Seeing Microscopic Creatures from Space

The oceans and lakes are full of life, and most of it is not visible to the naked eye. In most bodies of water, every cubic centimeter contains many microorganisms — bacteria, zooplankton as well as single-cell plants called phytoplankton — all of them important links in the natural food chain. Scientists are now using satellites to observe and study these tiny creatures. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Chinese Theme Park Seeks to Ride Boom in Demand for Virtual Entertainment

Giant robots and futuristic cyberpunk castles rise out of lush mountain slopes on the outskirts of Guiyang, the capital of one of China’s poorest provinces.

Welcome to China’s first virtual reality theme park, which aims to ride a boom in demand for virtual entertainment that is set to propel tenfold growth in the country’s virtual reality market, to hit almost $8.5 billion by 2020.

The 330-acre (134-hectare) park in southwestern Guizhou province promises 35 virtual reality attractions, from shoot-’em-up games and virtual roller coasters to tours with interstellar aliens of the region’s most scenic spots.

“After our attraction opens, it will change the entire tourism structure of Guizhou province as well as China’s southwest,” Chief Executive Chen Jianli told Reuters.

“This is an innovative attraction, because it’s just different,” he said in an interview at the park, part of which is scheduled to open next February.

New growth engines

The $1.5 billion Oriental Science Fiction Valley park is part of China’s thrust to develop new drivers of growth centered on trends such as gaming, sports and cutting-edge technology, to cut reliance on traditional industries.

In the push to become a center of innovative tech, Guizhou is luring firms such as Apple Inc., which has sited its China data center there, while the world’s largest radio telescope is in nearby Pingtang county.

The park says it is the world’s first of its kind, although virtual reality-based attractions from the United States to Japan already draw interest from consumers and video gamers seeking a more immersive experience.

The Guiyang park will offer tourists bungee jumps from a huge Transformer-like robot, as well as a studio devoted to producing virtual reality movies. Most rides will use VR goggles and motion simulators to thrill users.

“You feel like you’re really there,” said Qu Zhongjie, the park’s manager of rides. “That’s our main feature.”

China’s virtual reality market is expected to grow tenfold to 55.6 billion yuan ($8.4 billion) by the end of the decade, state-backed think tank CCID has said.

Farmers in the nearby village of Zhangtianshui said they were concerned about pollution from big developments, but looked forward to the economic benefits a new theme park would bring.

Most were less sure about virtual battles or alien invasions, though.

“There are lots of good things that come out of these projects,” one farmer, Liu Guangjun, told Reuters. “As for the virtual reality, I don’t really understand it.”

Russian Tech Firm Wins US Intel Prize

Amid concerns about Russian hacking and online influence, Russian technology firm NtechLab has won a prize awarded by the United States intelligence community. VOA’s Moscow Bureau visited NtechLab to ask its general director about the award, the technology, and concerns about privacy.

Tech Firms Scrounging for Skilled Workers Training Their Own

Some information technology companies are growing so concerned about not find enough digital talent that they’re training their own.

 

IBM, Amazon and Microsoft all now have apprenticeship programs that pay workers learning on-the-job while they build IT skills. The programs cost companies tens of thousands of dollars per trainee.

 

IBM Vice President Joanna Daly says the apprenticeship program the tech giant started last month will help fill the several hundred vacant early-career IT jobs in the U.S. Rhode Island-based Carousel Industries executive Tim Hebert says the company’s apprentices are loyal and stay for years.

 

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says the median pay last year for computer and information technology occupations was about $83,000, compared to $37,000 for all jobs.

 

What Happens Once ‘Net Neutrality’ Rules Bite the Dust?

The Federal Communications Commission formally released a draft of its plan to kill net-neutrality rules, which equalized access to the internet and prevented broadband providers from favoring their own apps and services.

Now the question is: What comes next?

‘Radical departure’

The FCC’s move will allow companies like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon to charge internet companies for speedier access to consumers and to block outside services they don’t like. The change also axes a host of consumer protections, including privacy requirements and rules barring unfair practices that gave consumers an avenue to pursue complaints about price gouging.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai says his plan eliminates unnecessary regulation. But many worry that his proposal will stifle small tech firms and leave ordinary citizens more at the mercy of cable and wireless companies.

“It would be a radical departure from what previous (FCC) chairs, of both parties, have done,” said Gigi Sohn, a former adviser to Tom Wheeler, the Obama-era FCC chairman who enacted the net neutrality rules now being overturned. “It would leave consumers and competition completely unprotected.”

During the last Republican administration, that of George W. Bush, FCC policy held that people should be able to see what they want on the internet and to use the services they preferred. But attempts to enshrine that net-neutrality principle in regulation never held up in court – at least until Wheeler pushed through the current rules now slated for termination.

Pai’s proposals stand a good chance of enactment at the next FCC meeting in December. But there will be lawsuits to challenge them.

More details

The formal proposal reveals more details of the plan than were in the FCC’s Tuesday press release. For instance, if companies like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon decide to block a particular app, throttle data speeds for a rival service or offer faster speeds to companies who pay for it, they merely need to disclose their policies for doing so.

The FCC also says it will pre-empt state rules on privacy and net neutrality that contradict its approach. Verizon has noted that New York has several privacy bills pending, and that the California legislature has suggested coming up with its own version of net neutrality rules should the federal versions perish.

The plan would leave complaints about deceptive behavior and monitor privacy to the Federal Trade Commission, which already regulates privacy for internet companies like Google and Facebook.

Best behavior

Broadband providers are promising to be on their best behavior. Comcast said it doesn’t and won’t block, throttle or discriminate against lawful content. AT&T said that “all major ISPs have publicly committed to preserving an open internet” and that any ISP “foolish” enough to manipulate what’s available online for customers will be “quickly and decisively called out.” Verizon said that “users should be able to access the internet when, where, and how they choose.”

Some critics don’t put much weight on those promises, noting that many providers have previously used their networks to disadvantage rivals. For example, the Associated Press in 2007 found Comcast was blocking some file-sharing. AT&T blocked Skype and other internet calling services on its network on the iPhone until 2009.

But others suggest fear of a public uproar will help restrain egregious practices such as blocking and throttling. “I’m not sure there’s any benefit to them doing that,” said Sohn. “It’s just going to get people angry at them for no good reason. They don’t monetize that.”

Fast lanes, slow lanes

Sohn, however, suggests there’s reason to worry about more subtle forms of discrimination, such as “paid prioritization.” That’s a term for internet “fast lanes,” where companies that can afford it would pay AT&T, Verizon and Comcast for faster or better access to consumers.

That would leave startups and institutions that aren’t flush with cash, like libraries or schools, relegated to slower service, said Corynne McSherry, legal director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital-rights group. In turn, startups would find it harder to attract investors, Sohn said.

Michael Cheah, general counsel of the video startup Vimeo, said broadband companies will try to lay groundwork for a two-tiered internet – one where cash-strapped companies and services are relegated to the slow lane. To stay competitive, small companies would need to pony up for fast lanes if they could – but those costs would ultimately find their way to consumers.

The view is different at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a Washington, D.C., think tank funded by Google and other established tech companies. Doug Brake, a telecom policy analyst at the foundation, said there’s little chance broadband companies will engage in “shenanigans,” given how unpopular they already are with the public.

Brake likewise played down the threat of internet fast lanes, arguing that they’ll only be useful in limited situations such as high-quality teleconferencing. Like the FCC, he argued that antitrust law can serve to deter “potentially anticompetitive” behavior by internet providers.

Fall of China’s Former Internet Censor Highlights Frustrations Over Controls

The former face of China’s “Great Firewall,” Lu Wei, has become the first “tiger” to come under the Communist Party’s corruption investigation since President Xi Jinping began his second term last month.

Analysts say the graft probe into Lu’s corruption practices is widely believed to be legitimate and long overdue.

But Lu’s downfall has highlighted the simmering discontent among the country’s netizens, many of whom have been frustrated with tougher internet regulations imposed by him.

It has also made a mockery of so-called Xi Praise, a flattery culture centering on the building of the Xi cult, analysts add.

​Graft probe

Late Tuesday, China’s top anti-corruption agency announced on its website that 57-year-old Lu, who formerly served as deputy chief of the party propaganda department, has been detained in an internal graft probe.

Along with six of his colleagues and family members, Lu was reportedly taken away by investigators late last week.

Lu, who served as the head of China’s cyberspace administration between 2013 and 2016, was the key person in implementing Xi’s cyberspace policies.

In that role, he wielded great power over what the country’s 730 million internet users could access and acted as the gatekeeper for foreign technology companies seeking to enter the Chinese market.

Because of that, Time magazine named him one of the world’s 100 most influential people in 2015.

​Just a cat

But his political career ended when he was stripped of the title as China’s internet censor and was replaced by Xu Lin, a Xi protégé, in June 2016.

“Actually, he ceased to be a tiger long ago. He’s not a fly, but he’s now just a cat instead of a tiger because he already lost his power in June 2016,” Hong Kong-based China watcher Willy Lam told VOA.

In one of its two other statements, China’s anti-graft body Wednesday explained why Lu became the first tiger under graft investigation after the party’s 19th National Congress.

The cyberspace administration with Lu at the helm was found to have not been staunch enough in executing Xi’s instructions, lacked political responsibility and integrity while being operated by a network of small circles, the statement said.

‘Offenses of bygone’

The other statement warned not to “expect [criminal] offenses of bygone will be bygone today, lessons learned from the fall of Lu Wei.”

No details about Lu’s corruption offenses were revealed.

Chinese media reported that investigators would be mainly looking into corruption charges against Lu during the period when he worked for state-run Xinhua News Agency from 1991 and 2011.

Media speculation is also rife that Lu had angered Xi when the top leader discovered that the former internet censor had hired foreigners to masquerade as CEOs of multinational tech companies attending the World Internet Conference held in Wuzhen, Zhejiang province, in 2014.

​Xi praise

But Lam said that Xi, who he said is a “macromania,” has no one but himself to blame for the trend of Xi Praise, a flattery culture in Chinese politics.

“This is the art of survival in the Chinese empire, so to speak. The officials have to be seen as bending forward and backward to please Xi Jinping,” Lam said.

But Li Datong, managing director of Freezing Point, a weekly that reported on all aspects of contemporary life in China, said Xi Praise is an act of self-deception.

“If Xi Jinping knows how to surf on the Internet, he will see from a bevy of [online] chat rooms that many [netizens] not only made fun of him, but also lashed out at Xi Cult. It’s a game for government officials themselves to play,” Li said.

Discontent with internet controls

Chinese internet users, however, are happy to see Lu go, venting their frustrations over Internet controls.

But on Wednesday, a report in the state-run Global Times pointed out, “while news of Lu’s removal has made a buzz on the internet, his corruption investigation isn’t aimed at addressing dissatisfaction expressed by a minority of people over tighter internet controls. Neither is it a signal that internet controls will be re-evaluated as some have expected.”

Li said netizens are aware of the fact that the country’s internet controls won’t be eased following Lu’s downfall.

“Everybody knows that there won’t be a change of policy. But they are still happy to see the executioner [Lu], who has done all evils, being taken down. [Internet] policies are national policies, which won’t be easily revised as a result of personnel reshuffle,” Li said.

On Thursday, Lu Wei was the top-trending topic on freeweibo.com, a website that captures censored social media posts. On SINA Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblogging platform, online comments posted by users in response to news reports were mostly erased.

Uber Reveals Cover-up of Hack Affecting 57M Riders, Drivers

Uber is coming clean about its cover-up of a year-old hacking attack that stole personal information about more than 57 million of the beleaguered ride-hailing service’s customers and drivers.

So far, there’s no evidence that the data taken has been misused, according to a Tuesday blog post by Uber’s recently hired CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi. Part of the reason nothing malicious has happened is because Uber acknowledges paying the hackers $100,000 to destroy the stolen information.

The revelation marks the latest stain on Uber’s reputation. It also brought an investigation from New York’s attorney general and threats of larger-than-normal fines from British authorities for failing to promptly disclose the hack.

The San Francisco company ousted Travis Kalanick as CEO in June after an internal investigation concluded he had built a culture that allowed female workers to be sexually harassed and encouraged employees to push legal limits.

It’s also the latest major breach involving a prominent company that didn’t notify the people that could be potentially harmed for months or even years after the break-in occurred.

Yahoo didn’t make its first disclosure about hacks that hit 3 billion user accounts during 2013 and 2014 until September 2016. Credit reporting service Equifax waited several months before revealing this past September that hackers had carted off the Social Security numbers of 145 million Americans.

Khosrowshahi criticized Uber’s handling of its data theft in his blog post.

“While I can’t erase the past, I can commit on behalf of every Uber employee that we will learn from our mistakes,” Khosrowshahi wrote. “We are changing the way we do business, putting integrity at the core of every decision we make and working hard to earn the trust of our customers.”

That pledge shouldn’t excuse Uber’s previous regime for its egregious behavior, said Sam Curry, chief security officer for the computer security firm Cybereason.

“The truly scary thing here is that Uber paid a bribe, essentially a ransom to make this breach go away, and they acted as if they were above the law,” Curry said. “Those people responsible for the integrity and confidentiality of the data in-fact covered it up.”

The heist took the names, email addresses and mobile phone numbers of 57 million riders around the world. The thieves also nabbed the driver’s license numbers of 600,000 Uber drivers in the U.S.

Uber waited until Tuesday to begin notifying the drivers with compromised driver’s licenses, which can be particularly useful for perpetrating identify theft. For that reason, Uber will now pay for free credit-report monitoring and identity theft protection services for the affected drivers.

Kalanick, who still sits on Uber’s board of directors, declined to comment on the data breach that took place in October 2016. Uber says the response to the hack was handled by its chief security officer, Joe Sullivan, a former federal prosecutor whom Kalanick lured away from Facebook in 2015.

As part of his effort to set things right, Khosrowshahi extracted Sullivan’s resignation from Uber and also jettisoned Craig Clark, a lawyer who reported to Sullivan.

Clark didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment sent through his LinkedIn profile. Efforts to reach Sullivan were unsuccessful.

On Wednesday, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office confirmed that it had opened an investigation into the data theft, but a spokeswoman wouldn’t comment further. New York law requires that companies notify the attorney general and consumers if data is stolen.

In London, Britain’s Deputy Information Commissioner James Dipple-Johnstone said Wednesday the company faces “higher fines” because it concealed the hack from the public.

The Information Commissioner’s Office and the National Cyber Security Center are working to gauge the severity of the problem for British Uber users.

Uber’s silence about its breach came while it was negotiating with the Federal Trade Commission about its handling of its riders’ information.

Earlier in 2016, the company reached a settlement with the New York attorney general requiring it to take steps to be more vigilant about protecting the information that its app stores about its riders. As part of that settlement, Uber also paid a $20,000 fine for waiting to notify five months about another data breach that it discovered in September 2014.

Uber CEO Says Company Failed to Disclose Massive Breach in 2016

Uber Technologies Inc failed to disclose a massive breach last year that exposed the data of some 57 million users of the ride-sharing service, the company’s new chief executive officer said on Tuesday.

Discovery of the company’s handling of the incident led to the departure of two employees who led Uber’s response to the incident, said Dara Khosrowshahi, who was named CEO in August following the departure of founder Travis Kalanick. Khosrowshahi said he had only recently learned of the matter himself.

The company’s admission that it failed to disclose the breach comes as Uber seeks to recover from a series of crises that culminated in the Kalanick’s ouster in June.

“None of this should have happened, and I will not make excuses for it,” Khosrowshahi said in a blog post.

According to the company’s account, two individuals downloaded data from a web-based server at another company that provided Uber with cloud-computing services.

The data contained names, email addresses and mobile phone numbers of some 57 million Uber users around the world. The hackers also downloaded names and driver’s license numbers of some 600,000 of the company’s U.S. drivers, Khosrowshahi said in a blog post.

Bloomberg News reported that Uber’s chief security officer Joe Sullivan and a deputy had been ousted from the company this week because of their role in the handling of the incident. The company paid hackers $100,000 to delete the stolen data, according to Bloomberg.

Though such payoffs are rarely discussed in public, U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation officials and private security companies have told Reuters in the past year that an increasing number of companies have made payments to criminal hackers who have turned to extortion.

None have previously come to light that aimed to suppress breaches that would have required public disclosure, such as those involving protected personal information. Sullivan did not immediately return messages seeking comment.

Sullivan, formerly the top security official at Facebook Inc, is a former federal prosecutor and one of the most admired security executives in Silicon Valley.

Kalanick learned of the breach a month after it took place, in November 2016, as the company was in negotiations with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission over the handling of consumer data, according to Bloomberg.

Uber representatives did not respond when asked to comment on the Bloomberg report.

Khosrowshahi said he had hired Matt Olsen, former general counsel of the U.S. National Security Agency, to help him figure out how to best guide and structure the company’s security teams and processes.

“While I can’t erase the past, I can commit on behalf of every Uber employee that we will learn from our mistakes,” he said. “We are changing the way we do business, putting integrity at the core of every decision we make and working hard to earn the trust of our customers.”