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In San Francisco, This Robot Barista Knows the Way You Like Your Latte

Wed, 11/28/2018 - 10:38
There are plenty of places to get a cup of coffee in San Francisco. But a new kind of café offers espressos and cappuccinos made by a robot. Michelle Quinn stopped by to see if a robot can make a good café latte.

Google Blocks Gender-Based Pronouns From New AI Tool

Tue, 11/27/2018 - 22:48
Alphabet Inc's Google in May introduced a slick feature for Gmail that automatically completes sentences for users as they type. Tap out "I love" and Gmail might propose "you" or "it." But users are out of luck if the object of their affection is "him" or "her." Google's technology will not suggest gender-based pronouns because the risk is too high that its "Smart Compose" technology might predict someone's sex or gender identity incorrectly and offend users, product leaders revealed to Reuters in interviews. Gmail product manager Paul Lambert said a company research scientist discovered the problem in January when he typed "I am meeting an investor next week," and Smart Compose suggested a possible follow-up question: "Do you want to meet him?" instead of "her." Consumers have become accustomed to embarrassing gaffes from autocorrect on smartphones. But Google refused to take chances at a time when gender issues are reshaping politics and society, and critics are scrutinizing potential biases in artificial intelligence like never before. "Not all 'screw ups' are equal," Lambert said. Gender is a "a big, big thing" to get wrong. Getting Smart Compose right could be good for business. Demonstrating that Google understands the nuances of AI better than competitors is part of the company's strategy to build affinity for its brand and attract customers to its AI-powered cloud computing tools, advertising services and hardware. Gmail has 1.5 billion users, and Lambert said Smart Compose assists on 11 percent of messages worldwide sent from Gmail.com, where the feature first launched. Smart Compose is an example of what AI developers call natural language generation (NLG), in which computers learn to write sentences by studying patterns and relationships between words in literature, emails and web pages. A system shown billions of human sentences becomes adept at completing common phrases but is limited by generalities. Men have long dominated fields such as finance and science, for example, so the technology would conclude from the data that an investor or engineer is "he" or "him." The issue trips up nearly every major tech company. Lambert said the Smart Compose team of about 15 engineers and designers tried several workarounds, but none proved bias-free or worthwhile. They decided the best solution was the strictest one: Limit coverage. The gendered pronoun ban affects fewer than 1 percent of cases where Smart Compose would propose something, Lambert said. "The only reliable technique we have is to be conservative," said Prabhakar Raghavan, who oversaw engineering of Gmail and other services until a recent promotion. New policy Google's decision to play it safe on gender follows some high-profile embarrassments for the company's predictive technologies. The company apologized in 2015 when the image recognition feature of its photo service labeled a black couple as gorillas. In 2016, Google altered its search engine's autocomplete function after it suggested the anti-Semitic query "are jews evil" when users sought information about Jews. Google has banned expletives and racial slurs from its predictive technologies, as well as mentions of its business rivals or tragic events. The company's new policy banning gendered pronouns also affected the list of possible responses in Google's Smart Reply. That service allow users to respond instantly to text messages and emails with short phrases such as "sounds good." Google uses tests developed by its AI ethics team to uncover new biases. A spam and abuse team pokes at systems, trying to find "juicy" gaffes by thinking as hackers or journalists might, Lambert said. Workers outside the United States look for local cultural issues. Smart Compose will soon work in four other languages: Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and French. "You need a lot of human oversight," said engineering leader Raghavan, because "in each language, the net of inappropriateness has to cover something different." Wispread challenge Google is not the only tech company wrestling with the gender-based pronoun problem. Agolo, a New York startup that has received investment from Thomson Reuters, uses AI to summarize business documents. Its technology cannot reliably determine in some documents which pronoun goes with which name. So the summary pulls several sentences to give users more context, said Mohamed AlTantawy, Agolo's chief technology officer. He said longer copy is better than missing details. "The smallest mistakes will make people lose confidence," AlTantawy said. "People want 100 percent correct." Yet, imperfections remain. Predictive keyboard tools developed by Google and Apple Inc propose the gendered "policeman" to complete "police" and "salesman" for "sales." Type the neutral Turkish phrase "one is a soldier" into Google Translate and it spits out "he's a soldier" in English. So do translation tools from Alibaba and Microsoft Corp. Amazon.com Inc opts for "she" for the same phrase on its translation service for cloud computing customers. AI experts have called on the companies to display a disclaimer and multiple possible translations. Microsoft's LinkedIn said it avoids gendered pronouns in its year-old predictive messaging tool, Smart Replies, to ward off potential blunders. Alibaba and Amazon did not respond to requests to comment. Warnings and limitations like those in Smart Compose remain the most-used countermeasures in complex systems, said John Hegele, integration engineer at Durham, North Carolina-based Automated Insights Inc, which generates news articles from statistics. "The end goal is a fully machine-generated system where it magically knows what to write," Hegele said. "There's been a ton of advances made but we're not there yet."

Lawmakers Criticize Facebook's Zuckerberg for UK Parliament No-Show

Tue, 11/27/2018 - 20:25
Facebook came under fire on Tuesday from lawmakers from several countries who accused the firm of undermining democratic institutions and lambasted chief executive Mark Zuckerberg for not answering questions on the matter. Facebook is being investigated by lawmakers in Britain after consultancy Cambridge Analytica, which worked on Donald Trump's presidential campaign, obtained the personal data of 87 million Facebook users from a researcher, drawing attention to the use of data analytics in politics. Concerns over the social media giant's practices, the role of political adverts and possible interference in the 2016 Brexit vote and U.S. elections are among the topics being investigated by British and European regulators. While Facebook says it complies with EU data protection laws, a special hearing of lawmakers from several countries around the world in London criticized Zuckerberg for declining to appear himself to answer questions on the topic. "We've never seen anything quite like Facebook, where, while we were playing on our phones and apps, our democratic institutions... seem to have been upended by frat-boy billionaires from California," Canadian lawmaker Charlie Angus said. "So Mr Zuckerberg's decision not to appear here at Westminster [Britain's parliament] to me speaks volumes." Richard Allan, the vice president of policy solutions at Facebook who appeared in Zuckerberg's stead, admitted Facebook had made mistakes but said it had accepted the need to comply with data rules. "I'm not going to disagree with you that we've damaged public trust through some of the actions we've taken," Allan told the hearing. Facebook has faced a barrage of criticism from users and lawmakers after it said last year that Russian agents used its platform to spread disinformation before and after the 2016 U.S. presidential election, an accusation Moscow denies. Allan repeatedly declined to give an example of a person or app banned from Facebook for misuse of data, aside from the GSR app which gathered data in the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Legal documents reviewed by Reuters show how the investigation by British lawmakers has led them to seize documents relating to Facebook from app developer Six4Three, which is in a legal dispute with Facebook. Damian Collins, chair of the culture committee which convened the hearing, said he would not release those documents on Tuesday as he was not in a position to do so, although he has said previously the committee has the legal power to.  

App Shows US, Canadian Commuters the Cleanest, Greenest Route Home

Tue, 11/27/2018 - 12:30
A mobile application launched in dozens of U.S. and Canadian cities on Monday measures the planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions of inner-city travel, its creators said, letting concerned commuters map their so-called carbon footprints. Mapping app Cowlines can suggest the most efficient route as well which uses the least fuel, combining modes of transport such as bicycling and walking, within cities, its Vancouver, Canada-based creators said. Some two-thirds of the world's population is expected to settle in urban areas by 2050, according to the United Nations. The trend presents an environmental challenge, given that the world's cities account for the bulk of greenhouse gas emissions. Not only will the app measure a trip's emissions and suggest alternatives, it will provide the data to cities and urban planners working on systems from subway lines to bike-sharing programs, said Jonathan Whitworth, chief strategy officer at Greenlines Technology, which created the app. "As you would imagine here in Canada, especially Western Canada, most people are driven by the environmental side of it," Whitworth told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. The app aims to encourage users in 62 U.S. and Canadian cities to use cleaner modes of transportation, from mass transit to walking or biking, he said. In the United States, mass transit accounts for less than 2 percent of passenger miles traveled, according to Daniel Sperling, founding director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis. "People are starved for good information and data for good travel choices," said Sperling. The app's suggested route is a cowline - city planner parlance for the fastest route, said Whitworth. In pastoral settings, a cowline is the most direct path cattle use to reach grazing grounds. The app shows users after a trip how many kilograms of carbon-dioxide equivalent emissions they are responsible for, Whitworth said. While other apps such as Changers CO2 Fit track users' carbon footprints, Cowlines claims its methodology, certified by the International Organization for Standardization, is most accurate, he said. Whitworth said the company also plans to sell the data it collects.

Apple to Tutor Women in Tech in Bid to Diversify Industry

Tue, 11/27/2018 - 11:30
Apple is launching a new program designed to address the technology industry's scarcity of women in executive and computer programming jobs.   Under the initiative announced Monday, female entrepreneurs and programmers will attend two-week tutorial sessions at the company's Cupertino, California, headquarters.   The camps will be held every three months beginning in January. For each round, Apple will accept up to 20 app makers founded or led by a woman. The app maker must have at least one female programmer in its ranks to qualify. Apple will cover travel expenses for up to three workers from each accepted company. Like other major tech companies, Apple has been trying to lessen its dependence on men in high-paying programming jobs. Women filled just 23 percent of Apple's technology jobs in 2017, according to the company's latest breakdown. That's only a slight improvement from 20 percent in 2014, despite the company's pledge to diversify its workforce.   The idea behind the new camp is to keep women interested and immersed in the field, said Esther Hare, Apple's senior director of world developer marketing.   It's not clear how much of a dent Apple's new program will have. Google also offers training for girls and women pursuing careers in technology, but its program hasn't done much to diversify the workforce so far. Women were hired for nearly 25 percent of Google's technology jobs in 2017, up from nearly 21 percent in 2014, according to the company. Apple and other technology companies maintain that one of the main reasons so many men are on their payrolls is because women traditionally haven't specialized in the mathematical and science curriculum needed to program.   But industry critics have accused the technology companies of discriminating again women through a male-dominated hierarchy that has ruled the industry for decades.   Apple isn't saying how much it is spending on the initiative, though beyond travel expenses, the company will be relying on its current employees to lead the sessions.

Cameroon Gaming Stars Become Business Superheroes

Tue, 11/27/2018 - 10:35
One of Cameroon's first video games studios and most successful digital startups is growing into a major player in the industry. Despite obstacles, Kiro'o Games - as it's called - is committed to drawing inspiration from its local mythology and culture. VOA Correspondent Mariama Diallo reports.

'Water from Air' Quenches Threatened Girls' Thirst in Arid Kenya

Tue, 11/27/2018 - 04:45
In this arid part of northern Kenya, water can be hard to find, particularly in the dry season. But a center run by the Samburu Girls Foundation - which rescues girls facing early marriage and female genital mutilation - has a new high-tech source of it. Since June, the center, which has rescued more than 1,200 girls, has used panels that catch water vapor in the air and condense it to supply their drinking water. "We used to have difficulties in accessing water and during a drought we could either go to the river to fetch water or ask our neighbors to give us water," said Jecinta Lerle, a pupil and vice president of students at the center's school. But now, officials at the school say, the girls no longer have to travel for water - including into communities they have left, which could put them at risk. "The girls can now have more time to study since there is enough fresh water to go round and there is no need to walk long distances to search for water," said Lotan Salapei, the foundation's head of partnerships. Girls formerly trekked up to five kilometers a day in search of clean water during particularly dry periods, sometimes bringing them into contact with members of their former community, Salapei said. The center, given 40 of the water vapor-condensing panels by the company that builds them, now creates about 400 liters of clean water each day, enough to provide all the drinking water the center needs. The "hydropanels," produced by U.S.-based technology company Zero Mass Water, pull water vapor from the air and condense it into a reservoir. Cody Friesen, Zero Mass Water's founder and chief executive officer, said the company's project with the Samburu Girls Foundation was an example of its efforts to make sure the technology "is accessible to people across the socioeconomic spectrum." The panels provided to the Samburu Girls Foundation cost about $1,500 each, foundation officials said. Zero Mass Water has so far sold or donated the panels in 16 countries, including South Africa. Saving trees George Sirro, a solar engineer with Solatrend Ltd., a Nairobi-based solar equipment company, said such devices can be a huge help not only to people but in slowing deforestation that is driving climate change and worsening drought in Kenya. Often people with inadequate water cut trees to boil the water they do find to make it safe, he said, driving deforestation. Philip Lerno a senior chief in Loosuk, where the girls' foundation is located, said he hopes to see the panels more widely used in the surrounding community, which usually experiences long dry periods each year. He said community members, having seen the devices in use at the school, hope to acquire some of their own if they can find the funding.

US Top Court Open to Antitrust Suit Against Apple App Store

Tue, 11/27/2018 - 00:03
U.S. Supreme Court justices on Monday appeared open to letting a lawsuit proceed against Apple Inc that accused it of breaking federal antitrust laws by monopolizing the market for iPhone software applications and causing consumers to overpay. The nine justices heard an hour of arguments in an appeal by the Cupertino, California-based technology company of a lower court's decision to revive the proposed class-action lawsuit filed in federal court in California in 2011 by a group of iPhone users seeking monetary damages. The lawsuit said Apple violated federal antitrust laws by requiring apps to be sold through the company's App Store and then taking a 30 percent commission from the purchases. The case may hinge on how the justices will apply one of its past decisions to the claims against Apple. That 1977 ruling limited damages for anti-competitive conduct to those directly overcharged rather than indirect victims who paid an overcharge passed on by others. Apple was backed by Republican President Donald Trump's administration. Some liberal and conservative justices sharply questioned an attorney for Apple and U.S. Solicitor General Noel Francisco, who argued on behalf of the administration on the company's side, over their argument that the consumers were not directly affected by purchasing the apps from Apple. Liberal Justice Elena Kagan, explaining how an App Store purchase is handled, said, "From my perspective, I've engaged in a one-step transaction with Apple." Some conservative justices, including Trump appointee Neil Gorsuch, wondered whether the 1977 ruling was still valid in a modern marketplace. Conservative Chief Justice John Roberts' questions suggested he agreed with Apple's position. Roberts expressed concern that, for a single price increase, Apple could be held liable by both consumers and App developers. The iPhone users, including lead plaintiff Robert Pepper of Chicago, have argued that Apple's monopoly leads to inflated prices compared to if apps were available from other sources. Though developers set the prices of their apps, Apple collects the payments from iPhone users, keeping a 30 percent commission on each purchase. One area of dispute in the case is whether app developers recoup the cost of that commission by passing it on to consumers. Developers earned more than $26 billion in 2017, a 30 percent increase over 2016, according to Apple. Closing courthouse doors Apple, also backed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce business group, told the justices in legal papers that siding with the iPhone users who filed the lawsuit would threaten the burgeoning field of e-commerce, which generates hundreds of billions of dollars annually in U.S. retail sales. The plaintiffs, as well as antitrust watchdog groups, said closing courthouse doors to those who buy end products would undermine antitrust enforcement and allow monopolistic behavior to expand unchecked. The plaintiffs were backed by 30 state attorneys general, including from Texas, California and New York. The plaintiffs said app developers would be unlikely to sue Apple, which controls the service where they make money, leaving no one to challenge anti-competitive conduct. The company sought to have the antitrust claims dismissed, arguing that the plaintiffs lacked the required legal standing to bring the lawsuit. A federal judge in Oakland, California threw out the suit, saying the consumers were not direct purchasers because the higher fees they paid were passed on to them by the developers. But the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals revived the case last year, finding that Apple was a distributor that sold iPhone apps directly to consumers.

More Than 200 Chinese Arrested in Cambodia for Online Scams

Mon, 11/26/2018 - 22:13
Police in Cambodia have arrested more than 200 Chinese citizens accused of defrauding people in China over the internet. Gen. Y Sok Khy, director of the Interior Ministry's Department of Counter-Terrorism and Transnational Crime, said 36 women were among the 235 Chinese arrested Monday in three different villages in Takeo province, south of the capital, Phnom Penh. Online scams by Chinese gangs that operate from foreign countries and target mainland Chinese are common throughout Southeast Asia and have been found as far away as Kenya and Spain. Cambodia has arrested and sent at least 1,000 Chinese and Taiwanese residents allegedly involved in such schemes to China since 2012. The scams are carried out by making phone calls over the internet and employing deception, threats and blackmail against the victims.

Russia Opens Civil Case Against Google Over Search Results

Mon, 11/26/2018 - 21:08
Russia has launched a civil case against Google, accusing it of failing to comply with a legal requirement to remove certain entries from its search results, the country's communications watchdog said on Monday. If found guilty, the U.S. internet giant could be fined up to 700,000 rubles ($10,450), the watchdog, Roskomnadzor, said. It said Google had not joined a state registry that lists banned websites that Moscow believes contain illegal information and was therefore in breach of the law. A final decision in the case will be made in December, the watchdog said. Google declined to comment. Over the past five years, Russia has introduced tougher internet laws that require search engines to delete some search results, messaging services to share encryption keys with security services, and social networks to store Russian users' personal data on servers within the country. At the moment, the only tools Russia has to enforce its data rules are fines that typically only come to a few thousand dollars, or blocking the offending online services, which is an option fraught with technical difficulties. Three sources familiar with the matter told Reuters on Monday that Russia planned to impose stiffer fines on technology firms that fail to comply with Russian laws. The plans for harsher fines are contained in a consultation document prepared by the administration of President Vladimir Putin and sent to industry players for feedback. The legislation, if it goes ahead, would hit global tech giants such as Facebook and Google, which - if found to have breached rules - could face fines equal to 1 percent of their annual revenue in Russia, according to the sources.  

UK Parliament Seizes Confidential Facebook Documents

Mon, 11/26/2018 - 20:19
Britain's parliament has seized confidential Facebook documents from the developer of a now-defunct bikini photo searching app as it turns up the heat on the social media company over its data protection policies. A British lawmaker took the unusually aggressive move of forcing a visiting tech executive to turn over the files ahead of an international hearing that parliament is hosting on Tuesday to look into disinformation and "fake news." The parliament's Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee has "received the documents it ordered from Six4Three relating to Facebook," Committee Chairman Damian Collins tweeted on Sunday, adding that he had already reviewed them. "Under UK law & parliamentary privilege we can publish papers if we choose to as part of our inquiry." The app maker, Six4Three, had acquired the files, which date from 2013-2014, as part of a U.S. lawsuit against the social media giant. It's suing Facebook over a change to the social network's privacy policies in 2015 that led Six4Three to shut down its app, Pikinis, which let users find photos of their friends in bikinis and bathing suits by searching their friends list. Collins, a critic of social media abuses and manipulation, is leading the committee's look into the rise of "fake news" and how it is being used to influence political elections. Lawmakers from seven countries are preparing to grill a Facebook executive in charge of public policy, Richard Allan, at the committee's hearing in London. They had asked for Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to appear in person or by video, but he has refused. The U.K. committee used its powers to compel the chief executive Six4Three, Theodore Kramer, who was on a business trip to London, to turn over the files, according to parliamentary records and news reports. The committee twice requested that Kramer turn over the documents. When he failed to do so, Kramer was escorted to parliament and told he risked imprisonment if he didn't hand them over, the Observer newspaper reported. Facebook wants the files to be kept secret and a judge in California ordered them sealed earlier this year. The judge is expected to give guidance on the legal status of the documents as early as Monday, Allan wrote in a letter to Collins. "Six4Three's claims are entirely meritless," Facebook said in a statement.

Researchers Learn Lessons from Cats' Tongues

Mon, 11/26/2018 - 14:45
Scientific curiosity can lead to some surprising, and useful, discoveries. Consider the cat – questions about its sandpaper-like tongue led to plans for a synthetic version that could be used for household products or to dispense medicine. Faith Lapidus explains.

British Firm Creates Novel Way to Recycle Plastic

Fri, 11/23/2018 - 13:31
The problem with plastics is a well-known refrain by now: It never goes away and far too little of it is being recycled. That means it is turning up in every corner of our planet, from our beaches to our bodies. But one British firm has figured out a new way to recycle plastics, and customers are waiting in line. VOA's Kevin Enochs reports.

Malawi, UN Pilot Drone Project to Fight Hunger

Fri, 11/23/2018 - 13:25
As many as 3 million Malawians are expected to face food shortages this year because of drought and pests. To address the problem, Malawi and the United Nations are piloting a joint project to assess the health of crops using drones. Lameck Masina reports from Kasungu, central Malawi.

Technology Shapes Insurance Companies' Response to Wildfires

Fri, 11/23/2018 - 00:07
As wildfires raged this month in California, insurance claims experts at Travelers sat in a command center 3,000 miles (4,828 kilometers) away in Connecticut, monitoring screens showing satellite images, photos from airplane flyovers and social media posts describing what was happening on the ground. Real-time data and technology that were unavailable to property-casualty companies even a few years ago have shaped the industry's response to the Camp Fire, which has burned nearly 240 square miles (622 square kilometers) in northern California and the 151-square-mile (391-square-kilometer) Woolsey Fire in the Los Angeles area. By overlaying the data on maps marking its customers' locations, the company can quickly identify those who are likely to have been affected, said Jim Wucherpfennig, Travelers vice president of claims. "That allows us to deploy people and resources where they are needed most," he said. The same data also can be used to determine risk and pricing for insurance in any given area, said Peter Kochenburger, the deputy director of the University of Connecticut's insurance law center. Insurers, for example, can use the telemetry to identify local vegetation, wind patterns and fire history. In some cases, it can determine that the owner of one home is more likely to suffer damage than the owner of a neighboring home, he said. "Does it seem intrusive? It can be," he said. "They have a lot more information on all of us, on our properties than they had two, five, 10 years ago. That's a major issue and that's something regulators are going to have to talk about." During the wildfires, Travelers said the information has been used to expedite claims, even in areas that are still inaccessible to inspectors. Workers were able to see what roads were open and map out spots in Chico and Thousand Oaks to park the RVs that serve as mobile claim centers, the company said. The tools also indicated where customers who evacuated were going to be, Wucherpfennig said. The glassed-in Travelers National Catastrophe Center is located in Windsor, Connecticut. Modeled after military war rooms, it includes a conference table behind 19 high-definition screens, which display maps, graphs, television images and social media sites, all providing real-time data on the fires. In some cases, even before adjusters arrive on scene, claims experts can assess damage from the fires and cut checks by using before-and-after images taken by drones, aircraft or satellites as well as videos or photos uploaded by customers from their phones. Employees have tools and smart phone apps that can convert those photos into instant measurements, to help quantify the damage. "We're able to virtually interact with customers much more easily than we could even in the recent past," Wucherpfennig said. "We're also able to monitor all forms of social media in real time. That helps us create an event footprint, which helps us understand how the event is tracking and what type of damages we're seeing."

Solar-powered Suitcases Bring Light to Darkened Classrooms

Thu, 11/22/2018 - 14:17
Solar-powered suitcases are bringing light to darkened classrooms and struggling students in rural Kenya. Before solar power, the alternatives were small tin kerosene lamps that are not only expensive to fill but also have caused some health problems. VOA's Mariama Diallo reports.

Facebook Sued by Russian Firm Linked to Woman Charged by US Government

Wed, 11/21/2018 - 08:42
A Russia-based news company whose accountant was charged by federal prosecutors for attempting to meddle in U.S. elections sued Facebook Inc in a federal court Tuesday, claiming that its Facebook page was improperly removed. The Federal Agency of News LLC and its sole shareholder, Evgeniy Aubarev, filed the lawsuit against Facebook in federal court in the Northern District of California, seeking damages and an injunction to prevent Facebook from blocking its account. Facebook deleted the company's account in April as it purged pages and accounts associated with the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency, which was indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller earlier this year for interfering in the 2016 U.S. election. FAN and Zubarev said they were improperly swept up in Facebook's purge. Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit. "FAN is an independent, authentic and legitimate news agency which publishes reports that are relevant and of interest to the general public," the company said in the lawsuit. Peter Carr, a spokesman for Mueller, declined to comment.

A New Toy Promises To Teach Girls To Code While Playing With Dolls

Wed, 11/21/2018 - 07:50
Technology jobs will experience high growth between now and 2030 but only a fraction of girls are likely to pursue degrees that will help them get those jobs. A new toy called SmartGurlz hopes to help change that. Deana Mitchell joins in on the play time.

As Facebook Faces Fire, Heat Turns Up on No. 2 Sandberg

Wed, 11/21/2018 - 03:04
For the past decade, Sheryl Sandberg has been the poised, reliable second-in-command to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, helping steer Facebook's rapid growth around the world, while also cultivating her brand in ways that hint at aspirations well beyond the social network. But with growing criticism over the company's practices, or lack of oversight, her carefully cultivated brand as an eloquent feminist leader is showing cracks. Questions these days aren't so much about whether she'll run for the Senate or even president, but whether she ought to keep her job at Facebook.  “Her brand was being manicured with the same resources and care as the gardens of Tokyo,” said Scott Galloway, a New York University marketing professor. “And unfortunately a hurricane has come through the garden.” Facebook has been dealing with hurricanes for the past two years: fake news, elections interference, hate speech, a privacy scandal, the list goes on. The company's response — namely, Zuckerberg's and Sandberg's — has been slow at best, misleading and obfuscating at worst, as The New York Times reported last week. That report, and one from The Wall Street Journal , underscored Sandberg's influence at the company, even as Zuckerberg has borne much of the criticism and anger. There have been calls for both to be ousted. But because of the way Facebook is set up, firing Zuckerberg would be all but impossible. He controls the majority of the company's voting stock, serves as its chairman and has — at least publicly — the support of its board of directors. Essentially, he'd have to fire himself. Firing Sandberg would be the next logical option to hold a high-level executive accountable. Though the chances are slim, the fact that it has even come up shows the extent of Facebook's — and Sandberg’s — troubles.  As chief operating officer, Sandberg is in charge of Facebook's business dealings, including the ads that make up the bulk of the company's revenue. She steered Facebook from a rising tech startup into a viable global business expected to reap $55 billion in revenue this year. The company is second only to Google in digital advertising. But she's also gotten the blame when things go wrong, including Facebook's failure to spot Russian attempts to influence U.S. elections by buying U.S. political ads — in rubles. Though Sandberg has denied knowing that Facebook hired an opposition research firm to discredit activists, she created a permissive environment through what the Times called an “aggressive lobbying campaign” against critics. Facebook fired the firm, Definers, after the Times report came out. Facebook declined to comment on Sandberg or make her available for an interview. A representative instead pointed to Zuckerberg's remarks that overall, “Sheryl is doing great work for the company. She's been a very important partner to me and continues to be, and will continue to be. She's leading a lot of the efforts to improve our systems in these areas.” Sandberg, 49, who was hired away from Google in 2008, has been a crucial “heat shield” for Zuckerberg, as Galloway put it, as lawmakers and the public crank up criticism of the 34-year-old founder. In September, Facebook sent Sandberg to testify before the Senate intelligence committee, eliciting a warmer response than her boss did three months before.  Sandberg, former chief of staff for treasury secretary Larry Summers, appears more comfortable in Washington meeting rooms than Zuckerberg, who can seem robotic. Her profile is high enough that lawmakers don't feel stilted when she shows up. She's written (with help) two books, including 2013's “Lean In” about women and leadership. Her second book, “Plan B,” is about dealing with loss and grief after her husband died unexpectedly. She was the lone chief operating officer among a who's who of tech CEOs — including Apple's Tim Cook and Amazon's Jeff Bezos — to meet with Donald Trump a month after his election. “It's both who she is and how bereft Silicon Valley is of strong, powerful female voices,” crisis management expert Richard Levick said. “She has positioned herself as one of those strong voices with ‘Lean In.’’’ But her high profile also makes her more susceptible to criticism. The chorus for Sandberg to leave is getting louder. CNBC commentator Jim Cramer predicted Monday that Facebook's stock would rise if Sandberg leaves or gets fired. NYU's Galloway believes both Sandberg and Zuckerberg should be fired for allowing Facebook to turn into an entity that harms democracy around the world. “Every day executives are fired for a fraction of infractions these two have committed,” he said. Besides elections interference, Zuckerberg and Sandberg have been criticized for their slow response to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which the data-mining firm accessed millions of users' private information without their permission. The pair were silent for days after the news came out. According to the Journal, Zuckerberg told Sandberg this spring that he blamed her and her teams for the “public fallout” over Cambridge Analytica. Citing unnamed sources, the newspaper said Sandberg at one point wondered if she should be worried about her job (though that appears to no longer be the case, based on Zuckerberg's public support). Galloway said it would look bad for Facebook to fire one of the only top female executives in an industry where women “face inordinately high obstacles to get to leadership positions.” Beyond that, Sandberg has also been a positive force on Facebook. She was hired to be the “adult” in the room and has filled that role well. She moves comfortably outside tech circles and in public speaking, countering Zuckerberg's shortcomings in that area.  If anything, Sandberg's departure from Facebook would likely be on her own terms. While Zuckerberg has spent all of his adult life at Facebook, Sandberg had a career before Facebook and even tech, so it is plausible that she would have a life after Facebook, perhaps back in politics.  But before she can consider running for office, she'll probably have to address election manipulation and Facebook's other troubles.                    

Where Did North Korea’s Cyber Army Come From?

Wed, 11/21/2018 - 00:10
North Korean hackers continue to circumvent protections and compromise computer systems around the globe. Pyongyang’s cyber operatives, like the Lazarus Group, have been linked to computer system infiltrations like the 2014 Sony Pictures Studios hack prior to the release of the U.S. film “The Interview” and the attempted theft of close to $1 billion from the central Bangladesh bank using the SWIFT banking network in 2016. But how did Pyongyang become so adept at hacking while not possessing rich resources and being under tough International sanctions? Seungjoo Kim, a professor at Korea University’s Graduate School of Information Security says the answer, in part, is because North Korea’s computer hackers operate in China and Europe with easy access to the internet. “North Korea practices their craft under real conditions, like hacking cryptocurrency sites or stealing information,” he said, “These repeated exercises help to improve their skills.” As an instructor, Seungjoo Kim teaches his students how hackers invade other systems using traditional textbooks instruction. But without real-world trials, he says they can’t obtain the knowledge needed to test systems or prevent hostile attacks. “Basically, you should teach basic computer knowledge, and then try to solve some hacking problems,” he said, adding that the best way to improve one’s computer infiltration skills is with real-time and real-world practice. “North Korea acquires [their] knowledge by invading other systems,” said Kim. He added that because North Korea can directly attack other countries, that effort has enabled Pyongyang to quickly develop their world-renowned hacking skills. North Korea’s cyber army Experts assert there are between 6,000 and 7,500 members of North Korea’s cyber army, split into a number of divisions to carry out cyberterrorism against state infrastructure, financial institutions, and the latest hijacking of defense technology. “North Korea was inspired by the Chinese cyberwar units and learned from them,” said NK Intellectuals Solidarity director Heung Kwan Kim, “Recognizing their power, North Korea set up the first unit within the central government in 1993.” While Pyongyang’s Reconnaissance General Bureau is comprised of six divisions and overseas operations in South Korea, the United States, and Japan, it’s another bureau that is responsible for the bulk of North Korea’s cyber warfare. “Unit 121 oversees Unit 180, Unit 91, and lab 110,” Heung Kwan Kim told VOA. A 500-person strong Unit 121 was created in 1998, and in 2009 the group successfully carried out 77 attacks by overwhelming computer networks through unleashing an onslaught of Internet traffic. This led Pyongyang to conclude that cyber-warfare was “the most suitable form of war” for North Korea in the modern era, according to Heung Kwan Kim. Attacks continued throughout 2014, and in 2015. When North Korea reorganized their divisions, Unit 121 was given the mission of attacking a foreign nation’s infrastructure, such as transportation networks, telecommunications, gas, electric power, nuclear power, and aviation systems. Unit 91’s focus was shifted to acquiring “advanced technologies needed for nuclear development and long-range missiles from developed countries.” Finally, the role of Unit 180 was changed for it to target financial systems and to focus on block chain technology. Cryptocurrency and blockchains With international sanctions crippling Pyongyang’s coffers, Heung Kwan Kim said North Korea shifted their cyberattacks to private systems, rather than government networks, because the smaller entities weren’t as well protected. “It’s a problem of North Korea’s high ability and low security,” he said. The numerous attacks on small and private companies have led to allegations that Pyongyang is hacking into cryptocurrency exchanges to steal virtual money, like Bitcoin, said Seungjoo Kim. Stolen cryptocurrencies are attractive because they are difficult to trace back to their original owner. In 2017, the North Korean hacking group Lazarus was accused of attacking South Korea cryptocurrency exchange Bithumb. The cyber thieves made off with nearly $7 million in digital currencies. The hackers also obtained personal information of users stored on the compromised servers. The BBC reports North Korea was later able to ransom additional funds from the owners in exchange for deleting the data. “Cryptocurrency is easy to steal because it moves in cyberspace,” said Seungjoo Kim. He added, “To earn cryptocurrency in a legitimate way, cutting-edge computers are required, but North Korea doesn’t have them, so they attack computers abroad and hack mining programs.” The hacked computers then send any virtual coins it uncovers to North Korean digital wallets they can convert to hard currency. To curtail North Korea’s cyberattacks, he advocates a detente in the virtual world that’s similar to the easing of tensions taking place on the peninsula. However, that may be difficult, as it would require Pyongyang to admit it committed acts of cyberwarfare. In addition, it would require “Russia and China not only participating in current real-world sanctions, cyber sanctions at the same time,” said Seungjoo Kim. The last component, he said, would be for governments to codify what measures would be employed as proportional responses, should additional cyberattacks take place and prepare for those events.    

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