, many parks are adjacent to human settlements into which tigers sometimes stray, resulting in increasing incidents of human-tiger conflict. 

“A third of the tigers are still living outside protected areas and their prey often becomes livestock due to dwindling prey species due to hunting in the forests,” Rangarajan said.

“There have been many incidents of tiger attacks on humans and also the reverse, that is the killing of tigers by villagers in retaliation. This needs serious redressal.” 

Some conservationists also question whether the single-minded focus on tigers needs to be broadened and say the tiger should be seen as a symbol of sustainable development.

“When we launched the project, the vision was that the tiger was a means to an end, to utilize it as an iconic flagship species to save something much more valuable than the tiger itself – the diverse habitat of which the tiger is an integral part but not its only representative,” said M.K. Ranjitsinh, who was the country’s first wildlife preservation director and was associated with Project Tiger. 

“The project has been a success, but the focus is now too species-centric. We judge a wildlife reserve by the number of tigers it holds instead of seeing whether the entire ecosystem, the other species and flora and fauna in the park, are also flourishing,” Ranjitsinh said. 

Experts say that in coming decades, the focus should be on stabilizing the tiger population rather than increasing numbers. 

“The tiger reserves are already reaching their carrying capacity. If we try to increase the tiger population beyond a point, we will land in a situation where we will be grappling with other problems such as more incidents of tiger-human conflict,” said Gopal, who headed Project Tiger for several years. “We don’t want the tiger to gain a pest value. We have to balance the needs of the tiger with that of more than a billion people.” 

India will reveal the results of the latest tiger census during a three-day event starting April 9 to commemorate 50 years of the project. 

Regardless of the numbers, though, conservationists say India is now indisputably the world’s greatest tiger stronghold. 

Is Banning TikTok Constitutional?

U.S. lawmakers and officials are ratcheting up threats to ban TikTok, saying the Chinese-owned video-sharing app used by millions of Americans poses a threat to privacy and U.S. national security.

But free speech advocates and legal experts say an outright ban would likely face a constitutional hurdle: the First Amendment right to free speech.

“If passed by Congress and enacted into law, a nationwide ban on TikTok would have serious ramifications for free expression in the digital sphere, infringing on Americans’ First Amendment rights and setting a potent and worrying precedent in a time of increased censorship of internet users around the world,” a coalition of free speech advocacy organizations wrote in a letter to Congress last week, urging a solution short of an outright ban.

The plea came as U.S. lawmakers grilled TikTok CEO Shou Chew over concerns the Chinese government could exploit the platform’s user data for espionage and influence operations in the United States.

TikTok, which bills itself as a “platform for free expression” and a “modern-day version of the town square,” says it has more than 150 million users in the United States.

But the platform is owned by ByteDance, a Beijing-based company, and U.S. officials have raised concerns that the Chinese government could utilize the app’s user data to influence and spy on Americans.

Aaron Terr, director of public advocacy at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, said while there are legitimate privacy and national security concerns about TikTok, the First Amendment implications of a ban so far have received little public attention.

“If nothing else, it’s important for that to be a significant part of the conversation,” Terr said in an interview. “It’s important for people to consider alongside national security concerns.”

To be sure, the First Amendment is not absolute. There are types of speech that are not protected by the amendment. Among them: obscenity, defamation and incitement.

But the Supreme Court has also made it clear there are limits on how far the government can go to regulate speech, even when it involves a foreign adversary or when the government argues that national security is at stake.

In a landmark 1965 case, the Supreme Court invalidated a law that prevented Americans from receiving foreign mail that the government deemed was “communist political propaganda.”

In another consequential case involving a defamation lawsuit brought against The New York Times, the court ruled that even an “erroneous statement” enjoyed some constitutional protection.

“And that’s relevant because here, one of the reasons that Congress is concerned about TikTok is the potential that the Chinese government could use it to spread disinformation,” said Caitlin Vogus, deputy director of the Free Expression Project at the Center for Democracy and Technology, one of the signatories of the letter to Congress.

Proponents of a ban deny a prohibition would run afoul of the First Amendment.

“This is not a First Amendment issue, because we’re not trying to ban booty videos,” Republican Senator Marco Rubio, a longtime critic of TikTok, said on the Senate floor on Monday.

ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, is beholden to the Chinese Communist Party, Rubio said.

“So, if the Communist Party goes to ByteDance and says, ‘We want you to use that algorithm to push these videos on Americans to convince them of whatever,’ they have to do it. They don’t have an option,” Rubio said.

The Biden administration has reportedly demanded that ByteDance divest itself from TikTok or face a possible ban.

TikTok denies the allegations and says it has taken measures to protect the privacy and security of its U.S. user data.

Rubio is sponsoring one of several competing bills that envision different pathways to a TikTok ban.

A House bill called the Deterring America’s Technological Adversaries Act would empower the president to shut down TikTok.

A Senate bill called the RESTRICT Act would authorize the Commerce Department to investigate information and communications technologies to determine whether they pose national security risks.

This would not be the first time the U.S. government has attempted to ban TikTok.

In 2020, then-President Donald Trump issued an executive order declaring a national emergency that would have effectively shut down the app.

In response, TikTok sued the Trump administration, arguing that the executive order violated its due process and First Amendment rights.

While courts did not weigh in on the question of free speech, they blocked the ban on the grounds that Trump’s order exceeded statutory authority by targeting “informational materials” and “personal communication.”

Allowing the ban would “have the effect of shutting down, within the United States, a platform for expressive activity used by about 700 million individuals globally,” including more than 100 million Americans, federal judge Wendy Beetlestone wrote in response to a lawsuit brought by a group of TikTok users.

A fresh attempt to ban TikTok, whether through legislation or executive action, would likely trigger a First Amendment challenge from the platform, as well as its content creators and users, according to free speech advocates. And the case could end up before the Supreme Court.

In determining the constitutionality of a ban, courts would likely apply a judicial review test known as an “intermediate scrutiny standard,” Vogus said.

“It would still mean that any ban would have to be justified by an important governmental interest and that a ban would have to be narrowly tailored to address that interest,” Vogus said. “And I think that those are two significant barriers to a TikTok ban.”

But others say a “content-neutral” ban would pass Supreme Court muster.

“To pass content-neutral laws, the government would need to show that the restraint on speech, if any, is narrowly tailored to serve a ‘significant government interest’ and leaves open reasonable alternative avenues for expression,” Joel Thayer, president of the Digital Progress Institute, wrote in a recent column in The Hill online newspaper.

In Congress, even as the push to ban TikTok gathers steam, there are lone voices of dissent.

One is progressive Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Another is Democratic Representative Jamal Bowman, himself a prolific TikTok user.

Opposition to TikTok, Bowman said, stems from “hysteria” whipped up by a “Red scare around China.”

“Our First Amendment gives us the right to speak freely and to communicate freely, and TikTok as a platform has created a community and a space for free speech for 150 million Americans and counting,” Bowman, who has more than 180,000 TikTok followers, said recently at a rally held by TikTok content creators.

Instead of singling out TikTok, Bowman said, Congress should enact new legislation to ensure social media users are safe and their data secure.

Call for Pause in AI Development May Fall on Deaf Ears

A group of influential figures from Silicon Valley and the larger tech community released an open letter this week calling for a pause in the development of powerful artificial intelligence programs, arguing that they present unpredictable dangers to society.

The organization that created the open letter, the Future of Life Institute, said the recent rollout of increasingly powerful AI tools by companies like Open AI, IBM and Google demonstrates that the industry is “locked in an out-of-control race to develop and deploy ever more powerful digital minds that no one – not even their creators – can understand, predict, or reliably control.”

The signatories of the letter, including Elon Musk, founder of Tesla and SpaceX, and Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, called for a six-month halt to all development work on large language model AI projects.

“AI labs and independent experts should use this pause to jointly develop and implement a set of shared safety protocols for advanced AI design and development that are rigorously audited and overseen by independent outside experts,” the letter says. “These protocols should ensure that systems adhering to them are safe beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The letter does not call for a halt to all AI-related research but focuses on extremely large systems that assimilate vast amounts of data and use it to solve complex tasks and answer difficult questions.

However, experts told VOA that commercial competition between different AI labs, and a broader concern about allowing Western companies to fall behind China in the race to develop more advanced applications of the technology, make any significant pause in development unlikely.

Chatbots offer window

While artificial intelligence is present in day-to-day life in myriad ways, including algorithms that curate social media feeds, systems used to make credit decisions in many financial institutions and facial recognition increasingly used in security systems, large language models have increasingly taken center stage in the discussion of AI.

In its simplest form, a large language model is an AI system that analyzes large amounts of textual data and uses a set of parameters to predict the next word in a sentence. However, models of sufficient complexity, operating with billions of parameters, are able to model human language, sometimes with uncanny accuracy.

In November of last year, Open AI released a program called ChatGPT (Chat Generative Pre-trained Transformer) to the general public. Based on the underlying GPT 3.5 model, the program allows users to communicate with the program by entering text through a web browser, which returns responses created nearly instantaneously by the program.

ChatGPT was an immediate sensation, as users used it to generate everything from complex computer code to poetry. Though it was quickly apparent that the program frequently returned false or misleading information, the potential for it to disrupt any number of sectors of life, from academia to customer service systems to national defense, was clear.

Microsoft has since integrated ChatGPT into its search engine, Bing. More recently, Google has rolled out its own AI-supported search capability, known as Bard.

GPT-4 as benchmark

In the letter calling for pause in development, the signatories use GPT-4 as a benchmark. GPT-4 is an AI tool developed by Open AI that is more powerful than the version that powers the original ChatGPT. It is currently in limited release. The moratorium being called for in the letter is on systems “more powerful than GPT-4.”

One problem though, is that it is not precisely clear what “more powerful” means in this context.

“There are other models that, in computational terms, are much less large or powerful, but which have very powerful potential impacts,” Bill Drexel, an associate fellow with the AI Safety and Stability program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), told VOA. “So there are much smaller models that can potentially help develop dangerous pathogens or help with chemical engineering — really consequential models that are much smaller.”

Limited capabilities

Edward Geist, a policy researcher at the RAND Corporation and the author of the forthcoming book Deterrence Under Uncertainty: Artificial Intelligence and Nuclear Warfare told VOA that it is important to understand both what programs like GPT-4 are capable of, but also what they are not.

For example, he said, Open AI has made it clear in technical data provided to potential commercial customers that once the model is trained on a set of data, there is no clear way to teach it new facts or to otherwise update it without completely retraining the system. Additionally, it does not appear to be able to perform tasks that require “evolving” memory, such as reading a book.

“There are, sort of, glimmerings of an artificial general intelligence,” he said. “But then you read the report, and it seems like it’s missing some features of what I would consider even a basic form of general intelligence.”

Geist said that he believes many of those warning about the dangers of AI are “absolutely earnest” in their concerns, but he is not persuaded that those dangers are as severe as they believe.

“The gap between that super-intelligent self-improving AI that has been postulated in those conjectures, and what GPT-4 and its ilk can actually do seems to be very broad, based on my reading of Open AI’s technical report about it.”

Commercial and security concerns

James A. Lewis, senior vice president and director of the Strategic Technologies Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), told VOA he is skeptical that the open letter will have much effect, for reasons as varied as commercial competition and concerns about national security.

Asked what he thinks the chances are of the industry agreeing to a pause in research, he said, “Zero.”

“You’re asking Microsoft to not compete with Google?” Lewis said. “They’ve been trying for decades to beat Google on search engines, and they’re on the verge of being able to do it. And you’re saying, let’s take a pause? Yeah, unlikely.”

Competition with China

More broadly, Lewis said, improvements in AI will be central to progress in technology related to national defense.

“The Chinese aren’t going to stop because Elon Musk is getting nervous,” Lewis said. “That will affect [Department of Defense] thinking. If we’re the only ones who put the brakes on, we lose the race.”

Drexel, of CNAS, agreed that China is unlikely to feel bound by any such moratorium.

“Chinese companies and the Chinese government would be unlikely to agree to this pause,” he said. “If they agreed, they’d be unlikely to follow through. And in any case, it’d be very difficult to verify whether or not they were following through.”

He added, “The reason why they’d be particularly unlikely to agree is because — particularly on models like GPT-4 — they feel and recognize that they are behind. [Chinese President] Xi Jinping has said numerous times that AI is a really important priority for them. And so catching up and surpassing [Western companies] is a high priority.”

Li Ang Zhang, an information scientist with the RAND Corporation, told VOA he believes a blanket moratorium is a mistake.

“Instead of taking a fear-based approach, I’d like to see a better thought-out strategy towards AI governance,” he said in an email exchange. “I don’t see a broad pause in AI research as a tenable strategy but I think this is a good way to open a conversation on what AI safety and ethics should look like.”

He also said that a moratorium might disadvantage the U.S. in future research.

“By many metrics, the U.S. is a world leader in AI,” he said. “For AI safety standards to be established and succeed, two things must be true. The U.S. must maintain its world-lead in both AI and safety protocols. What happens after six months? Research continues, but now the U.S. is six months behind.”

Russia Using TikTok to Push Pro-Moscow Narrative on Ukraine

New data is suggesting at least some U.S. adversaries are taking advantage of the hugely popular TikTok video-sharing app for influence operations.

A report Thursday by the Alliance for Securing Democracy (ASD) finds Russia “has been using the app to push its own narrative” in its effort to undermine Western support for Ukraine.

“Based on our analysis, some users are engaging more with Russian state media than other, more reputable independent news outlets on the platform,” according to the report by the U.S.-based election security advocate that tracks official state actors and state-backed media.

“More TikTok users follow RT than The New York Times,” it said.

The ASD report found that as of March 22, there were 78 Russian-funded news outlets on TikTok with a total of more than 14 million followers.

It also found that despite a commitment from TikTok to label the accounts as belonging to state-controlled media, 31 of the accounts were not labeled.

Yet even labeling the accounts seemed to have little impact on their ability to gain an audience.

“By some measures, including the performance of top posts, labeled Russian state media accounts are reaching larger audiences on TikTok than other platforms,” the report said. “RIA Novosti’s top TikTok post so far in 2023 has more than 5.6 million views. On Twitter, its top post has fewer than 20,000 views.”

The report on Russian state media’s use of TikTok comes as U.S. officials are again voicing concern about the potential for TikTok to be used for disinformation campaigns and foreign influence operations.

“Just a tremendous number of people in the United States use TikTok,” John Plumb, the principal cyber adviser to the U.S. secretary of defense, told members of a House Armed Services subcommittee, warning of “the control China may have to direct information through it” and use it as a “misinformation platform.”

“This provides a foreign nation a platform for information operations,” U.S. Cyber Command’s General Paul Nakasone added, noting that TikTok has 150 million users in the United States.

“One-third of the adult population receives their news from this app,” he said. “One-sixth of our children are saying they’re constantly on this app.”

TikTok, owned by China-based ByteDance, has sought to push back against the concerns.

“Let me state this unequivocally: ByteDance is not an agent of China or any other country,” TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew told U.S. lawmakers during a hearing last week.

“We do not promote or remove content at the request of the Chinese government,” he said, trying to downplay fears about the company’s data collection practices and Chinese laws that would require the company to share that information with the Chinese government if asked.U.S. lawmakers, intelligence and security officials, however, have their doubts.

The top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Marco Rubio, earlier this month warned that TikTok is “probably one of the most valuable surveillance tools on the planet.”

A day later, Cyber Command’s Nakasone told members of the House Intelligence Committee that TikTok is like a “loaded gun,” while FBI Director Christopher Wray warned that TikTok’s recommendation algorithm “could be used to conduct influence operations.”

“That’s not something that would be easily detected,” he added.

 

Blinken Urges Democracies to Use Technology to Help Citizens

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday urged democracies around the world to work together to ensure technology is used to promote democratic values and fight efforts by authoritarian regimes to use it to repress, control and divide citizens.

Blinken made the comments as he led a discussion on “Advancing Democracy and Internet Freedom in a Digital Age.” The session was part of U.S. President Joe Biden’s Summit for Democracy, a largely virtual gathering of leaders taking place this week from the State Department in Washington.

Blinken said the world is at the point where technology is “reorganizing the life of the world” and noted many countries are using these technologies to advance democratic principles and make life better for their citizens.

He pointed to the Maldives, where court hearings are being held online; Malaysia, where the internet was used to register 3 million new voters last year; and Estonia, where government services are delivered faster and more simply. 

At the same time, Blinken said the internet is being used more and more to spread disinformation and foment dissent. He said the U.S. and its democratic partners must establish rules and norms to promote an open, free and safe internet.

The secretary of state identified four priorities to help meet this goal, including using technology to improve people’s lives in tangible ways, establishing rights-respecting rules for emerging technologies, investing in innovation, and countering the effects of authoritarian governments’ use of digital tools to abuse citizens and weaken democracies.

Since the summit began earlier the week, the White House has emphasized the desire of the U.S. to make “technology work for and not against democracy.”

On Wednesday, the prime ministers of eight European countries signed an open letter to the chief executives of major social media companies calling for them to be more aggressive in blocking the spread of false information on their platforms. The leaders of Ukraine, Moldova, Poland, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovakia signed the letter.

The statement told the companies their tech platforms “have become virtual battlegrounds, and hostile foreign powers are using them to spread false narratives that contradict reporting from fact-based news outlets.” 

It went on to say advertisements and artificial amplification on Meta’s platforms, which include Facebook, are often used to call for social unrest, bring violence to the streets and destabilize governments.

About 120 global leaders are participating in the summit. It is seen as Biden’s attempt to bolster the standing of democracies as autocratic governments advance their own agendas, such as Russia’s 13-month invasion of Ukraine, and China’s alliance with Moscow.

In a statement as the summit opened Tuesday, the White House said, “President Biden has called the struggle to bolster democratic governance at home and abroad the defining challenge of our time.” 

The statement went on to say, “Democracy — transparent and accountable government of, for, and by the people — remains the best way to realize lasting peace, prosperity, and human dignity.” 

Chinese Hacking Group Highly Active, US Cybersecurity Firm Says

A Chinese hacking group that is likely state-sponsored and has been linked previously to attacks on U.S. state government computers is highly active and focusing on a broad range of targets that may be of strategic interest to China’s government and security services, a private American cybersecurity firm said in a report Thursday.

The hacking group, which the report called RedGolf, shares such close overlap with groups tracked by other security companies under the names APT41 and BARIUM that it is thought they are either the same or very closely affiliated, said Jon Condra, director of strategic and persistent threats for Insikt Group, the threat research division of Massachusetts-based cybersecurity company Recorded Future.

Following up on previous reports of APT41 and BARIUM activities and monitoring the targets that were attacked, Insikt Group said it had identified a cluster of domains and infrastructure “highly likely used across multiple campaigns by RedGolf” over the past two years.

“We believe this activity is likely being conducted for intelligence purposes rather than financial gain due to the overlaps with previously reported cyberespionage campaigns,” Condra said in an emailed response to questions from The Associated Press.

China’s Foreign Ministry denied the accusations, saying, “This company has produced false information on so-called ‘Chinese hacker attacks’ more than once in the past. Their relevant actions are groundless accusations, far-fetched and lack professionalism.”

Chinese authorities have consistently denied any form of state-sponsored hacking, instead saying China itself is a major target of cyberattacks.

APT41 was implicated in a 2020 U.S. Justice Department indictment that accused Chinese hackers of targeting more than 100 companies and institutions in the U.S. and abroad, including social media and video game companies, universities and telecommunications providers.

In its analysis, Insikt Group said it found evidence that RedGolf “remains highly active” in a wide range of countries and industries, “targeting aviation, automotive, education, government, media, information technology and religious organizations.”

Insikt Group did not identify specific victims of RedGolf, but said it was able to track scanning and exploitation attempts targeting different sectors with a version of the KEYPLUG backdoor malware also used by APT41.

Insikt said it had identified several other malicious tools used by RedGolf in addition to KEYPLUG, “all of which are commonly used by many Chinese state-sponsored threat groups.”

In 2022, the cybersecurity firm Mandiant reported that APT41 was responsible for breaches of the networks of at least six U.S. state governments, also using KEYPLUG.

In that case, APT41 exploited a previously unknown vulnerability in an off-the-shelf commercial web application used by 18 states for animal health management, according to Mandiant, which is now owned by Google. It did not identify which states’ systems were compromised.

Mandiant called APT41 “a prolific cyber threat group that carries out Chinese state-sponsored espionage activity in addition to financially motivated activity potentially outside of state control.”

Cyber intelligence companies use different tracking methodologies and often name the threats they identify differently, but Condra said APT41, BARIUM and RedGolf “likely refer to the same set of threat actor or group(s)” due to similarities in their online infrastructure, tactics, techniques and procedures.

“RedGolf is a particularly prolific Chinese state-sponsored threat actor group that has likely been active for many years against a wide range of industries globally,” he said.

“The group has shown the ability to rapidly weaponize newly reported vulnerabilities and has a history of developing and using a large range of custom malware families.”

Tech Leaders Sign Letter Calling for ‘Pause’ to Artificial Intelligence 

An open letter signed by Elon Musk, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and other prominent high-tech experts and industry leaders is calling on the artificial intelligence industry to take a six-month pause for the development of safety protocols regarding the technology.

The letter — which as of early Thursday had been signed by nearly 1,400 people — was drafted by the Future of Life Institute, a nonprofit group dedicated to “steering transformative technologies away from extreme, large-scale risks and towards benefiting life.”

In the letter, the group notes the rapidly developing capabilities of AI technology and how it has surpassed human performance in many areas. The group uses the example of how AI used to create new drug treatments could easily be used to create deadly pathogens.

Perhaps most significantly, the letter points to the recent introduction of GPT-4, a program developed by San Francisco-based company OpenAI, as a standard for concern.

GPT stands for Generative Pre-trained Transformer, a type of language model that uses deep learning to generate human-like conversational text.

The company has said GPT-4, its latest version, is more accurate and human-like and has the ability to analyze and respond to images. The firm says the program has passed a simulated bar exam, the test that allows someone to become a licensed attorney.

In its letter, the group maintains that such powerful AI systems should be developed “only once we are confident that their effects will be positive and their risks will be manageable.”

Noting the potential a program such as GPT-4 could have to create disinformation and propaganda, the letter calls on “all AI labs to immediately pause for at least 6 months the training of AI systems more powerful than GPT-4.”

The letter says AI labs and independent experts should use the pause “to jointly develop and implement a set of shared safety protocols for advanced AI design and development that will ensure they are safe beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Meanwhile, another group has taken its concerns about the negative potential for GPT-4 a step further.

The nonprofit Center for AI and Digital Policy filed a complaint with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission on Thursday calling on the agency to suspend further deployment of the system and launch an investigation.

In its complaint, the group said the technical description of the GPT-4 system provided by its own makers describes almost a dozen major risks posed by its use, including “disinformation and influence operations, proliferation of conventional and unconventional weapons,” and “cybersecurity.”

Some information for this report was provided by The Associated Press and Reuters.

Are Governments Obligated to Protect Citizens From Climate Change? World Court to Weigh In

The U.N. General Assembly adopted a landmark resolution Wednesday that will ask the International Court of Justice to issue an advisory opinion on the obligations of states under international law to protect the rights of present and future generations from the impact of climate change.

“This resolution and the advisory opinion it seeks will have a powerful and positive impact on how we address climate change and ultimately protect the present and future generations,” said Vanuatu Prime Minister Ishmael Kalsakau, whose government spearheaded the drafting and negotiations of the resolution, with a core group of 18 countries representing most corners of the world. 

“Together we will send a loud and clear message, not only around the world but far into the future: On this very day, the peoples of the United Nations, acting through their governments, decided to leave aside differences and work together to tackle the defining challenge of our times: climate change,” Kalsakau said.

More than 130 countries joined in co-sponsoring the resolution, which was adopted by consensus. While most of the world’s top emitters of greenhouse gases, including China and the United States, were noticeably absent from the co-sponsors, they did not prevent the adoption by consensus. 

The United States, which noted the Biden administration’s ambitious climate action to meet commitments consistent with keeping global warming to within the 1.5 degrees Celsius goal, said it has “serious concerns” that an ICJ opinion could hurt rather than help collective efforts to reach climate targets.

“We believe that launching a judicial process, especially given the broad scope of the questions, will likely accentuate disagreements and not be conducive to advancing our ongoing diplomatic and other processes,” U.S. delegate Nicholas Hill told the assembly. “In light of this, the United States disagrees that this initiative is the best approach for achieving our shared goals and takes this opportunity to reaffirm our view that diplomatic efforts are the best means by which to address the climate crisis.”

Japan and Germany are among the world’s top greenhouse gas emitters, and they joined as co-sponsors. Germany was also among the 18 countries that shepherded the initiative.

“Germany hopes that this initiative will contribute to further strengthen international cooperation, which is key for achieving the Paris Agreement’s objectives,” Ambassador Antje Leendertse said of the 2015 climate accord. 

The Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu’s very existence is threatened by rising sea levels. It is currently recovering from the devastation earlier this month of two Category 4 tropical cyclones in less than five days.

Kalsakau was clear that the effort is not intended to be a contentious one, nor is it a lawsuit. The authors also do not expect the Hague-based court to create new obligations on states, only to uphold existing ones. While the ICJ is the United Nation’s principal judicial organ, its decisions are not binding but carry considerable weight and can become part of what’s known as customary law.

“We believe the clarity it will bring can greatly benefit our efforts to address the climate crisis and could further bolster global and multilateral cooperation and state conduct in addressing climate change,” the prime minister said. 

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres welcomed the action, warning time is running out for nations to act boldly to fight global warming.

“This is the critical decade for climate action,” he told the assembly. “It must happen on our watch.”

The resolution began in 2019 as the brainchild of students from Vanuatu, which is among several small island states that are suffering the effects of the climate crisis but has contributed little to causing it.

“I don’t want to show a picture to my child one day of my island. I want my child to be able to experience the same environment, the same culture I grew up in,” Cynthia Houniuhi, president of Pacific Islands Students Fighting Climate Change, told reporters in a briefing ahead of the vote.

Human Rights Watch welcomed the resolution, saying it is a powerful demonstration of effective multilateral diplomacy led by a state from the Global South on behalf of people at risk.

“The overwhelming support for Vanuatu’s resolution is a major step toward gaining clarity on the legal obligations of states most responsible for climate change,” said HRW’s Environment and Human Rights director Richard Pearshouse. “It’s also important to focus — through the lens of human rights — on the obligations to protect those communities suffering most acutely.” 

US Regulator Approves Over-the-Counter Sales of Narcan

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday approved selling the leading version of naloxone without a prescription, setting the overdose-reversing drug on course to become the first opioid treatment drug to be sold over the counter.

It’s a move that some advocates have long sought as a way to improve access to a life-saving drug, though the exact impact will not be clear immediately.

Here’s a look at the issues involved.

What is Narcan?

The approved nasal spray from Gaithersburg, Maryland-based Emergent BioSolutions is the best-known form of naloxone.

It can reverse overdoses of opioids, including street drugs such as heroin and fentanyl and prescription versions including oxycodone.

Making naloxone available more widely is seen as a key strategy to control the nationwide overdose crisis, which has been linked to more than 100,000 U.S. deaths a year. The majority of those deaths are tied to opioids, primarily potent synthetic versions such as fentanyl, which can take multiple doses of naloxone to reverse.

The drug has been distributed to police and other first responders nationwide.

Advocates believe it’s important to get naloxone to the people most likely to be around overdoses, including drug users and their relatives.

The decision “represents a decisive, practical and humane approach to help people and flatten the curve of overdose deaths,” said Chuck Ingoglia of the National Council for Mental Wellbeing in a statement.

What does the FDA approval mean?

Narcan will become available over the counter by late summer, the company said.

Other brands of naloxone and injectable forms will not yet be available over the counter, but they could be soon.

Several manufacturers of generic naloxone, which is made similarly to Narcan, will now be required to file applications to switch their drugs to over the counter as part of an FDA requirement.

The nonprofit Harm Reduction Therapeutics Inc., which has funding from OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma, already has an application before the FDA to distribute its version of spray naloxone without a prescription.

How is naloxone distributed now?

Even before the FDA’s action, pharmacies could sell naloxone without a prescription because officials in every state have allowed it.

But not every pharmacy carries it. And buyers have to pay for the medication — either with an insurance co-pay or for the full retail price. The cost varies, but two doses of Narcan often go for around $50.

The drug is also distributed by community organizations that serve people who use drugs, though it’s not easily accessible to everyone who needs it.

Emergent has not announced its price, and it’s not clear yet whether insurers will continue to cover it as a prescription drug if it’s available over the counter.

FDA Commissioner Robert Califf in a statement encouraged Emergent to make the drug available “at an affordable price.”

Does making naloxone over the counter improve access?

It clears the way for Narcan to be made available in places without pharmacies — convenience stores, supermarkets and online retailers, for instance.

Jose Benitez, the lead executive officer at Prevention Point Philadelphia, an organization that tries to reduce risk for drug users through services including handing out free naloxone, said it could greatly help people who don’t seek services — or who live in places where they are not available.

Now, he said, some people are concerned about getting naloxone at pharmacies because their insurers will know they are getting it.

“Putting it out on the shelves is going to allow people just to pick it up, not have stigma attached to it,” he said.

But it remains to be seen how many stores will carry it and what the prices will be. The U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, or CMS, which now covers prescription naloxone for people on the government insurance programs, says that coverage of over-the-counter naloxone would depend on the insurance program. CMS has not given any official guidance.

Maya Doe-Simkins, a co-director of Remedy Alliance/For The People, which launched last year to provide low-cost — and sometimes free — naloxone to community organizations, said her group will continue to distribute injectable naloxone.

How will people learn to use Narcan?

Emergent had to conduct a study examining whether untrained people could follow directions for using Narcan.

Last month, an FDA expert panel voted to make the drug available over the counter, despite the numerous errors in using the device reported in the company study. The FDA suggested Emergent make several changes to how the directions will be displayed on the packaging and said the device could be safely used “without the supervision” of a health care worker.

Keith Humphreys, a Stanford University addiction expert, said one benefit of currently having pharmacists involved in dispensing the drug is that they can show buyers how to use it. One key thing people need to remember: Always call an ambulance for the person who has received the naloxone.

He also said there are fears that if the drug isn’t profitable as an over-the-counter option, the drugmaker could stop producing it. 

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