Nobel Prize Season Arrives Amid War, Nuclear Fears, Hunger 

This year’s Nobel Prize season approaches as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shattered decades of almost uninterrupted peace in Europe and raised the risks of a nuclear disaster.

The secretive Nobel committees never hint who will win the prizes in medicine, physics, chemistry, literature, economics or peace. It’s anyone’s guess who might win the awards being announced starting Monday.

Yet there’s no lack of urgent causes deserving the attention that comes with winning the world’s most prestigious prize: wars in Ukraine and Ethiopia, disruptions to supplies of energy and food, rising inequality, the climate crisis, the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The science prizes reward complex achievements beyond the understanding of most. But the recipients of the prizes in peace and literature are often known by a global audience, and the choices — or perceived omissions — have sometimes stirred emotional reactions.

Members of the European Parliament have called for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the people of Ukraine to be recognized this year by the Nobel Peace Prize committee for their resistance to the Russian invasion.

While that desire is understandable, that choice is unlikely because the Nobel committee has a history of honoring figures who end conflicts, not wartime leaders, said Dan Smith, director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Smith believes more likely peace prize candidates would be those fighting climate change or the International Atomic Energy Agency, a past recipient. Honoring the IAEA again would recognize its efforts to prevent a radioactive catastrophe at the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant amid fighting in Ukraine, and its work in fighting nuclear proliferation, Smith said.

“This is a really difficult period in world history, and there is not a lot of peace being made,” he said.

Promoting peace isn’t always rewarded with a Nobel. India’s Mohandas Gandhi, a prominent symbol of nonviolence, was never so honored.

In some cases, the winners have not lived out the values enshrined in the peace prize. 

Just this week the Vatican acknowledged imposing disciplinary sanctions on Nobel Peace Prize-winning Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo following allegations he sexually abused boys in East Timor in the 1990s.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed won in 2019 for making peace with neighboring Eritrea. A year later, a largely ethnic conflict erupted in the country’s Tigray region. Some accuse Abiy of stoking the tensions, which have resulted in widespread atrocities. Critics have called for his Nobel to be revoked, and the Nobel committee has issued a rare admonition to him.

The Myanmar activist Aung San Suu Kyi won in 1991 for her opposition to military rule but decades later has been viewed as failing to oppose atrocities committed against the mostly Muslim Rohingya minority.

In some years, no peace prize has been awarded. The Norwegian Nobel Committee paused them during World War I, except to honor the International Committee of the Red Cross in 1917. It didn’t hand out any from 1939 to 1943 because of World War II. In 1948, the year Gandhi died, the committee made no award, citing a lack of a suitable living candidate.

The peace prize also does not always confer protection.

Last year journalists Maria Ressa of the Philippines and Dmitry Muratov of Russia were awarded “for their courageous fight for freedom of expression” in the face of authoritarian governments.

Following the invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin has cracked down even harder on independent media, including Muratov’s Novaya Gazeta, Russia’s most renowned independent newspaper. Muratov himself was attacked on a Russian train by an assailant who poured red paint over him, injuring his eyes.

The Philippines government this year ordered the shutdown of Ressa’s news organization, Rappler.

The literature prize, meanwhile, has been anything but predictable.

Few had bet on last year’s winner, Zanzibar-born, U.K.-based writer Abdulrazak Gurnah, whose books explore the personal and societal impacts of colonialism and migration.

Gurnah was only the sixth Nobel literature laureate born in Africa, and the prize has long faced criticism that it is too focused on European and North American writers. It is also male dominated, with just 16 women among its 118 laureates.

A clear contender is Salman Rushdie, the India-born writer and free-speech advocate who spent years in hiding after Iran’s clerical rulers called for his death over his 1988 novel The Satanic Verses. Rushdie, 75, was stabbed and seriously injured in August at a festival in New York state.

The list of possible winners includes literary giants from around the world: Kenyan writer Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Japan’s Haruki Murakami, Norway’s Jon Fosse, Antigua-born Jamaica Kincaid and France’s Annie Ernaux.

The prizes to Gurnah in 2021 and U.S. poet Louise Gluck in 2020 have helped the literature prize move on from years of controversy and scandal.

In 2018, the award was postponed after sex abuse allegations rocked the Swedish Academy, which names the Nobel literature committee, and sparked an exodus of members. The academy revamped itself but faced more criticism for giving the 2019 literature award to Austria’s Peter Handke, who has been called an apologist for Serbian war crimes.

Some scientists hope the award for physiology or medicine honors colleagues instrumental in the development of the mRNA technology that went into COVID-19 vaccines, which saved millions of lives around the world.

“When we think of Nobel prizes, we think of things that are paradigm shifting, and in a way I see mRNA vaccines and their success with COVID-19 as a turning point for us,” said Deborah Fuller, a microbiology professor at the University of Washington.

Physics at times can seem arcane and difficult for the public to understand. But the last three years, the physics Nobel has honored more accessible topics: climate change computer models, black holes and planets outside our solar system.

Some harder-to-understand topics in physics — like stopping light, quantum physics and carbon nanotubes — could capture a Nobel award this year.

The Nobel announcements kick off Monday with the prize in physiology or medicine, followed by physics on Tuesday, chemistry on Wednesday and literature on Thursday. The 2022 Nobel Peace Prize will be announced on October 7 and the economics award on October 10.

The prizes carry a cash award of 10 million Swedish kronor (nearly $900,000) and will be handed out on December 10.


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Indian Proposal Threatens Nepal’s $61 Million Tea Industry

Nepali tea producers are increasingly worried about a proposal in India’s parliament that could make it much harder for them to sell tea to their giant southern neighbor and most important customer.

The proposal, contained in a June 2022 recommendation from India’s Parliamentary Standing Committee on Commerce, calls for much stricter standards on the certificates of origin required for all Nepali tea imported into India.

Nepali tea exporters say they already face exacting requirements for entry to the Indian market, even when their products have met certification standards maintained by Japan, the United States and the international Certification of Environmental Standards organization.

“There have been constant policy changes that we have to comply [with], which makes it difficult to export tea to India,” said Shanta Banskota Koirala, co-owner and managing director of the Kanchanjangha Tea Estate and Research Center.

“Usually there is also a lot of hassle on borders, things such as asking for more documents than what was initially required, and even if provided the required documents, the work doesn’t get done on time,” Koirala told VOA.

The stakes are high for Nepal, which sells about 90% of its high-grade orthodox tea – loose-leaf tea produced by traditional methods — and about 50% of its lower-grade crush, tear and curl tea – tea whose leaves have been crushed torn and curled into pellets — to India. The industry employs almost 200,000 people in Nepal and contributes more than $40 million a year to its economy.

The orthodox tea, grown at higher altitudes in the Himalayan nation, is especially prized around the world, with its taste and quality attributed to the region’s climatic conditions, soil, the type of bushes planted and even the quality of the air.

But critics in India accuse the Nepalese exporters of mixing their product with similar-tasting tea from the neighboring Indian region of Darjeeling, which sells in India for a much higher price. The recommendation from the parliamentary committee calls for much stricter measures to ensure that all tea sold from Nepal was indeed grown in Nepal.

For the Nepalese growers, the threat of new bureaucratic hurdles is compounded by indignation over the suggestion that their tea is of lower quality than the Darjeeling variety.

“The comments from the committee on the quality of the tea has hurt the traders and farmers in Nepal,” said Bishnu Prasad Bhattarai, executive director of the National Tea and Coffee Development Board Nepal.

“We have raised our concern with the counterpart Indian government officials. We are hopeful that the trade between the two countries will go on smoothly as the two countries share good relation with each other on many fronts including trade,” Bhattarai added.

Suresh Mittal, president of the Nepal Tea Producers Association, also rejected the parliamentary committee’s complaints, pointing out that the quality of all the tea sold into India is certified by India’s Food Safety and Standards Authority.

“Without this proof of origin, we cannot sell even a single leaf abroad. We are exporting tea that has been grown and processed here in Nepal,” Mittal insisted.

Mittal said discussions on the proposal are continuing between the two countries, and that, so far, the trade in tea is proceeding smoothly.

“However, sooner or later it can be a problem for the Nepalese tea industry and will have an adverse effect to over 70% of tea industry of Nepal. We have to start looking for alternate markets,” he said.


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FBI Joins Australian Hunt for Data Hackers

Australia has asked the American FBI to help catch computer hackers responsible for one of Australia’s biggest data breaches. Personal details, including home addresses, driver license and passport numbers, of more than 10 million customers of the Singapore-owned telecom giant Optus were stolen.

A massive amount of personal information about Optus customers in Australia was stolen and an extortion threat made to the company. But then there was an apparent twist. An apology was issued on an online forum by an account that investigators believe belonged to the alleged hacker, who had been unnerved by the attention the case had generated.

“Too many eyes,” it read. “We will not sale (sic) data to anyone. Sorry to 10.2m Australians whose data was leaked. Ransom not paid but we don’t care anymore.”

The Australian government has blamed Optus, one of the biggest telecommunications companies in the country, for the breach. Australia’s cybersecurity minister, Clare O’Neil, said the company had made it easy for hackers to get in.

“What is of concern for us is how what is quite a basic hack was undertaken on Optus,” she said. “We should not have a telecommunications provider in this country which has effectively left the window open for data of this nature to be stolen.”

But Optus Chief Executive Officer Kelly Bayer Rosmarin denied the company’s cyber defenses were inadequate. She said the data was encrypted and there were multiple layers of protection. But for many Optus customers, there is deep anxiety that their personal information has been compromised.

The FBI has joined the hunt for the Optus data thieves.

Frank Montoya Jr, a former FBI special agent, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. that a foreign government could be involved.

“We try to determine if it is a nation state or if it is a criminal enterprise,” he said. “Now, that can be a challenge, too, because sometimes the nation state is the criminal enterprise, and I think of North Korea, for instance, and how they go after these databases for various reasons. But sometimes it is just about selling it on the dark web so they can get access to hard currency.”

Australian cyber security experts have warned that unless companies do more to protect their customers’ personal information, a data breach like the Optus theft could happen again.


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Report Calls Switzerland, US, Sweden World’s Most Innovative Economies

The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) cites top-ranked Switzerland, followed by the United States and Sweden, as the world’s most innovative economies. 

WIPO uses some 80 indicators to rank the innovative performance of 132 economies. These include measures on the political environment, education, infrastructure, business sophistication and knowledge creation of each economy.

The latest annual report shows some interesting moves in the rankings and the emergence of new powerhouses. Switzerland, once again, comes out on top. The United States moves up one position in the rankings to second place, followed by Sweden, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.

A co-editor of the Global Index, Sacha Wunsch-Vincent, said 11th-ranked China is the only middle-income country to have made it this far. He said other emerging economies, such as Turkey and India, have put in strong performances, and countries in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa have made some significant upward moves.

“Several developing countries are performing above expectations relative to their level of development,” Wunsch-Vincent said. “So, these are, of course, countries which have GDP capita which are lower. Eight of [the] innovation over-performers, and that is good news, are from sub-Saharan Africa, with Kenya, Rwanda and Mozambique in the lead.”

The Global Index also focuses on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on innovation. The report shows that research and development, as well as other investments that drive worldwide innovative activity, continued to boom in 2021. This despite the pandemic.

WIPO Director General Daren Tang said this result defied expectations. He noted that after the dot-com bust in 2001, the 2008 global financial crisis, the matrix for innovation dropped, but that was not the case for the last two years.

“In fact, the report shows that investments in global research and development in 2020, two years ago, grew at a rate of 3.3 percent,” he said. “Top corporate R&D spenders — in other words, the most innovative firms worldwide — increased their R&D spending by nearly 10 percent last year, in 2021, which is higher than pre-pandemic growth.”

On a more sobering note, Tang warned that conditions may take a turn for the worse as the pandemic recedes, as high inflation and geopolitical tensions pose new economic and social challenges. He said innovative approaches will have to be developed to help people worldwide navigate through tough times ahead.


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Nations Must Work Together to Fight Online Fraud, UN Official Says

A top U.N. official last week said the syndicates running Asia’s massive online fraud industry will rotate operations among lawless areas of Southeast Asia unless governments cooperate to bring them down, after Cambodia said it was cracking down on cybercrime compounds.

The networks have swindled hundreds of millions of dollars, regional police have told VOA, setting up fake profiles offering romance, moonshot investment schemes with huge returns or posing as police officers to solicit payoffs. They target residents of countries from China to Taiwan, Vietnam, Thailand, the United States and Australia.

“The response needs to be strategic and regional, because today it might be a location in Cambodia but tomorrow a group uproots under pressure and shifts to Myanmar, Laos or the Philippines,” Jeremy Douglas, the Bangkok-based regional representative of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime told VOA.

“Until governments across the region address, disrupt and police the places organized crime groups are using to run online casinos, scams and other illicit businesses, and in particular special economic zones and autonomous regions, the situation won’t fundamentally change,” he said.

Compounds for industrial-scale scamming in are operated in converted casinos in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, as well as special economic zones in Myanmar and Laos by Chinese gangsters who dominate regional gambling but lost their main income source during the pandemic, according to Douglas and victims who spoke to VOA.

The foot soldiers of the operations are young Chinese and Southeast Asians. Some joined willingly, many others thought they had obtained high-paying overseas work in call centers or online sales.

Malaysian, Taiwanese and Thai officials have said hundreds of their citizens remain trapped in a Myanmar border zone tied to scam operations, run by ethnic militias and beyond the law, despite its location a few hundred meters from Thailand.

Chou Bun Eng, vice chair of Cambodia’s National Committee for Counter Trafficking in persons, said Cambodia is a victim of sophisticated criminal gangs and is doing everything it can to put the syndicates out of business.

“We began an operation on August 22 throughout the kingdom,” she told VOA by phone.

“We are aware that there are victims all over the kingdom in what is a new form of crime committed by foreigners. … Cambodia does not serve criminals,” she said.

Social media videos since the crackdown have shown thousands of people apparently leaving several Sihanoukville megacompounds, in images shared by Douglas.

State media in China, the source of most of the workers and the biggest target, said the country is barring its citizens from traveling to Cambodia without good reason and warned telecommunications companies that they could be held responsible for scams carried out over their networks.

On Sept. 23, however, Cambodian authorities said at least one person had died after a boat carrying dozens of Chinese people sank on its way to Sihanoukville. Cambodian  state media Fresh News said they had traveled from, Guangdong, hundreds of kilometers away. The incident is suspected of being tied to scam operations and now under investigation.

Ransoms and beatings

Disturbing testimony has emerged from scam agents who tried to leave the compounds, including reports of routine torture, sale to other networks and ransom payments required to gain freedom.

A 26-year-old Thai mother of three, told VOA she asked to quit her job in Manila after six days when she was forced to swindle women online.

She said she took an online sales job in early August, desperate for the $1,000 salary plus commissions. She said she soon realized her real job was to steal the identity of wealthy Thai men and persuade women looking for love to transfer money.

When she refused to work, she was taken to a room with others who had also refused.

“One by one, they took us out to kick, punch, claw our hair and zap us with electric wire,” she said, asking that her name not be used, out of fear of reprisal.

“They forced the head of one of the older women underwater in the bathroom and then beat her some more.”

It took another 14 days for her to get free with a $3,000 payment to break her verbal agreement and she returned to Bangkok on Aug. 27.

Once back, her boyfriend had to sell the equipment for his T-shirt business, sinking them further into money troubles, which had led to her leave Thailand in the first place.


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Rohingya Seek Reparations from Facebook for Role in Massacre

With roosters crowing in the background as he speaks from the crowded refugee camp in Bangladesh that’s been his home since 2017, Maung Sawyeddollah, 21, describes what happened when violent hate speech and disinformation targeting the Rohingya minority in Myanmar began to spread on Facebook.

“We were good with most of the people there. But some very narrow minded and very nationalist types escalated hate against Rohingya on Facebook,” he said. “And the people who were good, in close communication with Rohingya. changed their mind against Rohingya and it turned to hate.”

For years, Facebook, now called Meta Platforms Inc., pushed the narrative that it was a neutral platform in Myanmar that was misused by malicious people, and that despite its efforts to remove violent and hateful material, it unfortunately fell short. That narrative echoes its response to the role it has played in other conflicts around the world, whether the 2020 election in the U.S. or hate speech in India.

But a new and comprehensive report by Amnesty International states that Facebook’s preferred narrative is false. The platform, Amnesty says, wasn’t merely a passive site with insufficient content moderation. Instead, Meta’s algorithms “proactively amplified and promoted content” on Facebook, which incited violent hatred against the Rohingya beginning as early as 2012.

Despite years of warnings, Amnesty found, the company not only failed to remove violent hate speech and disinformation against the Rohingya, it actively spread and amplified it until it culminated in the 2017 massacre. The timing coincided with the rising popularity of Facebook in Myanmar, where for many people it served as their only connection to the online world. That effectively made Facebook the internet for a vast number of Myanmar’s population.

More than 700,000 Rohingya fled into neighboring Bangladesh that year. Myanmar security forces were accused of mass rapes, killings and torching thousands of homes owned by Rohingya.

“Meta — through its dangerous algorithms and its relentless pursuit of profit — substantially contributed to the serious human rights violations perpetrated against the Rohingya,” the report says.

A spokesperson for Meta declined to answer questions about the Amnesty report. In a statement, the company said it “stands in solidarity with the international community and supports efforts to hold the Tatmadaw accountable for its crimes against the Rohingya people.”

“Our safety and integrity work in Myanmar remains guided by feedback from local civil society organizations and international institutions, including the U.N. Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar; the Human Rights Impact Assessment we commissioned in 2018; as well as our ongoing human rights risk management,” Rafael Frankel, director of public policy for emerging markets, Meta Asia-Pacific, said in a statement.

Like Sawyeddollah, who is quoted in the Amnesty report and spoke with the AP on Tuesday, most of the people who fled Myanmar — about 80% of the Rohingya living in Myanmar’s western state of Rakhine at the time — are still staying in refugee camps. And they are asking Meta to pay reparations for its role in the violent repression of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, which the U.S. declared a genocide earlier this year.

Amnesty’s report, out Wednesday, is based on interviews with Rohingya refugees, former Meta staff, academics, activists and others. It also relied on documents disclosed to Congress last year by whistleblower Frances Haugen, a former Facebook data scientist. It notes that digital rights activists say Meta has improved its civil society engagement and some aspects of its content moderation practices in Myanmar in recent years. In January 2021, after a violent coup overthrew the government, it banned the country’s military from its platform.

But critics, including some of Facebook’s own employees, have long maintained such an approach will never truly work. It means Meta is playing whack-a-mole trying to remove harmful material while its algorithms designed to push “engaging” content that’s more likely to get people riled up essentially work against it.

“These algorithms are really dangerous to our human rights. And what happened to the Rohingya and Facebook’s role in that specific conflict risks happening again, in many different contexts across the world,” said Pat de Brún, researcher and adviser on artificial intelligence and human rights at Amnesty.

“The company has shown itself completely unwilling or incapable of resolving the root causes of its human rights impact.”

After the U.N.’s Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar highlighted the “significant” role Facebook played in the atrocities perpetrated against the Rohingya, Meta admitted in 2018 that “we weren’t doing enough to help prevent our platform from being used to foment division and incite offline violence.”

In the following years, the company “touted certain improvements in its community engagement and content moderation practices in Myanmar,” Amnesty said, adding that its report “finds that these measures have proven wholly inadequate.”

In 2020, for instance, three years after the violence in Myanmar killed thousands of Rohingya Muslims and displaced 700,000 more, Facebook investigated how a video by a leading anti-Rohingya hate figure, U Wirathu, was circulating on its site.

The probe revealed that over 70% of the video’s views came from “chaining” — that is, it was suggested to people who played a different video, showing what’s “up next.” Facebook users were not seeking out or searching for the video, but had it fed to them by the platform’s algorithms.

Wirathu had been banned from Facebook since 2018.

“Even a well-resourced approach to content moderation, in isolation, would likely not have sufficed to prevent and mitigate these algorithmic harms. This is because content moderation fails to address the root cause of Meta’s algorithmic amplification of harmful content,” Amnesty’s report says.

The Rohingya refugees are seeking unspecified reparations from the Menlo Park, California-based social media giant for its role in perpetuating genocide. Meta, which is the subject of twin lawsuits in the U.S. and the U.K. seeking $150 billion for Rohingya refugees, has so far refused.

“We believe that the genocide against Rohingya was possible only because of Facebook,” Sawyeddollah said. “They communicated with each other to spread hate, they organized campaigns through Facebook. But Facebook was silent.”


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Oregon Town Hosts 1st Wind-Solar-Battery ‘Hybrid’ Plant

A renewable energy plant being commissioned in Oregon on Wednesday that combines solar power, wind power and massive batteries to store the energy generated there is the first utility-scale plant of its kind in North America.

The project, which will generate enough electricity to power a small city at maximum output, addresses a key challenge facing the utility industry as the U.S. transitions away from fossil fuels and increasingly turns to solar and wind farms for power. Wind and solar are clean sources of power, but utilities have been forced to fill in gaps when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining with fossil fuels like coal or natural gas.

At the Oregon plant, massive lithium batteries will store up to 120 megawatt-hours of power generated by the 300-megawatt wind farms and 50-megawatt solar farm so it can be released to the electric grid on demand. At maximum output, the facility will produce more than half of the power that was generated by Oregon’s last coal plant, which was demolished earlier this month.

On-site battery storage isn’t new, and interest in solar-plus-battery projects in particular has soared in the U.S. in recent years due to robust tax credits and incentives and the falling price of batteries. The Wheatridge Renewable Energy Facility in Oregon, however, is the first in the U.S. to combine integrated wind, solar and battery storage at such a large scale in one location, giving it even more flexibility to generate continuous output without relying on fossil fuels to fill in the gaps.

The project is “getting closer and closer to having something with a very stable output profile that we traditionally think of being what’s capable with a fuel-based generation power plant,” said Jason Burwen, vice president of energy storage at the American Clean Power Association, an advocacy group for the clean power industry.

“If the solar is chugging along and cloud cover comes over, the battery can kick in and make sure that the output is uninterrupted. As the sun goes down and the wind comes online, the battery can make sure that that’s very smooth so that it doesn’t, to the grid operator, look like anything unusual.”

The plant located in a remote expanse three hours east of Portland is a partnership between NextEra Energy Resources and Portland General Electric, a public utility required to reduce carbon emissions by 100% by 2040 under an Oregon climate law passed last year, one of the most ambitious in the nation.

PGE’s customers are also demanding green power — nearly a quarter-million customers receive only renewable energy — and the Wheatridge project is “key to that decarbonization strategy,” said Kristen Sheeran, PGE’s director of sustainability strategy and resource planning.

Under the partnership, PGE owns one-third of the wind output and purchases all the facility’s power for its renewable energy portfolio. NextEra, which developed the site and operates it, owns two-thirds of the wind output and all of the solar output and storage.

“The mere fact that many other customers are looking at these types of facilities gives you a hint at what we think could be possible,” said David Lawlor, NextEra’s director of business development for the Pacific Northwest. “Definitely customers want firmer generation, starting with the battery storage in the back.”

Large-scale energy storage is critical as the U.S. shifts to more variable power sources like wind and solar, and Americans can expect to see similar projects across the country as that trend accelerates. National Renewable Energy Laboratory models show U.S. storage capacity may rise fivefold by 2050, yet experts say even this won’t be enough to prevent extremely disruptive climate change.

Batteries aren’t the only solution that the clean energy industry is trying out. Pumped storage generates power by sending huge volumes of water downhill through turbines and others are experimenting with forcing water underground and holding it there before releasing it to power turbines.

But interest in batteries for clean energy storage has grown dramatically in recent years at the same time that the cost of batteries is falling and the technology itself is improving, boosting interest in hybrid plants, experts say.

Generating capacity from hybrid plants increased 133% between 2020 and 2021 and by the end of last year, there were nearly 8,000 megawatts of wind or solar generation connected to storage, according to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which is managed by the University of California.

The vast majority of such projects are solar power with battery storage, largely because of tax credits, but projects in the pipeline include offshore wind-plus-battery, hydroelectric-plus-battery and at least nine facilities like the one in Oregon that will combine solar, wind and storage. Projects in the pipeline between 2023 and 2025 include ones in Washington, California, Arizona, Idaho, Iowa, Illinois and Oregon, according to Berkeley Lab.

Many researchers and pilots are working on alternatives to lithium ion batteries, however, largely because their intrinsic chemistry limits them to around four hours of storage and a longer duration would be more useful.

“There is no silver bullet. There’s no model or prototype that’s going to meet that entire need … but wind and solar will certainly be in the mix,” said PGE’s Sheeran.

“This model can become a tool for decarbonization across the West as the whole country is driving toward very ambitious climate reduction goals.”


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Counter-drone Technology Stopping Malicious Drones from Doing Harm

As military and civilian drones become increasingly popular, there are growing concerns about the threats some of them may pose over places like airports, prisons, and electrical grids. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports on a company that has developed counter-drone technology that can identify and mitigate threats from malicious drones.
VIdeographer: Adam Greenbaum Produced by: Julie Taboh, Adam Greenbaum


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Meta Disables Russian Propaganda Network Targeting Europe

A sprawling disinformation network originating in Russia sought to use hundreds of fake social media accounts and dozens of sham news websites to spread Kremlin talking points about the invasion of Ukraine, Meta revealed Tuesday.

The company, which owns Facebook and Instagram, said it identified and disabled the operation before it was able to gain a large audience. Nonetheless, Facebook said it was the largest and most complex Russian propaganda effort that it has found since the invasion began.

The operation involved more than 60 websites created to mimic legitimate news sites including The Guardian newspaper in the United Kingdom and Germany’s Der Spiegel. Instead of the actual news reported by those outlets, however, the fake sites contained links to Russian propaganda and disinformation about Ukraine. More than 1,600 fake Facebook accounts were used to spread the propaganda to audiences in Germany, Italy, France, the U.K. and Ukraine.

The findings highlighted both the promise of social media companies to police their sites and the peril that disinformation continues to pose.

“Video: False Staging in Bucha Revealed!” claimed one of the fake news stories, which blamed Ukraine for the slaughter of hundreds of Ukrainians in a town occupied by the Russians.

The fake social media accounts were then used to spread links to the fake news stories and other pro-Russian posts and videos on Facebook and Instagram, as well as platforms including Telegram and Twitter. The network was active throughout the summer.

“On a few occasions, the operation’s content was amplified by the official Facebook pages of Russian embassies in Europe and Asia,” said David Agranovich, Meta’s director of threat disruption. “I think this is probably the largest and most complex Russian-origin operation that we’ve disrupted since the beginning of the war in Ukraine earlier this year.”

The network’s activities were first noticed by investigative reporters in Germany. When Meta began its investigation it found that many of the fake accounts had already been removed by Facebook’s automated systems. Thousands of people were following the network’s Facebook pages when they were deactivated earlier this year.

Researchers said they couldn’t directly attribute the network to the Russian government. But Agranovich noted the role played by Russian diplomats and said the operation relied on some sophisticated tactics, including the use of multiple languages and carefully constructed imposter websites.

Since the war began in February, the Kremlin has used online disinformation and conspiracy theories in an effort to weaken international support for Ukraine. Groups linked to the Russian government have accused Ukraine of staging attacks, blamed the war on baseless allegations of U.S. bioweapon development and portrayed Ukrainian refugees as criminals and rapists.

Social media platforms and European governments have tried to stifle the Kremlin’s propaganda and disinformation, only to see Russia shift tactics.

A message sent to the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C., asking for a response to Meta’s recent actions was not immediately returned.

Researchers at Meta Platforms Inc., which is based in Menlo Park, California, also exposed a much smaller network that originated in China and attempted to spread divisive political content in the U.S.

The operation reached only a tiny U.S. audience, with some posts receiving just a single engagement. The posts also made some amateurish moves that showed they weren’t American, including some clumsy English language mistakes and a habit of posting during Chinese working hours.

Despite its ineffectiveness, the network is notable because it’s the first identified by Meta that targeted Americans with political messages ahead of this year’s midterm elections. The Chinese posts didn’t support one party or the other but seemed intent on stirring up polarization.

“While it failed, it’s important because it’s a new direction” for Chinese disinformation operations, said Ben Nimmo, who directs global threat intelligence for Meta.


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Musk Faces Deposition With Twitter Ahead of October Trial

Tesla CEO Elon Musk is scheduled to spend the next few days with lawyers for Twitter, answering questions ahead of an October trial that will determine whether he must carry through with his $44 billion agreement to acquire the social platform after attempting to back out of the deal.

The deposition, planned for Monday, Tuesday and a possible extension on Wednesday, will not be public. As of Sunday evening, it was not clear whether Musk will appear in person or by video. The trial is set to begin October 17 in Delaware Chancery Court, where it’s scheduled to last just five days.

Musk, the world’s richest man, agreed in April to buy Twitter and take it private, offering $54.20 a share and vowing to loosen the company’s policing of content and to root out fake accounts. Twitter shares closed Friday at $41.58.

Musk indicated in July that he wanted to back away from the deal, prompting Twitter to file a lawsuit to force him to carry through with the acquisition.


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Dow Hits 2022 Low as Markets Sell Off on Recession Fears

Markets sold off around the world on mounting signs the global economy is weakening just as central banks raise the pressure even more with additional hikes of interest rates. 

The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed Friday at its lowest point of the year. The S&P 500 fell 1.7%, close to its 2022 low.  

Energy prices also closed sharply lower as traders worried about a possible recession. Treasury yields, which affect rates on mortgages and other kinds of loans, remained at multiyear highs. British government bond yields snapped higher after that country’s new government announced a sweeping plan of tax cuts. 

European stocks fell just as sharply or more after preliminary data there suggested business activity had its worst monthly contraction since the start of 2021. Adding to the pressure was a new plan announced in London to cut taxes, which sent U.K. yields soaring because it could ultimately force its central bank to raise rates even more sharply.

The Federal Reserve and other central banks around the world aggressively hiked interest rates this week in hopes of undercutting high inflation, with more big increases promised for the future. But such moves also put the brakes on their economies, threatening recessions as growth slows worldwide. Besides Friday’s discouraging data on European business activity, a separate report suggested U.S. activity is also still shrinking, though not quite as badly as in earlier months.  

“Financial markets are now fully absorbing the Fed’s harsh message that there will be no retreat from the inflation fight,” Douglas Porter, chief economist at BMO Capital Markets, wrote in a research report. 

Crude oil prices tumbled to their lowest levels since early this year on worries that a weaker global economy will burn less fuel. Cryptocurrency prices also fell sharply because higher interest rates tend to hit hardest the investments that look the priciest or the most risky. 

Even gold fell in the worldwide rout, as bonds paying higher yields make investments that pay no interest look less attractive. 

 

The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 505 points, or 1.7%, to 29,572 and the Nasdaq fell 1.9% as of 3:43 p.m. Eastern. Smaller company stocks did even worse. The Russell 2000 fell 3%. U.S. crude oil prices slid 5.7% and weighed heavily on energy stocks. 

More than 90% of stocks in the S&P 500 were in the red, with technology companies, retailers and banks among the biggest weights on the benchmark index. The major indexes are on pace for their fifth weekly loss in six weeks. 

The Federal Reserve on Wednesday lifted its benchmark rate, which affects many consumer and business loans, to a range of 3% to 3.25%. It was at virtually zero at the start of the year. The Fed also released a forecast suggesting its benchmark rate could be 4.4% by the year’s end, a full point higher than envisioned in June. 

Treasury yields have climbed to multiyear highs as interest rates rise. The yield on the 2-year Treasury, which tends to follow expectations for Federal Reserve action, rose to 4.19% from 4.12% late Thursday. It is trading at its highest level since 2007. The yield on the 10-year Treasury, which influences mortgage rates, slipped to 3.68% from 3.71%. 

The higher rates mean Goldman Sachs strategists say a majority of their clients now see a “hard landing” that pulls the economy sharply lower as inevitable. The question for them is on the timing, magnitude and length of a potential recession. 

In the U.S., the jobs market has remained remarkably solid, and many analysts think the economy grew in the summer quarter after shrinking in the first six months of the year. But the encouraging signs also suggest the Fed may have to raise rates even higher to get the cooling needed to bring down inflation. 

Some key areas of the economy are already weakening. Mortgage rates have reached 14-year highs, causing sales of existing homes to drop 20% in the past year. But other areas that do best when rates are low are also hurting. 

In Europe, meanwhile, the already fragile economy is dealing with the effects of war on its eastern front following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The European Central Bank is hiking its key interest rate to combat inflation even as the region’s economy is already expected to plunge into a recession. And in Asia, China’s economy is contending with still-strict measures meant to limit COVID infections that also hurt businesses. 

 


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Inflation, Unrest Challenge Bangladesh’s ‘Miracle Economy’

Standing in line to try to buy food, Rekha Begum is distraught. Like many others in Bangladesh, she is struggling to find affordable daily essentials like rice, lentils and onions.

“I went to two other places, but they told me they don’t have supplies. Then I came here and stood at the end of the queue,” said Begum, 60, as she waited for nearly two hours to buy what she needed from a truck selling food at subsidized prices in the capital, Dhaka.

Bangladesh’s economic miracle is under severe strain as fuel price hikes amplify public frustrations over rising costs for food and other necessities. Fierce opposition criticism and small street protests have erupted in recent weeks, adding to pressures on the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, which has sought help from the International Monetary Fund to safeguard the country’s finances.

Experts say Bangladesh’s predicament is nowhere nearly as severe as Sri Lanka’s, where months’ long unrest led its long-time president to flee the country and people are enduring outright shortages of food, fuel and medicines, spending days in queues for essentials. But it faces similar troubles: excessive spending on ambitious development projects, public anger over corruption and cronyism and a weakening trade balance.

Such trends are undermining Bangladesh’s impressive progress, fueled largely by its success as a garment manufacturing hub, toward becoming a more affluent, middle-income country.

The government raised fuel prices by more than 50% last month to counter soaring costs due to high oil prices, triggering protests over the rising cost of living. That led authorities to order the subsidized sales of rice and other staples by government-appointed dealers.

The latest phase of the program, which began Sept. 1, should help about 50 million people, said Commerce Minister Tipu Munshi.

“The government has taken a number of measures to reduce pressures on low-income earners. That is impacting the market and keeping prices of daily commodities competitive,” he said.

The policies are a stopgap for bigger global and domestic challenges.

The war in Ukraine has pushed higher prices of many commodities at a time when they already were surging as demand recovered with a waning of the coronavirus pandemic. In the meantime, countries like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Laos — among many — have seen their currencies weaken against the dollar, adding to the costs for dollar-denominated imports of oil and other goods.

To ease the strain on public finances and foreign reserves, the authorities put a moratorium on big, new projects, cut office hours to save energy and imposed limits on imports of luxury goods and non-essential items, such as sedans and SUVs.

“The Bangladesh economy is facing strong headwinds and turbulence,” said Ahmad Ahsan, an economist and director of the Dhaka-based Policy Research Institute, a think tank. “Suddenly we are back to the era of rolling power cuts, with the taka and the forex reserves under pressure,” he said.

Millions of low-income Bangladeshis, like Begum, whose family of five can barely afford to eat fish or meat even once a month, still struggle to put food on the table.

Bangladesh has made huge strides in the past two decades in growing its economy and fighting poverty. Investments in garment manufacturing have provided jobs for tens of millions of workers, mostly women. Exports of apparel and related products account for more than 80% of its exports.

But with fuel costs so high, authorities shut diesel-run power plants that produced at least 6% of total production, cutting daily power generation by 1,500 megawatts and disrupting manufacturing.

Imports in the last fiscal year, ending in June, 2022, rose to $84 billion, while exports have fluctuated, leaving a record current account deficit of $17 billion.

More challenges are ahead.

Deadlines are fast approaching for repaying foreign loans related to at least 20 mega infrastructure projects, including the $3.6 billion River Padma bridge built by China and a nuclear power plant mostly funded by Russia. Experts say Bangladesh needs to prepare for when repayment schedules ramp up between 2024 and 2026.

In July, in a move economists view as a precautionary measure, Bangladesh sought a $4.5 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund, becoming the third country in South Asia to recently seek its help after Sri Lanka and Pakistan.

Finance Minister A.H.M. Mustafa Kamal said that the government asked the IMF to begin formal negotiations on loans “for balance of payments and budgetary assistance.” The IMF said it was working with Bangladesh to draw up a plan.

Bangladesh’s foreign reserves have been falling, potentially undermining its ability to meet its loan obligations. By Wednesday they had dropped to $36.9 billion from $45.5 billion a year earlier, according to the central bank.

Usable foreign reserves would be about $30 billion, said Zahid Hussain, a former chief economist of the World Bank’s Dhaka office.

“I would not say this is a crisis situation. This is still enough to meet three months of imports, three and half months of imports. But it also means that … you do not have a lot of room for maneuvering on the reserve front,” he said.

Still, despite what some economists say is excessive spending on some costly projects, Bangladesh is better equipped to weather hard times than some other countries in the region.

Its farm sector — tea, rice and jute are major exports — is an effective “shock absorber,” and its economy, four to five times larger than Sri Lanka’s, is less vulnerable to outside calamities like a downturn in tourism.

The economy is forecast to grow at a 6.6% pace this fiscal year, according to the Asia Development Bank’s latest forecast, and the country’s total debt is still relatively small.

“I think in the current context, the most important difference between Sri Lanka and Bangladesh is the debt burden, particularly the external debt,” said Hussain.

Bangladesh’s external debt is under 20% of its gross domestic product, while Sri Lanka’s was around 126% in the first quarter of 2022.

“So, we have some space. I mean debt as a source of stress on the macroeconomy is not much of a much problem yet,” he said.

Waiting in a line to buy subsidized food, 48-year-old Mohammed Jamal said he was not feeling such leeway for his own family.

“It has become unbearable trying to maintain our standard of living,” Jamal said. “Prices are just out of reach for the common people,” he said. “It’s tough living this way.”


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VOA Interview: Anne Neuberger

With Russian President Vladimir Putin accelerating war efforts and threatening to use nuclear weapons, White House Bureau Chief Patsy Widakuswara spoke with Anne Neuberger, deputy national security adviser for cyber and emerging technology at the Biden administration’s National Security Council, on the possibility of increased cyber warfare on Ukraine and her allies. Neuberger also spoke of the recent Iranian cyberattacks on Albania, and the administration’s view of NATO’s collective defense principle in cyber warfare.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

VOA: Anne Nueberger, thank you so much for joining me all today. I’m going to start with Russia. President Vladimir Putin has significantly increased his war efforts. He’s announced mobilization, referendums, threatening nuclear attacks. Are we also expecting an increase in cyberattacks?

DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER FOR CYBER AND EMERGING TECHNOLOGY ANNE NEUBERGER: So first, thank you so much for having me here. It’s really great to be here. Throughout the conflict, beginning when Russia first did its further invasion of Ukraine, we’ve seen Russia use destructive cyberattacks as well as intelligence collection to advance its war mission. We saw the initial destructive attacks on satellite systems, then later on Ukrainian government systems and additional critical infrastructures systems. So one would expect that as Russia further redouble its efforts, that will include cyberattacks as well.

VOA: Have you actually seen indications of it starting?

NEUBERGER: Of additional cyberattacks?

VOA: Of cyberattacks, yes.

NEUBERGER: It’s been a consistent part of Russia’s war effort in Ukraine. So it’s something we expect. Do we have particular indications of an increase in that way at this time? We don’t.

VOA: How are you helping the Ukrainians defend themselves?

NEUBERGER: Such a great question. So beginning back when Russia first invaded Ukraine in 2015-16 and conducted disruptive cyberattacks against Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, we began to work with Ukraine to really strengthen the resilience of its critical infrastructure. That partnership continued up through the months as we were concerned about heightened war activity, and that included work on cybersecurity resilience of critical infrastructure, included our sending in a team from the U.S. Cyber Command, again to work on cybersecurity, teams from the Department of Energy working closely to improve resilience, and ongoing information sharing regarding tactics and techniques used to conduct malicious cyberattacks. So that remains an ongoing partnership all the way from resilience efforts to practical information sharing to help defense systems.

VOA: Are you also working in terms of strengthening their counterattack systems?

NEUBERGER: We’re very focused on cybersecurity resilience systems.

VOA: In that sense, whether it’s a terrorist offense or counterattacks, we’re hearing a lot about this volunteer hackers called the Ukrainian IT army, and I want to hear what your sense of how good and how successful they have been in deterring or thwarting or even stopping Russian attacks. And what kind of support is the administration providing them?

NEUBERGER: We’ve seen quite a bit of volunteer hacking activity with regard to Ukrainian activity to defend accounts. I don’t think we have really good insights in terms of understanding what’s Ukrainian government versus volunteer hacking activity. And, of course, our assistance is government to government. With regard to, as I mentioned earlier, some of the cybersecurity activities assisting the Ukrainian government to build and strengthen its resilience and its defense.

VOA: So just to be clear, your support and your interaction is with the Zelenskyy government, not with groups outside who are also supporting them, like the Ukrainian IT army.

NEUBERGER: Yes, our support is really, along with all of our security systems, government to government.

VOA: You mentioned earlier that, you know, the Russian attack has been consistent. And we also heard that there’s been warnings of major Russian cyberattacks on Ukrainian infrastructure – critical infrastructure. At the beginning or before the start of the war, we heard warnings that that’s how the war is going to start. I’m not quite sure that actually did happen. And in fact, throughout the war, we haven’t really heard any kind of major cyberattack that’s actually crippling Ukrainian critical infrastructure. Is that the case or are we just not hearing about it? What are your thoughts on this?

NEUBERGER: It’s a good question. So first, as Russia began its further invasion of Ukraine, we did see Russia conduct a destructive attack on Ukrainian communication systems, satellite communications systems, the ground parts, as well as on Ukrainian government websites and government systems. That initial attack, the Ukrainians were able to quickly recover and bring back up those systems. The U.S. government, because there was a ripple effect across Europe from their first Russian destructive attack on communication systems, the U.S. government and the European Union called out that activity and said this is irresponsible activity, but the Ukrainian government was able to quickly recover those websites and quickly recover from those destructive attacks, which is really a tribute to all the cybersecurity resilience and focus they put on improving the security of their systems, disconnecting their energy grid from the Russian grid, reconnecting to the European grid and the work they had done to really harden that. So that preparedness and frankly that partnership between various countries assisting the Ukrainians on that work, although the Ukrainians really led that work, was key to their defense. There have been ongoing Russian cyberattacks. The Ukrainians have been very successful at, you know, catching those, and really remediating and addressing them quickly so that they didn’t have significant impact.

VOA: Is the support given to them, government to government, U.S. to Ukraine, or is it also through NATO?

NEUBERGER: The support is from individual governments, the U.S. government, the European individual governments are providing various cybersecurity assistance.

VOA: OK, on the flipside, what do we know about the Russian cyber operations support? I mean to what extent is Russia getting support from other countries? Do we see a strategic alignment in terms of cyber warfare between Russia, China, North Korea, Iran?

NEUBERGER: Russia has a very capable cyber program and one of our focus areas both for the U.S. and for the Europeans has been to really improve our own preparedness, to ensure we lock our doors, lock our digital windows so that we can prepare in case there are heightened Russian cyberattacks as well. So it’s clearly been a focus for us on the U.S. side.

VOA: Have we seen so far that there are strategic alignments or at least tactical alignments between these adversaries in cyber warfare?

NEUBERGER: In the cyber context, no, we haven’t.

VOA: The war in Ukraine is the first conflict where we see some sort of coordination between cyberattacks and kinetic military assault. So in that sense, what are we learning about this hybrid warfare and what are we learning about the Russian capabilities in that realm?

NEUBERGER: I think we’re fundamentally learning that as countries think about their national defense for crisis or conflict, the digital systems they operate at, whether they’re individuals, whether they’re companies, whether they’re governments … need as much to be defended, and the preparation work to understand what are the most important components of your power systems, your water systems, your oil and gas pipelines, and ensuring that they’re up to snuff. The cybersecurity is capable to defend against a capable adversary. And that’s the core message. That doesn’t happen in a moment because these elements of critical infrastructure were digitized in many countries without necessarily considering security baked in at the beginning. And that’s one of the reasons in the U.S. and with partners around the world we’re working to quickly improve the security of critical infrastructure, recognizing that it’s a component of adversaries work in crisis and conflict to either coerce a population, or coerce the government by potentially destabilizing or disrupting digital systems.

VOA: I want to talk some more about what the U.S. is doing in terms of building this responsible state behavior in the cyber realm, but first I just want to talk a little bit on this Iranian cyberattack on Albania. The administration has slapped fresh sanctions on Iran as punishment, yet that didn’t stop them from launching a second attack. Are we not doing enough? Is there nothing else that we can do to deter them and how are we helping the Albanians?

NEUBERGER: It’s such an interesting question. So cyber deterrence is a very new field, and it draws on lessons and the approach we’ve used in other domains, sea, air. How do we build coalitions among countries regarding what’s responsible state behavior in cyberspace and what’s irresponsible because it’s one global commons at the end of the day. Many countries signed up for the United Nations voluntary norms for peacetime, which include a number of norms, and that was signed in both 2015 and 2019. One of those includes not disrupting critical services. And as such, in order to make forms actually be enforced, it requires countries and as big of a coalition as possible to call out behavior that’s not in alignment with those norms, and when possible to impose consequences. So that’s the reason that when we saw the Iranian government’s attack on the Albanian government, really disrupting Albanian government services for quite a period of time to their citizens, we and other countries came together to call out that activity, to say to the Iranians – to attribute it to the Iranians, and then to impose consequences. The Albanian government imposed consequences, we, the U.S., sanctioned the chief and deputy of an Iranian entity as well. And we do that as part of building cyber deterrence. It won’t happen in one or two cases. It happens if repeatedly, quickly, we did this far more quickly than in the past. Also, to achieve those strategic goals of enforcing international cyber norms. But if we do this repeatedly, as a community of countries, we believe that can build cyber deterrence.

VOA: The fact of the matter is, as you’re trying to build these international cyber regimes, there is no consensus at the U.N. Security Council, obviously Russia and China are a part of it. There are U.N. frameworks that cannot be enforced. So under these circumstances, how do you move forward?

NEUBERGER: So Russia is one of the countries who signed the 2015/2019 Governmental Group of Experts norms. So countries that have agreed to those norms, the key we believe is enforcing those norms. And we believe, as I mentioned, that it’s each time, time by time, pointing to countries when they conduct behavior that’s not aligned with those norms, and then continuing to deepen that coalition so that more countries join it, we do it more quickly, and then we eventually mature to also impose consequences. So we believe it will take some time, but those are the steady steps we’re taking along with partners and allies.

VOA: And so that is behind the strategy of this name and shame that you’re applying?

NEUBERGER: It’s part of a broader strategic effort of moving to where we say, in this global shared space, that is cyberspace, where we need collective defense. One key aspect is, as you noted, improving cybersecurity resilience, locking our digital doors, one key aspect is gaining agreement among countries of what is not appropriate behavior – the framework for responsible state behavior in cyberspace and gaining agreement among more countries to enforce those.

VOA: Beyond your Western allies, is there an understanding of the need to do this from, you know, the rest of the world?

NEUBERGER: We believe so, because in many ways, the weaker countries are the ones who are most vulnerable to being coerced via cyberattacks on their government systems, cyberattacks on companies or theft of intellectual property in that way. So we believe it’s in all countries’ interests, whether large or small, because we’ve all digitized. Clearly, some of us have digitized more than others, but we’ve all digitized to where there’s risk to our citizens if critical services are disrupted or if governments are disrupted in moments of crisis.

VOA: I’m going to go back to Iran and Armenia real quick. Groups associated with Iran penetrated various systems in Armenia, including the prime minister’s emails. Are you concerned that Iran may have gained access to sensitive NATO data via this breach? I mean we also heard about Portugal recently where hundreds of NATO documents may have been stolen as well.

NEUBERGER: So clearly, good cybersecurity practices are needed among all NATO members, right? Every member of NATO has to recognize that they bring risks to the broader member if they don’t put in place adequate cybersecurity practices. That’s one of the reasons that we’ve been working very closely in the NATO context in terms of cybersecurity, and to build incident response capability at NATO to mature NATO cyber capabilities, because, as I mentioned earlier, clearly more work needs to be done. You’ve cited a couple of examples that highlight the need for it. I think there’s now a much deeper recognition at NATO and a much deeper recognition to bring allies together to have in place common thresholds of cybersecurity, for important information.

VOA: And still on NATO, as a NATO ally both Albania and Portugal are technically protected under the collective defense principle. So can you explain what the administration’s view of NATO’s principle, an attack on one is an attack on all, in terms of cyber warfare? At what point does a cyberattack merit a counterattack? Are there any criteria? Is there a red line?

NEUBERGER: So this is an area of evolving policy. It’s a very new area. You’ve seen NATO’s policy that one or more cyberattacks could rise to the level of an armed attack. Clearly, that’s a very high threshold of what that is. The work we’re doing at NATO is focused on, first, cybersecurity resilience. There’ll be a NATO Cyber Defense Pledge conference in Rome that will focus both on what are the standards that NATO members have in place for their critical systems, building an incident response capability at NATO so if an ally is attacked, there is a NATO capability that countries can come together and virtually offer support, as well as then using that as an alliance to enforce international norms, but that’s an area we’re still working to evolve.

VOA: One last question on behalf of the VOA audience who may live in countries where there’s not a lot of internet penetration. Why should they care about cybersecurity?

NEUBERGER: In each of our lives, there’s data that’s really important to us, and there is information related to our work, and our country’s economies that are important to the continued growth of our economies and jobs. So there’s easy steps we can take to ensure that our data is safe and, frankly, our families and our children are safe online as well. And that’s really the core reason: that there’s really more – there is connectivity. Countries want to be connected because of the opportunities, the jobs, the commerce that it enables, so building security in from the beginning is the best way to be safe online.


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US Federal Reserve Raises Interest Rates, Promises More Pain 

As the United States heads into November’s midterm elections, the Federal Reserve on Wednesday announced another sharp increase in interest rates as it continues its struggle against stubbornly high inflation. The increase of three-quarters of a percentage point raised the benchmark federal funds rate target to between 3% and 3.25%, the highest it has been in nearly 15 years. 

 

In announcing the change, the Fed said that further increases in the target rate would be “appropriate.” On average, the members of the central bank’s Open Market Committee projected that the midpoint of the target range by year end would be about 4.25%. 

 

The Fed’s battle against inflation has been less effective than policymakers had hoped. Annualized inflation in August was 8.3%, only slightly lower than it had been in July, and more than four times the Fed’s target rate of 2%.  

 

Fed Chair Jerome Powell said in a press conference Wednesday that the Fed was committed to reducing inflation, even though doing so would require an extended period of slow economic growth and would likely increase the unemployment rate. 

 

He characterized the Fed’s choice as being between two evils. 

 

“Higher interest rates, slower growth and a softening labor market are all painful for the public that we serve, but they’re not as painful as failing to restore price stability,” Powell said.

Political uncertainty

The fight against inflation is taking place amid political uncertainty in the U.S. As for the midterms, some experts say Republicans stand a strong chance of taking over one of the two chambers of Congress, which would break Democrats’ unified control of the legislative and executive branches of government and allow Republicans to block much of President Joe Biden’s agenda. 

 

The choice between rising prices and rising interest rates combined with higher unemployment may not be particularly appealing to voters, and neither alternative will likely benefit the incumbent president or his Democratic Party. 

 

Pointing out how Americans are suffering from persistently high inflation has been a major part of Republicans’ campaign strategy this year, and with good reason. In early September, according to a poll taken by the Gallup organization, 56% of Americans reported that their families were experiencing at least “moderate hardship” because of rising prices, with 12% characterizing the hardship as “severe.” 

 

In remarks on the Senate floor this week, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell hammered home the GOP message, saying, “Month after month after month, Democrats’ policy failures are continuing to add inflation on top of inflation. The inflation rate plateauing above 8% does not mean that families are catching a break. It means exactly the opposite. It means that families are continuing to see prices go up, and up, and up all the time.”  

Biden’s response

Biden, meanwhile, has been touting price decreases when they occur and deflecting blame for the increases when possible. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February drove up gasoline prices — the most visible signal of inflation for many Americans — Biden publicly blamed Russian President Vladimir Putin for consumers’ pain. 

 

This week, with gas prices falling, the president declared on Twitter, “Folks, gas prices are now back to levels they were at in early March. That means nearly all of the increases since the beginning of Russia’s war in Ukraine have been wiped out.” 

 

While some prices have fallen, however, others remain stubbornly high. Groceries, housing and electricity, in particular, are much more expensive now than they were a year ago.

Effect on voters

Mark Hamrick, Washington bureau chief for Bankrate.com, told VOA that gauging the political impact of the Fed’s decisions is tricky. 

 

“I’m not sure that voters are going to be spending a lot of time parsing the nuances of monetary policy with respect to their voting decisions, but clearly, the state of the economy is something that affects everyone,” he said. “The impacts of a variety of influences, including high and sustained inflation, the failure of wages to keep up with the rate of inflation, are things that voters and everyone else are very much mindful of.” 

 

He added, “I think that you have to say that to some degree, the current environment does not necessarily help incumbents, per se. But you have to handicap that in the context of, ‘What is the prism through which a voter is looking at the current situation?’ And that’s where it becomes much more murky.”  

Fed actions so far

The Federal Reserve is raising rates to reduce demand in the economy. High demand tends to drive inflation as buyers bid up the price of increasingly scarce goods. As interest rates go higher, though, money becomes more “expensive.” That means a dollar in a savings account earns a higher return than it did before the rate increase and makes account holders somewhat less likely to spend it.

While higher rates might eventually tame inflation, they carry a different kind of cost. When rates rise, it becomes more expensive to borrow money, meaning that businesses may be less willing to invest, and prospective homebuyers may face higher mortgage payments. Incurring credit card debt also becomes more costly, which may tame consumer purchases.

Higher rates are likely to slow economic growth and to increase unemployment. The current rate of unemployment is now low by historical standards, at 3.7%. Members of the Federal Open Market Committee, in Wednesday’s report, indicated that they expect that rate to be as high as 4.5% by the end of next year, which translates into well over 1 million people losing their jobs. 

 

The Fed’s rate increase on Wednesday marks the fifth time the central bank has raised rates in calendar year 2022. After starting the year with a target rate of between 0% and 0.25%, the Open Market Committee began with a modest quarter-percentage-point increase in March, followed by a half-percentage-point increase in May. With inflation continuing to rise, the rate hikes became sharper, with a three-quarter-percentage-point increase in June and then another three-quarter-percentage-point jump in July. 

 

Global phenomenon

While inflation is a major political issue among Americans, who tend to blame it on the current president’s administration, analysts note that the inflation the U.S. is experiencing is part of a global phenomenon. 

 

Annualized inflation in other parts of the world has been on the rise as well. In the European Union in August, it was above 9%, though the differences across countries could be dramatic. Poland, for example, has experienced 16.2% inflation in the year ending in August, while in France, the rate has been a more modest 5.9%. 

 

Prices are also rising in other parts of the world, though at different rates. In the Americas, Canada has seen rates rise 7%, compared with 8.7% in both Mexico and Brazil. In Asia, India has experienced a 7% increase, while China and Japan have seen only 2.5% and 3% increases, respectively.


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Australia and European Union Resume Free Trade Talks

Australia and the European Union (EU) have resumed free trade talks in the Australian capital, Canberra. 

Negotiations over an trade agreement between Australia and the European Union began in 2017.  

Progress has not always been easy.  There was dismay over Australia’s shelving of a lucrative submarine deal with France in favor of the AUKUS alliance with the United States and Britain.  That anger has subsided.  There were, though, also concerns in Europe about Australia’s environmental targets under the previous conservative Canberra government, which was a strong supporter of the fossil fuel industry. 

However, the recently elected Labor government plans to cut emissions by 43% by 2030.  It is the first time environmental targets have been legislated in Australia and the new policy has kick-started trade discussions with Europe.  The EU sent a senior delegation to Canberra this week, and there are hopes a free trade agreement can be signed by the end of 2023.  

The European Union is eager to harness Australian green hydrogen and other critical minerals, such as lithium, used in renewable power. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the subsequent impact on energy supplies, have intensified the EU’s search for reliable suppliers of the minerals needed for energy and digital enterprises.

Bernd Lange, the chair of the European Parliament’s committee on International Trade, believes Australia can play a big part in industrial decarbonization. 

“We are going away from fossil fuels and Australia has a big volume of possible green hydrogen, of lithium, of copper and we want to get it in a sustainable way for the transformation of industry in Europe but also in Australia,” he said.

Australian negotiators want greater access for key farming exports, including beef, dairy, sugar and grain.  However, analysts say that agriculture is a sensitive issue, with some members of the European Union wanting to restrict imports to protect local producers.  

As a bloc, the EU is Australia’s second largest two-way trading partner of goods and services.  The European Union is an economic and political union of 27 countries.

Officials have said “Australia’s position in the world as a global top 20 trading nation is underpinned by our advocacy for an open global economy.”

The Canberra government has signed more than a dozen free trade pacts with various countries and groupings, including Japan, the United States and China, its biggest trading partner.  

Its first free trade agreement was signed with New Zealand in 1983.


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As ‘Buy Now, Pay Later’ Plans Grow, So Do US Delinquencies

Americans have grown fond of “buy now, pay later” services, but the “pay later” part is becoming increasingly difficult for some borrowers.

Buy now, pay later loans allow users to pay for items such new sneakers, electronics, or luxury goods in installments. Companies such as Affirm, Afterpay, Klarna and PayPal have built popular financial products around these short-term loans, particularly for younger borrowers, who are fearful of never-ending credit card debt.

Now, as the industry racks up customers, delinquencies are climbing. Inflation is squeezing consumers, making it tougher to pay off debts. Some borrowers don’t budget properly, particularly if they are persuaded to take out multiple loans, while others may have been credit risks to begin with.

“You have an industry with a higher concentration of subprime borrowers in a market that hasn’t been effectively tested through [this type of economy], and you have a kind of a toxic brew of concerns,” said Michael Taiano, an analyst with Fitch Ratings, who co-wrote a report in July highlighting some of the concerns with the industry.

The most popular type of buy now, pay later loans allow for four payments over six weeks — one payment at the time of purchase and three others that borrowers often try to sync up with pay periods. Longer-term loans for bigger purchases are also available. Most of the short-term loans have no interest attached to them. Companies that do charge interest can clearly state upfront how much a borrower will pay in financial charges.

Given those features, consumer advocates and financial advisers initially had seen buy now, pay later plans as a potentially healthier form of consumer debt if used correctly. The biggest concern had been late fees, which could act as a hefty finance charge on a small purchase if a borrower is late on a payment. The fees can run as high as $34, plus interest. But now as delinquencies are rising, and companies are being more aggressive in marketing their products, advocates see a need for additional regulation.

The industry is growing rapidly, according to a report released Thursday by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Americans took out roughly $24.2 billion in loans on buy now, pay later programs in 2021, up from only $2 billion in 2019. That industry-wide figure is only expected to jump even more. Klarna’s customers bought $41 billion worth of product on its service globally in the first six months of the year, up 21% from a year ago. At PayPal, revenue from its buy now, pay later services more than tripled in the second quarter to $4.9 billion.

Jasmine Francis, 29, a technology analyst based in Charlotte, North Carolina, said she first used a buy now, pay later service in 2018 to buy clothes from fast-fashion brand Forever21.

“I remember I just had a cartful,” she said. “At first, I thought, ‘Something’s gotta go back,’ and then I saw Afterpay at checkout – you don’t pay for it all right now, but you get it all right now. That was music to my ears.”

How healthfully customers are using buy now, pay later loans is unclear. Fitch found that delinquencies on these services rose sharply in the 12 months ended March 31, while credit card delinquencies remained steady.

“This upward trend on delinquencies is continuing,” said Rohit Chopra, director of the CFPB, in a call with reporters.

Credit reporting company TransUnion found that buy now, pay later borrowers are using the product just as much as credit cards, piling on debt on top of additional debt. A poll by Morning Consult released this week found 15% of buy now, pay later customers are using the service for routine purchases, such as groceries and gas, a type of behavior that sounds alarm bells among financial advisors. The CFPB report also found a small, but growing number of Americans using these products for routine purchases as well.

“If these buy now, pay later plans are not adequately budgeted for, they can have a cascading impact across a person’s entire financial life,” said Andre Jean-Pierre, a former Morgan Stanley wealth advisor who now runs his own financial planning firm focused on helping Black Americans adequately save and budget.

Another concern among advisers and consumer advocates, as well as Washington lawmakers and regulators, is the ease with which consumers can layer on these installment loans.

Speaking at a hearing of the Senate Banking Committee Tuesday about new financial products, Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio noted the benefits of plans that allow consumers to pay for things in installments. But he also criticized the way in which the industry promotes the plans.

“Ads encourage consumers to use these plans for multiple purchases, at multiple online stores — racking up debt they cannot afford to repay,” Brown said.

The short-term loans are potentially problematic because they’re not reported on a consumer’s credit profile with Transunion and Experian. Further the buy now, pay later industry’s customers skew young — meaning they have little credit history. Hypothetically, a borrower could take out several short-term loans across multiple buy now, pay later companies — a practice known as “loan stacking” — and they would never appear on a credit report. If a person puts too many items on buy now, pay later plans, budgeting could be difficult.

“It’s a blind spot for the industry,” Taiano of Fitch said.

In a statement, the buy now pay later industry trade group pushed back on the characterization that its products could saddle borrowers with too much debt.

“With zero to low-interest, flexible payment terms, and transparent terms and conditions, BNPL helps consumers manage their cash flow responsibly and live healthier financial lives,” said Penny Lee, CEO of the Financial Technology Association.

Meanwhile providers of buy now, pay later services see rising delinquencies as a natural consequence of growth, but also an indication that inflation is hitting Americans most likely to use these services the hardest.

“We have seen some stress (among those with the lowest credit scores), and those are starting to have a hard time,” said Max Levchin, founder and CEO of Affirm, one of the largest buy now, pay later companies.

“I would not call it a sort of preamble to a potential downturn, but it’s not the same kind of a smooth sailing it’s been,” he said, adding that Affirm is taking a more conservative approach towards lending.

Buy now, pay later took off in the U.S. after the Great Recession. The product, analysts said, largely has not been tested through a great period of financial distress, unlike mortgages or credit cards or auto loans.

Despite these concerns, the consensus is buy now, pay later companies are here to stay. Affirm, Klarna, Afterpay, which is owned by Block Inc., as well as PayPal and others are now widely embedded in Internet commerce.

Further, the industry’s growth is attracting more players. Technology titan Apple earlier this summer announced Apple Pay Later, where users can put purchases on a four-payment plan over six weeks.

“I generally plan purchases that I make using PayPal ‘Pay in 4’ so that my due dates for purchases land on my pay dates, as the due dates are every other week,” said Desiree Moore, 35, from Georgia.

Moore said she tries to use buy now pay later plans to cover purchases not in her usual monthly budget, so not to take money away from the needs of her children. She has been increasingly using the plans with inflation making items more expensive and is so far able to keep up with the payments.

Francis, the technical analyst, said it’s now common among her friends to pay for travel with the installment loans, to not completely drain their bank accounts in case of emergencies.

“If I come back home from vacation and have two flat tires, and I just spent all that money on plane tickets, that’s $400 you don’t have at the moment,” she said. “Most people don’t have savings. They just have enough for those flat tires.”


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