VOA Science & Tech
Updated: 40 min 42 sec ago
China's government on Monday accused the United States of trying to block its industrial development by alleging that Chinese mobile network gear poses a cybersecurity threat to countries rolling out new internet systems. And in a potential blow to the U.S.'s effort to rally its allies on the issue, British media reported that the country's intelligence agencies have found it's possible to limit the security risks of using Chinese equipment in so-called 5G networks. The U.S. argues that Beijing might use Chinese tech companies to gather intelligence about foreign countries. The Trump administration has been putting pressure on allies to shun networks supplied by Huawei Technologies, threatening the company's access to markets for next-generation wireless gear. The company, the biggest global maker of switching gear for phone and internet companies, denies accusations it facilitates Chinese spying and said it would reject any government demands to disclose confidential information about foreign customers. The U.S. government is trying to "fabricate an excuse for suppressing the legitimate development" of Chinese enterprises, said the spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry, Geng Shuang. He accused the United States of using "political means" to interfere in economic activity, "which is hypocritical, immoral and unfair bullying." U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, speaking last weekend in Germany, urged European allies to take seriously "the threat" he said was posed by Huawei as they look for partners to build the new 5G mobile networks. The 5G technology is meant to vastly expand the reach of networks to support internet-linked medical equipment, factory machines, self-driving cars and other devices. That makes it more politically sensitive and raises the potential cost of security failures. Pence said Huawei and other Chinese telecom equipment makers provide Beijing with "access to any data that touches their network or equipment." He appealed to European governments to "reject any enterprise that would compromise the integrity of our communications technology or our national security systems." In what could amount to a turning point for the U.S. effort to isolate Huawei, Britain's National Cyber Security Centre has found that the risk of using its networks is manageable, according to the Financial Times and several other British media outlets. The reports cited anonymous sources as saying that there are ways to limit cybersecurity risks, and that the U.K.'s decision would carry weight with European allies who are also evaluating the safety of their networks. The British government is to finish a review of its policies on the safety of 5G in March or April. The office of British Prime Minister Theresa May said Monday that "no decisions have been taken.'' If eventually confirmed, "such a decision by the U.K. would be a strong message and could be influential in the medium term," said Lukasz Olejnik, a research associate at Oxford University's Center for Technology and Global Affairs. The British review "could inevitably serve as an input or a reference point in other countries' risk assessments," he added. European officials, including a vice president of the European Union, have expressed concern about Chinese regulations issued last year that require companies to cooperate with intelligence agencies. No country in Europe, however, has issued a blanket veto on using Huawei technology in the way the U.S. has urged. The U.S. Justice Department last month unsealed charges against Huawei, its chief financial officer — who had been arrested in Canada — and several of the companies' subsidiaries, alleging not only violation of trade sanctions but also the theft of trade secrets. The United States has not, however, released evidence to support its accusations that Huawei and other Chinese tech companies allow the Chinese government to spy through their systems. That has prompted some industry analysts to suggest Washington is trying to use security concerns to handicap Chinese competitors. "China has not and will not require companies or individuals to collect or provide foreign countries' information for the Chinese government by installing backdoors or other actions that violate local laws," said Geng. Britain's National Cyber Security Centre admitted last summer that it had concerns about the engineering and security of Huawei's networks. While not commenting Monday on the media reports, it added: "We have set out the improvements we expect the company to make." Huawei said in a statement Monday that it's open to dialogue and that "cybersecurity is an issue which needs to be addressed across the whole industry."
British lawmakers issued a scathing report Monday that calls for tougher rules on Facebook to keep it from acting like "digital gangsters" and intentionally violating data privacy and competition laws. The report on fake news and disinformation on social media sites followed an 18-month investigation by Parliament's influential media committee. The committee recommended that social media sites should have to follow a mandatory code of ethics overseen by an independent regulator to better control harmful or illegal content. The report called out Facebook in particular, saying that the site's structure seems to be designed to "conceal knowledge of and responsibility for specific decisions." "It is evident that Facebook intentionally and knowingly violated both data privacy and anti-competition laws," the report states. It also accuses CEO Mark Zuckerberg of showing contempt for the U.K. Parliament by declining numerous invitations to appear before the committee. "Companies like Facebook should not be allowed to behave like 'digital gangsters' in the online world, considering themselves to be ahead of and beyond the law," the report added. U.K. parliamentary committee reports are intended to influence government policy, but are not binding. The committee said it hopes its conclusions will be considered when the government reviews its competition powers in April. And while the U.K. is part of the 28-country European Union, it is due to leave the bloc in late March, so it is unclear whether any regulatory decisions it takes could influence those of the EU. Facebook said it shared "the committee's concerns about false news and election integrity" and was open to "meaningful regulation." "While we still have more to do, we are not the same company we were a year ago," said Facebook's U.K. public policy manager, Karim Palant. "We have tripled the size of the team working to detect and protect users from bad content to 30,000 people and invested heavily in machine learning, artificial intelligence and computer vision technology to help prevent this type of abuse." Facebook and other internet companies have been facing increased scrutiny over how they handle user data and have come under fire for not doing enough to stop misuse of their platforms by groups trying to sway elections. The report echoes and expands upon an interim report with similar findings issued by the committee in July . And in December , a trove of documents released by the committee offered evidence that the social network had used its enormous trove of user data as a competitive weapon, often in ways designed to keep its users in the dark. Facebook faced its biggest privacy scandal last year when Cambridge Analytica, a now-defunct British political data-mining firm that worked for the 2016 Donald Trump campaign, accessed the private information of up to 87 million users.
In early November, word began to leak that Amazon was serious about choosing New York to build a giant new campus. The city was eager to lure the company and its thousands of high-paying tech jobs, offering billions in tax incentives and lighting the Empire State Building in Amazon orange. Even Governor Andrew Cuomo got in on the action: “I’ll change my name to Amazon Cuomo if that’s what it takes,” he joked at the time. Then Amazon made it official: It chose the Long Island City neighborhood of Queens to build a $2.5 billion campus that could house 25,000 workers, in addition to new offices planned for northern Virginia. Cuomo and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, Democrats who have been political adversaries for years, trumpeted the decision as a major coup after edging out more than 230 other proposals. But what they didn’t expect was the protests, the hostile public hearings and the disparaging tweets that would come in the next three months, eventually leading to Amazon’s dramatic Valentine’s Day breakup with New York. Immediately after Amazon’s Nov. 12 announcement, criticism started to pour in. The deal included $1.5 billion in special tax breaks and grants for the company, but a closer look at the total package revealed it to be worth at least $2.8 billion. Some of the same politicians who had signed a letter to woo Amazon were now balking at the tax incentives. “Offering massive corporate welfare from scarce public resources to one of the wealthiest corporations in the world at a time of great need in our state is just wrong,” said New York State Sen. Michael Gianaris and New York City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, Democrats who represent the Long Island City area, in a joint statement. The next day, CEO Jeff Bezos was on the cover of The New York Post in a cartoon-like illustration, hanging out of a helicopter, holding money bags in each hand, with cash billowing above the skyline. “QUEENS RANSOM,” the headline screamed. The New York Times editorial board, meanwhile, called the deal a “bad bargain” for the city: “We won’t know for 10 years whether the promised 25,000 jobs will materialize,” it said. Anti-Amazon rallies were planned for the next week. Protesters stormed a New York Amazon bookstore on the day after Thanksgiving and then went to a rally on the steps of a courthouse near the site of the new headquarters in the pouring rain. Some held cardboard boxes with Amazon’s smile logo turned upside down. In this Nov. 14, 2018 file photo, protesters hold up anti-Amazon signs during a coalition rally and press conference of elected officials, community organizations and unions opposing Amazon headquarters getting subsidies to locate in New York. They had a long list of grievances: the deal was done secretively; Amazon, one of the world’s most valuable companies, didn’t need nearly $3 billion in tax incentives; rising rents could push people out of the neighborhood; and the company was opposed to unionization. The helipad kept coming up, too: Amazon, in its deal with the city, was promised it could build a spot to land a helicopter on or near the new offices. At the first public hearing in December, which turned into a hostile, three-hour interrogation of two Amazon executives by city lawmakers, the helipad was mentioned more than a dozen times. The image of high-paid executives buzzing by a nearby low-income housing project became a symbol of corporate greed. Queens residents soon found postcards from Amazon in their mailboxes, trumpeting the benefits of the project. Gianaris sent his own version, calling the company “Scamazon” and urging people to call Bezos and tell him to stay in Seattle. At a second city council hearing in January, Amazon’s vice president for public policy, Brian Huseman, subtly suggested that perhaps the company’s decision to come to New York could be reversed. “We want to invest in a community that wants us,” he said. Then came a sign that Amazon’s opponents might actually succeed in derailing the deal: In early February, Gianaris was tapped for a seat on a little-known state panel that often has to approve state funding for big economic development projects. That meant if Amazon’s deal went before the board, Gianaris could kill it. “I’m not looking to negotiate a better deal,” Gianaris said at the time. “I am against the deal that has been proposed.” Cuomo had the power to block Gianaris’ appointment, but he didn’t indicate whether he would take that step. Meanwhile, Amazon’s own doubts about the project started to show. On Feb. 8, The Washington Post reported that the company was having second thoughts about the Queens location. On Wednesday, Cuomo brokered a meeting with four top Amazon executives and the leaders of three unions critical of the deal. The union leaders walked away with the impression that the parties had an agreed upon framework for further negotiations, said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union. “We had a good conversation. We talked about next steps. We shook hands,” Appelbaum said. An Amazon representative did not respond to a request for comment for this story. The final blow landed Thursday, when Amazon announced on a blog post that it was backing out, surprising the mayor, who had spoken to an Amazon executive Monday night and received “no indication” that the company would bail. Amazon still expected the deal to be approved, according to a source familiar with Amazon’s thinking, but that the constant criticism from politicians didn’t make sense for the company to grow there. “I was flabbergasted,” De Blasio said. “Why on earth after all of the effort we all put in would you simply walk away?”
Amazon jilted New York City on Valentine's Day, scrapping plans to build a massive headquarters campus in Queens amid fierce opposition from politicians angry about nearly $3 billion in tax breaks and the company's anti-union stance. With millions of jobs and a bustling economy, New York can withstand the blow, but experts say the decision by the e-commerce giant to walk away and take with it 25,000 promised jobs could scare off other companies considering moving to or expanding in the city, which wants to be seen as the Silicon Valley of the East Coast. "One of the real risks here is the message we send to companies that want to come to New York and expand to New York," said Julie Samuels, the executive director of industry group Tech: NYC. "We're really playing with fire right now." In November, Amazon selected New York City and Crystal City, Virginia, as the winners of a secretive, yearlong process in which more than 230 North American cities bid to become the home of the Seattle-based company's second headquarters. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo heralded the city's selection at the time as the biggest boon yet to its burgeoning tech economy and underscored that the deal would generate billions of dollars for improving transit, schools and housing. Opposition came swiftly though, as details started to emerge. Critics complained about public subsidies that were offered to Amazon and chafed at some of the conditions of the deal, such as the company's demand for access to a helipad. Some pleaded for the deal to be renegotiated or scrapped altogether. "We knew this was going south from the moment it was announced," said Thomas Stringer, a site selection adviser for big companies. "If this was done right, all the elected officials would have been out there touting how great it was. When you didn't see that happen, you knew something was wrong." Stringer, a managing director of the consulting firm BDO USA LLP, said city and state officials need to rethink the secrecy with which they approached the negotiations. Community leaders and potential critics were kept in the dark, only to be blindsided when details became public. "It's time to hit the reset button and say, "What did we do wrong?"' Stringer said. "This is fumbling at the 1-yard line." Amazon said in a statement Thursday its commitment to New York City required "positive, collaborative relationships" with state and local officials and that a number of them had "made it clear that they oppose our presence and will not work with us to build the type of relationships that are required to go forward." Not that Amazon is blameless, experts say. Joe Parilla, a fellow at the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program, said the company's high-profile bidding process may have stoked the backlash. Companies usually search for new locations quietly, in part to avoid the kind of opposition Amazon received. "They had this huge competition, and the media covered it really aggressively, and a bunch of cities responded," Parilla said. "What did you expect? It gave the opposition a much bigger platform." Richard Florida, an urban studies professor and critic of Amazon's initial search process, said the company should have expected to feel the heat when it selected New York, a city known for its neighborhood activism. "At the end of the day, this is going to hurt Amazon," said Florida, head of the University of Toronto's Martin Prosperity Institute. "This is going to embolden people who don't like corporate welfare across the country." Other tech companies have been keeping New York City's tech economy churning without making much of a fuss. Google is spending $2.4 billion to build up its Manhattan campus. Cloud-computing company Salesforce has plastered its name on Verizon's former headquarters in midtown, and music streaming service Spotify is gobbling up space at the World Trade Center complex. Despite higher costs, New York City remains attractive to tech companies because of its vast, diverse talent pool, world-class educational and cultural institutions and access to other industries, such as Wall Street capital and Madison Avenue ad dollars. No other metropolitan area in the U.S. has as many computer-related jobs as New York City, which has 225,600, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle, Washington, Boston, Atlanta and Dallas each have a greater concentration of their workers in tech. In the New York area, the average computer-related job pays roughly $104,000 a year, about $15,000 above the national average. Still, that's about $20,000 less than in San Francisco. Even after cancelling its headquarters project, Amazon still has 5,000 employees in New York City, not counting Whole Foods. "New York has actually done a really great job of growing and supporting its tech ecosystem, and I'm confident that will continue," Samuels said. "Today we took a step back, but I would not put the nail in the coffin of tech in New York City."
The Mars Opportunity Rover landed on the Red Planet's surface in 2004 for a 90-day mission of exploration. More than 14 years later, NASA has finally closed the book on this tiny rover that wandered across Mars sending back troves of information. VOA's Kevin Enochs reports.
A report says Facebook and the Federal Trade Commission are negotiating a “multibillion dollar” fine for the social network's privacy lapses. The Washington Post said Thursday that the fine would be the largest ever imposed on a tech company. Citing unnamed sources, it also said the two sides have not yet agreed on an exact amount. Facebook has had several high-profile privacy lapses in the past couple of years. The FTC has been looking into the Cambridge Analytica scandal since last March. The data mining firm accessed the data of some 87 million Facebook users without their consent. At issue is whether Facebook is in violation of a 2011 agreement with the FTC promising to protect user privacy. Facebook and the FTC declined to comment.
Mexico's new government is trying to slash the cost of sending cash home for Mexican families living abroad and is hoping competition from “fintechs” (financial technology) will encourage banks and services like Western Union to reduce commissions and improve exchange rates. Deputy Finance Minister Arturo Herrera said the government did not plan to place new regulations on the flow of remittances, one of the country's largest sources of foreign currency and a lifeline for millions of poor families. Sending remittances However, the former World Bank executive envisaged that the increasing use of money transfer apps would help bring down the cost of sending remittances. Currently, the commission charged and the foreign exchange rates imposed together take a bite out of each remittance of 8 percent on average. Herrera said that should be brought down to 5 percent. "That is to say, the cost of transactions must come down by about 40 percent. That is something the fintechs are probably in a better position to do than traditional actors such as banks," Herrera told Reuters in an interview earlier this week. "Their great advantage is that they can operate in a more efficient and direct way and at lower costs, which should lead to lower commissions,” Herrera said. President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who took office on Dec. 1, has made fighting poverty and inequality a centerpiece of his administration. Herrera said bringing down the cost for financial services like remittances would help many of the nation's neediest. Banking costs are a sensitive issue in Mexico. When Lopez Obrador's ruling MORENA party introduced a bill last year to limit banking fees it triggered a selloff in the stock market. Lopez Obrador distanced himself from the bill. Calm investors Other changes were better received, with credit ratings agency Fitch saying a bill introduced by Lopez Obrador to loosen restrictions on pension fund managers could lead to better returns and payouts for beneficiaries. Lopez Obrador has also tried to calm investors' nerves by saying there would be no modifications to the legal framework relating to economic, financial and fiscal matters in the first three years of his tenure. The government says 24 million Mexicans live in the United States, by far the largest source of money sent home. Mexicans sent a record $33.5 billion in remittances in 2018, a 10.5 percent jump from a year earlier, Mexican central bank data show. Mexico is already home to 75 startups that specialize in payments and remittances, data from fintech platform Finnovista show, while remittance apps like Remitly and Xoom have been gaining popularity. Herrera said banks and Western Union would have to make their services cheaper to compete with money transfer apps. He did not say how quickly that would happen. "I wish we could make it happen immediately," he said. No comment from Western Union Western Union and its closest rival Moneygram did not respond to requests for comment. The Mexican Banking Association declined to comment on the topic. Turning to fintechs for change is part of a broader strategy aimed at decreasing the use of the cash in Mexico, Herrera said. He said the Finance Ministry planned to reveal additional measures at the annual Banking Convention in March. Ninety percent of transactions in Mexico are made in cash, in a system that he said is inefficient and expensive and creates ample opportunities for corruption and money laundering.
Google plans to invest more than $13 billion this year on new and expanded data centers and offices across the U.S. CEO Sundar Pichai announced the news in a blog post Wednesday , emphasizing the company's growth outside its Mountain View, California, home and across the Midwest and South. "2019 marks the second year in a row we'll be growing faster outside of the (San Francisco) Bay Area than in it," he wrote. Google will build new data centers in Nevada, Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Ohio, South Carolina and Virginia. Pichai estimated the construction of the new centers will employ 10,000 workers. It makes good political sense for Google to highlight its expansions outside coastal cities, said CFRA Research analyst Scott Kessler. U.S. legislators have paid increasing attention to Google and other big tech companies in the past year, and are considering passing privacy laws to regulate the companies' reach. Investing more widely across the U.S. could help it curry favor with federal politicians and officials, he said. Google is focused on expanding its cloud-computing business, a market where it faces stiff competition from larger rivals Amazon and Microsoft. The company will have a physical presence in 24 states by the end of the year. It currently has locations in 21 states, and is expanding into Nevada, Ohio and Nebraska. Its expansion is likely also a way to attract new employees, Kessler said. Google will add an office in Georgia, and expand its offices in several cities including in Seattle and Chicago. Google said it spent more than $9 billion on similar expansions across the country last year. Google did not give an exact number of employees it expects to hire as a result of the 2019 expansions, but said it would be "tens of thousands" of full-time workers.
As a nasty diplomatic feud deepens between the two countries over the tech company, involving arrests and execution orders, it hasn't gone unnoticed that Huawei's bright red fan-shaped logo is plastered prominently on the set of "Hockey Night in Canada." TV hosts regularly remind the 1.8 million weekly viewers that program segments are “presented by Huawei smartphones.” The cheery corporate message contrasts with the standoff over the arrest of Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou on a U.S. warrant. In what looks like retaliation, China detained two Canadians and plans to execute a third — heavy-handed tactics that, because they leave some Canadians with the impression the privately owned company is an arm of the Chinese government, give its sponsorship a surreal quality. The TV deal is one of many examples of how Huawei, the world's biggest telecom gear producer and one of the top smartphone makers, has embarked on a global push to win consumers and burnish its brand. It sponsors Australian rugby, funds research at universities around the world, and brings foreign students to China for technical training. It has promoted classical music concerts in Europe and donated pianos to New Zealand schools . Its efforts are now threatened by the dispute with Canada and U.S. accusations that it could help China's authoritarian government spy on people around the world. “Huawei's marketing plan up until Dec. 1 (when Meng was arrested) was working very well,” said Guy Saint-Jacques, a former Canadian ambassador to China. Now, “public opinion is changing toward China and Huawei.” At stake for Huawei are lucrative contracts to provide new superfast mobile networks called 5G. The U.S. says Meng helped break sanctions and accuses Huawei of stealing trade secrets. It also says the company could let the Chinese government tap its networks, which in the case of 5G would cover massive amounts of consumer data worldwide. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pressed that point to European allies on a tour this week. Huawei, which did not respond to requests for comment for this story, has previously rejected the allegations. The Chinese government says Huawei's critics were fabricating threats. Still, the headlines have been relentlessly negative. “At some point there could be a majority of Canadians that will say `We don't think the government should do business with Huawei,”' said Saint-Jacques. There's no evidence of sinister intentions behind Huawei's marketing, which isn't unlike that of Western multinationals, although its efforts have been unusually strong for a company from China, where brands have struggled to capture global attention. Rogers Communications, which broadcasts “Hockey in Night in Canada” and also sells Huawei smartphones, said it has no plans to change its sponsorship deal, which started in 2017 and runs to the end of 2020. In Australia, the Canberra Raiders rugby team indicated it would renew a Huawei sponsorship deal this year despite a government ban on using its equipment in 5G networks. Huawei has also ventured into high culture by using its smartphone artificial intelligence to complete the remaining movements in German composer Franz Schubert's “Symphony No. 8,” known as the “Unfinished Symphony.” It held a symphony orchestra concert in London this month to perform the completed score. And Huawei has a vast network of relationships with universities around the world through research partnerships and scholarships. It has helped fund a 25 million pound ($32 million) joint research project at Britain's Cambridge University. Some universities have begun to rethink their collaborations, although there's no allegation of wrongdoing by Huawei. Universities point out that companies that fund research don't automatically own any resulting patents. Britain's Oxford University stopped accepting Huawei's money last month. Stanford University followed suit after U.S. prosecutors unsealed nearly two dozen charges against the company, as did the University of California at Berkeley, which also removed an off-campus videoconferencing set-up donated by Huawei based on guidance from the Department of Defense. Faced with these setbacks, Huawei has responded by stepping up its public relations efforts. Its normally reclusive chairman, Ren Zhengfei, last month held three media briefings, fielding questions from Western, Japanese and Chinese journalists. The company will be out in force this month at the Mobile World Congress, a major telecom industry gathering in Barcelona, Spain. It's expected to unveil its latest smartphone, a 5G device with a folding screen. Company executives are scheduled to brief analysts and give presentations on 5G technology. Huawei is a corporate sponsor of the show and Ren is expected to attend to help win business deals, though U.S. officials are reportedly expected to turn out in force to lobby against Huawei. The company last week hosted a Lunar New Year reception in Brussels for the European Union diplomatic community, in a ballroom commissioned by Belgium's King Leopold II. There was a piano concert, a jazz performance, a bubble tea bar, and a speech by Huawei's chief EU representative, Abraham Liu. “We are shocked or sometimes feel amused by those ungrounded and senseless allegations,” Liu told the reception guests, adding that the company is “willing to accept the supervision” from governments in Europe, Huawei's biggest market after China. Huawei plans to open a cybersecurity center in Brussels next month, he said. To attract top talent, Huawei runs a program called “Seeds for the Future,” under which it sends students from more than 100 countries to China to study Mandarin and get technical training at its headquarters. Shanthi Kalathil, director of the National Endowment for Democracy's International Forum for Democratic Studies, sees Huawei's charm offensive dovetailing with broader efforts by China to influence the global debate on the government's surveillance and censorship it uses. “It's not like an afterthought. That is the foundation of the entire system,” she said. Whether or not Huawei is linked to the Chinese government or merely defended as a corporate champion, the fight over the company shows how world powers see technology as the front line in the fight for economic supremacy. “Today's innovation economy is based on IP (intellectual property) and data,” said Jim Balsillie, the former chairman and co-CEO of BlackBerry-maker Research in Motion. “So soft power is the best tool for advancing national interests because the battle is not about armies and tanks.”
A Saudi Arabian government app that allows men in the country to monitor and control their female relatives' travel at the click of a button should be removed from Google and Apple's online stores, a U.S. politician and activists said on Wednesday. Human rights campaigners argued the tech giants are enabling abuses against women and girls in the ultra-conservative kingdom by hosting the app. The free Absher app, created by the Saudi interior ministry, allows men to update or withdraw permissions for their wives and female relatives to travel internationally and get SMS updates if their passports are used, said human rights researchers. The app is available in the Saudi version of the Google and Apple online stores. "Part of the app's design is to discriminate against women," said Rothna Begum, an expert in women's rights in the Middle East at Human Rights Watch. "The complete control that a male guardian has is now facilitated with the use of modern technology and makes the lives of men ultimately easier and restricts women's lives that much more.” Begum said a few women had turned the app to their advantage by gaining access to their guardian's phone and changing the settings to grant themselves freedom, but such cases were rare. Neither Apple nor Google were immediately available for comment. Apple CEO Tim Cook told U.S. public radio NPR yesterday that he had not heard of Absher but pledged to "take a look at it". Saudi women must have permission from a male relative to work, marry, and travel under the country's strict guardianship system, which human rights groups have criticized as abusive. U.S. Senator Ron Wyden has publicly called on both Apple and Google to remove it from their stores, arguing it promotes "abusive practices against women" in a Twitter post. However, Suad Abu-Dayyeh, a spokesman on the Middle East for women's rights group Equality Now, raised doubts over whether the companies would take action. "Power and money talks, unfortunately, without giving any attention to the violations of human rights," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "I really hope they take a concrete stand towards removing these apps but I am not really hopeful.” Saudi Arabia, one of the world's most gender-segregated nations, is ranked 138 of 144 states in the 2017 Global Gender Gap, a World Economic Forum study on how women fare in economic and political participation, health and education. Its guardianship system came under fresh scrutiny after Saudi teenager Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun fled from her family and was granted asylum in Canada in January. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman indicated last year he favored ending the guardianship system but stopped short of backing its annulment. But any moves toward gender equality have been accompanied by a crackdown on dissent, including the arrest and alleged torture of women's rights activists as well as Muslim clerics.
For the 750 million people globally who can't read, using a smartphone can be difficult. One company is helping illiterate and low literacy users get connected. Tina Trinh reports.
It’s a stretch but with Valentine’s Day just around the corner, we thought we’d talk about the heart, but with a tech twist. Each heart is different, and that can make surgery challenging. VOA’s Kevin Enochs reports on new technology that creates a 3D model of a specific patient's heart to help a doctor prepare for surgery.
The U.S. military wants to expand its use of artificial intelligence in warfare, but says it will take care to deploy the technology in accordance with the nation's values. The Pentagon outlined its first AI strategy in a report released Tuesday. The plan calls for accelerating the use of AI systems throughout the military, from intelligence-gathering operations to predicting maintenance problems in planes or ships. It urges the U.S. to advance such technology swiftly before other countries chip away at its technological advantage. "Other nations, particularly China and Russia, are making significant investments in AI for military purposes, including in applications that raise questions regarding international norms and human rights," the report says. The report makes little mention of autonomous weapons but cites an existing 2012 military directive that requires humans to be in control. The U.S. and Russia are among a handful of nations that have blocked efforts at the United Nations for an international ban on "killer robots" — fully autonomous weapons systems that could one day conduct war without human intervention. The U.S. has argued that it's premature to try to regulate them. The strategy unveiled by the Department of Defense this week is focused on more immediate applications, but even some of those have sparked ethical debates. The Pentagon hit a roadblock in its AI efforts last year after internal protests at Google led the tech company to drop out of Project Maven, which uses algorithms to interpret aerial video images from conflict zones. Other companies have sought to fill the vacuum, and the Pentagon is working with AI experts from industry and academia to establish ethical guidelines for its AI applications. "Everything we've seen is with a human decision-maker in the loop," said Todd Probert, a vice president at Raytheon's intelligence division, which is working with the Pentagon on Maven and other projects. "It's using technology to help speed up the process but not supplant the command structure that's in place." The Pentagon's report follows President Donald Trump's Monday executive order prioritizing AI research across the government.
Russian lawmakers backed tighter internet controls on Tuesday to defend against foreign meddling in draft legislation that critics warn could disrupt Russia's internet and be used to stifle dissent. The legislation, which some Russian media have likened to an online "iron curtain," passed its first of three readings in the 450-seat lower chamber of parliament. The bill seeks to route Russian web traffic and data through points controlled by state authorities and proposes building a national Domain Name System to allow the internet to continue functioning even if the country is cut off from foreign infrastructure. The legislation was drafted in response to what its authors describe as an aggressive new U.S. national cybersecurity strategy passed last year. The Agora human rights group said earlier this month that the legislation was one of several new bills drafted in December that "seriously threaten Internet freedom." The Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs has said the bill poses more of a risk to the functioning of the Russian internet segment than the alleged threats from foreign countries that the bill seeks to counter. The bill also proposes installing network equipment that would be able to identify the source of web traffic and also block banned content. The legislation, which can still be amended, but which is expected to pass, is part of a drive by officials to increase Russian "sovereignty" over its internet segment. Russia has introduced tougher internet laws in the last five years, requiring 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. The bill faces two more votes in the lower chamber, before it is voted on in the upper house of parliament and then signed into law by President Vladimir Putin.
Social media service Reddit Inc. says it has raised $300 million in a financing round led by Chinese internet giant Tencent. Reddit's CEO, Steve Huffman, told CNBC on Monday that values the privately held company at $3 billion. Half the new money came from Tencent, Asia's most valuable tech company. Other investors included Sequoia, Fidelity, Andreessen Horowitz, Quiet Capital, VY and Snoop Dogg. The announcement prompted criticism of Reddit for linking itself with a company from China, where the ruling Communist Party enforces extensive online censorship. Access to Reddit is blocked in China. Tencent operates online games and popular WeChat social media service. It owns 40 percent of "Fortnite" creator Epic Games and 15 percent of photo service Snap.
The Iowa Democratic Party on Monday proposed the biggest changes to the state's famed caucuses in nearly 50 years by recommending Iowans be able to participate virtually. If approved, the measure would allow people to caucus using telephones or smart devices during the days leading up to the Feb. 3 caucus night. It's a dramatic shift from the current system in which caucus-goers have to physically show up at a site — often a school, church or community center — and show their support for presidential candidates by standing in groups. If the group doesn't meet an established threshold, the participants have to select another candidate. It's an often chaotic process that plays out before banks of television cameras on an evening that formally ushers in the presidential primary season. But proponents say it will help address criticism that the caucuses are difficult to attend for single parents, people who work at night and the elderly. "Through this additional process we're going to be able to give more Iowans a chance to participate in this process," Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Troy Price said. "Whether someone is a shift worker, a single parent, in the military, living overseas or experiencing mobility issues, this process will now give these individuals a voice in selecting the next president of the United States." And while Price says the proposed changes are the state party's effort to open the process often described by critics as antiquated, it was also required by the Democratic National Committee. The results are Iowa Democrats' attempt at threading the needle of complying while maintaining the essence of the caucuses, which are real-time meetings of fellow partisans. Presidential candidates are already beginning to swarm the state — three were here this weekend. They'll likely try to determine whether a virtual caucus would help them turn out more of their supporters. "I suspect presidential campaigns who we've shared this information with are going to be trying to figure out how to get their members to participate in this," Price added. Party officials said they didn't know how many people would take advantage of the new format or how campaigns might seek to capitalize on it. A key element of the proposal, which now goes before Iowa Democrats to comment on for 30 days, is that, no matter how many Iowans participate virtually, their contribution will be factored as a flat 10 percent of the total turnout, apportioned by congressional district. Price said officials reached 10 percent as a starting point, uncertain of how many people might join virtually. "This is a new system so we don't have any data to tell if this number is too high or too low," Price said. "And so we are starting the conversation at the 10 percent threshold, and if it goes gangbusters this year, then we will have conversations in subsequent years about if we need to make adjustments." Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee who narrowly beat Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in Iowa that year, criticized the caucus process for deterring late-shift workers and others less able to steal away for an evening of political wrangling. "Campaigns must decide how to organize for that 10 percent," said veteran Iowa Democratic caucus operative Jeff Link, who did not work for Clinton in 2016 and is not affiliated with a candidate heading into 2020. In another noteworthy development, the state party said it would release the raw data of preferences by caucus-goers, information that is typically kept confidential. The caucuses are a series of preference tests in which candidates without a certain level of support are rendered unviable. This data would give a first glimpse of the candidates' support before caucus-goers abandon their first choices to side with more viable contenders. The Iowa caucuses are scheduled for February 3, 2020. The proposal won't be finalized until the spring.
U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday signed an executive order asking federal government agencies to dedicate more resources and investment into research, promotion and training on artificial intelligence, known as AI. Under the American AI Initiative, the administration is directing agencies to prioritize AI investments in research and development, increase access to federal data and models for that research and prepare workers to adapt to the era of AI. There was no specific funding announced for the initiative, but the White House wants better reporting and tracking of spending on AI-related research and development. The White House said investment in AI is "critical to creating the industries of the future, like autonomous cars, industrial robots, algorithms for disease diagnosis, and more." The initiative aims to make sure the United States maintains its advantage in AI development and related areas, such as advanced manufacturing and quantum computing. Trump, in his State of the Union speech last week, said he was willing to work with lawmakers to deliver new and important infrastructure investment, including investments in the cutting-edge industries of the future, calling it a "necessity." Michael Kratsios, a White House science adviser, said in an essay in Wired magazine on Monday that "with proper leadership, AI can empower American workers by liberating them from mundane tasks." "AI is something that touches every aspect of people's lives," a senior administration official told reporters on Sunday. "What this initiative attempts to do is to bring all those together under one umbrella and show the promise of this technology for the American people," the official said. AI and deep machine learning raise ethical concerns about control, privacy, cybersecurity, and is set to trigger job displacements across industries, companies and experts say. A 2018 study from PwC said 30 percent of jobs are at potential risk of automation by the mid-2030s, including 44 percent of workers with low education. At the same time, the study found automation could boost global gross domestic product by $15 trillion by 2030. The White House held a meeting on AI in May with more than 30 major companies from a variety of industries, including Ford, Boeing, Amazon.com and Microsoft, vowing not to stand in the way of its development.
A much-hyped network upgrade called "5G" means different things to different people. To industry proponents, it's the next huge innovation in wireless internet. To the U.S. government, it's the backbone technology of a future that America will wrestle with China to control. To many average people, it's simply a mystery. The technology is one of the issues expected to take center stage at the MWC mobile conference in Barcelona, Spain, this month. The interest goes well beyond engineers: In Washington, there are fears that China could take the lead in developing the technology and sell equipment that could be used to spy on Americans. What, exactly, is 5G wireless — and will you even notice when it comes online? What is 5G? 5G is a new technical standard for wireless networks — the fifth, naturally — that promises faster speeds; less lag, or "latency," when connecting to the network; and the ability to connect many devices to the internet without bogging it down. 5G networks will ideally be better able to handle more users, lots of sensors and heavy traffic. Before we can all use it, wireless companies and phone makers have to upgrade. Phones need new chips and radio antennas. The phone you have today won't work with a 5G network. Wireless companies have been getting ready. They've been revamping their network equipment, buying up chunks of radio spectrum for carrying 5G signals, and installing new 5G antennas on cellphone towers, utility poles and streetlights. Wireless providers will invest $275 billion in 5G-related networks in the U.S., according to CTIA, an industry trade group. When will it be available? A true U.S. mobile rollout will start in 2019. It will take a few years to go national, and even then more rural areas of the country will not be covered in the "millimeter wave" frequencies that promise the highest data speeds and capacities, said Michael Thelander, CEO of wireless consultancy Signals Research Group. Thelander predicts that China may lag the U.S. by a year in its initial rollout, but will ultimately have the biggest deployment, while European countries will build out more slowly. Beware of confusion, though. Wireless carriers have a history of rushing to slap the latest-and-greatest label on their networks, and this time is no different. AT&T has already applied the name 5G on a service that's not really 5G. (Sprint, upset, then sued its larger rival.) Once the network is ready, you'll need a 5G-enabled phone to connect to it. The first ones should be available in the first half of 2019, but a 5G iPhone isn't expected until 2020. 5G phones will most likely be more expensive than current 4G phones. Don't worry, even when 5G turns on, you can keep using 4G phones, just not at 5G speeds. Wat can 5G do? There's a considerable amount of hype over the promise of 5G. Industry groups say it will promote smart cities by connecting sensor networks that could manage traffic and quickly identify streetlight outages. 5G could connect self-driving cars and fuel new applications in virtual and augmented reality. Its high-speed connections could enable better remote surgery and other telemedicine, help companies automate their factories and offer businesses dedicated high-speed internet lanes. "5G speeds, and ever-faster home broadband, will mean that existing applications will get richer, and also that new applications will emerge — new Flickrs, YouTubes or Snapchats. We don't know what yet," Benedict Evans, a partner at Silicon Valley venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, wrote in a January blog post . The most immediate impact on consumers will be faster download speeds for movies and other video. Thelander says your phone's internet will work better in crowded locations such as stadiums. What are the security concerns? The 5G network is one front in rising tensions between the U.S. and China. The U.S. government has warned U.S. companies not to use Chinese telecom technology in communications networks due to security concerns, and is pressing other countries to ban Huawei, a Chinese telecom company, from 5G network buildouts. U.S. officials have suspected for years that the Chinese government could use Huawei network equipment to help it spy. Huawei has rejected such accusations.
A new type of solar panel promises a cheap, flexible way to get more power from the sun. They may help the growing renewable energy industry expand even faster. VOA's Steve Baragona has more.
In Algeria, it was banned from bidding for public contracts after one of its executives was convicted of bribery. In Zambia, it was probed over allegations of bribery involving a multi-million-dollar contract to build cell towers in rural areas. In the Solomon Islands, it was accused of offering millions of dollars to the ruling party in exchange for an undersea fiber optic cable contract. In all three cases – and half a dozen others in recent years – the alleged perpetrator was Huawei Technologies, the Chinese telecom behemoth facing scrutiny from Western nations over allegations of intellectual property theft and espionage. Saying it poses a national security threat, the U.S., Australia and New Zealand have banned the company from building new, state of the art 5G telecom networks. Other Western countries are debating over a similar ban. Security concerns about Huawei and other Chinese telecom equipment providers are mounting after U.S. prosecutors last month charged the company founded by a former People’s Liberation Army officer with violating U.S. sanctions on Iran, purloining trade secrets from T-Mobile and encouraging its employees to steal intellectual property. The focus on national security concerns about Huawei has eclipsed a little reported aspect of the company’s operations: Huawei’s involvement in corrupt business dealings. The company has denied the allegations of corruption and said it has strong safeguards against corporate graft. In a statement on its website, Huawei says it has a “zero-tolerance” policy on graft. “Huawei believes that corruption severely damages fair market competition and is a threat to the development of our society, economy and enterprises,” the statement said. But experts who have studied Huawei’s business practices say the company’s statements are contradicted by its conduct. “The unfortunate reality of Huawei’s activities on the (African) continent is that they have a proven track record of engaging in corruption and other dodgy business dealings,” said Joshua Meservey, an Africa expert at the Heritage Foundation and author of a recent report on Chinese corporate corruption. With business operations in more than 170 countries and annual revenues of $108 billion, Huawei is the world’s largest supplier of telecom equipment. Last year, the multinational company beat Apple to become the No. 2 manufacturer of smartphones and tablets in the world. In December, Huawei’s chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, was arrested by Canadian authorities and she is being held for possible extradition to the U.S. for violation of U.S. sanctions on Iran. Huawei has rejected the charges. In a recent letter to the U.K. Parliament made public last week, Huawei refuted allegations of espionage, saying if the company engaged “in malicious behavior, it would not go unnoticed – and it would certainly destroy our business.” International corruption In developing countries in Asia and Africa, the company’s corrupt business practices are a matter of great concern among industry officials and civil society activists. In the last 12 years, Huawei and its smaller Chinese rival ZTE have been “investigated or found guilty of corruption” in as many as 21 countries, according to Andy Keiser, a former House Intelligence Committee professional staffer. These include a dozen African countries such as Algeria and Ghana as well as the Philippines, Malaysia, Norway, Papua New Guinea, Mongolia, the Solomon Islands and China itself, according to Keiser. “ZTE and Huawei have developed dubious reputations around the world,” Keiser testified before Congress last June. The transaction cost of Huawei’s corrupt business deals runs in the billions. RWR Advisory Group, a consulting firm that tracks Chinese investments around the world, estimates that Huawei has entered into more than $5 billion worth of business deals involving allegations of bribery and corruption. The charges against Huawei range from outright bribery to making illegal donations to political parties in exchange for contracts and other business advantages. The Algerian case involved an elaborate scheme in which Huawei and ZTE executives allegedly paid $10 million in bribes to a former state telecom operator executive and a businessman in exchange for winning contracts. In 2012, an Algerian court convicted the former executive and another businessman of receiving bribes. The two Algerians were sentenced to 18 years in prison. Three executives of the Chinese firms also were tried in absentia and sentenced to 10 years in prison for their role in the scheme. The government fined Huawei and ZTE and banned them from bidding on public contracts for two years. In Ghana, Huawei has confronted accusations of illegally funding the ruling party, a charge Huawei and other Chinese companies have faced in other countries. In 2012, an opposition group disclosed what it claimed was evidence that Huawei had made illegal campaign contributions to the ruling National Democratic Congress in exchange for a $43 million tax exemption. Alliance for Accountable Governance (AFAG) produced invoices and other documents showing the Chinese telecom company had paid for millions of dollars worth of campaign paraphernalia for the ruling party’s 2012 election campaign. In return, the group alleged, the government awarded “one of the juiciest contracts to be doled out by the government” – a $150 million contract to build an e-government platform. Huawei and the government denied the charges. In the Solomon Islands, Huawei has faced similar accusations. In 2017, a Parliamentary committee accused the government of awarding Huawei a contract to build a submarine fiber optic link to Australia after Huawei offered a $5.25 million campaign donation to the ruling party. “The committee is of the view that this is the main reason for the government to bypass procurement requirements in favor of the company Huawei,” a parliamentary report said. Huawei dismissed the allegations. “As a global business entity, Huawei does not involve itself in politics. Huawei forbids all of its global subsidiaries from making any form of political donation, including in places where this practice is legal,” the company said in a statement. Bribery allegations have also plagued Huawei projects in South Africa, Nigeria, and Pakistan. But the company appears to have weathered the allegations, positioning itself as a major player in building 5G networks around the world. WATCH: 5G networks explained As of last February, Huawei had signed 25 memorandums of understanding with telecom operators around the world to trial 5G equipment, according to a Reuters survey of public announcements. In recent years, Huawei has also found itself at the receiving end of a Chinese government crackdown on domestic corruption. In 2017, the head of Huawei’s consumer business group for China was detained on suspicion of taking bribes. To root out corruption among its employees, Huawei says it has implemented policies including requiring executives to take a loyalty oath. But the safeguards are “of limited value if the material incentives for employees don’t reflect those priorities,” said Alexandra Wrage, president of anti-bribery business organization TRACE International. “This danger can be compounded when an enterprise maintains financial and political backing from the government, which is often seen as fostering a greater tolerance for risk in pursuit of growth,” Wrage said.