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UnitedHealth says hackers potentially stole data from a third of Americans

WASHINGTON — Hackers who breached UnitedHealth’s tech unit in February potentially stole data from a third of Americans, the largest U.S. health insurer’s CEO told a congressional committee on Wednesday.

Two congressional panels grilled CEO Andrew Witty about the cyberattack on the company’s Change Healthcare unit, which processes around 50% of all medical claims in the U.S.

The breach has caused widespread disruptions in claims processing, impacting patients and providers across the country.

Witty fielded heated questions from House Energy and Commerce Committee members about the company’s failure to prevent the breach and contain its fallout.

Pressed for details on the data compromised, Witty said protected health information and personally identifiable information pertaining to “maybe a third” of Americans was stolen.

“We continue to investigate the amount of data involved here,” he added. “We do think it’s going to be substantial.”

The cybercriminal gang AlphV hacked into Change on Feb. 12 using stolen login credentials on an older server that did not have multifactor authentication, Witty said.

“It was … a platform which had only recently become part of the company was in the process of being upgraded,” Witty said, referring to UnitedHealth’s $13 billion acquisition of Change in 2022.

The platform also did not have the security measures prescribed in a joint alert issued by the FBI and U.S. cyber and health officials in December 2023 to specifically warn about AlphV, or BlackCat, targeting healthcare organizations.

UnitedHealth paid the gang around $22 million in bitcoin as ransom, Witty said, adding that however there was no guarantee that the breached data was secure and could not still be leaked. Another hacking group claiming to be an offshoot of AlphV said last month it had a copy of the data, though the company has not verified that claim.

The Senate Finance Committee probed the outsized influence of UnitedHealth – which has a market capitalization of $445 billion and annual revenue of $372 billion – on American health care. But Witty said the company’s problems were not a threat to the broader economy.

Senator Bill Cassidy said senators on the panel “would have to ask, is the dominant role of United too dominant because it is into everything and messing up United messes up everybody?”

“My point is, the size of United becomes a it’s almost a too big to fail and sure, because if it fails, it’s going to bring down far more than it ordinarily would,” Cassidy said.

Witty said in response, “I don’t believe it is because actually despite our size, for example, we have no hospitals in America, we do not own any drug manufacturers.”

Yet, Change processes medical claims for around 900,000 physicians, 33,000 pharmacies, 5,500 hospitals and 600 laboratories in the U.S.

U.S. military members’ data was also stolen in the hack, Witty revealed, without saying how many of them were impacted.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden called the hack a national security threat.

“I believe the bigger the company, the bigger the responsibility to protect its systems from hackers. UHG was a big target long before it was hacked,” he added.

“UnitedHealth Group has not revealed how many patients’ private medical records were stolen, how many providers went without reimbursement, and how many seniors are unable to pick up their prescriptions as a result of the hack,” said Wyden.

In letters to both congressional committees, the American Hospital Association said an internal survey of its members found that 94% of hospitals reported damage to cash flow, and more than half reported “significant or serious” financial damage due to Change’s inability to process claims.

Similarly, 90% of respondents to an American Medical Association survey of doctors said they continue to lose revenue because of the hack, according to the group’s written testimony to the Senate Finance Committee.

Reuters/Ipsos poll: Most Americans see TikTok as a Chinese influence tool

Washington — A majority of Americans believe that China uses TikTok to shape U.S. public opinion, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted as Washington moves closer to potentially banning the Chinese-owned short-video app.

Some 58% of respondents to the two-day poll, which closed on Tuesday, agreed with a statement that the Chinese government uses TikTok, which is owned by China’s ByteDance, to “influence American public opinion.” Some 13% disagreed, and the rest were unsure or didn’t answer the question. Republicans were more likely than Democrats to see China as using the app to affect U.S. opinions.

TikTok says it has spent more than $1.5 billion on data security efforts and would not share data on its 170 million U.S. users with the Chinese government. The company told Congress last year that it does “not promote or remove content at the request of the Chinese government.”

TikTok did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

President Joe Biden last week signed legislation giving ByteDance 270 days to divest TikTok’s U.S. assets or face a ban.

TikTok has vowed to challenge the ban as a violation of the protections of free expression enshrined in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and TikTok users are expected to again take legal action. A U.S. judge in Montana in November blocked a state ban on TikTok, citing free-speech concerns.

The Reuters/Ipsos poll found 50% of Americans supported banning TikTok, while 32% opposed a ban and the rest were unsure. The poll only surveyed U.S. adults and doesn’t reflect the views of people under age 18, who make up a significant portion of TikTok’s users in the United States. About six in 10 poll respondents aged 40 and older supported a ban, compared with about four in 10 aged 18-39.

The poll showed 46% of Americans agreed with a statement that China is using the app to “spy on everyday Americas,” an allegation Beijing has denied.

The app is ubiquitous in America. Even Biden’s re-election campaign is using it as a tool to win over voters ahead of the Nov. 5 presidential election. Biden’s rival, Republican Donald Trump, who has criticized a potential ban and is the majority owner of the company that operates his social media app Truth Social, has not joined.

A majority of Americans, 60%, said it was inappropriate for U.S. political candidates to use TikTok to promote their campaigns.

Biden’s signing of the law sets a Jan. 19 deadline for a sale — one day before his term is set to expire — but he could extend the deadline by three months if he determines that ByteDance is making progress on divesting the app.

The poll, which was conducted online, gathered responses from 1,022 U.S. adults nationwide and had a margin of error of about 3 percentage points.

LogOn: Nigerian Artist Creates AI Fashion Show for Elderly

Images of African senior citizens walking a fashion runway created a buzz on social media, with AI-generated pictures challenging traditional depictions of elderly Africans. VOA’s Karina Choudhury has all the looks in this week’s episode of LogOn. Videographer: Samuel Okocha

Tesla clears key regulatory hurdles for self-driving in China during Musk visit

BEIJING — Tesla has cleared some key regulatory hurdles that have long hindered it from rolling out its self-driving software in China, paving the way for a favorable result from Elon Musk’s surprise visit to the U.S. automaker’s second-largest market.

Tesla CEO Musk arrived in the Chinese capital Sunday, where he was expected to discuss the rollout of Full Self-Driving (FSD) software and permission to transfer driving data overseas, according to a person with knowledge of the matter.

The billionaire’s whirlwind visit, during which he met with Chinese Premier Li Qiang, came just over a week after he scrapped a planned trip to India to meet with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, citing “very heavy Tesla obligations.”

On Monday, two separate sources told Reuters Tesla had reached an agreement with Baidu to use the Chinese tech giant’s mapping license for data collection on China’s public roads, which they described as a key step for FSD to be introduced in the country.

And a top Chinese auto association said on Sunday Tesla’s Model 3 and Y cars were among models that it had tested and found to be compliant with China’s data security requirements.

Data security and compliance have been key reasons why the U.S. electric vehicle maker, which rolled out the most autonomous version of its Autopilot software four years ago, has yet to make FSD available in China, its second-largest market

globally, despite customer demand.

Chinese regulators had since 2021 required Tesla to store all data collected by its Chinese fleet in Shanghai, leaving the company unable to transfer any back to the United States.

Musk is looking to obtain approval to transfer data collected in the country abroad to train algorithms for its autonomous driving technologies, the person said.

Musk’s visit to China, first reported by Reuters, was not flagged publicly and the person spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak with the media.

The plane that Musk arrived on departed from Beijing Capital Airport at 0517 GMT, according to Chinese flight tracking app Flight Manager and was headed to Anchorage, Alaska.

Tesla did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Musk’s departure.

Equity analysts at Wedbush called the surprise visit “a major moment for Tesla.”

Rival Chinese automakers and suppliers such as XPeng and Huawei Technologies have been seeking to gain an advantage over Tesla by rolling out similar software.

Retired newspaper commentator Hu Xijin said on his Weibo account that Tesla was the only foreign-funded automaker to meet China’s data compliance requirements and said that this would pave the way for Tesla cars to enter premises owned by government agencies and state-owned firms across China.

“This is not only a breakthrough in China, but also a significant demonstration for the entire world in solving data security issues,” he said.

Premier Li on Sunday praised Tesla’s development in China as a successful example of U.S.-China economic and trade cooperation.

 

China data

Tesla cars have for years been banned from entering Chinese military complexes over security concerns relating to cameras installed on its vehicles. Its cars have also been turned away from sites holding important political events, such as an annual summer leadership conclave the ruling Communist Party held in 2022.

He Xiaopeng, the CEO of XPeng whose XNGP Advanced Driver Assistance System is similar to FSD, said on his Weibo account he welcomed the entry of the Tesla technology into China.

“Only with the entry of more good products and technologies can the experience of the entire market and customers be improved, and it will allow the market’s development to accelerate in a healthy manner,” he said.

“Let a hundred flowers bloom,” he said, echoing a famous line from Chairman Mao Zedong, the founder of modern China.

The improved prospect of FSD entering China comes as Tesla shares have lost almost a third of their value since the start of the year, as concerns have grown about the EV maker’s growth trajectory. Last week, Tesla reported its first decline in quarterly revenue since 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic slowed production and deliveries.

Musk said last week that Tesla would introduce new, cheaper models using its current EV platforms and production lines and would offer a new “robotaxi” with self-driving technology. He said on X this month that he would unveil the robotaxi on Aug. 8.

China’s complicated traffic conditions with more pedestrians and cyclists than in many other markets provide more scenarios that are key for training autonomous driving algorithms at a faster pace, according to industry experts.

“If Musk is able to obtain approval from Beijing to transfer data collected in China abroad this would be a ‘game changer’ around the acceleration of training its algorithms for its autonomous technology globally,” Wedbush analyst Dan Ives said in a note.

Musk said this month that Tesla may make FSD available to customers in China “very soon,” in response to a query on X.

Besides meeting Li on the short trip to Beijing, Musk met the organizer of the ongoing Beijing auto show. The chairman of Chinese battery giant CATL Robin Zeng, a key Tesla battery supplier, also visited Musk’s hotel on Monday, according to a Reuters witness. Reuters could not immediately confirm with CATL if Zeng met with Musk.

Musk had been set on his cancelled India trip to announce $2 billion to $3 billion in new investments, including in a car plant, after India offered lower import taxes on EVs in return under a new policy.

China set to launch high-stakes mission to moon’s ‘hidden’ side

BEIJING — China will send a robotic spacecraft in coming days on a round trip to the moon’s far side in the first of three technically demanding missions that will pave the way for an inaugural Chinese crewed landing and a base on the lunar south pole.

Since the first Chang’e mission in 2007, named after the mythical Chinese moon goddess, China has made leaps forward in its lunar exploration, narrowing the technological chasm with the United States and Russia.

In 2020, China brought back samples from the moon’s near side in the first sample retrieval in more than four decades, confirming for the first time it could safely return an uncrewed spacecraft to Earth from the lunar surface.

This week, China is expected to launch Chang’e-6 using the backup spacecraft from the 2020 mission and collect soil and rocks from the side of the moon that permanently faces away from Earth.

With no direct line of sight with the Earth, Chang’e-6 must rely on a recently deployed relay satellite orbiting the moon during its 53-day mission, including a never-before attempted ascent from the moon’s “hidden” side on its return journey home.

The same relay satellite will support the uncrewed Chang’e-7 and 8 missions in 2026 and 2028, respectively, when China starts to explore the south pole for water and build a rudimentary outpost with Russia. China aims to put its astronauts on the moon by 2030.

Beijing’s polar plans have worried NASA, whose administrator, Bill Nelson, has repeatedly warned that China would claim any water resources as its own. Beijing says it remains committed to cooperation with all nations on building a “shared” future.

On Chang’e-6, China will carry payloads from France, Italy, Sweden and Pakistan, and on Chang’e-7, payloads from Russia, Switzerland and Thailand.

NASA is banned by U.S. law from any collaboration, direct or indirect, with China.

Under the separate NASA-led Artemis program, U.S. astronauts will land near the south pole in 2026, the first humans on the moon since 1972.

“International cooperation is key (to lunar exploration),” Clive Neal, professor of planetary geology at the University of Notre Dame, told Reuters. “It’s just that China and the U.S. aren’t cooperating right now. I hope that will happen.”

South pole ambitions

Chang’e 6 will attempt to land on the northeastern side of the vast South Pole-Aitkin Basin, the oldest known impact crater in the solar system.

The southernmost landing ever was carried out in February by IM-1, a joint mission between NASA and the Texas-based private firm Intuitive Machines.

After touchdown at Malapert A, a site near the south pole that was believed to be relatively flat, the spacecraft tilted sharply to one side amid a host of technical problems, reflecting the high-risk nature of lunar landings.

The south pole has been described by scientists as the “golden belt” for lunar exploration.

Polar ice could sustain long-term research bases without relying on expensive resources transported from Earth. India’s Chandrayaan-1 launched in 2008 confirmed the existence of ice inside polar craters.

Chang’e-6’s sample return could also shed more light on the early evolution of the moon and the inner solar system.

The lack of volcanic activity on the moon’s far side means there are more craters not covered by ancient lava flows, preserving materials from the moon’s early formation.

So far, all lunar samples taken by the United States and the former Soviet Union in the 1970s and China in 2020 were from the moon’s near side, where volcanism had been far more active.

Chang’e-6, after a successful landing, will collect about 2 kilograms of samples with a mechanical scoop and a drill.

African farmers look to the past and the future to address climate change 

HARARE — From ancient fertilizer methods in Zimbabwe to new greenhouse technology in Somalia, farmers across the heavily agriculture-reliant African continent are looking to the past and future to respond to climate change.

Africa, with the world’s youngest population, faces the worst effects of a warming planet while contributing the least to the problem. Farmers are scrambling to make sure the booming population is fed.

With more than 60% of the world’s uncultivated land, Africa should be able to feed itself, some experts say. And yet three in four people across the continent cannot afford a healthy diet, according to a report last year by the African Union and United Nations agencies. Reasons include conflict and lack of investment.

In Zimbabwe, where the El Nino phenomenon has worsened a drought, small-scale farmer James Tshuma has lost hope of harvesting anything from his fields. It’s a familiar story in much of the country, where the government has declared a $2 billion state of emergency and millions of people face hunger.

But a patch of green vegetables is thriving in a small garden the 65-year-old Tshuma is keeping alive with homemade organic manure and fertilizer. Previously discarded items have again become priceless.

“This is how our fathers and forefathers used to feed the Earth and themselves before the introduction of chemicals and inorganic fertilizers,” Tshuma said.

He applies livestock droppings, grass, plant residue, remains of small animals, tree leaves and bark, food scraps and other biodegradable items like paper. Even the bones of animals that are dying in increasing numbers due to the drought are burned before being crushed into ash for their calcium.

Climate change is compounding much of sub-Saharan Africa’s longstanding problem of poor soil fertility, said Wonder Ngezimana, an associate professor of crop science at Zimbabwe’s Marondera University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology.

“The combination is forcing people to re-look at how things were done in the past like nutrient recycling, but also blending these with modern methods,” said Ngezimana, whose institution is researching the combination of traditional practices with new technologies.

Apart from being rich in nitrogen, organic fertilizers help increase the soil’s carbon and ability to retain moisture, Ngezimana said. “Even if a farmer puts synthetic fertilizer into the soil, they are likely to suffer the consequences of poor moisture as long as there is a drought,” he said.

Other moves to traditional practices are under way. Drought-resistant millets, sorghum and legumes, staples until the early 20th century when they were overtaken by exotic white corn, have been taking up more land space in recent years.

Leaves of drought-resistant plants that were once a regular dish before being cast off as weeds are returning to dinner tables. They even appear on elite supermarket shelves and are served at classy restaurants, as are millet and sorghum.

This could create markets for the crops even beyond drought years, Ngezimana said.

A greenhouse revolution in Somalia

In conflict-prone Somalia in East Africa, greenhouses are changing the way some people live, with shoppers filling up carts with locally produced vegetables and traditionally nomadic pastoralists under pressure to settle down and grow crops.

“They are organic, fresh and healthy,” shopper Sucdi Hassan said in the capital, Mogadishu. “Knowing that they come from our local farms makes us feel secure.”

Her new shopping experience is a sign of relative calm after three decades of conflict and the climate shocks of drought and flooding.

Urban customers are now assured of year-round supplies, with more than 250 greenhouses dotted across Mogadishu and its outskirts producing fruit and vegetables. It is a huge leap.

“In the past, even basic vegetables like cucumbers and tomatoes were imported, causing logistical problems and added expenses,” said Somalia’s minister of youth and sports, Mohamed Barre.

The greenhouses also create employment in a country where about 75% of the population is people under 30 years old, many of them jobless.

About 15 kilometers from the capital, Mohamed Mahdi, an agriculture graduate, inspected produce in a greenhouse where he works.

“Given the high unemployment rate, we are grateful for the chance to work in our chosen field of expertise,” the 25-year-old said.

Meanwhile, some pastoralist herders are being forced to change their traditional ways after watching livestock die by the thousands.

“Transitioning to greenhouse farming provides pastoralists with a more resilient and sustainable livelihood option,” said Mohamed Okash, director of the Institute of Climate and Environment at SIMAD University in Mogadishu.

He called for larger investments in smart farming to combat food insecurity.

A more resilient bean in Kenya

In Kenya, a new climate-smart bean variety is bringing hope to farmers in a region that had recorded reduced rainfall in six consecutive rainy seasons.

The variety, called “Nyota” or “star” in Swahili, is the result of a collaboration between scientists from the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization, the Alliance of Bioversity International and research organization International Center for Tropical Agriculture.

The new bean variety is tailored for Kenya’s diverse climatic conditions. One focus is to make sure drought doesn’t kill them off before they have time to flourish.

The bean variety flowers and matures so quickly that it is ready for harvesting by the time rains disappear, said David Karanja, a bean breeder and national coordinator for grains and legumes at KALRO.

Hopes are that these varieties could bolster national bean production. The annual production of 600,000 metric tons falls short of meeting annual demand of 755,000 metric tons, Karanja said.

Farmer Benson Gitonga said his yield and profits are increasing because of the new bean variety. He harvests between nine and 12 bags from an acre of land, up from the previous five to seven bags.

One side benefit of the variety is a breath of fresh air.

“Customers particularly appreciate its qualities, as it boasts low flatulence levels, making it an appealing choice,” Gitonga said.

Nigerian company creates taxi system fueled by electric vehicles

As climate change wreaks havoc around the world, the need for sustainable solutions grows more urgent. In Nigeria, a private company recently introduced an Uber-style taxi system made of approximately 200 electric vehicles. The company says the fleet is a step toward a greener future. Gibson Emeka reports from Abuja, Nigeria. Amy Reifenrath narrates.

Biden grants $6 billion to Micron to boost chip production

WASHINGTON — U.S. President Joe Biden was in Syracuse, New York, Thursday to tout a deal to provide memory chip maker Micron Technology with $6.1 billion in federal grants to support the firm in building factories in the states of New York and Idaho.

“We’re bringing advanced chip manufacturing back to America after 40 years,” Biden said Thursday. He said the funding, paired with a $125 billion investment from Micron, represents the “single biggest private investment ever in history of these two states.”

The investment will support the construction of two plants in Clay, a suburb of Syracuse, New York, and one in Boise, Idaho. The grant will unleash “$50 billion in private investment by 2030 as the first step towards Micron’s investment of up to $125 billion across both states over the next two decades,” the White House said in a statement.

The deal was announced last week by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York, who personally lobbied Micron to invest in his state. It’s the latest in a series of awards given by the administration, intended to shore up domestic production of advanced semiconductors using funds from the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022. The aim is to boost domestic manufacturing and reduce reliance on chip supplies from China and Taiwan.

This investment will “supercharge Micron to build the most advanced memory chip factory in the world, Schumer said Thursday. “America’s future will be built in Syracuse, not in Shanghai.”

The administration recently awarded Samsung, Taiwan Semiconductor, Intel, GlobalFoundries, Microchip Technology, and BAE Systems, more than $29 billion in federal grants for chipmaking investments. It’s part of an effort to catch up in the global semiconductor manufacturing race currently dominated by China, Taiwan and South Korea.

The U.S. share of global semiconductor manufacturing capacity has decreased from 37% in 1990 to 12% today, largely because other governments have offered manufacturing incentives and invested in research to strengthen domestic chipmaking capabilities, according to the Semiconductor Industry Association.

To address such stiff foreign competition, the $280 billion bipartisan CHIPS and Science Act offers $52 billion in incentives for domestic semiconductor production and research, as well as an investment tax credit for semiconductor manufacturing.

Manufacturing revival

The announcements are part of the economic vision the president is offering to voters in his re-election bid – that he is working to create a manufacturing revival in the country, including in Republican-controlled districts such as where the Micron plant will be located.

“Micron’s total investment will be the largest private investment in New York and Idaho’s history, and will create over 70,000 jobs, including 20,000 direct construction and manufacturing jobs and tens of thousands of indirect jobs,” the White House said.

Ahead of the November presidential election, Biden’s strategy appears to be to announce investments in manufacturing facilities in Georgia, Idaho, North Carolina and Ohio, states where Democrats lack a strong foothold.

It is not clear whether the approach will succeed as voters will not immediately feel the effects. The initial phase of the Micron project, for example, would see the first plant opened in 2028 and the second in 2029.

Meanwhile, voters are concerned about high inflation, and dislike Biden’s economic job performance. A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll shows 34% of respondents approving of Biden’s approach on the economy, compared to 41% who favor the approach of former president Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee.

Still, Biden’s trip to New York is an opportunity for him to celebrate another victory following a string of good news for the president. On Wednesday, he secured the endorsement of the North America’s Building Trades Unions and signed a $95.3 billion aid package for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan after months of congressional gridlock.

Paris Huang contributed to this report.

Japan’s moon lander still going after 3 lunar nights

TOKYO — Japan’s first moon lander has survived a third freezing lunar night, Japan’s space agency said Wednesday after receiving an image from the device three months after it landed on the moon.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency said the lunar probe responded to a signal from the earth Tuesday night, confirming it has survived another weekslong lunar night.

Temperatures can fall to minus 170 degrees Celsius during a lunar night and rise to around 100 Celsius during a lunar day. 

The probe, Smart Lander for Investing Moon, or SLIM, reached the lunar surface on Jan. 20, making Japan the fifth country to successfully place a probe on the moon. 

SLIM landed the wrong way up with its solar panels initially unable to see the sun, and had to be turned off within hours, but powered on when the sun rose eight days later.

SLIM, which was tasked with testing Japan’s pinpoint landing technology and collecting geological data and images, was not designed to survive lunar nights.

JAXA said on the social media platform X that SLIM’s key functions are still working despite repeated harsh cycles of temperature changes. The agency said it plans to closely monitor the lander’s deterioration. 

Scientists are hoping to find clues about the origin of the moon by comparing the mineral compositions of moon rocks and those of Earth.

The message from SLIM came days after NASA restored contact with Voyager 1, the farthest space probe from Earth, which had been sending garbled data back for months.

An U.S. lunar probe developed by a private space company announced termination of its operation a month after its February landing, while an Indian moon lander failed to establish communication after touchdown in 2023. 

 

LogOn: Hologram-like experience allows people to connect

The Dutch company Holoconnects are experts in the field of holographic illusions and are now delivering life-size personal connections with a 2-meter-tall box that make it feel like the person you are talking to is physically present. Deana Mitchell has more from Austin, Texas in this week’s episode of LogOn.

Taiwan attracting Southeast Asian tech students

Taiwan is looking to Southeast Asia as a pipeline to fill its shortage of high-tech talent. The numbers of foreign students coming to the island has been growing, especially from Vietnam and Indonesia. VOA Mandarin’s Peh Hong Lim reports from Hsinchu, Taiwan. Adrianna Zhang contributed.

EU may suspend TikTok’s new rewards app over risks to kids

LONDON — The European Union on Monday demanded TikTok provide more information about a new app that pays users to watch videos and warned that it could order the video sharing platform to suspend addictive features that pose a risk to kids. 

The 27-nation EU’s executive commission said it was opening formal proceedings to determine whether TikTok Lite breached the bloc’s new digital rules when the app was rolled out in France and Spain. 

Brussels was ratcheting up the pressure on TikTok after the company failed to respond to a request last week for information on whether the new app complies with the Digital Services Act, a sweeping law that took effect last year intending to clean up social media platforms. 

TikTok Lite is a slimmed-down version of the main TikTok app that lets users earn rewards. Points earned by watching videos, liking content and following content creators can then be exchanged for rewards including Amazon vouchers and gift cards on PayPal. 

The commission wants to see the risk assessment that TikTok should have carried out before deploying the app in the European Union. It’s worried TikTok launched the app without assessing how to mitigate “potential systemic risks” such as addictive design features that could pose harm to children. 

TikTok didn’t respond immediately to a request for comment. The company said last week it would respond to the commission’s request and noted that rewards are restricted to users 18 years and older, who have to verify their age. 

“With an endless stream of short and fast-paced videos, TikTok offers fun and a sense of connection beyond your immediate circle,” said European Commissioner Thierry Breton, one of the officials leading the bloc’s push to rein in big tech companies. “But it also comes with considerable risks, especially for our children: addiction, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, low attention spans.” 

The EU is giving TikTok 24 hours to turn over the risk assessment and until Wednesday to argue its case. Any order to suspend the TikTok Lite app’s reward features could come as early as Thursday. 

It’s the first time that the EU has issued a legally binding order for such information since the Digital Services Act took effect. Officials stepped up the pressure after TikTok failed to respond to last week’s request for the information. 

If TikTok still fails to respond, the commission warned the company also faces fines worth up to 1% of the company’s total annual income or worldwide turnover and “periodic penalties” of up to 5% of daily income or global turnover. 

TikTok was already facing intensified scrutiny from the EU. The commission already has an ongoing in-depth investigation into the main TikTok app’s DSA compliance, examining whether it’s doing enough to curb “systemic risks” stemming from its design, including “algorithmic systems” that might stimulate “behavioral addictions.” Offices are worried that measures including age verification tools to stop minors from finding “inappropriate content” might not be effective.

Connected Africa Summit addressing continent’s challenges, opportunities and bridging digital divides

Nairobi, Kenya — Government representatives from Africa, along with ICT (information and communication technology) officials, and international organizations have gathered in Nairobi for a Connected Africa Summit. They are discussing the future of technology, unlocking the continent’s growth beyond connectivity, and addressing the challenges and opportunities in the continent’s information and technology sector.

Speaking at the Connected Africa Summit opening in Nairobi Monday, Kenyan President William Ruto said bridging the technology gap is important for Africa’s economic growth and innovation.  

“Closing the digital divide is a priority in terms of enhancing connectivity, expanding the contribution of the ICT sector to Africa’s GDP and driving overall GDP growth across all sectors. Africa’s digital economy has immense potential…,” Ruto said. “Our youth population, the youngest globally, is motivated and prepared to drive the digital economy, foster innovation and entrench new technologies.”    

Experts say digital transformation in Africa can improve its industrialization, reduce poverty, create jobs, and improve its citizens’ lives.

According to the World Bank, 36 percent of Africa’s 1.3 billion population have access to the internet, and in some of the areas that have connections, the quality of the service is poor compared to other regions.

The international financial institution figures show that Africa saw a 115 percent increase in internet users between 2016 and 2021 and that 160 million gained broadband internet access between 2019 and 2022.  

Africa’s digital growth has been hampered by the lack of an accessible, secure, and reliable internet, which is critical in closing the digital gap and reducing inequalities.  

Lacina Kone is the head of Smart Africa, an organization that coordinates ICT activities within the continent. He says integrating technology into African societies’ daily activities is necessary and cannot be ignored.  

“Digital transformation is no longer a choice but a necessity, just like water utility, just like any other utility we use at home,” Kone said. “So, this connected Africa is an opportunity for all of us. I see a lot of country members, and ICT ministers are here to align our visions together.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the consumption of technology in different sectors of the African economy, and experts say opportunities now exist in mobile services, the development of broadband infrastructure, and data storage.  

The U.S. ambassador to Kenya, Meg Whitman, called on the summit attendees to develop technologies that can solve people’s problems.  

“I encourage all of you to consider this approach for your economies. Look at what strengths already exist in your countries and ask how technology can solve challenges in those sectors to make you a leader through innovation,” Whitman said. “Sometimes innovation looks like Artificial Intelligence, satellites and e-money. Sometimes though it looks much different than we expect. However, innovation always includes three elements: solution focused, it’s specific and it’s sustainable. Bringing solution-focused, being solution-focused is the foundation of shaping the future of a connected Africa.”

The summit ends on Friday, but before that, those attending aim to explore ways to improve Africa’s technology usage, enhance continental connectivity, boost competitiveness, and ensure the continent keeps up with the ever-evolving tech sector.

Doctors display ‘PillBot’ that can explore inner human body

vancouver, british columbia — A new, digestible mini-robotic camera, about the size of a multivitamin pill, was demonstrated at the annual TED Conference in Vancouver. The remote-controlled device can eliminate invasive medical procedures.

With current technology, exploration of the digestive tract involves going through the highly invasive procedure of an endoscopy, in which a camera at the end of a cord is inserted down the throat and into a medicated patient’s stomach.

But the robotic pill, developed by Endiatx in Hayward, California, is designed to be the first motorized replacement of the procedure. A patient fasts for a day, then swallows the PillBot with lots of water. The PillBot, acting like a miniature submarine, is piloted in the body by a wireless remote control. After the exam, it then flushes out of the human body naturally.

For Dr. Vivek Kumbhari, co-founder of the company and professor of medicine and chairman of gastroenterology and hepatology at the Mayo Clinic, it is the latest step toward his goal of democratizing previously complex medicine.

If procedure-based diagnostics can be moved from a hospital to a home, “then I think we have achieved that goal,” he said. The new setting would require fewer medical staff personnel and no anesthesia, producing “a safer, more comfortable approach.”

Kumbhari said this technology also makes medicine more efficient, allowing people to get care earlier in the course of an illness.

For co-founder Alex Luebke, the micro-robotic pill can be transformative for rural areas around the world where there is limited access to medical facilities.

“Especially in developing countries, there is no access” to complex medical procedures, he said. “So being able to have the technology, gather all that information and provide you the solution, even in remote areas – that’s the way to do it.”

Luebke said if internet access is not immediately available, information from the PillBot can be transmitted later.

The duo are also utilizing artificial intelligence to provide the initial diagnosis, with a medical doctor later developing a treatment plan.

Joel Bervell is known to his million social media followers as the “Medical Mythbuster” and is a fourth-year medical student at Washington State University. He said the strength of this type of technology is how it can be easily used in remote and rural communities.

Many patients “travel hundreds of miles, literally, for their appointment. Use of a pill that would not require a visit to a physician “would be life-changing for them.” 

The micro-robotic pill is undergoing trials and will soon be in front of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for approval, which developers expect to have in 2025. It’s expected that the pill would then be widely available in 2026.

Kumbhari hopes the technology can be expanded to the bowels, vascular system, heart, liver, brain and other parts of the body. Eventually, he hopes, this will allow hospitals to be left for more urgent medical care and surgeries.

Apple pulls WhatsApp and Threads from App Store on Beijing’s orders

HONG KONG — Apple said it had removed Meta’s WhatsApp messaging app and its Threads social media app from the App Store in China to comply with orders from Chinese authorities.

The apps were removed from the store Friday after Chinese officials cited unspecified national security concerns.

Their removal comes amid elevated tensions between the U.S. and China over trade, technology and national security.

The U.S. has threatened to ban TikTok over national security concerns. But while TikTok, owned by Chinese technology firm ByteDance, is used by millions in the U.S., apps like WhatsApp and Threads are not commonly used in China.

Instead, the messaging app WeChat, owned by Chinese company Tencent, reigns supreme.

Other Meta apps, including Facebook, Instagram and Messenger remained available for download, although use of such foreign apps is blocked in China due to its “Great Firewall” network of filters that restrict use of foreign websites such as Google and Facebook.

“The Cyberspace Administration of China ordered the removal of these apps from the China storefront based on their national security concerns,” Apple said in a statement.

“We are obligated to follow the laws in the countries where we operate, even when we disagree,” Apple said.

A spokesperson for Meta referred to “Apple for comment.”

Apple, previously the world’s top smartphone maker, recently lost the top spot to Korean rival Samsung Electronics. The U.S. firm has run into headwinds in China, one of its top three markets, with sales slumping after Chinese government agencies and employees of state-owned companies were ordered not to bring Apple devices to work.

Apple has been diversifying its manufacturing bases outside China.

Its CEO Tim Cook has been visiting Southeast Asia this week, traveling to Hanoi and Jakarta before wrapping up his travels in Singapore. On Friday he met with Singapore’s deputy prime minister, Lawrence Wong, where they “discussed the partnership between Singapore and Apple, and Apple’s continued commitment to doing business in Singapore.”

Apple pledged to invest over $250 million to expand its campus in the city-state.

Earlier this week, Cook met with Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh in Hanoi, pledging to increase spending on Vietnamese suppliers.

He also met with Indonesian President Joko Widodo. Cook later told reporters that they talked about Widodo’s desire to promote manufacturing in Indonesia, and said that this was something that Apple would “look at.”

Meta’s new AI agents confuse Facebook users 

CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts — Facebook parent Meta Platforms has unveiled a new set of artificial intelligence systems that are powering what CEO Mark Zuckerberg calls “the most intelligent AI assistant that you can freely use.” 

But as Zuckerberg’s crew of amped-up Meta AI agents started venturing into social media in recent days to engage with real people, their bizarre exchanges exposed the ongoing limitations of even the best generative AI technology. 

One joined a Facebook moms group to talk about its gifted child. Another tried to give away nonexistent items to confused members of a Buy Nothing forum. 

Meta, along with leading AI developers Google and OpenAI, and startups such as Anthropic, Cohere and France’s Mistral, have been churning out new AI language models and hoping to convince customers they’ve got the smartest, handiest or most efficient chatbots. 

While Meta is saving the most powerful of its AI models, called Llama 3, for later, on Thursday it publicly released two smaller versions of the same Llama 3 system and said it’s now baked into the Meta AI assistant feature in Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp. 

AI language models are trained on vast pools of data that help them predict the most plausible next word in a sentence, with newer versions typically smarter and more capable than their predecessors. Meta’s newest models were built with 8 billion and 70 billion parameters — a measurement of how much data the system is trained on. A bigger, roughly 400 billion-parameter model is still in training. 

“The vast majority of consumers don’t candidly know or care too much about the underlying base model, but the way they will experience it is just as a much more useful, fun and versatile AI assistant,” Nick Clegg, Meta’s president of global affairs, said in an interview. 

‘A little stiff’

He added that Meta’s AI agent is loosening up. Some people found the earlier Llama 2 model — released less than a year ago — to be “a little stiff and sanctimonious sometimes in not responding to what were often perfectly innocuous or innocent prompts and questions,” he said. 

But in letting down their guard, Meta’s AI agents have also been spotted posing as humans with made-up life experiences. An official Meta AI chatbot inserted itself into a conversation in a private Facebook group for Manhattan moms, claiming that it, too, had a child in the New York City school district. Confronted by group members, it later apologized before the comments disappeared, according to a series of screenshots shown to The Associated Press. 

“Apologies for the mistake! I’m just a large language model, I don’t have experiences or children,” the chatbot told the group. 

One group member who also happens to study AI said it was clear that the agent didn’t know how to differentiate a helpful response from one that would be seen as insensitive, disrespectful or meaningless when generated by AI rather than a human. 

“An AI assistant that is not reliably helpful and can be actively harmful puts a lot of the burden on the individuals using it,” said Aleksandra Korolova, an assistant professor of computer science at Princeton University. 

Clegg said Wednesday that he wasn’t aware of the exchange. Facebook’s online help page says the Meta AI agent will join a group conversation if invited, or if someone “asks a question in a post and no one responds within an hour.” The group’s administrators have the ability to turn it off. 

Need a camera?

In another example shown to the AP on Thursday, the agent caused confusion in a forum for swapping unwanted items near Boston. Exactly one hour after a Facebook user posted about looking for certain items, an AI agent offered a “gently used” Canon camera and an “almost-new portable air conditioning unit that I never ended up using.” 

Meta said in a written statement Thursday that “this is new technology and it may not always return the response we intend, which is the same for all generative AI systems.” The company said it is constantly working to improve the features. 

In the year after ChatGPT sparked a frenzy for AI technology that generates human-like writing, images, code and sound, the tech industry and academia introduced 149 large AI systems trained on massive datasets, more than double the year before, according to a Stanford University survey. 

They may eventually hit a limit, at least when it comes to data, said Nestor Maslej, a research manager for Stanford’s Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence. 

“I think it’s been clear that if you scale the models on more data, they can become increasingly better,” he said. “But at the same time, these systems are already trained on percentages of all the data that has ever existed on the internet.” 

More data — acquired and ingested at costs only tech giants can afford, and increasingly subject to copyright disputes and lawsuits — will continue to drive improvements. “Yet they still cannot plan well,” Maslej said. “They still hallucinate. They’re still making mistakes in reasoning.” 

Getting to AI systems that can perform higher-level cognitive tasks and common-sense reasoning — where humans still excel— might require a shift beyond building ever-bigger models. 

Seeing what works

For the flood of businesses trying to adopt generative AI, which model they choose depends on several factors, including cost. Language models, in particular, have been used to power customer service chatbots, write reports and financial insights, and summarize long documents. 

“You’re seeing companies kind of looking at fit, testing each of the different models for what they’re trying to do and finding some that are better at some areas rather than others,” said Todd Lohr, a leader in technology consulting at KPMG. 

Unlike other model developers selling their AI services to other businesses, Meta is largely designing its AI products for consumers — those using its advertising-fueled social networks. Joelle Pineau, Meta’s vice president of AI research, said at a recent London event that the company’s goal over time is to make a Llama-powered Meta AI “the most useful assistant in the world.” 

“In many ways, the models that we have today are going to be child’s play compared to the models coming in five years,” she said. 

But she said the “question on the table” is whether researchers have been able to fine-tune its bigger Llama 3 model so that it’s safe to use and doesn’t, for example, hallucinate or engage in hate speech. In contrast to leading proprietary systems from Google and OpenAI, Meta has so far advocated for a more open approach, publicly releasing key components of its AI systems for others to use. 

“It’s not just a technical question,” Pineau said. “It is a social question. What is the behavior that we want out of these models? How do we shape that? And if we keep on growing our model ever more in general and powerful without properly socializing them, we are going to have a big problem on our hands.”

Developers: Enhanced AI could outthink humans in 2 to 5 years

vancouver, british columbia — Just as the world is getting used to the rapidly expanding use of AI, or artificial intelligence, AGI is looming on the horizon.

Experts say when artificial general intelligence becomes reality, it could perform tasks better than human beings, with the possibility of higher cognitive abilities, emotions, and ability to self-teach and develop.

Ramin Hasani is a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the CEO of Liquid AI, which builds specific AI systems for different organizations. He is also a TED Fellow, a program that helps develop what the nonprofit TED conference considers to be “game changers.”

Hasani says that the first signs of AGI are realistically two to five years away from being reality. He says it will have a direct impact on our everyday lives.

What’s coming, he says, will be “an AI system that can have the collective knowledge of humans. And that can beat us in tasks that we do in our daily life, something you want to do … your finances, you’re solving, you’re helping your daughter to solve their homework. And at the same time, you want to also read a book and do a summary. So an AGI would be able to do all that.”

Hasani says that advancing artificial intelligence will allow for things to move faster and can even be made to have emotions.

He says proper regulation can be achieved by better understanding how different AI systems are developed.

This thought is shared by Bret Greenstein, a partner at London-based  PricewaterhouseCoopers who leads its efforts on artificial intelligence.

“I think one is a personal responsibility for people in leadership positions, policymakers, to be educated on the topic, not in the fact that they’ve read it, but to experience it, live it and try it. And to be with people who are close to it, who understand it,” he says.

Greenstein warns that if it is over-regulated, innovation will be curtailed and access to AI will be limited to people who could benefit from it.

For musician, comedian and actor Reggie Watts, who was the bandleader on “The Late Late Show with James Corden” on CBS, AI and the coming of AGI will be a great way to find mediocre music, because it will be mimicked easily.

Calling it “artificial consciousness,” he says existing laws to protect intellectual property rights and creative industries, like music, TV and film, will work, provided they are properly adopted.

“I think it’s just about the usage of the tool, how it’s … how it’s used. Is there money being made off of it, so on, so forth. So, I think that that we already have … tools that exist that deal with these types of situations, but [the laws and regulations] need to be expanded to include AI because they’ll probably be a lot more nuance to it.”

Watts says that any form of AI is going to be smarter than one person, almost like all human intelligence collected into one point. He feels this will cause humanity to discover interesting things and the nature of reality itself.

This year’s conference was the 40th year for TED, the nonprofit organization that is an acronym for Technology, Entertainment and Design.

Google fires 28 workers protesting contract with Israel

New York — Google fired 28 employees following a disruptive sit-down protest over the tech giant’s contract with the Israeli government, a Google spokesperson said Thursday.

The Tuesday demonstration was organized by the group “No Tech for Apartheid,” which has long opposed “Project Nimbus,” Google’s joint $1.2 billion contract with Amazon to provide cloud services to the government of Israel.

Video of the demonstration showed police arresting Google workers in Sunnyvale, California, in the office of Google Cloud CEO Thomas Kurian’s, according to a post by the advocacy group on X, formerly Twitter.

Kurian’s office was occupied for 10 hours, the advocacy group said.

Workers held signs including “Googlers against Genocide,” a reference to accusations surrounding Israel’s attacks on Gaza.

“No Tech for Apartheid,” which also held protests in New York and Seattle, pointed to an April 12 Time magazine article reporting a draft contract of Google billing the Israeli Ministry of Defense more than $1 million for consulting services.

A “small number” of employees “disrupted” a few Google locations, but the protests are “part of a longstanding campaign by a group of organizations and people who largely don’t work at Google,” a Google spokesperson said.

“After refusing multiple requests to leave the premises, law enforcement was engaged to remove them to ensure office safety,” the Google spokesperson said. “We have so far concluded individual investigations that resulted in the termination of employment for 28 employees, and will continue to investigate and take action as needed.”

Israel is one of “numerous” governments for which Google provides cloud computing services, the Google spokesperson said.

“This work is not directed at highly sensitive, classified, or military workloads relevant to weapons or intelligence services,” the Google spokesperson said.

AI-generated fashion models could bring more diversity to industry — or leave it with less

Chicago, Illinois — London-based model Alexsandrah has a twin, but not in the way you’d expect: Her counterpart is made of pixels instead of flesh and blood.

The virtual twin was generated by artificial intelligence and has already appeared as a stand-in for the real-life Alexsandrah in a photo shoot. Alexsandrah, who goes by her first name professionally, in turn receives credit and compensation whenever the AI version of herself gets used — just like a human model.

Alexsandrah says she and her alter-ego mirror each other “even down to the baby hairs.” And it is yet another example of how AI is transforming creative industries — and the way humans may or may not be compensated.

Proponents say the growing use of AI in fashion modeling showcases diversity in all shapes and sizes, allowing consumers to make more tailored purchase decisions that in turn reduces fashion waste from product returns. And digital modeling saves money for companies and creates opportunities for people who want to work with the technology.

But critics raise concerns that digital models may push human models — and other professionals like makeup artists and photographers — out of a job. Unsuspecting consumers could also be fooled into thinking AI models are real, and companies could claim credit for fulfilling diversity commitments without employing actual humans.

“Fashion is exclusive, with limited opportunities for people of color to break in,” said Sara Ziff, a former fashion model and founder of the Model Alliance, a nonprofit aiming to advance workers’ rights in the fashion industry. “I think the use of AI to distort racial representation and marginalize actual models of color reveals this troubling gap between the industry’s declared intentions and their real actions.”  

Women of color in particular have long faced higher barriers to entry in modeling and AI could upend some of the gains they’ve made. Data suggests that women are more likely to work in occupations in which the technology could be applied and are more at risk of displacement than men.

In March 2023, iconic denim brand Levi Strauss & Co. announced that it would be testing AI-generated models produced by Amsterdam-based company Lalaland.ai to add a wider range of body types and underrepresented demographics on its website. But after receiving widespread backlash, Levi clarified that it was not pulling back on its plans for live photo shoots, the use of live models or its commitment to working with diverse models.

“We do not see this (AI) pilot as a means to advance diversity or as a substitute for the real action that must be taken to deliver on our diversity, equity and inclusion goals and it should not have been portrayed as such,” Levi said in its statement at the time.

The company last month said that it has no plans to scale the AI program.

The Associated Press reached out to several other retailers to ask whether they use AI fashion models. Target, Kohl’s and fast-fashion giant Shein declined to comment; Temu did not respond to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, spokespeople for Nieman Marcus, H&M, Walmart and Macy’s said their respective companies do not use AI models, although Walmart clarified that “suppliers may have a different approach to photography they provide for their products, but we don’t have that information.”

Nonetheless, companies that generate AI models are finding a demand for the technology, including Lalaland.ai, which was co-founded by Michael Musandu after he was feeling frustrated by the absence of clothing models who looked like him.

“One model does not represent everyone that’s actually shopping and buying a product,” he said. “As a person of color, I felt this painfully myself.”

Musandu says his product is meant to supplement traditional photo shoots, not replace them. Instead of seeing one model, shoppers could see nine to 12 models using different size filters, which would enrich their shopping experience and help reduce product returns and fashion waste.

The technology is actually creating new jobs, since Lalaland.ai pays humans to train its algorithms, Musandu said.

And if brands “are serious about inclusion efforts, they will continue to hire these models of color,” he added.

London-based model Alexsandrah, who is Black, says her digital counterpart has helped her distinguish herself in the fashion industry. In fact, the real-life Alexsandrah has even stood in for a Black computer-generated model named Shudu, created by Cameron Wilson, a former fashion photographer turned CEO of The Diigitals, a U.K.-based digital modeling agency.

Wilson, who is white and uses they/them pronouns, designed Shudu in 2017, described on Instagram as the “The World’s First Digital Supermodel.” But critics at the time accused Wilson of cultural appropriation and digital Blackface.

Wilson took the experience as a lesson and transformed The Diigitals to make sure Shudu — who has been booked by Louis Vuitton and BMW — didn’t take away opportunities but instead opened possibilities for women of color. Alexsandrah, for instance, has modeled in-person as Shudu for Vogue Australia, and writer Ama Badu came up with Shudu’s backstory and portrays her voice for interviews.

Alexsandrah said she is “extremely proud” of her work with The Diigitals, which created her own AI twin: “It’s something that even when we are no longer here, the future generations can look back at and be like, ‘These are the pioneers.'”

But for Yve Edmond, a New York City area-based model who works with major retailers to check the fit of clothing before it’s sold to consumers, the rise of AI in fashion modeling feels more insidious.

Edmond worries modeling agencies and companies are taking advantage of models, who are generally independent contractors afforded few labor protections in the U.S., by using their photos to train AI systems without their consent or compensation.

She described one incident in which a client asked to photograph Edmond moving her arms, squatting and walking for “research” purposes. Edmond refused and later felt swindled — her modeling agency had told her she was being booked for a fitting, not to build an avatar.

“This is a complete violation,” she said. “It was really disappointing for me.”

But absent AI regulations, it’s up to companies to be transparent and ethical about deploying AI technology. And Ziff, the founder of the Model Alliance, likens the current lack of legal protections for fashion workers to “the Wild West.”

That’s why the Model Alliance is pushing for legislation like the one being considered in New York state, in which a provision of the Fashion Workers Act would require management companies and brands to obtain models’ clear written consent to create or use a model’s digital replica; specify the amount and duration of compensation, and prohibit altering or manipulating models’ digital replica without consent.

Alexsandrah says that with ethical use and the right legal regulations, AI might open up doors for more models of color like herself. She has let her clients know that she has an AI replica, and she funnels any inquires for its use through Wilson, who she describes as “somebody that I know, love, trust and is my friend.” Wilson says they make sure any compensation for Alexsandrah’s AI is comparable to what she would make in-person.

Edmond, however, is more of a purist: “We have this amazing Earth that we’re living on. And you have a person of every shade, every height, every size. Why not find that person and compensate that person?”

Instagram blurring nudity in messages to protect teens, fight sexual extortion

LONDON — Instagram says it’s deploying new tools to protect young people and combat sexual extortion, including a feature that will automatically blur nudity in direct messages.

The social media platform said in a blog post Thursday that it’s testing out the features as part of its campaign to fight sexual scams and other forms of “image abuse,” and to make it tougher for criminals to contact teens.

Sexual extortion, or sextortion, involves persuading a person to send explicit photos online and then threatening to make the images public unless the victim pays money or engages in sexual favors. Recent high-profile cases include two Nigerian brothers who pleaded guilty to sexually extorting teen boys and young men in Michigan, including one who took his own life, and a Virginia sheriff’s deputy who sexually extorted and kidnapped a 15-year-old girl.

Instagram and other social media companies have faced growing criticism for not doing enough to protect young people. Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Instagram’s owner Meta Platforms, apologized to the parents of victims of such abuse during a Senate hearing earlier this year.

Meta, which is based in Menlo Park, California, also owns Facebook and WhatsApp but the nudity blur feature won’t be added to messages sent on those platforms.

Instagram said scammers often use direct messages to ask for “intimate images.” To counter this, it will soon start testing out a nudity-protection feature for direct messages that blurs any images with nudity “and encourages people to think twice before sending nude images.”

“The feature is designed not only to protect people from seeing unwanted nudity in their DMs, but also to protect them from scammers who may send nude images to trick people into sending their own images in return,” Instagram said.

The feature will be turned on by default globally for teens under 18. Adult users will get a notification encouraging them to activate it.

Images with nudity will be blurred with a warning, giving users the option to view it. They’ll also get an option to block the sender and report the chat.

For people sending direct messages with nudity, they will get a message reminding them to be cautious when sending “sensitive photos.” They’ll also be informed that they can unsend the photos if they change their mind, but that there’s a chance others may have already seen them.

As with many of Meta’s tools and policies around child safety, critics saw the move as a positive step, but one that does not go far enough.

“I think the tools announced can protect senders, and that is welcome. But what about recipients?” said Arturo Béjar, former engineering director at the social media giant who is known for his expertise in curbing online harassment. He said 1 in 8 teens receives an unwanted advance on Instagram every seven days, citing internal research he compiled while at Meta that he presented in November testimony before Congress. “What tools do they get? What can they do if they get an unwanted nude?”

Béjar said “things won’t meaningfully change” until there is a way for a teen to say they’ve received an unwanted advance, and there is transparency about it.

Instagram said it’s working on technology to help identify accounts that could be potentially be engaging in sexual extortion scams, “based on a range of signals that could indicate sextortion behavior.”

To stop criminals from connecting with young people, it’s also taking measures including not showing the “message” button on a teen’s profile to potential sextortion accounts, even if they already follow each other, and testing new ways to hide teens from these accounts.

In January, the FBI warned of a “huge increase” in sextortion cases targeting children — including financial sextortion, where someone threatens to release compromising images unless the victim pays. The targeted victims are primarily boys between the ages of 14 to 17, but the FBI said any child can become a victim. In the six-month period from October 2022 to March 2023, the FBI saw a more than 20% increase in reporting of financially motivated sextortion cases involving minor victims compared to the same period in the previous year.