The Dilemma of Defining ‘Electronic Persons’; Facebook Turns 13

Posted February 2nd, 2017 at 12:46 pm (UTC-4)
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Today’s Tech Sightings:

FILE: People look at a RoboThespian humanoid robot at the Tami Intelligence Technology stall at the WRC 2016 World Robot Conference in Beijing, China, Oct. 21, 2016.

FILE: People look at a RoboThespian humanoid robot at the Tami Intelligence Technology stall at the WRC 2016 World Robot Conference in Beijing, China, Oct. 21, 2016.

Should Robots Be Treated Like Pets or People?

If a robot makes a mistake, who is accountable for any resulting harm or damage? The answer may appear simple, but experts are still divided on the matter. Some argue robot owners are accountable in the same way pet owners are accountable for the actions of their dogs, for example. Other experts at a British Academy panel say the whole traditional concept of ownership and liability needs to change, perhaps leading to some sort of definition of “electronic personhood.”

Facebook Marks 13th Birthday With New Friends Day Videos, GIFs

This Saturday, Facebook turns 13. The social media giant now boasts more than 1.86 billion monthly active users. To celebrate, Facebook reintroduced personalized videos and Messenger GIFs. CEO Mark Zuckerberg said Facebook will now focus on bringing groups and communities – and strangers – together through shared interests.

India’s Tech Titans Will Plead Immigration Visas Case Before Trump Officials

The CEOs of some of India’s largest IT and outsourcing firms are planning a trip to Washington on February 20 to appeal President Donald Trump’s impending changes to the U.S. immigration visa program. India’s technology sector provides some of the largest companies in Silicon Valley with skilled, low-cost labor. The CEOs plan to meet with U.S. lawmakers and administration officials to try and dissuade them from tightening visa restrictions. The 90-day entry ban affects seven countries – Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Yemen, Libya and Somalia.

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Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.

US Travel Ban Rattles India, Pushes Silicon Valley to Action

Posted February 1st, 2017 at 1:24 pm (UTC-4)
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Today’s Tech Sightings:

FILE: Workers are pictured beneath clocks displaying time zones in various parts of the world at an outsourcing center in Bangalore.

FILE: Workers are pictured beneath clocks displaying time zones in various parts of the world at an outsourcing center in Bangalore, India.

Facing Visa Issues, Indian Outsourcers Have Strength in Numbers

The U.S. travel ban and impending changes to the immigration visa program are sounding alarm bells in India, which provides U.S. tech companies with skilled, low-cost talent. India’s booming outsourcing firms serve customers around the world and sometimes send representatives overseas to work onsite. Now, these companies are worried about contract delays and revenue declines as a result of the new restrictions. The travel ban affects seven predominantly Muslim countries – Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Yemen, Libya and Somalia, but travel restrictions associated with immigrant visas have already affected employees of some U.S. tech companies, such as Google and Apple.

Facebook’s Sandberg: Immigration Ban Defies US ‘heart and values’

In the U.S., a confrontation is brewing between Silicon Valley and the administration of President Donald Trump over the travel ban and immigration visas. As leading tech companies consider legal action to challenge the constitutionality of the president’s action, Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg said the ban goes against “the heart and values that define the best of our nation,” and is particularly “unforgiving of women.”

Security Flaws in Pentagon Computer Systems ‘Easily’ Exploited by Hackers

A cybersecurity expert warns that several servers run by the U.S. Department of Defense are “misconfigured.” The expert, Dan Tentler, founder of Phobos Group, said the vulnerabilities could give hackers or foreign actors easy access to government systems. The Pentagon was alerted to the vulnerabilities more than eight months ago but has not yet fixed them.

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Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.

Beware These New Cyber Scams; the Augmented Future of Shopping

Posted January 31st, 2017 at 12:39 pm (UTC-4)
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Today’s Tech Sightings:

FILE - An online user searches different sites as he shops online. (AP)

FILE – An online user searches different sites as he shops online. (AP)

Five Ways Fraudsters Could Make a Fool of You

Criminals are constantly refining malware and finding new ways to fleece consumers, from phishing emails to adding followers that stalk you on social media to get you to click on a malicious link. Writer Tom Cheshire takes a look at some of the newest schemes criminals are hatching up to steal your money and data. Once you know what you’re up against, writer Zach Whittaker has a few tips that can help you protect yourself.

Game Publisher Wins Right to Store Your Biometric Facial Data

Video game publisher 2K now has the right to collect and store players’ facial data used in sports titles to create better avatars. 2K won a court case in New York against two gamers who were concerned about how the company intended to use their data. The judge ruled against them for lack of any evidence that face-scanning caused them ‘sufficient injury.’ But the landmark ruling raises questions about digital ownership rights for future considerations.

Supermarkets, Retailers Define Future Shopping Trends

British online retailer Ocado is using robot arms in its warehouse to pack orders as part of a European Union effort to create robotic arms that can handle fragile objects. For the moment, one of the key challenges is finding ways for the robotic arms to handle oddly-shaped items like fruits and vegetables without damaging them. In the U.S., clothing retailer Gap took a step toward augmented reality shopping with DressingRoom, an app that lets users try out clothes from the comfort of their home. Once shoppers offer up their size and measurements, they can then see how a garment they like looks on a computer generated image representing their body type.

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Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.

Accessibility Still Not Out-of-the-box, but Cloud Can Help

Posted January 27th, 2017 at 12:04 pm (UTC-4)
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FILE - Leonardo Duarte, who lost his eyesight as a young adult victim of an attempted robbery, touches his computer screen as he listens to a special program that reads him messages and email from his Facebook page, at his home in Buenos Aires. (Reuters)

FILE – Leonardo Duarte, who lost his eyesight as a young adult victim of an attempted robbery, touches his computer screen as he listens to a special program that reads him messages and email from his Facebook page, at his home in Buenos Aires. (Reuters)

Cloud services can make life easier and more productive for the disabled community. But inaccessibility in end-user software and devices makes that potential difficult to realize. Now, a massive effort is underway to make accessibility solutions available whenever and wherever needed.

Rarely is accessibility at the forefront of new technologies. Those who drive technological innovation “don’t always think from the start about all of the different people who will be using that technology,” said Jeffrey Bigham, of Carnegie Mellon University’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute.

The argument is that new products would never be released if designers stopped to incorporate all kinds of features that might or might not be worth pursuing. But that deficit often leads to problems “when that technology becomes something that people need to use to keep up in the workplace and education and even entertainment,” he said.

“When something is used for any of those purposes, any purpose for everyday living that is not accessible, then you have a big problem,” he said. “I think that’s where the disconnect happens.”

That’s a real problem for people who are depending on these technologies, said University of Maryland’s Gregg Vanderheiden, Director of the Trace Research and Development Center.

“When Microsoft went from DOS to Windows,” he recalled, “there were all these people who were blind who were working as computer specialists throughout the United States. And in the course of about nine months, companies all started switching to Windows. … And all of these people were suddenly without a job because there were no screen readers for the Windows.”

The reason this happened is because support for screen readers that existed under DOS was not embedded in the new operating system. This creates a problem for disabled individuals who rely on assistive technologies  – aids that help them hear or see or interface with the computer or a cloud service to do their job or even land a job.

FILE – Accessibility Partners’ engineers audit a cloud-based software product . (Accessibility Partners, Jennifer Kline Vallina)

FILE – Accessibility Partners’ engineers audit a cloud-based software product . (Accessibility Partners, Jennifer Kline Vallina)

Companies with disabled employees and customers should ensure their development teams know how to maintain the accessibility code without “inadvertently’ creating “other inaccessible features,” said Dana Marlowe, president of Accessibility Partners, whose disabled employees use aids like screen readers, text-to-speech readers, or magnifiers for their work.

“The cloud  … could be always accessible as an environment through the storage of different cloud profiles on which the interface can be immediately customized based on the person with the disability and user preferences,” she said.

While some assistive technologies work as soon as they are plugged in, like keyboards, others need software support and higher-level security privileges to operate. Third-party assistive technologies, in particular, are sometimes identified as “malware or a threat” because they “reach into an application’s code,” said Accessibility Partners’ Communications Director, Sharon Rosenblatt.

Even if all of these settings are saved in the cloud, disabled individuals leaving their personal space will still run into problems. A paraplegic traveler, for example, who might need hands-free or speech-to-text interface, will not be able to access the airport’s touch-based check-in systems. But a cloud service providing customized Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) that can be downloaded on-demand might help bridge the gap, perhaps in conjunction with a USB or other portable device.

“This is some of the work that we’ve been doing for 10 years,” said Bigham. “And other people have been doing for about 10 years, where you actually have it so that the computer or the mobile device or maybe eventually the voice-controlled devices – they could download on-demand the interface that you need and then they could provide the interface that each person could use.”

But without out-of-the-box accessibility support, it’s hard to leverage “some of these really interesting benefits of having a cloud-connected device for accessibility,” said Bigham. “… We’re not yet taking advantage of the cloud for accessibility in the ways that we could.”

Out-of-the-box accessibility

FILE - A customer counts her money as she checks out at a register at Macy's on Black Friday in New York. (Reuters)

FILE – A customer counts her money as she checks out at a register at Macy’s on Black Friday in New York. (Reuters)

Ultimately, the problem with inaccessibility lies with the interface. And that interface, said Bigham, “is what ends up being most important. And it’s usually provided by the local device.”

“You go to the grocery store,” he added, “and you try to find the x … and sign at the cashier, and it’s really hard to do that for many people with disabilities because the device they have there is not accessible. And so you get these bad stories about people having to give their PIN number to the cashier just so they can pay for their groceries.”

Not much is being done to make new devices accessible out-of-the-box. And it is unclear to what extent manufacturers and feature designers can be compelled to do so.

“If it was a lot easier,” he added, “and if you could really achieve this idea of out-of-the-box accessibility for devices … and we’re seeing more and more devices created every day – if each device was accessible, then you wouldn’t have that sort of problem.”

It is doable. And the nonprofit Global Public Inclusive Infrastructure (GPII), a collaborative effort between the United States, Canada, Europe, and a host of global entities, is determined to promote accessibility solutions that work with all technologies.

GPII’s ‘auto-personalization’ discovers what a person needs to use information and communication technologies. A deaf person, for example, would need a visual interface. A blind person would need an auditory interface.

“When you sit down at the computer,” said Vanderheiden, “the individual would use a ring or a card or a USB … that basically says ‘here’s what I need.’ And the computer takes a key from that – a token [that] goes up to the cloud and it finds a listing not of who the person is, but what that person needs. And it comes back down and then it changes the computer or the phone or the device to match the needs of that user.”

The ability to do this gives disabled individuals that flexibility to really synchronize the cloud accessibility, their preferences, and be … productive,” said Marlowe.

While encouraging innovation, Rosenblatt urged technology leaders to include everyone in their design considerations, so that disabled individuals, who are significantly underemployed in the United States, have a better chance of joining the workforce.

But for this to happen, device makers and operating system manufacturers have “to work together very closely,” said Vanderheiden, and to continue collaborating closely “because every change made to the operating system risks breaking the [accessibility] information.”

Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.

Amazon Offerings Irk India; Americans Split on Encryption

Posted January 26th, 2017 at 11:03 am (UTC-4)
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Today’s Tech Sightings:

Motorists ride past an advertising for an Amazon product in Bangalore, India, Jan. 12, 2017.

Motorists ride past an ad for an Amazon product in Bangalore, India, Jan. 12, 2017.

Amazon Has an India Problem

Amazon, looking to expand in one of the world’s fastest-growing markets, has run into trouble with Indian officials on ‘sensitivity’ issues, for lack of a better word. First, it angered a lot of people a couple of weeks ago with a doormat bearing the Indian flag, for which it apologized, then it had esteemed independence icon Mahatma Ghandi featured on flip-flops. After that, the Indian government warned the company that it proceeds at its own peril if it continues its disregard for Indian symbols and icons.

Americans ‘Divided’ on Giving Feds Access to Encrypted Messages

A new report from Pew Research found that 46 percent of Americans would give the government access to their encrypted communications for criminal investigations. But 44 percent prefer unbreakable encryption for apps and messaging. Those in favor of strong encryption were predominantly Democrats and young adults. But the study notes that the numbers have evened out since last year’s Apple-FBI row over unlocking an encrypted iPhone for a terrorism investigation.

The Chinese News App With 600 Million Users That You’ve Never Heard of

It’s called Toutiao, which means headlines, and it has more than 60 million active daily users. The app uses machine learning and artificial intelligence to aggregate news, based on users’ interests. When it’s accessed, the app keeps track of users’ clicks to determine what they like or dislike and tailors its offerings accordingly. U.S. social media networks already use this approach, but Toutiao hopes to compete with giants like Facebook and Twitter in their own backyards as it hopes to go international in the next few years.

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Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.

How to Secure an IoT Device; Rise of the Immigrant Robots

Posted January 25th, 2017 at 12:45 pm (UTC-4)
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Today’s Tech Sightings:

FILE - A man changes a bulb in Awox Smart Lights, which features a Bluetooth controllable LED light, in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Reuters)

FILE – A man changes a bulb in Awox Smart Lights, which feature a Bluetooth-controllable LED light, in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Reuters)

Top 5 Ways to Secure Your IoT

Internet of Things (IoT) devices rely on Wi-Fi and Bluetooth technologies to connect to the internet and other gadgets within range, which renders them vulnerable to hackers. Writer Tom Merritt offers a few tips to help improve IoT security.

Middle-aged Americans Beat Millennials in Social Media Time

If you thought young people wasted their lives away on social media, think again. Middle-aged Americans use social media more than their younger counterparts, according to a study from media information and analysis company Nielsen. Users aged 35-49 spent an average of six hours and 58 minutes on social media per week. But 18-34-year-olds spent 39 fewer minutes per week on social networks, compared to four hours per week for people 50 and older.

Rise of the Immigrant Robo-laborers

Robo-laborers are already a reality. Writer Jamie Condliffe notes that robots are assuming jobs in workplaces in the United States that rely on migrant labor, such as oil rigs and farms. Now, companies are leaning toward using robots to lower wages and tackle labor-intensive tasks, such as digging oil wells and tending crops. Ironically, some of these robots might come from China, which is investing heavily in robotics and artificial intelligence.

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Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.

Android Pattern Lock Vulnerable to Attack; the Age of IoT Botnets

Posted January 24th, 2017 at 2:04 pm (UTC-4)
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Today’s Tech Sightings:

FILE - An illustration shows a 3D printed Android logo in front of code. (Reuters)

FILE – An illustration shows a 3D printed Android logo in front of code. (Reuters)

Android Pattern Lock Might Be Vulnerable to (Very Determined) Thieves

The chances of this happening are low, but if you are unlocking your Android smartphone with Pattern Lock in a public place and someone videotapes or watches the motions, then that hacker might be able to replicate the password and gain access to the device. The researchers who tested this scenario found that complicated password patterns were actually easier to hack.

Online Learning Improves When You Feel Like You Belong

A new study from Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) shows psychological intervention can significantly increase completion rates for students taking online courses in the developing world. The brief interventions include reading testimonials from students who completed the courses despite feeling that they did not belong.

DDoSing Evolves in Vacuum Left by IoT’s Absence of Security

Despite continuing to proliferate, Internet of Things (IoT) devices are still a cause for concern, particularly in instances where hijacked devices were used as botnets to launch Distributed Denial of service (DDoS) attacks on websites. Writer John Leyden says IoT botnets have boosted the strength and frequency of (DDoS) attacks, with more than 53 percent of service providers reporting more than 21 attacks per month.

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Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.

Developing World’s SafariSeat Helps Disabled Navigate Rough Terrain

Posted January 20th, 2017 at 11:25 am (UTC-4)
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Leu, who was disabled by polio and the inspiration for SafariSeat, shows his son Sabato how to use the wheelchair in Kenya. (Janna Deeble)

Letu (R), who was disabled by polio and the inspiration for SafariSeat, shows his son Sabato how to use the wheelchair in Kenya. (Janna Deeble)

An idea that first saw light in 2015 is about to become reality. Back then, designer Janna Deeble, who grew up in Kenya, found out just how hard it is for people with disabilities to move around in remote regions with no roads, health care, or wheelchairs. His answer was SafariSeat, an all-terrain wheelchair that goes into production this month.

Techtonics connected with Deeble and Bertie Meyer, co-founders of SafariSeat, via email to learn more about the project.

Q. What is SafariSeat?

JD/BM: SafariSeat is a low cost, all-terrain and open-source wheelchair for people in developing countries. It uses a simple, patented mechanism that mimics car suspension, ensuring all four wheels remain on the ground for maximum stability. It can be made in local workshops using bicycle parts, which means it’s easy to repair.

… SafariSeat is the first project from Uji, a social enterprise company determined to make a difference. Their goal is to design tools that help people break free from the poverty cycle. The Uji philosophy is to help people help themselves – to avoid a culture of dependency by operating on open-source principles.

Q. What inspired this project?

JD/BM: SafariSeat designer, Janna Deeble, grew up in Kenya. He was a child when he first met Letu, a Samburu man disabled by polio, living an isolated, traditional lifestyle with his family in the wilderness.

Letu had been disabled since birth, with no access to healthcare, suitable wheelchairs or any of the assistance much of the world takes for granted. To move, Letu had to crawl; he was totally dependent on others.

Janna didn’t understand the reality of Letu’s situation until, as a design student, he had an accident that left him wheelchair-bound for months. As his independence disappeared, he thought of Letu and his daily struggle to fulfill life’s basic needs. Janna returned to Kenya in 2015 to develop SafariSeat.

Q. Which parts of the world will this product target?

JD/BM: SafariSeat is primarily aimed at people in developing countries where average income is low, the terrain is rough, and often disabled individuals are left behind. However, we have plans to expand into both countries suffering from war and eventually into more developed countries such as the UK.

Q. Isn’t there any other product that already meets these needs at the moment?

JD/BM: There are a number of other wheelchairs designed for developing countries [see GRIT and Motivation]. These chairs both have extremely good designs and have done well. However, what makes SafariSeat unique is its stability and open-source aspect.

Other designs have used three-wheeled trike designs which are good for long distance traveling, but lack stability over rough ground. Our open-source approach is designed to allow anyone, anywhere in the world to make SafariSeat for their local community, creating both wheelchairs for disabled people and jobs within the local community.

Q. How complicated – and expensive – is it to put together a SafariSeat?

(James Seers and Janna Deeble)

(James Seers and Janna Deeble)

JD/BM: SafariSeat is designed to be low-cost and affordable to local communities. All of the components are built from bike parts and locally-sourced materials. Once finished, the open-source designs will be entirely pictographic and easy to understand. We hope that by doing this, anyone – regardless of language – with basic metal-work skills will be able to take the designs and build a SafariSeat.

Q. How much will the assembled seat sell for?

JD/BM: All of the SafariSeats donated through the Kickstarter campaign [200] will be given away for free through APDK Bombalulu. After this, SafariSeat will cost approximately £130 [a bit over $158] to build.

Workshops around the world who intend to use the designs will be able to set their own prices, but the open-source nature will allow prices to remain low.

Q. When will the SafariSeat be available?

JD/BM: We … hope that SafariSeat will be available globally by mid-2017.

Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.

The New Face of Social Media; India’s Apple Manufacturing Dilemma

Posted January 19th, 2017 at 1:04 pm (UTC-4)
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Today’s Tech Sightings:

A screenshot of a tweet posted by the Center Against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats shows an example of what the unit claims was an attempt to spread a disinformation in Prague, Czech Republic, Jan. 13, 2017. (AP)

A screenshot of a tweet posted by the Center Against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats shows an example of what the unit claims was an attempt to spread disinformation, in Prague, Czech Republic, Jan. 13, 2017. (AP)

How Social Media Is Crippling Democracy

Writer Jason Perlow argues that increased use of technology at home and work disconnects Americans from face-to-face relationships while amplifying their bad habits. Meanwhile, their interpersonal skills decline. In this ecosystem, more people rely on social media for their news, regardless of the legitimacy or truthfulness of the stories they are reading. Perlow urges people to return to old-school news consumption and become critical thinkers to avoid being sucked into alternative social media narratives put out by “corrupt” governments.

World’s Fastest Growing Smartphone Market Unsure How Badly It Wants Apple

India wants Apple to manufacture iPhones locally but can’t decide if it is willing to grant the tech giant’s demands. Some officials in the world’s fastest-growing smartphone market are reluctant to agree to Apple’s “unprecedented” requests. Apple is looking for tax and other exemptions before manufacturing its smartphones in India, possibly including long-term duty waivers.

Museum of Failed Innovation Celebrates Disasters That Drive Success

Most innovators don’t hit the jackpot with their first idea and their final success usually follows a trail of failed experiments. But there are lessons in these failures that Samuel West, CEO and co-founder of Superlab, wants to honor in the Museum of Failed Innovation in Sweden. The museum is set to open in June and will house permanent exhibits featuring notable duds from big names like Sony, Apple and more.

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Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.

New Malware Targets Google Services; Pokemon GO Goes to Davos

Posted January 18th, 2017 at 1:18 pm (UTC-4)
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Today’s Tech Sightings:

FILE - A Google search page is reflected in sunglasses in this photo illustration taken in Brussels, Belgium. (Reuters)

FILE – A Google search page is reflected in sunglasses in this photo illustration taken in Brussels, Belgium. (Reuters)

Cybercrime Gang Uses Google Services for Malware Command and Control

An organized criminal group known as Carabank is using Google services and office documents to distribute malware to turn their victims’ computers into command and control devices. This in turn enables them to launch further attacks. The notorious group has been in business since 2013 and has targeted financial institutions with Trojan malware, netting an estimated $1 billion.

Pokemon GO Adds 17 Pokestops to World Economic Forum in Davos to Combat Poverty

Niantic, the creator of the popular augmented reality game Pokemon GO said it is joining the fight against poverty in partnership with the Global Goals campaign. The announcement coincides with the meetings of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and aims to keep people focused on sustainable development goals. Each of the 17 Pokestops represents a Global Goal. The venue where the World Economic Forum is taking place will also be turned into a Pokemon Gym.

Android Will Now Store Google Searches Offline and Deliver Them When You Get Signal

Google is introducing a new Android feature that lets users with spotty connectivity search the internet when they are offline. The search giant will save user search results and deliver them once the device gets its signal back. Writing in a blog post, Google’s product manager Shekhar Sharad said the feature works in the background and will not drain the battery.

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Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.