Markets Disrupted as Italy’s Populists Negotiate Cabinet

Italy’s prime minister-designate, Giuseppe Conte, a political novice and obscure law professor accused of padding his resume, put the finishing touches to his cabinet lineup Friday. And initial reaction from financial markets was far from approving.

Italian government bond prices slumped and the country’s ailing banks saw their stock prices hit an 11-month low. Italy’s outgoing economy minister, Pier Carlo Padoan, warned the incoming coalition government of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) and far-right League not to underestimate the power of the markets.

“The most worrying aspect of the program, which this government is working on, is its underestimation of the consequences of certain choices,” Padoan told the Il Sole 24 Ore newspaper.

M5S and the League unveiled their government agreement a week ago, after more than 70 days of tortuous talks, following the country’s inconclusive parliamentary elections in March. The polls saw establishment parties trounced.

The coalition partners’ program includes massive tax cuts favoring the rich — a League demand — additional spending on welfare for the poor, and job-seekers and a roll-back of pension reforms that helped Italy weather the multi-year-long eurozone debt crisis which bankrupted Greece.

Investors — domestic and foreign — are expressing alarm about what the next few months may hold for an Italy governed by unlikely political partners. Fears include a public sector spending spree that will put Rome not only on a collision course with the European Union over budget rules. It also will weaken the already perilous state finances of Italy, the third largest economy in Europe and the second most indebted.

Some financial analysts say investors are becoming wary about European equities in general, fearing political and economic unpredictability in Italy could trigger contagion, prompting a new eurozone crisis. European markets were on track Friday to record collectively their first weekly decline since March — and investors last week withdrew the most money in nearly two years from western European funds.

“Investors should take caution as far as European equities go,” Boris Schlossberg, managing director of FX Strategy at BK Asset Management, told CNBC’s cable TV show Trading Nation this week.

Immigration

EU officials in Brussels and Italy’s half-a-million migrants are as anxious as investors. They are bracing for confrontations with the incoming populist government, whose two halves agree about very little, except when it comes to euro-skepticism and disapproval of migrants. M5S itself is split sharply between liberals and conservatives.

Earlier this week Italian President Sergio Mattarella approved Giuseppe Conte, aged 54, as the coalition’s nominee for prime minister — despite evidence that the academic had padded his resume with stints at New York University, Girton College, Cambridge and France’s prestigious Sorbonne. None of them had any record of his official attendance, although he was granted a visitor’s library card by NYU.

Conte also claimed in his resume to have founded a prominent Italian law practice, but was only an external contributor, according to the firm.

A figurehead?

Few here in Rome believe Conte, who was born in the southern region of Puglia, will be anything but a figurehead. The mutually antagonistic party leaders, M5S’ Luigi Di Maio and the League’s Matteo Salvini, weren’t prepared to give way to each other and let the other have the job — hence Conte’s nomination, which still has to be approved by parliament.

The Economist magazine suggested he might end up as the fictional valet Truffaldino, a character in an 18th century Italian comedy entitled “Servant of Two Masters.” Whether he will be able to bridge disagreements between Di Maio and Salvini is unclear — and a testimony to that, say analysts, is the party leaders’ decision to set up a “conciliation committee” to adjudicate disputes.

“Nobody knows what will happen, because this is a government without precedent and the two parties are virtually incompatible,” said Sergio Fabbrini, director of the LUISS School of Government in Rome.

Economy

The parties were locked in dispute Friday with no agreement about who should occupy the key position of economy minister. The League has been pushing for 82-year-old economist Paolo Savona, a former industry minister who wants Italy to drop the euro as its currency, which he describes as “a German cage.” Savona opposed Italy signing in 1992 the Maastricht Treaty, a key document that started the process of closer EU political integration.

Even if the League fails in its bid to secure the economic portfolio for Savona, there are plenty of likely policy clashes ahead between the EU and Western Europe’s first all-populist government, despite the fact the League is no longer demanding Italy drop Europe’s single currency and M5S is no longer pushing for a referendum on Italy’s future EU membership.

Both party leaders now talk about reforming the EU from within.

Trouble ahead

Nonetheless, flashpoints are on the near horizon. Salvini, a hardline migrant opponent, is likely to become interior minister and will oversee the coalition’s agreed to anti-immigration plans, many of which are in violation of EU law. They include truncating asylum procedures, the forcible detention of irregular migrants and the repatriation of half-million migrants, most from sub-Saharan Africa, to their countries of origin.

Next month, EU leaders are due to extend the European bloc’s sanctions on Russia, but Italy’s coalition partners are opposed, viewing Moscow as a partner, rather than foe. Both M5S and the League want the sanctions lifted that were imposed on Russia for its 2014 annexation of Crimea.

Some analysts predict the new government’s slim majority — only seven in the Senate — as well as fiscal realities, will constrain the revolutionary fervor of Italy’s populists. But others envision instability and unpredictability in the weeks and months ahead.

On Friday, the European Commission’s vice-president for the euro, Valdis Dombrovskis, issued a stark warning to Italy: “Our message from the European Commission is very clear: that it is important Italy continues to stick with responsible fiscal and macro-economic policies.”

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FBI: Foreign Hackers Have Compromised Home Router Devices

The FBI warned on Friday that foreign cybercriminals had compromised “hundreds of thousands” of home and small-office router devices around the world which direct traffic on the internet by forwarding data packets between computer networks.

In a public service announcement, the FBI has discovered that the foreign cybercriminals used a VPNFilter malware that can collect peoples’ information, exploit their devices and block network traffic.

The announcement did not provide any details about where the criminals might be based, or what their motivations could be.

“The size and scope of the infrastructure by VPNFilter malware is significant,” the FBI said, adding that it is capable of rendering people’s routers “inoperable.”

It said the malware is hard to detect, due to encryption and other tactics.

The FBI urged people to reboot their devices to temporarily disrupt the malware and help identify infected devices.

People should also consider disabling remote management settings, changing passwords to replace them with more secure ones, and upgrading to the latest firmware.

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Discharged and Jobless: US Veterans Seek Change in Hiring Rules

Military veterans who were discharged for relatively minor offenses say they often can’t get jobs, and they hope a recent warning to employers by the state of Connecticut will change that.

The state’s human rights commission told employers last month they could be breaking the law if they discriminate against veterans with some types of less-than-honorable discharges. Blanket policies against hiring such veterans could be discriminatory, the commission said, because the military has issued them disproportionately to black, Latino, gay and disabled veterans.

At least one other state, Illinois, already prohibits hiring discrimination based on a veteran’s discharge status, advocates say, but Connecticut appears to be the first to base its decision on what it deems discrimination by the military. Regardless of the state’s reasons, veterans say, the attention there could at least educate employers.

“You may as well be a felon when you’re looking for a job,” said Iraq War veteran Kristofer Goldsmith. Goldsmith said the Army gave him a general discharge in 2007 because he attempted suicide.

An honorable discharge is the only type that entails full benefits. A dishonorable discharge is given after a court-martial for serious offenses, which can include felonies. Other types of discharges in between — known by veterans as “bad paper” — are issued administratively, with no court case, and can stem from behavior including talking back, tardiness, drug use or fighting.

The commission says its guidance focused on that middle class of discharges.

Sometimes such discharges are given to veterans whose violations stemmed from post-traumatic stress disorder, like Goldsmith’s, or brain injuries. Many private employers may not be aware of those extenuating circumstances or understand the differences between discharges, critics say.

And they either won’t hire bad-paper veterans or won’t give them preferences an honorably discharged veteran would get, the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School told the Connecticut commission.

The clinic, acting on behalf of the Connecticut chapter of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, showed the commission job postings that require applicants who have served in the military to have been honorably discharged.

It also cited a 2017 report by the advocacy organization Protect Our Defenders that found black service members were more likely to be disciplined than white members. And the commission’s guidance to employers notes thousands of service members have been discharged for their sexual orientation.

Employers might require an honorable discharge as an easy way to narrow the pool and get strong applicants, said Amanda Ljubicic, vice president of the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut.

“At face value it seems like a simple, logical cutoff to make as an employer,” she said. “Certainly this new policy forces employers to think about it differently and to think about the complexities.”

The Vietnam Veterans of America asked for a presidential pardon for bad-paper veterans. President Barack Obama didn’t respond as he was leaving office, nor did President Donald Trump as he was entering, said John Rowan, the organization’s president. He was unsure whether activists would ask Trump again.

PTSD

More than 13,000 service members received a type of discharge for misconduct, known as other than honorable, between 2011 and 2015, despite being diagnosed with PTSD, a traumatic brain injury or another condition associated with misconduct, the U.S. Government Accountability Office found.

The Department of Veterans Affairs, under an order from Congress, expanded emergency mental health coverage to those veterans for the first time last year.

Passing new laws to address the effects of bad paper is probably not the best solution, said U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat who pushed for the changes; rather, he said, the military should stop issuing bad-paper discharges to injured veterans.

Goldsmith, 32, said he developed PTSD after his first deployment to Iraq. He was set to leave the military and go to college when the Army extended his active-duty service and ordered him back in 2007. Goldsmith said he attempted suicide shortly before he was due to deploy.

Because of his general discharge, Goldsmith lost his GI Bill benefits. He didn’t know how he’d find a job. If he didn’t mention his military service, he would have a four-year gap on his resume. But if he did, he would have to disclose medical information to explain why he left.

A friend eventually hired him to work at a photo-booth company, and Goldsmith began contacting members of Congress to press for health care for veterans with bad paper.

“Things like addressing employment discrimination on the national level are so far from possible,” he said, “I don’t think any of us in the advocacy community has put enough pressure on Congress to handle it.”

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Broadcom’s Tan, CBS’s Moonves Among Highest-Paid CEOs

Here are the highest-paid CEOs for 2017, as calculated by The Associated Press and Equilar, an executive data firm.

The AP’s compensation study covered 339 executives at S&P 500 companies who have served at least two full consecutive fiscal years at their respective companies, which filed proxy statements between January 1 and April 30.

Compensation often includes stock and option grants that the CEO may not receive for years unless certain performance measures are met. For some companies, big raises occur when CEOs get a stock grant in one year as part of a multi-year grant.

1. Hock Tan

Broadcom

$103.2 million

Change from last year: Up 318 percent

2. Leslie Moonves

CBS

$68.4 million

Change: flat

3. W. Nicholas Howley

TransDigm

$61 million

Change: Up 223 percent

(Howley left the CEO position last month.)

4. Jeffrey Bewkes

Time Warner

$49 million

Change: Up 50 percent

5. Stephen Kaufer

TripAdvisor

$43.2 million

 

Change: Up 3,400 percent

(Kaufer’s 2017 compensation excludes $4.8 million in incremental fair value relating to the modification of awards granted in 2013.)

6. David Zaslav

Discovery Communications

$42.2 million

Change: Up 14 percent

7. Robert Iger

Walt Disney

$36.3 million

Change: Down 11 percent

8. Stephen Wynn

Wynn Resorts

$34.5 million

Change: Up 23 percent

(Wynn left the CEO position in February.)

9. Brenton Saunders

Allergan

$32.8 million

Change: Up 693 percent

10. Brian Roberts

Comcast

$32.5 million

Change: Down 1 percent

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Amazon’s Alexa Accidentally Tapes, Shares Family Chat With Contact

A Portland, Oregon, family has learned what happens when Amazon.com Inc’s popular voice assistant Alexa is lost in translation.

Amazon on Thursday described an “unlikely … string of events” that made Alexa send an audio recording of the family to one of their contacts randomly. The episode underscored how Alexa can misinterpret conversation as a wake-up call and command.

A local news outlet, KIRO 7, reported that a woman with Amazon devices across her home received a call two weeks ago from her husband’s employee, who said Alexa had recorded the family’s conversation about hardwood floors and sent it to him.

“I felt invaded,” the woman, only identified as Danielle, said in the report. “A total privacy invasion. Immediately I said, ‘I’m never plugging that device in again, because I can’t trust it.'”

Alexa, which comes with Echo speakers and other gadgets, starts recording after it hears its name or another “wake word” selected by users. This means that an utterance quite like Alexa, even from a TV commercial, can activate a device.

That’s what happened in the incident, Amazon said. “Subsequent conversation was heard as a ‘send message’ request,” the company said in a statement. “At which point,

Alexa said out loud ‘To whom?’ At which point, the background conversation was interpreted as a name in the customer’s contact list.”

Amazon added, “We are evaluating options to make this case even less likely.”

Assuring customers of Alexa’s security is crucial to Amazon, which has ambitions for Alexa to be ubiquitous — whether dimming the lights for customers or placing orders for them with the world’s largest online retailer.

University researchers from Berkeley and Georgetown found in a 2016 paper that sounds unintelligible to humans can set off voice assistants in general, which raised concerns of exploitation by attackers. Amazon did not immediately comment on the matter, but it previously told The New York Times that it has taken steps to keep its devices secure.

Millions of Amazon customers have shopped with Alexa. Customers bought tens of millions of Alexa devices last holiday season alone, the company has said. That makes the incident reported Thursday a rare one. But faulty hearing is not.

“Background noise from our television is making it think we said Alexa,” Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter said of his personal experience. “It happens all the time.”

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Jury: Samsung Owes Apple $539M for Copying iPhone

A jury has decided Samsung must pay Apple $539 million in damages for illegally copying some of the iPhone’s features to lure people into buying its competing products.

The verdict reached Thursday is the latest twist in a legal battle that began in 2011. Apple contends Samsung wouldn’t have emerged as the world’s leading seller of smartphones if it hadn’t ripped off the technology powering the pioneering iPhone in developing a line of similar devices running on Google’s Android software.

Patents infringed

Previous rulings had determined that Samsung infringed on some of Apple’s patents, but the amount of damages owed has been in legal limbo. Another jury convened for a 2012 trial had determined Samsung should pay Apple $1.05 billion, but U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh reduced that amount to $548 million.

The issue escalated to the U.S. Supreme Court , which determined in 2016 that a lower court needed to re-examine $399 million of the $548 million. That ruling was based on the concept that the damages shouldn’t be based on all the profits that the South Korean electronics giant rung up from products that copied the iPhone because its infringement may only have violated a few patents.

$1 billion or $28 million?

Apple had argued it was owed more than $1 billon while Samsung contended the $399 million should be slashed to $28 million. The revised damages figure represents a victory for Apple, even though it isn’t as much as the Cupertino, California, company had sought.

“Today’s decision flies in the face of a unanimous Supreme Court ruling in favor of Samsung on the scope of design patent damages,” Samsung said in a statement. “We will consider all options to obtain an outcome that does not hinder creativity and fair competition for all companies and consumers.”

An eight-person jury came up with the new amount following a one-week trial and four days of deliberation in a San Jose, California, federal courthouse.

Apple expressed gratitude to the jury for agreeing “that Samsung should pay for copying our products.”

“This case has always been about more than money,” a company statement said. “Apple ignited the smartphone revolution with iPhone and it is a fact that Samsung blatantly copied our design.”

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FBI Taps Private Industry to Bring Down Hacker Clearinghouse

When a federal jury in Alexandria, Virginia, convicted a Latvian software developer last week of running an underground clearinghouse for computer hackers, U.S. prosecutors highlighted it as an example of their commitment to combating cybercrime.

“This verdict demonstrates our commitment to holding such actors accountable,” said acting U.S. Attorney Tracey Doherty-McCormick. “I commend the work of the agents and prosecutors both in the United States and in Latvia, who worked together to bring him to justice.”

Not mentioned was the role played by Trend Micro, a Japanese cybersecurity firm that collaborated with the FBI to hunt down the developer, Ruslans Bondars, and an accomplice, Jurijs Martisevs, who jointly operated Scan4You, a site that helped hackers test their malware.

In a report released after the verdict, Trend Micro offered an inside look at how it identified Scan4You in 2012, took a trove of data about the site to the FBI in 2014, and then worked closely with agents as they built a case against the two men.

Trend Micro says it has supported nearly 20 law enforcement cases around the world.

“In this case, our global threat intelligence network and team of researchers provided an invaluable resource for the FBI as it homed in on this notorious [counter antivirus] service,” said Ed Cabrera, chief security officer for Trend Micro.

The case highlights how the FBI and private cybersecurity firms, once wary of working together, have in recent years started teaming up to combat cybercrime, a problem that costs the world an estimated $600 billion a year. 

“The value that the private sector brings to law enforcement investigations is almost incalculable,” said John Boles, a director at consulting firm Navigant who previously worked as an assistant FBI director and led the bureau’s global cyberoperations.

A decade ago “there was almost hesitation on both sides of the fence to cooperate, but somewhere along the line as the scales have tipped, everybody realized it’s a global issue,” Boles said.

In 2011, the FBI created the Office of the Private Sector within the Cyber Division, making private-sector collaboration a key pillar of its cybercrime-fighting strategy.

Since then, the bureau has made more than a dozen major arrests in cybercrime cases, many with help from the private sector, according to Boles. While cybercrime investigations are often initiated by the bureau, some start with a tip from the private sector.

Unusual activity

That was the case with the Scan4You investigation.

In 2012, Trend Micro researchers, while investigating a hacker group, noticed a flurry of unusual activity on their threat radar: Somebody using Latvia IP addresses kept checking the company’s web reputation system, a program that blocks malicious websites.

That led them to another discovery: regular checks of Scan4You URLs against Trend Micro’s web reputation system emanating from Latvia. The goal: to determine whether Scan4You’s scanning scripts could detect malware.

“By 2014, we had a deeper understanding [of Scan4You] and began that relationship with the FBI,” Cabrera said.

The collaboration would continue for the next three years as Trend Micro researchers and FBI agents gathered evidence about Scan4You, its operators and its users.

Scan4You was an underground service that allowed hackers to upload their malware to see whether it could be detected by more than 35 antivirus engines. At its peak in 2016, Scan4You was the largest service of its kind, boasting more than 30,000 customers.

The service allowed cyber scofflaws to test all manner of malicious software, ranging from so-called crypters, a type of software used to conceal malicious files, to remote access trojans, programs that allow a remote operator backdoor access to a computer.

‘World’s most destructive hackers’

Among Scan4You’s customers were “some of the world’s most destructive hackers,” according Doherty-McCormick, the Virginia prosecutor.

One customer used Scan4You to test malware that was later used to steal about 40 million credit card and debit card numbers, costing one U.S. retailer $292 million, according to court documents.

A Russian hacker used Scan4You to develop Citadel, an infamous botnet used by cybercriminals to steal $500 million from bank accounts. The FBI worked with Microsoft to break up the network.

But Scan4You was not a very lucrative operation. As researchers dug deeper, they discovered that Bondars and Martisevs were affiliated with “some of the longest-running cybercriminal businesses” and “involved with one of the largest and oldest pharmaceutical spam gangs known as Eva Pharmacy,” according to Trend Micro.

Bondars, a longtime Latvian resident of Ukrainian citizenship, designed and maintained the site.

Martisevs, a Russian national living in Latvia, provided customer service and promoted the site on cybercriminal forums.

The pair’s deep involvement in an assortment of criminal activities gave them something that helped with their scanning service: cyber-cred.

“These threat actors gained the respect of many other cybercriminals who trusted them and used their malware scanning service,” the report says.

The end for Scan4You came with the 2017 arrests and extradition of Bondars and Martisevs to the United States. Shortly after their arrest, Scan4You went dark.

In March, Martisevs pleaded guilty and agreed to testify against Bondars. Last week, Bondars was convicted of three counts related to his role in Scan4You.

Scan4You’s downfall has taken the biggest service of its kind out of commission, but just how big a blow to cybercrime it represents remains to be seen.

Typically, when a site like Scan4You goes offline, its users flee to copycat sites. That has yet to happen, Cabrera said.

“This is a big blow to cybercrime, helping to disrupt countless threat actors and prove there are consequences to their actions,” he said.

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