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TikTok chief cancels meetings with US lawmakers



Alex Zhu, founder of Inc., poses for a photograph in Shanghai, China, on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2016.

Qilai Shen | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The head of TikTok, which is facing scrutiny over its ties with China, is postponing meetings with U.S. lawmakers that were originally expected for this week, the social media site said.

“TikTok has no higher priority than ensuring Congress Members’ questions are addressed fully and transparently. To ensure these conversations are as productive as possible, we’re looking forward to holding these meetings after the holidays,” a spokesperson said in a statement late Monday.

TikTok had requested meetings with lawmakers who suspect the company censors content in line with Chinese officials’ preferences and that user data could be accessed by the Chinese government.

TikTok has repeatedly denied the allegations. In his first interview as chief of TikTok last month, Alex Zhu rejected all allegations of political censorship on the app. He told The New York Times that if Chinese President Xi Jinping asked him to remove a video or hand over user data, “I would turn him down.”

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., tweeted Monday night that TikTok canceled the meeting scheduled for this week. He also implied that the company was taking orders from its Chinese parent company not to meet with U.S. lawmakers.

The U.S. Army has barred soldiers from using the app following a national security concern, and TikTok’s Chinese parent ByteDance faces a national security review from the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. over its 2017 acquisition of TikTok precursor, a person familiar with the matter previously told CNBC.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., requested the review, claiming in a letter to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin that there is “ample and growing evidence that TikTok’s platform for Western markets, including the U.S., is censoring content that is not in line with the Chinese Government and Communist Party directives.”

Rubio’s office declined a meeting that TikTok had requested, a congressional aide said. Zhu was scheduled to meet with Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., her office told CNBC. Blackburn wrote Zhu last month that she feared the app, popular with youngsters, “is paving the way for the Chinese government to gain unfettered and unsupervised access to our children’s lives.”

Despite TikTok’s claims that it does not allow Chinese officials access to user data or censor content in line with the Chinese government’s views, recent controversies have opened room for doubt. In a class-action suit filed last month, for example, a California student accused the company of secretly collecting data on users and transferring private user data to China.

Also last month, head of safety at TikTok Eric Han apologized to a 17-year-old user in New Jersey after the company disabled access to her account and briefly removed one of her viral videos in which she discussed China’s mistreatment of the Uighur ethnic minority. Critics seized upon the move as evidence of the app’s censorship on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party.

Han said TikTok was reviewing the procedure that led to the removal and said the company would create “carve-outs for things like education and satire, as other platforms do.”

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WATCH: TikTok sued in California for accusations of data transfer to China

Correction: An earlier version misstated the day of Hawley’s tweet. It was Monday.

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WHO postpones decision on declaring China coronavirus a global health emergency



The World Health Organization postponed making a decision Wednesday on whether the mysterious coronavirus that has killed at least 17 people and sickened hundreds of others in China is a global health emergency.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said physicians need more information and he’s asked his committee, which held an emergency meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, Wednesday, to reconvene on Thursday.

“Today, there was an excellent discussion during the committee meeting, but it was also clear that to proceed we need more information,” Tedros told about 150 reporters on a conference call that was delayed for almost two hours while the committee met.

Tedros said the emergency committee on Wednesday was split on whether to designate the illness a global health emergency. He said WHO has researchers on the ground in China collecting data.

“The decision about whether or not to declare a public health emergency of international concern is one I take extremely seriously, and one I am only prepared to make with appropriate consideration of all the evidence,” Tedros said.

Two women wearing protective masks walk outside Beijing railway station in Beijing on January 22, 2020.

Nicolas Asrouri | AFP | Getty Images

Chinese authorities say many of the patients with the new illness had come into contact with seafood and meat markets, suggesting the virus is spreading from animals to people. WHO physicians said they’ve found evidence of human-to-human transmission within close contacts, citing family members, and within a health-care environment. They said the virus was stable and not showing any kind of unusual activity.

Physicians compared the outbreak to the 2003 outbreak of SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, which had a short incubation period of 2 to 7 days and WHO officials said was less infectious than the flu. It took almost two months for SARS to spread to 456 people. The 2019 coronavirus has infected more than 540 people in less than a month.

WHO defines a global health emergency, also known as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, as an “extraordinary event” that is “serious, unusual or unexpected.” The virus that emerged from Wuhan, China, over the holidays has spread throughout Asia, infecting people in China, Thailand, Taiwan, Japan and the Republic of Korea, according to WHO and Chinese state media.

The U.S. confirmed its first case on Tuesday, a Washington state man who was traveling in China, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

WHO doesn’t enact the emergencies lightly, according to Lawrence Gostin, a professor and faculty director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University. The international health agency has only applied the emergency designation five times since the rules were implemented in the mid-2000s.

The last time WHO declared a global health emergency was in 2019 for the Ebola outbreak in eastern Congo that killed more than 2,000 people. The agency also declared global emergencies for the 2016 Zika virus, the 2009 H1N1 swine flu and the 2014 polio and Ebola outbreaks.

Declaring an emergency doesn’t give the WHO extra funding or power, but it allows Tedros to ask countries not to impose travel or trade bans.

The meeting came a day after public health officials confirmed the first U.S. case of the virus and two days after officials said that the respiratory illness is capable of spreading from person to person. This weekend, the CDC and Homeland Security began screening people flying to the United States from Wuhan.

Chinese state media said Wednesday that government officials in Wuhan are suspending all public transportation, including buses, trains, airplanes and ferries, to better combat the coronavirus outbreak. Officials are also asking citizens not to leave the city unless there are special circumstances. Additionally, people in public places will be required to wear masks to prevent exposure to the illness, local officials said.

The new virus is similar to the flu and can cause coughing, fever, breathing difficulty and pneumonia.

This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.

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How the Saudis hacked Jeff Bezos’ phone, and how to protect yourself



Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud and Jeff Bezos pose for a photo during his visit in in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on November 9, 2016.

Bandar Algaloud | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Today, the U.N. called for an investigation into allegations that the crown prince of Saudi Arabia personally facilitated a hack on Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ mobile phone.

The report, which is based on research Bezos commissioned, alleges that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman may have personally been involved in a complex hacking campaign against Bezos, which started with a friendly dinner and exchange of phone numbers between the two in 2018.

The report shows how outsiders can monitor seemingly private phone messages. However, while tools like those described in the report exist, they are costly and rarely used against normal citizens. Moreover, it’s worth keeping in mind that Bezos himself commissioned the report and there may be alternative explanations for how information about his personal life leaked.

What happened?

According to the allegations, Bezos’ phone was hacked using malicious software delivered in a WhatsApp message that came directly from Crown Prince Mohammed’s phone in November 2018. The two of them had met and exchanged phone numbers in the spring of that year.

In November of 2018, Bezos allegedly received a text from Crown Prince Mohammed’s WhatsApp number again, this time with a picture of a woman resembling Sanchez “months before the Bezos affair was known publicly,” according to the report. Bezos would later preempt a National Enquirer story on the affair in a post on Medium, which also was the first time he mentioned a possible connection between the hack and Saudi Arabia.

The Saudis apparently targeted Bezos because he owns The Washington Post, which published work from Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident. Saudi agents murdered Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018 at the direction of the crown prince, according to the CIA. After initial denials, the Saudis have acknowledged the murder and sentenced several people to death for it, but denied that Crown Prince Mohammed knew about it.

The report says the hack used the software of an Israeli company called NSO Group, which sells a software platform known as Pegasus. This platform allows governments to access internet-connected devices.

The company says it only sells its products to government agencies pursuing information from the devices of criminals and terrorists. Human rights activists, however, have said the software is used much more widely and to target attorneys, journalists and dissidents who oppose various governments that have contracted with NSO Group, an allegation put forth in the report today.

NSO Group has denied its software was involved.

“As we stated unequivocally in April 2019 to the same false assertion, our technology was not used in this instance. We know this because of how our software works and our technology cannot be used on U.S. phone numbers. Our products are only used to investigate terror and serious crime. Any suggestion that NSO is involved is defamatory and the company will take legal counsel to address this.”

Saudi Arabia has called the allegations “absurd” and has also characterized the killing of Khashoggi as a “rogue operation.”

Not a worry for most of us

NSO Group isn’t the only company that makes this type of software. There are numerous other companies that have used differing versions of malicious code, delivered via text or call. These programs let outsiders compromise mobile devices by sending errant information through loopholes in these communication programs.

In some cases, respondents don’t even need to answer the call or text in order for the phone to be compromised. Once the phone is compromised, the attackers can download a wide array of information from it. This seems to be what happened in the case of Bezos’ phone, as subsequent messages suggested that Crown Prince Mohammed was aware of Bezos’ affair and impending divorce, according to the U.N. report.

While real, these types of hacks are exceedingly rare. The software required to carry them out is extremely costly, and companies such as Facebook, which owns WhatsApp, and Apple are usually quick to patch the holes that these programs exploit.

These types of hacks have targeted attorneys and other professionals representing controversial figures, however. Anyone in a position connected to politically controversial figures — including bankers, accountants, political advisors, speechwriters and so on — should be concerned about having their communications monitored in this way.

If you’re in this boat, make sure you routinely update your phone and all its software, especially with all security-related updates, and consider consulting with a cybersecurity expert who can help you tailor a security plan. Share your phone number very selectively only with people who absolutely need it, and consider conducting private or sensitive business on a device that’s separate from your day-to-day phone.

But for most of us, these types of hacks are a very remote concern and easily remedied by updating messaging software on a regular schedule.

Skepticism warranted

It’s worth keeping in mind that the report may not tell the whole story.

While sophisticated tools and hacking methods like those described in the U.N.’s letter today do exist, so do programs that can spoof phone numbers and device ownership, as well as a wide range of programs that can make it appear quite convincingly that information is being sent from an individual’s device or location when it is not.

There are other possible alternative explanations for what happened. Some other entity could have spoofed Crown Prince Mohammed’s credentials, or Bezos’ information could have leaked in more ways than a single hack. For instance, The Wall Street Journal reported last March that Sanchez’s brother sent incriminating pictures from her phone to the National Enquirer.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that Bezos commissioned the investigation. The report spins a very complex story of a vast technological conspiracy against him and bolsters previous claims of Saudi involvement from an investigator he hired, Gavin de Becker. An investigation independent of either Bezos or the Saudis, which the U.N. has called for, would hopefully include a completely objective view of the timeline and facts presented in today’s report.

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Italy is not in a political crisis, Gualtieri says



DAVOS, Switzerland — Italy is not facing another political crisis, the country’s economy minister told CNBC just hours after a key government figure stepped back from his duties.

Luigi Di Maio has been leading the Five Star Movement (M5S), a party supportive of more social benefits in Italy, since late 2017. However, he said Wednesday he would be stepping down from the party’s leadership. Di Maio has also been serving as foreign affairs minister. His party entered a new coalition with the pro-European social democratic party, Partito Democratico (PD) in September and his resignation has raised concerns over the stability of this goverment.

Speaking to CNBC Wednesday, Roberto Gualtieri, the Italian minister for the economy and a member of PD, rejected such concerns.

Italian economy minister Roberto Gualtieri.

Mondadori Portfolio

“Not at all, it is not a political crisis, it is not affecting neither the government — by the way Mr Di Maio will remain foreign (affairs) minister — nor the majority, which is actually quite broad in the Parliament,” Gualtieri told CNBC’s Steve Sedgwick in Davos.

The PD and M5S came together last year to avert the need for snap elections. At the time, the anti-immigration party leader, Matteo Salvini, who was co-deputy prime minister alongside Di Maio, decided to quit government — sparking further political instability.

“The commitment to the stability of the Italian government is very strong from the Five Star Movement,” Gualtieri said.

Upcoming regional elections in Italy are adding further pressure on the current government. Salvini, the face of anti-immigration politics in Italy, could be about to make some sort of comeback with an election in the northeast region of Emilia-Romagna on Sunday. The region has traditionally voted in favor of left-leaning parties, but opinion polls suggest that could change.

Speaking about the upcoming vote, Gualtieri said: “I hope and I’m confident that the progressive candidates will win.”

Nonetheless, he pointed out that it is a regional vote and he doesn’t expect it to impact the current leadership between M5S and the PD.

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