Using Tech to Save World’s Most Endangered Species in Tanzania

All, News, Technology

In Tanzania, protecting endangered animals has become easier thanks to Earth Ranger. Earth Ranger is not a superhero, it’s a technology platform, developed by Vulcan Inc., a company co-founded by U.S. philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. The system helps rangers remotely monitor elephants and other animals to stay ahead of poachers. Faiza Elmasry has the story. VOA’s Faith Lapidus narrates.

Financial Watchdog: Regulate Cryptocurrencies Now, Or Else

All, News, Technology

A global financial body says governments worldwide must establish rules for virtual currencies like bitcoin to stop criminals from using them to launder money or finance terrorism.

The Financial Action Task Force said Friday that from next year it will start assessing whether countries are doing enough to fight criminal use of virtual currencies.

Countries that don’t could risk being effectively put on a “gray list” by the FATF, which can scare away investors.

Marshall Billingslea, an assistant U.S. Treasury secretary who holds the FATF’s rotating leadership, said, “We’ve made clear today that every jurisdiction must establish” virtual currency rules. “It’s no longer optional.”

The FATF described how the Islamic State group and al-Qaida have used virtual currencies.

Financial regulators worldwide have struggled to deal with the rise of electronic alternatives to traditional money.

Former Deputy UK Leader Nick Clegg Takes Post with Facebook

All, News, Technology

Facebook has hired former U.K. deputy prime minister Nick Clegg to head its global policy and communications teams, enlisting a veteran of European Union politics to help it with increased regulatory scrutiny in the region.

Clegg, 51, will become a vice president of the social media giant, and report to Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg.

Clegg will be called upon to help Facebook and other Silicon Valley stalwarts grapple with a changing regulatory landscape globally. European Union regulators are interested in reining in mostly American tech giants who they blame for avoiding tax, stifling competition and encroaching on privacy rights.

Clegg led the Liberal Democrats from 2007 to 2015, including five years in the coalition government with the Conservatives. He lost his Sheffield Hallam seat at last year’s general election.

Data Project Aims to Stop Human Trafficking Before It Occurs

All, News, Technology

Computer giant IBM Corp., financial services company Western Union

Co. and European police launched a project Thursday to share financial data that  they said may one day be able to predict human trafficking before it occurs.

The shared data hub will collect information on money moving around the world and compare it with known ways that traffickers move their illicit gains, highlighting red flags signaling potential trafficking, organizers said.

“We will build and aggregate that material, using IBM tools, into an understanding of hot spots and routes and trends,” said Neil Giles, a director at global anti-slavery group Stop the Traffik, which is participating in the project.

Data collection, digital tools and modern technology are the latest weapons in the fight against human trafficking, estimated to be a $150 billion-a-year global business, according to the International Labor Organization.

The U.N. has set a goal of 2030 for ending forced labor and modern slavery worldwide, with more than 40 million people estimated to be enslaved around the world.

Certain patterns and suspicious activity might trigger a block of a transaction or an investigation into possible forced labor or sex slavery, organizers said.

The project will utilize IBM’s internet cloud services as well as artificial intelligence and machine learning to compare data and to spot specific trafficking terms, said Sophia Tu, director of IBM Corporate Citizenship.

With a large volume of high-quality data, the hub one day may predict trafficking before it happens, she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“You can’t do it today because we’re in the process of building out that amount of data and those capabilities, but it’s in the road map for what we want to do,” she said.

While law enforcement is teaming up with banks and data specialists to chase trafficking, experts have cautioned that it can be a cat-and-mouse game in which traffickers quickly move on to new tactics to elude capture.

Also, less than 1 percent of the estimated $1.5 trillion-plus laundered by criminals worldwide each year through the financial system is frozen or confiscated, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.

Along with IBM and Western Union, participants include Europol, Europe’s law enforcement agency; telecommunications giant Liberty Global; and British banks Barclays and Lloyds, organizers said.

Rural Americans Struggle with Poor Broadband Access

All, News, Technology

Even in the country that invented the internet, access has remained painfully slow for many rural residents in places like the central state of Arkansas, far from the big cities of the East and West coasts. That may be about to change.

The Federal Communications Commission — a government agency — recently auctioned off almost $1.5 billion in subsidies to get broadband providers to serve an additional 700,000 American homes over the next 10 years. Additional such auctions are planned.

For rural residents in Arkansas — ranked as one of the worst connected states in the country — it cannot come too soon.

“Remember dial-up?” That’s how Ashley Vaughan responds when she’s asked to describe her internet speed at home. She’s a resident of Pangburn, Arkansas, a town of about 600 people. After leaving the area for a few years, she returned in 2015.

​”[Internet speed is] still as crappy as it ever was,” Vaughan said. “I was trying to watch Hulu [a streaming network], and my husband was trying to load a webpage at the same time, and neither of them worked.”​

Rural areas

The issue of poor broadband access — defined by the FCC as fewer than 25 megabits per second (Mbps) — is not uncommon. Almost 20 percent of the American population, or 60 million people, live in rural areas, which generally experience the least connectivity in the country. 

Of those, around 15 million Americans have access to less than 10 Mbps.

In Vaughan’s case, she says her internet speed is only 0.05 Mbps. She’s called her internet provider to complain, but was told her service was the best available where she lives.

To get around the problem, many communities have sidestepped big companies and created municipal networks. Individually, some people spend extra on portable broadband access for their phones.

That slow speed doesn’t just mean fewer shows watched or video games played. It also impacts Vaughan’s son’s schoolwork, which increasingly requires use of a computer. Vaughan describes an instance in which her son took hours to download a single textbook, preventing anyone else in the house from using the internet during that time.

Many households in the U.S. have been wired for DSL, or digital subscriber lines, permitting the transmission of high-speed internet data over telephone lines. Meanwhile, most suburban and urban areas have seen the installation of fiber and copper cables, providing faster service. But many rural areas have been left behind.

“Fiber lines are expensive to install, and older copper lines are expensive to maintain,” said Jameson Zimmer, a broadband analyst with BroadbandNow, a data aggregation company based in Los Angeles.

On average, Zimmer says, it can cost tens of thousands of dollars to run fiber lines, depending on the complexity of the terrain and the length of the line. This means there are fewer internet providers willing to take on that financial burden — giving consumers fewer options.

 “What to do about this is overwhelming,” Zimmer said.

Legislative push

It’s a problem that both Republican and Democratic party leaders are working to solve.

U.S. Senator John Boozman of Arkansas has been one of the leaders in the push for legislation broadening access to high-speed internet.

In an email to Voice of America, Boozman wrote that investing in affordable, high-speed internet would strengthen the American economy. He applauded President Donald Trump for signing an executive order earlier this year to expand broadband access into rural areas but said the issue needs attention from “all levels of government.”

“There is a sense of urgency in the need to close the rural broadband gap. Today, reliable connectivity is just as essential as traditional infrastructure like roads and bridges,” Boozman wrote. “I’ve seen students sitting in the back of pickup trucks outside of schools in order to access the internet to complete their homework.”

Alisha Summerville feels that urgency. She’s a co-owner of the online store ASK Apparel, which launched last year and is based in Pangburn. Even though she relies on her smartphone to do most of her work, the store earns $10,000 to $15,000 a month from online purchases and sells to customers in 18 states.

The store earns an additional $5,000 to $10,000 through a brick-and-mortar store in the neighboring town of Heber Springs, but Summerville says the company was set up to serve online shoppers and it encourages foot traffic to become online traffic.

“That’s where business is going,” Summerville said of internet sales.

Summerville says she takes her internet connection into consideration every single time she makes a decision — from marketing and design to the equipment she uses. Having better broadband access at home would mean she could accomplish a lot more.

“When your internet is down, so is your business,” Summerville said. “When I’m thinking about internet, and I’m thinking about sales, I’m thinking about how much further we could reach.”

Twitter Releases Tweets Showing Russian, Iranian Attempts to Influence US Politics

All, News, Technology

On Wednesday, Twitter released a collection of more than 10 million tweets related to thousands of accounts affiliated with Russia’s Internet Research Agency propaganda organization, as well as hundreds more troll accounts, including many based in Iran.

The data, analyzed and released in a report by The Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, are made up of 3,841 accounts affiliated with the Russia-based Internet Research Agency, 770 other accounts potentially based in Iran as well as 10 million tweets and more than 2 million images, videos and other media.

Russian trolls targeting U.S. politics took on personas from both the left and the right. Their primary goal appears to have been to sow discord, rather than promote any particular side, presumably with a goal of weakening the United States, the report said.

DFRlab says the Russian trolls were often effective, drawing tens of thousands of retweets on certain posts including from celebrity commentators like conservative Ann Coulter.

​Some of the tweets posted:

“Judgement Day is here. Please vote #TrumpPence16 to save our great nation from destruction! #draintheswamp #TrumpForPresident,” said a fake Election Day tweet in 2016.

“Daily reminder: Trump still hasn’t imposed sanctions on Russia that were passed 4,193 in the House and 982 in the Senate. Shouldn’t that be grounds for impeachment?” said another tweet in March of this year.

Multiple goals

The Russian operation had multiple goals, including interfering in the U.S. presidential election, polarizing online communities, and weakening trust in American institutions, according to the DFRLab.

“The thing to understand is that the Russians were equal opportunity partisans,” Graham Brookie, one of the researchers behind the analysis, told VOA News. “There was a very specific focus on specific ideological communities and specific demographics.”

Following an initial push to prevent Hillary Clinton from being elected in 2016, the analysis identified a “second wave” of fake accounts, many of which were focused on infiltrating anti-Trump groups, especially those identified with the “Resistance” movement, exploiting sensitive issues such as race relations and gun violence. These often achieved greater impact than their conservative counterparts.

“Don’t ever tell me kneeling for the flag is disrespectful to our troops when Trump calls a sitting Senator “Pocahontas” in front of Native American war heroes,” tweeted an account posing as an African-American woman named “Luisa Haynes” under the handle @wokeluisa in November 2017. The tweet garnered more than 32,000 retweets and over 89,000 likes.

“They tried to inflame everybody, regardless of race, creed, politics or sexual orientation,” the Lab noted in its analysis. “On many occasions, they pushed both sides of divisive issues.”

Iran trolling

Iran’s trolling was primarily focused on promoting its own interests, including attacking regional rivals like Israel and Saudi Arabia.

However, Iran’s trolling was less effective than the Russian posts, with most tweets getting limited responses.

This was partially because of posting styles that were less inflammatory, according to the report.

“Few of the accounts showed distinctive personalities: They largely shared online articles,” according to the report. “As such, they were a poor fit for Twitter, where personal comment tends to resonate more strongly than website shares.” Generally, many troll posts were ineffective, and “their operations were washed away in the firehose of Twitter.”

All of the accounts linked to the massive trove of tweets released by Twitter have been suspended or deleted, and the analysis notes that overall activity from suspected Russian trolls fell this year after Twitter clampdowns in September and June 2017.

But, that does not mean political trolls do not still pose a threat.

“Identifying future foreign influence operations, and reducing their impact, will demand awareness and resilience from the activist communities targeted, not just the platforms and the open source community,” according to the report.

Twitter Releases Tweets Showing Foreign Attempts to Influence US Politics

All, News, Technology

Twitter has released a collection of more than 10 million tweets it says are related to foreign efforts to influence U.S. elections going back a decade, including many tied to Russia’s digital efforts to sow chaos and sway the 2016 election in favor of Donald Trump.

Twitter says it made the cache, which includes tweets from Iran and Russia’s state-sponsored troll farm, Internet Research Agency, available so researchers around the world could conduct their own analyses.

The non-partisan Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab has been looking through the collection since last week.  In a preliminary analysis posted on Medium, the online publishing platform, the Lab noted operators from Iran and Russia appeared to have targeted politically polarized groups in order to maximize divisiveness in the United States’ political scene.  

“The Russian trolls were non-partisan: they tried to inflame everybody, regardless of race, creed, politics, or sexual orientation,” the Lab noted, “On many occasions, they pushed both sides of divisive issues.”

Sifting through the collection is no small task.  The entire set, available for public download on Twitter’s news blog, encompasses spreadsheets and archived tweets from 3,841 Russian-linked accounts and 770 Iran-linked accounts.  The downloads add up to more than 450 gigabytes of data.

The micro-blogging company said in its post, “They include more than 10 million tweets and more than two million images, GIFs, videos, and Periscope broadcasts, including the earliest Twitter activity from accounts connected with these campaigns, dating back to 2009….”

Twitter has taken increasing steps to generate public goodwill over its perceived connection to Russian attempts to sway the 2016 election and its role in the spread of fake news.  In January, the company notified about 1.4 million users that they had interacted with Russia-linked accounts during the election or had followed those accounts at the time they were suspended.


Hackers Accused of Ties to Russia Hit 3 E. European Companies: Cybersecurity Firm

All, News, Technology

Hackers have infected three energy and transport companies in Ukraine and Poland with sophisticated new malware and may be planning destructive cyber attacks, a software security firm said on Wednesday.

A report by researchers at Slovakia-based ESET did not attribute the hacking activity, recorded between 2015 and mid-2018, to any specific country but blamed it on a group that has been accused by Britain of having links to Russian military intelligence.

The report is the latest to raise suspicions in the West about Russia’s GRU spy agency, accused by London of conducting a “reckless campaign” of global cyber attacks and trying to kill a former Russian spy in England. Moscow denies the charges.

Investigators at ESET said the group responsible for a series of earlier attacks against the Ukrainian energy sector, which used malicious software known as BlackEnergy, had now developed and used a new malware suite called GreyEnergy.

ESET has helped investigate a series of high-profile cyber attacks on Ukraine in recent years, including those on the Ukrainian energy grid which led to power outages in late 2015.

Kiev has accused Moscow of orchestrating those attacks, while U.S. cybersecurity firm FireEye says a group known as Sandworm is thought to be responsible. Britain’s GCHQ spy agency said this month that BlackEnergy Actors and Sandworm are both names associated with the GRU.

“The important thing is that they are still active,” ESET researcher Robert Lipovsky told Reuters. “This shows that this very dangerous and persistent ‘threat actor’ is still active.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said there was no evidence to support the allegations against the GRU and that Russia does not use cyber attacks against other countries.

“These are just more accusations. We are tired of denying them, because no one is listening,” he said.

After infection via emails laced with malicious weblinks or documents – a tactic known as “spear phishing” – or by compromising servers exposed to the internet, GreyEnergy allowed the attackers to map out their victim’s networks and gather confidential information such as passwords and login credentials, ESET said.

Lipovsky said his team then saw the hackers seek out critical parts of the companies’ systems, including computers which ran industrial control processes.

“It is my understanding that this was the reconnaissance and espionage phase, potentially leading up to cyber sabotage,” he said.

Global hacking campaign

The ESET report did not name the three companies infected in Ukraine and Poland, and Reuters was unable to identify them.

Ukraine’s Cyber Police confirmed the attacks on two Ukrainian companies but declined to give any further details. Polish authorities did not respond to requests for comment.

Ben Read, a senior manager on FireEye’s espionage analysis team, said his own work corroborated ESET’s report and that the Sandworm group was probably responsible.

The activity “is similar to the group we track as Sandworm,” he said. “And activity that we attribute to Sandworm has been named by the U.S. Department of Justice as being the GRU.”

Western countries including Britain and the United States issued a coordinated denunciation of Russia as a “pariah state” this month for what they described as a global hacking campaign run by the GRU.

GRU hackers have targeted institutions ranging from sports anti-doping bodies to a nuclear power company and the world chemical weapons watchdog, they said, as well as releasing the devastating “NotPetya” cyber worm which caused billions of dollars of damage worldwide in 2017.

The GRU, now formally known in Russia by a shorter acronym GU, is also accused by Britain of carrying out a nerve agent attack in England on former GRU officer Sergei Skripal. Moscow’s relations with the West have hit a post-Cold War low over Russia’s role in the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria.

Lipovsky and fellow ESET researcher Anton Cherepanov said the BlackEnergy attackers’ decision to upgrade to the new GreyEnergy malware may have been motivated by a need to cover their tracks and deflect attention from their activities.

The power outages triggered by the BlackEnergy attacks in Ukraine in December 2015 drew international attention and are recognised as the first blackout caused by a cyber attack.

“Threat actors need to switch up their arsenal from time to time,” Lipovsky said.



Shanghai Airport Automates Check-in with Facial Recognition

All, News, Technology

It’s now possible to check in automatically at Shanghai’s Hongqiao airport using facial recognition technology, part of an ambitious rollout of facial recognition systems in China that has raised privacy concerns as Beijing pushes to become a global leader in the field. 

Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport unveiled self-service kiosks for flight and baggage check-in, security clearance and boarding powered by facial recognition technology, according to the Civil Aviation Administration of China.

Similar efforts are under way at airports in Beijing and Nanyang city, in central China’s Henan province.

Many airports in China already use facial recognition to help speed security checks, but Shanghai’s system, which debuted Monday, is being billed as the first to be fully automated.

“It is the first time in China to achieve self-service for the whole check-in process,” said Zhang Zheng, general manager of the ground services department for Spring Airlines, the first airline to adopt the system at Hongqiao airport. Currently, only Chinese identity card holders can use the technology.

Spring Airlines said Tuesday that passengers had embraced automated check-in, with 87 percent of 5,017 people who took Spring flights on Monday using the self-service kiosks, which can cut down check-in times to less than a minute and a half.

Across greater China, facial recognition is finding its way into daily life. Mainland police have used facial recognition systems to identify people of interest in crowds and nab jaywalkers, and are working to develop an integrated national system of surveillance camera data.

Chinese media are filled with reports of ever-expanding applications: A KFC outlet in Hangzhou, near Shanghai, where it’s possible to pay using facial recognition technology; a school that uses facial recognition cameras to monitor students’ reactions in class; and hundreds of ATMs in Macau equipped with facial recognition devices to curb money laundering.

But increased convenience may come at a cost in a country with few rules on how the government can use biometric data.

“Authorities are using biometric and artificial intelligence to record and track people for social control purposes,” said Maya Wang, senior China researcher for Human Rights Watch. “We are concerned about the increasing integration and use of facial recognition technologies throughout the country because it provides more and more data points for the authorities to track people.”