Threat of US Government Shutdown Fuels Concerns About Cyber Vulnerabilities

As the U.S. government seemed headed for a possible shutdown last week, cybersecurity firms began picking up on an alarming trend: a spike in cyberattacks targeting government agencies and the U.S. defense industry.

It has some analysts concerned that U.S. adversaries and criminal hackers might have been preparing to take advantage of weaker-than-usual cybersecurity if lawmakers had not been able to reach a deal to keep U.S. agencies open past September 30.

Check Point Software last week said it had detected an 18% increase in cyberattacks against U.S. agencies and U.S. defense companies during the previous 30 days, compared with weekly averages for the first half of the year.

The attacks, according to Check Point, focused on using malware programs designed to steal information and credentials, as well as a focus on exploiting known vulnerabilities.

A second cybersecurity company, Trellix, told VOA that it too saw “a significant spike” in ransomware attacks on U.S. government agencies over the past 30 days.

Trellix attributed 45% of the malicious cyber activity to Royal ransomware, which previously had been used to target a variety of U.S. manufacturing, health care and education sectors.

Agencies would be affected

A surge in the use of Royal ransomware earlier this year prompted the FBI and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) to issue an advisory this past March. And some cybersecurity analysts have linked Royal ransomware to Russian cybercriminals.

As for the recent spike in attacks, using Royal and other malware, analysts are concerned.

“I can’t state this is related to the impending shutdown,” Patrick Flynn, head of the Advanced Programs Group at Trellix, told VOA via email. “But one could speculate it probably has something to do with it.”


While refusing to comment directly on the pace of cyberattacks as it related to the potential shutdown, U.S. government agencies did express concern.

“[The] Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency’s (CISA) capacity to provide timely and actionable guidance to help partners defend their networks would be degraded,” the Department of Homeland Security said in a fact sheet before the shutdown was averted.

“CISA would also be forced to suspend both physical and cybersecurity assessments for government and industry partners, including election officials as well as target rich, cyber poor sectors like water, K-12, and health care, which are prime targets for ransomware,” it added.

DHS did say that had there been a shutdown, some of its employees who specialize in cybersecurity would have been required to work without pay.

While not commenting directly on the question of cybersecurity, the FBI told VOA in a statement that some of its personnel would also have been required to work in the case of a shutdown to support bureau activities that “involve protecting life and property.”

For now, some of those fears have been put aside after lawmakers agreed on a bill that will fund the U.S. government until November 17.

But if ongoing talks on legislation to fully fund the government for the coming year stall, it could again put U.S. government networks in the crosshairs.

Attacks seem part of trend

Not all cybersecurity analysts are convinced a government shutdown would make the U.S. more vulnerable to cyberattacks.

Trellix told VOA that while malicious cyber activity spiked in the month leading up to passage of the temporary funding bill, the attacks seemed to be part of a larger, months-long trend that has seen cyber actors increasingly target governments across the globe.

Other cybersecurity firms caution that other recent U.S. government shutdowns, including those in 2013 and in late 2018 to early 2019, have not led to a jump in attacks.

“Mandiant hasn’t historically seen any upward trends of cyberattacks tied to government shutdown,” said Ben Read, the head of cyber espionage analysis at Mandiant-Google Cloud.

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Meta Plans to Charge Europeans for Ad-Free Facebook, Instagram, Source Says

Meta is proposing to offer European users subscription-based versions of Instagram and Facebook if they would rather not be tracked for ads, a source said on Tuesday.

The idea, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, comes as the social media giant seeks to comply with a growing list of EU regulations designed to curb the power of U.S. big tech.

The company founded by Mark Zuckerberg makes its billions of dollars in profit by offering advertisers highly individualized data on users, but new European regulations and EU court decisions have made that practice harder to do.

The proposal has been put to EU regulators and is another example of big tech companies having to adapt long-held practices to meet oncoming EU rules.

The source close to the matter said subscribers in Europe could pay $10.50 a month for a desktop version of Instagram or Facebook, or $13.50 a month for Instagram on their phones.

Social media platforms have increasingly floated the idea of charging users for access to their sites, whether to comply with data privacy regulations or better guarantee the identity of users.

But the practice would be a major shift for the social media industry that grew exponentially over the past decade on an advertising model that made the site free for users in return for being tracked and seeing highly personalized ads.

The proposal could help meet several regulations, including the Digital Markets Act, which imposes a list of do’s and don’ts on big tech companies in Europe, including a ban on tracking users when they surf other sites if their consent hasn’t been clearly granted.

It also follows the recommendation of the EU’s highest court, which in a July decision said that Meta platform users who declined to be tracked should be offered an ad-free alternative “for an appropriate fee.”

That ruling echoed many previous rulings against Meta and other big tech firms in which the court ruled that the U.S. company must ask for permission to collect large amounts of personal data, striking down various workarounds that Meta had offered.

Meta declined to comment directly on the Wall Street Journal report but said in a statement that it still “believes in the value of free services which are supported by personalized ads.”

“However, we continue to explore options to ensure we comply with evolving regulatory requirements.”

Meta reported second-quarter revenues of $32 billion, of which $31.5 billion came from advertising. Some $7.2 billion of that came from Europe.

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Belize to Launch Project to Make Biofuel From Seaweed Clogging Coasts

Belize is developing a pilot project to convert the masses of foul-smelling sargassum seaweed swamping its pristine beaches into biofuel, its prime minister said in a statement published by regional Caribbean bloc CARICOM on Tuesday.

Many Caribbean countries depend economically on drawing travelers from around the world to their white sand beaches, but since 2010 heaps of rotting seaweed have been massing on the shores for reasons scientists do not yet fully understand but suspect are related to climate change.

Floating sargassum provides shelter and food for marine animals but as it washes ashore it can smother ecological habitats and begins to rot, becoming harmful to humans.

Belize Prime Minister John Briceno said in the statement that the $50 million facility, the result of a public-private partnership with German company Variodin, would convert municipal solid waste and sargassum into diesel fuel replacements.

The facility could be scaled up with more financing, he said, adding that it would sign a power purchase agreement for energy generated from the plant.

“The sargassum seaweed invasion [is] causing economic, social and environmental wreckage across Belize and the Caribbean,” CARICOM said, citing estimates that the region spends $120 million a year to collect and dispose of it.

“Removal is a vicious cycle of never-ending sargassum, a cycle that removes the seaweed but also the sand, causing further damage to the coastline,” it said, noting that 24 million tons landed on Caribbean coasts last year — damaging tourism, the fishing industry and people’s health.

Briceno said that while complete mitigation is no longer possible, control is within reach.

“Research conducted shows that conversion of sargassum into the Belize energy mix is a viable solution to the problem,” he said, without detailing when the plant would be operational.

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Kenya Panel Urges Shutdown of Worldcoin’s Crypto Project Within Country

A Kenyan parliamentary panel called on the country’s information technology regulator on Monday to shut down the operations of cryptocurrency project Worldcoin within the country until more stringent regulations are put in place.

The government suspended the project in early August following privacy objections over its scanning of users’ irises in exchange for a digital ID to create a new “identity and financial network.”

Worldcoin was rolled out in various countries around the world by Tools for Humanity, a company co-founded by OpenAI CEO Sam Altman. It has also come under scrutiny in Britain, Germany and France.

The project still has a virtual presence in Kenya and can be accessed via the internet, even after the August suspension.

The regulatory Communications Authority of Kenya should “disable the virtual platforms of Tools for Humanity Corp and Tools for Humanity GmbH Germany [Worldcoin] including blacklisting the IP addresses of related websites,” the ad hoc panel of 18 lawmakers said in a report.

It also called for the suspension of the companies’ “physical presence in Kenya until there is a legal framework for regulation of virtual assets and virtual services providers.”

Worldcoin’s press office said it had “not seen anything official announced by the Committee directly.”

The panel’s report will be tabled at the National Assembly for consideration and adoption at a later date.

During the suspension of data collection in August, authorities said the project’s method of obtaining consumer consent in return for a monetary award of just over $50 at the time bordered on inducement.

Registering to use the platform involved long lines of people queuing to get their irises scanned. The parliamentary panel’s investigation found that Worldcoin may have scanned the eyes of minors as there was no age-verification mechanism during the exercise, its report said.

The panel also asked government ministries to develop regulations for crypto assets and firms that provide crypto services and called on the police to investigate Tools for Humanity and take any necessary legal action.

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Swiss-Led Team Drives Electric Vans From Geneva to Doha, Qatar

A Swiss-led team has driven electric vans across Europe and the Arabian Peninsula to Qatar to showcase zero-emission battery powered vehicles, organizers said Sunday.

The five-strong Swiss and German team set out from Geneva on August 28 in two electric Volkswagen vans on a 6,500 kilometer (4,000 mile) journey that ended in Doha on Saturday.

“The motivation was really to do something unusual,” the group’s leader Frank Rinderknecht told AFP. “Certainly we did have the risk of not arriving — technical issues, health issues or an accident.”

The journey aimed to raise awareness about the environmental benefits of electric vehicles, he said. “If our trip put just a little bit of rethinking, of initiative, into people’s minds then I am not unhappy.”

The journey started with a crossing of the Swiss Alps and included what organizers believe was the first west-to-east crossing of Saudi Arabia with electric vehicles.

The team’s ID. Buzz VW vans — modelled on the German manufacturer’s Combi campervan — travelled across 12 countries, reaching Aqaba in Jordan from Turkey by ship.

However, the trip highlighted shortcomings of the charging infrastructure, Rinderknecht said, comparing the mismatch of technologies to the “early days of telecommunication.”

In Europe, the team had to use numerous apps to pay for charging points across different regions. In Jordan, they had to adapt their European systems to the Chinese hardware they found.

The journey to Doha was completed in partnership with the Geneva International Motor Show, which is being held outside the Swiss city for the first time since its inception in 1905.

The 10-day motor show to be held in Qatar from October 5 will feature 31 automotive brands and overlap with the October 8 Qatar Grand Prix at the Lusail International Circuit on Doha’s northern outskirts.

Saad Ali Al Kharji, deputy chairman of Qatar Tourism, said holding events like the motor show was part the gas-rich Gulf state’s “strategic vision of becoming the fastest-growing destination in the Middle East by 2030.”

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Apple to Fix Software Bug Making iPhone 15 Models Too Hot to Handle

Apple is blaming a software bug and other issues tied to popular apps such as Instagram and Uber for causing its recently released iPhone 15 models to heat up and spark complaints about becoming too hot to handle.

The Cupertino, California, company said Saturday that it is working on an update to the iOS17 system that powers the iPhone 15 lineup to prevent the devices from becoming uncomfortably hot and is working with apps that are running in ways “causing them to overload the system.”

Instagram, owned by Meta Platforms, modified its social media app earlier this week to prevent it from heating up the device on the latest iPhone operating system.

Uber and other apps such as the video game Asphalt 9 are in the process of rolling out their updates, Apple said. It didn’t specify a timeline for when its own software fix would be issued but said no safety issues should prevent iPhone 15 owners from using their devices while awaiting the update.

“We have identified a few conditions which can cause iPhone to run warmer than expected,” Apple in a short statement provided to The Associated Press after media reports detailed overheating complaints that are peppering online message boards.

The Wall Street Journal amplified the worries in a story citing the overheating problem in its own testing of the new iPhones, which went on sale a week ago.

It’s not unusual for new iPhones to get uncomfortably warm during the first few days of use or when they are being restored with backup information stored in the cloud — issues that Apple already flagged for users. The devices also can get hot when using apps such as video games and augmented reality technology that require a lot of processing power, but the heating issues with the iPhone 15 models have gone beyond those typical situations.

In its acknowledgement, Apple stressed that the trouble isn’t related to the sleek titanium casing that houses the high-end iPhone 15 Pro and iPhone 15 Pro Max instead of the stainless steel used on older smartphones.

Apple also dismissed speculation that the overheating problem in the new models might be tied to a shift from its proprietary Lightning charging cable to the more widely used USB-C port that allowed it to comply with a mandate issued by European regulators.

Although Apple expressed confidence that the overheating issue can be quickly fixed with the upcoming software updates, the problem still could dampen sales of its marquee product at a time when the company has faced three consecutive quarters of year-over-year declines in overall sales.

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US Supreme Court Will Decide if State Laws Limiting Social Media Platforms Violate Constitution

The Supreme Court agreed Friday to decide whether state laws that seek to regulate Facebook, TikTok, X and other social media platforms violate the Constitution.

The justices will review laws enacted by Republican-dominated legislatures and signed by Republican governors in Florida and Texas. While the details vary, both laws aim to prevent social media companies from censoring users based on their viewpoints.

The court’s announcement, three days before the start of its new term, comes as the justices continue to grapple with how laws written at the dawn of the digital age, or earlier, apply to the online world.

The justices had already agreed to decide whether public officials can block critics from commenting on their social media accounts, an issue that previously came up in a case involving then-President Donald Trump. The court dismissed the Trump case when his presidential term ended in January 2021.

Separately, the high court also could consider a lower-court order limiting executive branch officials’ communications with social media companies about controversial online posts.

The new case follows conflicting rulings by two appeals courts, one of which upheld the Texas law, while the other struck down Florida’s statute. By a 5-4 vote, the justices kept the Texas law on hold while litigation over it continues.

But the alignment was unusual. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett voted to grant the emergency request from two technology industry groups that challenged the law in federal court.

Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Elena Kagan and Neil Gorsuch would have allowed the law to remain in effect. In dissent, Alito wrote, “Social media platforms have transformed the way people communicate with each other and obtain news.”

Proponents of the laws, including Republican elected officials in several states that have similar measures, have sought to portray social media companies as generally liberal in outlook and hostile to ideas outside of that viewpoint, especially from the political right.

The tech sector warned that the laws would prevent platforms from removing extremism and hate speech.

Without offering any explanation, the justices had put off consideration of the case even though both sides agreed the high court should step in.

The justices had other social media issues before them last year, including a plea the court did not embrace to soften legal protections tech companies have for posts by their users.

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Q&A: Taiwan’s Digital Minister Audrey Tang on AI and Censorship

On the sidelines of the 78th United Nations General Assembly in New York last week, Taiwan’s Minister of Digital Affairs Audrey Tang delivered a speech at the Concordia Annual Summit on digital democracy and artificial intelligence. VOA spoke with Tang about how AI might help break through China’s censorship and the challenges and opportunities the technology brings to global democracy.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

VOA: You mentioned the concept of AI governance in your speech. In addition to being applied to democratic countries, can this concept also be applied to totalitarian countries?

Tang: From 2010 to 2012 and 2013, consultative democracy was also studied in some places in the CCP [Chinese Communist Party], but not at the central level. Later, including freedom of the press, assembly, association and expression, all aspects were restricted. If you look at the papers, there have been very few studies promoting consultative democracy through the internet in recent years. Conceptually and theoretically, if we look at the situation in 2000, it seemed possible. But if we look at the situation in recent years, there seems to be no research on this. Maybe the premise is freedom of the press, and people must fully understand what the truth is. Regardless of consultation or deliberation, this foundation is needed. If freedom of the press is deprived, it will not be easy to develop further.

VOA: What do you think of the potential and limitations of artificial intelligence in China?

Tang: Artificial intelligence technology can turn public information on the entire Internet into material. After the [open-source] model is successfully created, it can actually be saved on a USB flash drive. Anyone can run this model on a laptop or personal computer, which greatly challenges censorship. In the past, as long as a comprehensive totalitarian government guarded access to Google, Wikipedia or other websites, it would make it difficult for their people to get the truth. But now, as long as netizens can get the [open-source] language models on a flash drive … they will no longer need an internet connection, and they can always find out what happened and when exactly did it happen.

VOA: Former White House deputy national security adviser Matt Pottinger has proposed punching holes in China’s Great Firewall. Is that possible?

Tang: If the holes are temporary, they will be repaired once people find them. The language models I just mentioned don’t mean that there needs to be holes continuously, but that if there is a certain way to send information in, there is no need to connect to the outside anymore. The bad use is that if a Trojan horse is sent in, there is no need to control the computer anymore, and it can conduct network attacks by itself. This is a bad use. But there is another use, which is to send in the truth, and after that, it can even tell the users in the interactive Q&A format, including showing contemporaneous photos and videos from the time.

VOA: Does your upbringing and way of thinking help you with your current work?

Tang: I am nonbinary not only in terms of gender but also in terms of ideology. Many people have to make choices, such as the left and the right [politically]. For me, they all coexist. I don’t particularly feel I’m very close to or very far from half of the people because they are rightists or leftists. I don’t think that way. Everyone is at the same distance. If I can’t understand the ideas of a certain side, I will feel I’m not plural enough, and I should be in touch with them more.

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Iran Says It Successfully Launched Imaging Satellite Amid Tensions With West

Iran claimed on Wednesday it successfully launched an imaging satellite into space, a move that could further ratchet up tensions with Western nations that fear its space technology could be used to develop nuclear weapons.

Iranian Communication Minister Isa Zarepour said the Noor-3 satellite had been put in an orbit 450 kilometers (280 miles) above Earth’s surface, the state-run IRNA news agency reported. It was not clear when the launch took place.

There was no immediate acknowledgment from Western officials of the launch or of the satellite being put into orbit. The U.S. military did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Iran has had a series of failed launches in recent years.

The most recent launch was carried out by Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, which has had more success. Gen. Hossein Salami, the top commander of the Guard, told state TV that the launch had been a “victory” and that the satellite will collect data and images.

Authorities released footage of a rocket taking off from a mobile launcher without saying where the launch occurred. Details in the video corresponded with a Guard base near Shahroud, some 330 kilometers (205 miles) northeast of the capital, Tehran. The base is in Semnan province, which hosts the Imam Khomeini Spaceport from which Iran’s civilian space program operates.

The Guard operates its own space program and military infrastructure parallel to Iran’s regular armed forces and answers only to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

It launched its first satellite into space in April 2020. But the head of the U.S. Space Command later dismissed it as a “tumbling webcam in space” that would not provide vital intelligence. Western sanctions bar Iran from importing advanced spying technology.

The United States has alleged that Iran’s satellite launches defy a U.N. Security Council resolution and has called on Tehran to undertake no activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.

The U.S. intelligence community’s 2022 threat assessment claims the development of satellite launch vehicles “shortens the timeline” for Iran to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile because it uses similar technology.

Iran has always denied seeking nuclear weapons and says its space program, like its nuclear activities, is for purely civilian purposes. U.S. intelligence agencies and the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, say Iran abandoned an organized military nuclear program in 2003.

Over the past decade, Iran has sent several short-lived satellites into orbit and in 2013 launched a monkey into space. The program has seen recent troubles, however. There have been five failed launches in a row for the Simorgh program, another satellite-carrying rocket.

A fire at the Imam Khomeini Spaceport in February 2019 killed three researchers, authorities said at the time. A launchpad rocket explosion later that year drew the attention of then-President Donald Trump, who taunted Iran with a tweet showing what appeared to be a U.S. surveillance photo of the site.

Tensions are already high with Western nations over Iran’s nuclear program, which has steadily advanced since Trump five years ago withdrew the U.S. from the 2015 nuclear agreement with world powers and restored crippling sanctions on Iran.

Efforts to revive the agreement reached an impasse more than a year ago. Since then, the IAEA has said Iran has enough uranium enriched to near-weapons grade levels to build “several” nuclear weapons if it chooses to do so. Iran is also building a new underground nuclear facility that would likely be impervious to U.S. or Israeli airstrikes. Both countries have said they would take military action if necessary to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.

Iran has expressed willingness to return to the 2015 nuclear deal but says the U.S. should first ease the sanctions.

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New Artificial Intelligence Solutions Developed to Combat Wildfires

Wildfires fueled by climate change have ravaged communities from Maui to the Mediterranean this summer, killing many people, exhausting firefighters and fueling demand for new solutions. Enter artificial intelligence.

Firefighters and startups are using AI-enabled cameras to scan the horizon for signs of smoke. A German company is building a constellation of satellites to detect fires from space. And Microsoft is using AI models to predict where the next blaze could be sparked.

With wildfires becoming larger and more intense as the world warms, firefighters, utilities and governments are scrambling to get ahead of the flames by tapping into the latest AI technology — which has stirred both fear and excitement for its potential to transform life. While increasingly stretched first responders hope AI offers them a leg up, humans are still needed to check that the tech is accurate.

California’s main firefighting agency this summer started testing an AI system that looks for smoke from more than 1,000 mountaintop camera feeds and is now expanding it statewide.

The system is designed to find “abnormalities” and alert emergency command centers, where staffers will confirm whether it’s indeed smoke or something else in the air.

“The beauty of this is that it immediately pops up on the screen and those dispatchers or call takers are able to interrogate that screen” and determine whether to send a crew, said Phillip SeLegue, staff chief of intelligence for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The cameras, part of a network that workers previously had to watch, provide billions of bytes of data for the AI system to digest. While humans still need to confirm any smoke sightings, the system helps reduce fatigue among staffers typically monitoring multiple screens and cameras, alerting them to look only when there’s possible fire or smoke, SeLegue said.

It’s already helped. A battalion chief got a smoke alert in the middle of the night, confirmed it on his cellphone and called a command center in San Diego to scramble first responders to the remote area.

The dispatchers said that if they hadn’t been alerted, the fire would have been much larger because it likely wouldn’t have been noticed until the next morning, SeLegue said.

San Francisco startup Pano AI takes a similar approach, mounting cameras on cell towers that scan for smoke and alert customers, including fire departments, utility companies and ski resorts.

The cameras use computer vision machine learning, a type of AI.

“They’re trained very specifically to detect smoke or not, and we train them with images of smoke and images of not smoke,” CEO Sonia Kastner said.

The images are combined with feeds from government weather satellites that scan for hotspots, along with other data sources, such as social media posts.

The technology gets around one of the main problems in the traditional way of detecting wildfires — relying on 911 calls from passers-by that need confirmation from staffers before crews and water-dropping planes can be deployed.

“Generally, only one in 20 of these 911 calls are actually a wildfire. Even during fire season, it might be a cloud or fog or a barbecue,” Kastner said.

Pano AI’s systems do still rely on final confirmation, with managers playing a time lapse of the camera feed to ensure it’s smoke rising.

For fighting forest fires, “technology is becoming really essential,” said Larry Bekkedahl, senior vice president of energy delivery at Portland General Electric, Oregon’s largest utility and a Pano AI customer.

Utility companies sometimes play a role in sparking wildfires, when their power lines are knocked down by wind or struck by falling trees. Hawaii’s electric utility acknowledged that its power lines started a devastating blaze in Maui this summer after apparently being downed by high winds.

PGE, which provides electricity to 51 cities in Oregon, has deployed 26 Pano AI cameras, and Bekkedahl said they have helped speed up response and coordination with emergency services.

Previously, fire departments were “running around looking for stuff and not even really knowing exactly where it’s at,” he said. The cameras help detect fires quicker and get teams on the ground faster, shaving up to two hours off response times.

“That’s significant in terms of how fast that fire can can spread and grow,” Bekkedahl said.

Using AI to detect smoke from fires “is relatively easy,” said Juan Lavista Ferres, chief data scientist at Microsoft.

“What is not easy is to have enough cameras that cover enough places,” he said, pointing to vast, remote areas in northern Canada that have burned this summer.

Ferres’ team at Microsoft has been developing AI models to predict where fires are likely to start. They have fed the model with maps of areas that burned previously, along with climate and geospatial data.

The system has its limitations — it can’t predict random events like a lightning strike. But it can sift through historical weather and climate data to identify patterns, such as areas that are typically drier. Even a road, which indicates people are nearby, is a risk factor, Ferres said.

“It’s not going to get it all perfectly right,” he said. “But what it can do is it can build a probability map (based on) what happened in the past.”

The technology, which Microsoft plans to offer as an open-source tool, can help first responders trying to figure out where to focus their limited resources, Ferres said.

Another company is looking to the heavens for a solution. German startup OroraTech analyzes satellite images with artificial intelligence.

Taking advantage of advances in camera, satellite and AI technology, OroraTech has launched two mini satellites about the size of a shoebox into low orbit, about 550 kilometers above Earth’s surface. The Munich-based company has ambitions to send up eight more next year and eventually put 100 into space.

As wildfires swept central Chile this year, OroraTech said it provided thermal images at night when aerial drones are used less frequently.

Weeks after OroraTech launched its second satellite, it detected a fire near the community of Keg River in northern Alberta, where flames burned remote stretches of boreal forest repeatedly this summer.

“There are algorithms on the satellite, very efficient ones to detect fires even faster,” CEO Thomas Gruebler said.

The AI also takes into account vegetation and humidity levels to identify flare-ups that could spawn devastating megafires. The technology could help thinly stretched firefighting agencies direct resources to blazes with the potential to cause the most damage.

“Because we know exactly where the fires are, we can see how the fires will propagate,” Gruebler said. “So, which fire will be the big fire in one day and which will stop on their own.”

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NASA’s 1st Asteroid Samples Land on Earth After Spacecraft Release 

NASA’s first asteroid samples fetched from deep space parachuted into the Utah desert Sunday to cap a seven-year journey.

In a flyby of Earth, the Osiris-Rex spacecraft released the sample capsule from 63,000 miles (100,000 kilometers) out. The small capsule landed four hours later on a remote expanse of military land, as the mothership set off after another asteroid.

Scientists estimate the capsule holds at least a cup of rubble from the carbon-rich asteroid known as Bennu but won’t know for sure until the container is opened. Some spilled and floated away when the spacecraft scooped up too much and rocks jammed the container’s lid during collection three years ago.

Japan, the only other country to bring back asteroid samples, gathered about a teaspoon in a pair of asteroid missions.

The pebbles and dust delivered Sunday represent the biggest haul from beyond the moon. Preserved building blocks from the dawn of our solar system 4.5 billion years ago, the samples will help scientists better understand how Earth and life formed.

Osiris-Rex, the mothership, rocketed away on the $1 billion mission in 2016. It reached Bennu two years later and, using a long stick vacuum, grabbed rubble from the small roundish space rock in 2020. By the time it returned, the spacecraft had logged 4 billion miles (6.2 billion kilometers).

NASA’s recovery effort in Utah included helicopters as well as a temporary clean room set up at the Defense Department’s Utah Test and Training Range. The samples will be flown Monday morning to a new lab at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. The building already houses the hundreds of pounds (kilograms) of moon rocks gathered by the Apollo astronauts more than a half-century ago.

The mission’s lead scientist, Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona, will accompany the samples to Texas. The opening of the container in Houston in the next day or two will be “the real moment of truth,” given the uncertainty over the amount inside, he said ahead of the landing.

Engineers estimate the canister holds 250 grams (8.82 ounces) of material from Bennu, plus or minus 100 grams (plus or minus 3.53 ounces). Even at the low end, it will easily surpass the minimum requirement of the mission, Lauretta said.

It will take a few weeks to get a precise measurement, said NASA’s lead curator Nicole Lunning.

NASA plans a public show-and-tell in October.

Currently orbiting the sun 50 million miles (81 million kilometers) from Earth, Bennu is about one-third of a mile (one-half of a kilometer) across, roughly the size of the Empire State Building but shaped like a spinning top. It’s believed to be the broken fragment of a much larger asteroid.

During a two-year survey, Osiris-Rex found Bennu to be a chunky rubble pile full of boulders and craters. The surface was so loose that the spacecraft’s vacuum arm sank a foot or two (0.5 meters) into the asteroid, sucking up more material than anticipated and jamming the lid.

These close-up observations may come in handy late in the next century. Bennu is expected to come dangerously close to Earth in 2182 — possibly close enough to hit. The data gleaned by Osiris-Rex will help with any asteroid-deflection effort, according to Lauretta.

Osiris-Rex is already chasing after the asteroid Apophis and will reach it in 2029.

This was NASA’s third sample return from a deep-space robotic mission. The Genesis spacecraft dropped off bits of solar wind in 2004, but the samples were compromised when the parachute failed, and the capsule slammed into the ground. The Stardust spacecraft successfully delivered comet dust in 2006.

NASA’s plans to return samples from Mars are on hold after an independent review board criticized the cost and complexity. The Martian rover Perseverance has spent the past two years collecting core samples for eventual transport to Earth.

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Arizona Governor: Taiwan Firm’s Semiconductor Plant Back on Schedule

Earlier this year, Taiwanese semiconductor giant TSMC announced that it was delaying the opening of a computer chip plant in the U.S. state of Arizona because of a shortage of specialized workers. But during a visit to Taiwan this week, Arizona Governor Katie Hobbs told officials that the project is back on schedule and should have no further delays. From Phoenix, Arizona, Levi Stallings has our story.

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School Shooting Survivor Develops App That Seeks to Help People Heal

Kai Koerber was a junior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School when a gunman killed 14 students and three staff members there on Valentine’s Day in 2018.

Seeing his peers — and himself — struggle with returning to normal, he wanted to do something to help people manage their emotions on their own terms.

While some of his classmates at the Parkland, Florida, school have worked on advocating for gun control, entered politics or simply taken a step back to heal and focus on their studies, Koerber’s background in technology — he’d originally wanted to be a rocket scientist — led him in a different direction: to build a smartphone app.

The result was Joy: AI Wellness Platform, which uses artificial intelligence to suggest bite-sized mindfulness activities for people based on how they are feeling. The algorithm Koerber’s team built is designed to recognize how people feel from the sounds of their voices — regardless of the words or language they speak.

“In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, the first thing that came to mind after we’ve experienced this horrible, traumatic event — how are we going to personally recover?” he said. “It’s great to say OK, we’re going to build a better legal infrastructure to prevent gun sales, increased background checks, all the legislative things. But people really weren’t thinking about … the mental health side of things.”

Like many of his peers, Koerber said he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder for a “very long time” and only recently has it gotten a little better.

“So, when I came to Cal, I was like, ‘Let me just start a research team that builds some groundbreaking AI and see if that’s possible,’” said the 23-year-old, who graduated from the University of California at Berkeley earlier this year. “The idea was to provide a platform to people who were struggling with, let’s say sadness, grief, anger … to be able to get a mindfulness practice or wellness practice on the go that meets our emotional needs on the go.”

He said it was important to offer activities that can be done quickly, sometimes lasting just a few seconds, wherever the user might be.

Mohammed Zareef-Mustafa, a former classmate of Koerber’s who’s been using the app for a few months, said the voice-emotion recognition part is “different than anything I’ve ever seen before.”

“I use the app about three times a week, because the practices are short and easy to get into. It really helps me quickly de-stress before I have to do things, like job interviews,” he said.

To use Joy, you simply speak into the app. The AI is supposed to recognize how you are feeling from your voice, then suggest short activities.

It doesn’t always get your mood right, so it’s possible to manually pick your disposition. Let’s say you are feeling “neutral” at the moment. The app suggests several activities, such as 15-second exercise called “mindful consumption” that encourages you to “think about all the lives and beings involved in producing what you eat or use that day.”

Yet another activity helps you practice making an effective apology. Feeling sad? A suggestion pops up asking you to track how many times you’ve laughed over a seven-day period and tally it up at the end of the week to see what moments gave you a sense of joy, purpose or satisfaction.

The iPhone app is available for an $8 monthly subscription, with a discount if you subscribe for a whole year. It’s a work in progress, and as it goes with AI, the more people use it, the more accurate it becomes.

A plethora of wellness apps on the market claim to help people with mental health issues, but it’s not always clear whether they work, said Colin Walsh, a professor of biomedical informatics at Vanderbilt University who has studied the use of AI in suicide prevention. According to Walsh, it is feasible to take someone’s voice and glean some aspects of their emotional state.

“The challenge is if you as a user feel like it’s not really representing what you think your current state is like, that’s an issue,” he said. “There should be some mechanism by which that feedback can go back.”

The stakes also matter. Facebook, for instance, faced criticism for its suicide prevention tool, which used AI (as well as humans) to flag users who may be contemplating suicide, and — in some serious cases — contact law enforcement to check on the person. But if the stakes are lower, Walsh said, if the technology is simply directing someone to spend some time outside, it’s unlikely to cause harm.

Koerber said people tend to forget, after mass shootings, that survivors don’t just “bounce back right away” from the trauma they experienced. It takes years to recover.

“This is something that people carry with them, in some way, shape or form, for the rest of their lives,” he said.

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Report: Increase in Chinese-Language Malware Could ‘Challenge’ Russian Dominance of Cybercrime

For decades, Russian and eastern European hackers have dominated the cybercrime underworld. These days they may face a challenge from a new contender: China. 

Researchers at cybersecurity firm Proofpoint say they have detected an increase in the spread of Chinese language malware through email campaigns since early 2023, signaling a surge in Chinese cybercrime activity and a new trend in the global threat landscape. 

“We basically went from drought to flood here,” said Selena Larson, senior threat intelligence analyst at Proofpoint and one of the authors of a new Proofpoint report on Chinese malware.  

The increase, Larson said, could be due to several factors. 

“There might be increased availability, there might be an ease of access to some of this malware, (and there might be) just increased activity by Chinese-speaking cybercrime threat actors as a whole,” Larson said in an interview. 

While Russian-speaking actors continue to dominate cybercrime networks, the Proofpoint report says the recent surge in Chinese language malware “may challenge the dominance that the Russian-speaking cybercrime market has on the threat landscape.” 

Malware delivered via email

The hackers behind the Chinese campaigns use a type of malicious software known as a Remote Access Trojan, or RAT.  This malware is delivered via email and allows the cybercriminals to access a computer from a remote location and steal data or perform other malicious actions. 

The Chinese language malware, contained in fake invoices sent to unsuspecting businesses and other targets, is linked to suspected Chinese cybercrime operations, according to Proofpoint.  

The cybercriminals have used several types of malware to carry out hacking operations.  

One of them, called Sainbox, targeted dozens of companies, mostly in the manufacturing and technology sectors, in May. Other recently identified malware, dubbed ValleyRAT, was deployed in at least six hacking campaigns in 2023.  

“Campaigns are generally low-volume and are typically sent to global organizations with operations in China,” the report says.   

The email subjects and content are usually written in Chinese, and are typically related to invoices, payments, and new products, according to the report.  

The targeted users have Chinese names spelled with Chinese characters, or corporate email addresses linked to businesses operating in China, the report says.  

Larson said the proliferation of Chinese-language malware suggests cybercrime remains lucrative and attractive to actors beyond eastern Europe.  

“It may indicate Chinese speakers who conduct cybercrime operations might want to maybe take a larger slice of the financial gain,” Larson said. 

Cybercrime hurts economy 

Cybercrime is a booming industry that poses a grave threat to the global economy.  The FBI estimates cybercriminals inflicted potential losses of more than $10 billion in 2022, a 43% increase from the previous year.

While China is accused of carrying out state-sponsored cyberattacks against the United States, most of the ransomware attacks and other cybercrime in recent years have been chalked up to eastern European groups.   

Proofpoint is not the only cybersecurity firm reporting on Chinese-language malware in recent months. 

In February, digital security firm ESET said it had identified a malware campaign that targeted Chinese speakers in Southeast and East Asia by buying misleading ads that appeared in Google search results.

The campaign used the malware known as Sainbox or FatalRAT, the type that Proofpoint said it had detected in 20 campaigns this year. 

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German Proposal for Huawei Curbs Triggers Telecom Operator Backlash

Germany’s interior ministry has proposed forcing telecommunications operators to curb their use of equipment made by China’s Huawei and ZTE, a government official said Wednesday, sparking warnings of likely disruption and possible legal action.

The interior ministry wants to impose the changes to 5G networks after a review highlighted Germany’s reliance on the two Chinese suppliers, as Berlin reassesses its relationship with a country it dubs both a partner and a systemic rival.

Telecom operators swiftly criticized the proposals, while Huawei Germany rejected what it called the “politicization” of cyber security in the country.

“Such an approach will have a negative impact on the digital transformation in Germany, inhibit innovation and significantly increase construction and operating costs for network operators,” it said in a statement.

Germany’s interior ministry has designed a staggered approach to try to limit disruption as operators remove all critical components from Chinese vendors in their 5G core networks by 2026, the government official said.

They should also reduce the share of Chinese components in their RAN and transport networks by October 1, 2026, to a maximum of 25%, said the official, who declined to be named.

The interior ministry and Chinese embassy did not immediately reply to requests for comment.

‘A major U-turn’

Deutsche Telekom called the deadline unrealistic, comparing it to Britain’s attempts to impose restrictions on Huawei, while Telefonica Deutschland said it would consider seeking damages as well as legal action.

“This represents a major U-turn,” said Paolo Pescatore, an analyst at PP Foresight. “Germany has been much slower than other countries in removing and replacing Huawei.”

Pescatore said the phaseout would take significant investment and be challenging given the ambitious timeframe.

“This will be a major headache for telcos. It could hold back 5G rollout and potentially lead to higher prices for users as well as dealing with disruption in any service issues.”

The interior ministry wants to present its approach to cabinet next week but could face resistance. A digital ministry spokesperson said no decision had been made yet.

The Huawei issue reflects a realization in Berlin that it may need tough political measures to force German companies to reduce their strategic dependencies on Asia’s rising superpower.

An analysis by the IW Institute showed German direct investment in China in the first half of this year remained close to its 2022 record high.

Chinese components not forbidden

Germany is considered a laggard in implementing the European Union’s toolbox of security measures for 5G networks, and Huawei accounts for 59% of Germany’s 5G RAN networks, according to a survey by telecoms consultancy Strand Consult.

Last week, the government said in response to a parliamentary inquiry that it had so far not forbidden the use of any new Chinese critical components in 5G networks.

While some countries like the United States have agreed to compensate telecoms operators billions of dollars for phasing out Chinese gear in 5G, Berlin has underscored that current legislation does not require it to provide compensation.

Juergen Gruetzner, managing director of the VATM industry association, told Reuters a transition period of six to eight years would be needed to avoid extra costs and achieve the phaseout.

“Simply upgrading and retrofitting tens of thousands of mobile phone masts is not technically possible. We are already working at full capacity,” he said. “All the capacity we have at the moment is needed to build 5G and fiber networks.”

The interior ministry plan foresees Chinese tech not being used at all in especially sensitive regions such as the capital Berlin, home of the federal government, the official said — a distinction that Strand Consult called “arbitrary.”

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Google Plans to Incorporate Its Bard Chatbot Into Its Apps

Google announced Tuesday that its Bard chatbot would be integrated into Gmail, YouTube and other applications in a push to broaden Alphabet’s user experience.

Google has spent years refining its generative AI without immediate plans to release a chatbot, until OpenAI unveiled ChatGPT late last year and partnered with Microsoft to popularize the cutting-edge tool. Google scrambled to put together its response: Bard.

Google cleared hurdles earlier this year to release Bard across the globe in dozens of languages, squeaking past European regulators who raised questions about the chatbot’s effect on data security.

The search engine giant is now waging a campaign to win public support.

These new updates — Bard extensions — represent the company’s most ambitious attempt at popularizing generative AI. Going forward, Bard can work as a plug-in with Google Drive, Gmail, YouTube and more.

A user might ask Bard to distill a string of lengthy and confusing emails into a pithy summary or order the chatbot to find the quickest route to an address using Google Maps.

The plug-in can be used by students and professionals who might want Bard to scour dense PDFs and Google Docs and return a list of bullet points.

A common criticism of chatbots is their inaccuracy and apparent ability to falsify information. Computer scientists call this flaw “hallucinations.” The Bard plug-in will include a button to fact-check the chatbot’s answers against search engine results in real time to determine if Bard is “hallucinating.”

Generative AI combs vast databases for linguistic patterns and other information in a process known as data-scraping. Data-scraping is what empowers Bard and ChatGPT to create unique, humanlike answers to queries in an instant. Essentially, chatbots imitate what is already available on the internet.

Activists have long worried that companies might train their chatbots on unsuspecting users’ personal information. Google said that Bard will access private data only with permission.

Google also said that any data-scraping it might perform on what users have stored in their personal Docs, Drive or Gmail accounts would not be used in targeted advertising or training Bard. Nor would private content be accessible to Google employees.

“You’re always in control of your privacy settings when deciding how you want to use these extensions, and you can turn them off at any time,” Google said in a blog post.

The Bard extensions come after Microsoft similarly incorporated ChatGPT into Bing earlier this year but ultimately failed to gain ground in its war on Google’s search engine dominance.

According to market analytics, ChatGPT, Bard’s top competitor, has been suffering marked declines in its user base as mania over generative AI has waned in recent months. Google is hoping to capitalize on ChatGPT’s losses and for Bard to catch up.

Some information for this story came from Agence France-Presse.

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Britain Invites China to Its Global AI Summit

Britain has invited China to its global artificial intelligence summit in November, with foreign minister James Cleverly saying the risks of the technology could not be contained if one of its leading players was absent.

“We cannot keep the UK public safe from the risks of AI if we exclude one of the leading nations in AI tech,” Cleverly said in a statement on Tuesday.  

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak wants Britain to become a global leader in AI regulation and the summit on Nov. 1-2 will bring together governments, tech companies and academics to discuss the risks posed by the powerful new technology.

Britain said the event would touch on topics such as how AI could undermine biosecurity as well as how the technology could be used for public good, for example in safer transport.  

Cleverly, who last month became the most senior minister to visit China in five years, has argued for deeper engagement with Beijing, saying it would be a mistake to try to isolate the world’s second largest economy and Chinese help was needed in areas such as climate change and economic instability.

“The UK’s approach to China is to protect our institutions and infrastructure, align with partners and engage where it is in the UK’s national interest,” Cleverly said on Tuesday.  

London is trying to improve ties with Beijing but there has been growing anxiety about Chinese activity in Britain in recent weeks after it was revealed that a parliamentary researcher was arrested in March on suspicion of spying for China.

The Chinese embassy in London was not immediately able to say if China would attend the AI summit.

Britain has appointed tech expert Matt Clifford and former senior diplomat Jonathan Black to lead preparations for the summit.  

The Financial Times reported that government officials want a less “draconian” approach to regulating the technology, compared with the European Union’s wide-sweeping AI Act.  

Under the incoming EU legislation, organizations using AI systems deemed “high risk” will be expected to complete rigorous risk assessments, log their activities, and make sensitive internal data available to authorities upon request.  

Clifford told Reuters last month that he hoped the UK summit would set the tone for future international debates on AI regulation.

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FBI Echoes Warning on Danger of Artificial Intelligence

Just as many in the United States are starting to explore how to use artificial intelligence to make their lives easier, U.S. adversaries and criminal gangs are moving forward with plans to exploit the technology at Americans’ expense.

FBI Director Christopher Wray issued the warning Monday, telling a cybersecurity conference in Washington that artificial intelligence, or AI, “is ripe for potential abuses.”

“Criminals and hostile foreign governments are already exploiting that technology,” Wray said, without sharing specifics.

“While generative AI can certainly save law-abiding citizens time by automating tasks, it can also make it easier for bad guys to do things like generate deepfakes and malicious code and can provide a tool for threat actors to develop increasingly powerful, sophisticated, customizable and scalable capabilities,” he said.

Wray said the FBI is working to identify and track those using AI to harm U.S. citizens but added that the bureau is being cautious about employing AI itself.

“To stay ahead of the threat at the FBI, we’re determining how we can ethically and legally leverage AI to do our jobs,” he said.

When contacted by VOA, the FBI declined to elaborate on its concerns about employing AI. Nor did the bureau say when or if it has used AI, even on a limited basis.

Other U.S. national security agencies, however, are currently making use of AI.

The Department of Homeland Security is using AI to combat fentanyl trafficking, counter child sexual exploitation and protect critical infrastructure, according to department officials, even as they roll out guidelines governing its use.

“Artificial intelligence is a powerful tool,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement last Thursday. “Our department must continue to keep pace with this rapidly evolving technology, and do so in a way that is transparent and respectful of the privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties of everyone we serve.”

DHS has also issued directives aimed at preventing its use of AI from being skewed by biased learning models and databases, and to give U.S. citizens a choice of opting out of systems using facial recognition technology.

But across multiple U.S. departments and agencies, the fear of the potential damage AI could cause is growing.

FBI officials, for example, warned in July that violent extremists and terrorists have been experimenting with AI to more easily build explosives.

And they said a growing number of criminals appear to be gravitating to the technology to carry out everything from petty crimes to financial heists.

It is China, though, that is driving the bulk of the concern.

National Security Agency officials have warned that Beijing started using AI to disseminate propaganda via what they described as a fake news channel last year.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” David Frederick, the NSA’s assistant deputy director for China, told a cybersecurity summit earlier this month.

“[Artificial intelligence] will enable more effective malign influence operations,” he added.

Such concerns have been bolstered by private cybersecurity companies.

Microsoft, for example, warned earlier this month that Chinese-linked cyber actors have started using AI to produce “eye-catching content” for disinformation efforts that has been gaining traction with U.S. voters.

“We can expect China to continue to hone this technology over time, though it remains to be seen how and when it will deploy it at scale,” Microsoft said.

For its part, China has repeatedly denied allegations it is using AI improperly.

“In recent years, some western media and think tanks have accused China of using artificial intelligence to create fake social media accounts to spread so-called ‘pro-China’ information,” Chinese Embassy spokesperson Liu Pengyu told VOA in an email, following the publication of the Microsoft report.

“Such remarks are full of prejudice and malicious speculation against China, which China firmly opposes,” Liu added.

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Water-Starved Saudi Confronts Desalination’s Heavy Toll

Solar panels soak up blinding noontime rays that help power a water desalination facility in eastern Saudi Arabia, a step towards making the notoriously emissions-heavy process less environmentally taxing.

The Jazlah plant in Jubail city applies the latest technological advances in a country that first turned to desalination more than a century ago, when Ottoman-era administrators enlisted filtration machines for hajj pilgrims menaced by drought and cholera.

Lacking lakes, rivers and regular rainfall, Saudi Arabia today relies instead on dozens of facilities that transform water from the Gulf and Red Sea into something potable, supplying cities and towns that otherwise would not survive.

But the kingdom’s growing desalination needs — fueled by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s dreams of presiding over a global business and tourism hub — risk clashing with its sustainability goals, including achieving net-zero emissions by 2060.

Projects like Jazlah, the first plant to integrate desalination with solar power on a large scale, are meant to ease that conflict: officials say the panels will help save around 60,000 tons of carbon emissions annually.

It is the type of innovation that must be scaled up fast, with Prince Mohammed targeting a population of 100 million people by 2040, up from 32.2 million today.

“Typically, the population grows, and then the quality of life of the population grows,” necessitating more and more water, said CEO Marco Arcelli of ACWA Power, which runs Jazlah.

Using desalination to keep pace is a “do or die” challenge, said historian Michael Christopher Low at the University of Utah, who has studied the kingdom’s struggle with water scarcity.

“This is existential for the Gulf states. So when anyone is sort of critical about what they’re doing in terms of ecological consequences, I shake my head a bit,” he said.

At the same time, he added, “there are limits” as to how green desalination can be.

Drinking the sea

The search for potable water bedeviled Saudi Arabia in the first decades after its founding in 1932, spurring geological surveys that contributed to the mapping of its massive oil reserves.

Prince Mohammed al-Faisal, a son of King Faisal whom Low has dubbed the “Water Prince,” at one point even explored the possibility of towing icebergs from Antarctica to quench the kingdom’s growing thirst, drawing widespread ridicule.

But Prince Mohammed also oversaw the birth of the kingdom’s modern desalination infrastructure beginning in 1970.

The national Saline Water Conversion Corporation (SWCC) now reports production capacity of 11.5 million cubic meters per day at 30 facilities.

That growth has come at a cost, especially at thermal plants running on fossil fuels.

By 2010, Saudi desalination facilities were consuming 1.5 million barrels of oil per day, more than 15 percent of today’s production.

The Ministry of Environment, Water and Agriculture did not respond to AFP’s request for comment on current energy consumption at desalination plants.

Going forward, there is little doubt Saudi Arabia will be able to build the infrastructure required to produce the water it needs.

“They have already done it in some of the most challenging settings, like massively desalinating on the Red Sea and providing desalinated water up to the highlands of the holy cities in Mecca and Medina,” said Laurent Lambert of the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies.

Going green?

The question is how much the environmental toll will continue to climb.

The SWCC says it wants to cut 37 million metric tons of carbon emissions by 2025.

This will be achieved largely by transitioning away from thermal plants to plants like Jazlah that use electricity-powered reverse osmosis.

Solar power, meanwhile, will expand to 770 megawatts from 120 megawatts today, according to the SWCC’s latest sustainability report, although the timeline is unclear.

“It’s still going to be energy-intensive, unfortunately, but energy-intensive compared to what?” Lambert said.

“Compared to countries which have naturally flowing water from major rivers or falling from the sky for free? Yeah, sure, it’s always going to be more.”

At desalination plants across the kingdom, Saudi employees understand just how crucial their work is to the population’s survival.

The Ras al-Khair plant produces 1.1 million cubic meters of water per day — 740,000 from thermal technology, the rest from reverse osmosis — and struggles to keep reserve tanks full because of high demand.

Much of the water goes to Riyadh, which requires 1.6 million cubic meters per day and could require as much as six million by the end of the decade, said an employee who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media.

Looking out over pipes that draw seawater from the Gulf into the plant, he described the work as high-stakes, with clear national security implications.

If the plant did not exist, he said, “Riyadh would die.”

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Somalia’s Digital ID Revolution: A Journey From Standstill to Progress

For more than three decades, Somalia’s digital identity system remained stagnant, untouched by the major technological changes sweeping the globe. That standstill is now coming to an end, says Somali Prime Minister Hamza Abdi Barre.

In a historic move, Barre convened a two-day conference in Mogadishu on Saturday, marking the official return of civil registration and the issuance of national ID cards.

“Today marks a great day for Somalia as we finally lay the foundations of a reliable and all-inclusive national identification system that is recognized worldwide,” Barre said.

After the official inauguration of the system Saturday by the prime minister in Mogadishu, the President of the Federal Republic of Somalia, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who was in the city of Dhusamareb commanding the fight against al-Shabab militants in central Somalia, received his national identification card.

“The ID card issuance was started by the president and the PM and it is part of a rollout in the country, which every Somali citizen is eligible to acquire,” a government statement said.

“It is a significant milestone in Somalia’s state-building journey. The national ID rollout is set to enhance security and address crucial national issues,” Mohamud said as he received his card. 

Digital identity systems, often referred to as eID, are the bedrock of Somalia’s new digital services. The government says they empower citizens to exercise their liberties and businesses to operate efficiently.

“Through this system, the government reaffirms its endeavor to ensure that Somali citizens enjoy equal rights with regard to the participation of all national commitments,” Barre said.   

Barre cited the need to combat security threats, terrorism and identity fraud as compelling reasons to introduce a national ID.

“This system will boost our businesses and economy, our banks, communication and Hawala money transfer systems. It will strictly deal with terror networks and the fight against extremism,” Barre said.

In a video message to the conference from the front line in central Somalia, Somalia’s minister of Interior, Federal Affairs and Reconciliation, Ahmed Moallim Fiqi, reiterated the importance of a reliable national ID for the government’s fight against al-Shabab militants.

“A national identification system is a powerful tool in our fight against extremism, providing a sense of belonging and identity to our citizens,” Fiqi said. “National ID is not only a piece of plastic, but it represents access to essential services like health care, education, elections and economic opportunities to the Somali people.”

In March, Somalia’s upper house passed the National Identification and Registration Authority Bill, which enables every Somali citizen to legally register their identity and gain access to the government and private services to which they are entitled.

Somali government officials, businessmen, members of civil society and international partners were among participants in the conference in Mogadishu.

Speakers at the conference included United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Somalia Catriona Laing and the World Bank country manager, Kristina Svensson.

Those who spoke at the conference expressed optimism that the national ID will help in the fight against the al-Shabab terror group.

The story of Somalia’s digital identity resurgence finds its roots in the turbulent year 1991, when the national citizen registry collapsed. National unrest, instability, disorder and economic turmoil led to the downfall of government leadership and the disintegration of the registration system.

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Hackers Say They Stole 6 Terabytes of Data From MGM, Caesars Casinos

The Scattered Spider hacking group said on Thursday it took six terabytes of data from the systems of multibillion-dollar casino operators MGM Resorts International and Caesars Entertainment as both companies probed the breaches.

Speaking to Reuters via the messaging platform Telegram, a representative for the group said it did not plan to make the data public and declined to comment on whether it had asked the companies for ransom.

The group’s contact was provided to Reuters by a cybersecurity expert who runs an online repository of malware samples called “vx-underground,” and declined to be named. Caesars and MGM did not respond to requests for comment on the amount of data that was breached.

Caesars reported to regulators on Thursday it had found that on Sept. 7 hackers took data on a significant number of its loyalty program members, including “driver’s license numbers and/or Social Security numbers.” Earlier, Bloomberg and The Wall Street Journal reported that Caesars had paid ransom, but Caesars declined a Reuters request for comment on the matter.

Earlier, MGM said it was working with law enforcement on resolving a “cybersecurity issue.”

Scattered Spider, also known as UNC3944, is one of the most disruptive hacking outfits in the United States, according to Google’s Mandiant Intelligence.

Several security analysts have drawn attention to the group over the past year for its effective social engineering tactics. It is known to reach out to a target an organization’s information security teams by phone, pretending to be an employee needing their password reset.

“They tend to have most of the information they need before that call to the helpdesk – that is the last step,” said Marc Bleicher, a security analyst who has conducted forensic investigations into such hacks before.

Mandiant has linked Scattered Spider to over 100 intrusions in the last two years at companies ranging from gaming and technology firms to retailers, telecom and insurance firms, Charles Carmakal, chief technology officer at Mandiant told Reuters.

The group’s members appeared to be scattered across several Western countries, he added.

Caesars said the breach resulted from a “social engineering attack” on an IT vendor the company used. It didn’t quantify the financial impact.

Operations at MGM, one of the world’s largest casino and hotel operators, were still disrupted four days after news of the hack emerged. Social media posts had visuals of slot machines showing error messages at its Las Vegas casinos.

Some analysts believe Scattered Spider is a subgroup of the ALPHV, a ransomware hacking outfit that emerged in Nov. 2021, according to Mandiant.

The FBI said it was investigating the incidents at MGM and Caesars and declined further comment.

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TikTok Popular in Kenya, but Facing Backlash and Call for Ban

One of the world’s most popular apps, TikTok, is under growing scrutiny in Kenya over what critics see as explicit and offensive content, and hate speech. An activist has petitioned parliament to ban the Chinese app, even as millions of young Kenyans use it for entertainment, social connections, or even to make money. Francis Ontomwa reports from Nairobi. Camera: Amos Wangwa.

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French Agency: iPhone 12 Emits Too Much Radiation, Must Be Taken off Market

A government watchdog agency in France has ordered Apple to withdraw the iPhone 12 from the French market, saying it emits levels of electromagnetic radiation that are too high.

The National Frequency Agency, which oversees radio-electric frequencies as well as public exposure to electromagnetic radiation, called on Apple in a statement Tuesday to “implement all available means to rapidly fix this malfunction” for phones already being used.

Corrective updates to the iPhone 12 will be monitored by the agency, and if they don’t work, “Apple will have to recall” phones that have already been sold, according to the French regulator’s statement.

Apple disputed the findings and said the device complies with all regulations governing radiation.

The agency, which is known by the French acronym ANFR, said it recently checked 141 cellphones, including the iPhone 12, for electromagnetic waves capable of being absorbed by the body.

It said it found a level of electromagnetic energy absorption of 5.74 watts per kilogram during tests of a phone in a hand or a pocket, higher than the European Union standard of 4 watts per kilogram.

The agency said the iPhone 12 met the threshold when radiation levels were assessed for a phone kept in a jacket or in a bag.

Apple said the iPhone 12, which was released in late 2020, has been certified by multiple international bodies and complies with all applicable regulations and standards for radiation around the world.

The U.S. tech company said it has provided the French agency with multiple lab results carried out both by the company and third-party labs proving the phone’s compliance.

Jean-Noël Barrot, France’s minister in charge of digital issues, told France Info radio that the National Frequency Agency “is in charge of controlling our phones which, as there are software updates, may emit a little more or a little less electromagnetic waves.”

He said that the iPhone 12 radiation levels are “slightly higher” than the standards but “significantly lower than levels where scientific studies consider there may be consequences for users. But the rule is the rule.”

Cellphones have been labeled as “possible” carcinogens by the World Health Organization’s cancer research arm, putting them in the same category as coffee, diesel fumes and the pesticide DDT. The radiation produced by cellphones cannot directly damage DNA and is different from stronger types of radiation like X-rays or ultraviolet light.

In 2018, two U.S. government studies that bombarded mice and rats with cellphone radiation found a weak link to some heart tumors, but federal regulators and scientists said it was still safe to use the devices. Scientists said those findings didn’t reflect how most people use their cellphones and that the animal findings didn’t translate into a similar concern for humans.

Among the largest studies on potential dangers of cellphone use, a 2010 analysis in 13 countries found little or no risk of brain tumors.

People’s mobile phone habits also have changed substantially since the first studies began and it’s unclear if the results of previous research would still apply today.

Since many tumors take years to develop, experts say it’s difficult to conclude that cellphones have no long-term health risks. Experts have recommended that people concerned about their cellphone radiation exposure use earphones or switch to texting.

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India’s Transition to Electric Vehicles Powered by Three and Two Wheels

In Indian cities, most electric vehicles seen on the roads are not cars, but three- and two-wheel vehicles that deliver goods and ferry passengers in cities. Anjana Pasricha reports on how the exponential growth in these electric vehicles in New Delhi and surrounding towns could contribute to cleaning up the air in one of the world’s most polluted cities. Video: Darshan Singh

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India’s Transition to Electric Vehicles Powered by Three and Two Wheels 

At bus stops and metro stations in the Indian capital and towns around it, passengers are accustomed to the familiar call by three-wheel electric rickshaw drivers to take an eight-cent, shared ride to their offices, homes or markets.

The ride-hailing trade is flourishing according to the hundreds of rickshaw drivers crowding the streets.

“It is much better than a petrol vehicle. It does not create pollution and it is cheaper to run. After charging, my battery lasts for 80 to 120 kilometers,” said Abdul Alam, as he stood outside a metro station in Gurugram, a business hub, to which thousands of commuters travel daily from New Delhi.

In India, most electric vehicles are not cars, but three wheelers that ferry passengers and deliver goods or two wheelers used for personal mobility. Accounting for 90% of the country’s nearly three million electric vehicles, they are at the forefront of India’s transition to clean transportation.

That is not surprising — in developing countries like India, these vehicles provide an affordable means of transport.

In the case of electric rickshaws, they help decarbonize small trips.

“The market is basically pushing it and it’s taking care of last mile mobility,” according to Moushumi Mohanty, head of Electric Vehicle Technology at the Center for Science and Environment in New Delhi.

Their popularity has grown as subsidies by the federal and state government for manufacturers, along with tax incentives, drive down costs. Spiraling petrol costs in recent years have made them more attractive.

Adhir Bhiya, who worked as an office help, left his job three years ago and took out a loan to buy his own rickshaw for $1,500. “I spend about $25 in a month to charge the batteries. It gives a good income to provide for my family,” said Bhiya.

As e-commerce booms, three-wheel electric vehicles are also playing a key role in making deliveries to customers. Road trips for deliveries are adding to carbon emissions according to experts, as people increasingly opt for the convenience of ordering everything from groceries to clothes online.

Zyngo EV Mobility, a start-up launched three years ago, uses an all-electric fleet of vehicles to make about 20,000 deliveries a day in and around Delhi.

“We wanted to adopt something which is more futuristic,” says Prateek Rao, founder of Zyngo. “Sustainability is something which is very close to our heart. We are all new-age people, we are a very young and aggressive team, we think that somewhere we are contributing to the eco-system back then why not? So we adopted EV’s as the core technology, so that we help reduce carbon emissions.”

Rao took a cue from the COVID-19 pandemic when Delhi residents glimpsed clear blue skies instead of the customary grey that shrouds the city as vehicles disappeared from roads during lockdowns and work-from-home norms.

The switch from petrol or diesel to electric vehicles is important for a city where the millions of vehicles clogging its toads contribute to almost half the emissions that dirty the air— Delhi is one of the world’s most polluted cities. Commercial vehicles are among the biggest contributors to toxic fumes.


“This will help a whole lot because look at the numbers that we are trying to transition,” points out Mohanty. “If you are converting say ten, twenty or 30% of these vehicles into electric, it basically means there is zero emissions from there.”

The government is pushing for a rapid expansion in the coming years — Road Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari, called on automakers Tuesday to accelerate the transition to electricity and bio-fuels to curb vehicular pollution.

But there are challenges to be tackled before electric mobility can take off on a larger scale.

“Charging infrastructure is a pain point,” said Rao, “It is being ramped up, especially in Delhi but if we need faster adoption of EV’s across India, we need to improve the pace.”

Experts also say that India needs to step up domestic manufacturing of batteries and improve battery technology. While batteries are assembled in India, components are mostly imported.

“We need to reduce the dependence on imports of critical minerals such as lithium, cobalt, graphite, etc. from China,” according to N.C. Thirumalai at the Center for Study of Science, Technology and Policy in Bengaluru. “We have to de-risk the supply chain and look at other countries also.”

India also needs to develop batteries that are adapted to local conditions. “It is hot and humid here and we have roads which don’t always give you a smooth ride. So clearly you need batteries that have high temperature tolerance and can withstand high vibrations,” said Mohanty.

The long-term challenge is an even bigger one. In a country where coal is still king for power generation, the electricity source that charges batteries will also have to be cleaned up.

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Apple’s New iPhones Get Faster Chips, Better Cameras and New Charging Ports

Apple unveiled its next generation of iPhones Tuesday — a lineup that will boast better cameras, faster processors, a new charging system and a price hike for the fanciest model.

The showcase at Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino, California, comes as the company tries to reverse a mild slump that has seen its sales drop from last year in three consecutive quarters. The malaise is a key reason Apple’s stock price has dipped by about 10% since mid-July, dropping the company’s market value below the $3 trillion threshold it reached for the first time earlier this summer.

Investors apparently weren’t impressed with what Apple rolled out. The company’s shares fell nearly 2% Tuesday, a steeper decline than the major market indexes.

As has been case with Apple and other smartphone makers, the four types of iPhone 15 models aren’t making any major leaps in technology. But Apple added enough new bells and whistles to the top-of-the line model — the iPhone 15 Pro Max — to boost its starting price by $100, or 9%, from last year’s version to $1,200. As part of the higher base price, the cheapest iPhone 15 Pro Max will provide 256 megabytes of storage, up from 128 megabytes for the least expensive version of the iPhone 14 Pro Max.

Apple is holding the line on prices for rest of the lineup, with the basic iPhone 15 selling for $800, the iPhone 15 Plus for $900 and the iPhone 15 Pro for $1,000.

Although maintaining those prices are bound to squeeze Apple’s profit margins and put further pressure on the company’s stock price, analyst Thomas Monteiro believes it’s a prudent move with still-high inflation and spiking interest rates pinching household budgets. “The reality was that Apple found itself in a challenging position leading up to this event,” Monteiro said.

And the price hike for the iPhone 15 Pro Max could help Apple boost sales if consumers continue to gravitate toward the company’s premium models. Wedbush Securities analyst Dan Ives expects the iPhone 15 Pro and Pro Max to account for about 75% of the device’s total sales in the upcoming year.

All the new models will be available in stores Sept. 22, with preorders beginning this Friday.

One of the biggest changes that Apple announced is a new way to charge the iPhone 15 models and future generations. The company is switching to the USB-C standard that is already widely used on many devices, including its Mac computers and many of its iPads.

Apple is being forced to phase out the Lightning port cables it rolled out in 2012 because of a mandate that European regulators plan to impose in 2024.

Although consumers often don’t like change, the transition to USB-C ports may not be that inconvenient. That’s because the standard is already widely used on a range of computers, smartphones and other devices people already own. The shift to USB-C may even be a popular move since that standard typically charges devices more quickly and also offers faster data transfer speeds.

The basic iPhone 15 models have been redesigned to include a shape-shifting cutout on the display screen that Apple calls its “Dynamic Island” for app notifications — a look that was introduced with last year’s Pro and Pro Max devices. The basic models are also getting a faster chip used in last year’s Pro and Pro Max models, while the next generation of the premium iPhone 15s will run on an even more advanced processor that will enable the devices to accommodate the same kind of video games that typically require a console.

The iPhone 15 Pro and Pro Max also will be equipped with what Apple maintains is the equivalent of seven camera lenses. They will include periscope-style telephoto lens that will improve the quality of photos taken from far distances. The telephoto lens boasts a 5x optical zoom, which lags the 10x optical zoom on Samsung’s premium Galaxy S22 Ultra, but represents an upgrade from the 3x optical zoom on the iPhone 14 Pro and Pro Max.

In anticipation of next year’s release of Apple’s mixed reality headset, the iPhone 15 Pro and Pro Max will also have a spatial video option designed for viewing on that headset.

Apple is encasing the premium models in titanium that the company says is the same alloy used on some space ships.

Besides its new iPhones, Apple also announced its next generation of smartwatches — a product that made its debut nearly a decade ago. The Series 9 Apple Watch, available in stores Sept. 22, will include a new gesture control that will enable users to control alarms and answer phone calls by double snapping their thumbs with a finger.

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US Cyber Teams Are on the Hunt in Lithuania 

For at least the second time this year, U.S. cyber forces have come to the aid of a Baltic ally, as concerns linger about potential cyberattacks from Russia and other Western adversaries.

U.S. Cyber Command Tuesday announced the completion of a two-month-long, so-called “defensive hunt” operation in Lithuania, alongside Lithuanian cyber teams.

The focus of the operation, according to a spokesperson with the U.S. Cyber National Mission Force, was to look for malicious cyber activity on networks belonging to Lithuania’s Interior Ministry.

Neither U.S. nor Lithuanian officials were willing to specify the exact nature of the threat, but just last year Vilnius was hit with a series of distributed denial-of-service attacks (DDoS), claimed by the Russian hacking group known as Killnet.

“We need to develop competences and be more resilient to cyberattacks,” Lithuanian Vice Minister of the Interior Arnoldas Abramavičius, said in the joint statement.

“The war in Ukraine has shown that cyberattacks are a powerful tool of modern warfare, so it is extremely important to be prepared and to ensure the security of our networks,” said Abramavičius. “I believe that the results of this mission [with the United States] will be mutually beneficial.”

The U.S. Cyber National Mission Force spokesperson, speaking to VOA on the condition of anonymity to discuss limited details of the operation, said the effort involved about 20 U.S. cyber troops, hunting for malicious activity and potential vulnerabilities under guidelines set by Vilnius.

This is at least the second time U.S. cyber forces have deployed to Lithuania. U.S. Cyber Command said its forces conducted similar operations in the country last May.

And both Vilnius and Washington have also been working on a continuous basis through Lithuania’s Regional Cyber Defense Center, set up in 2021, to further coordinate efforts with Ukraine, Georgia and Poland.

Word of the completion of the latest U.S-Latvian cyber operation comes just days after a top U.S. intelligence official warned the cyber threat from Moscow has not waned as Russia’s war against Ukraine drags on.

“The Russians are increasing their capability and their efforts in the cyber domain,” CIA Deputy Director David Cohen told a cybersecurity summit in Washington on Thursday.

“There are no laurels to be rested on here,” he said. “There is this is a pitched battle every day.”

Concerns about possible Russian cyber activity also prompted what U.S. officials described as a “hunt forward” operation in Latvia earlier this year that also involved Latvian and Canadian cyber forces.

Since 2018, U.S. cyber teams have deployed 50 times, conducting operations on more than 75 networks in more than 23 countries, according to information provided by the U.S. Cyber National Mission Force.

Some information from Reuters was used in this report.

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