Cyberattacks Increasingly Hobble Pandemic-Weary US Schools

For teachers at a middle school in New Mexico’s largest city, the first inkling of a widespread tech problem came during an early morning staff call.

On the video, there were shout-outs for a new custodian for his hard work, and the typical announcements from administrators and the union rep. But in the chat, there were hints of a looming crisis. Nobody could open attendance records, and everyone was locked out of class rosters and grades.

Albuquerque administrators later confirmed the outage that blocked access to the district’s student database — which also includes emergency contacts and lists of which adults are authorized to pick up which children — was due to a ransomware attack.

“I didn’t realize how important it was until I couldn’t use it,” said Sarah Hager, a Cleveland Middle School art teacher.

Cyberattacks like the one that canceled classes for two days in Albuquerque’s biggest school district have become a growing threat to U.S. schools, with several high-profile incidents reported since last year. And the coronavirus pandemic has compounded their effects: More money has been demanded, and more schools have had to shut down as they scramble to recover data or even manually wipe all laptops.

“Pretty much any way that you cut it, incidents have both been growing more frequent and more significant,” said Doug Levin, director of the K12 Security Information Exchange, a Virginia-based nonprofit that helps schools defend against cybersecurity risk.

Precise data is hard to come by since most schools are not required to publicly report cyberattacks. But experts say public school systems — which often have limited budgets for cybersecurity expertise — have become an inviting target for ransomware gangs.

The pandemic also has forced schools to turn increasingly toward virtual learning, making them more dependent on technology and more vulnerable to cyber-extortion. School systems that have had instruction disrupted include those in Baltimore County and Miami-Dade County, along with districts in New Jersey, Wisconsin and elsewhere.

Levin’s group has tracked well over 1,200 cyber security incidents since 2016 at public school districts across the country. They included 209 ransomware attacks, when hackers lock data up and charge to unlock it; 53 “denial of service” attacks, where attackers sabotage or slow a network by faking server requests; 156 “Zoombombing” incidents, where an unauthorized person intrudes on a video call; and more than 110 phishing attacks, where a deceptive message tricks a user to let a hacker into their network.

Recent attacks also come as schools grapple with multiple other challenges related to the pandemic. Teachers get sick, and there aren’t substitutes to cover them. Where there are strict virus testing protocols, there aren’t always tests or people to give them.

In New York City, an attack this month on third-party software vendor Illuminate Education didn’t result in canceled classes, but teachers across the city couldn’t access grades. Local media reported the outage added to stress for educators already juggling instruction with enforcing COVID-19 protocols and covering for colleagues who were sick or in quarantine.

Albuquerque Superintendent Scott Elder said getting all students and staff online during the pandemic created additional avenues for hackers to access the district’s system. He cited that as a factor in the Jan. 12 ransomware attack that canceled classes for some 75,000 students.

The cancellations — which Elder called “cyber snow days” — gave technicians a five-day window to reset the databases over a holiday weekend.

Elder said there’s no evidence student information was obtained by hackers. He declined to say whether the district paid a ransom but noted there would be a “public process” if it did.

Hager, the art teacher, said the cyberattack increased stress on campus in ways that parents didn’t see.

Fire drills were canceled because fire alarms didn’t work. Intercoms stopped working.

Nurses couldn’t find which kids were where as positive test results came in, Hager said. “So potentially there were students on campus that probably were sick.” It also appears the hack permanently wiped out a few days worth of attendance records and grades.

Edupoint, the vendor for Albuquerque’s student information database, called Synergy, declined to comment.

Many schools choose to keep attacks under wraps or release minimal information to prevent revealing additional weaknesses in their security systems.

“It’s very difficult for the school districts to learn from each other, because they’re really not supposed to talk to each other about it because you might share vulnerabilities,” Elder said.

Last year, the FBI issued a warning about a group called PYSA, or “Protect Your System, Amigo,” saying it was seeing an increase in attacks by the group on schools, colleges and seminaries. Other ransomware gangs include Conti, which last year demanded $40 million from Broward County Public Schools, one of the nation’s largest.

Most are Russian-speaking groups that are based in Eastern Europe and enjoy safe harbor from tolerant governments. Some will post files on the dark web, including highly sensitive information, if they don’t get paid.

While attacks on larger districts garner more headlines, ransomware gangs tended to target smaller school districts in 2021 than in 2020, according to Brett Callow, a threat analyst at the firm Emsisoft. He said that could indicate bigger districts are increasing their spending on cybersecurity while smaller districts, which have less money, remain more vulnerable.

A few days after Christmas, the 1,285-student district of Truth or Consequences, south of Albuquerque, also had its Synergy student information system shut down by a ransomware attack. Officials there compared it to having their house robbed.

“It’s just that feeling of helplessness, of confusion as to why somebody would do something like this because at the end of the day, it’s taking away from our kids. And to me that’s just a disgusting way to try to, to get money,” Superintendent Channell Segura said.

The school didn’t have to cancel classes because the attack happened on break, but the network remains down, including keyless entry locks on school building doors. Teachers are still carrying around the physical keys they had to track down at the start of the year, Segura said.

In October, President Joe Biden signed the K-12 Cybersecurity Act, which calls for the federal cyber security agency to make recommendations about how to help school systems better protect themselves.

New Mexico lawmakers have been slow to expand internet usage in the state, let alone support schools on cyber security. Last week, state representatives introduced a bill that would allocate $45 million to the state education department to build a cybersecurity program by 2027.

Ideas on how to prevent future hacks and recover from existing ones usually require more work from teachers.

In the days following the Albuquerque attack, parents argued on Facebook over why schools couldn’t simply switch to pen and paper for things like attendance and grades.

Hager said she even heard the criticism from her mother, a retired school teacher.

“I said, ‘Mom, you can only take attendance on paper if you have printed out your roster to begin with,'” Hager said.

Teachers could also keep duplicate paper copies of all records — but that would double the clerical work that already bogs them down.

In an era where administrators increasingly require teachers to record everything digitally, Hager says, “these systems should work.”


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Malaysian Businesses Pivot Amid Tourism Decline

At the W Kuala Lumpur hotel, high tea sets are prepared for delivery to customers celebrating the upcoming Chinese New Year. Inside are meats such as rolled smoked duck as well as tiger prawn sliders and fresh baked treats including red date cheesecake and chocolate tarts. A five-star hotel known for upscale dining in now also relies on home delivery.

“Delivery was something new and we hadn’t considered it really prior to the pandemic,” said Christian Metzner, general manager of the W Kuala Lumpur, adding that although home delivery currently makes up about 15% of his hotel’s food and beverage sales, it was 100% during periods when dining in was not allowed in Malaysia. “We started working with apps and different [delivery] companies,” he said.

Like hotels around the world, the pandemic led to a deep drop in business for the W Kuala Lumpur. Foreigners no longer flew in for vacations or business trips. So the hotel, part of the Marriott chain, pivoted and increased its marketing towards potential customers who live in Malaysia.

The hotel shut down twice during the past two years, for about three months each time. Its last closure ended in August 2021. Management says while business is still down 25% from pre-pandemic levels, during the past several months the hotel has been operating well above the break-even point, drawing customers to guest rooms and the pool for staycations as well as offering food on popular local delivery platforms. 

“Just to stay in the game we had to actually connect and open our channels, open our minds to other channels to sell our products and sell our experience,” Metzner said, adding that the hotel chain’s health and safety protocols — continuously disinfecting public areas, mobile phone check-ins and other measures — also help.

Prior to the pandemic, tourism accounted for more than 15% of Malaysia’s GDP. Because so much of that business disappeared, Yap Lip Seng, chief executive officer of the Malaysian Association of Hotels, the W Kuala Lumpur’s successful shift to the domestic market a rare achievement.

“You need to set yourself apart from the pack,” Yap said, adding that the majority of the country’s hotels are still not able to turn a profit. “First, your competition is with the stand-alone restaurants outside and second, you have to compete with the same grade of hotels within that area.”

Northern Malaysia boasts the popular vacation destination of Langkawi, an archipelago known for its beaches and sea activities. For 21 years, Oli Khalid and his wife Tanja Bindemann have been running a cafe here called the Red Tomato, which has long been a gathering spot for foreign tourists who come for the fresh baked bread, big salads and warm hospitality.

“They come as strangers, travelers, and they leave as friends. That’s our motto,” said Khalid.

But Khalid and Bindemann haven’t been able to make as many new friends over the past two years. Khalid said there were times when business was down 90%.Although there has been an uptick in Malaysian customers recently, business is still half of what it was compared to pre-pandemic levels.

In November, the Malaysian government started a tourist bubble to try to draw vaccinated foreigners to Langkawi. But Khalid and other managers of local businesses said it hasn’t yet yielded a significant increase in customers.

Khalid said he has seen other local businesses close down and says if the situation doesn’t improve, his cafe might go bust in another six months. “We do have sleepless nights thinking, ‘What are we supposed to do?’” Khalid says. “What’s going to happen and what if the situation doesn’t improve, what do we do?”

The Malaysian government is considering additional steps to allow more foreign tourists inside the country. That’s an idea that small mom-and-pop shops such as Khalid’s — as well as major international hotel chains like Metzner’s — say would boost their bottom lines.


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Iran Supreme Leader Says ‘Wrong Decisions’ Have Hurt Economy

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said Sunday that the country’s poor economic situation was not only due to international sanctions but also to government mismanagement.

“Wrong decisions and shortcomings” were part of the reason for the Islamic republic’s “unsatisfactory” economic data, he said about the decade from March 2011 to last year.

Indicators such as “GDP growth, capital formation, inflation, housing and liquidity growth were not satisfactory,” Khamenei said.

“The main cause of these problems is not only sanctions, but also wrong decisions and shortcomings,” he told a meeting with economic officials.

“If the authorities had cooperated more with the producers in these 10 years, the damage would have been less, and the successes would have been greater,” he added in an implicit attack on former president Hassan Rouhani’s governments from 2013 to 2021.

Iran, which last year elected President Ebrahim Raisi, has been hit by severe economic sanctions imposed in 2018 by the United States, and has seen its inflation rate surge to close to 60 percent.

Khamenei criticized the high prices and low quality of some home-made products, especially cars.

He also charged that “despite the government’s support,” the price of some domestically-produced home appliances had doubled.

Iran has witnessed a number of protest rallies in the past few weeks by civil servants, including from the judiciary, against tough economic conditions.

Regarding companies operating despite the sanctions, Khamenei said that “we have successful examples and businesses that did not wait for the lifting of sanctions.”

Iran has been negotiating in Vienna — directly with Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia, and indirectly with the United States — to revive its tattered 2015 nuclear deal.

The landmark agreement offered Tehran sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program.

But the U.S. unilaterally withdrew from it in 2018 under then-president Donald Trump and reimposed biting economic sanctions on Iran.


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Violent Protests Highlight India’s Grim Unemployment Situation

Violent protests by job seekers that gripped two Indian states this week have turned the spotlight on India’s unemployment crisis, especially among young and educated people, economists say.

Angry mobs burned train cars and tires, and blocked rail traffic in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, two of India’s most populous states, over alleged flaws in the recruitment process for jobs in the government-run rail sector.

They complained of lack of transparency and said that the process unfairly gives an advantage to graduates applying for low-skilled jobs.

There were more than 12 million applicants for the 35,000 openings, reflecting the acute job scarcity. Even before the pandemic battered the economy, unemployment was running at a four-decade high, reflecting the inability of the job market to cater to the more than 10 million new applicants every year.

The situation has worsened in the last two years even though the economy is recovering. It is most stark in states such as Bihar, where the unemployment rate is double the national average. One of India’s least developed states, it has very few avenues for private sector employment, which is why government jobs that are better paid and offer security are highly prized.

Among the applicants for a rail sector job is Guddu Kumar Singh, a 32-year-old resident of Bihar, who has spent nearly 15 years applying unsuccessfully for a variety of government jobs. After failing to make the cut for a clerk in the Indian army after graduating from high school, he focused on improving his educational qualifications and earned a degree in economics — he and his brother were the first generation in his farming family to get college degrees. Like millions of others, the family saw education as the path to a brighter future.

“I was a sincere student – I spent 13, 14 hours a day studying to get my degree. I was so positive. I never thought I would not get a job,” Singh said. “I am totally dejected. My family also asks me, what did I achieve by studying?”

According to the Center for Monitoring Indian Economy, an independent think tank, India’s unemployment rate was nearly 8% in December. It says, however, that this number does not reflect the true scale of unemployment in India because millions of educated people have stopped looking for jobs.

They are people like Singh — if he does not get a railway job he could simply drop out of the job market, returning to what he has been doing while he searched for a job – tutoring school students.

 

“Unemployment is higher among younger and more educated people because appropriate jobs are not available,” economist Arun Kumar, a former professor with New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, said.

“The organized sector barely generates about 300,000 jobs a year, so where do the other aspirants go? There is a crisis of unemployment.”

The huge gap between supply and demand has resulted in qualified people taking jobs of much lower skills.

Earlier this month, graduates, post-graduates, engineers, and civil judge aspirants were among the more than 10,000 young people who turned up for interviews for 15 government jobs such as drivers and watchmen in the central state of Madhya Pradesh, according to a report by local broadcaster NDTV.

Economists say that part of the problem is that, unlike several other Asian countries, India never created a large-scale manufacturing sector — its growth is being powered by its booming services sector, which creates fewer jobs.

The government says job creation is a priority – in recent years, it has been trying to pitch India as an attractive investment destination to woo global manufacturers. Those efforts have intensified since the pandemic as India eyes the opportunity of luring companies that are looking to move some manufacturing out of China.

“India is committed to becoming a trustworthy partner for the world’s global supply chains,” Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi told a virtual meeting of the World Economic Forum earlier this month. “We are making way for free trade agreements with many countries. India’s capacity to adopt to innovative technologies and its spirit of entrepreneurship can give new energy to all our global partners. This is why now is the best time to invest in India.”

Economists like Kumar, though, point out that even if India is able to attract companies to set up factories, modern manufacturing generates far fewer jobs than it did in the past because of automation.

 

“India must invest more resources in more employment-intensive sectors like health and education that provide jobs for more qualified people like teachers, nurses, technicians,” he said. “The frustration among the young and educated is boiling over.”

Indian commentators have called the recent protests a wake-up call in a country where half the population of 1.3 billion is under 25. The Indian Express newspaper said they were a “sobering message.”

The government has suspended the examination for rail jobs and said a committee has been formed to investigate candidates’ concerns.

For those like Singh, who sees it as his last chance to secure employment, the uncertainty is unbearable.

“I feel really anguished when I think of the years I spent getting a college degree. If I had spent the same time doing something else, I would have had better earnings.” 

 


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Myanmar Cybersecurity Law ‘Days’ Away as Coup Anniversary Nears

Myanmar’s military government is set to pass a new cybersecurity law that will ban the use of internet services, a move that has been condemned by digital rights activists and business groups.

The Southeast Asian country has been in turmoil since a coup by the military last February. A widespread grassroots movement has seen thousands refuse to accept military rule, with anti-coup communications and demonstrations now largely mobilized online.

But a draft bill released by the junta, if passed, would criminalize the use of virtual private networks and online gambling, carrying a punishment of one to three years’ imprisonment and fines of up to $2,800.

The first draft of the bill was released last year, but progress on the legislation slowed after substantial public outcry and industrywide criticism. The legislation is expected to become law next week.

“We are speculating the bill will actually be official within just a few days, it might come before the first of February,” Ma Htike, a digital rights activist, told VOA.

People living in Myanmar rely heavily on internet access, especially social media platforms such as Facebook, for news, and many have struggled to get online since the junta took control of the country’s telecommunication regulators after the Feb. 1, 2021, coup. Major Norwegian telecommunication operator Telenor recently quit its operations inside the country because of the political situation.

The military regularly shuts down the internet, routinely blocks social media platforms and censors what information can be found online, all in the name of ensuring national “stability.”

But political analyst Aung Thu Nyein describes the latest draft legislation as unusually severe.

“The leaked new communication law is the most draconian law restricting many freedoms and privacy of a person,” he told VOA. “This law could be a major roadblock to technological development as well, such as prohibiting the use of digital coins and blockchain technology, etc.

“It is definitely for the purpose of oppression of freedom of speech and a tool for control,” he said.

Junta-enforced regional internet blackouts make VPNs vital to accessing independent news online via private networks outside of the country.

According to Top10VPN, Myanmar went without internet access for 72 consecutive days from February to April of last year, driving demand for VPNs up by 7,200%. The report also says the shutdowns came at a cost, with Myanmar suffering nearly $3 billion in lost revenue, according to the indicators from the World Bank, The International Telecommunication Union, Eurostat and the U.S. Census.

Htike says most of Myanmar’s citizens continue to struggle with the blackouts.

“There are still various locations that the mobile internet has not been available,” she told VOA, adding that junta-backed regulators have scheduled price increases for internet subscriptions, which is likely to pose “a big obstacle” for most citizens in a country with typically low per capita incomes.

“[The] internet plays a pivot role to send information to all parts of the country, from cities to remote corners,” said Aung Htun, a journalist for Burma VJ, an informal network of professional and citizen video journalists who pool footage. “That’s why the military tried to raise the data fees higher than previously.”

In its attempts to control the flow of information, the Myanmar military has also cracked down on the country’s media. According to Reporting ASEAN, a monitoring group in Southeast Asia, 120 journalists have been arrested with 49 still detained and 16 convicted. The licenses of at least five media outlets have been revoked.

Aung Htun also says the looming internet restrictions under the new law will put people at increased risk of arrest in public, where the military sometimes randomly searches phones.

“It’s getting more difficult to hide data in your phone. It’s better to use simple ways; don’t keep any important data in your phone,” he said, adding that journalists must “stay low, and try to be in touch with your colleagues [only] by secure network.”

Freedom House, a nonprofit research institute that ranks internet freedom by country on a scale in which 100 is “most free,” placed Myanmar at 17 in 2021.

Ten foreign businesses and industry groups in Myanmar said in a joint letter they are “deeply concerned” over the latest draft of the cybersecurity law.

“If enforced, the current draft disrupts the free flow of information and directly impacts businesses’ abilities to operate legally and effectively in Myanmar,” the statement read.

Htike said the new law could force customers to break the law in order to use basic business services.

“Myanmar’s economy really declined after the coup, but still small businesses have used social media and networks, but with this kind of [restriction] it’s going to be very difficult,” she added.

Feb. 1 marks one year since the Myanmar military removed the country’s democratically elected government. To mark the anniversary, anti-coup activists have called for a silent strike, which leaves the streets of towns and cities across Myanmar deserted.

“Silent strikes are a good strategy for people to get involved,” said Htike, who also warned that risks remain whether you’re demonstrating in the streets or online.

Myanmar’s military routinely stops and searches people to check phones for evidence of VPN activity, such as whether the phone has Facebook access, which is impossible without a VPN.

They also surveil the web for digital anti-junta activity.

In a silent protest, Htike added, “it might be difficult for [the military] to do search and seizure [on empty streets], but [even] if people are active [only] online, they can [still] be targeted there.”

Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, gained independence from Britain in 1948, but most of its modern history has been under military rule.

After a brief period of civilian rule, the military in November 2020 began making unsubstantiated claims of electoral fraud. On Feb. 1 of 2021, the military removed the democratically elected government and arrested leader Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint, both of whom have since been sentenced to several jail terms.

Widespread opposition to military rule has resulted in thousands of arrests and at least 1,499 killings, according to the Thai-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.


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Innovative Electric Vehicles on Display at Washington Auto Show

Electric vehicles are in high demand as gas prices and concerns about carbon emissions and global warming climb. From the 2022 Washington Auto Show, VOA’s Saqib Ul Islam examines where consumers and car manufacturers think all-electric vehicles are heading in the future.

Camera: Saqib Ul Islam Produced by: Saqib Ul Islam


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Consumer Spending Drops as Inflation Continues to Rise 

A key inflation indicator was up 5.8% over last year, the Commerce Department said Friday. It was the indicator’s highest jump since 1982.

The rise came in the government’s personal consumption expenditures index (PCE), which the Federal Reserve uses to guide interest rate moves. The PCE tracks actual consumer spending.

Another indicator, the consumer price index (CPI), jumped 7% last year, the government reported earlier this month. The CPI tracks the price of a basket of various goods.

The increased prices of goods could be behind a 0.6% drop in consumer spending in December, the department said. Consumer spending accounts for two-thirds of U.S. economic activity.

Inflation has also largely erased wage gains seen in many U.S households.

The pandemic, labor shortages and supply chain problems continue to drag on the economy.

The growing inflation adds pressure on the Federal Reserve to hike interest rates, which comes with the danger of slowing economic growth.

“No one wants to go back to the ’80s, but the economy is. Can stagflation from an overly aggressive Fed be next?” Christopher Rupkey, chief economist at FWDBONDS in New York, said in an interview with Reuters. “The Fed let its guard down and now they risk it all by saying they might have to move faster and higher on interest rates.”

The Fed could move as early as March to raise interest rates.​

Some information for this report came from Reuters and The Associated Press.


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FAA, Telecom Companies to Turn On More 5G Towers

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration announced Friday U.S.-based telecommunications companies AT&T and Verizon can activate more of their fifth-generation, or 5G, transmitters after consultation with the agency. 

Earlier this month, the telecommunication companies agreed they would delay launching the new wireless service near key airports after weeks of legal wrangling with the nation’s largest airlines and U.S. government regulators that feared the 5G service would interfere with aircraft technology and cause massive flight disruptions. 

But in its release Friday, the FAA said both companies provided additional data about the exact location of wireless transmitters and supported more thorough analysis of how 5G C-band signals interact with aircraft instruments. 

The agency said it used that data to precisely map the size and shape of the areas around airports where 5G signals might interfere with aircraft, allowing the regulators to shrink the areas where wireless operators had to delay their antenna activations. 

The FAA said that will allow wireless providers to safely turn on more towers as they deploy new 5G service in major markets across the country. The agency expressed its appreciation for the “collaborative approach” AT&T and Verizon took in providing the data. 

The FAA says it is continuing to work with helicopter operators and others in the aviation community to ensure they can safely operate in areas of current and planned 5G deployment. 

Some information for this report came from Reuters. 

 


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Toyota Heading to Moon with Cruiser, Robotic Arms, Dreams

Toyota is working with Japan’s space agency on a vehicle to explore the lunar surface, with ambitions to help people live on the moon by 2040 and then go live on Mars, company officials said Friday.

The vehicle being developed with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency is called Lunar Cruiser, whose name pays homage to the Toyota Land Cruiser sport utility vehicle. Its launch is set for the late 2020’s.

The vehicle is based on the idea that people eat, work, sleep and communicate with others safely in cars, and the same can be done in outer space, said Takao Sato, who heads the Lunar Cruiser project at Toyota Motor Corp.

“We see space as an area for our once-in-a-century transformation. By going to space, we may be able to develop telecommunications and other technology that will prove valuable to human life,” Sato told The Associated Press.

Gitai Japan Inc., a venture contracted with Toyota, has developed a robotic arm for the Lunar Cruiser, designed to perform tasks such as inspection and maintenance. Its “grapple fixture” allows the arm’s end to be changed so it can work like different tools, scooping, lifting and sweeping.

Gitai Chief Executive Sho Nakanose said he felt the challenge of blasting off into space has basically been met but working in space entails big costs and hazards for astronauts. That’s where robots would come in handy, he said.

Since its founding in the 1930s, Toyota has fretted about losing a core business because of changing times. It has ventured into housing, boats, jets and robots. Its net-connected sustainable living quarters near Mount Fuji, called Woven City, where construction is starting this year.

Japanese fascination with the moon has been growing.

A private Japanese venture called ispace Inc. is working on lunar rovers, landing and orbiting, and is scheduled for a moon landing later this year. Businessman Yusaku Maezawa, who recently took videos of himself floating around in the International Space Station, has booked an orbit around the moon aboard Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s Starship.

Toyota engineer Shinichiro Noda said he is excited about the lunar project, an extension of the automaker’s longtime mission to serve customers and the moon may provide valuable resources for life on Earth.

“Sending our cars to the moon is our mission,” he said. Toyota has vehicles almost everywhere. “But this is about taking our cars to somewhere we have never been.” 


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US Congress Considers Bills to Boost Competition with China

With President Joe Biden’s broader domestic agenda stymied in the Senate, Democratic leaders in Congress have begun looking for legislative victories elsewhere, with a new focus on improving the U.S. ability to compete with China.

Democrats in the House of Representatives are attempting to come to agreement on legislation that would provide large financial subsidies to the semiconductor industry as well as generous research and development grants to support supply chain resilience, buoy domestic manufacturing operations and underwrite new scientific research.

The effort in the House follows a push in the Senate last year, which resulted in bipartisan passage of the United States Innovation and Competition Act of 2021. That bill proposed $52 billion in assistance to the semiconductor industry as well as nearly $200 billion more on research and development projects meant to bolster U.S. competitiveness.

The House is likely to pass its own version of the legislation, meaning the two chambers would have to come to an agreement on final language before a bill could go to the White House to be signed into law. It remains unclear whether an eventual House bill would garner any Republican support in that chamber, or whether compromise language would continue to attract the Republican support that helped the Senate’s original bill come to the floor for a vote.

But in a statement this week, the president made it clear that he would like to see the legislation on his desk.

Biden praised the “transformational investments” that the legislation would make. With the proposed legislation, he said, “We have an opportunity to show China and the rest of the world that the 21st century will be the American century – forged by the ingenuity and hard work of our innovators, workers, and businesses.”

Countering Chinese subsidies

In Congress, even among conservative lawmakers who generally shy away from government intervention in the economy, there is recognition of a need to balance the scales for U.S. companies that frequently find themselves in competition with Chinese firms that receive subsidies and other preferences from the government in Beijing.

When the Senate passed its version of the bill in June, Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio said, “This type of targeted investment in a critical industry was unthinkable just a couple years ago, but the need for smart industrial policy is now widely accepted.”

That comes as a surprise to many observers of U.S. policymaking.

“There is somewhat of an ambivalence, or confusion, in D.C. where, on the one hand, people want to say that China’s industrial policies are both very unfair, and also very important in explaining China’s competitive success,” Gerard DiPippo, a senior fellow in the Economics Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told VOA. “But then, they also seem reluctant to actually engage in those policies because they think those policies are actually very distortionary and ineffective. So, it sort of cuts both ways.”

Semiconductors in focus

Despite strong economic growth in the U.S. over the past year, a persistent shortage of semiconductors has caused some sectors of the economy – the automobile industry in particular – to lag behind. Supply chain disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic have been difficult to resolve, leading many members of Congress to propose funding to “re-shore” domestic production of semiconductors.

Both the Senate bill and the version being considered by the House of Representatives would funnel $52 billion in grants and subsidies to the industry.

However, China is not a major competitor of the United States when it comes to semiconductors. While China does make some semiconductors, the largest manufacturer in the world is TSMC, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp. in Taiwan.

‘Decoupling’ seen as troubling

Some American companies that do business with China are concerned about the long-term efforts of both countries to achieve economic independence from each other.

“China is upset with efforts to increase export restrictions on U.S. goods, block Chinese companies from accessing certain U.S. goods, and restrict some direct investments in China,” Doug Barry, a senior director with the U.S.-China Business Council, told VOA in an email exchange.

“They worry about incentives to relocate production of some critical goods back to the U.S. At the same time, China is working to reduce dependence on certain goods like advanced semiconductors, while slow-walking promised market access reform and opening,” Barry said.

“Our members worry that these efforts signal mutual economic decoupling that’s not in the long-term interest of either country,” he said. “Both governments need to engage in direct talks to better manage differences, adhere to WTO principles, and ensure that Phase One Agreement commitments are fully met.”

Government interference ‘misguided’

Ryan Young, a senior fellow with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, told VOA that efforts by Congress to mimic China by trying to manipulate the U.S. economy are “misguided” at best, and at worst destructive.

“This falls into what I think of as the ‘But they do it, too,’ argument,” Young said. While it is indisputable that the Chinese government creates all sorts of advantages for certain sectors within its economy, he said, it doesn’t follow that the answer is for the U.S. to do the same.

Despite government support, large Chinese tech firms are burdened with substantial debt, operational inefficiencies and political meddling, he said.

Further, Young noted that the semiconductor industry, which the legislative efforts target above all else, has already taken steps to bring some of its production into U.S. territory, with chip giant Intel expanding a $50 billion complex of chip manufacturing facilities in Arizona. 

 


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Kenyan Pastoral Communities Embrace Fishing

Kenya’s nomadic herders are among those suffering the most from recurring drought that kills the livestock they depend on. To make them less dependent on rain, aid programs are teaching Kenya’s herders how to farm fish and keep bees. Brenda Mulinya reports from Isiolo, Kenya.

Camera: Amos Wangwa Produced by: Amos Wangwa/Henry Hernandez


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Study: Gas Stoves Worse for Climate Than Previously Thought 

Gas stoves are contributing more to global warming than previously thought because of constant tiny methane leaks while they’re off, a new study found. 

The same study that tested emissions around stoves in homes raised new concerns about indoor air quality and health because of levels of nitrogen oxides measured. 

Even when they are not running, U.S. gas stoves are putting 2.6 million tons (2.4 million metric tons) of methane — in carbon dioxide equivalent units — into the air each year, a team of California researchers found in a study published in Thursday’s journal Environmental Science & Technology. That’s equivalent to the annual amount of greenhouse gases from 500,000 cars or what the United States puts into the air every three-and-a-half hours.

“They’re constantly bleeding a little bit of methane into the atmosphere all the time,” said the study’s co-author Rob Jackson, a Stanford University climate scientist. 

That methane is on top of the 6.8 million tons (6.2 million metric tons) of carbon dioxide that gas stoves emit into the air when they are in use and the gas is burned, the study said. Methane is a greenhouse gas that is dozens of times more potent than carbon dioxide but doesn’t stay in the atmosphere nearly as long and isn’t as plentiful in the air. 

The researchers examined 53 home kitchens in California — many in bed and breakfasts they rented. They sealed most of the rooms in plastic tarps and then measured emissions when the stoves were working and when they were not. And what was surprising was that three-quarters of the methane released happened while the stoves were off, Jackson said. Those are emissions releases that the government doesn’t account for, he said. 

“That’s a big deal because we’re trying to really reduce our carbon footprint and we claim that gas is cleaner than coal, which it is,” said study lead author Eric Lebel, a scientist at PSE Healthy Energy, an Oakland nonprofit. But he said much of the benefit disappears when leaks are taken into account. 

Many communities have bans on gas stove use in future new construction that will take effect in future years, including New York City and the Bay Area cities of San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, and Berkeley, Jackson said. 

“People can already choose electric appliances if they want,” said Frank Maisano, a Washington policy and public relations expert who represents gas and appliance interests. “People just like gas appliances because they perform better, especially in colder climates.” 

“Natural gas appliances are generally more energy- and cost-effective than their electric counterparts,” Maisano said. 

Jackson estimated that when all natural gas use and extraction is taken into account, about 100 million tons (91 million metric tons) of gas leaks into the atmosphere. And the couple million tons from gas stoves “is meaningful. That’s a substantial part and it’s a part that we haven’t included accurately in the past.” 

The leakage finding is “a very important takeaway” and fits with other work that found there are often big leaks that account for much of the emissions, said Zachary Merrin, a research engineer with the Illinois Applied Research Institute’s Indoor Climate Research & Training group. 

Merrin, who wasn’t part of the study, said the emission of un-combusted methane is “clearly bad. From an emissions standpoint, cooking directly with gas is better than using a fossil fuel powered electric stove but worse than using a solar powered electric stove.” 

The methane leak isn’t dangerous to human health or as a possible explosive, Jackson said. But when conducting the tests, researchers found high levels of nitrogen oxides, greater than 100 parts per billion. Jackson said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t have indoor air quality standards for that gas, but the measurements they took exceed its outdoor air quality standards. While methane doesn’t include nitrogen, the nitrogen oxides are byproducts of the combustion in natural gas ovens, he said. 

Maisano said people should always use hood ranges and make sure they have proper ventilation. Jackson, who has a gas stove that he plans to replace, said he never used ventilation before this study, but that he now does so every time. 


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US Economy Grew by Robust 5.7% in 2021

The U.S. economy advanced by 5.7% in 2021, the fastest full-year gain since 1984, the Commerce Department reported Thursday.

The sharp growth in the world’s biggest economy showed its resiliency, even as the United States struggled to cope with two new coronavirus variants that hobbled some industries, caused supply chain issues for consumer goods that at times left store shelves empty, and led to a 7% year-over-year surge in consumer prices that was the highest in four decades.

But for the year, a record 6.4 million jobs were created and most of the jobs lost at the outset of the pandemic in early 2020 have been recovered.   

Analysts say the economic growth may have slowed in January because of the omicron variant, as thousands of workers called in sick, often canceling airline flights, curbing business activity and again limiting in-class instruction at some schools and universities.  

But the government said the overall economic growth was still evident in the October-to-December quarter, with a 6.9% annualized advance, three times the 2.3% pace of the July-through-September period.  

U.S. President Joe Biden, with his job approval ratings sinking, chiefly because of Americans’ weariness over the ongoing pandemic and higher consumer prices, boasted about the economic report.

“For the first time in 20 years,” he said in a statement, “our economy grew faster than China’s. This is no accident. My economic strategy is creating good jobs for Americans, rebuilding our manufacturing, and strengthening our supply chains here at home to help make our companies more competitive.”

“Americans are dreaming again — believing in themselves and America,” he said.

The country’s robust economy pushed Federal Reserve policymakers on Wednesday to announce they could boost their benchmark interest rate as early as March after keeping it near zero percent since the coronavirus first swept into the United States in March 2020. The Fed could increase the rate, which has a broad effect on consumer and business borrowing costs, several more times this year.

Meanwhile, the Labor Department reported Thursday that 260,000 unemployed U.S. workers made first-time claims for jobless compensation last week, down 30,000 from the revised figure of the week before.

The latest total is in line with the 256,000 figure recorded in mid-March 2020, just before the coronavirus wreaked havoc on U.S. economic activity and businesses started laying off workers by the hundreds of thousands.

In recent weeks, the U.S. has been recording 600,000 to 750,000 or more new cases of the coronavirus every day, largely because of the highly transmissible omicron variant.

For the most part, however, employers have been retaining their workers and searching for more as the United States continues its rapid economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic. The country’s unemployment rate dropped in December to 3.9%, not far above the five-decade low of 3.5% recorded before the pandemic took hold.

Many employers are looking for more workers, despite about 6.9 million workers remaining unemployed in the United States.

At the end of November, there were 10.4 million job openings in the U.S., but the skills of available workers often do not match what employers want, or the job openings are not where the unemployed live. In addition, many of the available jobs are low-wage service positions that the jobless are shunning.


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Anticipated US Interest Hikes Expected to Reverberate Globally

Wednesday’s signal from the U.S. Federal Reserve on impending interest rate increases is expected to have ramifications beyond America’s shores.

The Fed’s Open Market Committee announced it was keeping, for now, the target range for a key interest rate at near zero but cautioned that with inflation well above 2% and a strong labor market, it expected “it will soon be appropriate to raise the target range for the federal funds rate.”

The federal funds rate is the interest rate commercial banks charge each other for overnight loans of their excess reserves.

“The committee is of a mind to raise rates at the March meeting,” Fed Chairman Jerome Powell told reporters Wednesday. “We have our eyes on risks around the world, but the economy should hold up.”

As the dollar serves as the primary international reserve currency, a U.S. interest rate hike would pressure central banks of other countries to also raise their rates for those who want to borrow money.

“The rest of the world has a lot of dollar debt, and even if their debt is in local currencies, their central banks will often have to raise interest rates to offset the U.S. rate increases to try to maintain some currency stability,” said Gerard DiPippo, senior fellow with the economics program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“Raising interest rates is aimed at stifling consumer demand to address all of this money that’s sloshing around in our economy, and that’s going to affect consumers here, as well as producers of goods and other countries that rely on the U.S. market,” said Sarah Anderson, global economy project director at the Institute for Policy Studies.

Inflation ‘transmitted through trade’

Inflation in the United States is at a 40-year high amid surging consumer demand for goods, a strengthening domestic job market and pandemic-caused supply chain disruptions, including for critical semiconductors.

“The price of U.S. exports increased by more than the price of U.S. imports last year, so in a sense, the U.S. is exporting inflation because the cost of producing things in the U.S. has increased faster than the imports going into it from overseas. So, the inflation can be transmitted through trade,” DiPippo told VOA.

Some economists and policy analysts see the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden confusing structural and cyclical economic matters as it struggles to tame inflation.

“The cyclical phenomenon — inflation — over the next year or so, really only the Fed has the tools to deal with that,” DiPippo said. “Even if the Biden administration is able to increase subsidies to produce things in the United States or increase competition through regulation, those things take time. And we’re talking about inflation over the next year or two, not over the next five years. So, there’s a mismatch.”

The White House has repeatedly said that it is prioritizing lowering prices to help American households and that the best way to accomplish it is through increased competition.

“Competition results in lower prices for families. Competition results in fair wages for workers. And as you all know, competition encourages companies to innovate,” Biden said on Monday during a meeting of the White House Competition Council.

Prices have been surging in the United States and other countries since last year amid serious shortages of workers and the goods they produce. That has the International Monetary Fund predicting slower growth and faster inflation for the world’s biggest economies.

“People have shifted from spending money on services, like going out to restaurants and theaters, during the pandemic to buying more stuff,” Anderson told VOA. That has put more pressure on manufacturers, especially in countries such as China and Vietnam, which are having difficulty keeping pace with demand because so many workers have been sidelined by the pandemic.

“We can raise interest rates, but I don’t think the problem is going to go away until we end the pandemic,” Anderson added.

China’s “No-COVID policy may cause more lockdowns,” exacerbating the supply chain woes, Powell, the Fed chair, warned on Wednesday. “There’s plenty of risk out there.”


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WTO: China Can Place Duties on $645 Million in US Imports

The World Trade Organization on Wednesday handed a fresh victory to China, permitting it to place duties on $645 million worth of U.S. imports per year, in a long-running anti-dumping dispute with Washington.

The United States is unable to appeal the decision.

“The deeply disappointing decision today by the WTO arbitrator reflects erroneous Appellate Body interpretations that damage the ability of WTO members to defend our workers and businesses from China’s trade-distorting subsidies,” said Adam Hodge, a spokesman for the U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai.

“Today’s decision reinforces the need to reform WTO rules and dispute settlement, which have been used to shield China’s non-market economic practices and undermine fair, market-oriented competition.”

The WTO green light does not mean China will automatically impose the tariffs, in whole or in part, on U.S. imports.

The figure was revealed in an 87-page decision by a WTO arbitrator on the level of countermeasures Beijing could request in its dispute with Washington regarding US countervailing duties (CVD) on certain Chinese products.

The dispute stretches all the way back to 2012, when the WTO set up a panel of experts to try to settle a complaint filed by China over what it said were unfair duties imposed by the United States.

Washington had justified the additional tariffs on products ranging from paper to tires and solar panels, arguing they were being dumped on the market to help Chinese companies grab business.

The WTO Dispute Settlement Body ruled in China’s favor, and the ruling was upheld by its appeals judges in 2014, paving the way for China to retaliate.

Beijing initially asked to be permitted to place tariffs on $2.4 billion in U.S. products each year, but then scaled back its demand to $788.75 million.  

The United States had argued that the appropriate level should not exceed $106 million per year.

The anti-dumping duties are permitted under international trade rules as long as they adhere to strict conditions, and disputes over their use are often brought before the WTO’s Dispute Settlement Body.  

Wednesday’s decision marks the second time the WTO has allowed China to retaliate for U.S. anti-dumping duties deemed to be in violation of international trade rules.

In November 2019, a WTO arbitrator permitted China to add duties on up to $3.6 billion worth of U.S. imports, in a separate case.

So far, China has not notified the WTO that it has implemented the approved retaliatory tariffs from that case.  

Washington has long complained about the WTO dispute settlement system, and especially its appeals court, claiming unfair treatment.

Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump brought the system to a grinding halt in December 2019 by blocking the appointment of new judges to the Appellate Body.


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US Warns of Risks of Doing Business in Myanmar

The United States issued an advisory Wednesday warning of the increased risk of conducting business in Myanmar nearly a year after a military coup in the Southeast Asian country, which is also known as Burma. 

The advisory from the U.S. State Department warned it was especially risky for “individuals, businesses and financial institutions and other persons” to be associated with business activity in Myanmar “that could benefit the Burmese military regime.” 

The advisory cited the possibility of exposure to illegal financial and reputational risks by doing business there, and using supply chains controlled by the military. 

“The coup and subsequent abuses committed by the military have fundamentally changed the direction of the economic and business environment in Burma,” the advisory said. 

Former de factor leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) led Myanmar since its first open democratic election in 2015, but Myanmar’s military contested the November 2020 election results, claiming widespread electoral fraud, largely without evidence.

The military removed the NLD government in a coup on Feb. 1, 2021, detaining Suu Kyi and President Win Myint.

Since then, the military government has used deadly force in clampdowns on protests while escalating efforts to neutralize ethnic minority armies and newly formed militias allied with the NLD government. Wednesday’s advisory said the military “has killed more than 1,400 innocent people” since its takeover. 

The advisory said state-owned enterprises were of greatest concern, as well as the gems and precious metals, real estate, construction and defense industries, noting that they have been identified as providing economic resources for the junta. 

The advisory was issued after oil giants Chevron Corporation and TotalEnergies said last week the worsening humanitarian situation prompted them to withdraw from the country, where they were working together on a major gas project. 

 


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