Votes in 18 nations ‘hacked’ in last year

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China disrupted use of WhatsApp prior to official government conferences, the report says

Elections in 18 separate nations were influenced by online disinformation campaigns last year, suggests research.

Independent watchdog Freedom House looked at how online discourse was influenced by governments, bots and paid opinion formers.

In total, 30 governments were actively engaged in using social media to stifle dissent, said the report.

Educating users to spot fake news and making tech firms police their networks could combat the manipulation, it said.

Devastating impact

The annual report studied the state of internet freedom across 65 nations – covering about 87% of the world’s net-using population.

For the seventh year running, it said, net freedom had declined as governments stepped up efforts to control what citizens said, did and shared online.

The different tactics used to influence online speech included:

  • automated bots that echoed official messages
  • armies of paid commentators that swamped discussions with pro-government views
  • false news sites that spread misleading information
  • trolling that soaked up critics’ time with personal attacks

Used alongside more overt technical controls such as firewalls, content filters and blocks on technical tools such as virtual private networks, the manipulation of social media had become a key tool for repressive regimes, it said.

“Not only is this manipulation difficult to detect, it is more difficult to combat than other types of censorship, such as website blocking, because it’s dispersed and because of the sheer number of people and bots deployed to do it,” said Sanja Kelly, head of the Freedom on the Net research project.

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Mobile services and apps were often disrupted by regimes keen to stifle political chatter, the report says

Ms Kelly said China and Russia had pioneered widespread net controls but the techniques had now gone “global”.

Many other nations, including Turkey, the Philippines, Syria and Ethiopia, now employed them extensively, she said.

“The effects of these rapidly spreading techniques on democracy and civic activism are potentially devastating,” added Ms Kelly.

Official efforts to control debate were most obvious during elections, said the Freedom House report – which were held in 18 of the countries researchers examined.

Usually the activity was contained within one nation, but increasingly governments were looking to social media to subvert debate beyond their own borders.

Russia, in particular, said the report, had made significant efforts to influence the US presidential election.

It said less than 25% of the world’s net users lived in nations where net access could be considered free, meaning:

  • no significant obstacles to getting online
  • few restrictions on what could be shared or viewed
  • surveillance was limited
  • no significant repercussions for those exercising free speech

The report said net freedom could be aided by:

  • large-scale programmes that showed people how to spot fake news
  • putting tight controls on political adverts
  • making social media giants do more to remove bots and tune algorithms to be more objective

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Connected toys have ‘worrying’ security issues

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The security services have warned about the dangers of toys being exploited by malicious hackers

Consumer watchdog Which? has called on retailers to stop selling some popular toys it says have “proven” security issues.

Those toys include Furby Connect, the i-Que robot, Cloudpets and Toy-fi Teddy.

Which? found that there was no authentication required between the toys and the devices they could link with via Bluetooth.

Two of the manufacturers said they took security very seriously.

Sloppy security

The lack of authentication meant that, in theory, any device within physical range could link to the toy and take control or send messages, the watchdog said.

“Connected toys are becoming increasingly popular, but as our investigation shows, anyone considering buying one should apply a level of caution,” said Alex Neill, managing director of home products and services at Which?

“Safety and security should be the absolute priority with any toy. If that can’t be guaranteed, then the products should not be sold.”

Hasbro, which makes the Furby Connect, said in a statement that it believed the results of the tests carried out for Which? had been achieved in very specific conditions.

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German parents were told to destroy dolls that could be used to spy on children

“A tremendous amount of engineering would be required to reverse-engineer the product as well as to create new firmware,” it said.

“We feel confident in the way we have designed both the toy and the app to deliver a secure play experience.”

I-Que maker Vivid Imagination said there had been “no reports of these products being used in a malicious way” but added that it would review Which?’s recommendations.

Spiral Toys, which makes Cloudpets and Toy Fi, did not comment.

Other toys tested by Which? included the Wowee Chip, Mattel Hello Barbie and Fisher Price Smart Toy Bear – but these were not found to have serious security concerns.

Cyber-security expert Prof Alan Woodward, from Surrey University, told the BBC it was a “no brainer” that toys with security issues should not be put on sale.

“Sadly, there have been many examples in the past two to three years of connected toys that have security flaws that put children at risk,” he said.

“Whether it is sloppiness on the part of the manufacturer, or their rush to build a product down to a certain price, the consequences are the same.

“To produce these toys is bad enough, but to then stock them as a retailer knowing that they are potentially putting children at risk is quite unacceptable.”

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Star Wars game in U-turn after player anger

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Games publisher EA has changed a rule in its Star Wars Battlefront II video game after a huge backlash.

During the game, players have to obtain credits – either by buying them or through long hours of game play – to unlock popular characters including Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader.

Many players said it was unfair as the gaming required worked out at around 40 hours per character, unless they paid.

EA says the number of credits required will now be reduced by 75%.

“Unlocking a hero is a great accomplishment in the game, something we want players to have fun earning,” said executive producer John Wasilczyk from the developer Dice, in a statement.

“We used data from the beta [testing period] to help set those levels, but it’s clear that more changes were needed.”

The change will be effective from today, he added.

The credit system has faced huge criticism from the game’s fans.

The game without any of the extras is available for pre-order at £69.99 in the UK, which many felt meant there should not be additional payments for the most popular Star Wars characters.

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Twitter post by @SidAlpha: Good news! You can unlock everything in Star Wars battlefront EA 2 if you play it for a mere 8 hours a day. It will only take you a little over 1 year and 7 months to accomplish!Image Copyright @SidAlpha

A post by EA on community news site Reddit, explaining the reasons for the original rule, has become the most “down-voted” in the site’s history.

The post explained that the rule was intended to “provide players with a sense of pride and accomplishment for unlocking different heroes”.

The post currently has a score of -639,000 points – which is a total of the number of “upvotes” (those who liked it) minus the number of “downvotes” (those who didn’t).

According to Reddit’s own statistics the previous most unpopular post had a score of -24,333 and that was a message which asked people to downvote it.

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Twitter post by @fringy123: If you dislike microtrasnactions in retail games, you probably shouldn't buy Star Wars Battlefront 2. Downvoting a post on Reddit may result in minor alterations, but refusing to buy the game is the best way to prevent a similar system from being implemented in future games.Image Copyright @fringy123

One of the game’s developers, tweeting from a locked account, said he had received seven death threats and more than 1,600 “individual personal attacks”.

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Government urged to act over computer science GCSEs

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The lack of skilled teachers is the biggest problem, the report found

More than half of England’s secondary schools, 54%, did not offer GCSE computer science in 2015-16, a report from the Royal Society has found.

It urged the government to increase spending on computer education tenfold over the next five years to ensure youngsters can “unlock the full potential of new technologies”.

The biggest issue was the lack of skilled teachers, the report found.

The Department for Education said more pupils were choosing the subject.

“We want to ensure our future workforce has the skills we need to drive the future productivity and economy of this country and that is why the government made computing a compulsory part of the national curriculum,” said a spokesperson.

“Computer science GCSE entries continue to rise more quickly than any other subject.

“We recently saw an increase in entries to Stem subjects [science, technology, engineering and maths] for the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) and the number of girls taking Stem subjects at A-levels has increased by over 17% since 2010.

“Since 2012, the department has pledged £5m to the Network of Teaching Excellence in Computer Science programme, which has built a national network of nearly 400 computer science specialists (who) schools can commission to provide bespoke training for their teachers.”

Computer science in numbers

  • The number of schools not offering the subject at GCSE represented 30% of the total number of pupils in England
  • Across the UK, the report found that that only 11% of students in England took GCSE computer science
  • In 2017 only 20% of GCSE candidates in the subject were female and the figure fell to 10% at A-level
  • Bournemouth had the highest percentage of pupils (23%) opting to take computer science
  • Hartlepool, Harrow and Bracknell Forest had the highest proportion of school offering the subject at GCSE level, not including the Isles of Scilly which has a 100% rate as it teaches it at its only school
  • Two in three schools near the UK’s technology hub in East London, did not offer it to pupils as a GSCE option
  • Other London boroughs, including Islington, Kensington Chelsea, Tower Hamlets and the City of London also had a low proportion of schools offering the subject

The Royal Society, the UK’s independent scientific academy, is concerned about how the lack of computing expertise will affect the future workforce.

Prof Steve Furber, who worked on the report, said: “Computing teachers have told us that they feel the government rushed in a new curriculum without giving them the support or money to deliver it.

“The report paints a bleak picture in England, which meets only 68% of its computing teacher recruitment targets and where, as a result, one in two schools don’t offer computer science at GCSE, a crucial stage of young people’s education.”

He added that, “overhauling the fragile state of our computing education” would require an ambitious, multipronged approach.

The Royal Society called for:

  • A £60m investment in computer education over the next five years
  • The training of 8,000 secondary school computing teachers


by Rory Cellan-Jones, BBC News technology correspondent

This report highlights what some teachers have been telling me for a while – that the revolution in computing education in the UK has stalled.

Five years ago a head of steam built up behind the idea that children needed to be taught coding and that the ICT GCSE was not fit for purpose, teaching little more than how to use Microsoft Office.

The government responded by taking ICT off the National Curriculum and replacing it with computer science.

But this course is proving far more demanding of both pupils and teachers, and many schools have decided that it is just not worth the bother at a time when resources are tight.

Some ICT teachers who had always argued that it was a practical course, attractive to a far wider range of children, are now saying “I told you so”.

But across the world of computing education there’s agreement on one thing – more money needs to be spent on training teachers in this vital subject.

Prof Furber’s views were echoed by technology firms Microsoft and Google, who are both working to increase computer skills among schoolchildren.

Google’s UK managing director Ronan Harris said: “There is still much more to do to ensure young people across the UK have access to computer science education.

“Whatever school they attend or whatever field they plan to go into, every student should have the opportunity to understand the principles and practices of computing.”

And Microsoft’s UK chief executive Cindy Rose said: “The risk, if we don’t make these investments now, is that too many young people struggle to access new opportunities and the UK loses its advantage in a world being transformed by technology.”

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Dubai Airshow: Boeing wins $15bn order from Emirates

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Boeing kicked off the first day of the Dubai Airshow by announcing the first big sales news of the five-day event.

Emirates has ordered 40 Boeing 787 Dreamliners in a deal worth about $15bn (£11.3bn) at list prices.

The Dubai airline’s chairman, Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed al-Maktoum, said the aircraft had been chosen over the Airbus A350.

He had been expected to announce a big order for the Airbus A380 superjumbo at the media briefing.

Airbus desperately needs more orders for the A380, the biggest passenger aircraft in the skies.

The Franco-German company and Emirates were understood to be in intense final negotiations to have an announcement ready for this week’s show.

Emirates, the largest airline in the Middle East, is already the biggest customer for Boeing’s 777, with 165 in service and another 164 on order.

Sheikh Ahmed said Sunday’s order raises the cost of its purchase of Boeing aircraft to $90bn. Some of the new 787s will be used to replace older planes, while others will be used to expand the airline’s network.

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Emirates flies more than 160 Boeing 777 planes

Boeing welcomed the deal, which Kevin McAllister, head of its commercial aviation division, said would sustain many jobs in the United States.

Deliveries of the aircraft are scheduled to start in 2022.

Also on Sunday, Azerbaijan Airlines said it was buying five Dreamliners, as well as two Boeing freighters, in a deal worth an estimated $2bn.

Amid the display of military hardware and the latest civil aircraft, it is the traditional rivalry of Boeing and Airbus that grabs the airshow headlines.

So far this year, Boeing has won about 65% of the new orders placed for aircraft globally.

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Airbus unveiled an updated version of the A380 earlier this year

Neither Emirates nor Airbus would comment on the status of the rumoured A380 order, which would help protect jobs at the aircraft manufacturer’s plant in north Wales, where the wings are made.

Emirates has been the biggest customer for the A380, having bought 142 of the almost 320 that are in service or on the production line. The last order for the superjumbo came two years ago, when Japan’s ANA purchased just three planes.

In July Airbus said it would again cut annual production of the A380 from 12 to eight. Two years ago Airbus was making 28 planes a year.

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US rocket launch aborted after small plane enters airspace

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The unmanned cargo ship was about to be launched to the International Space Station (ISS)

A rocket launch in Virginia was aborted at the last moment when a small aircraft flew into restricted airspace.

The unmanned cargo ship was about to be launched en route to the International Space Station (ISS) when mission control called “abort, abort, abort!”.

They had spotted a small aircraft flying in restricted airspace at 500ft (150m) near Wallops Island.

The launch will be attempted again on Sunday morning at 07:14 EST (12:14 GMT).

The cargo ship was filled with 7,400 lbs (3,356 kg) of food, supplies, equipment and science experiments for the ISS.

Orbital ATK, which has a $1.9bn (£1.4bn) contract with Nasa to resupply the space station, was sharing live updates before the launch. At first, the preparations were going smoothly.

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Apple fixes iPhone letter ‘i’ bug

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Apple has addressed a glitch that caused some iPhones to unexpectedly start auto-correcting the letter “i” to a capital “A” and a question mark.

The issue emerged when people updated their phones to version 11.1 of the iOS operating system.

In a tweet, Apple said people could “fix it by installing the latest software update”. The update also addresses an issue with Siri.

The company has not explained what caused the problem.

The problem was highlighted last week when people trying to tweet messages such as “I got a new iPhone” found their posts were appearing as “A[?] got a new iPhone”.

At the time, Apple outlined a temporary fix for the problem on its website.

The fix involved editing the keyboard settings in iOS so that the right character, either an upper or lower case “i”, was used.

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An online discussion forum on Apple’s website includes comments from people affected by the bug.

“This is super-annoying,” wrote one.

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YouTube to restrict ‘disturbing’ children’s videos, if flagged

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One unofficial cartoon shows Peppa Pig having teeth pulled at the dentist

YouTube is to restrict the availability of videos showing children’s characters in violent or sexual scenes if they are reported by viewers.

Last week, a blog post by writer James Bridle highlighted how YouTube was still being swamped by bizarre and indecent videos aimed at children.

The site says it already stops such videos earning advertising revenue.

YouTube said its team was “made up of parents who are committed to improving our apps and getting this right”.

But critics say YouTube is not taking enough action by waiting for viewers to report inappropriate videos.

‘Something’s wrong’

The problem of video-makers using popular characters such as Peppa Pig in violent or sexual videos, to frighten children, has been widely reported.

However, Mr Bridle’s blog post went deeper into what he called the rabbit hole of children’s content on YouTube.

He gave examples of videos aimed at children that were not necessarily violent or sexual but were sinister, “disturbing” or otherwise inappropriate.

Often it appeared that the videos had been algorithmically generated to capitalise on popular trends.

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YouTube: Animals For Kids

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In one clip, Spiderman and Elsa, from Frozen, fire machine guns

“Stock animations, audio tracks, and lists of keywords being assembled in their thousands to produce an endless stream of videos,” he said.

Many used popular family entertainment characters such as Spiderman, and Elsa from Frozen, and had been viewed millions of times.

“Someone or something or some combination of people and things is using YouTube to systematically frighten, traumatise, and abuse children, automatically and at scale,” he wrote.

YouTube says it has already barred such videos from earning advertising money when they are reported by viewers, to try to remove the incentive to produce them.

However, many of the videos do not get reported by viewers and continue to carry advertisements.

YouTube has now said it will give such videos an age restriction if they are reported by viewers, so they cannot be viewed by people under 18.

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YouTube: Babyfun TV

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Some of the videos are not rude or violent but use Disney characters in odd situations

Age-restricted videos are blocked from appearing in the YouTube Kids app, which is primarily curated by algorithms.

They also cannot be viewed on the YouTube website unless people are logged in with an adult’s account.

However, a report in the New York Times found that inappropriate videos have previously slipped through the net.

YouTube says it uses human reviewers to evaluate whether flagged videos are appropriate for a family audience.

In his blog post, Mr Bridle said he did not know how YouTube could stamp out the problem.

“We have built a world which operates at scale, where human oversight is simply impossible, and no manner of inhuman oversight will counter most of the examples I’ve used in this essay,” he said.

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Can a chatbot help you find love?

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I’ve been nervously chatting to Lara on the dating platform for two minutes. She’s flattered me about my age (“so young!”) and she says she’s going to take care of me.

I like her already – but Lara is not real.

She – or rather, it – is a chatbot, an artificially intelligent computer program developed to communicate with people online.

The bot was launched in France in 2016 and then rolled out in the UK in April 2017, to help potential clients get started in their search for love by setting up their Match profile for them.

It was the first to be released by a major dating site and the firm claims that 300,000 people a month complete their dating profiles with help from Lara.

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The chatbot is not a voice-controlled interface – you communicate by typing – but it can operate in 12 languages, asking users simple questions about what they are looking for and what they are like.

Experts say it can also encourage people to be more honest about what they really want, rather than write what they think others will want to see.

“The profile is the big hurdle [for the industry],” says Mark Brooks, a dating sector consultant.

“People don’t really want to create a profile, it’s not much fun.

“But if you are having a conversation with somebody they will be more willing. And if you can create a profile from a conversation it will probably be closer to the truth.”

Match says Lara boosted registration rates by 30%, and it can now also recommend matches based on user data.

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While the bot isn’t supposed to break hearts, the chat is affable, friendly, informal. It asks friendly questions, you answer, and there’s a short, reassuring response before the next request for information.

Try to go off script, however, and you won’t get very far.

“How are you?” I asked Lara.

“Hello, hello,” she replied with a winking emoticon.

“Do you have any hobbies?” (I never said I was good at chatting people up).

“I don’t understand. Which gender are you?” she replied, giving me a choice of two buttons to press.

“Do you understand me?”

“Oops, your email address is invalid,” she responded, with a sad face.

Perhaps we’re not soulmates after all.

“[Clients] know it’s a bot, they are 100% aware they are not talking to a human,” says Xavier De Baillenx, innovation lead at Match.

“You have to engage users with the right tone of voice,” he adds.

“We tested Lara with no personality, Lara with jokes – and we found that having a personality can be more effective.”

The Match group has now also launched Julia, a similar chatbot for its over-50s dating site Our Time and Mr De Baillenx says there are more “agents” on their way.

But why aren’t there more of them in the dating space already?

Perhaps one reason is that people can be notoriously rude to bots.

Microsoft’s Twitter bot experiment Tay had to be disabled within a day when those who communicated with it taught it to be racist and misogynistic, and a popular Japanese app called The Boyfriend Maker was terminated when its virtual boyfriends started engaging in very lewd chat.

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Microsoft’s Twitter experiment Tay developed extreme views very quickly

“I call this the ‘abducted by aliens’ problem,” said Ludwig Konrad Bull, MD of Elixirr, speaking at the recent iDate conference in London.

“You would never write on a form that you’ve been abducted by an alien. But for some reason, you’re more likely to say that to a bot.

“If you look at how similar a robot is to a person, the more similar the robot is to the person, the more empathetic that person is towards the robot, but right before the robot seems just like a person people start really despising it. People don’t want machines to be as intelligent as humans right now.”

  • Labour activist’s Tinder vote drive
  • Microsoft issues apology for racist bot

Mr De Baillenx says not many of Match’s customers try to do “weird things” with Lara.

But John Taylor, CEO of, believes chatbots aren’t yet mature enough for people to resist trying their luck – the language skills are just not there, as I discovered with Lara.

“A chatbot is about how you have a conversation with a business or a person who is not real,” he says.

“We want people to talk naturally to a chatbot and be understood. But the technology is not there today. We have technology which solves that problem but it’s not broadly available on the market.”

Xavier de Baillenx admits that the language side “is not so easy”.

“With Lara we spend quite a long time on understanding human language,” he says.

Repeat business

In future though, a chatbot could offer a lot more to the dating space than getting you started on your search for love – which could prove lucrative for those in the business.

“It’s a strange industry,” says Mark Brooks.

“If we do a good job we wave goodbye to our customers.

“There’s a lot we are missing out on by not helping people with their relationships once they have found that person.”

Whether people are ready to accept relationship advice from the likes of Lara remains to be seen.

“Maybe chatbots can be used to train people how to date. There’s a lot of psychology involved, best practice. It could probably give you tips and tricks,” says Srini Janarthanam from Chatomate, talking at at iDate.

“And if you don’t get to date anybody else, maybe you can date the chatbot.”

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FBI seeks to unlock Texas shooter’s iPhone

FBI officials arrive at the site of a mass shooting in Sutherland Springs, TexasImage copyright
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FBI agents joined local law enforcement at the scene

Apple has offered to help the FBI unlock the smartphone of the gunman who killed 26 people at a church in Texas last Sunday.

Devin Kelley wounded 20 others at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs and was later found dead in his vehicle, some miles away.

The FBI said his handset had been sent to its central crime lab, in Virginia, as local police could not unlock it.

Apple said it had “immediately” offered to help.

The company said it worked with law enforcement agencies every day and had trained “thousands” of officers about the best way to handle its devices and how to request information.

If Kelley had saved his phone data on Apple’s iCloud service, this too may hold information about numbers called, messages sent and pictures it was used to take.

Dead man’s finger

“It actually highlights an issue that you’ve all heard about before, the advance of the technology and the phones and the encryptions,” said FBI special agent Christopher Combs.

“Law enforcement, whether at the state or local or the federal level, is increasingly not able to get into these phones.”

However, there has been speculation the FBI may have missed an early chance to get at data on Kelley’s phone.

Apple iPhones locked with a fingerprint ask for a passcode only after they have not been unlocked for a 48-hour period.

And it is therefore possible the phone could have been unlocked by the dead man’s finger in the hours after his death, provided it had not run out of battery, or been deliberately switched off or rebooted.

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