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How authoritarian regimes hunt their opponents abroad

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The murder of Jamal Khashoggi made Saudi Arabia a 'pariah', according to the US
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The world’s authoritarian regimes are persecuting their opponents living abroad more vigorously than ever before and some get away with murder, literally.

A blatant example of the impunity some governments enjoy is Saudi Arabia’s de-facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose country US President Joe Biden labelled a “pariah” over the 2018 murder and dismemberment of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.  

Yet in June, Saudi made up with Turkey — where the murder happened — and Biden decided to include the kingdom on a tour of the Middle East.

Experts say transnational repression of opposition figures is nothing new, but since digital technologies have allowed dissidents to needle authoritarian regimes from across borders more easily, they have stoked the wrath of strongmen like rarely before.

“The threat perception of dictators or these repressive regimes has increased,” said Marcus Michaelson, a researcher on authoritarianism at the Vrije Universiteit in Brussels.

According to US watchdog Freedom House, there were at least 735 direct, physical incidents of transnational repression between 2014 and 2021, carried out by 36 governments, notably those of China, Turkey, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Rwanda. 

Four regimes joined the list in 2021, including Belarus, which diverted an aircraft to arrest an opposition figure.

– ‘Harassment to murder’ –

Spectacular acts like the poisoning of former Russian intelligence agent Sergei Skripal in Britain in 2018, or the killing in 2019 in Berlin of Georgian Chechen Zelimkhan Khangoshvili — attributed to Russia — get the world’s attention, but much of the repression happens under the radar.

“The range of tactics goes from harassment to murder,” said Katia Roux at Amnesty International France.

Turkish journalist Can Dundar, who runs a website and a radio station aimed at Turkey and the Turkish diaspora from exile in Germany, has become a target for the secret apparatus of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. 

“In the first year we found a Turkish camera crew (…) recording our office and giving all the details of our office, including our address and our daily work schedule, at what time we are there, at what time we are getting out etc, and showing it as the ‘headquarters of the traitors’ making plans against Turkey,” he told AFP.

Turkish intelligence “is very active, especially in Germany and France,” he said, recalling the attack by three men on a Turkish journalist in Berlin in July 2021 who warned him to stop writing about certain topics.

Pakistani journalist Taha Siddiqui, who fled to France after a kidnapping attempt he blamed on his home country’s security services, said he still didn’t actually feel safe in exile, only “safer”.

In 2020 a Pakistani intelligence officer told Siddiqui’s parents that “if Taha thinks he’s safe in Paris, he is mistaken. We can reach anyone anywhere”.

The threat came the same year as the suspicious deaths of a Pakistani journalist in Sweden, and of a Pakistani human rights activist in Canada, and a year before a British court convicted a man for the contract killing of a Pakistani blogger in Dutch exile.

“They have made me paranoid, suspicious, scared, even in exile,” said Siddiqui, who has opened “The Dissident Club” in Paris, a bar dedicated to discussion, exhibitions and screenings.

Digital technologies give repressive regimes a whole new toolkit to sidestep the political cost or diplomatic risk that can come with physical action against dissidents, with “almost no consequences”, said Michaelson.

They have a “commercial market for surveillance technologies” at their disposal, such as the Israeli-made spy software Pegasus, which are cost-effective, he said.

“So they don’t need to invest a lot of manpower or send agents to spy on dissidents abroad,” he said.

A telling example is Egyptian opposition figure Ayman Nour, a friend of Khashoggi, and exiled in Turkey.

Citizen Lab, a body for research into technology, human rights and security, said it found two sets of spyware on Nour’s mobile phone — Pegasus and Predator — operated by two different governments. 

– ‘You have to stop’ –

Calling spying “a form or organised crime”, Nour said he always thought of his phone as “a radio that anybody can listen to”.

Amnesty International has identified 11 government clients for Pegasus which allows “the surveillance of anybody in a completely invisible and untraceable way”, said Roux.

Activists in China defending the rights of the Uyghur minority, against which western countries say China is committing “genocide”, often find that digital threats precede physical violence, said Michaelson.

Meiirbek Sailanbek, a member of China’s Kazakh community, said he uninstalled all Chinese apps from his phone when he moved to neighbouring Kazakhstan, and deleted the numbers of his brother and sister who still live in Xinjiang, the Uyghur autonomous region in northwest China.

When the Kazakhstan authorities arrested the head of the Atajurt NGO — which Sailanbek had joined writing social posts under a pseudonym — he fled the country, settling in Paris.

But Kazakhstan’s authorities identified him, and since then the Chinese government is threatening his brother and sister with prison if he continues his activism.

“Meiirbek, your sister and brother are in danger, you have to stop,” said a message forwarded to him by his mother.

Sailanbek faces arrest if he returns to China or Kazakhstan, but he considers Turkey, Pakistan, Arab nations and Russia to be off-limits too because he believes they would give in to Chinese pressure to hand him over.

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How has US wealth evolved since the 1980s?

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How do people allocate their wealth? The Wealth Enhancement Group analyzed data published by the Federal Reserve to answer this question.
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America’s economy has exploded since 1989.

Gross domestic product, which measures all of the goods and services produced in a year, grew from $9.9 trillion to $22.5 trillion from 1989 to 2023 (after accounting for inflation), according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. This figure represents a massive increase in economic output.

This increased productivity has fed into a similarly significant increase in wealth. The Wealth Enhancement Group used data from the Federal Reserve to look at how the assets held by U.S. households has evolved over time.

Data shows that American households owned a combined $161 trillion in assets in the third quarter of 2023, up from $24 trillion in 1989. That makes for a roughly 570% increase, or 170% after adjusting for inflation.

After accounting for debt, such as mortgages, America’s total household net worth grew to $142 trillion, up from $20 trillion. Although the number is down by about 1% from its peak in the second quarter of 2022, it still reflects a dramatic increase over time.

The most valuable asset class the typical American family holds is real estate. Besides a significant drop during the 2000s subprime mortgage crisis and a brief dip following interest rate hikes in 2022, housing has been a reliable generator of wealth for the middle class.


Line chart showing the rise of household assets in the US between 1989 and 2023, which rose from $24 trillion to $161 trillion.

Wealth Enhancement Group

Household assets have skyrocketed since 1989

For Americans in the bottom half of the wealth distribution, housing made up 51% of their assets. Wealthier households, in contrast, tend to have higher shares of their savings in equities.

Households in the top 0.1% held 60% of their assets in shares of public and private companies in 2023. Meanwhile, households in the bottom half of wealth in the United States held only around 6% of assets in equities.

Yet, despite how much housing has grown in value, its ascent pales compared to the fastest-growing asset class: public equities.

Between 1989 and 2023, the value of public stocks held by American households grew by nearly 1,700%, rising from $2 trillion in value to $37 trillion. This trend, coupled with the fact that shares in companies are held disproportionately by the rich, has caused the share of American household assets held by the top 0.1% to increase from 8% to 12%.

A stacked bar chart showing the top 0.1% have most of their wealth in equities where housing makes up for 51% of the assets of people in the bottom half of wealth in the United States.

Wealth Enhancement Group

The wealthy tend to own shares in companies

Some economists argue that, in theory, the ratio of a country’s wealth to its economy, as measured by GDP, should be constant over time.

Yet, data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis and the Federal Reserve data shows that the ratio of the net worth of American households and nonprofit organizations to GDP rose from around 3.6 in the 1980s to 5.5 in the third quarter of 2023.

In 2022, YiLi Chien and Ashley Stewart, two researchers at the St. Louis Federal Reserve, offered a few theories to explain how this ratio has increased over time. They suggest that American companies might now have greater market power, allowing them to charge more. The authors also note that since the internet era, many of America’s biggest companies, such as Meta and Google, offer their services to consumers for free—while investors may value their economic contributions, they do not count for much in the GDP numbers.

However, assets are not net worth. The rich are more likely to own their homes outright. In the third quarter of 2023, households from the top 0.1% owned $1.83 trillion worth of real estate while owing just $70 billion in mortgages. In contrast, households in the bottom 50% of wealth owned $4.87 billion of real estate against $3 billion of housing debt.

Story editing by Ashleigh Graf. Copy editing by Kristen Wegrzyn.

This story originally appeared on Wealth Enhancement Group and was produced and
distributed in partnership with Stacker Studio.

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Deepfakes cause 30% of organizations to doubt biometrics, Gartner finds

A look at AI deepfakes, it’s impact on security, and ways to mitigate the risks

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A fake moustache and trenchcoat isn’t a convincing disguise, right? But a digitally altered video that makes your face identical to someone else’s? 

That’s a different story. 

Deepfakes are artificial images or videos that imitate a person’s likeness so convincingly that it can be nearly impossible to recognize they’re fake. Hackers use them to impersonate people’s faces and voices. This can have monumental impacts — even $25 million worth, which is what one undisclosed company lost in a deepfake scam. 

Even with all the money a company spends on voice authentication and facial biometrics, it can all be in vain if a deepfake hacker manages to fool them. 

Gartner explores the impact of deepfakes on organizational policy, and we’ll share some risk management considerations to address the trend. 

30% of organizations can’t rely on facial recognition software and biometrics

Biometrics rely on presentation attack detection (PAD) to assess a person’s identity and liveness. The problem now is that today’s PAD standards don’t protect against injection attacks from AI deepfakes. Once a bulletproof security strategy, biometrics are now inefficient for 30% of companies surveyed by Gartner. 

“These artificially generated images of real people’s faces, known as deepfakes, can be used by malicious actors to undermine biometric authentication or render it inefficient,” 

— Akif Khan, VP Analyst at Gartner 

The solution is a demand for more innovative cybersecurity tech. Gartner advises organizations to update their minimum requirements from cybersecurity members to include all of the following 

  • PAD
  • Injected attacks detection (IAD)
  • Image inspection

On top of that, you can beef up security with: 

  • Device identification: Numerical values or codes to identify a user’s device
  • Behavioural analytics: Machine learning algorithms to detect any shifts in day-to-day online behaviour

So, how can you account for deepfakes risks and mitigation in practice? Here are a few more tips to consider: 

  • Educate employees: Hold monthly or quarterly meetings with experts in the field to help your employee identify common signs of deepfakes, including blurred or pixelated images in a person’s video, or distorted audio. Greater awareness of what to look out for can allow employees to flag suspicions. 
  • Don’t rely on one authentication process: Multi-factor authentication demands 2+ pieces of evidence to verify a user before admitting them into a network. Include email, phone, or voice verification in addition to biometrics. 
  • Invest in deepfake detection software: Consider a subscription Sensity AI, Deepware Scan, Truepic, or Microsoft Video Authenticator. 

Gartner plans to share more findings and research on deepfakes at their security and risk management summits taking place in various countries around the world. 

Read more about those summits and see the news release here.

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Where companies have adopted AI—and where they are planning to do so in the near future

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Verbit analyzed survey data from the Census Bureau to see which states have the most companies that are enthusiastic about artificial intelligence.
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On Nov. 30, 2022, OpenAI launched ChatGPT, a chatbot driven by artificial intelligence. The app spread like wildfire. Not only did it provide an entertaining companion to chat with, but it also showed promise as a piece of productivity software.

ChatGPT allows users to ask questions about myriad topics and get useful responses in a way that search engines like Google cannot provide. Similar technologies have emerged in all kinds of domains, including image generation, language translation, transcription, computer programming, and more.

Firms across the U.S. are embracing artificial intelligence. To find out which regions are the most enthusiastic about AI, Verbit analyzed data from surveys taken by the Census Bureau in December 2023. Overall, 4.9% of businesses said they were using AI to produce goods or services in the past two weeks, while 6.7% say they plan to within the next six months.

Unsurprisingly, information technology companies are the most eager to use artificial intelligence—22% of respondents from American tech companies said they had used AI for their products or services within the past two weeks. That number actually understates AI’s impact in the field. A survey of computer programmers conducted by JetBrains, a software company, found that 77% of respondents used ChatGPT, while 46% used GitHub Copilot, an AI coding assistant.

Professional, scientific, and technical services were the second-most likely type of firm to respond that they used AI tools, according to the Census Bureau. Law firms are using tools to scan through thousands of past cases. And, according to Tess Bennett, a technology reporter for Financial Review, consultants and accountants are using AI to create PowerPoint presentations and conduct exploratory data analysis.


A map of showing which states have the highest share of companies who are currently using AI to produce goods and services.

Verbit

Top adopters

Some businesses have been quicker to adopt AI than others. Companies in Rhode Island lead the way on this front—8.7% of businesses in the state are currently using AI, nearly twice the rate of companies in the United States as a whole.

Companies on the West Coast and the Southwest tended to be more AI-friendly, while companies in the Rust Belt were likelier to have the lowest interest in using AI tools.

This story matches the Census survey numbers with data on what kinds of companies each state has within its borders and the education level of its workforce to understand why these disparities across states exist.

In general, states with a higher share of businesses in the technology sector also were likely to have more businesses use AI to produce goods and services. However, the weak correlation suggests that despite all of the hype surrounding AI, companies have still been slow to change their practices to adopt the technology.

A map showing which states have the highest share of companies which plan to use AI to produce goods and services in the next 6 months.

Verbit

Getting on the bandwagon

Businesses in Washington D.C., were the most likely to say they planned to adopt AI in the next six months, at 13.7%. Meanwhile, about 9% of businesses in Maryland, Alaska, New Mexico, Rhode Island, and Florida said they planned on implementing AI. Alabama and Delaware were the least enthusiastic about AI adoption—only 3.3% of businesses in the two states reported plans to implement AI.

This analysis of Census data found a much stronger correlation between how many of a state’s firms are in the tech sector and their willingness to implement AI in their business practices in the near future.

Similar trends were found when it came to states with highly educated workforces—in general, the higher the share of a state’s residents with college degrees, the more likely its businesses were to say they were planning on implementing AI. Artificial intelligence might be the future. But Census data reveals it is still early days.

Story editing by Ashleigh Graf. Copy editing by Kristen Wegrzyn.

This story originally appeared on Verbit and was produced and
distributed in partnership with Stacker Studio.

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