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Try This One Weird Trick Russian Hackers Hate

Try This One Weird Trick Russian Hackers Hate

 
May 17, 2021
 

In a Twitter discussion last week on ransomware attacks, KrebsOnSecurity noted that virtually all ransomware strains have a built-in failsafe designed to cover the backsides of the malware purveyors: They simply will not install on a Microsoft Windows computer that already has one of many types of virtual keyboards installed — such as Russian or Ukrainian. So many readers had questions in response to the tweet that I thought it was worth a blog post exploring this one weird cyber defense trick.

The Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) more or less matches the exclusion list on an awful lot of malware coming out of Eastern Europe.

The Twitter thread came up in a discussion on the ransomware attack against Colonial Pipeline, which earlier this month shut down 5,500 miles of fuel pipe for nearly a week, causing fuel station supply shortages throughout the country and driving up prices. The FBI said the attack was the work of DarkSide, a new-ish ransomware-as-a-service offering that says it targets only large corporations.

DarkSide and other Russian-language affiliate moneymaking programs have long barred their criminal associates from installing malicious software on computers in a host of Eastern European countries, including Ukraine and Russia. This prohibition dates back to the earliest days of organized cybercrime, and it is intended to minimize scrutiny and interference from local authorities.

In Russia, for example, authorities there generally will not initiate a cybercrime investigation against one of their own unless a company or individual within the country’s borders files an official complaint as a victim. Ensuring that no affiliates can produce victims in their own countries is the easiest way for these criminals to stay off the radar of domestic law enforcement agencies.

Possibly feeling the heat from being referenced in President Biden’s Executive Order on cybersecurity this past week, the DarkSide group sought to distance itself from their attack against Colonial Pipeline. In a message posted to its victim shaming blog, DarkSide tried to say it was “apolitical” and that it didn’t wish to participate in geopolitics.

“Our goal is to make money, and not creating problems for society,” the DarkSide criminals wrote last week. “From today we introduce moderation and check each company that our partners want to encrypt to avoid social consequences in the future.”

But here’s the thing: Digital extortion gangs like DarkSide take great care to make their entire platforms geopolitical, because their malware is engineered to work only in certain parts of the world.

DarkSide, like a great many other malware strains, has a hard-coded do-not-install list of countries which are the principal members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) — former Soviet satellites that mostly have favorable relations with the Kremlin. The full exclusion list in DarkSide (published by Cybereason) is below:

Image: Cybereason.

Simply put, countless malware strains will check for the presence of one of these languages on the system, and if they’re detected the malware will exit and fail to install.

[Side note. Many security experts have pointed to connections between the DarkSide and REvil (a.k.a. “Sodinokibi”) ransomware groups. REvil was previously known as GandCrab, and one of the many things GandCrab had in common with REvil was that both programs barred affiliates from infecting victims in Syria. As we can see from the chart above, Syria is also exempted from infections by DarkSide ransomware. And DarkSide itself proved their connection to REvil this past week when it announced it was closing up shop after its servers and bitcoin funds were seized.]

CAVEAT EMPTOR

Will installing one of these languages keep your Windows computer safe from all malware? Absolutely not. There is plenty of malware that doesn’t care where in the world you are. And there is no substitute for adopting a defense-in-depth posture, and avoiding risky behaviors online.

But is there really a downside to taking this simple, free, prophylactic approach? None that I can see, other than perhaps a sinking feeling of capitulation. The worst that could happen is that you accidentally toggle the language settings and all your menu options are in Russian.

If this happens (and the first time it does the experience may be a bit jarring) hit the Windows key and the space bar at the same time; if you have more than one language installed you will see the ability to quickly toggle from one to the other. The little box that pops up when one hits that keyboard combo looks like this:

Cybercriminals are notoriously responsive to defenses which cut into their profitability, so why wouldn’t the bad guys just change things up and start ignoring the language check? Well, they certainly can and maybe even will do that (a recent version of DarkSide analyzed by Mandiant did not perform the system language check).

But doing so increases the risk to their personal safety and fortunes by some non-trivial amount, said Allison Nixon, chief research officer at New York City-based cyber investigations firm Unit221B.

Nixon said because of Russia’s unique legal culture, criminal hackers in that country employ these checks to ensure they are only attacking victims outside of the country.

“This is for their legal protection,” Nixon said. “Installing a Cyrillic keyboard, or changing a specific registry entry to say ‘RU’, and so forth, might be enough to convince malware that you are Russian and off limits. This can technically be used as a ‘vaccine’ against Russian malware.”

Nixon said if enough people do this in large numbers, it may in the short term protect some people, but more importantly in the long term it forces Russian hackers to make a choice: Risk losing legal protections, or risk losing income.

“Essentially, Russian hackers will end up facing the same difficulty that defenders in the West must face — the fact that it is very difficult to tell the difference between a domestic machine and a foreign machine masquerading as a domestic one,” she said.

KrebsOnSecurity asked Nixon’s colleague at Unit221B — founder Lance James — what he thought about the efficacy of another anti-malware approach suggested by Twitter followers who chimed in on last week’s discussion: Adding entries to the Windows registry that specify the system is running as a virtual machine (VM). In a bid to stymie analysis by antivirus and security firms, some malware authors have traditionally configured their malware to quit installing if it detects it is running in a virtual environment.

But James said this prohibition is no longer quite so common, particularly since so many organizations have transitioned to virtual environments for everyday use.

“Being a virtual machine doesn’t stop malware like it used to,” James said. “In fact, a lot of the ransomware we’re seeing now is running on VMs.”

But James says he loves the idea of everyone adding a language from the CIS country list so much he’s produced his own clickable two-line Windows batch script that adds a Russian language reference in the specific Windows registry keys that are checked by malware. The script effectively allows one’s Windows PC to look like it has a Russian keyboard installed without actually downloading the added script libraries from Microsoft.

To install a different keyboard language on a Windows 10 computer the old fashioned way, hit the Windows key and X at the same time, then select Settings, and then select “Time and Language.” Select Language, and then scroll down and you should see an option to install another character set. Pick one, and the language should be installed the next time you reboot. Again, if for some reason you need to toggle between languages, Windows+Spacebar is your friend.

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Facebook is grappling with a reputation crisis in the Middle East

Facebook battles reputation crisis in the Middle East

“Users are feeling that they are being censored, getting limited distribution, and ultimately silenced,” one Facebook senior software engineer said.
Conclusion of the DLD Innovation Conference

Nick Clegg, Head of Policy at Facebook, speaks on stage during the DLD (Digital Life Design) innovation conference in Munich, Bavaria on Jan. 20, 2020.Lino Mirgeler / dpa/picture alliance via Getty Images file

 
 

Facebook is grappling with a reputation crisis in the Middle East, with plummeting approval rates and advertising sales in Arab countries, according to leaked documents obtained by NBC News.

The shift corresponds with the widespread belief by pro-Palestinian and free speech activists that the social media company has been disproportionately silencing Palestinian voices on its apps – which include Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp – during this month’s Israel-Hamas conflict. Examples include the deletion of hundreds of posts condemning the eviction of Palestinians from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem, the suspension of activist accounts and the temporary blocking of a hashtag relating to one of Islam’s holiest mosques. Facebook said these were technical glitches.

 

Instagram has taken the greatest reputational hit, according to a presentation authored by a Dubai-based Facebook employee that was leaked to NBC News, with its approval ratings among users falling to a historical low.

The social media company regularly polls users of Facebook and Instagram about how much they believe the company cares about them. Facebook converts the results into a ‘Cares About Users’ metric which acts as a bellwether for the apps’ popularity. Since the start of the latest Israel-Hamas conflict, the metric among Instagram users in Facebook’s Middle East and North Africa region is at its lowest in history, and fell almost 5 percentage points in a week, according to the research. “The biggest changes came from Qatar, Jordan, Palestine and Saudi Arabia,” the presentation states.

Instagram’s score measuring whether users think the app is good for the world, referred to as ‘Good For World,’ has also dropped in the region to its lowest level after losing more than 5 percentage points in a week.

There was also a dip — although not as precipitous — in Facebook’s ‘Cares About Users’ score in the Middle East, driven mainly by Egypt, Iraq, Morocco and Jordan.

The low approval ratings have been compounded by a campaign by pro-Palestinian and free speech activists to target Facebook with 1-star reviews on the Apple and Google app stores. The campaign tanked Facebook’s average rating from above 4 out of 5 stars on both app stores to 2.2 on the App Store and 2.3 on Google Play as of Wednesday. According to leaked internal posts, the issue has been categorized internally as a “severity 1” problem for Facebook, which is the second highest priority issue after a “severity 0” incident, which is reserved for when the website is down.

“Users are feeling that they are being censored, getting limited distribution, and ultimately silenced,” one senior software engineer said in a post on Facebook’s internal message board. “As a result, our users have started protesting by leaving 1 star reviews.”

Internal documents connect the reputational damage to a decline in advertising sales in the Middle East. According to the leaked presentation, Facebook’s ad sales in the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and Iraq dropped at least 12 percent in the 10 days after May 7.

“In addition to the negative sentiment towards Facebook in MENA now, the regression could also be attributed to the overall charged environment where some brands might find it insensitive to advertise or won’t be getting the usual ROI when spending their money,” Facebook noted in a presentation deck on the topic, referring to the return on investment.

In spite of the widespread perception of disproportionate silencing of Palestinian voices, Facebook has been unable to identify any “ongoing systemic issues” with its automated content removal tools or human content moderators, according to a post to Facebook’s internal message board by the company’s risk and response team.

Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone acknowledged in an interview there had been “several issues” that affected people’s ability to share on the company’s apps. “While we have fixed them, they should never have happened in the first place and we’re sorry to anyone who felt they couldn’t bring attention to important events, or who felt this was a deliberate suppression of their voice. This was never our intention – nor do we ever want to silence a particular community or point of view.”

Stone declined to comment on the leaked material indicating reputation and ad sales damage in the Middle East but did not dispute its contents.

Growth potential

The Middle East is not a huge market in terms of Facebook’s overall advertising revenue, which topped $84 billion in 2020. According to research by the Dubai-based digital advertising company Futuretech, the social media company generates between $800 million and $1 billion in annual advertising revenue in the region. But it is a key growth market at a time when user growth in some of the larger advertising markets such as the United States and Europe has stalled, experts say.

“It might be a smaller market. But Facebook is still growing aggressively in the region. So it’s strategically important,” Futuretech CEO Boye Balogun said. “They are also protecting themselves from the likes of TikTok that have launched in the region and are growing very quickly.”

The same leaked presentation highlighted a surge in Israeli users reporting problematic content on Instagram, first reported by BuzzFeed News, making Israel the top country ranked globally for reporting content for ties to dangerous organizations and individuals, a category that covers terrorist propaganda, between April and May.

There was also an increase in reports from users in Israel of content for violating Facebook’s rules against hate speech and incitement of violence. Between May 8 and May 18, users in Israel reported 494,463 cases of hate speech while Palestinian users reported 58,618 cases.

“Israel has hacked the system and knows how to pressure Facebook to take stuff down,” said Ashraf Zeitoon, who worked as Facebook’s head of policy in the Middle East and North Africa between 2014 and 2017. “Palestinians don’t have the capacity, experience and resources to report hate speech by Israeli citizens in Hebrew.”

The U.S., Israel and the European Union have designated Hamas as a terrorist organization. But pro-Palestinian civil society groups including 7amleh and Access Now as well as some Facebook employees are concerned that nonviolating content is being marked as terrorist propaganda and hate speech. They believe that Israel is flooding Facebook with reports of violations in a way that disproportionately removes Palestinian voices.

“The Israeli government is spending millions on digital tools and campaigns targeting social media content. But there are only fragmented efforts from the Palestinian side,” said Mona Shtaya from 7amleh, a nonprofit that focuses on Palestinians’ digital rights.

Shtaya notes that the Israeli government’s cyber unit makes thousands of requests each year to have content taken down from social media sites, including Facebook and Instagram. During the first 10 days of May, as Israeli-Palestinian tensions were rising, the Israeli government asked social media companies to delete more than 1,010 pieces of content. More than half (598) of the requests were made to Facebook and the Israeli government said that the social media company removed 48 percent of them. Israel also funds a program that pays students to post and report content on social media in what is described as “online public diplomacy.”

Shtaya also points to apps such as Act-IL, developed by former Israeli intelligence officers, where volunteers coordinate campaigns to mass report items of content and boost other items by liking and sharing them. Act-IL has been promoted by the Israeli government, but the company denies any formal relationship and in 2018 told BuzzFeed News that it was a “grassroots initiative” that fights antisemitism and incitement to terrorism and violence.

Long history

Free speech and human rights groups have for years accused Facebook of censoring Palestinian voices, including activists and journalists.

In November 2016, members of Palestinian solidarity groups including the Jewish Voice for Peace, the Institute for Middle East Understanding and the Palestinian Business Committee for Peace and Reform met with Facebook employees at the company’s Menlo Park, California, headquarters to discuss concerns that Palestinian activists were being silenced and allegations that Israel was trying to game the system using its network of paid students.

According to notes taken at the meeting, reviewed by NBC News, the Palestinian solidarity groups had a key takeaway: “It doesn’t feel like Facebook is taking us or the issue seriously enough. Facebook continues to defend problematic policies and we need to continue educating them about how these policies harm their stated goals of ‘promoting free expression’ and ‘making sure all users are treated the same.’” Facebook spokesperson Stone declined to comment on the 2016 meeting.

But pressure on Facebook has intensified this month as reports of such censorship collected by digital rights groups including Access Now and 7amleh have skyrocketed. They point to hundreds of examples, including Instagram removing posts and blocking hashtags about Al Aqsa, one of Islam’s holiest mosques, because its content moderation system mistakenly connected the name to a terrorist organization.

Facebook has also been attempting to crack down on extremist Israeli content, including more than a hundred WhatsApp groups — identified by The New York Times and FakeReporter, an Israeli watchdog that studies misinformation — where members call for and plan violent attacks on Palestinians.

A WhatsApp spokeswoman confirmed that it had removed some of the accounts of people in the groups and that, although it cannot read the encrypted messages sent through its service, it takes action to “ban accounts that we believe may be involved in causing imminent harm.”

This week, concerns were elevated in Washington, D.C., by Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., who called for Facebook and other social media companies to stop censoring Palestinian political speech on their platforms.

“It is not enough to continue to blame technical errors and automated systems and algorithms,” she wrote in a letter to Facebook, Twitter and TikTok.

Making changes

Internally, the leaked posts show that a group of about 30 Facebook employees have volunteered their time to file what Facebook refers to as “Oops tickets,” a system that allows employees to flag problems to prioritize, connected to issues related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and many of these have been about pro-Palestinian content believed to have been removed by mistake.

Facebook has also set up an Integrity Product Operations Center, comprising native Arabic and Hebrew speakers and subject matter experts from teams including threat intelligence, data science, operations, research, policy and legal to handle issues related to the conflict, including restoring content that has been mistakenly removed.

Facebook has regular meetings with senior members of the Israeli government, including one May 13 with Israeli Justice Minister Benny Gantz, during which he pressured Facebook to be more proactive in taking action against “extremist elements that are seeking to do damage to our country,” according a statement released by his office.

But on May 13, senior Facebook executives including Nick Clegg, vice president for global affairs and communications, Joel Kaplan, vice president of global public policy, and MENA policy chief Azzam Alameddin met virtually with Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh — the first such meeting to have taken place. Previously members of the Palestinian government and civil society groups had met with Facebook employees, Facebook spokesman Stone said. However Palestinian politicians and civil society groups have never before had access to such senior executives, 7amleh’s Mona Shtaya said.

“Facebook started by saying they felt sorry for Palestinians and what was happening on the ground,” said Shtaya, who attended the meeting with the Palestinian prime minister representing civil society. “The feeling from the meeting was that Facebook came to prove to people that they aren’t biased and that they are not only sitting with the Israeli government but also the Palestinian government.”

The group spent some time discussing words regularly used by Palestinians, including “martyr” and “resistance” that were being labeled by Facebook as hate speech or incitement to violence.

“They showed openness, they acknowledged some mistakes, and promised to take these points into consideration,” said Shtaya, who said that the meeting went “really well.”

Stone said that the meetings with Gantz and Shtayyeh were “an effort to ensure that all parties are aware of steps the company has taken, and will continue to take, to keep the platform safe.”

On Wednesday, Facebook representatives met with pro-Palestinian and free speech civil society groups, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Access Now, to discuss the same issues.

Access Now’s Marwa Fatafta said the meeting was arranged after they sent an email to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, hoping to sit down with executive leadership. Instead they met with Facebook’s human rights policy team and asked for a public audit of the company’s content policies related to the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

Fatafta came away thinking that the Facebook attendees were well-intentioned, but lacked power to effect meaningful change.

“I am always skeptical whenever their human rights team wants to meet with us. We know they have not so much influence within the organization,” Fatafta said. “I always feel their job is to manage down civil society and their concerns. But they don’t do much when it comes to actual structural changes.”

Stone said that the meeting was an “important opportunity to hear their concerns directly” and that “we share an interest in making sure Facebook remains a place for Palestinians and others around the world to discuss the issues that matter to them.”

 
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Nestlé says majority of its food portfolio is unhealthy

Nestlé says majority of its food portfolio is unhealthy

Internal document says brands underperform against ‘external definitions of health’ amid consumer pressure

Nestlé has acknowledged in an internal document that more than 60 per cent of its mainstream food and drinks products do not meet a “recognised definition of health”. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Nestlé has acknowledged in an internal document that more than 60 per cent of its mainstream food and drinks products do not meet a “recognised definition of health”. Photograph: Bryan O’Brie

 

The world’s largest food company, Nestlé, has acknowledged in an internal document that more than 60 per cent of its mainstream food and drinks products do not meet a “recognised definition of health” and that “some of our categories and products will never be ‘healthy’ no matter how much we renovate”.

A presentation circulated among top executives early this year, seen by the Financial Times, says only 37 per cent of Nestlé’s food and beverages by revenues, excluding products such as pet food and specialised medical nutrition, achieve a rating above 3.5 under Australia’s health star rating system.

This system scores foods out of five stars and is used in research by international groups such as the Access to Nutrition Foundation.

Nestlé, the maker of KitKats, Maggi noodles and Nescafe, describes the 3.5 star threshold as a “recognised definition of health”.

Within its overall food and drink portfolio, some 70 per cent of Nestlé’s food products failed to meet that threshold, the presentation said, along with 96 per cent of beverages – excluding pure coffee – and 99 per cent of Nestlé’s confectionery and ice cream portfolio.

Water and dairy products scored better, with 82 per cent of waters and 60 per cent of dairy meeting the threshold.

“We have made significant improvements to our products . . .[but] our portfolio still underperforms against external definitions of health in a landscape where regulatory pressure and consumer demands are skyrocketing,” the presentation said.

The data excludes baby formula, pet food, coffee, and the health science division, which makes foods for people with specific medical conditions. This means the data accounts for about half of Nestlé’s 92.6 billion Swiss francs (€84.35 billion) total annual revenues.

The findings come as foodmakers contend with a global push to combat obesity and promote healthier eating. Executives at Nestlé are considering what new commitments to make on nutrition and are aiming to unveil plans this year.

The group is also updating its internal nutrition standards, known as the Nestlé Nutritional Foundation, that were introduced under former chief executive Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, who characterised Nestlé as a “nutrition, health and wellness company”.

One option could be to drop or replace these standards for products seen as treats, like confectionery, according to a person familiar with the situation.

Mark Schneider, chief executive, has acknowledged that consumers want a healthier diet but rejected claims that “processed” foods including those made by Nestlé and other multinationals tend to be unhealthy.

However the presentation highlights Nestlé products such as a DiGiorno three meat croissant crust pizza, which includes about 40 per cent of a person’s recommended daily allowance of sodium, and a Hot Pockets pepperoni pizza that contains 48 per cent.

Another product, an orange-flavoured San Pellegrino drink, scores an “E” – the worst mark available under a different scoring system, Nutri-Score – with more than 7.1g of sugar per 100ml, the presentation says, asking: “Should a health forward brand carry an E [rating]?”

Separately, Nestlé’s strawberry-flavoured Nesquik, which is sold in the US, contains 14g of sugar in a 14g serving alongside small amounts of colouring and flavouring, though it is designed to be mixed with milk. It is described as “perfect at breakfast to get kids ready for the day”.

Nestlé said it “is working on a company-wide project to update its pioneering nutrition and health strategy. We are looking at our entire portfolio across the different phases of people’s lives to ensure our products are helping meet their nutritional needs and supporting a balanced diet”.

Strong foundation

“Our efforts build on a strong foundation of work over decades . . . For example, we have reduced the sugars and sodium in our products significantly in the past two decades, about 14-15 per cent in the past seven years alone.”

Marion Nestle (no relation), visiting professor of nutritional sciences at Cornell University, said Nestlé and its rivals would struggle to make their portfolios healthy overall.

“Food companies’ job is to generate money for stockholders, and to generate it as quickly and in as large an amount as possible. They are going to sell products that reach a mass audience and are bought by as many people as possible, that people want to buy, and that’s junk food,” she said.

“Nestlé is a very smart company, at least from my meetings with people who are in their science [departments] . . . but they have a real problem . . . Scientists have been working for years to try to figure out how to reduce the salt and sugar content without changing the flavour profile and, guess what, it’s hard to do.”

Some products perceived as healthy, such as plant-based meat alternatives, are areas of strong growth for foodmakers. Nestlé has sold some of its divisions that produced less healthy products, such as a 60 per cent stake in the Herta charcuterie arm in 2019.

Nestlé was ranked highest among the world’s big food and beverage manufacturers in a 2018 index of efforts to encourage better diets compiled by the Access to Nutrition Foundation, though the foundation warned that “all companies need to do much more”.

Nestlé said: “In recent years, we have launched thousands of products for kids and families that meet external nutrition yardsticks. We have also distributed billions of micronutrient doses via our affordable and nutritious products.”

It added: “We believe that a healthy diet means finding a balance between wellbeing and enjoyment. This includes having some space for indulgent foods, consumed in moderation. Our direction of travel has not changed and is clear: we will continue to make our portfolio tastier and healthier.”

 

 
KitKat
 Nestlé said it believed a healthy diet meant finding a balance between wellbeing and enjoyment. “This includes having some space for indulgent foods, consumed in moderation.” Keystone / Lawrence Looi (stf)

The world’s largest food company, Switzerland’s Nestlé, has acknowledged in an internal document that more than 60% of its mainstream food and drinks products do not meet a “recognised definition of health” and that “some of our categories and products will never be ‘healthy’ no matter how much we renovate”.

A presentation circulated among top executives early this year, seen by the Financial Times, says only 37% of Nestlé’s food and beverages by revenues, excluding products such as pet food and specialised medical nutrition, achieve a rating above 3.5 under Australia’s health star rating system.

This system scores foods out of five stars and is used in research by international groups such as the Access to Nutrition Foundation. Nestlé, the Vevey-based maker of KitKats, Maggi noodles and Nescafe, describes the 3.5 star threshold as a “recognised definition of health”.

Within its overall food and drink portfolio, some 70% of Nestlé’s food products failed to meet that threshold, the presentation said, along with 96% of beverages – excluding pure coffee – and 99% of Nestlé’s confectionery and ice cream portfolio.

Water and dairy products scored better, with 82% of waters and 60% of dairy meeting the threshold.

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Nestlé struggles to win over baby formula critics

This content was published on Jan 10, 2020For Swiss food and beverage giant Nestlé, diversifying its infant formula offerings harbours great promise. But industry critics are sceptical.

“We have made significant improvements to our products . . . [but] our portfolio still underperforms against external definitions of health in a landscape where regulatory pressure and consumer demands are skyrocketing,” the presentation said.

The data excludes baby formula, pet food, coffee, and the health science division, which makes foods for people with specific medical conditions. This means the data accounts for about half of Nestlé’s CHF92.6 billion ($103 billion)) total annual revenues.

Global push

The findings come as foodmakers contend with a global push to combat obesity and promote healthier eating. Executives at Nestlé are considering what new commitments to make on nutrition and are aiming to unveil plans this year.

The group is also updating its internal nutrition standards, known as the Nestlé Nutritional Foundation, that were introduced under former chief executive Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, who characterised Nestlé as a “nutrition, health and wellness company”.

More

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Peter Brabeck ist Pensionär, aber nicht im Ruhestand.

Peter Brabeck: from ice cream salesman to head of Nestlé

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One option could be to drop or replace these standards for products seen as treats, like confectionery, according to a person familiar with the situation.

Mark Schneider, chief executive, has acknowledged that consumers want a healthier diet but rejected claims that “processed” foods including those made by Nestlé and other multinationals tend to be unhealthy.

However, the presentation highlights Nestlé products such as a DiGiorno three meat croissant crust pizza, which includes about 40% of a person’s recommended daily allowance of sodium, and a Hot Pockets pepperoni pizza that contains 48%.

Another product, an orange-flavoured San Pellegrino drink, scores an “E” – the worst mark available under a different scoring system, Nutri-Score – with more than 7.1g of sugar per 100ml, the presentation says, asking: “Should a health-forward brand carry an E [rating]?” 

Separately, Nestlé’s strawberry-flavoured Nesquik, which is sold in the US, contains 14g of sugar in a 14g serving, though it is designed to be mixed with milk. It is described as “perfect at breakfast to get kids ready for the day”.

Nestlé said it “is working on a company-wide project to update its pioneering nutrition and health strategy. We are looking at our entire portfolio across the different phases of people’s lives to ensure our products are helping meet their nutritional needs and supporting a balanced diet”.

“Our efforts build on a strong foundation of work over decades . . . For example, we have reduced the sugars and sodium in our products significantly in the past two decades, about 14-15% in the past seven years alone.”

No change in direction

Marion Nestle (no relation), visiting professor of nutritional sciences at Cornell University, said Nestlé and its rivals would struggle to make their portfolios healthy overall.

“Food companies’ job is to generate money for stockholders, and to generate it as quickly and in as large an amount as possible. They are going to sell products that reach a mass audience and are bought by as many people as possible, that people want to buy, and that’s junk food,” she said.

“Nestlé is a very smart company, at least from my meetings with people who are in their science [departments] . . . but they have a real problem . . . Scientists have been working for years to try to figure out how to reduce the salt and sugar content without changing the flavour profile and guess what, it’s hard to do.”

Some products perceived as healthy, such as plant-based meat alternatives, are areas of strong growth for foodmakers. Nestlé has sold some of its divisions that produced less healthy products, such as a 60% stake in the Herta charcuterie arm in 2019.

Nestlé was ranked highest among the world’s big food and beverage manufacturers in a 2018 index of efforts to encourage better diets compiled by the Access to Nutrition Foundation, though the foundation warned that “all companies need to do much more”.

Nestlé said: “In recent years, we have launched thousands of products for kids and families that meet external nutrition yardsticks. We have also distributed billions of micronutrient doses via our affordable and nutritious products.”

It added: “We believe that a healthy diet means finding a balance between wellbeing and enjoyment. This includes having some space for indulgent foods, consumed in moderation.

“Our direction of travel has not changed and is clear: we will continue to make our portfolio tastier and healthier.”

 

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External Content

This content was published on May 3

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Zinc Batteries are the Future

This energy storage facility under construction in southeast England uses lithium-ion batteries.

CHRIS RATCLIFFE/BLOOMBERG/GETTY IMAGES

 

Batteries used in hearing aids could be key to the future of renewable energy

If necessity is the mother of invention, potential profit has to be the father. Both incentives are driving an effort to transform zinc batteries from small, throwaway cells often used in hearing aids into rechargeable behemoths that could be attached to the power grid, storing solar or wind power for nighttime or when the wind is calm. With startups proliferating and lab studies coming thick and fast, “Zinc batteries are a very hot field,” says Chunsheng Wang, a battery expert at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Lithium-ion batteries—giant versions of those found in electric vehicles—are the current front-runners for storing renewable energy, but their components can be expensive. Zinc batteries are easier on the wallet and the planet—and lab experiments are now pointing to ways around their primary drawback: They can’t be recharged over and over for decades.

The need for grid-scale battery storage is growing as increasing amounts of solar, wind, and other renewable energy come online. This year, President Joe Biden committed to making the U.S. electricity grid carbon free by 2035. To even out dips in supply, much of that renewable power will have to be stored for hours or days, and then fed back into the grid. In California alone, the public utilities commission envisions deploying more than 8800 megawatts of rechargeable batteries by 2026, and last week, California Governor Gavin Newsom proposed $350 million in state funding to develop long-duration energy storage technologies. “That trend will not go down. It will only continue to grow,” says Mark Baggio, vice president for business development at Zinc8 Energy Solutions, a zinc battery producer.

For power storage, “Lithium-ion is the 800-pound gorilla,” says Michael Burz, CEO of EnZinc, a zinc battery startup. But lithium, a relatively rare metal that’s only mined in a handful of countries, is too scarce and expensive to back up the world’s utility grids. (It’s also in demand from automakers for electric vehicles.) Lithium-ion batteries also typically use a flammable liquid electrolyte. That means megawatt-scale batteries must have pricey cooling and fire-suppression technology. “We need an alternative to lithium,” says Debra Rolison, who heads advanced electrochemical materials research at the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL).

Enter zinc, a silvery, nontoxic, cheap, abundant metal. Nonrechargeable zinc batteries have been on the market for decades. More recently, some zinc rechargeables have also been commercialized, but they tend to have limited energy storage capacity. Another technology—zinc flow cell batteries—is also making strides. But it requires more complex valves, pumps, and tanks to operate. So, researchers are now working to improve another variety, zinc-air cells.

A better battery

Zinc is cheaper than many battery metals and could store more energy.

 

Energy density (watt-hour/kilogram)Cost ($/kilowatt-hour)050040030020010001000250500750Zn-MnO2Zn-airNiZnLi-ionNi-metalhydridePb-acidBatteries based onother metalsZinc-basedrechargeable batteries
B. HOPKINS ET AL., SUSTAINABLE ENERGY & FUELS, 4, 3363 (2020), ADAPTED BY C. BICKEL/SCIENCE

In these batteries, a water-based electrolyte spiked with potassium hydroxide or another alkaline material separates a zinc anode and a cathode made of other conductive materials, often porous carbon. During discharge, oxygen from the air reacts with water at the cathode to form hydroxide ions, which migrate to the anode, where they react with zinc to eventually produce zinc oxide. The reaction releases electrons that flow from anode to cathode through an external circuit. Recharging the batteries means reversing the flow of current, causing zinc metal to re-form on the anode.

But zinc batteries don’t like to run in reverse. Irregularities across the anode’s surface cause the electric field to intensify at certain spots, which causes zinc to deposit there, further enhancing the electric field. As the cycle repeats, tiny spikes called dendrites grow, eventually perforating and shorting out the battery. Equally troublesome, water in the electrolyte can react at the anode, splitting into oxygen and hydrogen gas, which can burst the cells apart.

Researchers have begun to deal with these downsides, churning out nearly 1000 papers per year. In 2017, for example, Rolison and colleagues reported in Science that they reengineered the anode as a 3D network of zinc metal pocked with tiny voids. The electrode’s vast surface area reduced the local electric field, which prevented the buildup of dendrites and reduced the likelihood of splitting water molecules. NRL licensed the technology to EnZinc.

This month, Wang and his colleagues reported in Nature Nanotechnology that when they added a fluorine-containing salt to their electrolyte, it reacted with zinc to form a solid zinc fluoride barrier around the anode. Ions could still wriggle through during charging and discharging. But the barrier prevented dendrites from growing and repelled water molecules, blocking them from reaching the anode.

“It’s a great development,” says Wei Wang, who directs the Energy Storage Materials Initiative at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Still, Chunsheng Wang notes his device is somewhat slow to discharge. To improve that, his team wants to add catalysts at the cathode to speed up the reaction between oxygen and water.

The same strategy features in work by researchers led by Jung-Ho Lee from Hanyang University. In Nature Energy on 12 April, they reported creating a fibrous and conductive cathode from a mix of copper, phosphorus, and sulfur that also served as a catalyst, dramatically speeding up oxygen’s reaction with water. That and other advances produced batteries that could be charged and discharged quickly and had high capacity, 460 watt-hours per kilogram (compared with about 75 Wh/kg for standard zinc cells with manganese oxide cathodes and 120 Wh/kg for scaled-up lithium-ion systems). The batteries were stable for thousands of cycles of charge and discharge. The result “looks like another important step,” Chunsheng Wang says.

Such advances are injecting new hope that rechargeable zinc-air batteries will one day be able to take on lithium. Because of the low cost of their materials, grid-scale zinc-air batteries could cost $100 per kilowatt-hour, less than half the cost of today’s cheapest lithium-ion versions. “There is a lot of promise here,” Burz says. But researchers still need to scale up their production from small button cells and cellphone-size pouches to shipping container–size systems, all while maintaining their performance, a process that will likely take years. Burz also notes electric utilities and other companies looking to buy cheap large-scale batteries want to see years of steady operation first. “These customers need to see that it works in the real environment,” he says.

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Enigmatic Designs Found in India May Be The Largest Images Ever Made by Human Hands

 
 
Boha 3’s meandering lines. (C & Y Oetheimer, Archaeological Research in Asia, 2021)

Enigmatic Designs Found in India May Be The Largest Images Ever Made by Human Hands

 
26 MAY 2021

Hidden in the vast, arid expanses of India’s Thar Desert lie mysterious old drawings carved into the land.

These newly discovered designs are of such immense scale, they were likely never able to be glimpsed in their entirety by those who made them, researchers say.

 

The huge motifs are examples of geoglyphs – giant hand-made depictions and patterns built upon or carved into the land, often occupying such scope that the true appearance of their forms can only be appreciated from far above.

Amongst all known geoglyphs of historical relevance – including the famous Nazca Lines of Peru – the Thar Desert formations appear to stand alone, however, representing what may actually be the largest-ever graphical depictions designed by humans.

010 geoglyphs 3(Carlo & Yohann Oetheimer, Archaeological Research in Asia, 2021)

Above: Aerial view of giant spiral (Boha 1) and Boha 2, including the serpent figure in lower-right corner.

“So far, these geoglyphs, the largest discovered worldwide and for the first time in the Indian subcontinent, are also unique as regards their enigmatic signs,” researchers explain in a new paper detailing the find.

Discovered by a pair of independent researchers from France – Carlo and Yohann Oetheimer – the new geoglyphs were spotted using Google Earth, during a virtual survey of the Thar Desert region (also known as the Great Indian Desert); this region encompasses some 200,000 square kilometers (roughly 77,000 square miles) of territory overlapping India and Pakistan.

 

Amidst this huge, dry landscape, the Oetheimers identified several sites located around the ‘Golden City’ of Jaisalmer, marked by geometrical lines resembling geoglyphs.

Closer inspection during a field study in 2016 using an uncrewed aerial vehicle (UAV) revealed some of the identified sites were furrows dug for tree plantations, but also helped reveal a cluster of enigmatic line formations seemingly absent of trees.

In particular, two “remarkable geometrical figures” of exceptional character close to the village of Boha stood out: a giant spiral and a serpent-shaped drawing, each connected by a cluster of sinuous lines.

The lines that make up these figures are stripes etched into the ground, ranging up to 10 centimeters deep (4 in) and spreading 20 to 50 cm wide (8-20 in). While these dimensions up close may be unremarkable, what they end up making up is not.

010 geoglyphs 3(Carlo & Yohann Oetheimer, Archaeological Research in Asia, 2021)

Above: Section of giant spiral, seen at ground level.

The largest geoglyph identified, the giant asymmetrical spiral (called Boha 1), is made from a single looping line running for 12 kilometers (7.5 miles), over an area 724 meters long by 201 meters wide (790 by 220 yards).

 

To the southwest of this huge vortex shape rests a serpentine geoglyph (Boha 2), composed of an 11-kilometer long line, which encompasses a serpent-like figure, a smaller spiral, and a long boustrophedon-style sequence of lines running back and forth.

Other small geoglyphs can also be found in the Boha region (including a feature of meandering lines, called Boha 3), which in total includes around 48 kilometers of still visible lines today, which the researchers estimate may once have extended for about 80 kilometers.

“The giant spiral and serpentine figure are definitely the major points of interest, closely connected to Boha 3, suggesting that all the other geoglyphs were created as a framework for this set,” the researchers write.

“Due to their spatial contiguity, patterns 1, 2, and 3 can be perceived as a sequential project.”

Just what this project represents, and who created it, is not yet fully clear, but the researchers suggest the formations are not ancient but rather relatively recent geoglyphs, perhaps at least 150 years old; they may also be contemporary with Hindu memorial stones found in the area.

010 geoglyphs 3(Carlo & Yohann Oetheimer, Archaeological Research in Asia, 2021)

Above: A Hindu memorial stone, located near the geoglyphs, and thought to be part of the contemporaneous cultural context of the lines.

Without definitively knowing more about the identity of their creators, it’s difficult to speculate as to the function and meaning of these giant geoglyphs, but the researchers nonetheless have a few ideas.

 

Given the region is flat, and the makers of these structures would not have been able to take in their creations (which would have required being about 300 meters up in the air), the authors say it’s unlikely these designs were intended as a form of artistic expression contemplated from the ground, but rather might have served as an unknown type of cultural practice in their making.

“[This] invites us to consider religious, astronomical, and/or cosmological meanings,” the researchers say.

“Because of their uniqueness, we can speculate that they could represent a commemoration of an exceptional celestial event observed locally.”

While there’s a lot we don’t yet know about these mysterious marks and their semantic relationship to each other, the researchers say the strange motifs are remarkable for their unrivaled size in particular, but also their design and implementation, which would have involved knowledge of mathematics and planimetry to achieve.

It will fall to future research to follow these fascinating leads, but the Oetheimers hope that for now the publication of their study will influence Indian authorities to protect the heritage of these mysterious lines, before human activity further disturbs and conceals them.

After all, whatever they are, they look to be pretty special.

“After extensive research, we consider the Boha geoglyphs to be the largest abstract and organically arranged man-made geometric figures discovered so far,” the researchers write.

“We remain convinced that these unique geoglyphs are closely connected to their geographical and cultural context, and possibly contain a universal message linked to the Sacred and the cosmos.”

The findings are reported in Archaeological Research in Asia.

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Chinese hackers posing as the UN Human Rights Council are attacking Uyghurs

Chinese-speaking hackers are targeting Uyghur Muslims with fake United Nations reports and phony support organizations, according to a new report.

Uyghurs and other members of the faithful pray during services at the Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar in western China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, as seen during a government organized visit for foreign journalists on April 19, 2021. Under the weight of official policies, the future of Islam appears precarious in Xinjiang, a remote region facing Central Asia in China's northwest corner. Outside observers say scores of mosques have been demolished, which Beijing denies, and locals say the number of worshippers is on the decline.AP PHOTO/MARK SCHIEFELBEIN

Chinese-speaking hackers are masquerading as the United Nations in ongoing cyber-attacks against Uyghurs, according to the cybersecurity firms Check Point and Kaspersky. 

Researchers identified an attack in which hackers posing as the UN Human Rights Council send a document detailing human rights violations to Uyghur individuals. It is in fact a malicious Microsoft Word file that, once downloaded, fetches malware: the likely goal, say the two companies, is to trick high-profile Uyghurs inside China and Pakistan into opening a back door to their computers.

Screenshot source: Check Point

“We believe that these cyber-attacks are motivated by espionage, with the endgame of the operation being the installation of a back door into the computers of high-profile targets in the Uyghur community,” said Lotem Finkelstein, head of threat intelligence at Check Point, in a statement. “The attacks are designed to fingerprint infected devices, including all of [their] running programs. From what we can tell, these attacks are ongoing, and new infrastructure is being created for what look like future attacks.”

Hacking is a frequently used weapon in Beijing’s arsenal, and particularly in its ongoing genocide against Ugyhurs, which uses cutting-edge surveillance both in the real world and online. Recent reporting by MIT Technology Review shed new light on another sophisticated hacking campaign that targeted members of the Muslim minority.

In addition to pretending to be from the United Nations, the hackers also built a fake and malicious website for a human rights organization called the “Turkic Culture and Heritage Foundation,” according to the report. The group’s fake website offers grants—but in fact, anybody who attempts to apply for a grant is prompted to download a false “security scanner” that is in fact a back door into the target’s computer, the researchers explained.

“The attackers behind these cyber-attacks send malicious documents under the guise of the United Nations and fake human rights foundations to their targets, tricking them into installing a backdoor to the Microsoft Windows software running on their computers,” the researchers wrote. This allows the attackers to collect basic information they seek from the victim’s computer, as well as running more malware on the machine with the potential to do more damage. The researchers say they haven’t yet seen all the capabilities of this malware.

The code found in these attacks couldn’t be matched to an exact known hacking group, said the researchers, but it was found to be identical to code found on multiple Chinese-language hacking forums and may have been copied directly from there.

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Uyghurs, a Turkic ethnic minority in China, targeted via fake foundations

 

May 27, 2021

Introduction

 

During the past year, Check Point Research (CPR), in cooperation with Kaspersky’s GReAT, have been tracking an ongoing attack targeting a small group of Uyghur individuals located in Xinjiang and Pakistan. Considerable effort was put into disguising the payloads, whether by creating delivery documents that appear to be originating from the United Nations using up to date related themes, or by setting up websites for non-existing organizations claiming to fund charity groups.

In this report, we examine the flow of both infection vectors and provide our analysis of the malicious artifacts we came across during this investigation, even though we were unable to obtain the later stages of the infection chain.

 

Delivery Document

Our investigation began with a malicious document named UgyhurApplicationList.docx (MD5: a1d773621581981a94459bbea454cdf8), which carried the logo of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), and contained decoy content from a United Nations general assembly discussing human rights violations.

Fig. 1 Delivery document carrying the UNHCR logo

 

After clicking on “Enable Editing”, a malicious external template is downloaded from officemodel[.]org. This template has embedded VBA macro code, which then checks the operating system’s architecture, and based on this proceeds to decode a 32-bit or a 64-bit payload.

Fig. 2 Malicious macros checking the operating system version

 

The payloads are embedded in the document itself and are base64 encoded. After the corresponding version is decoded, it is then named OfficeUpdate.exe and saved under the %TEMP% directory. In the two OfficeUpdate.exe samples we located, the payload was a shellcode loader which starts with basic evasion and anti-debugging techniques, by using functions such as sleep and QueryPerformanceCounter.
The shellcode in both variants attempts to fetch a remote payload. In the first variant, we found the loaded shellcode attempted to connect to 185.94.189[.]207, where the second variant tried to connect to officemodel[.]org, even though it crashes during execution. Unfortunately, we were not able to retrieve the next stage payload for analysis.

 

Delivery Websites

The domain observed in the malicious document (officemodel[.]org) resolved to the same IP address as unohcr[.]org – a domain impersonating the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). This overlap in resolution happened over a long period of time, from April to December 2020.

By pivoting on that infrastructure we were able to reveal another infection vector that was used in this operation: distribution through fake websites that host malicious executables targeting Windows users.

Fig. 3 Connection to additional domains

 

Another IP address that unohcr[.]org resolved to revealed a domain named tcahf[.]org, which hosted a website claiming to represent TCAHF – the “Turkic Culture and Heritage Foundation”.

TCAHF is supposedly a private organization that funds and supports groups working for “Tukric culture and human rights”, when in truth it is a made up entity, and most of its website’s content is copied from the legitimate opensocietyfoundations.org.

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Scientists Say They Have the Answer to Vaccine Induced Blood Clots

Why might AstraZeneca and J&J vaccines cause blood clots? 

A health worker holds a vial of the AstraZeneca/Oxford Covid-19 coronavirus vaccine inside a Catholic church turned into a vaccination centre in Manila on May 21, 2021.
A health worker holds a vial of the AstraZeneca/Oxford Covid-19 coronavirus vaccine inside a Catholic church turned into a vaccination centre in Manila on May 21, 2021.   –   Copyright  TED ALJIBE/AFP
TEXT SIZEAaAa
 

Rare fatal blood clots linked to the COVID-19 vaccines AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson have caused major concerns, but a group of scientists in Germany claims they have cracked the code as to why this is happening.

The researchers suggest vaccines that put adenovirus vectors – the cold viruses used to insert the spike protein of COVID-19 into the nucleus of the cell – into the body can, in some people, cause bits of coronavirus proteins to enter the nucleus and break up.

The fragments then exit into the bloodstream and can cause clotting. The rare clumps in the blood can then become serious if the clots approach vital organs.

 
 
 

The scientists wrote in a pre-print study, which has not undergone peer review, that the vaccine is delivered to the nucleus of the cell rather than to the fluid around it that acts as a protein factory.

“The adenovirus life cycle includes the infection of cells … entry of the adenoviral DNA into the nucleus, and subsequently gene transcription by the host transcription machinery,” the researchers said.

“And exactly here lies the problem: the viral piece of DNA … is not optimised to be transcribed inside of the nucleus”.

The Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna are mRNA vaccines that do not use this system and there have been no cases reported of blood clots with these doses.

But there is a way for the vaccine’s manufacturers to eliminate the risks, the scientists claim.

Professor Rolf Marschalek, a professor at Goethe University in Frankfurt who was a part of the study, told the Financial Times the vaccines can be redesigned. He also told the newspaper Johnson & Johnson is in contact with him.

Why do the vaccines affect younger people?

The study suggests that elderly people use drugs that thin blood more often, or even on a daily basis, which could decrease the risk of blood clots.

The researchers also suggested older immune systems display more immune senescence -the progressive decline in immune function with increasing age – which means young peple exhibit stronger immune reactions than elderly people, and women even stronger than men.

GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP
A health worker prepares a dose of the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine at a coronavirus vaccination centre at the Wanda Metropolitano stadium in MadridGABRIEL BOUYS/AFP

“All this would imply a higher incidence in young women when compared to men or elderly people,” the study said.

The Oxford-AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson jabs in particular have been linked to rare deadly blood clotting disorders, especially for women under the age of 60.

What are the vaccine rules in Europe?

The European Medicines Agency (EMA) said in April there was a “possible link” between the AstraZeneca vaccine and “very rare cases of unusual blood clots with low blood platelets”.

The agency said it received reports of 169 cases of the rare brain blood clot by early April, after 34 million doses had been administered in the European Economic Area (EEA).

But the EMA stresses the benefits of being vaccinated against COVID-19 outweigh the risks of developing blood clots.

Meanwhile, the United Kingdom has reported 309 clots and 56 deaths out of the 33 million vaccines administered with AstraZeneca. And the Johnson & Johnson vaccine has been linked to 28 cases of blood clots in the United States.

As a consequence, some European countries temporarily halted these vaccines but have now set age limits. However, they have failed to reach a consensus on a common approach to administering them.

In Italy, it is recommended the AstraZeneca vaccine is administered to those over the age of 60, for France over the age of 55 and the UK advises it is not used on those under the age of 30.

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Why Lakshadweep’s New ‘Reforms’ May Enable Autocracy

Why Lakshadweep’s New ‘Reforms’ May Enable ‘Autocratic’ Rule

An insidious attempt to invest autocratic powers in the UT’s administration has begun to take root: Shashi Tharoor

Published: 

OPINION

4 min read
Image of Dr Shashi Tharoor (R) and Lakshadweep Administrator Praful Patel (L), against a background of an island in the Lakshadweep used for representation.
i

On a February evening in New Delhi, Hamdullah Sayeed, a former parliamentary colleague and the current chief of the Lakshadweep Pradesh Congress Committee, called on me with a disturbing petition. Widespread distress was mounting in the idyllic and peaceful islands of Lakshadweep. An insidious attempt to invest autocratic powers in the Union Territory’s administration had begun to take root.

The growing fears of the islanders have come to a head this week, with thousands of residents — joined by their concerned fellow-citizens from the mainland, including Opposition politicians and celebrities — protesting the gross overreach of the union government through their appointee, Praful Khoda Patel, as Administrator of Lakshadweep since December 2020.

Praful Patel as an ‘Autocratic Ruler’ — and the Resentment of the Islanders

The resentment on the island is primarily directed at the new Draft Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation 2021 (LDAR), which will vest in the Administrator of the islands sweeping powers over land appropriation under the guise of ‘development’. These include, among others, the power to remove or relocate residents of the islands if they come in the way of any planned development projects, and to unilaterally take over their land for projects for which no legal challenges will be permitted following its approval by the administration. Violations to decrees stipulated within the regulation could leave residents facing either life imprisonment or a fine of Rs 5 lakhs, a brazen effort to discourage even the mildest of protests.

Environmentalists and local residents have also decried the definition of ‘development’ used in the draft, particularly the list of activities such as mining and creation of highways, that are being proposed for the ecologically fragile island.

While the regulation would effectively convert Mr Patel’s role to an autocratic ruler who can dictate and manipulate the lives of the islanders with no checks and balances, the LDAR, is only a recent addition to a growing list of questionable actions that ultimately seeks to centralise control on the island. His controversial tenure began with his own unorthodox appointment: the office of the Administrator has been traditionally held by a civil servant, whereas Patel is a former BJP functionary who served as Home Minister during PM Narendra Modi’s tenure as CM of Gujarat.

Soon, his unilateral decree changing quarantine norms resulted in a rampant rise in coronavirus cases (from 0 in 2020, to 6,611 and 24 deaths as of last Sunday) that submerged the meagre healthcare resources of an island territory that has a population of 70,000.

Praful Patel’s Questionable Actions Which Invited Flak

The Administrator’s other actions have invited universal condemnation. He has capped his trouble-making with a Lakshadweep Animal Preservation Regulation, to “stop the sale, consumption, storage and transport of beef,” with penalties commencing with a minimum jail period of seven years, in a territory that is 99 percent Muslim! He further seeks to disallow any candidate to contest panchayat elections if they have two or more children. He has endangered the livelihood of the fishing community by removing their temporary huts, sheds, boats, net-drying facilities and storage spaces—citing violation of coastal zone rules. And his Goonda Act (‘Lakshadweep Prevention of Anti-Social Activities’ Regulation) outlaws democratic dissent, curbs freedom of expression and allows the state to unilaterally detain a person without offering a public reason for up to a year in the name of law and order — in a territory that regularly registers the lowest crime rates in the country.

Put together, one could be forgiven for reading these laws as legislation for a war-torn region facing significant civilian strife, rather than laws meant for an idyllic archipelago filled with abundant natural beauty and peace-loving fellow citizens of India.

An Ongoing Siege on Our Democratic Foundations

To be fair, this is merely yet another reminder of the perverse and autocratic mindset of those in power in our country. The manner in which these far-reaching changes have been imposed under the cover of the pandemic, with few institutional checks and riding roughshod over federalism, is theatre we have seen before. As I said on Twitter: “You’d think the BJP would finish destroying what they won electorally first, before moving on to destroy places they have no presence in. But it seems their motto is, if it ain’t broke, break it.”

A peaceful, calm territory is being torn asunder for petty political ends.

The victims of the ruling dispensation’s rampant centralisation of power and autocratic tendencies are the people of India, who have suffered untold horrors as a result of the misgovernance that has arisen from the ongoing siege on our democratic foundations. As the movie star Prithviraj Sukumaran rightly pointed out in a widely shared post, “… any law, reform, or amendment should never be for the land, but for the people of the land. It is never the geographical or political boundary that makes a country, state, or a union territory but the people who live there.”

The people of Lakshadweep have spoken clearly and in one voice. It is time for the government to wake up or for the courts to intervene. We risk destroying a peaceful part of the country where peace and communal harmony reigned undisturbed. It is time to stop the rot.

Also Read

‘Stop the Rot’: Tharoor, Vijayan Denounce Lakshadweep Admin Patel

‘Stop the Rot’: Tharoor, Vijayan Denounce Lakshadweep Admin Patel
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Save Lakshadweep: Praful Patel’s ‘Anti-People’ Policies Under Fire

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(Dr Shashi Tharoor is a third-term MP for Thiruvananthapuram and award-winning author of 22 books, most recently ‘The Battle of Belonging’(Aleph). He tweets @ShashiTharoor. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own.

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Why Lakshadweep administrator Praful Patel is target of public outcry

Mismanaging COVID, anti-culture reforms: Why Lakshadweep administrator Praful Patel is target of public outcry

 
Times Now Digital

Updated May 26, 2021 | 11:52 IST

Patel has drafted a series of reforms that have caused widespread resentment among the islands’ constituents.

 
The idyllic islands of Lakshadweep.

The idyllic islands of Lakshadweep.  |  Photo Credit: Twitter

KEY HIGHLIGHTS

  • At the heart of this resentment is the new Draft Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation 2021 (LDAR) which, observers note, grants the administrator sweeping powers relating to land appropriation
  • Then there is the draft Lakshadweep Animal Preservation Regulation 2021 – which will, reportedly, outrightly ban the slaughter of cows, bulls and bullocks – a violation of which could attract a penalty of seven years in prison
  • The Goonda Act (Lakshadweep Prevention of Anti-Social Activities Regulation), observers note, may also allow authorities to unilaterally detain protestors without offering a reason for up to a year, while also curbing freedom of expression

The idyllic islands that make up Lakshadweep, home to roughly 70,000 residents who take deep pride in maintaining their culture, have threatened to become a theatre of conflict borne out of a sweeping set of reforms, allegedly enforced unilaterally, by its administrator, Praful Khoda Patel.

Patel, a former MLA from Gujarat who also served as Home Minister in the northern state during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s tenure as its chief minister, took charge as administrator of Lakshadweep in December 2020, following the passing of his predecessor Dineshwar Sharma.

Since then, Patel has drafted a series of reforms that have caused widespread resentment among the islands’ constituents who claim they jeopardise the ecologically fragile constitution of the territory while destroying the unique cultural fabric that Lakshadweep has come to be known for.

Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation 2021

At the heart of this resentment is the new Draft Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation 2021 (LDAR) which, observers note, grants the administrator sweeping powers relating to land appropriation under a contentious definition of ‘development.’ 

Once in effect, it would permit the “orderly and progressive development of land in both urban and rural areas and to preserve and improve the amenities thereof; for the grant of permission to develop land and for the other powers of control over the use of land; to confer additional powers in respect of the acquisition and development of land for planning.” 

Critics of the draft legislation have claimed that it would allow for unrestricted building, mining and quarrying on sensitive island territory. The law also vests into the administrator, the authority to earmark special zones for residential, industrial and commercial use – a move that residents fear will lead to forced eviction or ceding possession of land to the Planning and Developing Authority without any room for legal recourse. 

Patel has allegedly already issued orders to raze houses to supposedly, widen roads – something that has puzzled residents of a community that boasts hardly any vehicles, most of which are two-wheelers. 

RELATED NEWS
 

 

Other controversial reforms

Then there is the draft Lakshadweep Animal Preservation Regulation 2021 – which will, reportedly, outrightly ban the slaughter of cows, bulls and bullocks – a violation of which could attract a penalty of seven years in prison. It is worth noting that over 99 per cent of Lakshadweep’s population is Muslim. 

Patel’s proposition to ban non-veg in schoolchildren’s midday meals has also been repudiated by the island’s residents, many of whom claim that the lack of fresh vegetable supplies from the mainland necessitates the consumption of non-vegetarian food. His relaxation of alcohol licensing, supposedly to spur tourism, has also drawn the ire of local communities. 

Another one of Patel’s troublesome proposals involves banning candidates with two or more children to participate in panchayat elections. Many have claimed that the law amounts to gross political overreach with the administrator blatantly seeking to weaken prominent members of the opposition. 

The Goonda Act (Lakshadweep Prevention of Anti-Social Activities Regulation), observers note, may also allow authorities to unilaterally detain protestors without offering a reason for up to a year, while also curbing freedom of expression. Lakshadweep, it is worth noting, has one of the lowest crime rates in the country. Patel, it is alleged, has also already destroyed temporary sheds and net-drying facilities of the local fishing community citing violations of the Coast Guard Act. 

These moves, his critics have pointed out, have all arrived following a change in COVID-19 management protocols on the island that has backfired hugely. Lakshadweep, until January 2020, had been one of the few safe havens in the country, having failed to register even a single COVID-19 case. 

A 14-day quarantine period, seven days of which were to be spent in Kochi, was believed to be key to Lakshadweep’s success. However, a change in SOP, that waived the quarantine period and now only requires travellers to present a negative RT-PCR test, has seen cases in the island territory swell remarkably, with some noting that the positivity rate could now be beyond 60 per cent.