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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meta Disables Russian Propaganda Network Targeting Europe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Counter-drone Technology Stopping Malicious Drones from Doing Harm

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

Musk Faces Deposition With Twitter Ahead of October Trial

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

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

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

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

VOA Interview: Anne Neuberger

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

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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

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

VOA: Have you actually seen indications of it starting?

NEUBERGER: Of additional cyberattacks?

VOA: Of cyberattacks, yes.

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

VOA: How are you helping the Ukrainians defend themselves?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Experts Warn US Is Falling Behind China in Key Technologies

At a gathering of current and former U.S. officials and private-sector executives Friday in Washington, concern was rampant that the United States has fallen behind China in the development of several key technologies, and that it faces an uncertain future in which other countries could challenge its historic dominance in the development of cutting-edge communications and computing technology.

The gathering was convened by the Special Competitive Studies Project, an effort spearheaded by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, the stated purpose of which is “to ensure that America is positioned and organized to win the techno-economic competition between now and 2030, the critical window for shaping the future.”

Among attendees, the prevailing sentiment was that the nation’s ability to actually win that competition was under threat.

Dire predictions

A few days before the summit, the SCSP issued a report predicting what would happen if China became the global technological leader.

“Understanding the stakes requires imagining a world in which an authoritarian state controls the digital infrastructure, enjoys the dominant position in the world’s technology platforms, controls the means of production for critical technologies, and harnesses a new wave of general purpose technologies, like biotech and new energy technologies, to transform its society, economy and military,” the report said.

The report envisions a future where China, not the U.S., captures the trillions of dollars of income generated by the new technological advances and uses its leverage to make the case that autocracy, not democracy, is the superior form of government.

In the report’s grim vision, China promotes the concept of a “sovereign” internet, where individual countries limit the flow of information to their people, and where China develops and possibly controls the key technology supporting critical infrastructure in countries around the world.

Finally, the report warns that under such a scenario, the U.S. military would lose its technological lead over China and other competitors, and China might be in a position to cut off the supply of “microelectronics and other critical technology inputs.”

‘Nothing is inevitable’

In an address to the summit, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan appeared to agree that the nation faces significant challenges in keeping pace with China in the development of new technology.

“We know that nothing is inevitable about maintaining America’s core strength and competitive advantage in the world,” Sullivan said. “And we know that it has to be renewed, revitalized and stewarded, and that is especially true when it comes to U.S. technological leadership.”

In China, he said, “we’re facing a competitor that is determined to overtake U.S. technology leadership and is willing to devote nearly limitless resources to do so.”

Sullivan also said, however, that President Joe Biden’s administration is aware of the threat and has been working to meet it. In particular, Sullivan noted the recent passage of the CHIPS Act, which directs more than $50 billion toward establishing advanced microchip fabrication facilities in the U.S.

“We’re making historically unprecedented investments, putting us back on track to lead the industries of the future,” Sullivan said. “We’re doubling down on our efforts to be a magnet for the world’s top technical talent. We’ve adapted our technology protection tools to new geopolitical realities. And most importantly, we’ve done this in a way that is inclusive, force multiplying and consistent with our values.”

Not ‘fast enough’

H.R. McMaster, a retired Army general who served as national security adviser during the Trump administration, appeared as a panelist at the conference. He said that while progress is being made, the pace needs to be quickened.

“It’s not going fast enough, because we’re so far behind, because there’s too many years of complacency based on flawed assumptions about the nature of the post-Cold War world,” McMaster said.

He called for a more active effort to block China’s technological advancement, saying, “We need export controls now, to prevent China from getting a differential advantage, [while] maintaining our competitive advantages.”

China has repeatedly criticized U.S. efforts to impede its technological advancement, an issue that Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning addressed this week when asked about U.S. export controls.

“What the U.S. is doing is purely ‘sci-tech hegemony,’ ” she said. “It seeks to use its technological prowess as an advantage to hobble and suppress the development of emerging markets and developing countries. While trumpeting a level playing field and a so-called ‘rules-based order,’ the U.S. cares only about ‘America first’ and believes might makes right. The U.S. probably hopes that China and the rest of the developing world will forever stay at the lower end of the industrial chain. This is not constructive.”

5G as a warning

A recurring theme at the event was the development of 5G wireless internet technology, a field in which Western countries, including the U.S., fell far behind China. With the benefit of favorable treatment from Beijing, Chinese firms, specifically Huawei, developed a dominant global position in the provision of 5G networking equipment. 

Concerned that having Chinese-made equipment serve as the backbone of sensitive communications technology could create an espionage or security risk, the U.S. and some of its allies mounted a global campaign to block the installation of Huawei’s equipment, even if that meant significant delays in the rollout of 5G wireless service.

“The key message here is we need to make sure that what happened to us in 5G does not happen again,” said Schmidt. “I cannot say that more clearly. You do not want to work on platform technologies that you use every day that are dominated by nondemocratic, nonopen systems.”

Schmidt said that it would be difficult to stay ahead of China technologically, predicting that Beijing would “double down on competing in the areas that we care about,” including artificial intelligence, quantum computing, biotechnology and others.

Maintaining relations

Jon Huntsman, a former U.S. ambassador to China, said that Americans are generally uninformed about how far China is ahead of the United States in some technologies. Now the vice chairperson of Ford Motor Company, Huntsman said that in the development of electric vehicles, for example, China is at least five years ahead of the U.S.

He said that the U.S. must walk a fine line to catch up with China in some areas and to maintain its advantage in others. In particular, he stressed the need to retain person-to-person business and other relationships with the Chinese people.

“Decoupling our people is not a good thing,” he said. “We’ll wind up with China right where we are with Russia if we do that.” He added, “Decoupling is only going to create estrangement, misunderstandings and instability, globally, on the security side.”

Privacy Threatened as More Governments Use Spyware to Monitor Their People

A U.N. report warns the right to privacy is under siege as an increasing number of governments are using spyware to keep tabs on their people.

The U.N. human rights office said urgent steps are needed to address the spread of spyware. It noted many governments are using modern digital networked technologies to monitor, control and oppress their populations. U.N. officials say the technologies must be reined in and regulated in accord with international human rights laws and standards.

Human rights spokeswoman Liz Throssell said the report details how surveillance tools such as the Pegasus software can turn most smartphones into 24-hour surveillance devices. She said the encroachment into peoples’ privacy is very concerning.

“For example, the smartphones that people have, they can be made into devices that actually offer people insights into what we do, where we go, who we meet with, what we say,” she said. “And that is a very, very powerful tool indeed, which is precisely why we are making these very strong calls in this report today.”

Human rights organizations have accused countries like China of building a vast surveillance and security system to keep close watch on their populations.

The U.N. report does not name the countries that use digital surveillance technologies. However, Throssell notes more than 500 companies reportedly have developed, marketed and sold such spyware to governments. She said governmental authorities often falsify their reasons for acquiring such digital technology.

“While such spyware tools are purportedly deployed to combat terrorism and crime, they have often been used for illegitimate reasons,” Throssell said. “For example, to clamp down on critical or dissenting views and on those who express them including journalists, opposition political figures and human rights defenders.”

U.N. officials are calling for a moratorium on the use and sale of hacking tools until adequate safeguards to protect human rights are in place. They warn the right to privacy is more at risk now than ever and action is needed now to stop the abuse.

YouTube, Meta Will Expand Policies, Research to Fight Online Extremism

Major tech companies on Thursday committed to taking fresh steps to combat online extremism by removing more violent content and promoting media literacy with young users, as part of a White House summit on fighting hate-fueled violence.

Platforms such as Alphabet’s YouTube and Meta’s Facebook have come under fire for years from critics who say the companies have allowed hate speech, lies and violent rhetoric to flourish on their services.

U.S. President Joe Biden earlier Thursday called on Americans to combat racism and extremism during a summit at the White House that gathered experts and survivors and included bipartisan local leaders.

YouTube said it will expand its policies on violent extremism to remove content that glorifies violent acts, even if the creators of the videos are not related to a terrorist organization.

The video streaming site already prohibits violent incitement, but in at least some cases has not applied existing policies to videos promoting militia groups involved with the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol.

A report by the Tech Transparency Project in May found 435 pro-militia videos on YouTube, including 85 posted since Jan. 6. Some of the videos gave training advice, like how to carry out guerilla-style ambushes.

YouTube spokesperson Jack Malon declined to say whether the service would change its approach to that content under the new policy but said the update enables it to go further with enforcement than it had previously.

YouTube also said it will launch a media literacy campaign to teach younger users how to spot the manipulation tactics that are used to spread misinformation.

Microsoft said it will make a basic and more affordable version of its artificial intelligence and machine learning tools available to schools and smaller organizations in order to help them detect and prevent violence.

Facebook owner Meta announced it will partner with researchers from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies’ Center on Terrorism, Extremism and Counterterrorism.

Last year, lawmakers grilled the chief executives of Alphabet and Facebook, as well as Twitter, on whether their companies bore some responsibility for the Jan. 6 attack.

With $19.5 Billion Investment, India Joins Global Race to Make Semiconductors

India’s ambitions to create a domestic semiconductor manufacturing capability got a boost with this week’s announcement of a $ 19.5 billion investment by Taiwanese electronic company Foxconn and local conglomerate Vedanta.

The companies will set up manufacturing facilities for producing the chips in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state, Gujarat. The plants are expected to be operational by 2024.

Modi called the agreement an important step in “accelerating India’s semi-conductor manufacturing ambitions” in a tweet Tuesday following the announcement.

India has joined the global race to make the chips at the heart of modern electronic devices from smartphones to cars, but for which there have been global shortages since the COVID-19 pandemic caused supply chain constraints.

India announced a $10 billion economic package in December to attract semiconductor makers as it looks to become a production hub for the critical components. It has also promised to expand incentives.

So far manufacturers in a small number of East Asian countries, led by China, Taiwan and South Korea, have supplied most of the world’s semiconductors. Several countries now want to reduce their dependence on global supply chains in critical technologies after the pandemic as well as Russia’s war in Ukraine and growing tensions between Western countries and China highlighted the risks of relying on limited sources of production.

“There are growing concerns of economic wars in the future and overdependence on China, especially for crucial components. So, India is trying to emerge as a production hub for semiconductors,” Sreeram Chaulia, dean of the Jindal School of International Affairs.

“The government believes that India can fill a niche as some countries and companies look to alternatives to China,” he told VOA.

While India has forged ahead in the software technology sector, which does not require physical infrastructure, it has lagged behind in electronic manufacturing partly due to poor infrastructure. The most difficult issue facing manufacturers is the unavailability of large tracts of land.

India also offers some advantages, though, such as the the thousands of semiconductor design engineers working for global companies with research and development offices in the country.

“I can confidently say that within the next five to six years, we will become a great semiconductor design capital of the world. We will use that capability to feed into our semiconductor manufacturing also,” Ashwini Vaishnav, India’s information technology and electronics minister, told a business conference last month.

The Foxconn and Vedanta announcement is the biggest announced in the sector so far.

“India’s own Silicon Valley is a step closer now,” Vedanta group chairman Anil Agarwal tweeted Tuesday. The project is expected to create 100,000 jobs in India.

“The improving infrastructure and the government’s active and strong support increases confidence in setting up a semiconductor factory,” Foxconn Vice President Brian Ho said in a statement.

Singaporean group IGSS Ventures has also signed a memorandum of understanding for a semiconductor plant in Tamil Nadu state.

“Many countries will be a lot more comfortable relying on India, so that gives the government a sense that this could just be the beginning of a flow of foreign funds to promote chip manufacturing,” Chaulia said.

“There also have been discussions at the level of the Quad and other forums for finding reliable sources for some of these components,”  he said, referring to the grouping of India, the United States, Japan and Australia.

The push to make semiconductors is also part of a “Make in India” campaign promoted by Modi since he took office eight years ago.

His aim to emulate China’s success in manufacturing had met with a tepid response according to business experts.

New Delhi hopes that will change as companies look at diversifying production bases especially in areas of critical technologies.

Whistleblower Tells Senators of Twitter Security Flaws

U.S. senators expressed empathy with Twitter’s former security chief during a hearing on Tuesday as he outlined serious concerns about the influential social media platform.

“It doesn’t matter who has keys if you don’t have any locks on the doors. And this kind of vulnerability is not in the abstract. It’s not far-fetched to say an employee in the company could take over the accounts of all of the senators in this room,” said Peiter “Mudge” Zatko in testimony before the Senate’s Judiciary Committee.

“Given the real harm to users and national security, I determined it was necessary to take on the personal and professional risk to myself and to my family of becoming a whistleblower.”

Zatko, appearing under subpoena, added he was not making the disclosures “out of spite or to harm Twitter.”

Zatko, who made a number of revelations previously in an 84-page complaint to the Securities and Exchange Commission and other U.S. government regulatory agencies, said that executive incentives compel Twitter executives to prioritize profits over security.

“There was a culture of not reporting bad results up, only reporting good results up,” Zatko told the senators.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Senator Dick Durbin, a Democrat, noted that according to Zatko, “the door to that vault is wide open and that vault contains a lot more information about you than you can imagine.”

Several senators, from both the Democratic and Republican parties, expressed concern that Twitter’s vulnerabilities could constitute a national security threat.

“This data is a gold mine of information that could be used against America’s interest. Twitter has a responsibility to ensure that the data is protected and doesn’t fall into the hands of foreign powers,” said Chuck Grassley, the ranking Republican senator on the committee.

“Your testimony today has legitimized what most of us feel is a process out of control, that the regulatory environment is insufficient to the task,” said Senator Lindsey Graham a Republican. “It’s time to up our game in this country.”

Graham said he is working with Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat, to create a regulatory system that would have “teeth,” similar to what has been enacted in Europe.

“I’m not reaching any conclusions, but clearly what we’re doing right now is not working,” said Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat on the committee, who raised the possibility of creating a new government agency to regulate tech companies and protect consumers.

One senator, Mazie Hirono, a Democrat, appeared exasperated that Twitter has not been held to account even though it has paid a $150 million fine for violating a consent decree with the Federal Trade Commission on protecting users’ data.

“Do people need to go to prison?” she asked Zatko.

“I think holding people accountable is a good start,” he replied.

Zatko, a former high-profile computer hacker who became head of cybersecurity research at a Defense Department research and development agency known as DARPA and subsequently worked at Google before joining Twitter in 2020, also testified there were suspected foreign agents working inside Twitter — from China, India and Nigeria — and that there was no way to track their access to company databases, including those containing users’ personal information.

Zatko said when he raised his concern with another Twitter executive about a particular suspected foreign agent inside the company that person replied: “Well, since we already have one, what does it matter if we have more?”

Twitter’s hiring process is independent of any foreign influence and access to data is managed through measures including background checks, access controls, and monitoring and detection systems and processes, according to a Twitter company spokesman.

“Today’s hearing only confirms that Mr. Zatko’s allegations are riddled with inconsistencies and inaccuracies,” a Twitter company spokesperson, who declined to be publicly identified, responded to VOA and did not elaborate.

Twitter Chief Executive Officer Parag Agrawal declined to voluntarily appear before the committee on Tuesday. Durbin and Grassley told reporters they will discuss issuing a subpoena to compel the executive to appear.

Zatko “continues to believe that through this public disclosure process, real world harm for Twitter users may be avoided and our country’s national security better protected,” said his attorney, Alexis Ronickher, in a statement following the hearing.

Following Zatko’s testimony, Twitter announced that its shareholders have approved a $44 billion takeover offer from Tesla Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk. But since making the bid, the billionaire has terminated the agreement, accusing Twitter of misrepresenting the number of authentic users. Twitter has countersued, and the matter is scheduled to be heard in Delaware’s chancery court next month.

A judge in the state of Delaware ruled last week that Zatko’s claims can be included in Musk’s case against Twitter.

Twitter Whistleblower Bringing Security Warnings to Congress

Peiter “Mudge” Zatko, the Twitter whistleblower who is warning of security flaws, privacy threats and lax controls at the social platform, will take his case to Congress Tuesday. 

Senators who will hear Zatko’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee are alarmed by his Twitter allegations at a time of heightened concern over the safety of powerful tech platforms. 

It’s Zatko’s second Capitol Hill appearance, and in some ways a 21st-century echo of his first. In 1998, he testified before a Senate panel along with fellow members of a hacker collective who warned about the security dangers of the then-emerging internet age. 

Zatko, a respected cybersecurity expert, was Twitter’s head of security until he was fired early this year. He brought the stunning allegations to Congress and federal regulators, asserting that the influential social platform misled regulators about its cyber defenses and efforts to control millions of “spam” or fake accounts. 

Sen. Dick Durbin, the Illinois Democrat who chairs the panel, has said that if Zatko’s claims are accurate, “they may show dangerous data privacy and security risks for Twitter users around the world.” 

Musk battle

Zatko’s accusations are also playing into billionaire tycoon Elon Musk’s battle with Twitter. The Tesla CEO is trying to get out of his $44 billion bid to buy the company; Twitter has sued to force him to complete the deal. The Delaware judge overseeing that case ruled last week that Musk can include new evidence related to Zatko’s allegations in the high-stakes trial set to start October 17. 

The allegation that Twitter engaged in deception in its handling of automated “spam bot” accounts is at the core of Musk’s attempt to back out of the Twitter deal. 

At the same time, many of Zatko’s claims are uncorroborated and appear to have little documentary support. In a statement, Twitter has called Zatko’s description of events “a false narrative.” 

Also Tuesday, Twitter’s shareholders are scheduled to vote on the company’s pending buyout by Musk. The vote is something of a formality given that the deal is on hold while the court case plays out. But if the measure passes as expected, it would pave the way for a Musk takeover should Twitter prevail in court. 

Zatko also filed complaints with the Justice Department, the Federal Trade Commission and the Securities and Exchange Commission. Among his most serious accusations is that Twitter violated the terms of a 2011 FTC settlement by falsely claiming that it had put stronger measures in place to protect the security and privacy of its users. 

The SEC is questioning Twitter about how it counts fake accounts on its platform. Twitter uses counts of its presumably real users to attract advertisers, whose payments make up about 90% of its revenue. The “spam bots” have no value to advertisers because there’s no person behind them. 

San Francisco-based Twitter has an estimated 238 million daily active users worldwide. The company says it removes 1 million spam accounts daily. 

‘Egregious deficiencies’

Zatko’s 84-page complaint alleges that he found “extreme, egregious deficiencies” on the platform, including issues with “user privacy, digital and physical security, and platform integrity/content moderation.” 

It accuses CEO Parag Agrawal and other senior executives and board members of making “false and misleading statements to users and the FTC” about these issues. Twitter denies those claims and has said that Zatko was fired in January for “ineffective leadership and poor performance.” Zatko’s attorneys say the performance claim is false. 

Twitter also hinted that Zatko’s complaint might be designed to bolster Musk’s legal fight with the company. Twitter called Zatko’s complaint “a false narrative” that is “riddled with inconsistencies and inaccuracies, and lacks important context.” 

News of Zatko’s complaint surfaced August 23, almost two months before the Twitter-Musk trial is scheduled to begin. One of Zatko’s attorneys has said “he’s never met Elon Musk. Doesn’t know Elon Musk. They know people in common.” 

The company also says it has significantly tightened security since 2020. 

Among Zatko’s specific allegations: 

— The company had such poor cybersecurity that it easily could have been exposed to outside attacks or attempts to siphon off its internal data. 

—The company lacked effective leadership, with its top executives practicing “deliberate ignorance” of pressing problems. Zatko described former CEO Jack Dorsey as “extremely disengaged” during the last months of his tenure, to the point where he wouldn’t even speak during meetings on complex issues. Dorsey stepped down in November 2021. 

—That Twitter knowingly allowed the government of India to place its agents on the company payroll, where they had “direct unsupervised access” to highly sensitive data on users. It makes a parallel but less detailed accusation that Twitter took funding from unidentified Chinese entities who may have gained access enabling them to access the identities and sensitive data of Chinese users who secretly use Twitter, which is officially banned in China. 

Better known by his hacker handle “Mudge,” Zatko, 51, first gained prominence in the 1990s. He was the best-known member of the Boston-based collective L0pht, which pioneered ethical hacking, embarrassing companies including Microsoft for poor security. His work raised awareness in the computing world that forced such major companies to take security seriously. He co-founded the consultancy @Stake, which was later acquired by Symantec. 

Zatko later worked in senior positions at the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and Google. He joined Twitter at Dorsey’s urging in late 2020, the same year the company suffered an embarrassing security breach involving hackers who broke into the Twitter accounts of world leaders, celebrities and tech moguls, including Musk, attempting to scam their followers out of bitcoin. 

Ethereum Blockchain Set for ‘Monumental’ Overhaul

An army of computer programmers scattered across the globe is set to attempt one of the biggest software upgrades the crypto sector has ever seen this week to reduce its environmentally unfriendly energy consumption.

Developers have spent years working on a more energy-efficient version of the ethereum blockchain, a digital ledger that underpins a multibillion-dollar ecosystem of cryptocurrencies, digital tokens (NFTs), games and apps.

Ethereum — the second most important blockchain after bitcoin — burns through more power each year than New Zealand.

Experts say the changeover, expected to take place between Tuesday and Thursday, would slash energy consumption by more than 99%.

Enthusiasts hope a greener ethereum will spur wider adoption, particularly as a way of enabling banks to automate transactions and other processes.

But so far the technology has been used largely to create speculative financial products.

The ING bank said in a recent note that the switchover might help ethereum gain acceptability among policymakers and regulators.  

“This in turn may provide a boost to traditional financial institutions’ willingness to develop ethereum-based services,” the bank said.

The switchover, dubbed “the merge,” will change the way transactions are logged.

At the moment, so-called crypto miners use energy-guzzling rigs of computers to solve puzzles that reward them with new coins — a system known as “proof of work.”

The new system will get rid of those miners and their computer stacks overnight.

Instead, “validators” will have to put up 32 ether (worth about $55,000) — ethereum’s cryptocurrency — to participate in the new “proof of stake” system where they earn rewards for their work.

But the merge process will be risky.

Blockchain company Consensys called it a “monumental technological milestone” and the biggest update to ethereum since it was launched in 2015.

Critics have questioned whether such an upgrade will pass off without incident, given the sector’s history of instability.

Ethereum went offline in May for three hours when a new NFT project sparked a surge in buyers that overwhelmed the network.

Several exchanges and crypto companies said they would halt transactions during the merge process.

The upgrade also faces a possible rebellion from crypto mining companies whose business will be severely damaged.

They can try to hijack the process or create a “fork,” basically a smaller blockchain that would continue with the old mechanism.

And even if the “merge” is successful, ethereum will still face major hurdles before it can be more widely adopted.

For example, it is expensive to use and the update will not reduce fees.

And the wider crypto sector is beset by wildly fluctuating prices, security flaws and an array of scams.

Crypto lawyer Charles Kerrigan from the firm CMS told AFP that ethereum was “decentralized and complicated” and had not yet been tested enough for governments and banks to get onboard.

“There have been questions about how easily it could deal with upgrades of the type that traditional software vendors provide to customers,” he said. “A successful merge will answer those questions.”

Small Nuclear Reactors Emerge as Energy Option, but Risks Loom

A global search for alternative sources to Russian energy in light of the war in Ukraine has refocused attention on smaller, easier-to-build nuclear power stations, which proponents say could provide a cheaper, more efficient alternative to older model mega-plants.

U.K.-based Rolls-Royce SMR says its small modular reactors, or SMRs, are much cheaper and quicker to get running than standard plants, delivering the kind of energy security that many nations are seeking. France already relies on nuclear power for a majority of its electricity, and Germany kept the option of reactivating two nuclear plants it will shut down at the end of the year as Russia cuts natural gas supplies.

While Rolls-Royce SMR and its competitors have signed deals with countries from Britain to Poland to start building the stations, they are many years away from operating and cannot solve the energy crisis now hitting Europe.

 

Nuclear power also poses risks, including disposing of highly radioactive waste and keeping that technology out of the hands of rogue countries or nefarious groups that may pursue a nuclear weapons program.

Those risks have been accentuated following the shelling around Europe’s largest nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, which has raised fears of potential nuclear disaster.

In the wake of the war, however, “the reliance on gas imports and Russian energy sources has focused people’s minds on energy security,” Rolls-Royce SMR spokesman Dan Gould said.  

An SMR’s components can be built in a factory, moved to a site in tractor trailers and assembled there, making the technology more attractive to frugal buyers, he said.

“It’s like building Lego,” Gould said. “Building on a smaller scale reduces risks and makes it a more investible project.”  

SMRs are essentially pressurized water reactors identical to some 400 reactors worldwide. The key advantages are their size — about one-tenth as big as a standard reactor — the ease of construction and the price tag.

The estimated cost of a Rolls-Royce SMR is $2.5 billion to $3.2 billion, with an estimated construction time of 5 1/2 years. That’s two years faster than it took to build a standard nuclear plant between 2016 and 2021, according to International Atomic Energy Agency statistics. Some estimates put the cost of building a 1,100-megawatt nuclear plant at between $6 billion and $9 billion.  

Rolls-Royce aims to build its first stations in the U.K. within 5 1/2 years, Gould said. Similarly, Oklahoma-based NuScale Power signed agreements last year with two Polish companies — copper and silver producer KGHM and energy producer UNIMOT — to explore the possibility of building SMRs to power heavy industry. Poland wants to switch from polluting, coal-powered electricity generation.  

Rolls-Royce SMR said last month that it signed a deal with Dutch development company ULC-Energy to look into setting up SMRs in the Netherlands.  

Another partner is Turkey, where Russia is building the Akkuyu nuclear power plant on the southern coast. Environmentalists say the region is seismically active and could be a target for terrorists.

The introduction of “unproven” nuclear power technology in the form of SMRs doesn’t sit well with environmentalists, who argue that proliferation of small reactors will exacerbate the problem of how to dispose of highly radioactive nuclear waste.

“Unfortunately, Turkey is governed by an incompetent administration that has turned it into a ‘test bed’ for corporations,” said Koray Dogan Urbarli, a spokesman for Turkey’s Green Party.

“It is giving up the sovereignty of a certain region for at least 100 years for Russia to build a nuclear power plant. This incompetence and lobbying power make Turkey an easy target for SMRs,” said Koray, adding that his party eschews technology with an “uncertain future.”

Gould said one Rolls-Royce SMR would generate nuclear waste the size of a “tennis court piled 1-meter high” throughout the plant’s 60-year lifetime. He said initially, waste would be stored on site at the U.K. plants and would eventually be transferred to a long-term disposal site selected by the British government.

M.V. Ramana, professor of public policy and global affairs at the University of British Columbia, cites research suggesting there’s “no demonstrated way” to ensure nuclear waste stored in what authorities consider to be secure sites won’t escape in the future.

The constant heat generated by the waste could alter rock formations where it’s stored and allow water seepage, while future mining activities could compromise a nuclear waste site’s integrity, said Ramana, who specializes in international security and nuclear energy.

Skeptics also raise the risks of possibly exporting such technology in politically tumultuous regions. Gould said Rolls-Royce is “completely compliant” with U.K. and international requirements in exporting its SMR technology “only in territories that are signatories to the necessary international treaties for the peaceful use of nuclear power for energy generation.”

Ramana said, however, there’s no guarantee nations will follow the rules.  

“Any country acquiring nuclear reactors automatically enhances its capacity to make nuclear weapons,” he said, adding that every SMR could produce “around 10 bombs worth of plutonium each year.”  

Rolls-Royce SMR could opt to stop supplying fuel and other services to anyone flouting the rules, but “should any country choose to do so, it can simply tell the International Atomic Energy Agency to stop inspections, as Iran has done, for example,” Ramana said.

Although spent fuel normally undergoes chemical reprocessing to generate the kind of plutonium used in nuclear weapons, Ramana said such reprocessing technology is widely known and that a very sophisticated reprocessing plant isn’t required to produce the amount of plutonium needed for weapons.

Voice-Operated Smartphones Target Africa’s Illiterate

Voice-operated smartphones are aiming at a vast yet widely overlooked market in sub-Saharan Africa — the tens of millions of people who face huge challenges in life because they cannot read or write.

In Ivory Coast, a so-called “Superphone” using a vocal assistant that responds to commands in a local language is being pitched to the large segment of the population — as many as 40 percent — who are illiterate.

Developed and assembled locally, the phone is designed to make everyday tasks more accessible, from understanding a document and checking a bank balance to communicating with government agencies.

“I’ve just bought this phone for my parents back home in the village, who don’t know how to read or write,” said Floride Jogbe, a young woman who was impressed by adverts on social media.

She believed the 60,000 CFA francs ($92) she forked out was money well spent.

The smartphone uses an operating system called “Kone” that is unique to the Cerco company, and covers 17 languages spoken in Ivory Coast, including Baoule, Bete, and Dioula, as well as 50 other African languages.

Cerco hopes to expand this to 1,000 languages, reaching half of the continent’s population, thanks to help from a network of 3,000 volunteers.

The goal is to address the “frustration” illiterate people feel with technology that requires them to be able to read or write or spell effectively, said Cerco president Alain Capo-Chichi, a Benin national.

“Various institutions set down the priority of making people literate before making technology available to them,” he told AFP.

“Our way skips reading and writing and goes straight to integrating people into economic and social life.”

Of the 750 million adults around the world who cannot read or write, 27 percent live south of the Sahara, according to UN figures for 2016, the latest year for which data is available.

The continent also hosts nearly 2,000 languages, some of which are spoken by tens of millions of people and are used for inter-ethnic communication, while others are dialects with a small geographical spread.

Lack of numbers or economic clout often means these languages are overlooked by developers who have already devised vocal assistants for languages in bigger markets.

Twi and Kiswahili

Other companies investing in the voice-operation field in Africa include Mobobi, which has created a Twi language voice assistant in Ghana called Abena AI, while Mozilla is working on an assistant in Kiswahili, which has an estimated 100 million speakers in East Africa.

Telecommunications expert Jean-Marie Akepo questioned whether voice operation needed the platform of a dedicated mobile phone.

Existing technology “manages to satisfy people”, he said.

“With the voice message services offered by WhatsApp, for example, a large part of the problem has already been solved.”

Instead of a new phone, he recommended “software with local languages that could be installed on any smartphone”.

The Ivorian phone is being produced at the ICT and Biotechnology Village in Grand-Bassam, a free-trade zone located near the Ivorian capital.

It came about through close collaboration with the government. The company pays no taxes or customs duties and the assembly plant has benefited from a subsidy of more than two billion CFA francs.

In exchange, Cerco is to pay 3.5 percent of its income to the state and train around 1,200 young people each year.

The company says it has received 200,000 orders since launch on July 21.

Thanks to a partnership with French telecommunications giant Orange, the phone will be distributed in 200 shops across Ivory Coast.

US Moves to Keep Advanced Semiconductor Technology Out of China

Companies that accept U.S. funding under a plan to build up America’s computer chip-making capacity will be barred from establishing advanced fabrication facilities in China for 10 years, the administration of President Joe Biden announced this week.

The Commerce Department rolled out its plan to distribute $50 billion provided by the CHIPS Act, which Biden signed into law last month. In an appearance at the White House on Tuesday, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said the rules include specific language on transferring technology to China.

“Companies who receive CHIP funds can’t build leading-edge or advanced technology facilities in China for a period of 10 years,” she said. “Companies who receive the money can only expand their mature node factories in China to serve the Chinese market.”

Mature node factories refer to semiconductor fabrication facilities that only produce older technology that is already widely available.

Raimondo reminded her audience of the semiconductor supply shortage during the first years of the COVID-19 pandemic, saying, “We saw the impact of the chip shortage on American families when car prices drove a third of inflation because of lack of chips, factory workers were furloughed, household appliances were often unavailable, all because of a lack of semiconductors.”

“With this funding, we’re going to make sure that the United States is never again in a position where our national security interests are compromised or key industries are immobilized due to our inability to produce essential semiconductors here at home,” she said.

Low US capacity

The CHIPS Act is a response not just to the computer chip shortage that snarled global supply chains during the pandemic but also to the perceived national security threat that a lack of domestic semiconductor manufacturing presents.

According to the Commerce Department, the U.S. consumes 25% of the world’s most advanced computer chips but does not produce any of them. As for less advanced chips, the U.S. consumes 30% but manufactures only 13%.

Because advanced chips are used not only in consumer goods but in weapons systems and other technology important to national security, the federal government worries that global adversaries could choke off supply in the event of a conflict.

For example, a large percentage of the chips the U.S. imports come from Taiwan, which has come under increasingly serious threat from China, whose government claims the island nation as part of its country.

‘Unusual’ policy

James A. Lewis, senior vice president and director of the Strategic Technologies Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), told VOA that the 10-year time limit is “an unusual” policy for the U.S., and it probably represents an effort to find middle ground between technology companies and China hawks in the federal government.

“I can’t think of any other case where we’ve put a time limit like that. … It’s not how we usually do things internationally,” he said.

The Commerce Department, Lewis said, found itself between technology companies reluctant to be completely cut off from one of the world’s largest markets on one side, and Congress and the White House on the other. Lawmakers and President Biden are both eager to prevent China from producing cutting-edge semiconductors.

Technology restrictions not new

Although a decade-long ban on the manufacture of advanced semiconductor technology in China may be stricter than expected, U.S. companies are used to facing restrictions on the export of critical technology.

“U.S. companies will follow U.S. law. They will continue to sell chips to Chinese buyers in accordance with existing law,” Doug Barry, a vice president with the U.S.-China Business Council, told VOA in an email exchange. “They have long been required to apply for export licenses to sell certain kinds of chips and have halted sales to specific China entities when U.S. law required them to do so.”

Barry said that his organization’s members “support the policies of a strong indigenous semiconductor industry and robust national security.”

He added: “The key for preserving U.S. competitiveness in important technologies is to narrow the scope of export and investment controls, and to consult regularly with the business community to avoid unintended policy consequences.”

Chinese embassy responds

In a reply to a query from VOA, the Chinese embassy in Washington emailed a response to the measure from spokesperson Liu Pengyu.

“The Chinese side opposes the relevant Act’s intervention in and restriction on economic, trade and investment cooperation of the global business community,” Liu said. “The Act which includes terms limiting relevant companies’ normal investment and trade in China and normal China-U.S/ sci-tech cooperation. It would distort the global semiconductor supply chains and disrupt international trade. China is firmly against that.”

In conclusion, Liu said, “The U.S. politicizes, instrumentalizes and weaponizes tech and trade issues, and engages in tech blockade and decoupling in an attempt to monopolize the world’s advanced technologies, perpetuate its hegemony in the sci-tech sector, and damage the closely-knit global industrial and supply chains. Such moves would hurt others without benefiting oneself.”

A bifurcated future

Lewis, of CSIS, said the 10-year ban strengthens the possibility that China will simply go its own way, investing in the capacity to produce its own technology, perhaps to standards that would not be compatible with Western technology.

Were it to do so, it might find willing customers in countries such as Russia and Iran, which find themselves on the receiving end of U.S.-backed sanctions. China might also begin to compete with the U.S. in other markets.

“If nothing changes, by 2030 we’ll see a bifurcated system,” Lewis said. “It’s a new kind of competition. There’ll be Chinese stuff made on Chinese standards that they’ll want to sell to the global market. And there will be Western stuff made on Western standards that they’ll want to sell to the global market.” 

Apple Offers Adventure Watch, Satellite SOS iPhone — and Steady Prices

Apple on Wednesday avoided price hikes of its best-selling iPhones during its biggest product launch of the year, focusing on safety upgrades rather than flashy new technical specs, with the exception of a new adventure-focused watch. 

The iPhone maker leaned into safety technologies, like the ability to detect a car accident and summon a rescue from a remote mountaintop, to add allure to its devices. Apple positioned itself as the brand to allow users to pursue excitement and adventure — with a safety net. 

Such intangible features “are the things that make you not just want the products for yourself, but also for loved ones,” said Ben Bajarin, head of consumer technologies at Creative Strategies. “Ultimately, the increased emphasis on safety — safety as a service — is super interesting as a value proposition.” 

The iPhone lineup that generates half of Apple’s sales got tweaks to cameras and battery life, though only the iPhone Pro lineup got an upgrade to a completely new processor chip.  

Prices of the high-end iPhone 14s are the same as last year’s iPhone 13 models. But Apple dropped its cheapest option, the iPhone Mini, meaning its lowest-priced model now costs $100 more than last year.  

The iPhone 14 will start at $799 and the iPhone 14 Plus at $899 and be available for preorder starting Friday. The iPhone Pro will cost $999 and the iPhone Pro Max $1,099 and be available September 16.  

“They decided to essentially maintain pricing despite inflationary pressure,” said D.A. Davidson analyst Tom Forte. 

Nintendo and T-Mobile have also said they will hold off on price increases.  

Satellite SOS feature

Apple said its satellite SOS feature will work with emergency responders. It also said that users will be able to use its FindMy app to share their location via satellite when they have no other connectivity. 

The service will be free for two years with the iPhone 14. Apple did not say what would happen after that period.  

Shares in Globalstar jumped 20% on Wednesday after the satellite services firm announced it would be the satellite operator for Apple’s emergency SOS service.  

The Cupertino, California-based company also showed a trio of new Apple Watches, including a new Watch Ultra model aimed at extreme sports and diving and designed to challenge sports watch specialists such as Garmin and Polar.  

On the watch front, the $799 Ultra has a bigger battery to last through events like triathlons and better waterproofing and temperature resistance to operate in outdoor environments, as well as better GPS tracking for sports. 

All of the watches, which include a Series 8 priced the same as last year and an updated, cheaper SE model, and new iPhones will have the ability to detect when a user has been in a serious car crash and call emergency services. 

Ovulation detection

The new Series 8 watch has a temperature sensor that will retroactively detect ovulation. The company emphasized the privacy approach of its cycle tracking. Privacy and reproductive health data have become a focus for tech companies in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court decision that ended a constitutional right to abortion in the United States. 

But while accessories like the Apple Watch have driven incremental sales from Apple’s existing user base, the iPhone remains the bedrock of its business with 52.4% of sales in its most recent fiscal year, and investors continue to wonder what, if anything, will be the company’s next major product category. 

Analysts expect that category to be a mixed reality headset that could come to market as soon as next year, but Apple gave no hints at those potential products on Wednesday.

Judge: Musk Can Use Twitter Whistleblower But Not Delay Case

Elon Musk will be able to include new evidence from a Twitter whistleblower as he fights to get out of his $44 billion deal to buy the social media company, but Musk won’t be able to delay a high-stakes October trial over the dispute, a judge ruled Wednesday. 

Chancellor Kathaleen St. Jude McCormick, the head judge of Delaware’s Court of Chancery, denied Musk’s request to delay the trial by four weeks. But she allowed the billionaire Tesla CEO to add evidence related to whistleblower allegations by former Twitter security chief Peiter Zatko, who is scheduled to testify to Congress next week about the company’s poor cybersecurity practices. 

Twitter has sued Musk, asking the Delaware court to force him to go through with the deal he made in April to buy the company. Musk has countersued and a trial is set to start the week of October 17. 

Musk’s legal team has argued that the allegations made by Zatko to U.S. officials may help bolster Musk’s claims that Twitter misled him and the public about the company’s problem with fake and “spam” accounts. Zatko, a well-known cybersecurity expert known by his hacker handle ” Mudge,” said he was fired in January after raising flags about Twitter’s negligence in protecting the security and privacy of its users. 

The judge’s ruling followed an hourslong hearing Tuesday at which attorneys for Musk and Twitter argued with each other about the merits of Zatko’s claims and the pace at which both sides are producing evidence ahead of the trial. 

Twitter’s attorneys sought to downplay the relevance of Zatko’s allegations to the merger dispute, arguing that an initial 27-page complaint he sent to Twitter and a later retaliation claim made no mention of the “spam bot” issues that Musk has given as a reason to terminate the deal. Zatko “never said a word about spam or bots” until his July whistleblower complaint, said Twitter attorney William Savitt. 

Twitter has argued for weeks that Musk’s stated reasons for backing out were just a cover for buyer’s remorse after agreeing to pay 38% above Twitter’s stock price shortly before the stock market stumbled and shares of the electric-car maker Tesla, where most of Musk’s personal wealth resides, lost more than $100 billion of their value. 

McCormick, the judge, said Wednesday the newly published whistleblower complaint gave Musk’s team grounds to amend its countersuit but she declined to weigh in on the details. 

“I am reticent to say more concerning the merits of the counterclaims at this posture before they have been fully litigated,” she wrote. “The world will have to wait for the post-trial decision.” 

McCormick, however, sided with Twitter’s concerns that delaying the trial would make it harder for the company to get back to business. 

“I am convinced that even four weeks’ delay would risk further harm to Twitter too great to justify,” she wrote. 

In afternoon trading, Twitter shares added 5.5% to $40.77. 

 

E-Commerce Company Jumia Launches Drone Deliveries in Ghana

Africa’s largest e-commerce company, Jumia, launched the first commercial drone delivery service on the continent this week, offering delivery of products across Ghana.

After more than three months of testing in the town of Omenaku, Jumia and California-based instant-delivery service Zipline have started delivering products to homes.

The service is available nationwide in the West African country. Jumia says it has made 100 delivery flights so far.

“Today, we believe it’s a great enabler for service for far-flung areas in Africa, very quickly in good speed and also with a great amount of sustainability and safety,” said Apoorva Kumar, Jumia’s chief operations officer.

A March 2022 Forbes report shows that Africa lags in access to energy and road networks, but the continent has made significant strides in internet penetration, which is estimated at 70%. So digital entrepreneurs are using technology to solve problems that are typically reserved for more traditional forms of infrastructure.

However, economists such as Ken Gichinga say that poor addressing systems for homes are still a major obstacle to drone delivery.

“Droning, if it is marked well with geo-mapping, can open up the industry in terms of delivery, but for good delivery we need to have a proper addressing system,” Gichinga said. “We don’t have them like in the west, proper addressing systems.”

According to the United Nations conference on trade and development, Africa also is lagging in key aspects of e-trade because of connectivity issues, lack of payment systems, and various government policies.

Less than 40% of African countries have adopted data privacy legislation, economist Wohoro Ndohho told VOA. If consumers fear their personal information will be shared with the wrong party, he said, the drones-for-delivery business may not take off.

“Africa is ready for drones to the extent that, in one sense, it leads to the whole question of building infrastructure,” he said. “For example, what is done in Rwanda, another part of Africa where they have used drones in delivery of medicine, but there must be an underlying legal system that support taking advantage of drones.”

Jumia operates in 11 African countries, with more than 30 warehouses. The group hopes to expand drone delivery services across the continent in the future.

Twitter Tests Long-Awaited Edit Button, Will Roll Out to Paid Subscribers

Twitter is internally testing a widely requested edit button, a feature that will be rolled out to paid subscribers in the coming weeks, the social media company said Thursday.

For years, Twitter users have demanded the ability to edit their tweets after publishing in order to fix errors like typos. Those requests have led to jokes online that Twitter would rather introduce any other product, such as newsletters, before giving users their top-requested feature.

Soon, those demands will be met. Users will be able to edit their tweets “a few times” within 30 minutes of publication, Twitter said in a blog post.

Edited tweets will have an icon and timestamp to display when the post was last edited. Users will be able to click on the label of an edited tweet to view the edit history and previous versions of the post.

Twitter has experimented with versions of an edit button. Subscribers of Twitter Blue, the company’s paid subscription product, currently have access to a feature that holds tweets for up to one minute, allowing users to review the tweet and “undo” it before the post is published.

Musk Cites Whistleblower as New Reason to Exit Twitter Deal

Elon Musk and Twitter lobbed salvos at each other Tuesday in the latest round of legal filings over the billionaire Tesla CEO’s efforts to rescind his offer to buy the social media platform. 

Musk filed more paperwork to terminate his agreement to buy Twitter, this time based on information in a whistleblower complaint filed by Twitter’s former head of security. Twitter fired back by saying his attempt to back out of the deal is “invalid and wrongful.” 

In an SEC filing, Musk said his legal team notified Twitter of “additional bases” for ending the deal on top of the ones given in the original termination notice issued in July. 

In a letter to Twitter Inc., which was included in the filing, Musk’s advisers cited the whistleblower report by former executive Peiter Zatko — also known by his hacker handle “Mudge.” 

Zatko, who served as Twitter’s head of security until he was fired early this year, alleged in his complaint to U.S. officials that the company misled regulators about its poor cybersecurity defenses and its negligence in attempting to root out fake accounts that spread disinformation. 

The letter, addressed to Twitter’s Chief Legal Officer Vijaya Gadde, said Zatko’s allegations provide extra reasons to end the deal if the July termination notice “is determined to be invalid for any reason.” 

Billionaire Musk has spent months alleging that the company he agreed to acquire undercounted its fake and spam accounts, which means he doesn’t have to go through with the $44 billion deal. Musk’s decision to back out of the transaction sets the stage for a high-stakes legal battle in October. 

In a separate SEC filing, Twitter responded to what it called Musk’s latest “purported termination,” saying it’s “based solely on statements made by a third party that, as Twitter has previously stated, are riddled with inconsistencies and inaccuracies and lack important context.” 

The company vowed to go through with the sale at the price agreed with Musk. 

 

Elon Musk Subpoenas Twitter Whistleblower Ahead of Trial

Elon Musk’s legal team is demanding to hear from Twitter’s whistleblowing former security chief, who could help bolster Musk’s case for backing out of a $44 billion deal to buy the social media company. 

Former Twitter executive Peiter Zatko — also known by his hacker handle “Mudge” — received a subpoena Saturday from Musk’s team, according to Zatko’s lawyer and court records. 

The billionaire Tesla CEO has spent months alleging that the company he agreed to acquire undercounted its fake and spam accounts — and that he shouldn’t have to consummate the deal as a result. 

Zatko’s whistleblower complaint to U.S. officials alleging Twitter misled regulators about its privacy and security protections — and its ability to detect and root out fake accounts — might play into Musk’s hands in an upcoming trial scheduled for Oct. 17 in Delaware. 

Zatko served as Twitter’s head of security until he was fired early this year.