Another issue without a column, although the first item in the Six Links section almost graduated to that level. As a result, there are way more than six links in this issue, so I renamed the section ‘Six Things’ for the occasion.
Cyberattacks are graduating from novelty to real issue–Last week, a hacker gang called Darkside carried out a ransomware attack against the largest oil pipeline operator for the US East coast, and in doing so significantly disrupted oil supply, sparking panic buying in some places. Simply put, in a ransomware attack, the attacker takes over the victim’s IT systems and will only restore them in exchange for a ransom payment, usually paid in cryptocurrency. Days later, another gang carried out a similar attack on the Irish health services, disrupting COVID-19 testing and several hospitals in the process.
Cybersecurity experts have been calling attention to this for a while, but it seems the attacks are now increasing in scope and frequency. The situation has led French insurance group Axa to end its cyber insurance policies, that pay back ransoms paid to hacker groups. Axa’s decision followed the report of a French parliamentary commission that expressed alarm at the number of attacks now taking place. The solution obviously would be to fix the IT systems that are proving so vulnerable, but as we’ve seen in previous attacks, security hygiene in most companies is very much sub-par (shared passwords, no two-factor authentication etc.), and worse, the infrastructure is old and vulnerable. Hence, this looks like a problem that will be with us for a while.
In an puzzling coda to the Colonial pipeline attack, Darkside issued a public apology of sorts, and then announced that it lost control of its servers. This happened shortly after US President Biden announced they would retaliate, so one hypothesis is that the gang were taken offline by the US, but it could equally be an attempt to cheat their partners out of their share of the ransom payment. We really are living in a William Gibson novel. (WSJ, Irish Times, ZDNet, The Verge, The Record)
Public Service Announcement: WhatsApp privacy changes and Apple’s “Do Not Track” feature–Speaking of security hygiene, here’s what will happen to your WhatsApp experience if you don’t accept the new privacy settings, and here’s how to switch on the much-discussed “request apps not to track” feature in Apple’s latest iOS version. (Business Insider, The Verge)
It’s not only in markets that the crypto situation is volatile–Tesla announced it would stop accepting Bitcoin as payment for its cars, reversing a policy it introduced only 49 days ago. The reason given is Bitcoin’s energy use, which is at odds with the carmaker’s green credentials.
Meanwhile, Facebook’s ill-fated
Libra Diem project will now partner with a US-based bank to issue a US-dollar backed ‘stablecoin’. This effectively subjects it to US financial regulation and marks a big downgrade from its original vision. (The Verge, FT $)
The US Census is struggling with privacy in the machine-learning age–Census data is critical to good policymaking, and the willingness of those surveyed to offer up their private details rests on the assurance that the data cannot be traced back to individual respondents. However, with the rise of machine learning and the availability of humongous private datasets for the US, it has become possible to identify huge portions of the census respondents. The Census Bureau is attempting to counteract this by introducing differential privacy (the linked article explains) when publishing data sets, but this is not without controversy either. Altogether a fascinating exploration of the unintended and nefarious consequences of ML and ‘Big Data’. Read
Denmark markedly improves outcomes for heart attack patients with an app–After the disappointment of COVID-19 contact tracing apps, here is something that appears to work. Denmark introduced an app that pings volunteers when someone nearby has a heart attack, and survival rates went from 4% to 16%. The article nicely illustrates how it works and how the initiative is challenging long-held beliefs. This is the kind of modern technology use that we signed up for. (Washington Post)
’Appuccino’: the unexpected real-life TikTok/Starbucks mashup–TikTok apparently has ‘Starbucks influencers’ with huge numbers of fans, who drive baristas mad with increasingly crazy viral coffee orders. The rise of pandemic-induced takeaway orders through the Starbucks app seems to encourage this, by abstracting away the physical context of the order, meaning the angry customers in line behind you… (BuzzFeed)