Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Date of the day: June 4

That’s when the rains will hit Kerala this year, marking the official kickoff of Monsoon 2019. Forecasters say the average rainfall will be below normal, and the monsoon will move more slowly across the country. The states most at risk of a poor rainy season: Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal in the East; Vidarbha, Marathwada, west Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat in Central/West India.

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The biggest news story today, explained.

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The Israeli spyware targeting WhatsApp users

An Israeli-made malware program was used to infiltrate the phones of WhatsApp users. And it’s a tale worthy of a Tom Clancy novel.


What happened? The Financial Times broke a huge story exposing a serious vulnerability in the messaging app. Hackers infiltrated a still unknown number of phones using a malicious spyware software called Pegasus. This code, once installed, can pretty much access any information on your phone, encrypted or not.


How does this work exactly? This is the scary part. All it takes is a WhatsApp call to a target phone. And the owner doesn’t even have to answer the call. More creepily, the missed call often disappears from the call logs. According to FT: “Within minutes of the missed call, the phone starts revealing its encrypted content, mirrored on a computer screen halfway across the world. It then transmits back the most intimate details such as private messages or location, and even turns on the camera and microphone to live-stream meetings.”


Have I been hacked? Unlikely. The likely hackers appear to have bigger fish to fry. The victims identified so far are human rights lawyers. And WhatsApp’s seems to be pointing its finger squarely at NSO Group, the company which makes Pegasus: “This attack has all the hallmarks of a private company known to work with governments to deliver spyware that reportedly takes over the functions of mobile phone operating systems. We have briefed a number of human rights organisations to share the information we can, and to work with them to notify civil society.”


Wait, what’s this really about? It’s about NSO, an Israeli company, which sells spyware to governments and intelligence agencies to help them catch terrorists and criminals—or so it claims. It operated entirely under the radar until 2016, when its product was detected on the iPhone of a human-rights activist now in prison in the UAE. The company primarily built its reputation on the ability to crack Apple’s rigorous privacy measures. WhatsApp is a new target.


Making it weirder still: is the involvement of the Israeli government. As FT reports, “Through Pegasus, Israel has acquired a major presence—official or not—in the deeply classified war rooms of unlikely partners, including, researchers say, Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.” The Middle East accounts for more than half the revenue of this billion-dollar company.  


So who is spying on who this time? Ah, that’s yet another twist in this tale. Two lawsuits filed against the company allege that its software is being sold to governments to help them jail and, in some instances, kill dissidents—think journalists, anti-corruption or free speech activists from Mexico to Saudi Arabia. One of these cases involves the phone of a friend of Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi—who was lured into a Saudi embassy and killed. The latest Pegasus attack targeted lawyers working on these cases—at least in the two cases which have been disclosed.

Ok, do I need to worry about my phone? Yes. As long as there is malware like this out there, each of us needs to take every precaution to protect our privacy. WhatsApp has since fixed the hole in its security system and is asking all users to update to the latest version. So please do that ASAP.


Learn more: Financial Times has the original reporting on the WhatsApp hack and NSO Group—but both stories are behind a paywall. BBC has a detailed report which you can access. The Guardian talked to one of the lawyers who was targeted. Time tells you how to update your WhatsApp.

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stubbornly having sex only 2.785 times a week

Supreme Court rules on Mamata meme: BJP youth leader Priyanka Sharma was arrested without bail for posting a meme mocking Mamata Banerjee. Sharma appealed to the Supreme Court, which ordered her release on bail, but asked Sharma to tender a written apology (it was first made a condition of her release, and then removed). As per the muddled ruling: freedom of expression cannot “encroach” on the rights of others; the right to share memes does not extend to members of political parties, especially during elections; its decision is not a precedent for cases involving ordinary citizens. To which we offer: 🙄and a link to the offending meme.  Also read: Gautam Bhatia on why this is a bad judgement.


Your Middle East update is here: Here is the latest on the troubled Gulf waters:

  • The US Department of Defense presented a plan to send 120,000 troops to the region should Iran attack American forces or begin rebuilding its nuclear weapons program. Some experts think this reflects a new appetite for military confrontation, while others see it as more sabre-rattling.

  • But just to make things more difficult, Yemen’s Houthi rebels launched drone attacks on Saudi oil pipelines. A quick refresher: Riyadh and Teheran are involved in a proxy civil war in Yemen where millions are literally starving to death.

  • The Iranian Foreign Minister met with External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj. Yes, they talked about the new US policy forbidding India from buying oil from Iran (see explainer here). The outcome: Swaraj said the decision on importing oil will be taken after the elections after weighing “commercial consideration, energy security and economic interests.”


Here’s how Nike treats pregnant athletes: Women athletes who are under contract with the brand are penalised for getting pregnant. The company suspends their contract payments when they are no longer able to compete—either while pregnant or after delivery. What’s key here: apart from superstars like Serena Williams, most athletes rely entirely on brand sponsorships to pay the bills. That’s why US Olympian Alysia Montaño continued running after she had her baby—taping together her torn abdominal muscles, and shipping her breast milk while competing in Beijing. Montaño’s searing video op-ed is a must watch. Also: read the New York Times report on Nike’s appalling maternity practices.


Oh, look, a foldable computer screen! Samsung’s foldable phone is proving to be a bit of a disappointment. But now technology geeks can rejoice: Lenovo just unveiled its fully foldable 13.3-inch OLED laptop screen, and it looks pretty cool. Even better news: it may actually be functional. (The Verge)


Gandhi siblings ace their PR test: In stark contrast to all the PR bumbling in 2014, both brother and sister are on the ball this election. Watch Priyanka disarm Modi supporters chanting slogans as she drives by. Plus: Rahul teases the News Nation anchor who conducted the now infamous ‘cloud cover’ interview with the PM. While Congress is unlikely to score a majority, at least their leaders seem to be having fun on the campaign trail.


Why you should never take advice from Jack Ma: The Alibaba CEO first made headlines for insisting that all his employees should work from 9 am to 9 pm, six days a week—dubbed his ‘996’ philosophy. That didn’t exactly go down well given that most Chinese workers are already overworked. But even less popular is his latest piece of sex advice… yup, you read that right. This recipe for ‘work-life balance’ is called ‘669’: "We want 669 in life. What is 669? Six times in six days, the emphasis is on nine." That ‘9’ doesn’t refer to nine minutes, but to the Mandarin number which signifies “long-lasting” or “long duration.” Apparently, this is Ma’s "key performance index" (KPI) for his newly-wed employees. Some Chinese netizens responded by asking Ma to never again speak in public. We agree. (ABC Australia)


Who speaks English in India? According to a recent survey, only 6% of Indians can speak the language—and they predominantly tend to be male, urban, upper class and caste. And contrary to popular perception, the South does not speak more English than the North. (Mint)


Here’s who failed the global stress test: A Gallup survey asked respondents across the world to state whether they experienced stress the previous day. Top of the list: Greece (59%), followed by the United States (55%), Iran (55%) and Turkey (52%). What about India? We’re way down the list at 22%. (Spectator Index)


If India Bindiya were dating Narendra Mahendra: should she dump him or not? This very funny ‘If The Government Was Your BF’ spoof from Hauterfly offers all the answers you need. (YouTube)


Things we heart: Milind Soman’s mom and this perfect GIF for ‘not morning’ people and the jerks who wake them up.

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Everything we don't know about human desire

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The IRL soundtrack of sex

It’s time to step up our vocal game in bed. According to experts, all that moaning and groaning is not just a turn on, but it also helps improve your sex life. Of course, many Indian homes aren’t exactly conducive to being noisy in bed (especially with parents, kids or in-laws close-by), but maybe we can try and gasp a little louder. 

Read: Why Sex Sounds—Think “Ohhhh!”—Actually Make Sex Better | Refinery29

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Sorry, but I love Daddy too!

We Indians are all too familiar with the idea of unhappy couples ‘staying together for the kids’. But even in happy marriages, we have a tendency to put our children first at all times. It seems both right and normal to love your child more than your partner. This essay explains why that’s a bad idea.

Read: Why You Shouldn’t Love Your Kids More Than Your Partner | Time

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