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The Latest: UN warns cybercrime on rise during pandemic

Inside Telecom Staff

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The Latest UN warns cybercrime on rise during pandemic

By The Associated Press undefined

The Latest on the coronavirus pandemic. The new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death.

TOP OF THE HOUR:

—UN warns cybercrime on rise during pandemic.

—South Korea reports 23 new coronavirus cases, mostly from Seoul metro area.

—Colombia sees biggest increase in new coronavirus cases.

—Brazil surpasses Russia in confirmed virus cases.

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UNITED NATIONS — The U.N. disarmament chief says the COVID-19 pandemic is moving the world toward increased technological innovation and online collaboration, but “cybercrime is also on the rise, with a 600% increase in malicious emails during the current crisis.”

Izumi Nakamitsu told an informal meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Friday that “there have also been worrying reports of attacks against health care organizations and medical research facilities worldwide.”

She said growing digital dependency has increased the vulnerability to cyberattacks, and “it is estimated that one such attack takes place every 39 seconds.”

According to the International Telecommunication Union, “nearly 90 countries are still only at the early stages of making commitments to cybersecurity,” Nakamitsu said.

The high representative for disarmament affairs said the threat from misusing information and communications technology “is urgent.” But she said there is also good news, pointing to some global progress at the United Nations to address the threats as a result of the development of norms for the use of such technology.

Estonia’s Prime Minister Juri Ratas, whose country holds the Security Council presidency and organized Friday’s meeting on cyber stability and advancing responsible government behavior in cyberspace, said “the COVID-19 crisis has put extra pressure on our critical services in terms of cybersecurity.”

He said the need for “a secure and functioning cyberspace” is therefore more pressing than ever and he condemned cyberattacks targeting hospitals, medical research facilities and other infrastructure, especially during the pandemic.

“Those attacks are unacceptable,” Ratas said. “It will be important to hold the offenders responsible for their behavior.”

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SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea reported 23 new cases of the coronavirus, mostly from the densely populated Seoul metropolitan area where authorities have shut down thousands of nightclubs, bars and karaoke rooms in a desperate attempt to stem transmissions.

Figures announced by the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Saturday brought national totals to 11,165 cases and 266 deaths. Thirteen of the new cases came from Gyeonggi province surrounding capital Seoul, which on Saturday issued an administrative order to ban gatherings at an additional 2,629 bars and karaoke rooms, bringing its number of shut-down entertainment venues to 8,363.

The country was reporting around 500 new cases a day in early March before using aggressive tracing and testing to stabilize its outbreak. But there’s growing concern over the steady rise of infections in the greater capital area, where about half of South Korea’s 51 million people live, which came after health authorities relaxed social distancing guidelines and allowed a phased reopening of schools, starting with high school seniors on Wednesday.

More than 200 of the recent infections have been linked to club-goers in the Seoul metropolitan area, who went out in early May as the country began easing on distancing.

At least 1,204 cases have been traced to international arrivals, although such infections have slowed after the country strengthened border controls in April, enforcing two-week quarantines on all passengers coming from overseas.

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UNITED NATIONS — The United Nations says there have been 75 cases of COVID-19 in the U.N.’s 13 far-flung peacekeeping missions, which have a total of 110,000 troops, police and personnel.

U.N. peacekeeping chief Jean-Pierre Lacroix told a group of reporters Friday that preventive measures taken early on in the coronavirus crisis appear to have prevented the spread of the virus, with the exception of conflict-torn Mali, where 58 cases were reported. He said there have been no deaths and none of the cases have been serious.

The U.N. peacekeeping department said there were 10 cases of COVID-19 in the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo, three cases in the Cyprus mission, two in Central African Republic, and one each in Lebanon and the U.N. Truce Supervision Organization, which was established in 1948 to help supervise a truce after the Arab-Israeli war following the breakup of Palestine into two states.

Because of the pandemic, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres suspended the rotation of peacekeepers and international police until June 30 but Lacroix said he expects some easing starting in July. He hopes to finalize guidance for “what we call extraordinary transitional measures” in the coming days, which will allow the partial resumption of the rotation of uniformed personnel.

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LOS ANGELES — The U.S. Department of Justice sent a letter to the mayor of Los Angeles warning that an extension of the coronavirus stay-at-home orders may be unlawful.

The vague letter sent Friday from the assistant attorney general for the civil rights division said recent comments by Mayor Eric Garcetti suggest a prolonged shutdown may be arbitrary and heavy-handed.

The letter comes as the federal government has sided with churches that want to resume services in the face of policies in many states that forbid such gatherings until the spread of the virus is under control.

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BOGOTA, Colombia — Colombia reported its biggest daily increase in new coronavirus cases and deaths Friday as the South American nation’s Ministry of Health confirmed 801 new infections and 30 fatalities.

Over a quarter of the new cases are in the capital city of Bogota, which has the highest number of COVID-19 infections in the country. Nationwide, Colombia has diagnosed nearly 20,000 people with the virus.

The dead ranged in age from 34 to 95.

The nation has been on lockdown for nearly two months, though authorities recently began allowing some manufacturing businesses to begin operating. A wider economic opening is expected to take place throughout June.

The nation’s caseload has been comparatively smaller to other nations in the region.

Brazil has confirmed over 300,000 cases and Peru over 110,000.

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CAIRO — Yemen’s Houthi rebels have announced strict antivirus measures targeted specifically at Eid al-Fitr, the festival that concludes the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

The health ministry’s restrictions ask citizens to wear masks in public and not leave their homes unless absolutely necessary. The ban on social gatherings will prevent multi-generational families and friends from feasting together, and children from visiting their neighbors’ homes for gifts and sweets, as is traditional.

The new guidelines also point to heightened anxiety about the rapid spread of the virus in the war-torn country’s north, where doctors say that rebel authorities have sought to aggressively suppress any information about the scale of the outbreak.

The Houthis have reported just four cases, including one death, due to COVID-19, among 206 infections nationwide. The outbreak threatens to overwhelm the country’s public health system, devastated by years of war.

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TOKYO — The Japanese association representing workers at night clubs and “hostess” bars is instructing people to wear masks, except when drinking and eating, and to disinfect doorknobs and tables every 30 minutes amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The detailed guidelines, issued recently by the Nihon Mizushobai Kyokai, says microphones for karaoke must be cleaned after each use, and workers should wash their hands and gargle every 30 minutes.

Each customer and worker, called “cast,” will sit together, but one empty seat must be kept in between another customer and cast for social distancing. The workers are also told to bathe or shower as soon as coming home and send their evening gowns to the cleaners often.

Visitors from abroad, who didn’t undergo a 14-day quarantine, will be refused at the door. The women should not touch their hair or face, and they must report health problems to local health authorities, according to the checklist.

The government’s stay-home request has been lifted in much of Japan, but remains in Tokyo. Some businesses, including sushi shops and cafes, are open. Expectations are high for the economy to reopen, with social distancing in place, even as new coronavirus cases gets reported by the day. Japan has more than 16,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 777 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.

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RIO DE JANEIRO — Brazil’s health ministry said Friday there were 330,890 confirmed COVID-19 cases. That is more than Russia, the country that previously had the second-highest number of cases in the world on the Johns Hopkins University tally.

Brazil reported 1,001 deaths over the previous 24 hours, bringing its total death toll to more than 21,000. It is the hardest hit nation in Latin America.

The news came as states and cities across Brazil debate whether to loosen restrictive measures introduced to limit the spread of the virus, or implement stricter lockdowns.

While the mayor of Rio de Janeiro said he wants to gradually reopen non-essential shops in the next few days, newspaper Folha de S. Paulo reported Friday that Sao Paulo was reevaluating its previously announced plans to reopen commerce and instead may enter lockdown.

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HARRISBURG, Pa. — Gov. Tom Wolf said Friday he is easing some pandemic restrictions in Philadelphia and the heavily populated suburbs on June 5, while lifting them almost entirely in 17 rural counties next week as Pennsylvania continues to emerge from a shutdown imposed nearly two months ago to help slow the spread of the new virus.

Wolf is accelerating his reopening plan even though more than 20 Pennsylvania counties remain above the state’s target for new infections that were supposed to qualify them for an easing of pandemic restrictions — and eight counties are more than three times over.

Wolf and his health secretary said the closely watched metric is no longer as important, citing dropping numbers of new virus infections and hospitalizations and increased testing capacity.

With the shutdown about to enter its third month, sustained Republican pressure to lift more restrictions more quickly had begun to pick up support from local Democratic officials and lawmakers. Small business owners struggling to keep afloat have also clamored for relief, with a few of reopening in defiance of the governor’s shutdown orders.

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LAS VEGAS — Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak has set a tentative June 4 date for reopening the state’s shuttered casinos, including the famous glitzy casinos of Las Vegas.

The Democratic governor says Nevada has continued to see decreasing cases of the coronavirus and COVID-19 hospitalizations after some businesses reopened and some restrictions began to be lifted nearly two weeks ago. Sisolak’s office says he plans to hold a press conference Tuesday to offer more details about the next phase of reopening, assuming the decreasing cases of the virus and hospitalizations continue through the Memorial Day weekend.

Nevada’s gambling regulators plan to meet Tuesday and will consider reopening plans submitted from casinos, which need to be approved at least seven days before reopening.

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WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump has called for the reopening of houses of worship, declaring them “essential” services.

The president wants governors to allow them to reopen this weekend.

“If they don’t do it, I will override the governors,” Trump says. “In America, we need more prayer not less.”

Trump says the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention also was issuing guidance for communities of faith to hold safe gatherings.

The president’s comment came one day after he prodded the agency to issue guidelines, so congregations can restart gatherings for worshipers.

The CDC previously sent the Trump administration documents outlining steps for religious facilities to reopen, but the White House shelved them at the time out of concerns about the propriety of government making specific dictates to places of worships.

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Iran, pressured by blackouts and pollution, targets Bitcoin

Inside Telecom Staff

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Iran, pressured by blackouts and pollution, targets Bitcoin

Iran’s capital and major cities plunged into darkness in recent weeks as rolling outages left millions without electricity for hours. Traffic lights died. Offices went dark. Online classes stopped.

With toxic smog blanketing Tehran skies and the country buckling under the pandemic and other mounting crises, social media has been rife with speculation. Soon, fingers pointed at an unlikely culprit: Bitcoin.

Within days, as frustration spread among residents, the government launched a wide-ranging crackdown on Bitcoin processing centers, which require immense amounts of electricity to power their specialized computers and to keep them cool — a burden on Iran’s power grid.

Authorities shuttered 1,600 centers across the country, including, for the first time, those legally authorized to operate. As the latest in a series of conflicting government moves, the clampdown stirred confusion in the crypto industry — and suspicion that Bitcoin had become a useful scapegoat for the nation’s deeper-rooted problems.

Since former President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew in 2018 from Tehran’s nuclear accord with world powers and re-imposed sanctions on Iran, cryptocurrency has surged in popularity in the Islamic Republic.

For Iran, anonymous online transactions made in cryptocurrencies allow individuals and companies to bypass banking sanctions that have crippled the economy. Bitcoin offers an alternative to cash printed by sovereign governments and central banks — and in the case of Iran and other countries under sanctions like Venezuela, a more stable place to park money than the local currency.

“Iranians understand the value of such a borderless network much more than others because we can’t access any kind of global payment networks,” said Ziya Sadr, a Tehran-based Bitcoin expert. “Bitcoin shines here.”

Iran’s generously subsidized electricity has put the country on the crypto-mining map, given the operation’s enormous electricity consumption. Electricity goes for around 4 cents per kilowatt-hour in Iran, compared to an average of 13 cents in the United States.

Iran is among the top 10 countries with the most Bitcoin mining capacity in the world — 450 megawatts a day. The U.S. network has a daily capacity of more than 1,100 megawatts.

On Tehran’s outskirts and across Iran’s south and northwest, windowless warehouses hum with heavy industrial machinery and rows of computers that crunch highly complex algorithms to verify transactions. The transactions, called blocks, are then added to a public record, known as the blockchain.

“Miners” adding a new block to the blockchain collect fees in bitcoins, a key advantage amid the country’s currency collapse. Iran’s rial, which had been trading at 32,000 to the dollar at the time of the 2015 nuclear deal, has tumbled to around 240,000 to the dollar these days.

Iran’s government has sent mixed messages about Bitcoin. On one hand, it wants to capitalize on the soaring popularity of digital currency and sees value in legitimizing transactions that fly under Washington’s radar. It authorized 24 Bitcoin processing centers that consume an estimated 300 megawatts of energy a day, attracted tech-savvy Chinese entrepreneurs to tax-free zones in the country’s south and permitted imports of computers for mining.

Amir Nazemi, deputy minister of telecommunications and information, declared last week that cryptocurrency “can be helpful” as Iran struggles to cope with sanctions on its oil sector.

On the other hand, the government worries about limiting how much money is sent abroad and controlling money laundering, drug sales and internet criminal groups.

Iranian cryptocurrency miners have been known to use ransomware in sophisticated cyber attacks, such as in 2018 when two Iranian men were indicted in connection with a vast cyber assault on the city of Atlanta. On Thursday, British cybersecurity firm Sophos reported it found evidence tying crypto-miners in Iran’s southern city of Shiraz to malware that was secretly seizing control of thousands of Microsoft servers.

Iran is now going after unauthorized Bitcoin farms with frequent police raids. Those who gain authorization to process cryptocurrency are subject to electricity tariffs, which miners complain discourage investment.

“Activities in the field are not feasible because of electricity tariffs,” said Mohammad Reza Sharafi, head of the country’s Cryptocurrency Farms Association. Despite the government giving permits to 1,000 investors, only a couple dozen server farms are active, he added, because tariffs mean Bitcoin farms pay five times as much for electricity as steel mills and other industries that consume far more power.

Now, miners say, the government’s decision to close down major Bitcoin farms operating legally seems designed to deflect concerns about the country’s repeated blackouts.

As Tehran went dark last week, a video showing industrial computers whirring away at a massive Chinese cryptocurrency farm spread online like wildfire, prompting outrage about Bitcoin’s outsized thirst for electricity. Within days, the government closed that plant despite its authorization to operate.

“The priority is with households, commercial, hospitals and sensitive places,” said Mostfa Rajabi Mashhadi, spokesman of Iran’s electricity supply department, noting that illegal farms sucked up daily some 260 megawatts of electricity.

Although Bitcoin mining strains the power grid, experts say it’s not the real reason behind Iran’s electricity outages and dangerous air pollution. The telecommunications ministry estimates that Bitcoin consumes less than 2% of Iran’s total energy production.

“Bitcoin was an easy victim here,” said Kaveh Madani, a former deputy head of Iran’s Department of Environment, adding that “decades of mismanagement” have left a growing gap between Iran’s energy supply and demand.

Bitcoin “mining’s energy footprint is not insignificant but these problems are not created overnight,” he said. “They simply need one trigger to spiral out of control.”

A sharp drop in supply or spike in demand, like this winter when more people are staying home because of the coronavirus pandemic, can upset the balance of a grid that draws mostly from natural gas. Authorities reported that households have increased their heating gas usage by 8% this year, which Tehran’s electric supply company said led to “limitations in feeding the country’s power plants and a lack of electricity.”

Sanctions targeting Iran’s aging oil and gas industry have compounded the challenges, leaving Iran unable to sell its products abroad, including its low-quality, high-sulfur fuel oil known as mazut. If the hazardous oil isn’t sold or shipped it must be swiftly burned — and it is, in 20% of the country’s power plants, according to environmental official Mohammad Mehdi Mirzai. The smoldering fuel blackens the skies, particularly when the weather cools and wind carries emissions from nearby refineries and industrial sites into Tehran.

During the power blackouts, thick layers of pollution coated mountain peaks and hovered over cities, with readings of dangerous fine particulate pollution spiking to over 200 micrograms per cubic meter, a level considered “dangerously” unhealthy.

As the government publicized its clampdown on Bitcoin farms, miners balked at all the blame over their energy guzzling. Many warned that despite its potential to become a cryptocurrency utopia, Iran would continue to fall behind.

“These moves harm the country,” said Omid Alavi, a cryptocurrency consultant. “Many neighboring nations are attracting foreign investors.”


TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — By NASSER KARIMI and ISABEL DEBRE

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Biden names Jessica Rosenworcel as acting FCC chief

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Biden names Jessica Rosenworcel as acting FCC chief

Newly sworn-in President Joe Biden named on Friday longtime Federal Communications Commissioner Jessica Rosenworel to head the agency.

Rosenworcel brings with her over two decades of communications policy work, including a term at the FCC that began in 2012 running to 2021, during which public policy had gone back and forth on such key issues as Section 230, the digital divide, and net neutrality.

She replaces outgoing Republican FCC chair Ajit Pai, whose latest decision defined broadband within a narrow range. Rosenworcel has previously expressed her favor of a much broader range of upload and download speeds.

Prior to joining the FCC, Rosenworcel practiced communications law, and in 1999. She joined the Wireline Competition Bureau of the FCC, and by 2003, she began working for former Commissioner Michael Copps.

Switching to Capitol Hill, in 2007, Rosenworcel served as Senior Communications Counsel to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.

She has well forged relationships with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party and brings with her a strong set of position on the issues, which with the new Democratic Party majority at the agency will help set the tone of the debate.

During her tenure at the FCC, Rosenworcel has been a forceful advocate for increasing broadband access and restoring net neutrality, which was repealed during the last administration.

At question is not only consumer access, but the issue of regulating internet providers such as utilities with implied rate setting; though if providers are placed under their former Title II category, it is expected some latitude on rates would continue, while providing a level playing field for users.

On the larger scope of the above and range of other top issues, Rosenworcel noted to ICT publication Protocol:

“We know technology has reshaped everything in modern life. There’s no part of our civic or commercial lives that has been untouched by it. Some of those innovations obviously improve our lives and they lift our standard of living, but we’ve got other problems that we have not fully grappled with associated with those new technologies, like competition, like privacy, like security” she said.

With former Chair Pai’s departure, and the resignation of Republican Mike O’Reilly, there remains room for a new commissioner at the FCC for the Biden administration to fill.

The FCC will now have a 3-2 voting balance in favor of the Democrats, paving the way for marked policy changes.

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Amazon offers assist with US COVID-19 vaccine distribution

Inside Telecom Staff

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Amazon is offering its colossal operations network and advanced technologies to assist President Joe Biden in his vow to get 100 million COVID-19 vaccinations to Americans in his first 100 days in office.

“We are prepared to leverage our operations, information technology, and communications capabilities and expertise to assist your administration’s vaccination efforts,” wrote the CEO of Amazon’s Worldwide Consumer division, Dave Clark, in a letter to Biden. “Our scale allows us to make a meaningful impact immediately in the fight against COVID-19, and we stand ready to assist you in this effort.”

Amazon said that it has already arranged a licensed third-party occupational health care provider to give vaccines on-site at its facilities for its employees when they become available.

Amazon has more than 800,000 employees in the United States, Clark wrote, most of whom essential workers who cannot work from home and should be vaccinated as soon as possible.

Biden will sign 10 pandemic-related executive orders on Thursday, his second day in office, but the administration says efforts to supercharge the rollout of vaccines have been hampered by lack of cooperation from the Trump administration during the transition. They say they don’t have a complete understanding of the previous administration’s actions on vaccine distribution.

Biden is also depending on Congress to provide $1.9 trillion for economic relief and COVID-19 response. There are a litany of complaints from states that say they are not getting enough vaccine even as they are being asked to vaccinate a broader swath of Americans.

According to data through January 20 from Johns Hopkins University, the seven-day rolling average for daily new deaths in the U.S. rose over the past two weeks from 2,677.3 on January 6 to 3,054.1 on Wednesday. More than 400,000 people in the U.S. have died from COVID-19.

SEATTLE (AP) — By The Associated Press

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