US, China and Cyberattacks, the Tool of the 21st Century

China was behind one of the biggest hacks of all time, quietly stealing email and data from organizations, according to the U.S. and other nations’ governments. Experts say China-orchestrated attacks on strategic targets have increased in recent years. Michelle Quinn reports.

Producer: Michelle Quinn. Camera: Michael Burke.

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Apple Sues Israeli Spyware Company NSO Group 

Apple says it is suing Israeli NSO Group, maker of the controversial Pegasus spyware. 

Apple will be the second company to sue NSO after Facebook, now Meta, sued over similar concerns that Pegasus was targeting WhatsApp users. Meta owns WhatsApp. The case is still working its way through the courts. 

Apple says the spyware specifically targeted its users. It also wants to prevent NSO from using any Apple product or service, which would be a massive blow to the company that sells governments the ability to hack iPhones and Android phones in order to gain full access. 

Apple says it has created a software patch to protect devices from Pegasus. 

The Cupertino, California-based company says it is seeking undisclosed damages it says it incurred because of NSO. It says it would donate any award money to organizations that investigate and expose spyware.

One such company, Citizen Lab, was central in uncovering how Pegasus worked. 

“This is Apple saying: If you do this, if you weaponize our software against innocent users, researchers, dissidents, activists or journalists, Apple will give you no quarter,” Ivan Krstic, head of Apple security engineering and architecture, said in an interview Monday with the New York Times. 

Earlier this month, the U.S. put NSO along with three other software companies on a blacklist that places severe restrictions on their ability to do business in the U.S. 

It said the companies “developed and supplied spyware to foreign governments” and that the spyware was used “to maliciously target government officials, journalists, businesspeople, activists, academics and embassy workers.” 

NSO did not immediately comment on the lawsuit, but has previously said it takes precautions to prevent the abuse of its products. 

The pressure against NSO appears to be working, as many news outlets reported the company was at risk of defaulting on its loans. 

Some information in this report comes from Reuters. 

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Burkina Faso Internet Shutdown Continues into Fourth Day

The shutdown of internet access via mobile phone networks that began Saturday dragged on for a fourth day Tuesday. The government said in a statement the shutdown is in the interest of national defense and public security and will last until around 10 p.m. tonight.

VOA talked to some Burkinabes on the streets of Ouagadougou to ask how the shutdown was affecting them and what they thought of the government’s decision.

Alexi Sawadogo, a physician, spoke outside a bank on one of the city’s busy boulevards. He said he was there to check his account balance as the shutdown meant he could no longer do so online. 

“It disconnects us from our friends who are outside the country, with whom we communicate regularly,” he says. He notes that he understands that it is because of the French convoy that was blockaded in the north, but says insecurity is not a valid reason and that the government needs to review its strategy. 

The shutdown has come in the wake of protests in recent days that have blocked a French military supply convoy that is attempting to travel from Ivory Coast to Niger. Protesters say they want an end to French military intervention in the regional war against Islamist militants. 

There have also been protests against the government’s handling of security, after a terrorist group believed to be associated with al-Qai da killed more than 50 military police in an assault on a base in northern Burkina Faso on November 14th. 

Ali Dayorgo, a university student, said the shutdown has affected his ability to work and learn the latest news.

He says he doesn’t understand why the shutdown is happening, but he hears the voice of the Burkinabe youth. “I feel the anger of the youth,” he expressed, adding that even if he doesn’t join protests against insecurity, he supports them.

A funeral for some of the victims of the attack is taking place in Ouagadougou today. 

Drabo Mahamadou is the national executive secretary of the “Save Burkina Faso Movement,” one of the protest groups that is calling for President Roch Kabore to resign. He said they have called on the population to attend Tuesday’s funeral and to attend a protest on Saturday.

He says, because the government is insensitive to pain, we are calling on the population to come out en masse on the 27th. We want [protesters] to prove that this government is not helping Burkina Faso. It is the government that is causing harm to the Burkinabé people.

A government spokesperson could not be reached for comment.

Eloise Bertrand is a research fellow at the University of Portsmouth who focuses on Burkina Faso. She thinks the restrictions on the internet are unwise; pointing out that “this shutdown may well backfire against the government. We can see that civil society groups and stakeholders who were not really involved in protests against the French convoy are annoyed and angered by this internet shutdown.”

Reports suggest the French military convoy is now waiting in the town of Zinaire, about 30 kilometers north of the capital. Protests are also said to be taking place in the town.

With the demonstrations continuing, it remains to be seen if the government will lift the internet shutdown tonight. Further protests are scheduled for Saturday.

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Robot Waiter Eases Labor Shortages in Australia’s Hospitality Industry

A Sydney restaurant is using a Chinese-made, multi-lingual hospitality robot to address chronic staff shortages as Australia’s economy begins to recover from COVID-19 lockdowns and border closures. 

The robot waiter is programmed to know the layout of the tables and delivers food from the kitchen. It is also multi-lingual, programmed to communicate in English and Mandarin. The so-called BellaBot is built by the Chinese firm PuduTech. 

Each machine costs about $17,000. They can be leased for $34 per day for each device, or the equivalent of two hours’ wages for restaurant staff. The devices are in use in other Australian restaurants and imports into Australia appear to be unaffected by recent trade tensions between the two countries. 

Liarne Schai, the co-owner of the Matterhorn Restaurant in Sydney, is delighted with her new mechanical staff member. 

“Ah, love the robot. Love the robot, she makes my life a lot easier. It is like a tower that has got four trays. It will carry eight of our dinner plates in one go. She is geo-mapped to the floor (customer names, location of tables, etc.) The robot knows where all our tables are,” Schai said.  

Australia’s hospitality workforce has traditionally relied on international students. They have, however, been restricted from entering after Australia closed its borders to most foreign nationals in March 2020 in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus.  

Labor shortages are affecting not only hospitality in Australia, but a range of industries from construction to information technology.  

Liarne Schai says she has tried for months without success to recruit workers. 

“It is the biggest issue we have at the moment. We have been running ads for chefs, for waiters, for kitchen hands for six months and we have had zero applicants. We are offering above award wages, we are offering bonuses, we are offering everything you can think of to attract appropriate staff and I am not even getting inappropriate staff, or untrained staff. I am just getting nobody.” 

Labor shortages should ease when Australia reopens its borders to foreign nationals, but analysts expect many vacancies will remain unfilled.  

Employer groups have demanded that Australia increase its intake of migrant workers. 

Australia’s official unemployment rate stands at 5.2%.   

But with more than 700,000 Australians without a job, there are calls for the government to boost domestic training programs and wages. 

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Australian Mining Magnate to Help Publishers Strike Content Deal With Google, Facebook

Australian mining billionaire Andrew Forrest’s philanthropic organization will help 18 small news publishers in the country to negotiate collectively with Google and Facebook to secure licensing deals for the supply of news content.

Forrest’s Minderoo Foundation on Monday said it would submit an application with the country’s competition regulator, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), allowing the publishers to bargain without breaching competition laws.

Forrest, Australia’s richest man, is the chairman and the largest shareholder of iron ore miner Fortescue Metals Group. He has a net worth of around A$27.2 billion ($19.7 billion), according to the Australian Financial Review.

Facebook and Alphabet Inc’s Google have been required since March to negotiate with Australian media outlets for content that drives traffic and advertising to their websites. If they don’t, the government may take over the negotiation.

Both companies have since struck licensing deals with most of Australia’s main media companies, but they have not entered into agreements with many small firms. The federal government is scheduled to begin a review of the law’s effectiveness in March.

Frontier Technology, an initiative of Minderoo, said it would assist the publishers.

“Small Australian publishers who produce public interest journalism for their communities should be given the same opportunity as large publishers to negotiate for use of their content for the public benefit,” Emma McDonald, Frontier Technology’s director of policy, said in a statement.

Google and Facebook did not immediately respond to requests seeking comment.

The 18 small publishers include online publications that attract multicultural audiences and focus on issues at a local or regional level, McDonald said.

The move comes after ACCC late last month allowed a body representing 261 radio stations to negotiate a content deal.

News organizations, which have been losing advertising revenue to online aggregators, have complained for years about the big technology companies using content in search results or other features without payment.

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After Promise, Musk Sells $1.1 Billion in Tesla Shares to Pay Taxes

After making a promise on Twitter, Tesla CEO Elon Musk has sold about 900,000 shares of the electric car maker’s stock, netting over $1.1 billion that will go toward paying tax obligations for stock options. 

The sales, disclosed in two regulatory filings late Wednesday, will cover tax obligations for stock options granted to Musk in September. He exercised options to buy just over 2.1 million shares for $6.24 each. The company’s stock closed Wednesday at $1,067.95 per share.  

The transactions were “automatically effected” as part of a trading plan adopted on Sept. 14 to sell options that expire next year, according to forms filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. That was nearly two months before he floated the idea of the sale on Twitter. 

After the transactions, Musk still owns about 170 million Tesla shares. 

Musk was Tesla’s largest shareholder as of June, owning about 17% of the company, according to data provider FactSet. He’s the wealthiest person in the world, according to Forbes, with a net worth of around $282 billion, most of it in Tesla stock. 

Last weekend, Musk said he would sell 10% of his holdings in the company, worth more than $20 billion, based on the results of a poll he conducted on Twitter. The sale tweets caused a sell off of the stock Monday and Tuesday, but it recovered some on Wednesday. The shares were up 2.6% to $1,096 in extended trading Wednesday, and they have risen more than 50% this year. 

Wedbush Analyst Daniel Ives said it appears Musk will start selling shares as the year ends. “The question will be for investors if he sells his full 10% ownership stake over the coming months or is it done piece-by-piece during 2022,” Ives wrote in a note to investors. 

Ives calculated that Musk has about $10 billion in taxes coming due on stock options that vest next summer. 

The sometimes abrasive and unpredictable Musk said he proposed selling the stock as some Democrats have been pushing for billionaires to pay taxes when the price of the stocks they hold goes up, even if they don’t sell any shares. However, the wording on unrealized gains, also called a “billionaires tax,” was removed from President Joe Biden’s budget, which is still being negotiated.  

“Much is made lately of unrealized gains being a means of tax avoidance, so I propose selling 10% of my Tesla stock,” he tweeted Saturday afternoon. “Do you support this?” 

Tesla does not pay Musk a cash salary, but has received huge stock options. “I only have stock, thus the only way for me to pay taxes personally is to sell stock,” Musk tweeted. 

Tesla Inc. is based in Palo Alto, California, although Musk has announced it will move its headquarters to Texas. 

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Pfizer Asks US Regulators to Expand Booster Shot of COVID-19 Vaccine to All Adult Americans

U.S.-based drugmaker Pfizer is seeking to make a booster shot of its COVID-19 vaccine available to all adult Americans 18 years of age and older.

Pfizer filed the request Tuesday with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, citing a new clinical trial involving 10,000 volunteers who received a third injection of the two-dose vaccine, which it developed in collaboration with German-based BioNTech. According to Pfizer, the preliminary results show the third shot boosted a person’s protection against the virus to about 95%.

The request comes just weeks after the FDA and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention authorized a third shot of the Pfizer vaccine for Americans 65 and older, adults at a high risk of severe illness, plus front-line workers such as teachers, health care workers and others whose jobs place them at greater risk of contracting COVID-19. The Pfizer booster shot is available for people regardless of whether they initially received the two-shot Moderna vaccine or the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which offers less protection than either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines.

Astra-Zeneca’s separate unit

British-Swedish drugmaker Astra-Zeneca announced Tuesday that it is creating a separate unit entirely devoted to developing and manufacturing COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. The company’s two-shot vaccine, developed in collaboration with the University of Oxford, had a troubled rollout due to manufacturing delays and confirmation of a link between the vaccine and rare, possibly fatal blood clots, prompting some governments to limit its use among certain age groups.

But the AstraZeneca vaccine is cheaper and easier to use because it does not need to be stored at ultra-cold temperatures than either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines. The vaccine makes up the bulk of the vaccine supply of COVAX, the international vaccine sharing mechanism for the world’s poorest nations supported by the United Nations and the health organizations Gavi and CEPI.

Meanwhile, the current surge of new COVID-19 infections in Germany prompted Dr. Christian Drosten, the head of virology at Berlin’s Charite Hospital, to issue a warning Wednesday that 100,000 people could die if the vaccination rate does not pick up quickly, and that Germany faces “a very tough winter with new shutdown measures.”

Drosten’s warning coincided with an announcement by the country’s Robert Koch Institute of 39,676 new COVID-19 infections across Germany, a new one-day record. Charite Hospital announced Tuesday that it is postponing all non-critical operations due to the growing rate of new COVID-19 patients.

In a related matter, the country’s vaccine advisory committee Wednesday recommended that people 30 years of age and under be vaccinated only with the Pfizer vaccine. The committee cited a higher risk of younger people developing a rare side effect of myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart, from the Moderna vaccine than the Pfizer version.

NFL vaccination

In the U.S. sports world, quarterback Aaron Rodgers of the National Football League’s Green Bay Packers franchise acknowledged “misleading” the public about his vaccination status shortly before the start of the current season.

Rodgers has been under intense criticism since last week’s revelation that he had tested positive for COVID-19, contradicting his earlier claims back in August that he had been “immunized.” Rodgers told radio sports host Pat McAfee after his diagnosis that he had not taken any of the approved vaccines because of concerns about adverse side effects, and instead relied on homeopathic treatments as an alternative.

In a follow-up interview with McAfee Tuesday, Rodgers said he took “full responsibility” for his comments back in August, but also said that he continued to stand by his concerns about the vaccines. He also said he expects to be cleared to rejoin the Packers in time for Sunday’s game against the Seattle Seahawks.

The NFL has fined Rodgers and teammate Allen Lazard $14,650 each for violating the league’s COVID-19 protocols for unvaccinated players when they attended a Halloween party despite their status. The Packers were also fined $300,000 for failing to discipline the players and for not reporting the violations to NFL officials.

Some information for this report came from the Associated Press and Reuters.

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Countries Agree to Create Green Shipping Lanes in Pursuit of Zero Carbon

A coalition of 19 countries including Britain and the United States on Wednesday agreed to create zero emissions shipping trade routes between ports to speed up the decarbonization of the global maritime industry, officials involved said. 

Shipping, which transports about 90% of world trade, accounts for nearly 3% of the world’s CO2 emissions.

U.N. shipping agency the International Maritime Organization (IMO) has said it aims to reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions from ships by 50% from 2008 levels by 2050. The goal is not aligned with the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change and the sector is under pressure to be more ambitious.

The signatory countries involved in the ‘Clydebank Declaration’, which was launched at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, agreed to support the establishment of at least six green corridors by 2025, which will require developing supplies of zero emissions fuels, the infrastructure required for decarbonization and regulatory frameworks.

“It is our aspiration to see many more corridors in operation by 2030,” their mission statement said.

Britain’s maritime minister Robert Courts said countries alone would not be able to decarbonize shipping routes without the commitment of private and non-governmental sectors.

“The UK and indeed many of the countries, companies and NGOs here today believe zero emissions international shipping is possible by 2050,” Courts said at the launch.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said the declaration was “a big step forward for green shipping corridors and collective action”.

Buttigieg added that the United States was “pressing for the IMO to adopt a goal of zero emissions for international shipping by 2050”.

The IMO’s Secretary General Kitack Lim said on Saturday “we must upgrade our ambition, keeping up with the latest developments in the global community”.

Industry needs regulatory help

Jan Dieleman, president of ocean transportation with agri business giant Cargill, one of the world’s biggest ship charterers, said “the real challenge is to turn any statements (at COP26) into something meaningful”.

“The majority of the industry has accepted we need to decarbonize,” he told Reuters.

“Industry leadership needs to be followed up with global regulation and policies to ensure industry-wide transformation. We will not succeed without global regulation.”

Christian Ingerslev, chief executive of Maersk Tankers, which has over 210 oil products tankers under commercial management, said it had spent over $30 million over the last three years to bring their carbon emissions down through digital solutions.

“We need governments to not only back the regulatory push but also to help create the zero emissions fuels at scale,” he said.

“The only way this is going to work is to set a market-based measure through a carbon tax.”

Other signatory countries are Australia, Belgium, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, Denmark, Fiji, Finland, France, Germany, Republic of Ireland, Japan, Marshall Islands, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway and Sweden.

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‘Build Back Better World’ to Launch 50 Projects, White House Says

White House officials are on a development-minded world tour and have been scouting several corners of the globe to identify about 50 projects that focus on topics such as climate, health, digital technology and gender equality. 

Daleep Singh, the deputy national security adviser for international economics, recently wrapped up a tour of West Africa, visiting Ghana and Senegal as part of President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better World initiative, known as B3W. 

Biden unveiled the plan during the June G-7 summit, with the goal of creating “a values-driven, high-standard and transparent infrastructure partnership” to help finance projects in developing countries.

 

“This was the first B3W listening session in Africa, demonstrating President Biden’s commitment to strengthening our ties in the region and to narrowing the global gaps in physical, digital, and human infrastructure that have been widened by the COVID-19 pandemic,” National Security Council spokesperson Emily Horne said in a statement this week. 

These listening sessions in Africa followed a similar trip Singh led in October, when he took an interagency delegation to Colombia, Ecuador and Panama. 

He will turn next to Southeast Asia, a senior administration official said. So far, the official said, the delegation has identified some 50 projects in those five countries alone. The official did not give a cost estimate but described some of the projects.

“For example, in climate, we had quite a few discussions about how we could help finance renewable energy projects in solar and hydro and wind,” the senior administration official said. “Also projects that could help reduce the rate of deforestation, which creates a carbon sink and helps these countries meet their emission reduction targets.”

Many analysts see this initiative as a counter to Beijing’s multitrillion-dollar Belt and Road initiative. That international development program has financed infrastructure projects in Asia, Africa and Latin America and has made inroads even in Europe. 

 

‘Democracies’ only 

And whereas China takes a firm stance against weighing in on recipient nation politics — making Chinese investments especially appealing for countries with poor human rights records and high levels of corruption — Biden’s initiative draws a different line. 

The president “asked us to build this product with our democratic values front and center,” the administration official said. “So transparency, collaboration with the host countries, inclusivity, so that the benefits are spread across all segments, and also sustainability, with no strings attached.”

But critics say this may be a weakness. 

“It will be difficult to create a sentiment in international markets that the BBBW is a viable, commercially credible alternative approach to financially supporting projects if it is viewed that only nations which the USG (U.S. government) defines as ‘democratic’ will be eligible to participate in it,” said Marc Mealy, senior vice president of policy at the US-ASEAN Business Council. 

Dalibor Rohac, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, also said that showing preference to democracies could raise problems. 

“The emphasis on democracy might be good and valuable in its own right,” he told VOA. “But it might not be the best framing if you are trying to build relationships and build some sort of broader coalitions to counter China’s influence in say, Southeast Asia, where, by necessity, you need to sort of work with countries that fall short of Western liberal democratic standards.”

It’s all in the details 

But, analysts say, what mostly hurts the marketing of the American push is its lack of detail. 

When asked if he had any criticisms of the plan, Mealy simply replied: “Can’t criticize a plan which has not been made public.”

“It’s one thing to say, ‘Oh, the world needs $40 trillion in infrastructure, and we’re going to help out,’ ” Rohac said. “Like how that maps exactly into specific funding decisions, specific loan decisions, you know, which regions and which countries, which sectors — it’s all a bit vague. And most importantly, is this just a gimmick or are there going to be real resources put behind it by countries?” 

A formal B3W launch event is planned for early next year and will include details about the projects.

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Facebook Plans to Remove Thousands of Sensitive Ad-Targeting Options

Facebook Inc. said on Tuesday it plans to remove detailed ad-targeting options that refer to “sensitive” topics, such as ads based on interactions with content around race, health, religious practices, political beliefs or sexual orientation. 

The company, which recently changed its name to Meta and which makes the vast majority of its revenue through digital advertising, has been under intense scrutiny over its ad-targeting abilities and rules in recent years. 

In a blog post, Facebook gave examples of targeting categories that would no longer be allowed on its platforms, such as “Lung cancer awareness,” “World Diabetes Day,” “LGBT culture,” “Jewish holidays” or political beliefs and social issues. It said the change would take place starting Jan. 19, 2022. 

The company has been hit with criticisms around its micro-targeting capabilities, including over abuses such as advertisers discriminating against or targeting vulnerable groups. In 2019, it agreed to make changes to its ads platform as part of a settlement over housing discrimination issues. 

“We’ve heard concerns from experts that targeting options like these could be used in ways that lead to negative experiences for people in underrepresented groups,” Graham Mudd, the company’s vice president of product marketing for ads, said in the post. 

Its tailored ad abilities are used by wide-ranging advertisers, including political campaigns and social issue groups, as well as businesses. 

“The decision to remove these Detailed Targeting options was not easy, and we know this change may negatively impact some businesses and organizations,” Mudd said in the post, adding that some advertising partners were concerned they would not be able to use these ads to generate positive social change. 

Advertisers on Facebook’s platforms can still target audiences by location, use their own customer lists, reach custom audiences who have engaged with their content and send ads to people with similar characteristics to those users. 

The move marks a key shift for the company’s approach to social and political advertising, though it is not expected to have major financial implications. CEO Mark Zuckerberg estimated in 2019, for example, that politicians’ ads would make up less than 0.5% of Facebook’s 2020 revenue. 

The issue of political advertising on social media platforms, including whether the content of politicians’ ads should be fact-checked, provoked much debate among the public, lawmakers and companies around the U.S. presidential election. 

Twitter in 2019 banned political ads altogether, but Facebook had previously said it would not limit how political advertisers reached potential voters. 

Facebook, which now allows users to opt to see fewer ads related to topics like politics and alcohol, said on Tuesday it would early next year give people more controls over the ads they see, including ones about gambling and weight loss. 

 

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SpaceX Returns 4 Astronauts to Earth, Ending 200-Day Flight

Four astronauts returned to Earth on Monday, riding home with SpaceX to end a 200-day space station mission that began last spring.

Their capsule streaked through the late night sky like a dazzling meteor before parachuting into the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Pensacola, Florida. Recovery boats quickly moved in with spotlights.

“On behalf of SpaceX, welcome home to Planet Earth,” SpaceX Mission Control radioed from Southern California. Within an hour, all four astronauts were out of the capsule, exchanging fist bumps with the team on the recovery ship.

Their homecoming — coming just eight hours after leaving the International Space Station — paved the way for SpaceX’s launch of their four replacements as early as Wednesday night.

The newcomers were scheduled to launch first, but NASA switched the order because of bad weather and an astronaut’s undisclosed medical condition. The welcoming duties will now fall to the lone American and two Russians left behind at the space station.

Before Monday afternoon’s undocking, German astronaut Matthias Maurer, who’s waiting to launch at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, tweeted it was a shame the two crews wouldn’t overlap at the space station but “we trust you’ll leave everything nice and tidy.” His will be SpaceX’s fourth crew flight for NASA in just 1 1/2 years.

NASA astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur, Japan’s Akihiko Hoshide and France’s Thomas Pesquet should have been back Monday morning, but high wind in the recovery zone delayed their return.

“One more night with this magical view. Who could complain? I’ll miss our spaceship!” Pesquet tweeted Sunday alongside a brief video showing the space station illuminated against the blackness of space and the twinkling city lights on the nighttime side of Earth.

From the space station, NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei — midway through a one-year flight — bid farewell to each of his departing friends, telling McArthur “I’ll miss hearing your laughter in adjacent modules.”

Before leaving the neighborhood, the four took a spin around the space station, taking pictures. This was a first for SpaceX; NASA’s shuttles used to do it all the time before their retirement a decade ago. The last Russian capsule fly-around was three years ago. 

It wasn’t the most comfortable ride back. The toilet in their capsule was broken, and so the astronauts needed to rely on diapers for the eight-hour trip home. They shrugged it off late last week as just one more challenge in their mission.

The first issue arose shortly after their April liftoff; Mission Control warned a piece of space junk was threatening to collide with their capsule. It turned out to be a false alarm. Then in July, thrusters on a newly arrived Russian lab inadvertently fired and sent the station into a spin. The four astronauts took shelter in their docked SpaceX capsule, ready to make a hasty departure if necessary.

Among the upbeat milestones: four spacewalks to enhance the station’s solar power, a movie-making visit by a Russian film crew and the first-ever space harvest of chile peppers.

The next crew will also spend six months up there, welcoming back-to-back groups of tourists. A Japanese tycoon and his personal assistant will get a lift from the Russian Space Agency in December, followed by three businessmen arriving via SpaceX in February. SpaceX’s first privately chartered flight, in September, bypassed the space station.

NASA’s Kathy Lueders, head of space operations, said engineers would evaluate the lagging inflation of one of the four main parachutes, something seen in testing when the lines bunch together. Overall, though, “the return looked spotless.” 

“I can’t tell you how excited I am to see all four of the crew members back on Earth,” she added, “and I’m looking forward to launching another set of four this week.”

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Australia Plans Electric Car Boost With 50,000 New Home Charging Stations

Australia’s electric car industry has criticized the government’s new policy to build thousands of charging stations as “far too little, too late.” The Australian government Tuesday pledged $132 million to speed up the rollout of hydrogen refueling and electric charging stations. 

The Electric Vehicles Council says an Australian government plan to build electric vehicle charging stations and hydrogen-powered vehicle fueling stations doesn’t include subsidies, tax incentives or minimum fuel standards, and leaves Australia lagging the rest of the world. 

Transport accounts for one-fifth of Australia’s emissions. Prime Minister Scott Morrison says electric- and hydrogen-powered vehicles are key in efforts to decarbonize the economy. There’s a plan to build 50,000 home charging stations and increase the government’s fleet of electric vehicles.  

Morrison says it’s a bold strategy.   

“Our plan, which is another key part of the overall national plan to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 — this is one of the key building blocks, the future fuels and the take-up of electric vehicles driven by Australians’ choices,” Morrison said.

The government has forecast that electric and hybrid electric vehicles will make up about a third of annual new car and light truck sales by 2030. Sales hit a record 8,688 in the first half of this year but made up a fraction — about 1.5% — of total sales. 

During the 2019 election campaign, Morrison derided electric cars, insisting they would “end the weekend” because they wouldn’t be able to tow trailers or boats to go camping.    

His stance has changed as environmental pressures grow on governments around the world. 

But critics say the Australian strategy lacks ambition and does nothing to improve affordability of electric cars, which are more expensive than gasoline or diesel models. Morrison insists that costs will come down as technologies improve. 

Opposition Labor leader Anthony Albanese says other countries are leaving Australia behind.    

“There is this massive shift around the world to electric vehicles. Australia’s uptake last year was under 2%. In Norway, it was 70%. In the United Kingdom, it was 15% and rising. We are falling way behind,” Albanese said. 

Australia has some of the world’s highest emissions per person and is a huge exporter of fossil fuels. Despite a pledge to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, the Morrison government said its coal and gas industries would not be phased out. 

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Original Apple Built by Jobs and Wozniak to be Auctioned 

An original Apple computer, hand-built by company founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak 45 years ago, goes under the hammer in the United States on Tuesday. 

The functioning Apple-1, the great, great grandfather of today’s sleek chrome-and-glass Macbooks, is expected to fetch up to $600,000 at an auction in California. 

The so-called “Chaffey College” Apple-1, is one of only 200 made by Jobs and Wozniak at the very start of the company’s odyssey from garage start-up to megalith worth $2 trillion. 

What makes it even rarer is the fact it is encased in koa wood — a richly patinated wood native to Hawaii. Only a handful of the original 200 were made in this way. 

Apple-1s were mostly sold as component parts by Jobs and Wozniak. One computer shop that took delivery of around 50 units decided to encase some of them in wood, the auction house said 

“This is kind of the holy grail for vintage electronics and computer tech collectors,” Apple-1 expert Corey Cohen told the Los Angeles Times. “That really makes it exciting for a lot of people.” 

Auctioneers John Moran say the device, which comes with a 1986 Panasonic video monitor, has only ever had two owners. 

“It was originally purchased by an electronics professor at Chaffey College in Rancho Cucamonga, California, who then sold it to his student in 1977,” a listing on the auction house’s website says. 

The Los Angeles Times reported the student — who has not been named — paid just $650 for it at the time. 

That student now stands to make a pretty penny: A working Apple-1 that came to the market in 2014 was sold by Bonhams for more than $900,000. 

“A lot of people just want to know what kind of a person collects Apple-1 computers and it’s not just people in the tech industry,” Cohen said. 

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Costs, Literacy and Design: The Invisible Barriers to Tackling the Digital Divide

Connecting everyone in the world to the web will not single-handedly bridge the digital divide, tech experts at the Web Summit said this week, citing other invisible barriers like high costs, low digital literacy and complicated user interfaces.

The so-called “digital divide” refers to the gap between those who have access to computers and the internet and those who don’t, with the latter group made up of nearly half the world’s population, according to the United Nations.

With many essential services like schooling and banking moving online, the coronavirus pandemic has brought new urgency to global efforts to get the unconnected online by bringing internet coverage to remote or deprived areas.

“(COVID-19) made us clearly understand that what used to be seen as a ‘nice-to-have’ technology is now a ‘must-have’,” said ‘Gbenga Sesan, executive director of Paradigm Initiative, a pan-African social enterprise working on digital inclusion.

Reaching everyone can be a daunting task.

Even identifying where exactly internet access is needed is no easy feat in parts of the globe, said Sophia Farrar, who leads a program that uses satellite imagery and other data to locate offline schools and get them connected.

“No one actually knows how many schools there are in the world,” Farrar, of the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF, told a panel at Europe’s biggest tech conference in Lisbon.

“What we aim to achieve through the mapping is even just setting what that baseline target is.”

Increased mobile penetration has accelerated the process.

 

The number of active mobile broadband subscriptions worldwide jumped more than 75% to nearly 6 billion, including people with multiple accounts, between 2015 and 2020, according to the International Telecommunication Union.

Only about 450 million people live in areas not covered by mobile broadband, according to telecoms lobby group GSMA.

But even where there is coverage, more than 3 billion are not online, largely because they lack tools, skills and money to make use of it, said Robert Opp, chief digital officer at the U.N. Development Program (UNDP).

“If you just connect somebody with infrastructure, it doesn’t mean that you’re going to have productive use of your internet connection,” told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.

Cost is one major barrier, he noted.

There are only a few developing countries where internet prices are in line with the U.N.’s target of less than 2% of the national average monthly income, Opp said.

Even in rich nations like Britain or the United States poor people often can’t afford to buy data, an issue that has sparked calls for price caps and motivated some countries to declare the internet an essential public service during the pandemic.

Others might not have the skills to navigate often complex, jargon-filled websites and applications, Opp added.

The problem has come to the fore with COVID-19 vaccine rollouts, as the elderly and the frail in countries from Sweden to South Africa report having trouble booking their shots online.

 

Lack of digital literacy also leaves people exposed to risks such as misinformation and loss of privacy, said Opp.

While education is key to helping people protect themselves online, designing digital tools that are easier to understand and tailored for the communities they are meant to serve is also essential, said Howard Pyle, a digital designer turned social entrepreneur.

“Most websites and mobile apps are designed for digitally privileged users who already know how to use those tools – typically the most profitable users that companies will get most traction with,” Pyle said in an interview at the Web Summit.

“But this excludes people who have different needs or different abilities, for example, those who are older or lack experience with technology or lower income users who have limits in terms of the types of devices they have access to.”

Pyle’s social enterprise, ExperienceFutures, looks to help firms and governments make their web services more accessible by cutting jargon and complexity and involving the communities they are trying to serve at the design stage.

“At the moment, there is too much emphasis on trying to create one-size-fits-all tools and expect users to learn how to use them,” he said.

“We have to evolve to a place where the technology is flexible enough that individuals can understand it based on their abilities.”

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