VOA Science & Tech
Updated: 1 hour 59 min ago
Facebook will allow French regulators to "embed" inside the company to examine how it combats online hate speech, the first time the wary tech giant has opened its doors in such a way, President Emmanuel Macron said Monday. From January, Macron's administration will send a small team of senior civil servants to the company for six months to verify Facebook's goodwill and determine whether its checks on racist, sexist or hate-fueled speech could be improved. "It's a first," Macron told the annual Internet Governance Forum in Paris. "I'm delighted by this very innovative experimental approach," he said. "It's an experiment, but a very important first step in my view." The trial project is an example of what Macron has called "smart regulation," something he wants to extend to other tech leaders such as Google, Apple and Amazon. The move follows a meeting with Facebook's founder Mark Zuckerberg in May, when Macron invited the CEOs of some of the biggest tech firms to Paris, telling them they should work for the common good. The officials may be seconded from the telecoms regulator and the interior and justice ministries, a government source said. Facebook said the selection was up to the French presidency. It is unclear whether the group will have access to highly-sensitive material such as Facebook's algorithms or codes to remove hate speech. It could travel to Facebook's European headquarters in Dublin and global base in Menlo Park, California, if necessary, the company said. "The best way to ensure that any regulation is smart and works for people is by governments, regulators and businesses working together to learn from each other and explore ideas," Nick Clegg, the former British deputy prime minister who is now head of Facebook's global affairs, said in a statement. France's approach to hate speech has contrasted sharply with Germany, Europe's leading advocate of privacy. Since January, Berlin has required sites to remove banned content within 24 hours or face fines of up to 50 million euros ($56 million). That has led to accusations of censorship. France's use of embedded regulators is modeled on what happens in its banking and nuclear industries. "[Tech companies] now have the choice between something that is smart but intrusive and regulation that is wicked and plain stupid," a French official said.
France and U.S. technology giants including Microsoft on Monday urged world governments and companies to sign up to a new initiative to regulate the internet and fight threats such as cyberattacks, online censorship and hate speech. With the launch of a declaration entitled the 'Paris call for trust and security in cyberspace', French President Emmanuel Macron is hoping to revive efforts to regulate cyberspace after the last round of United Nations negotiations failed in 2017. In the document, which is supported by many European countries but, crucially, not China or Russia, the signatories urge governments to beef up protections against cyber meddling in elections and prevent the theft of trade secrets. The Paris call was initially pushed for by tech companies but was redrafted by French officials to include work done by U.N. experts in recent years. "The internet is a space currently managed by a technical community of private players. But it's not governed. So now that half of humanity is online, we need to find new ways to organize the internet," an official from Macron's office said. "Otherwise, the internet as we know it today - free, open and secure-- will be damaged by the new threats.” By launching the initiative a day after a weekend of commemorations marking the 100th anniversary of World War I, Macron hopes to promote his push for stronger global cooperation in the face of rising nationalism. In another sign of the Trump administration's reluctance to join international initiatives it sees as a bid to encroach on U.S. sovereignty, French officials said Washington might not become a signatory, though talks are continuing. However, they said large U.S. tech companies including Facebook and Alphabet's Google would sign up. "The American ecosystem is very involved. It doesn't mean that in the end the U.S. federal government won't join us, talks are continuing, but the U.S. will be involved under other forms," another French official said.
University of Pennsylvania researchers say that for the first time they have linked social media use to increases in depression and loneliness. The idea that social media is anything but social when it comes to mental health has been talked about for years, but not many studies have managed to actually link the two. To do that, Penn researchers, led by psychologist Melissa Hunt, designed a study that focused on Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram. The results were published in the November issue of the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology. How study worked The study was conducted with 143 participants, who before they began, completed a mood survey and sent along photos of their battery screens, showing how often they were using their phones to access social media. “We set out to do a much more comprehensive, rigorous study that was also more ecologically valid,” Hunt said. That term, ecologically valid, means that the research attempts to mimic real life. The study divided the participants into two groups: The first group was allowed to maintain their normal social media habits. The other, the control group, was restricted to 10 minutes per day on each of the three platforms: Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram. The restrictions were put in place for three weeks and then the participants returned and were tested for outcomes such as fear of missing out (FOMO), anxiety, depression and loneliness. Results of study The results showed a very clear link between social media use and increased levels of depression and loneliness. “Using less social media than you normally would leads to significant decreases in both depression and loneliness,” Hunt said. “These effects are particularly pronounced for folks who were more depressed when they came into the study.” She calls her findings the “grand irony” of social media. What is it about social media that’s just so depressing? Hunt says that it’s two major things. The first is that social media invites what Hunt calls “downward social comparison.” When you’re online, it can sometimes seem that “everyone else is cooler and having more fun and included in more things and you’re left out,” she said. And that’s just generally demoralizing. The second factor is a bit more nuanced. “Time is a zero-sum game,” Hunt told VOA. “Every minute you spend online is a minute you are not doing your work or not meeting a friend for dinner or having a deep conversation with your roommate.” And these real life activities are the ones that can bolster self-esteem and self worth, Hunt said. What to learn So what’s the takeaway? People are on their devices, and that’s not going to change, she said. But as in life, a bit of moderation goes a long way. “In general, I would say, put your phone down and be with the people in your life,” she added. Hunt pointed out a few caveats to the study. First, it was done exclusively with 18- to 22-year-olds, and it is unclear if the depressing effects of social media will cross generational lines to older or younger people, Hunt said. But she expects her results should generalize at least for people through the age of 30. Hunt says she is now beginning a study to gauge the emotional impact of dating apps.
Robots have been put to work assembling cars in factories, answering questions at conventions and hotel lobbies, moving packages in warehouses, and more. Now, a team at the University of Southern California is studying how well robots work with autistic children, to offer personalized support and learning. Faith Lapidus reports.
Google is promising to be more forceful and open about its handling of sexual misconduct cases, a week after high-paid engineers and others walked out in protest over its male-dominated culture. CEO Sundar Pichai spelled out the concessions in an email sent Thursday to Google employees. The note of contrition came a week after the tech giant's workers left their cubicles in dozens of offices around the world to protest management's treatment of top executives and other male workers accused of sexual harassment and other misconduct involving men. The protest's organizers estimated about 17,000 workers participated in the walkout . "Google's leaders and I have heard your feedback and have been moved by the stories you've shared," Pichai wrote in his email. "We recognize that we have not always gotten everything right in the past and we are sincerely sorry for that. It's clear we need to make some changes." Pichai's email was obtained by The Associated Press. Google bowed to one of the protesters' main demands by dropping mandatory arbitration of all sexual misconduct cases. That will now be optional under the new policies. It mirrors a change made by ride-hailing service Uber after the complaints of its women employees prompted an internal investigation concluding its rank had been poisoned by rampant sexual harassment Google will also provide more details about sexual misconduct cases in internal reports available to all employees. The breakdowns will include the number of cases that were substantiated within various company departments and list the types of punishment imposed, including firings, pay cuts and mandated counseling. The company is also stepping up its training aimed at preventing misconduct, requiring all employees to go through the process annually instead of every other year. Those who fall behind in their training, including top executives, will be dinged in their annual performance reviews, leaving a blemish that could lower their pay and make it more difficult to get promoted. The reforms are the latest fallout from a broader societal backlash against men's exploitation of their women subordinates in business, entertainment and politics — a movement that has spawned the "MeToo" hashtag as a sign of unity and a call for change. Google got caught in the crosshairs two weeks ago after The New York Times detailed allegations of sexual misconduct about the creator of Google's Android software, Andy Rubin. The newspaper said Rubin received a $90 million severance package in 2014 after Google concluded the accusations were credible. Rubin has denied the allegations. Like its Silicon Valley peers, Google has already openly acknowledged that its workforce is too heavily concentrated with white and Asian men, especially in the highest paying executive and computer programming jobs. Women account for 31 percent of Google's employees worldwide, and it's lower for leadership roles. Critics believe that gender imbalance as created a "brogammer" culture akin to a college fraternity house that treats women as sex objects. As part of its ongoing efforts, Google will now require at least one woman or a non-Asian ethnic minority to be included on the list of candidates for executive jobs. Google isn't addressing another one of the protesters' grievance because it believes it doesn't have merit. The protesters demanded that women be paid the same as men for doing similar work, something that Google has steadfastly maintained that it has been doing for years.
Bullied herself online, Britain's Princess Beatrice is determined to ensure other girls are equipped to deal with internet abuse and get the best from the digital world. Beatrice — who as the eldest daughter of Prince Andrew and his former wife, the Duchess of York, is eighth in line to the British throne — said her bullying, about her weight and her appearance, were very public and could not be ignored. But she said other girls faced this in private and needed to be encouraged to speak out and to know where to get support, which prompted her to get involved in campaigns against cyber bullying. A recent study by the U.S.-based Pew Research Center found about 60 percent of U.S. teens had been bullied or harassed online, with girls more likely to be the targets of online rumor-spreading or nonconsensual explicit messages. "You'd like to say don't pay attention to it ... but the best advice is to talk about it," Beatrice, 30, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation during an interview on Wednesday at the Web Summit, Europe's largest annual technology conference. "Being a young girl, but now being 30 and a woman working full time in technology, I feel very grateful for those experiences. But at that time it was very challenging." Beatrice, who works at the U.S.-based software company Afiniti, co-founded the Big Change Charitable Trust with a group of friends, including two of Richard Branson's children, in 2010 to support young people who also grew up in the public eye. Campaign She also last year joined the anti-bullying campaign "Be Cool Be Nice" along with other celebrities such as Kendall Jenner and Cara Delevingne, which included a book. "There are lots of people who are ready to help and I want to make sure young people feel they have the places to go to talk about it," said Beatrice, adding that teachers and parents also had a role to play. Beatrice said her bullying was so public that she could not hide from it, but her mother, Sarah Ferguson, was a great source of support. One of the most public attacks on the princess was at the 2011 wedding of her cousin Prince William when her fascinator sparked a barrage of media attention. A month later she auctioned the hat for charity for 81,000 pounds ($106,500). Her mother, who divorced Prince Andrew in 1996, had to get used to unrelenting ribbing by Britain's royal-obsessed media. "She has been through a lot," said Beatrice, whose younger sister, Eugenie, married at Windsor Castle last month. "When you see role models who are continually put in very challenging situations and can support you ... [then] some of the tools that I have had from her I would like to share." Beatrice said mobile technology should be a force for good for girls in developed and developing countries, presenting new opportunities in terms of education, careers and health. "Social media and the pressures that these young people now face is a new phenomenon ... and if I can do more to give young people the tools [to cope], that is my mission," she said. "I would say to young girls: You are not alone. Keep going."
Facebook says it has blocked more than 100 accounts with potential ties to a so-called Russian "troll farm" that may have sought to interfere with Tuesday's U.S. midterm elections. The social media giant said in a statement Wednesday that it had blocked the Facebook and Instagram accounts ahead of the vote. Facebook said it made the move after a tip from law enforcement officials. Facebook's head of cybersecurity, Nathaniel Gleicher, said in a statement that the accounts were blocked late Monday over suspicions they were "engaged in coordinated inauthentic behavior, which is banned from our services." Among those accounts blocked were 85 Instagram accounts and 30 Facebook pages, most of which were in French or Russian languages. The Instagram accounts were mostly English-language, Facebook said. Investigators say the accounts may be linked to a group known as the Internet Research Agency, which is based in St. Petersburg, Russia. In February, a federal grand jury indicted the group over allegations of interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Gleicher called the recent discovery "a timely reminder that these bad actors won't give up — and why it is so important we work with the U.S. government and other technology companies to stay ahead." Before Gleicher's statement, the Internet Research Agency said in a statement that it was responsible for the accounts, although that has not been verified. In its statement, the organization said, "Citizens of the United States of America! Your intelligence agencies are powerless. Despite all their efforts, we have thousands of accounts registered on Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit spreading political propaganda." The message was written in capital letters. The statement also included a list of accounts to which the organization was supposedly attached. In April, Facebook closed some 270 accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency. Facebook also recently banned 82 accounts linked to Iran, that were posting politically charged memes.
Public databases that shine a light on online political ads - launched by Facebook and Google before Tuesday's U.S. elections - offer the public the first broad view of how quickly the companies yank advertisements that break their rules. The databases also provided campaigns unprecedented insight into opponents' online marketing, enabling them to capitalize on weaknesses, political strategists told Reuters. Facebook and Google, owned by Alphabet, introduced the databases this year to give details on some political ads bought on their services, a response to U.S. prosecutors' allegations that Russian agents who deceptively interfered in the 2016 election purchased ads from the companies. Russia denies the charges. American security experts said the Russians changed tactics this year. Reuters found that Facebook and Google took down 436 ads from May through October related to 34 U.S. House of Representatives contests declared competitive last month by RealClearPolitics, which tracks political opinion polls. Of the 258 removed ads with start and end dates, ads remained on Google an average of eight days and Facebook 15 days, according to data Reuters collected from the databases. Based on ranges in the databases, the 436 ads were displayed up to 20.5 million times and cost up to $582,000, amounting to a fraction of the millions of dollars spent online in those races. Asked for comment, Google said it is committed to bringing greater transparency to political ads. Facebook said the database is a way the company is held accountable, "even if it means our mistakes are on display." In some cases, the companies' automated scans did not identify banned material such as hateful speech or images of poor quality before ads went live. Ads that are OK when scanned may also become noncompliant if they link to a website that later breaks down. Google's database covers $54 million in spending by U.S. campaigns since May and Facebook $354 million, according to their databases. Facebook's figure is larger partly because its database includes ads not only from federal races but also for state contests, national issues and get-out-the-vote efforts. The databases generally do not say why a particular ad was removed, and only Facebook shows copies of yanked ads. The American Conservative Union political organization, which had 136 ads removed through Sunday on Facebook, said some commercials contained a brief shot of comedian Kathy Griffin holding a decapitated head meant to portray U.S. President Donald Trump. Removing the bloody image resolved the violation for sensational content, and the organization said it had no qualms about Facebook's screening. Some removals were errors. The Environmental Defense Action Fund said Facebook's automated review wrongly misclassified one of its ads as promoting tobacco. Ryan Morgan, whose political consulting firm Veracity Media arranged attack ads for a U.S. House race in Iowa, said Google barred those mentioning "white supremacy" until his team could explain the ads advocated against the racist belief. Five campaign strategists told Reuters they adjusted advertising tactics in recent weeks based on what the databases revealed about opponents' spending on ads and which genders, age groups and states saw the messages. Ohio digital consultant Kevin Bingle said his team reviewed opponents on Facebook's database daily to take advantage of gaps in their strategy. Morgan said his team tripled its online ad budget to $600,000 for a San Francisco affordable housing tax after Facebook's database showed the other side's ads were reaching non-Californians. That political intelligence "let us know that digital was a place we could run up the score," he said.
Whether it's Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, social media platforms have become the digital public squares where we convene. Police gather on these sites too, in order to prevent and investigate criminal activity. But the clues found within social media postings aren't always conclusive. Tina Trinh explains.
When the worst floods in a century swept through India's southern Kerala state in August, they killed more than 480 people and left behind more than $5 billion in damage. But one thing survived unscathed: India's first floating solar panels, on one of the country's largest water reservoirs. As India grapples with wilder weather, surging demand for power and a goal to nearly quintuple the use of solar energy in just four years, "we are very much excited about floating solar," said Shailesh K. Mishra, director of power systems at the government Solar Energy Corporation of India. India is planning new large-scale installations of the technology on hydropower reservoirs and other water bodies in Tamil Nadu, Jharkhand and Uttarakhand states, and in the Lakshadweep islands, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "The cost is coming almost to the same level as ground solar, and then it will go (forward) very fast," he predicted. As countries move to swiftly scale up solar power, to meet growing demand for energy and to try to curb climate change, floating solar panels - installed on reservoirs or along coastal areas - are fast gaining popularity, particularly in Asia, experts say. The panels - now in place from China to the Maldives to Britain - get around some of the biggest problems facing traditional solar farms, particularly a lack of available land, said Oliver Knight, a senior energy specialist with the World Bank. "The water body is already there - you don't need to go out and find it," he said in a telephone interview. And siting solar arrays on water - most cover up to 10 percent of a reservoir - can cut evaporation as well, a significant benefit in water-short places, Knight said. Pakistan's new government, for instance, is talking about using floating solar panels on water reservoirs near Karachi and Hyderabad, both to provide much-needed power and to curb water losses as climate change brings hotter temperatures and more evaporation, he said. Solar arrays on hydropower dams also can take advantage of existing power transmission lines, and excess solar can be used to pump water, effectively storing it as hydropower potential. Big Potential China currently has the most of the 1.1 gigawatts of floating solar generating capacity now installed, according to the World Bank. But the technology's potential is much bigger - about 400 gigawatts, or about as much generating capacity as all the solar photovoltaic panels installed in the world through 2017, the bank said. "If you covered 1 percent of manmade water bodies, you're already looking at 400 gigawatts," Knight said. "That's very significant." Growing use of the technology has raised fears that it could block sun into reservoirs, affecting wildlife and ecosystems, or that electrical systems might not stand up to a watery environment - particularly in salty coastal waters. But backers say that while environmental concerns need to be better studied, the relatively small amount of surface area covered by the panels - at least at the moment - doesn't appear to create significant problems. "People worried what will happen to fish, to water quality," said India's Mishra. "Now all that attention has gone." What may be more challenging is keeping panels working - and free of colonizing sea creatures - in corrosively salty coastal installations, which account for a relatively small percentage of total projects so far, noted Thomas Reindl of the Solar Energy Research Institute of Singapore. He said he expects the technology will draw more investment "when durability and reliability has been proven in real world installations." Currently floating solar arrays cost about 18 percent more than traditional solar photovoltaic arrays, Knight said - but that cost is often offset by other lower costs. "In many places one has to pay for land, for resettlement of people or preparing and leveling land and building roads," he said. With floating solar, "you avoid quite a bit of that." Solar panels used on water, which cools them, also can produce about 5 percent more electricity, he said. Mishra said that while, in his view, India has sufficient land for traditional solar installations, much of it is in remote areas inhospitable to agriculture, including deserts. Putting solar panels on water, by comparison, cuts transmission costs by moving power generation closer to the people who need the energy, he said. He said India already makes the solar panels it needs, and is now setting up manufacturing for the floats and anchors needed for floating solar systems. When that capacity is in place, "then the cost will automatically come down," he predicted.
Reaching for the stars will no longer be impossible for girls and young women in Kyrgyzstan, who aim to build and launch the country's first satellite before 2020. A dozen budding female scientists have been tinkering with computers, 3-D printers and soldering irons since March to build a CubeSat, which U.S. space agency NASA describes as being the smallest and cheapest satellite used for space exploration. "I feel very proud that it's going to be the first satellite of the country. I'm doing this program because I want to empower other girls," student Kyzzhibek Batyrkanova, 23, said during a Skype interview from the capital, Bishkek. "Your gender doesn't have to determine what you have to do in this life." It is a rare path for any Kyrgyz, let alone a woman, given that nearly two-thirds of the people in the mountainous Central Asian country live in rural areas, and the economy relies on farming, according to the United Nations. Women make up less than 10 percent of Kyrgyzstan's graduates in science, technology, engineering, math, construction and manufacturing graduates, the U.N. Development Program says. 'Not very common' "Some girls don't have the courage to pursue such studies because it's not very common in our country, and the majority of parents discourage their daughters from pursuing this," said Alina Anisimova, 19, who is leading the satellite project. "I wish that in the future, people will not consider it so surprising to see young women who do welding or who are involved in engineering," said the computer programmer. She is one of the young women, aged 17 to 24, working on the project, which was started by Kloop Media, a local media group, after a chance meeting with senior NASA staff Alexander MacDonald, who suggested the ambitious idea. According to Kloop's crowdfunding page for the project, the construction and launch of Kyrgyzstan's first CubeSat will cost up to $150,000. The final stages of the build will be made in partnership with a Lithuanian company. "[Building a satellite] can serve as a powerful social and political signal," MacDonald told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. He said it could send important messages about “who is able to participate and build the future." Even though the number of women in STEM has increased in recent years, they still account for only about 30 percent of the world's researchers, the U.N cultural agency UNESCO says. Marriage expected Aidana Aidarbekova, a 19-year-old student participating in the project, said girls and women in her country are expected to marry instead of pursuing careers. "There are a lot of people who don't believe that girls are capable of doing anything else but cleaning and cooking and giving birth to children," said Aidarbekova. Nearly one in 10 girls in Kyrgyzstan is married off before age 18, according to global charity Girls Not Brides, even though bride kidnapping was outlawed in 2013. Aidarbekova said she hopes the space project will inspire girls in her country and beyond. "We are doing this program because we want to prove that girls can actually do it," she said. “ … Maybe our project will give hope to girls all around the world."
Women leaders in technology called at one of the sector's largest global conferences for more to be done to drive equality in the male-dominated industry now hit by the #MeToo debate. The ninth Web Summit comes amid growing concerns about sexism in the tech world, with thousands of Google employees walking out last week to protest the company's response to sexual misconduct and workplace inequality. In a poll of 1,000 women in tech by the Web Summit, given exclusively to the Thomson Reuters Foundation, 47 percent said the gender ratio in leadership had not improved in the past year. Only 17 percent said it was better. Lisa Jackson, Apple's vice president for environment, policy and social initiatives, said it was crucial to have more women in the sector. "We can't accomplish what we need if women [aren't involved] in tech," Jackson, who was part of President Barack Obama's administration, told the Web Summit in Lisbon. About 70,000 people from 170 nations were at the conference, where the number of women attendees has risen to about 45 percent from 25 percent in 2013, helped by discounting tickets, according to organizers. They did not have earlier figures. Talking about expertise "This year a lot of the talks on our stages are touching on the [number of women in the sector]," Anna O'Hare, head of content at Web Summit, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "But rather than women just talking about this, they are talking about the areas in which they are experts in tech." The tech sector has long come under scrutiny for inequality and its "bro-gamer" type of culture, referring to men who play video games. Global organizations, including the United Nations and the European Commission, have spoken out about under-representation of women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). A 2016 report by the global consultancy McKinsey found women made up 37 percent of entry-level roles in technology but only 25 percent reached senior management roles and 15 percent made executive level. The poll of women at the Web Summit found eight of every 10 women felt confident and respected in their roles, but they were divided when asked if they were treated the same as men, with 60 percent saying they were under more pressure to prove themselves. Thirty-seven percent worried that women were offered leadership roles only to fill quotas. While half of the women polled said their companies were doing enough to ensure equality, nearly 60 percent said governments were not active enough to address the imbalance. Several tech company representatives have told the Web Summit of attempts to boost equality, with moves such as training staff in unconscious bias, deleting gender from CVs, ensuring that all short lists have women and improving maternity rights. Better results Gillian Tans, chief executive at the online travel agent Booking.com, said it had been proven that companies with "more women in management positions actually perform better." This comes after organizers of the Google protest and other staff said the company's executives, like leaders at dozens of companies affected by the #MeToo movement, were slow to address structural issues such as unchecked power of male bosses. Google's head of philanthropy, Jacquelline Fuller, said she joined the walkout last week, admitting more needs to be done. "We need to do a better job at creating a safe and inclusive workplace," she said. "We need more women in tech."
Priests should get online if they want to connect with people who may no longer attend church but can still be reached via social media, the Vatican's digital expert said Tuesday. Monsignor Paul Tighe, who helped develop Pope Francis' online presence, urged Catholic clergy across the world to embrace social media to reach believers and nonbelievers. "Young people are, unfortunately, less present in our churches," Tighe, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Culture, told Reuters at a technology conference in Lisbon. "Social media is a mechanism that allows us to engage in conversations, to engage with people who otherwise would never come across us and who we are." Pope Francis has nearly 18 million Twitter followers and his posts are widely shared, but not all church leaders are following his example, Tighe said. "In the beginning, some Catholics said social media was nasty and that we should stay out of it," he said. "We have been trying to convince them that the digital arena is a hugely significant part of people's lives. "We had to learn to listen to younger people who live in that [digital] environment, and to understand from them what they find helpful and supportive." It was the Irish bishop's second year at the annual Web Summit — Europe's biggest technology conference, which this year brought together 70,000 entrepreneurs and guests, including U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
Britain’s data commissioner on Tuesday called for tougher rules governing the use of personal data by political campaigns around the world, declaring that recent investigations have shown a disturbing disregard for voters and their privacy. Speaking to the U.K. Parliament’s media committee, Elizabeth Denham updated lawmakers on her office’s investigation into the use of data analysis by political campaigns - a probe that has already seen Facebook slapped with a maximum fine for data misuse. Denham warned that democracy is under threat because behavioral targeting techniques developed to sell products are now being used to promote political campaigns and candidates. “I don’t think that we want to use the same model that is used to sell us holidays and shoes and cars to engage with people and voters,” she said. “I think people expect more than that.” New rules are needed to govern advertising and the use of data, Denham said. She called on all players — the government and regulators but also the big internet firms like Facebook and smaller brokers of online data — to reassess their responsibilities in the era of big data. “We really need to tighten up controls across the entire ecosystem because it matters to our democratic processes,” she said. The U.K. data regulator is conducting a broad inquiry into how political parties, data companies and social media platforms use personal information to target voters during political campaigns, including Britain’s 2016 Brexit referendum on EU membership. The investigation followed allegations that British consultancy Cambridge Analytica improperly used information from more than 87 million Facebook accounts to manipulate elections. Denham said legal systems had failed to keep up with the rapid development of the internet, and that tech companies need to be subject to greater oversight. “I think the time for self-regulation is over,” she said. “That ship has sailed.” Committee chair Damian Collins said he heard her opinion “loudly” and repeated his demand that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testify before his committee. As she updated lawmakers on the probe, Denham announced fines for the campaign backing Britain’s departure from the European Union and an insurance company founded by its millionaire backer totaling 135,000 pounds ($176,000) for breaches of data laws. Denham said the Brexit campaign group Leave.EU and Eldon Insurance company — founded by businessman Arron Banks —were fined 60,000 pounds each for “serious breaches” of electronic marketing laws. Leave.EU was also fined 15,000 pounds for a separate breach in which almost 300,000 emails were sent to Eldon customers with a newsletter for the Brexit campaign group. The data watchdog is also “investigating allegations that Eldon Insurance Services Limited shared customer data obtained for insurance purposes with Leave.EU.”
Chinese authorities have begun deploying a new surveillance tool: “gait recognition” software that uses people’s body shapes and how they walk to identify them, even when their faces are hidden from cameras. Already used by police on the streets of Beijing and Shanghai, “gait recognition” is part of a push across China to develop artificial-intelligence and data-driven surveillance that is raising concern about how far the technology will go. Huang Yongzhen, the CEO of Watrix, said that its system can identify people from up to 50 meters (165 feet) away, even with their back turned or face covered. This can fill a gap in facial recognition, which needs close-up, high-resolution images of a person’s face to work. “You don’t need people’s cooperation for us to be able to recognize their identity,” Huang said in an interview in his Beijing office. “Gait analysis can’t be fooled by simply limping, walking with splayed feet or hunching over, because we’re analyzing all the features of an entire body.” Watrix announced last month that it had raised 100 million yuan ($14.5 million) to accelerate the development and sale of its gait recognition technology, according to Chinese media reports. Chinese police are using facial recognition to identify people in crowds and nab jaywalkers, and are developing an integrated national system of surveillance camera data. Not everyone is comfortable with gait recognition’s use. Security officials in China’s far-western province of Xinjiang, a region whose Muslim population is already subject to intense surveillance and control, have expressed interest in the software. Shi Shusi, a Chinese columnist and commentator, says it’s unsurprising that the technology is catching on in China faster than the rest of the world because of Beijing’s emphasis on social control. “Using biometric recognition to maintain social stability and manage society is an unstoppable trend,” he said. “It’s great business.” The technology isn’t new. Scientists in Japan, the United Kingdom and the U.S. Defense Information Systems Agency have been researching gait recognition for over a decade, trying different ways to overcome skepticism that people could be recognized by the way they walk. Professors from Osaka University have worked with Japan’s National Police Agency to use gait recognition software on a pilot basis since 2013. But few have tried to commercialize gait recognition. Israel-based FST Biometrics shut down earlier this year amid company infighting after encountering technical difficulties with its products, according to former advisory board member Gabriel Tal. “It’s more complex than other biometrics, computationally,” said Mark Nixon, a leading expert on gait recognition at the University of Southampton in Britain. “It takes bigger computers to do gait because you need a sequence of images rather than a single image.” Watrix’s software extracts a person’s silhouette from video and analyzes the silhouette’s movement to create a model of the way the person walks. It isn’t capable of identifying people in real-time yet. Users must upload video into the program, which takes about 10 minutes to search through an hour of video. It doesn’t require special cameras — the software can use footage from surveillance cameras to analyze gait. Huang, a former researcher, said he left academia to co-found Watrix in 2016 after seeing how promising the technology had become. The company was incubated by the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Though the software isn’t as good as facial recognition, Huang said its 94 percent accuracy rate is good enough for commercial use. He envisions gait recognition being used alongside face-scanning software. Beyond surveillance, Huang says gait recognition can also be used to spot people in distress such as elderly individuals who have fallen down. Nixon believes that the technology can make life safer and more convenient. “People still don’t recognize they can be recognized by their gait, whereas everybody knows you can be recognized by your face,” Nixon said. “We believe you are totally unique in the way you walk.”
Amazon isn’t commenting on reports that it plans to split its new headquarters between facilities in two cities rather than choosing just one. The New York Times, citing unnamed people familiar with the decision-making process, said the company is nearing deals to locate in Queens in New York City and in the Crystal City area of Arlington, Va., outside Washington, D.C. The Wall Street Journal, which also reported the plan to split the headquarters between two cities, says Dallas is still a possibility as well. Spokesman Adam Sedo said Amazon, which will also keep its original headquarters in Seattle, would not comment on “rumors and speculation.” Amazon’s decision to set up another headquarters set off an intense competition to win the company and its promise of 50,000 new jobs. Some locations sought to stand out with stunts, but Amazon emphasized it wanted incentives like tax breaks and grants. It also wanted a city with more than 1 million people, an airport within 45 minutes, direct access to mass transit and room to expand. The company received 238 proposals before narrowing the list to 20 in January. The unexpected decision to evenly divide the 50,000 jobs between two cities will allow the company to recruit enough talent and also relieve pressures from demand for housing and transportation, the Wall Street Journal reported. The New York Times said Amazon executives met last month with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state had offered possibly hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of subsidies. They also met with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, it said. “I’ll change my name to Amazon Cuomo if that’s what it takes,” the report cited Cuomo as saying. Amazon has said it could spend more than $5 billion on the new headquarters over the next 17 years, about matching the size of its current home in Seattle, which has 33 buildings, 23 restaurants and 40,000 employees. Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos has said the new headquarters will be “a full equal” to its current home. Amazon already employs 600,000 people. That’s expected to increase as it builds more warehouses across the country to keep up with online orders. The company recently announced that it would pay all its workers at least $15 an hour, but the employees at its second headquarters will be paid a lot more — Amazon says they’ll make an average of more than $100,000 a year.
Iim Fahima Jachja cannot operate a vehicle and relies on a driver to get around the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, but that did not stop her from putting road safety at the heart of her women's empowerment startup. Since launching in late 2016, Queenrides has attracted 200,000 members to join its website. Aside from reading articles about lifestyle and financial management, members can also gather in person for workshops covering topics like sexual health and family planning. But road safety has been a focus from the beginning said, Jachja, a mother of two. "When you are safe on the road, you can be the best you want to be," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Jakarta. Road deaths are high in Indonesia, according to the transport ministry, which counted 162,000 fatalities last year, compared to 136,000 in 2015. In a country undergoing rapid urbanization as incomes increase, more people are buying vehicles, putting stress on the road network. Many drivers avoid taking tests by paying corrupt officials for driving licenses, said Jachja. The road risks are rising for women in particular, she said, because changing social attitudes mean that more of them are working and commuting. At the same time, relatively few women have taken driving lessons and tests to acquire licenses, she said. Only about 20 percent of 7,500 Queensrides members surveyed said they had taken a driving test. "This is a major issue - this is a crisis - but people haven't noticed the situation," said Jachja about the number of road deaths in Indonesia. Low-income countries have fatality rates more than double those in high-income countries, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). There were 104 million registered vehicles in Indonesia, a nation of 238 million people, according to the WHO's latest report on road safety published in 2015. Driving Safely As well as enabling its members to exchange views and learn more about road safety online, Queenrides arranges workshops with input from the ministry of transportation and traffic police. Participants have gone on to take driving lessons and tests, said Jachja. That trend could make Indonesia's roads safer, said Liviu Vedrasco, a road safety expert at the WHO in Bangkok. "There are some studies that suggest women are more careful and follow the rules better than men," he noted. One of the Sustainable Development Goals set by the United Nations in 2015 is to halve the global number of deaths and injuries from road traffic crashes by 2020, said Vedrasco. As the number of female drivers increases, Indonesia's ministry of transportation has stepped up efforts to reduce crashes involving women by working with outside partners, said Budi Setiyadi, director of land transport at the ministry. "Queenrides is needed for women riders in Indonesia to be given a good education in driving safely, because women have a primary role," Setiyadi said in an email. "They can educate their children, their families, and the surrounding environment." Growing As more Indonesian women join the workforce and take to the roads, Queensrides can also help them assert control in other areas of their lives, according to Jachja. For example, about 30 members gathered last month in child-friendly cafe in Jakarta to discuss family planning, and strategies for educating their teenage children about sex. The United States-based Johns Hopkins University sent experts to the workshop part of a program targeting "married women of reproductive age", according to Dinar Pandan Sari of the university's Center for Communication Programs in Jakarta. "The fact that in just two years, Queenrides has been able to grow from an idea to 200,000 women joining their movement is remarkable," Sari added. Queenrides teams up with other organizations to provide information on issues like women's rights, while members can also receive financial planning advice from institutions including Indonesia's Bank Mandiri. As Queensrides' membership grows, revenue from advertising on the website should increase as well, allowing the startup to expand its programs, according to Jachja. She said she aims to attract 5 million members over the next three years, making Queensrides the biggest women's empowerment platform in Southeast Asia. "If you can conquer Indonesia, it is easy to conquer any other area in the world," said Jachja about her homeland, a sprawling archipelago of more than 17,000 islands, and a multitude of languages and cultures. "Conquering Indonesia is like conquering five countries at the same time."
Facebook on Monday said a human rights report it commissioned on its presence in Myanmar showed it had not done enough to prevent its social network from being used to incite violence. The report by San Francisco-based nonprofit Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) recommended that Facebook more strictly enforce its content policies, increase engagement with both Myanmar officials and civil society groups and regularly release additional data about its progress in the country. "The report concludes that, prior to this year, we weren't doing enough to help prevent our platform from being used to foment division and incite offline violence. We agree that we can and should do more," Alex Warofka, a Facebook product policy manager, said in a blog post. BSR also warned that Facebook must be prepared to handle a likely onslaught of misinformation during Myanmar's 2020 elections, and new problems as use of its WhatsApp grows in Myanmar, according to the report, which Facebook released. A Reuters special report in August found that Facebook failed to promptly heed numerous warnings from organizations in Myanmar about social media posts fueling attacks on minority groups such as the Rohingya. In August 2017 the military led a crackdown in Myanmar's Rakhine State in response to attacks by Rohingya insurgents, pushing more than 700,000 Muslims to neighboring Bangladesh, according to U.N. agencies. The social media website in August removed several Myanmar military officials from the platform to prevent the spread of "hate and misinformation," for the first time banning a country's military or political leaders. It also removed dozens of accounts for engaging in a campaign that "used seemingly independent news and opinion pages to covertly push the messages of the Myanmar military." The move came hours after United Nations investigators said the army carried out mass killings and gang rapes of Muslim Rohingya with "genocidal intent." Facebook said it has begun correcting shortcomings. Facebook said that it now has 99 Myanmar language specialists reviewing potentially questionable content. In addition, it has expanded use of automated tools to reduce distribution of violent and dehumanizing posts while they undergo review. In the third quarter, the company said it "took action" on about 64,000 pieces of content that violated its hate speech policies. About 63 percent were identified by automated software, up from 52 percent in the prior quarter. Facebook has roughly 20 million users in Myanmar, according to BSR, which warned Facebook faces several unresolved challenges in Myanmar. BSR said locating staff there, for example, could aid in Facebook's understanding of how its services are used locally but said its workers could be targeted by the country's military, which has been accused by the U.N. of ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya.
British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the World Wide Web, appealed on Monday for companies and governments not to leave behind half of the world population yet to have internet access, which includes billions of women and girls. Berners-Lee told the opening of the Europe's largest technology conference that everyone had assumed his breakthrough in 1989, that connected humanity to technology, would lead to good things - and it had for a while. But he said the internet was "coming of age" and going awry, with fake news and issues with privacy, hate speech and political polarization, as well as a growing digital divide between those in richer and poorer countries. He called on companies and governments to join a "contract for the web" by next May in order to rebuild trust in the internet and find new ways to monetize, regulate and ensure fair and affordable access to the online world. "Everything we do ... to make the web more powerful, it means we increase the digital divide," Berners-Lee, 63, told the opening of the ninth edition of the Web Summit, dubbed "the Davos for geeks," that attracts up to 70,000 people. "We've an obligation to look after both parts of the world." Berners-Lee highlighted studies showing that half of the world population will be online by next year - but the rate of take-up was slowing considerably, potentially leaving billions cut off from government services, education and public debate. His concerns were echoed by U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres who stressed the need for a "digital future that is safe and beneficial to all" to meet the United Nation's global goals of ending inequality and extreme poverty by 2030. In 2016 the United Nations passed a resolution to make disruption of internet access a violation of human rights. Google's head of philanthropy, Jacqueline Fuller, said it was huge milestone for the web to reach 30 next year, adding her company was one of 50 organizations to have already signed up to the pact developed by Berners-Lee's World Wide Web Foundation. Other supporters include Facebook, British billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson and the French government. "This is also a great opportunity for us," Fuller told the Web Summit. "Women and girls are much less likely to have access (to the internet)." Despite the challenges, Berners-Lee said he was optimistic about the future of the internet. "The ad-based funding model doesn't have to work in the same way. It doesn't have to create clickbait," he said.
Elon Musk has tweeted a new video of a tunnel constructed under a Los Angeles suburb to test a new type of transportation system. Musk tweeted Saturday that he walked the length of the tunnel and commented that it is "disturbingly long." The tunnel runs about 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) under the streets of Hawthorne, where Musk's SpaceX headquarters is located. Musk envisions a transportation system in which vehicles or people pods are moved through tunnels on electrically powered platforms called skates. He plans to show off the test tunnel with an opening party on Dec. 10 and offer free rides the next day. Musk has proposed a tunnel across western Los Angeles and another between a subway line and Dodger Stadium.