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Iraqis Track Abandoned Homes With Digital Tools

In camps across northern Iraq, people forced from their homes by Islamic State militants are using their phones to track what is happening to their properties, according to researchers who say returning home is crucial for building a safe future in the war-torn nation. More than three million Iraqis have been driven from their homes, land and farms, according to the United Nations, many of them by armed groups like Islamic State (IS). As pro-government forces intensify the fight against IS, clearing militants from much of Mosul and other cities they once held, displaced people are hoping to return home soon. Before leaving the camps, they are keeping a close eye on Facebook and digital messaging services to better understand what they will be returning to or who might be occupying their homes, said Nadia Siddiqui from Social Inquiry, a research group based in northern Iraq. With conflicting land claims and weak property rights in parts of Iraq due to years of violence, establishing who rightfully owns what is crucial for reducing violence and building social trust, Siddiqui said. Digital tools are helping establish ownership by allowing them to build dossiers of what belongs to them with photographic evidence, title deeds and other data which could be used in court to prove their claims. “In the long-term, land and property issues are some of the root causes (of strife),” Siddiqui told the Thomson Reuters Foundation from Erbil, Iraq. Disputes over property exacerbate communal or religious tensions, she said, and lingering issues over unclear ownership can fester for generations, making it difficult to build the economy and move past a history of violence. “People remember these kinds of things,” Siddiqui said of land disputes. Clearing up ownership conflicts and creating arbitration processes for competing land claims can help ease social tensions, she said. Evidence More than 60 percent of displaced people use digital tools like Facebook, camera phones and messaging apps to actively monitor the status of their properties, according to a July survey in Erbil supported by Social Inquiry. The average household of displaced people has three mobile phones, the small survey said, meaning tools to collect data on properties are accessible even to those who fled their lands in the dead of night. Thirty-two percent of displaced people surveyed share information about the status of their properties on social media. “What is so exciting about the process is that people have this evidence already on their phones or on their Facebook page,” said Emily Frank, an anthropologist turned marketing executive in Montreal, Canada, who has monitored property rights in countries facing conflict. Many people, however, do not realize these digital documents and photos of the land where they once lived can be used as evidence in court or a property restitution process once it is safe enough to return home, said Frank. Along with helping individuals claim their homes from armed groups or others who have been occupying them, photos, videos and other digital data become increasingly powerful as more displaced people collect them, she said. “If more people can submit evidence, it becomes more widely corroborated,” Frank told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “It will be a more just and transparent process.” Domino effect Jon Unruh, a professor at McGill University in Montreal who studies land rights, has watched the process happen in Iraq first hand. Unruh interviewed a 76-year-old man in Erbil who, after fleeing an IS-controlled area, asked a relative still living near his home to walk around the property and take pictures to see who was living inside. IS and its supporters had occupied homes in the area, and the militant group even issued its own property title deeds, so the displaced man used digital tools and family networks to try and gather information about his home to claim it upon return. This kind of data could be presented before a government arbitration panel or via a transitional justice plan from the U.N. or a similar international agency when the man attempts to reclaim his property, Unruh said. Iraqi government officials working on property restitution could not be reached for comment. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Iraq, a U.N.-linked body working with the government on property restitution for refugees, was unavailable for comment. Officials in Kurdistan, the northern semi-autonomous region of Iraq of which Erbil is the capital, are planning a referendum vote on independence for Sept. 25. The move, opposed by Iraq’s central government, could complicate efforts for displaced people living in the region to claim properties in other parts of Iraq once it is safe enough to leave camps in the Kurdish region. It is unclear what moves Iraq’s government will make on property rights in areas once controlled by IS based on digital data, Unruh said. But officials in the capital Baghdad who he met recently understand the importance of property rights in reducing violence. “The Iraqi government is most concerned people returning home to ISIS-held areas are going to default to armed kin to resolve their property disputes,” Unruh told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “That returnee who finds their property destroyed moves into someone else's house. When that person returns there is a conflict —It creates a domino effect.”

Facebook to Share Russia-linked Ads With US Congress

Facebook will provide the contents of 3,000 ads bought by a Russian agency to congressional investigators, bowing to pressure that it be more forthcoming with information that could shed light on possible interference in the 2016 presidential election.   The social media giant also said it will make political advertising on its platform more "transparent.'' It will require ads to disclose who paid for them and what other ads they are running at the same time. That's key, because political ads on social media may look different depending on who they're targeted at, a tactic designed to improve their effectiveness.   The moves Thursday come amid growing pressure on the social network from members of Congress, who pushed Facebook to release the ads. Facebook has already handed over the ads to the special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the company is "actively working'' with the U.S. government in its ongoing Russia investigations. Zuckerberg said in a Facebook post and live video on Thursday that he has directed his team to provide the ads, created by fake accounts linked to Russia, to Congress. Facebook's transparency measures are also important. Currently, there's no way for outsiders to track political ads or for recipients to tell who is sponsoring such messages.   The company will hire 250 more people in the next year to work on "election integrity,'' Zuckerberg said.   Zuckerberg hinted that the company may not provide much information publicly, saying that the ongoing federal investigation will limit what he can reveal.   "As a general rule, we are limited in what we can discuss publicly about law enforcement investigations, so we may not always be able to share our findings publicly,'' he said.   The nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center stressed again on Thursday that the company should make the ads public, "so that everyone can see the nature and extent of the use of Facebook accounts by Russia.''   The leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee have been seeking to bring Facebook executives before their committee since the company first revealed the existence of the ads two weeks ago. But critics say Facebook should go further. They say the company should tell its users how they might have been influenced by outside meddlers.   Zuckerberg did warn that Facebook can't catch all undesirable material before it hits its social network.   "I'm not going to sit here and tell you we're going to catch all bad content in our system. We don't check what people say before they say it, and frankly, I don't think our society should want us to,'' Zuckerberg said. "If you break our community standards or the law, then you're going to face consequences afterwards.''   He added: "We won't catch everyone immediately, but we can make it harder to try to interfere.''   Zuckerberg's move came a day after Twitter confirmed that it will meet next week with staff of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which has been scrutinizing the spread of false news stories and propaganda on social media during the election. The committee's top Democrat, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, had said the committee wanted to hear from Twitter to learn more about the use of fake accounts and bot networks to spread misinformation.   "Twitter deeply respects the integrity of the election process, a cornerstone of all democracies, and will continue to strengthen our platform against bots and other forms of manipulation that violate our Terms of Service,'' the company said in a statement.

Review: iTunes Video Upgrade Makes New Apple TV Worth It

It might seem odd to review the new Apple TV streaming device — one specifically designed to display super-sharp video known as 4K — without actually owning a 4K TV. But in a way, that's the point. Most people still don't have 4K TVs, so the new Apple TV model doesn't offer them much. But if you're an Apple fan and already have 4K, the choice is clear. The new Apple TV 4K is out Friday starting at $179, or $30 more than the regular model. It's a small difference compared with the price of your TV. It's worth noting that alternatives to Apple TV are cheaper and equally capable at a basic level. All of the devices connect to a TV so you can stream most major video services on a big screen. Roku and Amazon have 4K models for less than $100 and non-4K versions for even less. Both are even ahead of Apple TV in being able to stream Amazon video now; it's coming soon to Apple TV. But none of the rivals will play movies or shows purchased from Apple's iTunes, at least without clunky workarounds. To watch those on a big screen directly, you need an Apple TV. And Apple has just sweetened the deal on that front. The future has arrived Apple's embrace of 4K is significant, despite the fact that Roku, Amazon and other rivals beat Apple to that milestone. Apple often waits until there's broad enough appeal for new technologies. That time is now, given growth in sales of 4K TV and more movies and TV shows released in 4K formats. Parallel to that is the rise of high-dynamic range technology in television sets. HDR increases color range and produces brighter whites and darker blacks. Better contrast means details in bright scenes aren't washed out. Apple TV 4K supports HDR, too. Path to upgrades 4K is coming, just as high definition earlier replaced standard definition. The consulting company Futuresource says a third of TVs sold worldwide this year will be 4K capable, up from 25 percent last year. But people tend to keep TVs for many years, unlike high-turnover phones. In demos with tech companies and visits to Best Buy, I find superior picture quality in 4K. Your couch needs to close enough to the screen to see the difference. My next TV will likely have 4K, but my 4-year-old Vizio HD TV still works fine (though I'm sure I just jinxed it). Upgrades to iTunes video - and yours Many Hollywood blockbusters now have 4K versions of home video releases. Netflix and Amazon are also trying to make their original shows available in 4K. But many indie and older titles remain in HD; even older shows like "The Wonder Years" are still stuck in standard definition. Fortunately, Apple isn't making you choose now. If you buy something in HD through iTunes, you'll automatically get the 4K version when it's out. And if a 4K version is available now, it will cost the same as its HD counterpart. It's never been clear why HD video is more expensive than SD when actors, directors and others behind the movies were paid the same. Lots of people were peeved at how the music industry tried to get them to repurchase the same songs on cassette tapes, CDs and then digital files. I have a collection of DVDs and don't feel like paying again for higher-quality Blu-ray or digital versions. So Apple's decision to treat 4K and HD the same is a good one. That only applies to iTunes, though. Netflix is charging extra for a plan that includes 4K, even when viewed on Apple TVs. A word of caution: While the new iPhone 8 and iPad Pros unveiled this past June will support HDR, they won't display 4K. Even the upcoming iPhone X falls short in that respect. Beyond video The new Apple TV gets a faster processor, which should make high-end games better to play. A new remote offers more precise motion control and a raised menu button to make it easier to orient yourself without looking. These features alone aren't enough to justify an Apple TV 4K unless you're a gamer. The non-4K version is getting the new remote, too. Picture quality is the same for both versions on regular HD sets like mine. In any case, Apple TV — with or without 4K — will be most useful if you're already tied into Apple's system with iDevices and iTunes. Given that rival devices are cheaper, what you're buying isn't the device, but an experience — integration and syncing with all your other Apple gadgets. For instance, 4K video taken on an iPhone will play easily on an Apple TV 4K. If you're in that camp and are thinking of buying a new TV in the next few years, there's a good chance it will be 4K, so you might as well choose the 4K version of Apple TV now. But if it's longer, a better Apple TV will likely be out by then. The non-4K version will do just fine for now.