US Officials: No Specific Threats to Pyeongchang Winter Olympics

The United States says it is not aware of any specific threats to the Winter Olympics in South Korea next month, despite nuclear tensions with neighboring North Korea.  

Senior State Department officials in charge of security for the U.S. Olympic team told reporters Wednesday they have been working closely with South Korea for two years to prepare for the 2018 Winter Games that begin with an opening ceremony February 9 in the town of Pyeongchang. 

Assistant secretary for diplomatic security Michael Evanoff says his team is well aware of the nuclear tensions with North Korea and has prepared for all contingencies.

“I mean, we’re only less than a hundred miles (160 kilometers) from North Korea, so we’ve planned for all contingencies.”

Steve Goldstein, undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, had high praise for the South Korean government.

“Authorities of the Republic of Korea are responsible for the overall security of the games, and we’re confident in their ability to host a safe and successful event this year,” Goldstein said.

Diplomatic security chief Evanoff agreed, saying the U.S. working relationship with South Korea has been “exceptional.”

Senior State Department officials said about 100 diplomatic security agents will be deployed to Seoul and to Pyeongchang for the Winter Games and the Paralympics, roughly the same number that have been sent to previous Olympic games. 

The U.S. Olympic delegation will number about 275, and some 60,000 Americans are expected to attend the games, including Vice President Mike Pence and his wife, Karen Pence.  

North Korea is also sending athletes to the games. The North Korean government is planning a major parade or rally the day before the opening ceremony to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of its military. Goldstein said he hopes North Korea will embrace the Olympic spirit.

“While we would prefer that this parade not occur on Feb. 8, it is our hope, and I know the hope of South Korea, that the North Koreans who agreed to send people to the games to participate will join with all the nations of the world in celebrating the athletes.  

Goldstein said fundamentally, the Olympic Games are about the athletes.  

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Dating App Tinder Cited for Discriminating Against Over-30s

A California court has ruled that the popular dating app Tinder violated age discrimination laws by charging users 30 and older more than younger ones.

Allan Candelore of California sued the app company over the pricing of its Tinder Plus premium service. Tinder Plus costs $9.99 per month for users younger than 30, while those 30 and older are charged $19.99 per month. The features for Tinder Plus are identical for users regardless of age.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Brian Currey ruled in favor of Allan Candelore, 33, of San Diego, saying Tinder’s pricing violates California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act. That law “provides protection from discrimination by all business establishments in California.”

The company countered in court documents that it is “self-evident that people under 30 face financial challenges” and this “common knowledge provides a reasonable and non-arbitrary basis for Tinder to offer a discount to people under 30.”

“Why is Tinder allowed to get away with charging me more for the exact same product as any other 18-28 year old?” asked Reddit user jshrlzwrld02. “Nothing magically changes at age 29 on Tinder. I don’t get new features. I don’t get anything extra. So why is this not discrimination based on age/sex/religion/orientation?”

Tinder has faced similar accusations before. In 2015, Michael Manapol sued Tinder for age and gender discrimination, but a judge dismissed that claim, saying Manapol failed to show how he was harmed by the allegations. Also in 2015, Wired magazine took issue with Tinder’s pricing tiers, calling them “ageist.”

“The only time pricing should be staggered is if each step up in cost coincides with a step-up in service or concern,” said Robert Carbone, a digital marketer with the LinkedIn networking service.

“Tinder is a privately owned company and should be able to charge any amount they see fit to whoever wants to use their service. No one is forcing consumers to use Tinder. This ruling is an infringement of capitalistic practices,” said Katja Case, a math major at Iowa State University, on LinkedIn.

Tinder is popular among college-age people.

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Dating App Tinder Cited for Age Discrimination

A California court has ruled that the popular dating app Tinder violated age discrimination laws by charging users 30 and older more than younger ones.

Allan Candelore of California sued the app company over the pricing of its Tinder Plus premium service. Tinder Plus costs $9.99 per month for users younger than 30, while those 30 and older are charged $19.99 per month. The features for Tinder Plus are identical for users regardless of age.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Brian Currey ruled in favor of Allan Candelore, 33, of San Diego, saying Tinder’s pricing violates California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act. That law “provides protection from discrimination by all business establishments in California.”

The company countered in court documents that it is “self-evident that people under 30 face financial challenges” and this “common knowledge provides a reasonable and non-arbitrary basis for Tinder to offer a discount to people under 30.”

“Why is Tinder allowed to get away with charging me more for the exact same product as any other 18-28 year old?” asked Reddit user jshrlzwrld02. “Nothing magically changes at age 29 on Tinder. I don’t get new features. I don’t get anything extra. So why is this not discrimination based on age/sex/religion/orientation?”

Tinder has faced similar accusations before. In 2015, Michael Manapol sued Tinder for age and gender discrimination, but a judge dismissed that claim, saying Manapol failed to show how he was harmed by the allegations. Also in 2015, Wired magazine took issue with Tinder’s pricing tiers, calling them “ageist.”

“The only time pricing should be staggered is if each step up in cost coincides with a step-up in service or concern,” said Robert Carbone, a digital marketer with the LinkedIn networking service.

“Tinder is a privately owned company and should be able to charge any amount they see fit to whoever wants to use their service. No one is forcing consumers to use Tinder. This ruling is an infringement of capitalistic practices,” said Katja Case, a math major at Iowa State University, on LinkedIn.

Tinder is popular among college-age people.

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USA Gymnastics: All Directors Have Resigned After Abuse Scandal

USA Gymnastics, the sport’s U.S. governing body, said Wednesday that all its remaining directors have resigned following revelations that the longtime team doctor had sexually abused numerous athletes under his care.

A USA Gymnastics spokeswoman on Friday had said that the full board intended to resign. The U.S. Olympic Committee threatened to revoke the organization’s governing authority if the full board had not stepped down by Wednesday, after former team doctor Larry Nassar was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison after pleading guilty to sexual assault charges.

“We are in the process of moving forward with forming an interim board of directors during the month of February, in accordance with the USOC’s requirements,” USA Gymnastics said in a statement. “USA Gymnastics will provide information about this process within the next few days.”

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Connected Thermometer Tracks Spread, Intensity of Flu

This year’s flu season in the U.S. is the worst in 15 years and health officials predict there are weeks of sickness ahead. One company’s “smart thermometer” is tracking how the flu is spreading across the country in real time by gathering data every time someone takes a temperature. Michelle Quinn reports.

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Connected Thermometer Tracks the Spread and Intensity of the Flu

When a child feels sick, one of the first things a parent does is reach for a thermometer.

That common act intrigued Inder Singh, a long-time health policy expert.

What if the thermometer could be a communication device – connecting people with information about illnesses going around and gathering real time data on diseases as they spread? 

That’s the idea behind Singh’s firm Kinsa, a health data company based in San Francisco that sells “smart” thermometers.

Worst flu season in years

With the U.S. in the midst of its worst flu season in years, Kinsa has been on the forefront of tracking the spread and severity of flu-like symptoms by region.

The company says its data is a close match to flu data tracked by the U.S.Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Whereas the CDC collects from state and regional reports, Kinsa can spot fever spikes in regions or even by cities, said Singh.

Fast and accurate information about how disease is spreading can make a difference during a health crisis.

“If you knew when and where a disease was starting, you could target the people who needed the treatment and potentially prevent pandemics and epidemics from occurring,” said Singh, founder and chief executive of Kinsa.

How it works

Kinsa thermometers, which range in price from $14.99 to $49.99, connect via Bluetooth to a smartphone app, which pose questions about a person’s symptoms. The customer’s personal information is private, the firm said.

With its thermometers in 500,000 households, Kinsa receives 25,000 temperature readings per day.

The company can’t diagnose illnesses or distinguish between different kinds of sicknesses. But from gathering information about individuals’ fevers and other symptoms, it can report where flu-like symptoms are peaking. In recent weeks, Missouri and Kansas have been the hardest hit, Kinsa said. 

Selling aggregated data 

Beyond selling thermometers and advertising on its app, Kinsa makes money by selling data – stripped of any personally identifiable information – to companies that want to know where and how illness is spreading – cough and cold companies, disinfectant manufacturers, orange juice sellers. Sales of toothbrushes spike during flu season, Singh says.

Companies “want to know when and where illness is striking on a general geolocation basis,” he said. Firms stock shelves with products and change marketing plans if they know how an illness is progressing.

Kinsa has launched a program in schools, where it gives away thermometers, so parents can learn about illness trends locally. The company is also starting a new initiative with some U.S. firms, which buy Kinsa thermometers for their employees. When an employee shows a fever, Kinsa can inform the person about available company benefits.

At the moment, Kinsa thermometers are sold just in the U.S. But the company plans to go global.

“Imagine a living breathing map where you can see where and when disease is spreading,” Singh said. “That’s what we want.”

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Rare Picasso Painting Starts Tour Before Next Month’s Auction

A rare Picasso painting will be auctioned off in London next month.  The 1937 work titled “Femme au beret et a la robe quadrillee” (Woman in beret and checked dress), inspired by the painter’s French lover Marie-Therese Walter is being shown in Hong Kong, Taipei, Los Angeles and New York before being sold. VOA’s Zlatica Hoke reports the painting’s Hong Kong debut is a clear indication of the growing importance of the Asian art market.

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Beirut Guide Gives Walking Tours of City’s History and His Own

Tour guide Ronnie Chatah, 36, is once again doing what he loves after a four-year hiatus – telling the stories that have shaped Beirut’s history from ancient to modern times.

Chatah put the walking tours on hold in late 2013 after the assassination of his father Mohamad Chatah, a former minister and diplomat. He was worried he would not be able to give an impartial view of the city, he said.

“My father is buried in what is probably the most climactic part of the tour,” he said, referring to Martyrs’ Square, a pockmarked statue in the epicenter, where many Lebanese have rallied in times of political crisis since World War I. “It is not easy to look at your father’s burial site and just ignore the emotions.”

But reviving the tour has had a surprising effect.

“I have not had a better therapy session,” said Chatah, who first launched the tours in 2009.

Now for four hours every other Sunday, people follow Chatah as he explains some of the most complicated aspects of Lebanon’s capital.

He explains that the local currency is pegged to the U.S. dollar and about how since the civil war political power is shared between Lebanon’s 18 different religious sects. He also explains why so many abandoned heritage buildings have been seemingly left to disintegrate.

Standing outside what was once the Holiday Inn hotel, Chatah recounts how the building that once exemplified Beirut’s Seventies glamour became an icon of the 1975-1990 civil war only a few weeks after it opened. It became the military headquarters of whichever militant faction was winning the war in Beirut over the next 15 years.

For him, the building – with its grey exterior, huge gaping holes and revolving balcony – is the best reflection of how the Lebanese have yet to make peace.

“We don’t reflect properly and I think that is our problem. Maybe that is part of our story too, that we are constantly avoiding the deeper issues, and hence a country that still cannot stand properly on its own two feet,” he said.

The tour allows visitors to discover parts of the city that have either ceased to exist or cordoned off by security because of close proximity to government buildings or politicians’ residences. This includes what used to be the old Jewish neighborhood, once home to a small community that is now all but gone save for a restored synagogue.

“I thought I knew the area but I was surprised to find out about … a neighborhood that I never knew existed,” Sarah Harakeh, 24, a teacher said.

Chatah said he had been planning to resume the walks for just a couple of months, but now there are tours scheduled for the rest of the year.

“That is the persuasion of this city, you keep coming back, and even when you know it is not good for you,” he said.

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Cuban Refugee Sets Cold War Stage in ‘Blind Date’

When U.S. President Ronald Reagan met Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev in Geneva, Switzerland, in November 1985, it was the start of a thaw in Cold War tensions that had dramatically escalated between the two nuclear-armed superpowers.

“It was a real moment in Cold War history in that no general secretary after the invasion of Afghanistan had sat across the table from the president of the United States,” explains playwright Rogelio Martinez.

The 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan led to a six-year freeze in relations with the United States.  A subsequent increase in military spending on both sides, and a wider gap of understanding between the superpowers, led to increased anxiety — with the threat of nuclear annihilation hanging over the globe.

It’s one of the underlying narratives that drove Martinez to dig deeper into an event he didn’t fully understand at the time, when he was a 15-year-old student.  His research grew into the stage play “Blind Date.”

“Though the play has to do with Reagan and Gorbachev, it’s not. It’s about me, ultimately,” Rogelio explained to VOA.  “It’s about the world I grew up in.  It’s an extremely personal play, but it’s also a historical play.”

Martinez grew up in Cuba under the communist regime of Fidel Castro, and fled with family members to Florida during the 1980 Muriel boatlift.

What informs the dialogue and themes in “Blind Date” surrounding events during the historic Geneva summit comes partly from his own life experience — first under Soviet influence in Cuba, and later under American democracy, led by “The Great Communicator.”

“I started to write the play, and I realized that Reagan himself was a bit of an enigma,” says Martinez.  “He could pivot, which is a wonderful thing in politicians. He could change. He followed his own course and his own instincts.”


This was not information Martinez gleaned from an official transcript of the 1985 summit — which he says doesn’t exist — but comes from other sources: lengthy letters Gorbachev and Reagan exchanged before the meeting.

“They didn’t speak in soundbites. They actually found a great responsibility with every single word they put on that page.”

“It had to be thought out more thoughtfully,” says actor William Dick who portrays Gorbachev in the production. “Dialogue is crucial. There was a huge abyss between these two people and these two cultures that could have led to a nuclear disaster. But they had the courage to reach out in the dark blindly to each other to make an overture. They were both skeptical. They both thought it wouldn’t work. And it was difficult, but they began to talk.”

Actor Rob Riley plays Reagan opposite Dick’s Gorbachev, and says what unfolds onstage in “Blind Date” isn’t just a serious examination — it’s also infused with some humor — but it’s a history lesson that has some relevance today.

“Any play about international politics and leadership is going to have resonance with the present,” he told VOA, something playwright Martinez hopes audiences can learn from.

“There is incredible optimism in the play, something that is lacking in today’s times,” he says, “which says problems can be solved. They have to be solved in a way that forces people to rethink their beliefs, and to re-examine why they believe the things they believe.”

“I think the overarching theme applies to today,” says Dick. “It’s about dialogue. It’s about talking. As Reagan says in the play, not talking at each other or about each other but talking to each other is the crucial thing. Daring to go on that ‘blind date.’”

“Blind Date” appears at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago through Feb. 25. Martinez hopes wider audiences will have the chance to see the production, and believes what makes for good theater might someday make for a good film.

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Jordan Peele Talks Oscars, ‘Get Out’ and Whoopi Goldberg

Jordan Peele has been dreaming of his Oscar moment since he was 13, but now that it’s happened, he can hardly believe it.

The 38-year-old received Academy Award nominations last week for best picture, director and original screenplay for his directorial debut, “Get Out.” The star of the horror/satire, Daniel Kaluuya, was also nominated for best actor.

“Get Out” may be Peele’s breakthrough, but the actor, writer, director and producer has been honing his skills for more than a dozen years. He started getting awards notice in 2008, when he shared in an Emmy nomination for a sketch he wrote for MADtv. He was nominated seven more times for his contributions to “Key & Peele,” the hit Comedy Central sketch show he created with Keegan-Michael Key. Peele also co-wrote and co-starred (with Key) in the 2016 action-comedy “Keanu.”

He said having his work recognized by the film academy has given him “faith in my voice.”

“It’s like jet fuel,” Peele said in an interview after last week’s nominations. “It makes me want to make as many movies that I can in my life.”

Peele’s comments have been edited for clarity and brevity.

AP: So how does it feel to be a triple Academy Award nominee?

Peele: Well, I’m not used to hearing yet. It’s a really overwhelming thing to try and process. I’m trying understand how I got here from this time last year not knowing if this movie was going to really work or really not work. 

AP: What a difference a year makes.

Peele: I’m definitely feeling the love and feeling with joy and honor of this accomplishment. But it is it has been a bittersweet year knowing that it has not been a great one for everybody.

AP: How was Oscar nominations morning for you?

Peele: I woke up a few minutes after the announcements were made. I was just getting really great texts from just about everybody I’ve ever met. And my (6-month-old) son slept through the night, so that was also huge. So it was like kind of a party at my house… Both he and I with our greatest accomplishments to date on the same morning. 

AP: Did you allow yourself to consider this possibility when you were writing sketches for “Key & Peele?”

Peele: I’ve been dreaming about this moment since I was 13. I’ve gone through times where I believed in it and times when I didn’t believe in it. So to have it happen, it comes with a really important lesson and realization for me which is that it’s bigger than me. It’s an important thing for a lot of people and the people who supported the film and the people out there who have the same dream but feel like they can’t do it for whatever reason.

AP: Audiences loved “Get Out,” but does the academy love feel different?

Peele: Yes, it does mean something different. I didn’t know that it would, but now that this has arrived, I’m reminded of when I watched Whoopi Goldberg win her Oscar for “Ghost.” And I remember she sent a message out in her speech that was for me. She said, ‘Don’t let anything stop you. If you want this, if you have a dream, follow that dream and you can achieve it.’ And I’ll always remember that. So hopefully that’s the message that this sends to other young artists of color and women and people who … feel like they’re outsiders and won’t be won’t be allowed into this industry or won’t be accepted. Hopefully they can sort of feel some of that message too.

AP: Is the recognition even sweeter given that this is an unconventional film with a lot to say?

Peele: Making this film, putting it out was very scary. I thought that it was very possible that the world wouldn’t be ready; that they would reject it or that it would not be received. But I knew that I loved it. I knew that it was something that needed to be said. And so the fact that it was scary is kind of how I knew it was important and that was it was my duty as an artist to face that fear and really risk it all.

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Helen Mirren Talks ‘Winchester’ Film, Impact of Gun Deaths

Helen Mirren says her new film “Winchester” isn’t a horror flick, but rather a ghost story with foreign roots and a distinct American element — the psychological impact of gun deaths.


Mirren plays the real-life Sarah Winchester, a 19th-century heiress who inherited a massive fortune from her husband’s creation of the Winchester repeating rifle shortly after the Civil War. In the film, Winchester believes she is haunted by those killed by the firearm, which allowed for more rapid firing than previous rifles.


“It’s a ghost story, hopefully in the tradition, the very grand tradition, of Japanese ghost stories, ghost films,” Mirren said in a recent interview. “You know, the Japanese love ghost stories and have great belief in the power of the ancestor spirits, of the ancestors, as many cultures do.”


Part of the film was shot at Winchester’s mansion in San Jose, California, where she moved after the death of her husband in 1881. Now known as the “Winchester Mystery House,” it is a popular tourist attraction and has more than 160 rooms, 10,000 windows, 2,000 doors and 40 staircases.


According the lore around Winchester’s life, she ordered constant construction on the home to try to confuse the ghosts she believed were haunting her.


“There are many theories why she did this,” Mirren said. “And one of the theories that we explore in the film. She was trying to placate the ghosts of the people who’d been killed by the Winchester rifle. She felt their deaths very strongly. She felt responsible. She felt the weight of their deaths upon them. And she was trying, in her own way, to placate their spirits.”


Despite “Winchester’s” themes, Mirren, 72, said the film isn’t trying to make any broad statements about gun ownership in America.


“What I like about it and I think … about America is that it doesn’t deal with whether you can carry guns or not. That’s kind of not the issue,” she said. “The issue is more putting the question mark or the weight of moral decision upon the people who make a fortune from making arms — whether they’re guns, bombs, grenades … or whatever it is. It puts a moral decision upon the people who make huge fortunes from making and then I would say the armaments dealers in the world I would like to see it… I see it personally in a much more global way.”

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Amazon Wades Into Health Care With Berkshire, JPMorgan

Amazon is diving into health care, teaming up with Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway and the New York bank JPMorgan Chase, to create a company that helps their U.S. employees find quality care “at a reasonable cost.”

The leaders of each company, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Buffett, and JPMorgan’s Jamie Dimon, offered few details Tuesday and said that the project is in the early planning stage.

“The ballooning costs of [health care] act as a hungry tapeworm on the American economy,” Buffett said in a prepared statement. “Our group does not come to this problem with answers. But we also do not accept it as inevitable.”

The new company will be independent and “free from profit-making incentives and constraints.” The businesses said the new venture’s initial focus would be on technology that provides “simplified, high-quality and transparent” care.

It was not clear if the ultimate goal involves expanding the ambitious project beyond Amazon, Berkshire or JPMorgan. However, JPMorgan’s Dimon said Tuesday that, “our goal is to create solutions that benefit our U.S. employees, their families and, potentially, all Americans.”

Shares in health care companies took a big hit in early trading Tuesday, hinting at the threat of the new entity to how health care is paid for and delivered in the U.S.

Before the opening bell, eight of the top 10 decliners on the Standard & Poor’s 500 index were health care companies.

 The need for a solution to the health care crises in the U.S. is intense. With about 151 million non-elderly people, employer-sponsored coverage is the largest part of the U.S. health insurance market.

Health care costs for companies routinely rise faster than inflation and eat up bigger portions of their budgets. Americans are mired in a confusing system that creates a mix of prices in the same market for the same procedure or drug and offers no easy path for finding the best deal.

Employers have hiked deductibles and other expenses for employees and their families to dissipate the costs, which have hit Americans hard.

Only 50 percent of companies with three to 49 employees offered coverage last year, according to the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation. That’s down from 66 percent more than a decade ago. The federal Affordable Care Act requires all companies with 50 or more full-time employees to offer it.

Amazon, Berkshire and JP Morgan say they can bring their scale and “complementary expertise” to what they describe as a long-term campaign.

Amazon’s entry into the health market has been perceived as imminent, even though the company had announced nothing publicly.

It has been watched very closely on Wall Street, which has seen Amazon disrupt numerous industries ranging from book stores to clothing chains.

Amazon, which mostly sold books when it was founded more than 20 years ago, has radically altered the way in which people buy diapers, toys or paper towels. Most recently it has upended the grocery sector, spending $14 billion last year for Whole Foods Market Inc.

AP writer Joseph Pisani contributed to this report from New York. Murphy reported from Indianapolis.

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Car Manufacturers Boast of Fuel Efficiency

The annual Washington Auto Show is not the biggest or the most important convention of the year, but it still attracts a lot of attention, from enthusiasts and potential customers to automotive industry professionals.  Self-driving cars are still some time off, so the focus this year continues to be on fuel efficiency. VOA’s George Putic has more.

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Concern Fitness Tracking App Exposed US Military Bases Just the Start

The controversy over information gathered from GPS-enabled fitness devices and published online – in some cases highlighting possible activity at U.S. military bases in places like Syria and Afghanistan – could be just the start of an ever-growing problem in a world where more people and devices are connected to the internet.

Already, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has ordered a review of security protocols following concerns that a so-called Heatmap published by the fitness app company Strava showed locations and movement patterns of troops serving overseas.

“We take matters like these very seriously and are reviewing the situation to determine if any additional training or guidance is required,” the Pentagon said in a statement Monday.

“Recent data releases emphasize the need for situational awareness when members of the military share personal information,” the statement continued, further noting that annual training for all military personnel, “recommends limiting public profiles on the internet, including personal social media accounts.”

Yet the concern about the impact is not new. 

“Digital dust”

Numerous sensitive U.S. military and intelligence offices and installations ban the use of so-called smart devices on their premises, including smart phones and the GPS-enabled fitness trackers from companies like Fitbit, Garmin and Polar, which helped Strava create its global Heatmap, highlighting the most popular routes for walking, running and biking this past February.

And U.S. intelligence officials have been warning for years about the impact of what they call “digital dust,” information that by itself seems to have little relevance and that users have posted to social media.

The U.S. National Counterintelligence and Security Center cautions member of the U.S. intelligence community they could be targeted by adversaries who have, “Collected information on you from social media postings.” 

And a pamphlet from the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence warns employees to, “Maintain direct positive control of, or leave at home, electronic devices during travel, especially when traveling out of the U.S.”

Still, the potential consequences of sharing information with a fitness tracking app seemed to have escaped notice until Nathan Russer, a student at the Australian National University in Canberra, tweeted about the Strava Heatmap this past Saturday.

It was not just the United States, though. Russer also identified the routes of Turkish forces and Russian activity in Syria, as well.

Strava says it excluded activities that users marked as private or ones that took place in areas people did not want to make public. Even so, the map included 1 billion activities between 2015 and September 2017.

And in places like Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, where activities show up bright against otherwise dark terrain, combining the Strava data with information from other maps available online could have far reaching consequences.

“This is pattern analysis,” according to Michael Pregent, a former U.S. intelligence officer now with the Hudson Institute. “This [Strava] map is a tool that most intelligence analysts seek out.”

And, it is a tool that can be exploited by a wide range of actors.

“This allows an enemy to pinpoint their fire,” Pregent said, noting this type of information could have been used to great effect by Shia militias who had been targeting U.S. bases during the Iraq War.

Now, he said, it could guide new attacks by the Taliban or even the Islamic State (IS) in Afghanistan.

“Several of the [Strava] graphics are our bases in Afghanistan and you can see the most trafficked areas,” he said.

So far, there is no evidence that groups like the Taliban, IS or al-Qaida have managed to make use of the type of information provided in the Strava Heatmap. Still, the possibility has gotten their attention.

“All I’ve seen is Jihadi groups sharing the Strava news, consuming it just like us,” Raphael Gluck, an independent researcher, told VOA. “Maybe there’s some wishful thinking on their part, but so far [I’ve] not seen anyone talking further than that.” 

And the information may only be so useful to an untrained eye.

Interpreting the data

“The map alone is sometimes inadequate to provide useful analysis,” Aric Toler, a lead researcher for the investigative journalism website Bellingcat wrote on his blog. 

Toler told VOA activity in Strava can be falsified. For example, he found Strava activity in the Atlantic Ocean, south of Ghana – likely a spoof or an error. But he said in less obvious cases, without understanding the context, it can be difficult to know what the data means.

Still, he warned,”obvious that there can be danger in this.”

As for why it appears so many U.S. military personnel in war zones like Afghanistan and Syria allowed their devices to keep sending data to Strava, some experts say it’s just human nature.

“These aren’t necessarily the special operators out there killing ISIS or helping our partners on the ground,” said Hudson Pregent. “The majority of these forces are back at bases where they try to normalize life.” 

“We’ve seen everyone from police officers to members of the military, members of the foreign service — people in sensitive positions — oversharing online, whether it be Facebook or Twitter,” said Stratfor Threat Lens Senior Analyst Ben West. “I see this, the Strava map, as an extension of this.”

And Strava is just one of hundreds of apps and devices that make it easy to expose this vulnerability.

“Wherever these things are located and are operating, they are collecting information on our daily routines which can be used to anticipate our behavior and bad guys can exploit that,” West said. 



your ad here Opens Its Own Rainforest in Seattle on Monday opened a rainforest-like office space in Seattle that it hopes will spark new ideas for employees.

While cities across North America are seeking to host Seattle-based Amazon’s second headquarters, the world’s largest online retailer is still expanding its main campus. Company office towers and high-end eateries have taken the place of warehouses and parking lots in Seattle’s South Lake Union district. The Spheres complex, officially open to workers Tuesday, is the pinnacle of a decade of development here.

The Spheres’ three glass domes house some 40,000 plants of 400 species. Amazon, famous for its demanding work culture, hopes the Spheres’ lush environs will let employees reflect and have chance encounters, spawning new products or plans.

The space is more like a greenhouse than a typical office. Instead of enclosed conference rooms or desks, there are walkways and unconventional meeting spaces with chairs.

Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s billionaire founder, officially opened the project in a ceremony with Amazon executives, elected officials and members of the media — by voice command.

“Alexa, open the Spheres,” Bezos said, as a circle in the Spheres’ ceiling turned blue just like Amazon’s speech-controlled devices, whose voice assistant is named Alexa.

Amazon has invested $3.7 billion on buildings and infrastructure in Seattle from 2010 to summer 2017, a figure that has public officials competing for its “HQ2” salivating. Amazon has said it expects to invest more than $5 billion in construction of HQ2 and to create as many as 50,000 jobs.

“We wanted to create something really special, something iconic for our campus and for the city of Seattle,” said John Schoettler, Amazon’s vice president of global real estate and facilities.

Earlier this month, the online retailer narrowed 238 applications for its second headquarters to 20. The finalists, from Boston and New York to Austin, Texas, largely fit the bill of being big metropolises that can attract highly educated tech talent.

Amazon started the frenzied HQ2 contest last summer and plans to pick a winner later this year.

At the Spheres’ opening, Governor Jay Inslee said the project now ranked along with Seattle’s Space Needle as icons of Washington State.

The Spheres, designed by architecture firm NBBJ, will become part of Amazon’s guided campus tours. Members of the public can also visit an exhibit at the Spheres by appointment starting Tuesday.

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Alibaba Looks to Modernize Olympics Starting in Pyeongchang

Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., one of the few Olympics sponsors signed up until 2028, said it wants to upgrade the technology that keeps the Games running and will study the Pyeongchang Games to help find ways to save future host countries money.

“Pyeongchang will be a very important learning opportunity for our team to see how things are working and what’s missing,” Alibaba’s chief marketing officer Chris Tung said in an interview. Alibaba, the cloud-services and e-commerce provider for the Olympics, will take back what it has learned at the Feb. 9 to 25 Pyeongchang Winter Games and develop solutions for the next Games.

Ticketing, media and video services are among the areas that Tung said Alibaba wants to improve. It especially wants to end the inefficient practice of building from scratch local data centers and IT services for each Olympic Games.

“It will be great if a lot of the back end systems from hosting a Games can be hosted on the cloud and can be reused from Games to Games to enhance the cost efficiency,” he said.

Atos SE, the French information services company that is also a top sponsor, said on its website that all critical IT systems in Pyeongchang have already been moved to the cloud using its technology.

Alibaba will send to South Korea between 200 and 300 employees from across all its management teams, Tung said, adding that he wants the “organizers to see how the operations could be made more efficient, effective and secure.”

Alibaba’s views are in line with the Olympics Agenda 2020 reforms that also aimed to make the Games more attractive and cut the cost of hosting them. The next Winter Olympics after Pyeongchang will be in 2022 on Alibaba’s home turf in China, where the company said it wants to make the experience of going to an Olympics totally different for consumers, whether it’s how they buy tickets, use mobile technology or find related events in Beijing.

At Pyeongchang, Alibaba said on its website that it will put on a showcase at the Gangneung Olympic Park demonstrating concepts Alibaba is looking to pursue for future Games, including facial recognition technology, travel guidance, content creation and better ways to buy Olympics merchandise.

“We’re new to the Olympics games but we’ve been studying what would be solutions to the pain points that game hosting cities have been facing over the years,” Tung said.

As for the cold weather expected in Pyeongchang, there will also be a daily tea ritual at the Alibaba site to keep fans warm.

Reporting by Liana B. Baker in San Francisco.

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Native Americans Applaud Removal of ‘Racist’ Sports Mascot

Native Americans took to social media Monday to celebrate the pending “death” of Chief Wahoo, the longtime logo of the Cleveland Indians baseball team which features a garish “Indian” caricature that is offensive to America’s first peoples.

But the victory is only a small one for Twitter users, using the hashtag #NotYourMascot: The Cleveland Indians won’t be changing the team’s name; the team will still be able to sell Chief Wahoo merchandise; and fans won’t be blocked from wearing clothing bearing the logo.

In a statement released Monday, Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred said he told team owner Paul Dolan that the time had come to remove the caricature that has appeared on players’ caps and uniforms since 1948.

“Over the past year, we encouraged dialogue with the Indians organization about the club’s use of the Chief Wahoo logo,” Manfred said. “During our constructive conversations, Paul Dolan made clear that there are fans who have a longstanding attachment to the logo and its place in the history of the team.

“Nonetheless, the club ultimately agreed with my position that the logo is no longer appropriate for on-field use in Major League Baseball, and I appreciate Mr. Dolan’s acknowledgement that removing it from the on-field uniform by the start of the 2019 season is the right course.”

For decades, Native American activists and their supporters have protested the logo, a cartoon of a grinning red-skinned man in a feathered headband.  They have complained that the image is offensive and perpetuates racist stereotypes about America’s first peoples.

In 2014, a group called People Not Mascots filed a federal lawsuit seeking $9 billion in damages.  Two years later, a Canadian man sued the team in an attempt to prevent it from wearing the Chief Wahoo logo during games in Toronto.

In recent years, many schools and universities across the country have stopped using Native Americans in their team names or as mascots.  But according to MascotDB, a database of sports team names and mascots, many hundreds of American teams retain Indian imagery, ranging from local high schools to major teams like the Washington Redskins.

“Today’s announcement marks an important turning point for Indian Country and the harmful legacy of Indian mascots,” said Jefferson Keel, president of the National Congress of American Indians. “These mascots reduce all Native people into a single outdated stereotype that harms the way Native people, especially youth, view themselves.”

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At Long Last: Beckham’s MLS Team in Miami Is Born

David Beckham finally has his Major League Soccer team in Miami.

Beckham and MLS announced Monday that the long-awaited franchise is now born. It took Beckham nearly four years to bring the team to Miami.

The Miami area had an MLS team from 1998 through 2001. It folded because of poor attendance.

MLS Commissioner Don Garber says “great things come to those that wait.” He says Miami fans have been emailing him for 10 years with hopes of MLS coming back to South Florida.

It has been a long road just to get to this point. In the beginning of his Beckham-Miami plan, some people involved in the talks predicted that the team would begin play in 2017.

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Grammy Awards TV Audience Drops Sharply, Nears Record Low

The U.S. television audience for Sunday’s Grammy Awards show on CBS Corp. fell by more than eight million viewers and could be one of the lowest audiences on record, early Nielsen ratings data showed Monday.

Variety and reported that 17.6 million Americans tuned in for the three-and-a-half-hour broadcast, a more than 30 percent drop from 2017 when some 26.1 million television viewers watched.

If the early figures are confirmed when final data comes out later Monday, it will be the least-watched Grammy Awards show since 2008, when 17.2 million people saw the television broadcast.

The lowest audience for any Grammy Awards show came in 2006, which drew an audience of 17 million.

Sunday’s 60th anniversary Grammy Awards, staged in New York, saw R&B singer Bruno Mars win six statuettes, while rapper Kendrick Lamar won five. Jay-Z, who had gone into the show with eight nominations, won nothing.

Audiences for the Grammys had risen in 2016 and 2017.

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North Korea Cancels Joint Cultural Performance with South Korea

North Korea has cancelled a joint cultural performance with the South planned ahead of the winter Olympic Games, South Korea’s unification ministry said Monday.

Pyongyang blamed South Korean media for encouraging “insulting” public sentiment regarding the North and cancelled the February 4th event to be held in the North to celebrate the upcoming games in PyeongChang, South Korea. Seoul called the decision “very regrettable” and urged its neighbor to uphold all agreements made between the two countries, Reuters reported.

Last week, twelve North Korean female ice hockey players crossed the border to join their counterparts in the South to form the first-ever unified Korean Olympic team since the two sides split in the 1950s civil war.

The surprise offer by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to send a delegation to the PyeongChang Games during his New Year’s Day speech paved the way for restored dialogue between Pyongyang and Seoul, which had been frozen due to North Korea’s development of its nuclear and ballistic missile weapons programs in defiance of international sanctions.

The talks led to an agreement for both sides to march in the February 9 opening ceremonies under a unified flag, as well as the formation of the joint women’s hockey squad.

But South Koreans have grown increasingly angry over the combined team, believing their compatriots will lose playing time to the North Koreans and that President Moon Jae-in gave up too much to the North in his eagerness to have Pyongyang participated in the Games.


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