Connect with us

Tech

Google’s unusual move to shut down an active counterterrorism operation being conducted by a Western democracy

Published

on

Google's unusual move to shut down an active counterterrorism operation being conducted by a Western democracy


But Western operations are recognizable, according to one former senior US intelligence official.

“There are certain hallmarks in Western operations that are not present in other entities … you can see it translate down into the code,” said the former official, who is not authorized to comment on operations and spoke on condition of anonymity. “And this is where I think one of the key ethical dimensions comes in. How one treats intelligence activity or law enforcement activity driven under democratic oversight within a lawfully elected representative government is very different from that of an authoritarian regime.”

“There are certain hallmarks in Western operations that are not present in other entities … you can see it translate down into the code.”

“The oversight is baked into Western operations at the technical, tradecraft, and procedure level,” they added.

Google found the hacking group exploiting 11 zero-day vulnerabilities in just nine months, a high number of exploits over a short period. Software that was attacked included the Safari browser on iPhones but also many Google products, including the Chrome browser on Android phones and Windows computers.

But the conclusion within Google was that who was hacking and why is never as important as the security flaws themselves. Earlier this year, Project Zero’s Maddie Stone argued that it is too easy for hackers to find and use powerful zero-day vulnerabilities and that her team faces an uphill battle detecting their use. 

Instead of focusing on who was behind and targeted by a specific operation, Google decided to take broader action for everyone. The justification was that even if a Western government was the one exploiting those vulnerabilities today, it will eventually be used by others, and so the right choice is always to fix the flaw today.   

“It’s not their job to figure out”

This is far from the first time a Western cybersecurity team has caught hackers from allied countries. Some companies, however, have a quiet policy of not publicly exposing such hacking operations if both the security team and the hackers are considered friendly—for example, if they are members of the “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance, which is made up of the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Several members of Google’s security teams are veterans of Western intelligence agencies, and some have conducted hacking campaigns for these governments.

In some cases, security companies will clean up so-called “friendly” malware but avoid going public with it. 

“They typically don’t attribute US-based operations,” says Sasha Romanosky, a former Pentagon official who published recent research into private-sector cybersecurity investigations. “They told us they specifically step away. It’s not their job to figure out; they politely move aside. That’s not unexpected.”

While the Google situation is in some ways unusual, there have been somewhat similar cases in the past. The Russian cybersecurity firm Kaspersky came under fire in 2018 when it exposed an American-led counterterrorism cyber operation against ISIS and Al Qaeda members in the Middle East. Kaspersky, like Google, did not explicitly attribute the threat but nevertheless exposed it and rendered it useless, American officials said, which caused the operatives to lose access to a valuable surveillance program and even put the lives of soldiers on the ground at risk.

Kaspersky was already under heavy criticism for its relationship with the Russian government at the time, and the company was ultimately banned from US government systems. It has always denied having any special relationship with the Kremlin.

Google has found itself in similar water before, too. In 2019, the company released research on what may have been an American hacking group, although specific attribution was never made. But that research was about a historical operation. Google’s recent announcements, however, put the spotlight on what had been a live cyber-espionage operation. 

Who’s being protected?

The alarms raised both inside government and at Google show the company is in a difficult position. 

Google security teams have a responsibility to the company’s customers, and it is widely expected that they will do their utmost to protect the products—and therefore users—who are under attack. In this incident, it’s notable that the techniques used affected not just Google products like Chrome and Android, but also iPhones.

While different teams draw their own lines, Project Zero has made its name by tackling critical vulnerabilities all over the internet, not just those found in Google’s products. 

Tech

The hunter-gatherer groups at the heart of a microbiome gold rush

Published

on

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.

Continue Reading

Tech

The Download: a microbiome gold rush, and Eric Schmidt’s election misinformation plan

Published

on

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.

—Jessica Hamzelou

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.

Continue Reading

Tech

Navigating a shifting customer-engagement landscape with generative AI

Published

on

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.”

Continue Reading

Copyright © 2021 Seminole Press.