New Video Games Tackle Social Injustice Issues

You’re in Nepal.

A 7.8 magnitude earthquake has just struck your village and you must rescue the survivors.


This is “After Days,” a video game based on the real-life Nepal earthquake that killed almost 9,000 people in 2015.

Minseok Do was showing the game at the recent Games for Change festival in New York City. The games on display were a far cry from “Mario Brothers” and “Call of Duty.” These developers featured titles that tackled civic and social issues.

Public consciousness about civic and social issues has long been raised by the news and entertainment industries in the United States and other parts of the world, and now video game creators are making their own statements and hoping to reach the younger digital generation in the process.

In “After Days,” players take on the role of Ahsha, a young Nepalese woman who attempts to rescue her neighbors in the aftermath of the massive earthquake.

“Other media, such as novels and movies, require consumers to use their imagination to understand characters’ emotions,” said Do, CEO of GamBridzy. “Games have players be in characters’ shoes by letting them command and control. It is in my opinion the most powerful platform.”

In the game, players carry out various missions like transporting injured victims in stretchers and coordinating with rescue teams to restore critical infrastructure.

The first episode is set in Sindhupalchok, one of the hardest-hit districts of the earthquake in Nepal.

“Some say it will take about 10 years to complete all the restoration, but international attention is not focused on this, and it is important that we show our interest and support,” said Do. Twenty percent of proceeds from game sales will go toward rebuilding efforts.

Elin Festøy, a producer from Norway, also was in New York to promote her game.

“We really wanted to create attention and awareness around children born of war … children being born of the most hated soldiers in the world,” said Festøy.

She and her team created “My Child Lebensborn,” a mobile game in which players are the caretakers of World War Two-era children from the Lebensborn project, an attempt by the Nazi regime to create an Aryan “master race.”

Lebensborn involved child kidnappings as well as anonymous births by unwed mothers in and outside of Germany, with their offspring adopted by German families.  After the war, many Lebensborn children faced prejudice and discrimination, even from their own mothers.

“It’s about being able to see children as children and not as symbols of [the] enemy,” said Festøy.

“My Child Lebensborn” is targeted at players aged 13 and up. Recognizing that 13-year-olds might not exactly run to play the game, one of the team’s goals includes creating a bundle for schools that includes both the game and an accompanying film on the Lebensborn project.


Video games at the Games for Change festival didn’t shy away from difficult or touchy topics. Indeed, they were a vehicle for discussion and dialogue.

“The problem in a lot of developing countries is that people do not talk about issues. People do not want to share their problems out of embarrassment,” said Dr. Ilmana Fasih, a director at ZMQ.

The New Delhi-based consulting company developed “YourStoryTeller,” a mobile app that is less video game than a digital narrative.

User-contributed stories are transformed into comic strips. Each week, a new story addresses women’s issues in India, a country where patriarchal attitudes are common.

In one example, a young woman’s studies are disrupted for an arranged marriage that takes her from India to Canada, where she is physically abused by her new husband.

Fasih acknowledged the stories are definitely not of the Disney fairytale variety, and they definitely have a point of view.  

“Kids grow up watching those stories. We want kids to grow up watching these stories where there are struggles,” said Fasih. “A young boy is able to understand what are the struggles that his mom, his sisters go through. That is probably one of the best ways to defeat patriarchy.”



Hong Kong ‘Smart’ Ring Aims to Help Visually Impaired

A voice in your ear at the touch of a hand?

The Orii ring allows people to take phone calls, handle text messages and interact with a phone’s digital assistant, all by transferring sound to a user’s ear through bone conduction.

The ring, designed by Hong Kong-based start-up Origami Labs, was inspired by Peter Wong, the visually impaired father of the firm’s co-founder Kevin Wong.

“As a visual-impaired person, I rely on the software on the smartphone to read the icons, the texts to me,” said Peter Wong, who is a technical adviser for the ring.

A key feature ensures that only the user can hear the information conveyed by the ring.

“Can you imagine it reading out your password? That’s inconvenient and inappropriate,” Peter Wong said.

What began as a Kickstarter project has become the latest example of wearable, screen-free technology.

“We want to keep our heads up, we want to be able to stay more in the moment,” said Kevin Wong, 29, who set up Origami Labs in November 2015 with three friends from university.

The tech wearable market grew 51 percent in Asia last year, according to consumer research firm GfK. The overall industry is expected to be worth $34 billion globally by 2020, research provider CCS Insight has said.

The Orii ring is expected to reach the commercial market by February.

Kenyan Elections Observation Group Deploys Technology to Help Monitor Polls

Kenya’s Elections Observation Group (ELOG) plans to deploy about 5,000 observers to monitor Tuesday’s vote. ELOG also will use Parallel Vote Tabulation (PVT) to monitor the presidential election.

The Elections Observations Group, (ELOG) which is made up of civil society and faith-based organizations, met Saturday in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, and said it will deploy about 5,700 election observers. Of those, approximately 1,700 observers also will monitor the elections using Parallel Vote Tabulation (PVT).


Simon Wanjiru, the PVT Manager at ELOG, says the group is non-partisan, so its election observers will give independent and authentic results. ELOG began monitoring elections in Kenya in 2010.

​Wanjiru adds that the system will be used as a monitoring mechanism to flag irregularities.


“We want to increase the confidence of the public in the elections and also we want to remove any uncertainties on the people, and they need to believe that now the systems have been done right and we will be able to show if they have been done correctly by the commission,” he said.


ELOG officials say PVT works in five steps. In the first stage, observers go to polling stations and verify whether they have network coverage. Once this is verified the second step entails the observer filling out a simulation form and sending it to the data center. This ensures the observer understands the process of reporting via text message or SMS.

The third step involves the message check, where the data base receives the texts and checks for any errors in answering. The fourth step involves the data reporters contacting observers who have not yet reported, and troubleshoots. The fifth and final step includes a data-quality check where errors and inconsistencies are flagged by the database automatically.


Wanjiru says the monitoring group will abide by constitutional mechanisms in a scenario where results are withheld.


“It’s only the IEBC, [Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission], which is mandated to release the results, but for ELOG we only do the verification so we cannot verify before they have released,” he said. “Remember the constitution says the IEBC has to release the results in seven days. In case it goes beyond seven days, we don’t just say we are going to release but we will compel, we have a court. And we can use the other CSOs [Civil Society Organizations], who can now help beef up and compel the IEBC to have the results out then we can verify.”

Joyce Majiwa, of the Institute for Education in Democracy, (IED) spoke to VOA on the sidelines of the press conference.

According to Majiwa the IED seeks to nurture democracy and good governance in Kenya and Africa. She further notes that the key areas in Tuesday’s polls include electoral rules violations, among others. Majiwa adds that the monitoring will improve systems for future elections.


“We will make recommendations for future preparedness, we can make recommendations if there are violent areas especially women and girls. We can make recommendations for prosecution. We will have to follow up whether prosecutions are happening, and we will make recommendations to political parties as well.”

In 2013, ELOG monitored the elections in Kenya and projected President Uhuru Kenyatta’s victory at 49.7 percent, while the official figures from IEBC stood at 50.07 percent.

Kenya is scheduled to vote August 8.




Cyber Concerns Prompt Army to Stop Using Chinese-made Drones

The U.S. Army has ordered its members to stop using drones made by Chinese manufacturer SZ DJI Technology Co Ltd because of “cyber vulnerabilities” in the products.

An Aug. 2 Army memo posted online and verified by Reuters applies to all DJI drones and systems that use DJI components or software. It requires service members to “cease all use, uninstall all DJI applications, remove all batteries/storage media and secure equipment for follow-on direction.”

The memo says DJI drones are the most widely used by the Army among off-the-shelf equipment of that type.

DJI said in a statement that it was “surprised and disappointed” at the Army’s “unprompted restriction on DJI drones as we were not consulted during their decision.”

The privately held company said it would contact the Army to determine what it means by “cyber vulnerabilities” and was willing to work with the Pentagon to address concerns.

Analysts at Goldman Sachs and Oppenheimer estimated in 2016 that DJI had about 70 percent share of the global commercial and consumer drone market. Goldman analysts estimated the market, including military, to be worth more than $100 billion over the next five years.

The Army was considering issuing a statement about the policy, said Army spokesman Dov Schwartz.

The move appears to follow studies conducted by the Army Research Laboratory and the Navy that said there were risks and vulnerabilities in DJI products.

The memo cites a classified Army Research Laboratory report and a Navy memo, both from May as references for the order to cease use of DJI drones and related equipment.

Google Street View Cars Map Methane Leaks

Finding underground gas leaks is now as easy as finding a McDonalds, thanks to a combination of Google Street View cars, mobile methane detectors, some major computing power and a lot of ingenuity.

When a city’s underground gas lines leak, they waste fuel and release invisible plumes of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.  To find and measure leaks, Colorado State University biologist Joe von Fischer decided to create “methane maps,” to make it easier for utilities to identify the biggest leaks, and repair them.

“That’s where you get the greatest bang for the buck,” he pointed out, “the greatest pollution reductions per repair.”


Knowing that Google Maps start with Google Street View cars recording everything they drive by, along with their GPS locations, von Fischer’s team thought they would just add methane detectors to a Street View car. It turned out, it was not that simple.

“Squirrelly objects”

The world’s best methane detectors are accurate in an area the size of a teacup, but methane leaks can be wider than a street. Also, no one had ever measured the size of a methane leak from a moving car.

“If you’ve ever seen a plume of smoke, it’s sort of a lumpy, irregular object,” von Fischer said. “Methane plumes as they come out of the ground are the same, they’re lumpy squirrelly objects.”

The team had to develop a way to capture data about those plumes, one that would be accurate in the real world. They set up a test site in an abandoned airfield near campus, and brought in what looked like a large scuba tank filled with methane and some air hoses. Then they released carefully measured methane through the hose as von Fischer drove a specially equipped SUV past it, again and again.

They compared readings from the methane detectors in the SUV to readings from the tank.

“We spend a lot of time driving through the plumes to sort of calibrate the way that those cars see methane plumes that form as methane’s being emitted from the ground,” von Fischer explained.


With that understanding, the methane detectors hit the road.  

Turning data into maps

But the results created pages of data, “more than 30 million points,” said CSU computer scientist Johnson Kathkikiaran. He knew that all those data points alone would never help people find the biggest leaks on any map.  So he and his advisor, Sanmi Peracara, turned the data into pictures using tools from Google.


Their visual summaries made it easy for utility experts to analyze the methane maps, but von Fischer wanted anyone to be able to identify the worst leaks. His teammates at the Environmental Defense Fund met that challenge by incorporating the data into their online maps. Yellow dots indicate a small methane leak. Orange is a medium-size one.  Red means a big leak – as much pollution as one car driving 14,000 kilometers in a single day.

Von Fischer says that if a city focuses on these biggest leaks, repairing just 8 percent of them can reduce methane pollution by a third.

“That becomes a win-win type scenario,” he said, “because we’re not asking polluters to fix everything, but we’re looking for a reduction in overall emissions, and I think we can achieve that in a more cost effective way.”

After analyzing a methane map for the state of New Jersey, for example, the utility PSE&G has prioritized fixing its leakiest pipes there first, to speed the reduction of their overall pollution.


“To me that was a real victory, to be able to help the utility find which parts were leakiest, and to make a cost effective reduction in their overall emissions,” von Fishcher said.


Von Fischer envisions even more innovation ahead for mapping many kinds of pollution… to clean the air and save energy.

WannaCry Hero Arrested in US After Hacking Conference

U.S. security agents have arrested the British hacker known for discovering a “kill switch” that nullified a widespread ransomware attack earlier this year.

Marcus Hutchins, a 23-year-old malware researcher who uses the name Malware Tech, was detained by the FBI on Wednesday at the Las Vegas airport, where he was preparing to return to Britain after attending two hacking conferences in the city.

Court documents unsealed on Thursday indicated Hutchins was arrested on hacking charges unrelated to the ransomware attack known as WannaCry.

Reuters news agency reports Hutchins is accused of advertising, distributing and profiting from malware code known as Kronos that stole online banking credentials and credit card data between July 2014 and July 2015.

Hutchins has not made a public statement, but his mother told London’s Telegraph newspaper that she expected to be “rather busy tonight,” trying to find out where her son is being held.

Hutchins became an overnight hero in May after disabling the WannaCry worm, which infiltrated software in hundreds of thousands of computers in hospitals, schools, factories and shops in more than 150 countries. Parts of Britain’s National Health Service were infected, as well as the FedEx delivery company, German rail Deutsche Bahn and Spain’s Telefonica.

The attack first became evident May 12, 2017, and continued over the weekend. By May 15, Hutchins had discovered a so-called “kill switch” that disabled the worm.

The malware operators demanded the owners of the computers pay a fee of $300 to $600 to regain control of their computers.

Facebook to Step Up Fact-Checking in Fight Against Fake News

Facebook is to send more potential hoax articles to third-party fact checkers and show their findings below the original post, the world’s largest online social network said on Thursday as it tries to fight so-called fake news.

The company said in a statement on its website it will start using updated machine learning to detect possible hoaxes and send them to fact checkers, potentially showing fact-checking results under the original article.

Facebook has been criticized as being one of the main distribution points for so-called fake news, which many think influenced the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

The issue has also become a big political topic in Europe, with French voters deluged with false stories ahead of the presidential election in May and Germany backing a plan to fine social media networks if they fail to remove hateful postings promptly, ahead of elections there in September.

On Thursday Facebook said in a separate statement in German that a test of the new fact-checking feature was being launched in the United States, France, the Netherlands and Germany.

“In addition to seeing which stories are disputed by third-party fact checkers, people want more context to make informed decisions about what they read and share,” said Sara Su, Facebook news feed product manager, in a blog.

She added that Facebook would keep testing its “related article” feature and work on other changes to its news feed to cut down on false news.

HBO: Email System Likely Not Affected in Monday Hack Attack

In an email to HBO staff Wednesday, CEO Richard Plepler said the company’s email system likely was not affected in Monday’s hacking of the cable network.

“We do not believe that our email system as a whole has been compromised,” Plepler wrote, warning his staff to be wary of media speculation about the breach.

A script outline for the next episode of Game of Thrones, along with episodes of Ballers, Barry and Room 104, were published online Monday.

A company called IP Echelon reportedly submitted a request to Google on behalf of HBO to take down the leaked material.

HBO has not publicly commented on specifically what material has been hacked, but the request claimed that “thousands of Home Box Office [HBO] internal company documents” had been leaked in addition to the video content.

According to Variety, the initial leak was much larger than first reported, and personal information about one senior HBO executive, as well as access information to dozens of online accounts, have been published since Monday.

The hackers, who claimed to have accessed 1.5 terabytes of information,

said more is coming.

If the claim is true, it would make this hack even larger than the crippling cyberattack on Sony in 2014, which the FBI has blamed on the North Korean government. North Korea denied the allegation.

3-D View of Cells Could Mean New Ways to Fight Disease

What turns a cell into a brain cell, or a muscle cell, or a cancer cell for that matter? It is all about the DNA, and what genetic markers get turned on and off. Scientists at the Salk Institute have created a 3-D map of a cell that is giving them a unique view of how DNA works inside individual cells. Kevin Enochs reports.

In Hotels, China Filling Gaps in ‘Great Firewall’

In China, the plush international hotel lobby has been one of the few places to find gaps in the “Great Firewall,” a sophisticated system that denies online users access to blocked content such as foreign news portals and social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.

Now that small crack in the system may be closing, too, as Beijing tightens control over what it sees as its domestic cyberspace, mimicking real-world border controls and subject to the same laws as sovereign states.

Regulators have warned firms providing internet networks for hotels to stop offering, or helping to install, virtual private networks (VPNs) into hotel systems, tools that allow users to evade, at least partially, China’s internet censors.

“We received notices recently from relevant (government) departments, so we don’t make recommendations anymore,” said a marketing manager at Chinese hotel network provider AMTT Digital, who is not named because he is not authorized to talk to the media. He added this was linked to increased government scrutiny over the use of unauthorized VPNs.

Tunnel closing for some

VPNs create a tunnel through the Great Firewall allowing users to access blocked content outside China’s borders.

Companies in China routinely use VPNs for their businesses, which Beijing has said are not currently under threat.

A notice from the Waldorf Astoria in Beijing, circulated online, said the hotel had stopped offering VPN services.

A Waldorf official declined to comment, but several staff said the hotel no longer offered VPN services. “(VPNs) don’t accord with Chinese law,” one staffer told Reuters. “So we don’t have this anymore.”

Network provider: hotels decide

A leading internet network provider to hotels in China, AMTT Digital says it works with more than 30 global hotel chains including Marriott, InterContinental, Shangri-La , Wyndham, Starwood and Hilton.

Previously, the firm, which is backed by several funds including ones with government ties, would recommend “certified,” or government approved, VPNs, the manager said, which would then be incorporated into hotels’ internal networks.

“We would make recommendations of certified VPN providers and then incorporate them into the gateway so it runs smoothly,” he said. “But it is up to the hotel to decide if they want it.”

Dozens of VPNs closed

China’s Ministry of Information Industry and Technology (MIIT), which oversees regulation of VPNs, did not respond to requests for comment.

As it clamps down further on access to outlawed online content, Beijing has recently closed dozens of China-based VPNs, overseas providers have seen rolling attacks on their services, the WhatsApp encrypted messaging app was disrupted, and telecoms firms have been enlisted to extend China’s domestic internet control.

U.S. tech giant Apple Inc pulled dozens of VPN apps from its App Store in China at the weekend, drawing criticism from app providers who said it was bowing to pressure from Beijing’s cyber regulators.

“We’re in the middle of the storm right now with the government fiercely cracking down on VPNs,” said Lin Wei, a Beijing-based network security expert at Qihoo 360 Technology Co. “It’s really hard for ordinary people to find anywhere they can get on sites like Google.”

No Twitter, Facebook, YouTube

The “neutered” hotel VPNs, which staff and analysts said were often installed with tacit approval from authorities, already underline sensitivities of even ceding small amounts of control.

President Xi Jinping has overseen a marked sharpening of China’s cyberspace controls, including tough new data surveillance and censorship rules. This push is now ramping up ahead of an expected consolidation of power at the Communist Party Congress this autumn.

Guests at the InterContinental hotel on the east side of Beijing can search on Alphabet Inc’s Google search engine or check their email on Gmail, a business need for many travelers, but both otherwise widely blocked in China.

But they can’t access Facebook, Twitter or YouTube, which are banned by the government.

China also routinely blocks sensitive content online such as searches for the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests or, more recently, coverage of imprisoned Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, who died of cancer last month. These topics are searchable, though, in China using a VPN connection.

Some hotels haven’t blocked sites

Technical staff at five other hotels in Beijing, including Crowne Plaza, Hilton and Shangri-La, said guests could still access some blocked websites, though others were often still off-limits. Officials at the hotels declined to comment.

Other hotels Reuters spoke to said they did not offer VPN services because it did not accord with government rules.

“It’s a compromise the hotels are making,” said Lin, the network security expert. VPNs were not technically illegal, but were in a “grey area” and “for well-known reasons” authorities were cracking down on them.

Staff and guests at a number of hotels said some kind of VPN service was still on offer, either built into the hotel’s Wi-Fi network or on demand to guests who needed access.

Reuters visited the InterContinental and Crowne Plaza in Beijing, both owned by InterContinental Hotels Group, where Google and Gmail were unblocked. A worker at the Hilton Beijing hotel said the same sites should be accessible.

Officials at IHG and Hilton did not respond to requests for comment.

Some hotels went further.

A technician at the Pangu 7 Star Hotel in Beijing, owned by exiled tycoon Guo Wengui, said resident guests could get full internet access, including sites like Facebook and Twitter, through its VPN-enabled “Pangu global” Wi-Fi network.

“We have a special VPN to cross the Great Firewall,” the worker told Reuters. “But it’s a little bit slow.”

Reuters couldn’t reach Pangu officials for comment.

New Website Aims to Track Russian-backed Propaganda on Twitter

A website launched on Wednesday seeks to track Russian-supported propaganda and disinformation on Twitter, part of a growing non-governmental effort to diminish Moscow’s ability to meddle in future elections in the United States and Europe.

The “Hamilton 68” dashboard was built by researchers working with the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a bipartisan, transatlantic project set up last month to counter Russian disinformation campaigns.

The website, supported by the German Marshall Fund, displays a “near real-time” analysis of English-language tweets from a pool of 600 Twitter accounts that analysts identified as users that spread Russian propaganda.

The site was launched at a time when the Trump administration has shown reluctance to address Russian cyber attacks during ongoing investigations into whether his campaign colluded with Moscow during the 2016 election.

U.S. intelligence officials and lawmakers have warned that Russia will attempt to interfere in the 2018 congressional elections and the next presidential election in 2020.

Twitter accounts selected by the new website include those overtly involved in disinformation campaigns pushed by Russian propaganda outlets, such as RT and Sputnik, and users that share information promoting the Russian government.

It also includes automated bots and “cyborgs,” or users identified as partially automated and partially human-controlled, that helped amplify Russian propaganda.

“We’re not necessarily saying everyone in this list is getting a paycheck from the Kremlin,” said J.M. Berger, a fellow at the German Marshall Fund, adding that the group had “very high confidence” accounts selected were spreading Russian disinformation.

U.S. intelligence agencies said Russia conducted a wide-ranging influence operation to discredit Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and help Donald Trump, a Republican, win the 2016 election.

Russia has denied the allegations, and Trump has inconsistently embraced or challenged the assessment of his own intelligence agencies.

The research group is exploring ways to conduct similar analyses for other platforms, including Facebook, Alphabet’s YouTube and Reddit, but such projects are more difficult because less data is openly accessible, Berger said.

Twitter said it was not involved in the project. It had no other comment.

The name for the website is taken from Federalist Paper 68, which was authored by U.S. founding father Alexander Hamilton in 1788 as part of a series of essays anonymously published to defend the U.S. Constitution to the public.

Hamilton wrote of “protecting America’s electoral process from foreign meddling” in Federalist Paper 68, Alliance for Securing Democracy wrote in a blog post. “Today, we face foreign interference of a type Hamilton could have scarcely imagined.”

Amazon, in Sign of Growth, Holds Job Fair for US Warehouses

Amazon is holding a giant job fair Wednesday and plans to make thousands of job offers on the spot at nearly a dozen U.S. warehouses.

Though it’s common for Amazon to ramp up its shipping center staff in August to prepare for holiday shopping, the magnitude of the hiring spree underscores Amazon’s growth when traditional retailers are closing stores — and blaming Amazon for a shift to buying goods online.

Nearly 40,000 of the 50,000 packing, sorting and shipping jobs at Amazon will be full time. Most of them will count toward Amazon’s previously announced goal of adding 100,000 full-time workers by the middle of next year.

The bad news is that more people are likely to lose jobs in stores than get jobs in warehouses, said Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.

On the flip side, Amazon’s warehouse jobs provide “decent and competitive” wages and could help build skills.

“Interpersonal team work, problem solving, critical thinking, all that stuff goes on in these warehouses,” Carnevale said. “They’re serious entry-level jobs for a lot of young people, even those who are still making their way through school.”

At one warehouse — Amazon calls them “fulfillment centers” — in Fall River, Massachusetts, the company hopes to hire more than 200 people Wednesday, adding to a workforce of about 1,500. Employees there focus on sorting, labeling and shipping what the company calls “non-sortable” items — big products such as shovels, surfboards, grills, car seats — and lots of giant diaper boxes. Other warehouses are focused on smaller products.

And while Amazon has attracted attention for deploying robots at some of its warehouses, experts said it could take a while before automation begins to seriously bite into its growing labor force.

“When it comes to dexterity, machines aren’t really great at it,” said Jason Roberts, head of global technology and analytics for mass recruiter Randstad Sourceright, which is not working with Amazon on its jobs fair. “The picker-packer role is something humans do way better than machines right now. I don’t put it past Amazon to try to do that in the future, but it’s one of the hardest jobs” for machines.

Besides Fall River, the event is taking place at Amazon shipping sites in Baltimore; Chattanooga, Tennessee; Etna, Ohio; Hebron, Kentucky; Kenosha, Wisconsin; Kent, Washington; Robbinsville, New Jersey; Romeoville, Illinois and Whitestown, Indiana.

The company is advertising starting wages that range from $11.50 an hour at the Tennessee location to $13.75 an hour at the Washington site, which is near Amazon’s Seattle headquarters.

Amazon is also planning to hold events for part-time positions in Oklahoma City and Buffalo, New York.

Amazon is “insatiable when it comes to filling jobs at warehouses,” Roberts said. He said Amazon’s job offers could also help drive up wages at nearby employers, including grocery stores and fast-food joints.

“It has a relatively healthy effect in the surrounding area,” he said.

International Sting Hits Dark Web’s Promise of Anonymity

They are known as the “dark Web” — encrypted corners of the internet that promise anonymity to customers who want to buy or sell illegal drugs, weapons and other contraband.

But these futuristic marketplaces recently became much less anonymous after an international sting captured the addresses of thousands of users and shut down two of the biggest sites: first AlphaBay in early July, and then Hansa Market at the end of the month.

Now, many users are wary of joining the next secretive marketplace, and that’s exactly the point.

“Don’t be stupid and hop on the next big market,” one user wrote on the Reddit discussion forum where users openly trade tips on dark Web markets. “It will most likely be completely run by [law enforcement].”

U.S. and European law enforcement authorities say the closures of AlphaBay and Hansa Market were the largest dark Web criminal marketplace takedown in history.

To dark Web users, the message is clear, said Europol Director Robert Wainwright: “You’re not as safe, as anonymous, as you think you are.”

The takedown

AlphaBay and Hansa were two of the top three criminal markets on the dark Web, sites that sprang up in the wake of drug market Silk Road’s takedown in 2013.

Hansa’s users numbered in the five digits; AlphaBay had more than 200,000 customers and 40,000 vendors, making it 10 times as large as Silk Road. It generated nearly $1 billion in sales.

The operation to shutter AlphaBay and Hansa grew out of several independent investigations, according to U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

The investigation into AlphaBay appears to have started as early as 2015 when undercover agents posing as customers started making small purchases on the site. In one case, an agent bought an ATM skimming device; in another, an undercover officer purchased a small quantity of drugs.

In December 2016, investigators got a break when they came across a priceless clue: the site operator’s personal email address. In the days after AlphaBay’s launch in December 2014, investigators learned, the administrator included his personal email address — — in AlphaBay’s “welcome email” to new users singing up for the site’s discussion forum.

It was the kind of gaffe that had exposed Silk Road’s founder and would lead to the downfall of AlphaBay’s creator.

Traced to website designer

The email address was traced to Alexandre Cazes, a French-speaking Canadian website designer from Quebec. Born in 1991, Cazes had posted the email address on a tech forum as far back as 2008 and later used it to create PayPal and LinkedIn accounts.

Meanwhile, Europol provided Dutch law enforcement authorities with a lead on Hansa Market that would allow them to identify the site’s administrators and locate its servers in Lithuania, Germany and the Netherlands.

“When we knew the FBI was working on AlphaBay, we thought, ‘What’s better than if they come to us?’ ” Petra Haandrikman, leader of the Dutch investigative team that brought down Hansa, told cybersecurity blogger Brian Krebs.

Investigators then coordinated the timing of the two sites’ takedown. A plan was hatched: The Dutch would move in first, followed by the Americans.

On June 20, as German police arrested Hansa’s two German administrators in Germany, Dutch law enforcement authorities moved to seize control of the site. The takeover was seamless.

On July 4, the FBI took AlphaBay offline but made it look like an outage. Unaware that the FBI was on his tail, Cazes swung into action to bring the site back online.

When Thai police, assisted by FBI and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents, raided Cazes’ house in Bangkok the next day, they found he’d contacted AlphaBay’s server host to request a reboot and was logged into its forum to answer comments by AlphaBay users.

On his unlocked, unencrypted laptop, agents found passwords for AlphaBay, its servers and other online identities associated with the site.

As rumors swirled that AlphaBay operators had absconded in what is known as an “exit scam,” authorities sought to quell the talk: AlphaBay was down for maintenance and would be up again soon, they posted on Reddit on July 6.  

In the days that followed, the number of users on Hansa jumped 800 percent as AlphaBay users streamed in, according to Wainwright of Europol. To cope with the flood of orders, authorities temporarily closed registration to new users.

“There was a lot of frustration from ex-AlphaBay users that weren’t allowed to register on the site,” Haandrikman said.

Then on July 20, authorities pulled the plug. The Dutch shut down Hansa, putting up a banner saying the site had been “seized and controlled” since June 20. A nearly identical FBI banner went up on AlphaBay.

U.S. and European authorities went public with the news. Attorney General Jeff Sessions called AlphaBay’s seizure “the largest dark Web criminal market takedown in history.” Wainwright of Europol said the criminal dark Web had taken “a serious hit” and that there were “more of these operations to come.”

Intelligence yield

The intelligence yielded by the Hansa operation “has given us a new insight into the criminal activity of the darknet, including many of its leading figures,” Wainwright said.

Dutch authorities said that 10,000 foreign addresses of Hansa Market buyers had been identified and shared with Europol. Over 500 deliveries were stopped in the Netherlands alone. Europol sent “intelligence packages” on drug shipments to law enforcement agencies in 37 countries. Wainwright said the identified users would be subject to follow-up investigation by Europol and partner agencies.

Joseph Campbell, a former assistant FBI director, said the intelligence — users’ names and phone numbers, email and IP addresses, banking and wire transfer information — is invaluable to law enforcement authorities looking to dismantle criminal networks on the internet.

“They can utilize that to identify criminals, identify victims, identify sources of the contraband, sources of the funding, transiting of the currency, look for money laundering activities, where the funds coming from, are they going to offshore banks,” said Campbell, who is now a director at Navigant Consulting.

The next AlphaBay

Meanwhile, business is down on the dark web as shellshocked “AlphaBay refugees” lie low, waiting for the dust to settle. But sooner or later, they’ll find a new home.  

“Just like a massive gang takedown in a city, some other group is going to come in, unless preventive activities take place, and fill that void even more,” Campbell said.

Still, he added, the operation is going to be “deterrent to some individuals.”

Law enforcement has long been criticized for playing catch up with criminals. Acting FBI Director Andy McCabe acknowledged the criticism but said that was “the nature of criminal work.”

“It never goes away,” McCabe said at a July 20 news conference. “You have to constantly keep at it. And you’ve got to use every tool in your toolbox. And that’s exactly what we’ll do.”

For the FBI, cybercrime represents “a high-priority threat,” Campbell said.

“So they’re going to continue to target their resources against this threat and work to identify where activities are taking place that are that are victimizing people,” he said.

Apple’s Next Big Leap Might Be Into Augmented Reality

Apple’s iPhone may be ready for its next big act — as a springboard into “augmented reality,” a technology that projects life-like images into real-world settings viewed through a screen.


If you’ve heard about AR at all, it’s most likely because you’ve encountered “Pokemon Go,” in which players wander around neighborhoods trying to capture monsters only they can see on their phones. AR is also making its way into education and some industrial applications, such as product assembly and warehouse inventory management.


Now Apple is hoping to transform the technology from a geeky sideshow into a mass-market phenomenon. It’s embedding AR-ready technology into its iPhones later this year, potentially setting the stage for a rush of new apps that blur the line between reality and digital representation in new and imaginative ways.


“This is one of those huge things that we’ll look back at and marvel on the start of it,” Apple CEO Tim Cook told analysts during a Tuesday conference call. Many analysts agree. “This is the most important platform that Apple has created since the app store in 2008,” said Jan Dawson of Jackdaw Research.


There’s just one catch: No one can yet point to a killer app for AR, at least beyond the year-old (and fading) fad of “Pokemon Go.” Instead, analysts argue more generally that AR creates enormous potential for new games, home-remodeling apps that let you visualize new furnishings and decor in an existing room, education, health care and more.


For the moment, though, we’re basically stuck with demos created by developers, including a “Star Wars”-like droid rolling past a dog that doesn’t realize it’s there; a digital replica of Houston on a table ; and a virtual tour of Vincent Van Gogh’s bedroom.


Augmenting the iPhone


At Apple, the introduction of AR gets underway in September with the release of iOS 11, the next version of the operating system that powers hundreds of millions of iPhones and iPads around the world


Tucked away in that release is an AR toolkit intended to help software developers create new AR apps.


Those apps, however, won’t work on just any Apple device — only the iPhone 6S and later models, including the hotly anticipated next-generation iPhone that Apple will release this fall. The 2017 iPad and iPad Pro will run AR apps as well.


Apple isn’t the only company betting big on AR. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg talked up the technology at a company presentation in April, calling it a “really important technology that changes how we use our phones.” Apple rivals such as Google and Microsoft are also starting to deploy AR systems .


Waiting for Apple’s Next Big Thing


Apple has been looking for something to lessen its dependence on the iPhone since the 2011 death of its co-founder CEO Steve Jobs, the driving force behind the company’s innovation factory.


Cook thought he had come up with a revolutionary product when Apple began selling its smartwatch in 2015, but the Apple Watch remains a niche product.


For now, the iPhone remains Apple’s dominant product, accounting for 55 percent of Apple’s $45.4 billion in revenue during the three months ended in June. The total revenue represented a 7 percent increase from the same time last year. Apple earned $8.7 billion, up 12 percent from last year.


An AR Explosion … Maybe


Tim Merel, managing director of technology consulting firm Digi-Capital, believes Apple’s entry into AR will catalyze the field. His firm expects AR to mushroom into an $83 billion market by 2021, up from $1.2 billion last year.


That estimate assumes that Apple and its rivals will expand beyond AR software to high-tech glasses and other devices, such as Microsoft’s HoloLens headset.

For now, though, nothing appears better suited for interacting with AR than the smartphone. Google already makes AR software called Tango that debuted on one Lenovo smartphone last year and will be part of another high-end device from Asus this month.


But it will be years before Tango phones are as widely used as iPhones, or for that matter, iPads. Most of those devices are expected to become AR-ready when the free iOS 11 update hits next month.


Nearly 90 percent of Apple devices powered by iOS typically install the new software version when it comes out. Assuming that pattern holds true this fall, that will bring AR to about 300 million Apple devices that are already in people’s hands.


Beyond the iPhone


If the new software wins over more AR fans as Apple hopes, analysts figure that Apple will begin building AR-specific devices, too.


One obvious possibility might be some kind of AR glasses tethered to the iPhone, which would allow people to observe digital reality without having to look “through” a phone. Once technology allows, a standalone headset could render the iPhone unnecessary, at least for many applications.


Such a device could ultimately supplant the iPhone, although that isn’t likely to happen for five to 10 years, even by the most optimistic estimates.

US Company Holds ‘Party’ to Microchip Workers

Dozens of employees at a Wisconsin technology business were implanted with microchips Tuesday at the company’s headquarters.

Three Square Market, also known as 32M, said 41 of its 85 employees agreed to be voluntarily microchipped during a “chip party.” The chip, about the size of a grain of rice, was implanted into each person’s hand using a syringe.

Company officials said the implants were for convenience. The radio frequency identification chip provides a way for staffers to open doors, log into computers, unlock things and and perform other actions without using company badges or corporate log-ons.

The chip is not a tracker, nor does it have Global Positioning System capability in it, so the boss can’t track worker movements, company officials said.

Three Square Market said it was the first company in the United States to offer staff the technology similar to that used in contactless credit cards and in  chips used to identify pets.

The implants, made by Sweden’s BioHax International, are part of a long-term test aimed to see whether the radio frequency identification chips could have broader commercial applications.