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The US Is Sending Money to Countries Devastated by Cyberattacks

The US Is Sending Money to Countries Devastated by Cyberattacks

Last spring, the Costa Rican government suffered a series of ransomware attacks that hobbled critical systems around the country. As imports and exports, health care, and other public services were disrupted, Costa Rican president Rodrigo Chaves Robles declared a state of emergency, and the recovery has been a months-long ordeal. Almost a year after the crisis began, a senior White House official told reporters today that the United States plans to provide $25 million in cybersecurity assistance to help Costa Rica strengthen its digital infrastructure. 

The grant will include funding to establish a security operations center within Costa Rica’s Ministry of Science, Innovation, Technology, and Communications. This will expand the country’s ability to systematically improve its critical infrastructure defenses, detect intrusions, and coordinate incident response across the government. The funding will also include cybersecurity training as well as secure equipment, including hardware and licenses for software. 

The senior Biden administration official, who spoke to reporters on the condition that they not me named, is in Costa Rica to meet with Chaves about the aid, which will come from the US State Department. Costa Rica is cohosting the State Department’s 2023 Summit for Democracy this week. 

The official also told reporters that in February the US government provided a similar $25 million grant to Albania in the wake of a destructive attack on that country’s government last summer that has been attributed to Iranian hackers. 

“At the time [of the ransomware attacks], we immediately deployed a team of US experts to assist in Costa Rica’s recovery and have been working closely with the country since then—and have recognized that this further stability, this further assistance is needed,” the US official told reporters.

The official said that the Biden administration has been choosing cybersecurity funding recipients “based on the significance of the attacks that occurred.” Iran’s cyberattack on Albania was noteworthy for its targeting of a NATO member. Meanwhile, Chaves and other members of the Costa Rican government have suggested that the attacks on their networks, which were perpetrated by notorious Russia-based cybercriminal gangs, may have been in response to Costa Rica’s outspoken support of Ukraine.

The attacks on Costa Rica were led by the prolific, now disbanded, cybercriminal gang Conti and its affiliates. The group demanded a $20 million ransom and uploaded hundreds of gigabytes of data stolen in the attacks to its dark-web site. And the group was explicit about its destructive intentions. “We are determined to overthrow the government by means of a cyberattack,” it wrote in a post addressed to Costa Rica and “US terrorists (Biden and his administration).” At the time of the attacks, the US State Department offered rewards totaling $15 million for information about Conti that leads to an arrest.

In recent years, as digital threats have escalated, the US has been focused on launching initiatives to bring the global community together against ransomware and other cybercrime.

“In the current context, we recognize that supporting our allies’ and partners’ security is important,” the senior official said today, citing collaboration with European allies, Russian cyberattacks, and “broader competition with China” as the general geopolitical backdrop for the move.

Red Teaming GPT-4 Was Valuable. Violet Teaming Will Make It Better

Red Teaming GPT-4 Was Valuable. Violet Teaming Will Make It Better

Last year, I was asked to break GPT-4—to get it to output terrible things. I and other interdisciplinary researchers were given advance access and attempted to prompt GPT-4 to show biases, generate hateful propaganda, and even take deceptive actions in order to help OpenAI understand the risks it posed, so they could be addressed before its public release. This is called AI red teaming: attempting to get an AI system to act in harmful or unintended ways.

Red teaming is a valuable step toward building AI models that won’t harm society. To make AI systems stronger, we need to know how they can fail—and ideally we do that before they create significant problems in the real world. Imagine what could have gone differently had Facebook tried to red-team the impact of its major AI recommendation system changes with external experts, and fixed the issues they discovered, before impacting elections and conflicts around the world. Though OpenAI faces many valid criticisms, its willingness to involve external researchers and to provide a detailed public description of all the potential harms of its systems sets a bar for openness that potential competitors should also be called upon to follow. 

Normalizing red teaming with external experts and public reports is an important first step for the industry. But because generative AI systems will likely impact many of society’s most critical institutions and public goods, red teams need people with a deep understanding of all of these issues (and their impacts on each other) in order to understand and mitigate potential harms. For example, teachers, therapists, and civic leaders might be paired with more experienced AI red teamers in order to grapple with such systemic impacts. AI industry investment in a cross-company community of such red-teamer pairs could significantly reduce the likelihood of critical blind spots.

After a new system is released, carefully allowing people who were not part of the prerelease red team to attempt to break the system without risk of bans could help identify new problems and issues with potential fixes. Scenario exercises, which explore how different actors would respond to model releases, can also help organizations understand more systemic impacts. 

But if red-teaming GPT-4 taught me anything, it is that red teaming alone is not enough. For example, I just tested Google’s Bard and OpenAI’s ChatGPT and was able to get both to create scam emails and conspiracy propaganda on the first try “for educational purposes.” Red teaming alone did not fix this. To actually overcome the harms uncovered by red teaming, companies like OpenAI can go one step further and offer early access and resources to use their models for defense and resilience, as well.

I call this violet teaming: identifying how a system (e.g., GPT-4) might harm an institution or public good, and then supporting the development of tools using that same system to defend the institution or public good. You can think of this as a sort of judo. General-purpose AI systems are a vast new form of power being unleashed on the world, and that power can harm our public goods. Just as judo redirects the power of an attacker in order to neutralize them, violet teaming aims to redirect the power unleashed by AI systems in order to defend those public goods.

Apple iOS 16 and iPadOS 16 (2023): How to Download, New Features, Supported Devices

Apple iOS 16 and iPadOS 16 (2023): How to Download, New Features, Supported Devices

If you’re a fan of dictating your messages instead of typing (fewer “ducks,” am I right?) then you’ll appreciate the improvements to dictation. Now, the keyboard will stay open during dictation so you can easily move between voice and touch. You can tap text to select it and replace it with your voice, and even send emojis without taking forever to find one. 

Safari Tab Groups and Passkeys

You can create tab groups in Safari already, such as a collection of tabs for work, but in iOS 16 you can share these groups with other people. You’ll also be able to see what tabs people are viewing in real-time. 

Everyone wants to get rid of passwords, and Apple is one step closer with Passkeys. These are unique digital keys you can create via Touch ID or Face ID; there’s no password to generate or type in, and Apple says they are virtually immune from being phished or leaked in a data breach. They sync across your Apple devices via iCloud Keychain and will work across apps and the web. Apple says it’s working with the FIDO Alliance for a cross-platform solution for those who also use non-Apple devices. Read more about how Passkeys work.

Updates to Live Text Visual Look Up 

iPhone showing iOS 16 Live Text feature

Real-time visual translation.

Photograph: Apple

Live Text, the feature that lets you grab the text in any photo (before or after you snap it), now works with videos. Just pause any video and tap the text to copy it. There are a few new quick actions when you select particular kinds of text, such as converting currency and translating text.

Visual Look Up was a different feature Apple introduced last year that offered up more information on the photo you were looking at, such as details about a landmark or similar web results. It now supports birds, insects, and statues, but you can also use it to grab the subject from a photo (much like using the Lasso tool in Photoshop) to paste anywhere, like in a conversation thread in Messages. 

Medication Tracking

Apple updated the Health app with a new Medication tab to help make it easier to track your medications. You can use it to add medications you need to take and set reminders (and receive them on the Apple Watch). You can manually type in these medications or just scan the label of the bottle with your phone’s camera. The data includes Critical, Serious, or Moderate interactions with the pills. You’re able to log when you’ve taken your medications, too. You can share this health data with family members.

Use Your iPhone as a Webcam

Person using Continuity Camera feature on MacOS Ventura

Photograph: Olivia Bee/Apple

You can use your iPhone as a MacBook webcam (the rear cameras, which are significantly better than the webcam cameras), and without needing to plug anything in—your Mac will automatically detect the rear camera and use it for your video calls. (Any MacBook that can run macOS Ventura will support this feature.) You can use features like Center Stage, which has the camera following you around a room, and Portrait Mode, which blurs the background to block out the mess behind you. There’s even a Desk View mode that utilizes the ultrawide camera to show folks what’s on your desk, though I don’t want anyone seeing that. Belkin has a custom mount you can use to outfit your iPhone on top of the MacBook, and there’s even a version for Macs. 

Apple Maps Goes to Vegas

Apple has been slowly redesigning select cities in the US to show off richer data. The company has added Las Vegas, Miami, Seattle, Atlanta, and Chicago to the list, and more cities are supposed to arrive this year. The feature is also available in London and Canada. Other Maps updates include the ability to add up to 15 stops before your final destination, which is great for long-distance road trips (and you can set this up on a Mac and send it straight to your iPhone). If you’re using public transit, you can now see fares, add transit cards, see low balances, and reload transit cards. 

Lockdown Mode

Screenshot of Lockdown Mode on iOS

Photograph: Apple

To help protect your devices from “highly sophisticated cyberattacks,” Lockdown mode adds an extreme layer of additional protection to your iPhone and iPad. When enabled, features, apps, and websites will be limited for security purposes to help keep the malware or spyware from accessing and compromising specific data. You can learn more about Lockdown Mode and how to turn it on here.

Safety Check

This new tool lets you quickly remove all access that you might have granted to anyone in your circles and includes an emergency reset that will sign you out of iCloud on all other devices, reset privacy permissions, and limit messaging to the device you have in your hand. It also shows you who has access to your devices and apps.

Family Sharing

iPhone showing iOS 16 Family Sharing feature

Photograph: Apple

There’s now a simpler process for setting up devices for kids. Just bring your iPhone close to your iPad and choose your kids’ account. It’ll set it up with all the parental controls you configured before. You can even grant screen time extensions in the Messages app instead of having to go into the device’s settings. There’s also a Family Checklist tool for suggestions like turning on location sharing, and tweaking settings as your kids get older.

iCloud Shared Photo Library

iPhone showing iOS Family Albums

Photograph: Apple

You can now set up an iCloud Shared Photo Library, similar to how you can set up shared photo libraries in Google Photos. Just add up to five other people to a library and everyone can add and edit family photos. You can choose which photos to share, including whether to base them on a start date or via face detection. There’s also a toggle in the Camera app that you can turn on to automatically send the photo you capture to the shared library. If you’re all on vacation, these photos can even automatically show up in the shared library based on your proximity to family members. 

Emergency SOS Via Satellite 

Those with any model from the iPhone 14 lineup now have access to the new Emergency SOS via the Satellite feature. If you’re ever in need of assistance while in a remote location with no cellular service, the iPhone will have the ability to connect to Globalstar satellites in orbit. That way, you can communicate with emergency responders or Apple’s own Relay Center to get help.

Advanced Data Protection for iCloud

Apple has increased the number of iCloud data categories protected using end-to-end encryption. In addition to credit card and payment data, health data, and passwords, you’ll now have to option to extend this protection to other sensitive information like Notes, Photos, and iCloud Backup. You can learn more about the new feature here.

Apple iPhone displaying twofactor authentication and security key prompt.

Photograph: Apple

Apple ID Support for Physical Authentication Keys

In addition to two-factor authentication codes (which are required for all new Apple IDs), you now have the option to use hardware keys as part of the process. Unlike codes, hardware tokens can’t be compromised or shared as easily—adding an extra layer of security to your devices.

Support For HomePod (2nd Generation)

With the launch of a second-generation HomePod, iOS 16 unlocks a variety of new features for the new smart speaker—some of which are also available on the first-generation HomePod and HomePod Mini. On all HomePods, you can now use Find My to ask Siri the location of family and friends (if they’ve shared it with you) and set up recurring Home automation via Siri using your voice (like turning the AC on at a specific time during the day). When controlling devices that are in different rooms, you’ll also hear a new Siri confirmation tone to confirm the command has gone through. 

On both the HomePod (2nd generation) and HomePod Mini, you’ll have access to the internal temperature humidity sensor. It can measure indoor environments, allowing you to set an automation such as turning the AC on when a room reaches a certain temperature. Both full-size HomePods also now come with auto-tuning optimization for spoken content like podcasts or audiobooks, which should allow for greater clarity.

Emergency SOS Controls

Prior to iOS 16.3, you could make an emergency call on your iPhone by holding the side button, one of the volume buttons, and using the Emergency SOS slider. In an effort to prevent people from accidentally triggering the feature, Apple has tweaked the controls slightly. You still have to hold down the side button and one of the volume buttons, but the call won’t go through until the countdown ends and you physically let go of the buttons.

Pay It Later With Apple Pay

iPhone showing iOS 16 Pay Later feature

You can afford it. Really.

Photograph: Apple

Services that let you buy now but pay later have received some pushback from consumer analysts, but Apple is barreling ahead with its own take called Apple Pay Later. It allows you to split the cost of an Apple Pay purchase over four equal payments spread over six weeks with zero interest and no fees. You’ll also have the option to apply for Apple Pay Later when you’re checking out with Apple Pay (Apple says it will do a soft credit check), and you’ll need to have it backed with a debit card. It’s available everywhere Apple Pay is accepted online or in-app. You can also see order tracking directly in Apple Pay, though this is available only with participating merchants. And if you’re a small business owner, you’ll be able to accept Apple Pay payments via iPhone instead of having to use a separate terminal. 

Technology Addiction Has Created a Self-Help Trap

Technology Addiction Has Created a Self-Help Trap

For years, I sat down to work each morning, realizing hours later that I felt drained, but got little done. Instead of writing, I spent my time texting, emailing, and mostly aimlessly browsing through news sites, blogs, and social networks. Every click triggered another. I tried to regain control by using an app called Freedom that blocked my computer online access for fixed periods of time. Sometimes it helped, especially when I had a work deadline looming. Sometimes it didn’t. But trying to control work time was only part of the struggle. I kept feeling the irresistible urge to pull out my phone wherever I went. At that point, I blamed myself. After all, I was the girl who spent hours playing video games well into college. But something happened in 2015 that made me realize that something much bigger was awry.

It was a Saturday evening when I arrived with my family to a friends’ home for dinner. Their 11-year-old son was playing with his parents’ iPad. When we came in, his parents demanded that he hand it over and join the other kids. The boy at first refused to hand it over. He then tried angrily to snatch it back from his mother, regressing to toddler-style wailing to demand the device. Throughout a long evening he exercised every manipulation tool in his power to regain control of the iPad. As I observed his parents’ despair, I recalled a family conflict that transpired at my parents’ house some years earlier. At that time doctors diagnosed my father, a heavy smoker, with emphysema. My father could have avoided his painful final years, hooked to an oxygen tank, by quitting smoking when he was diagnosed. He refused. We desperately tried to resist his decision by taking his cigarettes away. But like my friends’ son, my father reacted with uncharacteristic anger, exercising every means at his disposal to get his cigarette pack back.

That day I began to see how our present relates to our past. The past can answer one of today’s most perplexing problems. Why, despite multiple reports from Silicon Valley whistleblowers revealing that technology companies are using manipulative designs to prolong our time online, do we feel personally responsible? Why do we still blame ourselves and keep seeking new self-help methods to decrease our time online? We can learn from the past because in this case the tech companies did not innovate. Instead, the technology industry manipulated us following an old playbook, put together by other powerful industries, including the tobacco and food industries. 

When the tobacco and food industries confronted allegations that their products harmed their consumers, they defended themselves by raising the powerful American social icon of self-choice and personal responsibility. This meant emphasizing that consumers are free to make choices and, as a result, are responsible for the outcomes. Smokers and their families sued the tobacco industry for the devastation of smoking, including lung cancer and early death. But, for decades, they failed to win their lawsuits because the tobacco industry argued successfully that they chose to smoke and, therefore, they are responsible for the results. The food industry employed an identical strategy. When a group of teenagers sued McDonald’s because they suffered from obesity and diabetes after eating regularly at McDonald’s, McDonald’s also successfully raised the same claim. It argued that no one forced the teenagers to eat at McDonald’s, and since it was their choice, McDonald’s is not responsible for any health ramifications. The food industry went further. They successfully lobbied for laws known as the “cheeseburger laws” or more formally as the Commonsense Consumption Acts. Under these laws, food manufacturers and vendors cannot be held legally responsible for their consumers’ obesity. Why? Because the laws proclaim that this will foster a culture of consumer personal responsibility, which is important for promoting a healthy society.

The tobacco and food companies did not stop at just arguing directly that their consumers are responsible. They also provided new products to help them make better choices. In the 1950s, researchers published the first studies showing the connection between smoking and lung cancer.  In response, the tobacco companies offered consumers the option to choose a new healthier product: the filtered cigarette. They advertised it as “just what the doctor ordered,” claiming it removed nicotine and tar. Smokers went for it. Yet, they did not know that to compensate for the taste robbed by the filtered cigarette, companies used stronger tobacco that yielded as much nicotine and tar as the unfiltered brands. Here as well, the food industry followed suit. It also offered tools to reinforce that its consumers are in control. Facing criticism of the low nutritional value of their products, food manufacturers added products called “Eating Right” and “Healthy Choice.” While giving consumers the illusion they were making better choices, the diet product lines often made little improvement over the original products.

The tech industry is already applying this strategy by appealing to our deeply ingrained cultural beliefs of personal choice and responsibility. Tech companies do this directly when faced with allegations that they are addicting users. When the US Federal Trade Commission evaluated restricting use of loot boxes, an addictive feature common in video games, video game manufacturers argued: “No one is forced to spend money on a video game that is free to play. They choose what they want to spend and when they want to spend it and how they want to spend it.” But the technology industry also does it indirectly by providing us with tools to enhance our illusion of control. They give us tools like Apple’s Screen Time, which notifies us how much time we spend on screens. They also allow us to restrict time on certain apps, but then we can override these restrictions. We can choose to set our phones on “do not disturb” or “focus times.” We can set Instagram to remind us to take breaks. Yet, screen time continues to creep up. These tools are not successful, because just like the “filtered cigarette” and the “healthy choice” food products, they are not meant to solve the problem. Tech companies did not eliminate the addictive designs that keep prolonging our time online. The goal of these products, also known as digital well-being tools, was to keep the blame ball in our court, as we unsuccessfully face devices and apps that manipulatively entice us to stay on.

Plastics Are Devastating the Guts of Seabirds

Plastics Are Devastating the Guts of Seabirds

This might be why her team got contrasting results in their analysis: The more individual microplastics in the gut, the greater the microbial diversity, but the higher mass of microplastics, the lower the diversity. The more particles a bird eats, the greater the chance that those hitchhiking microbes take hold in its gut. But if the bird has just eaten a higher mass of microplastics—fewer, but heavier pieces—it may have consumed fewer microbes from the outside world.

Meanwhile, particularly jagged microplastics might be scraping up the birds’ digestive systems, causing trauma that affects the microbiome. Indeed, the authors of the plasticosis paper found extensive trauma in the guts of wild flesh-footed shearwaters, birds that live along the coasts of Australia and New Zealand, that had eaten microplastics and macroplastics. (They also looked at plastic particles as small as 1 millimeter.) “When you ingest plastics, even small amounts of plastics, it alters the structure of the stomach, often very, very significantly,” says study coauthor Jennifer Lavers, a pollution ecologist at Adrift Lab, which researches the effects of plastic on sea life.

Specifically, they found catastrophic damage to the birds’ tubular glands, which produce mucus to provide a protective barrier for the inside of the stomach, as well as hydrochloric acid, which digests food. Without these key secretions, Lavers says, birds “also can’t digest and absorb proteins and other nutrients that keep you healthy and fit. So you’re really prone and susceptible to exposure to other bacteria, viruses, and pathogens.”

Scientists call this a “sublethal effect.” Even if the ingested pieces of plastic don’t immediately kill a bird, they can severely harm it. Lavers refers to it as the “one-two punch of plastics” because eating the material harms the birds outright, then potentially makes them more vulnerable to the pathogens they carry.

A major caveat to today’s paper—and the vast majority of microplastics research—is that most scientists haven’t been analyzing the smallest of plastic particles. But researchers using special equipment have recently been able to detect and quantify nanoplastics, on the scale of millionths of a meter. These are much, much more numerous in the environment. (This is also why the finding that there are 11 billion pounds of plastic floating on the ocean’s surface was probably a major underestimate, as that team was only considering particles down to a third of a millimeter.) But the process of observing nanoplastics remains difficult and expensive, so Fackelmann’s group can’t say how many might have been in the seabirds’ digestive systems, and how they too might influence the microbiome. 

It’s not likely to be good news. Nanoplastics are so small that they can penetrate and harm individual cells. Experiments on fish show that if you feed them nanoplastics, the particles end up in their brains, causing damage. Other animal studies have also found that nanoplastics can pass through the gut barrier and migrate to other organs. Indeed, another paper Lavers published in January found even microplastics in the flesh-footed shearwaters’ kidneys and spleens, where they had caused significant damage. “The harm that we demonstrated in the plasticosis paper is likely conservative because we didn’t deal with particles in the nanoplastic spectrum,” says Lavers. “I personally think that’s quite terrifying because the harm in the plasticosis paper is quite overwhelming.”

Now scientists are racing to figure out whether ingested plastics can endanger not only individual animals, but whole populations. “Is this harm at the individual level—all of these different sublethal effects, exposure to chemicals, exposure to microbiome changes, plasticosis—is it sufficient to drive population decline?” asks Lavers. 

The jury is still out on that, as scientists don’t have enough evidence to form a consensus. But Lavers believes in the precautionary principle. “A lot of the evidence that we have now is deeply concerning,” she says. “I think we need to let logic prevail and make a fairly safe, conservative assumption that plastics are currently driving population decline in some species.”