Report: Equifax to Pay $700 Million in Breach Settlement

The Wall Street Journal says Equifax will pay around $700 million to settle with the Federal Trade Commission over a 2017 data breach that exposed Social Security numbers and other private information of nearly 150 million people.

The Journal, citing unnamed sources familiar with the matter, said the settlement could be announced as soon as Monday. Equifax declined to comment.

The report says the deal would resolve investigations by the FTC, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and most state attorneys general. It would also resolve a nationwide consumer class-action lawsuit.

Spokesmen for the FTC and the CFPB didn’t immediately return messages seeking comment Friday night.

The breach was one of the largest affecting people’s private information. Atlanta-based Equifax did not notice the attack for more than six weeks. The compromised data included Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses, driver license numbers and credit card numbers.

The company said earlier this year that it had set aside around $700 million to cover anticipated settlements and fines.
 

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Pakistan, US Take Action Against Militants Ahead of Trump-Khan Meeting

The United States and Pakistan this month started cracking down against armed militant groups, in what analysts describe as establishing a groundwork ahead of the meeting between the U.S. President Donald Trump and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan in Washington early next week.

Pakistani authorities in Punjab province Wednesday arrested the head of the Lashkar-e-Taiba group, Hafiz Saeed, who is alleged to have been the mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed 166 people, including six Americans.

Trump, in a tweet following the detention, praised the “great pressure” exerted over the past two years against the cleric.

FILE – Hafiz Saeed, head of the Lashkar-e-Taiba group, second from right, addresses supporters during a protest against U.S. drone attacks in the Pakistani tribal region, in Lahore, Nov. 29, 2013.

Some experts say the move by the Pakistani government just days ahead of Khan’s maiden trip to Washington serves as a goodwill gesture to improve relations with the Trump administration, which has accused Pakistan of failing to rein in extremists operating on its soil.

Marvin Weinbaum, the director of the Afghanistan and Pakistan Program at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, told VOA that Pakistan is hoping its recent moves against armed Islamists could convince U.S. officials that it is playing an effective role in the fight against terrorism.

“Pakistan has campaigned for months to convince the international community that it does not harbor terrorists,” Weinbaum told VOA.

He said Pakistan authorities, in an effort to gain economic leverage from Washington, are stepping up their efforts against militants targeting India, while at the same time influencing the Taliban in Afghanistan to hold peace negotiations with the U.S.

“There is a recognition in Pakistan that despite the rhetoric used by the political leadership, it needs the U.S. on the economic front,” Weinbaum said.

Suspension of aid

Trump last year suspended $300 million in military aid to the Pakistani government, which he accused of giving safe havens to terrorists launching attacks in Afghanistan.

Pakistan has received more than $33 billion in U.S. assistance since 2002, including more than $14 billion in Coalition Support Funds (CSF), which is a U.S. Defense Department program for reimbursing allies that incur costs while supporting the U.S.-led counterinsurgency and counterterror operations in the region.

The United States, Afghanistan and India have accused Pakistan of being selective in its counterterror operations, targeting only those groups that pose a threat to its national security and ignoring others that plan and conduct attacks in India and Afghanistan.

Pakistan has rejected those accusations, noting that thousands of its civilians have died in militant attacks because of its anti-terror efforts with the U.S. The country also said it targets militants indiscriminately.

FILE – Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi is seen during a news conference at the Foreign Ministry in Islamabad, Pakistan, Aug. 20, 2018.

Peace talks

Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said Tuesday that his country’s efforts to facilitate peace talks between the U.S. and the Taliban have led to a “gradual warming” of U.S.-Pakistan relations.

He said Trump’s invitation to Khan underscored the “inherent importance of the relationship” for both countries.

The meeting between Trump and Khan, scheduled for Monday, will focus on counterterrorism, defense, energy and trade, according to a White House statement.

“It will focus on strengthening bilateral cooperation to bring peace, stability and economic prosperity to South Asia,” it said.

Zubair Iqbal, a Pakistan analyst with the Middle East Institute, said the expected meeting between the two leaders and recent actions against militants show both sides are willing to defuse months of tensions.

“The U.S. government seems to have changed its attitude toward Pakistan,” Iqbal said, adding that Pakistan could play a vital role in Afghanistan’s peace process.

FATF list

Some analysts charge the improved relations between the two countries could also help Khan in his bid to prevent his country from being blacklisted by the global anti-terror watchdog Financial Action Task Force (FATF).

FATF in 2017 placed the country on its “gray list” for allegedly not taking adequate action against terror financing and money laundering in the country. The president of FATF last month told VOA that it was possible that Pakistan could be blacklisted during the global terror financing watchdog’s plenary session in October.

“It is in Pakistan’s interest that the FATF meeting in October does not put it on the blacklist,” said Imran Malik, a Punjab-based defense analyst and retired brigadier. The blacklist, he noted, could hurt Pakistan’s economy.

For its part, Washington has attempted to fix the strained relations with Islamabad by targeting anti-government separatist militants operating in Baluchistan province in southwestern Pakistan, Malik said.

U.S. designation

The U.S. earlier this month designated the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) as a terrorist group, vowing to deny the organization access to resources for planning and carrying out attacks. The move was welcomed by Pakistan’s Foreign Office, and shortly afterward, Islamabad filed 23 terrorism and terror financing charges against Jamaat ud Dawa (JuD), Falah-i-Insaniyat and Lashkar-i-Tayyaba, all U.S.-designated terror groups.

These moves by Pakistan could also be seen as “quid pro quo for the U.S. designation of the Baluchistan Liberation Army as global terrorists,” Malik charged.

“The U.S. action has created the right environment ahead of the meeting between Prime Minister Imran Khan and President Donald Trump,” he added.

Weinbaum, of the Middle East Institute, said the improving relations with Islamabad also reflected Washington’s desire to end the 18-year-old Afghan war, and what it considers the role Pakistan could play.

“For the U.S., the priority will be to discuss Pakistan’s role after the U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan,” he added. “When the U.S. is ready to leave Afghanistan, it needs to be comfortable that it has Pakistan’s word that it will stabilize the country.”

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South Korean Political Parties Back Moon in Japan Trade Row

Setting aside their usual bickering, South Korean liberal and conservative parties on Thursday vowed to cooperate to help the Seoul government prevail in an escalating trade row with Japan.
 
After a meeting between the parties’ leaders and South Korean President Moon Jae-in at Seoul’s presidential office, they announced plans to create a “pan-national” emergency body to respond to tighter Japanese trade controls on certain technology exports to South Korea.
 
The meeting came amid growing concerns in South Korea that Japan’s trade curbs, which could possibly be expanded to hundreds of trade items in coming weeks, would rattle its export-dependent economy.
 
South Korean political leaders urged Japan to immediately withdraw the measures they described as “unjust economic retaliation” that would seriously harm bilateral relations and cooperation.
 
The leaders of conservative parties also called for Moon to take more aggressive diplomatic steps, such as pushing for a summit with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe or sending a special envoy to Japan.

Earlier on Thursday, South Korea’s central bank lowered its policy rate for the first time in three years to combat a faltering economy that faces further risks created by the trade row with Japan.

“Japan’s export restriction measures are an unjust economic retaliation that violates the order of free trade and seriously damages friendly and mutually beneficial relationships between South Korea and Japan,”  the South Korean parties and presidential Blue House said in a joint statement after the meeting.
 
Moon during the meeting said that a united front between the government and political parties would “send a good message to Japan and increase the negotiation leverage of our government and companies.”

Hwang Kyo-ahn, leader of the conservative Liberty Korea Party, called for Moon to push for a quick meeting with Abe or send high-level special envoys to Tokyo and Washington, a treaty ally with both Asian nations, to help resolve the standoff.
 
“The government doesn’t have concrete plans and is just appealing to the emotions of our people with words. However, words and emotions cannot solve this problem,” Hwang said.  “Core issues should be resolved between the leaders of both countries … I think the president should solve this with a top-down approach.”
 
The dispute erupted earlier this month when Tokyo tightened controls on the exports of photoresists and two other chemicals to South Korean companies that use them to produce semiconductors and display screens for smartphones and TVs.
 
Seoul has accused Tokyo of weaponizing trade to retaliate against South Korean court rulings calling for Japanese companies to compensate aging South Korean plaintiffs for forced labor during World War II, and plans to file a complaint with the World Trade Organization.
 
Tokyo said the issue has nothing to do with historical issues between the countries and says the materials affected by the export controls can be sent only to trustworthy trading partners. Without presenting specific examples, it has questioned Seoul’s credibility in controlling the exports of arms and items that can be used both for civilian and military purposes.
 
South Korea has rejected the Japanese claims and proposed an inquiry by the United Nations Security Council or another international body on the export controls of both countries.
 
South Korea is also bracing for the possibility that Japan will take further steps by removing it from a 27-country “whitelist” receiving preferential treatment in trade.

Its removal from the list would require Japanese companies to apply for case-by-case approvals for exports to South Korea of hundreds of items deemed sensitive, not just the three materials affected by the trade curbs that took effect July 4. It will also allow Japanese authorities to restrict any export to South Korea when they believe there are security concerns.

“The Japanese government should immediately withdraw its economic retaliation measure and clearly understand that additional measures such as the removal from the whitelist would threaten South Korea-Japan relations and the security cooperation in Northeast Asia,” said Choi Do-ja, spokeswoman of the conservative Bareun Mirae Party.

 

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Budget Watchdog Says No-Deal Brexit Will Spur UK Recession

The U.K. will plunge into recession if it leaves the European Union without a divorce deal, with the pound plunging in value and the economy shrinking by 2% in a year, Britain’s official economic watchdog said Thursday.

The Office for Budget Responsibility made its assessment as chances of an economically disruptive no-deal Brexit appear to be rising.  Both men vying to take over next week as Britain’s prime minister, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, say they will lead the U.K. out of the bloc, with or without an agreement on terms.

They claim that Britain can withstand any resulting turbulence, but most economists predict the economic shock would be severe.

The OBR, which provides the U.K. government with independent economic forecasts, said a no-deal Brexit would see “heightened uncertainty and declining confidence deter investment, while higher trade barriers with the EU weigh on exports.”
 
It predicted GDP would fall by 2% by the end of 2020 in a no-deal scenario, and borrowing would be around 30 billion pounds ($37 billion) a year higher from 2020-21 than it forecast in March.

Britain is due to leave the EU on Oct. 31, but Parliament has repeatedly rejected the divorce deal truck between Prime Minister Theresa May and the bloc. Johnson and Hunt, who are vying to replace May as Conservative party leader and prime minister, both say they will leave without an agreement if the EU won’t renegotiate.

The bloc insists it won’t change the 585-page withdrawal agreement, which sets out the terms of Britain’s departure and includes a transition period of almost two years to allow both sides to adjust to their new relationship.

“This document is the only way to leave the EU in an orderly manner,” EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier told the BBC in an interview broadcast Thursday.

Three years after British voters narrowly chose to leave the 28-nation EU, it remains stuck in limbo. May announced her resignation last month after failing to win Parliament’s approval for her Brexit deal.
 
Her successor is being chosen by members of the Conservative Party, most of whom are strongly in favor of Brexit and prepared to accept the risks of leaving without a deal. Johnson is the strong favorite to win the contest when the result is announced Tuesday.

He claims that Britain can flourish outside the EU if it has enough optimism and “mojo,” and says a no-deal Brexit will be “vanishingly inexpensive” if the country prepares properly.

Many others are less sanguine.

Treasury chief Philip Hammond, who has warned about the perils of a no-deal Brexit _ and is likely to be fired by the next prime minister _ said “I greatly fear the impact on our economy and our public finances of a no-deal Brexit.

He said the OBR forecast was based on the “most benign version” of a no-deal Brexit, and in all likelihood “the hit would be much greater, the impact would be much harder.”

Meanwhile, the relationship between the British government and the EU has been frayed by years of testy negotiations and allegations of ill-will on both sides.

EU Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans told a BBC documentary that the British lacked a plan and were “running around like idiots” during the Brexit negotiations. He cited a catchphrase from the classic British sitcom “Dads’ Army”: “Don’t panic!”

Junior U.K. Brexit minister Martin Callanan accused Timmermans of spreading “childish insults” about the British negotiating stance. Quoting another famous riposte from “Dad’s Army,” he said Timmermans was a “stupid boy.”

 

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