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Police: Backup Driver in Fatal Uber Crash Was Distracted

The human backup driver in an autonomous Uber SUV was streaming the television show “The Voice” on her phone and looking downward just before fatally striking a pedestrian in suburban Phoenix, according to a police report.

The 300-page report released Thursday night by police in Tempe revealed that driver Rafaela Vasquez had been streaming the musical talent show via Hulu in the 43 minutes before the March 18 crash that killed Elaine Herzberg as she crossed a darkened road outside the lines of a crosswalk. The report said the crash, which marks the first fatality involving a self-driving vehicle, wouldn’t have happened had the driver not been distracted.

Dash camera video shows Vasquez was looking down near her right knee for four or five seconds before the crash. She looked up a half second before striking Herzberg as the Volvo was traveling about 44 miles per hour.

Vasquez told police Herzberg “came out of nowhere” and that she didn’t see her prior to the collision. But officers calculated that had Vasquez been paying attention, she could have reacted 143 feet before impact and brought the SUV to a stop about 42.6 feet before hitting Herzberg.

“This crash would not have occurred if Vasquez would have been monitoring the vehicle and roadway conditions and was not distracted,” the report stated.

Tempe police are looking at a vehicular manslaughter charge in the crash, according to a March 19 affidavit filed to get a search warrant for audio, video and data stored in the Uber SUV.

 

 The detective seeking the warrant, identified as J. Barutha, wrote that based on information from the vehicular homicide unit, “it is believed that the crime of vehicular manslaughter has occurred and that evidence of this offense is currently located in a 2017 Grey Volvo XC-90.”

A previously released video of the crash showed Vasquez looking down just before the crash. She had a startled look on her face about the time of the impact.

The National Transportation Safety Board, in a preliminary report issued last month, said the autonomous driving system on Uber’s Volvo XC-90 SUV spotted Herzberg about six seconds before hitting her, but did not stop because the system used to automatically apply brakes in potentially dangerous situations had been disabled.

The system is disabled while Uber’s cars are under computer control, “to reduce the potential for erratic vehicle behavior,” the NTSB report said. Instead of the system, Uber relies on the human backup driver to intervene, the report stated. But the system is not designed to alert the driver.

Uber pulled its self-driving cars out of Arizona the day before the NTSB report was released, eliminating the jobs of about 300 people who served as backup drivers and performed other jobs connected to the vehicles. The company had suspended testing of its self-driving vehicles in Arizona, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Toronto while regulators investigated the cause of the crash. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey prohibited Uber from continuing its tests of self-driving cars after Herzberg was run over.

Police initially determined that Vasquez was not impaired after giving her a field test.

Analysis of video taken from the vehicle shows Vasquez looked downward 204 times in the 11.8 miles traveled before the crash. While the SUV was in motion, Vasquez averted her eyes away from the roadway nearly a third of the time, according to the report.

“Sometimes, her face appears to react and show a smirk or laugh at various points during the times that she is looking down,” the report said. “Her hands are not visible in the frame of the video during these times.”

The office of Cristina Perez Hesano, an attorney for Herzberg’s daughter and husband, declined to comment on the police report. Attorney Pat McGroder, who represents Herzberg’s mother, father and son, didn’t immediately respond to a call late Friday morning seeking comment.

An Uber spokeswoman said in a prepared statement Friday morning that the company is cooperating with investigations while it does an internal safety review. “We have a strict policy prohibiting mobile device usage for anyone operating our self-driving vehicles. We plan to share more on the changes we’ll make to our program soon,” the statement said.

Use of a mobile device while an autonomous vehicle is moving is a fireable offense, and “this is emphasized on an ongoing basis,” the statement said.

After the crash, the ride-hailing company said it did a top-to-bottom safety evaluation, reviewing internal processes and safety culture. Uber also said it brought in former transportation safety board chairman Christopher Hart to advise the company on safety.

Both Vasquez and Uber could still face civil liability in the case, Uber for potentially negligent hiring, training and supervision, said Bryant Walker Smith, a University of South Carolina law professor who closely follows autonomous vehicles.

Vasquez could be charged criminally, and if there’s evidence that Uber or its employees acted recklessly, then charges against them are possible, Smith said. But charges against the company are not likely, he added.

“This should not have happened in so many ways and on so many levels,” Smith said. “This report, if true, makes things worse. And obviously it would not look good to a jury.”

Uber settled quickly with some of Herzberg’s family members but others have retained legal counsel.

The Yavapai County Attorney’s Office hasn’t set a deadline for deciding whether to bring charges, said Penny Cramer, assistant to County Attorney Sheila Polk. The prosecutorial agency declined to comment on the police report.

The case was handed to Polk’s office after the prosecutor’s office in metro Phoenix passed on the case, citing a potential conflict of interest. The agency in Phoenix had previously participated in a public-safety campaign with Uber.

On a body camera video the night of the crash, police gathered at the scene quickly realized that they were dealing with a big story because an autonomous vehicle was involved.

An officer who identifies himself as supervisor of the unit that investigates fatal crashes is seen asking a man who appears to be an Uber supervisor about getting video from the SUV and whether Uber’s lawyers have been contacted.

“You guys know as well as I know that this is going to be an international story,” the police supervisor says. “We want to make sure that we’re doing not only what we normally do and not doing anything different, but also making sure that everything’s above board and everything’s out in the open.”

The supervisor goes on to say that he’s going to communicate as honestly as he can. “I hope that you guys do the same because we’re going to be working together throughout this whole process from now, probably for months from now.”

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Intel CEO Resigns After Probe Into Relationship With Employee

Intel Corp Chief Executive Brian Krzanich resigned on Thursday after a probe found his consensual relationship with an employee violated company policy.

The head of the largest U.S. chipmaker is the latest in a line of powerful men in business and politics to lose their jobs or resign over relationships viewed as inappropriate, a phenomenon highlighted by the #MeToo movement.

“An ongoing investigation by internal and external counsel has confirmed a violation of Intel’s non-fraternization policy, which applies to all managers,” Intel said in a statement.

The board named Chief Financial Officer Robert Swan as interim CEO and said it has begun a search for a permanent CEO, including both internal and external candidates.

Intel declined to give any further information about the probe. Intel shares fell 1.5 percent in early trade.

Wall Street took Krzanich’s unexpected departure in stride.

“Although we respect Krzanich’s efforts in redirecting Intel’s strategy from a computer-centric to a data-centric company, we view Intel as a process-driven company with a deep bench of CEO candidates that can continue to drive the corporate strategy,” said Kevin Cassidy, an analyst at Stifel.

Krzanich, 58, was appointed Intel CEO in May 2013, and was in charge of moving the company’s focus to growing data centers from personal computers. Intel shares more than doubled during his tenure.

He was recently credited with containing the fallout from the disclosure of some security flaws in the company’s chips that could allow hackers to steal data from computers, although his sale of some Intel stock before the flaws were disclosed to investors attracted some criticism.

“There are no new payments as part of his departure,” a source familiar with the company told Reuters.

Temporary replacement Swan has been Intel’s CFO since October 2016 and previously spent nine years as CFO of eBay Inc.

Intel on Thursday raised its second-quarter revenue and profit forecast, saying it expects quarterly revenue of about $16.9 billion and adjusted profit of about 99 cents per share, up from a previous forecast of $16.3 billion in revenue and adjusted earnings per share of 85 cents.

Analysts on average were expecting revenue of $16.29 billion and adjusted profit of 85 cents per share.

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Instagram Announces Video Expansion

Social media app Instagram announced Wednesday that it would be increasing its time limit for videos posted on its platform from one minute to 10 minutes, as part of a general expansion of the app’s video capabilities.

The photo-sharing app also announced it would be launching a stand-alone app called IGTV to host these long-form videos. The app will be available this week, according to technology website, The Verge.

“When you watch longer video, you need a different context,” Instagram co-founder and CEO Kevin Systrom told The Verge. “We really wanted to separate those two, so you could choose which adventure you wanted to go down.”

The longer videos will also be available through a tab in the original Instagram application. Accounts with wide audiences will be able to post videos of up to an hour.

The update comes as Instagram, which Facebook bought in 2012 for $1 billion — is looking to compete with fellow video platform YouTube for young users.

Google bought YouTube in 2006 for $1.65 billion. Since then, the video-sharing website has ballooned to a user base of 1.8 billion, becoming a platform for aspiring content creators looking to strike it big.

Systrom told The Associated Press he hoped his app would gain similar success with the IGTV update. At a release event for the app Wednesday, the company announced IGTV now had over 1 billion users.

The IGTV app will function similar to television. Videos will begin playing as soon as the user opens the app and will fill be full-screen vertically — contrasting with YouTube, which requires users to turn their phones horizontally for full-screen capabilities.

Facebook announced Tuesday it would be launching a series of interactive shows on its own video outlet, Facebook Watch.

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Amazon, Buffett, JPMorgan Pick Gawande to Lead Health Firm

Amazon, JPMorgan Chase and Berkshire Hathaway have picked well-known author and Harvard professor Dr. Atul Gawande to transform the health care they give their employees.

The three corporate titans said Wednesday that Gawande will lead an independent company focused on a mission they announced earlier this year: figure out ways to improve a broken and often inefficient system for delivering care.

Health care researchers have said any possible solutions produced by this new venture will be felt well beyond the estimated 1 million workers the three companies employ in the United States. Other businesses that provide employee health coverage are eager to find solutions for health care costs that often rise faster than inflation and squeeze their budgets in the process.

Berkshire Chairman and CEO Warren Buffett has described health costs as a “hungry tapeworm on the American economy.”

Leaders of the three companies have said little about how their Boston-based venture plans to tackle this problem, but they have noted that it will take time to figure out solutions, a point they emphasized again on Wednesday.

“We said at the outset that the degree of difficulty is high and success is going to require an expert’s knowledge, a beginner’s mind, and a long-term orientation,” Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said in a prepared statement. “[Gawande] embodies all three, and we’re starting strong as we move forward in this challenging and worthwhile endeavor.”

Employer-sponsored insurance covers about 157 million people, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. That’s nearly half the total U.S. population and the biggest slice of the country’s patchwork health insurance market.

Neither companies nor many of their employees are happy with how the system currently works. Employers have reacted in part to rising expenses by raising deductibles and other costs, asking their workers to pay more of the bill and to shop around for better deals. Many patients, especially the sickest, struggle with that.

Gawande is surgeon and professor at both Harvard’s Medical School and its T.H. Chan School of Public Health. He said in a statement Wednesday that he has devoted his career in public health to building solutions for better care delivery, and that while the current system is broken, “better is possible.”

The consortium’s leaders have said they aren’t looking for a quick fix. JPMorgan Chase Chairman and CEO Jamie Dimon said during an appearance on CNBC earlier this month that fraud in the system, high administrative costs and the overuse and underuse of some drugs are among the many complications that must be improved.

The three companies said in late January that their new venture will focus on technology that provides simplified, high-quality and transparent care.

Amazon’s participation and customer-first focus will be crucial, according to Brian Marcotte, CEO of the National Business Group on Health, a nonprofit that represents large employers.

He noted that employers already offer ways to help patients shop for care or see a doctor remotely through telemedicine. But people don’t use this technology unless they need it, so they haven’t grown comfortable with it.

That could change if they go through a well-known platform like Amazon, which could then reach into its vast trove of customer data to personalize the shopping, Marcotte said. If, for instance, you are a runner considering knee surgery, Amazon could lay out the best or common practices for your condition and maybe show that surgery isn’t your only option.

“It’s not only reaching people in the moment, it’s the possibility to reach people with relevant personalized messaging that will engage them,” Marcotte said.

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Silicon Valley-Style Coding Boot Camp Seeks to Reset Japan Inc.

Barely six months after inaugurating a tiny software-coding boot camp in a basement in Tokyo, Silicon Valley transplant Kani Munidasa stood before some of Japan’s top business leaders in February with a warning: software was threatening their future.

A Sri Lankan native with a Japanese mother and wife, Munidasa was speaking at the invitation of Nobuyuki Idei, a former chief executive of Sony.

Idei had offered to become an adviser to the boot camp, called Code Chrysalis, whose mission of bringing Japan’s software engineering up to global standards and helping its companies transform aligned with his own.

“Idei-san told me, ‘Tell it as it is; don’t sugar-coat anything. They need to hear that change has to happen,'” Munidasa said, recalling how he showed up at the executives’ meeting in a T-shirt and hoodie.

Long known as a “monozukuri” – or manufacturing – powerhouse, Japan is in danger of getting left behind as artificial intelligence, robotics, and machine learning sweep through industries from cars to banking, Idei and others say.

Japanese companies have traditionally treated software as a means to cut costs rather than add value, and code-writers as second-class citizens. Entry-level software engineers in Japan make about $40,000 on average – less than half their U.S. counterparts.

Programs like Code Chrysalis are trying to change that by injecting Silicon Valley training methods into Japan’s slow-to-change corporate culture.

Coding, “soft skills” like public speaking and even physical fitness are all on the agenda. Since Code Chrysalis opened last July, a dozen students have graduated from its 12-week course, with six more in the pipeline. The camp currently accepts up to eight applicants per session.

For the students, the benefits are clear: their salaries increased by an average of nearly 80 percent after graduation, according to Code Chrysalis.

Japanese companies are desperate for skilled developers, with top IT recruiter Computer Futures seeing 2.3 job openings for every applicant so far this year, and most positions being filled by foreigners.

Educators and industry leaders hope programs such as Code Chrysalis will be transformative for Japan.

“Even if the numbers are small, I think (Code Chrysalis) can have a big impact,” Idei told Reuters, noting that Japan had focused too much on “physical goods” in the post-Internet age.

“The United States has Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon,” said Idei, now CEO of his consultancy, Quantum Leaps. “China’s got Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent. Japan doesn’t have a single platform company. That’s the No. 1 difference.”

A textbook problem

Japan’s English-language education, notoriously focused on standardised testing, has hindered the development of good programmers, industry insiders say.

Without a good grasp of the language, programmers are always a step behind, waiting for translations to access cutting-edge tools and methods.

Toyota is making English the common language for the 1,000 software engineers it plans to employ at a new automated-driving unit launching in Tokyo next month.

James Kuffner, CEO of the unit, Toyota Research Institute-Advanced Development (TRI-AD), said Japan’s computer science education was also overly based on textbook learning.

Recalling the “horrible and boring” lectures he sat through at the prestigious University of Tokyo as a post-doctoral research fellow in 1999, Kuffner said the classes did little to prepare students for the real world. Coding boot camps are a step in the right direction, he said.

“I want to figure out a way to fix the education system because it’s also important for our company,” said Kuffner, who still serves as an adjunct associate professor at Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute. “I would love to make a university where (everything) you did was project-based.”

Rebooting the system

Munidasa and his co-founder, Yan Fan, tailored their course around project-based learning, teaching exclusively in English.

Just one other English-language coding boot camp exists in Japan, run by French chain Le Wagon since late 2016, with 75 graduates so far. That program, which costs 790,000 yen ($7,200) for a nine-week course, targets beginners looking for a job in software development, who want to freelance, or who are launching their own start-ups.

“The positioning is very different because we work with beginners to bring them to a junior-developer level,” said Paul Gaumer, co-founder of Le Wagon Japan.

Munidasa and Fan’s program, which is aimed at higher-level training, has so far rejected nearly 80 percent of applicants, some of whom couldn’t meet the English requirement. To help, they added a four-week English-communication course.

During Code Chrysalis’ 1.03 million yen ($9,390), full-time course, students learn to become “full-stack” engineers, covering servers, user interfaces, and everything in between.

Beyond coding, they get unconventional instruction: voice training from an opera singer, squats challenges, and assignments requiring intense teamwork.

Baby steps

Code Chrysalis has already caught the attention of some big Japanese firms, including information technology giant NTT Data.

Its applied software engineering centre is using Code Chrysalis for part of its training and has placed an engineer in the current cohort.

“Our customers are increasingly looking for faster and cheaper software development, and we need to be able to meet those demands,” said human resources manager Kotaro Kimura.

Masataka Shintoku, an engineer in NTT Data’s sales and planning group who found Code Chrysalis on his own and graduated in March, says he’s already putting his new skills to work.

“I’m now able to create an app on my own and show prospective clients what we can do,” he said.

Kuffner said he hopes to emulate the storied Toyota Production System to create the software world’s “best process for writing bug-free software” as automated cars incorporate millions of lines of code.

“Japanese people are hard-working, very dedicated,” he said. “I have no question in my mind that with the right training they could be some of the best software engineers in the world.”

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Motorists in Crime-ridden Caracas Seek Safety Through ‘Buddy’ App

Two men on motorbikes approached a broken-down vehicle in Caracas one day earlier this month in what could have been a nightmare scenario in one of the world’s most dangerous cities where roadside robberies and murders are an everyday occurrence.

The men took up positions either side of the green four-wheel-drive vehicle, with a 33-year-old female schoolteacher behind the wheel, and guarded it until a tow truck arrived two hours later to cart it off to a garage.

The two guards are employees of a new mobile application called “Pana” – “Buddy” in Venezuelan slang – which dispatches security crews to stranded drivers who request help.

It’s a reflection of how Venezuelans are turning to technology to overcome the dangers and nuisances of living in the crisis-hit country. Mobile payment apps, for example, attract customers who do not have enough paper money, which is in short supply due to hyperinflation.

Domingo Coronil who started Pana with his brother Juan Cristobal last September said they have carried out more than 5,000 successful driver rescues on the streets of the capital.

“People’s reactions have been amazing. Some start crying, while others take selfies,” the 46-year-old security consultant said in an interview.

Violence in Venezuela has shot up during the oil-wealthy country’s spiral into a five-year economic crisis and political meltdown. Many Caracas residents refuse to go out at night due to security fears, and wealthier Venezuelans often travel in bullet-proof cars with bodyguards.

There were almost 27,000 violent deaths in the country last year, with Venezuela having the second highest murder rate in the world after El Salvador, according to the Venezuelan Observatory of Violence, a local crime monitoring group.

National homicide rates rose each year from 67 murders per 100,000 people in 2011 to 92 in 2016, before dipping to 89 last year, according to the group.

The homicide rate in Caracas alone was 104 per 100,000 people in 2017, the group said. New York, in contrast, had a homicide rate of 3 per 100,000 last year and most European cities had less than 1.

A recent Gallup study placed Venezuela at the bottom of its 2018 Law and Order index, with 42 percent of surveyed Venezuelans reporting they had been robbed the previous year and one-quarter saying they had been assaulted.

“The fear people have isn’t you’ll be robbed in your car, but that you’ll be killed or kidnapped,” said Roberto Briceno Leon, the observatory’s director.

Venezuelan authorities say nongovernmental groups inflate crime figures to create paranoia and tarnish President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist government. But even the most recent official national murder rate – 58 per 100,000 inhabitants for 2015 – was still among the world’s highest.

About 700 people have joined Pana because of the high crime rate, Coronil said, each paying an annual fee of 4,800,000 bolivars, or about $2 to $4 on the black market, to request help as many times as they want at any hour day or night.

The company receives a customer’s geo-locations at its headquarters and dispatches two of its 28 security guards to the breakdown. Coronil hopes to expand coverage to roads outside Caracas and offer corporate plans.

Vanessa Mikuski, the schoolteacher in the van, tapped the button in Pana’s smartphone app when her car broke down without warning that June morning in the east of Caracas. A friend had recommended she download it last year.

The two Pana security guards, who were not armed and wear jackets with the app’s logo, kept pedestrians and drivers away while Mikuski waited and arranged for her children to be picked up from school.

“You feel much more secure … And at that price, it’s great,” she said.

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Across Asia’s Borders, Trafficking Survivors Dial in for Justice

When Neha Maldar testified against the traffickers who enslaved her as a sex worker in India, she spoke from the safety of her own country, Bangladesh, via videoconferencing, a technology that could revolutionize the pursuit of justice in such cases.

The men in the western city of Mumbai appeared via video link more than 2,000 km (1,243 miles) west of Maldar as she sat in a government office in Jessore, a major regional hub for sex trafficking, 50 km from Bangladesh’s border with India.

“I saw the people who had trafficked me on the screen and I wasn’t scared to identify them,” Maldar, who now runs a beauty parlor from her home near Jessore, told Reuters. “I was determined to see them behind bars.”

“I told them how I was beaten for refusing to work in the brothel in the beginning and how the money I made was taken away,” she said, adding that she had lied to Indian authorities about her situation after being rescued, out of fear.

Thousands of people from Bangladesh and Nepal — mainly poor, rural women and children — are lured to India each year by traffickers who promise good jobs but sell them into prostitution or domestic servitude, anti-slavery activists say.

Activists hope the safe, convenient technology could boost convictions. A Bangladeshi sex trafficker was jailed for the first time in 2016 on the strength of a victim’s testimony to a court in Mumbai via video link from Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital.

Convictions for cross-border trafficking in the region are rare as most victims choose not to pursue cases that have traditionally required them to testify in Indian courts, which meant staying in a shelter for the duration of the trial.

“They have always wanted to go back home, to their families,” said Shiny Padiyara, a legal counsel at the Indian charity Rescue Foundation that has facilitated videoconferencing cases and runs shelters for trafficking victims. “And most never return to testify.”

But videoconferencing is making it easier to pursue justice. Survivors have given statements, identified their traffickers, and been cross examined in at least 10 other ongoing international cases in Bangladesh, advocates said.

“Enabling victims to testify via video conference will lead to a possible decrease in acquittal rates for want of prime witnesses,” said Adrian Phillips of Justice and Care, a charity that supports the use of video testimony to help secure justice.

Even then, it is tough. During Maldar’s three-hour deposition, she withstood a tough cross-examination, showed identity documents to prove her age and countered allegations by the defense lawyer that she was lying about her identity.

‘Unpardonable’

Tara Khokon Miya is preparing her 27-year-old daughter to testify against the men who trafficked her to India from Dhaka, where she had been working in a garment factory.

“I almost lost my daughter forever,” she said, sitting in her home in Magura, less than 50 km from Jessore, describing how she disappeared after work and was taken to a brothel in India, and raped and beaten for almost a year before being rescued.

“What the traffickers did to my daughter was unpardonable,” Miya said, wiping her tears. “We seek justice. I nurtured her in my womb and can’t describe what it felt like to not know about her whereabouts.”

The trial has been ongoing since 2013 when the young woman, who declined to be named, was repatriated. The charity Rights Jessore is helping the family through the process, by providing counseling and rehearsing cross-examination.

“The best thing is her father will be by her side when she talks in court,” Miya said, finally breaking into a smile.

India signed a bilateral agreement with Bangladesh in 2015 to ensure faster trafficking investigations and prosecutions, and with Nepal in 2017, and laid down basic procedures to encourage the use of videoconferencing in court proceedings.

“The procedure is very transparent,” said judge K M Mamun Uzzaman at Jessore courthouse, which often converts its conference hall into a courtroom for videoconferencing cases to protect survivors’ privacy.

“I’m usually present and victims are able to testify confidently … it is easy and cost effective for us,” he said. “But the biggest beneficiaries are the survivors.”

The future

Videoconferencing in Bangladesh has been plagued by technical glitches such as power cuts and poor connections.

“Sometimes the internet connection is weak or it gets disconnected during the testimony,” said Binoy Krishna Mallick head of Rights Jessore, a pioneer in using this technology to encourage trafficking survivors to pursue justice. “But these are just teething troubles.”

The bigger challenge, activists say, is to ensure survivors remain committed to the trial despite delays caused by a backlog of cases and witnesses’ failure to appear to testify.

Swati Chauhan, one of the first judges to experiment with video testimony in 2010, is convinced that technology can eliminate many of these hurdles.

“Victims go through a lot of trauma, so it is natural that they don’t want to confront their trafficker in a court — but that doesn’t mean they don’t want the trafficker to be punished,” she said. “A videoconference requires meticulous planning and it is not easy coordinating between departments and countries. But it is the future for many seeking justice.”

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Scan on Exit: Can Blockchain Save Moldova’s Children from Traffickers?

Laura was barely 18 when a palm reader told her she could make $180 a month working in beetroot farms in Russia — an attractive sum for a girl struggling to make a living in the town of Drochia, in Moldova’s impoverished north.

That she had no passport, the fortune teller said, was not a problem. Her future employers would help her cross the border.

“They gave me a [fake] birth certificate stating I was 14,” Laura, who declined to give her real name, told Reuters in an interview.

That was enough to get her through border controls as she traveled by bus with a smuggler posing as one of her parents.

It was the beginning of a long tale of exploitation for Laura — one of many such stories in Moldova in eastern Europe, which aims to become the first country in the world to pilot blockchain to tackle decades of widespread human trafficking.

Trafficking generates illegal profits of $150 billion a year globally, with about 40 million people estimated to be trapped as modern-day slaves — mostly women and girls — in forced labor and forced marriages, according to leading anti-slavery groups.

The digital tool behind the cryptocurrency bitcoin is increasingly being tested for social causes, from Coca-Cola creating a workers’ registry to fight forced labor to tracking supply chains, such as cobalt which is often mined by children.

Moldova has one of the highest rates of human trafficking in Europe as widespread poverty and unemployment drive many young people, mostly women, to look for work overseas, according to the United Nations migration agency (IOM).

Due to the hidden nature of trafficking and the stigma attached, it is unknown how many people in the former Soviet country have been trafficked abroad but IOM has helped some 3,400 victims — 10 percent of whom were children — since 2001.

In Russia, Laura was forced to toil long hours, beaten and never paid. After ending up in hospital, she was rescued by a doctor, only to be trafficked again a few years later when an abusive partner sold her into prostitution.

She now lives with her daughter in a rehabilitation center in the northern village of Palaria with help from the charity CCF Moldova.

“I had a lot of suffering,” the 36-year-old said. “I am very afraid of being sold again, afraid about my child.”

​Scans and bribes

Moldova plans to launch a pilot of its digital identity project this year, working with the Brooklyn-based software company ConsenSys, which won a U.N. competition in March to design an identity system to combat child trafficking.

Undocumented children are easy prey for traffickers using fake documents to transport them across borders to work in brothels or to sell their organs, experts say.

More than 40,000 Moldovan children have been left behind by parents who have migrated abroad for work, often with little supervision, according to IOM.

“A lot of children are staying just with their grandfathers or grandmas, spending [more] time in the streets,” said Lilian Levandovschi, head of Moldova’s anti-trafficking police unit.

Moldova, with a population of 3.5 million, is among the poorest countries in Europe with an average monthly disposable income of 2,250 Moldovan Leu ($135), government data shows.

ConsenSys aims to create a secure, digital identity on a blockchain — or decentralized digital ledger shared by a network of computers — for Moldovan children, linking their personal identities with other family members.

Moldova has strengthened its anti-trafficking laws since Laura’s ordeal and children now need to carry a passport and be accompanied by a parent, or an adult carrying a letter of permission signed by a guardian, to exit the country.

With the blockchain system, children attempting to cross the border would be asked to scan their eyes or fingerprints.

A phone alert would notify their legal guardians, requiring at least two to approve the crossing, said Robert Greenfield who is managing the ConsenSys project.

Any attempt to take a child abroad without their guardians’ permission would be permanently recorded on the database, which would detect patterns of behavior to help catch traffickers and could be used as evidence in court.

“Nobody can bribe someone to delete that information,” said Mariana Dahan, co-founder of World Identity Network (WIN), an initiative promoting digital identities and a partner in the blockchain competition.

Corruption and official complicity in trafficking are significant problems in Moldova, according to the U.S. State Department, which last year downgraded it to Tier 2 in a watchlist of those not doing enough to fight modern day slavery.

Moldova is eager to prove that it is taking action, as a further demotion could block access to U.S. aid and loans.

​Tricked

Many details have yet to be agreed before the blockchain project starts, including funding, populations targeted, the type of biometrical data collected, and where it will be stored.

But the scheme is facing resistance from some anti-trafficking groups who say it will not help the majority of victims — children trafficked within Moldova’s borders and adults who are tricked when they travel abroad seeking work.

“As long as we don’t have job opportunities … trafficking will still remain a problem for Moldova,” said IOM’s Irina Arap.

Minors made up less than 20 percent of 249 domestic and international trafficking victims identified in 2017, said Ecaterina Berejan, head of Moldova’s anti-trafficking agency.

“For Moldova, this is not a very big problem,” she said, referring to cross-border child trafficking, adding that child victims may travel with valid documents as their families are in cahoots with traffickers in some cases.

But supporters of the blockchain initiative say low official trafficking figures do not account for undetected cases, and they have a duty to attempt to stay ahead of the criminals.

“Many times, authorities are late in using latest technologies,” said Mihail Beregoi, state secretary for Moldova’s internal affairs ministry. “Usually organized crime uses them first and more successfully. … Any effort [to] secure at least one child is already worth trying.”

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WHO Lists Compulsive Video Gaming As Mental Health Problem

Parents suspicious that their children may be addicted to video games now have support from health authorities. The World Health Organization has listed “gaming disorder” as a new mental health problem on its 11th edition of  International Classification of Diseases, released on Monday. But as VOA’s Zlatica Hoke reports, not all psychologists agree that compulsive gaming should be on that list.

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Norway Tests Tiny Electric Plane, Sees Passenger Flights by 2025

Norway tested a two-seater electric plane on Monday and predicted a start to passenger flights by 2025 if new aviation technologies match a green shift that has made Norwegians the world’s top buyers of electric cars.

Transport Minister Ketil Solvik-Olsen and Dag Falk-Petersen, head of state-run Avinor which runs most of Norway’s airports, took a few minutes’ flight around Oslo airport in an Alpha Electro G2 plane, built by Pipistrel in Slovenia.

“This is … a first example that we are moving fast forward” towards greener aviation, Solvik-Olsen told Reuters. “We do have to make sure it is safe – people won’t fly if they don’t trust it.”

He said plane makers such as Boeing and Airbus were developing electric aircraft and that battery prices were tumbling, making it feasible to reach a government goal of making all domestic flights in Norway electric by 2040.

Asked when passenger flights in electric planes could start, Falk-Petersen, the pilot, said: “My best guess is before 2025 … It should all be electrified by 2040.”

The two said the plane, with a takeoff weight of 570 kg (1255 lb), was cramped and buffeted by winds but far quieter than a conventional plane run on fossil fuels.

Norway tops the world league for per capita sales of electric cars such as Teslas, Nissan Leafs or Volkswagen Golfs, backed by incentives such as big tax breaks, free parking and exemptions from road tolls.

In May 2018, 56 percent of all cars sold in Norway were either pure electric or hybrids against 46 percent in the same month of 2017, according to official statistics.

Norway, a mountainous country of five million people where fjords and remote islands mean many short-hop routes of less than 200 kms, would be ideal for electric planes, Solvik-Olsen said. Also, 98 percent of electricity in Norway is generated from clean hydro power.

Some opposition politicians said the government needed to do far more to meet green commitments in the 200-nation Paris climate agreement.

“This is a start … but we have to make jet fuel a lot more expensive,” said Arild Hermstad, a leader of the Green Party.

The first electric planes flew across the English Channel in July 2015, including an Airbus E-Fan. French aviator Louis Bleriot who was first to fly across the Channel, in 1909, in a fossil-fuel powered plane.

Electric planes so far have big problems of weight, with bulky batteries and limited ranges. Both Falk-Petersen and Solvik-Olsen said they had been on strict diets before the flight.

“My wife is happy about it,” Solvik-Olsen said.

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