Day: May 15, 2019

Lawmakers Seek Probe on US Hacking Services Sold Globally

U.S. lawmakers are pushing legislation that would force the State Department to report what it is doing to control the spread of U.S. hacking tools around the world.

A bill passed in a House of Representatives’ appropriations subcommittee on Tuesday said Congress is “concerned” about the State Department’s ability to supervise U.S. companies that sell offensive cybersecurity products and know-how to other countries.

The proposed legislation, released on Wednesday, would direct the State Department to report to Congress how it decides whether to approve the sale of cyber capabilities abroad and to disclose any action it has taken to punish companies for violating its policies in the past year.

National security experts have grown increasingly concerned about the proliferation of U.S. hacking tools and technology.

The legislation follows a Reuters report in January which showed a U.S. defense contractor provided staff to a United Arab Emirates hacking unit called Project Raven. The UAE program utilized former U.S. intelligence operatives to target militants, human rights activists and journalists.

State Department officials granted permission to the U.S. contractor, Maryland-based CyberPoint International, to assist an Emirate intelligence agency in surveillance operations, but it is unclear how much they knew about its activities in the UAE.

Under U.S. law, companies selling cyber offensive products or services to foreign governments must first obtain permission from the State Department.The new measure was added to a State Department spending bill by Dutch Ruppersberger, a Democrat from Maryland and member of the House Appropriations Committee.

Ruppersberger said in an emailed statement he had been “particularly troubled by recent media reports” about the State Department’s approval process for the sale of cyberweapons and services.

CyberPoint’s Chief Executive Officer Karl Gumtow did not respond to a request for comment. He previously told Reuters that to his knowledge, CyberPoint employees never conducted hacking operations and always complied with U.S. laws.

The State Department has declined to comment on CyberPoint, but said in an emailed statement on Wednesday that it is “firmly committed to the robust and smart regulation of defense articles and services export” and before granting export licenses it weighs “political, military, economic, human rights, and arms control considerations.”

Robert Chesney, a national security law professor at the University of Texas, said the Reuters report raised an alarm over how Washington supervises the export of U.S. cyber capabilities.

“The Project Raven (story) perfectly well documents that there is reason to be concerned and it is Congress’ job to get to the bottom of it,” he said.

The bill is expected to be voted on by the full appropriations committee in the coming weeks before going onto the full House.

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Mobile App Promises to Detect Child’s Ear Infections Without Doctor Visit

A team at the University of Washington has invented a smartphone app that, when used with a paper funnel, is able to detect ear infections in children, helping parents decide whether a trip to the doctor is warranted.

The app, which was described in the journal Science Transnational Medicine on Wednesday, plays a sound akin to a bird chirp into a child’s ear canal via a simple funnel the parents put together.

It plays for 1.2 seconds and then uses the phone’s mic to listen in: If fluids or pus have accumulated behind the eardrum, in the middle ear, the sound pattern of the returned echo will indicate an infection.

“The way to think about it is almost like a wine glass,” said Shyam Gollakota, head of the lab that developed the project.

“And if you tap on the wine glass, you’re going to get a different sound depending on the level of liquid in the wine glass.”

It had a success rate of 85 percent when tested on around a hundred cases and, according to Gollakota, is more accurate than a visual inspection by a doctor.

If an infection is detected, parents will need to go to a doctor anyway for confirmation and to get a prescription. 

Gollakota likened its utility to that of a thermometer, which helps people decide whether a visit to a doctor is appropriate.

Other apps

The ear infection app is just one of several ideas being developed by the lab at the intersection of mobile technology and health.

The goal is to resolve some of the biggest health issues that people face today at lower costs.

Gollakota’s team has also built another application to detect sleep apnea, and another that warns the relatives or friends of a person taking opioids if they appear to be overdosing.

He hopes to obtain regulatory approval for the ear infection app by the end of the year and have it available in the market by early 2020.

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Costs Mounting in US From Trump’s Tariff Fight With China   

The costs seem to be mounting in the U.S. from President Donald Trump’s tit-for-tat trade tariff war with China, both for farmers whose sales of crops to China have been cut and U.S. consumers paying higher prices for imported Chinese products.

The government said Wednesday that to date it has paid out more than $8.5 billion to American farmers to offset their loss of sales to China and other trading partners because of foreign tariffs imposed by Beijing and other governments.​

​WATCH: Consumers Start to Feel Pinch From US, China Trade Standoff

Trump last year pledged up to $12 billion in aid to farmers — chiefly soybean, wheat and corn growers, and those who raise pigs. Trump says he could ask Congress for another $15 billion if U.S. farmers continue to be hurt by China’s tariffs of as much as 25%  on U.S. agricultural imports.

The U.S. had been shipping $12 billion worth of soybeans a year to China, but Beijing’s imposition of the tariff severely cut down on the U.S. exports as China bought the beans from other countries.

Trump said Tuesday on Twitter, “Our great Patriot Farmers will be one of the biggest beneficiaries of what is happening now. Hopefully China will do us the honor of continuing to buy our great farm product, the best, but if not your Country will be making up the difference based on a very high China buy. This money will come from the massive Tariffs being paid to the United States for allowing China, and others, to do business with us. The Farmers have been ‘forgotten’ for many years. Their time is now!”

White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow acknowledged to a television interviewer last weekend that “to some extent” U.S. consumers will bear the brunt of higher costs on Chinese goods after Trump’s tariffs have been levied on the imported goods.

Trade Partnership Worldwide, a Washington economic consulting firm, estimates in a new study the typical American family of four people would pay $2,300 more annually for goods and services if Trump imposes a 25% tariff on all Chinese imports, as he says he is considering.

Such higher tariffs would hit an array of Chinese-produced consumer goods — clothing, children’s toys, sports equipment, shoes and consumer electronics — that are widely bought by Americans.

If that does not happen, but the existing U.S. tariffs remain in place, the research group says the average U.S. family would pay $770 in higher costs each year.

The U.S. imported almost $540 billion in Chinese goods in 2018, while the U.S. exported $120 billion, a trade imbalance that Trump is seeking to even out with imposition of the tariffs. The U.S. exported almost $59 billion in services to China, while importing only $18 billion, but services are not directly affected by tariffs.

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China Fully Blocks All Versions of Wikipedia

Beijing has broadened its block of online encyclopedia Wikipedia to include all language editions, an internet censorship research group reported just weeks ahead of China’s most politically explosive anniversary.

According to a report by the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI), China started blocking all language editions of Wikipedia last month.

Previously, most editions of Wikipedia — besides the Chinese language version, which was reportedly blocked in 2015 — were available, OONI said in their report.

AFP could not open any of Wikipedia’s versions in China on Wednesday.

“At the end of the day, the content that really matters is Chinese-language content,” said Charlie Smith, the pseudonym of one of the co-founders of Greatfire.org, which tracks online censorship in China.

“Blocking access to all language versions of Wikipedia for internet users in China is just symbolic,” he told AFP. “It symbolises the fear that the Chinese authorities have of the truth.”

Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit organisation that operates Wikipedia, said it had not received any notices explaining the latest block.

According to the organisation, Wikipedia has been blocked intermittently in China since 2004.

“With the expansion of this block, millions of readers and volunteer editors, writers, academics, and researchers within China cannot access this resource or share their knowledge and achievements with the world,” Samantha Lien, communications manager at Wikimedia Foundation, told AFP over email.

“When one country, region, or culture cannot join the global conversation on Wikipedia, the entire world is poorer,” she said.

China’s online censorship apparatus — dubbed the “Great Firewall” — blocks a large number of foreign sites in the country, such as Google, Facebook, VOA, and The New York Times.

Topics that are deemed too “sensitive” are also scrubbed, such as the 1989 crackdown on Tiananmen pro-democracy protesters which will mark its 30th anniversary on June 4.

The expanded block of Wikipedia comes as Chinese authorities under Chinese President Xi Jinping ramp up online controls and crack down on Great Firewall circumvention tools, such as virtual private network (VPN) software.

In November, China’s cyberspace authority said it had “cleaned up” 9,800 accounts on Chinese social media platforms like messaging app WeChat and the Twitter-like Weibo that it accused of spreading “politically harmful” information and rumours.

Chinese Twitter users have also told AFP that they have experienced intimidation from local authorities — and even detention — for their tweets.

The latest move to block all versions of Wikipedia could be linked to online translation tools, which make it easy for Chinese users to read anything on Wikipedia, Smith said.

Images can also be considered taboo, he said.

“A picture is worth a thousand words, and there is no dearth of Tiananmen-related imagery on the Wikipedia website,” Smith added.

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Ford: More Lincolns to Be Built for Chinese Market Locally

Ford Motor Co plans to start production of new luxury Lincoln models in China for that market as they are launched, starting with the new Corsair later this year, to benefit from lower costs and avoid the risk of tariffs, a top executive said Monday.

“It’s a huge, huge opportunity for Lincoln because we see China as ground zero for Lincoln given the size of the market and how well the brand has been received,” Chief Financial Officer Bob Shanks said at a Goldman Sachs conference in New York.

Ford has lower levels of localized production than rivals General Motors Co or Volkswagen AG, who make more vehicles in China for Chinese consumers, benefiting from lower labor and material costs, and avoiding tariffs in the burgeoning trade war between the United States and China.

Shanks said all new Lincoln models, with the exception of the Navigator assembled in Louisville, Kentucky, will also be produced in China.

He declined to say how much Ford will save through localized production.

Ford has been struggling to revive sales in China, the automaker’s second-biggest market. Ford sales slumped 37 percent in 2018, after a 6 percent decline in 2017.

Shanks said that all of the problems the automaker experienced in China last year were related to the Ford brand, not Lincoln, which is popular with Chinese customers.

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Japanese Space Startup Aims to Compete With US Rivals

A Japanese startup that launched a rocket into space earlier this month plans to provide low-cost rocket services and compete with American rivals such as SpaceX, its founder said Wednesday.

Interstellar Technology Inc. founder Takafumi Horie said a low-cost rocket business in Japan is well-positioned to accommodate scientific and commercial needs in Asia. While Japan’s government-led space programs have demonstrated top-level technology, he said the country has fallen behind commercially due to high costs.

“In Japan, space programs have been largely government-funded and they solely focused on developing rockets using the best and newest technologies, which means they are expensive,” Horie told reporters in Tokyo. “As a private company, we can focus on the minimum level of technology needed to go to space, which is our advantage. We can transport more goods and people to space by slashing costs.”

Horie said his company’s low-cost MOMO-3 rocket is the way to create a competitive space business in Japan.

During its May 4 flight, the unmanned MOMO-3 rocket reached 113.4 kilometers (70 miles) in altitude before falling into the Pacific Ocean. The cost to launch the MOMO-3 was about one-tenth of the launch cost of Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, the country’s space agency, according to Interstellar CEO Takahiro Inagawa.

Horie said his company plans to launch its first orbital rocket — the ZERO — within the next few years and then it would technologically be on par with competitors such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and New Zealand engineer Peter Beck’s Rocket Lab.

The two-stage ZERO would be twice as long and much heavier than the compact MOMO-3, which is about 10 meters (32 feet) long and 50 centimeters (1.5 feet) in diameter and weighs about 1 ton. It would be able to send satellites into orbit or carry payloads for scientific purposes.

Development of a low-cost commercial rocket is part of a growing international trend in the space business led by the U.S. and aggressively followed by China and others.

At home, Horie could face competition from space subsidiaries of major companies such as Canon and IHI, which have expertise from working with the government’s space agency.

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World Leaders, Tech Bosses Work on Stemming Online Violence

Livestreaming terrorist attacks. Using social media to spread deadly ideas. Manipulating banned videos to keep sharing them online.

World leaders and tech bosses are meeting Wednesday in Paris to find ways to stop all this. They’re working all day on the “Christchurch Appeal,” named after the New Zealand city where 51 people were killed in a March attack on mosques.

 

The attacker streamed the killing live on Facebook, which announced tougher livestreaming policies on the eve of the meetings “to limit our services from being used to cause harm or spread hate.”

 

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern welcomed Facebook’s pledge to restrict some users from Facebook Live and invest in research to stay ahead of users’ attempts to avoid detection.

 

She said she herself inadvertently saw the Christchurch attacker’s video when it played automatically in her Facebook feed.

 

“There is a lot more work to do, but I am pleased Facebook has taken additional steps today… and look forward to a long-term collaboration to make social media safer,” she said in a statement.

 

Facebook said it’s tightening up the rules for its livestreaming service with a “one strike” policy applied to a broader range of offenses. Any activity on Facebook that violates the social network’s most serious policies, such as sharing a terrorist group’s statement without providing context, will result in the user immediately being blocked from Facebook Live for as long as 30 days.

 

Previously, the company took down posts that breached its community standards but only blocked users after repeated offenses.

 

The tougher restrictions will be gradually extended to other areas of the platform, starting with preventing users from creating Facebook ads.

 

Facebook said it’s also investing $7.5 million in new research partnerships to improve image and video analysis technology aimed at finding content manipulated through editing to avoid detection by its automated systems — a problem the company encountered following the Christchurch shooting.

 

“Tackling these threats also requires technical innovation to stay ahead of the type of adversarial media manipulation we saw after Christchurch,” Facebook’s vice president of integrity, Guy Rosen, said in a blog post.

 

Ardern is playing a central role in the Paris meetings, which she called a significant “starting point” for changes in government and tech industry policy.

 

Twitter, Google, Microsoft and several other companies are also taking part, along with the leaders of Britain, France, Canada, Ireland, Senegal, Indonesia, Jordan and the European Union.

 

Officials at Facebook said they support the idea of the Christchurch appeal, but that details need to be worked out that are acceptable for all parties. Free speech advocates and some in the tech industry bristle at new restrictions and argue that violent extremism is a societal problem that the tech world can’t solve.

 

Ardern and the host, French President Emmanuel Macron, insist that it must involve joint efforts between governments and tech giants. France has been hit by repeated Islamic extremist attacks by groups who recruited and shared violent images on social networks.

 

Speaking to reporters ahead of the meetings, Ardern said, “There will be of course those who will be pushing to make sure that they maintain the commercial sensitivity. We don’t need to know their trade secrets, but we do need to know what the impacts might be on our societies around algorithm use.”

 

She stressed the importance of tackling “coded language” that extremists use to avoid detection.

 

Before the Christchurch attack, she said, governments took a “traditional approach to terrorism that would not necessarily have picked up the form of terrorism that New Zealand experienced on the 15th of March, and that was white supremacy.”

 

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Facebook Limits Livestreaming Ahead of Tech Summit in Paris

Facebook toughened its livestreaming policies Wednesday as it prepared to huddle with world leaders and other tech CEOs in Paris to find ways to keep social media from being used to spread hate, organize extremist groups and broadcast terror attacks.

Facebook’s move came hours before its executives would face the prime minister of New Zealand, where an attacker killed 51 people in March — and livestreamed parts of it on Facebook.

 

The CEOs and world leaders will try to agree on guidelines they will call the “Christchurch Call,” named after the New Zealand city where the attack on a mosque took place.

 

Facebook said it’s tightening up the rules for its livestreaming service with a “one strike” policy applied to a broader range of offenses. Any activity on the social network that violates its policies, such as sharing a terrorist group’s statement without providing context, will result in the user immediately being temporarily blocked. The most serious offenses will result in a permanent ban.

 

Previously, the company took down posts that breached its community standards but only blocked users after repeated offenses.

 

The tougher restrictions will be gradually extended to other areas of the platform, starting with preventing users from creating Facebook ads.

 

Facebook said it’s also investing $7.5 million in new research partnerships to improve image and video analysis technology aimed at finding content manipulated through editing to avoid detection by its automated systems — a problem the company encountered following the Christchurch shooting.

 

“Tackling these threats also requires technical innovation to stay ahead of the type of adversarial media manipulation we saw after Christchurch,” Facebook’s vice president of integrity, Guy Rosen, said in a blog post.

 

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern welcomed Facebook’s pledge. She said she herself inadvertently saw the Christchurch attacker’s video when it played automatically in her Facebook feed.

 

“There is a lot more work to do, but I am pleased Facebook has taken additional steps today… and look forward to a long-term collaboration to make social media safer,” she said in a statement.

 

Ardern is playing a central role in the Paris meetings, which she called a significant “starting point” for changes in government and tech industry policy.

 

Twitter, Google, Microsoft and several other companies are also taking part, along with the leaders of Britain, France, Canada, Ireland, Senegal, Indonesia, Jordan and the European Union.

 

Officials at Facebook said they support the idea of the Christchurch appeal, but that details need to be worked out that are acceptable for all parties. Free speech advocates and some in the tech industry bristle at new restrictions and argue that violent extremism is a societal problem that the tech world can’t solve.

 

Ardern and the host, French President Emmanuel Macron, insist that it must involve joint efforts between governments and tech giants. France has been hit by repeated Islamic extremist attacks by groups who recruited and shared violent images on social networks.

 

Speaking to reporters ahead of the meetings, Ardern said, “There will be of course those who will be pushing to make sure that they maintain the commercial sensitivity. We don’t need to know their trade secrets, but we do need to know what the impacts might be on our societies around algorithm use.”

 

She stressed the importance of tackling “coded language” that extremists use to avoid detection.

 

Before the Christchurch attack, she said, governments took a “traditional approach to terrorism that would not necessarily have picked up the form of terrorism that New Zealand experienced on the 15th of March, and that was white supremacy.”

 

 

 

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Alabama Legislature Approves Ban on Nearly All Abortions

Lawmakers in the southeastern U.S. state of Alabama passed a near-total ban on abortion Tuesday, sparking a legal fight over a measure that could become the nation’s most stringent abortion law.

The Planned Parenthood Federation of America vowed Wednesday to challenge the legislation in court if Republican Alabama Governor Kay Ivey signs it into law. “We have no choice,” said president Leana Wen. “We are talking about the rights for generations to come.” 

The Republican-dominated Senate voted 25-6 to make performing an abortion at any stage of pregnancy a felony punishable by up to 99 years or life in prison for the abortion provider. The only exception would be when the woman’s health is at serious risk.

Senators rejected an attempt to add an exception for rape and incest. 

Supporters said the bill is designed to spark litigation that could lead to the U.S. Supreme Court overturning the landmark 1973 decision that legalized abortion. 

“Roe v. Wade has ended the lives of millions of children,” said Alabama Republican Senator Clyde Chambliss. “This bill has the opportunity to save the lives of millions of unborn children.”

A spokeswoman for Ivey said she intends to withhold comment until she has had a chance to thoroughly review the final version of the bill. 

Action by other states

Emboldened by the Supreme Court’s new conservative justices, Kentucky, Mississippi, Ohio and Georgia have approved bans on abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detected, which can occur in about the sixth week of pregnancy. And abortion opponents in several other states are seeking to challenge abortion access.

“This is a plan by the Republican Party, make no mistake, to overturn Roe v. Wade and turn back the clock on women’s reproductive civil and human rights,” U.S. Senator and Democratic presidential hopeful Kirsten Gillibrand said in an interview Wednesday on CNN.

Another Democratic presidential candidate, former vice president Joe Biden, said the current law should not be declared unconstitutional.

“Roe v. Wade is settled law and should not be overturned,” Biden said. “The choice should remain between a woman and her doctor.”

A Pew Research Center poll conducted late last year found that 58 percent of those surveyed said abortion should be legal in almost all cases, while 37 percent said it should be unlawful.

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Trade War Sowing Seeds of Doubt With US Farmers

The typical routines of life on a family farm carry a heavier burden these days for Pam Johnson.

“First thing I do is make a pot of coffee,” she told VOA in an interview in one of the cavernous sheds that contain her green and yellow John Deere farming equipment. Once she has that coffee, she “(goes) to the computer and look at what grain prices have done overnight and usually do a gut clutch, because they’ve been going down. They’re at five-month lows.”

Driven there in part by retaliatory tariffs imposed by one of the largest importers of U.S. soybeans – China.

Johnson and her husband are proud sixth-generation farmers but say they are dealing with some of the harshest economic conditions of their lives.

“We’re all tightening our belts,” she says.

The ongoing trade dispute between the United States and China, initially sparked by U.S. tariffs on imported aluminum and steel, is now impacting most farms across the country. 

As U.S. farmers head to the fields to plant this spring, they are facing a potential sixth consecutive year of declining farm income, because of international tariffs that have depressed prices for their grain products as well as increased costs for the materials to produce and store them.

​Short-term concern over U.S. trade policy is turning into long-term fear for farmers, who face uncertainty over congressional support for a new trade agreement with Canada and Mexico, and the impact of China’s retaliatory tariffs on U.S. grain exports. 

“We hear it may be out to 2025 before we see some of those markets come back to us, if they ever do,” Johnson said. “I think that’s the thing that hurts the most is, what is the damage being done that is irreparable?”

It is damage her son Ben Johnson, the seventh generation in the family business, may eventually have to deal with.

“All farms are going to suffer because of this,” he explained. “There’s a difference between ‘making it’ and flourishing.”

The Johnsons feel there is a growing disconnect between farmers and the rest of the American workforce, fueled by politicians increasingly hostile to trade policies the agricultural industry depends on.

“We need as much trade as we can and to be openly trading with as many places as we can,” Ben Johnson says. “It’s no different to any business – you want as many customers as you can. And to intentionally discourage them is frustrating.”

Neither Johnson nor his mother voted for President Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election, largely because if his trade positions, they say. 

​Nothing that has happened since the election has eased Pam Johnson’s concerns.

“Saying that ‘I’m a tariff man’ and that ‘trade wars are easy to win’ concerns me,” she says, quoting comments the president has made. “There are still a lot of farmers who still support President Trump. I think there are more seeds of doubt being planted as we look forward into 2019 and no resolution and the light at the end of the tunnel seems to be getting dimmer about getting these things done.”

Politics aside, Pam Johnson admits success for her family business is closely tied to U.S. trade policy.

“I don’t want to see President Trump fail in these trade endeavors. We all need him to make this work so that all of us win,” she says.

A win her son Ben says can’t come soon enough.

“We’ve already missed the peak soybean export season, so in a way, it’s already too late… I guess it’s never too late, but before now would have been great,” he says.

While negotiations continue, the Trump administration says it is actively working on a new financial assistance program to help farmers weather the continuing trade storm.

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