Meanwhile, the Kremlin routinely strongly resists international efforts to bring the hackers to heel, simply throwing accusations back at the rest of the world—refusing to acknowledge that a problem exists, and declining to help.
On May 11, for example, shortly after Biden’s statement, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Preskov publicly denied Russian involvement. Instead, he criticized the United States for “refusing to cooperate with us in any way to counter cyber-threats.”
The calculus for Russia is difficult to measure clearly but a few variables are striking: ransomware attacks destabilize Moscow’s adversaries, and transfer wealth to Moscow’s friends—all without much in the way of negative consequences.
Now observers are wondering if high-profile incidents like the pipeline shutdown will change the math.
“The question for the US and the West is, ‘How much are you willing to do to the Russians if they’re going to be uncooperative?’” says James Lewis, a cybersecurity expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “What the West has been unwilling to do is take forceful action against Russia. How do you impose consequences when people ignore agreed-upon international norms?”
“I do think that we need to put pressure on Russia to start dealing with the cybercriminals,” Alperovitch argues. “Not just the ones directly responsible for Colonial, but the whole slew of groups that have been conducting ransomware attacks, financial fraud, and the like for two decades. Not only has Russia not done that: they’ve strenuously objected when we demand arrests of individuals and provided full evidence to the Russian law enforcement. They’ve done nothing. They’ve been completely obstructionist at the least, not helping in investigations, not conducting arrests, not holding people accountable. At a minimum, we need to demand them to take action.”
There are numerous examples of cybercriminals being deeply entangled with Russian intelligence. The enormous 2014 hack against Yahoo resulted in charges against Russian intelligence officers and cybercriminal conspirators. The hacker Evgeniy Bogachev, once the world’s most prolific bank hacker, has been linked to Russian espionage. And on the rare occasions when hackers are arrested and extradited, Russia accuses the US of “kidnapping” its citizens. The Americans counter that the Kremlin is protecting its own criminals by preventing investigation and arrest.
Bogachev, for example, has been charged by the US for creating a criminal hacking network responsible for stealing hundreds of millions of dollars through bank hacks. His current location in a resort town in southern Russia is no secret, least of all to the Russian authorities who at first cooperated with the American-led investigation against him but ultimately reneged on the deal. Like many of his contemporaries, he’s out of reach because of Moscow’s protection.
To be clear: there is no evidence that Moscow directed the Colonial Pipeline hack. What security and intelligence experts argue is that the Russian government’s long-standing tolerance of—and occasional direct relationship with—cybercriminals is at the heart of the ransomware crisis. Allowing a criminal economy to grow unchecked makes it virtually inevitable that critical infrastructure targets like hospitals and pipelines will be hit. But the reward is high and the risk so far is low, so the problem grows.
What are the options?
Just days before the pipeline was hacked, a landmark report, “Combating Ransomware,” was published by the Institute for Security and Technology. Assembled by a special task force comprising government, academia, and representatives of American technology industry’s biggest companies, it was one of the most comprehensive works ever produced about the problem. Its chief recommendation was to build a coordinated process to prioritize ransomware defense across the whole US government; the next stage, it argued, would require a truly international effort to fight the multibillion-dollar ransomware problem.
“The previous administration didn’t think this problem was a priority,” says Phil Reiner, who led the report. “They didn’t take coordinated action. In fact, that previous administration was completely uncoordinated on cybersecurity. It’s not surprising they didn’t put together an interagency process to address this; they didn’t do that for anything.”
Today, America’s standard menu of options for responding to hacking incidents ranges from sending a nasty note or making individual indictments to state-level sanctions and offensive cyber-actions against ransomware groups.
The hunter-gatherer groups at the heart of a microbiome gold rush
The first step to finding out is to catalogue what microbes we might have lost. To get as close to ancient microbiomes as possible, microbiologists have begun studying multiple Indigenous groups. Two have received the most attention: the Yanomami of the Amazon rainforest and the Hadza, in northern Tanzania.
Researchers have made some startling discoveries already. A study by Sonnenburg and his colleagues, published in July, found that the gut microbiomes of the Hadza appear to include bugs that aren’t seen elsewhere—around 20% of the microbe genomes identified had not been recorded in a global catalogue of over 200,000 such genomes. The researchers found 8.4 million protein families in the guts of the 167 Hadza people they studied. Over half of them had not previously been identified in the human gut.
Plenty of other studies published in the last decade or so have helped build a picture of how the diets and lifestyles of hunter-gatherer societies influence the microbiome, and scientists have speculated on what this means for those living in more industrialized societies. But these revelations have come at a price.
A changing way of life
The Hadza people hunt wild animals and forage for fruit and honey. “We still live the ancient way of life, with arrows and old knives,” says Mangola, who works with the Olanakwe Community Fund to support education and economic projects for the Hadza. Hunters seek out food in the bush, which might include baboons, vervet monkeys, guinea fowl, kudu, porcupines, or dik-dik. Gatherers collect fruits, vegetables, and honey.
Mangola, who has met with multiple scientists over the years and participated in many research projects, has witnessed firsthand the impact of such research on his community. Much of it has been positive. But not all researchers act thoughtfully and ethically, he says, and some have exploited or harmed the community.
One enduring problem, says Mangola, is that scientists have tended to come and study the Hadza without properly explaining their research or their results. They arrive from Europe or the US, accompanied by guides, and collect feces, blood, hair, and other biological samples. Often, the people giving up these samples don’t know what they will be used for, says Mangola. Scientists get their results and publish them without returning to share them. “You tell the world [what you’ve discovered]—why can’t you come back to Tanzania to tell the Hadza?” asks Mangola. “It would bring meaning and excitement to the community,” he says.
Some scientists have talked about the Hadza as if they were living fossils, says Alyssa Crittenden, a nutritional anthropologist and biologist at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, who has been studying and working with the Hadza for the last two decades.
The Hadza have been described as being “locked in time,” she adds, but characterizations like that don’t reflect reality. She has made many trips to Tanzania and seen for herself how life has changed. Tourists flock to the region. Roads have been built. Charities have helped the Hadza secure land rights. Mangola went abroad for his education: he has a law degree and a master’s from the Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy program at the University of Arizona.
The Download: a microbiome gold rush, and Eric Schmidt’s election misinformation plan
Over the last couple of decades, scientists have come to realize just how important the microbes that crawl all over us are to our health. But some believe our microbiomes are in crisis—casualties of an increasingly sanitized way of life. Disturbances in the collections of microbes we host have been associated with a whole host of diseases, ranging from arthritis to Alzheimer’s.
Some might not be completely gone, though. Scientists believe many might still be hiding inside the intestines of people who don’t live in the polluted, processed environment that most of the rest of us share. They’ve been studying the feces of people like the Yanomami, an Indigenous group in the Amazon, who appear to still have some of the microbes that other people have lost.
But there is a major catch: we don’t know whether those in hunter-gatherer societies really do have “healthier” microbiomes—and if they do, whether the benefits could be shared with others. At the same time, members of the communities being studied are concerned about the risk of what’s called biopiracy—taking natural resources from poorer countries for the benefit of wealthier ones. Read the full story.
Eric Schmidt has a 6-point plan for fighting election misinformation
—by Eric Schmidt, formerly the CEO of Google, and current cofounder of philanthropic initiative Schmidt Futures
The coming year will be one of seismic political shifts. Over 4 billion people will head to the polls in countries including the United States, Taiwan, India, and Indonesia, making 2024 the biggest election year in history.
Navigating a shifting customer-engagement landscape with generative AI
A strategic imperative
Generative AI’s ability to harness customer data in a highly sophisticated manner means enterprises are accelerating plans to invest in and leverage the technology’s capabilities. In a study titled “The Future of Enterprise Data & AI,” Corinium Intelligence and WNS Triange surveyed 100 global C-suite leaders and decision-makers specializing in AI, analytics, and data. Seventy-six percent of the respondents said that their organizations are already using or planning to use generative AI.
According to McKinsey, while generative AI will affect most business functions, “four of them will likely account for 75% of the total annual value it can deliver.” Among these are marketing and sales and customer operations. Yet, despite the technology’s benefits, many leaders are unsure about the right approach to take and mindful of the risks associated with large investments.
Mapping out a generative AI pathway
One of the first challenges organizations need to overcome is senior leadership alignment. “You need the necessary strategy; you need the ability to have the necessary buy-in of people,” says Ayer. “You need to make sure that you’ve got the right use case and business case for each one of them.” In other words, a clearly defined roadmap and precise business objectives are as crucial as understanding whether a process is amenable to the use of generative AI.
The implementation of a generative AI strategy can take time. According to Ayer, business leaders should maintain a realistic perspective on the duration required for formulating a strategy, conduct necessary training across various teams and functions, and identify the areas of value addition. And for any generative AI deployment to work seamlessly, the right data ecosystems must be in place.
Ayer cites WNS Triange’s collaboration with an insurer to create a claims process by leveraging generative AI. Thanks to the new technology, the insurer can immediately assess the severity of a vehicle’s damage from an accident and make a claims recommendation based on the unstructured data provided by the client. “Because this can be immediately assessed by a surveyor and they can reach a recommendation quickly, this instantly improves the insurer’s ability to satisfy their policyholders and reduce the claims processing time,” Ayer explains.
All that, however, would not be possible without data on past claims history, repair costs, transaction data, and other necessary data sets to extract clear value from generative AI analysis. “Be very clear about data sufficiency. Don’t jump into a program where eventually you realize you don’t have the necessary data,” Ayer says.
The benefits of third-party experience
Enterprises are increasingly aware that they must embrace generative AI, but knowing where to begin is another thing. “You start off wanting to make sure you don’t repeat mistakes other people have made,” says Ayer. An external provider can help organizations avoid those mistakes and leverage best practices and frameworks for testing and defining explainability and benchmarks for return on investment (ROI).
Using pre-built solutions by external partners can expedite time to market and increase a generative AI program’s value. These solutions can harness pre-built industry-specific generative AI platforms to accelerate deployment. “Generative AI programs can be extremely complicated,” Ayer points out. “There are a lot of infrastructure requirements, touch points with customers, and internal regulations. Organizations will also have to consider using pre-built solutions to accelerate speed to value. Third-party service providers bring the expertise of having an integrated approach to all these elements.”