AP Exclusive: Colombia ‘panic buttons’ expose activists

By FRANK BAJAK

It is supposed to help protect human-rights activists, labor organizers and journalists working in risky environments, but a GPS-enabled “panic button” that Colombia’s government has issued to about 400 people could be exposing them to more peril.

The pocket-sized devices are designed to notify authorities in the event of an attack or attempted kidnapping. But the Associated Press, with an independent security audit , uncovered technical flaws that could let hostile parties disable them, eavesdrop on conversations and track users’ movements.

There is no evidence the vulnerabilities have been exploited, but security experts are alarmed.

“This is negligent in the extreme,” said Eva Galperin, director of cybersecurity at the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation, calling the finding “a tremendous security failure.”
Over the past four years, other “distress alarms” and smartphone apps have been deployed or tested around the world, with mixed results. When effective, they can be crucial lifelines against criminal gangs, paramilitary groups or the hostile security forces of repressive regimes.

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Americans who live near border say Trump’s wall is unwelcome

By FRANK BAJAK

Nov. 22, 2016

LOS EBANOS, Texas (AP) — All along the winding Rio Grande, the people who live in this bustling, fertile region where the U.S. border meets the Gulf of Mexico never quite understood how Donald Trump’s great wall could ever be much more than campaign rhetoric.

Erecting a concrete barrier across the entire 1,954-mile frontier with Mexico, they know, collides head-on with multiple realities: the geology of the river valley, fierce local resistance and the immense cost.

An electronically fortified “virtual wall” with surveillance technology that includes night-and-day video cameras, tethered observation balloons and high-flying drones makes a lot more sense to people here. It’s already in wide use and expanding.

 If a 30- to 40-foot concrete wall is a panacea for illegal immigration, as Trump insisted during the campaign, the locals are not convinced. And few were surprised when the president-elect seemed to soften his position five days after the election, saying that the wall could include some fencing.

“The wall is not going to stop anyone,” said Jorge Garcia, who expected to lose access to most of his 30-acre riverside ranch after the U.S. Border Fence Act was enacted a decade ago.

Under the law, 652 miles of border barrier were built, mostly in Arizona. The 110 miles of fences and fortified levees that went up in Texas are not contiguous but broken lines, some as much as a mile and a half from the river.

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Aging, rickety U.S. elections system vulnerable to hacking

 

By FRANK BAJAK AND MICHAEL RUBINKAM

Dec. 26, 2016

ALLENTOWN, Pa. (AP) — Jill Stein’s bid to recount votes in Pennsylvania was in trouble even before a federal judge shot it down Dec. 12. That’s because the Green Party candidate’s effort stood almost no chance of detecting potential fraud or error in the vote — there was basically nothing to recount.

Pennsylvania is one of 11 states where the majority of voters use antiquated machines that store votes electronically, without printed ballots or other paper-based backups that could be used to double-check the balloting. There’s almost no way to know if they’ve accurately recorded individual votes — or if anyone tampered with the count.

More than 80 percent of Pennsylvanians who voted Nov. 8 cast their ballots on such machines, according to VotePA, a nonprofit seeking their replacement. A recount would, in the words of VotePA’s Marybeth Kuznik, a veteran election judge, essentially amount to this: “You go to the computer and you say, ‘OK, computer, you counted this a week-and-a-half ago. Were you right the first time?'”

 These paperless digital voting machines, used by roughly 1 in 5 U.S. voters last month, present one of the most glaring dangers to the security of the rickety, underfunded U.S. election system. Like many electronic voting machines, they are vulnerable to hacking. But other machines typically leave a paper trail that could be manually checked. The paperless digital machines open the door to potential election rigging that might not ever be detected.

What’s more, their prevalence magnifies other risks in the election system, such as the possibility that hackers might compromise the computers that tally votes, by making failures or attacks harder to catch. And like other voting machines adopted since the 2000 election, the paperless systems are nearing the end of their useful life — yet there is no comprehensive plan to replace them.

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Snapping up cheap spy tools, nation ‘monitoring everyone’

By FRANK BAJAK and JACK GILLUM

LIMA, Peru — It was a national scandal. Peru’s then-vice president accused two domestic intelligence agents of staking her out. Then, a top congressman blamed the spy agency for a break-in at his office. News stories showed the agency had collected data on hundreds of influential Peruvians.

Yet after last year’s outrage, which forced out the prime minister and froze its intelligence-gathering, the spy service went ahead with a $22 million program capable of snooping on thousands of Peruvians at a time. Peru — a top cocaine-producing nation — joined the ranks of world governments that have added commercial spyware to their arsenals.area de trabajo

The purchase from Israeli-American company Verint Systems, chronicled in documents obtained by The Associated Press, offers a rare, behind-the-scenes look into how easy it is for a country to purchase and install off-the-shelf surveillance equipment. The software allows governments to intercept voice calls, text messages and emails.

Except for blacklisted nations like Syria and North Korea, the is little to stop governments that routinely violate basic rights from obtaining the same so-called “lawful intercept” tools that have been sold to Western police and spy agencies. People tracked by the technology have been beaten, jailed and tortured, according to human rights groups.

Targets identified by the AP include a blogger in the repressive Central Asian republic of Uzbekistan, opposition activists in the war-ravaged African nation of South Sudan, and politicians and reporters in oil-rich Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean.

“The status quo is completely unacceptable,” said Marietje Schaake, a European Union lawmaker pushing for greater oversight. “The fact that this market is almost completely unregulated is very disturbing.”

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From happy-go-lucky, gregarious soldier to purposeful cop killer: Micah’s journey

DALLAS (AP) — He was disarmed in the middle of a war zone and placed under 24-hour escort. The most humiliating part was that everyone in Micah Johnson’s unit in Afghanistan knew why: He was accused of stealing a female soldier’s panties.

Johnson’s aspirations to a military career were over. Now he faced removal from the Army. The well-liked, easygoing young black man whose friendships were described as colorblind was suddenly deeply shamed and ostracized.

People who knew him, both before and after, say he was never the same.

 Authorities have described Johnson as a loner who shot and killed five officers in downtown Dallas during last week’s peaceful protest over police shootings nationwide. President Barack Obama, at a memorial for the victims, called him “demented.”
But in multiple interviews with The Associated Press, the Mississippi-born, Texas-bred 25-year-old was remembered by friends, comrades and acquaintances as a gregarious, even “goofy” extrovert.

Johnson wasn’t the best marksman, a fellow Army Reserve buddy recalled, and his former squad leader described him as less than motivated during training. But in Dallas, he showed striking tactical effectiveness, video from the scene shows. He moved stealthily, used columns for cover and swiveled his head to watch corners for threats.

Such was his skill that police initially thought they were taking fire from multiple snipers.

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Climate change, runaway development worsen Houston floods

By FRANK BAJAK and SETH BORENSTEIN

HOUSTON (AP) — With clay soil and tabletop-flat terrain, Houston has endured flooding for generations. Its 1,700 miles of man-made channels struggle to dispatch storm runoff to the Gulf of Mexico.

Now the nation’s fourth-largest city is being overwhelmed with more frequent and more destructive floods. The latest calamity occurred April 18, killing eight people and causing tens of millions of dollars in damage. The worsening floods aren’t simple acts of nature or just costly local concerns. Federal taxpayers get soaked too.

Extreme downpours have doubled in frequency over the past three decades, climatologists say, in part because of global warming. The other main culprit is unrestrained development in the only major U.S. city without zoning rules. That combination means more pavement and deeper floodwaters. Critics blame cozy relations between developers and local leaders for inadequate flood-protection measures.

An Associated Press analysis of government data found that if Harris County, which includes Houston, were a state it would rank in the top five or six in every category of repeat federal flood losses — defined as any property with two or more losses in a 10-year period amounting to at least $1,000 each.

Since 1998, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has paid more than $3 billion in today’s dollars for flood losses in metropolitan Houston.

While repeat federal flood relief payouts average about $3,000 per square mile nationally, they are nearly half a million dollars per square mile in metro Houston. Six of Texas’ eight federally declared disasters since December 2013 included floods.

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Reward for ‘hero’ cop in Peru’s drug war: Neglect

By FRANK BAJAK

TALAVERA, Peru (AP) — Johnny Vega rarely carried his 9-mm pistol when he wasn’t on duty. He wishes he had that day.

The narcotics cop was chatting with a friend on a park bench, the Andean sun burning the dawn’s chill off this highlands town nearly 10,000 feet above sea level.

 On that morning of Aug. 20, 2014, Vega had dropped his son Juan at nursery school and then walked to Talavera’s main square. He noticed a tall young man strolling by and wondered if he knew him.

Vega was a rarity in this nation where cops, courts and congress are badly compromised by corruption . An earnest provincial narcotics officer, he had made a career of actually doing what he was trained for: locking up criminals.

Defying death threats from narcos, he led a hand-picked team of trusted officers who consistently scored trafficker arrests and record drug seizures even as Peru became the world’s No. 1 cocaine producer. In a country where police are as likely to take bribes as to make arrests, Vega was a hero. Three times, he had been named police officer of the year.

In this March 30, 2015 photo, narcotics police Sgt. Johnny Vega, poses for a portrait in Lima, Peru. Vega, 46, was shot during an attempt on his life in 2014 in what police called payback for taking down the region's biggest drug gang. He remains disabled and is struggling to mend. If he doesn't by August, he will be forced to retire. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

 Vega was deep in conversation when the young man walked by again, stopped and leveled a silencer-equipped Bersa at the cop’s head.

“What are you doing, dammit!” Vega shouted, jumping to his feet. The bullet ripped into him just below his solar plexus. Without hesitating, he dashed for a nearby taxi stand, leaning forward and zig-zagging to make himself a smaller target.

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South America hacker team targets dissidents, journalists

By FRANK BAJAK

LIMA, Peru (AP) — A shadowy cyber-espionage group that sent malware to the prosecutor whose mysterious death transfixed Argentina early this year has been hitting targets in left-leaning nations across South America, the Internet watchdog group Citizen Lab reported Wednesday.

The breadth and brazenness of the hackers’ activity bear the hallmarks of state sponsorship. So do its targets.

The group has been attacking opposition figures and independent journalists in Ecuador with spyware. It also ran dummy websites. The most elaborate, geared toward Venezuela, is a constantly updated news site featuring dubiously sourced “scoops” on purported corruption among the ruling socialists. In Ecuador, a similarly faux site seemed tailored to attract disgruntled police officers.

The researchers launched the three-month probe after determining that spyware found on the smartphone of Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman was written to send pilfered data to the same command-and-control structure as malware sent to targets infected in Ecuador. They said the hackers had a “keen and systematic interest in the political opposition and the independent press” in the three nations, all run by allied left-wing governments. That suggests it may have operated on behalf of one or more of those governments, the 60-page report said.

In September, the hackers threatened a Citizen Lab researcher as he poked around in a U.S.-based machine the group had infected.

“We’re going to analyze your brain with a bullet — and your family’s, too,” read a message that popped up on his computer screen. “You like playing the spy and going where you shouldn’t, well you should know that it has a cost — your life!”

That’s rare behavior among professional hackers, perhaps indicating little fear of criminal prosecution, said Morgan Marquis-Boire, one of the researchers.

In November, the group attempted to infect the computer of an Associated Press reporter, who was also investigating it, with a phishing attack aimed at stealing his Google password.

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Peru announces probe after AP drug plane report

MAZAMARI, Peru — Peru’s defense minister has announced an investigation into possible drug-related military corruption following an Associated Press report that Peru’s armed forces were turning a blind eye to daily drug flights to Bolivia.

The official, Jakke Valakivi, said Wednesday evening that the Defense Ministry and the joint armed forces command would jointly conduct the probe.

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Peru’s armed forces have failed to effectively impede the ferrying of more than a ton of cocaine a day to Bolivia from the world’s No. 1 coca-producing valley, traffic that has picked up in recent years, according to prosecutors, drug police, former military officers and current and former U.S. drug agents.

In part because of that nearly unhindered air bridge from the Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro river valley, Peru surpassed Colombia in 2012 as the world’s top cocaine exporter.

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Narco planes fly past Peru military unhindered

By Frank Bajak

MAZAMARI, Peru — It happens about four times a day, right under the nose of Peru’s military: A small single-engine plane drops onto a dirt airstrip in the world’s No. 1 coca-growing valley, delivers a bundle of cash, picks up more than 300 kilos of cocaine and flies to Bolivia.

Roughly half of Peru’s cocaine exports have been ferried eastward on this “air bridge,” police say, since the rugged Andean nation became the world’s leading producer of the drug in 2012.

Peru’s government has barely impeded the airborne drug flow. Prosecutors, narcotics police, former military officers and current and former U.S. drug agents say that while corruption is rife in Peru, the narco-flight plague is the military’s failure because it controls the remote jungle region known as the Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro river valley.

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Wilson Barrantes, a retired army general who has long complained about military drug corruption, said giving the armed services control over the valley is “like putting four street dogs to guard a plate of beefsteak.”

An Associated Press investigation found that “narco planes” have been loaded with partially refined cocaine at landing strips just minutes by air from military bases in the remote, nearly road-less valley where about two-thirds of Peru’s cocaine originates.

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