Concern Fitness Tracking App Exposed US Military Bases Just the Start

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The controversy over information gathered from GPS-enabled fitness devices and published online – in some cases highlighting possible activity at U.S. military bases in places like Syria and Afghanistan – could be just the start of an ever-growing problem in a world where more people and devices are connected to the internet.

Already, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has ordered a review of security protocols following concerns that a so-called Heatmap published by the fitness app company Strava showed locations and movement patterns of troops serving overseas.

“We take matters like these very seriously and are reviewing the situation to determine if any additional training or guidance is required,” the Pentagon said in a statement Monday.

“Recent data releases emphasize the need for situational awareness when members of the military share personal information,” the statement continued, further noting that annual training for all military personnel, “recommends limiting public profiles on the internet, including personal social media accounts.”

Yet the concern about the impact is not new. 

“Digital dust”

Numerous sensitive U.S. military and intelligence offices and installations ban the use of so-called smart devices on their premises, including smart phones and the GPS-enabled fitness trackers from companies like Fitbit, Garmin and Polar, which helped Strava create its global Heatmap, highlighting the most popular routes for walking, running and biking this past February.

And U.S. intelligence officials have been warning for years about the impact of what they call “digital dust,” information that by itself seems to have little relevance and that users have posted to social media.

The U.S. National Counterintelligence and Security Center cautions member of the U.S. intelligence community they could be targeted by adversaries who have, “Collected information on you from social media postings.” 

And a pamphlet from the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence warns employees to, “Maintain direct positive control of, or leave at home, electronic devices during travel, especially when traveling out of the U.S.”

Still, the potential consequences of sharing information with a fitness tracking app seemed to have escaped notice until Nathan Russer, a student at the Australian National University in Canberra, tweeted about the Strava Heatmap this past Saturday.

It was not just the United States, though. Russer also identified the routes of Turkish forces and Russian activity in Syria, as well.

Strava says it excluded activities that users marked as private or ones that took place in areas people did not want to make public. Even so, the map included 1 billion activities between 2015 and September 2017.

And in places like Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, where activities show up bright against otherwise dark terrain, combining the Strava data with information from other maps available online could have far reaching consequences.

“This is pattern analysis,” according to Michael Pregent, a former U.S. intelligence officer now with the Hudson Institute. “This [Strava] map is a tool that most intelligence analysts seek out.”

And, it is a tool that can be exploited by a wide range of actors.

“This allows an enemy to pinpoint their fire,” Pregent said, noting this type of information could have been used to great effect by Shia militias who had been targeting U.S. bases during the Iraq War.

Now, he said, it could guide new attacks by the Taliban or even the Islamic State (IS) in Afghanistan.

“Several of the [Strava] graphics are our bases in Afghanistan and you can see the most trafficked areas,” he said.

So far, there is no evidence that groups like the Taliban, IS or al-Qaida have managed to make use of the type of information provided in the Strava Heatmap. Still, the possibility has gotten their attention.

“All I’ve seen is Jihadi groups sharing the Strava news, consuming it just like us,” Raphael Gluck, an independent researcher, told VOA. “Maybe there’s some wishful thinking on their part, but so far [I’ve] not seen anyone talking further than that.” 

And the information may only be so useful to an untrained eye.

Interpreting the data

“The map alone is sometimes inadequate to provide useful analysis,” Aric Toler, a lead researcher for the investigative journalism website Bellingcat wrote on his blog. 

Toler told VOA activity in Strava can be falsified. For example, he found Strava activity in the Atlantic Ocean, south of Ghana – likely a spoof or an error. But he said in less obvious cases, without understanding the context, it can be difficult to know what the data means.

Still, he warned,”obvious that there can be danger in this.”

As for why it appears so many U.S. military personnel in war zones like Afghanistan and Syria allowed their devices to keep sending data to Strava, some experts say it’s just human nature.

“These aren’t necessarily the special operators out there killing ISIS or helping our partners on the ground,” said Hudson Pregent. “The majority of these forces are back at bases where they try to normalize life.” 

“We’ve seen everyone from police officers to members of the military, members of the foreign service — people in sensitive positions — oversharing online, whether it be Facebook or Twitter,” said Stratfor Threat Lens Senior Analyst Ben West. “I see this, the Strava map, as an extension of this.”

And Strava is just one of hundreds of apps and devices that make it easy to expose this vulnerability.

“Wherever these things are located and are operating, they are collecting information on our daily routines which can be used to anticipate our behavior and bad guys can exploit that,” West said. 



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Cuba Tourism Slides in Wake of Hurricane Irma, Trump

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Tourism to Cuba, one of the few bright spots in its ailing economy, has slid in the wake of Hurricane Irma and the Trump administration’s tighter restrictions on travel to the Caribbean island, a Cuban tourism official said on Monday.

Although the number of visitors rose nearly 20 percent in 2017, it fell 10 percent on the year in December, and is down 7-8 percent this month, Jose Manuel Bisbe York, the president of Cuban state travel agency conglomerate Viajes Cuba, said.

Arrivals from the United States, which had surged in the wake of the U.S.-Cuban detente in 2014, took the worst hit, dropping 30 percent last December, he told Reuters.

“Since Hurricane Irma, we’ve seen arrivals shrink,” Bisbe York said on the sidelines of the event organized by U.S. travel agency insightCuba to dispel tourist misperceptions about Cuba.

Irma hit in September, just as the tourism sector was taking reservations for its high season from November to March.

Images of destruction put many would-be visitors off although Cuba had fixed its tourism installations within two months, said Bisbe York. Arrivals of Canadians, the largest group of tourists to Cuba, were down 4-5 percent.

“But we see this as a temporary thing and what we are seeing is that arrivals are recovering from month to month,” said Bisbe York, adding that Cuba would go ahead with its plans to launch more than 15 hotels island-wide this year.

“The first trimester will be the most difficult, because logically the change in the public perception takes time.”

Occupancy rates at the hotels in Cuba managed by Spain’s Meliá Hotels International S.A. were down around 20 percent on the year in December and January, said Francisco Camps, Meliá’s Cuba deputy general manager.

“From February though, we are already reaching figures similar to those we had in previous years,” he said.

Republican President Donald Trump’s more hostile stance towards Cuba than his Democratic predecessor Barack Obama looks set to have a more lasting impact than Irma.

The number of U.S. visitors had surged since the Obama administration created greater exemptions to a ban on tourism to the Caribbean’s largest island and restored regular commercial flights and cruises.

Arrivals reached a record 619,523 last year, up from 91,254 in 2014.

But the Trump administration in September issued a warning on travel there due to a spate of alleged health attacks on U.S. diplomats in Havana. In November, tighter travel regulations also went into effect.

The double whammy seriously depressed U.S. visits, American tour operators and a cruise line said at Monday’s event, although in reality the restrictions remain looser than before the detente and travel easier.

Cuba is also still one of the safest destinations worldwide, they said.

“While the regulations he changed very little the perception in the U.S. was that you no longer could travel to Cuba legally,” said insightCuba’s Tom Popper, noting his agency’s reservations were down 50 percent this year. “Part of hosting this event was to communicate that it is 100 percent legal to travel to Cuba.”

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All, News, Technology on Monday opened a rainforest-like office space in Seattle that it hopes will spark new ideas for employees.

While cities across North America are seeking to host Seattle-based Amazon’s second headquarters, the world’s largest online retailer is still expanding its main campus. Company office towers and high-end eateries have taken the place of warehouses and parking lots in Seattle’s South Lake Union district. The Spheres complex, officially open to workers Tuesday, is the pinnacle of a decade of development here.

The Spheres’ three glass domes house some 40,000 plants of 400 species. Amazon, famous for its demanding work culture, hopes the Spheres’ lush environs will let employees reflect and have chance encounters, spawning new products or plans.

The space is more like a greenhouse than a typical office. Instead of enclosed conference rooms or desks, there are walkways and unconventional meeting spaces with chairs.

Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s billionaire founder, officially opened the project in a ceremony with Amazon executives, elected officials and members of the media — by voice command.

“Alexa, open the Spheres,” Bezos said, as a circle in the Spheres’ ceiling turned blue just like Amazon’s speech-controlled devices, whose voice assistant is named Alexa.

Amazon has invested $3.7 billion on buildings and infrastructure in Seattle from 2010 to summer 2017, a figure that has public officials competing for its “HQ2” salivating. Amazon has said it expects to invest more than $5 billion in construction of HQ2 and to create as many as 50,000 jobs.

“We wanted to create something really special, something iconic for our campus and for the city of Seattle,” said John Schoettler, Amazon’s vice president of global real estate and facilities.

Earlier this month, the online retailer narrowed 238 applications for its second headquarters to 20. The finalists, from Boston and New York to Austin, Texas, largely fit the bill of being big metropolises that can attract highly educated tech talent.

Amazon started the frenzied HQ2 contest last summer and plans to pick a winner later this year.

At the Spheres’ opening, Governor Jay Inslee said the project now ranked along with Seattle’s Space Needle as icons of Washington State.

The Spheres, designed by architecture firm NBBJ, will become part of Amazon’s guided campus tours. Members of the public can also visit an exhibit at the Spheres by appointment starting Tuesday.

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Alibaba Looks to Modernize Olympics Starting in Pyeongchang

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Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., one of the few Olympics sponsors signed up until 2028, said it wants to upgrade the technology that keeps the Games running and will study the Pyeongchang Games to help find ways to save future host countries money.

“Pyeongchang will be a very important learning opportunity for our team to see how things are working and what’s missing,” Alibaba’s chief marketing officer Chris Tung said in an interview. Alibaba, the cloud-services and e-commerce provider for the Olympics, will take back what it has learned at the Feb. 9 to 25 Pyeongchang Winter Games and develop solutions for the next Games.

Ticketing, media and video services are among the areas that Tung said Alibaba wants to improve. It especially wants to end the inefficient practice of building from scratch local data centers and IT services for each Olympic Games.

“It will be great if a lot of the back end systems from hosting a Games can be hosted on the cloud and can be reused from Games to Games to enhance the cost efficiency,” he said.

Atos SE, the French information services company that is also a top sponsor, said on its website that all critical IT systems in Pyeongchang have already been moved to the cloud using its technology.

Alibaba will send to South Korea between 200 and 300 employees from across all its management teams, Tung said, adding that he wants the “organizers to see how the operations could be made more efficient, effective and secure.”

Alibaba’s views are in line with the Olympics Agenda 2020 reforms that also aimed to make the Games more attractive and cut the cost of hosting them. The next Winter Olympics after Pyeongchang will be in 2022 on Alibaba’s home turf in China, where the company said it wants to make the experience of going to an Olympics totally different for consumers, whether it’s how they buy tickets, use mobile technology or find related events in Beijing.

At Pyeongchang, Alibaba said on its website that it will put on a showcase at the Gangneung Olympic Park demonstrating concepts Alibaba is looking to pursue for future Games, including facial recognition technology, travel guidance, content creation and better ways to buy Olympics merchandise.

“We’re new to the Olympics games but we’ve been studying what would be solutions to the pain points that game hosting cities have been facing over the years,” Tung said.

As for the cold weather expected in Pyeongchang, there will also be a daily tea ritual at the Alibaba site to keep fans warm.

Reporting by Liana B. Baker in San Francisco.

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EU Ready to Hit Back if Trump Imposes Anti-EU Trade Measures

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The European Union says that if U.S. President Donald Trump initiates unfair trade measures against the 28-nation bloc, it would stand ready “to react swiftly and appropriately.”


In a weekend interview, Trump said he was annoyed with EU trade policy since he claims the U.S. cannot sufficiently export to the EU. He said his problems with the EU “may morph into something very big” from a trade standpoint.


EU spokesman Margaritis Schinas retorted Monday that “while trade has to be open and fair it also has to be rules-based.”


Schinas said: “The EU stands ready to react swiftly and appropriately in case our exports are affected by any restrictive trade measure from the United States.”



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Some Optimism, But Much Work Left as Latest NAFTA Talks End

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Top trade representatives from Canada, Mexico and the United States are set to give an update Monday on the process of renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement, while people familiar with the process say a final deal could be pushed far beyond a March target date.

The three nations had tried to complete the talks by the end of 2017, but delayed the informal deadline as they worked to find common ground on several contentious issues.

The latest round of talks in Montreal included work on a dispute resolution mechanism and rules for the auto industry.

The United States wants to largely eliminate the dispute settlement panels and increase the percentage of U.S. content required to be in a vehicle. It has also proposed a clause that would end the trade agreement after five years unless all three countries agree to keep it going.

U.S. Representative Dave Reichert expressed optimism Sunday after he and a group of other lawmakers met with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer. He said Lighthizer is “hopeful” while also recognizing “there’s a great deal of work to be done.”

Canada’s chief negotiator Steve Verheul said Saturday, “We’re moving in a slightly more positive direction.”

Lighthizer is meeting Monday with Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland and Mexican Economy Minister Ildefonso Guajardo to review the progress made by their teams and to make an announcement about the state of the negotiations.

One reason the countries were targeting a March end date is the looming July presidential election in Mexico. 

Another round of negotiations is expected to start in Mexico City in about a month. A lack of an agreement by the end of March could push the process deep into 2018 with a potential break for the Mexican election and similar considerations surrounding the November U.S. congressional elections.

U.S. President Donald Trump has repeatedly threatened to withdraw from the trade agreement if changes favorable to the United Sates are not made.

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Map of GPS Fitness Activity Sparks Military Security Concerns

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The U.S. military says it is evaluating its policies after a global map of fitness activity drew attention to possible security concerns regarding locations of overseas bases and soldier movements.

Strava published its so-called heat map of user activity in November showing the routes millions of users walked, ran and biked, with the most frequent routes showing up in brighter colors. The company says it excluded activities that users marked as private or ones that took place in areas people did not want to make public.

The activities were tracked using GPS-enabled devices from manufacturers like Fitbit, Garmin and Polar, and even with the exclusions, Strava said its map included 1 billion activities between 2015 and September 2017.

The Washington Post reported on the heat map and its implications, highlighting a Twitter post by Australian student Nathan Ruser who shared the link to the Strava site Saturday.

“It looks very pretty, but not amazing for Op-Sec [operational security]. US Bases are clearly identifiable and mappable,” Ruser wrote.

The map shows the most activity in places like the United States, Western Europe, Japan and Brazil. In Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, activities show up bright against otherwise dark terrain, including in multiple places where the U.S. military is known to have bases or be active.

The devices that transmit the data can be used in several ways, including for example a short run or keeping track of the steps a person takes throughout the day. The result can be lines on the heat map showing loops around the perimeter of a military installation where people exercise or showing where they move from place to place throughout the facility, or elsewhere.

“DoD takes matter like these very seriously and is reviewing the situation to determine if any additional training or guidance is required, and if any additional policy must be developed to ensure the continued safety of DoD personnel at home and abroad,” Department of Defense spokeswoman Maj. Audricia Harris said.

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IKEA Furniture Magnate Ingvar Kamprad Dies at 91

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Ingvar Kamprad, who founded Sweden’s IKEA furniture brand and transformed it into a worldwide business empire, has died at the age of 91.

Kamprad died Saturday of pneumonia in the southern Swedish region of Smaland where he grew up on a farm, and with some modest financial help from his father, starting selling pens, picture frames, typewriters and other goods. It was the start of what became IKEA, now with 403 stores across the globe, 190,000 employees and $47 billion in annual sales.

His brand became synonymous with the simplicity of Scandinavian design, modest pricing, flat-pack boxing and do-it-yourself assembly for consumers. It turned Kamprad into an entrepreneur with a reported net worth of $46 billion. The company name was an acronym of his initials, the name of his farm, Elmtaryd, and his town of origin, Agunnaryd.

Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven said Kamprad “was a unique entrepreneur who had a big impact on Swedish business and who made home design a possibility for the many, not just the few.” King Carl XVI Gustaf called Kamprad a “true entrepreneur” who “brought Sweden out to the world.”

Kamprad’s life was not without controversy, however.

He faced sharp criticism for his ties to the Nazi youth movement in the 1940s. While Sweden was neutral during the war, its Nazi party remained active after the war. Kamprad said he stopped attending its meetings in 1948, later attributing his involvement to the “folly of youth,” and calling it “the greatest mistake of my life.”

While he eventually returned to Sweden, Kamprad fled his homeland’s high-tax structure for Denmark in 1973 and later moved to Switzerland in search of even lower taxes.

The European Commission last year launched an investigation into ways IKEA allegedly used a Dutch subsidiary to avoid taxes, with the Green Party contending the company avoided $1.2 billion in European Union taxes between 2009 and 2014. The Consortium of Investigative Journalists identified IKEA in 2014 as one of the giant multinationals that moved money to tax havens to avoid taxes.

Kamprad was known for his frugality, buying his clothes at thrift shops, driving an aging Volvo and bringing his lunch to work.

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Mumbai’s Dharavi Breaks Stereotypes of Slum for Foreign Tourists

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Why has Mumbai’s largest slum, which packs some one million people in about two square kilometers, emerged as an unlikely stop for foreign tourists? The draw is not images of squalor and poverty in the heart of India’s largest city, but a place where thriving entrepreneurship and stories of hope and success break many stereotypes of a slum. Anjana Pasricha reports.

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