Thursday, January 23, 2020

Number of the day: 10

India dropped 10 places in the Democracy Index, falling to #51. Our overall score fell from 7.23 in 2018 to 6.90. The reason: Kashmir, the NRC exercise in Assam and the CAA. The index—created by the research division of The Economist—looks at civil liberties, electoral process, pluralism and other factors. India is among 10 countries that dropped down on the index in 2019. The others include: Belarus, Benin, Bolivia, Cameroon, Comoros, Egypt, Guyana, Singapore, Mali and Zambia. So we’re in good company then. The Telegraph has the story. You can see the Economist data here.

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The biggest news story today, explained.

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The hacking of Jeff Bezos' phone

Until now, the infamous Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) was best known for ordering the brutal assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Now, he’s back in the headlines for hacking the phone of the Amazon CEO. This is how this sordid story unfolded.


A brief masaledar background: Here’s the context you need to understand this story:

  • Back in February 2019, Bezos wrote a jaw-dropping blog post claiming that the tabloid National Enquirer had tried to blackmail him. The threat: the paper would publish sexually explicit photos and messages exchanged between Bezos and his girlfriend Lauren Sanchez.
  • The Enquirer did indeed run the photos and messages, but Bezos preempted the disaster by announcing his divorce a day before publication. And he has since lived happily ever after with Sanchez.
  • A Bezos-funded investigation into the leak suggested a Saudi angle—among several other theories. But there was no hard evidence at hand.
  • Now a UN investigation shows that Bezos’ phone was hacked via a personal message from the Saudi Prince.


Wait, what? Yup, that’s right. Here’s how it went down:

  • Back in 2018, Bezos and the Prince met at some glitzy party and exchanged phone numbers. 
  • Point to keep in mind: At the time, Jamal Khashoggi was a Washington Post columnist, penning scathing pieces attacking MBS. Yes, the same journalist who was later hacked to pieces by Saudi operatives in a Saudi embassy in Turkey. (Our explainer in case you’ve forgotten the details)
  • In any case, four weeks after their happy meeting, MBS sent Bezos a video via WhatsApp. Something boring about the Saudi telecom market. 
  • But more interesting: the video contained a tiny, malicious piece of code that allowed the sender to extract massive amounts of information from Bezos’ phone.
  • According to the Washington Post: “The flow of data out of Bezos’s phone jumped suddenly by 29,156 percent, and the ‘spiking then continued undetected over some months.’ Material extracted from Bezos’s phone included personal photos, text messages, instant messages, emails and possibly ‘eavesdropped recordings done via the phone’s microphone.’”
  • Also: that’s most likely how those steamy photos and messages were leaked to the Enquirer.


How do we know this? Two UN investigators looked into the hacking as part of their inquiry into Khashoggi’s killing. According to their statement, their forensic probe of the phone “suggests the possible involvement of the Crown Prince in surveillance of Mr. Bezos, in an effort to influence, if not silence, The Washington Post’s reporting on Saudi Arabia.” And that the hacking was part of “the continuous, multi-year, direct and personal involvement of the Crown Prince in efforts to target perceived opponents.”


Now what? Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, called the U.N. report “absurd,” and said, “The idea that the crown prince would hack Jeff Bezos’s phone is absolutely silly.” Amazon and Bezos have declined comment, as has the US government. But the CEO pointedly tweeted out a photo of himself at a memorial for Khashoggi. 

The bottomline: This isn’t the first time that WhatsApp messages have been used to hack phones. Back in March 2019, media reports exposed a shadowy Israeli firm that sells a malicious spyware program called Pegasus to governments to help target their critics. Scary point to note: Pegasus was used to hack activists’ phones in India, but the government denies any involvement.


Learn more: The Guardian’s cover story is here. The Washington Post did a follow up. Business Insider has the list of all the other important folks MBS met on that fateful US trip—including Oprah and Apple CEO Tim Cook. Read Jeff Bezos’ blog post accusing the Enquirer of blackmailing him. Broadsheet did an explainer of Khashoggi’s shocking killing. We also explained how Pegasus works, and how it was used in India.

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eating your sabudana with a side of dal

The Supreme Court speaks on CAA: Yesterday, the Court addressed 144 petitions on the new law. A number of them requested a stay on its implementation while the court decides whether or not it is constitutional. The Court refused, and has given the government four weeks to respond to the petitions. This means that the cases will not get underway until February 22. The justices also hinted that the petitions may be referred to a larger five-person bench. (Times of India)


Donald Trump continues banning spree: He has already slapped a travel ban that stops citizens of four Muslim-majority countries from entering the US. Now he’s planning to add four African countries to the list: Nigeria, Sudan, Tanzania and Eritrea. (Quartz)


Your viral outbreak update is here: And the news remains gloomy.

  • The death toll has risen to 17, with 547 confirmed cases. The city of Wuhan—where this new kind of coronavirus was detected and identified—has shut down all transport services, including airports, trains and bus stations. 
  • Point to note: There is no vaccine for this virus as yet. 
  • Many in China are cancelling travel plans, buying face masks, and avoiding public spaces like cinemas and shopping centers. Others are turning to disaster-themed games and movies to cope with fear.
  • Meanwhile, the Kerala government has set up screening centres at airports. No cases have been reported thus far. 
  • The Central Hospital of Wuhan has released the first photos and footage of Chinese doctors in hazmat suits treating patients.
  • Must read: the latest research suggests the virus may have originated in snakes—which are sold in China as food and alternative medicine remedies.


Mumbai is now a 24/7 city: From January 27, shopping malls and restaurants can stay open all-night long. The bad news: the new rule does not apply to any establishment that serves liquor, be it bars or liquor shops. (Hindustan Times


The iPhone is getting cheaper: Well, at least one model will be cheaper than the others. Apple plans to unveil a less pricey, smaller phone in March with a 4.7-inch screen: "It will not have Apple’s Face ID biometric authentication, but it will feature the same processor as Apple’s current flagship device, the iPhone 11." (Economic Times)


The tallest Jesus statue in the world: A plan to build the world’s tallest statue of Jesus Christ has become a communal flashpoint in the village of Harobele, Karnataka. The planned statue will be 114-feet high and will sit on a 10-acre plot atop a small hill. But Hindu nationalist groups are now furious. They claim that the hill is, in fact, ‘Muneshwarabetta’—a place of worship for Hindus that is being “illegally” occupied by the Christian community. A Congress MLA supports the project, as do the local villagers. The Lede has an excellent ground report on the unfolding Kapala Hill controversy.


Smartphones aren’t that bad for kids: Parents are repeatedly warned that giving their children unlimited access to phones can lead to anxiety, depression and other nasty mental health outcomes. But the latest research—which looked into results of 40 previous studies—concludes: “There doesn’t seem to be an evidence base that would explain the level of panic and consternation around these issues.” Other experts agree: “The current dominant discourse around phones and well-being is a lot of hype and a lot of fear… But if you compare the effects of your phone to eating properly or sleeping or smoking, it’s not even close.” (New York Times)


Stuff that made us smarter: includes the following:


  • Fast Company reports on the invisible threat of online shopping: the toxic ink that is printed on mailing labels and packages.
  • BBC News takes a look at Veganuary—the new trend of going vegan in January—and investigates whether it is a smart way to lose weight.
  • Daily Mail has amazing, newly colorized images of Auschwitz. 
  • WhoWhatWear lists 11 wellness trends that are out, and four that are totally in. Passe trends include restrictive diets, teatoxes and Keto. Hurray! 
  • Scientific American deep dives into new research that shows that the human body is getting colder—i.e. the normal temperature has dropped from 98.6 degrees to 97.5 degrees.
  • Bastion’s brilliant digital archive of photos documents women leading the anti-CAA resistance. FYI, Bastion’s founder is Broadsheet subscriber Chirag Chinnappa.
  • Popular Science reports on an entirely new kind of being—a living robot made of frog cells and designed by artificial intelligence.
  • Mint has the story of a Bangalore-based company that builds aircraft shaped and themed restaurants and bars.


News that makes you go wtf: includes the following:


  • A $2.4 million restoration of a 15th century painting titled ‘The Ghent Altarpiece’ is making waves. The reason: The lamb featured in the painting now looks like, er, a FaceTuned Instagram influencer.
  • Philip Jacobson—editor of the very popular environmental magazine Mongabay—has been thrown in prison in Indonesia.
  • Think tap water is safe in America? A new report found that drinking water is filled with man-made “forever chemicals” typically used in products like Teflon and Scotchguard and in firefighting foam.
  • Dem presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren was asked about her favourite Indian khana. Her answer: "It's like big tapioca. And you serve it with daal!" Indians went ‘hain?’ and proceeded to offer their best guesses. Making all this funnier still: Warren’s damaad is from a village in Uttar Pradesh. 


Your daily quota of sunshine items: includes the following:


  • The first ever video of atoms bonding and separating. It’s very weird and very cool.
  • This little gazelle that totally faked out a mean old tiger. 
  • Also getting their ass kicked: these two tigers who are shooed of by a sloth bear in Ranthambore.
  • Chennai’s beloved ‘Dosa Mama’ who serves 25 varieties of dosas, all sold for Rs 40.
  • The good news that the Indian Railways has restored Kerala dishes to its menus after a popular revolt.
  • What metrosexual men looked like back in 1820 Delhi.
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