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Blockchain At The Polls?

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Blockchain is being adapted for election usage elsewhere in the world, and could provide the answer to making voting more transparent in Africa.

Kenyan elections are notoriously tricky affairs, usually with disputed results and occasionally with accompanying violence.Other African elections often descend into chaos, as most recently seen in Zimbabwe, but in blockchain, the open, distributed ledger most commonly associated with bitcoin, a solution may have been found.

Earlier this year, presidential elections took place in Sierra Leone. During the vote, Swiss foundation Agora used blockchain to record votes in more than 300 polling centers. As blockchain records transactions in a verifiable and permanent way, it is almost impossible to alter. Therefore, by recording votes on it, elections in theory become more transparent.

This greater transparency could be pivotal to ensuring more effective democracy and calmer elections across Africa, where disputes over votes are common. Kenya looks set to become the next country to test the benefits, with the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) Chairman Wafula Chebukati saying it would utilize blockchain in the next elections.

READ MORE: Building Blockchain Tech With The World As Their Official Address

What impact could it have? Michael Kimani is Chairman of the Blockchain Association of Kenya, and he says that will depend on how it is used.

“From my experience, any deployment of distributed ledger technology could be at one of three points in the electoral system – the main server where voter registration data is held, the national tallying center where all information from across the country is collated, and the tallying centers where group representatives take part in a tallying process,” he says.

Wherever and however the IEBC chooses to employ blockchain, electoral laws would have to be changed to accommodate it. Kimani also says it’s worth keeping in mind that the technology itself is still nascent.

“Beyond cryptocurrency, there hasn’t been any deployment at scale,” he says.
Nevertheless, Kimani believes the IEBC statement is a positive starting point, and that using blockchain could have a significant impact on reducing fraud.

“The concept of a distributed ledger for processes that were previously limited to a single entity would provide significant improvements for the whole process,” he says.

“The concept of a distributed ledger for processes that were previously limited to a single entity would provide significant improvements for the whole process,” he says.

“I am less concerned about the technology itself. It really boils down to man-made specifications that can be implemented. I see potential problems in setting up the necessary governance structures required to make it a reality. There are some things the technology can do, but the rest of it is really up to humans – the laws we set up, the institutions we set up, the audit processes we set up to check on the technology where it fails, and the dispute resolution structures we set up.”

Challenges remain. Yet, blockchain is being adapted for election usage elsewhere in the world. It has been piloted in elections by the state of West Virginia in the United States, while tech firm Kaspersky Lab has built a platform that utilizes it for voting.

Alexey Malanov, a malware expert at Kaspersky Lab, says it is the next logical step on from online voting, which has been used in countries such as Estonia in northern Europe.

“Online voting can be highly beneficial for modern society – it has the potential to make voting easier, cheaper and more convenient. In the modern, efficiency-driven, mobile world, various limitations of offline voting have become apparent: it’s expensive, time-consuming and often inaccessible – or at least challenging for people who aren’t physically present to cast a vote,” he says.

Alexey Malanov

“Online voting can help overcome these challenges, but this brings several uncertainties of its own: how to properly secure the process and how to make sure that the votes aren’t changed or altered by an external or internal party.”

Usage of blockchain technology for general elections, however, is not reasonable at the moment, he says.

“It’s quite a slow technology. A public blockchain processes 10 transactions per second, [which] is not enough to ensure voting for millions of citizens within one day,” Malanov says.

However, Kaspersky Lab is sure blockchain has vast potential yet to be uncovered, with its Business Incubator team exploring opportunities for secure implementation of blockchain for commercial use, and how its transparent, incorruptible and trusted characters could benefit areas beyond cryptocurrencies.

“We saw a great market opportunity and decided to support an experimental and promising project called Polys. It’s a secure online voting system based on blockchain technology and backed by transparent crypto-algorithms,” Malanov says.

“From the user’s perspective, it consists of a web service through which to organize voting and cast a vote, using a mobile phone or tablet. As in any vote, there are several key requirements that would make online voting trusted and secure – transparency of the process, anonymity of a voter and their confidence that their vote won’t be altered in favor of a candidate or option they didn’t choose.”

Blockchain-based programs like Polys provide all this, and it’s surely only a matter of time before we start seeing them used in African elections

– Tom Jackson

Current Affairs

Morocco Looks To French As Language Of Economic Success

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Morocco’s economy is getting lost in translation.

With so many students dropping out of university because they don’t speak French, the government has proposed reintroducing it as the language for teaching science, maths and technical subjects such as computer science in high schools.

It also wants children to start learning French when they start school.

The country’s official languages are Arabic and Amazigh, or Berber. Most people speak Moroccan Arabic – a mixture of Arabic and Amazigh infused with French and Spanish influences.

In school, children are taught through Arabic although they don’t use it outside the classroom. When they get to university, lessons switch to French, the language of the urban elite and the country’s former colonial masters. Confused? Many are.

Two out of three people fail to complete their studies at public universities in Morocco, mainly because they don’t speak French.

The linguistic morass has stymied economic growth and exacerbated inequalities in the North African country, where one in four young people are unemployed and the average annual income runs at approximately $3,440 per person, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – less than a third of the world average.

The plans to broaden the teaching of French go to the heart of Morocco’s national identity.

They would overturn decades of Arabisation after independence from France in 1956 and have triggered a furor in parliament, where members of the Islamist PJD party, the senior partner in the coalition government, and the conservative Istiqlal party view them as a betrayal.

The disagreement has delayed a vote on the changes.

“Openness to the world should not be used as an excuse to impose the primacy of French,” said Hassan Adili, a PJD lawmaker.

Proponents say the changes reflect the reality that French reigns supreme in business, government and higher education, giving those who can afford to be privately schooled through French a huge advantage over the majority of the country’s students.

“In the Moroccan job market, mastery of French is indispensable. Those who do not have command of French are considered illiterate,” said Hamid El Otmani, head of talent and training at the Confederation of Moroccan Employers.

Even before parliament votes on the changes, Education Minister Said Amzazi has okayed the roll-out of French in some schools, declaring its use in teaching scientific subjects as an “irreversible choice”.

Like many Moroccan politicians, his children received a private education.

“When decision-makers start sending their children to public schools, only then can we say that we have a successful education system,” said Jamal Karimi Benchekroun of the co-ruling socialist PPS party.

Amzazi did not respond to a request for comment.

Frustration over jobs and poverty has fueled periodic protests in Morocco, but the country has avoided the sort of instability suffered by other North African states, where pent-up anger has triggered uprisings and provided fertile ground for Islamist extremism.

King Mohammed VI, the ultimate power in Morocco, has proven adept at introducing limited reforms in response to popular protest. He has spoken publicly about the need to teach foreign languages to students to reduce unemployment and has made the economy a top priority.

Last year, he sacked the minister for finance after calling on the government to do more to boost investment.

C’EST LA VIE

Problems with language are not unique to Morocco. In neighboring Algeria, another former French colony, students are also schooled in Arabic only to be greeted “en francais” in university and the workplace.

French’s pre-eminence reflects Paris’ continuing influence in the region. France is the biggest foreign direct investor in Morocco and large companies such as carmakers Renault and Peugeot employ tens of thousands of people.

Privately-run universities such as the International University of Rabat (UIR) have courses geared toward high-growth industries such as aerospace and renewable energy and offer tuition in French and English.

But a year at UIR can cost up to $10,000 in fees, way beyond the budget of most Moroccans. They go instead to non-fee paying public universities, where the abrupt transition to studying in French is frequently a burden for students and their lecturers.

“Sometimes we find ourselves giving French language courses during economy classes,” said Amine Dafir, economy professor at Hassan II University, a public institution in Mohamedia, near Casablanca.

Hamid Farricha, 37, dropped out of his applied physics and computer science degree at Hassan II University during the first year. He dreamed of becoming an engineer but the language barrier meant he struggled to keep up.

Trying to find Arabic translations for French scientific words was a drain on his time.

He switched instead to studying mechanics at a vocational school. He still had to master French to get hired.

“The biggest challenge after earning my diploma was writing a CV and sitting for job interviews in French,” Farricha said.

He got a job as a technician at a plant repairing car frames, paid below Morocco’s minimum monthly salary of 2570 dirhams, or $270.

Farricha was one of the lucky ones. Morocco’s economy cannot absorb all the young people looking for work. Around 280,000 graduates entered the labor force last year but only 112,000 jobs were created.

The unemployment rate for graduates is 17 percent, above the national rate of 9.8 percent, according to data from Morocco’s planning agency.

Morocco’s reliance on small and medium-sized companies which do not typically employ graduates, and austerity drives which have cut public sector jobs are part of the reason for the high rate of graduate unemployment.

The education system is also failing to prepare students for work.

In addition to high dropout rates, Moroccan students score badly compared to peers on international tests, and at university level, students oversubscribe to social science fields at the expense of technical subjects, according to an IMF report in late 2017. That means many don’t have the skills employers are looking for when they graduate.

Even for roles not requiring a degree, French is a must. On the French website of Morocco’s job promotion agency, almost all employers were looking for French speakers, including for jobs as guards, waiters, cooks and drivers.

Determined to get ahead, Farricha worked on his French while employed at the plant. He read newspapers and books in his spare time and gave himself a daily list of new expressions and vocabulary to learn.

He went back to university in 2014 for a degree in French law and is studying for a masters in diplomacy and international arbitration.

To meet his living costs, he teaches French to other students. -Reuters

Ahmed Eljechtimi

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Software Pirates Use Apple Tech To Put Hacked Apps On iPhones

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Software pirates have hijacked technology designed by Apple Inc to distribute hacked versions of Spotify, Angry Birds, Pokemon Go, Minecraft and other popular apps on iPhones.

Illicit software distributors such as TutuApp, Panda Helper, AppValley and TweakBox have found ways to use digital certificates to get access to a program Apple introduced to let corporations distribute business apps to their employees without going through Apple’s tightly controlled App Store.

Using so-called enterprise developer certificates, these pirate operations are providing modified versions of popular apps to consumers, enabling them to stream music without ads and to circumvent fees and rules in games, depriving Apple and legitimate app makers of revenue.

By doing so, the pirate app distributors are violating the rules of Apple’s developer programs, which only allow apps to be distributed to the general public through the App Store. Downloading modified versions violates the terms of service of almost all major apps.

TutuApp, Panda Helper, AppValley and TweakBox did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Apple has no way of tracking the real-time distribution of these certificates, or the spread of improperly modified apps on its phones, but it can cancel the certificates if it finds misuse.

“Developers that abuse our enterprise certificates are in violation of the Apple Developer Enterprise Program Agreement and will have their certificates terminated, and if appropriate, they will be removed from our Developer Program completely,” an Apple spokesperson told Reuters. “We are continuously evaluating the cases of misuse and are prepared to take immediate action.”

After Reuters initially contacted Apple for comment last week, some of the pirates were banned from the system, but within days they were using different certificates and were operational again.

“There’s nothing stopping these companies from doing this again from another team, another developer account,” said Amine Hambaba, head of security at software firm Shape Security.

Apple confirmed a media report on Wednesday that it would require two-factor authentication – using a code sent to a phone as well as a password – to log into all developer accounts by the end of this month, which could help prevent certificate misuse.

Major app makers Spotify Technology SA, Rovio Entertainment Oyj and Niantic Inc have begun to fight back.

Spotify declined to comment on the matter of modified apps, but the streaming music provider did say earlier this month that its new terms of service would crack down on users who are “creating or distributing tools designed to block advertisements” on its service.

Rovio, the maker of Angry Birds mobile games, said it actively works with partners to address infringement “for the benefit of both our player community and Rovio as a business.”

Niantic, which makes Pokemon Go, said players who use pirated apps that enable cheating on its game are regularly banned for violating its terms of service. Microsoft Corp, which owns the creative building game Minecraft, declined to comment.

SIPHONING OFF REVENUE

It is unclear how much revenue the pirate distributors are siphoning away from Apple and legitimate app makers.

TutuApp offers a free version of Minecraft, which costs $6.99 in Apple’s App Store. AppValley offers a version of Spotify’s free streaming music service with the advertisements stripped away.

The distributors make money by charging $13 or more per year for subscriptions to what they calls “VIP” versions of their services, which they say are more stable than the free versions. It is impossible to know how many users buy such subscriptions, but the pirate distributors combined have more than 600,000 followers on Twitter.

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Security researchers have long warned about the misuse of enterprise developer certificates, which act as digital keys that tell an iPhone a piece of software downloaded from the internet can be trusted and opened. They are the centerpiece of Apple’s program for corporate apps and enable consumers to install apps onto iPhones without Apple’s knowledge.

Apple last month briefly banned Facebook Inc and Alphabet Inc from using enterprise certificates after they used them to distribute data-gathering apps to consumers.

The distributors of pirated apps seen by Reuters are using certificates obtained in the name of legitimate businesses, although it is unclear how. Several pirates have impersonated a subsidiary of China Mobile Ltd. China Mobile did not respond to requests for comment.

Tech news website TechCrunch earlier this week reported that certificate abuse also enabled the distribution of apps for pornography and gambling, both of which are banned from the App Store.

Since the App Store debuted in 2008, Apple has sought to portray the iPhone as safer than rival Android devices because Apple reviews and approves all apps distributed to the devices.

Early on, hackers “jailbroke” iPhones by modifying their software to evade Apple’s controls, but that process voided the iPhone’s warranty and scared off many casual users. The misuse of the enterprise certificates seen by Reuters does not rely on jailbreaking and can be used on unmodified iPhones. -Reuters

-Stephen Nellis and Paresh Dave

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Economy

Fintech Companies Raised a Record $39.6 Billion in 2018: Research

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Venture capital-backed financial technology companies raised a record $39.57 billion from investors globally in 2018, up 120 percent from the previous year, according to research by data provider CB Insights published on Tuesday.

Funding was raised through 1,707 deals, up from 1,480 in 2017, the research said.

The surge in funding was due in large part to 52 mega-rounds, or investments larger than $100 million, which were worth $24.88 billion combined, the research said.

A $14 billion investment in Ant Financial, the payment affiliate of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding Ltd, accounted for 35 percent of total fintech funding alone last year, the research said.

In the last three months of the year, five companies joined the coveted ranks of fintech “unicorns”, or companies valued at more than $1 billion. These include credit card provider Brex, digital bank Monzo and data aggregator Plaid.

Venture capital investors have been pouring billions of dollars into fintech companies, in the hopes that they can gain market share from incumbent financial institutions by offering easier to use and cheaper digital financial services.

Fintechs have emerged globally across all sectors of finance, including lending, banking and wealth management.

While the large rounds minted new unicorns and led funding to hit a record high in 2018, CB Insights estimates these will likely delay initial public offerings.

“IPO activity is likely to remain lackluster in 2019,” the research reads.

Asia saw the biggest jump in number of deals in 2018, growing 38 percent from the previous year and accounting for a record $22.65 billion, according to the study.

In the United States, fintechs raised a record $11.89 billion through 659 investments, while the number of deals dropped in Europe, but funding reached a record $3.53 billion. -Reuters

-Anna Irrera

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