Could Enemies Target Undersea Cables That Link the World?

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Russian ships are skulking around underwater communications cables, causing the U.S. and its allies to worry the Kremlin might be taking information warfare to new depths.

Is Moscow interested in cutting or tapping the cables? Does it want the West to worry it might? Is there a more innocent explanation? Unsurprisingly, Russia isn’t saying.

But whatever Moscow’s intentions, U.S. and Western officials are increasingly troubled by their rival’s interest in the 400 fiber-optic cables that carry most of world’s calls, emails and texts, as well as $10 trillion worth of daily financial transactions.

“We’ve seen activity in the Russian navy, and particularly undersea in their submarine activity, that we haven’t seen since the ’80s,” General Curtis Scaparrotti, commander of the U.S. European Command, told Congress this month.

Without undersea cables, a bank in Asian countries couldn’t send money to Saudi Arabia to pay for oil. U.S. military leaders would struggle to communicate with troops fighting extremists in Afghanistan and the Middle East. A student in Europe wouldn’t be able to Skype his parents in the United States.

Small passageways

All this information is transmitted along tiny glass fibers encased in undersea cables that, in some cases, are little bigger than a garden hose. All told, there are 620,000 miles of fiber-optic cable running under the sea, enough to loop around Earth nearly 25 times.

Most lines are owned by private telecommunications companies, including giants like Google and Microsoft. Their locations are easily identified on public maps, with swirling lines that look like spaghetti. While cutting one cable might have limited impact, severing several simultaneously or at choke points could cause a major outage.

The Russians “are doing their homework and, in the event of a crisis or conflict with them, they might do rotten things to us,” said Michael Kofman, a Russian military expert at nonprofit research group CNA Corp.

It’s not Moscow’s warships and submarines that are making NATO and U.S. officials uneasy. It’s Russia’s Main Directorate of Deep Sea Research, whose specialized surface ships, submarines, underwater drones and minisubs conduct reconnaissance, underwater salvage and other work.

One ship run by the directorate is the Yantar. It’s a modest, 354-foot oceanographic vessel that holds a crew of about 60. It most recently was off South America’s coast helping Argentina search for a lost submarine.

Parlamentskaya Gazeta, the Russian parliament’s publication, last October said the Yantar has equipment “designed for deep-sea tracking” and “connecting to top-secret communication cables.” The publication said that in September 2015, the Yantar was near Kings Bay, Georgia, home to a U.S. submarine base, “collecting information about the equipment on American submarines, including underwater sensors and the unified [U.S. military] information network.” Rossiya, a Russian state TV network, has said the Yantar not only can connect to top-secret cables but also can cut them and “jam underwater sensors with a special system.”

Russia’s Defense Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

Preparing for sabotage

There is no hard evidence that the ship is engaged in nefarious activity, said Steffan Watkins, an information technology security consultant in Canada tracking the ship. But he wonders what the ship is doing when it’s stopped over critical cables or when its Automatic Identification System tracking transponder isn’t on.

Of the Yantar’s crew, he said: “I don’t think these are the actual guys who are doing any sabotage. I think they’re laying the groundwork for future operations.”

Members of Congress are wondering, too. 

Representative Joe Courtney, a Connecticut Democrat on a House subcommittee on sea power, said of the Russians, “The mere fact that they are clearly tracking the cables and prowling around the cables shows that they are doing something.”

Democratic Senator Gary Peters of Michigan, an Armed Services Committee member, said Moscow’s goal appears to be to “disrupt the normal channels of communication and create an environment of misinformation and distrust.”

The Yantar’s movements have previously raised eyebrows.

On October 18, 2016, a Syrian telecom company ordered emergency maintenance to repair a cable in the Mediterranean that provides internet connectivity to several countries, including Syria, Libya and Lebanon. The Yantar arrived in the area the day before the four-day maintenance began. It left two days before the maintenance ended. It’s unknown what work it did while there.

Watkins described another episode on November 5, 2016, when a submarine cable linking Persian Gulf nations experienced outages in Iran. Hours later, the Yantar left Oman and headed to an area about 60 miles west of the Iranian port city of Bushehr, where the cable runs ashore. Connectivity was restored just hours before the Yantar arrived on November 9. The boat stayed stationary over the site for several more days.

Undersea cables have been targets before.

At the beginning of World War I, Britain cut a handful of German underwater communications cables and tapped the rerouted traffic for intelligence. In the Cold War, the U.S. Navy sent American divers deep into the Sea of Okhotsk off the Russian coast to install a device to record Soviet communications, hoping to learn more about the U.S.S.R.’s submarine-launched nuclear capability.

Eavesdropping by spies

More recently, British and American intelligence agencies have eavesdropped on fiber-optic cables, according to documents released by Edward Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor.

In 2007, Vietnamese authorities confiscated ships carrying miles of fiber-optic cable that thieves salvaged from the sea for profit. The heist disrupted service for several months. And in 2013, Egyptian officials arrested three scuba divers off Alexandria for attempting to cut a cable stretching from France to Singapore. Five years on, questions remain about the attack on a cable responsible for about a third of all internet traffic between Egypt and Europe.

Despite the relatively few publicly known incidents of sabotage, most outages are due to accidents.

Two hundred or so cable-related outages take place each year. Most occur when ship anchors snap cables or commercial fishing equipment snags the lines. Others break during tsunamis, earthquakes and other natural disasters.

But even accidental cuts can harm U.S. military operations. 

In 2008 in Iraq, unmanned U.S. surveillance flights nearly screeched to a halt one day at Balad Air Base, not because of enemy mortar attacks or dusty winds. An anchor had snagged a cable hundreds of miles away from the base, situated in the “Sunni Triangle” northwest of Baghdad.

The severed cable had linked controllers based in the United States with unmanned aircraft flying intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions for coalition forces in the skies over Iraq, said retired Air Force Colonel Dave Lujan of Hampton, Virginia.

“Say you’re operating a remote-controlled car and all of a sudden you can’t control it,” said Lujan, who was deputy commander of the 332nd Expeditionary Operations Group at the base when the little-publicized outage lasted for two to three days. “That’s a big impact,” he said, describing how U.S. pilots had to fly the missions instead.

Facebook ‘Ugly Truth’ Memo Triggers New Firestorm Over Ethics

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Was a leaked internal Facebook memo aimed at justifying the social network’s growth-at-any-cost strategy? Or simply a way to open debate on difficult questions over new technologies?

The extraordinarily blunt memo by a high-ranking executive — leaked this week and quickly repudiated by the author and by Facebook — warned that the social network’s goal of connecting the world might have negative consequences, but that these were outweighed by the positives.

“Maybe it costs a life by exposing someone to bullies,” the 2016 memo by top executive Andrew “Boz” Bosworth said. “Maybe someone dies in a terrorist attack coordinated on our tools.”

While Bosworth and Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg said the memo was only a way to provoke debate, it created a new firestorm for the social network mired in controversy over the hijacking of personal data by a political consulting firm linked to Donald Trump.

David Carroll, a professor of media design at the New School Parsons, tweeted that the memo highlighted a “reckless hubristic attitude” by the world’s biggest social network.

“What is so striking is that an executive chose to have this conversation on a Facebook wall,” said Jennifer Grygiel, a Syracuse University professor who studies social networks. “He showed poor judgment and poor business communication skills. It speaks to Facebook’s culture.”

Grygiel said these kinds of issues require “thoughtful discussion” and should take place within a context of protecting users. “When these companies build new products and services, their job is to evaluate the risks, and not just know about them, but ensure public safety.”

Bosworth, considered part of chief executive Zuckerberg’s inner circle, wrote: “The ugly truth is that we believe in connecting people so deeply that anything that allows us to connect more people more often is ‘de facto’ good.”

On Thursday, he said he merely wanted to open a discussion and added that “I don’t agree with the post today and I didn’t agree with it even when I wrote it.”

Zuckerberg responded that he and many others at Facebook “strongly disagreed” with the points raised.

‘Offloading’ ethical questions

Jim Malazita, a professor of science and technology studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, said it was not surprising to see the memo in an industry whose work culture is highly compartmentalized.

Malazita said the memo frames the discussion with the assumption that technology and connecting people is always positive.

“By the assumptions built into that framework they are already shutting down a whole bunch of conversations,” he said.

Malazita added that most people who learn computer science are taught to make these technologies work as well as possible, while “offloading” the question of moral responsibility.

“It’s not that they don’t care, but even when they care about the social impact, there’s a limit to how much they practice that care.”

Joshua Benton, director of Harvard University’s Nieman Journalism Lab, said it may be too easy to blame Facebook for misuse of the platform.

“I’m rarely in a position to defend Facebook,” he said, but the view that a technology is worth spreading even though some people will use it for terrible ends “is something you could have believed about the telegraph, the telephone, email, SMS, the iPhone, etc,” Benton tweeted.

Doing the right thing

Patrick Lin, director of the ethics and emerging sciences group at California Polytechnic State University, said he sees “no evidence that Facebook’s culture is unethical, though just one senior executive in the right place can poison the well.”

“I’d guess that most Facebook employees want to do the right thing and are increasingly uncomfortable with how the proverbial sausage is made,” Lin added.

Copies of internal responses at Facebook published by The Verge website showed many employees were angry or upset over the Bosworth memo but that some defended the executive.

Others said the leaks may suggest Facebook is being targeted by spies or “bad actors” trying to embarrass the company.

Rivers and Tides Can Provide Affordable Power

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While wind turbines and solar cells generate power only when there is wind and sun, most rivers always flow and most ocean shores always experience tidal currents. At a recent energy summit organized by the U.S. Energy Department, a company from Maine displayed an innovative submersible generator that effectively harvests power from shallow rivers and tidal currents. VOA’s George Putic has more.

Despite Setbacks, Automakers Move Forward with Electric and Self-Driving Cars

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A recent fatality involving one of Uber’s self-driving cars may have created uncertainty and doubt regarding the future of autonomous vehicles, but it’s not stopping automakers who say autonomous and self-driving vehicles are here to stay. At the New York International Auto Show this week, autonomous vehicles and electric cars were increasingly front and center as VOA’s Tina Trinh reports.

Uber Avoids Legal Battle With Family of Autonomous Vehicle Victim

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The family of a woman killed by an Uber Technologies Inc self-driving vehicle in Arizona has reached a settlement with the ride services company, ending a potential legal battle over the first fatality caused by an autonomous vehicle.

Cristina Perez Hesano, an attorney with the firm of Bellah Perez in Glendale, Arizona, said “the matter has been resolved” between Uber and the daughter and husband of Elaine Herzberg, 49, who died after being hit by an Uber self-driving SUV while walking across a street in the Phoenix suburb of Tempe earlier this month.

Terms of the settlement were not given. The law firm representing Herzberg’s daughter and husband, whose names were not disclosed, said they would have no further comment on the matter as they considered it resolved.

An Uber spokeswoman declined to comment.

The fallout from the accident could stall the development and testing of self-driving vehicles, designed to eventually perform far better than human drivers and to sharply reduce the number of motor vehicle fatalities that occur each year.

Uber has suspended its testing in the wake of the incident. Toyota Motor Corp and chipmaker Nvidia Corp have also suspended self-driving testing on public roads, as they and others await the results of investigations into the Tempe accident, believed to be the first death of a pedestrian struck by a self-driving vehicle.

Nvidia’s chief executive, Jensen Huang, said Uber does not use the chipmaker’s self-driving platform architecture.

Toyota North America Chief Executive Jim Lentz said the company expects to “soon” resume testing of self-driving vehicles, while warning that the ongoing risks will affect the industry’s progress.

“There will be mistakes from vehicles, from systems, and a hundred or 500 or a thousand people could lose their lives in accidents like we’ve seen in Arizona,” Lentz said Thursday at a Reuters Newsmakers event connected with the New York auto show.

“The big question for government is: How much risk are they willing to take? If you can save net 34,000 lives, are you willing to potentially have 10 or 100 or 500 or 1,000 people die?” he said. “And I think the answer to that today is they are not willing to take that risk – and that’s going to really slow down the adoption of autonomous driving.”

The March 18 fatality near downtown Tempe also presents an unprecedented liability challenge because self-driving vehicles, which are still in the development stage, involve a complex system of hardware and software often made by outside suppliers.

Herzberg was pushing a bicycle while walking across a four-lane road outside a crosswalk when she was struck. Video footage from a dash-mounted camera inside the vehicle, released by Tempe police, showed the SUV traveling along a dark street when the headlights suddenly illuminated Herzberg in front of the SUV.

Other footage showed that in the seconds before the accident, the human safety driver behind the wheel was mostly looking down, not at the road.

Entrepreneur: ‘Anyone Can Play a Role’ in African Innovation

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While working for a big consulting firm in Lagos, Nigeria, Afua Osei repeatedly encountered women who wanted to advance professionally but didn’t know how. They needed guidance and mentoring.

So, Osei and her colleague Yasmin Belo-Osagie started She Leads Africa, a digital media company offering advice, information, training and networking opportunities to help “young African women achieve their professional dreams,” according to the website.

Launched in 2014, it now has an online community of over 300,000 in at least 35 countries in Africa and throughout the diaspora.

“I didn’t plan to be an entrepreneur,” Osei said this month at South by Southwest (SXSW), an annual festival of music, film and tech innovation. 

Anyone can be an innovator, Osei said in an interview, after co-hosting a meetup on starting and investing in African businesses. “You don’t have to look a certain way. It’s not just for one type of person. Anybody can play a role, and there is so much work to be done.”

​Opportunities in Africa

The Ghana-born entrepreneur — who grew up in metropolitan Washington, D.C., and once worked for first lady Michelle Obama — has lived in Nigeria for roughly five years. From there, she sees “so many opportunities and potentials in Africa to innovate and help improve people’s lives.”

The continent has some fast-growing economies — including Nigeria, Ghana and Ethiopia — and the world’s fastest-growing population. With more than 1.2 billion people, it’s projected to top 2.2 billion by 2050. At least 26 African countries are likely to double their current populations by then, the United Nations reports. 

Africa also holds challenges for entrepreneurs, from finding funding to untangling bureaucratic red tape, Osei acknowledged. “Dealing with polices and governments can be hard. Also, distributions: How can I get a product that I made in Lagos out here to Austin?”

But, Osei insisted, “Every single challenge and opportunity also presents a space for an innovator and entrepreneur to solve that problem.”

Accelerator gives edge

She Leads Africa deals with problem-solving. In its first year, the company started the SLA Accelerator, a three-month development program to assist female-led startups in Nigeria. It gives entrepreneurs business training and opportunities to meet potential investors.

Entrepreneur Cherae Robinson won a spot in the accelerator program’s first year — and $10,000 in seed money to start a specialty travel company. Now called Tastemakers Africa, it has a mobile app to help users “find and buy hip experiences on the continent.”  

The mentorship “provided a wealth of knowledge I did not have,” said Robinson, a 33-year-old New York native living in Johannesburg, South Africa. “I was a few months into developing the model. She Leads Africa helped us not only refine the model, but it continues to be a source I can tap into. They continue to support the entrepreneurs in their network.”

She Leads Africa recently began working with a New York-based Ghanaian-German designer and fashion blogger who goes by the single name Kukua. She started africaboutik, an online store of modern African designs.

“At Africa-themed events in NYC [New York City], I see a lot of so-called ‘Made in Africa’ items that are 100 percent made in Beijing,” Kukua wrote in an Instagram post. With SLA’s help, she’s identifying new textiles and designers in Africa to change the fashion narrative.

​Navigating rules, regulations

At several SXSW Africa-focused events, Osei was asked how entrepreneurs could navigate complicated government regulations and licensing requirements. She suggested finding key government personnel who understand technology and want to help new businesses.  

“It is important for technology leaders to take the lead and be innovative in the way we communicate to government, because they [government staff] are learning as much as we are,” Osei told VOA.

Osei and Belo-Osagie are learning through She Leads Africa, and their efforts have drawn recognition. Forbes magazine named them among “the 20 Youngest Power Women in Africa” in 2014. 

They don’t plan to slow down, Osei said, noting their goal is at least 1 million subscribers for their website. As the site says, it’s for “the ladies who want to build million-dollar companies, lead corporate organizations and crush it as leaders.”

Adobe New Service Aims to Follow Users Across Multiple Devices

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Visiting Subway’s website on a personal computer might not seem to have anything to do with checking the NFL’s app on a phone. But these discrete activities are the foundation for a new service to help marketers follow you around.

Adobe, a company better known for Photoshop and PDF files, says the new initiative announced Wednesday will help companies offer more personalized experiences and make ads less annoying by filtering out products and services you have already bought or will never buy.

But it comes amid heightened privacy sensitivities after reports that Facebook allowed a political consulting firm to harvest data on millions of Facebook users to influence elections.

And Adobe’s initiative underscores the role data plays in helping companies make money. Many of the initial uses are for better ad targeting.

Adobe says no personal data is being exchanged among the 60 or so companies that have joined its Device Co-op initiative already. These include such well-known brands as Allstate, Lenovo, Intel, Barnes & Noble, Subaru, Subway, Sprint, the NFL and the Food Network. Adobe says the program links about 300 million consumers across nearly 2 billion devices in the U.S. and Canada.

Under the initiative, Adobe can tell you’re the same person on a home PC, a work laptop, a phone and a tablet by analyzing past sign-ins with member companies. With that knowledge, Sprint would know Bob is already a customer when he visits from a new device. Bob wouldn’t get a promotion to switch from another carrier, but might get instead a phone upgrade offer. Or if Mary has declared herself a Giants fan on the NFL’s app, she might see ads with Giants banners when visiting NFL.com from a laptop for the first time.

All this might feel creepy, but such cross-device tracking is already commonly done by matching attributes such as devices that from the same internet location, or IP address. Consumers typically have little control over it.

Adobe says it will give consumers a chance to opt out of such tracking. And it’s breaking industry practices in a few ways. Adobe says it will honor opt-out requests for all participating companies and for all devices at once. It’s more typical for such setups to require people do so one by one. All companies in the initiative are listed on Adobe’s website, a break from some companies’ practice of referring only to unspecified partners.

“We’re doing everything we can not letting brands hide themselves,” Adobe executive Amit Ahuja said.

But in taking an opt-out approach, which is common in the industry, Adobe assumes that users consent. And it places the burden on consumers to learn about this initiative and to figure out how they can opt out of it.

3 Facebook Messenger App Users File Lawsuit Over Privacy

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Three Facebook Messenger app users have filed a lawsuit claiming the social network violated their privacy by collecting logs of their phone calls and text messages.

The suit, filed Tuesday in federal court in northern California, comes as Facebook faces scrutiny over privacy concerns.

Facebook acknowledged on Sunday that it began uploading call and text logs from phones running Google’s Android system in 2015. Facebook added that only users who gave appropriate permission were affected, that it didn’t collect the contents of messages or calls, and that users can opt out of the data collection and have the stored logs deleted by changing their app settings.

The suit seeks class-action status.

A message seeking comment from Facebook on Wednesday was not immediately returned.