Theranos CEO: Wunderkind to Federal Indictment

Federal prosecutors have indicted Elizabeth Holmes on criminal fraud charges for allegedly defrauding investors, doctors and the public as the head of the once-heralded blood-testing startup Theranos. Federal prosecutors also brought charges against the company’s former second-in-command.

Holmes, who was once considered a wunderkind of Silicon Valley, and her former Chief Operating Officer Ramesh Balwani, are charged with two counts conspiracy to commit wire fraud and nine counts of wire fraud, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California said late Friday. If convicted, they could face prison sentences that would keep them behind bars for the rest of their lives, and total fines of $2.75 million each.

Technology a fraud

Prosecutors allege that Holmes and Balwani deliberately misled investors, policymakers and the public about the accuracy of Theranos’ blood-testing technologies. Holmes, 34, founded Theranos in Palo Alto, California, in 2003, pitching its technology as a cheaper way to run dozens of blood tests. Once considered the nation’s youngest female billionaire, Holmes said she was inspired to start the company in response to her fear of needles.

But an investigation by The Wall Street Journal two years ago found that Theranos’ technology was a fraud, and that the company was using routine blood-testing equipment for the vast majority of its tests. The story raised concerns about the accuracy of Theranos’ blood testing technology, which put patients at risk of having conditions either misdiagnosed or ignored.

“CEO Elizabeth Holmes and COO Sunny Balwani not only defrauded investors, but also consumers who trusted and relied upon their allegedly-revolutionary blood-testing technology,” Acting U.S. Attorney Alex Tse said in a statement.

SEC charges

The Securities and Exchange Commission brought civil fraud charges against Holmes and Balwani three months ago. Holmes settled with the SEC, agreeing to pay $500,000 in fines and penalties. Balwani, 53, is fighting the charges.

As the charges were announced Friday, Theranos said Holmes would step down as CEO of the company and its general counsel, David Taylor, would become the company’s next CEO. Theranos laid off most of its staff earlier this year and is widely expected to file for bankruptcy. Holmes remains the company’s chairman.

The company did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment on Friday’s indictments.

Apple Nabs Oprah as Top Talent Flocks to Digital Entertainment

Apple Inc on Friday announced a multiyear deal with Oprah Winfrey to create original programming, a coup in the battle for A-list talent and projects in the booming digital entertainment market.

“Together, Winfrey and Apple will create original programs that embrace her incomparable ability to connect with audiences around the world,” Apple said in a statement.

Apple gave no details of the type of programming that Winfrey would create, the value of the deal, or when it might be released. Winfrey had no immediate comment.

Winfrey, 64, an influential movie and TV producer who also publishes a magazine, is expected to appear on screen, a source familiar with the deal said.

Apple has not said how it plans to distribute its programming, to which it has committed an initial $1 billion. The partnership is the biggest original content deal struck by Apple so far as it aims to compete with Netflix Inc,

Amazon.com Inc and Time Warner Inc’s HBO. Netflix, which has said it will spend up to $8 billion on programming this year, in May struck a multiyear deal with former U.S. President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle to produce films, documentaries and other content.

Netflix, the world’s leading streaming entertainment provider, has also lured prolific television producers Ryan Murphy and Shonda Rhimes away from broadcast television.

Amazon said in November it had bought the global television rights to “The Lord of the Rings” and would produce a multi-season series that explores new storylines preceding author J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Fellowship of the Ring.” Earlier this week, Amazon also announced a development deal with

Oscar-winning actress Nicole Kidman’s production company for movies and television.

For its part, Apple in November ordered two seasons of a dramatic series with Hollywood stars Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston, looking at the lives of people working on a morning television show.

Other projects Apple has announced include a remake of Steven Spielberg’s 1980s science fiction anthology series “Amazing Stories,” based on Isaac Asimov’s influential “Foundation” science fiction novels, and a drama from “La La Land” movie director Damian Chazelle.

Under the deal with Winfrey, she will remain chief executive of cable channel OWN, which she launched in 2011 in partnership with Discovery Inc. Winfrey in December extended her contract with OWN through 2025, OWN and Apple said.

Under her contract with OWN, Winfrey can appear on camera on other platforms on a limited basis.

Known in the United States by millions on a first-name basis, Winfrey rose to fame as the host of her own television talk show, using it to build a media empire that spans magazine publishing, movie and television production, cable TV and satellite radio.

Born into poverty, she is one of the world’s wealthiest women and has been nominated for two Academy Awards.

A rousing speech by Winfrey at the Golden Globes awards ceremony in January triggered an online campaign to persuade her to run for U.S. president in 2020.

She dismissed the notion, telling InStyle magazine in an interview, “It’s not something that interests me.”

CES Asia Opens in Shanghai

Judging by the size of the crowd and the number of exhibitors at the fourth annual Consumer Electronics Show Asia, which opened Wednesday in Shanghai, China is well on its way toward catching up with the United States in consumer technology. A mirror image of the older and bigger sister show in Las Vegas, CES Asia 2018 presents the latest hardware and software for everyone. VOA’s George Putic has more.

Apple to Undercut Popular Law-Enforcement Tool for Cracking iPhones

Apple Inc said Wednesday it will change its iPhone settings to undercut the most popular means for law enforcement to break into the devices.

The company told Reuters it was aiming to protect customers in countries where police seize phones at will and all users from the risk that the attack technique will leak to spies and criminals.

The privacy standard-bearer of the tech industry said it will change the default settings in the iPhone operating system to cut off communication through the USB port when the phone has not been unlocked in the past hour. That port is how machines made by forensic companies GrayShift, Cellebrite and others connect and get around the security provisions that limit how many password guesses can be made before the device freezes them out or erases data.

These companies have marketed their machines to law enforcement in multiple countries this year, offering the machines themselves for thousands of dollars but also per-phone pricing as low as $50.

Apple representatives said the change in settings will protect customers in countries where law enforcement seizes and tries to crack phones with fewer legal restrictions than under U.S. law. They also noted that criminals, spies and unscrupulous people often can use the same techniques to extract sensitive information from a phone. Some of the methods most prized by intelligence agencies have been leaked on the internet.

“We’re constantly strengthening the security protections in every Apple product to help customers defend against hackers, identity thieves and intrusions into their personal data,” Apple said in a prepared statement. “We have the greatest respect for law enforcement, and we don’t design our security improvements to frustrate their efforts to do their jobs.”

The switch had been documented in beta versions of iOS 11.4.1 and iOS12, and Apple told Reuters it will be made permanent in a forthcoming general release.

Apple said that after it learned of techniques being used against iPhones, it reviewed the operating system code and made a number of improvements to the security. It also decided to simply alter the setting, a cruder way of preventing most of the potential access by unfriendly parties.

Time limit

With the new settings, police or hackers will typically have an hour or less to get a phone to a cracking machine. In practical terms, that could cut access by as much as 90 percent, security researchers estimate.

In theory, the change could also spur sales of cracking devices, as law enforcement looks to get more forensic machines closer to where seizures occur.

Either way, researchers and police vendors will find new ways to break into phones, and Apple will then look to patch those vulnerabilities.

The latest step could draw criticism from American police departments, the FBI, and perhaps the U.S. Justice Department, where officials have recently renewed an on-again, off-again campaign for legislation or other extraordinary means of forcing technology companies to maintain access to their users’ communications.

Apple has been the most prominent opponent of those demands.

In 2016, it went to court to fight an order that it break into an iPhone 5c used by a terrorist killer in San Bernardino.

Twitter Announces Changes Ahead of World Cup

Twitter announced Wednesday it would be updating its services to make it easier for users to find content about major events such as natural disasters and the FIFA World Cup that begins on Thursday.

“We’re keeping you informed about what matters by showing the tweets, conversations and perspectives around topics you care about,” Keith Coleman, product vice president, said in a blog post.  “Our goal is to make following what’s happening as easy as following an account.”

Users will receive notifications about breaking news stories based on their personal interests — the accounts they follow or what they tweet about, Coleman explained. These notifications will become available in the coming weeks to users in the United States. When clicked, users will be taken to a specialized timeline about the topic.

“If someone uses Twitter all the time, they’ll have a perfectly curated timeline,” Twitter spokesperson Liz Kelley told VOA. “But if you don’t have those things in place, there’s maybe a better way for us to present that.”

The app will also link to related topics at the top of its search results. Another update includes a change in the format of the “Moments” tab, which will now be accessed by scrolling vertically rather than horizontally. The tab, which hosts collections of tweets about major events, is curated by a global team, Kelley said, and is available in five languages across 16 different countries.

Coleman also announced a dedicated page for the World Cup, which will be available in 10 languages and have individualized timelines for each game of the 32-team tournament. Kelley told VOA that users should be able to see every goal of the tournament through the app.

“Our long-term strategy is making it easier for people to see what’s happening on Twitter,” Kelley said. “Really, we’re organizing and presenting content in a way that’s easier to discover and consume.”

Teen Girl Coders Choreograph Digital Dance

By mixing dance with the disciplines of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, an all-girl public school in New York encourages its students to go into the Stem fields. According to the U.S. National Science Foundation, while women make up half of the college-educated workforce, less that 30 percent of science and engineering jobs are filled by women. VOA Correspondent Mariama Diallo reports.

Vietnam Passes Sweeping New Cybersecurity Law

Vietnamese lawmakers have approved a new cybersecurity law that human rights activists say will stifle freedom of speech.

The law will require online content providers such as Google and Facebook to remove content deemed offensive by authorities within 24 hours, and store the personal data of its customers on servers based in Vietnam, and to open offices in the Communist-run country.

Clare Agar, Amnesty International’s director of global operations, issued a statement denouncing Tuesday’s passage of the law. Agar said “the online space was a relative refuge” within Vietnam’s “deeply repressive climate” where people could go to share ideas and opinions “with less fear of censure by the authorities.”

The new law now means “there is no safe place left,” Agar said.

The United States and Canada urged Vietnam to delay passage of the bill, citing concerns it could pose “obstacles to Vietnam’s cybersecurity and digital innovation future.” 

The Vietnam Digital Communication Association says the law could reduce the country’s gross domestic product by 1.7 percent, and wipe out 3.1 percent of foreign investment.

Vo Trong Viet, the head of the government’s defense and security committee, acknowledged that requiring content providers to open data centers inside Vietnam would increase their costs, but said it was necessary ensure the country’s cybersecurity.

Proof-of-Concept Hyperloop to Open Soon

The Boring Company, based in California, is close to opening its first exciting venture – a 3.2 kilometer underground tunnel designed to convince Californians that traveling underground at high speed may solve their state’s ubiquitous traffic jams. It is the brainchild of Elon Musk, the U.S. billionaire who founded the electric car company Tesla and the rocket company SpaceX. VOA’s George Putic has more.

New US Neutrality Rules Repealed; Supporters, Critics of Move Wonder What’s Next

The Federal Communications Commission’s repeal of the United States’ net neutrality rules — which mandated internet service providers to not discriminate in their handling of internet traffic — took effect Monday, reigniting fears from internet freedom advocates of potential manipulation of consumers’ internet access.

The FCC voted in December to overturn its net neutrality rule, first put in place by the Obama administration in 2015. With its repeal, the door is now open for internet service providers to block content, slow data transmission, and create “fast lanes” for consumers who pay premiums.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, a staunch critic of net neutrality, wrote Sunday that while he “support[s] a free an open internet,” the overturning of the Obama-era rule will allow the FTC [Federal Trade Commission] to “once again be able to protect Americans consistently across the internet economy.”

In 2004, then-FCC Chairman Michael Powell announced the commission’s support of what he called the “four internet freedoms,” including the freedom of consumers to access content. Since 2005, the FCC had enforced net neutrality rules in some regard, with the support of both Republican and Democratic chairmen. In 2015, the regulations were codified into law. 

“We’re actually in a brave new world where no protections for a free internet currently exist, whereas they have for the majority of the history of the internet,” Tim Karr, senior director of strategy and communications of media watchdog Free Press, told VOA on Monday. 

Karr said based on the prior actions of internet service providers, he feared we could see restrictions placed on such free internet access.

In 2007, the Associated Press reported that telecommunications giant Comcast was stifling connection to file-sharing websites such as BitTorrent. In 2011, fellow communication company Verizon blocked the download of Google Wallet, a payment app, on its mobile devices.

Verizon spokesman Rich Young told VOA that the company “strongly supports open internet rules,” and the recent FCC decision does not change the company’s support of full internet access.

Since the December FCC decision, two states — Washington and Oregon — have passed their own net neutrality laws, whereas governors of five other states — Hawaii, New Jersey, New York, Montana and Vermont — have issued executive orders mandating that internet service providers for government agencies abide by net neutrality regulations.

In May, the U.S. Senate voted 52-47 to reinstate the FCC’s 2015 net neutrality rules. Every Democratic senator voted for the proposal, as did three Republicans: John Kennedy of Louisiana, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.

The bill is now in the House of Representatives, where outgoing Speaker Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, has not yet announced any plans to bring the bill to the floor for a vote.

Congressman Mike Doyle, a Pennsylvania Democrat, filed a petition in May to force a vote on the matter. Doyle spokesperson Matt Dinkel said of the 218 signees for the petition needed to force a vote, the petition currently has 170.

“If enough representatives sign the discharge petition to bring the bill to the floor, odds are that it will pass,” Dinkel told VOA.

Award-winning Smart Drones to Take on Illegal Fishing

Drones guided by artificial intelligence to catch boats netting fish where they shouldn’t were among the winners of a marine protection award on Friday and could soon be deployed to fight illegal fishing, organizers said.

The award-winning project aims to help authorities hunt down illegal fishing boats using drones fitted with cameras that can monitor large swaths of water autonomously.

Illegal fishing and overfishing deplete fish stocks worldwide, causing billions of dollars in losses a year and threatening the livelihoods of rural coastal communities, according to the United Nations.

The National Geographic Society awarded the project, co-developed by Morocco-based company ATLAN Space, and two other innovations $150,000 each to implement their plans as it marked World Oceans Day on Friday.

The aircraft can cover a range of up to 700 km (435 miles) and use artificial intelligence (AI) technology to drive them in search of fishing vessels, said ATLAN Space’s founder, Badr Idrissi.

“Once (the drone) detects something, it goes there and identifies what it’s seeing,” Idrissi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

Idrissi said the technology, which is to be piloted in the Seychelles later this year, was more effective than traditional sea patrols and allowed coast guards to save money and time.

From satellites tracking trawlers on the high seas to computer algorithms identifying illegal behaviors, new technologies are increasingly coming to the aid of coast guards worldwide.

AI allows the drones to check a boat’s identification number, establish whether it is fishing inside a protected area or without permit, verify whether it is known to authorities and count people on board, Idrissi said.

If something appears to be wrong, it can alert authorities.

Other winners were Marine Conservation Cambodia, which uses underwater concrete blocks to impede the use of bottom-dragged nets, and U.S.-based Pelagic Data Systems, which plans to combat illegal fishing in Thailand with tracking technologies.

“The innovations from the three winning teams have the potential to greatly increase sustainable fishing in coastal systems,” National Geographic Society’s chief scientist Jonathan Baillie said in a statement.

Much of the world’s fish stocks are overfished or fully exploited, according the U.N. food agency, and fish consumption rose above 20 kilograms per person in 2016 for the first time.

Global marine catches have declined by 1.2 million tons a year since 1996, according to The Sea Around Us, a research initiative involving the University of British Columbia and the University of Western Australia.