In This Episode
- A more infectious coronavirus variant called the Delta variant is becoming the dominant strain in the UK, accounting for more than 60 percent of new infections there. We discuss what we know and don’t know about the variant, which has yet to take hold in a major way in the U.S.
- International law enforcement agencies arrested more than 800 people in a sting operation that had criminals sending messages through an app they believed was secure…but was actually created and overseen by the FBI.
- And in headlines: activists protest a pipeline’s construction in Minnesota, U.S. billionaires pay little in federal taxes, and Sir Richard Branson could try to race Jeff Bezos to space.
Akilah Hughes: It’s Wednesday, June 9th. I’m Akilah Hughes
Gideon Resnick: And I’m Gideon Resnick, and this is What A Day, the podcast where we devote 90% of our day to fighting off ransomware attacks.
Akilah Hughes: Yeah, our priorities are basically cybersecurity first, news second, and honestly it has worked so far, so . . .
Gideon Resnick: Yeah, I mean, hosting is something we do in between defensive hacking.
Akilah Hughes: Yeah. It was just all part of our liberal arts degrees.
Gideon Resnick: On today’s show, we’ll tell you the story of how the FBI suckered criminals to use its own messaging app, leading to hundreds of arrests around the world. Plus, we’ll have headlines.
Akilah Hughes: But first, the latest:
[clip of Dr. Fauci] In the U.K., the Delta variant is the rapidly emerging as the dominant variant, greater than 60%. It is replacing the B117.
Akilah Hughes: That was Dr. Anthony Fauci during a briefing yesterday talking about the so-called Delta variant of the coronavirus. It was first identified in India and has led to some growing concerns by world health officials about its spread. We’ll talk more about that in a moment, but first, Gideon tell us where things stand in India itself right now.
Gideon Resnick: Yes, the comparatively good news is that yesterday reportedly marked the first time in over two months that India recorded less than 100,000 new cases in one day. Of course, that is obviously a ton. But last month when the country was seeing a new peak, we were talking about daily numbers topping 400,000 at times. There is a really long way to go, however, and authorities there report that only about 4% of the total population has been vaccinated thus far. But beginning later this month, all adults are supposed to be able to access free vaccine. So that is a hopeful sign. Now, that Delta variant is believed to have played a major role in India’s huge surge. And we’re also learning more about it as it has been detected in over 60 countries like the UK and the US.
Akilah Hughes: That’s right. And Fauci was talking about some of the information we’ve gotten out of the U.K. So what’s happening over there?
Gideon Resnick: A lot. So the country’s health secretary said on Monday that the Delta variant is at least 40% more infectious than the Alpha variant first found in the U.K., which was already more infectious than the original strain. So infectious upon infectious—not good. Plus, Delta is becoming the dominant strain in the U.K., as Fauci mentioned. And the tricky thing is that there is this important date that’s coming up June 21st, which is when the U.K. is supposed to fully reopen after lots and lots of lockdowns. They, like us, have been pretty successful in vaccinating people with over 50% or so of adults having received two doses so far. But the glass half empty part of that is that there are 50% of people without protection. And recently, the U.K. has seen a doubling of cases in just about a week. The overall numbers are much, much, much smaller than previous surges because there have been so many vaccinations. But the country is in this sort of wait and see mode before an ultimate decision on reopening gets made.
Akilah Hughes: OK, so we mentioned how contagious the Delta variant is believed to be, but what do we know about whether it makes people more sick, or how the vaccines work against it?
Gideon Resnick: Yeah, it’s kind of challenging to get a full definitive answer on the severity part. But on vaccines, the majority of new cases in the U.K. are among the unvaccinated population. So it does look like you are protected if you are vaccinated. And the serious cases are mostly people who are not vaccinated or only partially. It does really seem as though the efficacy of one shot might drop a ton with this variant. Then Bloomberg News reported that some doctors in India are seeing strange health complications they believe to be linked to the Delta variant, including hearing impairment, clotting and gastric issues. But the read for now seems to be that people want to figure out more definitively if it is causing more severe disease overall.
Akilah Hughes: Yeah, definitely. And to finish, let’s bring it home to the U.S. and what Fauci was saying at the top of the show, what do U.S. health officials know so far, and what’s the plan?
Gideon Resnick: Yeah, so he also said that the variant accounts for something like 6% of known new infections in the U.S. That’s compared to more than 60% of new infections in the U.K. So obviously a difference in scale. But he added that two rounds of either the Pfizer or AstraZeneca vaccine is about 88% effective at symptomatic disease—those are the ones they’re using in the U.K.—with that rate dropping way off if you’ve only gotten one. So once again, the plan seems to be to try and vaccinate more and more people to prevent any more spread of this variant or others in the US. But there’s evidence that vaccination rates are still dropping in the country ahead of the Biden administration’s July 4th goal. And now some state officials are concerned that millions of doses of the J&J vaccine that they have on hand could actually expire soon after sitting unused. So, yeah, all of that is happening, while there is a push for more of the US surplus to be sent abroad, we’re going to follow that dynamic in the days to come, as well as more on this variant here and across the world. Shifting gears, though, Akilah, there is an absolutely wild story about the FBI, an app, and a global sting. What is happening here?
Akilah Hughes: All right. So it is kind of cool to have a weird, fun bit of news for once. Anyway, so for three years, high-profile criminals were using phones equipped with a messaging app called Anom. But if there was ever a lesson in learning to read the terms of service it’s this: the app was run by the FBI, which is the last organization you want running an app where you plan your crimes.
Gideon Resnick: Mm hmm. Ain’t that the truth? So tell us about how it all shook out.
Akilah Hughes: All right. So for three years, the feds were engaged in “Operation Trojan Shield”—weird name—and basically, instead of trying to access data from an encrypted app and having to fight all these private companies, the FBI simply decided to make their own app. And in that time they intercepted something like 20 million messages. But if you don’t have the app and have never heard of it—as I suspect is the situation most people listening find themselves in—that’s probably because the apps came preloaded on phones distributed by FBI informants among crime rings. And it wasn’t long before higher level crime bosses started embracing it.
Gideon Resnick: Never trust a burner. So it’s kind of like how we all got a TikTok in the pandemic because people who used it seemed like they were having some fun.
Akilah Hughes: Yeah, it’s definitely something like that. I mean, the scope isn’t quite TikTok numbers, but some 12,000 encrypted devices were used by upwards of 300 criminal syndicates in more than 100 countries. It was way more popular than Trump’s short-lived blog, but really, that’s not saying much.
Gideon Resnick: No.
Akilah Hughes: Anyway, the data gathered was utilized by law enforcement worldwide, and it led to more than 800 arrests. The crimes run the gamut from money laundering to murder to illegal purchases, including luxury vehicles and, of course, drugs. They seized more than 48 million dollars USD, and in one sting, police seized three tons of drugs and acted on 20 quote “threats to kill” in Australia. Here’s Calvin Shivers from the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division:
[clip of Calvin Shivers] To give you an idea of the magnitude of our penetration, we were able to actually see photographs of hundreds of tons of cocaine that were concealed in shipments of fruit. We were able to see hundreds of kilos of cocaine that were concealed in canned goods.
Gideon Resnick: Honestly relatively inventive to put drugs into a pineapple. Points there, I suppose. Interesting language to use as well. [laughs] OK, so the secret is out now. Why did the FBI tattle on itself if the app was working?
Akilah Hughes: Well, they claim that their wiretap authorizations were almost up for renewal, and since this thing had already gathered so much evidence, they felt like they were all good on info, at least the info that they gathered on their own app. But obviously, this entire ruse was put together because law enforcement got tired of working with companies like Apple and Facebook to retrieve encrypted messages as a way to skirt the privacy those companies allow. Wild that you would have had a better chance of planning your international crimes on Facebook, but that is the era that we’re living in. Everything is sus. We’ll let you know if any more details come through, but that’s the latest for now.
Akilah Hughes: It’s Wednesday, WAD squad, and for today’s Temp check, we’re talking about what’s to come in post-pandemic fashion: specifically high-heel Crocs. They’re coming. Balenciaga revealed on Sunday that teaming up with Crocs to make a shoe that’s both ‘mom on vacation’ and ‘Gen Z hype beast.’ The stilettos look basically exactly how you think they look, and they will be sold alongside new knee-high platform Croc boots. Balenciaga has worked with Crocs before to make $850 platform clogs that sold out almost immediately. The stilettos should sell fast too, when they come out next spring. So if you want to spring your ankle in Frankenstein’s boat shoe, you’ll have to move very quickly. Giddy, my question for you, would you cop, and if not, what summer looks will you be trying out in the next few months?
Gideon Resnick: I think I would keep it as like a token of this era, perhaps try to sell it for it like inflated-chicken-nugget prices, and see where things go from there. The summer look that I have been trying out recently is basically that tweet that’s like every guy just looks like that scene in Pulp Fiction of Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta—
Akilah Hughes: Yeah.
Gideon Resnick: With long shirts like relatively short shorts.
Akilah Hughes: Yeah. [laughs]
Gideon Resnick: Because it is, it’s just blisteringly hot and I haven’t figured out another solve beyond looking raggedy like that. Same question for you here, Akilah, what’s, what’s the word on these?
Akilah Hughes: If these costs more than 50 bucks like most Crocs—sorry, I mean, they’re cheaper than that [laughs]—if it’s one of the most Crocs, I just don’t see me spending the money on a heel version just because the pandemic for me was about comfort. I’m not ready to break my foot again wearing heels. It’s OK if I’m a foot shorter than everyone at events. I don’t care. My feet hurt. My summer look seems to be like bike shorts, even though I don’t have a bike anymore. And like, it’s, you know, maybe just like tank tops and T-shirts as well. It’s very similar. But I like a bike short. I feel like that’s a nice way to not have your thighs chafing all up on each other, you know. Thick thighs save lives, but the summer it doesn’t feel that way. That is all for today. Stay safe. Wear something cute this summer. And we’ll be back after some ads.
Akilah Hughes: Let’s wrap up with some headlines.
Gideon Resnick: On Sunday, a man drove his pickup truck into a Muslim family of five, killing four of them and seriously injuring the other at an intersection in the Canadian city of London, Ontario. After what the police called a, quote “planned, premeditated attack motivated by hate” the suspect was arrested Sunday night and has been charged with four counts of first degree murder and one count of attempted murder. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has described the attacks as an act of terrorism and tweeted, quote “To the Muslim community in London and to Muslims across the country, know that we stand with you. Islamophobia has no place in any of our communities. This hate is insidious and despicable – and it must stop.”
Akilah Hughes: Despite over 100 people getting arrested on Monday, activists are still camping out at a Minnesota construction site protesting against a $9.3 billion oil pipeline expansion project there. At the beginning of the week, Indigenous leaders and more than a thousand protesters chained themselves to construction equipment, laid down in front of construction paths, and blocked access to workers. This Enbridge Energy oil pipeline would expand the line’s capacity to almost 800,000 barrels of oil per day. Not only would it run through tribal land and violate treaties with Native American groups, but critics say it could deepen North America’s reliance on fossil fuels and pose an environmental threat to Minnesota waterways in the case of oil spills. More than 200 activists are still occupying the site, and protesters are calling on Joe Biden to call off the project.
Gideon Resnick: Here’s the latest on the billionaire’s-only edition of Turbo Tax that lets you select “keep all money’: a new report from ProPublica found that 25 of the richest Americans, including Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Warren Buffett—our favorite, uh, three gentlemen—paid a true tax rate of only 3.4% in 2014 to 2018, even though their net worth skyrocketed by $400 billion combined during that period. Now, to compare, the average American household pays 14% in federal taxes. So we get the pride of supporting crucial social programs, Jeff Bezos gets a boat that contains 19 other boats for himself. The report says that even though they technically aren’t doing anything illegal, billionaires have access to tax avoidance strategies that normal people do not have, and they possess assets like stocks that grow but can’t be taxed. Skillfully zeroing in on the least important part of the story, though, the IRS announced that it’ll be investigating ProPublica to find out how they were able to acquire the billionaire’s confidential tax records. Oy.
Akilah Hughes: Oh, my gosh. Come on, IRS, do something right for once. Anyway. Well, thankfully, rich guys are using all this money they’re saving for good. And by good, we mean racing each other to leave the planet. That race got more interesting yesterday after rumors surfaced that Sir Richard Branson might try to ride in a rocket ship before his rival Jeff Bezos. Bezos’s Blue Origin will launch its first crewed flight on July 20th with Jeff and his brother on board. According to the space blog Parabolic Arc, Branson is now hoping to fly on one of his Virgin Galactic spaceships on the weekend of July 4th. Whoever gets to space first gets to tell the aliens it’s against their best to unionize. Sorry, that’s your burden. Branson’s plan has reportedly been in the works for a while, but it would require his company to get approval from the Federal Aviation Administration. Of course, the approval that matters here cannot be found in government or in space, it only exists in the cold, distant eyes of the businessman astronauts’ dads.
Gideon Resnick: Yeah. Quick, someone tell them that you love them before they do this.
Akilah Hughes: Yeah. Just act like you’re proud of them for five minutes, please. [laughs] And those are the headlines.
Akilah Hughes: One more thing before we go, a clarification on our story yesterday about the Supreme Court, which ruled that immigrants with temporary protected status are not eligible for a green card if they entered the U.S. unlawfully. That ruling does not affect people with refugee status or who claimed asylum.
Gideon Resnick: That is all for today. If you like the show, make sure you subscribe, leave a review, be careful if you’re in high-heel clogs, and tell your friends, listen.
Akilah Hughes: And if you’re in the reading, and not just encrypted crime text at your job at the FBI like me, What A Day is also a nightly newsletter. Check it out and subscribe at Crooked.com/subscribe. I’m Akilah Hughes.
Gideon Resnick: I’m Gideon Resnick.
[together] And there’s still time to get to space. Warren Buffett!
Akilah Hughes: Do it. Just go today. What’s stopping you?
Gideon Resnick: Seriously, weekend before July 4th, no bookings in space. It’s all yours.
Akilah Hughes: Right. All that time you’re not paying taxes, you should be getting ready to go to space.
Gideon Resnick: Agreed.
Akilah Hughes: What A Day is a production of Crooked Media.
Gideon Resnick: It’s recorded and mixed by Charlotte Landes.
Akilah Hughes: Sonia Htoon and Jazzi Marine are our associate producers.
Gideon Resnick: Our head writer is Jon Millstein, and our executive producers are Leo Duran, Akilah Hughes and me.
Akilah Hughes: Our theme music is by Colin Gilliard and Kashaka.