Scientists Use DNA of Dust to Trace Where an Object’s Been

Clothing, medicine and other items in one’s environment all have genetic markers, or fingerprints, that provide clues to where they came from, according to scientists.

Researchers are analyzing the microorganisms in dust particles that land on surfaces and are using artificial intelligence to read and classify the unique genetic codes of the microbes that vary from place to place.

“It is the collection of bacteria, fungi, viruses, protozoa that are present in any environment,” said Jessica Green, microbial systems expert and co-founder of Phylagen, a company that is building a microbial map of the world. Phylagen is collecting dust from different places and turning it into data by studying the DNA of the microscopic organisms in the particles.

​Exposing labor abuses

Phylagen says its findings will provide real world applications. The California-based company says one application involves companies that outsource the manufacturing of products, such as clothing.

According to Human Rights Watch, unauthorized subcontracting of facilities in the apparel industry occurs often, and it is in these places that some of the worse labor abuses happen.

Phylagen is digitizing the genome of different locations by working in more than 40 countries and sampling the dust in hundreds of factories. The goal is to create a database so the microbes on each product can be traced.

“We sample the DNA of the products, and then, we use machine learning algorithms to map what is on the product with the factory, and can therefore verify for brands that their goods are made by their trusted suppliers in factories where you have good labor conditions, good environmental conditions versus unauthorized facilities which can be really detrimental,” Green said.

Tracking diseases, ships

With a database of distinct microbial DNA, Green said other possible future uses could include predicting the outbreak of disease and helping law enforcement track the movement of ships, since shipping logs can be falsified. Even counterfeit medicines could be traced as the database of microbial information grows, she said.

“We can sequence the DNA of seized counterfeit pills, cluster together pills that have similar microbial signatures and then use that to help both pharmaceutical companies and the government, the U.S. government, gain some intelligence about how many different sources of these manufacturing facilities are there,” Green said.

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Vietnam’s Tech Futurists Lay Out Economic Alternatives

Nations racing to develop 5G technology that is fast enough to power the next stage of innovation range from South Korea to Finland, but a young contender wants to jump into the game: Vietnam.

The Southeast Asian country announced with much fanfare this month that a test of fifth generation telecommunications technology, in the form of a phone call, was successful.

The call to test 5G matters, not just for the internet, but for Vietnam’s goal of building a digital economy.

That future economy could be filled with deliveries by drone, machine learning to detect cyber attacks, and digital health records — or the economy could stick to traditional businesses like agriculture and tourism, as a new government report lays out.

Vietnam’s Ministry of Science and Technology jointly launched a report on the digital economy with its Australian counterpart Wednesday, laying out four possible scenarios. Each scenario is at a different level of digitalization, depending on how thoroughly Vietnam adopts new technology.

“I request industries and provinces to improve their awareness of, and responsibility in, steering the science and technology development, and continue to strengthen the relevant legal and policy framework,” Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc said in a speech.

“It is critical to focus on the development of the national innovation system,” he added, “putting the businesses at the heart of this system while promoting the linkages among research institutes, universities, and businesses to create and accumulate intellectual assets to fuel economic development in a rapid, inclusive, and sustainable manner.”

In the report titled “Vietnam’s Future Digital Economy: Toward 2030 and 2045,” the four scenarios offer a blueprint for policymakers.

In the first option, the country reaches its full technological potential in the next two decades, with smart cities, high productivity, and high-skilled talent in an economy geared toward services.

In the second scenario, little has changed in that time, with the economy relying on cash and low-wage labor to export farmed goods and natural resources.

Those are the two extremes, while the two remaining scenarios fall somewhere in between, depending on whether Vietnam is more technology consumer or exporter.

“The next wave of digital technologies — artificial intelligence, blockchain, the internet of things, and platforms and cloud-based services — has the potential to transform Vietnam into Asia’s next high-performing economy,” said Lucy Cameron, the lead author of the report. “Vietnam will need to seize these substantial opportunities while carefully navigating a number of risks.”

There are signs the digital technology is already catching on in Vietnam.

Besides the research and development of 5G, companies are using robots in their warehouses, like the country’s largest dairy, Vinamilk, and DB Schenker, a German logistics firm operating in Vietnam. FPT, a domestic electronics business, used artificial intelligence to create a chat bot and made it available to third-party software developers. The gaming startup VNG is introducing virtual reality to its players.

It is not all good news. The rise of ride-hailing apps has been linked to a drop in the use of public transit around the world, and that is happening in Vietnam, too. Local press recently reported a decline in bus use, while the increase of ride hailing has led to clogged city streets.

Even in a best case scenario, there are four potential drawbacks to an increasingly connected Vietnam, according to the report, which is supported by CSIRO’s Data61, the data and digital specialist arm of Australia’s national science agency. They include more threats to cyber security, higher borrowing to fund infrastructure and technological spending, a shortage of technical talent, and reliance on external companies for products and services.

How far Vietnam takes its technological evolution, of course, is up to Vietnam.

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Scientists Build Microbial Map to Trace Where an Object Has Been

Scientists say they have new ways of tracking where clothing, medicines and other items are made, making it harder for unscrupulous businesses to sell items that don’t work or violate laws. The new tools are made possible by using machine learning to profile the unique DNA combinations of invisible microbes that vary from place to place. This technology was highlighted at the Milken Institute Global Conference in Los Angeles, as VOA’s Elizabeth Lee reports.

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Spotting Fires from the Earth, Air and Space

Wildfires are often discovered by aircraft pilots, drivers or spotters in observation towers. Increasingly, remote sensors — on the ground, in the air and on board satellites — are alerting authorities when fires break out, and experts say technology will increasingly be a part of the future of firefighting.

A blaze that raged last August in a canyon near Los Angeles threatened vital communications links. Remote cameras gave firefighters crucial information to save the installations, said Troy Whitman of Southern California Edison, an electric utility company. 

Whitman serves as a liaison with firefighting agencies, and he shares information from a new camera network that Edison installed throughout much of its service area. Those 13 million hectares are challenging, he said, “mountains, deserts, very remote areas where fires may not be detected for minutes, sometimes even days in the forest if it’s a lightning strike.”

Electronic lookouts

More than 100 cameras provide a view of 60 percent of the company’s service area in Southern and Central California. More cameras are on their way, all monitored in an operations center in suburban Los Angeles, where remote spotters watch computer monitors and meteorologists track weather data from remote sensing stations.

Fires up and down the U.S. West Coast are getting fiercer, and 10 of California’s 20 most destructive blazes have occurred since 2015.

A California report last month, “Wildfires and Climate Change,” said the state’s fire season has become nearly year-round, and one-quarter of the California’s population lives in fire-prone areas. 

“Climate is changing,” said Brian Chen, who manages Edison’s wildfire mitigation efforts. “We’ve had many years of drought leading up to this, which has caused millions of trees across the state to die or be weakened because of disease,” he added. “We’ve also had a history of fire suppression policy, which has not kept our forests healthy,” he said.

More residents are also living closer to wilderness areas, in places like Paradise, a once idyllic northern California town destroyed by wildfire in November. At least 85 people died and 14,000 homes were destroyed by the so-called Camp Fire, which investigators announced Wednesday was sparked by the transmission lines of another utility, Pacific Gas and Electric.

At least half of the state’s most destructive 20 fires have been caused by power lines or electrical equipment, and spread because they started in isolated areas that were difficult for firefighters to reach. California fire officials say electrical mishaps account for a smaller proportion of all wildfires, and blame others on careless debris burning, out-of-control campfires, arson or smoking.

Southern California Edison is upgrading its infrastructure, replacing bare transmission lines with insulated cables. Pacific Gas and Electric also plans to install new cameras and weather stations. Both companies face lawsuits over recent wildfires, and Pacific Gas and Electric filed for bankruptcy in January, facing billions of dollars in claims.

Destructive fires are also tracked by NASA, the U.S. space agency, which also monitors the health of our planet using “aircraft observations … from manned aircraft and unmanned aircraft,” said Vince Ambrosia of NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. He says the main focus today, however, is on satellite data retrieved by NASA and its partners, including the European Space Agency, and shared with the public and global firefighters. 

The information helps before, during and after a wildfire.

“We can do active fire detection,” said Natasha Stavros of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “We can also do observations of the type of vegetation that’s there,” she said, assessing moisture content and how readily vegetation will burn.

She says an instrument called GEDI has been sent to the International Space Station to measure levels of biomass, the trees and brush that provide fuel for fires, by monitoring how forests store and release carbon. Other satellites track the height of flames and the spread of smoke and other pollutants.

Airborne and space-based sensors provide real-time data, and NASA and its partner agencies have built a “long-term collection library … going back to the 1980s to look at transitioning stages of wildfires throughout our last 50 years or so,” Ambrosia said.

Experts say that fire is part of nature’s ecosystem, but fire season is getting longer and fires more intense, and remote sensing helps firefighters deal with the challenge. The last month’s California report on wildfires recommends increased use of advanced imaging from the air and space, artificial intelligence to enhance data analysis, and a more comprehensive approach to fire prevention and response.

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Tracking Fires from the Earth, Air and Space

Wildfires are often discovered by aircraft pilots, drivers or spotters in observation towers but also increasingly by remote sensors, which alert authorities to fire outbreaks. Mike O’Sullivan reports from Los Angeles that a new ground-based camera system and satellites in space are helping firefighters to monitor wildfires.

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Internet Sensation Grumpy Cat Has Died at Age 7

Her owners say Grumpy Cat, whose sourpuss demeanor became an internet sensation, has died at age 7.

Posting on social media Friday, Grumpy Cat’s owners wrote that she experienced complications from a urinary tract infection and “passed away peacefully” Tuesday “in the arms of her mommy.”

Her owners said “Grumpy Cat has helped millions of people smile all around the world — even when times were tough.”

The cat’s real name was Tarder Sauce, and she rose to fame after her photos were posted online in 2012. She had more than 2 million followers on Instagram and more than 1 million on Twitter.

Her website says her grumpy look was likely because she had a form of dwarfism.

Owner Tabatha Bundesen founded Grumpy Cat Limited, and the cat made numerous appearances, including commercials.

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Huawei Offers to Sign ‘No-Spy’ Agreements

As anticipation builds for the next-generation mobile communications or 5G, security has become a heated topic. The U.S. government has launched an unprecedented campaign urging countries to ban one of the key makers of equipment for the new network, China-based telecom titan Huawei. But Huawei is vowing to refuse to assist any country in spying and even claims it would rather go out of business. VOA’s Bill Ide recently visited the company’s headquarters in China’s southern city of Shenzhen.

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Tech Startups Move Forward in Africa 

The Afrobytes and Viva Tech conferences in Paris this week have provided an opportunity to look at the progress that high-tech startups have made in Africa, where fundraising is booming.

According to Partech Africa, a venture capital firm, 146 startups in 19 African countries raised $1.16 billion for African digital entrepreneurs in 2018. Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa received 78% of the total funding, with Egypt close behind. 

In French-speaking Africa, Senegal is the leading hub with $22 million raised in four deals. Compared with their Anglophone peers, Africa’s Francophone countries operate in smaller markets, and lack capital and mentors.  

A key: Seeking advice

 

Marieme Diop, a venture capital investor at Orange Digital Ventures, said that “unfortunately in Francophone Africa, it is not in our DNA. People who succeed in business or in electing positions do not necessarily reach back to help their peers to show them how to be successful. In the Anglophone world, it is a must for anyone who wants to start something: seeking advice. So the gap is not only financial” between the regions. 

 

Africa is seen by many as the next frontier for venture capital, with its booming population and mobile-first economy. That’s why Google, Facebook and PayPal participated in Paris in Afrobytes 2019.  

 

“We do not want people globally to see African high-tech as an exotic stuff,” said Afrobytes CEO Ammin Youssouf. “We want to be heard and talk about AI, blockchain, what is happening in Silicon Valley, because it has an impact on us. We already have brilliant minds in Africa, especially in tech, to have those conversations.”

Unlike the global trend, where men dominate the high-tech industry, women are leading the movement in Africa.

“Actually, what we see in the statistics is that women’s involvement and participation on in the African continent is much higher than what you would find in New York, for example, or San Francisco,” said Ben White, chief executive officer of venture capital platform VC4Africa, who has been supporting startups on the continent for more than 10 years. “I think it is an advantage. It also means having women investors who are very sensitive to gender-related questions and can also ensure that the system we are building is inclusive.”

Governments’ role

 

Governments in Africa are trying to regulate the activity and even support the sector. Forty Senegalese startups last November secured a total of $2 million in government funding. But some experts say governments lack the skills needed to pick good investments.

Kenza Lahlou, co-founder and managing partner at Outlierz Ventures, said the public sector “should not invest [in startups]. States should build funds of funds. We have that in Morocco in partnership with the World Bank. The government started Innov Invest, to invest in local venture capitalist funds, to lower the risk for local funds.”

 

With a population expected to reach 1.4 billion people by 2021, and a continent that will put about 1 billion smartphones into use within two years, Africa is a promising area for the world’s leading high-tech and telecom companies.

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NTSB: Autopilot Was in Use Before Tesla Hit Semitrailer

A Tesla Model S involved in a fatal crash with a semitrailer in Florida March 1 was operating on the company’s semi-autonomous Autopilot system, federal investigators have determined.

The car drove beneath the trailer, killing the driver, in a crash that is strikingly similar to one that happened on the other side of Florida in 2016 that also involved use of Autopilot.

In both cases, neither the driver nor the Autopilot system stopped for the trailers, and the roofs of the cars were sheared off.

The crash, which remains under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, raises questions about the effectiveness of Autopilot, which uses cameras, long-range radar and computers to detect objects in front of the cars to avoid collisions. The system also can keep a car in its lane, change lanes and navigate freeway interchanges.

Tesla has maintained that the system is designed only to assist drivers, who must pay attention at all times and be ready to intervene.

In a preliminary report on the March 1 crash, the NTSB said that preliminary data and video from the Tesla show that the driver turned on Autopilot about 10 seconds before the crash on a divided highway with turn lanes in the median. From less than eight seconds until the time of the crash, the driver’s hands were not detected on the steering wheel, the NTSB report stated.

“Neither the preliminary data nor the videos indicate that the driver or the ADAS (Advanced Driver Assist System) executed evasive maneuvers,” the report stated.

The Model 3 was going 68 miles per hour when it hit the trailer on U.S. 441, the report said. Jeremy Beren Banner, 50, was killed.

Tesla said in a statement Thursday that Banner did not use Autopilot at any other time during the drive before the crash. Vehicle logs show that he took his hands off the steering wheel immediately after activating Autopilot, the statement said.

Tesla also said it’s saddened by the crash and that drivers have traveled more than 1 billion miles while using Autopilot. “When used properly by an attentive driver who is prepared to take control at all times, drivers supported by Autopilot are safer than those operating without assistance,” the company said.

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Huawei Seeks to Win Over 5G Security Concern Skeptics

Joyce Huang contributed to this report.

SHENZHEN, CHINA — U.S. officials have effectively banned Chinese telecom titan Huawei from building next-generation 5G mobile networks in the United States and are warning other countries about the company’s national security risks.

On Wednesday, U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order that bars American companies from using telecommunications equipment that is made by companies that pose a national security risk. The order, which declares a national emergency, is the first step toward formalizing a ban on doing business with Huawei.

For its part, however, Huawei has shown no signs of backing down and has been making extraordinary pledges to win over its critics and dispel allegations that it is a security threat. The company says it will quit its business if forced to spy on its customers and now its company chairman Liang Hua has offered to sign “no spy” agreements as well.

Speaking through an interpreter during a visit to London, Liang said Huawei is willing “to commit ourselves to making our equipment meet the no-spy, no-backdoors standard.”

What does Huawei hand over?

It is unclear what Liang means by “no-spy, no-backdoors” since Huawei, like all technology companies, requires users to sign agreements acknowledging that the company may share their personal information if required by local authorities.

Most technology companies, such as Google and Facebook, disclose these government information requests in regular public reports. The companies explain when they comply with the government requests and when they challenge them in court.

There is no information about what data Huawei hands over to Beijing authorities. If Chinese officials determine a matter involves “state secrets” or a criminal investigation, officials can legally justify intercepting any communication. Critics say Beijing defines “state secrets” so loosely that it can cover virtually anything.

In his comments to reporters, Liang says Huawei does not act on behalf of China’s government in any international market. According to Reuters, he also denies that China’s laws require companies to “collect foreign intelligence for the government or plant back doors for the government.” Adding that Huawei is also committed to following the laws and regulations of every country where it does business.

​Independent business or state organ?

Despite the criticism, Huawei is doing lots of business. The company says it has signed 40 contracts to build 5G networks, more than 20 of which are in Europe. It has shipped 70,000 base stations for installation, all to locations outside of China. Base stations are a key component of the infrastructure that is needed to build up the new network.

Huawei spokesperson Joe Kelly says that maintaining the trust of its customers is key to the company’s continued success.

“Today, with 4 billion people around the world (using our products), at the scale at which we operate, if we were installing back doors and taking data, our carriers would be aware, they would see it for themselves and then they would stop doing business with us,” he said.

In the 5G debate, Huawei has voiced its willingness to stake the company’s continued success on its commitment to security.

Company founder Ren Zhengfei has said that Huawei has never been asked to spy by any country and that the business would be shut down if it was forced to engage in spying.

Joe Kelly repeated that pledge when VOA paid a recent visit to company headquarters.

“He would close the business down rather than compromise the security and safety of any customers’ data,” Kelly said.

In President Xi Jinping’s China, however, critics find such promises hard to believe. Since coming to power, Xi has stressed the party’s dominance over all aspects of society. Since coming to power there have been numerous examples of how Xi has no qualms in using the authoritarian country’s internal security apparatus and technology to silence any who would criticize or challenge him, including influential businessmen just for taking issue with his policies.

U.S. officials have suggested that if countries choose to trust Huawei for their 5G network, Washington may reassess sharing information with them.

The executive order that was signed by Trump on Wednesday not only paves the way for a formal ban on Huawei from building networks in the United States. According to the Commerce Department, Huawei and 70 other affiliates will be added to what is called an “Entity List,” which will make it more difficult for the company and other entities to buy parts and components from U.S. businesses.

​From Chinese tech start-up to global power

Ren Zhengfei, a former military engineer, founded Huawei in 1987 with five other investors in Shenzhen, with a little more than $5,000. Over the past five years, it has invested $60 billion in research and development, and that number is expected to continue to grow.

The company’s massive research and development campus in Dongguan, an industrial city north of Shenzhen, is a stunning visual example of the company’s rags to riches story.

The campus is modeled on a dozen European cities and even has its own train.

Last year, Huawei made more than $100 billion in revenues, and says it continued to grow in the first quarter of this year even as Washington tried to block it from markets globally.

For as much success as the company has had, the future looks even brighter with the promise of 5G technology.

Downside of 5G

5G will link people, homes, industry, cars and cities, offering connectivity that will create new jobs and business opportunities. With that will also come more ways that networks, data and security can be compromised.

The rollout of 3G and 4G mobile networks powered a generation of technology companies, and 5G is expected to be an even greater leap.

“Right now all types of human activities are moving online and after 5G comes what is even more worrisome than the commercial applications and sharing of personal information that will come with it, is that ubiquitously everything will be online,” said Karl Li, an electric engineering professor at Taiwan’s National Cheng Kung University. Li was also the former head of cybersecurity at the National Center of High-Performance Computing.

Li said that while it may seem that the debate over Huawei is just about economic benefits and information security, it is much more than that.

“It is also an issue of national competition, it’s also an issue of national security,” he said. “A national security issue that has an implication on international relations as well.”

He adds that if all of the infrastructure and services for 5G networks were controlled by Huawei, the company would not only have complete access to any personal data, but also could instantly paralyze all kinds of systems and operations in a country.

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Lawmakers Seek Probe on US Hacking Services Sold Globally

U.S. lawmakers are pushing legislation that would force the State Department to report what it is doing to control the spread of U.S. hacking tools around the world.

A bill passed in a House of Representatives’ appropriations subcommittee on Tuesday said Congress is “concerned” about the State Department’s ability to supervise U.S. companies that sell offensive cybersecurity products and know-how to other countries.

The proposed legislation, released on Wednesday, would direct the State Department to report to Congress how it decides whether to approve the sale of cyber capabilities abroad and to disclose any action it has taken to punish companies for violating its policies in the past year.

National security experts have grown increasingly concerned about the proliferation of U.S. hacking tools and technology.

The legislation follows a Reuters report in January which showed a U.S. defense contractor provided staff to a United Arab Emirates hacking unit called Project Raven. The UAE program utilized former U.S. intelligence operatives to target militants, human rights activists and journalists.

State Department officials granted permission to the U.S. contractor, Maryland-based CyberPoint International, to assist an Emirate intelligence agency in surveillance operations, but it is unclear how much they knew about its activities in the UAE.

Under U.S. law, companies selling cyber offensive products or services to foreign governments must first obtain permission from the State Department.The new measure was added to a State Department spending bill by Dutch Ruppersberger, a Democrat from Maryland and member of the House Appropriations Committee.

Ruppersberger said in an emailed statement he had been “particularly troubled by recent media reports” about the State Department’s approval process for the sale of cyberweapons and services.

CyberPoint’s Chief Executive Officer Karl Gumtow did not respond to a request for comment. He previously told Reuters that to his knowledge, CyberPoint employees never conducted hacking operations and always complied with U.S. laws.

The State Department has declined to comment on CyberPoint, but said in an emailed statement on Wednesday that it is “firmly committed to the robust and smart regulation of defense articles and services export” and before granting export licenses it weighs “political, military, economic, human rights, and arms control considerations.”

Robert Chesney, a national security law professor at the University of Texas, said the Reuters report raised an alarm over how Washington supervises the export of U.S. cyber capabilities.

“The Project Raven (story) perfectly well documents that there is reason to be concerned and it is Congress’ job to get to the bottom of it,” he said.

The bill is expected to be voted on by the full appropriations committee in the coming weeks before going onto the full House.

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China Fully Blocks All Versions of Wikipedia

Beijing has broadened its block of online encyclopedia Wikipedia to include all language editions, an internet censorship research group reported just weeks ahead of China’s most politically explosive anniversary.

According to a report by the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI), China started blocking all language editions of Wikipedia last month.

Previously, most editions of Wikipedia — besides the Chinese language version, which was reportedly blocked in 2015 — were available, OONI said in their report.

AFP could not open any of Wikipedia’s versions in China on Wednesday.

“At the end of the day, the content that really matters is Chinese-language content,” said Charlie Smith, the pseudonym of one of the co-founders of Greatfire.org, which tracks online censorship in China.

“Blocking access to all language versions of Wikipedia for internet users in China is just symbolic,” he told AFP. “It symbolises the fear that the Chinese authorities have of the truth.”

Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit organisation that operates Wikipedia, said it had not received any notices explaining the latest block.

According to the organisation, Wikipedia has been blocked intermittently in China since 2004.

“With the expansion of this block, millions of readers and volunteer editors, writers, academics, and researchers within China cannot access this resource or share their knowledge and achievements with the world,” Samantha Lien, communications manager at Wikimedia Foundation, told AFP over email.

“When one country, region, or culture cannot join the global conversation on Wikipedia, the entire world is poorer,” she said.

China’s online censorship apparatus — dubbed the “Great Firewall” — blocks a large number of foreign sites in the country, such as Google, Facebook, VOA, and The New York Times.

Topics that are deemed too “sensitive” are also scrubbed, such as the 1989 crackdown on Tiananmen pro-democracy protesters which will mark its 30th anniversary on June 4.

The expanded block of Wikipedia comes as Chinese authorities under Chinese President Xi Jinping ramp up online controls and crack down on Great Firewall circumvention tools, such as virtual private network (VPN) software.

In November, China’s cyberspace authority said it had “cleaned up” 9,800 accounts on Chinese social media platforms like messaging app WeChat and the Twitter-like Weibo that it accused of spreading “politically harmful” information and rumours.

Chinese Twitter users have also told AFP that they have experienced intimidation from local authorities — and even detention — for their tweets.

The latest move to block all versions of Wikipedia could be linked to online translation tools, which make it easy for Chinese users to read anything on Wikipedia, Smith said.

Images can also be considered taboo, he said.

“A picture is worth a thousand words, and there is no dearth of Tiananmen-related imagery on the Wikipedia website,” Smith added.

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