As Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin scrambled to save faltering markets at the start of the pandemic last year, America’s top economic officials were in near-constant contact with a Wall Street executive whose firm stood to benefit financially from the rescue.
Laurence D. Fink, the chief executive of BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, was in frequent touch with Mr. Mnuchin and Mr. Powell in the days before and after many of the Fed’s emergency rescue programs were announced in late March. Emails obtained by The New York Times through a records request, along with public releases, underscore the extent to which Mr. Fink planned alongside the government for parts of a financial rescue that his firm referred to in one message as “the project” that he and the Fed were “working on together.”
While some conversations were previously disclosed, the newly released emails, together with public calendar records, show the extent to which economic policymakers worked with a private company as they were drawing up a response to the financial meltdown and how intertwined BlackRock has become with the federal government.
60 recorded calls over the frantic Saturday and Sunday leading up to the Fed’s unveiling on Monday, March 23, of a policy package that included its first-ever program to buy corporate bonds, which were becoming nearly impossible to sell as investors sprinted to convert their holdings to cash. Mr. Mnuchin spoke to Mr. Fink five times that weekend, more than anyone other than the Fed chair, whom he spoke with nine times. Mr. Fink joined Mr. Mnuchin, Mr. Powell and Larry Kudlow, who was the White House National Economic Council director, for a brief call at 7:25 the evening before the Fed’s big announcement, based on Mr. Mnuchin’s calendars.
book on funds.
On March 24, 2020, the New York Fed announced that it had again hired BlackRock’s advisory arm, which operates separately from the company’s asset-management business but which Mr. Fink oversees, this time to carry out the Fed’s purchases of commercial mortgage-backed securities and corporate bonds.
BlackRock’s ability to directly profit from its regular contact with the government during rescue planning was limited. The firm signed a nondisclosure agreement with the New York Fed on March 22, restricting involved officials from sharing information about the coming programs.
were contracting and its business outlook hinged on what happened in certain markets.
While the Fed and Treasury consulted with many financial firms as they drew up their response — and practically all of Wall Street and much of Main Street benefited — no other company was as front and center.
Simply being in touch throughout the government’s planning was good for BlackRock, potentially burnishing its image over the longer run, Mr. Birdthistle said. BlackRock would have benefited through “tons of information, tons of secondary financial benefits,” he said.
Mr. Mnuchin could not be reached for comment. Asked whether top Fed officials discussed program details with Mr. Fink before his firm had signed the nondisclosure agreement, the Fed said Mr. Powell and Randal K. Quarles, a Fed vice chair who also appears in the emails, “have no recollection of discussing the terms of either facility with Mr. Fink.”
“Nor did they have any reason to do so because the Federal Reserve Bank of New York handled the process with great care and transparency,” the central bank added in its statement.
Brian Beades, a spokesman for BlackRock, highlighted that the firm had “stringent information barriers in place that ensure separation between BlackRock Financial Markets Advisory and the firm’s investment business.” He said it was “proud to have been in a position to assist the Federal Reserve in addressing the severe downturn in financial markets during the depths of the crisis.”
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The disclosed emails between Fed and BlackRock officials — 11 in all across March and early April — do not make clear whether the company knew about any of the Fed and Treasury programs’ designs or whether they were simply providing market information.
Fed chair’s official schedule from that March. Those calendars generally track scheduled events, and may have missed meetings in early 2020 when staff members were frantically working on the market rescue and the Fed was shifting to work from home, a central bank spokesman said.
Mr. Powell’s calendars did show that he talked to Mr. Fink in March, April and May, and he has previously answered questions about those discussions.
“I can’t recall exactly what those conversations were, but they would have been about what he is seeing in the markets and things like that, to generally exchanging information,” Mr. Powell said at a July news conference, adding that it wasn’t “very many” conversations. “He’s typically trying to make sure that we are getting good service from the company that he founded and leads.”
BlackRock’s connections to Washington are not new. It was a critical player in the 2008 crisis response, when the New York Fed retained the firm’s advisory arm to manage the mortgage assets of the insurance giant American International Group and Bear Stearns.
Several former BlackRock employees have been named to top roles in President Biden’s administration, including Brian Deese, who heads the White House National Economic Council, and Wally Adeyemo, who was Mr. Fink’s chief of staff and is now the No. 2 official at the Treasury.
in early 2009 to $7.4 trillion in 2019. By the end of last year, they were $8.7 trillion.
As it expanded, it has stepped up its lobbying. In 2004, BlackRock Inc. registered two lobbyists and spent less than $200,000 on its efforts. By 2019 it had 20 lobbyists and spent nearly $2.5 million, though that declined slightly last year, based on OpenSecrets data. Campaign contributions tied to the firm also jumped, touching $1.7 million in 2020 (80 percent to Democrats, 20 percent to Republicans) from next to nothing as recently as 2004.
short-term debt markets that came under intense stress as people and companies rushed to move all of their holdings into cash. And problems were brewing in the corporate debt market, including in exchange-traded funds, which track bundles of corporate debt and other assets but trade like stocks. Corporate bonds were difficult to trade and near impossible to issue in mid-March 2020. Prices on some high-grade corporate debt E.T.F.s, including one of BlackRock’s, were out of whack relative to the values of the underlying assets, which is unusual.
People could still pull their money from E.T.F.s, which both the industry and several outside academics have heralded as a sign of their resiliency. But investors would have had to take a financial hit to do so, relative to the quoted value of the underlying bonds. That could have bruised the product’s reputation in the eyes of some retail savers.
fund recovery was nearly instant.
When the New York Fed retained BlackRock’s advisory arm to make the purchases, it rapidly disclosed details of those contracts to the public. The firm did the program cheaply for the government, waiving fees for exchange-traded fund buying and rebating fees from its own iShares E.T.F.s back to the New York Fed.
The Fed has explained the decision to hire the advisory side of the house in terms of practicality.
“We hired BlackRock for their expertise in these markets,” Mr. Powell has since said in defense of the rapid move. “It was done very quickly due to the urgency and need for their expertise.”
KIBBUTZ NIR DAVID, Israel — A whimsical chain of inflatable rafts tethered together by a flimsy rope floated along the Asi, a gentle stream that runs for a mile through a sunbaked plain in northern Israel.
The boats were packed with residents of the area, their children and day trippers from farther afield, but this was no picnic, even though it was a holiday. The goal of this unarmed armada was nothing less than reclaiming the small river.
“This is a strategic takeover!” the leader of the ragtag crew, Nati Vaknin, shouted through a bullhorn as he waded ahead of the group.
The flotilla’s destination was a forbidden paradise: an exquisite, aquamarine stretch of the stream that runs through, and that has effectively been monopolized by, Kibbutz Nir David, a communal farm founded by early Zionist pioneers, Ashkenazi Jews from Europe who historically formed the core of the Israeli elite.
Free the Asi campaign, a group fighting for public access to a cherished beauty spot and against perceived privilege. On the other is a kibbutz eager to maintain its hard-earned assets and tranquil lifestyle. The dispute has landed in court, awaiting resolution; in late May, the state of Israel weighed in, backing the public’s right to access the stream through the kibbutz.
But underlying the battle are much greater tensions that extend across Israel.
The Asi dispute pits advantaged scions of the country’s socialist founders against a younger generation from a traditionally marginalized group. And it has resonated across Israel as a distillation of the identity politics and divisions that deepened under the long prime ministership of Benjamin Netanyahu.
Israel’s fourth in two years, 93.5 percent of the vote in Beit Shean, with a population of about 18,000, went to right-wing or religious parties mostly aligned with Mr. Netanyahu, then the prime minister. Three miles away in Nir David, a community of about 650 people, over 90 percent of the votes went to centrist or left-wing parties that belong to the new governing coalition that ousted him.
Free the Asi campaign has attracted a variety of supporters, including left-wing social justice advocates and environmentalists. But left-wing political parties have mostly stayed mum to avoid alienating the kibbutz movement, their traditional base of support.
Some on the right have enthusiastically taken up the cause, like Yair Netanyahu, the former prime minister’s elder son, who has called to liberate the Asi on Twitter. It was a lawmaker from Shas, the ultra-Orthodox, Mizrahi party, who brought the court case against the kibbutz.
“It’s worth it for them to fan the ethnic narrative,” said Lavi Meiri, the kibbutz’s chief administrator. “It gets them votes.”
Nir David denies any discrimination, asserting that 40 percent of its population is now Mizrahi.
To end the standoff, Nir David has backed developing a new leisure area outside the kibbutz or extending the Asi’s flow toward Beit Shean. But the Free the Asi leaders said that could set a precedent for the privatization of natural resources.
Perah Hadad, 36, a campaign leader from Beit Shean, said the relationship with Nir David had always been one of “us on the outside and them inside.”
Ms. Hadad, a political science student, argues that part of the kibbutz could be opened to the public with fixed hours and prohibitions on barbecues and loud music.
“After all,” she said, “there are not that many streams like this in Israel.”
The flotilla led by Mr. Vaknin took place on Mimouna, a North African Jewish holiday marking the end of Passover.
Mr. Vaknin, 30, an information systems analyst, had organized a noisy and festive demonstration that began outside the kibbutz gate, complete with a D.J. and piles of mufletot, Mimouna pancakes dripping with honey.
“Open your gates and open your hearts!” Mr. Vaknin shouted, inviting kibbutz residents to join the party.
An eclectic mix of about two dozen people turned up to protest.
While the kibbutz offers the most practical entry into the Asi, it is possible to reach the water where the stream meets the irrigation channel. But that way involves several hazards, including clambering down a steep incline off a busy road and the possibility that sharp rocks in this untamed part of the stream would tear a raft.
Despite those obstacles, the protesters moved from the kibbutz down the road to launch their flotilla from that unblocked spot and later disembarked near the kibbutz cemetery. Children swam and chased ducks as grim-faced security guards looked on, filming on their cellphones.
The wet interlopers then sauntered off into the heart of the kibbutz. Nobody stopped them, and they posed for victory photos on the manicured bank of the Asi.
TEHRAN — The line outside the Tehran polling station was short and sedate on Friday morning, nothing like the energized down-the-block crowd that usually turns out for presidential elections in Iran.
But when Abdolnaser Hemmati, the moderate in the race, showed up to vote, the sidewalk outside the polling station, set up at the Hosseinieh Ershad religious institute, suddenly crackled to life.
“Your views are useless for this country,” one heckler shouted at Mr. Hemmati, the former governor of Iran’s central bank, holding up his phone to immortalize the moment.
Ebrahim Raisi, Iran’s judiciary chief, who is close to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
death in a U.S. airstrike last year brought crowds of mourners onto the streets.)
“Despite all the shortages and shortcomings, we love our nation, and we will defend it to the last drop of blood,” said Marziyeh Gorji, 34, who works in a government office and said she had voted for Mr. Raisi because of his ties to revolutionary figures and his experience. “The people are upset, I understand that. But not voting is not the solution.”
She motioned to her 5-year-old twin sons, who wore buttons featuring General Suleimani’s face. “I will raise them to be like General Suleimani,” she said.
At Lorzadeh mosque in south Tehran, a poor and religiously conservative neighborhood, Muhammad Ehsani, 61, a retired government employee, said his ballot was an expression of faith in the ideals of the Islamic revolution that brought Iran’s current leadership to power.
Being a citizen was like riding a bus, he said. If things were not going well — as every voter agreed they were not — the problem was with the driver, not with the bus.
“What should we do?” he said. “It’s not logical to sit at home and not get on. It’s logical to get another company, another driver.”
Draped across the entrance of the mosque was a banner with a picture of General Suleimani next to the words, “The Islamic Republic is considered a shrine. Those who are voting are defending the shrine.”
The morning’s voting was marred by widespread reports of electronic voting systems malfunctioning and going offline from polling stations across Iran, according to Tasnim news agency, which is affiliated with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. As polls opened Friday morning, voters showed up to hear that they could not vote, and multiple polling stations had to delay their opening by more than an hour, Tasnim reported.
“This is an epidemic of ballot boxes malfunctioning now,” said Kian Abdollahi, Tasnim’s editor in chief, during a live election report on Clubhouse, the audio-only social media app. “This is unacceptable given concerns about low election turnout.”
Tehran’s governor confirmed that there were technical problems with electronic voting systems at 79 polling stations across the capital.
It was not immediately clear what had caused the problems.
Outside the Hosseinieh Ershad polling station, Shabna, 40, a government employee who works in information technology and also gave just one name, was alternately throwing her fist in the air as she chanted “I support Hemmati” and tugging her colorful head scarf, which was slipping amid all the excitement, back into place.
“We want to stop this engineered election,” she said, explaining that she believed Mr. Hemmati, as an economist, was best qualified to turn the economy around. A minute later, she was locked in an argument with a Hemmati critic.
But most voters interviewed on Friday did not seem to have such strong views about any particular candidate. They were there to vote because they always had, or because they believed in the system.
Efat Rahmati, 54, a nurse, said it was strange that the Iranian authorities had excluded so many candidates from the race, a fact that many Iranians said had paved the way for Mr. Raisi to win. But she had still decided to vote, partly out of a personal liking for Mr. Raisi, and partly because the authorities “have more knowledge than me about this issue,” she said. “I think Raisi was better than the rest anyway.”
Farnaz Fassihi contributed reporting from New York.
SAN ANTONIO HUISTA, Guatemala — An American contractor went to a small town in the Guatemalan mountains with an ambitious goal: to ignite the local economy, and hopefully even persuade people not to migrate north to the United States.
Half an hour into his meeting with coffee growers, the contractor excitedly revealed the tool he had brought to change their lives: a pamphlet inviting the farmers to download an app to check coffee prices and “be a part of modern agriculture.”
Pedro Aguilar, a coffee farmer who hadn’t asked for the training and didn’t see how it would keep anyone from heading for the border, looked confused. Eyeing the U.S. government logo on the pamphlet, he began waving it around, asking if anyone had a phone number to call the Americans “and tell them what our needs really are.”
soared in 2019 and is on the upswing once more.
have risen, malnutrition has become a national crisis, corruption is unbridled and the country is sending more unaccompanied children to the United States than anywhere else in the world.
That is the stark reality facing Ms. Harris as she assumes responsibility for expanding the same kind of aid programs that have struggled to stem migration in the past. It is a challenge that initially frustrated her top political aides, some of whom viewed the assignment from Mr. Biden as one that would inevitably set her up for failure in the first months of her tenure.
Her allies worried that she would be expected to solve the entire immigration crisis, irked that the early reports of her new duties appeared to hold her responsible for juggling the recent surge of children crossing the border without adults.
linked to drug traffickers and accused of embezzling American aid money, the leader of El Salvador has been denounced for trampling democratic norms and the government of Guatemala has been criticized for persecuting officials fighting corruption.
Even so, Ms. Harris and her advisers have warmed to the task, according to several people familiar with her thinking in the White House. They say it will give her a chance to dive squarely into foreign policy and prove that she can pass the commander-in-chief test, negotiating with world leaders on a global stage to confront one of America’s most intractable issues.
critics denounced as unlawful and inhumane. Moreover, members of the current administration contend that Mr. Trump’s decision to freeze a portion of the aid to the region in 2019 ended up blunting the impact of the work being done to improve conditions there.
But experts say the reasons that years of aid have not curbed migration run far deeper than that. In particular, they note that much of the money is handed over to American companies, which swallow a lot of it for salaries, expenses and profits, often before any services are delivered.
Record numbers of Central American children and families were crossing, fleeing gang violence and widespread hunger.
independent studies have found.
“All activities funded with U.S.A.I.D.’s foreign assistance benefit countries and people overseas, even if managed through agreements with U.S.-based organizations,” said Mileydi Guilarte, a deputy assistant administrator at U.S.A.I.D. working on Latin America funding.
But the government’s own assessments don’t always agree. After evaluating five years of aid spending in Central America, the Government Accountability Office rendered a blunt assessment in 2019: “Limited information is available about how U.S. assistance improved prosperity, governance, and security.”
One U.S.A.I.D. evaluation of programs intended to help Guatemalan farmers found that from 2006 to 2011, incomes rose less in the places that benefited from U.S. aid than in similar areas where there was no intervention.
Mexico has pushed for a more radical approach, urging the United States to give cash directly to Central Americans affected by two brutal hurricanes last year. But there’s also a clear possibility — that some may simply use the money to pay a smuggler for the trip across the border.
The farmers of San Antonio Huista say they know quite well what will keep their children from migrating. Right now, the vast majority of people here make their money by selling green, unprocessed coffee beans to a few giant Guatemalan companies. This is a fine way to put food on the table — assuming the weather cooperates — but it doesn’t offer much more than subsistence living.
Farmers here have long dreamed of escaping that cycle by roasting their own coffee and selling brown beans in bags to American businesses and consumers, which brings in more money.
“Instead of sending my brother, my father, my son to the United States, why not send my coffee there, and get paid in dollars?” said Esteban Lara, the leader of a local coffee cooperative.
But when they begged a U.S. government program for funding to help develop such a business, Ms. Monzón said, they were told “the money is not designed to be invested in projects like that.”
These days, groups of her neighbors are leaving for the United States every month or two. So many workers have abandoned this town that farmers are scrambling to find laborers to harvest their coffee.
One of Ms. Monzón’s oldest employees, Javier López Pérez, left with his 14-year-old son in 2019, during the last big wave of Central American migration to the United States. Mr. López said he was scaling the border wall with his son when he fell and broke his ankle.
“My son screamed, ‘Papi, no!’ and I said to him, ‘Keep going, my son,’” Mr. López said. He said his son made it to the United States, while he returned to San Antonio Huista alone.
His family was then kicked out of their home, which Mr. López had given as collateral to the person who smuggled him to the border. The house they moved into was destroyed by the two hurricanes that hit Guatemala late last year.
Ms. Monzón put Mr. López in one of her relatives’ houses, then got the community to cobble together money to pay for enough cinder blocks to build the family a place to live.
While mixing cement to bind the blocks together, one of Mr. López’s sons, Vidal, 19, confessed that he had been talking to a smuggler about making the same journey that felled his father, who was realistic at the prospect.
“I told him, ‘Son, we suffered hunger and thirst along the way, and then look at what happened to me, look at what I lost,’” Mr. López said, touching his still-mangled ankle. “But I can’t tell him what to do with his life — he’s a man now.”
MOSCOW — Just weeks before the ransomware gang known as DarkSide attacked the owner of a major American pipeline, disrupting gasoline and jet fuel deliveries up and down the East Coast of the United States, the group was turning the screws on a small, family-owned publisher based in the American Midwest.
Working with a hacker who went by the name of Woris, DarkSide launched a series of attacks meant to shut down the websites of the publisher, which works mainly with clients in primary school education, if it refused to meet a $1.75 million ransom demand. It even threatened to contact the company’s clients to falsely warn them that it had obtained information the gang said could be used by pedophiles to make fake identification cards that would allow them to enter schools.
Woris thought this last ploy was a particularly nice touch.
“I laughed to the depth of my soul about the leaked IDs possibly being used by pedophiles to enter the school,” he said in Russian in a secret chat with DarkSide obtained by The New York Times. “I didn’t think it would scare them that much.”
released a statement a week earlier saying it was shutting down. A customer support employee responded almost immediately to a chat request sent from Woris’s account by the Times reporter. But when the reporter identified himself as a journalist the account was immediately blocked.
Megyn Kelly pressed him in a 2018 interview on why Russia was not arresting hackers believed to have interfered in the American election, he shot back that there was nothing to arrest them for.
“If they did not break Russian law, there is nothing to prosecute them for in Russia,” Mr. Putin said. “You must finally realize that people in Russia live by Russian laws, not by American ones.”
After the Colonial attack, President Biden said that intelligence officials had evidence the hackers were from Russia, but that they had yet to find any links to the government.
“So far there is no evidence based on, from our intelligence people, that Russia is involved, though there is evidence that the actors, ransomware, is in Russia,” he said, adding that the Russian authorities “have some responsibility to deal with this.”
This month, DarkSide’s support staff scrambled to respond to parts of the system being shut down, which the group attributed, without evidence, to pressure from the United States. In a posting on May 8, the day after the Colonial attack became public, the DarkSide staff appeared to be hoping for some sympathy from their affiliates.
“There is now the option to leave a tip for Support under ‘payments,’” the posting said. “It’s optional, but Support would be happy :).”
Days after the F.B.I. publicly identified DarkSide as the culprit, Woris, who had yet to extract payment from the publishing company, reached out to customer service, apparently concerned.
“Hi, how’s it going,” he wrote. “They hit you hard.”
It was the last communication Woris had with DarkSide.
Days later, a message popped up on the dashboard saying the group was not exactly shutting down, as it had said it would, but selling its infrastructure so other hackers could carry on the lucrative ransomware business.
“The price is negotiable,” DarkSide wrote. “By fully launching an analogous partnership program it’s possible to make profits of $5 million a month.”
Sarah Cavey, a real estate agent in Denver, was thrilled last fall when Colorado introduced an app to warn people of possible coronavirus exposures.
Based on software from Apple and Google, the state’s smartphone app uses Bluetooth signals to detect users who come into close contact. If a user later tests positive, the person can anonymously notify other app users whom the person may have crossed paths with in restaurants, on trains or elsewhere.
Ms. Cavey immediately downloaded the app. But after testing positive for the virus in February, she was unable to get the special verification code she needed from the state to warn others, she said, even after calling Colorado’s health department three times.
“They advertise this app to make people feel good,” Ms. Cavey said, adding that she had since deleted the app, called CO Exposure Notifications, in frustration. “But it’s not really doing anything.”
announced last year that they were working together to create a smartphone-based system to help stem the virus, their collaboration seemed like a game changer. Human contact tracers were struggling to keep up with spiking virus caseloads, and the trillion-dollar rival companies — whose systems run 99 percent of the world’s smartphones — had the potential to quickly and automatically alert far more people.
Soon Austria, Switzerland and other nations introduced virus apps based on the Apple-Google software, as did some two dozen American states, including Alabama and Virginia. To date, the apps have been downloaded more than 90 million times, according to an analysis by Sensor Tower, an app research firm.
But some researchers say the companies’ product and policy choices limited the system’s usefulness, raising questions about the power of Big Tech to set global standards for public health tools.
Stephen Farrell and Doug Leith, computer science researchers at Trinity College in Dublin, wrote in a report in April on Ireland’s virus alert app.
CA Notify in December, about 65,000 people have used the system to alert other app users, the state said.
“Exposure notification technology has shown success,” said Dr. Christopher Longhurst, the chief information officer of UC San Diego Health, which manages California’s app. “Whether it’s hundreds of lives saved or dozens or a handful, if we save lives, that’s a big deal.”
In a joint statement, Apple and Google said: “We’re proud to collaborate with public health authorities and provide a resource — which many millions of people around the world have enabled — that has helped protect public health.”
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Based in part on ideas developed by Singapore and by academics, Apple and Google’s system incorporated privacy protections that gave health agencies an alternative to more invasive apps. Unlike virus-tracing apps that continuously track users’ whereabouts, the Apple and Google software relies on Bluetooth signals, which can estimate the distance between smartphones without needing to know people’s locations. And it uses rotating ID codes — not real names — to log app users who come into close contact for 15 minutes or more.
said last year in a video promoting the country’s alert system, called Corona-Warn-App.
But the apps never received the large-scale efficacy testing typically done before governments introduce public health interventions like vaccines. And the software’s privacy features — which prevent government agencies from identifying app users — have made it difficult for researchers to determine whether the notifications helped hinder virus transmission, said Michael T. Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.
“The apps played virtually no role at all in our being able to investigate outbreaks that occurred here,” Dr. Osterholm said.
Some limitations emerged even before the apps were released. For one thing, some researchers note, exposure notification software inherently excludes certain vulnerable populations, such as elderly people who cannot afford smartphones. For another thing, they say, the apps may send out false alarms because the system is not set up to incorporate mitigation factors like whether users are vaccinated, wearing masks or sitting outside.
Proximity detection in virus alert apps can also be inconsistent. Last year, a study on Google’s system for Android phones conducted on a light-rail tram in Dublin reported that the metal walls, flooring and ceilings distorted Bluetooth signal strength to such a degree that the chance of accurate proximity detection would be “similar to that of triggering notifications by randomly selecting” passengers.
Kimbley Craig, the mayor of Salinas, Calif. Last December, when virus rates there were spiking, she said, she downloaded the state’s exposure notification app on her Android phone and soon after tested positive for Covid-19. But after she entered the verification code, she said, the system failed to send an alert to her partner, whom she lives with and who had also downloaded the app.
“If it doesn’t pick up a person in the same household, I don’t know what to tell you,” Mayor Craig said.
In a statement, Steph Hannon, Google’s senior director of product management for exposure notifications, said that there were “known challenges with using Bluetooth technology to approximate the precise distance between devices” and that the company was continuously working to improve accuracy.
The companies’ policies have also influenced usage trends. In certain U.S. states, for instance, iPhone users can activate the exposure notifications with one click — by simply turning on a feature on their settings — but Android users must download a separate app. As a result, about 9.6 million iPhone users in California had turned on the notifications as of May 10, the state said, far outstripping the 900,000 app downloads on Android phones.
Google said it had built its system for states to work on the widest range of devices and be deployed as quickly as possible.
Some public health experts acknowledged that the exposure alert system was an experiment in which they, and the tech giants, were learning and incorporating improvements as they went along.
One issue they discovered early on: To hinder false alarms, states verify positive test results before a person can send out exposure notifications. But local labs can sometimes take days to send test results to health agencies, limiting the ability of app users to quickly alert others.
In Alabama, for instance, the state’s GuideSafe virus alert app has been downloaded about 250,000 times, according to Sensor Tower. But state health officials said they had been able to confirm the positive test results of only 1,300 app users. That is a much lower number than health officials would have expected, they said, given that more than 10 percent of Alabamians have tested positivefor the coronavirus.
“The app would be a lot more efficient if those processes were less manual and more automated,” said Dr. Scott Harris, who oversees the Alabama Department of Public Health.
Colorado, which automatically issues the verification codes to people who test positive, has reported higher usage rates. And in California, UC San Diego Health has set up a dedicated help line that app users can call if they did not receive their verification codes.
Dr. Longhurst, the medical center’s chief information officer, said the California app had proved useful as part of a larger statewide public health push that also involved mask-wearing and virus testing.
“It’s not a panacea,” he said. But “it can be an effective part of a pandemic response.”
LONDON — He suggested that a doctor inject him with the coronavirus live on television to play down the dangers to a nervous public. He modeled himself after the small-town mayor in the movie “Jaws,” who ignored warnings to close the beaches even though there was a marauding shark offshore. As the pandemic closed in on Britain, he was distracted by an unflattering story about his fiancée and her dog.
That was the portrait of Prime Minister Boris Johnson painted by his disaffected former chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, in parliamentary testimony on Wednesday. While Mr. Johnson flatly rejected several of the assertions in his own appearance in Parliament on Wednesday, they nevertheless landed with a thud in a country still struggling to understand how the early days of the pandemic were botched so badly.
“When the public needed us most, the government failed,” said Mr. Cummings, the political strategist who masterminded Britain’s campaign to leave the European Union and engineered Mr. Johnson’s rise to power before falling out bitterly with his boss and emerging as a self-styled whistle-blower.
a much-criticized road trip he made with his family that breached lockdown rules, saying he had fled London because of threats against his family. And he apologized for his failure to act sooner when he realized that Britain’s delay in imposing a lockdown last March was courting disaster.
“It’s true that I hit the panic button and said we’ve got to ditch the official plan,” Mr. Cummings said. “I think it’s a disaster that I acted too late. The fundamental reason was that I was really frightened of acting.”
testing 100,000 people a day. Mr. Cummings said he told Mr. Johnson to dismiss Mr. Hancock, as did the then-cabinet secretary, Mark Sedwill.
move patients from hospitals to nursing homes without testing them.
“Hancock told us that people were going to be tested before they went back to care homes, what the hell happened?” he said. “Quite the opposite of putting a shield round them, we sent people with Covid back to the care homes.”
A spokesman for Downing Street said on Wednesday that Mr. Johnson did not believe Mr. Hancock had lied to him.
reported by the BBC but denied by Downing Street.
Asked if Mr. Johnson was the right person to guide the country through the pandemic, Mr. Cummings responded simply: “No.”
This article was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center’s Rainforest Investigations Network.
RIO DE JANEIRO — Facing strong international condemnation over the destruction of the Amazon, President Jair Bolsonaro’s government came up with a strategy: It offered companies the chance to “adopt” a patch of rainforest.
But the plan — which invites companies to contribute money to help preserve the forest — has been marred by disorganization and met with skepticism by critics, who see it as an effort to “green wash” the Bolsonaro administration’s poor record on the environment.
It also hasn’t found many takers.
The program was announced in February, as the Biden administration made clear that it expected Brazil to reverse some of the forest loss and dismantling of environmental protections that marked Mr. Bolsonaro’s first two years in office.
the Adopt-a-Park program would accomplish two of the Bolsonaro administration’s goals: redeem Brazil’s tarnished environmental image, which industry leaders have feared could shut them out of international markets, and outsource the costs of conservation at a time of tightening budgets.
“Many of these companies, investment funds that signed letters demonstrating their concern about the Amazon,” said Ricardo Salles, the minister of the environment, “now have in Adopt a Park a concrete, very simple and efficient possibility of transforming their statements into action.”
The government offered 132 federal reserves in the Amazon for sponsorship. So far, only three foreign companies — the grocery chain Carrefour, Coca-Cola and Heineken — and five Brazilian corporations have enrolled. Their donations total just over $1 million — a tiny fraction of the $600 million that Mr. Salles aspires to raise.
Protected Areas of the Amazon program has raised tens of millions of dollars from governments and companies for protected areas in the Amazon.
Through the Adopt-a-Park program, sponsoring companies pay at least $9.5 per hectare of the reserve’s area per year. To sponsor the biggest park costs almost $35 million annually, while the smallest go for $23,000 a year.
Once sponsorship deals are finalized, companies donate goods and services — which could include vehicles or a fire brigade — to the Chico Mendes Institute office in each reserve.
July to share responsibility for protecting the Amazon with nongovernment actors. As protests over fires in the Amazon rainforest intensified, he challenged the actor Leonardo DiCaprio, one of the government’s most prominent critics, to sponsor a reserve.
“Are you going to put your money where your mouth is?” Mr. Salles wrote on Twitter in September.
Beyond proposing the park-adoption program before the climate change summit convened by the Biden administration last month, Brazil’s government seems to have done little to improve its environmental policies.
At the summit, Mr. Bolsonaro vowed to allocate more money to environmental protection agencies. But the very next day the government did the opposite, signing into law a budget that further slashed funding for the agencies.
And federal lawmakers are considering a bill that would make it easier for companies to get environmental permits for new farming, mining and infrastructure ventures.
“Is receiving donations as they are proposing going to compensate for all that?” asked Natalie Unterstell, a climate policy expert who has been tracking the program. “No. It’s a palliative measure.”
LONDON — Russia is increasingly pressuring Google, Twitter and Facebook to fall in line with Kremlin internet crackdown orders or risk restrictions inside the country, as more governments around the world challenge the companies’ principles on online freedom.
Russia’s internet regulator, Roskomnadzor, recently ramped up its demands for the Silicon Valley companies to remove online content that it deems illegal or restore pro-Kremlin material that had been blocked. The warnings have come at least weekly since services from Facebook, Twitter and Google were used as tools for anti-Kremlin protests in January. If the companies do not comply, the regulator has said, they face fines or access to their products may be throttled.
The latest clashes flared up this week, when Roskomnadzor told Google on Monday to block thousands of unspecified pieces of illegal content or it would slow access to the company’s services. On Tuesday, a Russian court fined Google 6 million rubles, or about $81,000, for not taking down another piece of content.
store all data on Russian users within the country by July 1 or face fines. In March, the authorities had made it harder for people to see and send posts on Twitter after the company did not take down content that the government considered illegal. Twitter has since removed roughly 6,000 posts to comply with the orders, according to Roskomnadzor. The regulator has threatened similar penalties against Facebook.
the police visited Twitter’s offices in New Delhi in a show of force. No employees were present, but India’s governing party has become increasingly upset with the perception that Twitter has sided with its critics during the coronavirus pandemic.
In Myanmar, Poland, Turkey and elsewhere, leaders are also tightening internet controls. In Belarus, President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko this week signed a law banning livestreams from unauthorized protests.
“All of these policies will have the effect of creating a fractured internet, where people have different access to different content,” said Jillian York, an internet censorship expert with the Electronic Frontier Foundation in Berlin.
The struggle over online speech in Russia has important ramifications because the internet companies have been seen as shields from government censors. The latest actions are a major shift in the country, where the internet, unlike television, had largely remained open despite President Vladimir V. Putin’s tight grip on society.
“sovereign internet,” a legal and technical system to block access to certain websites and fence off parts of the Russian internet from the rest of the world.
an interview this week with Kommersant, a leading Russian newspaper, Andrey Lipov, the head of Roskomnadzor, said slowing down access to internet services was a way to force the companies to comply with Russian laws and takedown orders. Mr. Lipov said blocking their services altogether was not the goal.
Google declined to discuss the situation in Russia and said it received government requests from the around the world, which it discloses in its transparency reports.
Facebook also would not discuss Russia, but said it restricted content that violated local laws or its terms of service. “We always strive to preserve voice for the greatest number of people,” a spokeswoman said.
Twitter said in a statement that it took down content flagged by the Russian authorities that violated its policies or local laws.
protests in support of the opposition leader Alexei A. Navalny after his arrest in January. The demonstrations were the biggest shows of dissent against Mr. Putin in years.
“This mobilization was happening online,” Ms. Zlobina said.
The Russian government has portrayed the tech industry as part of a foreign campaign to meddle in domestic affairs. The authorities have accused the companies of blocking pro-Kremlin online accounts while boosting the opposition, and said the platforms were also havens for child pornography and drug sales.
Twitter became the first major test of Russia’s censorship technology in March when access to its service was slowed down, according to researchers at the University of Michigan.
To resolve the conflict, a Twitter executive met at least twice with Russian officials, according to the company and Roskomnadzor. The government, which had threatened to ban Twitter entirely, said the company had eventually complied with 91 percent of its takedown requests.
Other internet companies have also been affected. Last month, TikTok, the popular social media platform owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, was fined 2.6 million rubles, or about $35,000, for not removing posts seen as encouraging minors to participate in illegal demonstrations. TikTok did not respond to a request for comment.
The fines are small, but larger penalties loom. The Russian government can increase fines to as much as 10 percent of a company’s revenue for repeat offenses, and, perhaps more important, authorities can disrupt their services.
Perhaps the biggest target has been Google. YouTube has been a key outlet for government critics such as Mr. Navalny to share information and organize. Unlike Facebook and Twitter, Google has employees in Russia. (The company would not say how many.)
In addition to this week’s warning, Russia has demanded that Google lift restrictions that limit the availability of some content from state media outlets like Sputnik and Russia Today outside Russia.
Russia’s antitrust regulator is also investigating Google over YouTube’s policies for blocking videos.
Google is trying to use the courts to fight some actions by the Russian government. Last month, it sued Roskomnadzor to fight an order to remove 12 YouTube videos related to opposition protests. In another case, the company appealed a ruling ordering YouTube to reinstate videos from Tsargrad, a nationalist online TV channel, which Google had taken down over what it said were violations of American sanctions.
Joanna Szymanska, a senior program officer for Article 19, an internet freedom group, said Google’s recent lawsuit to fight the YouTube takedown orders would influence what other countries did in the future, even if the company was likely to lose in court. Ms. Szymanska, who is based in Poland, called on the tech companies to be more transparent about what content they were being asked to delete, and what orders they were complying with.
“The Russian example will be used elsewhere if it works well,” she said.
Adam Satariano reported from London and Oleg Matsnev from Moscow. Anton Troianovski contributed reporting from Moscow.
SAN FRANCISCO — WhatsApp sued the Indian government on Wednesday to stop what it said were oppressive new internet rules that would require it to make people’s messages “traceable” to outside parties for the first time.
The lawsuit, filed by WhatsApp in the Delhi High Court, seeks to block the enforceability of the rules that were handed down by the government this year. WhatsApp, a service owned by Facebook that sends encrypted messages, claimed in its suit that the rules, which were set to go into effect on Wednesday, were unconstitutional.
Suing India’s government is a highly unusual step by WhatsApp, which has rarely engaged with national governments in court. But the service said that making its messages traceable “would severely undermine the privacy of billions of people who communicate digitally” and effectively impair its security.
“Civil society and technical experts around the world have consistently argued that a requirement to ‘trace’ private messages would break end-to-end encryption and lead to real abuse,” a WhatsApp spokesman said. “WhatsApp is committed to protecting the privacy of people’s personal messages and we will continue to do all we can within the laws of India to do so.”
a broadening battle between the biggest tech companies and governments around the world over which of them has the upper hand. Australia and the European Union have drafted or passed laws to limit the power of Google, Facebook and other companies over online speech, while other countries are trying to rein in the companies’ services to stifle dissent and squash protests. China has recently warned some of its biggest internet companies against engaging in anticompetitive practices.
In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party have worked for several years to corral the power of the tech companies and more strictly police what is said online. In 2019, the government proposed giving itself vast new powers to suppress internet content, igniting a heated battle with the companies.
The rules that WhatsApp is objecting to were proposed in February by Ravi Shankar Prasad, India’s law and information technology minister. Under the rules, the government could require tech companies to take down social media posts it deemed unlawful. WhatsApp, Signal and other messaging companies would also be required to create “traceable” databases of all messages sent using the service, while attaching identifiable “fingerprints” to private messages sent between users.
WhatsApp has long maintained that it does not have insight into user data and has said it does not store messages sent between users. That is because the service is end-to-end encrypted, which allows for two or more users to communicate securely and privately without allowing others to access the messages.
More than a billion people rely on WhatsApp to communicate with friends, family and businesses around the world. Many users are in India.
ordered to take down dozens of social media posts that were critical of Mr. Modi’s government and its response to the coronavirus pandemic, which has ravaged the country. Government officials said the posts should be removed because they could incite panic and could hinder its response to the pandemic.
The social media companies complied with many of the requests by making the posts invisible inside India, though they were still visible to people outside the country. In the past, Twitter and Facebook have reposted some content after determining that it didn’t break the law.
Tensions between tech companies and the Indian government escalated this week when the police descended on the New Delhi offices of Twitter to contest labels affixed to certain tweets from senior members of the government. While Twitter’s offices were empty, the visit symbolized the mounting pressure on social media companies to rein in speech seen as critical of the ruling party.
Facebook and WhatsApp have long maintained working relationships with the authorities in dozens of countries, including India. Typically, WhatsApp has said it will respond to lawful requests for information and has a team that assists law enforcement officials with emergencies involving imminent harm.
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Only rarely has WhatsApp pushed back. The service has been shut down many times in Brazil after the company resisted requests for user data from the government. And it has skirmished with U.S. officials who have sought to install “back doors” in encrypted messaging services to monitor for criminal activity.
But WhatsApp argued that even if it tried enacting India’s new “traceability” rules, the technology would not work. Such a practice is “ineffective and highly susceptible to abuse,” the company said.
Other technology firms and digital rights groups like Mozilla and the Electronic Frontier Foundation said this week that they supported WhatsApp’s fight against “traceability.”
“The threat that anything someone writes can be traced back to them takes away people’s privacy and would have a chilling effect on what people say even in private settings, violating universally recognized principles of free expression and human rights,” WhatsApp said.