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Amid VPN Crackdown, China Eyes Upgrades to Great Firewall

A Chinese telecoms carrier said it had begun closing virtual private networks (VPNs) and other tools that can bypass the so-called Great Firewall, which state authorities use to filter and block traffic between Chinese and overseas servers. A spokesman for Guangzhou Huoyun Information Technology Ltd, which operates in around 20 cities across China, told Reuters the company received a directive from authorities to start blocking services from midday on Tuesday. Enlisting telecom firms will extend China's control of its cyberspace - which it believes should mimic real-world border controls and be subject to the same laws as sovereign states. While the Great Firewall blocks access to overseas sites, much like a border control, the telecoms firms can filter and censor online access at a more granular level, in the home and on smartphones. "The telcos have methods at their disposal that the Great Firewall may not," said Philip Molter, Chief Technology Officer at Golden Frog, which operates VyprVPN, a popular VPN in China. "Because these routers deal with far less traffic, they can block more aggressively using more resource intensive methods." The telecoms firms have taken up their new filtering roles under a law introduced in January, and set to come into full effect next March. Experts say this could lead to increasingly targeted attacks on VPNs, one of the few tools Chinese can use to access overseas internet services. A member of China-based anti-censorship site, who goes by the pseudonym of Charlie Smith, said the authorities were shifting the responsibility to the telecoms firms. "This is a major step towards closing whatever windows are still left open," he said. New attacks The latest moves come after dozens of popular China-based VPNs have been shut down in recent weeks, and there have been rolling attacks on overseas VPNs. This week, users also reported partial blocks and delays in the encrypted messaging app WhatsApp, the latest western social media tool to be hit. And researchers found that messages related to Liu Xiaobo, a dissident and Nobel laureate who died from cancer in custody last week, disappeared from local messaging apps. VPN services say they are bracing for further blocks in the run-up to this autumn's Communist Party Congress. President Xi Jinping, who has overseen a marked sharpening of China's cyberspace controls, including tough new data surveillance and censorship rules, is expected to consolidate his hold on power at the Congress, which takes place every five years. The January regulations make telecoms providers and other internet service providers (ISPs) liable for filtering and blocking unlawful network tools, according to the Ministry of Information Industry and Technology (MIIT). Beyond VPNs, experts say the telecoms firms could potentially bar a range of services, and even prevent mobile apps from being installed. "Much of the usage we see from China is via mobile devices, so limitations on this kind of functionality would hit a large number of Chinese," said Golden Frog's Molter. Yet, despite the ambitious plans, the authorities will likely struggle to put up the blanket safeguards necessary to cripple foreign VPNs by March, experts say. "There's been an ongoing game of cat-and-mouse with China and VPNs ... we're optimistic that VPNs will continue to be accessible from China for the foreseeable future," said a spokesman for ExpressVPN, noting its user numbers continue to grow in China. Small businesses While VPNs with foreign servers, including VyprVPN and ExpressVPN, play cat-and-mouse with regulators, quickly patching blocks and developing workarounds, small business owners say they have been hard hit by the rapid loss of local VPNs. "Our small logistics business has just imploded", said one business owner on the Weibo microblogging site, adding she could no longer access foreign sites despite trying several new VPNs. Large numbers of free or low-cost VPN services flourished in Chinese app stores in the 18 months or so prior to the recent blocks. "The ministry says we must apply for a license ... and we have to buy Chinese services," one person operating a small online media site told Reuters, asking not to be named. "If the website touches on social and political news, we have to hand over the platform account passwords. Of course, if we still had a VPN this wouldn't be the case." The MIIT did not respond to a request for comment. It said last week that the new measures were not intended to harm business interests, and has previously said it would allow businesses to operate VPNs licensed by the government. "These newest measures are one more hurdle for Chinese users to jump, in what is turning out to be an extremely long steeplechase," said's Smith.

China Unveils Plan to Become a World Leader in AI by 2025

China unveiled a national artificial intelligence (AI) development plan on Thursday, laying out its ambitions to build world-leading technology amid heightened international friction over applications of AI in military technology. The value of the country's core AI industries will exceed 150 billion yuan ($22.15 billion) by 2020 and 400 billion yuan ($59.07 billion) by 2025, the State Council said in a notice on Thursday. "The situation with China on national security and international competition is complex... we must take initiative to firmly grasp this new stage of development for artificial intelligence and create a new competitive edge," it said. The plan comes as the United States is poised to bolster its scrutiny of investments, including artificial intelligence, over fears that countries including China could access technology of strategic military importance. It follows a similar national AI development plan released by the U.S. in October last year. The report says China aims to catch up to global leaders by rectifying existing issues including a lack of high-end computer chips and equipment, software and trained personnel. It outlines strategic plans to strengthen links between private firms, research bodies and military bodies to promote mutual development in AI. It also says it will increase the role of government in guiding development of AI with policy support and market regulation as well as developing AI safety assessments and control capabilities. China has already begun investing heavily in artificial intelligence technology, including a mix of private and state-backed initiatives. Several top Chinese firms have established research bases in the U.S., including Baidu Inc. and Tencent Holdings Ltd. This year AI was named as a strategic technology by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in an annual report that lays out the most important leadership priorities.

Robot Swims Around Fukushima Reactor to Find Melted Fuel

An underwater robot entered a badly damaged reactor at Japan’s crippled Fukushima nuclear plant Wednesday, capturing images of the impact of its meltdown, including key structures that were torn and knocked out of place.  Plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. said the robot, nicknamed “the Little Sunfish,” successfully completed the day’s work inside the primary containment vessel of the Unit 3 reactor at Fukushima, which was destroyed by a massive March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. TEPCO spokesman Takahiro Kimoto praised the work, saying the robot captured views of the underwater damage that had not been previously seen. However, the images contained no obvious sign of the melted nuclear fuel that researchers hope to locate, he said. The robot was left inside the reactor near a structure called the pedestal, and is expected to go deeper inside for a fuller investigation Friday in hopes of finding the melted fuel. “The damage to the structures was caused by the melted fuel or its heat,” Kimoto told a late-night news conference held nine hours after the probe ended its exploration earlier in the day. 'The Little Sunfish' The robot, about the size of a loaf of bread, is equipped with lights, maneuvers with five propellers and collects data with two cameras and a dosimeter. It is controlled remotely by a group of four operators. The robot was co-developed by Toshiba Corp., the electronics and energy company charged with helping clean up the plant, and the International Research Institute for Nuclear Decommissioning, a government-funded consortium. It was on a mission to study the damage and find the fuel that experts say has melted, breached the core and mostly fallen to the bottom of the primary containment chamber, where it has been submerged by highly radioactive water as deep as 6 meters (20 feet). The robot discovered that a grate platform that is supposed to be below the reactor core was missing and apparently was knocked down by melted fuel and other materials that fell from above, and that parts of a safety system called a control rod drive were also missing. Robots key to mothballing plant Remote-controlled robots are key to the decadeslong decommissioning of the damaged plant, but super-high levels of radiation and structural damage have hampered earlier probes at two other reactors at the plant. Japanese officials say they want to determine preliminary methods for removing the melted nuclear fuel this summer and start work in 2021. Scientists need to know the fuel’s exact location and understand the structural damage in each of the three wrecked reactors to work out the safest and most efficient ways to remove the fuel. Two earlier robots failed Robots tested earlier became stuck inside the two other reactors. A scorpion-shaped robot’s crawling function failed and it was left inside the plant’s Unit 2 containment vessel. A snake-shaped robot designed to clear debris for the scorpion probe was removed after two hours when its cameras failed because of radiation levels five times higher than anticipated. The robot used Wednesday was designed to tolerate radiation of up to 200 sieverts, a level that can kill humans instantly. Kimoto said the robot showed that the Unit 3 reactor chamber was “clearly more severely damaged” than Unit 2, which was explored by the scorpion probe.

Amazon Launches Shopping Social Network Spark for iOS has launched a social feature called Spark that allows members to showcase and purchase products on its platforms, the retail giant's first clear move into the world of social media. Spark, which is currently only available for Amazon's premium paying Prime members, encourages users to share photos and videos, just like popular social media platforms Instagram and Pinterest. The new feature publicly launched on Tuesday for use on mobile devices that use Apple's iOS operating system. Spark users can tag products on their posts that are available on Amazon and anyone browsing the feeds can instantly find and purchase them on the platform. Users can also respond to posts with "smiles," equivalent to Facebook's "likes." "We created Spark to allow customers to discover - and shop - stories and ideas from a community that likes what they like," said an Amazon spokeswoman. "When customers first visit Spark, they select at least five interests they'd like to follow and we'll create a feed of relevant content contributed by others. Customers shop their feed by tapping on product links or photos with the shopping bag icon." Amazon has also invited publishers including paid influencers and bloggers to post on Spark. Their posts are identified with a sponsored hashtag. Many Amazon users on social media called the service a cross between Instagram and Pinterest with a touch of e-commerce. Brand strategist Jill Richardson (@jillfran8) said: "Been messing with #AmazonSpark all morning and I am LIVING. It's like Pinterest, Instagram, and my credit card had a baby and it's beautiful." Community manager Lucas Miller (@lucasmiller3) also tweeted: "So #amazonspark is going to be a dangerous pastime. The app is already too easy to shop..." Amazon shares closed up 0.2 percent at $1,026.87 on Wednesday.

UN Experts Seek Halt to Use of Spyware in Mexico, Want Full Probe

U.N. human rights experts called on the government of Mexico on Wednesday to "cease the surveillance immediately" of activists and journalists and to conduct a fully impartial investigation into the illegal spying. In the latest case, an international probe into the 2014 disappearance of 43 students in Mexico was targeted with spying software sold to governments to fight criminals and terrorists, according to a report published last week. Civilians in Mexico have been targeted by the software known as Pegasus, which Israeli company NSO Group only sells to governments, according to the report by Citizen Lab, a group of researchers based at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs. "We urge the Government to commit to cease the surveillance immediately," the independent U.N. experts said in a joint statement demanding effective controls over the security and intelligence services. "The allegations of surveillance, which represent a serious violation of the rights to privacy, freedom of opinion and expression, and freedom of association, are highly concerning and are evidence of the hostile and threatening environment that human rights defenders, social activists and journalists face in Mexico today," they said. Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto has asked the attorney general's office to investigate previous charges that the government spied on private citizens, saying he wanted to get to the bottom of the accusations that he called "false." "We are concerned about the alleged implication in the purchase and use of Pegasus of the same authorities that are now in charge of conducting the investigations", the U.N. experts said. "In that sense, we call on the Government to take all the necessary steps to ensure the impartiality of the investigating organ." Citizen Lab said it had found a trace of the Pegasus software in a phone belonging to a group of experts backed by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights who investigated the 2014 disappearance of the students that marked one of Mexico's worst atrocities. The U.N. experts include those on human rights defenders, enforced disappearances, freedom of opinion, and the right to privacy.

Teen Robot Builders from 157 Countries Compete

Robots from around the world clashed in Washington, DC (this week, July 17-18). It's part of a global competition bringing high school students together to learn tech, but also to learn to cooperate to solve important problems. VOA's Steve Baragona reports.

Uber-style App 'Careem' Goes Off Beaten Track in Palestinian West Bank

Careem, a Middle Eastern rival to Uber, has become the first ride-hailing firm to operate in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Dubai-based Careem, whose name is a play on the Arabic word for generous or noble, launched in Ramallah in June, aiming to bring digital simplicity to the Palestinian territory. There is certainly a market for easier ride-hailing among the nearly 3 million Palestinians living in the West Bank, but the fact the mobile network is still 2G, that electronic payments are not the norm and that Israeli checkpoints are common, make using the service somewhat cumbersome. Yet Careem is optimistic about the potential. "We are planning to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars within the coming year in the (Palestinian) sector," Kareem Zinaty, operations manager for the Levant region said. "After the investment, it is also an opportunity to create jobs." Careem, which launched in 2012 and now operates in 12 countries and more than 80 cities across the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia, has said it aims to provide work for one million people across the region by 2018. Careem’s captains While a version of Uber and Israeli app Gett already operate in Israel, they do not venture into Palestinian territory. Drivers are excited to work with Careem, which they hope will help boost their incomes, especially with unemployment in the West Bank running at nearly 20 percent. "It's a very wonderful opportunity," said one of the more than 100 new drivers, known as "captains" by Careem. "Most of the people who use it are young and happy with the price." Palestinians have limited self rule in parts of the West Bank, which they want for a future state alongside East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. Israel captured those areas in the 1967 Middle East war. It withdrew from Gaza in 2005, but still occupies the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Under interim peace accords, Israel still controls 60 percent of the West Bank, where most of its settlements are located. Careem's drivers have Palestinian license plates, meaning they usually cannot enter Israeli-controlled areas. In 2015, Israel and the Palestinian Authority agreed to expand 3G mobile access to the West Bank by 2016, but have yet to implement the agreement. In the meantime, the Ramallah municipality has set up public Wi-Fi in parts of the city center, allowing Apps like Careem to be used more easily. Despite 2G's slower service, Zinaty said their model was an opportunity for telecommunication companies to look into expanding services and technologies to better serve Palestinian start ups and businesses.

Story of Afghan Girls' Team Just One of Many at Robotics Event

An international robotics competition in Washington was in its final day Tuesday, with teams of teenagers from more than 150 nations competing. The team getting the most attention at the FIRST Global Robotics Challenge was a squad of girls from Afghanistan who were twice rejected for U.S. visas before President Donald Trump intervened. But there are even more stories than there are teams. Here are a few: Girl power Sixty percent of the teams participating in the competition were founded, led or organized by women. Of the 830 teens participating, 209 were girls. And in addition to the Afghan squad, there were five other all-girl teams, from the United States, Ghana, Jordan, the Palestinian territories and the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu. Vanuatu's nickname: the "SMART Sistas." Samira Bader, 16, on the Jordanian team, said "it's very difficult for us because everyone thinks" building robots is "only for boys." She said her team wanted to prove that "girls can do it." The three-girl U.S. team included sisters Colleen and Katie Johnson of Everett, Washington, and Sanjna Ravichandar of Plainsboro, New Jersey. Colleen Johnson, 16, said her team looked forward "to a day when an all-girls team is going to be no more special than an all-boys team or a co-ed team, just when that's completely normal and accepted." The team competing from Brunei was also all female, though a male member previously worked on the project. An unusual alliance The United States and Russia were on the same side Tuesday. During the fourth round of the competition, the U.S. team was paired with teams from Russia and Sudan to work as an alliance. The robots all the teams in the competition created were designed with the same kit of parts and did the same task: pick up and distinguish between blue and orange balls. To score points, teams deposited the blue balls, which represented water, and the orange balls, which represented contaminants, into different locations. Each three-nation alliance competed head to head in 2½-minute games. Both U.S. and Russian teams paid their counterparts compliments after their game Tuesday. Russian team member Aleksandr Iliasov said of the U.S. team: "They cooperate well." And U.S. team member Colleen Johnson called the Russian team's robot "very innovative," saying they had smartly used extra wheels and gears and zip ties to keep balls inside their robot. Despite their good collaboration, U.S.-Russia-Sudan fell short, losing 40 to 20 to Zimbabwe, Moldova and Trinidad and Tobago. A little help The team from Iran got some help building their robot from American students. It turns out that the competition's kit of robot parts, including wheels, brackets, sprockets, gears, pulleys and belts, was not approved for shipment to Iran because of sanctions involving technology exports to the country. So the competition recruited a robotics team at George C. Marshall High School in Falls Church, Virginia, to help. Iran's team designed the robot, and about five Marshall students built it in the United States. The team explained on its competition web page that "our friends in Washington made our ideas as a robot." Because of the time difference between the countries, the three-member team and its mentor were sometimes up at midnight or 3 a.m. in Iran to talk to their collaborators. Amin Dadkhah, 15, called working with the American students "a good and exciting experience for both of us." Kirianna Baker, one of the U.S. students who built the robot, agreed. "Having a team across the world with a fresh set of eyes is very valuable," she said. A robot refugee A group of three refugees from Syria competed as Team Refugee, also known as Team Hope. All three fled Syria to Lebanon three years ago because of violence in their country. Mohamad Nabih Alkhateeb, Amar Kabour and Mahir Alisawaui named their robot "Robogee," a combination of the words "robot" and "refugee." Alkhateeb, 17, and Kabour, 16, said they wanted to be robotics engineers, and Alisawui wanted to be a computer engineer. Kabour said it's important to the team to win, to "tell the world" refugees are "here and they can do it." Alkhateeb also said that living as a refugee had been difficult, but he hoped to someday return home. "I will go back after I have finished my education so I can rebuild Syria again," he said. Eleven million people — half the Syrian population — have been forced from their homes by the civil war.

Afghan All-girls Robotics Team Impressed by 'Friendly' US

It took an intervention from U.S. President Donald Trump and other officials to allow the girls of the Afghan robotics team to receive visas after two rejections, letting them travel to the United States for a robotics competition. One of the biggest surprises once in Washington? The tight security. "The security that we see here is not in Herat, Afghanistan," Kawsar Roshan, a 13-year-old member of the high-profile team, told VOA during the last day of their competition at FIRST Global Challenge, where teenagers from around the world demonstrate their skills in designing, building and programming robotic devices. "This is a peaceful city. People are not fighting each other, and it is a friendly environment," said Afghan player Fatima Qaderian. Her homeland has been entangled in almost ceaseless cycles of war and violence for more than 35 years. The United Nations reported Monday that more than 1,660 civilians, many of them women and children, were killed in the war between January and June 2017. The all-girls Afghan team made it to Washington only a day before the games were launched. Their initial visa applications had been refused by the U.S. embassy in Kabul, but they were granted entry to the country after a request by Trump, U.S. officials said. On Tuesday, Trump's eldest daughter and senior adviser, Ivanka Trump, paid a special visit to the team and their sponsors. She had previously tweeted that she was looking forward to welcoming them. The annual international robotics event aims to build bridges between high school students with different backgrounds, languages, religions and customs, and to ignite in them a passion for the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Afghan team member Lida Azizi said she learned "unity and teamwork" at the robotics games. This year's competition was related to a practical problem that threatens more than a billion people worldwide: inadequate access to clean, drinkable water. The task of the robots was to pick up and distinguish between blue and orange balls. To score points, teams deposit the blue balls, which represent water, and the orange balls, which represent pollutants, into different locations. The teams play in groups of three nations, with two groups competing head to head. The three-robot alliance that scores the most points in a game wins. Some information in this report was provided by the Associated Press.

Silicon Valley Mostly Quiet in Internet Surveillance Debate in Congress

Facebook, Alphabet's Google, Apple and other major technology firms are largely absent from a debate over the renewal of a broad U.S. internet surveillance law, weakening prospects for privacy reforms that would further protect customer data, according to sources familiar with the matter. While tech companies often lobby Washington on privacy issues, the major firms have been hesitant to enter a fray over a controversial portion of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), industry lobbyists, congressional aides and civil liberties advocates said. Among their concerns is that doing so could jeopardize a trans-Atlantic data transfer pact underpinning billions of dollars in trade in digital services, the sources said. Technology companies and privacy groups have for years complained about the part of FISA known as Section 702 that allows the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) to collect and analyze emails and other digital communications of foreigners living overseas. Though targeted at foreigners, the surveillance also collects data on an unknown number of Americans — some privacy advocates have suggested it could be millions — without a search warrant. Section 702 expires at end of year Section 702 will expire at the end of the year unless the Republican-controlled Congress votes to reauthorize it. The White House, U.S. intelligence agencies and many Republican senators want to renew the law, which they consider vital to national security, without changes and make it permanent. A coalition of Democrats and libertarian-leaning conservatives prefer, however, to amend the law with more privacy safeguards. Reform Government Surveillance, a coalition of tech firms established after the 2013 leaks by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, said reforming the law remains a priority. A spokeswoman declined to comment further but referred to two letters sent earlier this year by technology companies urging Congress to consider changes to the law. Snowden exposed the spy agency's program that collected U.S. phone call metadata in bulk and also the extent of spying under Section 702, embarrassing some U.S. technology firms. Bulk collection curtailed The companies, working with privacy rights activists, successfully lobbied Congress two years ago to pass legislation that curtailed the NSA's bulk collection of call records. For example, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg wrote on his Facebook page that he had personally called then-President Barack Obama to express "frustration over the damage the government is creating for all of our future." Now, however, Silicon Valley's reduced involvement frustrates civil liberties groups because of a widely held view that Section 702 poses a far greater threat to privacy than the telephone program, which did not harvest actual content. Facebook declined comment. Google and Apple did not respond to requests for comment. Privacy shield agreement The companies' relative inactivity is explained by several legal challenges in Europe to an agreement between the United States and the European Union, known as the Privacy Shield, the sources said. The litigation hinges on whether U.S. surveillance practices afford enough privacy safeguards. A coalition of human rights organizations has urged Europe to suspend Privacy Shield unless Section 702 is substantially reformed. U.S. technology companies have privately bristled at those efforts, three industry lobbyists, in part because expectations that 702 reforms will pass Congress are low. “If you link them and you lose one, you lose both,” said one of the lobbyists, who like the others requested anonymity to discuss private conversations with technology companies. The lobbyist added that several major firms were more interested in making deals with the Trump administration that could affect their bottom lines, such as tax repatriation, than getting caught in politically charged fights over government surveillance. Another industry lobbyist said Section 702 surveillance is “not a C-suite issue” that concerns chief executives in Silicon Valley like other issues, including encryption. Lobbying is limited Companies have also been limited in how they can lobby for changes to the law because no comprehensive reform bill has been introduced yet in Congress, said Alex Abdo, a privacy advocate and staff attorney at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. A bipartisan group of lawmakers in the House Judiciary Committee is not expected to introduce such legislation until after Congress returns from its August recess. The schism between tech companies and privacy groups was on display earlier this year in litigation in Ireland — Facebook argued customer data was sufficiently protected from U.S. spying programs, while an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union testified that more protections were needed. 'Backdoor search loophole' Snowden's leaks showed that Section 702 collects content of digital communications directly from the internet backbone and through a program formerly code named Prism where the NSA gathered data directly from several companies, including Facebook, Google, Apple and Microsoft. The statute also allows the FBI and others to query pools of data collection for U.S. information in what critics have derided as a “backdoor search loophole” that evades traditional warrant requirements. The tech industry may become more engaged once the public debate becomes clearer, Abdo said. He added that a stronger position “would be enormously helpful to those that want to impose meaningful constraint on NSA surveillance.”

China Users Report WhatsApp Disruption Amid Censorship Fears

Users of WhatsApp in China and security researchers have reported widespread service disruptions amid fears that the popular messaging service may be at least partially blocked by authorities in the world's most populous country. WhatsApp users in the country reported Tuesday on other social media platforms that the app was partly inaccessible unless virtual private network software was used to circumvent China's censorship apparatus, known colloquially as The Great Firewall. WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook and offers end-to-end encryption, has a relatively small but loyal following among Chinese users seeking a greater degree of privacy from government snooping than afforded by popular domestic app WeChat, which is ubiquitous but closely monitored and filtered. Questions over WhatsApp's status come at a politically fraught time in China. The government is in the midst of preparing for a sensitive party congress while Chinese censors this week revved up a sprawling effort to scrub all mention of Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who died Thursday in government custody. A report this week by the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab detailed how Chinese censors were able to intercept, in real time, images commemorating Liu in private one-on-one chats on WeChat, a feat that hinted at the government's image recognition capabilities. It appeared that pictures were also the focus of the move to censor WhatsApp. Late Tuesday, users in China could send texts over WhatsApp without the use of VPNs, but not images. Nadim Kobeissi, a cryptography researcher based in Paris who has been investigating the WhatsApp disruption, said he believed The Great Firewall was only blocking access to WhatsApp servers that route media between users, while leaving servers that handle text messages untouched. Kobeissi said voice messages also appeared to be blocked. But there was no evidence to suggest that Chinese authorities were decrypting WhatsApp messages, he added. A Chinese censorship researcher known by his pseudonym Charlie Smith said that authorities appeared to be blocking non-text WhatsApp messages wholesale precisely because they have not been able to selectively block content on the platform like they have with WeChat, which is produced by Shenzhen-based internet giant Tencent and legally bound to cooperate with Chinese security agencies.

Hyperloop Technology Takes One Small Step Forward

Engineers at Hyperloop recently took a significant step toward proving their new vacuum-tube-based transportation system may in fact be the future... and not just hype. VOA's Kevin Enochs reports.

Two Iranians Charged in US for Hacking, Selling Weapons Software

Two Iranian nationals have been charged in the United States in an alleged scheme to steal and resell software to Iran, including a program to design bullets and warheads. According  to an indictment unsealed Monday, Mohammed Saeed Ajily, 35, recruited Mohammed Reza Rezakhah, 39, to break into companies' computers to steal their software for resale to Iranian universities, the military and the government. The two men — and a third who was arrested in 2013 and handed back to Iran in a prisoner swap last year — allegedly broke into the computers of Vermont-based Arrow Tech Associates. The stolen software included Arrow Tech's Projectile Rocket Ordnance Design and Analysis System (PRODAS), which is protected by U.S. controls on the export of sensitive technologies, and its distribution to Iran is banned by U.S. sanctions on the country. According to the indictment, Rezakhah conducted the hacking and cracking operations and Ajily was in charge of marketing and selling the programs. The two men were charged in the Rutland, Vermont, federal district court, which issued arrest warrants for the two, who are believed to be in Iran.

Afghan Girls Robotics Team Competes after Visa Obstacles

Their team shirts didn't say "Afghanistan" and their name badges were handwritten, not typed, suggesting the last-minute nature of their entry into the United States. But the Afghan girls competing Monday in an international robotics competition in Washington were clearly excited to be representing their nation. The team of six teenage girls was twice rejected for U.S. visas before President Donald Trump intervened at the last minute. They arrived in Washington from their hometown of Herat, Afghanistan, early Saturday, and their ball-sorting robot competed in its first round Monday morning. "We were so interested, because we find a big chance to show the talent and ability of Afghans, show that Afghan women can make robots, too," said Rodaba Noori, one of the team members. She acknowledged, though, that the team "hadn't long, or enough time to get ready for competition." The girls' struggle to overcome war, hardship and U.S. bureaucracy on their journey to the U.S. capital has made their team stand out among more than 150 competing in the FIRST Global Challenge, a robotics competition designed to encourage youths to pursue careers in math and science. The U.S. won't say why the girls were rejected for visas, citing confidentiality rules. But Afghan Ambassador Hamdullah Mohib said that based on discussions with U.S. officials, it appears the girls, who are 14 to 16 years old, were turned away due to concerns they would not return to Afghanistan. Speaking with the assistance of a translator who summarized their remarks, 14-year-old team member Fatemah Qaderyan, said that she was "grateful" to be able to compete. Her teammate, 15-year-old Lida Azizi, said she was a little "nervous" but also excited to be playing and "proud." Though there was a crush of media attention, the girls looked much like other competitors, wearing jeans along with white headscarfs. Their microwave-sized robot, like that of other teams, displayed their country's black, red and green flag. "I'm so happy they can play," said their mentor Alireza Mehraban, a software engineer. He added: "They are so happy to be here." While teams had up to four months to build their robots, the Afghan team built theirs in two weeks before it had to be shipped to reach the competition in time, Mehraban said. He said the girls had a day to test the robot in Afghanistan before it needed to be mailed. On Monday, they were making adjustments and practicing in between rounds. When a chain seemed to come loose on a part of the robot that moves up and down, a competition judge recommended a larger part, and another team provided one. Like others in the competition, the girls' robot can pick up and distinguish between blue and orange balls. To score points, teams deposit the blue balls, which represent water, and the orange balls, which represent pollutants, into different locations. The teams play in alliances of three nations, with two alliances competing head to head. The three-robot alliance that scores the most points in a game wins. Mehraban, the team's mentor, said their robot managed to score one or two points in the first game. The team has two more games to play Monday and three games Tuesday.

Women in Silicon Valley Take on Harassment

Sweat rolled down the faces of women dressed in super hero costumes at the recent noon SoulCycle class in San Mateo, California. But it was no routine workout. The Silicon Valley women were cycling as a protest against recent allegations of gender inequity in the tech capital. VOA's Deana Mitchell reports.

VR Learning the Wave of the Future

Thanks to Hollywood special effects, it's possible to create a world of superheroes or galaxies far, far away. But that technology is also slowly making its way into the classroom and turning science education into a visual journey that can take students anywhere from inside a cell to the deepest parts of our solar system. VOA's Kevin Enochs reports.

With Engines Whirring, Electric Car Racing Comes to Brooklyn

The roar of the engine was replaced by a furious whirring as the future of motorsports came to Brooklyn. Formula E took over part of the waterfront neighborhood of Red Hook on Sunday, the second of two race days for the Qualcomm New York City ePrix. The Formula One-style, open-wheel cars reach speeds of 140 mph but only about 80 decibels, compared with 130 decibels for the cars with combustion engines. Instead of screaming down the straightaways the way F1 cars do, FE cars buzz like giant, steal hummingbirds. And they run clean and green. Sam Bird from the DS Virgin Racing team won Sunday’s 49-lap race over the narrow 1.2-mile, 10-turn track from the pole to sweep the weekend races for team owner Richard Branson, the billionaire adventurer. The three-year-old FE series is sanctioned by the International Federation of Automobiles, the governing body for Formula One, making the New York City ePrix the first race run by a major motorsports organization in the five boroughs. The street course was squeezed into an industrial area that has become more residential in recent years. Red Hook is known for its microbreweries, food trucks and an Ikea where New Yorkers can buy cheap furniture for their expensive apartments. With the track right next to the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal, the Statute of Liberty had a great view of the starting grid. Twenty drivers started the race with enough battery power to make it through about 25 laps. They switch cars during the race and the key is energy conservation. Drivers are careful not to lean too hard on the accelerator and can recharge the battery when braking. “With it being electric, there’s no delay from when you put the throttle down to when it gets to the wheels,” said Mitch Evans of New Zealand, who drives for Panasonic Jaguar Racing, a new team to the circuit this year. “The energy management in the race is quite unique.” New York is the second-to-last of nine stops for the Formula E series. Previous race sites include Berlin, Monaco, Paris and Mexico City. In two weeks, the series finishes in Montreal. Thousands attended the races in Brooklyn, packing two metal grandstands overlooking the track on Sunday. Not bad considering Red Hook is not the easiest neighborhood to reach by mass transit and it’s no place to try to park a car. Organizers ran shuttle buses from the Barclays Center, home of the Nets and a major subway hub, to the race site about 3 miles away. There were also ride-share stations, bicycles racks and water taxis and ferries from Manhattan. The event drew curious locals and motorsports fans. Comedian Trevor Noah of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” was among the VIPs who got to walk the track before the race. The Hudson Horns played Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” as fans strolled across the black top as if it was a weekend street fair, minus the food carts and folding tables full of homemade wares for sale. At the Allianz Explorer Zone, fans could check out BMW’s electric automobiles and Jaguars’ I-Pace Concept, an SUV that will be the company’s first entry into the electric market. While Formula E aspires to be highly competitive racing circuit, it is also a means by which automakers can develop electric technology and show off what it can do. “For us, what’s really important is this represents the future,” said James Barclay, team director for Jaguar Panasonic. “The car industry is moving toward electrification. We’re going through a transition period. It’s going to take a number of years. But what is quite clear is we do need to move away from combustion cars for the future. “It’s about learning, developing and proving actual electrical vehicle technology on the racetrack and applying that to make our road cars of the future.” It is no coincidence the series has stopped in big cities, where urbanites see ownership of traditional fossil fuel-powered automobiles that pollute the air as nonessential. “We go to places where cars are really a problem,” Formula E CEO Alejandro Agag said earlier this week. Jim Overmeyer, 62, made the trip from Islip on Long Island for the New York City ePrix. He said an electric car wouldn’t work for him right now but maybe a hybrid would. He said the tight course in Brooklyn gave the ePrix a bit of a go-cart feel. And, of course, the sound takes some getting used to. “It’s certainly a lot quieter,” he said. “It’s better than what I thought. From what I’ve seen on TV, it sounds like a bunch of squirrels being tortured or something like that.”

Facebook Fighting Court Order Over Law Enforcement Access

Facebook is fighting a court order that blocks the social media giant from letting users know when law enforcement investigators ask to search their online information, particularly their political affiliations and comments. Major technology companies and civil liberties groups have joined Facebook in the case, which resembles legal challenges throughout the country from technology companies that oppose how the government seeks access to internet data in emails or social media accounts during criminal investigations, The Washington Post reported . Facebook is arguing in the D.C. Court of Appeals that the order violates First Amendment protections of the company and individuals. A spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office declined to comment. Many documents have been sealed in the case and hearings have been closed to the public. The timing of the investigation and references in court documents that have been made public suggest the search warrants relate to demonstrations during President Donald Trump's inauguration, when more than 200 people were charged with rioting, the newspaper reported. The search warrants at the crux of the case seek "all contents of communications, identifying information and other records" and designate three accounts for a three-month period in each request, according to a Facebook court filing. A D.C. Superior Court judge in April denied Facebook's request to end the gag order and directed the company to turn over the records covered by the search warrants to law enforcement. Facebook appealed and the appeals court allowed the company to share some details of the sealed case to seek legal support for its cause from other businesses and organizations. They have since filed public legal briefs supporting Facebook. In the last six months of 2016, Facebook reported about 41,000 requests for information from the government and said it provided data in 83 percent of those cases.

Buzz Aldrin Sets Nation’s Sights on Mars by 2040

Forty-eight years after he landed on the moon, Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin on Saturday rolled out a red carpet for the red planet at a star-studded gala at the Kennedy Space Center. Aldrin, 87, commemorated the upcoming anniversary of the 1969 mission to the moon under a historic Saturn V rocket and raised more than $190,000 for his nonprofit space education foundation, ShareSpace Foundation. Aldrin believes people will be able to land on Mars by 2040, a goal that NASA shares. The space agency is developing the Space Launch System and the Orion spacecraft to send Americans to deep space.   Apollo astronauts Walt Cunningham, Michael Collins and Harrison “Jack” Schmitt joined Aldrin, one of 12 people to walk on the moon, at the sold-out fundraiser. Bezos, Jemison honored “I like to think of myself as an innovative futurist,” Aldrin told a crowd of nearly 400 people in the Apollo/Saturn V Center. “The programs we have right now are eating up every piece of the budget and it has to be reduced if we’re ever going to get anywhere.”   During the gala, the ShareSpace Foundation presented Jeff Bezos with the first Buzz Aldrin Space Innovation Award. Bezos, the founder of and the spaceflight company Blue Origin, is trying to bring the cost of space travel down by reusing rockets.   “We can have a trillion humans in the solar system. What’s holding us back from making that next step is that space travel is just too darned expensive,” Bezos said. “I’m taking my Amazon lottery winnings and dedicating it to (reusable rockets). I feel incredibly lucky to be able to do that.”   The foundation also honored former NASA astronaut Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman to travel in space, with the Buzz Aldrin Space Pioneering Award.   What Aldrin is talking about is “not just about the physical part of getting to Mars. It’s also about that commitment to doing something big and audacious,” Jemison told The Associated Press. “What we’re doing looking forward is making sure that we use our place at the table.” Education foundation   Space memorabilia was auctioned at the gala, including an autographed first day insurance “cover” that fetched $42,500 and flew to the surface of the moon. Covers were set up by NASA because insurance companies were reluctant to offer life insurance to pioneers of the U.S. space program, according to the auction website. Money raised from their sale would have paid out to the astronauts’ families in the event of their deaths. The covers were issued in limited numbers and canceled on the day of launch.   The gala is the first part of a three-year campaign leading up to the 50th anniversary of the moon landing to help fund advancements that will lead to the future habitation of Mars.   ShareSpace Foundation on Saturday announced a new nonprofit, the Buzz Aldrin Space Foundation, to create an educational path to Mars. During the past year, the foundation has given 100 giant maps of Mars to schools and continues to work with children to advance education in Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math, or STEAM.