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The hacker group Telecomix vows to expose those who censor or surveil the Internet, U.S. tech firms included.

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One morning in mid-August, seven months into the Arab Spring protests and government crackdowns in which thousands have been killed, something strange happened on Syria’s Internet. As users aimed their Web browsers at Google and Facebook, they instead saw a page of white Arabic script scrawled across a black background.

“This is a deliberate, temporary Internet breakdown. Please read carefully and spread the following message,” it read. “Your Internet activity is monitored.”

Then the page switched to a white screen filled with instructions on using free encryption and anonymity software like Tor and TrueCrypt to evade surveillance and censorship. Emblazoned above the text was a round, mysterious symbol: a star inside an omega, hovering over a pyramid surrounded by lightning bolts. Below it were written the words: “This is Telecomix. We come in peace.”

Telecomix, a loose-knit team of international hacktivists, had been scanning the Syrian Internet in a massive sweep, dividing 700,000 target connections among its members in Germany, France and the U.S., probing for hackable devices with software tools like Nmap and Shodan. They compromised vulnerable Cisco Systemsproduced network switches to find other devices’ passwords, snooped on open cameras revealing street scenes and even officials’ desks, and at one point retrieved the log-in credentials for 5,000 unsecured home routers, which they used to insert the above-mentioned surveillance warning into browsers across the country.

As the globally distributed hackers combed Syria’s networks and posted their findings in a crowd-sourced document, one American member of the group, who uses the handle Punkbob, spotted a Windows FTP server filled with data he recognized: logs from a Proxy SG 9000 appliance built by the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based company Blue Coat Systems. In Punkbob’s day job at a Pentagon contractor, he says, the same equipment had been used to intercept traffic to filter and track staff behavior. The Syrian machine’s logs showed the Internet activity of thousands of users, connecting the sites they attempted to visit and every word of their communications with the IP addresses that pointed directly to their homes. In short, he had discovered American technology being used to help a brutal dictatorship spy on its citizens.

“At first we were just poking around, but when I saw that, I had this feeling of dread,” says Punkbob, who requested that FORBES not use his real name. “To see exactly what Syria was tracking and who was providing the technology to do it.…That was when it felt real.”

Since Telecomix published 54 gigabytes of those logs, the resulting attention has forced Blue Coat to admit that its gear had been used by Syria, a potential violation of international sanctions against that country. The company didn’t respond to FORBES’ request for an interview, citing an ongoing internal review and a related Commerce Department probe. (Note that the investigation didn’t deter private equity firm Thoma Bravo and the Ontario Teachers Pension Plan from a recent deal to take Blue Coat private for $1.3 billion.)

The disclosure of Blue Coat’s gear in Syria has touched off revelations that hardware from other U.S. firms, including NetApp and HP, was also used by blacklisted regimes. The industry now faces tough new questions about tech firms’ responsibility for how their products are used—and by whom.

Telecomix sees its Blue Coat discovery as a turning point in the group’s mission: Founded to fight for free speech, it now aims to also expose those who fight against that ideal, including any Western tech firm aiding the wrong side. “I hope that the Blue Coat thing was the start of something much bigger,” says Chris Kullenberg, a lean and lip-pierced Swedish political science grad student at the University of Gothenburg and a Telecomix founder. “The goal is to put political pressure on these companies. It started with rage and frustration. What can we do? Well, we can hack a few boxes and expose this to the world. That’s the motivation that drives hackers deeper and deeper into the networks.”

Telecomix likely broke Syrian law. But some more traditional advocates appreciate their work. “It crosses a line we wouldn’t be comfortable crossing,” says Brett Solomon, president of the digital human rights group Access Now.

“But sometimes it takes someone like Telecomix to put a spanner in the works.”

Actively hacking networks is a new game for Telecomix’s Web revolutionaries, who call each other “agents” or “Internauts.” But unlike the hacker group Anonymous, which began with juvenile pranks before attacking Scientologists, opponents of WikiLeaks and defense contractors, Telecomix was born political. The group was created at a Gothenburg conference in 2009 to oppose the European Union’s so-called Telecoms Package, industry-influenced laws that would have cut Internet access for anyone repeatedly downloading copyrighted files. “In a sense, corporations have always been the enemy,” says Kullenberg.

The hackers dug up and published the phone numbers of every EU Parliament member, then convinced the copyright-flouting Swedish download site the Pirate Bay to post a link on its home page, which received 20 million monthly visitors. The Parliament’s phones were jammed for days, and the statute was eventually dropped.

The populist uprisings of the Arab Spring brought Telecomix’s goals—and its enemies—into sharper focus. A few days into the Jan. 25 protests in Egypt Hosni Mubarak shut down all but one of his country’s Internet service providers. “Telecomix members consider themselves citizens of the Internet,” says one American Telecomix hacker who goes by the nickname the Doctor. “So we took that as a personal affront.” Agents arranged with the hacker-friendly Internet provider French Data Network to fire up modem banks and give users free dial-up connections. Then the group faxed thousands of leaflets to Egyptian universities, offices and cybercafes, explaining how to skirt the blackout.

Telecomix’s scanning of the Syrian Net began as reconnaissance to prepare for an Egypt-style Internet shutdown. Stumbling onto the Blue Coat logs was a fateful fluke. When the hackers realized what they’d found, they downloaded close to 100 gigabytes of data, using the Tor anonymization network to cover their tracks. The process took weeks. In October Telecomix released hundreds of millions of lines of text listing hundreds of sites the Syrian government was blocking, from porn to Facebook to Chat- roulette, along with enough users’ communication logs to show that the regime was using their Blue Coat gear to not only filter but also monitor dissidents’ activities.

Blue Coat’s scandal demonstrates the complexity of regulating surveillance technology. The firm claims it hadn’t known about its devices in Syria, arguing they must have found their way into the country through a reseller in the United Arab Emirates. “Blue Coat is mindful of the violence in Syria and is saddened by the human suffering and loss of human life that may be the result of actions by a repressive regime,” it wrote in a statement. “We don’t want our products to be used by the government of Syria or any other country embargoed by the United States.” But critics like cryptography guru Bruce Schneier and Tor developer Jacob Appelbaum point out that Blue Coat devices link back to its servers for licensing and updates, implying the company may have turned a blind eye to its Syrian users.

Some Telecomix agents say they’ve also spotted equipment sold by Fortinet in Syria. Fortinet responds that it “has in place a policy prohibiting shipping its product to countries where shipment is embargoed.” And what about resellers who pass it on to those countries? “At that point it’s out of our hands,” a spokesperson says. Hazy as the line may be, it’s clear some companies have crossed it. Marketing documents published by Wiki Leaks show 160 firms advertising surveillance gear, often in Arabic as well as English. British firm Gamma International brags that it can spy on users of Gmail, Skype and iTunes; its sales pitch was found in the files of the Egyptian government after Mubarak fled.

Telecomix is determined to remain a watchdog against Western firms aiding foreign Big Brothers. Two Swedish members, Chris Kullenberg and Jonatan Walck, have registered a site called Internaut.cat where they plan to publish future disclosures of the group’s findings, using Sweden’s strong media laws to shield their sources. “We’re at a point now where Internet users are becoming aware of what’s being done to them,” says the Doctor. “Companies that sell gear designed to track people should expect to be outed.”

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How To Cut The Cord: The Top Smart TVs For Streaming 2019

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Freeing yourself from the shackles of cable or satellite television is easier to do than you might think, especially if you have a smart or connected television.

Smart TVs have integrated internet and interactive features that allow users to stream music and videos, browse the Web and view photos. Almost every new high-end television sold within the last two years or so has smart capabilities. So how do you choose?

If you want to take advantage of streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime and more, then look at these television sets.

LG C9 OLED 65-inch TV
Best smart TVs
On the streaming front, it provides a single place to browse and search for TV shows and movies from apps like Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, ESPN, PlayStation Vue, and more. LG

In addition to a beautiful, detailed picture and a big soundstage, this 4K OLED sports cutting-edge connectivity, including an HDMI 2.1, and a comprehensive feature set including both Google Home and Amazon Alexa built in. It also comes with Home Dashboard, a new tool that turns the set into the central control hub of all your connected home devices—from doorbell cameras to smart thermostats to appliances like a washing machine or a stove.

On the streaming front, it provides a single place to browse and search for TV shows and movies from sites such as Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, ESPN, PlayStation Vue, and more. It also lets users rent, purchase and watch TV shows and movies from Apple’s iTunes store.

Vizio 55-inch M-Series Quantum
Best smart tVs
This Vizio is equipped with updated SmartCast 3.0 software includes support for Apple AirPlay2 and HomeKit, making it just as suitable for iOS users. VIZIO

At under $700, the 55-inch M-Series Quantum offers a serious value in the smart TV arena. Not only does it deliver an excellent picture and sound, but it is also equipped with updated SmartCast 3.0 software, which includes support for Apple AirPlay2 and HomeKit (making it just as suitable for iOS users).

The update also has a more vibrant selection of locally installed apps, including Netflix, Amazon Video, Hulu and Vudu. Thanks to a partnership with PlutoTV, the Vizio also offers a dedicated streaming channel called WatchFree, which gives you a TV-watching experience with more than 100 free channels, including sports, news, cartoons, and movies. You can also pair the set with an Amazon Echo device for voice control with Alexa.

Sony Master Series 65-inch A9F OLED TV
Best Smart TVs
This 65-incher also comes with Google Assistant capability, which lets you search for content, find online information, use online services and even control smart-home devices.SONY

If money is no object and you want a TV with loads of features, an incredible picture and terrific sound, go with the Sony A9G. The A9F is one of the first Sony Android TVs to ship with the newest version of its smart OS. The most notable names in video are preloaded, including Amazon Prime Video, Google Play Movies & TV, Hulu, Netflix, Sling TV,and YouTube. For music, Google Play Music, Pandora, SiriusXM, Spotify, Tidal and a slew of internet radio stations.

This Sony 65-incher also comes with Google Assistant, which lets you search for content, find online information, use online services and even control smart-home devices. 

TCL 43S517 Roku Smart 4K TV
Best smart TVs
The Roku TV interface is uncluttered and easy to navigate, with big square tiles for all your apps and streaming services, including Netflix and Hulu. TCL

Great things can come in packages costing less than $400. Not only will you get a terrific picture, robust sound and a slew of genuinely exciting features, this TCL 43-inch model sports Dolby Vision HDR, Dolby Atmos audio support and integrated Roku voice search.

The Roku TV interface is uncluttered and easy to navigate, with big square tiles for all of your apps and streaming services, including Netflix and Hulu. There are also apps for major broadcasters, major sports leagues, and premium channels such as HBO and Showtime. Of particular interest to cord-cutters will be support for Sling TV, which provides a cable-like experience without the expense of a cable subscription.

Insignia 43-Inch 4K Fire TV Edition
Best Smart TVs
This under $300 43-incher offers most of the apps you’d expect, like Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go and HBO Now, as well as Amazon Prime Video. INSIGNIA

Amazon finally seems to have a Fire TV that can compete with the Roku-powered smart sets. This 4K television with HDR support is packed with features for the Amazon faithful, with Alexa voice interaction built-in, Amazon’s huge selection of Fire TV apps, and a smart TV experience that puts Prime Video centerstage.  

This 43-incher costs less than $300 and offers most of the streaming apps you would expect, such as Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go and HBO Now, as well as Amazon Prime Video. Plus, Fire TV will soon get an official YouTube app packed with services such as YouTube Kids, YouTube Music and (most critical for cord-cutters) YouTube TV.

-Chuck Tannert, Forbes

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Multi-Disciplinary Education In The 4IR Era

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There is an adage that states “if you want to know the future of a nation, study the behavior of its teachers”.

The most potent force for political, economic and social progress in society is education. The measure of how great a nation will rise is determined by how many people in its population are educated. The African continent today has a total purchasing power parity gross domestic product (GDP) of $6.7 trillion, and a population of 1.2 billion people.

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), in 2016, sub-Saharan Africa had a literacy rate of 76% compared to 89% in South and West Asia, 87% in the Arab states and 98% in the developed nations.

This literacy rate in sub-Saharan Africa is far from adequate, and calls for urgent and practical action to improve it.

READ MORE | Amid Trade Wars, What Africa Must Do

We are living in an era characterized by the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) where technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchain are changing all aspects of our lives. Factories are automating. Because of these changes, the nature of work is changing.

Many jobs are disappearing altogether, and new types of jobs are being created. For example, we now have jobs that did not exist 20 years ago, such as Data Scientists. AI is now able to diagnose severe diseases such as pulmonary embolism, epilepsy and leukemia complementing the work of medical professionals. Because of the rapid automation in the medical field, doctors today require an in-depth knowledge of technology.

These changes in society because of 4IR require new sets of skills. Are our education systems ready to capacitate our people with the requisite skills to tackle the problems of 4IR?  Do we have enough teachers at all levels of our educational systems to be able to give our people skills that will make them useful in the 4IR era? Do we have enough educational institutions to be able to skill our people? Unfortunately, the answers to these two questions are in the negative.

READ MORE | Data Is The New Gold

Given that we do not have enough teachers nor educational institutions to provide a critical mass of our people the requisite capabilities that will help them survive in the 4IR, what is to be done? One way of tackling this problem is to take a lesson from the first Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who realized that for India to thrive in the 20th century, it needed to invest in elite technical education. In this regard, he introduced the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT).

Nehru had this to say in 1956 at the first convocation address of the first IIT in Kharagpur, a city in West Bengal: “…Here in the place of that Hijli Detention Camp stands the fine monument of India, representing India’s urges, India’s future in the making. This picture seems to me symbolical of the changes that are coming to India.”

It is vital that African countries create a few elite institutions that will drive the African continent into the 4IR. The Pan-African University supported by the African Union is a good start, but we can do more.

Additionally, these elite institutes should not be limited to higher education only but must also focus on primary and secondary education. One example in Johannesburg is the African Leadership Academy (ALA), which targets gifted 16-to-19-year-olds. Today, the ALA has alumni from 46 different countries making an impact on the political, economic, and social aspects of the African continent.

READ MORE | The 4IR Strategy To Move Forward

For us to thrive in the 4IR era also requires our educational experience to be multi-disciplinary. In our limited institutions of higher learning, students enrolled for programs in the human and social sciences must also study technological subjects.

Those enrolled in technological programs must study human and social subjects. Technological subjects should focus on the issues that confront the African continent, such as affordable and appropriate technology, limited and incomplete data, and cost-effective manufacturing.

The human and social subjects should focus on the urgent issues facing Africa today, such as social cohesion, connectivity, stability, conflict and unity. Due to the limitations of physical infrastructure and good teachers, African countries should pull their resources together and invest in online platforms to facilitate education through modern techniques such as blended and augmented learning.

The outcome of the education system, whether at primary, secondary, or tertiary levels, should be logical, numeracy and verbal skills. These skills will give our people the capacity to tackle the challenges of the 4IR such as coding, problem-solving, critical thinking, creativity and decision-making. 

– Tshilidzi Marwala is a professor, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg. He deputizes President Cyril Ramaphosa on the South African Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

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Creators Rather Than Consumers

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More entrepreneurs are committing to closing the skills gap in Africa’s future job market.


In 2015, an image of a young man, Tankiso Motaung, at a street corner in the middle of Sandton, Johannesburg, holding up a placard, went viral. On the sign were the words, “I have a BTech in electrical engineering. Please help. I need a job,” along with his contact number.

The following year, an image circulated on social media of Anthea Malwandle, a young chemical engineering graduate, standing by the traffic lights, similarly, begging for a job.

What is the future of work in a digitally-led world? Is it this dismal?

The World Economic Forum’s (WEF) 2018 Future Of Jobs Report, reveals nearly 50% of companies expect digitization will lead to a reduction in their full-time workforce. It further estimates that by 2022, 75 million jobs globally would taper off as a consequence of digital business transformation. 

READ MORE | South Africa’s Informal Sector: Why People Get Stuck In Precarious Jobs

South Africa’s unemployment rate is already high. Motaung and Malwandle represent more than 50% of our youth that are unemployed. And according to Statistics South Africa, one out of three graduates will, likewise, enter the job market without any economic prospects.

But Nedbank economist, Isaac Matshego, is full of optimism. He is of the opinion that the initial job losses will be temporary.

“As humans get better acquainted and familiar with the new way of doing things and incorporating the new economic methods of production, we often see a net benefit to humanity overall,” he says.

More so, Matshego advocates that at the beginning, digitization actually requires human skills and so does the maintenance of the technology.

“That means we have to train our information technology staff,” he elaborates.

READ MORE | 4 Ways To Develop Employment-Ready Graduates

The good news is that digital and other tech innovations will directly and indirectly produce new sources of work. The WEF report further suggests that 133 million new jobs may be created by 2022, thanks to industry 4.0.

But, for these opportunities to scale to the extent needed to address South Africa’s current employment crisis, there needs to be a strong supply of quality skills – spanning foundational skills like basic numeracy and literacy, through to advanced tech skills, according to Mark Schoeman, a manager of youth and technology at economic consulting firm Genesis Analytics.

“The first hurdle South Africa has to overcome is closing the skills gap in the short-term. There are an insufficient number of graduates with key skills in STEM being produced by educational pathways, and a qualification-job mismatch which sees graduates taking up work that does not reflect their qualification,” he says. Schoeman asserts this gap is an impediment to the country’s ability to realize new economic opportunities brought forth by technology.

READ MORE | OPINION | Technology Is Useful, But Drones Alone Won’t Save Africa’s Elephants

Government and private interventions have been made to ensure young people are training and learning critical skills to thrive in the changing world of work.

Heeding this call is WeThinkCode, one of the organizations fixated on future-proofing the youth. A non-profit, new-age technology school, WeThinkCode, led by Managing Director, Nyaradzai Samushanga, seeks to eradicate unemployment in the ‘tech’ economy by providing youth with skills sought after in the new world of work.

Headquartered in Johannesburg, the tuition-free school was founded in 2016 by three South Africans: Arlene Mulder, Yossi Hasson, Justinus Adriaanse and French citizen, Camille Agon. The institution enrols 430 students aged 17 – 35 years who are taught technical skills in software development including programming, graphics and algorithms.

“We do not measure success when students graduate. We measure success as placement at employment,” says Samushanga.

“All our graduates have been placed into permanent employment with a minimum entry-level salary of R20,000 ($1,408) per month… It is taking someone who could’ve fallen in between the cracks, and now they are a highly-skilled worker,” says Samushanga.

READ MORE | 5 Ways Tech Can Revolutionize Education

More entrepreneurs are committing to the cause of closing the skills gap in Africa’s job market. Audrey Patricia Cheng, 25, the co-founder and CEO of Moringa School in Nairobi, Kenya, says: “We realized there was a massive gap in terms of access and also quality education. And we are seeing a massive rise in the number of jobs around technical skills because many companies are moving to the digital space.”

Since its inception in 2015, Moringa School has since trained close to 2,000 students with the necessary digital skills. Cheng is confident the continent is moving to a future where Africans would be creators of technology rather than just consumers.

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