Sahm Venter, Author
“He saw people; he wasn’t one of those leaders who would see only famous people.”
South African author, Sahm Venter, spent most of her 25 years as a journalist covering the anti-apartheid struggle, before joining the Nelson Mandela Foundation as a senior researcher.
In June, with her colleague at the foundation, Vimla Naidoo, she released a book, I Remember Nelson Mandela, a collection of stories on the people who worked closely with Mandela.
“Everybody just loved him, and because he was such a decent person and because he saw people; he wasn’t one of those leaders who would see only famous people,” says Venter.
Mandela’s ability to pay attention to every single person in his presence was something Venter admired.
It was Christmas 1995, a year after South Africa gained independence with Mandela as head of state. Venter, along with five other journalists, spent Christmas day with him at the Transkei (in the southeastern region of South Africa).
“We had to meet him at like five in the morning and there were police guarding his house. He went and shook hands with every one of them and said ‘Merry Christmas’,” Venter recollects.
“When we walked through the villages for five hours, every single person and child who came out, he stopped, greeted and shook their hands. He asked for their name, asked how they are, what they are going to be when they are grow up, what class they are in at school.”
At the time, Venter quietly observed and remembers being blown away by Mandela’s humility.
A year later, at the launch of South Africa’s Constitution in Cape Town, Venter was among the few journalists who reported on the historical milestone.
“I was sitting next to this woman and I introduced myself from the SABC and she asked ‘are you Sahm Venter?’ and I said, ‘yes, why?’ And she said ‘well, the other day, Madiba called me up in front of these world leaders and introduced me to the whole crowd as you’. So he thought it was me because I had spent all this time with him,” Venter says, with a laugh.
“But that’s the kind of man he was, he valued everybody and everyone who worked with him felt that. And on top of it, he had a fantastic sense of humour,” she says.
Conroy Herandien, Former bodyguard
“Happy birthday Tata, come back please, urgently.”
Conroy Herandien was only 21 years old when he was tasked with protecting South Africa’s first black president, Nelson Mandela. The former policeman was recruited into the presidential unit as a bodyguard after Mandela became president in 1994.
Herandien says he got to travel 22 countries with Mandela and his staff during his presidential years.
But apart from meeting with delegates and other presidents, he got to witness some of Mandela’s most intimate moments on board the aircraft.
“When everything quietens down and you board the plane, that’s when the intimate part starts. You help him take off his shoes, make him comfortable, take out his hearing aids, switch them off, that’s where the personal came in,” Herandien says.
“He had this thing about newspapers. If you give him the newspapers in the morning, please don’t touch them! Don’t open page two or anything because when he saw that the newspaper was opened, he wouldn’t want to read it anymore. He was a disciplined man and like many elders, had his own mannerisms and was also very stubborn at times especially when it came to the security part of things,” shares Herandien, with a laugh.
At times, Mandela would make his own bed even though there was staff to do it. This was the discipline instilled in him from 27 hard years in prison.
Herandien says he learned this discipline from Madiba, and attests to applying it in his everyday life. “He helped us grow where we didn’t stand back for anybody and everyday was a learning curve,” he says.
Herandien can’t help but wish Mandela was still around. As South Africa celebrates what would have been Mandela’s 100th birthday on July 18, Herandien recalls one particular experience celebrating Mandela’s birthday on one of their trips.
Shortly after midnight, the president’s plane landed at the Air Force Base Waterkloof in Pretoria, South Africa’s capital. Herandien and a colleague were one of the first to wish Mandela a happy birthday.
“No, no, thank you very much, very good, very good!” Herandien imitates Madiba’s response in his recognizable voice.
“That was him. He made everybody feel special,” Herandien says.
If he had the opportunity to wish Mandela one more time, he says these would be his words: “Happy birthday Tata, come back please, urgently.”
Tladi Ditshego, Former international affairs coordinator
“He gave me that ability to recognize people and feel good around people and to know them deeper.”
During apartheid, African National Congress (ANC) member Tladi Ditshego left South Africa to live in the United States (US) on exile. He studied at Georgetown University in Washington DC in 1990. At this stage, he was the treasurer of the ANC Youth League chapter based there. After Mandela left prison, one of his missions was to visit some of the ANC members living in exile. As a result, Mandela happened to visit Ditshego’s university too.
“When I met him at that time he was obviously such a revered leader, I was shivering,” says Ditshego.
Ditshego worked closely with him during his stay in the US.
“I advised him on certain things and participated in discussions before his interviews, I added value to some of his speeches and everything else and he says ‘come and work with me in Johannesburg’,” recalls Ditshego.
He consulted with his wife, processed his exile indemnity forms and did what anyone would have done if asked personally to work for Mandela.
1992 marked the beginning of his journey working with Mandela as his international affairs coordinator and they traveled to many countries together. One of his first assignments was to Senegal for a summit.
“That was my first international assignment with him and I didn’t know his modus operandi,” says Ditshego.
After meeting, greeting and networking alongside Mandela, Ditshego was called to meet with the president once the event ended.
“He said, ‘Tladi come over here’, and he sat down and said to me, ‘who was the lady we met dressed like this?’ And I said ‘I don’t know’,” Ditchego says.
“So he looked at me and said ‘ok, after that lady, there was another gentlemen’… And he would describe the way he was dressed. And I said, ‘but I don’t know the guy’, and he went on for the third and ‘I said I don’t know’ again.”
Ditshego was disappointed at not being able to identify any of the people Mandela asked him about. “He might have felt that I was very stupid, you know, and I couldn’t sleep that night,” he says.
The next day Mandela asked him the same type of questions after they met more people at an event. This time, Ditshego went prepared. He carried a notebook and wrote down every detail about each person Mandela interacted with.
Ditshego narrates the conversation he had with Mandela afterwards.
“Tladi, how was the day?”
‘Tata, I think it went on very well.’
“Remember we met a lady dressed like this…”
“Oh, ‘that’s Penelope from…’ ”
Ditshego had everything written down and had an answer for every person Mandela asked him about.
When they returned to South Africa, Mandela even told Ditshego’s boss, at the time Thabo Mbeki.
“Ey, Tladi is so smart, he knows everybody in the world and at that conference, he knew everybody,” Mandela said to Mbeki.
From then on, Ditshego’s confidence was restored. Not only did he learn to pay attention to detail whilst working with Mandela, but it is what he now applies in his day-to-day life.
“He gave me that ability to recognize people and feel good around people and to know them deeper, rather than to just say ‘hi, how are you?’” says Ditshego, who is now an entrepreneur and CEO at J&J Group in Johannesburg.
Vimla Naidoo, Former staff
“I hope wherever Madiba is, he just feels the love, not just from his staff or family, but just South Africa and the world.”
It was in September 1995 that Vimla Naidoo first started working for the presidency. She was in the protocol team and her first task was to put together a reception that Mandela was hosting for Pope John Paul II. Minsters, the cabinet and several distinguished guests were invited to the prestigious reception.
It being Naidoo’s second day on the job, she was excited and nervous working behind the scenes. The event went smoothly and it was just about to end.
Little did she know she was about to meet two of the most respected men in the world.
“Our director at the protocol, said ‘come’ and I was like ‘where are we going?’ And he said ‘we are going to join this line of people greeting Madiba and the Pope’,” recollects Naidoo.
“I was so shocked but I was elated. I mean it was my second day on the job. I thought I was going to go through a couple of months before I ever got to see Madiba!
“I walked right past the Pope with my hand stretched out to greet Madiba, and he looked at me and he laughed and said, ‘aren’t you going to greet the Pope’? And I thought ‘oh my gosh, I’m going to be fired on my second day at work’. So I did a double take, went back, shook the Pope’s hand, I think, and he said something like ‘bless you, child’.”
A shy Naidoo walked back to Mandela, who then asked her, “Aren’t you supposed to be in school?’, trying the gauge his new staff member’s age.
“So he just kind of made me feel more comfortable and at ease. And I thought I royally screwed up. And so that always sticks with me,” says Naidoo, never able to forget that first encounter with him. After staying on in the presidency for a few years, it was normal meeting the iconic president most days.
“I think just to let him know how much we love him and how he will always be a part of our hearts…” Naidoo says, getting emotional. We pause the interview for a bit.
“It’s such an emotional experience and thinking about Madiba and talking about him I mean, especially during this time of the year…And thinking about other birthdays that we’ve shared, you know, and we’ve all been running around like worker bees trying to make sure that he has a great time,” she continues.
“I hope wherever Madiba is, he just feels the love, not just from his staff or family, but just South Africa and the world.”
Jay Naidoo, Former minister of reconstruction and development
“His remarkable magic of connecting with children was in fact one of the greatest triumphs that he could teach us.”
At an event commemorating Nelson Mandela, Jay Naidoo, a political and social activist and founding general secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), shares one of the funniest moments involving Mandela and Naidoo’s then two-year-old son Kami.
In 1994, when South Africa had just gained independence, Naidoo was appointed minister of reconstruction and development in Mandela’s cabinet.
Mandela was addressing the people during the launch of a campaign on how the leadership and communities could work together.
Naidoo attended the launch with his wife Lucie Page and Kami.
“Madiba is making the main speech. He is opening, and Kami decided that when Madiba is making his speech, he is going to go there and stand in front of everybody and tug Madiba’s trousers’,” Naidoo narrates.
Lucie and Naidoo looked at each other wondering which parent would pick up Kami tugging the president’s pants, whilst he was speaking.
“So I said ‘ok I will volunteer’. The first time I go and I take him and I put him on my lap. But no, he is not content with that,” Naidoo says.
Oblivious to the important speech Mandela was delivering, the little boy returned to him. This time, Lucie fetched Kami.
But her efforts were unsuccessful.
Kami went after Mandela a third time.
But this time, Mandela responded.
“He takes him in and puts him on the podium and continues the speech. Kami didn’t say a word.” Naidoo laughs.
“So Madiba, bless his soul, he loved children. There was a child inside of him that he missed for those 27 years. That is his greatest loss; the laughter of children, the touch of children, the love and innocence and the love of children. So his remarkable magic of connecting with children was in fact one of the greatest triumphs that he could teach us. He was a great teacher,” says Naidoo, fondly remembering Madiba.
Naidoo wished that Mandela’s love for children would transcend through society. However, the post-apartheid transition wasn’t easy especially for the politicians who had the task of rebuilding the country.
“Madiba once had a conversation with me when he talked about the reconstruction and development program of the soul and I said to him, ‘Madiba, I know we need to heal but they aren’t measuring us on healing, they are measuring us on how many houses, jobs and schools we are building’.”
Only now does Naidoo realize that “it was a stupid mistake, because we didn’t do the work of healing, first within ourselves, because we all carry this wound”.
This was something he believes Mandela was trying to teach them all.
Naidoo ends by saying: “If only we could just learn that and live with love and compassion and generosity, the triumph of what Madiba represented over fear and prejudice and racism….”
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.
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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
-Stephen Nellis and Paresh Dave
Earth’s Earliest Mobile Organisms Lived 2.1 Billion Years Ago
Scientists have discovered in 2.1-billion-year-old black shale from a quarry in Gabon the earliest evidence of a revolutionary development in the history of life on Earth, the ability of organisms to move from one place to another on their own.
The researchers on Monday described exquisitely preserved fossils of small tubular structures created when unknown organisms moved through soft mud in search of food in a calm and shallow marine ecosystem. The fossils dated back to a time when Earth was oxygen-rich and boasted conditions conducive to simple cellular life evolving more complexity, they said.
Life emerged in Earth’s seas as single-celled bacterial organisms perhaps 4 billion years ago, but the earliest life forms lacked the ability to move independently, called motility. The Gabon fossils are roughly 1.5 billion years older than the previous earliest evidence of motility and appearance of animal life.
The Gabonese shale deposits have been a treasure trove, also containing fossils of the oldest-known multicellular organisms.
“What matters here is their astonishing complexity and diversity in shape and size, and likely in terms of metabolic, developmental and behavioral patterns, including the just-discovered earliest evidence of motility, at least for certain among them,” said paleobiogeochemist and sedimentologist Abderrazak El Albani of the University of Poitiers in France.
The identity of these pioneering mobile organisms remains mysterious. The fossils did not include the organisms themselves.
The tubular structures, up to 6.7 inches (170 mm long), originally were made of organic matter, perhaps mucus strands left by organisms moving through mud.
The researchers said the structures may have been created by a multicellular organism or an aggregation of single-celled organisms akin to the slug-like organism formed when certain amoebas cluster together in lean times to move collectively to find a more hospitable environment.
“Life during the so-called Paleoproterozoic Era, 2.5 to 1.6 billion years ago, was not only bacterial, but more complex organisms had emerged at some point, likely only during some phases and under certain environmental circumstances,” El Albani said.
In comparison, the first vertebrates appeared about 525 million years ago, dinosaurs about 230 million years ago and Homo sapiens about 300,000 years ago.
The evolutionary experimentation with motility may have encountered a setback relatively soon after the Gabon organisms lived because of a dramatic drop in atmospheric oxygen 2.08 billion years ago.
The research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. -Reuters
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