Facebook, Twitter and Google executives testified in public before Senate and House investigations into Russian election interference for the first time Wednesday, amid disclosures that Russian influence on social media platforms was much wider in scope than previously understood. The lawmakers had tough questions for the Silicon Valley executives as VOA's Katherine Gypson reports from Capitol Hill.
Facebook reported better-than-expected quarterly profit and revenue on Wednesday as it pushed further into video advertising, showing no sign of financial damage from the controversy over how Russia used the social network in an attempt to sway voters in the 2016 U.S. election. The company's shares, which hit a record earlier in the day, initially rose in after-hours trading, but later fell into negative territory. They have gained almost 60 percent this year. Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg condemned Russia's attempts to influence last year's election through Facebook posts designed to sow division, and repeated his pledge to ramp up spending significantly to increase the social network's security, something he said on Wednesday would affect profits. "What they did is wrong, and we are not going to stand for it," Zuckerberg said of the Russians, on a conference call with analysts. Facebook is at the center of a political storm in the United States for the ways it handles paid political ads and allows the spread of false news stories. U.S. lawmakers have threatened tougher regulation and fired questions at Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch in hearings this week. Facebook, in a series of disclosures over two months, has said that people in Russia bought at least 3,000 U.S. political ads and published another 80,000 Facebook posts that were seen by as many as 126 million Americans over two years. Russia denies any meddling. Facebook's total advertising revenue rose 49 percent in the third quarter to $10.14 billion, about 88 percent of which came from mobile ads. Analysts on average had expected total ad revenue of $9.71 billion, according to data and analytics firm FactSet. Facebook in the third quarter gave advertisers for the first time the ability to run ads in standalone videos, outside the Facebook News Feed, and the company is seeing good early results, Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg told analysts on a conference call. "Video is exploding, and mobile video advertising is a big opportunity," Sandberg said. More than 70 percent of ad breaks up to 15 seconds long were viewed to completion, most with the sound on, she said. The 49 percent increase in total ad sales in the latest quarter compares with a 47 percent rise in the prior quarter and a 51 percent jump in the first quarter. Facebook has been warning for more than a year about reaching a limit in "ad load", or the number of ads the company can feature in users' pages before crowding their News Feed. Advertisers seem unfazed, though, spending heavily as the social network continues to attract users. The nearly 50 percent jump in ad revenue "is phenomenal, especially when for the past few quarters they've been trying to bring that expectation way, way down. Yet it keeps going up," Tigress Financial Partners analyst Ivan Feinseth said. Of the Russia scandal enveloping Facebook publicly, Feinseth said: "In the bigger picture, I don't think it's a really big factor." The company's performance was strong in comparison with smaller social media firms Snap Inc and Twitter, Wedbush analyst Michael Pachter said. "Facebook grew revenues by $3.3 billion year-over-year for the quarter. This is more than Twitter and Snapchat generate combined for the full year," he said. Facebook said about 2.07 billion people were using its service monthly as of Sept. 30, up 16 percent from a year earlier. Analysts on average had expected 2.06 billion monthly active users, according to FactSet. Net income rose to $4.71 billion, or $1.59 per share, from $2.63 billion, or 90 cents per share. Analysts on an average were expecting the company to earn $1.28, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S. Total revenue increased 47.3 percent to $10.33 billion beating analysts estimate of $9.84 billion, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S. Various U.S. investigations into how Russia may have tried to sway American voters in the months before and after last year's elections are hanging over Facebook and its competitors. There is also proposed U.S. legislation that would extend rules governing political ads on television, radio and satellite to also cover digital advertising. "We expect more scrutiny about Facebook's ad system ahead," analyst Debra Aho Williamson of research firm eMarketer said in a note. "We're also monitoring for any signs that this investigation will have a material impact on ad revenue."
Women in Saudi Arabia have scorned the government's decision to grant citizenship to a female robot who, unlike them, does not need a male guardian or have to cover her head in public. Social media was abuzz with questions about whether the robot, Sophia, who was unveiled at a technology conference in the capital Riyadh last week, will be treated like other women in the conservative kingdom now that she is a citizen. "It hit a sore spot that a robot has citizenship and my daughter doesn't," Hadeel Shaikh, a Saudi woman whose four-year-old child with a Lebanese man does not have citizenship. Women married to foreigners in the gender-segregated nation cannot pass on citizenship to their children. The creation of the world's first cyborg citizen is the latest surprise announcement from the Sunni Muslim kingdom, which granted women the right to drive last month and to watch events in all-male sports stadiums for the first time next year. Shaikh hopes for greater reform as she is worried about the future of her daughter who only has a residency card. "I want her to have all the privileges of her mum," Shaikh told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone. "I want her to feel welcomed even if I am not here." A guardianship system in Saudi Arabia also requires a male family member to grant permission for a woman to study abroad, travel and other activities. "I'm wondering if robot Sophia can leave Saudi Arabia without her guardian consent!" tweeted Saudi feminist, Moudi Aljohani, who is based in the United States. Bahrain, Kuwait, Lebanon and Jordan are some of the Middle Eastern countries that also do not allow women married to foreigners to pass on citizenship to their children. "It creates a lot of problems," said Suad Abu-Dayyeh, a Middle East expert with Equality Now, a global advocacy organization, calling for restrictions on women's rights to be lifted across the region. "They were born and raised there - but it is not their country."
Gu Xiaomeng, a 24-year-old primary school teacher in the eastern Chinese city of Suzhou, says she's excited about the new iPhone X, set to go on sale Friday. The challenge for Apple Inc is to persuade her to actually buy one. "I'm definitely interested, but don't currently plan to get one," said Gu, whose monthly salary of a little over 6,000 yuan ($905.36) is less than the anniversary model's starting price in China of 8,388 yuan. For Apple, which is looking to rev up sales in China after several quarters of declining revenue there, the test is that Gu is not alone. While interest in the phone is high, that won't necessarily translate into sales. "Price appears to be a major constraint on iPhone X demand, particularly in China," Bernstein analyst Toni Sacconaghi said in a recent report that showed three-quarters of Chinese respondents were excited by the upcoming launch, but only a quarter said they planned to buy one. Investors are keen to gauge Chinese demand for the iPhone X, as it is key to reviving Apple's fortunes in the world's biggest smartphone market where it has lost some of its sparkle — and market share — as local phone makers have advanced. The cheaper iPhone 8, which hit the market in September, has faced sluggish sales, but Apple has said that pre-orders for the iPhone X have been "off the charts." Apple, due to announce quarterly earnings Thursday, said it had no immediate comment. Chatter online on popular Chinese social media platform Weibo also signaled high levels of interest in the new model, though still generally behind levels around the 2014 launch of the very successful iPhone 6. Apple "geeks" Xiao Ming, 32, who works for a blockchain start-up in Beijing, stayed up half the night when pre-sales of the iPhone X opened last week. He has also bought the iPhone 8. "I always try to be one of the first to buy any new iPhone," he said, adding he likes the new phone's augmented reality and facial recognition features. "I'll be very disappointed if I don't get one on the first day." While he plans to buy the new phone, he noted many of his friends were less fussed. "Before, I think a lot of people would try to get it somehow, now it's mostly the geeks," he said. "My friends don't mind so much if they have an iPhone 8 or a 6, for example, because it looks similar and the price [of the iPhone X] makes you feel nervous." Re-sellers and iPhone accessory makers generally agreed there was a buzz about the iPhone X, Apple's first phone to have a full-screen display and functions such as facial recognition security. "People are really anticipating this phone because it's the 10th anniversary version and it has more changes and modifications," said Gary Yiu, manager of the iGeneration smartphone shop at one Hong Kong mall. Yiu and three other phone re-sellers there said they had seen strong demand for the phone from mainland clients. A merchant at the Huaqiangbei electronics hub in Shenzhen, who was offering an iPhone look-a-like called the "E-Feng X" from 1,599 yuan, said sales volumes were "very good." Some Chinese re-sellers, however, said they already canceled pre-orders for the iPhone X, concerned there wouldn't be enough of a supply bottleneck to allow them to charge a steep premium — despite some worries about long waits. "I saw many friends were posting pictures of themselves successfully ordering the iPhone X, so I canceled mine," said Tony Tong, 29, a product manager at a tech firm in Beijing, who said he had ordered four phones in the hope of re-selling them for a profit. "The environment is bad for scalpers." Apple will hope payment plans and easy access to online credit in China will persuade people to buy. Wang Hao, a 24-year-old engineer in the northeastern port city of Dalian, said he ordered the new phone despite the high price tag. His last phone was an iPhone 6S. "The cost is about a month's salary for me," he told Reuters. "But I'm just used to it now, and there wasn't really anything to make me choose another brand."
Malaysia is investigating an alleged attempt to sell the data of more than 46 million mobile phone subscribers online after a major data breach, Communications and Multimedia Minister Salleh Said Keruak said on Wednesday. The massive data breach was first reported last month by Lowyat.net, a local technology news website, which said it had received a tip-off that someone was trying to sell huge databases of personal information on its forums. Salleh said the country's internet regulator, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), was looking into the matter with the police. "We have identified several potential sources of the leak and we should be able to complete the probe soon," Salleh told reporters at parliament. The leaked data was being sold for an undisclosed amount of Bitcoin, a digital currency, Lowyat.net said on Monday. It included lists of mobile phone numbers, identification card numbers, home addresses, and SIM card data of 46.2 million customers from at least 12 Malaysian mobile phone operators. Malaysia's population is just around 32 million, but many have several mobile numbers. The lists are also believed to include inactive numbers and temporary ones bought by visiting foreigners, local daily The Star reported. MCMC's chief operating officer Mazlan Ismail said on Tuesday the regulator had met with local telecommunications companies to seek their cooperation in the probe, according to state news agency Bernama. The data also includes private information of more than 80,000 individuals leaked from the records of the Malaysian Medical Council, the Malaysian Medical Association, and the Malaysian Dental Association, Lowyat.net said.
Modern forensics have come a long way with the use of DNA evidence and fingerprint databases. But it’s not always easy to match a full set of prints, especially if a corpse is stranded in the desert and scavenging animals have picked it apart. But a new FBI database aims to share as much information despite the few clues available. Arash Arabasadi reports.
Attorneys for Twitter, Facebook and Google downplayed the magnitude of Russian efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election in congressional hearings on Tuesday. Sean Edgett, Twitter's general counsel, said the company studied all tweets posted from September 1 to November 15, 2016, and found that election-related content posted by automated Russian troll accounts "was comparatively small." He said the Russian troll accounts made up "around 1/100th of a percent of total Twitter accounts" during the time studied, and were responsible for "one-third of 1 percent of election-related tweets" during that time period. "Twitter believes that any activity of that kind regardless of magnitude is unacceptable and we agree we must do better to prevent it," he said. Twitter has taken action against the suspected Russian trolls, suspending 2,752 accounts and implementing new dedicated teams "to enhance the quality of the information our users see," Edgett said. Facebook lawyer Colin Stretch spoke similarly about the $100,000 worth of divisive ads posted on the social media website by a group with alleged ties to the Russian government. "In aggregate, these ads and posts were a very small fraction of the overall content on Facebook, but any amount is too much," he said. Audience of 126 million Facebook said Monday that its investigation of the matter had found Russian-backed operatives published about 80,000 posts on the social network that reached 126 million Americans over a two-year period. In response to the internal investigation, Stretch said, Facebook will hire more ad removers, put in place tighter ad restrictions and require more info from political ad buyers. "We know bad actors aren't going to stop their efforts," he said. "We know we'll all have to keep learning and improving to stay ahead of them." Facebook has turned the alleged Russian ads over to Congress, and earlier this month, the company's chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, said she "absolutely" supported the public release of the advertisements. In releasing the ads to Congress, Sandberg said, "it's important that [the investigators] get the whole picture and explain that to the American people." Misuse 'can be serious' During his testimony Tuesday, Richard Salgado, Google's director of law enforcement and information security, called Russian use of its platforms "relatively small," but said "any misuse of our platforms for this purpose can be very serious." In a Monday post on its blog, Google said it found "limited activity" on its platforms coming from potential Russian actors, but vowed to launch "several new initiatives to provide more transparency and enhance security." According to Google, the extent of potential Russian misuse of its platforms during the 2016 election cycle consisted of about 1,000 videos posted on 18 YouTube channels "likely associated" with Russian actors and a total of $4,700 spent on Google ads.
Apple is offering a nifty way to unlock its new iPhone X — just stare at it. Face ID, Apple’s name for its facial-recognition technology, replaces the fingerprint sensor found on other models. How well does it work — not just technically, but in everyday use? After all, it’s much easier to align your finger with the sensor than to align your face with the phone. The iPhone X costs about $1,000 — $300 more than the iPhone 8. Advance orders began this past Friday, and Apple is now giving delivery times of five to six weeks. Apple says it will have limited supplies at stores for same-day pickup on Friday, but you’ll have to get there early. Better face detection Many rival Android phones already use facial-recognition technology. Samsung also has an unlock feature that scans your iris. But the systems can be tripped with something as simple as eyeglasses. While Android largely bases its match on a two-dimensional camera shot of you, the iPhone X goes 3-D. During setup, the iPhone guides you to rotate your head so it gets a more complete picture of you — analyzing some 30,000 points on your face, to be specific. So if you’re wearing glasses, the iPhone can still recognize you using other parts of your face. Same goes for wearing a hat. And Apple’s system continually learns. Each time you use your face to unlock the phone, it automatically keeps tabs on small changes, such as growing a mustache or simply getting older. With Android, you have to go into the settings to teach the phone’s face recognition to get better. There are limits. If you shave your beard, it’s too big of a change for the iPhone X to be sure it’s you. You’ll need a passcode, but the phone should remember you the next time . Recognizing you I tested the iPhone X against Samsung’s iris scanner on the Galaxy Note 8 and face systems on Google’s Pixel 2 and LG’s V30 phones. V30 improves upon the standard Android technology in asking you to turn your head slightly during the setup, though in practice the Pixel was far better at recognition. Only the iPhone and the Pixel recognized me with standard eyeglasses — important, as I expect the same performance with or without spectacles. That said, Face ID unlocked with just one of the two sunglasses I tried; the other was too big. Costumes and disguises also challenged Face ID. A Santa hat was OK, but a Santa beard wasn’t. Nor did it like funny glasses and a fake nose. Winter clothing was fine, as long as the scarf wasn’t covering too much of my face. Face ID worked better than expected in bright sunlight — not every time, but enough to be satisfying. It also worked in the dark, thanks to the use of infrared sensors rather than just the standard camera. That’s important when you wake up in the middle of the night and must absolutely check Facebook or Tinder. For those keeping score, the Pixel worked in sunlight, but not in the dark; it’s the reverse for Samsung. Samsung also worked with the Santa beard, as it’s focused on your eyes. The iPhone also unlocked after getting a haircut. I didn’t try to fool the iPhone into unlocking with someone else’s face. I’m sure hackers will spend the coming weeks trying. Apple says Face ID could be unreliable with twins and other siblings who look like you, as well as for children under 13 — though young children don’t really need a $1,000 phone. Give them a $200 iPod Touch — or better yet, a book to read. No more fingerprint The home button is gone to increase screen space. Others that have done this have moved the fingerprint scanner to the back. Apple ditches it completely, so Face ID is the only alternative to a passcode. The Olsen twins, among others, will face a hardship. It’s also tougher to check Facebook during a meeting without getting busted by the boss. You can casually unlock a phone with your fingerprint under the table. It’s much more conspicuous to stare at a screen, especially because your face should ideally be 6 to 10 inches (15 to 25 centimeters) away. Besides unlocking the phone, you can use Face ID to confirm app purchases and log into banking apps. You can also confirm Apple Pay transactions. You don’t have to twist your head awkwardly for facial authorization while the phone is laying sideways on a payment terminal, either. With the iPhone X, you authorize Apple Pay before tapping. It was much faster than fingerprint when paying for lunch. Bottom line is Face ID works fairly well — though keeping the fingerprint option would have been nice.
There’s a short but not-so-simple question facing Vietnam’s technology startup fans: Now, what? The communist country was not immune to the startup craze that swept the globe, but much of the early period was spent talking about tech and all the local potential. In what could be called the next phase of the craze, Vietnam now hopes to go beyond just talking. The focus now is on getting entrepreneurs to deliver on their pitches and meet concrete benchmarks, whether that’s to turn a profit, expand overseas, or find “exits” for their businesses, such as through acquisitions. At a basic level, Vietnam has what's needed to be a place prime for startups. Citizens have high literacy rates and math proficiency, which eases the path to creating an army of programmers for the economy. The country also has a balance that combines, on the one hand, a large consumer market on par with those of Thailand and the Philippines, and on the other hand, a lower level of development with high growth rates on par with those of Laos and Cambodia. And the low cost of things like wages and Internet plans allows people to establish companies at minimal expense. But these are only ingredients, not, so far, action toward a modern culture of enterprise. “Vietnam usually does copy-paste,” said Lam Tran, CEO of the startup WisePass, adding that locals should move past the model of copying a business idea from a foreign country and pasting it into the domestic market. “We don’t know how to internationalize.” WisePass, an app that connects monthly subscribers to bar and restaurant deals, launched in Ho Chi Minh City with plans to cover seven countries in the near future. Taking advantage of cross-border ties is one effective, increasingly popular strategy, startup aficionados say. For one thing, Vietnam has a huge postwar diaspora, known as Viet Kieu, who help connect the Southeast Asian country to investors, advisers, and developers abroad. For another, the tech scene inside the border is more cosmopolitan than ever. To give one example, the Vietnam Innovative Startup Accelerator (VIISA) has invested in 11 companies for the second batch of what it calls “graduates.” All have domestic links, but have partners operating in locales as disparate as Ukraine, South Korea and France. Sangyeop Kang, investment officer at VIISA partner Hanwha Investment, said he’s “delighted about the diversity” of this sophomore batch. “The foreign teams were able to expand their business in Vietnam, while helping Vietnamese companies with global insights,” Kang said. “This is a step forward for the ecosystem." In a sign of official interest, the government has a carve-out for startups in its Law on Supporting Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises, which will take effect Jan. 1. The law offers young companies support with co-working spaces, technical equipment, intellectual property training, and low interest rates, among other things. To do more than copy and paste, new businesses are contemplating how to outfit themselves for Vietnam. The startup But Chi Mau, for instance, makes games that tap into the unquenchable thirst for education, while MarketOi deploys motorbike drivers to let customers customize their food deliveries. “The question is how to differentiate ourselves,” MarketOi founder Germain Blanchet said, before proceeding to answer that question: “This is with flexibility.”
Trash and tires floating in a river are easy to see. But there’s a lot of harmful water pollution that isn’t visible to the naked eye. Researchers in Switzerland are testing a robotic version of a sea monster that’s helping them get a better look at what’s floating in the water. Arash Arabasadi reports.
An organization that has been helping find people missing from the 1990s Balkan conflict has now expanded to tackle the cases of millions of missing people around the world. The International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP), based in the Netherlands, will use the latest DNA technology to identify bodies and provide closure to family members of the missing people. The laboratory findings also will be used to serve justice and support demands for reparations. VOA's Zlatica Hoke has more.
Billionaire Elon Musk has released a photograph of a tunnel he's building under a Los Angeles suburb to test a novel transportation concept for a system that would move people underground in their personal cars rather than by subway trains. The founder of SpaceX and Tesla tweeted during the weekend that the tunnel was 500 feet so far and should be 2 miles long in three or four months. In August, the Hawthorne City Council granted a permit allowing an underground extension of approximately 2 miles from SpaceX property, crossing under a corner of the municipal airport and beneath city streets to a point about a mile east of Los Angeles International Airport. Musk also tweeted that hopefully in a year or so the tunnel would stretch along the Interstate 405 corridor from LAX to U.S. Highway 101 in the San Fernando Valley, which would require approval from other governments. That span is about 17 miles. Musk has complained about what he called "soul-destroying'' Los Angeles traffic. He added The Boring Company to his ventures, acquired a tunnel-boring machine that had been used in a San Francisco Bay Area project and put it down a shaft in a SpaceX parking lot this year. Hawthorne council document say the "Test Tunnel for Zero Emission Subterranean Transportation'' has an exterior diameter of 13.5 feet (4.1 meters) and an interior diameter of approximately 12 feet (3.6 meters) and will run as deep as 44 feet (13.4 meters) beneath the surface. "When the project is completed, the Test Tunnel would house a 'skate' system that would be tested to prove the viability for transporting pedestrians or personal vehicles. The concept is that a vehicle would be drive on to the skate, the engine would be turned off and the vehicle and its passenger would be transported from one end of the Test Tunnel to the other,'' the August resolution said. "The Test Tunnel project would involve SpaceX engineers repeatedly testing and experimenting with personal vehicle types suitable for placement on the skates; refinement of the design and technology; and general data collection on performance, durability, and application. No public use of the Test Tunnel would occur, and no people would be occupying vehicles located on the skates as the skates are tested within the tunnel,'' it added. Construction was expected to take about five months to complete, the resolution said. Musk has maintained that tunneling can be accomplished much more rapidly than occurs with current methods. The plan allows the city to request that the tunnel be filled in when testing is complete. Musk has also advocated another transportation concept called the "hyperloop,'' a network of nearly airless tubes that would speed special capsules over long distances at up to 750 mph (1,207 kph), using a thin cushion of air, magnetism and solar power. SpaceX has recently hosted competitions by development teams on a test track built at its headquarters. On Monday, SpaceX conducted its 16th Falcon 9 rocket launch of the year, carrying a South Korean satellite into space from Florida's Kennedy Space Center. The rocket's first-stage booster scored another successful landing aboard a floating platform in the Atlantic.
A rare bird has landed at the University of Michigan: a two-legged robot named "Cassie'' that researchers hope could be the forerunner of a machine that one day will aid search-and-rescue efforts. Cassie — whose name is derived from the cassowary, a flightless bird similar to an ostrich — stands upright on legs with backward-facing knees. The biped that weighs about 66 pounds (29.94 kilograms) may not have feathers or a head, but she is attached to a short torso that holds motors, computers and batteries and is able to walk unassisted on rough and uneven terrain. Cassie, which stands a bit over 3.25 feet (1 meter) at full leg extension, was built by Albany, Oregon-based Agility Robotics and purchased by Michigan researchers using grant money from the National Science Foundation and Toyota Research Institute. Although other institutions have acquired similar models, Michigan's team is excited to use its version to put Michigan Robotics' cutting-edge programming to the test, said Jessy Grizzle, director of Michigan Robotics. "This stuff makes our old math look like child's play,'' Grizzle said. Although there is considerable excitement about Cassie and the potential she represents, certain real-world applications are still a bit out of reach. Search-and-rescue "is a hard problem and serves as a template for 'unsolved problems in robotics,' which is one of the reasons you see it pop up so much when robotics companies talk about applications,'' said Agility Robotics CEO Damion Shelton, who added that it is "difficult to even speculate'' when a robot could be used for such a purpose. Other applications will be launched sooner, according to Shelton, who said a robot capable of walking around the perimeter of an industrial site taking 3-D scans is no more than two years away from becoming reality. For now, Grizzle and some of his students are putting Cassie through her paces on and around Michigan's Ann Arbor campus. During a recent a stroll on a pedestrian walkway, Cassie ambled on a grassy, sloped surface, then took a serious tumble and did a face-plant on the concrete. "Well, I think that's the end'' of the test, Grizzle said, as Cassie lay in a heap on the ground, slightly nicked and scratched but no worse for wear. The programs Grizzle and his students tested "are version 1.0,'' he said. "They are simple algorithms to make sure that we understand the robot. We will now focus on implementing our super-cool latest stuff,'' Grizzle said.
The World Economic Forum’s human rights council report issued on Monday, warns that tech companies might risk tougher regulations by governments to limit freedom of speech if they do not stem the publishing of violent content by Islamic State and the spread of misinformation. The report urged tech companies to employ thorough monitoring on their services, and “assume a more active self-governance rule,” recommending that tech firms must apply more rigorous rules. This report comes before the three tech giants Facebook, Twitter and Google, testify before a U.S. congressional committee in November about using their platforms for spreading political misinformation during the 2016 presidential elections. The use of tech platforms and tools has helped the Islamic State spread its agenda and attract recruits. Digital propaganda motivated more than 30,000 people to journey thousands of miles to join IS, according to a report published by Wired, a magazine published in print and online editions, that focuses on how emerging technologies affect culture, the economy, and politics. “ISIS’s supporters embraced new social media platforms and encrypted communications tools to compensate for law enforcement and platform owner actions against ISIS since June 2014,” the Institute for the Study of War said in its report “The Virtual Caliphate.” Silicon Valley tech companies convened last August with representatives from the tech industry, government and non-governmental organizations in the first Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism. The forum was formed by Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube. The meeting focused on how participating parties can cooperate to block the spread of terrorism and violent extremism using tech platforms and services. In the past year, social media companies edited and updated their user guidelines to address such sensitive topics as extremism and terrorism, death, war and sexual abuse. In August 2016, Twitter announced that it suspended 360,000 accounts for violating the company’s prohibition on violent threats and the promotion of terrorism. Twitter added that although there is no “one magic algorithm for identifying terrorist content on the internet, they will continue to utilize other forms of technology and expanded its partnerships with organizations working to counter violent extremism (CVE) online.” Last August, Google’s YouTube announced joining efforts with more than 15 additional expert NGOs and institutions to help the company better identify content that is being used to radicalize and recruit extremists. “We'll soon be applying tougher treatment to videos that aren’t illegal but have been flagged by users as potential violations of our policies on hate speech and violent extremism,” YouTube said. In a speech for the Global Coalition on March 22 in Washington D.C., Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said: “We must break ISIS's ability to spread its message and recruit new followers online. A digital caliphate must not flourish in the place of a physical one.” “We must fight ISIS online as aggressively as we would on the ground,” Tillerson said.
More than 19 million Americans are still without home internet access…that according to the Federal Communication Commission. In Garrett County, Maryland, local leaders came up with an innovative plan to provide access to their community...VOA's Lesya Bakalets reports on a creative approach to getting hard to reach customers on line.
More than 50,000 people were killed in Brazil in 2015, which puts it on the list of the most murder-prone countries in the world. To protect themselves, Brazilians are crowd sourcing their safety, using cell phones to alert each other when violence breaks out. VOA's Kevin Enochs.
People are big polluters, on the land, in the sea and even in outer space, that can include anything from a hammer that floats away from the space station, to radiation from a nuclear weapons test in the atmosphere. "This can range from little chips of paint all the way up to spent rocket bodies and things like that," said Dan Baker, director of the Laboratory of Atmosphere and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, Boulder. "We’ve been trying to figure out how can we most effectively eliminate this debris without causing more of a problem." Space debris travels so fast, even an orbiting chip of paint can poke a hole in a satellite. But Baker says something tinier, and natural, is a bigger hazard: It’s the highly charged "killer electrons" of the magnetized zone above the earth called The Van Allen Belts. "We've observed them to cause very significant problems for spacecraft," Baker said. Electro-magnetic planetary blanket The doughnut-shaped Van Allen Belts around our planet protect life on earth from solar winds and cosmic rays. But their highly energetic charged particles can damage the circuitry in space stations, weather satellites and other machines that travel through that region of space. Baker notes that "killer electrons" can also come from some human activities, like the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. "Back in the 1950s and especially in the 1960s, there were nuclear explosions that put huge amounts of radiation into space that caused many satellites to 'die' because of radiation damage," he said. "And if that were to happen today, we know that there are over 1,400 satellites operating in space around the earth and all of those could be subject to very severe consequences." Most nations adhere to treaties that prohibit atmospheric weapon testing. But Baker says that’s no guarantee. "What is worrisome to us from a political standpoint today is that there are nations, for example, North Korea and others, that may be thinking once again, and who may not be adherent to such treaties, that this might be an interesting way to mess with modern technology," Baker said. Mysterious space shield Radiation particles in the Van Allen Belts already "mess" with modern technology. So when satellites must spend time in that region, they are built with thicker materials. That armor makes them heavier, and more expensive. Fortunately, spacecraft and satellites that orbit just under the Van Allen Belts don’t need this heavy shielding. Baker says that’s because, at the lower edge of the Van Allen Belts, the killer electrons abruptly stop. He compares it to the shields that protected Captain Kirk's ship, the Enterprise, from phasers and asteroids on Star Trek. Scientists have known for years that something here on the earth creates an invisible bubble that clears killer electrons from the lower edge of the Van Allen Belts. Just what makes that shield has been a mystery. But recently, Baker’s teams figured out its source. The "bubble maker" is very low frequency radio transmissions, also known as VLF. Militaries use VLF to communicate with submarines underwater. It turns out those radio waves also travel up, through the atmosphere, to the Van Allen Belts. "So the VLF bubble is made up of these intense waves. These waves act to sort of scatter and scrub the inner part of the Van Allen Belts," Baker said, admitting, "I would prefer that we not be messing with nature. However, in this particular case I would say that there is some evidence that this is beneficial." John Bonnell, a researcher at the University of California Berkeley's Space Sciences Lab, agrees that VLF "pollution" is probably benign, and he points to the high-energy radiation emitted by lightning bolts as evidence. "We’ve had natural clearing of the radiation Belts with lightning, for as long as we’ve had lightning. So in essence, you’ve had a long-running experiment that you can look at and say, 'Well, if we're going to do things on sort of a sporadic basis, whereas lightning's been doing it daily for hundreds of millions of years, the likelihood of there being a bad side effect is pretty minimal,'" he said. Bonnell says that discovering a man-made way to clear killer electrons from the Van Allen Belt does not mean we will soon create "shields up" devices that use magnetics or radio transmissions. At least, he says, we’re not making them yet. "It's a fascinating possibility and it's a fascinating technology that could enable us in the future, to explore more of the solar system with people, with robots. And so it's definitely something that people pick away at slowly over time," he said. Bonnell says scientists, engineers and astronomers have teamed up to make amazing discoveries about how to study, and travel through, outer space. And while the future shape of space exploration is a mystery, our new understanding about the man-made "pollution" that shields satellites may be an important part of it.
Stores watching Amazon take a larger share of clothing sales are trying to solve one of the most vexing issues for online shoppers: finding items that fit properly. The retailers are unleashing tools that use artificial intelligence to replicate the help a salesperson at a store might offer, calculate a shopper's most likely body shape, or use 3-D models for a virtual fitting room experience. Amazon, which some analysts say will surpass Macy's this year as the largest U.S. clothing seller, is offering some customers an Alexa-powered device that doubles as a selfie-stick machine and a stylist. Retailers want to reduce the rate of online returns, which can be up to 40 percent, and thus make customers happier — and more likely to be repeat shoppers. And the more interaction shoppers have with a brand, the more the technology will learn about shoppers' preferences, said Vicky Zadeh, chief executive of Rakuten Fits Me, a tech company that works with QVC and clothing startup brands. "It's all about confidence," she said. "If they have the confidence to buy, they will come back to the retailer time and time again." The push is coming from big names like Levi's and The Gap and startups like Rhone and Taylrd. Levi's new Virtual Stylist texts back and forth with online customers to offer recommendations, based on their preferences. Marc Rosen, Levi's president of global e-commerce, said early tests show the chatbot is driving more browsers to become buyers. Reliance on body shape Rakuten Fits Me, which works with QVC and other companies, fine-tuned its fitting technology this summer and said its retail partners now offer garments that should fit shoppers' body shapes when the customer first does the initial search. Shoppers provide three measurements — height, weight and age — and then it calculates a person's most likely body shape, not size, to determine the fit for any garment and offer more accurate recommendations. And Gap Inc. has an augmented reality app in collaboration with Google and startup Avametric that allows shoppers to virtually try on clothes. Shoppers enter information like height and weight and then the app puts a 3-D model in front of them. However, the tool only works on Google Tango smartphones. Sebastian DiGrande, executive vice president and strategy and chief customer officer at Gap, said the augmented reality app had produced good feedback, but the company is still determining whether shoppers really want a virtual 3-D model. Clothing brand Tommy Hilfiger similarly has built its mobile app around the camera and image recognition. It has an augmented reality feature enabling shoppers to see what the clothes look like on a virtual runway model — but not their own body type. And men's online clothier Bonobos, now owned by Wal-Mart, launched an app that offers customers a virtual closet to see items they bought and saved. The app is converting browsers to buyers at a faster rate, said Andy Dunn, founder of Bonobos. Companies are smart to offer new tools, but many are too "gimmicky," said Sapna Shah, principal at Red Giraffe Advisors, which makes early-stage investments in fashion tech. "If it's not Amazon, will brand-specific apps be the way for people to shop in the future?" she said. "How many apps are people going to have on their phone?" And all the companies need to win over customers who prefer to touch and see things in person. "It's great that they're busting their tail with all these apps, but I am skeptical," said Doug Garnett of Portland, Oregon. Garnett said he buys some clothes online when he knows and understands the brands, but otherwise, "I really need to see them on my body before I act, and really prefer that to be in a store." Personalized offers As Amazon dives further into fashion, it could use its base of data to spur trends and personalize offers for its customers. Its Echo Look features a built-in camera that photographs and records shoppers trying on clothes and offers recommendations on outfits. It works with its Style Check app, using machine learning and advice from experts. The potential: Learn shoppers' styles and recommend outfits to buy. Amazon reportedly is exploring the idea of quickly fulfilling online orders for custom-fit clothing. The company also reportedly acquired Body Labs, which creates true-to-life 3-D body models. "We're always listening to our customers, learning and innovating on their behalf and bringing them products we think they will love," said Amazon spokeswoman Molly Wade. She wouldn't comment on the prospect of custom-fit or the reports about Body Labs. Steve Barr, the U.S. retail and consumer sector leader at consultants PwC, said that Amazon was trying for a curated experience based on massive data analytics. But he said he thought such an approach had limitations. "No matter how great Amazon is with artificial intelligence and predictive behaviors," Barr said, "they can't put a red tab on a pair of a jeans or a swoosh on a pair of shoes."
Under pressure in advance of hearings on Russian election interference, Facebook is moving to increase transparency for everyone who sees and buys political advertising on its site. Executives for the social media company said Friday they will verify political ad buyers in federal elections, requiring them to reveal correct names and locations. The site will also create new graphics where users can click on the ads and find out more about who’s behind them. More broadly, Rob Goldman, Facebook’s vice president in charge of ad products, said the company is building new transparency tools in which all advertisers, even those that aren’t political, are associated with a page, and users can click on a link to see all of the ads any advertiser is running. Users also will be able to see all of the ads paid for by the advertisers, whether those ads were originally targeted toward them. 3,000 Russia-linked ads The move comes after the company acknowledged it had found more than 3,000 ads linked to Russia that focused on divisive U.S. social issues and were seen by an estimated 10 million people before and after the 2016 U.S. elections. Facebook, Twitter and Google will testify in Congress Tuesday and Wednesday on how their platforms were used by Russia or other foreign actors in the election campaign. The Senate and House intelligence committees and the Senate Judiciary Committee are all holding hearings as part of their investigations into Russian election interference. Facebook’s announcement comes a day after Twitter said it will ban ads from RT and Sputnik, two state-sponsored Russian news outlets. Twitter also has said it will require election-related ads for candidates to disclose who is paying for them and how they are targeted. Federal election ad archive Facebook’s Goldman said the company also will build a new archive of federal election ads on Facebook, including the total amount spent and the number of times an ad is displayed, he said. The archive, which will be public for anyone to search, would also have data on the audience that saw the ads, including gender and location information. The archive would eventually hold up to four years of data. Goldman said the company is still building the new features. They plan to test them in Canada and roll them out in the United States by next summer ahead of the 2018 midterm elections. “This is a good first step but it’s not at all the last step, there’s a lot to learn once we start testing,” Goldman said in an interview. Facebook already had announced in September that the platform would require an advertiser to disclose who paid for the ads and what other ads it was running at the same time. But it was unclear exactly how the company would do that. Heading off legislation The moves are meant to bring Facebook more in line with what is now required of print and broadcast advertisers. Federal regulations require television and radio stations to make publicly available the details of political ads they air. That includes who runs the ad, when it runs and how much it costs. It is also likely meant to head off bipartisan legislation in the Senate that would require social media companies to keep public files of election ads and try to ensure they are not purchased by foreigners. Though Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, a Democratic co-sponsor of the legislation, has said his bill would be “the lightest touch possible,” social media companies would rather set their own guidelines than face new regulation. Facebook has responded swiftly to the attention it has received in recent months on Capitol Hill, boosting staff and lobbying efforts. The company has spent more than $8.4 million in lobbying Congress and the rest of the government through the third quarter of this year, according to federal records. Some analysts have warned that policing such online election ads can be difficult. It’s one thing to enforce advertising rules for a print newspaper or a TV station, where real humans can vet each ad before it is printed or aired. But that is much more complicated when automated advertising platforms allow millions of advertisers, basically anyone with a credit card and internet access, to place an ad.
The ever expanding field of consumer technology just got several dozen new specimens, showcased at the Netherlands' first Consumer Electronics Show. None are expected to spectacularly change our lives ... but at least some of them may prove to be truly useful. VOA's George Putic reports.