All posts by MTechnology

US Prosecutors Move to Cash in on $8.5M in Seized Bitcoin

U.S. attorneys in Utah prosecuting a multimillion-dollar opioid drug-ring are moving quickly to sell seized bitcoin that’s exploded in value to about $8.5 million since the alleged ringleader’s arrest a year ago.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for Utah cites the digital currency’s volatility in court documents pressing for the sale. The bitcoin cache was worth less than $500,000 when Aaron Shamo was arrested on drug charges, but the value of the digital currency has skyrocketed since then.

Bitcoin was created as a digital alternative to the traditional banking system, and is prone to swings in value based on what people believe its worth.

For federal prosecutors in Utah, sales of seized assets like cars are routine, but bitcoin is new territory, spokeswoman Melodie Rydalch said Thursday.

Shamo is accused of selling pills containing the powerful opioid fentanyl on the dark web — an area of the internet often used for illegal activity — to thousands of people all over the U.S., at one point raking in $2.8 million in less than a year.

The 500,000-pill bust ranked among the largest of its kind in the country, and authorities also found $1 million of cash stuffed into trash bags.

Shamo has pleaded not guilty to a dozen charges.

The proceeds of the bitcoin sale will be held until the case is resolved, and then decisions will be made about where the money goes, Rydalch said. Seized asset sale proceeds usually goes to the agency that investigated, like the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Defense attorney Greg Skordas is not contesting the sale of his client’s bitcoins.

Although there’s no global consensus over the status of bitcoin — debate rages whether the virtual money is an asset or a currency — that hasn’t stopped officials in the U.S. and elsewhere from cashing in on the digital hauls seized from cybercriminals.

In 2014 the U.S. Marshals Service announced the auction of nearly 30,000 bitcoins seized from notorious dark web drug marketplace Silk Road. Other seizures have since netted the American government millions of dollars in a series of sales.

Other governments — from Australia to South Korea — have set up similar auctions over the years.

Associated Press writer Raphael Satter in London contributed to this report.

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German Government Says It Backs ‘Open and Free Internet’

The German government says it backs an “open and free internet” following the U.S. decision to repeal net neutrality rules.

A spokeswoman for the Economy Ministry said Friday that Germany had “taken note” of the U.S. move but declined to comment directly on it.

However, spokeswoman Beate Baron said the German government supports rules introduced across the European Union last year forbidding discriminatory access to the internet.

Baron told reporters in Berlin that “an open and free internet is indispensable for the successful development of a digital society that everyone wants to take part in.”

The Republican-controlled U.S. Federal Communications Commission on Thursday repealed Obama-era rules requiring all web traffic to be treated equally.

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Scientists Working on Writing Five-day Forecast for Solar Storms

Charged particles from the sun are responsible for the brilliant auroras at the earth’s poles. But there can be cases of too much of a good thing. When huge solar storms push massive waves of energized particles into Earth’s path, they can wreak havoc on our satellites and electric grid. That is why researchers are trying to figure out what causes solar storms. VOA’s Kevin Enochs reports.

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What Is Net Neutrality?

“Net neutrality” regulations, designed to prevent internet service providers like Verizon, AT&T, Comcast and Charter from favoring some sites and apps over others, have been repealed. On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission voted to dismantle Obama-era rules that have been in place since 2015, but will forbid states to put anything similar in place.

Here’s a look at what the developments mean for consumers and companies.

What is net neutrality?

Net neutrality is the principle that internet providers treat all web traffic equally, and it’s pretty much how the internet has worked since its creation. But regulators, consumer advocates and internet companies were concerned about what broadband companies could do with their power as the pathway to the internet — blocking or slowing down apps that rival their own services, for example.

What did the governments do about it?

The FCC in 2015 approved rules, on a party-line vote, that made sure cable and phone companies don’t manipulate traffic. With them in place, a provider such as Comcast can’t charge Netflix for a faster path to its customers, or block it or slow it down.

The net neutrality rules gave the FCC power to go after companies for business practices that weren’t explicitly banned as well. For example, the Obama FCC said that “zero rating” practices by AT&T violated net neutrality. The telecom giant exempted its own video app from cellphone data caps, which would save some consumers money, and said video rivals could pay for the same treatment. Pai’s FCC spiked the effort to go after AT&T, even before it began rolling out a plan to undo the net neutrality rules entirely.

A federal appeals court upheld the rules in 2016 after broadband providers sued.

The telcos

Big telecom companies hated net neutrality’s stricter regulation and have fought them fiercely in court. They said the regulations could undermine investment in broadband and introduced uncertainty about what were acceptable business practices. There were concerns about potential price regulation, even though the FCC had said it won’t set prices for consumer internet service.

Silicon Valley

Internet companies such as Google have strongly backed net neutrality, but many tech firms were more muted in their activism this year. Netflix, which had been vocal in support of the rules in 2015, said in January that weaker net neutrality wouldn’t hurt it because it’s now too popular with users for broadband providers to interfere.

What happens next

With the rules repealed, net-neutrality advocates say it will be harder for the government to crack down on internet providers who act against consumer interests and will harm innovation in the long-run. Those who criticize the rules say the repeal is good for investment in broadband networks.

But advocates aren’t sitting still. Some groups plan lawsuits to challenge the FCC’s move, and Democrats — energized by public protests in support of net neutrality — think it might be a winning political issue for them in 2018 congressional elections.

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FCC Scraps Net Neutrality Rules in US

There could soon be a major change in what Americans see on the internet after federal regulators voted Thursday to scrap traditional “net neutrality” rules. 

Thursday’s 3-2 vote by the Federal Communications Commission went along party lines, with Republican members voting to end the regulations and Democrats dissenting.

Individual states will also be barred from enacting their own rules governing the internet.

Net neutrality has been the norm since the internet was created more than 30 years ago. The FCC under former President Barack Obama formalized net neutrality rules in 2015.

The idea of net neutrality is for giant internet providers to treat all content equally. The Obama-era rules prevented them from giving preferential treatment to their own services and blocking and slowing down content from rivals.

Consumer groups and internet companies like net neutrality.

But FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who was appointed by President Donald Trump, said the internet needs what he calls a “light touch” instead of what he believes is unnecessary government regulation.

WATCH: What is ‘net neutrality’?

“Prior to 2015, before these regulations were imposed, we had a free and open internet,” Pai told NBC ahead of the vote. “That is the future as well under a light touch, market-based approach. Consumers benefit, entrepreneurs benefit. Everybody in the internet economy is better off with a market-based approach.”

But Democratic FCC member Mignon Clyburn said the FCC was “handing the keys to the internet” to a “handful of multibillion-dollar corporations.”

British engineer Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the World Wide Web, said this week that getting rid of net neutrality rules meant internet service providers “will have the power to decide which websites you can access and at what speed each will load. In other words, they’ll be able to decide which companies succeed online, which voices are heard — and which are silenced.”

Officials in several states, including New York and Washington, said they would challenge the new rules in court.

Ken Bredemeier contributed to this report.

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As ‘Net Neutrality’ Vote Nears, Some Brace for Long Fight

As the federal government prepares to unravel sweeping net-neutrality rules that guaranteed equal access to the internet, advocates of the regulations are bracing for a long fight.

The Thursday vote scheduled at the Federal Communications Commission could usher in big changes in how Americans use the internet, a radical departure from more than a decade of federal oversight. The proposal would not only roll back restrictions that keep broadband providers like Comcast, Verizon and AT&T from blocking or collecting tolls from services they don’t like, it would bar states from imposing their own rules.

The broadband industry promises that the internet experience isn’t going to change, but its companies have lobbied hard to overturn these rules. Protests have erupted online and in the streets as everyday Americans worry that cable and phone companies will be able to control what they see and do online.

That growing public movement suggests that the FCC vote won’t be the end of the issue. Opponents of the move plan legal challenges, and some net-neutrality supporters hope to ride that wave of public opinion into the 2018 elections.

Concern about FCC plan

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai says his plan eliminates unnecessary regulation that stood in the way of connecting more Americans to the internet. Under his proposal, the Comcasts and AT&Ts of the world will be free to block rival apps, slow down competing service or offer faster speeds to companies who pay up. They just have to post their policies online or tell the FCC.

The change also axes consumer protections, bars state laws that contradict the FCC’s approach, and largely transfers oversight of internet service to another agency, the Federal Trade Commission.

After the FCC released its plan in late November, well-known telecom and media analysts Craig Moffett and Michael Nathanson wrote in a note to investors that the FCC plan dismantles “virtually all of the important tenets of net neutrality itself.”

That could result in phone and cable companies forcing people to pay more to do what they want online. The technology community, meanwhile, fears that additional online tolls could hurt startups who can’t afford to pay them — and, over the long term, diminish innovation.

“We’re a small company. We’re about 40 people. We don’t have the deep pockets of Google, Netflix, Amazon to just pay off ISPs to make sure consumers can access our service,” said Andrew McCollum, CEO of streaming-TV service Philo.

ISPs: Trust us

Broadband providers pooh-pooh what they characterize as misinformation and irrational fears. “I genuinely look forward to the weeks, months, years ahead when none of the fire and brimstone predictions comes to pass,” said Jonathan Spalter, head of the trade group USTelecom, on a call with reporters Wednesday.

But some of these companies have suggested they could charge some internet services more to reach customers, saying it could allow for better delivery of new services like telemedicine. Comcast said Wednesday it has no plans for such agreements.

Cable and mobile providers have also been less scrupulous in the past. In 2007, for example, the Associated Press found Comcast was blocking or throttling some file-sharing. AT&T blocked Skype and other internet calling services on the iPhone until 2009. They also aren’t backing away from subtler forms of discrimination that favor their own services.

There’s also a problem with the FCC’s plan to leave most complaints about deceptive behavior and privacy to the FTC. A pending court case could leave the FTC without the legal authority to oversee most big broadband providers. That could leave both agencies hamstrung if broadband companies hurt their customers or competitors.

Critics like Democratic FTC commissioner Terrell McSweeny argue that the FTC won’t be as effective in policing broadband companies as the FCC, which has expertise in the issue and has the ability to lay down hard-and-fast rules against certain practices.

Public outcry

Moffett and Nathanson, the analysts, said that they suspect the latest FCC rules to be short-lived. “These changes will likely be so immensely unpopular that it would be shocking if they are allowed to stand for long,” they wrote.

There have been hundreds of public protests against Pai’s plan and more than 1 million calls to Congress through a pro-net neutrality coalition’s site. Smaller tech websites such as Reddit, Kickstarter and Mozilla put dramatic overlays on their sites Tuesday in support of net neutrality. Twitter on Wednesday was promoting #NetNeutrality as a trending topic. Other big tech companies were more muted in their support.

Public-interest groups Free Press and Public Knowledge are already promising to go after Pai’s rules in the courts. There may also be attempts to legislate net neutrality rules, which the telecom industry supports. Sen. John Thune, a South Dakota Republican, on Tuesday called for “bipartisan legislation” on net neutrality that would “enshrine protections for consumers with the backing of law.”

But that will be tough going. Democrats criticized previous Republican attempts at legislation during the Obama administration for gutting the FCC’s enforcement abilities. Republicans would likely be interested in proposing even weaker legislation now, and Democrats are unlikely to support it if so.

Some Democrats prefer litigation and want to use Republican opposition to net neutrality as a campaign issue in 2018. “Down the road Congress could act to put in place new rules, but with Republicans in charge of the House, Senate, and White House the likelihood of strong enforceable rules are small,” Rep. Mike Doyle, a Pennsylvania Democrat, wrote on Reddit last week. “Maybe after the 2018 elections, we will be in a stronger position to get that done.”

A future FCC could also rewrite net-neutrality regulation to be tougher on the phone and cable industry. That could bring a whole new cycle of litigation by broadband companies.

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Microsoft Updates Bing Search to Highlight Reputable Results

Microsoft on Wednesday rolled out new features on its Bing search engine powered by artificial intelligence, including one that summarizes the two opposing sides of contentious questions, and another that measures how many reputable sources are behind a given answer.

Tired of delivering misleading information when their algorithms are gamed by trolls and purveyors of fake news, Microsoft and its tech-company rivals have been going out of their way to show they can be purveyors of good information — either by using better algorithms or hiring more human moderators.  

Second-place search engine 

Microsoft is also trying to distinguish its 2nd-place search engine from long-dominant Google and position itself as an innovator in finding real-world applications for the latest advances in artificial intelligence.

“As a search engine we have a responsibility to provide answers that are comprehensive and objective,” said Jordi Ribas, Microsoft’s corporate vice president for AI products.

Bing’s new capabilities are designed to give users more confidence that an answer is correct and save them time so they don’t have to click through multiple links to validate it themselves. 

“You could be asking, ‘Is coffee good for you?’ We know that there are no good answers for that,” Ribas said. But the new search features side-by-side opposing perspectives. One source emphasizes coffee’s ability to increase metabolism and another shows it can raise blood pressure. Similar questions can also be asked on more sensitive topics, such as whether the death penalty is a good idea.

Digestible doses

On more complicated questions — is there a god? — Bing doesn’t have enough confidence to provide a pro-con perspective. But on questions that involve numbers, it boils information down into digestible doses. Iraq, for instance, is described as “about equal to the size of California.”

Search engines have evolved since Google took the lead at the turn of the 21st century, when rankings were based on “link analysis” that assigned credibility to sites based on how many other sites linked to them. As machines get better at reading and summarizing paragraphs, users expect not just a list of links but a quick and authoritative answer, said Harry Shum, who leads Microsoft’s 8,000-person research and AI division. To test its technology, the company has compared its machine-reading skills to the verbal score on the SAT.

“We are not at 800 yet, but we bypassed President Bush a long time ago,” Shum jokes.

Sophisticated searches

 The demand for more sophisticated searches has also grown as people have moved from typing questions to voicing them on the road or in their kitchen.

“If you use Bing or Google nowadays you recognize that more and more often you’ll see direct answers on the top of search result pages,” Shum said. “We’re getting to the point that for probably about 10 percent of those queries we’ll see answers.”

Shum is hesitant to over-promise Bing’s new features as an antidote to the misinformation flooding the internet. 

“At the end of the day, people have their own judgments,” he said.

The search engine features were announced along with updates to Microsoft’s voice assistant Cortana and a new search partnership with the popular online forum Reddit.

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Trump Administration Calls for Government IT to Adopt Cloud Services

The White House said Wednesday the U.S. government needs a major overhaul of information technology systems and should take steps to better protect data and accelerate efforts to use cloud-based technology.

“Difficulties in agency prioritization of resources in support of IT modernization, ability to procure services quickly, and technical issues have resulted in an unwieldy and out-of-date federal IT infrastructure,” the White House said in a report.

The report outlined a timeline over the next year for IT reforms and a detailed implementation plan. The report said one unnamed cloud-based email provider has agreed to assist in keeping track of government spending on cloud-based email migration.

President Donald Trump in April signed an executive order creating a new technology council to overhaul the U.S. government’s information technology systems.

The report said the federal government must eliminate barriers to using commercial cloud-based technology. “Federal agencies must consolidate their IT investments and place more trust in services and infrastructure operated by others,” the report found. Government agencies often pay dramatically different prices for the same IT item, the report said, sometimes three or four times as much.

Amazon.com Inc, Microsoft Corp, Alphabet Corp’s Google and Intel Corp are making big investments in the fast-growing cloud computing business.

A 2016 U.S. Government Accountability Office report estimated the U.S. government spends more than $80 billion on IT annually but said spending has fallen by $7.3 billion since 2010.

In 2015, there were at least 7,000 separate IT investments by the U.S. government. The $80 billion figure does not include Defense Department classified IT systems and 58 independent executive branch agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency.

The GAO report said U.S. government IT investments “are becoming increasingly obsolete: many use outdated software languages and hardware parts that are unsupported.”

The GAO report found some agencies are using systems that have components that are at least 50 years old.

Agencies typically buy their own IT systems independently, the White House said Wednesday. A “lack of common standards and lack of coordination drives costly redundancies and inefficiencies.”

The White House said in June that most of the government’s 6,100 data centers can be consolidated and moved to a cloud-based storage system.

Various U.S. government systems have been the target of hacking and data breaches in recent years. In September, the Securities and Exchange Commission, America’s chief stock market regulator, said cybercriminals may have used data stolen last year.

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Growing Levels of E-Waste Bad for Environment, Health and Economy

A new report finds growing levels of E-waste pose significant risks to the environment and human health and result in huge economic losses for countries around the world.  Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from the launch of the International Telecommunication Union report in Geneva.

The global information society is racing ahead at top speed.  The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) reports nearly half of the world uses the internet and most people have access to mobile phones, laptops, televisions, refrigerators and other electronic devices.

But ITU E-waste Technical Expert, Vanessa Gray, said the ever-increasing expansion of technology is creating staggering amounts of electronic waste.

“In 2016, the world generated a total of 44.7 million metric tons of e-waste—that is, electronic and electrical equipment that is discarded,” Gray said. “So, that basically everything that runs on a plug or on a battery.  This is equivalent to about 4,500 Eiffel Towers for the year.” 

The report found Asia generates the greatest amounts of E-waste, followed by Europe and the Americas.  Africa and Oceania produce the least.

Gray warned improper and unsafe treatment and disposal of e-waste pose significant risks to the environment and human health.  She noted that low recycling rates also result in important economic losses, because high value materials – including gold, silver, copper – are not recovered. 

“We estimate that the value of recoverable material contained in the 2016 e-waste is no less than $55 billion US, which is actually more than the Gross Domestic Product in many of the world’s countries,” Gray said.

The report calls for the development of proper legislation to manage e-waste.  It says a growing number of countries are moving in that direction.  Currently, it says 66 percent of the world population, living in 67 countries, is covered by national e-waste management laws.

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Italian Laser Device Detects Potentially Dangerous Food Fraud

‘Food Fraud’ costs the food and beverage industry an estimated $30 billion every year. Food fraud is the deliberate substitution or misrepresentation of food products for economic gain. It can be as harmless as selling watered down olive oil, or as dangerous as substituting starch or plastic for rice. But a new laser test developed in Italy can spot the fakes with incredible accuracy. VOAs’ Kevin Enochs reports.

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