Scientists Coax Plastic-Munching Enzyme to Eat Faster

Recently, the world was stunned to learn that an island of mostly plastic trash, floating in the Pacific Ocean, grew to the size of France, Germany and Spain combined. Because plastics take centuries to decompose, could civilization someday choke in it? Scientists at Britain’s University of Portsmouth say they may have found a way to speed up the decomposition of plastics. VOA’s George Putic reports.


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Zuckerberg Under Pressure to Face EU Lawmakers Over Data Scandal

Facebook Inc’s Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg came under pressure from EU lawmakers on Wednesday to come to Europe and shed light on the data breach involving Cambridge Analytica that affected nearly three million Europeans.

The world’s largest social network is under fire worldwide after information about nearly 87 million users wrongly ended up in the hands of the British political consultancy, a firm hired by Donald Trump for his 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign.

European Parliament President Antonio Tajani last week repeated his request to Zuckerberg to appear before the assembly, saying that sending a junior executive would not suffice.

EU Justice Commissioner Vera Jourova, who recently spoke to Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, said Zuckerberg should heed the lawmakers’ call.

“This case is too important to treat as business as usual,” Jourova told an assembly of lawmakers.

“I advised Sheryl Sandberg that Zuckerberg should accept the invitation from the European Parliament. (EU digital chief Andrius) Ansip refers to the invitation as a measure of rebuilding trust,” she said.

Facebook did not respond to a request for comment. Zuckerberg fielded 10 hours of questions over two days from nearly 100 U.S. lawmakers last week and emerged largely unscathed. He will meet Ansip in San Francisco on Tuesday.

Another European lawmaker Sophia in’t Veld echoed the call from her colleagues, saying that the Facebook CEO should do them the same courtesy.

“I think Zuckerberg would be well advised to appear at the Parliament out of respect for Europeans,” she said.

Lawmaker Viviane Reding, the architect of the EU’s landmark privacy law which will come into effect on May 25, giving Europeans more control over their online data, said the right laws would bring back trust among users.

 


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Iran Bans Government Bodies from Using Foreign Message Apps

Iran’s presidency has banned all government bodies from using foreign-based messaging apps to communicate with citizens, state media reported Wednesday, after economic protests organized through such apps shook the country earlier this year.

Chief among those apps is Telegram, used by over 40 million Iranians for everything from benign conversations to commerce and political campaigning. Iranians using Telegram, which describes itself as an encrypted message service, helped spread the word about the protests in December and January.

Telegram channels run on behalf of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri were already shut down Wednesday.

A report on the website of Iran’s state television broadcaster said the ban affected all public institutions. It was not clear if the ban applied to civil servants outside of work hours. The report did not elaborate on penalties for violating the ban.

Last month, officials said Iran would block Telegram for reasons of national security in response to the protests, which saw 25 people killed and nearly 5,000 reportedly arrested.

Authorities temporarily shut down Telegram during the protests, though many continued to access it through proxies and virtual private networks.

The move against Telegram suggests Iran may try to introduce its own government-approved, or “halal,” version of the messaging app, something long demanded by hard-liners. Already, Iran heavily restricts internet access and blocks social media websites like Facebook and Twitter.

Iran has said foreign messaging apps can get licenses from authorities to operate if they transfer their databases into the country. Privacy experts worry that could more easily expose users’ private communications to government spying.

Khamenei, however, has stressed that invading people’s privacy is religiously forbidden.

Iran’s move also comes after a Russian court on Friday ordered Telegram to be blocked after the company refused to share its encryption data with authorities.

Telegram CEO Pavel Durov responded to the ruling by writing on Twitter: “Privacy is not for sale, and human rights should not be compromised out of fear or greed.”


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Russia Admits to Blocking Millions of IP Addresses

The chief of the Russian communications watchdog acknowledged Wednesday that millions of unrelated IP addresses have been frozen in a so-far futile attempt to block a popular messaging app.

Telegram, the messaging app that was ordered to be blocked last week, was still available to users in Russia despite authorities’ frantic attempts to hit it by blocking other services.

The row erupted after Telegram, which was developed by Russian entrepreneur Pavel Durov, refused to hand its encryption keys to the intelligence agencies. The Russian government insists it needs them to pre-empt extremist attacks but Telegram dismissed the request as a breach of privacy.

Alexander Zharov, chief of the Federal Communications Agency, said in an interview with the Izvestia daily published Wednesday that Russia is blocking 18 networks that are used by Amazon and Google and which host sites that they believe Telegram is using to circumvent the ban.

Countless Russian businesses – from online language schools to car dealerships – reported that their web services were down because of the communication watchdog’s moves to bloc networks.

Internet experts estimate that Russian authorities have blocked about 16 million IP addresses since Monday, affecting millions of Russian users and businesses.

In the interview, Zharov admitted that the authorities have been helplessly trying to block Telegram and had to shut down entire networks, some of which have over half a million IP addresses that are used by unrelated, “law-abiding companies,” he said.

Russia’s leading daily Vedomosti in Wednesday’s editorial likened the communications watchdog’s battle against Telegram, affecting millions of users of other web-services, to warfare.

“The large-scale indiscriminate blocking of foreign IP addresses in Russia in order to close the access to the messaging app Telegram is unprecedented and bears resemblance to carpet bombings,” the editorial said.

Zharov also indicated that Facebook could be the next target for the government if it refuses to comply with Russian law.

Authorities previously insisted that Facebook store its Russian users’ data in Russia but has not gone through with its threats to block Facebook if it refuses to comply.

Zharov said authorities will check before the end of the year if the company is complying with its demands and warned that if it does not, “then, obviously, the issue of blocking will arise.”

Elsewhere in Moscow, a court on Wednesday sentenced a member of the punk collective Pussy Riot, who spent nearly two years in prison for a protest in Russia’s main cathedral, to 100 hours of community work for a protest against the Telegram blocking. Maria Alekhina and a dozen activists were throwing paper planes outside the communications watchdog’s office on Monday.


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Training Surgeons to Perform Robotic Surgery

Since 2000, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave approval to the world’s first robotic surgical system, almost 4,000 of these sophisticated machines have been deployed in operating suites around the world. Recognizing that the proficiency of the surgeons who use them can be subjective, a group of surgeons at the University of Southern California, in cooperation with the manufacturer Intuitive Research, is developing a system for more objective evaluation. VOA’s George Putic reports.


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Cambridge Analytica ex-CEO Refuses to Testify in UK

Cambridge Analytica’s ex-CEO, Alexander Nix, has refused to testify before the U.K. Parliament’s media committee, citing British authorities’ investigation into his former company’s alleged misuse of data from millions of Facebook accounts in political campaigns.

Committee Chairman Damian Collins announced Nix’s decision a day before his scheduled appearance but flatly rejected the notion that he should be let off the hook, saying Nix hasn’t been charged with a crime and there are no active legal proceedings against him.

“There is therefore no legal reason why Mr. Nix cannot appear,” Collins said in a statement. “The committee is minded to issue a formal summons for him to appear on a named day in the very near future.”

Nix gave evidence to the committee in February, but was recalled after former Cambridge Analytica staffer Christopher Wylie sparked a global debate over electronic privacy when he alleged the company used data from millions of Facebook accounts to help U.S. President Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign. Wylie worked on Cambridge Analytica’s “information operations” in 2014 and 2015.

Wylie has also said the official campaign backing Britain’s exit from the European Union had access to the Facebook data.

Cambridge Analytica has previously said that none of the Facebook data it acquired from an academic researcher was used in the Trump campaign. The company also says it did no paid or unpaid work on the Brexit campaign. The company did not respond to requests for comment from The Associated Press on Tuesday.

The Information Commissioner’s Office said Tuesday that it had written to Nix to “invite him” to be interviewed by investigators. The office is investigating Facebook and 30 other organizations over their use of data and analytics.

“Our investigation is looking at whether criminal and civil offences have been committed under the Data Protection Act,” the office said in a statement.

Nix’s refusal to appear comes as the seriousness of the British inquiry becomes more evident.

Facebook has said it directed Cambridge Analytica to delete all of the data harvested from user accounts as soon as it learned of the problem.

But former Cambridge Analytica business development director Brittany Kaiser testified Tuesday that the U.S. tech giant didn’t really try to verify Cambridge Analytica’s assurances that it had done so.

“I find it incredibly irresponsible that a company with as much money as Facebook … had no due diligence mechanisms in place for protecting the data of U.K. citizens, U.S. citizens or their users in general,” she said.

Kaiser suggested that the number of individuals whose Facebook data was misused could be far higher than the 87 million acknowledged by the Silicon Valley giant.

In an atmosphere where data abuse was rife, Kaiser told lawmakers she believed the leadership of the Leave.EU campaign had combined data from members of the U.K. Independence Party and customers from two insurance companies, Eldon Insurance and GoSkippy Insurance. The data was then sent the University of Mississippi for analysis.

“If the personal data of U.K. citizens who just wanted to buy car insurance was used by GoSkippy and Eldon Insurance for political purposes, as may have been the case, people clearly did not opt in for their data to be used in this way by Leave.EU,” she said in written testimony to the committee.

Leave.EU’s communications director, Andy Wigmore, called Kaiser’s statements a “litany of lies.”

It is how the data was used that alarms some members of the committee and has captured the attention of the public.

An expert on propaganda told the committee Monday that Cambridge Analytica used techniques developed by the Nazis to help Trump’s presidential campaign, turning Muslims and immigrants into an “artificial enemy” to win support from fearful voters.

University of Essex lecturer Emma Briant, who has for a decade studied the SCL Group – a conglomerate of companies, including Cambridge Analytica – interviewed company founder Nigel Oakes when she was doing research for a book. Oakes compared Trump’s tactics to those of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler in singling out Jews for reprisals.

“Hitler attacked the Jews, because … the people didn’t like the Jews,” he said on tapes of the interview conducted with Briant. “He could just use them to . leverage an artificial enemy. Well that’s exactly what Trump did. He leveraged a Muslim.”


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More Than 100 Parts for NASA’s Orion Capsule to Be 3-D Printed

More than 100 parts for U.S. space agency NASA’s deep-space capsule Orion will be made by 3-D printers, using technology that experts say will eventually become key to efforts to send humans to Mars.

U.S. defense contractor Lockheed Martin, 3-D printing specialist Stratasys, and engineering firm PADT have developed the parts using new materials that can withstand the extreme temperatures and chemical exposure of deep-space missions, Stratasys said Tuesday.

“In space, for instance, materials will build up a charge. If that was to shock the electronics on a space craft, there could be significant damage,” Scott Sevcik, Vice President Manufacturing Solutions at Stratasys told Reuters.

3-D printing, or additive manufacturing, has been used for making prototypes across a range of industries for many years, but is being increasingly eyed for scale production.

The technology can help make light-weight parts made of plastics more quickly and cheaply than traditional assembly lines that require major investments into equipment.

“But even more significant is that we have more freedom with the design … parts can look more organic, more skeletal,” Sevcik said.

Stratasys’ partner Lockheed Martin said the use of 3-D printing on the Orion project would also pay off at other parts of its business.

“We look to apply benefits across our programs — missile defense, satellites, planetary probes, especially as we create more and more common products,” said Brian Kaplun, additive manufacturing manager at Lockheed Martin Space.

Orion is part of NASA’s follow-up program to the now-retired space shuttles that will allow astronauts to travel beyond the International Space Station, which flies about 260 miles (420 km) above Earth.

The agency’s European counterpart, ESA, has suggested that moon rock and Mars dust could be used to 3-D print structures and tools, which could significantly reduce the cost of future space missions because less material would need to be brought along from Earth.


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US, Global Tech Firms Vow Not to Aid Governments in Cyberattacks

Microsoft, Facebook and more than 30 other global technology companies on Tuesday announced a joint pledge not to assist any government in offensive cyberattacks.

The Cybersecurity Tech Accord, which vows to protect all customers from attacks regardless of geopolitical or criminal motive, follows a year that witnessed an unprecedented level of destructive cyberattacks, including the global WannaCry worm and the devastating NotPetya attack.

“The devastating attacks from the past year demonstrate that cybersecurity is not just about what any single company can do but also about what we can all do together,” Microsoft President Brad Smith said in a statement. “This tech sector accord will help us take a principled path toward more effective steps to work together and defend customers around the world.”

Smith, who helped lead efforts to organize the accord, was expected to discuss the alliance in a speech on Tuesday at the RSA cybersecurity conference in San Francisco.

The accord also promised to establish new formal and informal partnerships within the industry and with security researchers to share threats and coordinate vulnerability disclosures.

The pledge builds on an idea for a so-called Digital Geneva Convention Smith rolled out at least year’s RSA conference, a proposal to create an international body to protect civilians from state-sponsored hacking.

Countries, Smith said then, should develop global rules for cyberattacks similar to those established for armed conflict at the 1949 Geneva Convention that followed World War Two.

In addition to Microsoft and Facebook, 32 other companies signed the pledge, including Cisco, Juniper Networks, Oracle, Nokia, SAP, Dell and cybersecurity firms Symantec, FireEye and Trend Micro.

The list of companies does not include any from Russia, China, Iran or North Korea, widely viewed as the most active in launching destructive cyberattacks against their foes.

Major U.S. technology companies Amazon, Apple, Alphabet and Twitter also did not sign the pledge.


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Tech Firms to Be Forced to Give Police Overseas Data Under EU Proposal

Technology companies such as Google, Microsoft and Facebook will be forced to hand over users’ data to European law enforcement officials even when it is stored on servers outside the bloc, under a law proposed by the EU on Tuesday.

The law would allow European prosecutors to force companies to turn over data such as emails, text messages and pictures stored online in another country, within 10 days or as little as six hours in urgent cases.

The European Union executive says the proposed law, which would apply to data stored inside and outside the bloc, is necessary because current legal procedures between countries to obtain such electronic evidence can drag on for months.

“Electronic evidence is increasingly important in criminal proceedings,” said European Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans.

“We cannot allow criminals and terrorists to exploit modern and electronic communication technologies to hide their criminal actions and evade justice.”

Digital borders are a growing global issue in an era where big companies operate so-called cloud networks of giant data centers, which mean that an individual’s data can reside anywhere.

Technology companies have found themselves torn between protecting consumers’ privacy while cooperating with law enforcement. The political pressure has intensified after Islamist-inspired attacks across Europe in recent years.

The United States recently moved to address the same problem, passing a law making it clear that U.S. judges could issue warrants for data held abroad while giving companies an avenue to object if the request conflicts with foreign law.

Prosecutors and police will have to ask a judge to approve their request for electronic evidence where it concerns more sensitive data, such as the actual content of messages, emails, pictures and videos.

Fraught with complexity

The proposal will apply only in cases where crimes carry a minimum jail sentence of three years. In cases of cyber crime there will be no minimum penalty requirement.

Where companies find themselves in a conflict-of-law situation because the country where data is stored forbids them from handing it over to a foreign authority, they will be able to challenge the seizure request.

However, such extraterritorial rules are fraught with complexity, legal and privacy experts warn.

In the United States, for example, certain companies are prohibited from disclosing information to foreign governments, while in Europe consumers’ data privacy is strictly protected and companies are restricted in how they can transfer data outside the bloc.

“The Commission is proposing dangerous shortcuts to allow national authorities to obtain people’s data directly from companies, basically turning them into judicial authorities,” said Maryant Fernandez Perez, senior policy adviser at campaign group European Digital Rights.

Ultimately, the Commission hopes to start talks with the United States on a deal to help law enforcement authorities to seize evidence held on each other’s territories.

“We always think it’s useful to have an EU-U.S. coordinated approach instead of a French-U.S. approach, a Belgian-U.S. approach because that leads to fragmentation,” a Commission official said.


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Robots Could Be Girls’ Ticket to Future

Eleven-year-old Hayliee Tat traveled two-and-a-half hours with her family for a sneak preview of what the future looks like with robots in it. Their destination: the robotics open house at the University of Southern California (USC). The annual event draws mainly elementary and secondary school students from Los Angeles and beyond to spark their interest in robotics and computer science.

“Not many girls and kids are in robotics,” said Tat, who was introduced to robotics, after a friend invited her to join a team that builds robots and competes with other teams through tasks the machines can perform. 

“To me, this is a great way to meet new people, learn more and just have your creativity flow out,” said Tat. 

Tat, however, is in the minority. There is an imbalance in the U.S. between the small number of computer science college graduates, and the number of available computing jobs, according to a study by global consulting firm Accenture and non-profit group Girls Who Code.

Women make up only a small percentage of people who can compete for these jobs. The National Center for Education Statistics found that in 2015, less than 18 percent of women in the U.S. graduated with a computer science degree.

The University of Southern California is trying to expose young people to robotics and computer science through the open house, where students can tour the research labs.

“We feel that if the kids can actually see the robots, hear the PhD students and the faculty members talk about what their research is and why it’s important, how robots benefit society, we see through experience that the kids get really excited,” said Katie Mills, manager of the robotics open house. She also manages the USC Viterbi School of Engineering’s K-12 STEM (science, technology engineering and math) outreach program called VAST: Viterbi Adopt-a-School, Adopt-a-Teacher.

The aim is to make robotics exciting and relevant so a student will want to learn how to code.

“Coding is like the necessary second language that everybody, especially this generation, is going to need. You know that there’s fewer people, especially women, majoring in computer science in college now than there were 30 years ago? And there are so many jobs,” said Mills. 

Not seeing the creative side of coding and not realizing there are real life applications in computer science may be reasons some women shy away from this degree.

That was the case for Caitlyn Clabaugh, who was studying fine arts and never thought about computer science until she saw how relevant it is to helping people by applying creativity.

“When there is a clear application to a real human usage, it sort of bridges the gap for me. I was interested in the arts. I was interested in all these things, then I found that I could create with computer science,” said Clabaugh, who is now a PhD candidate in computer science.

She researches how social companion robots can help children with autism.

“Definitely focusing on special needs is very special to me. I’ve struggled with dyslexia my entire life,” said Clabaugh.

Another way to attract girls to computer science, said some academics, is by dispelling the myth that coding and computer science are lonely pursuits.

Tat enjoys her robotics team because of the social element in building robots using the toy-building LEGO blocks.

“I personally love LEGO, so I think it was really fun to build LEGO and not only do you build LEGO you can do a lot of other things and it will make you smarter and the next thing you know, you’ll have a lot of friends,” said Tat.

Exposure to robotics and computer science before college is key, but not every school has the resources.

“They don’t maybe have enough robotics equipment or maybe they have teachers that are a little uncomfortable teaching computer science,” said Mills. 

Through its VAST outreach program, the University of Southern California works with area schools, its teachers and students to try and fill the gap, in hopes of attracting more underrepresented students, including girls, to pursue computer science in college.

“It’s like a fire. If you light a spark, it will go on forever,” said Tat.


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