Digital repression across borders is on the rise
“Digital targeting has a serious impact on the well-being of victims, undermines their ability to engage in transnational advocacy work, violates fundamental rights such as the right to privacy, freedom of expression, and peaceful assembly, and increases the dangers faced by their family members and friends who remain within the country of origin,” the report concluded.
The countries the Citizen Lab identified as some of the more common perpetrators of digital transnational repression include Yemen as well as Afghanistan, China, Iran, Rwanda, and Syria. Zero-click software hacks, which allow an attacker to break into a phone or computer even if its user doesn’t open a malicious link or attachment, are especially concerning, says Noura Al-Jizawi, a research officer at the Citizen Lab and coauthor of the report. That’s because “they can evade digital hygiene practices,” she says.
In 2021, hackers used such code to infiltrate and install spyware on the cell phone of Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul, who was then living in British Columbia. In that case, the perpetrators mistakenly left an image file on her phone that allowed researchers to pin down the source of the code. The digital blueprint led to NSO Group, an Israeli technology firm that has made headlines for selling spyware to authoritarian nation-states.
Some forms of digital repression are meant to embarrass and doxx. One unnamed interviewee in the Citizen Lab report, who moved from China to Canada, found out that fabricated nude photos of her were being circulated among attendees of a conference she intended to visit. Her personal information was also posted in online ads soliciting sex services.
Victims of this type of harassment experienced distress, anxiety, and fear for their family’s safety, the report notes. “There’s also a bit of a sense of resignation among those that continued activism, like a realization that this type of targeting would continue,” says coauthor Siena Anstis, senior legal advisor at the Citizen Lab.
Many activists have become paranoid about the messages they receive. Kaveh Shahrooz, an Iraqi lawyer living in Canada who lobbies on behalf of dissidents, gives each email special scrutiny. Shahrooz says he once received a message from a supposed organizer of a human rights conference in Germany inviting him to speak and asking him to fill in personal information via a provided link. He researched more about the conference and found out he wasn’t invited, professional-sounding though the personalized email had been.
“That is one end of the spectrum,” Shahrooz says, “where you might get fooled into clicking a link. But then the other end is getting threatening messages about my activist work—things like ‘We know what you’re doing and we’ll deal with you later.’”
There is little legal recourse. Several victims of spyware attacks in the UK have brought (or are bringing) civil claims against state operators and NSO Group, Anstis says. She adds that such cases can expected to be challenged, because they generally focus on claims against companies outside the purview of the host country.
The Download: AI films, and the threat of microplastics
The Frost nails its uncanny, disconcerting vibe in its first few shots. Vast icy mountains, a makeshift camp of military-style tents, a group of people huddled around a fire, barking dogs. It’s familiar stuff, yet weird enough to plant a growing seed of dread. There’s something wrong here.
Welcome to the unsettling world of AI moviemaking. The Frost is a 12-minute movie from Detroit-based video creation company Waymark in which every shot is generated by an image-making AI. It’s one of the most impressive—and bizarre—examples yet of this strange new genre. Read the full story, and take an exclusive look at the movie.
—Will Douglas Heaven
Microplastics are everywhere. What does that mean for our immune systems?
Microplastics are pretty much everywhere you look. These tiny pieces of plastic pollution, less than five millimeters across, have been found in human blood, breast milk, and placentas. They’re even in our drinking water and the air we breathe.
Given their ubiquity, it’s worth considering what we know about microplastics. What are they doing to us?
The short answer is: we don’t really know. But scientists have begun to build a picture of their potential effects from early studies in animals and clumps of cells, and new research suggests that they could affect not only the health of our body tissues, but our immune systems more generally. Read the full story.
Microplastics are everywhere. What does that mean for our immune systems?
Here, bits of plastic can end up collecting various types of bacteria, which cling to their surfaces. Seabirds that ingest them not only end up with a stomach full of plastic—which can end up starving them—but also get introduced to types of bacteria that they wouldn’t encounter otherwise. It seems to disturb their gut microbiomes.
There are similar concerns for humans. These tiny bits of plastic, floating and flying all over the world, could act as a “Trojan horse,” introducing harmful drug-resistant bacteria and their genes, as some researchers put it.
It’s a deeply unsettling thought. As research plows on, hopefully we’ll learn not only what microplastics are doing to us, but how we might tackle the problem.
Read more from Tech Review’s archive
It is too simplistic to say we should ban all plastic. But we could do with revolutionizing the way we recycle it, as my colleague Casey Crownhart pointed out in an article published last year.
We can use sewage to track the rise of antimicrobial-resistant bacteria, as I wrote in a previous edition of the Checkup. At this point, we need all the help we can get …
… which is partly why scientists are also exploring the possibility of using tiny viruses to treat drug-resistant bacterial infections. Phages were discovered around 100 years ago and are due a comeback!
Our immune systems are incredibly complicated. And sex matters: there are important differences between the immune systems of men and women, as Sandeep Ravindran wrote in this feature, which ran in our magazine issue on gender.
Welcome to the new surreal. How AI-generated video is changing film.
Fast and cheap
Artists are often the first to experiment with new technology. But the immediate future of generative video is being shaped by the advertising industry. Waymark made The Frost to explore how generative AI could be built into its products. The company makes video creation tools for businesses looking for a fast and cheap way to make commercials. Waymark is one of several startups, alongside firms such as Softcube and Vedia AI, that offer bespoke video ads for clients with just a few clicks.
Waymark’s current tech, launched at the start of the year, pulls together several different AI techniques, including large language models, image recognition, and speech synthesis, to generate a video ad on the fly. Waymark also drew on its large data set of non-AI-generated commercials created for previous customers. “We have hundreds of thousands of videos,” says CEO Alex Persky-Stern. “We’ve pulled the best of those and trained it on what a good video looks like.”
To use Waymark’s tool, which it offers as part of a tiered subscription service starting at $25 a month, users supply the web address or social media accounts for their business, and it goes off and gathers all the text and images it can find. It then uses that data to generate a commercial, using OpenAI’s GPT-3 to write a script that is read aloud by a synthesized voice over selected images that highlight the business. A slick minute-long commercial can be generated in seconds. Users can edit the result if they wish, tweaking the script, editing images, choosing a different voice, and so on. Waymark says that more than 100,000 people have used its tool so far.
The trouble is that not every business has a website or images to draw from, says Parker. “An accountant or a therapist might have no assets at all,” he says.
Waymark’s next idea is to use generative AI to create images and video for businesses that don’t yet have any—or don’t want to use the ones they have. “That’s the thrust behind making The Frost,” says Parker. “Create a world, a vibe.”
The Frost has a vibe, for sure. But it is also janky. “It’s not a perfect medium yet by any means,” says Rubin. “It was a bit of a struggle to get certain things from DALL-E, like emotional responses in faces. But at other times, it delighted us. We’d be like, ‘Oh my God, this is magic happening before our eyes.’”
This hit-and-miss process will improve as the technology gets better. DALL-E 2, which Waymark used to make The Frost, was released just a year ago. Video generation tools that generate short clips have only been around for a few months.
The most revolutionary aspect of the technology is being able to generate new shots whenever you want them, says Rubin: “With 15 minutes of trial and error, you get that shot you wanted that fits perfectly into a sequence.” He remembers cutting the film together and needing particular shots, like a close-up of a boot on a mountainside. With DALL-E, he could just call it up. “It’s mind-blowing,” he says. “That’s when it started to be a real eye-opening experience as a filmmaker.”