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US Tech Companies Reconsider Saudi Investment

5 hours 45 min ago
The controversy over the death of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi has shined a harsh light on the growing financial ties between Silicon Valley and the world's largest oil exporter. As Saudi Arabia's annual investment forum in Riyadh — dubbed "Davos in the Desert" — continues, representatives from many of the kingdom's highest-profile overseas tech investments are not attending, joining other international business leaders in shunning a conference amid lingering questions over what role the Saudi government played in the killing of a journalist inside their consulate in Turkey. Tech leaders such as Steve Case, the co-founder of AOL, and Dara Khosrowshahi, the chief executive of Uber, declined to attend this week's annual investment forum in Riyadh. Even the CEO of Softbank, which has received billions of dollars from Saudi Arabia to back technology companies, reportedly has canceled his planned speech at the event. But the Saudi controversy is focusing more scrutiny on the ethics of taking money from an investor who is accused of wrongdoing or whose track record is questionable. Fueling the tech race In the tech startup world, Saudi investment has played a key role in allowing firms to delay going public for years while they pursue a high-growth strategy without worrying about profitability. Those ties have only grown with the ascendancy of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the son of the Saudi king. The kingdom's Public Investment Fund has put $3.5 billion into Uber and has a seat on Uber's 12-member board. Saudi Arabia also has invested more than $1 billion into Lucid Motors, a California electric car startup, and $400 million in Magic Leap, an augmented reality startup based in Florida. Almost half of the Japanese Softbank's $93 billion Vision Fund came from the Saudi government. The Vision Fund has invested in a Who's Who list of tech startups, including WeWork, Wag, DoorDash and Slack.  Now there are reports that as the cloud hangs over the crown prince, Softbank's plan for a second Vision fund may be on hold. And Saudi money might have trouble finding a home in the future in Silicon Valley, where companies are competing for talented workers, as well as customers. The tech industry is not alone in questioning its relationship with the Saudi government in the wake of Khashoggi's death or appearing to rethink its Saudi investments. Museums, universities and other business sectors that have benefited financially from their connections to the Saudis also are taking a harder look at those relationships. Who are my investors? Saudi money plays a large role in Silicon Valley, touching everything from ride-hailing firms to business-messaging startups, but it is not the only foreign investment in the region. More than 20 Silicon Valley venture companies have ties to Chinese government funding, according to Reuters, with the cash fueling tech startups. The Beijing-backed funds have raised concerns that strategically important technology, such as artificial intelligence, is being transferred to China. And Kremlin money has backed a prominent Russian venture capitalist in the Valley who has invested in Twitter and Facebook. The Saudi controversy has prompted some in the Valley to question their investors about where those investors are getting their funding. Fred Wilson, a prominent tech venture capitalist, received just such an inquiry. "I expect to get more emails like this in the coming weeks as the start-up and venture community comes to grip with the flood of money from bad actors that has found its way into the start-up/tech sector over the last decade," he wrote in a blog post titled "Who Are My Investors?" "Bad actors' doesn't simply mean money from rulers in the gulf who turn out to be cold blooded killers," Wilson wrote. "It also means money from regions where dictators rule viciously and restrict freedom."  This may be a defining ethical moment in Silicon Valley, as it moves away from its libertarian roots to seeing the world in its complexity, said Ann Skeet, senior director of leadership ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. "Corporate leaders are moving more quickly and decisively than the administration, and they realize they have a couple of hats here — one, they are the chief strategist of their organization, and they also play the role of the responsible person who creates space for the right conversations to happen," she said. Tech's evolving ethics Responding to demands from their employees and customers, Silicon Valley firms are looking more seriously at business ethics and taking moral stands. In the case of Google, it meant discontinuing a U.S. Defense Department contract involving artificial intelligence. In the case of WeWork, the firm now forbids the consumption of meat at the office or purchased with company expenses, on environmental grounds. The Vision Fund will "undoubtedly find itself in a more challenging environment in convincing startups to take its money," Amir Anvarzadeh, a senior strategist at Asymmetric Advisors in Singapore, recently told Bloomberg. 

Low-tech Tools Can Fight Land Corruption, Experts Say

7 hours 5 min ago
Technological solutions to prevent land corruption require resources, but they do not have to be expensive, land rights experts said Tuesday. Satellite imagery, cloud computing and blockchain are among technologies with the potential to help many of the world's more than 1 billion people estimated to lack secure property rights. But they can be expensive and require experts to be trained. That's where low-tech solutions such as Cadastre Registry Inventory Without Paper (CRISP) can be useful, said Ketakandriana Rafitoson, executive director of global anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International (TI) in Madagascar. CRISP helps local activists in Madagascar, one of the world's poorest countries, document land ownership using tablets with fingerprint readers and built-in cameras, which cost $20 a day to rent. Users can take pictures of ID cards, location agreements, photos of landowners, their neighbors and any witnesses who were present during land demarcation, Rafitoson told the International Anti-Corruption Conference. Lack of trust One challenge in Madagascar is a lack of trust in politicians, Rafitoson said, meaning it is better if local charities are involved, too. "If we just leave the land authorities with the community, it doesn't work because they don't trust each other," she said. Corruption in land management ranges from local officials demanding bribes for basic administrative duties to high-level political decisions being unduly influenced, according to TI. The Dashboard, a tool developed by the International Land Coalition (ILC), is also putting local people at the center of monitoring land deals, said Eva Hershaw, a data specialist at the ILC, a global alliance of nonprofit organizations working on improving land governance. The Dashboard is being tested in Colombia, Nepal and Senegal, where it allows ILC's local partners to collect data based on 30 core indicators, including monitoring legal frameworks and how laws are implemented. Next week, TI Zambia will launch a new phone-based platform, which can advise Zambians on various aspects of land acquisition and guide them through processes around it. Rueben Lifuka, president of TI Zambia, said users can also report corruption through the platform, including requests for bribes.  Those affected by corruption can decide whether a copy will be sent to the local authorities, and TI can then track the response. An improvement in internet coverage in Zambia means it is becoming easier to develop technologies such as the platform, which cost about $34,000 to develop, Lifuka said.

Apple Offers a Range of iPhones, From $450 to $1,100

Tue, 10/23/2018 - 22:47
Apple’s new iPhone XR has most of the features found in the top-of-the-line iPhone XS Max, but not its $1,100 price tag. The XR offers the right trade-offs for just $750. For something cheaper, you’ll need to look in the iPhone history bin. Older models are still quite good. If you’re shopping for a new phone, it pays to think hard about what you really want and what you’re willing to pay for it. Improvements over the previous generation tend to be incremental, but can add up over time — and so do the sums you’ll pay for them. IPHONE 7 ($449) The big jump in iPhone cameras came a generation earlier with the iPhone 6S, when Apple went from 8 megapixels to 12 megapixels in resolution. With the iPhone 7, the front camera goes from 5 megapixels to 7 megapixels, so selfies don’t feel as inferior. The iPhone 7 is Apple’s first to lose the standard headphone jack. Headphones go into its Lightning port, which is used for both charging and data transfer. It’s a pain when you want to listen to music while recharging the phone. For that, you need $159 wireless earphones called AirPods. Apple no longer includes an adapter for standard headphones; one will set you back $9 if you need it. IPHONE 7 PLUS ($569) This larger version of the iPhone 7 has a second camera lens in the back, allowing for twice the magnification without any degradation in image quality. It also lets the camera gauge depth and blur backgrounds in portrait shots, something once limited to full-featured SLR cameras. The dual-lens camera alone is a good reason to go for a Plus, though the larger size isn’t a good fit for those with small hands or small pockets. IPHONE 8 ($599) New color filters in the camera produce truer and richer colors, while a new flash technique tries to light the foreground and background more evenly. Differences are subtle, though. The year-old model, similar in size to the iPhone 7, restores a glass back found in the earliest iPhones. That’s done so you can charge it on a wireless-charging mat, which also solves the problem of listening to music while charging. But with more glass, it’s even more important to get a case and perhaps a service plan. IPHONE 8 PLUS ($699) Again, the Plus version has a larger screen and a second lens. For those shots with blurred backgrounds, a new feature lets you add filters to mimic studio and other lighting conditions. IPHONE XR ($749) The display on Apple’s latest model, which comes out Friday, lacks the vivid colors, contrast quality and resolution of the pricier iPhone XS and XS Max. As with the XS models, though, you’ll still get a display that largely runs from edge to edge. Gone is most of the surrounding bezel along with the home button. Many tasks now require swipes rather than presses. The fingerprint ID sensor is replaced with facial recognition to unlock the phone. There’s more display than the regular XS, but the phone itself is also larger — just not as large as the Max. The camera continues to improve, with better focus and low-light capabilities. Many shots now blend four exposures rather than two for better lighting balance in suboptimal conditions. The XR doesn’t have the dual-lens camera, though it can offer some of the blurred-background effect with software. IPHONE XS ($999) As with the iPhone X it replaces, the new XS also has an edge-to-edge display. The display has about the same surface area as the iPhone 7 Plus and 8 Plus, while the phone itself is only slightly larger than the regular iPhone 7 and 8. Improved display technology means vivid colors and better contrasts, including black that is black rather than simply dark. You also get a dual-lens camera. IPHONE XS MAX ($1,099) This is essentially the “Plus” version of the iPhone XS. The phone itself is about the size of the Plus, but with more room for the display. This phone won’t feel big for existing Plus users, but think twice if you have small hands or small pockets. WHILE SUPPLIES LAST Apple no longer sells the iPhone SE , which is essentially a three-year-old iPhone 6S, packed in a body that’s smaller but thicker than the iPhone 7 and 8. Though the trend in phones has been to go bigger, some people preferred the smaller size — and the $350 price tag. You can try to get it from some wireless carriers and other retailers, at least for now. ALL IN THE MEMORY If you get an SE, 7 or 7 Plus, consider spending another $100 to quadruple the storage. Those phones come with a paltry 32 gigabytes, just half of what’s standard these days. If you don’t upgrade, you risk filling up your phone quickly with photos, video, songs and podcasts.  

Twitter Removes Accounts Linked to Alex Jones, Infowars

Tue, 10/23/2018 - 22:03
Twitter has removed some accounts thought to be used to circumvent a ban on conspiracy-monger Alex Jones and Infowars, the company said Tuesday. A Twitter spokesman confirmed that the accounts had been removed but provided no additional comment. The company says it usually does not discuss specific accounts. Twitter permanently suspended @realalexjones and @infowars from Twitter and Periscope in early September. It said it based that action in reports of tweets and videos that violated its policy against abusive behavior. The company said it would continue to evaluate reports regarding other accounts potentially associated with @realalexjones or @infowars and would take action if it finds content that violates its rules or if other accounts are used to try to circumvent their ban. Other tech companies, including PayPal, YouTube, Apple and Spotify, have limited or banned Jones' activities on their sites. Infowars has said the moves are intended to sabotaging the site just weeks before the midterm elections. On Twitter and elsewhere, Jones has done such things as describe survivors of a shooting in Parkland, Florida, "crisis actors" and saying the mass killing at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012 was fake. He had about 900,000 followers on Twitter. Infowars had about 430,000.

An Avatar Is Going to Help Police Guard European Borders

Tue, 10/23/2018 - 13:35
A new artificial intelligence program could make land borders across Europe more secure. When a pilot program begins next month, an avatar - called i-Border-Control - will help police guard several border crossings within the 26-nation, European Schengen Area. The technology was introduced this weekend (October 20) at a science festival hosted by Manchester Metropolitan University. VOA’s Mariama Diallo reports.

US Regulator Orders Halt to Self-Driving School Bus Test in Florida

Tue, 10/23/2018 - 05:48
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on Monday said it had ordered Transdev North America to immediately stop transporting schoolchildren in Florida in a driverless shuttle as the testing could be putting them at "inappropriate" risk. The auto safety agency known as NHTSA said in an order issued late Friday that Transdev's use of its EZ10 Generation II driverless shuttle in the Babcock Ranch community in southwest Florida was "unlawful and in violation of the company's temporary importation authorization." "Innovation must not come at the risk of public safety," said Deputy NHTSA Administrator Heidi King in a statement. "Using a non-compliant test vehicle to transport children is irresponsible, inappropriate, and in direct violation of the terms of Transdev's approved test project." In March, NHTSA granted Transdev permission to temporarily import the driverless shuttle for testing and demonstration purposes, but not as a school bus. The agency said the company had agreed to halt the tests. A spokeswoman for Transdev did not respond to several requests for comment Monday. Transdev North America is a unit of Transdev, which is controlled by France state-owned investment fund Caisse des Depots et Consignations. The company in August issued a news release saying it would "operate school shuttle service starting this fall with an autonomous vehicle, the first in the world." Transdev said the 12-person shuttle bus would operate from a designated pickup area with a safety attendant on board, would travel at a top speed of 8 miles per hour (13 kph), with the potential to reach speeds of 30 mph (48 kph) once additional infrastructure was completed. There are numerous low-speed self-driving shuttles being tested in cities around the United States with many others planned. NHTSA previously said it was moving ahead with plans to revise safety rules that bar fully self-driving cars from the roads without equipment such as steering wheels, pedals and mirrors as the agency works to advance driverless vehicles. The agency has said it opposes proposals to require 'pre-approving' self-driving technologies before they are tested. NHTSA told Transdev that failure to take appropriate action could result in fines, the voiding of the temporary importation authorization or the exportation of the vehicle. Earlier this month, French utility Veolia agreed to sell its 30 percent stake in Transdev to Germany's Rethmann Group.

Individual Cooling Units Could Save Lives

Mon, 10/22/2018 - 13:27
The World Health Organization is closely watching the Ebola outbreak in Congo where the number of cases has risen to 185 since the outbreak started in August. One of the challenges for health workers fighting highly infectious diseases like Ebola is spending time in HazMat suits. They can be unwieldy and incredibly hot, but new technology could solve one of those problems. VOA's Kevin Enochs reports.

Tiny Wind Turbines Offer Sustainable Urban Alternative to Large Fans

Sun, 10/21/2018 - 12:14
When you think of wind energy, you tend to think of the massive constructs that dot hilly landscapes or the ocean horizon. But two researchers see a future where it's as common for wind turbines to show up in backyards and on rooftops and balconies. VOA's Kevin Enochs reports.

Using Tech to Save World's Most Endangered Species in Tanzania

Sat, 10/20/2018 - 12:29
In Tanzania, protecting endangered animals has become easier thanks to Earth Ranger. Earth Ranger is not a superhero, it's a technology platform, developed by Vulcan Inc., a company co-founded by U.S. philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. The system helps rangers remotely monitor elephants and other animals to stay ahead of poachers. Faiza Elmasry has the story. VOA's Faith Lapidus narrates.

Financial Watchdog: Regulate Cryptocurrencies Now, Or Else

Fri, 10/19/2018 - 23:42
A global financial body says governments worldwide must establish rules for virtual currencies like bitcoin to stop criminals from using them to launder money or finance terrorism. The Financial Action Task Force said Friday that from next year it will start assessing whether countries are doing enough to fight criminal use of virtual currencies. Countries that don't could risk being effectively put on a "gray list" by the FATF, which can scare away investors. Marshall Billingslea, an assistant U.S. Treasury secretary who holds the FATF's rotating leadership, said, "We've made clear today that every jurisdiction must establish" virtual currency rules. "It's no longer optional." The FATF described how the Islamic State group and al-Qaida have used virtual currencies. Financial regulators worldwide have struggled to deal with the rise of electronic alternatives to traditional money.

Former Deputy UK Leader Nick Clegg Takes Post with Facebook

Fri, 10/19/2018 - 23:24
Facebook has hired former U.K. deputy prime minister Nick Clegg to head its global policy and communications teams, enlisting a veteran of European Union politics to help it with increased regulatory scrutiny in the region. Clegg, 51, will become a vice president of the social media giant, and report to Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg. Clegg will be called upon to help Facebook and other Silicon Valley stalwarts grapple with a changing regulatory landscape globally. European Union regulators are interested in reining in mostly American tech giants who they blame for avoiding tax, stifling competition and encroaching on privacy rights. Clegg led the Liberal Democrats from 2007 to 2015, including five years in the coalition government with the Conservatives. He lost his Sheffield Hallam seat at last year's general election.

French Startup Offers Visions of Damaged Middle Eastern Cities

Fri, 10/19/2018 - 13:01
The Syrian government says the ancient city of Palmyra, gravely damaged by IS militants, could reopen to the public next spring. But, while restoration continues on the ground, one French startup is showing people how Palmyra and other cities affected by war once looked, how they look now, and how they might look after restoration. Kevin Enochs explains.

Data Project Aims to Stop Human Trafficking Before It Occurs

Fri, 10/19/2018 - 05:50
Computer giant IBM Corp., financial services company Western Union Co. and European police launched a project Thursday to share financial data that  they said may one day be able to predict human trafficking before it occurs. The shared data hub will collect information on money moving around the world and compare it with known ways that traffickers move their illicit gains, highlighting red flags signaling potential trafficking, organizers said. "We will build and aggregate that material, using IBM tools, into an understanding of hot spots and routes and trends," said Neil Giles, a director at global anti-slavery group Stop the Traffik, which is participating in the project. Data collection, digital tools and modern technology are the latest weapons in the fight against human trafficking, estimated to be a $150 billion-a-year global business, according to the International Labor Organization. The U.N. has set a goal of 2030 for ending forced labor and modern slavery worldwide, with more than 40 million people estimated to be enslaved around the world. Certain patterns and suspicious activity might trigger a block of a transaction or an investigation into possible forced labor or sex slavery, organizers said. The project will utilize IBM's internet cloud services as well as artificial intelligence and machine learning to compare data and to spot specific trafficking terms, said Sophia Tu, director of IBM Corporate Citizenship. With a large volume of high-quality data, the hub one day may predict trafficking before it happens, she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "You can't do it today because we're in the process of building out that amount of data and those capabilities, but it's in the road map for what we want to do," she said. While law enforcement is teaming up with banks and data specialists to chase trafficking, experts have cautioned that it can be a cat-and-mouse game in which traffickers quickly move on to new tactics to elude capture. Also, less than 1 percent of the estimated $1.5 trillion-plus laundered by criminals worldwide each year through the financial system is frozen or confiscated, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. Along with IBM and Western Union, participants include Europol, Europe's law enforcement agency; telecommunications giant Liberty Global; and British banks Barclays and Lloyds, organizers said.

Rural Americans Struggle with Poor Broadband Access

Thu, 10/18/2018 - 21:30
Even in the country that invented the internet, access has remained painfully slow for many rural residents in places like the central state of Arkansas, far from the big cities of the East and West coasts. That may be about to change. The Federal Communications Commission — a government agency — recently auctioned off almost $1.5 billion in subsidies to get broadband providers to serve an additional 700,000 American homes over the next 10 years. Additional such auctions are planned. For rural residents in Arkansas — ranked as one of the worst connected states in the country — it cannot come too soon. "Remember dial-up?" That's how Ashley Vaughan responds when she's asked to describe her internet speed at home. She's a resident of Pangburn, Arkansas, a town of about 600 people. After leaving the area for a few years, she returned in 2015. ​"[Internet speed is] still as crappy as it ever was," Vaughan said. "I was trying to watch Hulu [a streaming network], and my husband was trying to load a webpage at the same time, and neither of them worked."​ Rural areas The issue of poor broadband access — defined by the FCC as fewer than 25 megabits per second (Mbps) — is not uncommon. Almost 20 percent of the American population, or 60 million people, live in rural areas, which generally experience the least connectivity in the country.  Of those, around 15 million Americans have access to less than 10 Mbps. In Vaughan's case, she says her internet speed is only 0.05 Mbps. She's called her internet provider to complain, but was told her service was the best available where she lives. To get around the problem, many communities have sidestepped big companies and created municipal networks. Individually, some people spend extra on portable broadband access for their phones. That slow speed doesn't just mean fewer shows watched or video games played. It also impacts Vaughan's son's schoolwork, which increasingly requires use of a computer. Vaughan describes an instance in which her son took hours to download a single textbook, preventing anyone else in the house from using the internet during that time. Many households in the U.S. have been wired for DSL, or digital subscriber lines, permitting the transmission of high-speed internet data over telephone lines. Meanwhile, most suburban and urban areas have seen the installation of fiber and copper cables, providing faster service. But many rural areas have been left behind. "Fiber lines are expensive to install, and older copper lines are expensive to maintain," said Jameson Zimmer, a broadband analyst with BroadbandNow, a data aggregation company based in Los Angeles. On average, Zimmer says, it can cost tens of thousands of dollars to run fiber lines, depending on the complexity of the terrain and the length of the line. This means there are fewer internet providers willing to take on that financial burden — giving consumers fewer options.  "What to do about this is overwhelming," Zimmer said. Legislative push It's a problem that both Republican and Democratic party leaders are working to solve. U.S. Senator John Boozman of Arkansas has been one of the leaders in the push for legislation broadening access to high-speed internet. In an email to Voice of America, Boozman wrote that investing in affordable, high-speed internet would strengthen the American economy. He applauded President Donald Trump for signing an executive order earlier this year to expand broadband access into rural areas but said the issue needs attention from "all levels of government." "There is a sense of urgency in the need to close the rural broadband gap. Today, reliable connectivity is just as essential as traditional infrastructure like roads and bridges," Boozman wrote. "I've seen students sitting in the back of pickup trucks outside of schools in order to access the internet to complete their homework." Alisha Summerville feels that urgency. She's a co-owner of the online store ASK Apparel, which launched last year and is based in Pangburn. Even though she relies on her smartphone to do most of her work, the store earns $10,000 to $15,000 a month from online purchases and sells to customers in 18 states. The store earns an additional $5,000 to $10,000 through a brick-and-mortar store in the neighboring town of Heber Springs, but Summerville says the company was set up to serve online shoppers and it encourages foot traffic to become online traffic. "That's where business is going," Summerville said of internet sales. Summerville says she takes her internet connection into consideration every single time she makes a decision — from marketing and design to the equipment she uses. Having better broadband access at home would mean she could accomplish a lot more. "When your internet is down, so is your business," Summerville said. "When I'm thinking about internet, and I'm thinking about sales, I'm thinking about how much further we could reach."

Facebook's Election 'War Room' Takes Aim at Fake Information

Thu, 10/18/2018 - 20:49
In an otherwise innocuous part of Facebook’s expansive Silicon Valley campus, a locked door bears a taped-on sign that reads “War Room.” Behind the door lies a nerve center the social network has set up to combat fake accounts and bogus news stories ahead of upcoming elections. Inside the room are dozens of employees staring intently at their monitors while data streams across giant dashboards. On the walls are posters of the sort Facebook frequently uses to caution or exhort its employees. One reads, “Nothing at Facebook is somebody else’s problem.” That motto might strike some as ironic, given that the war room was created to counter threats that almost no one at the company, least of all CEO Mark Zuckerberg, took seriously just two years ago — and which the company’s critics now believe pose a threat to democracy. Days after President Donald Trump’s surprise victory, Zuckerberg brushed off assertions that the outcome had been influenced by fictional news stories on Facebook, calling the idea ”pretty crazy .” But Facebook’s blase attitude shifted as criticism of the company mounted in Congress and elsewhere. Later that year, it acknowledged having run thousands of ads promoting false information placed by Russian agents. Zuckerberg eventually made fixing Facebook his personal challenge for 2018. The war room is a major part of Facebook’s ongoing repairs. Its technology draws upon the artificial-intelligence system Facebook has been using to help identify “inauthentic” posts and user behavior. Facebook provided a tightly controlled glimpse at its war room to The Associated Press and other media ahead of the second round of presidential elections in Brazil on Oct. 28 and the U.S. midterm elections on Nov. 6. “There is no substitute for physical, real-world interaction,” said Samidh Chakrabarti, Facebook’s director of elections and civic engagement. “The primary thing we have learned is just how effective it is to have people in the same room all together.” More than 20 different teams now coordinate the efforts of more than 20,000 people — mostly contractors — devoted to blocking fake accounts and fictional news and stopping other abuses on Facebook and its other services. As part of the crackdown, Facebook also has hired fact checkers, including The Associated Press, to vet new stories posted on its social network. Facebook credits its war room and other stepped-up patrolling efforts for booting 1.3 billion fake accounts over the past year and jettisoning hundreds of pages set up by foreign governments and other agents looking to create mischief. But it remains unclear whether Facebook is doing enough, said Angelo Carusone, president of Media Matters For America, a liberal group that monitors misinformation. He noted that the sensational themes distributed in fictional news stories can be highly effective at keeping people “engaged” on Facebook — which in turn makes it possible to sell more of the ads that generate most of Facebook’s revenue. “What they are doing so far seems to be more about trying to prevent another public relations disaster and less so about putting in meaningful solutions to the problem,” Carusone said. “On balance, I would say they that are still way off.” Facebook disagrees with that assessment, although its efforts are still a work in progress. Chakrabarti, for instance, acknowledged that some “bugs” prevented Facebook from taking some unspecified actions to prevent manipulation efforts in the first round of Brazil’s presidential election earlier this month. He declined to elaborate. The war room is currently focused on Brazil’s next round of elections and upcoming U.S. midterms. Large U.S. and Brazilian flags hang on opposing walls and clocks show the time in both countries. Facebook declined to let the media scrutinize the computer screens in front of the employees, and required reporters to refrain from mentioning some of the equipment inside the war room, calling it “proprietary information.” While on duty, war-room workers are only allowed to leave the room for short bathroom breaks or to grab food to eat at their desks. Although no final decisions have been made, the war room is likely to become a permanent fixture at Facebook, said Katie Harbath, Facebook’s director of global politics and government outreach. “It is a constant arms race,” she said. “This is our new normal.”

Twitter Releases Tweets Showing Russian, Iranian Attempts to Influence US Politics

Thu, 10/18/2018 - 00:43
On Wednesday, Twitter released a collection of more than 10 million tweets related to thousands of accounts affiliated with Russia’s Internet Research Agency propaganda organization, as well as hundreds more troll accounts, including many based in Iran. The data, analyzed and released in a report by The Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, are made up of 3,841 accounts affiliated with the Russia-based Internet Research Agency, 770 other accounts potentially based in Iran as well as 10 million tweets and more than 2 million images, videos and other media. Russian trolls targeting U.S. politics took on personas from both the left and the right. Their primary goal appears to have been to sow discord, rather than promote any particular side, presumably with a goal of weakening the United States, the report said. DFRlab says the Russian trolls were often effective, drawing tens of thousands of retweets on certain posts including from celebrity commentators like conservative Ann Coulter. ​Some of the tweets posted: “Judgement Day is here. Please vote #TrumpPence16 to save our great nation from destruction! #draintheswamp #TrumpForPresident,” said a fake Election Day tweet in 2016. “Daily reminder: Trump still hasn’t imposed sanctions on Russia that were passed 4,193 in the House and 982 in the Senate. Shouldn’t that be grounds for impeachment?” said another tweet in March of this year. Multiple goals The Russian operation had multiple goals, including interfering in the U.S. presidential election, polarizing online communities, and weakening trust in American institutions, according to the DFRLab. “The thing to understand is that the Russians were equal opportunity partisans,” Graham Brookie, one of the researchers behind the analysis, told VOA News. “There was a very specific focus on specific ideological communities and specific demographics.” Following an initial push to prevent Hillary Clinton from being elected in 2016, the analysis identified a “second wave” of fake accounts, many of which were focused on infiltrating anti-Trump groups, especially those identified with the “Resistance” movement, exploiting sensitive issues such as race relations and gun violence. These often achieved greater impact than their conservative counterparts. “Don’t ever tell me kneeling for the flag is disrespectful to our troops when Trump calls a sitting Senator “Pocahontas” in front of Native American war heroes,” tweeted an account posing as an African-American woman named “Luisa Haynes” under the handle @wokeluisa in November 2017. The tweet garnered more than 32,000 retweets and over 89,000 likes. “They tried to inflame everybody, regardless of race, creed, politics or sexual orientation,” the Lab noted in its analysis. “On many occasions, they pushed both sides of divisive issues.” Iran trolling Iran’s trolling was primarily focused on promoting its own interests, including attacking regional rivals like Israel and Saudi Arabia. However, Iran’s trolling was less effective than the Russian posts, with most tweets getting limited responses. This was partially because of posting styles that were less inflammatory, according to the report. “Few of the accounts showed distinctive personalities: They largely shared online articles,” according to the report. “As such, they were a poor fit for Twitter, where personal comment tends to resonate more strongly than website shares.” Generally, many troll posts were ineffective, and “their operations were washed away in the firehose of Twitter.” All of the accounts linked to the massive trove of tweets released by Twitter have been suspended or deleted, and the analysis notes that overall activity from suspected Russian trolls fell this year after Twitter clampdowns in September and June 2017. But, that does not mean political trolls do not still pose a threat. “Identifying future foreign influence operations, and reducing their impact, will demand awareness and resilience from the activist communities targeted, not just the platforms and the open source community,” according to the report.

Hackers Accused of Ties to Russia Hit 3 E. European Companies: Cybersecurity Firm

Wed, 10/17/2018 - 20:14
Hackers have infected three energy and transport companies in Ukraine and Poland with sophisticated new malware and may be planning destructive cyber attacks, a software security firm said on Wednesday. A report by researchers at Slovakia-based ESET did not attribute the hacking activity, recorded between 2015 and mid-2018, to any specific country but blamed it on a group that has been accused by Britain of having links to Russian military intelligence. The report is the latest to raise suspicions in the West about Russia’s GRU spy agency, accused by London of conducting a “reckless campaign” of global cyber attacks and trying to kill a former Russian spy in England. Moscow denies the charges. Investigators at ESET said the group responsible for a series of earlier attacks against the Ukrainian energy sector, which used malicious software known as BlackEnergy, had now developed and used a new malware suite called GreyEnergy. ESET has helped investigate a series of high-profile cyber attacks on Ukraine in recent years, including those on the Ukrainian energy grid which led to power outages in late 2015. Kiev has accused Moscow of orchestrating those attacks, while U.S. cybersecurity firm FireEye says a group known as Sandworm is thought to be responsible. Britain’s GCHQ spy agency said this month that BlackEnergy Actors and Sandworm are both names associated with the GRU. “The important thing is that they are still active,” ESET researcher Robert Lipovsky told Reuters. “This shows that this very dangerous and persistent ‘threat actor’ is still active.” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said there was no evidence to support the allegations against the GRU and that Russia does not use cyber attacks against other countries. “These are just more accusations. We are tired of denying them, because no one is listening,” he said. After infection via emails laced with malicious weblinks or documents - a tactic known as “spear phishing” - or by compromising servers exposed to the internet, GreyEnergy allowed the attackers to map out their victim’s networks and gather confidential information such as passwords and login credentials, ESET said. Lipovsky said his team then saw the hackers seek out critical parts of the companies’ systems, including computers which ran industrial control processes. “It is my understanding that this was the reconnaissance and espionage phase, potentially leading up to cyber sabotage,” he said. Global hacking campaign The ESET report did not name the three companies infected in Ukraine and Poland, and Reuters was unable to identify them. Ukraine’s Cyber Police confirmed the attacks on two Ukrainian companies but declined to give any further details. Polish authorities did not respond to requests for comment. Ben Read, a senior manager on FireEye’s espionage analysis team, said his own work corroborated ESET’s report and that the Sandworm group was probably responsible. The activity “is similar to the group we track as Sandworm,” he said. “And activity that we attribute to Sandworm has been named by the U.S. Department of Justice as being the GRU.” Western countries including Britain and the United States issued a coordinated denunciation of Russia as a “pariah state” this month for what they described as a global hacking campaign run by the GRU. GRU hackers have targeted institutions ranging from sports anti-doping bodies to a nuclear power company and the world chemical weapons watchdog, they said, as well as releasing the devastating “NotPetya” cyber worm which caused billions of dollars of damage worldwide in 2017. The GRU, now formally known in Russia by a shorter acronym GU, is also accused by Britain of carrying out a nerve agent attack in England on former GRU officer Sergei Skripal. Moscow’s relations with the West have hit a post-Cold War low over Russia’s role in the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria. Lipovsky and fellow ESET researcher Anton Cherepanov said the BlackEnergy attackers’ decision to upgrade to the new GreyEnergy malware may have been motivated by a need to cover their tracks and deflect attention from their activities. The power outages triggered by the BlackEnergy attacks in Ukraine in December 2015 drew international attention and are recognised as the first blackout caused by a cyber attack. “Threat actors need to switch up their arsenal from time to time,” Lipovsky said.    

Shanghai Airport Automates Check-in with Facial Recognition

Wed, 10/17/2018 - 11:15
It's now possible to check in automatically at Shanghai's Hongqiao airport using facial recognition technology, part of an ambitious rollout of facial recognition systems in China that has raised privacy concerns as Beijing pushes to become a global leader in the field.  Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport unveiled self-service kiosks for flight and baggage check-in, security clearance and boarding powered by facial recognition technology, according to the Civil Aviation Administration of China. Similar efforts are under way at airports in Beijing and Nanyang city, in central China's Henan province. Many airports in China already use facial recognition to help speed security checks, but Shanghai's system, which debuted Monday, is being billed as the first to be fully automated. "It is the first time in China to achieve self-service for the whole check-in process,'' said Zhang Zheng, general manager of the ground services department for Spring Airlines, the first airline to adopt the system at Hongqiao airport. Currently, only Chinese identity card holders can use the technology. Spring Airlines said Tuesday that passengers had embraced automated check-in, with 87 percent of 5,017 people who took Spring flights on Monday using the self-service kiosks, which can cut down check-in times to less than a minute and a half. Across greater China, facial recognition is finding its way into daily life. Mainland police have used facial recognition systems to identify people of interest in crowds and nab jaywalkers, and are working to develop an integrated national system of surveillance camera data. Chinese media are filled with reports of ever-expanding applications: A KFC outlet in Hangzhou, near Shanghai, where it's possible to pay using facial recognition technology; a school that uses facial recognition cameras to monitor students' reactions in class; and hundreds of ATMs in Macau equipped with facial recognition devices to curb money laundering. But increased convenience may come at a cost in a country with few rules on how the government can use biometric data. "Authorities are using biometric and artificial intelligence to record and track people for social control purposes,'' said Maya Wang, senior China researcher for Human Rights Watch. "We are concerned about the increasing integration and use of facial recognition technologies throughout the country because it provides more and more data points for the authorities to track people.''

Google to Charge for Apps on Android Phones in Europe

Wed, 10/17/2018 - 02:35
Google says it will start charging smartphone makers to pre-install apps like Gmail, YouTube and Google Maps on Android handsets sold in Europe, in response to a record $5 billion EU antitrust fine. The U.S. tech company's announcement Tuesday is a change from its previous business model, in which it let phone makers install its suite of popular mobile apps for free on phones running its Android operating system. It's among measures the company is taking to comply with the July ruling by EU authorities that found Google allegedly abused the dominance of Android to stifle competitors, even as it appeals the decision. The company will also let phone makers install rival versions of Android, the most widely used mobile operating system.

Huawei Launches New flagship Phones in Bid to Keep No. 2 Spot

Tue, 10/16/2018 - 23:18
Huawei unveiled new flagship smartphones with novel smart camera and video features on Tuesday, as it seeks to sustain momentum among price-conscious consumers. The Chinese company, which overtook Apple this year to become the No. 2 smartphone maker by units - behind South Korea’s Samsung (005930.KS) - introduced its Mate 20 phone series using Leica camera technology. Huawei’s new premium phone line-up has four models available around the world, expect in the United States where sales are effectively banned over whispered national security concerns. The new line-up includes the Mate 20, with list prices ranging from 799-849 euros ($925-$983), depending on memory configuration. The fuller-featured Mate 20 Pro, is priced as low as 799 pounds at some UK retailers and list priced at 849 pounds or 1,049 euros across Europe. A comparable iPhone X Max from Apple costs 1,099 pounds in the UK. The new phones include a new ultra-wide angle lens, as well as a 3x telephoto lens and a macro that shoots objects as close as 2.5 centimeters (1 inch). Mate P20 models take advantage of artificial intelligence features built into Huawei’s own Kirin chipsets. Features available to Mate 20 users include being able to isolate human subjects and desaturate the colors around them in order to highlight people against their backgrounds. Huawei incorporates bigger light-sensing chips than rival phones to take better pictures in low-light conditions. Gartner analyst Roberta Cozza said that in a highly commoditized smartphone market of look-alike phones, Huawei is managing to differentiate itself with camera and personalization features. “With the Mate 20, Huawei is setting the bar for what users can expect from photography using a smartphone,” Cozza said. The Chinese phone maker managed to surpass Apple to take the No. 2 spot in the second quarter, industry data shows, despite being effectively excluded from the U.S. market. However, Apple commanded 43 percent of the premium market and a lion’s share of profits, CounterPoint Research estimated. “Huawei is clearly ticking all the key boxes needed to displace rivals – and not just Android-powered rivals,” said Ben Wood, research chief of mobile industry consulting firm CCS Insight. Wood said Huawei’s move to match Apple iPhone’s characteristic swipe gestures and face unlock features on its Mate 20 Pro could, in theory, make it easier for committed Apple buyers to switch, although he said that was unlikely near term. “But it’s clear that Huawei has an eye on the future and is ready to take share from Apple if the time comes that a loyal iPhone owner decides to try something else,” he said. The new premium phone line-up from the world’s biggest telecom equipment maker includes four models, the Mate 20, Mate 20 Pro, Mate 20 X, with a 7.2 inch display screen, and a Porsche Design limited edition phone.

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