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As Italy votes, Europe fears populist, euroskeptic gains

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Italians voted Sunday in one of the most uncertain elections in years and one that could determine if Italy will succumb to the populist, euroskeptic and far-right sentiment that has swept through Europe.

The campaign was marked by the prime-time airing of neofascist rhetoric and anti-migrant violence that culminated in a shooting spree last month against six Africans. While the center-right coalition that capitalized on the anti-migrant sentiment led the polls, analysts predict the likeliest outcome is a hung parliament.

That will necessitate days and weeks of back-room haggling and horse trading to come up with a coalition government that can win confidence votes in Parliament. Just which parties coalesce from among the three main blocs – the center-right coalition, center-left coalition and the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement – will determine Italy’s course.

“Basically it is very likely that, at the end of the day, none of these three groups will have an absolute majority and they will be forced to start talking to each other and see how to put together a coalition government,” said Franco Pavoncello, dean of the John Cabot University in Rome.

More than 46 million Italians were eligible to vote from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. (0600-2200 U.K. time), including Italians abroad who already mailed in ballots. Exit polls were expected after polls closed, projections sometime thereafter and consolidated results Monday.

Some polling stations remained closed in Palermo hours into election day because the wrong ballots were delivered and 200,000 new ones had to be reprinted overnight. The outgoing Senate president, Pietro Grasso, complained that such delays were “unacceptable” and that he hoped they wouldn’t discourage turnout.

In Rome, meanwhile, some early voters said the ballots were confusing and the process to cast them — which for the first time requires an anti-fraud check by polling authorities — too time consuming.

“You feel as if you have gone there prepared but it is not that clear,” complained Sister Vincenza as she cast her ballot on Rome’s Aventine hill before heading to Mass.

With unemployment at 10.8 percent and economic growth in the eurozone’s third-largest economy lagging the average, many Italians have all but given up hope for change. Polls indicated a third hadn’t decided or weren’t even sure they would vote.

“The situation is pretty bad,” said Paolo Mercorillo from Ragusa, Sicily, who said he had decided not to even bother casting a ballot. “There aren’t candidates who are valid enough.”

The 5-Star Movement hoped to capitalize on such disgust, particularly among Italy’s young, and polls indicated the grassroots movement launched in 2009 by comic Beppe Grillo with the mantra for Italy’s political establishment to “(expletive)-off” would be the largest vote-getter among any single party.

But the 5-Stars weren’t expected to win enough to govern on their own, and they have sworn off forming coalitions. The movement’s leader Luigi Di Maio has recently suggested he would be open to talking with potential allies, however.

Analysts predict the only coalition with a shot of reaching an absolute majority is the center-right coalition anchored by ex-Premier Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party. The coalition includes the anti-migrant League and the nationalistic, neofascist-rooted Brothers of Italy party.

Berlusconi, 81, can’t run for office because of a tax fraud conviction, but he has tapped European Parliament President Antonio Tajani, considered a pro-European moderate, as his pick if the center-right is asked to form a government.

League leader Matteo Salvini is gunning for the top job too though, and some pro-European analysts envision a possible “nightmare scenario” of an extremist alliance among the 5-Stars, the League and Brothers of Italy. The presence in Rome this weekend of Steve Bannon, right-wing populist architect of Donald Trump’s White House campaign, was an indication of the stakes.

Roberto D’Alimonte of Rome’s LUISS University said such an outcome would be “catastrophic” for the markets. But he said the 5-Stars will have to decide if they’re going to join the right or the left if they’re going to move from their longtime perch in the opposition to actually help govern.

“This will be the moment of truth,” he said.

With polls showing the center-left trailing, Democratic Party leader Matteo Renzi and the current premier, Paolo Gentiloni spent the final days of the campaign warning that the only way to guard against a turn to populists and extremists was to vote for the Democrats. Because Renzi alienated so many in the coalition, Gentiloni has been cited as a possible candidate for premier who would even be acceptable to some in the center-right.

A new law passed last year, ostensibly to make Italy more governable, calls for a combination of direct and proportional voting for both the lower Chamber of deputies, which has 630 seats, and the Senate, which has 315 seats.

A few quirks could affect the outcome, particularly for the 5-Stars.

For starters, the names of about a dozen 5-Star candidates will appear on the ballot, but they no longer represent the party. After party lists were finalized, these 5-Stars were kicked out for a variety of sins. If they actually win, other parties can woo them away to beef up their own ranks.

Analysts have also warned that the ballot itself might confuse voters and result in a higher-than-usual percentage of invalid votes.

While European capitals and Brussels were watching the outcome for its effects on policy and markets, some in Italy had more at stake personally. Even the three-time premier Berlusconi vowed in the heat of the campaign to repatriate 600,000 migrants if the center-right wins.

“Yes indeed I fear these results because I have arrived here with all my thoughts and dreams,” said Musab Badur, an asylum seeker from Sudan who is living in a Milan shelter. “And I never thought that one day maybe I would have to go back or anything like that.”

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Facebook scientists say they can tell where deepfakes come from

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An example of a deepfake created by CNBC

Kyle Walsh

Artificial intelligence researchers at Facebook and Michigan State University say they have developed a new piece of software that can reveal where so-called deepfakes have come from.

Deepfakes are videos that have been digitally altered in some way with AI. They’ve become increasingly realistic in recent years, making it harder for humans to determine what’s real on the internet, and indeed Facebook, and what’s not.

The Facebook researchers claim that their AI software — announced on Wednesday — can be trained to establish if a piece of media is a deepfake or not from a still image or a single video frame. Not only that, they say the software can also identify the AI that was used to create the deepfake in the first place, no matter how novel the technique.

Tal Hassner, an applied research lead at Facebook, told CNBC that it’s possible to train AI software “to look at the photo and tell you with a reasonable degree of accuracy what is the design of the AI model that generated that photo.”

The research comes after MSU realized last year that it’s possible to determine what model of camera was used to take a specific photo — Hassner said that Facebook’s work with MSU builds on this.

‘Cat and mouse game’

Deepfakes are bad news for Facebook, which is constantly battling to keep fake content off of its main platform, as well as Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp. The company banned deepfakes in Jan. 2020 but it struggles to swiftly remove all of them from its platform.

Hassner said that detecting deepfakes is a “cat and mouse game,” adding that they’re becoming easier to produce and harder to detect.

One of the main applications of deepfakes so far has been in pornography where a person’s face is swapped onto someone else’s body, but they’ve also been used to make celebrities appear as though they’re doing or saying something they’re not.

Indeed, a set of hyper realistic and bizarre Tom Cruise deepfakes on TikTok have now been watched over 50 million times, with many struggling to see how they’re not real.

Today, it’s possible for anyone to make their own deepfakes using free apps like FakeApp or Faceswap.

Deepfake expert Nina Schick, who has advised U.S. President Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron, said at the CogX AI conference on Monday that detecting deepfakes isn’t easy.

In a follow up email she told CNBC that Facebook and MSU’s work “looks like a pretty big deal in terms of detection” but stressed that it’s important to find out how well deepfake detection models actually work in the wild.

“It’s all well and good testing it on a set of training data in a controlled environment,” she said, adding that “one of the big challenges seems that there are easy ways to fool detection models — i.e. by compressing an image or a video.”

Tassner admitted that it might be possible for a bad actor to get around the detector. “Would it be able to defeat our system? I assume that it would,” he said.

Broadly speaking, there are two types of deepfakes. Those that are wholly generated by AI, such as the fake human faces on www.thispersondoesnotexist.com, and others that use elements of AI to manipulate authentic media.

Schick questioned whether Facebook’s tool would work on the latter, adding that “there can never be a one size fits all detector.” But Xiaoming Liu, Facebook’s collaborator at Michigan State, said the work has “been evaluated and validated on both cases of deepfakes.” Liu added that the “performance might be lower” in cases where the manipulation only happens in a very small area.

Chris Ume, the synthetic media artist behind the Tom Cruise deepfakes, said at CogX on Monday that deepfake technology is moving rapidly.

“There are a lot of different AI tools and for the Tom Cruise, for example, I’m combining a lot of different tools to get the quality that you see on my channel,” he said.

It’s unclear how or indeed if Facebook will look to apply Tassner’s software to its platforms. “We’re not at the point of even having a discussion on products,” said Tassner, adding that there’s several potential use cases including spotting coordinated deepfake attacks.

“If someone wanted to abuse them (generative models) and conduct a coordinated attack by uploading things from different sources, we can actually spot that just by saying all of these came from the same mold we’ve never seen before but it has these specific properties, specific attributes,” he said.

As part of the work, Facebook said it has collected and catalogued 100 different deepfake models that are in existence.

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Apple CEO Tim Cook rips EU’s proposed Digital Markets Act

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Tim Cook, chief executive officer of Apple, speaks at the 2019 Dreamforce conference in San Francisco on November 19, 2019.

David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Apple CEO Tim Cook said that he believes a proposed European law known as DMA would “not be in the best interest of users,” signaling the iPhone maker’s opposition to European legislation that would force it to allow users to install software outside of Apple’s App Store.

“I look at the tech regulation that’s being discussed, I think there are good parts of it. And I think there are parts of it that are not in the best interests of the user,” Cook said on Wednesday through videoconference at the Viva Tech conference in France.

The European Union proposed two laws regulating big tech companies, the Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act, earlier this year. The DSA focuses on the online ad industry, but the DMA focuses on companies with large numbers of customers — like Apple, Google and Amazon — and sets rules requiring them to open up their platforms to competitors.

One of Cook’s issues with the law is that it would force Apple to permit sideloading apps on the iPhone, which is manually installing software from the internet or a file instead of through an app store. Currently, Apple’s App Store is the only way to install apps on an iPhone, which has made it the focus of lawsuits and regulators around the world. Apple has claimed that its control over the App Store ensures high-quality apps and helps prevent malware.

Cook noted that the iPhone’s market share in France is only 23% and said that permitting sideloading on iPhones would damage both the privacy and security of users, citing increased malware on Android phones versus iPhones. Google’s Android allows sideloading.

“If you take an example of where I don’t think it’s in the best interest, that the current DMA language that is being discussed, would force sideloading on the iPhone,” Cook said. “And so this would be an alternate way of getting apps onto the iPhone, as we look at that, that would destroy the security of the iPhone.”

Cook said that Apple would participate in the debate over the proposed regulation, and said that he thought that some parts of the DSA are “right on,” citing that it would regulate platforms with disinformation pushing issues like vaccine hesitancy.

Some projects never ship: ‘Failing is a part of life’

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Biden and Putin speak after Geneva summit

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Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) shakes hands with US President Joe Biden prior to the US-Russia summit at the Villa La Grange, in Geneva on June 16, 2021.

Brendan Smialowski | AFP | Getty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin said he and President Joe Biden agreed Wednesday that their respective ambassadors will return to their foreign posts, marking a resumption of diplomatic operations between the two adversaries that had been suspended since April.

Currently, neither Russia’s ambassador to the U.S., Anatoly Antonov, nor Washington’s ambassador to Moscow, John Sullivan is stationed at his post.

They were both recalled this spring after Biden announced a fresh round of U.S. sanctions aimed at punishing Russia for a massive cyberattack last year on American government agencies. 

As a result, consular operations, visas and other diplomatic services in both countries effectively ground to a halt. This breakdown had a ripple effect on industries, families and aid groups that maintain ties in both countries.

The return of the ambassadors was one of the few concrete outcomes to emerge immediately after the two leaders met face to face in Geneva on Wednesday.

The summit began with a 90 minute meeting featuring only Biden, Putin and their top foreign policy aides, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

Following the meeting, the two sides moved on to an expanded bilateral session with more aides. 

Officials had previously agreed that Putin would give the first press conference following the talks, and Biden would speak afterward.

Topping the agenda were nuclear arms control, cyberwarfare and security, Syria’s civil war and Iran’s nuclear program. 

Nuclear talks

In February, the Biden administration extended a crucial nuclear weapons treaty with Russia for five more years.

But the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START, is currently the only arms control treaty in place between Washington and Moscow.

Former President Donald Trump withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces, or INF treaty. Similar to the INF treaty, New START limits the nuclear arsenals of Washington and Moscow.

Putin and Biden have expressed a desire to reestablish a channel for conducting high-level nuclear talks, and both leaders recognize this as an area where the two countries have long maintained a dialogue despite their fractured relations on other issues.

The United States and Russia own the lion’s share of the world’s nuclear weapons.

Cybercrime

Biden also intended to warn Putin that unless he takes action to stop Russian-based cybercriminals, the United States will act instead, potentially disrupting Russia’s digital infrastructure.

Biden’s warning follows two targeted ransomware attacks in the past month that have directly impacted American citizens, both perpetrated by criminals believed to be based in Russia.

The first was an attack in early May on the operator of the nation’s largest gas pipeline, Colonial Pipeline. The attack forced the company to shut down approximately 5,500 miles of fuel pipeline, leading to a disruption of nearly half of the East Coast’s fuel supply and causing gasoline shortages in the Southeast and airline disruptions.

The second attack, this one by a different Russian-based cybercriminal group, targeted JBS, the world’s largest meat supplier. The company ultimately paid $11 million in ransom, but not before it briefly shut down its entire U.S. operation.

Putin has denied any knowledge of the attacks, and recently suggested that if the cybercriminal groups were not breaking any Russian laws, then there was nothing he could do to stop them.

But U.S. officials said the idea that Putin was unaware of the attacks wasn’t credible, given the tight grip he maintains over Russia’s intelligence services, and its murkier, off-the-books network of contractors.

Biden also intended to press Putin on Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and arming of separatists in eastern Ukraine, the poisoning and imprisonment of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, and the fate of two American former Marines in Russian custody. 

There was little expectation of a breakthrough from either side. Biden and Putin recently said they believe Russian-American relations are at their lowest point since the Cold War. 

Officials in Moscow and Washington spent months lowering expectations for the summit, and this week aides to both leaders said it was unlikely that any agreements would be reached in Geneva.

Yet from this nadir, the United States saw the summit as an opportunity to build a more stable and predictable relationship between the world’s two biggest nuclear powers. 

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