US independent booksellers continued to expand in 2023

NEW YORK — Three years ago, Erin Decker was a middle school librarian in Kissimmee, Florida, increasingly frustrated by the state’s book bans and worried that she couldn’t make a difference remaining in her job.

So, she and fellow librarian Tania Galiñanes thought of a way to fight back.

“We just put our heads together and decided a bookstore would help make sure students could get to books that were being pulled from shelves,” says Decker, whose White Rose Books & More opened last fall in Kissimmee. The store is named for a resistance group in Nazi Germany and features a section — ringed by yellow “caution” tape — dedicated to such banned works as Maia Kabobe’s Gender Queer, Jonathan Evison’s Lawn Boy and John Green’s Looking for Alaska.

White Rose Books is part of the ever-expanding and diversifying world of independent bookstores. Even as industry sales were slow in 2023, membership in the American Booksellers Association continued its years-long revival. It now stands at 2,433, more than 200 over the previous year and nearly double since 2016. Around 190 more stores are in the process of opening over the next two years, according to the ABA.

“Our numbers are really strong, and we have a solid, diverse pipeline of new stores to come,” says Allison Hill, the book association’s CEO. She cites a range of reasons for people opening stores, from opposing bans to championing diversity to pursuing new careers after the pandemic.

“Some are opening to give back to their community. And some still just love books,” she said during a phone interview this week.

Recent members include everyone from the romance-oriented That’s What She Read in Mount Ayr, Iowa; to Seven Stories in Shawnee, Kansas, managed by 15-year-old Halley Vincent; to more than 20 Black-owned shops.

In Pasadena, California, Octavia’s Bookshelf is named for the late Black science fiction author Octavia Butler and bills itself as “a space to find community, enjoy a cup of coffee, read, relax, find unique and specially curated products from artisans from around the world and in our neighborhood.” Leah Johnson, author of the prize-winning young adult novel You Should See Me In a Crown, was troubled by the surge in book bans and by what she saw as a shortage of outlets for diverse voices. Last year, she founded Loudmouth Books, one of several independent sellers to open in Indianapolis.

“I’m not a person who dreamed of opening a bookstore. I didn’t want to be anybody’s boss,” Johnson says. “But I saw a need and I had to fill it.”

Most of the new businesses are traditional “brick and mortar” retailers. But a “bookstore” can also mean a “pop-up” business like Loc’d & Lit, which has a mission to bring “the joy of reading to the Bronx,” the New York City borough that had been viewed by the industry as a “desert” for its scarcity of bookstores. Other new stores are online only, among them the Be More Literature Children’s Bookshop and the used books seller Liberation Is Lit. Nick Pavlidis, a publisher, ghost writer and trainer of ghost writers, launched the online Beantown Books in 2023 and has since opened a small physical store in suburban Boston.

“My goal is to move into a larger space and create a friendly place for authors to host events,” he says, adding that he’d like to eventually own several stores.

Independent bookselling has never been dependably profitable, and Hill notes various concerns — rising costs, dwindling aid from the pandemic and the ongoing force of Amazon.com, which remains the industry’s dominate retailer even after the e-book market stalled a decade ago. Last month, the booksellers association filed a motion with the Federal Trade Commission, seeking to join the antitrust suit against Amazon that the FTC announced in 2023. The motion states in part that Amazon is able to offer prices “that ABA members cannot match except by forgoing a sustainable margin, or incurring a loss.”

Just opening a store requires initiative and a willingness to take risks. Decker says that she and Galiñanes had to use retirement money because lenders wouldn’t provide credit until they were actually in business. The owner of Octavia’s Bookshelf, Nikki High, is a former communications director for Trader Joe’s who relied on crowdfunding and her own savings to get her store started.

“Even with tons of planning, and asking questions and running numbers, it’s been very difficult,” High says. “I don’t know that I could have prepared myself for what a shrewd business person you have to be to making a living out of this.”

High cites a variety of challenges and adjustments — convincing customers they don’t have to order items from Amazon.com, supplementing sales by offering tote bags and journals and other non-book items. Knowing which books to stock has also proved an education.

“I would read a book and think it’s the best thing ever and order a bunch of copies, and everybody else is like, ‘No, I don’t want that book,'” she explains. “And when we started, I wanted to be everything for everybody. We had a ton of different categories. But I found out that short stories and poetry almost never sell for us. People want general fiction, bestsellers, children’s books. Classics sell very well, books by James Baldwin and Toni Morrison and bell hooks and June Jordan.”

“It’s incredibly important to listen to your customers.”

Average US vehicle age hits record of 12.6 years 

detroit — Cars, trucks and SUVs in the U.S. keep getting older, hitting a record average age of 12.6 years in 2024 as people hang on to their vehicles largely because new ones cost so much. 

S&P Global Mobility, which tracks state vehicle registration data nationwide, said Wednesday that the average vehicle age grew about two months from last year’s record. 

But the growth in average age is starting to slow as new vehicle sales start to recover from pandemic-related shortages of parts, including computer chips. The average increased by three months in 2023. 

Still, with an average U.S. new-vehicle selling price of just over $45,000 last month, many can’t afford to buy new — even though prices are down more than $2,000 from the peak in December of 2022, according to J.D. Power. 

“It’s prohibitively high for a lot of households now,” said Todd Campau, aftermarket leader for S&P Global Mobility. “So I think consumers are being painted into the corner of having to keep the vehicle on the road longer.” 

Other factors include people waiting to see if they want to buy an electric vehicle or go with a gas-electric hybrid or a gasoline vehicle. Many, he said, are worried about the charging network being built up so they can travel without worrying about running out of battery power. Also, he said, vehicles are made better these days and simply are lasting a long time. 

New vehicle sales in the U.S. are starting to return to pre-pandemic levels, with prices and interest rates the big influencing factors rather than illness and supply-chain problems, Campau said. He said he expects sales to hit around 16 million this year, up from 15.6 million last year and 13.9 million in 2022. 

As more new vehicles are sold and replace aging vehicles in the nation’s fleet of 286 million passenger vehicles, the average age should stop growing and stabilize, Campau said. And unlike immediately after the pandemic, more lower-cost vehicles are being sold, which likely will bring down the average price, he said. 

People keeping vehicles longer is good news for the local auto repair shop. About 70% of vehicles on the road are six or more years old, he said, beyond manufacturer warranties. 

Those who are able to keep their rides for multiple years usually get the oil changed regularly and follow manufacturer maintenance schedules, Campau noted.

New cars in California could alert drivers for breaking the speed limit

SACRAMENTO, California — California could eventually join the European Union in requiring all new cars to alert drivers when they break the speed limit, a proposal aimed at reducing traffic deaths that would likely impact motorists across the country should it become law.

The federal government sets safety standards for vehicles nationwide, which is why most cars now beep at drivers if their seat belt isn’t fastened. A bill in the California Legislature — which passed its first vote in the state Senate on Tuesday — would go further by requiring all new cars sold in the state by 2032 to beep at drivers when they exceed the speed limit by at least 16 kph.

“Research has shown that this does have an impact in getting people to slow down, particularly since some people don’t realize how fast that their car is going,” said state Sen. Scott Wiener, a Democrat from San Francisco and the bill’s author.

The bill narrowly passed Tuesday, an indication of the tough road it could face. Republican state Sen. Brian Dahle said he voted against it in part because he said sometimes people need to drive faster than the speed limit in an emergency.

“It’s just a nanny state that we’re causing here,” he said.

While the goal is to reduce traffic deaths, the legislation would likely impact all new car sales in the U.S. That’s because California’s auto market is so large that car makers would likely just make all of their vehicles comply with the state’s law.

California often throws its weight around to influence national — and international — policy. California has set its own emission standards for cars for decades, rules that more than a dozen other states have also adopted. And when California announced it would eventually ban the sale of new gas-powered cars, major automakers soon followed with their own announcement to phase out fossil-fuel vehicles.

The technology, known as intelligent speed assistance, uses GPS technology to compare a vehicle’s speed with a dataset of posted speed limits. Once the car is at least 16 kph over the speed limit, the system would emit “a brief, one-time visual and audio signal to alert the driver.”

It would not require California to maintain a list of posted speed limits. That would be left to manufacturers. It’s likely these maps would not include local roads or recent changes in speed limits, resulting in conflicts.

The bill states that if the system receives conflicting information about the speed limit, it must use the higher limit.

The technology is not new and has been used in Europe for years. Starting later this year, the European Union will require all new cars sold there to have the technology — although drivers would be able to turn it off.

The National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 10% of all car crashes reported to police in 2021 were speeding related — including an 8% increase in speeding-related fatalities. This was especially a problem in California, where 35% of traffic fatalities were speeding-related — the second highest in the country, according to a legislative analysis of the proposal.

Last year, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended federal regulators require all new cars to alert drivers when speeding. Their recommendation came after a crash in January 2022 when a man with a history of speeding violations was traveling more than 100 miles per hour when he ran a red light and hit a minivan, killing himself and eight other people.

The NTSB has no authority and can only make recommendations.

China’s Digital Silk Road exports internet technology, controls

washington — China promotes its help to Southeast Asian countries in modernizing their digital landscapes through investments in infrastructure as part of its “Digital Silk Road.” But rights groups say Beijing is also exporting its model of authoritarian governance of the internet through censorship, surveillance and controls.

China’s state media this week announced Chinese electrical appliance manufacturer Midea Group jointly built its first overseas 5G factory in Thailand with Thai mobile operator AIS, Chinese telecom service provider China Unicom and tech giant Huawei.

The 208,000-square-meter smart factory will have its own 5G network, Xinhua news agency reported.

Earlier this month, Beijing reached an agreement with Cambodia to establish a Digital Law Library of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Inter-Parliamentary Assembly. Cambodia’s Khmer Times said the objective is to “expand all-round cooperation in line with the strategic partnership and building a common destiny community.”

But parallel to China’s state media-promoted technology investments, rights groups say Beijing is also helping countries in the region to build what they call “digital authoritarian governance.”

Article 19, an international human rights organization dedicated to promoting freedom of expression globally and named after Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in an April report said the purpose of the Digital Silk Road is not solely to promote China’s technology industry. The report, China: The rise of digital repression in the Indo-Pacific, says Beijing is also using its technology to reshape the region’s standards of digital freedom and governance to increasingly match its own.

VOA contacted the Chinese Embassy in the U.S. for a response but did not receive one by the time of publication.

Model of digital governance

Looking at case studies of Cambodia, Malaysia, Nepal and Thailand, the Article 19 report says Beijing is spreading China’s model of digital governance along with Chinese technology and investments from companies such as Huawei, ZTE and Alibaba.

Michael Caster, Asia digital program manager with Article 19, told VOA, “China has been successful at providing a needed service, in the delivery of digital development toward greater connectivity, but also in making digital development synonymous with the adoption of PRC [People’s Republic of China]-style digital governance, which is at odds with international human rights and internet freedom principles, by instead promoting notions of total state control through censorship and surveillance, and digital sovereignty away from universal norms.”

The group says in Thailand, home to the world’s largest overseas Chinese community, agreements with China bolstered internet controls imposed after Thailand’s 2014 coup, and it notes that Bangkok has since been considering a China-style Great Firewall, the censorship mechanism Beijing uses to control online content.

In Nepal, the report notes security and intelligence-sharing agreements with China and concerns that Chinese security camera technology is being used to surveil exiled Tibetans, the largest such group outside India.

The group says Malaysia’s approach to information infrastructure appears to increasingly resemble China’s model, citing Kuala Lumpur’s cybersecurity law passed in April and its partnering with Chinese companies whose technology has been used for repressing minorities inside China.

Most significantly, Article 19 says China is involved at “all levels” of Cambodia’s digital ecosystem. Huawei, which is facing increasing bans in Western nations over cybersecurity concerns, has a monopoly on cloud services in Cambodia.

While Chinese companies say they would not hand over private data to Beijing, experts doubt they would have any choice because of national security laws.

Internet gateway

Phnom Penh announced a decree in 2021 to build a National Internet Gateway similar to China’s Great Firewall, restricting the Cambodian people’s access to Western media and social networking sites.

“That we have seen the normalization of a China-style Great Firewall in some of the countries where China’s influence is most pronounced or its digital development support strongest, such as with Cambodia, is no coincidence,” Caster said.

The Cambodian government says the portal will strengthen national security and help combat tax fraud and cybercrime. But the Internet Society, a U.S.- and Switzerland-based nonprofit internet freedom group, says it would allow the government to monitor individual internet use and transactions, and to trace identities and locations.

Kian Vesteinsson, a senior researcher for technology and democracy with rights group Freedom House, told VOA, “The Chinese Communist Party and companies that are aligned with the Chinese state have led a charge internationally to push for internet fragmentation. And when I say internet fragmentation, I mean these efforts to carve out domestic internets that are isolated from global internet traffic.”

Despite Chinese support and investment, Vesteinsson notes that Cambodia has not yet implemented the plan for a government-controlled internet.

“Building the Chinese model of digital authoritarianism into a country’s internet infrastructure is extraordinarily difficult. It’s expensive. It requires technical capacity. It requires state capacity, and all signs point to the Cambodian government struggling on those fronts.”

Vesteinsson says while civil society and foreign political pressure play a role, business concerns are also relevant as requirements to censor online speech or spy on users create costs for the private sector.

“These governments that are trying to cultivate e-commerce should keep in mind that a legal environment that is free from these obligations to do censorship and surveillance will be more appealing to companies that are evaluating whether to start up domestic operations,” he said.

Article 19’s Caster says countries concerned about China’s authoritarian internet model spreading should do more to support connectivity and internet development worldwide.

“This support should be based on human rights law and internet freedom principles,” he said, “to prevent China from exploiting internet development needs to position its services – and often by extension its authoritarian model – as the most accessible option.”

China will hold its annual internet conference in Beijing July 9-11. China’s Xinhua news agency reports this year’s conference will discuss artificial intelligence, digital government, information technology application innovation, data security and international cooperation.

Adrianna Zhang contributed to this report.

Attempts to regulate AI’s hidden hand in Americans’ lives flounder

DENVER — The first attempts to regulate artificial intelligence programs that play a hidden role in hiring, housing and medical decisions for millions of Americans are facing pressure from all sides and floundering in statehouses nationwide.

Only one of seven bills aimed at preventing AI’s penchant to discriminate when making consequential decisions — including who gets hired, money for a home or medical care — has passed. Colorado Gov. Jared Polis hesitantly signed the bill on Friday.

Colorado’s bill and those that faltered in Washington, Connecticut and elsewhere faced battles on many fronts, including between civil rights groups and the tech industry, and lawmakers wary of wading into a technology few yet understand and governors worried about being the odd-state-out and spooking AI startups.

Polis signed Colorado’s bill “with reservations,” saying in an statement he was wary of regulations dousing AI innovation. The bill has a two-year runway and can be altered before it becomes law.

“I encourage (lawmakers) to significantly improve on this before it takes effect,” Polis wrote.

Colorado’s proposal, along with six sister bills, are complex, but will broadly require companies to assess the risk of discrimination from their AI and inform customers when AI was used to help make a consequential decision for them.

The bills are separate from more than 400 AI-related bills that have been debated this year. Most are aimed at slices of AI, such as the use of deepfakes in elections or to make pornography.

The seven bills are more ambitious, applying across major industries and targeting discrimination, one of the technology’s most perverse and complex problems.

“We actually have no visibility into the algorithms that are used, whether they work or they don’t, or whether we’re discriminated against,” said Rumman Chowdhury, AI envoy for the U.S. Department of State who previously led Twitter’s AI ethics team.

While anti-discrimination laws are already on the books, those who study AI discrimination say it’s a different beast, which the U.S. is already behind in regulating.

“The computers are making biased decisions at scale,” said Christine Webber, a civil rights attorney who has worked on class action lawsuits over discrimination including against Boeing and Tyson Foods. Now, Webber is nearing final approval on one of the first-in-the-nation settlements in a class action over AI discrimination.

“Not, I should say, that the old systems were perfectly free from bias either,” said Webber. But “any one person could only look at so many resumes in the day. So you could only make so many biased decisions in one day and the computer can do it rapidly across large numbers of people.”

When you apply for a job, an apartment or a home loan, there’s a good chance AI is assessing your application: sending it up the line, assigning it a score or filtering it out. It’s estimated as many as 83% of employers use algorithms to help in hiring, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

AI itself doesn’t know what to look for in a job application, so it’s taught based on past resumes. The historical data that is used to train algorithms can smuggle in bias.

Amazon, for example, worked on a hiring algorithm that was trained on old resumes: largely male applicants. When assessing new applicants, it downgraded resumes with the word “women’s” or that listed women’s colleges because they were not represented in the historical data — the resumes — it had learned from. The project was scuttled.

Webber’s class action lawsuit alleges that an AI system that scores rental applications disproportionately assigned lower scores to Black or Hispanic applicants. A study found that an AI system built to assess medical needs passed over Black patients for special care.

Studies and lawsuits have allowed a glimpse under the hood of AI systems, but most algorithms remain veiled. Americans are largely unaware that these tools are being used, polling from Pew Research shows. Companies generally aren’t required to explicitly disclose that an AI was used.

“Just pulling back the curtain so that we can see who’s really doing the assessing and what tool is being used is a huge, huge first step,” said Webber. “The existing laws don’t work if we can’t get at least some basic information.”

That’s what Colorado’s bill, along with another surviving bill in California, are trying to change. The bills, including a flagship proposal in Connecticut that was killed under opposition from the governor, are largely similar.

Colorado’s bill will require companies using AI to help make consequential decisions for Americans to annually assess their AI for potential bias; implement an oversight program within the company; tell the state attorney general if discrimination was found; and inform to customers when an AI was used to help make a decision for them, including an option to appeal.

Labor unions and academics fear that a reliance on companies overseeing themselves means it’ll be hard to proactively address discrimination in an AI system before it’s done damage. Companies are fearful that forced transparency could reveal trade secrets, including in potential litigation, in this hyper-competitive new field.

AI companies also pushed for, and generally received, a provision that only allows the attorney general, not citizens, to file lawsuits under the new law. Enforcement details have been left up to the attorney general.

While larger AI companies have more or less been on board with these proposals, a group of smaller Colorado-based AI companies said the requirements might be manageable by behemoth AI companies, but not by budding startups.

“We are in a brand new era of primordial soup,” said Logan Cerkovnik, founder of Thumper.ai, referring to the field of AI. “Having overly restrictive legislation that forces us into definitions and restricts our use of technology while this is forming is just going to be detrimental to innovation.”

All agreed, along with many AI companies, that what’s formally called “algorithmic discrimination” is critical to tackle. But they said the bill as written falls short of that goal. Instead, they proposed beefing up existing anti-discrimination laws.

Chowdhury worries that lawsuits are too costly and time consuming to be an effective enforcement tool, and laws should instead go beyond what even Colorado is proposing. Instead, Chowdhury and academics have proposed accredited, independent organization that can explicitly test for potential bias in an AI algorithm.

“You can understand and deal with a single person who is discriminatory or biased,” said Chowdhury. “What do we do when it’s embedded into the entire institution?”

IS turns to artificial intelligence for advanced propaganda amid territorial defeats

Washington — With major military setbacks in recent years, supporters of the Islamic State terror group are increasingly relying on artificial intelligence (AI) to generate online propaganda, experts said.

A new form of propaganda developed by IS supporters is broadcasting news bulletins with AI-generated anchors in multiple languages.

The Islamic State Khorasan (ISKP) group, an IS affiliate active in Afghanistan and Pakistan, produced in a video an AI-generated anchorman to appear reading news following an IS-claimed attack in Bamiyan province in Afghanistan on May 17 that killed four people, including three Spanish tourists.

The digital image posing as an anchor spoke the Pashto language and had features resembling local residents in Bamiyan, according to The Khorasan Diary, a website dedicated to news and analysis on the region.

Another AI-generated propaganda video by Islamic State appeared on Tuesday with a different digital male news anchor announcing IS’s responsibility for a car bombing in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

“These extremists are very effective in spreading deepfake propaganda,” said Roland Abi Najem, a cybersecurity expert based in Kuwait.

He told VOA that a group like IS was already effective in producing videos with Hollywood-level quality, and the use of AI has made such production more accessible for them.

“AI now has easy tools to use to create fake content whether it’s text, photo, audio or video,” Abi Najem said, adding that with AI, “you only need data, algorithms and computing power, so anyone can create AI-generated content from their houses or garages.”

IS formally began using the practice of AI-generated news bulletins four days after an attack at a Moscow music hall on March 22 killed some 145 people. The attack was claimed by IS.

In that video, IS used a “fake” AI-generated news anchor talking about the Moscow attack, experts told The Washington Post last week.

Mona Thakkar, a research fellow at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism, said pro-IS supporters have been using character-generation techniques and text-to-speech AI tools to produce translated news bulletins of IS’s Amaq news agency.

“These efforts have garnered positive responses from other users, reflecting that, through future collaborative efforts, many supporters could produce high quality and sophisticated AI-powered propaganda videos for IS of longer durations with better graphics and more innovation techniques,” she told VOA.

Thakkar said she recently came across some pro-IS Arabic-speaking supporters on Telegram who were recommending to other supporters “that beginners use AI image generator bots on Telegram to maintain the high quality of images as the bots are very easy and quick to produce such images.”

AI-generated content for recruitment

While IS’s ability to project power largely decreased due to its territorial defeat in Syria and Iraq, experts say supporters of the terror group believe artificial intelligence offers an alternative to promote their extremist ideology.

“Their content has mainly focused on showing that they’re still powerful,” said Abi Najem. “With AI-generated content now, they can choose certain celebrities that have influence, especially on teenagers, by creating deepfake videos.”

“So first they manipulate these people by creating believable content, then they begin recruiting them,” he said.

In a recent article published on the Global Network on Extremism and Technology, researcher Daniel Siegel said generative AI technology has had a profound impact on how extremist organizations engage in influence operations online, including the use of AI-generated Muslim religious songs, known as nasheeds, for recruitment purposes.

“The strategic deployment of extremist audio deepfake nasheeds, featuring animated characters and internet personalities, marks a sophisticated evolution in the tactics used by extremists to broaden the reach of their content,” he wrote.

Siegel said that other radical groups like al-Qaida and Hamas have also begun using AI to generate content for their supporters.

Cybersecurity expert Abi Najem said he believes the cheap technology will increase the availability of AI-generated content by extremist groups on the internet.

“While currently there are no stringent regulations on the use of AI, it will be very challenging for governments to stop extremist groups from exploiting these platforms for their own gain,” he said.

This story originated in VOA’s Kurdish Service.

Australian researchers unveil device that harvests water from the air

SYDNEY — A device that absorbs water from air to produce drinkable water was officially launched in Australia Wednesday.

Researchers say the so-called Hydro Harvester, capable of producing up to 1,000 liters of drinkable water a day, could be “lifesaving during drought or emergencies.”

The device absorbs water from the atmosphere. Solar energy or heat that is harnessed from, for example, industrial processes are used to generate hot, humid air. That is then allowed to cool, producing water for drinking or irrigation.

The Australian team said that unlike other commercially available atmospheric water generators, their invention works by heating air instead of cooling it.

Laureate Professor Behdad Moghtaderi, a chemical engineer and director of the University of Newcastle’s Centre for Innovative Energy Technologies, told VOA how the technology operates.  

“Hydro Harvester uses an absorbing material to absorb and dissolve moisture from air. So essentially, we use renewable energy, let’s say, for instance, solar energy or waste heat. We basically produce super saturated, hot, humid air out of the system,” Moghtaderi said. “When you condense water contained in that air you would have the drinking water at your disposal.”

The researchers say the device can produce enough drinking water each day to sustain a small rural town of up to 400 people. It could also help farmers keep livestock alive during droughts.

Moghtaderi says the technology could be used in parts of the world where water is scarce.

Researchers were motivated by the fact that Australia is an arid and dry country.

“More than 2 billion people around the world, they are in a similar situation where they do not have access to, sort of, high-quality water and they deal with water scarcity,” Moghtaderi said

Trials of the technology will be conducted in several remote Australian communities this year.

The World Economic Forum, an international research organization, says “water scarcity continues to be a pervasive global challenge.”

It believes that atmospheric water generation technology is a “promising emergency solution that can immediately generate drinkable water using moisture in the air.”

However, it cautions that generally the technology is not cheap, and estimates that one mid-sized commercial unit can cost between $30,000 and $50,000.

 

Biden releasing 1 million barrels of gasoline from Northeast reserve in bid to lower prices at pump

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration said Tuesday that it is releasing 1 million barrels of gasoline from a Northeast reserve established after Superstorm Sandy in a bid to lower prices at the pump this summer. 

The sale, from storage sites in New Jersey and Maine, will be allocated in increments of 100,000 barrels at a time. The approach will create a competitive bidding process that ensures gasoline can flow into local retailers ahead of the July 4 holiday and sold at competitive prices, the Energy Department said. The move is intended to help “lower costs for American families and consumers,” the department said in a statement. 

Gas prices average about $3.60 per gallon nationwide as of Tuesday, up 6 cents from a year ago, according to AAA (American Automobile Association). Tapping gasoline reserves is one of the few actions a president can take by himself to try to control inflation, an election year liability for the party in control of the White House. 

“The Biden-Harris administration is laser-focused on lowering prices at the pump for American families, especially as drivers hit the road for summer driving season,” Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said in the statement. “By strategically releasing this reserve in between Memorial Day and July 4th, we are ensuring sufficient supply flows to the tri-state (area) and Northeast at a time hardworking Americans need it the most.” 

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said release of gas from the Northeast reserve builds on actions by President Joe Biden, a Democrat, “to lower gas and energy costs — including historic releases from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and the largest-ever investment in clean energy.” 

Biden significantly drained the Strategic Petroleum Reserve in 2022 following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, dropping the stockpile to its lowest level since the 1980s. The election-year move helped stabilize gasoline prices that had been rising in the wake of the war in Europe but drew complaints from Republicans that the Democratic president was playing politics with a reserve meant for national emergencies.

Samsung to expand chip output from Texas

The Biden administration last month announced $6.4 billion in direct funding to back South Korean tech giant Samsung’s new semiconductor cluster in central Texas. That means big changes for the town of Taylor. Deana Mitchell has our story

Researchers use artificial intelligence to classify brain tumors

SYDNEY — Researchers in Australia and the United States say that a new artificial intelligence tool has allowed them to classify brain tumors more quickly and accurately.  

The current method for identifying different kinds of brain tumors, while accurate, can take several weeks to produce results.  The method, called DNA methylation-based profiling, is not available at many hospitals around the world.

To address these challenges, a research team from the Australian National University, in collaboration with the National Cancer Institute in the United States, has developed a way to predict DNA methylation, which acts like a switch to control gene activity.  

This allows them to classify brain tumors into 10 major categories using a deep learning model.

This is a branch of artificial intelligence that teaches computers to process data in a way that is inspired by a human brain.

The joint U.S.-Australian system is called DEPLOY and uses microscopic pictures of a patient’s tissue called histopathology images.

The researchers see the DEPLOY technology as complementary to an initial diagnosis by a pathologist or physician.

Danh-Tai Hoang, a research fellow at the Australian National University, told VOA that AI will enhance current diagnostic methods that can often be slow.

“The technique is very time consuming,” Hoang said. “It is often around two to three weeks to obtain a result from the test, whereas patients with high-grade brain tumors often require treatment as soon as possible because time is the goal for brain tumor(s), so they need to get treatment as soon as possible.”

The research team said its AI model was validated on large datasets of approximately 4,000 patients from across the United States and Europe and an accuracy rate of 95 percent.

Their study has been published in the journal Nature Medicine.

Companies trying to attract more smartphone users across Africa, but there are risks

Accra, Ghana — Anita Akpeere prepared fried rice in her kitchen in Ghana’s capital as a flurry of notifications for restaurant orders lit up apps on her phone. “I don’t think I could work without a phone in my line of business,” she said, as requests came in for her signature dish, a traditional fermented dumpling.

Internet-enabled phones have transformed many lives, but they can play a unique role in sub-Saharan Africa, where infrastructure and public services are among the world’s least developed, said Jenny Aker, a professor who studies the issue at Tufts University. At times, technology in Africa has leapfrogged gaps, including providing access to mobile money for people without bank accounts.

Despite growing mobile internet coverage on the continent of 1.3 billion people, just 25% of adults in sub-Saharan Africa have access to it, according to Claire Sibthorpe, head of digital inclusion at the U.K.-based mobile phone lobbying group GSMA. Expense is the main barrier. The cheapest smartphone costs up to 95% of the monthly salary for the poorest 20% of the region’s population, Sibthorpe said.

Literacy rates that are below the global average, and lack of services in many African languages — some 2,000 are spoken across the continent, according to The African Language Program at Harvard University — are other reasons why a smartphone isn’t a compelling investment for some.

“If you buy a car, it’s because you can drive it,” said Alain Capo-Chichi, chief executive of CERCO Group, a company that has developed a smartphone that functions through voice command and is available in 50 African languages such as Yoruba, Swahili and Wolof.

Even in Ghana, where the lingua franca is English, knowing how to use smartphones and apps can be a challenge for newcomers.

One new company in Ghana is trying to close the digital gap. Uniti Networks offers financing to help make smartphones more affordable and coaches users to navigate its platform of apps.

For Cyril Fianyo, a 64-year-old farmer in Ghana’s eastern Volta region, the phone has expanded his activities beyond calls and texts. Using his identity card, he registered with Uniti, putting down a deposit worth 340 Ghanaian Cedis ($25) for a smartphone and will pay the remaining 910 Cedis ($66) in installments.

He was shown how to navigate apps that interested him, including a third-party farming app called Cocoa Link that offers videos of planting techniques, weather information and details about the challenges of climate change that have affected cocoa and other crops.

Fianyo, who previously planted according to his intuition and rarely interacts with farming advisors, was optimistic that the technology would increase his yields.

“I will know the exact time to plant because of the weather forecast,” he said.

Kami Dar, chief executive of Uniti Networks, said the mobile internet could help address other challenges including accessing health care. The company has launched in five communities across Ghana with 650 participants and wants to reach 100,000 users within five years.

Aker, the scholar, noted that the potential impact of mobile phones across Africa is immense but said there is limited evidence that paid health or agriculture apps are benefiting people there. She asserted that the only beneficial impacts are reminders to take medicine or get vaccinated.

Having studied agricultural apps and their impact, she said it doesn’t seem that farmers are getting better prices or improving their income.

Capo-Chichi from CERCO Group said a dearth of useful apps and content is another reason that more people in Africa aren’t buying smartphones.

Dar said Uniti Networks learns from mistakes. In a pilot in northern Ghana designed to help cocoa farmers contribute to their pensions, there was high engagement, but farmers didn’t find the app user-friendly and needed extra coaching. After the feedback, the pension provider changed the interface to improve navigation.

Others are finding benefit with Uniti’s platform. Mawufemor Vitor, a church secretary in Hohoe, said one health app has assisted her to track her menstruation to help prevent pregnancy. And Fianyo, the farmer, has used the platform to find information on herbal medicine.

But mobile phones are no substitute for investment in public services and infrastructure, Aker said.

She also expressed concerns about the privacy of data in the hands of private technology providers and governments. With digital IDs in development in African nations such as Kenya and South Africa, this could pave the way for further abuses, Aker said.

Uniti Networks is a for-profit business, paid for each customer that signs up for paying apps. Dar asserted that he was not targeting vulnerable populations to sell them unnecessary services and said Uniti only features apps that align with its idea of impact, with a focus on health, education, finance and agriculture.

Dar said Uniti has rejected lucrative approaches from many companies including gambling firms. “Tech can be used for awful things,” he said.

He acknowledged that Uniti tracks users on the platform to provide incentives, in the form of free data, and to provide feedback to app developers. He acknowledged that users’ health and financial data could be at threat from outside attack but said Uniti has decentralized data storage in an attempt to lessen the risk.

Still, the potential to provide solutions can outweigh the risks, Aker said, noting two areas where the technology could be transformative: education and insurance.

She said mobile phones could help overcome the illiteracy that still affects 773 million people worldwide according to UNESCO. Increased access to insurance, still not widely used in parts of Africa, could provide protection to millions who face shocks on the front lines of climate change and conflict.

Back in Fianyo’s fields, his new smartphone has attracted curiosity. “This is something I would like to be part of,” said neighboring farmer Godsway Kwamigah.

China launches anti-dumping probe into EU, US, Japan, Taiwan plastics

Beijing — China’s commerce ministry on Sunday launched an anti-dumping probe into POM copolymers, a type of engineering plastic, imported from the European Union, United States, Japan and Taiwan.

The plastics can partially replace metals such as copper and zinc and have various applications including in auto parts, electronics, and medical equipment, the ministry said in a statement.

The investigation should be completed in a year but could be extended for six months, it said.

The European Commission, which oversees EU trade policy, said it would carefully study the contents of the investigation before deciding on any next steps.

“We expect China to ensure that this investigation is fully in line with all relevant WTO (World Trade Organization) rules and obligations,” a spokesperson said.

China’s plastics probe comes amid a broader trade row with the United States and Europe.

The United States on Tuesday unveiled steep tariff increases on Chinese electric vehicles, or EVs, computer chips, medical products and other imports.

On Friday, the European Union launched a trade investigation into Chinese tinplate steel, the latest in a string of EU trade and subsidy probes into Chinese exports.

Most notably, the European Commission launched a probe last September to decide whether to impose punitive tariffs on cheaper Chinese EVs that it suspects of benefiting from state subsidies.

Beijing argues the recent focus by the United States and Europe on the risks to other economies from China’s excess capacity is misguided.

Chinese officials say the criticism understates innovation by Chinese companies in key industries and overstates the importance of state support in driving their growth.

Blue Origin flies thrill seekers to space, including oldest astronaut 

Washington — After a nearly two year hiatus, Blue Origin flew adventurers to space on Sunday including a former Air Force pilot who was denied the chance to be the United States’ first Black astronaut decades ago. 

 

It was the first crewed launch for the enterprise owned and founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos since a rocket mishap in 2022 left rival Virgin Galactic as the sole operator in the fledgling suborbital tourism market. 

 

Six people including the sculptor Ed Dwight, who was on track to become NASA’s first ever astronaut of color in the 1960s before being controversially spurned, launched around 09:36 am local time (1436 GMT) from the Launch Site One base in west Texas, a live feed showed. 

 

Dwight — at 90 years, 8 months and 10 days — became the oldest person to ever go to space. 

 

“This is a life-changing experience, everybody needs to do this,” he exclaimed after the flight. 

 

Dwight added: “I thought I didn’t really need this in my life,” reflecting on his omission from the astronaut corps, which was his first experience with failure as a young man. “But I lied,” he said with a hearty laugh. 

 

Mission NS-25 is the seventh human flight for Blue Origin, which sees short jaunts on the New Shepard suborbital vehicle as a stepping stone to greater ambitions, including the development of a full-fledged heavy rocket and lunar lander. 

 

To date, the company has flown 31 people aboard New Shepard — a small, fully reusable rocket system named after Alan Shepard, the first American in space. 

The program encountered a setback when a New Shepard rocket caught fire shortly after launch on September 12, 2022, even though the uncrewed capsule ejected safely. 

 

A federal investigation revealed an overheating engine nozzle was at fault. Blue Origin took corrective steps and carried out a successful uncrewed launch in December 2023, paving the way for Sunday’s mission. 

 

After liftoff, the sleek and roomy capsule separated from the booster, which produces zero carbon emissions. The rocket performed a precision vertical landing. 

 

As the spaceship soared beyond the Karman Line, the internationally recognized boundary of space 100 kilometers above sea level, passengers had the chance to marvel at the Earth’s curvature and unbuckle their seatbelts to float — or somersault — during a few minutes of weightlessness. 

 

The capsule then reentered the atmosphere, deploying its parachutes for a desert landing in a puff of sand. However, one of the three parachutes failed to fully inflate, possibly resulting in a harder landing than expected. 

 

Bezos himself was on the program’s first ever crewed flight in 2021. A few months later, Star Trek’s William Shatner blurred the lines between science fiction and reality when he became the world’s oldest ever astronaut aged 90, decades after he first played a space traveler. 

 

Dwight, who was almost two months older than Shatner at the time of his flight, became only the second nonagenarian to venture beyond Earth. 

 

Astronaut John Glenn remains the oldest to orbit the planet, a feat he achieved in 1998 at the age 77 aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery. 

 

Blue Origin’s competitor in suborbital space is Virgin Galactic, which deploys a supersonic spaceplane that is dropped from beneath the wings of a massive carrier plane at high altitude. 

 

Virgin Galactic experienced its own two-year safety pause because of an anomaly linked with the 2021 flight that carried its founder British tycoon Richard Branson into space. But the company later hit its stride with half a dozen successful flights in quick succession. 

 

Sunday’s mission finally gave Dwight the chance he was denied decades ago. 

 

He was an elite test pilot when he was appointed by President John F Kennedy to join a highly competitive Air Force program known as a pathway for the astronaut corps, but was ultimately not picked. 

 

He left the military in 1966, citing the strain of racial politics, before dedicating his life to telling Black history through sculpture. His art, displayed around the country, includes iconic figures like Martin Luther King Jr, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and more. 

Russian court freezes assets of two German banks in gas project dispute 

VIENNA — A court in the Russian city of St. Petersburg has ordered the seizing of assets of Germany’s Deutsche Bank and Commerzbank in the country, the Russia state news agency Tass says. The order is in response to a lawsuit over the planned construction of a liquefied natural gas terminal in the Baltic Sea.

The banks were among the guarantors in the contract for building a gas processing plant by a multinational construction firm, Renaissance Heavy Industries, and German company Linde. But the project was cancelled after Western sanctions, with the banks withdrawing their guarantees.

The cancellation came at the request of RusChemAlliance, a subsidiary of Russian gas giant Gazprom and the operator of the project, German news agency dpa reported.

RusChemAlliance paid advances to Linde for the building of the plant. The company is claiming about 238.61 million euros ($260 million) against Deutsche Bank and 94.92 million euros ($103 million) against Commerzbank, according to dpa.

In a statement, Deutsche Bank said that it has made a provision for approximately 260 million euros ($283 million) under an indemnification agreement.

It also said that it would need to assess the immediate operational impact in Russia and see how the claim will be viewed by the Russian courts.

Western nations have imposed a wide range of sanctions against Russia over Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine two years ago.

Musk, Indonesian health minister, launch Starlink for health sector 

DENPASAR, BALI, INDONESIA — Elon Musk and Indonesian Health Minister Budi Gunadi Sadikin launched SpaceX’s satellite internet service for the nation’s health sector on Sunday, aiming to improve access in remote parts of the sprawling archipelago.   

Musk, the billionaire head of SpaceX and Tesla TSLA.O, arrived on the Indonesian resort island of Bali by private jet before attending the launch ceremony at a community health centre in the provincial capital, Denpasar.   

Musk, wearing a green batik shirt, said the availability of the Starlink service in Indonesia would help millions in far-flung parts of the country to access the internet. The country is home to more than 270 million people and three different time zones.

“I’m very excited to bring connectivity to places that have low connectivity,” Musk said, “If you have access to the internet you can learn anything.”   

Starlink was launched at three Indonesian health centers on Sunday, including two in Bali and one on the remote island of Aru in Maluku.   

A video presentation screened at the launch showed how high internet speeds enabled the real-time input of data to better tackle health challenges such as stunting and malnutrition.   

Asked about whether he planned to also invest in Indonesia’s electric vehicle industry, Musk said he was focused on Starlink first.   

“We are focusing this event on Starlink and the benefits that connectivity brings to remote islands,” he said, “I think it’s really to emphasize the importance of internet connectivity, how much of that can be a lifesaver.”   

Indonesia’s government has been trying for years to lure Musk’s auto firm Tesla to build manufacturing plants related to electric vehicles as the government wants to develop its EV sector using the country’s rich nickel resources.   

The tech tycoon is scheduled to meet Indonesian President Joko Widodo on Monday, where he will also address the World Water Forum taking place on the island.   

Communications Minister Budi Arie Setiadi, who also attended the Bali launch, said Starlink was now available commercially, but the government would focus its services first for outer and underdeveloped regions.   

Prior to Sunday’s launch, Starlink obtained a permit to operate as an internet service provider for retail consumers and had been given the go-ahead to provide networks, having received a very small aperture terminal (VSAT) permit, Budi Setiadi told Reuters.   

SpaceX’s Starlink, which owns around 60% of the roughly 7,500 satellites orbiting earth, is dominant in the satellite internet sphere.   

Indonesia is the third country in Southeast Asia where Starlink will operate. Malaysia issued the firm a license to provide internet services last year and a Philippine-based firm signed a deal with SpaceX in 2022.   

Starlink is also used extensively in Ukraine, where it is employed by the military, hospitals, businesses and aid organizations. 

Illness took away her voice. AI created a replica she carries in her phone

PROVIDENCE, RHODE ISLAND — The voice Alexis “Lexi” Bogan had before last summer was exuberant.

She loved to belt out Taylor Swift and Zach Bryan ballads in the car. She laughed all the time — even while corralling misbehaving preschoolers or debating politics with friends over a backyard fire pit. In high school, she was a soprano in the chorus.

Then that voice was gone.

Doctors in August removed a life-threatening tumor lodged near the back of her brain. When the breathing tube came out a month later, Bogan had trouble swallowing and strained to say “Hi” to her parents. Months of rehabilitation aided her recovery, but her speech is still impaired. Friends, strangers and her own family members struggle to understand what she is trying to tell them.

In April, the 21-year-old got her old voice back. Not the real one, but a voice clone generated by artificial intelligence that she can summon from a phone app. Trained on a 15-second time capsule of her teenage voice — sourced from a cooking demonstration video she recorded for a high school project — her synthetic but remarkably real-sounding AI voice can now say almost anything she wants.

She types a few words or sentences into her phone and the app instantly reads it aloud.

“Hi, can I please get a grande iced brown sugar oat milk shaken espresso,” said Bogan’s AI voice as she held the phone out her car’s window at a Starbucks drive-thru.

Experts have warned that rapidly improving AI voice-cloning technology can amplify phone scams, disrupt democratic elections and violate the dignity of people — living or dead — who never consented to having their voice recreated to say things they never spoke.

It’s been used to produce deepfake robocalls to New Hampshire voters mimicking President Joe Biden. In Maryland, authorities recently charged a high school athletic director with using AI to generate a fake audio clip of the school’s principal making racist remarks.

But Bogan and a team of doctors at Rhode Island’s Lifespan hospital group believe they’ve found a use that justifies the risks. Bogan is one of the first people — the only one with her condition — who have been able to recreate a lost voice with OpenAI’s new Voice Engine. Some other AI providers, such as the startup ElevenLabs, have tested similar technology for people with speech impediments and loss — including a lawyer who now uses her voice clone in the courtroom.

“We’re hoping Lexi’s a trailblazer as the technology develops,” said Dr. Rohaid Ali, a neurosurgery resident at Brown University’s medical school and Rhode Island Hospital. Millions of people with debilitating strokes, throat cancer or neurogenerative diseases could benefit, he said.

“We should be conscious of the risks, but we can’t forget about the patient and the social good,” said Dr. Fatima Mirza, another resident working on the pilot. “We’re able to help give Lexi back her true voice and she’s able to speak in terms that are the most true to herself.”

Mirza and Ali, who are married, caught the attention of ChatGPT-maker OpenAI because of their previous research project at Lifespan using the AI chatbot to simplify medical consent forms for patients. The San Francisco company reached out while on the hunt earlier this year for promising medical applications for its new AI voice generator.

Bogan was still slowly recovering from surgery. The illness started last summer with headaches, blurry vision and a droopy face, alarming doctors at Hasbro Children’s Hospital in Providence. They discovered a vascular tumor the size of a golf ball pressing on her brain stem and entangled in blood vessels and cranial nerves.

“It was a battle to get control of the bleeding and get the tumor out,” said pediatric neurosurgeon Dr. Konstantina Svokos.

The tumor’s location and severity coupled with the complexity of the 10-hour surgery damaged Bogan’s control of her tongue muscles and vocal cords, impeding her ability to eat and talk, Svokos said.

“It’s almost like a part of my identity was taken when I lost my voice,” Bogan said.

The feeding tube came out this year. Speech therapy continues, enabling her to speak intelligibly in a quiet room but with no sign she will recover the full lucidity of her natural voice.

“At some point, I was starting to forget what I sounded like,” Bogan said. “I’ve been getting so used to how I sound now.”

Whenever the phone rang at the family’s home in the Providence suburb of North Smithfield, she would push it over to her mother to take her calls. She felt she was burdening her friends whenever they went to a noisy restaurant. Her dad, who has hearing loss, struggled to understand her.

Back at the hospital, doctors were looking for a pilot patient to experiment with OpenAI’s technology.

“The first person that came to Dr. Svokos’ mind was Lexi,” Ali said. “We reached out to Lexi to see if she would be interested, not knowing what her response would be. She was game to try it out and see how it would work.”

Bogan had to go back a few years to find a suitable recording of her voice to “train” the AI system on how she spoke. It was a video in which she explained how to make a pasta salad.

Her doctors intentionally fed the AI system just a 15-second clip. Cooking sounds make other parts of the video imperfect. It was also all that OpenAI needed — an improvement over previous technology requiring much lengthier samples.

They also knew that getting something useful out of 15 seconds could be vital for any future patients who have no trace of their voice on the internet. A brief voicemail left for a relative might have to suffice.

When they tested it for the first time, everyone was stunned by the quality of the voice clone. Occasional glitches — a mispronounced word, a missing intonation — were mostly imperceptible. In April, doctors equipped Bogan with a custom-built phone app that only she can use.

“I get so emotional every time I hear her voice,” said her mother, Pamela Bogan, tears in her eyes.

“I think it’s awesome that I can have that sound again,” added Lexi Bogan, saying it helped “boost my confidence to somewhat where it was before all this happened.”

She now uses the app about 40 times a day and sends feedback she hopes will help future patients. One of her first experiments was to speak to the kids at the preschool where she works as a teaching assistant. She typed in “ha ha ha ha” expecting a robotic response. To her surprise, it sounded like her old laugh.

She’s used it at Target and Marshall’s to ask where to find items. It’s helped her reconnect with her dad. And it’s made it easier for her to order fast food.

Bogan’s doctors have started cloning the voices of other willing Rhode Island patients and hope to bring the technology to hospitals around the world. OpenAI said it is treading cautiously in expanding the use of Voice Engine, which is not yet publicly available.

A number of smaller AI startups already sell voice-cloning services to entertainment studios or make them more widely available. Most voice-generation vendors say they prohibit impersonation or abuse, but they vary in how they enforce their terms of use.

“We want to make sure that everyone whose voice is used in the service is consenting on an ongoing basis,” said Jeff Harris, OpenAI’s lead on the product. “We want to make sure that it’s not used in political contexts. So we’ve taken an approach of being very limited in who we’re giving the technology to.”

Harris said OpenAI’s next step involves developing a secure “voice authentication” tool so that users can replicate only their own voice. That might be “limiting for a patient like Lexi, who had sudden loss of her speech capabilities,” he said. “So we do think that we’ll need to have high-trust relationships, especially with medical providers, to give a little bit more unfettered access to the technology.”

Bogan has impressed her doctors with her focus on thinking about how the technology could help others with similar or more severe speech impediments.

“Part of what she has done throughout this entire process is think about ways to tweak and change this,” Mirza said. “She’s been a great inspiration for us.”

While for now she must fiddle with her phone to get the voice engine to talk, Bogan imagines an AI voice engine that improves upon older remedies for speech recovery — such as the robotic-sounding electrolarynx or a voice prosthesis — in melding with the human body or translating words in real time.

She’s less sure about what will happen as she grows older and her AI voice continues to sound like she did as a teenager. Maybe the technology could “age” her AI voice, she said.

For now, “even though I don’t have my voice fully back, I have something that helps me find my voice again,” she said.

Changes from Visa mean Americans will carry fewer credit, debit cards

new york — Your wallet may soon be getting thinner.

Visa on Wednesday announced major changes to how credit and debit cards will operate in the U.S. in the coming months and years.

The new features could mean Americans will be carrying fewer physical cards in their wallets, and will make the 16-digit credit or debit card number printed on every card increasingly irrelevant.

They will be some of the biggest changes to how payments operate in the U.S. since the U.S. rolled out chip-embedded cards several years ago. They also come as Americans have many more options to pay for purchases beyond “credit or debit,” including buy now, pay later companies, peer-to-peer payment options, paying directly with a bank, or digital payment systems such as Apple Pay.

“I think (with these features) we’re getting past the point where consumers may never need to manually enter an account number ever again,” said Mark Nelsen, Visa’s global head of consumer payments.

The biggest change coming for Americans will be the ability for banks to issue one physical payment card that will be connected to multiple bank accounts. That means no more carrying, for example, a Bank of America or Chase debit card as well as their respective credit cards in a physical wallet. Americans will be able to set criteria with their bank — such as having all purchases below $100 or with a certain merchant applied to the debit card, while other purchases go on the credit card.

The feature, already being used in Asia, will be available this summer. Buy now, pay later company Affirm is the first of Visa’s customers to roll out the feature in the U.S.

Fraud prompts changes

Some of Visa’s new features are in response to online-payments fraud, which continues to increase as more countries adopt digital payments. The company based in San Francisco, California, estimates that payment fraud happens roughly seven times more often online than it does in person, and there are now billions of stolen credit and debit card numbers available to criminals.

Other new elements are also in response to features that non-payments companies have rolled out in recent years. The Apple Card, which uses Mastercard as its payment network, does not come with a printed 16-digit account number and Apple Card users can request a fresh credit card number at any time without having to dispose of the physical card.

Visa executives see a future where banks will issue cards where the 16-digit account number, if the new cards come with them, is largely symbolic.

Soon, fingerprints can approve transactions

Among the other updates unveiled by Visa are changes to tap-to-pay features. Americans will be able to tap their credit or debit cards to their smartphones to add the card to mobile wallets, instead of using a smartphone’s camera to scan in a card’s information, or tap the card to their smartphones to approve a transaction online. Visa will also start implementing biometrics to approve transactions, similar to how Apple devices use a fingerprint or face scan to approve transactions.

The features will take time to filter down to the banks, which will decide when or what to implement for their customers. But because the banks and credit card companies are Visa’s customers, and issue cards with the Visa label, these are features that the financial institutions have been asking for.

US arrests American and Ukrainian in North Korea-linked IT infiltration scheme

WASHINGTON — U.S. prosecutors on Thursday announced the arrests of an American woman and a Ukrainian man they say helped North Korea-linked IT workers posing as Americans to obtain remote-work jobs at hundreds of U.S. companies.

The U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) said the elaborate scheme, aimed at generating revenue for North Korea in contravention of international sanctions, involved the infiltration of more than 300 U.S. firms, including Fortune 500 companies and banks, and the theft of the identities of more than 60 Americans.

A DoJ statement said the overseas IT workers also attempted to gain employment and access to information at two U.S. government agencies, although these efforts were “generally unsuccessful.”

An earlier State Department statement said the scheme had generated at least $6.8 million for North Korea. It said the North Koreans involved were linked to North Korea’s Munitions Industry Department, which oversees development of the country’s ballistic missiles, weapons production, and research and development programs.

An indictment filed in federal court in Washington last week and unsealed on Thursday said charges had been filed against Christina Marie Chapman, 49, of Litchfield Park, Arizona; Ukrainian Oleksandr Didenko, 27, of Kyiv; and three other foreign nationals.

A Justice Department statement said Chapman was arrested on Wednesday, while Didenko was arrested on May 7 by Polish authorities at the request of the United States, which is seeking his extradition.

The State Department announced a reward of up to $5 million for information related to Chapman’s alleged co-conspirators, who used the aliases Jiho Han, Haoran Xu and Chunji Jin, and another unindicted individual using the aliases Zhonghua and Venechor S.

Court records did not list lawyers for those arrested and it was not immediately clear whether they had legal representation.

The head of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, Nicole Argentieri, said the alleged crimes “benefited the North Korean government, giving it a revenue stream and, in some instances, proprietary information stolen by the co-conspirators.”

The charges “should be a wakeup call for American companies and government agencies that employ remote IT workers,” she said in the statement.

It said the scheme “defrauded U.S. companies across myriad industries, including multiple well-known Fortune 500 companies, U.S. banks, and other financial service providers.”

The DoJ said Didenko was accused of creating fake accounts at U.S. IT job search platforms, selling them to overseas IT workers, some of whom he believed were North Korean. It said overseas IT workers using Didenko’s services were also working with Chapman.

Didenko’s online domain, upworksell.com, was seized Thursday by the Justice Department, the statement said.

The DOJ statement said the FBI executed search warrants for U.S.-based “laptop farms” – residences that hosted multiple laptops for overseas IT workers.

It said that through these farms, including one Chapman hosted from her home, U.S.-based facilitators logged onto U.S. company computer networks and allowed the overseas IT workers to remotely access the laptops, using U.S. IP addresses to make it appear they were in the United States.

The statement said search warrants for four U.S. residences associated with laptop farms controlled by Didenko were issued in the Southern District of California, the Eastern District of Tennessee, and Eastern District of Virginia, and executed between May 8 and May 10.

North Korea is under U.N. sanctions aimed at cutting funding for its missile and nuclear weapons programs and experts say it has sought to generate income illicitly, including through IT workers.

Confidential research by a now-disbanded U.N. sanctions monitoring panel seen by Reuters on Tuesday showed they had been investigating 97 suspected North Korean cyberattacks on cryptocurrency companies between 2017 and 2024, valued at some $3.6 billion.

The U.N. sanctions monitors were disbanded at the end of April after Russia vetoed renewal of their mandate.

A research report from a Washington think tank in April said North Korean animators may have helped create popular television cartoons for big Western firms despite international sanctions.