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What’s driving the multi-million dollar black market in infant formula milk?

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black market in infant formula milk

Given the choice, the vast majority of new parents in China will opt to give their babies infant formula milk made outside of their country. In fact, data from research firm Euromonitor last year showed that eight out of the top 10 baby formula brands sold in China were made by foreign companies. While the ongoing popularity of baby milk products made overseas among Chinese consumers is partly the result of Beijing removing hundreds domestic brands from sale early last year, many new parents remain sceptical as to the safety of locally-made alternatives in the wake of a baby powder scandal over a decade ago in which contaminated formula caused the deaths of six infants and poisoned as many as 300,000.

It was later discovered that the products in question contained hazardous amounts of the toxic industrial chemical melamine, which is used routinely in the production of glue, laminates and fire retardants. Tests carried out on infant formula linked to the poisonings showed that it contained 500 times the maximum permitted level of melamine, raising serious questions about the regulation of and checks on domestic baby powder producers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this left Chinese parents keen to avoid locally-made formula milk that they assumed did not have to go through the types of rigorous safety checks products made elsewhere have to undergo.

Concerns have also been raised elsewhere in Asia about the safety of infant formula milk supply chains. At the end of 2017, Malaysian police seized hundreds of boxes of suspected counterfeit infant milk formula that investigators said had been produced and sold on an industrial scale by organised criminals. Local government officials and infant formula manufacturers were said to have suspected for months that counterfeit milk that could have posed a threat to the health and safety of babies may have been on sale in a number of retail outlets in the state of Johor, but failed to take any real action until news of the police raids was reported by both local and international media.

These and similar food safety and pollution scares across the region are a major driver of the popularity of mostly Western brands of baby formula among new parents, who are driving a demand that is increasingly feeding a growing black market in smuggled infant milk. The appetite for infant formula made in the West is now so high among consumers in countries such as China that organised criminal gangs operating at various levels of sophistication have for some time been conspiring to ship the product illegally out of countries including Australia, the US and Britain.

Only last week, Australian investigators broke up a family-run gang that prosecutors in the country accuse of stealing infant formula milk from shops and supermarkets before shipping it illegally to China. While police said they had collected evidence that suggested the syndicate had trafficked stolen formula milk estimated to be worth some A$1 million (£718.000) over the course of the past 12 months alone, they said it is likely that the gang had been active for a number of years. A probe that led to the discovery of the group’s activities was launched in February 2018 when police noticed that retailers across Sydney were reporting an unusually high number of baby formula milk thefts. In April 2017, Chinese customs officials announced that they had disrupted a sophisticated operation run by “highly-educated intellectuals” that involved baby milk and other health supplements worth hundreds of millions of dollars being smuggled illegally from the US to China.

The seemingly insatiable demand for Western-manufactured baby formula in China has also resulted in less sophisticated smuggling attempts that have caused shortages of infant milk in both the UK and Australia. Back in April 2013, British retailers were forced to ration sales of infant formula over fears that consumers were bulk buying it from supermarkets before shipping it overseas. In a statement issued at the time, French food giant Danone, which is a major manufacturer of infant formula, said: “We understand that the increased demand is being fuelled by unofficial exports to China to satisfy the needs of parents who want Western brands for their babies.”

One businessman told Sky News that he was exporting baby milk worth £5,000 ($6,582) from the UK to China that he bought from British supermarkets every week, and was doubling his money every time he did so.  A similar situation arose in Australia last year, suggesting that the black market in what most would assume to be a run-of-the-mill everyday product is continuing to thrive, in spite of the fact that China’s baby milk poisoning scandal took place more than a decade ago.

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Why organised criminal gangs are actively grooming teenagers to become the next generation of cyber hackers

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next generation of cyber hackers

More than two years have passed since Europol warned in its 2017 Serious and Organised Crime Threat Assessment that traditional organised crime networks had belatedly gone digital. It was noted at the time that these groups were increasingly turning to Crime-as-a-Service (CaaS) offers, which were being sold on the dark web by people with the technical skills required to make this happen. Fast forward 24 months, and it would appear that gang bosses may be becoming tired of having to rely on the CaaS business model whenever they need access to individuals with hacking skills. Last week, senior British police officers warned that organised crime gangs are now actively recruiting their own hackers, and are targeting teenage gamers on the autistic spectrum as part of their efforts to do so. Quoting research that suggests more than 80% of cyber criminals have a background in gaming, the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) launched a campaign intended to turn teenagers away from cyber crime, and encourage them to use their hacking skills for good. But noble as the initiative appears, it is unlikely to reverse a trend that is making teenage hackers the new elite of the organised criminal underworld.

It is not difficult to see why crime gangs are eager to secure the services of a new generation of young hackers. A slew of recent cases have demonstrated just how much money can be made from their skills, somewhat contacting a 2017 National Crime Agency (NCA) report that claimed young cyber criminals were more interested in the notoriety their activities garnered than any financial reward.

Earlier this month, 24-year-old Zain Qaiser was handed a six-year sentence by a British court after being found guilty of using malware to blackmail visitors to pornography websites. Between 2012 and 2014, the former computer science student is thought to have helped an organised criminal gang from Russia make millions of pounds by infecting adverts on legal adult websites with ransomware that demanded payments of up to $1,000 from victims. Prosecutors said Qaiser was personally paid more than £700,000 ($910,370) for his part in the scam, which he is said to have spent on prostitutes, luxury hotels, gambling and a Rolex watch. The NCA, which is often referred to as the UK’s equivalent of the FBI, described it as the most serious case of cyber crime it has investigated to date.

Just days later, an unemployed university drop-out from the city of Liverpool in the UK was sentenced to more than five years behind bars after being convicted of running the Silk Road 2.0 dark web illicit marketplace. Thomas White, 24, had helped run the original Silk Road until it was closed down by FBI investigators in 2013. Just one month after it was taken offline, White launched Silk Road 2.0, which like its predecessor was used by vendors to offer illicit items including drugs, weapons, cyber crime tools and stolen credit card details. While it is unknown how much money White personally made from creating the site, investigators estimated that it was used to sell illegal items worth $96 million, on which the former accounting student would take a commission of up 5%. White should consider himself lucky he is not in the position of Ross Ulbricht, the creator of the original Silk Road website, who was jailed for life with no chance of parole in 2015.

At the beginning of this year, police in Germany arrested a 19-year-old man in connection with a hacking incident that resulted in the personal details of politicians and celebrities being published on Twitter. In what was described as the largest such leak in the country’s history, documents including letters sent and received by German Chancellor Angela Merkel were dumped online in December of last year. The teenager, identified only as Jan S in line with Germany’s privacy laws, said that while he had been in contact with the hacker who leaked the documents, he played no part in obtaining them. Last August, a 16-year-old boy from Australia who said he dreamed of working for Apple pleaded guilty to hacking into the iPhone maker’s network and downloading 90 gigabytes of internal files. He was later spared jail when he was sentenced last September at the Australian Children’s Court, despite the offences of which he had been accused carrying a jail term of up to three years.

Prior to the invention of the internet, those who found themselves operating in the world of serious and organised crime did so largely as a consequence of their environment and the people around them. Now, hackers with the requisite skillset can carry out cyber crime activities involving huge amounts of money from their parents’ basement, without ever having to personally interact with their associates. While British police efforts to dissuade young people vulnerable to being groomed into becoming the next generation of cyber criminals are laudable, it is likely that many will find the money and notoriety on offer to major hackers more attractive than the prospect of working for the other side.

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Banning begging would help human trafficking victims as well as the genuinely destitute

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banning begging will help human trafficking gang victims

A considerable number of experts on homelessness and poverty now agree that there are far better ways of helping vulnerable individuals who find themselves on the street than giving them money. Accepting the fact that any cash handed over in such circumstances will in all likelihood be spent on alcohol or drugs, professionals who work with the homeless and people who beg in city and town centres often advise that donating to charities that support vulnerable individuals is a far more productive way in which to help. Many people choose to ignore this advice, and generously hand over their hard-earned money to beggars with the very best of intentions, in many cases oblivious to the fact that their kindness could very well be doing more harm than good. Aside from supporting substance abuse and alcoholism among the destitute, those who do choose to give money directly to beggars could also be contributing to the profits of organised crime networks, and prolonging the suffering of modern slaves who are forced onto the streets to pose as being homeless in order to elicit sympathy from passers-by.

The large sums of money that can be made by beggars in many western nations has led to a rise in the phenomenon of forced begging, which involves organised criminal gangs compelling victims of human trafficking to assume the guise of homeless people and ask members of the public for cash handouts. In many cases, those who find themselves forced to work as bogus beggars are persuaded to leave a life of poverty in their home countries with the promise of well-paid work in wealthier locations. In a tactic used widely by traffickers who exploit people for the purposes of prostitution and other forms of forced labour, victims then find they have been lied to when they arrive in the country in which they had been promised work.

They are typically made to live in appalling conditions, are vulnerable to both physical and sexual abuse, and compelled to hand over all the money they make while begging to their traffickers. In Western Europe, those who end up working as forced beggars are typically drawn from poorer countries in the east of the continent. In the US, those forced into organised begging often have an unstable immigration status, or are American citizens who have physical or learning disabilities, according to US anti-slavery charity Polaris.

In October of last year, police in Spain dismantled a trafficking network that shipped disabled Romanians to the city of Santiago de Compostela and forced them to beg and act as human statutes in the street. The gang’s victims were convinced to leave their home country on the promise of receiving legitimate catering work, but once they arrived in Spain, were housed in appalling conditions and forced to beg on their knees regardless of the weather. If victims fell ill due to the horrifying circumstances in which they found themselves, members of the gang would beat them violently if they were unable to work.

The UK has become a major focus for organised begging gangs, partly on account of regular news reports claiming that beggars in major cities such as London can make many hundreds of pounds a day. Last month, a judge in Northern Ireland pledged to come down hard on any organised beggars who appeared before him in court, noting how gangs had been flying cells of bogus beggars into the province every six weeks. Jailing a woman from Bucharest for two months for stealing a bottle of vodka, Judge Barney McElholm made the pledge at Londonderry Magistrates Court, arguing that people such as the defendant were doing a great disservice to those who are genuinely homeless.

Members of a large Romanian organised begging gang were reported to have left Norway in April 2017 after a documentary screened by state broadcaster NRK exposed its members’ activities. Female members of the network were seen to spend their days begging on the streets of the southwestern city of Bergen, before working as prostitutes and stealing credit cards at night. Much of the proceeds of the gang’s illicit activities would then be sent back to Romania, news of which prompted Prime Minister Erna Solberg to urge Norwegians to consider whether it was a good idea to give money to people claiming to be homeless.

Norway has attracted criticism over recent years for daring to consider whether it might be desirable to ban begging, with those opposed to the idea labelling the wealthy country as “mean” for even making such as suggestion. But with more people coming round to the idea that handing over money to genuinely homeless people might be counterproductive, and evidence suggesting that many beggars on the street might not be what they seem, outlawing the practice of asking members of the pubic for money in the street might be the only way of protecting the vulnerable.

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Tech giants have lost the chance to self-regulate after repeatedly failing to tackle harmful content

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social media giants have lost the chance to self-regulate

Nobody can say they were not warned. After years of big tech firms being told they must take concrete steps to prevent their platforms being used for the distribution and hosting of harmful content such as child abuse material and extremist propaganda, it appears governments around the globe have finally lost patience with their abject failure to do so. The livestreaming on Facebook of last month’s Christchurch terrorist atrocity in New Zealand seems to have been the straw that finally broke the camel’s back. In the aftermath of the deadly attack, during which gunman Brenton Tarrant used the social network to broadcast real-time footage of himself killing 50 Muslims at two mosques in the city, lawmakers in a number of countries have moved to make good on their threats of regulating online spaces.

For their part, owners of social media companies appear to have recently sensed the writing is on the wall, with a number seemingly accepting that greater regulation of their platforms has now become all but inevitable. In a move that some have framed as being more about deflecting blame for his company’s inability to police harmful content than anything else, Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg last month used an opinion piece for the Washington Post to tell readers that governments and regulators have a “more active role” to play in holding tech firms to account when it comes to removing potentially harmful material. Echoing Zuckerberg’s thoughts just days later in an interview with Bloomberg, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey called for improved government oversight of social media networks, telling reporter Jon Erlichman: “It’s the job of regulators to ensure protection of the individual and a level playing field.” Back in January, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff told CNBC that the threat posed by Facebook, Google and Twitter should be treated as a public health issue, arguing they should be regulated in much the same way as tobacco and sugar.

And so it has come to pass. Less than a month after events in Christchurch, the UK government this week published plans to set up a new online regulator that could have the power to issue substantial fines to social media firms that fail to remove harmful content in a timely manner. The new watchdog may also be able to hold social media executives personally accountable for any such incidents, and would be charged with ensuring that these companies fulfil their duty of care to users. Launching the Online Harms White Paper on Monday, British Home Secretary Sajid Javid said: “[W]e cannot allow the leaders of some of the tech companies to simply look the other way and deny their share of responsibility even as content on their platforms incites criminality abuse and even murder.” The UK government will now consult on the contents of the White Paper until 1 July.

Lawmakers in Australia have moved even more swiftly, last week rushing through new legalisation that could see managers of social media firms jailed if their platforms are used for the livestreaming of real-life violent content. Under the new rules, social media managers could face three years behind bars and a large fine. It is looking increasingly likely that authorities in New Zeeland might introduce similar legalisation, with the country’s Privacy Commissioner John Edwards this week tweeting: “[Platforms such as Facebook] allow the livestreaming of suicides, rapes, and murders, continue to host and publish the mosque attack video, allow advertisers to target ‘Jew haters’ and other hateful market segments, and refuse to accept any responsibility for any content or harm.” Even in the US, where First Amendment rights to freedom of speech make it more difficult to regulate the dissemination of some online content, representatives from Facebook and Google this week appeared before a congressional hearing on white nationalism and hate speech on social media platforms.

While some commentators have welcomed the fact that the so-called “online Wild West” may finally be coming to an end, there are serious concerns that the type of legislation currently being considered in the UK could have grave implications when it comes to freedom of speech, not least on account of the fact that it appears future governments might be able to change the definition of what can and cannot be published online. Worries have also been raised that increased regulation could be bad for competition, with only the wealthiest of social media companies having deep enough pockets to cover the cost of operating within the confines of complicated new rules.

So, having profited massively from a decades-long period during which they were able to repeatedly dodge calls for responsible self-regulation, it has now become expedient for tech giants such as Facebook, Twitter and Google to capitulate to these demands, ushering in a new era that could see both competition and free speech stifled on account of their past greed and failure to act responsibly.

 

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