It’s 6:30 on an early winter morning. Eighty-year-old Josiah Mmutlwatse, watches a heavy police and army contingent roaming near his home. In Bekkersdal, a township south west of Johannesburg, the foggy air is filled with the smell of the previous night’s charred remains. It is election day in South Africa and the mood is tense.
On the eve of elections, the unrest in Bekkersdal resumed; with three polling stations torched by angry residents. The spontaneous violence began months before. This turbulent township, near the gold mines of the West Rand, has seen a string of unabated service delivery protests. As the elections drew closer, protests intensified with threats to disrupt the polls.
But none of this could deter pensioner Mmutlwatse, who at the crack of dawn was the first in the queue at his polling station. He has never missed an opportunity to cast his vote since the first democratic elections in 1994.
The former bus driver patiently waits for the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) personnel to erect a marquee to be used as a polling station. Thirty minutes later, he is pleased to have exercised his democratic right to elect his government.
Although his allegiance still lies with the ruling African National Congress (ANC), Mmutlwatse hopes these polls will bring some much-needed change.
“I voted for the liberation party as always – ANC. It set us free from apartheid. It is hope for our children. Since we have voted, we want the elected people, even president (Jacob) Zuma, to listen to our cries. Our votes should not be blank cheques.”
Last year, Nomvula Mokonyane, the premier of Gauteng, raised the ire of Bekkersdal residents when she said the ANC does not need the residents’ dirty votes. Mokonyane was responding to threats that they would boycott the elections if service delivery was not improved.
“I am hurt by the unrest the dissenting youth brought, some people are not appreciative of our hard-earned freedom to vote. The government has a big task ahead. It must be explained to them that our democracy did not come on a silver platter. People died for it. It is not for sale.”
Mmutlwatse has lived in the township for more than fifty years, coming from the nearby farms. He rented a backyard room for a year before he could secure a four-room home in 1950, where he still lives with his three daughters. Out of his seven children, they are the only ones still alive.
“It was the first time I felt I had some dignity. If you have a house of your own, where your children could call home, no matter the size, it is freedom.”
A lack of housing and the high rate of unemployment are challenges that the youth in the area must face, says Mmutlwatse. The majority are shack dwellers.
Though Mmutlwatse owned a house for many years, he says the ANC-led government made him feel it was really his own when he received the title deed a decade ago. But he acknowledges that Bekkersdal is a far cry from a functional area.
He knows the community inside out and in the past used his old minibus to transport people, sometimes for free. He was like a godfather to the younger generation.
“Education should be the priority here. We understand the youth is not up in arms for no reason, they are frustrated by the government’s empty promises. I watch them roaming streets. They are not at school and many are unemployed,” he says.
While Mmutlwatse remains optimistic, his community still needs some convincing.
Twenty six kilometres away in Soweto, Happy Phiri, a reformed convict turned entrepreneur, is satisfied with the progress the government has made so far.
“I could not miss this one because I value voting. It’s something many South Africans were denied for many years. I spent 14 years in prison and the time spent there robbed me of certain things, including voting,” says Phiri.
Phiri, a 48-year-old father of three, was up at 3AM, two hours earlier than usual to make sure he didn’t miss casting his vote before he went to his workshop where he manufactures candles. On this day, he had an order for a hundred candles for a Mother’s Day event at a local church.
Phiri turned his life around when he joined the non-governmental organization NICRO while incarcerated. He left Mangaung Prison in 2010, trained as a candle maker.
With three years in business, Phiri has employed three people and bought a delivery van and equipment worth almost R100,000 ($9,600).
Bekkersdal’s very own Arab Spring will not die as the elections end; a politician just has to take a stroll through the run-down streets to realize this.
Red Berets And Tears
It was a record turnout for a South African election. More than 18 million voted in a poll on May 7 that threw up more than a few surprises.
It was one of those rare elections where the big story was not how much the ruling party gained, but how much it lost. The result was never in doubt, neither was the protest vote that hundreds of thousands of disgruntled South Africans cast.
In the end, the African National Congress (ANC) stormed home losing a lot less support than many of their supporters feared. It leaves the ruling party short of the two thirds majority, which gives it greater parliamentary powers, but it virtually assures control of South Africa until at least 2019, maybe beyond. It also assures that economic policy is likely to remain with few radical measures required to recover disgruntled supporters. The word among party insiders at the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) in Pretoria – the election nerve center – was that, if anything, government policy is likely to move more in favor of the free market as the money men around the world appear to have said all bets are off if there is a threat of socialism and nationalization.
Both are flaunted, like battle flags, by the young turks of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). In many ways, the EFF was the story of this election. The party was formed in October, when red bereted leader, Julius Malema, a disgruntled and belligerent former ANC loyalist, decided to give his old employers one in the eye. The idea was to take the high moral ground of socialism and power to the people that helped sweep the ANC to power in the first elections 20 years ago. It appears to have worked for the EFF, who, from a standing start gathered more than a million votes. It means Malema and 24 red bereted new menbers will sit in Parliament in Cape Town this year. It may spice up proceedings.
But the EFF may take heed of a cautionary tale from another opposition party, COPE. In 2009, COPE, also peopled by disgruntled former ANC members, garnered a stunning 1.3 million votes in its first tilt at the polls. This year, COPE got a mere 100,000 votes, less than 1%. Will EFF be able to cope in 2019?
“This isn’t the end of COPE,” says spokesman Johann Abrie. Really?
Agang – the party founded by Mamphela Ramphele and promising a new tomorrow – may rue its decision to fight the polls. It was humbled and ended up with two lousy seats.
The Democratic Alliance, taking years to shrug off its image as a white middle-class party, made more solid gains.
“We gain 3% every time around, then we cry for five years and try again,” says a DA loyalist.
That means maybe our grandchildren will witness the inauguration of the first DA president of South Africa. In a decade, or two, of power the DA too could be criticized by voters for being an out-of-touch incumbent that thinks it owns the country. Maybe?
The path of democracy was far from smooth in South Africa. There were threats and arrests in Alexandra, in Johannesburg, after fighting between rival parties. Voters in the tiny farming town of Tzaneen, in Limpopo, stormed a voting station and damaged it. Two people were shot, one dead, in KwaZulu Natal.
Elsewhere, a ballot box was found dumped on a roadside and a school storing ballot papers was broken into. These will be investigated by the IEC as it prepares for the 2019 election.
“These remain isolated incidents that we are taking very seriously. We can all agree the process is going well and we can be proud of our nation and our democracy,” says Pansy Tlakula, the head of the IEC.
IN PICTURES | Ghana Earning Its Stars And Stripes Through Tourism
Move over Lagos. Accra is campaigning hard to bring international tourism and business to its verdant shores.
Outside Accra’s shiny new Kotoka International Airport is a fleet of 30 black Land Cruisers waiting for a motley group of 60 African-Americans gripped by wanderlust.
The airport, birthed from the partnership between Ghana Airports Company Limited (GACL) and Airports Company South Africa (ACSA), now processes around 1,250 passengers per hour with a goal of welcoming some six million passengers each year to the leafy West African country, according to Joshua Otchere of Ghana Immigration Service.
This is Ghana’s attempt to become the hub of sub-regional travel by distinguishing itself from the likes of Lagos.
“We are now offering better services, faster turnaround times from airlines and a world-class experience when traveling, which we believe will compete with the rest of the world along with great retail spaces,” says Otchere.
It is a fitting welcome to the star-studded group of visitors including international supermodel Naomi Campbell and actors Idris Elba, Anthony Anderson and Rosario Dawson among many others. Ghana, once a major hub for the transatlantic slave trade from the 16th to the 19th centuries, has several historical ties with the USA.
Ghana’s president Nana Akufo-Addo declared and formerly launched ‘Year of Return Ghana 2019’ for Africans in the diaspora in Washington D.C., in September last year with the aim of uniting Africans on the continent with their brothers and sisters abroad. Tasked with playing her role to make that vision a reality is fellow Ghanaian and Chief Marketing Officer of William Morris Endeavor, Bozoma Saint John.
“I had an audience with the president after meeting him at an event by the Africa-America Institute in New York where we were both presented with awards. During my acceptance speech, I spoke about Ghana and when I came back to Ghana, he asked me what I was going to do to represent Ghana in the diaspora,” says John.
“He said he was proud of my achievements but what am I going to do specifically to help promote Ghana. I took it to heart and I thought about all the friends that I have invited to Ghana throughout the years and all of those who have changed their opinions about what Ghana is and sometimes it was only after a week. So I knew how powerful that process was,” she says.
The former Chief Brand Officer of Uber immediately reached out to Hollywood star Boris Kodjoe to brainstorm on how they could get more people to join them to discover Ghana and the Full Circle Festival was born.
“Boris and I thought about who we could invite. It wasn’t about just getting the biggest names, it was about inviting our friends who have influence both in Hollywood and in the business circles who can come to Ghana and really enjoy the experience,” says John.
The country came fourth out of 19 countries in CNN’s list of top places to visit in 2019. In addition, there have been massive infrastructure projects, digital skills training for millions as well as substantial investments into the startup ecosystem.
“Google is setting up its Artificial Intelligence Laboratory in Accra and that shows just how far we have come as an economy and country,” says Franklin Cudjoe, President of Imani Centre for Policy and Education, a leading Ghanaian think-tank.
This year, Ghana is attempting to ramp up its tourism status. The initiative is set to attract some half a million tourists, with about 350,000 coming in from North America, while the rest will come from the Carribean, South America and Europe, according to Ghana Tourism Authority (GTA).
“We expect a lot of networking and business opportunities to come out of this unique initiative especially between Ghana and the USA that will generate revenues for local industries in Ghana,” says Akwasi Agyeman, Chief Executive Officer of GTA.
For the attendees of the recent Full Circle Festival, however, the experience is somewhat more about a deeper spiritual connection. Activities included a visit to the historic Cape Coast castle as well as tourist hotspots like the Royal Senchi resort and a trip to Lake Volta, Africa’s largest artificial reservoir.
“It is hard to explain what it feels like when you spend time in a place where double-consciousness doesn’t exist, the freedom to just be, the peace of mind and to be closer to your ancestors’ spirit than you have ever been.
“To feel the dreadful weight inside the slave dungeons and then the surge of empowerment when you step back into your life with a newfound purpose and 400 years of collective survival energy behind you. To connect with your royal heritage and to see the beauty in your culture that can never be denied. To eat the food and dance all night and connect with people who carry such effortless joy and pride, I simply love Ghana,” says actor Kodjoe.
It has been 400 years since the first enslaved Africans arrived in North America. For many, the impact of the slave trade cannot be overlooked.
For John, this is the beginning of a journey of enlightenment for her friends in Hollywood. It is time to play her part for Ghana by bringing awareness to the destination as a tourist hotspot for the US.
As CMO of one of the biggest talent agencies in the US, her opinion certainly holds weight. And there is no shortage of passion when it comes to the country that seems to have now captured the attention of corporate America.
What does it mean to be HIV-undetectable or to have a suppressed viral load?
With medication and technology, science is increasingly improving the lives of people living with HIV and reducing new infections.
On August 8, 2018, a day before Women’s Day in South Africa, 23-year-old Saidy Brown observed six years of being on antiretroviral (ARV) treatment.
We meet Brown in her hotel room in Benoni in the East Rand in the South African Province of Gauteng.
She sits still, reflecting on her life after a long and busy day. She has just returned from a group meeting with other young HIV activists.
Her t-shirt is unapologetic and as loud as her activism. “HIV POSITIVE #TEST & TREAT,” it reads. In the dim light of her room, she recollects her dark journey to becoming an HIV activist.
Brown was diagnosed with HIV at birth. However, she only found out she had it at the age of 14.
Brown grew up in a small town called Itsoseng in the North West Province of South Africa. In June 2009, while attending a youth day event, Brown and some of her friends decided to get tested for free.
The eager teen received some pre-counselling from one of the nurses.
“I remember getting into that room and the lady asked me two questions, ‘what would you do if you find out that you are HIV negative’?”
“I would continue living,” Brown said.
“What will you do if you find out you are HIV positive?”
“I would go out there and educate people living with HIV,” she said to the nurse.
Brown tested positive. Her whole life changed in the space of five minutes.
“After she told me, the first thing I said was ‘how? I didn’t do anything, I am only 14’.”
While her friends were discussing their results, Brown broke the news to them. They were all surprised.
“I then told them ‘no, I’m kidding, I am negative’.”
Brown was ashamed and could not confide in anyone.
“I really wanted to go home and cry. Like, I didn’t even know where I got it from,” Brown says.
She was afraid of what her family, friends and community would think of her. For months, she kept it to herself. But the secret about her health was too overwhelming.
Later that year, Brown joined a drama club. They rehearsed for a play to be staged on World AIDS Day, on December 1. She played the daughter of a woman who was HIV positive.
Little did her peers know that Brown was actually telling her real life story. A few days later, conversations with Brown’s drama teacher got her to divulge her secret.
She later gathered up the courage to confide in her aunt. Her aunt then revealed that Brown’s late parents had indeed been HIV positive.
“I was angry at my aunt for not having tested me earlier on, I was angry at my parents for having died before me knowing, I was angry at God, I was just angry at everyone,” she says.
She turned to writing to cope. The first piece she wrote was titled An Open Letter To HIV.
“I will always remember this line because I paused there and I cried so much. There is a line where I said, ‘because of you I feel less pretty’.”
This marked the beginning of her activism. She shared the letter on social media and it reached thousands.
For 14 years, Brown had lived a healthy life with the disease without any treatment. Brown disclosed her status to close friends and received huge support.
It was only when she turned 18 that her health began to deteriorate. Hesitant to start treatment, Brown thought about the rumors she heard about the side-effects of ARV.
When she went for blood tests, she was told her CD4 count had dropped. According to experts, when the CD4 count drops below 200, a person is diagnosed with Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS).
“I think that was when reality started kicking in that ‘you need to be on treatment’,” she says.
In 2012, she finally started ARV treatment. Since then, Brown has been living a healthy life
She uses her experience to encourage others living with HIV and to break the stigma. In June 2017, she recited An Open Letter To HIV at the eighth South African AIDS Conference addressing HIV/AIDS and gender-based violence.
She held governments and societies accountable.
The same year, she received the Red Ribbon Foundation Youth for Change HIV/AIDS Activist Award.
In 2018, she was recognized as one of the Mail & Guardian 200 Young South Africans, for her work as an activist.
Brown considers herself an “HIVictor” and reaches thousands on her social media platform spreading awareness about the disease.
“There is life after an HIV diagnosis,” Brown shared with her followers on Twitter.
Today, Brown is HIV-undetectable.
She has been virally suppressed for two years now.
According to a report by UNAIDS in 2018, being undetectable means that the virus is un-transmittable.
This means that people who are HIV positive with an undetectable viral load cannot transmit HIV sexually.
This was proven in 2017.
Dr Sindisiwe van Zyl is a clinician and general practitioner with a special interest in HIV and women’s health.
She also uses her social media to spread awareness on the disease.
“The aim of ARV treatment is to achieve an undetectable or suppressed viral load. What is the viral load? It is the number of HIV copies in the blood. HIV uses CD4 cells to make copies of itself. If one is taking ARV treatment, the efficacy of the treatment is proven by an undetectable viral load. You’re still living with HIV, but you’re taking the treatment so well that the virus cannot make copies of itself,” she tells FORBES AFRICA.
“The viral load blood test tells us when undetectable levels have been reached and it takes 12 to 24 weeks to achieve this,” Van Zyl says.
Three significant studies were done between 2007 and 2016 on sexual transmission of HIV among thousands of couples.
According to UNAIDS: “In those studies, there was not a single case of sexual transmission of HIV from a virally-suppressed person living with HIV to their HIV-negative partner.”
“For many people living with HIV, the news that they can no longer transmit HIV sexually is life-changing. In addition to being able to choose to have sex without a condom, many people living with HIV who are virally suppressed feel liberated from the stigma associated with living with the virus,” UNAIDS says.
However, the stigma still does exist.
A 28-year-old millennial, who requested not be named, tells FORBES AFRICA that she had never heard of what it means to ‘undetectable’.
When asked if she would be willing to have sexual relations with someone who was HIV positive but their viral load was undetectable, she says she is unsure.
“I would but I would be worried because mistakes happen. What if medical practitioners thought it was undetectable but they made a mistake and now my life is at risk,” she asks.
She is not alone in thinking this way.
From a quick social media search, it is evident many users are not well-informed about what an undetectable viral load means.
Some social media users who disclosed to be living with HIV said that even their own doctors had not informed them about what it meant to be ‘HIV undetectable’.
Through hashtags such as #UequalsU and #UndetectableEqualsUntransmittable, awareness around being ‘HIV undetectable’ has spread globally, giving freedom to many HIV positive people to share their status.
“[These are] the hashtags of the century, in my opinion! What does #UequalsU mean? If the viral load is undetectable, then one cannot transmit HIV!” Van Zyl says.
It is such activism that has contributed to the strides in HIV research.
A doctor from the Wits Donald Gordon Medical Centre in Johannesburg agrees.
“I think that’s what makes the HIV space unique. Those activists are crucial… When patients talk, they talk as if they don’t have a voice, but with the activists, they have a voice and they are taken seriously and I think that has also been one of the big drivers,” Dr June Fabian, a nephrologist and clinical researcher at the medical center, tells FORBES AFRICA.
Transplanting to save a life
Two years ago, doctors from the transplant unit at the Wits Donald Gordon Medical Centre performed what is believed to be the world’s first HIV positive liver transplant.
Currently, the center is the only transplant program doing transplants from one living person to another in southern Africa.
The liver of a mother living with HIV was transplanted into her critically-ill HIV negative child.
After the transplant, the child was monitored and the doctors were not able to find HIV within the child’s system.
The child had been on a waiting list for more than 180 days and was frequently admitted for life-threatening complications of end-stage liver disease.
Professor Jean Botha led the procedure.
He was approached by the child’s mother to consider using her as her baby’s donor.
“We have had a case where we proposed the idea but the mom said, ‘I cannot live thinking that I’ll give HIV to my child’, and she said ‘no’, and the baby died,” Fabian, who was a part of the team, says.
It was a very complex situation.
They reviewed the implications of the transplant, consulted with other experts and then spoke to the ethics committee at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits).
“They came back and said, ‘if you are weighing up this child dying versus giving the child HIV then do it because, obviously, you want to prevent the child from dying’,” Fabian explains.
With the go-ahead, the team proceeded with the operations and assumed that the child would have the virus after the procedure.
But their assumptions were wrong.
“After the transplantation, we saw a seroconversion event. What that means is that the child became HIV positive,” Professor Caroline Tiemessen from the Wits School of Pathology and Centre for HIV and STIs, National Institute for Communicable Diseases, said in a report.
Soon after, they observed that the virus was no longer detectable. They then monitored the child’s antibodies and tested the viral load, however, she said it has remained undetectable since.
They have since not been able to trace the virus within the cells of the child.
“The liver is an immune organ so it’s the liver’s job to kill bugs… so I think in a way we might have struck it lucky with the liver. I don’t know if we can say what happened here is going to happen with a heart, a kidney or a lung,” Fabian says.
Despite not being able to detect the virus, the child was placed under ARV treatment.
Fabian says the only way to know for sure that there is no HIV in the child is if they completely stop treatment.
However, it would be a risk.
In 2017, a similar case was announced where a nine-year-old South African who had been diagnosed with HIV at a month old, received treatment, and then maintained remission after suppressing the virus for almost nine years without the treatment since 2008.
It has been more than a year since the liver transplant took place and both the mother and child are recovering well.
According to Fabian, they plan to continue doing more tests.
HIV Positive: The New Living Donor Pool?
At a time when South Africa is experiencing a shortage of organ donors, this may be a solution to the problem if people living with HIV may be able to donate organs.
In the early 2000s, Fabian’s work dealt with organ transplants and HIV before ARVs were created.
“We started seeing the disease untreated, and there was a lot of kidney disease so that was what sparked my interest and I started a study in the clinic with patients with HIV and kidney disease,” she says.
However, HIV patients back then were excluded from transplantation.
“We were basically throwing away organs from HIV-positive donors because we weren’t using them,” she says.
With a shortage of organ donors, Fabian says they lost 25 children on the waiting list.
According to an article by theSouthAfrican.com, there are around 4,300 people waiting for organ donations in South Africa in need of new livers, kidneys, lungs or hearts.
“The inclusion of HIV-infected people as living donors created the new living donor pool,” say experts from the Wits Donald Gordon Medical Centre.
This means that people like Brown who have been living with an undetectable viral load could be eligible as donors after tests have been done.
As for whether or not HIV-positive patients could potentially become blood donors, more work needs to be done in that field.
At the moment, Fabian does not think it is possible.
“I don’t know if you would put someone on life-long antiretroviral for a blood transfusion. I don’t think the benefit outweighs the risk when you can source blood from non-infected donors and the person isn’t going to die if they don’t get the transfusion,” Fabian says.
The evolution of ARVs
The first ARV treatment trial happened in the 1990s and in 2004, South Africa first rolled out its ARV program to people living with HIV.
ARV treatment has gone from taking several tablets a day to one pill daily.
Now, patients, particularly in South Africa, can receive free treatment.
According to a report on HIV and AIDS financing by the South African Health Review, South Africa has the largest number of persons living with HIV and on ARV-treatment in the world, with this figure scaling up by approximately 400,000 persons per annum.
UNAIDS estimates there are 20% of people on ARV therapy globally.
HIV-related deaths have been decreasing as the number of people receiving ARVs is growing.
In 2008, the death rate was about 220,000 to 260,000 in South Africa.
In 2016, estimates between 96,000 to 140,000 of AIDS-related deaths in the country were reported.
“I think what is underappreciated is how much people’s lives have changed with ARVs and with access to ARVs and how much the science and the funding with ARVs has driven it from being a very complicated regimen to one tablet a day,” Fabian says.
And now, access to obtaining ARVs has become easier and they are getting smaller.
“The tablet is getting smaller and smaller, which is great for storage, great for carrying, makes it cheaper, it’s also easier to swallow,” says Professor Francois Venter, the Deputy Executive Director at the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute.
Last year, South Africa saw the introduction of an ATM which uses electronic and robotic technology to dispense medication.
This allows patients to collect medication without having to queue at hospitals.
On the continent, clinical trials of injectable ARV drugs are currently underway.
This is part of a large-scale trial that will be conducted in six other countries –Kenya, Malawi, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Uganda and Swaziland.
According to a news report in The East African, the aim of the study is to introduce an injection once every two months.
“They are starting to work on a new implant. It is very early days but it is very, very exciting. So instead of taking your ARVs you just get an implant every year,” Venter says.
“ARVs are looking more and more like hormonal contraception … It is like having several choices.”
He predicts that they will become available in the next five to 10 years.
Other new developments include the HIV vaccine trial (please read more on pages 44-47).
As HIV research grows rapidly, Fabian says that other chronic disease studies can gain from its developments.
“If you look at how we manage TB [tuberculosis], there is very little progress that has been anywhere as rapid as HIV, in terms of making treatment accessible and simple for people,” Fabian says.
Venter agrees: “The funny thing is people with HIV are now living longer than the general population in certain spaces.”
A study in the United States found this to be true.
In 2014, an estimated 45% of those HIV-infected were older than 50, amounting to 428,724 people, while 27% were older than 55 and 6% were 65 and older, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
However, more work still needs to be done in this regard.
Venter says that technology has significantly aided HIV research.
“There are new ways to measure HIV which are getting more available and the price is coming down,” he says.
“There are also new ways for testing for HIV which are very exciting.”
“Because the cost of antiretrovirals has gone down so dramatically, HIV is actually relatively cheap to treat, compared to diabetes,” he says.
“It also keeps people away from the medical system which is very expensive,” he adds.
Despite the great strides taken to improve HIV treatment, a cure is still nowhere to be found.
“I think we are getting closer [to a cure] with vaccines,” Fabian says, hopeful.
Venter, on the other hand, believes we are still far from discovering a cure.
“I am not particularly hopeful because I think the scientific challenges of it are so hard that I am not sure it is going to be possible, but I hope I am wrong,” Venter says.
He says that there have been large amounts of money diverted to looking for a cure and that we are learning more about the immune system.
“Even if we may not find a cure, we are going to learn a lot about vaccines and the complexity of the human body,” he says.
For now, the importance of spreading awareness is still essential. Activists like Brown and Van Zyl can attest to that.
The world has gone from a deadly epidemic, to undetectable victories and vaccines in three decades.
We are witnesses to history in the making. Where will you be when a cure is found?
Software Pirates Use Apple Tech To Put Hacked Apps On iPhones
Software pirates have hijacked technology designed by Apple Inc to distribute hacked versions of Spotify, Angry Birds, Pokemon Go, Minecraft and other popular apps on iPhones.
Illicit software distributors such as TutuApp, Panda Helper, AppValley and TweakBox have found ways to use digital certificates to get access to a program Apple introduced to let corporations distribute business apps to their employees without going through Apple’s tightly controlled App Store.
Using so-called enterprise developer certificates, these pirate operations are providing modified versions of popular apps to consumers, enabling them to stream music without ads and to circumvent fees and rules in games, depriving Apple and legitimate app makers of revenue.
By doing so, the pirate app distributors are violating the rules of Apple’s developer programs, which only allow apps to be distributed to the general public through the App Store. Downloading modified versions violates the terms of service of almost all major apps.
TutuApp, Panda Helper, AppValley and TweakBox did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Apple has no way of tracking the real-time distribution of these certificates, or the spread of improperly modified apps on its phones, but it can cancel the certificates if it finds misuse.
“Developers that abuse our enterprise certificates are in violation of the Apple Developer Enterprise Program Agreement and will have their certificates terminated, and if appropriate, they will be removed from our Developer Program completely,” an Apple spokesperson told Reuters. “We are continuously evaluating the cases of misuse and are prepared to take immediate action.”
After Reuters initially contacted Apple for comment last week, some of the pirates were banned from the system, but within days they were using different certificates and were operational again.
“There’s nothing stopping these companies from doing this again from another team, another developer account,” said Amine Hambaba, head of security at software firm Shape Security.
Apple confirmed a media report on Wednesday that it would require two-factor authentication – using a code sent to a phone as well as a password – to log into all developer accounts by the end of this month, which could help prevent certificate misuse.
Major app makers Spotify Technology SA, Rovio Entertainment Oyj and Niantic Inc have begun to fight back.
Spotify declined to comment on the matter of modified apps, but the streaming music provider did say earlier this month that its new terms of service would crack down on users who are “creating or distributing tools designed to block advertisements” on its service.
Rovio, the maker of Angry Birds mobile games, said it actively works with partners to address infringement “for the benefit of both our player community and Rovio as a business.”
Niantic, which makes Pokemon Go, said players who use pirated apps that enable cheating on its game are regularly banned for violating its terms of service. Microsoft Corp, which owns the creative building game Minecraft, declined to comment.
SIPHONING OFF REVENUE
It is unclear how much revenue the pirate distributors are siphoning away from Apple and legitimate app makers.
TutuApp offers a free version of Minecraft, which costs $6.99 in Apple’s App Store. AppValley offers a version of Spotify’s free streaming music service with the advertisements stripped away.
The distributors make money by charging $13 or more per year for subscriptions to what they calls “VIP” versions of their services, which they say are more stable than the free versions. It is impossible to know how many users buy such subscriptions, but the pirate distributors combined have more than 600,000 followers on Twitter.
Electronic Arts’ new game challenges Fortnite
Security researchers have long warned about the misuse of enterprise developer certificates, which act as digital keys that tell an iPhone a piece of software downloaded from the internet can be trusted and opened. They are the centerpiece of Apple’s program for corporate apps and enable consumers to install apps onto iPhones without Apple’s knowledge.
Apple last month briefly banned Facebook Inc and Alphabet Inc from using enterprise certificates after they used them to distribute data-gathering apps to consumers.
The distributors of pirated apps seen by Reuters are using certificates obtained in the name of legitimate businesses, although it is unclear how. Several pirates have impersonated a subsidiary of China Mobile Ltd. China Mobile did not respond to requests for comment.
Tech news website TechCrunch earlier this week reported that certificate abuse also enabled the distribution of apps for pornography and gambling, both of which are banned from the App Store.
Since the App Store debuted in 2008, Apple has sought to portray the iPhone as safer than rival Android devices because Apple reviews and approves all apps distributed to the devices.
Early on, hackers “jailbroke” iPhones by modifying their software to evade Apple’s controls, but that process voided the iPhone’s warranty and scared off many casual users. The misuse of the enterprise certificates seen by Reuters does not rely on jailbreaking and can be used on unmodified iPhones. -Reuters
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