“This is the first time the eastern basin has completely dried in modern times,” Philip Micklin, an Aral Sea expert from Western Michigan University told NASA’s Earth Observatory, which captured fresh satellite images of the lake. “And it is likely the first time it has completely dried in 600 years, since Medieval desiccation [drying out] associated with diversion of Amu Darya to the Caspian Sea.”
In a bid to drive up production of cotton in nearby steppes, Soviet engineers diverted the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya, the two rivers flowing into the lake, as part of massive irrigation projects for water-hungry crops in the 1950s and ’60s.
As a result, the bed of the lake – polluted by the chemicals used in crop-growing – has become exposed, while the water has turned increasingly salty, killing off the majority of wildlife, and decimating the fishing industry in the region.
This particular retreat has been a consequence of poor rainfall in the Pamir Mountains that has exacerbated the shortfall of water flowing into the lake, which lies between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, but it could not have happened without the constant decline.
“This part of the Aral Sea is showing major year-to-year variations that are dependent on flow of Amu Darya. I would expect this pattern to continue for some time,” said Micklin.
Soviet officials first admitted the impact of their project on the Aral Sea in the 1980s, but little can be done about it currently.
Around 60 million people live around the Aral Sea basin, most of them citizens of low-income Central Asian states. To restore the lake to its former size, flows would have to be increased fourfold, requiring $16 billion – a project the concerned sides can neither afford nor agree on.
A dam was built with World Bank funds in 2005 to filter water than now flows into the separate northern part of the lake, which has partially recovered, though the water mass is only a small fraction of its previous size.
Undetectable and untraceable by most phone users – that is how a spyware application dubbed StealthGenie was allegedly being advertised by Hammad Akbar, the chief executive of the Pakistani-owned, UK-based company InvoCode.
The 31-year-old native of Lahore, Pakistan, is also one of the creators of the app, which can intercept communications to and from mobile phones, including Apple, Android and BlackBerry devices, the Justice Department said.
Once installed on the phone, it allows conversations to be monitored as they take place, enables the purchaser to call the phone and activate it at any time to monitor all surrounding conversations within a 15-foot radius, and collects the user’s incoming and outgoing email and SMS messages, incoming voicemail, address book, calendar, photographs, and videos. All of these functions are enabled without the knowledge of the user of the phone.
— StealthGenie (@StealthGenie) April 3, 2014
“Selling spyware is not just reprehensible, it’s a crime,” Leslie Caldwell, assistant attorney general in the DOJ’s Criminal Division, said in a statement. “Apps like StealthGenie are expressly designed for use by stalkers and domestic abusers who want to know every detail of a victim’s personal life — all without the victim’s knowledge.”
Akbar was charged with conspiracy, sale of a surreptitious interception device, advertisement of a known interception device and advertising a device as a surreptitious interception device in US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. He was arrested in Los Angeles on Saturday, and was expected to appear before a magistrate in the Central District of California Monday.
— StealthGenie (@StealthGenie) February 25, 2014
“StealthGenie has little use beyond invading a victim’s privacy,” said US Attorney Boente. “Advertising and selling spyware technology is a criminal offense, and such conduct will be aggressively pursued by this office and our law enforcement partners.”
The indictment occurred in Virginia because StealthGenie was hosted at a data center in Ashburn, Virginia. A federal judge there issued a temporary restraining order, authorizing the FBI to disable the website hosting the application.
— StealthGenie (@StealthGenie) June 27, 2014
“This application allegedly equips potential stalkers and criminals with a means to invade an individual’s confidential communications,” said FBI Assistant Director in Charge McCabe. “They do this not by breaking into their homes or offices, but by physically installing spyware on unwitting victims’ phones and illegally tracking an individual’s every move. As technology continues to evolve, the FBI will investigate and bring to justice those who use illegal means to monitor and track individuals without their knowledge.”
The person who buys the app needs physical control of the phone only to install it – then they are able to control it remotely.
— StealthGenie (@StealthGenie) February 21, 2014
Part of the indictment focuses not just on selling StealthGenie, but on the software’s marketing.
The advertising of StealthGenie targeted “‘[s]pousal cheat: Husband/Wife of [sic] boyfriend/girlfriend suspecting their other half of cheating or any other suspicious behavior or if they just want to monitor them’,” the FBI statement said. “Language and testimonials on the StealthGenie website focused significantly on potential purchasers who did not have any ownership interest in the mobile phone to be monitored, including those suspecting a spouse or romantic partner of infidelity. The indictment alleges that Akbar and his co-conspirators fabricated the testimonials.”
The company also marketed the app as a way for parents to track their children, Ars Technica reported, as StealthGenie can also record conversations near the phone, not just when the phone is in use. In many states, it is illegal to record a conversation without one or both parties involved consenting to the recording.
The indictment against Akbar is the first time charges have been brought against someone for spyware on the mobile market. Meanwhile, StealthGenie, among other spyware apps, is readily available online for the iPhone, Android and Blackberry.