UN Panel Agrees to Move Ahead With Debate on ‘Killer Robots’

A U.N. panel agreed Friday to move ahead with talks to define and possibly set limits on weapons that can kill without human involvement, as human rights groups said governments are moving too slowly to keep up with advances in artificial intelligence that could put computers in control one day.

Advocacy groups warned about the threats posed by such “killer robots” and aired a chilling video illustrating their possible uses on the sidelines of the first formal U.N. meeting of government experts on Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems this week. More than 80 countries took part.

Ambassador Amandeep Gill of India, who chaired the gathering, said participants plan to meet again in 2018. He said ideas discussed this week included the creation of legally binding instrument, a code of conduct, or a technology review process.

The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, an umbrella group of advocacy groups, says 22 countries support a ban of the weapons and the list is growing. Human Rights Watch, one of its members, called for an agreement to regulate them by the end of 2019 — admittedly a long shot.

The meeting falls under the U.N.’s Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons — also known as the Inhumane Weapons Convention — a 37-year old agreement that has set limits on the use of arms and explosives like mines, blinding laser weapons and booby traps over the years.

The group operates by consensus, so the least ambitious goals are likely to prevail, and countries including Russia and Israel have firmly staked out opposition to any formal ban. The United States has taken a go-slow approach, rights groups say.

U.N. officials say in theory, fully autonomous, computer-controlled weapons don’t exist yet, but defining exactly what killer robots are and how much human interaction is involved was a key focus of the meeting. The United States argued that it was “premature” to establish a definition.

Dramatic depictions

The concept alone stirs the imagination and fears, as dramatized in Hollywood futuristic or science-fiction films that have depicted uncontrolled robots deciding on their own about firing weapons and killing people.

Gill played down such concerns.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I have news for you: The robots are not taking over the world. So that is good news, humans are still in charge. … We have to be careful in not emotionalizing or dramatizing this issue,” he told reporters Friday.

The United States, in comments presented, said autonomous weapons could help improve guidance of missiles and bombs against military targets, thereby “reducing the likelihood of inadvertently striking civilians.” Autonomous defensive systems could help intercept enemy projectiles, one U.S. text said.

Some top academics like Stephen Hawking, technology experts such as Tesla founder Elon Musk and human rights groups have warned about the threats posed by artificial intelligence, amid concerns that it might one day control such systems — and perhaps sooner rather than later.

“The bottom line is that governments are not moving fast enough,” said Steven Goose, executive director of arms at Human Rights Watch. He said a treaty by the end of 2019 is “the kind of timeline we think this issue demands.”

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How Much Is a Life Worth, Ask Activists Fighting Slavery?

From $7 for a Rohingya refugee to $750 for a North Korean “slave wife,” human rights activists have voiced concerns that it is becoming increasingly easy to enslave another human being as the cost plummets.

The average modern-day slave is sold for $90-100 compared to the equivalent of $40,000 some 200 years ago, said Kevin Bales, Professor of Contemporary Slavery at Britain’s University of Nottingham.

“There has been a collapse in the price of slaves over the last 50 years,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s annual Trust Conference in London, which focuses on women’s empowerment and modern slavery.

‘Beasts of burden’

Pointing to a photo of boys hauling rocks in Nepal “like beasts of burden,” he said their parents would have sold them for $5-$10. Children are so cheap that if they get injured or fall in a ravine their slave master abandons them, Bales said.

“They understand it’s less expensive to acquire a new child than to call a doctor,” he added.

Bales attributed the fall in price to the population explosion which had “glutted the world with potentially enslavable people.”

40 million people trapped

Worldwide, about 40 million people were estimated to be trapped as slaves in 2016, mostly women and girls, in forced labor, sexual exploitation and forced marriages, with global trafficking estimated to raise $150 billion in profits a year.

North Korean defector Jihyun Park told how she was trafficked to China where she was sold for 5000 yuan ($750) to an alcoholic, violent farmer.

“He said I’ve paid for you so you must work. I spent six years as his slave,” Park said.

Thousands of North Korean women are believed to have been trafficked as wives and sex workers inside China where the one-child policy has skewed the gender ratio.

Natural disasters force issue

 In Bangladesh, Asif Saleh, of development agency BRAC, said Rohingya refugee women fleeing Myanmar and arriving in Bangladesh were being sold for as little as 5 pounds ($6.60).

Aid agencies say traffickers often exploit crises to prey on vulnerable people separated from their families and communities.

Nepalese nun and kung fu teacher Jigme Wangchuk Lhamo, who helps families displaced by the country’s 2015 earthquake, told the conference that people were selling their daughters, sisters and mothers to traffickers after the disaster in order to rebuild their homes.

“Some men just see girls as a bunch of money,” she said.

In northern Kenya’s pastoralist region, lawyer Fatuma Abdulkadir Adan said child brides as young as nine were sold for eight cows or eight camels — worth about $800.

“Girls become commodities and they have no voice, no one asks what the girl wants,” said Adan, who uses football to help tackle child marriage and female genital mutilation.

But it is not just rich countries where girls are sold off.

Sarah, forced into prostitution as a child in Britain, said the gang who groomed her said she would have to have sex every day until she had paid off a “debt” of 75,000 pounds.

“They told me I belonged to them and until my debt was cleared I had to work for them,” she said.

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Experts: Puerto Rico May Struggle for More Than a Decade

Puerto Rico could face more than a decade of further economic stagnation and a steep drop in population as a result of Hurricane Maria, experts say.

The stark estimates were presented this wee to members of a federal control board overseeing finances of a U.S. territory that is already in the 11th year of a recession.

“The situation is dire to say the least, with destroyed infrastructure, lack of power and water, and an accelerated pace of migration,” economist Heidie Calero said.

She estimated that the hurricane caused $115 billion in damage, even without counting business losses.

“We believe that is very conservative,” she said.

The administration of Governor Ricardo Rossello said earlier in the week that it was seeking $94 billion in federal aid for an island where power generation remains at 40 percent and where nearly 10 percent of people are still without water almost two months after the storm. More than 20 of Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities remain completely without power.

So far, Congress has approved nearly $5 billion in aid for Puerto Rico.

Twin shocks

Economist Juan Lara told board members that the local economy could contract anywhere between 8 percent and 15 percent in fiscal 2018, depending on the restoration of power, with overall revenues falling by 30 percent.

“We are undergoing both a demand and supply shock,” he said, saying that 5,000 businesses could close permanently, representing 10 percent of membership of the island’s National Retail Federation.

Businesses that have reopened have been forced to reduce their hours or depend on costly generators.

“We need electric power to be back and to be reliable,” Lara said. “We need roads to be cleared. We need supermarkets to be able to replenish their inventories. … We need to restore basic operating infrastructure.”

Lack of power remains the biggest obstacle, with the island’s electric company struggling to maintain the 50 percent power generation it had reached Wednesday just as a major blackout occurred for the second time in a week.

Rossello has said the company will reach 80 percent generation by end of November and 95 percent by mid-December, goals that many have called ambitious. In contrast, the U.S. Corps of Engineers has said it expects 75 percent generation by end of January.

More migration

Before Hurricane Maria hit, Puerto Rico was trying to restructure a portion of its $73 billion public debt load amid a deep economic crisis that has prompted an exodus of nearly half a million people in the past decade. That migration will only accelerate because of post-hurricane conditions, with an estimated population of 2.8 million people by 2030, compared with the current 3.4 million, said economist Jose Villamil.

“What Maria has done in some ways is to exacerbate that situation, made it more intense,” he said.

The drop in population, coupled with a majority of young, talented people leaving, will hit Puerto Rico’s economy even harder, experts said.

Two more meetings remain as the board continues to gather information to revise a fiscal plan to adjust for the hurricane’s impact. It is unclear how much money, if any, will be set aside in the plan to pay off the island’s debt load.

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Probe Finds Ongoing Radioactive Leaks at Illinois Nuclear Plants

Radioactive waste continues to pour from Exelon’s Illinois nuclear power plants more than a decade after the discovery of chronic leaks led to national outrage, a $1.2 million government settlement and a company vow to guard against future accidents, an investigation by a government watchdog group found.

Since 2007, there have been at least 35 reported leaks, spills or other accidental releases in Illinois of water contaminated with radioactive tritium, a byproduct of nuclear power production and a carcinogen at high levels, a Better Government Association review of federal and state records shows.

No fines were issued for the accidents, all of which were self-reported by the company.

The most recent leak of 35,000 gallons (132,000 liters) occurred over two weeks in May and June at Exelon’s Braidwood plant, southwest of Chicago. The same facility was the focus of a community panic in the mid-2000s after a series of accidents stirred debate over the safety of aging nuclear plants.

A 2014 incident at Exelon’s Dresden facility in Grundy County involved the release of about 500,000 gallons (1,900,000 liters) of highly radioactive water. Contamination was later found in the plant’s sewer lines and miles away in the Morris, Illinois, sewage treatment plant.

Another leak was discovered in 2007 at the Quad Cities plant in Cordova. It took eight months to plug and led to groundwater radiation readings up to 375 times of that allowed under federal safe drinking water standards.

Exelon had threatened to close the Quad Cities plant, but relented last year after Gov. Bruce Rauner signed bailout legislation authorizing big rate hikes.

Representatives of Exelon and its government overseers — the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Illinois Emergency Management Agency and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency — say the leaks posed no public danger and did not contaminate drinking water. Exelon said to prevent leaks it has spent $100 million over the last decade on upgrades at all of its U.S. plants.

Michael Pacilio, chief operating officer of the power generating arm of Exelon, said no one in or around the plants was harmed by radioactivity from the leaks, which he described as minor compared with everyday exposures.

“We live in a radioactive world,” Pacilio said.

Critics say that’s little cause for relief.

“Best that we can tell, that’s more luck than skill,” said David Lochbaum, an analyst with the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists. “Leaks aren’t supposed to happen. Workers and the public could be harmed. There is a hazard there.”

Among the 61 nuclear power plants operating in the U.S., more than half have reactors that are at or near the end of their originally expected lifespans — including the Dresden and Quad Cities plants.

Industry watchdogs and government whistleblowers contend oversight is compromised by a cozy relationship between companies and the NRC.

Government regulators concede they must balance the safety needs of aging plants, which require more maintenance, versus ordering cost-prohibitive upgrades at facilities that inherently are just a slip-up away from catastrophe.

No player in the nuclear industry is bigger than Exelon, the Chicago-based energy company that last year reported $31 billion in revenue and operates 14 nuclear plants in Illinois, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland.

Five of the six Illinois plants reported leaks over the last decade, records show. Clinton, in DeWitt County, had no leaks and Byron, in Ogle County, reported only one that contained low levels of radioactivity.

The accidents included in the BGA analysis are separate from government-approved releases into large bodies of water. The state allows Exelon to discharge controlled amounts of tritium into rivers and lakes, where radioactive material gets diluted.

Other releases of tritium, however, can be illegal and subject to fines and government lawsuits — though no accidents from the past decade resulted in either. Government officials say small amounts of tritium — a radioactive form of hydrogen and a potential marker for more dangerous nuclear contaminants — are not harmful to humans but exposure to higher levels may increase the risk of cancer.

At least seven of the 35 documented accidents since 2007 involved contamination of groundwater. Other contamination was found in sewers and other water systems where it isn’t supposed to be.

The recent leaks echo the controversy in 2006 when it was revealed that leaks at Braidwood over many years spilled 6 million gallons (23 million liters) of radioactive water, some of which found its way onto private properties and at least one private drinking well.

At the time, Exelon and state regulators assured the public radioactivity levels in the private well were far below limits deemed a danger. Neighbors of the Braidwood plant were skeptical then and remain so.

“The NRC gets all its numbers from the nuclear plant. How can NRC trust the numbers?” asked Monica Mack, who lives in Braceville near the Braidwood plant.

The BGA investigation also found:

  • Of the 35 documented incidents, 27 occurred at Dresden. Following the big 2014 leak, which emanated from an aboveground storage tank, Exelon asked a state inspector whether the public would have access to the incident report under open records laws, a state report showed.

  • An NRC report on the 2007 Quad Cities leak noted radiation levels went “well beyond that seen anywhere else in the industry” and that plant staff estimated the leak had been active for years before it was discovered.

  • In 2010, Exelon’s Marseilles generating plant in LaSalle County reported a spill from a storage tank, initially estimated at more than 150 gallons (570 liters) but later classified as “unknown.” Groundwater tritium tests later showed levels 59 times the EPA’s drinking water limit. Exelon said no tritium left the plant’s boundaries, but records show plant workers continued to monitor a body of highly contaminated groundwater sitting on plant property at least five years after the accident.

  • In 2009, Dresden reported another hole in a storage tank led to a leak of as much as 272,000 gallons (1 million liters) of radioactive water. Onsite groundwater testing showed levels of tritium 160 times higher than allowed under federal standards for drinking water.

 

This story was provided to The Associated Press by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Better Government Association of Chicago: www.bettergov.org

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US Senator in Trouble After Being Accused of Sexual Harassment in 2006

A U.S. senator from Minnesota is the latest in a string of well-known personalities from entertainment and politics to be accused of sexual harassment. Democrat Al Franken is under fire after a radio newscaster said he kissed and groped her without consent during a tour to entertain U.S. troops in the Middle East in 2006. Meanwhile, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate from Alabama is battling charges of sexual abuse of underage girls. VOA’s Zlatica Hoke reports.

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Tesla Adds Big Trucks to Its Electrifying Ambitions

After more than a decade of making cars and SUVs — and, more recently, solar panels — Tesla Inc. wants to electrify a new type of vehicle: big trucks.

The company unveiled its new electric semitractor-trailer Thursday night near its design center in Hawthorne, California.

CEO Elon Musk said the semi is capable of traveling 500 miles on an electric charge and will cost less than a diesel semi considering fuel savings, lower maintenance and other factors. Musk said customers can put down a $5,000 deposit for the semi now and production will begin in 2019.

“We’re confident that this is a product that’s better in every way from a feature standpoint,” Musk told a crowd of Tesla fans gathered for the unveiling.

​One-fourth of transit emissions

The move fits with Musk’s stated goal for the company of accelerating the shift to sustainable transportation. Trucks account for nearly a quarter of transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., according to government statistics.

Musk said Tesla plans a worldwide network of solar-powered “megachargers” that could get the trucks back up to 400 miles of range after 30 minutes.

Tesla, Musk stretched

But the semi also piles on the chaos at Palo Alto, California-based company. Tesla is way behind on production of the Model 3, a new lower-cost sedan. It’s also ramping up production of solar panels after buying Solar City Corp. last year. Musk has said Tesla is also working on a pickup and a lower-cost SUV and negotiating a new factory in China. Meanwhile, the company posted a record quarterly loss of $619 million in its most recent quarter.

Musk, too, is being pulled in many different directions. He leads rocket maker SpaceX and is dabbling in other projects, including high-speed transit, artificial intelligence research and a new company that’s digging tunnels beneath Los Angeles to alleviate traffic congestion.

“He’s got so much on his plate right now. This could present another distraction from really just making sure that the Model 3 is moved along effectively,” said Bruce Clark, a senior vice president and automotive analyst at Moody’s.

Uncertain market

Tesla is venturing into an uncertain market. Demand for electric trucks is expected to grow over the next decade as the U.S., Europe and China all tighten their emissions regulations. Electric truck sales totaled 4,100 in 2016, but are expected to grow to more than 70,000 in 2026, says Navigant Research.

But most of that growth is expected to be for smaller, medium-duty haulers like garbage trucks or delivery vans. Those trucks can have a more limited range of 100 miles or less, which requires fewer expensive batteries. They can also be charged overnight.

Long-haul semi trucks, on the other hand, would be expected to go greater distances, and that would be challenging. Right now, there’s little charging infrastructure on global highways. Without Tesla’s promised fast-charging, even a midsized truck would likely require a two-hour stop, cutting into companies’ efficiency and profits, says Brian Irwin, managing director of the North American industrial group for the consulting firm Accenture.

Irwin says truck companies will have to watch the market carefully, because tougher regulations on diesels or an improvement in charging infrastructure could make electric trucks more viable very quickly. Falling battery costs also will help make electric trucks more appealing compared to diesels.

But even lower costs won’t make trucking a sure bet for Tesla. It faces stiff competition from long-trusted brands like Daimler AG, which unveiled its own semi prototype last month. 

Fleet operators want reliable trucks, and Tesla will have to prove it can make them, said Michelle Krebs, executive analyst with the car shopping site Autotrader.

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FCC Upgrade: Better Picture, Less Privacy — And You’ll Need a New TV

U.S. regulators on Thursday approved the use of new technology that will improve picture quality on mobile phones, tablets and television, but also raises significant privacy concerns by giving advertisers dramatically more data about viewing habits.

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2 to allow broadcasters to voluntarily use the new technology, dubbed ATSC 3.0, which would allow for more precise geolocating of television signals, ultra-high definition picture quality and more interactive programming, like new educational content for children and multiple angles of live sporting events.

The system uses precision broadcasting and targets emergency or weather alerts on a street-by-street basis. The system could allow broadcasters to wake up a receiver to broadcast emergency alerts. The alerts could include maps, storm tracks and evacuation routes.

The new standard would also let broadcasters activate a TV set that is turned off to send emergency alerts.

Advertisers excited

Current televisions cannot carry the new signal, and the FCC on Thursday said it was only requiring broadcasting both signals for five years after deploying the next-generation technology.

Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. last month called the new standard “the Holy Grail” for the advertiser because it tells them who is watching and where.

But Representative Debbie Dingell of Michigan said the new technology “contemplates targeted advertisements that would be ‘relevant to you and what you actually might want to see.’ This raises questions about how advertisers and broadcasters will gather the demographic information from consumers which are necessary to do targeted advertisements.”

New TV, higher costs

Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said the new technology would force consumers to buy new televisions.

“The FCC calls this approach market driven. That’s right — because we will all be forced into the market for new television sets or devices.”

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai defended the proposal, calling concerns about buying new devices “hypothetical.” He added five years is “a long time. We’ll have to see how the standard develops.”

One issue is whether broadcasters will be able to pass on the costs of advanced broadcast signals through higher retransmissions fees and demand providers carry the signals.

The National Association of Broadcasters, which represents Tegna Inc, Comcast Corp., CBS Corp., Walt Disney Co., Twenty-First Century Fox Inc. and others, petitioned the FCC in April 2016 to approve the new standard.

“This is game-changing technology for broadcasting and our viewers,” the group said Thursday.

Many companies have raised concerns about costs, including AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. Cable, satellite and other pay TV providers “would incur significant costs to receive, transmit, and deliver ATSC 3.0 signals to subscribers, including for network and subscriber equipment,” Verizon said.

Many nations are considering the new standard. South Korea adopted the ATSC 3.0 standard in 2016.

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US Towns, Cities Fear Taxpayer Revolt if Republicans Kill Deduction

From Pataskala, Ohio, to Conroe, Texas, local government leaders worry that if Republican tax-overhaul plans moving through the U.S. Congress become law, it will be harder for them to pave streets, put out fires, fight crime and pay teachers.

A tax plan approved by the House of Representatives on Thursday would sharply curtail a federal deduction that millions of Americans can now claim for tax payments to state, county, city and town governments.

Ending that deduction, the local leaders say, could make their taxpayers, especially in high-tax communities, less likely to support future local tax increases or even tolerate local taxes at present levels.

The proposed repeal of the state and local tax (SALT) deduction is part of an “assault on local governments” by Republicans in Washington, said Elizabeth Kautz, the Republican mayor of Burnsville, Minnesota, near Minneapolis.

“My hope is that we look at being thoughtful about what we’re doing and not ram something through just to get something done before the year is out,” Kautz said of the plan being rushed through Congress by her own party.

In the United States, local governments run schools, operate police and fire departments, and maintain streets, parks and libraries, among other essential services. The federal government’s role at that level is limited.

Cities, towns, counties and states collect their own property, sales and income taxes. Under existing law, payments of those taxes can be deducted, or subtracted from federal taxable income, lowering the amount of federal tax due.

The House tax bill just approved would eliminate the deduction for individuals and families of state and local income and sales tax, while capping property tax deductions at $10,000.

A bill being debated in the Senate, with Republican President Donald Trump’s support, would kill the SALT deduction entirely for individuals and families, although businesses would keep it. The fate of that bill is uncertain.

Ending the SALT tax break is part of a package of changes to deductions that would help Republicans raise more than $1.2 trillion in new federal tax revenues over 10 years.

That increase would help offset the $1.4 trillion in revenue that would be lost from cutting the corporate tax rate, another part of both the Senate and House plans.

Police concerns

Chuck Canterbury, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, which represents 325,000 law enforcement officers nationwide, wrote a letter to congressional leaders Tuesday.

“The FOP is very concerned that the partial or total elimination of SALT deductions will endanger the ability of our state and local government to fund these [law enforcement] agencies,” said the letter, distributed to reporters.

Emily Brock, a director at the Government Finance Officers Association, said if SALT deductions were killed by Congress, voters could revolt. “Can you blame an individual taxpayer?” she asked. “They try to minimize their individual tax liability.”

Those who want to curb the century-old SALT deduction argue it only motivates local governments to seek more tax increases and spend more money. “Maintaining the deduction encourages government overspending and taxation,” argues the American Legislative Exchange Council, a nonprofit group of conservative state legislators and private activists.

Various other groups are fighting on Capitol Hill to defend the SALT deduction, such as the National Association of Realtors and the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Brady’s district

Steve Williams, chief financial officer for Conroe, Texas, said its rapid growth demanded new fire stations, schools, roads and public safety services.

Conroe is near Houston and in the congressional district of Republican Representative Kevin Brady, chairman of the House tax committee and a champion of restricting the SALT deduction.

“Tax reform comes with picking winners and losers and I think in the final analysis, the people in [congressional] District 8 will be losers,” Williams said.

Conroe is part of Montgomery County, which voted 75 percent to 22.5 percent for Trump over Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election.

In Pataskala, Ohio, near the state capital, Columbus, city finance director Jamie Nicholson said the local police department needed a new station. It now works out of an early 1900s building with no holding cell for suspects who are under arrest. “They get handcuffed to a chair,” he said.

Given the past difficulty Pataskala has had convincing taxpayers to approve new taxes, he said, eliminating or paring back the SALT deduction might trigger demands for chopping local taxes and blow a huge hole in his budget.

Greg Cox, a Republican member of the San Diego County, California, Board of Supervisors, echoed similar concerns about the impact on his community.

He said the Republican plan was unfair partly because it let businesses keep the SALT deduction, while taking it away from individuals and families.

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McCain Warns Trump Over Staffing Pentagon With Industry Insiders

Senator John McCain warned President Donald Trump on Thursday against nominating any more defense industry insiders to top Pentagon posts, as his committee questioned an executive from Lockheed Martin about potential conflicts of interest.

Concern over the close relationship between the Pentagon and arms manufacturers has existed for decades but appears to have intensified under Trump. He has drawn scrutiny for filling posts throughout his government with high-ranking executives. The latest example was his naming this week of former pharmaceutical executive and lobbyist Alex Azar to become Health and Human Services secretary.

McCain, chairman of the Senate’s armed services committee, said he was troubled by the number of Defense Department nominees drawn from the defense industry. He said he would oppose any more such nominations after John Rood, Trump’s pick for the Pentagon’s No. 3 job, who appeared before the committee on Thursday.

“From this point forward, I will not support any further nominees with that background,” McCain said in a statement.

Rood ran into trouble during the hearing over his nomination to become undersecretary of defense for policy. As a Lockheed senior vice president, Rood’s job is to expand the company’s international business.

Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren pressed him to say if he would recuse himself from discussions with U.S. allies that could benefit Lockheed, the largest U.S. defense contractor with business in 70 countries.

Rood said he did not intend to participate in talks about the sale of Lockheed products but did not give the “yes or no” reply sought by Warren, triggering a charged exchange with the committee.

McCain joined Warren in demanding a direct answer and warned Rood that otherwise, he was “going to have trouble getting through this committee.”

’Ducking the answer’

McCain told Rood to submit his response in writing “because obviously you are ducking the answer here.”

The uproar came a day after the Senate confirmed Trump’s choice for Army secretary, Mark Esper, who was a top executive at Raytheon, another U.S. defense industry giant. He committed to recusing himself from matters tied to Raytheon.

Trump’s Pentagon also has officials who previously worked at Boeing and Textron Systems.

U.S. arms manufacturers like Raytheon, whose shares have risen more than 30 percent since December, are expected to benefit in the coming year from an increase in defense spending.

The Pentagon says it has 38 unfilled positions for civilian defense leadership roles that require Senate confirmation, and at least 23 nominees whose names have already been submitted to the Senate.

It was unclear from McCain’s remarks whether he would oppose any of the already-announced nominees, although he seemed to be warning about future Pentagon picks.

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Experts Question Role of Data Mining Firms in Kenya’s Annulled Election

Kenya’s annulled 2017 presidential election was among Africa’s most expensive.  President Uhuru Kenyatta and main challenger Raila Odinga spent tens of millions of dollars on their campaigns, including sizeable investments in global PR firms that mined data and crafted targeted advertisements.

As experts sort through the historic election’s aftermath, the involvement of data analysis companies has come to the forefront, raising questions about privacy, voter manipulation and the role of foreign firms in local elections.

Mercenary outfits

Data mining and PR companies conduct surveys to gauge public sentiment and sift through reams of data across social media.  They stitch that information together to build detailed profiles and deliver targeted, customized messages aimed at changing behaviors.

Some see it as smart campaigning.  But others point to the ethical concerns of manipulating voters with false information.

“You have a lot of these organizations, these PR firms, lobby firms, out there, and they’re essentially just mercenary outfits that do work for the highest bidder, regardless of their bloodstained track record,” Jeffrey Smith, executive director of Vanguard Africa, an organization that advocates for good governance on the continent, told VOA.

“It’s all legal.  It’s a business, and these businesses exist to make a profit … It’s the ethical and moral side where I tend to question.”

Democratic practices falling behind

According to media reports, Kenyatta’s campaign paid $6 million to Cambridge Analytica, the analytics and PR firm tied to the Brexit referendum, the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and, as recently reported by The Wall Street Journal, WikiLeaks.

Owned in part by the influential Mercer family, U.S.-based billionaires and political donors, Cambridge Analytica compiles demographic information to build vast databases of voter profiles.  It then delivers personalized advertisements to key voters in an attempt to sway them.

Kenyatta wasn’t the only candidate to enlist the services of a high-tech PR firm.  According to new reporting by The Star, one of Kenya’s leading newspapers, Odinga’s campaign employed Aristotle International, a U.S.-based company focused on campaign data mining.

The exact impact of these firms on the outcome of the August election is impossible to gauge, but their prominence in Kenya points to the role high-tech campaigning will play in future elections across the continent.

That’s raising questions about whether these companies undermine the democratic process by giving their clients an unfair advantage and manipulating the public.

“We have reached a point where our technological advances now exceed the ability of democratic practices to catch up,” said Calestous Juma, a professor of international development at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

“That has created a window where people can exploit platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Google to amplify certain messages that play on ethnic stereotypes for purposes of creating fear and winning elections,” Juma told VOA.

Previous involvement

This isn’t Cambridge Analytica’s first foray into Kenyan politics.  Although it won’t acknowledge working on the recent campaign, the company boasts of its role in the 2013 elections, when Kenyatta contracted with the firm.

According to its website, Cambridge Analytica “designed and implemented the largest political research project ever conducted in East Africa” by sampling and interviewing 47,000 respondents to provide key political issues and identify voting behaviors, from which it drafted an “effective campaign strategy based on the electorate’s real needs (jobs) and fears (tribal violence).”

New frontier

Cambridge Analytica and other data-driven PR firms have worked throughout Europe, the Middle East and the Americas.  The African market, with a projected population of 2.5 billion people in 2050, represents an enticing new frontier, with Kenya emerging as an especially appealing place to do business.

A unique mix of high mobile phone penetration, fast mobile internet, pervasive social media use and a young electorate — people under 35 comprise more than half of Kenya’s 19 million registered voters — makes the country ripe with opportunities for data mining and digital PR companies to invest in, or exploit.

For Smith, the lack of transparency inherent in how companies like Cambridge Analytica operate undermines the democratic process.

“What they do is essentially help propagate false news stories,” Smith said.  “Me and my organization, Vanguard Africa … were portrayed as somehow financing and supporting the Kenyan opposition, which was fundamentally not true,” he said.

“That didn’t make those stories go away, of course.  The truth becomes the victim in all of this.”

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