From basement to battlefield: Ukrainian startups create low-cost robots to fight Russia

Northern Ukraine — Struggling with manpower shortages, overwhelming odds and uneven international assistance, Ukraine hopes to find a strategic edge against Russia in an abandoned warehouse or a factory basement.

An ecosystem of laboratories in hundreds of secret workshops is leveraging innovation to create a robot army that Ukraine hopes will kill Russian troops and save its own wounded soldiers and civilians.

Defense startups across Ukraine — about 250 according to industry estimates — are creating the killing machines at secret locations that typically look like rural car repair shops.

Employees at a startup run by entrepreneur Andrii Denysenko can put together an unmanned ground vehicle called the Odyssey in four days at a shed used by the company. Its most important feature is the price tag: $35,000, or roughly 10% of the cost of an imported model.

Denysenko asked that The Associated Press not publish details of the location to protect the infrastructure and the people working there.

The site is partitioned into small rooms for welding and body work. That includes making fiberglass cargo beds, spray-painting the vehicles gun-green and fitting basic electronics, battery-powered engines, off-the-shelf cameras and thermal sensors.

The military is assessing dozens of new unmanned air, ground and marine vehicles produced by the no-frills startup sector, whose production methods are far removed from giant Western defense companies.

A fourth branch of Ukraine’s military — the Unmanned Systems Forces — joined the army, navy and air force in May.

Engineers take inspiration from articles in defense magazines or online videos to produce cut-price platforms. Weapons or smart components can be added later.

“We are fighting a huge country, and they don’t have any resource limits. We understand that we cannot spend a lot of human lives,” said Denysenko, who heads the defense startup UkrPrototyp. “War is mathematics.”

One of its drones, the car-sized Odyssey, spun on its axis and kicked up dust as it rumbled forward in a cornfield in the north of the country last month.

The 800-kilogram (1,750-pound) prototype that looks like a small, turretless tank with its wheels on tracks can travel up to 30 kilometers (18.5 miles) on one charge of a battery the size of a small beer cooler.

The prototype acts as a rescue-and-supply platform but can be modified to carry a remotely operated heavy machine gun or sling mine-clearing charges.

“Squads of robots … will become logistics devices, tow trucks, minelayers and deminers, as well as self-destructive robots,” a government fundraising page said after the launch of Ukraine’s Unmanned Systems Forces. “The first robots are already proving their effectiveness on the battlefield.”

Mykhailo Fedorov, the deputy prime minister for digital transformation, is encouraging citizens to take free online courses and assemble aerial drones at home. He wants Ukrainians to make a million of flying machines a year.

“There will be more of them soon,” the fundraising page said. “Many more.”

Denysenko’s company is working on projects including a motorized exoskeleton that would boost a soldier’s strength and carrier vehicles to transport a soldier’s equipment and even help them up an incline. “We will do everything to make unmanned technologies develop even faster. [Russia’s] murderers use their soldiers as cannon fodder, while we lose our best people,” Fedorov wrote in an online post.

Ukraine has semi-autonomous attack drones and counter-drone weapons endowed with AI and the combination of low-cost weapons and artificial intelligence tools is worrying many experts who say low-cost drones will enable their proliferation.

Technology leaders to the United Nations and the Vatican worry that the use of drones and AI in weapons could reduce the barrier to killing and dramatically escalate conflicts.

Human Rights Watch and other international rights groups are calling for a ban on weapons that exclude human decision making, a concern echoed by the U.N. General Assembly, Elon Musk and the founders of the Google-owned, London-based startup DeepMind.

“Cheaper drones will enable their proliferation,” said Toby Walsh, professor of artificial intelligence at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. “Their autonomy is also only likely to increase.”

Demand for rare elements used in clean energy could help clean up abandoned coal mines in US

MOUNT STORM, West Virginia — Down a long gravel road, tucked into the hills in West Virginia, is a low-slung building where researchers are extracting essential elements from an old coal mine that they hope will strengthen the nation’s energy future.

They aren’t mining the coal that powered the steel mills and locomotives that helped industrialize America — and that is blamed for contributing to global warming.

Rather, researchers are finding that groundwater pouring out of this and other abandoned coal mines contains the rare earth elements and other valuable metals that are vital to making everything from electric vehicle motors to rechargeable batteries to fighter jets smaller, lighter or more powerful.

The pilot project run by West Virginia University is now part of an intensifying worldwide race to develop a secure supply of the valuable metals and, with more federal funding, it could grow to a commercial scale enterprise.

“The ultimate irony is that the stuff that has created climate change is now a solution, if we’re smart about it,” said John Quigley, a senior fellow at the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy at the University of Pennsylvania.

The technology that has been piloted at this facility in West Virginia could also pioneer a way to clean up vast amounts of coal mine drainage that poisons waterways across Appalachia.

The project is one of the leading efforts by the federal government as it injects more money than ever into recovering rare earth elements to expand renewable energies and fight climate change by reducing planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions.

For the U.S., which like the rest of the West is beholden to a Chinese-controlled supply of these valuable metals, the pursuit of rare earth elements is also a national security priority.

Those involved, meanwhile, hope their efforts can bring jobs in clean energy to dying coal towns and clean up entrenched coal pollution that has hung around for decades.

In Pennsylvania alone, drainage from coal piles and abandoned mines has turned waterways red from iron ore and turquoise from aluminum, killing life in more than 8,000 kilometers of streams. Federal statistics also show about 1,200 square kilometers of abandoned and unreclaimed coal mine lands host more than 200 million tons of coal waste.

The metals that chemists are working to extract from mine drainage here are lightweight, powerfully magnetized and have superior fluorescent and conductive properties.

One aim of the Department of Energy is to fund research that proves to private companies that the concepts are commercially viable and profitable enough for them to invest their own money.

Hundreds of millions of dollars from President Joe Biden’s 2021 infrastructure law is accelerating the effort.

Department officials hope that by the middle of the 2030s this infusion will have spawned full-fledged commercial enterprises.

The two most advanced projects funded by the department are the one in West Virginia treating mine drainage and another processing coal dug up by lignite mining in North Dakota.

The first could be an important source of a number of critical metals, such as yttrium, neodymium and gadolinium, used in catalysts and magnets. The latter could be a major source of germanium and gallium, used in semiconductors, LEDs, electrical transmission components, solar panels and electric vehicle motors.

Researchers at each site are designing a commercial-scale operation, based on their pilot projects, in hopes of landing a massive federal grant to build it out.

The alternative would be to develop new mines, disturb more land, get permits, hire workers, build roads and connect power supplies, tasks that take years.

“With acid mind drainage, that’s already done for you,” said Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of the Water Research Institute at West Virginia University.

Ziemkiewicz began the mine drainage project almost a decade ago, helped by federal subsidies. He had envisioned it as a way to treat runoff, recover critical minerals and raise money for more mine cleanups in West Virginia.

But the Biden administration’s ambitious funding for clean energy and a domestic supply of critical minerals broadened that goal.

At the facility, drainage from a one-time coal mine — now closed and covered by a grassy slope — emerges from two pipes, and dumps about 3,028 liters per minute into a retention pond.

From there the water is routed through massive indoor pools and a series of large tanks that, with the help of lime to lower the acidity, separate out most of the silicate, iron and aluminum. That produces a pale powdery concentrate that is about 95% rare earth oxides, plus water clean enough to return to a nearby creek.

The Department of Energy is funding research on coal wastes in various states.

“There are literally billions of tons of coal ash and coal waste lying around, across the country. And so if we can go back in and remine those, there’s decades worth of materials there,” said Grant Bromhal, the acting director of the Department of Energy’s Division of Minerals Sustainability.

Not only coal, but old copper and phosphate mines also hold potential, Bromhal said.

The country won’t be able to recover metals from all of them right away, but technologies the department is helping develop can satisfy a substantial part of demand in the next 20 to 30 years, Bromhal said.

“So if we get into the tens of percents or 50%, I think that’s in the realm of possibility,” he said.

Other solutions to obtain more of these metals are retrieving them from discarded devices and shifting sourcing to friendly nations and away from geopolitical rivals or unstable countries, analysts say. For now, there is only a handful of critical or rare earth mineral mines in the United States, although many more are being proposed.

One final subsidy will be required from the federal government: buy the reclaimed metals at a price that guarantees a commercially viable operation, Ziemkiewicz said.

That way China can’t simply buy up the product or use its market dominance to drive down prices and scare away private investors, he said.

Quigley, a former environmental protection secretary of Pennsylvania and a one-time small-city mayor in coal country, hopes to see a facility like Ziemkiewicz’s come to the Jeddo mine tunnel system in northeastern Pennsylvania.

The Jeddo has defied decades of efforts to treat its flow, which drains a vast network of abandoned underground mines.

It is a massive source of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, producing an estimated 114,000 to 151,000 liters per minute.

Bringing the Little Nescopeck Creek back to life could put people to work cleaning up the stream and creating recreational opportunities from a newly revived waterway, Quigley said.

“This could mean a lot to coal communities, to a lot of people in the coal region,” Quigley said. “And to the country.”

EU: X’s blue checks are deceptive ‘dark patterns’ that breach social media laws

EU says online platform falls short on transparency and accountability requirements

EU accepts Apple plan to open iPhone tap-to-pay to rivals

Brussels — The EU on Thursday approved Apple’s offer to allow rivals access to the iPhone’s ability to tap-to-pay within the bloc, ending a lengthy probe and sparing it a heavy fine.

The case dates back to 2022 when Brussels first accused Apple of blocking rivals from its popular iPhone tap payment system in a breach of EU competition law.

“Apple has committed to allow rivals to access the ‘tap and go’ technology of iPhones. Today’s decision makes Apple’s commitments binding,” EU competition chief Margrethe Vestager said in a statement.

“From now on, competitors will be able to effectively compete with Apple Pay for mobile payments with the iPhone in shops. So consumers will have a wider range of safe and innovative mobile wallets to choose from,” she said.

The EU previously found that Apple enjoyed a dominant position by restricting access to “tap-as-you-go” chips or near-field communication (NFC), which allows devices to interconnect within a very short range, to favor its own system.

Now competitors will have access to the standard technology behind contactless payments to offer alternative tap-to-pay tools to iPhone users in the European Economic Area (EEA), which includes the EU and also Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway.

Only customers with an Apple ID registered in the EEA would be able to make use of these outside apps, the European Commission said in a statement.

The changes must remain in force for 10 years and a “monitoring trustee” must be chosen by Apple to report to the commission during that period on their implementation.

Apple had risked a fine of up to 10% of its total worldwide annual turnover. Apple’s total revenue in the year to September 2023 stood at $383 billion.

“Apple Pay and Apple Wallet will continue to be available in the EEA for users and developers, and will continue to provide an easy, secure and private way to pay, as well as present passes seamlessly from Apple Wallet,” the company said in a statement.

The probe’s conclusion comes at a particularly difficult moment in relations between the EU and Apple, especially over the bloc’s new competition rules for big tech.

The Digital Markets Act (DMA) seeks to ensure tech titans do not privilege their own services over rivals, but the iPhone maker says it puts users’ privacy at risk.

One of the DMA’s main objectives is to give consumers more choice in the web browsers, app marketplaces, search engines and other digital services they use.

The EU in June accused Apple of breaching the DMA by preventing developers from freely pointing consumers to alternative channels for offers and content outside of its proprietary App Store.

It also kickstarted another probe under the DMA into Apple’s new fees for app developers.

The company could face heavy fines if the DMA violations are confirmed.

In March, the EU slapped a $1.9 billion fine on Apple in a different antitrust case but the company has appealed the penalty in an EU court.

Brussels also forced Apple last year to scrap its Lightning port on new iPhone models, in a change that was introduced worldwide and not just in Europe.

Russian election meddlers hurting Biden, helping Trump, US intelligence warns

WASHINGTON — Russia is turning to a familiar playbook in its attempt to sway the outcome of the upcoming U.S. presidential election, looking for ways to boost the candidacy of former President Donald Trump by disparaging the campaign of incumbent President Joe Biden, according to American intelligence officials. 

A new assessment of threats to the November election, shared Tuesday, does not mention either candidate by name. But an intelligence official told reporters that the Kremlin view of the U.S. political landscape has not changed from previous election cycles.

“We have not observed a shift in Russia’s preferences for the presidential race from past elections,” the official told reporters, agreeing to discuss the intelligence only on the condition of anonymity.

The official said that preference has been further cemented by “the role the U.S. is playing with regard to Ukraine and broader policy toward Russia.”

The caution from U.S. intelligence officials comes nearly four years after it issued a similar warning about the 2020 presidential elections, which pitted then-President Trump against Biden.

Moscow was using “a range of measures to primarily denigrate former Vice President Biden and what it sees as an anti-Russia ‘establishment,’” William Evanina, the then-head of the U.S. National Counterintelligence and Security Center, said at the time.

“Some Kremlin-linked actors are also seeking to boost President Trump’s candidacy on social media and Russian television,” he added. 

A declassified post-election assessment, released in March 2021, reaffirmed the initial findings. Russian President Vladimir Putin authorized “influence operations aimed at denigrating President Biden’s candidacy and the Democratic Party” while offering support for Trump, the report said. 

U.S. intelligence officials said they have been in contact with both presidential campaigns and the candidates but declined to share what sort of information may have been shared.

Trump pushback

The Trump campaign Tuesday rejected the U.S. intelligence assessment as backward.

“Vladimir Putin endorsed Joe Biden for President because he knows Biden is weak and can easily be bullied, as evidenced by Putin’s years-long invasion of Ukraine,” national press secretary Karoline Leavitt told VOA in an email.

“When President Trump was in the Oval Office, Russia and all of America’s adversaries were deterred, because they feared how the United States would respond,” she said.

“The only people in America who don’t see this clear contrast between Biden’s ineffective weakness versus Trump’s effective peace through strength approach are the left-wing stenographers in the mainstream media who write false narratives about Donald Trump for a living,” she added.

The Biden campaign has so far not responded to questions from VOA about the new U.S. assessment.

Russian sophistication

Russian officials also have not yet responded to requests for comment on the latest allegations, which accuse the Kremlin of using a “whole of government” approach to see Trump and other American candidates perceived as favorable to Moscow win in November.

“Moscow is using a variety of approaches to bolster its messaging and lend an air of authenticity to its efforts,” the U.S. intelligence official said. “This includes outsourcing its efforts to commercial firms to hide its hand and laundering narratives through influential U.S. voices.”

Russia’s efforts also appear focused on targeting U.S. voters in so-called swing states, states most likely to impact the outcome of the presidential election, officials said.

Some of those efforts have already come to light.

Russia and AI

Earlier Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Justice announced the seizure of two internet domains and of another 968 accounts on the X social media platform, part of what officials described an artificial intelligence-driven venture by Russian intelligence and Russia’s state-run RT news network.

A Justice Department statement said Russian intelligence and RT used specific AI software to create authentic-looking social media accounts to mimic U.S. individuals, “which the operators then used to promote messages in support of Russian government objectives.”

A joint advisory, issued simultaneously by the U.S., Canada and the Netherlands, warned Russia was in the process of expanding the AI-fueled influence operation to other social media platforms.

The U.S. intelligence official who spoke to reporters Tuesday described such use of AI as a “malign influence accelerant,” and warned the technology had already been deployed, likely by China, in the run-up to Taiwan’s elections this past January.

China waiting

For now, though, U.S. intelligence officials see few indications Beijing is seeking to interfere in U.S. elections, as it did in 2020 and 2022. 

China “sees little gain in choosing between two parties that are perceived as both seeking to contain Beijing,” said the U.S. intelligence official, noting things could change.

“The PRC is seeking to expand its ability to collect and monitor data on U.S. social media platforms, probably to better understand and eventually manipulate public opinion,” the official said. “In addition, we are watching for whether China might seek to influence select down-ballot races as it did in the 2022 midterm elections.”

The Chinese Embassy in Washington, which has denied previous U.S. allegations, responded by calling the U.S. “the biggest disseminator of disinformation.”

“China has no intention and will not interfere in the US election, and we hope that the US side will not make an issue of China in the election,” spokesperson Liu Pengyu told VOA in an email.

‘Chaos agent’

The new U.S. election threat assessment warns that in addition to concerns about Russia and China, there is growing evidence Iran is seeking to play the role of a “chaos agent” in the upcoming U.S. vote.

“Iran seeks to stoke social divisions and undermine confidence in U.S. democratic institutions around the elections,” according to an unclassified version of the assessment. 

It also warned that Tehran “has demonstrated a long-standing interest in exploiting U.S. political and societal tensions through various means, including social media.”

As an example, officials Tuesday pointed to newly declassified intelligence showing Iran trying to exploit pro-Gaza protests across the U.S.

“We have observed actors tied to Iran’s government posing as activists online, seeking to encourage protests, and even providing financial support to protesters,” said National Intelligence Director Avril Haines.

Haines cautioned, though, that Americans who interacted with the Iranian actors “may not be aware that they are interacting with or receiving support from a foreign government.”

Iranian officials have not yet responded to VOA’s request for comment.

 

LogOn: Unfired earth blocks surpass modern building codes

 A new homebuilding method with ancient roots in adobe offers protection from wildfires, earthquakes, high winds and floods, while being climate friendly and sustainable. The secret ingredient: compressed earth blocks made from mud. Shelley Schlender has the story in this week’s episode of LogOn from Superior, Colorado.

TikTok has launched tons of trends. Will its influence last?

new york — TikTok and its bite-sized videos arrived in the United States as a global version of the Chinese app Douyin in 2018. Less than six years later, the social media platform is deeply woven into the fabric of American consumerism, having shortened the shelf life of trends and revamped how people engage with food and fashion. 

The popularity of TikTok — coupled with its roots in Beijing — led the U.S. Congress — citing national security concerns, to pass a law that would ban the video-sharing app unless its Chinese parent company sells its stake. Both the company, ByteDance, and TikTok have sued on First Amendment grounds. 

But while the platform faces uncertain times, its influence remains undisputed. 

Interest in bright pink blush and brown lipstick soared last year, for example, after the cosmetics were featured in TikTok videos with looks labeled as “cold girl” and “latte” makeup. An abundance of clothing fads with quirky names, from “cottagecore” to “coastal grandma,” similarly owe their pervasiveness to TikTok.   

Plenty of TikTok-spawned crazes last only a week or two before losing steam. Yet even mini trends have challenged businesses to decipher which ones are worth stocking up for. A majority of the more than 170 million Americans who use TikTok belong to the under-30 age group coveted by retailers, according to the Pew Research Center. Whether fans of the platform or not, shoppers may have a #tiktokmademebuyit moment without knowing the origin story behind an eye-catching product. 

Platform’s algorithm is ‘secret sauce’

What made TikTok such a trendsetter compared to predecessor platforms? Researchers and marketing analysts have often described the platform’s personalized recommendation algorithm as the “secret sauce” of TikTok’s success. The company has disclosed little about the technology it employs to populate users’ “For You” feeds.   

Jake Bjorseth, founder of the advertising agency Trndsttrs, which specializes in Generation Z, thinks the app’s use of an interest-based algorithm instead of personal contacts to connect like-minded people is what gave TikTok the edge. 

TikTok also changed the standard for what was considered desirable in social media content. The beginner-friendly platform featured videos made without filters, lighting setups or production-level audio. TikTok creators could develop more intimate relationships with their followers because they appeared more authentic, Bjorseth said. 

The platform has plenty of critics. Some experts argue that TikTok, like other social media sites, can be addictive and promote unnecessary spending. Others accuse TikTok of encouraging harmful behavior, like girls engaging in skin care rituals intended for older women. 

Yet for all the detractors who won’t mourn TikTok if it goes away, a vocal base of fans hopes it doesn’t come to that. 

Influencing fashion, accessories

Casey Lewis, a trend analyst based in New York, said TikTok’s clout in the fashion arena first became apparent to her when videos about Birkenstock’s Boston clogs overtook her “For You” feed in 2022.   

As the number of TikTok videos exploded, creators advised their followers where they could find the suddenly sold-out clogs. Lewis thought it was odd since her brother, whom she described as a “frat boy” and not a fashionista, wore the cork-soled comfort shoes in college.   

“I’m not a psychologist, but I’m sure there’s some psychology where your brain goes from thinking like, ‘How weird? Is that fashion?’ And then suddenly you’re obsessed with it,” she said.   

The pace with which TikTok-shaped trends pop can be dizzying. In the last year, the hot pink ensembles of “Barbiecore” coexisted with the deliberately unsexy looks of “dadcore” — think chunky white sneakers, baggy jeans and polo shirts. The linen-draped “coastal grandma” aesthetic gave way to “eclectic grandpa.”   

While the rotating cast of “cores” may not drive their adherents to buy entire wardrobes, they’re “influencing spending in small ways, and that adds up,” Lewis said.   

Influencers provide tips, tricks

Daniella Lopez White, 21, a recent college graduate on a tight budget, said TikTok influencers provided tips on finding affordable clothes but also connected her to plus-size creators featuring fashions for larger-bodied women, which made her more confident. 

“Those TikTok trends really helped me figure out what parts of my body I want to accentuate and feel cute in, and still incorporate my sense of style,” she said. 

A go-to spot

With easy-to-follow cooking videos and clever hacks, TikTok became a go-to spot for home cooks during the COVID-19 pandemic. The platform made humble ingredients a star and earned endorsements from some of the stars of the food world.   

“Every day, honestly, I am blown away by the creativity from the FoodTok community,” restaurateur and chef Gordon Ramsay said in a TikTok video late last year.   

Like the clothing styles of earlier eras, foods that had fallen out of fashion were resurrected via TikTok. U.S. sales of cottage cheese jumped 34% between April 2022 and April 2024 after videos promoting cottage cheese ice cream, cottage cheese toast and other recipes racked up millions of views. 

Ben Sokolsky, the general manager of sales and marketing for Dallas-based dairy company Daisy Brand, said cottage cheese is seeing its highest sustained growth in nearly 50 years. The curdled milk product used to be a “secret sensation,” but social media helped expose new customers to its benefits, Sokolsky said. 

Topics that went viral on TikTok have even spawned analog equivalents. Last summer, TikToker Olivia Maher posted what she called her “girl dinner” of bread, cheese, pickles and grapes. It was a hit, with more than 1.6 million views. A handful of “girl dinner” cookbooks soon followed.   

But the eagerness to try trendy foods had a downside. A 14-year-old in Massachusetts died after trying a challenge involving an extremely spicy tortilla chip that appeared on TikTok and other social media sites. An autopsy of the boy, who had a congenital heart defect, found that eating a large quantity of chile pepper extract caused his death. Paqui, the maker of the chip, pulled it off the market. 

Upending cosmetic industry

TikTok has upended the cosmetics industry by causing ingredients to get labeled as the next miracle cure or to be avoided and featuring videos of people gleefully applying or panning the contents of their latest shopping hauls. 

Influencers on TikTok and elsewhere have made freckles an asset with clips showing how to add faux ones with eyebrow pencils or broccoli florets. The “clean girl” aesthetic, a renamed version of the no-makeup makeup look, prompted both luxury and drugstore brands to rush out their own versions of skin tints and lip oils. 

Some veteran users of TikTok have noted the platform is almost too good in its role as both a tastemaker and a shopping search engine. A popular category of beauty videos shows influencers “decluttering” drawers filled with piles of barely used lipsticks, blushes and eyeshadow palettes. 

Though the desire for clicks can encourage creators to follow the same hair and makeup trends, TikTok’s defenders credit the platform with forcing brands to create products for a wider range of skin tones and hair types. 

Tiffany Watson, who currently has more than 31,00 followers on TikTok and has done paid partnerships with brands like Colourpop Cosmetics, said the platform has promoted a more inclusive image of beauty compared to other sites. 

“I see more diversity on TikTok because (with) every video you’re swiping, you’re seeing somebody new,” she said. 

Russian-linked cybercampaigns focus on Olympics, French elections

paris — Photos of blood-red hands on a Holocaust memorial. Caskets at the Eiffel Tower. A fake French military recruitment drive calling for soldiers in Ukraine, and major French news sites improbably registered in an obscure Pacific territory, population 15,000.

All are part of disinformation campaigns orchestrated out of Russia and targeting France, according to French officials and cybersecurity experts in Europe and the United States. France’s legislative elections and the Paris Olympics sent them into overdrive.

More than a dozen reports issued in the past year point to an intensifying effort from Russia to undermine France, particularly the upcoming Games, and President Emmanuel Macron, who is one of Ukraine’s most vocal supporters in Europe.

The Russian campaigns sowing anti-French disinformation began online in early summer 2023, but first became tangible in October, when more than 1,000 bots linked to Russia relayed photos of graffitied Stars of David in Paris and its suburbs.

A French intelligence report said the Russian intelligence agency FSB ordered the tagging, as well as subsequent vandalism of a memorial to those who helped rescue Jews from the Holocaust.

Photos from each event were amplified on social media by fake accounts linked to the Russian disinformation site RRN, according to cybersecurity experts. Russia denies any such campaigns. The French intelligence report says RRN is part of a larger operation orchestrated by Sergei Kiriyenko, a ranking Kremlin official.

“You have to see this as an ecosystem,” said a French military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to reveal information about the Russian effort. “It’s a hybrid strategy.”

The tags and the vandalism had no direct link to Russia’s war in Ukraine, but they provoked a strong reaction from the French political class, with denunciations in the legislature and public debate. Antisemitic attacks are on the rise in France, and the war in Gaza has proven divisive.

The Stars of David could be interpreted either as support for Israel or as opposition. The effect was to sow division and unease. French Jews in particular have found themselves unwittingly thrust into the political fray despite, at just 500,000 people, making up a small proportion of the French population.

In March, just after Macron discussed the possibility of mobilizing the French military in Ukraine, a fake recruitment drive went up for the French army in Ukraine, spawning a series of posts in Russian- and French-language Telegram channels that got picked up in Russian and Belarusian media, according to a separate French government report seen by The Associated Press. On June 1, caskets appeared outside the Eiffel Tower, bearing the inscription “French soldiers in Ukraine.”

The larger disinformation efforts show little traction in France, but the Russian audience may have been the real target, officials said, by showing that Russia’s war in Ukraine is, as Putin has said, really a war with the West.

Among the broader goals, the French military official said, was a long-term and steady effort to sow social discord, erode faith in the media and democratic governments, undermine NATO, and sap Western support for Ukraine. Denigrating the Olympics, from which most Russian athletes are banned, is a bonus, according to French officials monitoring the increasingly strident posts warning of imminent unrest ahead of the Games.

On June 9, the French far-right National Rally trounced Macron’s party in elections for the European Parliament. The party has historically been close to Russia: One of its leading figures, Marine Le Pen, cultivated ties to Putin for many years and supported Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. And its leading contender for prime minister, Jordan Bardella, has said he opposes sending long-range weapons to Kyiv.

In more than 4,400 posts gathered since mid-November by antibot4navalny, a collective that analyzes Russian bot behavior, those targeting audiences in France and Germany predominated. The number of weekly posts ranged from 100 to 200 except for the week of May 5, when it dropped near zero, the data showed. That week, as it happens, was a holiday in Russia.

Many of the posts redirect either to RRN or to sites that appear identical to major French media, but with the domain — and content — changed. At least two of the more recent mirrored sites are registered in Wallis and Futuna, a French Pacific territory 10 time zones from Paris. A click on the top of the fake page redirects back to the real news sites themselves to give the impression of authenticity. Other posts redirect to original sites controlled by the campaign itself, dubbed Doppelganger.

The redirects shifted focus for the European elections and continued after Macron called the surprise legislative elections with just three weeks to spare. Three-quarters of posts from the week ahead of the June 30 first-round legislative vote that were directed toward a French audience focused on either criticizing Macron or boosting the National Rally, antibot4navalny found in data shared with The Associated Press.

One post on a fake site purported to be from Le Point, a current affairs magazine, and the French news agency AFP, criticizing Macron.

“Our leaders have no idea how ordinary French people live but are ready to destroy France in the name of aid for Ukraine,” read the headline on June 25.

Another site falsely claimed to be from Macron’s party, offering to pay 100 euros for a vote for him — and linking back to the party’s true website. And still another inadvertently left a generative artificial intelligence prompt calling for the rewrite of an article “taking a conservative stance against the liberal policies of the Macron administration,” according to findings last week from Insikt Group, the threat research division of the cybersecurity consultancy Recorded Future.

“They’re scraping automatically, sending the text to the AI and asking the AI to introduce bias or slants into the article and rewrite it,” said Clément Briens, an analyst for Recorded Future.

Briens said metrics tools embedded within the site are likely intended to prove that the campaigns were money well-spent for “whoever is doing the payouts for these operations.”

The French government cybersecurity watchdog, Viginum, has published multiple reports since June 2023 singling out Russian efforts to sow divisions in France and elsewhere. That was around the time that pro-Kremlin Telegram feeds started promoting Olympics has Fallen — a full-length fake Netflix film featuring an AI-generated voice resembling Tom Cruise that criticized the International Olympic Committee, according to the Microsoft Threat Analysis Center.

Microsoft said this campaign, which it dubbed Storm-1679, is fanning fears of violence at the Games and last fall disseminated digitally generated photos referring, among other things, to the attacks on Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics.

The latest effort, which started just after the first round of the elections on June 30, merges fears of violence related to both the Olympics and the risk of protests after the decisive second round, antibot4navalny found. Viginum released a new report Tuesday detailing the risks ahead for the Games — not for violence but for disinformation.

“Digital information manipulation campaigns have become a veritable instrument of destabilization of democracies,” Viginum said. “This global event will give untold informational exposure to malevolent foreign actors.” The word Russia appears nowhere.

Baptiste Robert, a French cybersecurity expert who ran unsuccessfully as an unaffiliated centrist in the legislative elections, called on his government — and especially lawmakers — to prepare for the digital threats to come.

“This is a global policy of Russia: They really want to push people into the extremes,” he said before the first-round vote. “It’s working perfectly right now.”

Australia plans to build secret data centers with Amazon

SYDNEY — Australia said Thursday a $1.35 billion deal with U.S. technology giant Amazon to build three secure data centers for top-secret information will increase its military’s “war-fighting capacity.”

The data centers are to be built in secret locations in Australia and be run by an Australian subsidiary of the U.S. technology company Amazon Web Service, the government said.

The deal is part of Australia’s National Defense Strategy, outlining its commitment to Indo-Pacific security and maintaining “the global rules-based order.” The country has a long-standing military alliance with the United States and is a member, with the United Kingdom, U.S., Canada and New Zealand, of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance.

Australian officials said the project would create a “state-of-the-art collaborative space” for intelligence and defense agencies to store and gain access to sensitive information in a centralized network.

Andrew Shearer, director-general of Australia’s Office of National Intelligence, said in a statement that the project would allow “greater interoperability with our most important international intelligence partners.”

Similar data clouds have been set up in the United States and Britain, allowing the sharing of information among agencies and departments.

Richard Marles, Australia’s deputy prime minister and defense minister, told reporters that highly sensitive national security data will be safely secured in the new system.

“If you consider that any sensor which is on a defense platform, which in turn feeds that data to a high tech capability, such as the Joint Strike Fighter, which will use that to engage in targeting or perhaps to defend itself from an in-coming threat, or … to defend another asset, such as a ship — all of that is top secret data,” Marles said.

The government said the Amazon Web Services storage system will use artificial intelligence to detect suspected intrusions and to retrieve data.

Richard Buckland, a professor in CyberCrime, Cyberwar and Cyberterror at the University of New South Wales, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that the storage plan has risks.

“Putting more data together in a central spot and sharing it widely as people intend to do obviously increases the risk of a data breach,” he said.

In a statement, Amazon Web Services’ managing director in Australia, Iain Rouse, said the system would “enable the seamless sharing of classified data between Australia’s National Intelligence Community and the Australian Defense Force.”

The so-called top-secret cloud is scheduled to be in operation by 2027.

Silicon Valley steps up screening on Chinese employees to counter espionage

Washington — Leading U.S. technology companies reportedly have increased security screening of employees and job applicants, which experts say is necessary to counter the cyber espionage threat from China.

While the enhanced screening is being applied to employees and applicants of all races, those with family or other ties to China are thought to be particularly vulnerable to pressure from the Beijing government.

But at least one Chinese computer science graduate student at a U.S. university is hoping to make his ties to China an asset. Zheng, who does not want to reveal his first name for fear of retaliation from the Chinese government, says he recently changed his focus to cybersecurity in hopes of improving his job prospects in the United States.

“The goal is a bit high, but I think I know more about China as a person born and raised in China. I hope to become a force with my own characteristics in cybersecurity and a role in fighting against Chinese cyber-attacks,” said Zheng, who is seeking political asylum in the United States.

While Zheng said he is not very worried that increased security checks will affect his job prospects, he said many international students in his class worry that they will be shut out from cybersecurity jobs.

Google, OpenAI and Sequoia Capital are among a number of technology and venture capital firms that have stepped up security checks on employees and potential recruits, according to a recent report by The Financial Times.

The newspaper cited sources at those companies saying they were responding to warnings from the U.S. government about a growing threat from Chinese espionage over the past two years.

Chinese cyber espionage concerns

FBI Director Christopher Wray delivered one such message in a speech in April, saying the Chinese government has tried to steal “intellectual property, technology and research” from American industries.

In response, the U.S. government has stepped up security measures over the last two years, including updating its export control regulations to restrict China’s ability to obtain advanced computing chips and artificial intelligence. The strengthened warnings to U.S. companies are part of that response.

Ivan Kanapathy, senior vice president with Beacon Global Strategies, told VOA that Silicon Valley executives share the U.S. government’s concern. “In recent years, emerging technology companies have become more wary; they don’t want to fall victim to China’s technology absorption strategy,” he said.

“Companies can’t afford to help a competitor that will put them out of business. We’ve seen that happen across many industries already. It’s only natural for American and other allied cutting-edge companies to be concerned and take steps to mitigate the risks of PRC state-sponsored espionage,” he said.

Ray Wang, CEO of Silicon Valley-based Constellation Research Inc., said that the theft of American intellectual property has become more rampant since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and that people with ties to China were often targeted.

“During COVID, many folks with relatives in China were put in compromising positions where they were asked to do things for the Chinese government, or one’s relatives would be put at risk,” Wang said. “China has infiltrated almost every aspect of the U.S., and the U.S. is facing systemic problems.”

Kanapathy said China might also obtain American technology through talent poaching, meaning they recruit someone with experience in a particular technology and ask the person to take the technology to start a new company in China. Although it is ethically questionable, it is sometimes legal.

“China likely also tries to place its own people, including engineers, into certain companies that have desirable technologies. It’s a multipronged strategy,” he said.

In a statement to VOA, Chinese Embassy spokesperson Liu Pengyu acknowledged the accusations but said the U.S. government “is short on delivering solid evidence.”

“We firmly oppose to the groundless accusations and smears towards China and hope the relevant parties can view China’s development objectively and fairly,” he wrote.

Liu also pointed out that the World Intellectual Property Organization last year named China as the world’s highest ranking middle-income economy and 12th overall in terms of independently creating intellectual property rights.

“China’s scientific and technological achievements are never made through ‘stealing.’ The Chinese people, including our intellectuals, made such achievements with our talent and hard work,” he wrote.

Security screening concerns

While the enhanced security reviews usually apply to all employees, Wang said. Google and OpenAI have imposed stricter reviews for Chinese employees, and Microsoft is transferring some of its most important Chinese engineers from China to other regions of the world; NVIDIA has also been highly vigilant in screening.

Microsoft employees in China, mostly involved with cloud computing, were recently offered the opportunity to work in the United States, Australia or Ireland, among other countries, state-run outlet said in a report. The Wall Street Journal reported that Microsoft asked as many as 800 employees, mostly engineers with Chinese nationality working on cloud computing and AI, to consider relocating.

He said companies should exercise caution to avoid triggering xenophobia.

“So almost every new worker, not just Chinese nationals, should undergo the same vetting process. I think it’s really important. As Asian Americans, we have to be very careful about those implications,” he said.

So far, that has not been a problem for Joey Wu, a Chinese software engineer in California. Wu told VOA he has not seen stringent measures exercised against Chinese people, nor has he been treated differently due to his Chinese citizenship.

“I think the U.S. is relatively tolerant and open,” Wu said. “It is not easy for a large technology company to have so many foreign employees. Chinese companies, such as Huawei, are full of Chinese faces, with very few foreigners, and it is unlikely that Americans will be hired to play a more important role.”

Kanapathy pointed out that the founders of many technology companies are from China or India themselves, and these are the people who request security checks on Chinese citizens.

VOA contacted Google, OpenAI and Sequoia Capital for comments but did not receive a response by the time of publication.

VOA’s Adrianna Zhang contributed to this report.

Alliance sets sights on minerals needed for global shift to green energy

The U.S. government’s representative to the Minerals Security Partnership, an alliance of mostly Western countries that aims to speed the development of energy mineral supply chains, said last month that a Chinese company was using “predatory” tactics to hold down the price of cobalt mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Henry Wilkins looks at what this means for Africa.

Meta risks fines over ‘pay for privacy’ model breaking EU rules

Brussels, Belgium — The EU accused Facebook owner Meta on Monday of breaching the bloc’s digital rules, paving the way for potential fines worth billions of euros.

The charges against the US tech titan follow a finding last week against Apple that marked the first time Brussels had levelled formal accusations under the EU’s Digital Markets Act (DMA).

The latest case focuses on Meta’s new ad-free subscription model for Facebook and Instagram, which has sparked multiple complaints over privacy concerns.

Meta’s “pay or consent” system means users have to pay to avoid data collection, or agree to share their data with Facebook and Instagram to keep using the platforms for free.

The European Commission said it informed Meta of its “preliminary view” that the model the company launched last year “fails to comply” with the DMA.

“This binary choice forces users to consent to the combination of their personal data and fails to provide them a less personalized but equivalent version of Meta’s social networks,” the EU’s powerful antitrust regulator said in a statement.

The findings come after the commission kickstarted a probe into Meta in March under the DMA, which forces the world’s biggest tech companies to comply with EU rules designed to give European users more choice online.

Meta insisted its model “complies with the DMA.”

“We look forward to further constructive dialogue with the European Commission to bring this investigation to a close,” a Meta spokesperson said.

Meta can now reply to the findings and avoid a fine if it changes the model to address the EU’s concerns.

If the commission’s view is confirmed however, it can slap fines of up to 10 percent of Meta’s total global turnover under the DMA. This can rise to up to 20 percent for repeat offenders.

Meta’s total revenue last year stood at around $135 billion (125 billion euros).  

The EU also has the right to break up firms, but only as a last resort. 

In EU’s crosshairs

Under the DMA, the EU labels Meta and other companies, including Apple, as “gatekeepers” and prevents them forcing users in the bloc to consent to have access to a service or certain functionalities.

The commission said Meta’s model did not allow users to “freely consent” to their data being shared between Facebook and Instagram with Meta’s ads services.

“The DMA is there to give back to the users the power to decide how their data is used and ensure innovative companies can compete on equal footing with tech giants on data access,” the EU’s top tech enforcer, commissioner Thierry Breton, said.

The commission will adopt a decision on whether Meta’s model is DMA compliant or not by late March 2025.

The EU has shown it is serious about making big online companies change their ways.

The commission told Apple last week its App Store rules were hindering developers from freely pointing consumers to alternative channels for offers.

The EU is also probing Google over similar concerns on its Google Play marketplace.

Apple and Meta are not the only companies coming under the scope of the DMA. Google parent Alphabet, Amazon, Microsoft and TikTok owner ByteDance must also comply.

Online travel giant Booking.com will need to adhere to the rules later this year.

Privacy complaints

Meta has made billions from harvesting users’ data to serve up highly targeted ads. But it has faced an avalanche of complaints over its data processing in recent years.

The European data regulator in April has also said the ‘pay or consent’ model is at odds with the bloc’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which upholds the privacy of users’ information.

Ireland — a major hub for online tech giants operating in the 27-nation bloc — has slapped Meta with massive fines for violating the GDPR.

The latest complaint by privacy groups forced Meta last month to pause its plans to use personal data to train its artificial intelligence technology in Europe. 

Russian satellite breaks up, forces space station astronauts to shelter

WASHINGTON — A defunct Russian satellite has broken up into more than 100 pieces of debris in orbit, forcing astronauts on the International Space Station to take shelter for about an hour and adding to the mass of space junk already in orbit, U.S. space agencies said. 

There were no immediate details on what caused the breakup of the RESURS-P1 Russian Earth observation satellite, which Russia declared dead in 2022. 

U.S. Space Command, tracking the debris swarm, said there was no immediate threat to other satellites. 

The event took place about noon EDT (1600 GMT) Wednesday, Space Command said. It occurred in an orbit near the space station, prompting U.S. astronauts on board to shelter in their spacecraft for roughly an hour, NASA’s Space Station office said. 

Russian space agency Roscosmos, which operated the satellite, did not respond to a request for comment or publicly acknowledge the event on its social media channels. 

U.S. Space Command, which has a global network of space-tracking radars, said the satellite immediately created “over 100 pieces of trackable debris.” 

By Thursday afternoon, radars from U.S. space-tracking firm LeoLabs had detected at least 180 pieces, the company said.  

Large debris-generating events in orbit are rare but of increasing concern as space becomes crowded with satellite networks vital to everyday life on Earth, from broadband internet and communications to basic navigation services, as well as satellites no longer in use. 

The satellite’s breakup was at an altitude of roughly 355 km (220 miles) in low-Earth orbit, a popular region where thousands of small to large satellites operate, including SpaceX’s vast Starlink network and China’s station that houses three of its astronauts. 

“Due to the low orbit of this debris cloud, we estimate it’ll be weeks to months before the hazard has passed,” LeoLabs said in a statement to Reuters. 

The some 25,000 pieces of debris bigger than 10 cm (4 inches) in space caused by satellite explosions or collisions have raised concerns about the prospect of a Kessler effect — a phenomenon in which satellite collisions with debris can create a cascading field of more hazardous junk and exponentially increase crash risks. 

Russia sparked strong criticism from the U.S. and other Western countries in 2021 when it struck one of its defunct satellites in orbit with a ground-based anti-satellite (ASAT) missile launched from its Plesetsk rocket site. The blast, testing a weapon system ahead of Moscow’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, created thousands of pieces of orbital debris. 

In the roughly 88-minute window of RESURS-P1’s initial breakup, the Plesetsk site was one of many locations on Earth it passed over, but there was no immediate indication from airspace or maritime alerts that Russia had launched a missile to strike the satellite, space tracker and Harvard astronomer Jonathan McDowell said. 

“I find it hard to believe they would use such a big satellite as an ASAT target,” McDowell said. “But, with the Russians these days, who knows.” 

He and other analysts speculated the breakup more likely could have been caused by a problem with the satellite, such as leftover fuel onboard causing an explosion. 

What happens to old satellites?  

Dead satellites either remain in orbit until they descend into Earth’s atmosphere for a fiery demise years later, or in widely preferred — but less common — circumstances, they fly to a “graveyard orbit” some 36,000 km (22,400 miles) from Earth to lower the risk of crashing into active satellites. 

Roscosmos decommissioned RESURS-P1 over onboard equipment failures in 2021, announcing the decision the following year. The satellite has since appeared to be lowering its altitude through layers of other active satellites for an eventual atmospheric reentry. 

The six U.S. astronauts currently on the space station were alerted by NASA mission control in Houston late Wednesday evening to execute “safe haven” procedures, where each crew member rushes into the spacecraft they arrived in, in case an emergency departure is required. 

NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams boarded their Starliner spacecraft, the Boeing-built capsule that has been docked since June 6 in its first crewed test mission on the station. 

Three of the other U.S. astronauts and a Russian cosmonaut went into SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule that flew them to the station in March, while the sixth U.S. astronaut joined the two remaining cosmonauts in their Russian Soyuz capsule that ferried them there in September last year. 

The astronauts emerged from their spacecraft roughly an hour later and resumed their normal work on the station, NASA said. 

The prospects of satellite collisions and space warfare have added urgency to calls from space advocates and lawyers to have countries establish an international mechanism of managing space traffic, which does not currently exist.

Boeing’s Starliner strands astronauts in space

Two NASA astronauts are stranded in space with no return date set. Plus, a new climate satellite launches into orbit, and a human-made creepy crawler looks to explore Mars. VOA’s Arash Arabasadi brings us The Week in Space.

Indonesia aims to build cutting-edge spaceport but faces obstacles

Jakarta, Indonesia — Indonesia aims to launch 19 satellites into low-Earth orbit next year, part of an ambitious plan to move the country into the forefront of the world’s growing space industry and reduce its reliance on other countries for its satellite data.

The broader program, known as the 2045 space map, is set to begin next year. Officials hope to boost Indonesia’s economy and drive foreign direct investment by leveraging its unique geography as a near-equatorial, fuel-efficient launch point for space travel and research.

While the satellite launches would support key economic sectors such as agriculture and mining with remote-sensing technology to track weather patterns, mining emissions and mineral-rich areas, the longer-term plan includes development of a leading-edge spaceport to reduce reliance on foreign launch sites.

But according to officials at BRIN, Indonesia’s National Research and Innovation Agency, there’s still no confirmation of which company or government agencies would be responsible for the spate of launches planned for 2025.

“The main constraint was the government’s financial planning and budget cuts. We also couldn’t clinch foreign investment partners to join in developing the spaceport because it is high technology and high cost,” said BRIN researcher Thomas Djamalludin.

Starlink, SpaceX and Elon Musk

Jakarta has relied on Elon Musk’s SpaceX for launching its satellites from Cape Canaveral, Florida, since 2019, and the billionaire entrepreneur last month launched a Starlink internet services satellite directly from Bali.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo has repeatedly invited Musk to use the Papuan province island of Biak as a primary Starlink launch site, which has drawn outrage from locals who say developing the island as a spaceport will devastate its fragile ecology.

Although Biak has an airstrip, military base, deep-water seaport and ground stations, the 500 hectares (1.9 square miles) of government-owned land suitable for the spaceport would require foreign investment to cover the preliminary $613 million required to build the initial phase of the project. The total cost is dependent on what additional facilities investors want to build at the space port.

Luhut Pandjaitan, Indonesia’s coordinating minister for maritime affairs and investment, said that Starlink is mulling the offer but that there are no immediate plans for collaboration.

According to Djamalludin of BRIN, China, which has dominated Indonesia’s 5G market and is on track to be the nation’s largest foreign investor, had expressed interest. However, a catastrophic April 2020 rocket launch that destroyed Indonesia’s $220 million Nusantara-2 satellite has complicated Jakarta’s relationship with China’s state-owned China Great Wall Industry Corporation.

Beijing has since dialed back its financial interests, declaring the Biak location too distant, while Jakarta has doubled down on wooing SpaceX for the upcoming launches, deeming the company more reliable, offering more time slots and cheaper reusable rockets.

Indonesia’s director of investment promotion at the Investment Coordinating Board, Saribua Siahaan, told VOA that Jakarta continues offering financial incentives, along with an easy investment permitting process for public-private partnerships.

No takers in 2023

As recently as 2023, BRIN officials promoted their spaceport plans at the G20 Space Economy Leaders’ Meeting and Asia-Pacific Regional Space Agency Forum. China, Russia, Japan, South Korea and India were invited as potential partners, but none signed on.

“Despite the 2013 Space Law having been in effect for nearly a decade, [Indonesia’s] government has yet to finalize implementing regulations for commercialization of space and spaceport development,” said Indonesian space-law scholars Ridha Aditya Nugraha and Yaries Mahardika Putro in a recent Jakarta Post op-ed.

Indonesia was the first country in ASEAN to enforce national space legislation. The 2013 Space law provides a legal framework regarding outer space, and it lays the foundation for space industry growth.

Foreign direct investment in space activities brings legal certainty that can attract investors. In the past decade, though, implementation of regulations has not occurred and that has made it difficult for the related ministeries to make Indonesia a space-faring country.

“This must be resolved immediately if Indonesia is serious about making outer space a revenue center and the driver of the economy in the future,” the op-ed said.

Chinese hackers have stepped up attacks on Taiwanese organizations, cybersecurity firm says

Hong Kong — A suspected Chinese state-sponsored hacking group has stepped up its targeting of Taiwanese organizations, particularly those in sectors such as government, education, technology and diplomacy, according to cybersecurity intelligence company Recorded Future. 

In recent years, relations between China and Taiwan, a self-governed island across the Taiwan Strait that Beijing claims as its territory, have deteriorated. The cyberattacks by the group known as RedJulliett were observed between November 2023 and April 2024, during the lead up to Taiwan’s presidential elections in January and the subsequent change in administration. 

RedJuliett has targeted Taiwanese organizations in the past, but this is the first time that activity was seen at such a scale, a Recorded Future analyst said, speaking on condition of anonymity out of safety concerns. 

The report said RedJuliett attacked 24 organizations, including government agencies in places like Laos, Kenya and Rwanda, as well as Taiwan. 

It also hacked into websites of religious organizations in Hong Kong and South Korea, a U.S university and a Djiboutian university. The report did not identify the organizations. 

Recorded Future said RedJuliett accessed the servers of those places via a vulnerability in their SoftEther enterprise virtual private network, or VPN software, an open-source VPN that allows remote connections to an organization’s networks. 

RedJuliett has been observed attempting to break into systems of more than 70 Taiwanese organizations including three universities, an optoelectronics company and a facial recognition company that has contracts with the government. 

It was unclear if RedJuliett managed to break into those organizations: Recorded Future only said it observed the attempts to identify vulnerabilities in their networks. 

RedJuliett’s hacking patterns match those of Chinese state-sponsored groups, according to Recorded Future. 

It said that based on the geolocations of IP addresses, RedJulliett is likely based out of the city of Fuzhou, in China’s southern Fujian province, whose coast faces Taiwan. 

“Given the close geographical proximity between Fuzhou and Taiwan, Chinese intelligence services operating in Fuzhou are likely tasked with intelligence collection against Taiwanese targets,” the report said. 

“RedJuliett is likely targeting Taiwan to collect intelligence and support Beijing’s policy-making on cross-strait relations,” the Recorded Future report said.

Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not immediately comment.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson dismissed the allegations.

“I don’t know the specifics of what you mentioned, but I can tell you that it’s not the first time the company you mentioned has fabricated disinformation on so-called Chinese hacking operations. There is absolutely no professionalism or credibility to speak of in what the company does,” the spokesperson, Mao Ning, said.

Microsoft reported in August last year that RedJuliett, which Microsoft tracks under the name Flax Typhoon, was targeting Taiwanese organizations. 

China has in recent years stepped up military drills around Taiwan and imposed economic and diplomatic pressure on the island. 

Relations between Taiwan and Beijing worsened further after the election in January of Taiwan’s new president Lai Ching-te, who China has deemed a “separatist,” after he said in his inauguration speech that Taiwan and China were not subordinate to each other. Like his predecessor Tsai Ing-wen, Lai has said that there is no need to declare Taiwanese independence because it is already an independent sovereign state. 

Like many other countries including the U.S., China has been known to engage in cyberespionage. Earlier this year, the U.S. and Britain accused China of a sweeping cyberespionage campaign that allegedly hit millions of people. 

Beijing has consistently denied engaging in any form of state-sponsored hacking, instead saying that China itself is a major target of cyberattacks. 

According to Recorded Future, Chinese state-sponsored groups will likely continue to target Taiwanese government agencies, universities and critical technology companies via “public-facing” devices such as open-source VPN software, which provide limited visibility and logging capabilities. 

Companies and organizations can best protect themselves by prioritizing and patching vulnerabilities once they become known, Recorded Future’s threat intelligence analyst said.

Apple’s App Store rules breach EU tech rules, EU regulators say

AMSTERDAM — Apple’s App Store rules breach EU tech rules because they prevent app developers from steering consumers to alternative offers, EU antitrust regulators said on Monday, a charge that could result in a hefty fine for the iPhone maker.

The European Commission, which also acts as the European Union’s antitrust and technology regulator, said it had sent its preliminary findings to Apple following an investigation launched in March.

The charge against Apple is the first by the Commission under its landmark Digital Markets Act which seeks to rein in the power of Big Tech and ensure a level playing field for smaller rivals. It has until March next year to issue a final decision.

EU antitrust chief Margrethe Vestager cited issues with Apple’s new terms.

“As they stand, we think that these new terms do not allow app developers to communicate freely with their end users, and to conclude contracts with them,” she told a conference.

The Commission said under most of the business terms, Apple allows steering only through ‘link-outs’, meaning that app developers can include a link in their app that redirects the customer to a web page where the customer can conclude a contract.

It also criticised the fees charged by Apple for facilitating via the App Store the initial acquisition of a new customer by developers, saying they went beyond what was strictly necessary for such remuneration.

Apple said it had made a number of changes in the past several months to comply with the DMA after getting feedback from developers and the Commission.

“We are confident our plan complies with the law, and estimate more than 99% of developers would pay the same or less in fees to Apple under the new business terms we created,” the company said in an email.

The EU executive said it was also opening an investigation into the iPhone maker over its new contractual requirements for third-party app developers and app stores and whether these were necessary and proportionate.

DMA breaches can cost companies fines as much as 10% of their global annual turnover.

Germany assures China that doors still open to discuss EU surcharges

Shanghai, China — The German vice-chancellor assured China on Saturday that the “doors” remained “open” to discuss EU surcharges on Chinese electric vehicles, without reassuring Beijing which promised to “firmly defend” its manufacturers.

Also, the Minister of Economy and Climate, Robert Habeck is making a visit that seems like a last chance to avoid a trade war between the Old Continent and the second world power, an important economic partner of Germany.

A task further complicated by the political context, the German leader reproached China on Saturday for its economic support for Russia against a backdrop of the invasion of Ukraine, stressing it was “harming” relations between Beijing and Brussels.

China regularly denounces these upcoming surcharges on electric vehicles as being “purely protectionist.”

“These are not punitive customs duties,” Habeck assured Zheng Shanjie, director of the Chinese Economic Planning Agency (NDRC) Saturday, according to a recording sent to AFP by the Chinese Embassy in Germany.

“This is not a punishment,” he insisted.

Up to 28% increase

Without compromise by July 4, the European Commission will impose up to 28% increase in customs duties on imports of Chinese electric vehicles, accusing Beijing of having, according to it, distorted competition by massively subsidizing this sector.

These surcharges would become definitive from November.

“For Europe, I can say that the doors are open and the invitation or offer for discussion has been made several times. Now it must be accepted,” Habeck said at a news conference in Shanghai.

From Brussels, Olof Gill, the EU spokesperson, assured that European Trade Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis and Chinese Trade Minister Wang Wentao “had a frank and constructive call on Saturday regarding the anti-subsidy investigation of the EU on electric cars produced in China.”

“Both sides will continue to engage at all levels in the coming weeks,” he added.

China vows to defend ‘rights’

Earlier Saturday, the tone had been firm on the Chinese side.

“If the EU shows sincerity, China wants to start negotiations as soon as possible” on the surcharges, Trade Minister Wang told him, according to the English-speaking state television CGTN.

“But if the EU persists in this course, we will take all necessary measures to defend our interests. This will include lodging a complaint with the dispute settlement mechanism of the World Trade Organization (WTO). We will firmly defend the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese enterprises.”

Beijing had already announced Monday that it had launched an anti-dumping investigation into imports of pork and pork products from the European Union.

German and European manufacturers are strongly affected by cheaper Chinese competition. Imports of Chinese electric vehicles into Germany increased tenfold between 2020 and 2023.

China argues that the success of its electricity sector is due to innovation and efficient supply chains, not subsidies.

“(EU) protectionism will not protect (its manufacturers’) competitiveness and will only slow down the global fight against climate change and the promotion of a green transition,” Zheng told Habeck.

“We expect Germany to show leadership within the EU and take the right measures,” implying the cancellation of surcharges, he insisted, according to the New China agency.

Habeck blames Beijing

Such an epilogue seems improbable, with Habeck again blaming Beijing on Saturday for the surge in its trade with Moscow.

“The Russian war of aggression and Chinese support for the Russian government are already harming trade and economic relations between Europe and China,” he said he told his Chinese interlocutors.

China has pledged not to supply weapons to Russia and calls for respect for the territorial integrity of all countries — including Ukraine. But China has never condemned Moscow for its invasion.

Habeck assured Saturday that many “dual-use” goods (both civil and military) were used by Russia after passing through “third countries” — implying China.

“We therefore cannot accept” that the Russian invasion is supported with these products, insisted the German vice-chancellor, calling on Beijing to ban their export to its Russian neighbor.

German car manufacturers still fear a major trade conflict with Beijing, which would undermine their activity in this crucial market. For Mercedes, Volkswagen or BMW, China represents up to 36% of sales volumes.

Trump, Biden woo voters on TikTok. Will it make a difference?

President Joe Biden and former president Donald Trump agree on few things, but a ban of the Beijing-based social network TikTok is one of them. Now with a presidential election at stake, both are joining the platform they previously attempted to take down. Will it make a difference on Election Day? Tina Trinh reports.