28 July 2021

Washington Post: “Private Israeli spyware used to hack cellphones of journalists, activists worldwide”

The targeting of the 37 smartphones would appear to conflict with the stated purpose of NSO’s licensing of the Pegasus spyware, which the company says is intended only for use in surveilling terrorists and major criminals. The evidence extracted from these smartphones, revealed here for the first time, calls into question pledges by the Israeli company to police its clients for human rights abuses.

The media consortium, titled the Pegasus Project, analyzed the list through interviews and forensic analysis of the phones, and by comparing details with previously reported information about NSO. Amnesty’s Security Lab examined 67 smartphones where attacks were suspected. Of those, 23 were successfully infected and 14 showed signs of attempted penetration.

Pegasus is engineered to evade defenses on iPhones and Android devices and to leave few traces of its attack. Familiar privacy measures like strong passwords and encryption offer little help against Pegasus, which can attack phones without any warning to users. It can read anything on a device that a user can, while also stealing photos, recordings, location records, communications, passwords, call logs and social media posts. Spyware also can activate cameras and microphones for real-time surveillance.

There is just nothing from an encryption standpoint to protect against this, said Claudio Guarnieri, a.k.a. “Nex”, the Amnesty Security Lab’s 33-year-old Italian researcher who developed and performed the digital forensics on 37 smartphones that showed evidence of Pegasus attacks.

Dana Priest, Craig Timberg & Souad Mekhennet

Once you build and distribute surveillance tools, it becomes almost impossible to control how clients are using them. The list of 50,000 phone numbers mentioned in this investigative report includes, among others, three presidents, 10 prime ministers and a king, including French president Emmanuel Macron. French prosecutors already opened a probe based on this report, and Amazon Web Services has shut down infrastructure linked to Israeli surveillance vendor NSO Group.

Scientific American: “New Space Radiation Limits needed for NASA Astronauts, report says”

Everybody is planning trips to the moon and Mars, and these missions could have high radiation exposures, says Hedvig Hricak, lead author of the report and a radiologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. Using current spaceflight-proved technologies, long-distance voyages—especially to the Red Planet—would exceed the proposed threshold, she says.

That could be a big problem for NASA’s Artemis program, which seeks to send astronauts to the moon in preparation for future trips to Mars. Another problem for the space agency is that the epidemiological data it uses mostly come from a longevity study of Japanese survivors of atomic bomb blasts, as well as from the handful of astronauts and cosmonauts who have endured many months or even years in low-Earth orbit. NASA’s current space radiation limit, which was developed in 2014, involves a complicated risk assessment for cancer mortality that depends on age and sex, yet more relevant data are necessary, Hricak argues. In the atomic bomb survivor study, for instance, women were more likely to develop lung cancer than men, suggesting a greater sex-based vulnerability to harmful radiation. But with the knowledge we presently have, we know we cannot make a comparison between high exposure versus chronic exposure, Hricak says. The environment is different. There are so many factors that are different.

Ramin Skibba

Another indication of NASA’s increasing risk aversion around human space flight. Setting a fixed limit for radiation exposure is a blunt solution to a very complex problem; NASA should instead concentrate efforts into finding ways to extend safe human presence in space, by researching better shielding, faster propulsion methods to reduce transit times in deep space, and treatments to prevent cancer and alleviate radiation side-effects – something that could drastically improve many lives on Earth as well! At this rate though, others will set foot on the Moon and Mars well ahead of the US – maybe Elon Musk, utterly unconcerned about the safety of travelers, possibly Jeff Bezos on the Moon, but more likely China…

26 July 2021

Nieman Journalism Lab: “If you’re not a climate reporter yet, you will be”

We are not learning the lessons that the Covid-19 pandemic taught us, where we have a global crisis and the entire newsroom mobilizes to cover that crisis, said Emily Atkin, environment reporter and editor of the newsletter Heated, in a recent interview with CNN’s Brian Stelter. We understand that this infiltrates every single area of our life. She continued: There is no excuse for a reporter today who doesn’t understand the basic science of Covid-19. Why is it not the same for climate change? Everyone should be a climate reporter. And if you are not a climate reporter right now, you will be.

When asked what further changes he would hope for in his newsroom after 18 months of covering Covid-19, German science editor Stockrahm said, I would hope for a greater appreciation of the fact that questioning science is a core part of science. It is a misunderstanding of science when journalists primarily demand definitive answers from scientists or from us science journalists. But this appreciation of scientific disagreements shouldn’t be confused with a dismissal of science itself. As a large-scale analysis of roughly 100,000 English-language digital and print media articles on climate change has shown, journalists often understate just how much scientific agreement there is on climate change and its human-made causes.

Wolfgang Blau

Interesting perspective on the role of journalism faced with massive global challenges, such as the coronavirus pandemic and climate change. I would argue this reevaluation is long overdue: unfortunately, the journalistic focus on ‘news’, on immediate urgent events with short-term impact, to the detriment of important long-term trends, has already done much damage to the public perception of both these crises.

24 July 2021

The Guardian: “‘Humans were not centre stage’: how ancient cave art puts us in our place”

Of course, cave art also inspired the question raised by all truly arresting art: “What does it mean?” Who was its intended audience, and what were they supposed to derive from it? The boy discoverers of Lascaux took their questions to one of their schoolmasters, who roped in Henri Breuil, a priest familiar enough with all things prehistoric to be known as “the pope of prehistory”. Unsurprisingly, he offered a “magico-religious” interpretation, with the prefix “magico” serving as a slur to distinguish Paleolithic beliefs, whatever they may have been, from the reigning monotheism of the modern world. More practically, he proposed that the painted animals were meant to magically attract the actual animals they represented, the better for humans to hunt and eat them.

Unfortunately for this theory, it turns out that the animals on cave walls were not the kinds that the artists usually dined on. The creators of the Lascaux art, for example, ate reindeer, not the much more formidable herbivores pictured in the cave, which would have been difficult for humans armed with flint-tipped spears to bring down without being trampled. Today, many scholars answer the question of meaning with what amounts to a shrug: “We may never know.”

Barbara Ehrenreich

Fascinating mystery, and one for which we, contemporary humans, will most likely never find the true answer, as the people drawing these paintings are long gone and have not left behind written accounts of their motives. Nevertheless, the “magico-religious” interpretation seems the likeliest to me. Throughout history, spiritual and religious beliefs have constantly accompanied human culture and society, and there is no reason to think this was not the case before large-scale communities coalesced into the first recorded civilizations. These prehistoric people may have revered large beasts as something akin to deities or nature spirits and painted themselves as puny and insignificant alongside their power and magnificence. Just as we are now visiting cathedrals adorned with stories from our religions, these ancestors may have gathered in painted caves as places of worship, to reenact their myths and pass them along to a new generation.

22 July 2021

Bloomberg: “Netflix plans to offer Video Games in Push beyond Films, TV”

Mike Verdu will join Netflix as vice president of game development, reporting to Chief Operating Officer Greg Peters, the company said on Wednesday. Verdu was previously Facebook’s vice president in charge of working with developers to bring games and other content to Oculus virtual-reality headsets.

The idea is to offer video games on Netflix’s streaming platform within the next year, according to a person familiar with the situation. The games will appear alongside current fare as a new programming genre – similar to what Netflix did with documentaries or stand-up specials. The company doesn’t currently plan to charge extra for the content, said the person, who asked not to be identified because the deliberations are private.

Lucas Shaw & Mark Gurman

Hmm, an intriguing initiative from Netflix – who in the meantime clarified it will focus on mobile games initially – but I am unsure how successful it might be. The broad idea is to keep subscribers on Netflix, as opposed to them spending time elsewhere, creating more engagement and brand loyalty. On the flip side though, developing games is complicated, requiring considerable time and money, and has very little overlap with film production, apart from leveraging existing intellectual property and maybe reusing actors to voice game characters. This would generate a large new cost center in Netflix’ financials, with little extra revenue to offset it.

20 July 2021

Ars Technica: “Disable the Windows print spooler to prevent hacks, Microsoft tells customers”

An elevation of privilege vulnerability exists when the Windows Print Spooler service improperly performs privileged file operations, Microsoft wrote in Thursday’s advisory. An attacker who successfully exploited this vulnerability could run arbitrary code with SYSTEM privileges. An attacker could then install programs; view, change, or delete data; or create new accounts with full user rights.

Microsoft said that the attacker must first have the ability to execute code on a victim’s system. The advisory rates in-the-wild exploits as “more likely”. Microsoft continues to advise that customers install the previously issued security updates. A print spooler is software that manages the sending of jobs to the printer by temporarily storing data in a buffer and processing the jobs sequentially or by job priority.

The workaround for this vulnerability is stopping and disabling the Print Spooler service, Thursday’s advisory said. It provides several methods customers can use to do so.

Dan Goodin

I went ahead and disabled the print spooler on my personal laptop, thinking I would not need it on a regular basis, but in the process I stumbled upon one of the weirder and more unexpected dependencies in Microsoft software. Apparently, since Excel 2010, charts located on separate chart sheets somehow rely on printer drivers for their dimensions. With the print spooler stopped, the system behaves as if no printer is installed and because of this Excel chart areas default to a fixed size and cannot be resized! The result is a weird looking mini-chart, sometimes with distorted text.

17 July 2021

The New York Times: “How Humanity gave itself an Extra Life”

In effect, during the century since the end of the Great Influenza outbreak, the average human life span has doubled. There are few measures of human progress more astonishing than this. If you were to publish a newspaper that came out just once a century, the banner headline surely would — or should — be the declaration of this incredible feat. But of course, the story of our extra life span almost never appears on the front page of our actual daily newspapers, because the drama and heroism that have given us those additional years are far more evident in hindsight than they are in the moment. That is, the story of our extra life is a story of progress in its usual form: brilliant ideas and collaborations unfolding far from the spotlight of public attention, setting in motion incremental improvements that take decades to display their true magnitude.

Another reason we have a hard time recognizing this kind of progress is that it tends to be measured not in events but in nonevents: the smallpox infection that didn’t kill you at age 2; the accidental scrape that didn’t give you a lethal bacterial infection; the drinking water that didn’t poison you with cholera. In a sense, human beings have been increasingly protected by an invisible shield, one that has been built, piece by piece, over the last few centuries, keeping us ever safer and further from death.

Steven Johnson

Insightful outline of the medical innovations and social changes during the past centuries that enabled people to live much longer and healthier lives than our ancestors. I was aware of most of these, but if asked, I could not have placed them in the correct historical timeframe. I was somewhat surprised to discover how recently antibiotics became widespread, and that vaccination is has been around for much longer than I would have expected.