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Tesla Safety at Centre of Criminal Trial Over Fiery, Fatal Crash in South Korea

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By Reuters |  Updated: 22 November 2022

In an upscale Seoul neighbourhood two years ago, a white Tesla Model X smashed into a parking lot wall. The fiery crash killed a prominent lawyer – a close friend of South Korea’s president.

Prosecutors have charged the driver with involuntary manslaughter. He blames Tesla.

Choi Woan-jong, who had eked out a living by driving drunk people home in their own cars, says the Model X sped out of control on its own and that the brakes failed in the December 2020 accident.

The criminal trial about to begin in South Korea hangs on questions about the safety of Tesla cars, at a time when the EV maker faces a range of lawsuits and increased scrutiny by regulators.

Choi, 61, is now unable to find work as an independent driver, or what is known in Korea as a “replacement driver”.

He says he suffers flashbacks and depression ahead of a trial that pits his credibility against the world’s most valuable automaker.

“When I wake up, I feel abandoned, floating alone in the middle of the ocean,” said Choi, who underwent surgery after the crash for a ruptured intestine.

Tesla did not respond to written requests for comment about the crash and Choi’s case. A lawyer for the family of Yoon Hong-geun, who owned the car and died in the crash, declined to comment.

Choi’s case has drawn the attention of some safety advocates in South Korea who want to change a provision in the free trade agreement with the United States that exempts Tesla from local standards.

For instance, Tesla is not required to follow South Korean regulations that require at least one front-seat and back-seat door to have a mechanical failsafe because the US-South Korea free trade agreement exempts carmakers with sales under 50,000 vehicles from local safety rules.

Tesla sold 17,828 vehicles in South Korea in 2021, registration data shows.

Park Keun-oh, an official from the Korea-US FTA division of South Korea’s trade ministry, said the exemption clause requires Tesla to abide by American safety regulations, which do not require a mechanical backup latch. Such latches allow doors to be opened even if the car does not have electrical power.

Park declined to comment further. The Office of the United States Trade Representative did not respond to requests for comment about the trade deal or the regulations.

Prosecutors say Choi floored the accelerator as he entered the garage of a Seoul apartment building, hitting 95 kph (60mph) before crashing. He denies that, saying the car’s side mirrors began folding in and out uncommanded just before the car accelerated on its own.

“It felt like the car was swept away by a hurricane,” said Choi, who said he had been driving for more than 20 years and had experience driving Teslas.

The automaker provided prosecutors with data from the Model X that the car transmitted in the moments before the crash, the judge said at a preliminary hearing. The defence team has asked to see the data and is waiting for the court to release it.

Choi and his lawyer are seeking to show that the car’s electrical systems failed and that its design slowed firefighters’ attempts to rescue Yoon.

The Tesla’s battery caught fire after the crash. Smoke and flames filled the car, according to firefighters and a video of the scene, taken by firefighters and viewed by Reuters.

Choi escaped through a broken window on his side. Firefighters were delayed in pulling Yoon out of the back seat, because the Model X’s electronic doors failed to open from outside, a Dec. 31, 2020, fire department report reviewed by Reuters shows. The report does not say how long the rescue was delayed.

Yoon, 60, was pronounced dead after firefighters extricated him from the car and performed CPR. The cause of death was not made public.

Judge Park Won-gyu said that he plans to call Tesla engineers to testify and that the safety of Tesla vehicles would be examined at trial. Involuntary manslaughter carries a potential prison sentence of up to five years.

A fiery scene

The investigation by the fire station that responded found the battery failure slowed the emergency response by disabling seat controls, which prevented firefighters from repositioning the front seats so they could get to Yoon, according to the fire department report.

The electrical outage made it “impossible to secure space for the (rescue) operation”, the report said.

A fire station representative declined to comment.

The report says the exterior door handles on the Model X, which are electronic, did not open from the outside as the battery burned. It also says firefighters could not pull Yoon from the car because they couldn’t move the front seats after the battery died.

A video of the rescue shows firefighters trying but failing to open the Model X’s wing-style doors. They eventually broke through the front windshield and pulled Yoon from the car about 25 minutes after the emergency call came in, according to the footage and the firefighters’ report.

Tesla is the only automaker that does not provide data to the Korea Transportation Safety Authority (TS) from onboard diagnostic systems for safety checks in South Korea, according to the agency and Park Sang-hyuk, a lawmaker with the opposition Democratic Party of Korea, spurred by Choi’s crash, has campaigned for regulators to pressure Tesla to change its door handles and work with regulators.

TS noted that Tesla is not legally required to provide such data, but that all other foreign and domestic carmakers are doing so.

Park and TS said Tesla is working with the agency to allow Korean owners to access their car’s diagnostic data starting in October 2023.

“Tesla has become something of an icon for great innovation, but I think (the company’s issues in Korea) also raise a serious concern for customers here,” Park said, referring to cases in which Tesla’s doors will not open after a collision and the free trade agreement provisions.

A South Korean consumer group, Citizens United for Consumer Sovereignty, said in September that Tesla had not fixed what the group calls “door defects”. The group says it has collected information on about 1,870 complaints involving Tesla doors over the past four years. Data provided to Reuters by another South Korean lawmaker, and TS, confirmed that number.

The consumer group said that it asked police to investigate Tesla over not improving driver and passenger safety after the fatal crash in Seoul, but that police told them in May there was not enough evidence to proceed, according to their report, seen by Reuters.

In a June 29 letter to the consumer group, seen by Reuters, police say that although Tesla’s door latches might violate local safety standards, that consideration was trumped by the terms of the Korea-US free trade agreement.

Tesla doors “could be in violation of the (local) regulations, but it (Tesla) has no obligations to comply with local motor vehicle safety standards in accordance with the Korea-US free trade agreement,” the police letter said.

In South Korean courts, drivers in cases where a crash’s cause is disputed face the burden of proving the car had a defect, three legal and auto safety experts say, and vehicle manufacturers are almost never prosecuted over safety issues.

“Unless you have gone through this, you will never know how it feels,” said Ahn Ho-joon, another “replacement driver” in South Korea, who had a Tesla accident in May nearly identical to Choi’s, police records show.

Tesla did not respond to requests for comment.

Ahn, one of the few to attend all of Choi’s pre-trial hearings, says the Tesla he drove also accelerated on its own and crashed into two vehicles in an underground garage, but there were no serious injuries. Police say the accident was his fault because there were no issues with the vehicle, but did not charge him because the wreck was minor.

Ahn said he has kept his job as an independent replacement driver, but declines to drive Teslas.

Choi, unable to work and nearly out of money, has moved into a 6.6-square-metre (71-square-foot) cubicle he rents for 350,000 won ($243) a month. Financed by state housing subsidies, it includes a shared bathroom and kitchen, and all the rice he can eat. Despite these hardships, Choi takes the long view on Tesla.

“Obviously there’s a process to make products perfect through trial and error. And I am just destined to be part of that process,” he said.

© Thomson Reuters 2022

Apps

WhatsApp Bans Over 23 Lakh Accounts in India in October, ‘Proactively’ Barred 8.1 Lakh Users

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By ANI | Updated: 1 December 2022

Instant messaging and voice-over-IP service WhatsApp on Wednesday said the firm banned over 23 lakh accounts in the month of October, according to a spokesperson of WhatsApp. In another statement, it said as many as 811,000 of these 23 lakh accounts were proactively banned, before any reports from users.

A WhatsApp spokesperson in a statement said, “WhatsApp is an industry leader in preventing abuse, among end-to-end encrypted messaging services. Over the years, we have consistently invested in Artificial Intelligence and other state-of-the-art technology, data scientists and experts, and in processes, in order to keep our users safe on our platform.”

The spokesperson said, “In accordance with the IT Rules 2021, we’ve published our report for the month of October 2022. This user-safety report contains details of the user complaints received and the corresponding action taken by WhatsApp, as well as WhatsApp’s own preventive actions to combat abuse on our platform.”

As captured in the latest monthly report, WhatsApp banned over 23 lakh million accounts in the month of October, according to the spokesperson.

In a statement released by the firm, 26,85,000 WhatsApp accounts were banned from the instant messaging service between September 1 and 30 this year. As many as 872,000 of these accounts were proactively banned, before any reports from users.

According to the firm’s statement, in addition to responding to and taking action on user complaints through the grievance channel, WhatsApp also deployed tools and resources to prevent harmful behaviour on the platform. It said, “We are particularly focused on prevention because we believe it is much better to stop harmful activity from happening in the first place than to detect it after harm has occurred.”

It said the abuse detection operates at three stages of an account’s lifestyle: At registration, during messaging, and in response to negative feedback, which we receive in the form of user reports and blocks.

The statement from WhatsApp said a team of analysts augments these systems to evaluate edge cases and help improve our effectiveness over time.

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Internet

Medibank Data Breach: Hackers Upload More Customer Data, Say ‘Case Closed’ on World Cybersecurity Day

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By Reuters | Updated: 1 December 2022

Medibank, Australia’s biggest health insurer, said on Thursday hackers had released more of its stolen medical records, as the media reported that the complete set of data on millions of customers was now public.

The Office of the Australian Information Commission (OAIC), the country’s privacy regulator, has also begun investigating how the company handles personal information, Medibank said in a statement.

The latest release on the dark web follows progressive uploads, including records of customers’ mental health and alcohol use, that began after Medibank said on November 7 it would not pay a ransom.

“The raw data we have analysed today so far is incomplete and hard to understand,” chief executive David Koczkar said. “While there are media reports of this being a signal of ‘case closed’, our work is not over.”

On Thursday, the media reported that a blog, believed by cyber experts to be used by the hackers, carried a new post: “Happy Cyber Security Day!!! Added folder full. Case closed.” It also included a file that had several compressed files amounting to more than 5 gigabytes.

Reuters has not verified the contents of the latest files uploaded on the dark web, part of the World Wide Web that is accessible only with special software.

Medibank did not immediately respond to a Reuters question about whether it believed all stolen data had now been released.

Australian Federal Police last month said Russia-based hackers were behind the Medibank cyberattack, which compromised the details of almost 10 million current and former customers. Medicare revealed the breach on October 13.

In an update on Thursday morning, Medibank said there were currently no signs that banking data had been stolen. Personal details accessed by hackers were not enough to enable financial fraud, it added.

Six zipped files placed in a folder called “full” and containing raw data believed to have been stolen had been uploaded, Medibank said in a statement.

Australia has been grappling with a recent rise in cyber attacks. At least eight companies, including telecoms company Optus, owned by Singapore Telecommunications, have reported breaches since September.

The OAIC, which is also investigating Optus over the breach, did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment on the Medibank investigation.

Technology experts have said Australia has become a target for hackers just as a skills shortage leaves an understaffed, overworked cybersecurity workforce ill-equipped to stop attacks.

© Thomson Reuters 2022

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Cryptocurrency

Kraken Crypto Exchange to Cut Global Workforce by 30 Percent Amid Crypto Winter

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By Reuters | Updated: 1 December 2022

Cryptocurrency exchange Kraken said on Wednesday it would cut its global workforce by 30 percent, or about 1,100 employees, citing tough market conditions that have crippled demand for digital assets this year. Higher interest rates and worries of an economic downturn have roiled cryptocurrencies as investors fled risky assets, with recent bankruptcies adding to the uncertainty.

“Since the start of this year, macroeconomic and geopolitical factors have weighed on financial markets,” the company said.

Kraken said it has seen a drop in trading volumes and fewer client sign-ups, adding that the layoffs will take total headcount to where it was 12 months ago.

Earlier this month, crypto exchange Coinbase slashed jobs in its recruiting and institutional onboarding teams.

Kraken, which earlier slowed hiring and pulled back marketing spending, said it was forced to cut jobs as it had exhausted other measures to bring expenses in line with current demand.

Meanwhile, the implosion of crypto exchange FTX, the highest-profile casualty of the year’s market turmoil, continues to ripple across the industry, with BlockFi filing for bankruptcy earlier this week.

The meltdown has dragged the price of the largest cryptocurrency, Bitcoin, to around a two-year low.

Global regulators have since been circling crypto firms with many seeking to set tough rules to govern the largely unregulated sector.

On Monday, the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control said that Kraken had agreed to pay a fine to settle civil liability related to apparent violations of sanctions on Iran.

As part of the settlement with OFAC, Kraken will pay about $362,000 (roughly Rs. 3 crore), and “invest an additional $100,000 (roughly Rs. 81,18,000) in certain sanctions compliance controls.”

According to the OFAC statement, Kraken’s platform processed 826 transactions for users located in Iran between roughly October 2015 to June 2019.

At the time, Kraken maintained controls intended to prevent users from initially opening an account while in a jurisdiction subject to sanctions, but did not implement IP address blocking based on geolocation across its platform, the statement added.

In October, the Treasury Department had also fined crypto exchange Bittrex Inc $29 million (roughly Rs. 235 crore) in fines for “apparent violations” of sanctions on certain countries and anti-money laundering law.

© Thomson Reuters 2022

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Science

Neuralink Expected to Begin Human Clinical Trials in Six Months, Elon Musk Says

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By Reuters | Updated: 1 December 2022

Elon Musk said on Wednesday a wireless device developed by his brain chip company Neuralink is expected to begin human clinical trials in six months.

The company is developing brain chip interfaces that it says could enable disabled patients to move and communicate again. Based in the San Francisco Bay Area and Austin, Texas, Neuralink has in recent years been conducting tests on animals as it seeks US regulatory approval to begin clinical trials in people.

“We want to be extremely careful and certain that it will work well before putting a device into a human but we’ve submitted I think most of our paperwork to the FDA and probably in about six months we should be able to upload Neuralink in a human,” Musk said during a much-awaited public update on the device.

The event was originally planned for October 31 but Musk postponed it just days before without giving a reason.

Neuralink’s last public presentation, more than a year ago, involved a monkey with a brain chip that played a computer game by thinking alone.

Musk is known for lofty goals such as colonizing Mars and saving humanity. His ambitions for Neuralink, which he launched in 2016, are of the same grand scale. He wants to develop a chip that would allow the brain to control complex electronic devices and eventually allow people with paralysis to regain motor function and treat brain diseases such as Parkinson’s, dementia and Alzheimer’s. He also talks about melding the brain with artificial intelligence.

Neuralink, however, is running behind schedule. Musk said in a 2019 presentation he was aiming to receive regulatory approval by the end of 2020. He then said at a conference in late 2021 that he hoped to start human trials this year.

Neuralink has repeatedly missed internal deadlines to gain US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval to start human trials, current and former employees have said. Musk approached competitor Synchron earlier this year about a potential investment after he expressed frustration to Neuralink employees about their slow progress, Reuters reported in August.

Synchron crossed a major milestone in July by implanting its device in a patient in the United States for the first time. It received US regulatory clearance for human trials in 2021 and has completed studies in four people in Australia.

© Thomson Reuters 2022

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Social Networking

Elon Musk Meets Tim Cook, Says Apple Never Considered Removing Twitter From App Store

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By Reuters | Updated: 1 December 2022

Elon Musk on Wednesday tweeted that the misunderstanding about Twitter potentially being removed from Apple’s App Store was resolved following his meeting with the iPhone maker’s Chief Executive Tim Cook.

“Tim was clear that Apple never considered doing so,” the billionaire CEO of Twitter and Tesla said in a tweet.

Thanks @tim_cook for taking me around Apple’s beautiful HQ pic.twitter.com/xjo4g306gR— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 30, 2022

On Monday, Musk had accused Apple of threatening to block Twitter from its app store without saying why in a series of tweets that also said it had stopped advertising on the social media platform.

He had later tagged Cook’s Twitter account in another tweet, asking “what’s going on here?”

The world’s most valuable firm spent an estimated $131,600 (roughly Rs. 1,07,42,900) on Twitter ads between November 10 and November 16, down from $220,800 (roughly Rs. 1,80,23,385) between October 16 and October 22, the week before Musk closed the Twitter deal, according to ad measurement firm Pathmatics.

In the first quarter of 2022, Apple was the top advertiser on Twitter, spending $48 million (roughly Rs. 390 crore) and accounting for more than 4 percent of total revenue for the period, the Washington Post reported, citing an internal Twitter document.

Twitter and Apple did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Musk’s latest tweet. Apple has not responded publicly to Musk’s earlier tweets.

Among the list of grievances tweeted by Musk on Monday was the up to 30 percent fee Apple charges software developers for in-app purchases, with Musk posting a meme suggesting he was willing to “go to war” with Apple rather than paying the commission.

The self-described free speech absolutist, whose company has in the past few days reinstated several Twitter accounts including that of former US President Donald Trump, has blamed activist groups for pressuring advertisers.

Ben Bajarin, the head of consumer technologies at research firm Creative Strategies, previously stated that Musk may have been reading too much into a regular process Apple goes through in-app reviews.

“App review from Apple is not perfect by any means and a consistently frustrating process for developers but from what I hear it is a two-way conversation,” he said.

“Tim was clear that Apple never considered doing so,” the billionaire CEO of Twitter and Tesla said in a tweet.

On Monday, Musk had accused Apple of threatening to block Twitter from its app store without saying why in a series of tweets that also said it had stopped advertising on the social media platform.

He had later tagged Cook’s Twitter account in another tweet, asking “what’s going on here?”

Twitter and Apple did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Musk’s latest tweet. Apple has not responded publicly to Musk’s earlier tweets.

Among the list of grievances tweeted by Musk on Monday was the up to 30 percent fee Apple charges software developers for in-app purchases, with Musk posting a meme suggesting he was willing to “go to war” with Apple rather than paying the commission.

© Thomson Reuters 2022

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Cryptocurrency

Binance Marks Entry into Japanese Market With Acquisition of Sakura Exchange BitCoin

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By Agence France-Presse | Updated: 30 November 2022

The world’s largest cryptocurrency platform Binance on Wednesday announced its first licence in East Asia with the acquisition of Japan’s officially regulated Sakura Exchange BitCoin.

Binance has been in the spotlight since the dramatic collapse of rival platform FTX this month.

Changpeng Zhao, the Chinese-Canadian head of Binance, pledged last week to release an audit into his firm while rejecting claims he sparked the demise of FTX.

The terms of Binance’s 100-percent purchase of the Tokyo-based Sakura Exchange BitCoin were not disclosed in a joint statement on Wednesday.

But Binance said it “aims to support a responsible global environment for cryptocurrencies” by offering Japanese-regulated services.

“The Japanese market will play a key role in the future of cryptocurrency adoption,” Takeshi Chino, general manager of Binance Japan, said in a statement.

“We will actively work with regulators to develop our combined exchange in a compliant way for local users.”

Japan has worked to strengthen its regulation of virtual currencies following the collapse of the Tokyo-based MtGox Bitcoin exchange in 2014.

Binance was operating in Japan some years ago, but had to withdraw operations due to lack of relevant licences in 2018. Japan’s Financial Services Agency (FSA) had earlier insisted Binance to apply for an operational licence. Japan has, in recent years, emerged among the group of crypto friendly nations ready to harness the power of blockchain to finetune its financial sectors.

Other major players in the space, Crypto.com and FTX crypto exchanges are already functional in Japan. As of the end of 2021, the number of crypto asset accounts set up in Japan reached around 5.48 million, data by Statista claimed.

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