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In Streaming Wars, Apple Says It Can Coexist With Netflix

Wed, 05/01/2019 - 11:55
Far from being a Netflix killer, Apple envisions its forthcoming Apple TV+ streaming service as one that could sit alongside other services that viewers buy, Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook said on Tuesday. Apple in March said it will launch a streaming service with original content from big names including Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg. It plans to spend $2 billion on programming but has not said how much the service will cost. Investors are keeping a close eye on Apple's television efforts because subscription services are an increasingly important part of its financial results as iPhone sales decline. Apple is entering a crowded field, including Walt Disney Co.'s $6.99 per month service launching this fall. At the other end of the price spectrum, Alphabet's YouTube this month said that it was raising the price of its YouTube TV online service, a cable-like bundle of more than 70 channels, to $49.99 per month. On a conference call with investors on Tuesday, Cook indicated that Apple will not try to give viewers everything they want. "There's a huge move from the cable bundle to over-the-top," Cook told investors during a call on Tuesday, referring to streaming television services delivered over the internet rather than a traditional cable service. "We think that most users are going to get multiple over-the-top products, and we're going to do our best to convince them that the Apple TV+ product should be one of them."

Report: US Cyber Spies Unmasked Many More American Identities in 2018

Wed, 05/01/2019 - 10:30
U.S. cyber spies last year unmasked the identities of nearly 17,000 U.S. citizens or residents who were in contact with foreign intelligence targets, a sharp increase from previous years attributed partly to hacking and other malicious cyber activity, according to a U.S. government report released on Tuesday. The unmasking of American citizens' identities swept up in U.S. electronic espionage became a sensitive issue after U.S. government spying on communications traffic expanded sharply following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and started sweeping up Americans' data. The report by the U.S. Director of National Intelligence (DNI) said that in 2018 cyber spies at the National Security Agency (NSA) unmasked the identities of 16,721 "U.S. persons," compared to 9,529 unmaskings in 2017 and 9,217 between September 2015 and August 2016. According to U.S. intelligence rules, when the NSA intercepts messages in which one or more participants are U.S. citizens or residents, the agency is supposed to black out American names. But the names can be unmasked upon request of intelligence officers and higher-ranking government officials, including presidential appointees. Alex Joel, a DNI official, said it was likely that the higher number of U.S. persons unmasked last year was inflated by names of victims of malicious cyber activity. Another official said the definition of U.S. person used by spy agencies includes actual individuals, email addresses and internet protocol (IP) addresses. The expanded collection of data that affected Americans was exposed by whistleblowers like former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, prompting politicians and the public to demand greater accountability. Annual reports on the extent of NSA and other government electronic surveillance were one notable reform. NSA's operations historically were so secretive that agency employees joked its initials stood for "No Such Agency." Not long after President Donald Trump took office, Devin Nunes, the Republican who then chaired the House Intelligence Committee, touched off a political flap by claiming intercepted messages involving members of Trump's transition team had been unmasked at the direction of top Obama administration officials. The report says that the number of  "non-US persons" targeted by the U.S. for foreign intelligence surveillance rose to 164,770 in calendar year 2018 compared to 129,080 the year before. The report adds that not a single FBI investigation was opened on U.S. persons based on NSA surveillance in either 2017 or 2018.

US Lawmakers Struggle to Draft Online Privacy Bill

Wed, 05/01/2019 - 08:50
U.S. lawmakers drafting a bill to create rules governing online privacy hope to have a discussion draft complete by late May with a Senate committee vote during the summer and are intensifying efforts, but disputes are likely to push that timetable back, according to sources knowledgeable about the matter. The issue is of huge concern to advertisers and tech companies such as Facebook and Alphabet's Google, which provide free online services to consumers but derive revenues from advertising targeted at consumers based on preferences identified via data collection. Democratic Senators Richard Blumenthal, Brian Schatz and Maria Cantwell, who are leading the effort to draft the measure along with Republican Senators Jerry Moran, Commerce Committee chairman Roger Wicker and the Senate's No. 2 Republican, John Thune, met late Tuesday and could meet again as early as next week. The six senators involved in the privacy working group met for 45 minutes in Thune's Capitol Hill office Tuesday evening to discuss the status of the effort and look at issues where senators do not agree and will need to negotiate to resolve. "It's all baby steps," he said. "Hopefully we can find a path forward." Thune told reporters after the meeting senators want to review some legislative language that staffers have drafted. "We're in the early stages," Thune said. For a big legislative undertaking he said he thought the group was in a "pretty good place" but acknowledged it is "not an easy lift" to win agreement. Cantwell told reporters on the way into the meeting that she wants to see a bill that provides "meaningful protection for the privacy of individual consumers." "This is the start of a conversation, but you have to have a strong law," she added. "We're making good progress and I'm very hopeful," Blumenthal said afterward. The U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation will hold a hearing on the matter on Wednesday. Republicans hope to complete a draft of the bill by the end of May so it can be introduced, debated and voted out of committee before Congress leaves for its August recess, according to the sources knowledgeable about the matter. But that may be delayed if they fail to reach agreement with Democrats who are determined to ensure that the bill does not weaken, and then pre-empt, a California online privacy bill that goes into effect next year. One dispute that has arisen is whether consumers whose privacy is violated by a company should be allowed to sue that company, with Democrats pushing for this to be allowed, according to one of the sources familiar with the discussions. The Electronic Frontier Foundation advocacy group has this as one of its highest priorities in data privacy legislation. At least one key Republican disagrees. "Senator Moran has heard serious concerns from the business community, particularly the small business community, that any private right of action would have serious ramifications in their sustainability. The senator is taking these considerations into account as he negotiates federal privacy legislation," said a representative for the senator in an email statement. Democratic support for the privacy legislation is key since the measure will also have to pass the U.S. House of Representatives, which Democrats control, to become law. Republicans have a majority in the Senate. California's law, which will affect any major company with an online presence, requires companies with data on more than 50,000 people to allow consumers to view the data they have collected on them, request deletion of data, and opt out of having the data sold to third parties. Each violation carries a $7,500 fine. A privacy bill is one of the few pieces of potential legislation that lobbyists believe has a decent chance of becoming law because it is a bipartisan concern and does not cost taxpayers money, according to a source following the matter.

Dreams of Ubiquitous Social Robots Still Not Coming True

Wed, 05/01/2019 - 08:14
Hopes that the tech industry was on the cusp of rolling personal robots into homes are dimming now that several once-promising consumer robotics companies have shut down. The latest casualty was San Francisco startup Anki, maker of the playful toy robot Cozmo, which upon its release in 2016 seemed like the start of a new wave of sociable machines.   That dream ended this week when Anki CEO and co-founder Boris Sofman gathered many of the company's nearly 200 employees to deliver the news that all of them would be laid off Wednesday. The bad news soon spread to fans and owners of Cozmo and its newer cousin Vector, unveiled last year in an effort to appeal to grown-ups.  "Cozmo was the first robot that felt almost alive," said David Schaefer, a programmer and robot enthusiast in Portland, Oregon, who was so enamored with the feisty machine that he created a "Life with Cozmo" channel on YouTube that's attracted millions of viewers. One of the most popular videos, called "Unrequited Love," documents Cozmo's awkward interactions with a guinea pig. Anki's demise was part of a string of failed efforts to launch life-like robots into the market. Boston-based Jibo, founded by one of the pioneers of social robotics, went out of business less than a year after its curvy talking speaker made the cover of Time Magazine's "best inventions" edition. Another startup, California-based Mayfield Robotics, last year stopped manufacturing Kuri, a camera-equipped machine marketed as a watchful roving nanny. None of them have been able to compete with immobile smart speakers made by Amazon, Apple and Google, which cost less than their more physically complex robotic counterparts but are powered by ever-improving artificial-intelligence systems that serve most users' needs. "AI without a body has caught on really well," said Yan Fossat, head of the research lab at Toronto-based Klick Health, which is exploring social robotics in the medical field. "Physical robots, with a body to do something, are not really catching up." They cost too much for the marginal service they offer, he said. Still, Anki got farther than most of its robotics hardware peers in appealing to the masses with an emotionally intelligent machine that cost hundreds of dollars less than Jibo, Kuri or Sony's robotic dog Aibo. "You cannot sell a robot for $800 or $1,000 that has capabilities of less than an Alexa," Sofman told The Associated Press last year. He and other company leaders declined comment Tuesday, but a spokesman said the company was "exploring all options to keep our products functioning and cloud services running."   The company reported about $100 million in annual revenue in 2017, and as of last year had sold more than 1.5 million products, including its robots and the car-racing game Overdrive.   "It does feel a little devastating," said Schaefer, who this week started the Twitter hashtag #SaveAnki in hopes that a bigger tech company or toy maker might acquire it. "Anki took steps toward robotics that other companies haven't tried yet." Tech industry analyst Carolina Milanesi was also saddened by Anki's demise, but a premonition of the company's fate was the Cozmo sitting idly on her daughter's nightstand for the past six months. The toy market is unforgiving, and Anki may have been unable to extend its reach beyond it, she said.    "There's hype at the beginning, you have very engaged kids, and then they move onto something else," Milanesi said. "Kids grow up. She's now 11 and 'Fortnite' is everything that matters to her in life."

Ping Pong Playing Robot Promises to Teach People Skills

Wed, 05/01/2019 - 06:34
A new ping pong playing robot promises to teach new skills, demonstrating how robots can interact with humans in the workplace. Deana Mitchell joins the game.

Facebook Overhauls Messaging as It Pivots to Privacy

Wed, 05/01/2019 - 01:35
Facebook Inc on Tuesday debuted an overhaul of its core social network and new business-focused tools, the first concrete steps in its plan to refashion itself into a private messaging and e-commerce company. Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg unveiled a fresh design for the world's biggest social network that de-emphasized its News Feed and showcased services like its messaging app, online marketplace and video-on-demand site. The company also rolled out features aimed both at encouraging users to interact with their close social circle as well as with businesses, including appointment booking and a "Secret Crush" option for Facebook Dating. Zuckerberg in March promised changes to the advertising-driven social media company as it was under regulatory scrutiny over propaganda on its platform and users' data privacy. Facebook's News Feed continues to draw ad dollars but user growth in its most lucrative markets has slowed. "We believe that there is a community for everyone. So we've been working on a major evolution to make communities as central as friends," said Zuckerberg on Tuesday, speaking at Facebook's annual F8 conference, where the company gives developers a peek at new product releases. Other Facebook executives introduced changes within the Messenger and Instagram apps aimed at helping businesses connect with customers, including appointment booking and enhanced shopping features as well as a tool to lure customers into direct conversations with companies via ads. Zuckerberg identified private messaging, ephemeral stories and small groups as the fastest-growing areas of online communication. In last three years, the number of people using WhatsApp has almost doubled. The social media company is now working on "LightSpeed" in order to make its Messenger app smaller in size and faster. Facebook will also introduce Messenger for Mac and Windows and launch a new feature called "Product Catalog" for WhatsApp Business. The desktop version of Messenger will be available this fall. "I know that we don't exactly have the strongest reputation on privacy right now, to put it lightly," Zuckerberg said. The online ad market is largely dominated by Facebook and Alphabet Inc's Google. But by focusing more on messaging, e-commerce, payment and enterprise-focused tools, Facebook will also need to battle the likes of Amazon.com Inc and Microsoft Corp as well as fast-growing Silicon Valley unicorns like workplace messaging app Slack. "We've shown time and again as a company that we have what it takes to evolve," Zuckerberg said. Making money Facebook pulled in nearly $56 billion in revenue last year, almost of all which came from showing ads to the 2.7 billion people who access its family of apps each month. But Facebook is no longer adding many new users in the United States and Europe, its most lucrative markets, and it must find additional sources of revenue if it is to sustain growth. The product releases at F8 indicate its answer involves efforts to keep users on its apps for longer, coupled with e-commerce tools Facebook is hoping businesses will pay to use. Features that drive the most user engagement, like Stories and videos, are being decked out with new tools and given increased prominence across the platforms. One new feature will allow users to watch videos together in Messenger, while also viewing each other's reactions in simultaneous texts and video chats. Facebook Dating will be expanded into 14 new markets, including places in Asia like the Philippines where Facebook has high user growth. A "Secret Crush" feature will allows users to explore potential romantic relationships within their friend circle. The company is also courting businesses, giving them ways to chat with customers and conduct transactions, similar to how consumers in China are already shopping on services like WeChat. Instagram is expanding a sales system introduced last month, allowing public figures, known as influencers, to tag products in their posts so fans can buy them right away. Sellers on Marketplace will likewise receive payments and arrange shipping directly within Facebook.

Mother of Four Starts Career as Biking Instructor

Tue, 04/30/2019 - 16:25
On a sunny, breezy spring day, a group of children, four to seven-years-old, sit on their bikes, helmets and gloves on, ready to start their biking lesson. Their moms, standing nearby, watch them closely, feeling proud that their little ones are learning how to ride. Instructor Rachel Van is also excited about making biking a part of their lives. She still remembers how she felt, riding a bike for the first time. It was an amazing “I can" moment. Now, her job is helping other kids to experience that moment.  “It’s probably the biggest confidence booster. It gives kids such a sense of independence and agency,” she says. Basics of biking Rachel Van quit her job as a salesperson in the bicycle industry last year, to become a certified cycling instructor. She founded Pedal Power Kids to teach bicycle education. Before hitting the road, she has the group review the basics of the bike maintenance, what she calls “the ABC quick check.”  “A” is for air, she explains. “We have to check our tires before we ride. B is for brakes. We want to make sure our brakes work before we find ourselves on the top of the hill about to go down. And C is for chain. We want to make sure that our chain doesn’t have any junk in it.”  They also work on biking skills, from balance and pedaling to turning, starting and stopping.  And they need to learn and remember some basic rules. The first one is eyes up and forward.  “A lot of kids struggle with their eyes on the ground, looking for their pedals, but obviously that doesn’t allow them to see what’s going on around them, and it also doesn’t allow them to turn properly,” Van says. That's because watching where you're going helps you steer. “Sometimes people think that you turn your bike using the handle bar. You see little kids going like this, steering," she says as she demonstrates, turning the handle bar back and forth, "and they fall over. But we really turn by leaning. So, when we look, then our body leans and then our bike leans.”  Biking changes lives Being able to ride a bike opens a whole new world to children. It gives them a sense of accomplishment and freedom. They become more aware of their surroundings, learning to make safe, smart decisions going from one place to another. Van’s goal is to get more kids on two wheels. That, she says, will help make the world a better place. “That’s really a great way for kids to be active and develop healthy habits,” Van says. “It helps reduce pollution and just keep families and communities connected.” Since starting Pedal Power Kids last year, Van has helped around 250 new riders. An active community network of satisfied mothers is her best advertiser. “Moms are pretty magic,” Van says. “If the mom is happy with something, if [having their child learn to ride] made their lives a bit easier, then they tell their friends. So my business has grown almost entirely through word of mouth.”  Julia Roeling is part of the moms' network. She says biking is a great activity for their kids to be outside and not to stay home playing video games all the day. But since she had neither the time nor comfort level to teach her kids how to ride, she enrolled two of her three kids in Van’s bicycling class. “They love working with Rachel,” she says. “She knows what to say to motivate them. Now, they can do it safely. And they know how to get around the community and stop at the stop signs and be together on their bikes.” The kids in the classes are happy and excited about their biking experiences. They name their bikes and take pride in being able to do the bike maintenance themselves. They have fun biking with their friends. Having fun is important to teach these kids a sport that will keep them active for life. As Van observes, “We probably wouldn’t be playing lacrosse when we are 75 or 89, but we certainly can be riding a bike!” 

Making Driverless Cars Safer For Pedestrians

Tue, 04/30/2019 - 09:19
One big concern about autonomous vehicles is that logical computers sometimes have trouble dealing with a messy world. To the point, a pedestrian was struck and killed by an autonomous vehicle in Arizona last year. But new algorithms are trying to solve that potentially deadly problem. VOA's Kevin Enochs reports.

Tech Helping Make Big Impact on Local Government

Tue, 04/30/2019 - 00:55
For people needing food from San Francisco's main food bank, one of the biggest hurdles was actually filling out the online form for food stamps. The application was long, with more than 200 questions. It didn't work on mobile phones. For people without home computers, it was hard to get through the process. But the San Francisco Food Bank, which provides fresh vegetables and dry goods to more than 200,000 people in northern California, partnered with a technology nonprofit that helped bring the application process into the digital era. "We made a really simple online form that's mobile first and only takes seven minutes," said Jennifer Pahlka, founder and executive director of Code for America, which helps government programs work better by using technology. "It uses really clear, simple language, and then we help people get through the process by supporting them by text message because that's what people actually use." A new bill from Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris promises to help local government form tech teams. With support from Code for America and the Center for Democracy & Technology, Harris is calling it the "Digital Service Act," which she says will empower state and local government to invest in digital services to update and rebuild government services using technology. "Americans deserve a government that works for them and that just plain works," Harris said in a press release. "We must do more to empower our state and local governments to tap into the power of technology to provide seamless, cost-effective services for the 21st century." The Digital Service Act would authorize $50 million annually to grow the United States Digital Service, a group of technologists working in government to help improve programs.If approved, the Digital Service Actwould also authorize $15 million for state and local governments to receive two-year seed grants to establish and strengthen digital services and require that at least 50% of each grant be used for talent. Harris is not the only presidential candidate to talk about tech. Others are also looking to tech to solve civic problems and create more local jobs. Still, others have attacked tech. Democratic Sen. Bernie Sanders has criticized Amazon's treatment of its warehouse workers. And fellow Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren has proposed breaking up tech giants like Amazon and Facebook. President Donald Trump, who is seeking re-election in 2020, has met with U.S. tech industry leaders to talk about what government can do to help the United States maintain its leadership in key technological areas. Harris' proposal to get tech involved on a local level makes sense to Francesca Costa, outreach manager for CalFresh, the local food stamp program. "I think investing in technology is crucial for government assistance programs," said Costa. "It's a good strategy to eliminate those technological barriers so that we can focus on any other barriers that might exist in the business process." Pahlka said local governments don't need "fancier technology."Instead, what's needed is a new approach, she said, one "that puts all of the compliance and laws and regulations that make government services so complicated and then really, really hard to use. Push those to the background and make things that really work for people." In another project, Code for America helped local California governments clear the criminal records of people convicted of marijuana-related crimes. With a number of states having legalized marijuana, many convictions were overturned, but the process of digitally clearing them had stalled. "It's remarkable to see the number of people in government who never thought that was possible, even though it's actually quite easy," Pahlka said.

Twitter Terror: Arrests Prompt Concern Over Online Extremism

Mon, 04/29/2019 - 02:02
A few months after he turned 17 — and more than two years before he was arrested — Vincent Vetromile recast himself as an online revolutionary. Offline, in this suburb of Rochester, New York, Vetromile was finishing requirements for promotion to Eagle Scout in a troop that met at a local church. He enrolled at Monroe Community College, taking classes to become a heating and air conditioning technician. On weekends, he spent hours in the driveway with his father, a Navy veteran, working on cars. On social media, though, the teenager spoke in world-worn tones about the need to “reclaim our nation at any cost.” Eventually he subbed out the grinning selfie in his Twitter profile, replacing it with the image of a colonial militiaman shouldering an AR-15 rifle. And he traded his name for a handle: “Standing on the Edge.” That edge became apparent in Vetromile’s posts, including many interactions over the last two years with accounts that praised the Confederacy, warned of looming gun confiscation and declared Muslims to be a threat. In 2016, he sent the first of more than 70 replies to tweets from a fiery account with 140,000 followers, run by a man billing himself as Donald Trump’s biggest Canadian supporter. The final exchange came late last year. “Islamic Take Over Has Begun: Muslim No-Go Zones Are Springing Up Across America. Lock and load America!” the Canadian tweeted on December 12, with a video and a map highlighting nine states with Muslim enclaves. “The places listed are too vague,” Vetromile replied. “If there were specific locations like ‘north of X street in the town of Y, in the state of Z’ we could go there and do something about it.” Weeks later, police arrested Vetromile and three friends, charging them with plotting to attack a Muslim settlement in rural New York. And with extremism on the rise across the U.S., this town of neatly kept Cape Cods confronted difficult questions about ideology and young people — and technology’s role in bringing them together. The reality of the plot Vetromile and his friends are charged with hatching is, in some ways, both less and more than what was feared when they were arrested in January. Prosecutors say there is no indication that the four — Vetromile, 19; Brian Colaneri, 20; Andrew Crysel, 18; and a 16-year-old The Associated Press isn’t naming because of his age — had set an imminent or specific date for an attack. Reports they had an arsenal of 23 guns are misleading; the weapons belonged to parents or other relatives. Prosecutors allege the four discussed using those guns, along with explosive devices investigators say were made by the 16-year-old, in an attack on the community of Islamberg. Residents of the settlement in Delaware County, New York — mostly African-American Muslims who relocated from Brooklyn in the 1980s — have been harassed for years by right-wing activists who have called it a terrorist training camp. A Tennessee man, Robert Doggart , was convicted in 2017 of plotting to burn down Islamberg’s mosque and other buildings. But there are few clues so far to explain how four with little experience beyond their high school years might have come up with the idea to attack the community. All have pleaded not guilty, and several defense attorneys, back in court Friday, are arguing there was no plan to actually carry out any attack, chalking it up to talk among buddies. Lawyers for the four did not return calls, and parents or other relatives declined interviews. “I don’t know where the exposure came from, if they were exposed to it from other kids at school, through social media,” said Matthew Schwartz, the Monroe County assistant district attorney prosecuting the case. “I have no idea if their parents subscribe to any of these ideologies.” Well beyond upstate New York, the spread of extremist ideology online has sparked growing concern. Google and Facebook executives went before the House Judiciary Committee this month to answer questions about their platforms’ role in feeding hate crime and white nationalism. Twitter announced new rules last fall prohibiting the use of “dehumanizing language” that risks “normalizing serious violence.” But experts said the problem goes beyond language, pointing to algorithms used by search engines and social media platforms to prioritize content and spotlight likeminded accounts. “Once you indicate an inclination, the machine learns,” said Jessie Daniels, a professor of sociology at New York’s Hunter College who studies the online contagion of alt-right ideology. “That’s exactly what’s happening on all these platforms ... and it just sends some people down a terrible rabbit hole.” She and others point to Dylann Roof, who in 2015 murdered nine worshippers at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina. In writings found afterward, Roof recalled how his interest in the shooting of black teenager Trayvon Martin had prompted a Google search for the term “black on white crime.” The first site the search engine pointed him to was run by a racist group promoting the idea that such crime is common, and as he learned more, Roof wrote, that eventually drove his decision to attack the congregation. In the Rochester-area case, electronic messages between two of those arrested, seen by the AP, along with papers filed in the case suggest doubts divided the group. “I honestly see him being a terrorist,” one of those arrested, Crysel, told his friend Colaneri in an exchange last December on Discord, a messaging platform popular with gamers that has also gained notoriety for its embrace by some followers of the alt-right. “He also has a very odd obsession with pipe bombs,” Colaneri replied. “Like it’s borderline creepy.” It is not clear from the message fragment seen which of the others they were referencing. What is clear, though, is the long thread of frustration in Vetromile’s online posts — and the way those posts link him to an enduring conspiracy theory. A few years ago, Vetromile’s posts on Twitter and Instagram touched on subjects like video games and English class. He made the honor roll as an 11th-grader but sometime thereafter was suspended and never returned, according to former classmates and others. The school district, citing federal law on student records, declined to provide details. Ron Gerth, who lives across the street from the family, recalled Vetromile as a boy roaming the neighborhood with a friend, pitching residents on a leaf-raking service: “Just a normal, everyday kid wanting to make some money, and he figured a way to do it.” More recently, Gerth said, Vetromile seemed shy and withdrawn, never uttering more than a word or two if greeted on the street. Vetromile and suspect Andrew Crysel earned the rank of Eagle in Boy Scout Troop 240, where the 16-year-old was also a member. None ever warranted concern, said Steve Tyler, an adult leader. “Every kid’s going to have their own sort of geekiness,” Tyler said, “but nothing that would ever be considered a trigger or a warning sign that would make us feel unsafe.” Crysel and the fourth suspect, Colaneri, have been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a milder form of autism, their families have said. Friends described Colaneri as socially awkward and largely disinterested in politics. “He asked, if we’re going to build a wall around the Gulf of Mexico, how are people going to go to the beach?” said Rachael Lee, the aunt of Colaneri’s girlfriend. Vetromile attended community college with Colaneri before dropping out in 2017. By then, he was fully engaged in online conversations about immigrants living in the U.S. illegally, gun rights and Trump. Over time, his statements became increasingly militant. “We need a revolution now!” he tweeted in January, replying to a thread warning of a coming “war” over gun ownership. Vetromile directed some of his strongest statements at Muslims. Tweets from the Canadian account, belonging to one Mike Allen, seemed to push that button. In July 2017, Allen tweeted “Somali Muslims take over Tennessee town and force absolute HELL on terrified Christians.” Vetromile replied: ”@realDonaldTrump please do something about this!” A few months later, Allen tweeted: “Czech politicians vote to let citizens carry guns, shoot Muslim terrorists on sight.” Vetromile’s response: “We need this here!” Allen’s posts netted hundreds of replies a day, and there’s no sign he read Vetromile’s responses. But others did, including the young man’s reply to the December post about Muslim “no-go zones.” That tweet included a video interview with Martin Mawyer, whose Christian Action Network made a 2009 documentary alleging that Islamberg and other settlements were terrorist training camps. Mawyer linked the settlements, which follow the teachings of a controversial Pakistani cleric, to a group called Jamaat al-Fuqra that drew scrutiny from law enforcement in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1993, Colorado prosecutors won convictions of four al-Fuqra members in a racketeering case that included charges of fraud, arson and murder. Police and analysts have repeatedly said Islamberg does not threaten violence. Nevertheless, the allegations of Mawyer’s group continue to circulate widely online and in conservative media. Replying to questions by email, Mawyer said his organization has used only legal means to try to shut down the operator of the settlements. “Vigilante violence is always the wrong way to solve social or personal problems,” he said. “Christian Action Network had no role, whatsoever, in inciting any plots.” Online, though, Vetromile reacted with consternation to the video of Mawyer: “But this video just says ‘upstate NY and California’ and that’s too big of an area to search for terrorists,” he wrote. Other followers replied with suggestions. “Doesn’t the video state Red House, Virginia as the place?” one asked. Virginia was too far, Vetromile replied, particularly since the map with the tweet showed an enclave in his own state. When another follower offered a suggestion, Vetromile signed off: “Eh worth a look. Thanks.” The exchange ended without a word from the Canadian account, whose tweet started it. Three months before the December exchange on Twitter, the four suspects started using a Discord channel dubbed ”#leaders-only” to discuss weapons and how they would use them in an attack, prosecutors allege. Vetromile set up the channel, one of the defense attorneys contends, but prosecutors say they don’t consider any one of the four a leader. In November, the conversation expanded to a second channel: ”#militia-soldiers-wanted.” At some point last fall the 16-year-old made a grenade — “on a whim to satisfy his own curiosity,” his lawyer said in a court filing that claims the teen never told the other suspects. That filing also contends the boy told Vetromile that forming a militia was “stupid.” But other court records contradict those assertions. Another teen, who is not among the accused, told prosecutors that the 16-year-old showed him what looked like a pipe bomb last fall and then said that Vetromile had asked for prototypes. “Let me show you what Vinnie gave me,” the young suspect allegedly said during another conversation, before leaving the room and returning with black explosive powder. In January, the 16-year-old was in the school cafeteria when he showed a photo to a classmate of one of his fellow suspects, wearing some kind of tactical vest. He made a comment like, “He looks like the next school shooter, doesn’t he?” according to Greece Police Chief Patrick Phelan. The other student reported the incident, and questioning by police led to the arrests and charges of conspiracy to commit terrorism. The allegations have jarred a region where political differences are the norm. Rochester, roughly half white and half black and other minorities, votes heavily Democratic. Neighboring Greece, which is 87 percent white, leans conservative. Town officials went to the Supreme Court to win a 2014 ruling allowing them to start public meetings with a chaplain’s prayer. The arrests dismayed Bob Lonsberry, a conservative talk radio host in Rochester, who said he checked Twitter to confirm Vetromile didn’t follow his feed. But looking at the accounts Vetromile did follow convinced him that politics on social media had crossed a dangerous line. “The people up here, even the hillbillies like me, we would go down with our guns and stand outside the front gate of Islamberg to protect them,” Lonsberry said. “It’s an aberration. But ... aberrations, like a cancer, pop up for a reason.” ___ Online, it can be hard to know what is true and who is real. Mike Allen, though, is no bot. “He seems addicted to getting followers,” said Allen’s adult son, Chris, when told about the arrest of one of the thousands attuned to his father’s Twitter feed. Allen himself called back a few days later, leaving a brief message with no return number. But a few weeks ago, Allen welcomed in a reporter who knocked on the door of his home, located less than an hour from the Peace Bridge linking upstate New York to Ontario, Canada. “I really don’t believe in regulation of the free marketplace of ideas,” said Allen, a retired real estate executive, explaining his approach to social media. “If somebody wants to put bulls--- on Facebook or Twitter, it’s no worse than me selling a bad hamburger, you know what I mean? Buyer beware.” Sinking back in a white leather armchair, Allen, 69, talked about his longtime passion for politics. After a liver transplant stole much of his stamina a few years ago, he filled downtime by tweeting about subjects like interest rates. When Trump announced his candidacy for president in 2015, in a speech memorable for labeling many Mexican immigrants as criminals, Allen said he was determined to help get the billionaire elected. He began posting voraciously, usually finding material on conservative blogs and Facebook feeds and crafting posts to stir reaction. Soon his account was gaining up to 4,000 followers a week. Allen said he had hoped to monetize his feed somehow. But suspicions that Twitter “shadow-banning” was capping gains in followers made him consider closing the account. That was before he was shown some of his tweets and the replies they drew from Vetromile — and told the 19-year-old was among the suspects charged with plotting to attack Islamberg. “And they got caught? Good,” Allen said. “We’re not supposed to go around shooting people we don’t like. That’s why we have video games.” Allen’s own likes and dislikes are complicated. He said he strongly opposes taking in refugees for humanitarian reasons, arguing only immigrants with needed skills be admitted. He also recounted befriending a Muslim engineer in Pakistan through a physics blog and urging him to move to Canada. Shown one of his tweets from last year — claiming Czech officials had urged people to shoot Muslims — Allen shook his head. “That’s not a good tweet,” he said quietly. “It’s inciting.” Allen said he rarely read replies to his posts — and never noticed Vetromile’s. “If I’d have seen anybody talking violence, I would have banned them,” he said. He turned to his wife, Kim, preparing dinner across the kitchen counter. Maybe he should stop tweeting, he told her. But couldn’t he continue until Trump was reelected? “We have a saying, ‘Oh, it must be true, I read it on the internet,’” Allen said, before showing his visitor out. “The internet is phony. It’s not there. Only kids live in it and old guys, you know what I mean? People with time on their hands.” The next day, Allen shut down his account, and the long narrative he spun all but vanished.  

Tech Helping Make Big Impact on Local Government

Sun, 04/28/2019 - 16:00
Local governments often try to solve problems using old technology. A U.S. Senate bill aims to fund small tech teams to help state and municipal governments update and rebuild government systems. Deana Mitchell takes a look at the impact on one program that is serving the needy.

Kenya Taps Into Technology to Attract Young People to Farms

Sun, 04/28/2019 - 11:30
Kenyan innovators are betting on digital technologies to attract young people to agriculture currently dominated by an aging population. With 98 percent mobile phone penetration, according to the latest data from the Communications Authority of Kenya, the cellphone is proving to be an important source of extension services in areas where such services are not available. Sarah Kimani reports for VOA from Kinoo, Kenya.

More People Use Smartphone Apps to Find Flexible Gig Jobs

Sun, 04/28/2019 - 11:20
While many people have office jobs, working inside an office is not for everybody. And these days in the U.S. more people are turning to gig work — temporary jobs that allow them to work from home, hold multiple jobs and have flexible hours. More gig workers are now using smartphone apps to find jobs that set them free of office work. VOA's Mykhailo Komadovsky spent time with one gig worker in Washington.

London Startup Says Lobster Shells Provide Plastic Alternative

Sun, 04/28/2019 - 11:10
The world has a love-hate relationship with plastic: It’s as convenient as it is problematic. Because it degrades incredibly slowly, plastic waste pollutes the oceans and endangers wildlife. But for sturdy, cheap and sterile packaging, we simply lack good alternatives. A London startup wants to change that, with some help from lobsters. Markus Meyer-Gehlen reports.

Drones May Soon Do Costly, Dangerous High-Flying Maintenance

Sun, 04/28/2019 - 11:05
Office buildings require a lot of maintenance, and much of that work needs to be done outside the building. There are windows to clean and potential structural problems to identify. The work, which calls for scaffolding built from the ground or a platform suspended from the roof, is dangerous and expensive. But soon drones may be doing all that work for us. VOA’s Kevin Enochs reports.

Student Scientists Helping to Monitor Air Quality

Sat, 04/27/2019 - 12:34
All too often what looks like haze is actually tiny particles in the air that are so small you can breathe them in, and they can be dangerous. Now a group of citizen scientists with help from the National Science Foundation is creating a network of sensors that could warn people when the air they breathe turns bad. VOA's Kevin Enochs reports.

US Social Media Firms Scramble to Fight Fake News

Fri, 04/26/2019 - 19:06
As Notre Dame Cathedral burned, a posting on Facebook circulated - a grainy video of what appeared to be a man in traditional Muslim garb up in the cathedral. Fact-checkers worldwide jumped into action and pointed out the video and postings were fake and the posts never went viral. But this week, the Sri Lanka government temporarily shut down Facebook and other sites to stop the spread of misinformation in the wake of the Easter Sunday bombings in the country that killed more than 250 people. Last year, misinformation on Facebook was blamed for contributing to riots in the country. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and others are increasingly being held responsible for the content on their sites as the world tries to grapple in real time with events as they unfold. From lawmakers to the public, there has been a rising cry for the sites to do more to combat misinformation particularly if it targets certain groups. Shift in sense of responsibility For years, some critics of social media companies, such as Twitter, YouTube and Facebook, have accused them of having done the minimum to monitor and stamp out misinformation on their platforms. After all, the internet platforms are generally not legally responsible for the content there, thanks to a 1996 U.S. federal law that says they are not publishers. This law has been held up as a key protection for free expression online. And, that legal protection has been key to the internet firms’ explosive growth. But there is a growing consensus that companies are ethically responsible for misleading content, particularly if the content has an audience and is being used to target certain groups. Tuning into dog whistles At a recent House Judiciary Committee hearing on white supremacy and hate crimes, Congresswoman Sylvia Garcia, a Texas Democrat, questioned representatives from Facebook and Google about their policies. “What have you done to ensure that all your folks out there globally know the dog whistles, know the keywords, the phrasing, the things that people respond to, so we can be more responsive and be proactive in blocking some of this language?” Garcia asked. Each company takes a different approach. Facebook, which perhaps has had the most public reckoning over fake news, won’t say it’s a media company. But it has taken partial responsibility about the content on its site, said Daniel Funke, a reporter at the International Fact-Checking Network at the Poynter Institute. The social networking giant uses a combination of technology and humans to address false posts and messages that appear to target groups. It is collaborating with outside fact-checkers to weed out objectionable content, and has hired thousands to grapple with content issues on its site. Swamp of misinformation Twitter has targeted bots, automatic accounts that spread falsehoods. But fake news often is born on Twitter and jumps to Facebook. “They’ve done literally nothing to fight misinformation,” Funke said. YouTube, owned by Google, has altered its algorithms to make it harder to find problematic videos, or embed code to make sure relevant factual content comes up higher in the search. YouTube is “such a swamp of misinformation just because there is so much there, and it lives on beyond the moment,” Funke said. Other platforms of concern are Instagram and WhatsApp, both owned by Facebook.   Some say what the internet companies have done so far is not enough. “To use a metaphor that's often used in boxing, truth is against the ropes. It is getting pummeled,” said Sam Wineburg, an education professor at Stanford University. What’s needed, he said, is for the companies to take full responsibility: "This is a mess we've created and we are going to devote resources that will lower the profits to shareholders, because it will require a deeper investment in our own company.” Fact-checking and artificial intelligence One of the fact-checking organizations that Facebook works with is FactCheck.org. It receives misinformation posts from Facebook and others. Its reporters check out the stories then report on their own site whether the information is true or false. That information goes back to Facebook as well.   Facebook is “then able to create a database now of bad actors, and they can start taking action against them,” said Eugene Kiely, director of FactCheck.org. Facebook has said it will make it harder to find posts by people or groups that continually post misinformation. The groups will see less financial incentives, Kiely points out. “They’ll get less clicks and less advertising.”   Funke predicts companies will use technology to semi-automate fact-checking, making it better, faster and able to match the scale of misinformation. That will cost money of course. It also could slow the internet companies’ growth. Does being more responsible mean making less money? Social media companies are likely to find out.

US Social Media Companies Pressed to Better Police Content

Fri, 04/26/2019 - 18:45
Social media companies such as Twitter, YouTube and Facebook are not legally responsible for the content that users upload to their sites. That legal protection has been key to their explosive growth, but there is a growing consensus that companies must do more to root out misleading content. Michelle Quinn reports, the companies may be taking action in the hope of avoiding stricter government regulation.

Amazon Aims to Bring One-day Delivery to Prime Members Around Globe

Fri, 04/26/2019 - 08:57
Amazon.com Inc plans to deliver packages to members of its loyalty club Prime in just one day, instead of two days, part of a spending ramp-up that might curb future profits after a blockbuster first quarter. Shares rose as much as 2% in after-hours trade on Thursday on the faster shipping announcement for customers around the globe and as Amazon's first-quarter profit trounced estimates thanks to soaring demand for its cloud and ad services. Amazon will spend $800 million in the second quarter on the goal.  The announcement adds pressure to rivals Walmart Inc and others already racing to keep pace with the speed and benefits of Amazon's Prime program. Amazon's first-quarter net income more than doubled to $3.6 billion, while analysts were only expecting $2.4 billion, according to IBES data from Refinitiv. Second-quarter operating income will be as much as $3.6 billion, but analysts had been expecting $4.2 billion, according to FactSet.  Chief Financial Officer Brian Olsavsky said Amazon was still reaping rewards from prior years of hiring and investments in warehouses and other infrastructure. "We're banking the efficiencies of prior investments, continued into Q1," he said on a call with reporters. "There'll be times when we have to invest ahead to build out warehouse capacity, but right now we are on a nice path where we are getting the most out of the capacity we have." Olsavsky also said earlier that the company would spend more later this year to roll out more benefits to international Prime members. Investments mean lower profits The news marks a familiar refrain for the world's largest online retailer. For years, Amazon has made expensive bets on new technology and programs, like its $13.7 billion purchase of Whole Foods Market in 2017 to become a player in the U.S. grocery business.  Amazon's investments had long meant lower profit. However, its steady, often successful marches into new industries have been lucrative to shareholders, including its founder Jeff Bezos, who had become the richest man in the world.  The luster of these bets still shined brightly on Thursday. The company's loyal customer base has drawn merchants to sell and increasingly advertise through its site in exchange for fees, helping Amazon transform from a largely low-margin retail business to a more and more lucrative marketplace. Revenue from seller services jumped 20% to $11.1 billion in the first quarter, while ad and other sales surged 34%  to $2.7 billion, the company said. Meanwhile, Amazon's cloud unit kept growing as more enterprises moved data and computing operations to the technology company's servers. Sales for Amazon Web Services (AWS) rose 41% to $7.7 billion in the first quarter. More hiring, spending to come Some analysts noted that these growth figures, while impressive, were lower than what Amazon had posted in prior quarters. "Amazon delivered slower growth in all key segments,“ (AWS, advertising and e-commerce) “but margins skyrocketed, seemingly driven by less aggressive investment," said Atlantic Equities analyst James Cordwell. Amazon suggested that spending indeed was on the way, and with that smaller growth in profit. 'Lord of the Rings' prequel The company has been building warehouses around the world to ensure its edge in delivering goods to customers the fastest. It is spending more on video, from live sports to a planned prequel series to "The Lord of the Rings," to draw more people to log on to its website, watch, and while they are there, buy socks. Hiring will pick up from the 12 percent increase Amazon posted in the past 12 months, Olsavsky said. And the company is delving into even less familiar terrain. It recently announced investments in self-driving and electric car companies, teasing how it thinks these high-tech, capital-intensive businesses could pay dividends potentially in the form of autonomous deliveries in the long run. Amazon has not described in detail its thinking behind the bets. In China, where the company had long struggled to compete with Alibaba Group Holding Ltd, Amazon said this month it would close warehouses and its domestic marketplace in July. There were silver linings for investors, however. Amazon's Olsavsky said the company saw no material impact in India from actions the company took to comply with new regulations there affecting foreign investment in the e-commerce sector, something Amazon had voiced concern about in the past. Prime signups on rise in India Prime member signups in India, one of Amazon's most important growth markets, continue to be rising the fastest in the company's history. Bezos, who many regard as a management guru, also settled his closely watched divorce such that he will retain full voting control of his family's stock, sparing Amazon a boardroom battle. However, his fortune, which has been the largest of any married couple in the world, will be divided. The company forecast net sales of between $59.5 billion and $63.5 billion for the second quarter, the midpoint of which was below analysts' average estimate of $62.37 billion, according to IBES data from Refinitiv.

New Mexico Armed Border Group Barred from Facebook Fundraising

Fri, 04/26/2019 - 02:48
Facebook Inc on Thursday barred a New Mexico-based paramilitary group that has stopped undocumented migrants near the U.S.-Mexico border from using its fundraising tools and said it would remove any of its posts that violated company policies. Facebook made the statement after a civil rights organization asked it to block videos posted by the United Constitutional Patriots (UCP), saying the clips violated its standards, which prohibit images showing criminal acts. "People cannot use our fundraising tools for activities involving weapons," said a Facebook spokesperson in a statement. "We will remove fundraisers this group may try to start on our service and any content that violates our Community Standards." Since February, the UCP has posted a string of videos showing members armed with semi-automatic rifles halting migrants in New Mexico and telling them to sit and wait for U.S. Border Patrol to arrest them. The UCP says the videos demonstrate its work helping Border Patrol detain some 5,600 migrants in just 60 days during a surge in illegal crossings. Civil rights groups accuse the group of illegally detaining asylum-seekers. "These videos include content showing possible assault, kidnapping and false imprisonment," the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law said in a statement Thursday asking Facebook to remove them. UCP spokesman Jim Benvie did not immediately respond to a request for comment. In a Facebook Live post on Tuesday, he described the group's videos as "citizen journalism" showing reality on the border. "There is a crisis at the border, we are being invaded," Benvie said. Social media policies Facebook's Community Standards bar users from publicizing crime, using hate speech or presenting arguments for restricting immigration policy, among other things, the spokesperson said. PayPal and GoFundMe on Friday barred the UCP, citing policies that prohibit the promotion of hate or violence. New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham last week called for an investigation of the group. The FBI arrested the UCP's commander, Larry Hopkins, on Saturday on federal weapons charges dating back to 2017. Hopkins was assaulted in a New Mexico jail on Monday and hospitalized with broken ribs. The UCP left its campsite Tuesday after Union Pacific Railroad accused it of trespassing, but Benvie said it would soon relocate to a nearby spot along the border. "We're not going to quit fighting, we're not going to quit reporting," he said.

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