The Guardian 2024-02-29 22:31:23


Secretive firm behind voice no campaign billed taxpayers almost $135,000 via Coalition MPs, documents show

Secretive firm behind voice no campaign billed taxpayers almost $135,000 via Coalition MPs, documents show

Exclusive: Whitestone Strategic, which has close ties to rightwing lobby group Advance, was paid to craft messaging on topics such as vaccine mandates and renewable energy

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The secretive firm behind the no campaign in the voice referendum has claimed almost $135,000 in taxpayer funding, including almost $70,000 from the Coalition senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, as part of its work to help conservative politicians sharpen their messaging to voters.

Whitestone Strategic, a political consultancy group that claims to provide “up-to-the-minute technology and campaign clout in the fight for Australian values”, was contracted to the official campaign opposing the Indigenous voice to parliament in 2023.

A Guardian Australia investigation in October revealed its close ties to Advance – a rightwing lobby group founded in 2018 – and social media work during the referendum for Fair Australia.

Fresh documents obtained by Guardian Australia under freedom of information show Whitestone’s work has extended beyond the referendum campaign, as it crafts messaging for politicians to share on social media and in emails covering topics such as vaccine mandates and the cost of living.

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The strategy firm has invoiced at least $134,750 from elected representatives over two years, including Coalition senators Price, Claire Chandler and Alex Antic, former senator Amanda Stoker and shadow defence minister Andrew Hastie.

Guardian Australia contacted the offices of each politician and Stoker for further details. None of them responded to questions about the services provided or their reasons for using the consultancy firm.

Parliamentarians have an annual budget for office expenses, which can be used for activities such as printing and social media advertising.

Price, who was the face of the no campaign, has been billed at least $68,805 for Whitestone’s services, which included a single invoice from the group for $50,000 in June 2023 as the referendum vote approached.

Chandler submitted 17 invoices to the finance department for Whitestone’s services between January 2022 and June 2023, totalling almost $35,000.

The nature of the work is redacted. Chandler’s office previously told Guardian Australia the work undertaken by Whitestone was not related to the voice referendum.

Whitestone is led by Stephen Doyle, who was previously chief of staff to the former Coalition senator Zed Seselja. Many of the firm’s other staff who were identified by Guardian Australia – both past and present – don’t list the company on their public profiles.

Antic has used Whitestone’s services for social media content, as well as “copywriting and design” related to a “vaccine mandate” campaign. In 2021, the senator voted for a One Nation anti-Covid vaccination mandate bill, contrary to the Coalition government’s own aged care vaccine mandate, and has a freedom pledge opposed to mandatory vaccination on his website. His invoices totalled $27,639, while Stoker submitted one for $3,300 in April 2022.

Hastie submitted one Whitestone invoice for $330 in December 2022. Attached to the invoice is a pamphlet produced for Hastie’s constituents, warning them against Labor’s renewables target and cost-of-living strategies.

“Everywhere you look, Labor refuses to put you first,” the pamphlet’s messaging reads. “You and your family are way down the list.”

A Whitestone spokesperson said it provides services to a range of clients, including not-for-profits and MPs. “As is the case with any professional services consultancy, arrangements with clients are kept strictly commercial-in-confidence,” the spokesperson said.

The documents also show Seselja, who previously represented the ACT, was invoiced $3,284.52 in late 2021 by Dunham+Company, a Texas-based marketing and fundraising company that often works with Christian organisations, and which was at one time tasked with running Advance’s Facebook page.

Seselja and Dunham+Company were approached for comment.

Advance – led by executive director Matthew Sheahan – and Whitestone emerged as powerful operatives during the voice referendum debate, working alongside former Advance spokesperson, Price. The no campaign included a deluge of social media content via multiple Facebook accounts targeting different demographics and sharing seemingly contradictory messages, as well as on TikTok.

The opposition leader, Peter Dutton, personally thanked the leaders of both Advance and Whitestone on the referendum night for their work during the campaign.

“The no campaign was led by Fair Australia’s Matt Sheahan and Steve Doyle and our volunteers, and I want to thank them sincerely,” Dutton said.

Advance captured headlines again in February after running a series of political attack ads against the Albanese government ahead of this Saturday’s Dunkley byelection.

The firebrand group received $5.2m in donations and other receipts over the 2022-23 financial year, according to Australian Electoral Commission data released in February. The figure marked a significant increase on the $2.5m it received in 2021-22.

Do you know more? Email abogle@protonmail.com or sbasfordcanales@protonmail.com

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Australia news: Sussan Ley stands by Dunkley byelection tweet that Jason Clare calls ‘grubby’; TGA moves to ban Ozempic copies

The prime minister, Anthony Albanese, is at Jubilee stadium with his candidate for the Dunkley byelection, Jodie Belyea.

Surrounded by Labor supporters, Belyea is up first:

We are at Jubilee Park Stadium, a place that Peta [Murphy] championed and delivered on. This is an incredible facility. Peta was a strong, wise and confident woman that represented our community. She delivered for Dunkley, and I asked the people of Dunkley to vote for me, because I too will deliver for Dunkley. I will be a strong, local, confident representative for the people of this great community.

More than 100 Palestinians die in chaos surrounding Gaza aid convoy

112 dead after Israeli troops opened fire near aid trucks, say Gaza officials

Israeli military denies shooting into large crowds of hungry people and says most were killed in crush or run over trying to escape

More than a hundred Palestinians were killed in the early hours of Thursday morning, Gaza health officials said, when desperate crowds gathered round aid trucks and Israeli troops opened fire, in an incident that the US president, Joe Biden, warned was likely to complicate ceasefire talks.

There were starkly different accounts of how the victims died in the chaos that took place near Gaza City in the north of the strip. Israel’s military denied shooting into large crowds of hungry people and said most were killed in a crush or run over by trucks trying to escape. Soldiers only fired at a small group that moved away from the trucks and threatened a checkpoint, a spokesperson said.

Witnesses and survivors described bullets hitting crowds around the aid trucks, and Mohammed Salha, acting director of the al-Awda hospital, which treated 161 casualties, said most appeared to have been shot.

Gaza health officials said at least 112 people were killed and 280 injured after Israeli forces opened fire on an aid distribution point. The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, said it was an “ugly massacre conducted by the Israeli occupation army on people who waited for aid trucks at the Nabulsi roundabout”.

Biden said the US was trying to determine what happened and that the loss of life would complicate efforts to broker a deal to stop fighting and release Israeli hostages, before the holy month of Ramadan, which starts on 10 March.

Hamas said the incident could jeopardise talks in Qatar. The group would not allow talks “to be a cover for the enemy to continue its crimes”, it said.

The death toll from Israeli attacks on Gaza has now passed 30,000. With more than 70,000 others injured, and thousands more uncounted victims buried under the rubble of collapsed buildings, nearly one in 20 of the prewar population of Gaza are now casualties of attacks.

The US defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, said earlier on Thursday that more than 25,000 women and children had been killed by Israel since 7 October 2023, adding that Israel could and should do more to protect civilians.

The survivors are stalked by hunger, with “pockets of starvation” reported particularly in the north, and widespread malnutrition that has already killed some children. There are also severe shortages of medical supplies, clean water and shelter.

The desperation of crowds who died trying to reach the food aid underlined the extent of shortages in the north around Gaza City. UN officials have described a blockade within a blockade, with additional Israeli controls that make it even harder to get supplies into northern Gaza than the south.

One injured survivor, Kamel Abu Nahel, said he went to the aid distribution point in the middle of the night because he hoped for food supplies, after two months of eating animal feed.

After trucks arrived and a crowd gathered, Israeli soldiers opened fire, so people scattered to seek shelter but returned once the gunfire stopped, he told the AP news agency. However the troops opened fire again, and Abu Nahel was shot in the leg then run over by a truck that was speeding away.

There were so many wounded that some were taken to hospitals in donkey carts; videos shared on social media appeared to show medics walking beside one piled with victims. Hospital corridors were crowded with survivors and relatives.

The Israeli military spokesperson Lt Col Peter Lerner said most casualties were caused by a crush around some trucks in the convoy after they first passed the Israeli military checkpoint into northern Gaza.

Later, crowds chasing the final truck in the convoy turned and moved back towards the checkpoint, he said, prompting troops to fire warning shots, and then lethal rounds in self-defence. The Israeli military released footage of crowds round the trucks which it said showed the lethal crush but not the shooting incident.

Lerner declined to say how much time elapsed between the crush and the shooting, or estimate casualties in either, saying only he did not believe the Palestinian toll.

It was not clear who had supplied the trucks of food. The UN agency for Palestine, Unrwa, has not sent an aid convoy to northern Gaza since 5 February, when its trucks were attacked by the Israeli navy even though the delivery had been approved for transit. Lerner said he did not know who sent the aid.

There are thought to be about 300,000 people still living in northern Gaza, months after Israel ordered all civilians to leave.

Some were not able to travel, others feared they would not find a place to stay in the crammed shelters of the south, felt that with strikes all over Gaza they preferred to take their chances at home, or worried Israeli forces would not allow them to return if they headed south.

The deaths prompted fresh international demands for a ceasefire. The UN’s undersecretary for humanitarian affairs, Martin Griffiths, said: “Life is draining out of Gaza at terrifying speed.”

Italy’s foreign minister, Antonio Tajani, said: “The tragic deaths in Gaza demand an immediate ceasefire to facilitate more humanitarian aid, the release of hostages and the protection of civilians.”

In the region, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan accused Israel of targeting civilians, and separately called for more aid to reach Gaza and greater international pressure on Israel to reach a ceasefire deal.

In February barely 100 trucks a day of aid had reached Gaza, just half the amount that got through in January, Philippe Lazzarini, the head of Unrwa, told journalists on a visit to Jerusalem.

And it is just a trickle compared with the 500 trucks that went in daily with food and medical aid before the war started in October. Then Gaza had a functioning economy, agriculture sector and commercial imports, with many people feeding themselves.

After Hamas’s 7 October attack on Israel, which killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and in which more than 200 people were kidnapped and taken to Gaza, Israel tightened a years-long blockade to halt entry of most food, water and medical supplies to Gaza. It says the controls on supplies are vital to its war on Hamas, and efforts to recover hostages.

With much of Gaza in ruins and the majority of its population displaced from their homes, almost everyone now relies on aid. Lazzarini described the restrictions as a siege that had brought the strip to the brink of an unprecedented human-made famine.

“What’s extraordinary in this conflict is the man-made widespread hunger and even looming starvation and famine in some pockets,” he said. “The type of situation or siege being imposed on the Gaza Strip since October 7 has led to a situation not seen anywhere else in the world.

“Within four or five months, suddenly we talk about a famine, which is absolutely easy to reverse because to reverse it depends only and exclusively on the proper political will.”

There have been airdrops of food aid in recent days into parts of Gaza. But while these could work well for specialised medical equipment and other needs, Lazzarini said, they were an “extraordinarily expensive” way to deliver food that could not be scaled up to address the levels of hunger in Gaza.

Israel says that it does not impose limits on aid shipments into Gaza, and blames the logistical failures of UN agencies and humanitarian organisations for failing to process and distribute enough aid.

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What we knowAt least 112 Palestinians killed near aid trucks

Explainer

What we know about the killing of over 100 Palestinians near aid trucks

At least 112 people were killed on Thursday but Israeli military denies shooting into large crowds of hungry people

What is the death toll?

At least 112 people were killed, according to the Palestinian health authorities, with 280 injured.

Where did it happen?

On the coastal road on the south-west edge of Gaza City, where an aid convoy was moving towards the city centre. The site is in northern Gaza where food deliveries have been rare. The first deliveries in over a month arrived this week, with NGO aid escorted by Israeli forces.

What do we know about the circumstances?

The Associated Press and AFP quoted witnesses saying that Israeli troops opened fire on a crowd of hungry Palestinians pulling boxes of flour and canned food off aid trucks, scattering the crowd. When the shooting stopped, he said the Gazans returned to the trucks and the soldiers opened fire again, wounding him his leg, which was subsequently run over by a vehicle. According to the local hospital management, most of the injuries were bullet wounds. A hospital worker said there were not enough ambulances for the casualties, and some were brought to hospital on donkey carts.

What do the Palestinians authorities say happened?

The Palestinians say that Israeli forces carried out a massacre, opening fire on a crowd of people who had gathered in the hope that food would be distributed.

What do the Israeli authorities say happened?

The Israeli version of events changed over the course of the day. The first account given by the Israeli military was that the victims had died in a stampede in which people had been “killed and injured from pushing, trampling and being run over by the trucks”. Later Israeli military officials briefed the Guardian and other news outlets to say that their forces had only opened fire on a crowd that threatened them after the aid convoy had moved on. Israeli officials also questioned the death toll from Palestinian authorities.

What does the UN say?

A spokesman for António Guterres said the secretary general was “appalled by the tragic human toll of the conflict” in Gaza and called for an investigation of the incident on Thursday. “We don’t know exactly what happened but whether people were shot and died as a result of Israeli gunfire, whether they were crushed by a crowd, whether they were run over by truck. These are all acts of violence, in a sense, due to this conflict,” said Stéphane Dujarric.

What has been the consequences and international reaction?

Hamas has suggested that the killing could lead them to suspended talks on a release of their hostages. Joe Biden admitted that any hostage deal would probably not happen by Monday as he had earlier predicted. He said there were two competing versions of what happened and he did not yet have an accurate account. The state department has said it is pressing Israel for information. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan accused Israel of targeting civilians.

The UN security council was due to meet in closed session on Thursday afternoon to discuss the killings. The Guterres “condemned” the killings, according to his spokesman, but did not give further details.

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Video reportScores of Palestinians killed and 280 wounded while waiting for aid in Gaza City

Health authorities in Gaza have said the IDF fired on people waiting for aid near Gaza City, with 112 Palestinians so far reported dead and 280 wounded. Israel’s military denied shooting into large crowds and said most were killed in a crush or run over by trucks trying to escape. The US president, Joe Biden, has said he is reviewing reports and warned it is clear the incident will complicate talks on a ceasefire. Agencies have warned that, because of forced relocation and the lack of access to aid, much of the population of Gaza is suffering from food deprivation

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Australia v New Zealand: first Test, day two

91st over: Australia 294-9 (Green 110, Hazlewood 6) Overcast skies today in Wellington but Southee can’t yet find any movement in the murk. There’s still plenty of bounce in this pitch and Green paddles a cut shot for a single from the fourth. Curious tactics from the Australians this morning. You’d think they’d be swinging lustily for fast runs to expose the New Zealand top-order early in the day. Scratch that, reverse it as Hazlewood plays a cross-bat swat down the ground for four. Nice shot from The Hoff!

Australia v New Zealand: first Test, day two

91st over: Australia 294-9 (Green 110, Hazlewood 6) Overcast skies today in Wellington but Southee can’t yet find any movement in the murk. There’s still plenty of bounce in this pitch and Green paddles a cut shot for a single from the fourth. Curious tactics from the Australians this morning. You’d think they’d be swinging lustily for fast runs to expose the New Zealand top-order early in the day. Scratch that, reverse it as Hazlewood plays a cross-bat swat down the ground for four. Nice shot from The Hoff!

Trump economist plots rightwing overhaul of US treasury

Revealed: ‘extremist’ Trump economist plots rightwing overhaul of US treasury

Stephen Moore, who withdrew from Fed consideration after sexist remarks were uncovered, co-author of radical Project 2025 effort

Stephen Moore, a conservative economist whose controversial remarks about women cost him a seat on the Federal Reserve board in 2019, is now co-author of a plan to radically reform the US treasury as part of Project 2025, a vast rightwing effort to advance radical policy proposals for Donald Trump’s possible White House return.

“Project 2025 is all about forcing a far-right agenda on to everyday Americans,” said Tony Carrk, the executive director of the progressive watchdog Accountable.US, which produced an extensive report on Moore’s views and positions.

“So it’s no wonder they tapped a notorious social security opponent like Stephen Moore to help write their policy schemes.”

Moore, Carrk said, had “dedicated his career to slashing social security benefits and taxes for billionaires”.

Like other welfare programmes such as Medicare, social security is a longstanding target of the US right but also something of a third rail for politicians of either party, given public support. Recognising such support, Trump has pledged to “always protect social security” should he return to power. His last opponent for the Republican presidential nomination, the former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, says she wants to reform it.

Joe Biden has said he “will not cut a single social security or Medicare benefit”.

Moore remains loyal to Trump but in the past has advocated for privatising social security, which he has called a “Ponzi scheme”, and told students they should march on the Capitol and burn their social security cards.

Responding to Carrk, Moore said by email: “Actually I favor higher social security benefits with personal accounts. That would give seniors benefits that would net three to five times higher.”

Moore advocates mandatory 401k accounts, in place of social security.

He added: “Yes, I am strongly in favor of cutting tax rates to make [the] American economy No 1.”

By its own description, Project 2025 is the work of “a broad coalition of over 70 conservative organisations”, brought together by the Heritage Foundation and aiming to shape the presidential transition should a Republican win election this year.

In the words of Paul Dans, its director, Project 2025 aims to prepare “a new army, aligned, trained, and essentially weaponised conservatives ready to do battle against the deep state”.

According to a conspiracy theory championed by Trump’s ally and adviser Steve Bannon – though Bannon reportedly said the “deep-state conspiracy theory is for nutcases” – the deep state consists of bureaucrats, government functionaries and intelligence operatives, all working to thwart Trump’s agenda.

Legal sources and sources close to the presidential transition have said extreme actions proposed under Project 2025 are unlikely to happen swiftly, should Trump or another Republican take office, given existing guardrails in and around the federal bureaucracy.

Nonetheless, as other chapters recommend rolling back LGBTQ+ rights or dismantling climate policy, so the chapter co-authored by Moore says a Trump treasury should eliminate policies attributed to Biden including the “racist ‘equity’ agenda” and the “economically destructive and ineffective climate-related financial-risk agenda”.

Moore’s co-authors are William L Walton, a private equity investor, and David R Burton, an economic policy expert. The three authors identify social security as a program relevant to treasury reform, including it in “issues of concern” that “cut across multiple parts of treasury or other governmental agencies”.

Elsewhere, Jonathan Berry, who was chief counsel to the Trump transition in 2016-17 and led the regulatory section of the Department of Labor in the Trump administration, notes the potential for privatisation of social security, writing: “Existing statutory language in the Social Security Act does not prohibit non-public organisations from administering the programme.”

In his statement, Carrk also accused Moore of “belittling women and people of color”.

In May 2019, Moore withdrew from consideration for a seat at the Fed. Amid intense media scrutiny, the Guardian reported tax and legal issues affecting Moore including underpaying alimony to his ex-wife. Columns written by Moore also came under scrutiny, unearthed sexist remarks including complaints about women in sports and asking whether there was anywhere in life “men can take a vacation from women”. Moore also wrote that Black families were replacing men with “a welfare check” and that increased earnings for Black women would make Black men “financially expendable”.

Withdrawing from consideration for the Fed, Moore said that the “unrelenting attacks on my character have become untenable for me and my family” but told Trump he would “continue to be a loud economic voice advocating your policies” and would “always [be] at your disposal”.

Moore went on to advise Trump during the Covid pandemic. Now, as well as writing books and providing analysis for Fox News, he is attached to a range of rightwing groups – he is a Heritage Foundation fellow; the senior economist at FreedomWorks; and chair of the Committee to Unleash Prosperity (CUP).

Moore co-founded CUP in 2015 with the billionaire Steve Forbes, the economist Larry Kudlow (later Trump’s chief economic adviser) and Arthur Laffer, an economist and pundit who advised Ronald Reagan and Trump and to whom Trump gave the presidential medal of freedom.

The Accountable.US report details donations of at least $1.77m to CUP from DonorsTrust, a rightwing group not required to reveal the names of its donors.

“A principled philanthropic partner for conservative and libertarian donors” in its own words, but “the right’s dark-money ATM” in the words of Mother Jones magazine, DonorsTrust has links to the Koch network and Leonard Leo, two dominant figures in rightwing political funding.

Carrk said: “With extremists like Moore calling the shots, Project 2025 may not have any credibility, but unfortunately they have limitless resources from the dark-money Leonard Leo network to undermine the health and retirement security of millions of Americans.”

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New Zealand online seller vows to ignore Australia’s new import ban

‘No intention of stopping’: New Zealand online vape seller vows to ignore Australia’s new import ban

Health department rejects seller’s taunt ‘new rules don’t apply to us’ and points to ‘escalated enforcement action as appropriate’

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A New Zealand online vape seller is taunting the Albanese government over its vaping reforms, telling customers “we have no intention of stopping” vape shipments because of “one twat in Canberra”, presumably in reference to the federal health minister, Mark Butler.

From Friday, importation of vapes to Australia is banned unless an importer has a licence and permit. Prescription vape importers and manufacturers also need to notify the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) of their product’s compliance with standards.

A notice to Australian customers posted on the website www.vapoureyes.co.nz, which does not have a permit, states: “If you don’t get your order in before the deadline, understand this: we have no intention of stopping just because [of] one twat in Canberra.

“Even once the March 1 deadline passes, we will continue shipping orders world-wide, including to Australia.”

The seller claims that “after getting solid legal advice, it’s clear that Australia’s new rules don’t apply to us here in New Zealand”.

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“If the Australian Border Force (ABF) want to waste their time attempting to stop you from staying off the darts instead of trying to catch heroin, cocaine, ice, and the dozens of other hard drugs pouring through the Australian border … Good luck to them.”

But a Department of Health spokesperson said the importation prohibition applies regardless of the country of origin.

“This includes New Zealand,” they said.

“The ABF and TGA are working closely together to stop illegal vapes from entering the country and are taking escalated enforcement action as appropriate, such as issuing infringement notices or taking court action.

“The TGA is also taking action against websites based overseas that are advertising to Australians.”

Butler told Guardian Australia that while some vaping and tobacco companies would try “every trick in the book to get around our world-leading vaping reforms”, the TGA had since 1 January seized more than 360,000 vapes, worth almost $11m. This is about three times as many than were seized in 2023, he said.

“I’ve wanted to be really honest with people that we’re not going to be able to stop every single vape coming into the country, in the same way we’re not stopping every bit of cocaine or other illicit drug,” Butler said.

“But what we’re dealing with here is a situation where these things have been flooding in and being sold to kids through vape stores – nine out of 10 which have been established within walking distance of schools. That’s no accident, they’re doing that because that is their target market. So, what we’ve really got to do is just choke off that supply.”

The government will introduce legislation in coming weeks to prevent domestic manufacture, advertisement, supply and commercial possession of non-therapeutic and disposable single-use vapes. If passed, this would see bricks and mortar vape stores shut down.

Prof Becky Freeman, a tobacco control expert at the University of Sydney, said Australia should be prepared for similar responses from other sellers.

She added that vape sellers seemed to change their messaging to suit their agenda.

“They, on one hand, like to continuously remind us how they follow the letter of the law, that they’re responsible, that they intend to do the right thing and on the side of good helping people to quit – and then they don’t respect the laws of the countries that they want to sell their products in.”

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Court orders maker of spyware to hand over code to WhatsApp

Court orders maker of Pegasus spyware to hand over code to WhatsApp

Israeli company NSO Group is accused in lawsuit by Meta’s messaging app of spying on 1,400 users over a two-week period

NSO Group, the maker of one the world’s most sophisticated cyber weapons, has been ordered by a US court to hand its code for Pegasus and other spyware products to WhatsApp as part of the company’s ongoing litigation.

The decision by Judge Phyllis Hamilton is a major legal victory for WhatsApp, the Meta-owned communication app which has been embroiled in a lawsuit against NSO since 2019, when it alleged that the Israeli company’s spyware had been used against 1,400 WhatsApp users over a two-week period.

NSO’s Pegasus code, and code for other surveillance products it sells, is seen as a closely and highly sought state secret. NSO is closely regulated by the Israeli ministry of defense, which must review and approve the sale of all licences to foreign governments.

In reaching her decision, Hamilton considered a plea by NSO to excuse it of all its discovery obligations in the case due to “various US and Israeli restrictions”.

Ultimately, however, she sided with WhatsApp in ordering the company to produce “all relevant spyware” for a period of one year before and after the two weeks in which WhatsApp users were allegedly attacked: from 29 April 2018 to 10 May 2020. NSO must also give WhatsApp information “concerning the full functionality of the relevant spyware”.

Hamilton did, however, decide in NSO’s favor on a different matter: the company will not be forced at this time to divulge the names of its clients or information regarding its server architecture.

“The recent court ruling is an important milestone in our long running goal of protecting WhatsApp users against unlawful attacks. Spyware companies and other malicious actors need to understand they can be caught and will not be able to ignore the law,” a WhatsApp spokesperson said.

NSO declined to comment on the decision. The litigation is continuing.

When it is successfully deployed against a target, NSO’s Pegasus software can hack any mobile phone, gaining unrestricted access to phone calls, emails, photographs, location information and encrypted messages without a user’s knowledge. NSO was blacklisted by the Biden administration in 2021 after it determined the Israeli spyware maker has acted “contrary to the foreign policy and national security interests of the US”.

NSO sells its spyware to government clients around the world and has said that the agencies who deploy it are responsible for how it is used. While NSO does not disclose the names of its clients, research and media reports over the years have identified Poland, Saudi Arabia, Rwanda, India, Hungary and the United Arab Emirates as among the countries that have previously used the technology to target dissidents, journalists, human rights activists and other members of civil society.

NSO has argued that Pegasus helps law enforcement and intelligence agencies fight crime and protect national security and that its technology is intended to help catch terrorists, child abusers and hardened criminals.

The Biden administration has raised alarms about the proliferation and abuse of products like Pegasus, saying they represent a potential threat to US national security and counterintelligence efforts. A new policy unveiled in early February will impose global visa restrictions on individuals who have been involved in the misuse of commercial spyware, including countries in the EU and Israel.

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Court orders maker of spyware to hand over code to WhatsApp

Court orders maker of Pegasus spyware to hand over code to WhatsApp

Israeli company NSO Group is accused in lawsuit by Meta’s messaging app of spying on 1,400 users over a two-week period

NSO Group, the maker of one the world’s most sophisticated cyber weapons, has been ordered by a US court to hand its code for Pegasus and other spyware products to WhatsApp as part of the company’s ongoing litigation.

The decision by Judge Phyllis Hamilton is a major legal victory for WhatsApp, the Meta-owned communication app which has been embroiled in a lawsuit against NSO since 2019, when it alleged that the Israeli company’s spyware had been used against 1,400 WhatsApp users over a two-week period.

NSO’s Pegasus code, and code for other surveillance products it sells, is seen as a closely and highly sought state secret. NSO is closely regulated by the Israeli ministry of defense, which must review and approve the sale of all licences to foreign governments.

In reaching her decision, Hamilton considered a plea by NSO to excuse it of all its discovery obligations in the case due to “various US and Israeli restrictions”.

Ultimately, however, she sided with WhatsApp in ordering the company to produce “all relevant spyware” for a period of one year before and after the two weeks in which WhatsApp users were allegedly attacked: from 29 April 2018 to 10 May 2020. NSO must also give WhatsApp information “concerning the full functionality of the relevant spyware”.

Hamilton did, however, decide in NSO’s favor on a different matter: the company will not be forced at this time to divulge the names of its clients or information regarding its server architecture.

“The recent court ruling is an important milestone in our long running goal of protecting WhatsApp users against unlawful attacks. Spyware companies and other malicious actors need to understand they can be caught and will not be able to ignore the law,” a WhatsApp spokesperson said.

NSO declined to comment on the decision. The litigation is continuing.

When it is successfully deployed against a target, NSO’s Pegasus software can hack any mobile phone, gaining unrestricted access to phone calls, emails, photographs, location information and encrypted messages without a user’s knowledge. NSO was blacklisted by the Biden administration in 2021 after it determined the Israeli spyware maker has acted “contrary to the foreign policy and national security interests of the US”.

NSO sells its spyware to government clients around the world and has said that the agencies who deploy it are responsible for how it is used. While NSO does not disclose the names of its clients, research and media reports over the years have identified Poland, Saudi Arabia, Rwanda, India, Hungary and the United Arab Emirates as among the countries that have previously used the technology to target dissidents, journalists, human rights activists and other members of civil society.

NSO has argued that Pegasus helps law enforcement and intelligence agencies fight crime and protect national security and that its technology is intended to help catch terrorists, child abusers and hardened criminals.

The Biden administration has raised alarms about the proliferation and abuse of products like Pegasus, saying they represent a potential threat to US national security and counterintelligence efforts. A new policy unveiled in early February will impose global visa restrictions on individuals who have been involved in the misuse of commercial spyware, including countries in the EU and Israel.

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Send troops and risk provoking nuclear war, Putin tells Nato

Sending troops to Ukraine would risk provoking nuclear war, Putin tells Nato

Russian president threatens ‘tragic’ consequences for war interventionists during state of the nation speech

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Vladimir Putin has told Nato countries that they risk provoking a nuclear war if they send troops to fight in Ukraine, in an annual state of the nation speech ramping up his threats against Europe and the US.

In a reference to Emmanuel Macron’s comments earlier this week in which he opened the door to sending European ground troops to Ukraine, the Russian president said it would lead to “tragic” consequences for the nations who decided to do that.

“There has been talk about the possibility of sending Nato military contingents to Ukraine,” Putin said in his combative two-hour address on Thursday.

“[Western nations] must understand that we also have weapons that can hit targets on their territory. All this really threatens a conflict with the use of nuclear weapons and the destruction of civilisation. Don’t they get that? We remember the fate of those who once sent their contingents to the territory of our country. Now the consequences for possible interventionists will be much more tragic.”

Putin described western warnings that Russia might attack Europe as “nonsense” but spoke of a potential nuclear conflict if the west tried an “intervention” in Russia.

“They think this is some kind of game. They are blinded by their own superiority complex,” he said.

The French president’s comments earlier this week in which he refused to rule out sending troops to Ukraine prompted other western countries, including Germany and the UK, to say they had no such plans, though on Thursday the Estonian prime minister, Kaja Kallas, appeared to back Macron, saying leaders should discuss all options to help Ukraine.

Russia was ready to hold dialogue with the US on arms control, Putin said, but said the country’s nuclear forces were fully ready for use.

The Russian president, who was speaking just a few weeks before an election in which he is widely expected to win another six-year term in power, gave a rosy assessment of the war that has entered its third year, saying that Russian troops had “the initiative” and were “liberating new territories”.

His comments are backed by recent Russian successes on the battlefield as delays in US and EU military aid to Ukraine have already forced its troops to scale back some military operations, further lifting the mood in Moscow.

After capturing the strategic north-eastern Ukrainian town of Avdiivka earlier this month, Russian troops have seized three more villages in the past few days, indicating a growing momentum in their advance.

Putin appeared to repeat his hardline stance that demanded Ukraine’s unconditional surrender after Kyiv’s lacklustre counteroffensive this summer and delays in critical US military aid to Ukraine brought on by partisan infighting in Washington DC.

He called for the “denazification of Ukraine”, and said Russia would do “everything to achieve all our aims”.

Putin spent a considerable portion of the address discussing Russia’s population decline and the threat it poses to the country.

Russia suffered two decades of gradual population decline after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a problem exacerbated by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, during which tens of thousands of Russian service personnel have been killed on the battlefield.

Putin proposed a series of financial measures to support large families while also criticising “western values” for destroying “family ties”.

This year’s state-of-the-nation speech was shown live in cinemas and public venues across the country, in an effort to boost Putin’s message before the presidential elections.

Allies of the late opposition leader Alexei Navalny said Russian authorities had intervened to stop them from holding his funeral on Thursday, as they worried it would overshadow Putin’s speech.

Putin is yet to comment on the death of his most formidable opponent.

Navalny’s supporters are expected to gather on Friday in Moscow for his funeral amid uncertainty whether police will arrest those who have come to say goodbye.

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Productivity drops 3.7% as employment surges and investment slows

Australian workers’ productivity drops 3.7% as employment surges and investment slows

Wage growth from higher employment and hours worked without output gains could fan inflation, Productivity Commission warns

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A surge in employment combined with scant investment by firms to improve output triggered a sharp drop in worker productivity, limiting prospects for income growth without fanning inflation, the Productivity Commission said in its annual report.

Across the economy, productivity fell 3.7% in 2022-23, as output growth failed to keep pace with a record 6.9% increase in hours worked, the commission said. A rush by employers to hire new staff was much higher than in previous bursts – the nearest comparison was the 4.3% rise in hours worked in 1988-89.

“Australians’ incomes grew in 2022-23, mostly because they worked more hours,” said the commission’s deputy chair, Alex Robson. “But productivity growth is about working smarter, not working harder or longer.”

With labour market participation hovering near its record 67%, the economy has little scope to generate higher incomes by adding workers or time on the job, he said.

“What’s worse, we know nominal wage growth without productivity growth can fuel inflation,” Robson said. “Sustainable, long-term wage growth can only be realised by securing productivity gains.”

Employers, though, were also not doing their bit. The capital-to-labour ratio, one measure of spending on equipment to improve output, fell by a record 4.9% for the year.

“So while a record number of Australians had jobs, employers didn’t invest in the equipment, tools and resources that are needed to make the most of employees’ skills and talents,” Robson said. “Further capital investment would help turn our strong employment growth into strong productivity growth.”

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The Reserve Bank has been one of the economic institutions to warn wage increases had to be accompanied by increased productivity to avoid adding to inflation pressures and delaying any interest rate cuts.

In its latest statement on monetary policy, released at its first board meeting of 2024, the RBA listed productivity outcomes as among “still highly uncertain” outcomes in its forecast for how fast inflation may fall back to its 2%-3% target range.

“Other things equal, poor productivity outcomes would underpin higher-than-expected costs for businesses and put upward pressure on the prices paid by consumers,” it said.

Wages rose 4.2% last year, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, or slightly faster than the 4.1% inflation rate. That was the first time in about two years that the wage price index had exceeded its consumer price equivalent.

Still, economists have been wary about reading too much into recent poor productivity results. One issue has been the lingering effects of the Covid pandemic disruptions, with many people spending more time working from home.

And, as the Productivity Commission itself notes, the decline in hourly output per worker was partly the result of some of the extra hours worked being taken up by “less experienced or less productive labour”. Many of those jobs were also in “relatively low‑productivity sectors” such as retailing and hospitality, the report said.

With the unemployment rate now creeping up to 4.1% in January from a half-century low of 3.4% in October 2022, output per hour was also beginning to improve.

“The decline in labour productivity appears to have halted in the first quarter of the 2023-24 financial year, although this is largely attributable to a fall in hours worked,” the bulletin said.

By industry, labour productivity grew most in the professional, scientific and technical services sector, with a 3% increase. The wholesale trade industry posted the largest fall, at 11.4%, as hours worked jumped 15.7%.

All up, 11 out of the 16 market sector industries reported a decline.

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US air national guardsman expected to plead guilty

Jack Teixeira expected to plead guilty in leaked Pentagon documents case

Air national guard member was arrested in April over charges of leaking highly classified military documents on social media

Jack Teixeira, the Massachusetts air national guard member accused of leaking highly classified military documents on a social media platform, is expected to plead guilty in his federal case, according to court papers filed Thursday.

Prosecutors asked the judge to schedule a change of plea hearing for Monday, but no other details were immediately available. Teixeira had previously pleaded not guilty.

The Massachusetts US attorney’s office declined further comment. An attorney for Teixeira didn’t immediately return a phone message Thursday.

Teixeira, of North Dighton, Massachusetts, has been behind bars since his April arrest for a leak that left the Biden administration scrambling to assess and contain the damage among the international community and reassure allies that its secrets are safe with the US.

Teixeira was indicted on six counts of willful retention and transmission of national defense information.

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Talkshow host announces she is stepping down from WeightWatchers

Oprah Winfrey announces she is stepping down from WeightWatchers

Talkshow host says she will donate all her shares ‘to eliminate any perceived conflict around her taking weight-loss medications’

Oprah Winfrey announced she was leaving WeightWatchers on Thursday and giving away all her stock – a move that follows the TV talk queen revealing that her recent dramatic weight loss was due to taking new weight-loss drugs.

A statement from Winfrey issued by the company said that the talkshow host, a public face for WeightWatchers since 2015, would donate all her shares in the company to the National Museum of African American History and Culture “to eliminate any perceived conflict of interest around her taking weight-loss medications”.

According to the company’s financial statements, Winfrey’s stake in the company was valued at more than $18m. The company said that Winfrey, 70, will still continue to work with WeightWatchers as an advocate for weight health and obesity issues by “elevating the conversation around recognizing obesity as a chronic condition, working to reduce stigma, and advocating for health equity”.

An apparent conflict between WeightWatchers, which promotes a non-medical, points-based approach to food intake, and the talkshow host came in December when she told People magazine that she integrated GLP-1 drugs, brands that include Novo Nordisk’s Wegovy and Eli Lilly’s Zepbound, into her existing “holistic approach” of “regular exercise and other lifestyle tweaks”.

Winfrey said she was “absolutely done with the shaming from other people, and myself”, adding that she had “released my own shame” about using a prescription weight-loss drug.

She said her weight fluctuations had “occupied five decades of space in my brain, yo-yoing and feeling like, why can’t I just conquer this thing, believing willpower was my failing”. “It was public sport to make fun of me for 25 years,” Winfrey added. “I have been blamed and shamed, and I blamed and shamed myself.”

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has said that weight loss drugs, which disrupt the stomach’s hunger signals to the brain, should be prescribed only in combination with, not as a replacement for, diet and exercise programs.

WeightWatchers, founded in Queens, New York, in 1963 has already made moves into the clinical space of the $142bn weight-management industry.

Last March it announced the acquisition of Sequence, a company that, it says, “pairs clinically-proven medications with access to board-certified clinicians, registered dietitians, fitness coaches, and a care coordinator” to achieve customers’ weight loss.

According to the FDA, 39% of Americans are obese, and another 31% overweight and 8% are severely obese. “In general, rates of obesity are higher for Black and Hispanic women, for Hispanic men, in the South and Midwest, in nonmetropolitan counties, and tend to increase with age,” the administration says.

According to JP Morgan, the market for GLP-1 drugs, which can cost $1,000 a month, will exceed $100bn by 2030. Total GLP-1 users in the US may number 30 million by 2030 – or about 9% of the overall population.

“The increasing appetite for obesity drugs will have myriad implications, boosting sectors such as biotech and creating headwinds for industries such as food and beverage,” the bank’s report said.

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