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Vietnam's Largest IT Company Touts Free Trade for Growth

Eleven countries meeting at the APEC summit in Da Nang agreed Saturday to seek a trans-pacific free trade agreement, despite the world’s largest market - the United States - pulling out of the deal.  Vietnam is expected to be one of the biggest beneficiaries of freer trade as it expands rapidly growing exports, including technology.  VOA’s Daniel Schearf visited Vietnam’s largest technology company, FPT, and has an exclusive interview with its chairman in Danang.

Report: Crack Down on Internet Freedoms Continues to Undermine Democracy

U.S. intelligence agencies say that Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential election in part through online propaganda. But a new report shows the United States was not the only target. According to the 2017 “Freedom on the Net” report, disinformation campaigns are increasing as Internet freedom declines globally. VOA’s Jesusemen Oni has the findings of the report.

The Most-Advanced U.S. Manned Spy Plane

Before advanced satellites and drones started collecting military intelligence, the U.S. relied on high-flying supersonic aircraft that could quickly penetrate the airspace of adversary countries, take pictures and exit before being caught. The last of those planes, retired in 1998, still holds several world records. But now, spy planes can only be found in museums. VOA’s George Putic reports.

To Improve Trust in Its Elections, Somaliland Goes High-tech

Last week, Somalilanders went to the polls in a historic presidential election. Officials employed advanced iris-scanning technology to identify voters and prevent duplicate ballots — the first use of such a biometric system in a national election. For Somaliland, a breakaway region whose independence has not yet been recognized by the U.N., the scanners also made a powerful statement about its legitimacy as a nation-state. Traditional ways to identify voters, including ID cards and indelible ink, aren't perfect. Paper identification can be forged, and ink can be washed off. In Somaliland, concerns about duplicate voting in past elections have been well-documented, to the point that the legitimacy of the process has been questioned, according to Calestous Juma, a professor of international development at Harvard Kennedy School. The move to iris-scanning technology is a way to thwart these concerns. It's also a high-tech solution that vaults Somaliland ahead of more connected countries such as Nigeria and Kenya. In the latter, concerns about the transmission of electronic ballots figured prominently in the Supreme Court's decision to annul the August election. "When elections don't go well, it basically generates the view that Africa is not ready for democracy," Juma told VOA. Iris scanning helps Somaliland improve its democratic process by incorporating the best-available technology, Juma said. Like fingerprints, everyone's eyes are unique. But because our irises also have a highly complex pattern, they're more reliable than other biometrics. To establish someone's identity, iris scanning involves capturing high-quality images of an individual's eyes. To record the greatest detail possible, the scan uses special cameras capable of sensing both visible and infrared light. The images are then added to a database where they can be compared with any other saved images to find potential matches, indicating a duplicate. Building public trust Early on, Somaliland contacted researchers on the forefront of iris-scanning technology at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana to ensure the feasibility of the technology. Election officials engaged in a lengthy pilot study to test different system designs and solicit feedback from the public. This transparent process built trust, Juma said. In a test ahead of the Somaliland election, Notre Dame researchers correctly found all 457 duplicates in a large sample of images. No false positives were identified in the process — any pair of images determined to be a duplicate did, in fact, belong to the same person. These results show a high degree of accuracy, although a small collection of images required manual verification after the software's analysis generated inconclusive results. The effort is particularly inspiring given Somaliland's poverty and struggle for international recognition, according to Juma. "To me, [it's] a demonstration to the commitment that Somaliland has to having credible elections." Still, biometric identification such as iris scanning isn't without critics, and concerns about privacy loom particularly large. For the system to work, images must be stored and, to create a national registry, transmitted. That means a data breach is possible. And emerging technologies suggest individuals' eyes could soon be scanned without their consent. So-called long-range iris scanning makes it possible to capture a scan from dozens of feet away. New leadership Vote counting is under way to determine Somaliland's fifth leader since the republic broke away from Somalia in 1991. The current president, Ahmed Mohamed Mohamoud, did not seek re-election, clearing the way for one of three candidates to assume his post. Election observers from 27 countries found isolated issues at the over 1,600 polling stations, but no problems with the iris scanners have been reported.

Urban Farming Technologies Crop Up in Homes, Restaurants

How do you obtain the freshest, locally grown produce in a big city? For an increasing number of urbanites, the answer is to grow it yourself. Cam MacKugler can help. MacKugler was at the recent Food Loves Tech event in Brooklyn, New York showing off Seedsheets, roll-out fabric sheets embedded with seed-filled pods. The sheets are placed atop soil in a home planter or an outdoor garden. When watered, the pods dissolve and plants sprout in 10 days (for pea shoots) to 70 days (for dragon carrots). The seed groupings on any given Seedsheet provide ingredients for specific dishes like salads or tacos. Pricing starts at $15 for pre-made sheets and go up to $100 for custom outdoor sheets measuring 1.2 by 2.4 meters. "Someone that's never gardened before might say, 'I want to know where my food comes from but I don't know how to do it, but I like salads so I'm going to buy the salad kit,' " said MacKugler, Seedsheet's CEO and founder. Efforts like Seedsheet come as consumers increasingly want to know where their food comes from and are more interested in socially and environmentally responsible growing methods. MacKugler told VOA that most of the company's sales come from urban millennials. Comparing Seedsheets to meal kit delivery companies like Blue Apron, MacKugler said Seedsheet took an experiential and educational approach to gardening, while making it user-friendly for customers. "I view it as a way to not only help them grow food, but also help grow their skill sets of knowing how to curate their food, how to actually bring food from seed to supper. It's a life skill," said MacKugler, "It's the same thing that you get from using Blue Apron and learning how to cook." Consumers aren't giving up on the convenience and low cost of packaged foods, but new products and technologies are playing a bigger role in helping them understand where their food comes from. "Consumer education is really progressing," said Nicole Baum, senior marketing and partnerships manager at Gotham Greens, a New York-based provider of hydroponically grown produce. Baum said consumers were less familiar with the term "hydroponics," growing plants in water instead of soil, when Gotham Greens started in 2011. Perceptions have since changed, and she has seen an increase in competing companies. "We're definitely seeing a lot more people within the space from when we first started, which is awesome," said Baum. "I think it's really great that other people are coming into the space and looking for ways to use technology to have more productive, efficient growth." Gotham Greens provides rooftop-grown leafy greens and herbs to supermarkets and top-ranked restaurants like Gramercy Tavern, which uses seasonal vegetables but also depends on the reliability of produce from urban hydroponic farms. "When we write our menus, we know that there are staples that we can continue using," said Gramercy Tavern sous chef Kyle Goldstein. Companies like Smallhold were also on hand at the Food Loves Tech event to promote their mushroom mini-farms — self-contained, vertical farm units that are intended for use in commercial kitchens. Smallhold's mini-farms are installed and serviced by the company at restaurants, with chefs harvesting mushrooms directly on-site. Hannah Shufro, operations lead at Smallhold, said the mini-farms minimize the environmental footprint that comes with transporting and packaging produce for delivery. "A lot of chefs these days, I think, are more concerned with sustainability" and have always been concerned with freshness, she said. Shufro noted that produce starts to lose its nutritional value from the moment it's picked or harvested. "When you're harvesting food right out of a system that's growing on-site, it does not get fresher than that," she said.