Twitter Turns First Profit, But Problems Remain

Twitter says it had first quarterly profit in history and returned to revenue growth in the fourth quarter.

 

Its stock increased in pre-market trading Thursday.

 

Though the results beat Wall Street’s cautious expectations, they don’t solve the company’s broader problems.

 

It’s been dealing with abuse, fake accounts and attempts by Russian agents to spread misinformation. The troubles have been compounded by stagnant user growth.

 

And with a prominent executive leaving shortly, and the CEO splitting its time with another company, Twitter’s now facing questions about just who is minding the store.

 

Twitter has said it’s dealing with the problems. The company has introduced a slew of new measures to weed out abusive accounts. Still, critics say the company is playing whack-a-mole with its problems, with often inadequate responses.

 

International Aid Group, Intel to Launch Job Training Program for Refugees in Germany   

The International Rescue Committee has announced Project Core — a $1 million job training program for refugees in Germany.

The IRC is collaborating with computer giant Intel to to equip at least 1,000 migrants with “critical skills in information and communications technology and other in-demand sectors of the German economy.”

“It is exciting and encouraging to see that opportunities are being extended to refugees living in the country,” IRC President David Miliband said. 

He thanked Intel for its cooperation and commitment.

“The work we will do together epitomizes the power of partnerships to develop the right solutions and create meaningful impact,” Miliband said.

The IRC says more than 1.5 million refugees have arrived in Germany since 2015, seeking asylum from war, terrorism, poverty, and little hope their lives will get better if they stayed home.

The IRC says it has worked with the German government and civil organizations, sharing its expertise in educating child refugees and others in ways they can contribute to their new communities.

Aid Group Launches Job Training Program for Refugees in Germany

The International Rescue Committee on Wednesday announced the creation of Project Core, a $1 million job training program for refugees in Germany.

The IRC said it would collaborate with computer giant Intel to equip at least 1,000 migrants with “critical skills in information and communications technology and other in-demand sectors of the German economy.”

“It is exciting and encouraging to see that opportunities are being extended to refugees living in the country,” IRC President David Miliband said. 

He thanked Intel for its cooperation and commitment. “The work we will do together epitomizes the power of partnerships to develop the right solutions and create meaningful impact,” he said.

The IRC said more than 1.5 million refugees had arrived in Germany since 2015, seeking asylum from war, terrorism and poverty, and having little hope their lives would have improved if they stayed home.

The IRC said it has worked with the German government and civil organizations, sharing its expertise in educating refugee children and others in ways they can contribute to their new communities.

Report: Social Media Surveillance Unfairly Targeted Muslims

A social media monitoring tool used by the Boston Police Department to identify potential threats swept up the posts of people using the hashtag #MuslimLivesMatter and a lawmaker’s Facebook update about racial inequality, according to a report released Wednesday by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.

The ACLU says in a report based on documents obtained through a public records request that the police department’s use of Geofeedia to mine the internet appears to have had little benefit to public safety while unfairly focusing on groups such as Muslims. Boston police say the ACLU’s conclusions are misguided and that the program helped police successfully monitor events that could lead to demonstrations or crowds and threaten security.

“Our main focus in all of this is public safety, not targeting speech, not targeting people’s political affiliations,” said Lt. Det. Michael McCarthy. “And quite frankly, to have the ACLU to even make that insinuation is not only insulting, but it’s completely misinformed,” he said.

Boston police used Geofeedia for two weeks in 2014 and again for more than a year starting in January 2015, according to the documents. The department’s use of the program became public in late 2016 after it solicited bids to spend $1.4 million for another social media monitoring software.

Police later dropped those plans amid backlash from groups like the ACLU.

The now-defunct location-based program allowed officials to set up email alerts for when certain keywords were used on social media. The alerts were vetted by analysts in the department’s Boston Regional Intelligence Center and the data was discarded once it was determined it wasn’t a potential public safety issue, McCarthy said.

Geofeedia was used by police departments across the country until social media companies cut off access to its data after concerns raised by the ACLU of northern California in 2016. The software was also widely used by companies interested in what their customers were saying about them online, and news organizations for reporting.

The documents show Boston police searched for keywords they identified as “Islamic extremist terminology,” including words like “ISIS” and “caliphate” as well as Arabic words such as “ummah,” which means “community.”

In the wake of the killing of three Muslim students near the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, police also tracked the hashtag #muslimlivesmatter, according to the report. After unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, over the fatal shooting of a black man by a while police officer, police searched for the terms like “protest” and “Ferguson.”

The ACLU and the Boston-based Muslim Justice League say the tracking of common Arabic words, like “ummah,” is troubling. The ACLU said posts captured by the program that mentioned “ISIS” were either jokes or references to issues in the news.

“The Boston Police Department should never conduct surveillance targeting political speech or religious expression, but that’s exactly what their own records show they did when they used this social media monitoring software,” said Kade Crockford, co-author of the report and director of the group’s Technology for Liberty Program.

McCarthy said police didn’t target individuals, but chose keywords in response to events happening around the country or based on information from federal law enforcement. In the wake of the Chapel Hill shooting, for example, there were concerns about possible demonstrations or backlash against the Muslim community, he said.

“If we weren’t diligent in our efforts to provide safe events for those participating and attending … then we wouldn’t be doing our job as police officers,” he said.

Among those whose social media use prompted an alert was then-City Councilor Tito Jackson, for a 2014 Facebook post about homelessness and poverty that mentioned Ferguson, according to the report. City council was unaware at the time that police were using the Geofeedia program, Jackson said.

“I spoke out about their 2016 plan to spend $1.4 million on a social media surveillance system in part because I worried that the tool would be used to track people not because they did something wrong but because of their political views,” he said.

“Little did I know that that had already happened,” he said.

Russian Hackers Hunt Hi-Tech Secrets, Exploiting US Weakness

Russian cyberspies pursuing the secrets of military drones and other sensitive U.S. defense technology tricked key contract workers into exposing their email to theft, an Associated Press investigation has found.

What ultimately may have been stolen is uncertain, but the hackers clearly exploited a national vulnerability in cybersecurity: poorly protected email and barely any direct notification to victims.

The hackers known as Fancy Bear, who also intruded in the U.S. election, went after at least 87 people working on militarized drones, missiles, rockets, stealth fighter jets, cloud-computing platforms or other sensitive activities, the AP found.

Employees at both small companies and defense giants like Lockheed Martin Corp., Raytheon Co., Boeing Co., Airbus Group and General Atomics were targeted by the hackers. A handful of people in Fancy Bear’s sights also worked for trade groups, contractors in U.S.-allied countries or on corporate boards.

“The programs that they appear to target and the people who work on those programs are some of the most forward-leaning, advanced technologies,” said Charles Sowell, a former senior adviser to the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, who reviewed the list of names for the AP. “And if those programs are compromised in any way, then our competitive advantage and our defense is compromised.”

“That’s what’s really scary,” added Sowell, who was one of the hacking targets.

The AP identified the defense and security targets from about 19,000 lines of email phishing data created by hackers and collected by the U.S.-based cybersecurity company Secureworks, which calls the hackers Iron Twilight. The data is partial and extends only from March 2015 to May 2016. Of 87 scientists, engineers, managers and others, 31 agreed to be interviewed by the AP.

Most of the targets’ work was classified. Yet as many as 40 percent of them clicked on the hackers’ phishing links, the AP analysis indicates. That was the first step in potentially opening their personal email accounts or computer files to data theft by the digital spies.

One click and ‘I had been had’

James Poss, who ran a partnership doing drone research for the Federal Aviation Administration, was about to catch a taxi to the 2015 Paris Air Show when what appeared to be a Google security alert materialized in his inbox. Distracted, he moved his cursor to the blue prompt on his laptop.

“I clicked on it and instantly knew that I had been had,” the retired Air Force major general said. Poss says he realized his mistake before entering his credentials, which would have exposed his email to the hackers.

Hackers predominantly targeted personal Gmail, with a few corporate accounts mixed in.

Personal accounts can convey snippets of classified information, whether through carelessness or expediency. They also can lead to other more valuable targets or carry embarrassing personal details that can be used for blackmail or to recruit spies.

Drone consultant Keven Gambold, a hacking target himself, said the espionage could help Russia catch up with the Americans. “This would allow them to leapfrog years of hard-won experience,” he said.

He said his own company is so worried about hacking that “we’ve almost gone back in time to use stand-alone systems if we’re processing client proprietary data — we’re FedEx’ing hard drives around.”

Campaigns, drones

The AP has previously reported on Fancy Bear’s attempts to break into the Gmail accounts of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, American national security officials, journalists, and Kremlin critics and adversaries around the world. U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded the hackers worked for the Kremlin and stole U.S. campaign emails to tilt the 2016 election toward Donald Trump.

But the hackers clearly had broader aims. Fifteen of the targets identified by the AP worked on drones — the single-largest group of weapons specialists.

Countries like Russia are racing to make better drones as the remote-control aircraft have moved to the forefront of modern warfare. They can fire missiles, hunt down adversaries, or secretly monitor targets for days — all while keeping human pilots safely behind computer controls.

The U.S. Air Force now needs more pilots for drones than for any other single type of aircraft, a training official said last year. Drones will lead growth in the aerospace industry over the next decade, with military uses driving the boom, the Teal Group predicted in November. Production was expected to balloon from $4.2 billion to $10.3 billion.

So far, though, Russia has nothing that compares with the new-generation U.S. Reaper, which has been called “the most feared” U.S. drone. General Atomics’ 5,000-pound mega-drone can fly more than 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) to deliver Hellfire missiles and smart bombs. It has seen action in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

The hackers went after General Atomics, targeting a drone sensor specialist. He did not respond to requests for comment.

They also made a run at the Gmail account of Michael Buet, an electronics engineer who has worked on ultra-durable batteries and high-altitude drones for SunCondor, a small South Carolina company owned by Star Technology and Research. Such machines could be a useful surveillance tool for a country like Russia, with its global military engagements and vast domestic border frontier.

“This bird is quite unique,” said Buet. “It can fly at 62,000 feet [18,600 meters] and doesn’t land for five years.”

Space plane secrets

The Russians also appeared eager to catch up in space, once an arena for Cold War competition in the race for the moon. They seemed to be carefully eyeing the X-37B, an American unmanned space plane that looks like a miniature shuttle but is shrouded in secrecy.

In a reference to an X-37B flight in May 2015, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin invoked the vehicle as evidence that his country’s space program was faltering. “The United States is pushing ahead,” he warned Russian lawmakers.

Less than two weeks later, Fancy Bear tried to penetrate the Gmail account of a senior engineer on the X-37B project at Boeing.

Fancy Bear has also tried to hack into the emails of several members of the Arlington, Virginia-based Aerospace Industries Association, including its president, former Army Secretary Eric Fanning. It went after Lt. Gen. Mark Shackelford, who has served in the military and aerospace industry as a corporate board member. He has been involved with major weapons and space programs like SpaceX, the reusable orbital rocket company founded by billionaire tech entrepreneur Elon Musk.

Cloud-based services

Along another path, the hackers chased people who work on cloud-based services, the off-site computer networks that enable collaborators to easily access and juggle data.

In 2013, the CIA signed a $600 million deal with web giant Amazon to build a system to share secure data across the U.S. intelligence community. Other spy services followed, and the government cleared them last year to move classified data to the cloud at the “secret” level — a step below the nation’s most sensitive information.

Fancy Bear’s target list suggests the Russians have noticed these developments.

The hackers tried to get into the Gmail accounts of a cloud compliance officer at Palantir and a manager of cloud platform operations at SAP National Security Services, two companies that do extensive government work. Another target was at Mellanox Federal Systems, which helps the government with high-speed storage networks, data analysis and cloud computing. Its clients include the FBI and other intelligence agencies.

FBI ‘triaging’

Yet of the 31 targets reached by the AP, just one got any warning from U.S. officials.

“They said we have a Fancy Bear issue we need to talk about,” said security consultant Bill Davidson. He said an Air Force cybersecurity investigator inspected his computer shortly after the 2015 phishing attempt but found no sign that it succeeded. He believes he was contacted because his name was recognized at the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, where he used to work.

The FBI declined to give on-the-record details of its response to this Russian operation. Agency spokeswoman Jillian Stickels said the FBI does sometimes notify individual targets. “The FBI takes … all potential threats to public and private sector systems very seriously,” she said in an email.

However, three people familiar with the matter — including a current and a former government official — previously told the AP that the FBI knew the details of Fancy Bear’s phishing campaign for more than a year.

Pressed about notification in that case, a senior FBI official, who was not authorized to publicly discuss the hacking operation because of its sensitivity, said the bureau was overwhelmed by the sheer number of attempted hacks. “It’s a matter of triaging to the best of our ability the volume of the targets who are out there,” he said.

A Pentagon spokeswoman, Heather Babb, said she could release no details about any Defense Department response, citing “operational security reasons.” But she said the department recognizes the evolving cyber threat and continues to update training and technology. “This extends to all of our workforce — military, civilian and contractor,” she added.

Safeguarding systems

The Defense Security Service, which protects classified U.S. technology and trains industry in computer security, focuses on safeguarding corporate computer networks. “We simply have no insight into or oversight of anyone’s personal email accounts or how they are protected or notified when something is amiss,” spokeswoman Cynthia McGovern said in an email.

Contacted by the AP, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Boeing, Airbus and General Atomics did not respond to requests for comment.

Jerome Pearson, a space system and drone developer, acknowledged that he has not focused on security training at his company, Star Technology, where Buet has consulted. “No, we really haven’t done that,” he said with a nervous laugh. “We may be a little bit remiss in that area.” He said they may do training for future contracts.

Cybersecurity experts say it’s no surprise that spies go after less secure personal email as an opening to more protected systems. “For a good operator, it’s like hammering a wedge,” said Richard Ford, chief scientist at the Forcepoint cybersecurity company. “Private email is the soft target.”

Some officials were particularly upset by the failure to notify employees of cloud computing companies that handle data for intelligence agencies. The cloud is a “huge target for foreign intelligence services in general —they love to get into that shared environment,” said Sowell, the former adviser to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

“At some point, wouldn’t someone who’s responsible for the defense contractor base be aware of this and try to reach out?” he asked.

Even successful hacks might not translate into new weapons for Russia, where the economy is weighed down by corruption and international sanctions.

However, experts say Russia, while still behind the U.S., has been making more advanced drones in recent years. Russian officials have recently been bragging as their increasingly sophisticated drones are spotted over war zones in Ukraine and Syria.

At a 2017 air show outside Moscow, plans were announced for a new generation of Russian combat drones.

Rogozin, the deputy prime minister, boasted that the technological gap between Russia and the United States “has been sharply reduced and will be completely eliminated in the near future.”

New Dinosaur Species Discovered in Egyptian Desert

Just days after the announcement that the 4,400 year old tomb of a high-ranking priestess had been found in Egypt, comes word of an even older discovery in the country, from about 100 million years ago. Faith Lapidus tells us about the new species of dinosaur found in the western Egyptian desert.

Second Man Undergoes Gene Editing; Therapy Has No Safety Flags So Far

A second patient has been treated in a historic gene editing study in California, and no major side effects or safety issues have emerged from the first man’s treatment nearly three months ago, doctors said Tuesday.

Gene editing is a more precise way to do gene therapy, and it aims to permanently change someone’s DNA to try to cure a disease.

In November, Brian Madeux, 44, became the first person to have gene editing inside the body for a metabolic disease called Hunter syndrome that’s caused by a bad gene. Through an IV, he received many copies of a corrective gene and a genetic tool to put it in a precise spot in his DNA.

“He’s doing well and we were approved to go ahead with the second patient, who also is doing well,” said Dr. Paul Harmatz of UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland, who treated both men for the same disease. 

At a medical conference in San Diego, Harmatz reported safety results for the first six weeks after Madeux’s treatment. Sangamo Therapeutics, the company that makes the gene editing tool called zinc finger nucleases, said more safety information and initial results on effectiveness should come by midyear. 

Problems faded

Madeux had dizziness, cold sweats and weakness four days after the treatment but they went away on their own in a day, Harmatz said. Madeux also had a severe cough and a partially collapsed lung, but these were deemed unrelated to the gene therapy because he had had similar problems previously.

It was important that there were no signs of harm to his liver.

“That’s the big worry,” because changes in the liver might mean the immune system was fighting the treatment and possibly undermining its effectiveness, Harmatz said.

The liver results were welcome news after some other recent reports caused alarm. A prominent gene therapy scientist, Dr. James Wilson of the University of Pennsylvania, published two studies reporting liver and other serious problems in monkeys and piglets that were given experimental gene therapies. Several had to be euthanized.

The animal studies tested very high intravenous doses of a therapy that used a certain virus to carry the gene into cells. Relatives of this virus are widely used in human gene therapies, but Wilson said he did not believe that the results in animals had any bearing on use of lower doses, different types of the virus, or therapies given in different ways such as a shot.

Neuromuscular disorders

The results might mean it will be harder to develop gene therapies for some neuromuscular disorders — higher doses in the animal studies were thought necessary to get the therapy into the brain and throughout muscles.

The Sangamo study that Madeux is in used much lower doses of a different type of the virus.

Wilson said it was important to the field that any safety concerns be published quickly. He helped lead a very early gene therapy experiment that killed a teen in 1999, putting some other studies on hold for years.

An editorial in the journal HumanGeneTherapy, which published one of Wilson’s animal studies, said gene therapy experiments should not stop, because that might deprive patients of potentially lifesaving treatments.

In the last year, the first gene therapies were approved in the United States to treat cancer and an inherited form of blindness.

Robots Replacing Workers Is Nothing New

From mowing the grass and cleaning windows to making deliveries at hotels and hospitals, even child and elder care, robots of all shapes and sizes are doing things humans have been doing for years. 

These types of machines can also do things humans cannot.

“It can work all day, 24 hours a day, and it doesn’t get emotional. It’s always welcoming with a smile,” said Simon Wang of the Beijing Canny Unisboro Technology Co. Ltd. 

He said the machines’ ability to work around the clock makes them cheaper than hiring a human employee. 

“It will be the cheapest member of your team for sure,” said Steve Cousins of Savioke, a company that makes hotel and hospital delivery robots for rent around the world.

A Chinese-made, Mandarin-speaking robot named UU is already working in the service industry. He dances, tells jokes and provides information.

“For example, it can be a shopping center, hotel, restaurant, some convention centers, galleries as a guide…,” Wang said, adding the UU robot is already working in China “in a hospital setting, in a clinic, to diagnose problems and to answer some medical questions.”

Adapting technology

Adapting technology to perform humans’ work is nothing new.

“Go back to ploughs or go back to tractors, those are the beginning of adding technology to work to make workers more productive. A spreadsheet is not smarter than you, but it is faster at calculations. It’s just different, and so when you put a spreadsheet in an accountant’s hands, you make that accountant much, much more productive. The same thing with robots,” Cousins said.

Robots are getting smarter. A demonstration at the Consumer Electronics Show last month showed a robot playing the English word game Scrabble against a human opponent, and winning.

“Its (the robot’s) main point is not to replace people’s jobs. It is to help people do really complicated work,” said Hu Ji Ping of the Industrial Technology Research Institute.

In addition to doing complicated work, robots are also doing dull, dirty and dangerous work.

A robot called RoboMantis can do unsavory work, so a person does not have to be in those situations.

“Confined spaces, refinery tank cleaning, things like that where you can really take advantage of a robot that can go in and work for hours on end without endangering a human in those situations,” said Chris Thayer of California-based Motiv Robotics that makes the RoboMantis.

Robots can also do work that is so repetitive, such as in agriculture, that no one wants to do it, Thayer said.

“…picking, maintenance, a lot of things of that kind, caring for the plants themselves in a certain very specific way that needs to be done, and they aren’t getting those workers in regardless of seasonal, not seasonal, whatever it may be. It’s just a labor shortage,” Thayer said.

“I guess there are people who do just put a plug in a hole one after the other, all day long. Those people have already been replaced by robots, and those were pretty horrible jobs anyway,” said Cousins.

Wang said bosses love robots, but they are not a threat to people, yet.

“Robots will free people up to do more specialized work that can only be learned by a human’s intellect,” Wang said. “I don’t think a robot will completely replace a human’s mind currently or in the next 10 years, I haven’t found this kind of danger.”

The consensus among technologists: Robots are here to assist and not to replace. However, humans may have to continue to learn more specialized skills to stay ahead of what a robot can do.

Robots Replacing Workers is Nothing New

What does the not-so-distant future look like when an increasing number of robots enters the workforce? What types of jobs will they do and would you be replaced by a robot? VOA’s Elizabeth Lee spoke to experts in the field of robotics at the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this year for the answer.

Glasses Capture 360 Video From Wearer’s Perspective

Imagine putting on a pair of glasses and immediately being able to record 360-degree video, hands free, regardless of what you are doing. It will soon be possible with glasses made by Orbi.

“We’re making the first 360-degree video recording eyewear,” said Adil Suranchin, chief of operations at Orbi, a company headquartered in Berkeley, California, with its software team in Russia and with hardware developed in Taiwan, Japan, China and Canada.

Pair of glasses, four lenses

The glasses have a built-in camera with four lenses, two in front and two in the back. The result is 4K resolution immersive video. The glasses allow video to be recorded from the user’s perspective.

“You put them on, press the button, and you can say goodbye to all the mounts and rigs and tripods required for current action cameras.” Suranchin continued, “Every camera has a field of view of 180 degrees so it allows you to capture a complete dome view.”

The dome view means if the person wearing Orbi’s glasses isn’t looking down when recording, the video will have an area where it is just black.

Privacy concerns

Video-recording glasses also raises privacy concerns of the people being recorded.

“We have LED indicators, LED lights that light on when the recording is being done so that all surrounding people would know that the recording is happening,” Suranchin said.

The video can be shared instantly, and the files are saved on an SD card. The glasses are water-resistant, polarized and can be pre-ordered for $399 to be shipped starting August.