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The AI arms race has us on the road to Armageddon

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The AI arms race has us on the road to Armageddon

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It’s now a given that countries worldwide are battling for AI supremacy. To date, most of the public discussion surrounding this competition has focused on commercial gains flowing from the technology. But the AI arms race for military applications is racing ahead as well, and concerned scientists, academics, and AI industry leaders have been sounding the alarm.

Compared to existing military capabilities, AI-enabled technology can make decisions on the battlefield with mathematical speed and accuracy and never get tired. However, countries and organizations developing this tech are only just beginning to articulate ideas about how ethics will influence the wars of the near future. Clearly, the development of AI-enabled autonomous weapons systems will raise significant risks for instability and conflict escalation. However, calls to ban these weapons are unlikely to succeed.

In an era of rising military tensions and risk, leading militaries worldwide are moving ahead with AI-enabled weapons and decision support, seeking leading-edge battlefield and security applications. The military potential of these weapons is substantial, but ethical concerns are largely being brushed aside. Already they are in use to guard ships against small boat attacks, search for terrorists, stand sentry, and destroy adversary air defenses.

For now, the AI arms race is a cold war, mostly between the U.S., China, and Russia, but worries are it will become more than that. Driven by fear of other countries gaining the upper hand, the world’s military powers have been competing by leveraging AI for years — dating back at least to 1983 — to achieve an advantage in the balance of power. This continues today. Famously, Russian President Vladimir Putin has said the nation that leads in AI will be the “ruler of the world.”

How policy lines up behind military AI use

According to an article in Salon, diverse and ideologically-distinct research organizations including the Center for New American Security (CNAS), the Brookings Institution, and the Heritage Foundation have argued that America must ratchet up spending on AI research and development. A Foreign Affairs article argues that nations who fail to embrace leading technologies for the battlefield will lose their competitive advantage. Speaking about AI, former U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said last year, “History informs us that those who are first to harness once-in-a-generation technologies often have a decisive advantage on the battlefield for years to come.” Indeed, leading militaries are investing heavily in AI, motivated by a desire to secure military operational advantages on the future battlefield.

Civilian oversight committees, as well as militaries, have adopted this view. Last fall, a U.S. bipartisan congressional report called on the Defense Department to get more serious about accelerating AI and autonomous capabilities. Created by Congress, the National Security Commission on AI (NSCAI) recently urged an increase in AI R&D funding over the next few years to ensure the U.S. is able to maintain its tactical edge over its adversaries and achieve “military AI readiness” by 2025.

In the future, warfare will pit “algorithm against algorithm,” claims the new NSCAI report. Although militaries have continued to compete using weapon systems similar to those of the 1980s, the NSCAI report claims: “the sources of battlefield advantage will shift from traditional factors like force size and levels of armaments to factors like superior data collection and assimilation, connectivity, computing power, algorithms, and system security.” It is possible that new AI-enabled weapons would render conventional forces near obsolete, with rows of decaying Abrams tanks gathering dust in the desert in much the same way as mothballed World War II ships lie off the coast of San Francisco. Speaking to reporters recently, Robert O. Work, vice chair of the NSCAI said of the international AI competition: “We have got … to take this competition seriously, and we need to win it.”

The accelerating AI arms race

Work to incorporate AI into the military is already far advanced. For example, militaries in the U.S., Russia, China, South Korea, the United Kingdom, Australia, Israel, Brazil, and Iran are developing cybersecurity applications, combat simulations, drone swarms, and other autonomous weapons.

Caption: The Russian Uran-9 is an armed robot. Credit: Dmitriy Fomin via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY 2.0.

A recently completed “global information dominance exercise” by U.S. Northern Command pointed to the tremendous advantages the Defense Department can achieve by applying machine learning and artificial intelligence to all-domain information. The exercise integrated information from all domains including space, cyberspace, air, land, sea, and undersea, according to Air Force Gen. Glen D. VanHerck.

Gilman Louie, a commissioner on the NSCAI report, is quoted in a news article saying: “I think it’s a mistake to think of this as an arms race” — though he added, “We don’t want to be second.”

A dangerous pursuit

West Point has started training cadets to consider ethical issues when humans lose some control over the battlefield to smart machines. Along with the ethical and political issues of an AI arms race are the increased risks of triggering an accidental war. How might this happen? Any number of ways, from a misinterpreted drone strike to autonomous jet fighters with new algorithms.

AI systems are trained on data and reflect the quality of that data along with any inherent biases and assumptions of those developing the algorithms. Gartner predicts through 2023, up to 10% of AI training data will be poisoned by benign or malicious actors. That is significant, especially considering the security vulnerability of critical systems.

When it comes to bias, military applications of AI are presumably no different, except that the stakes are much higher than whether an applicant gets a good rate on car insurance. Writing in War on the Rocks, Rafael Loss and Joseph Johnson argue that military deterrence is an “extremely complex” problem — one that any AI hampered by a lack of good data will not likely be able to provide solutions for in the immediate future.

How about assumptions? In 1983, the world’s superpowers drew near to accidental nuclear war, largely because the Soviet Union relied on software to make predictions that were based on false assumptions. Seemingly this could happen again, especially as AI increases the likelihood that humans would be taken out of decision making. It is an open question whether the risks of such a mistake are higher or lower with greater use of AI, but Star Trek had a vision in 1967 for how this could play out. The risks of conflict had escalated to such a degree in a “Taste of Armageddon” that war was outsourced to a computer simulation that decided who would perish.

Kirk

Source: Star Trek, A Taste of Armageddon.

There is no putting the genie back in the bottle. The AI arms race is well underway and leading militaries worldwide do not want to be in second place or worse. Where this will lead is subject to conjecture. Clearly, however, the wars of the future will be fought and determined by AI more than traditional “military might.” The ethical use of AI in these applications remains an open-ended issue. It was within the mandate of the NSCAI report to recommend restrictions on how the technology should be used, but this was unfortunately deferred to a later date.

Gary Grossman is the Senior VP of Technology Practice at Edelman and Global Lead of the Edelman AI Center of Excellence.

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Colonial Pipeline paid a $5 million ransom—and kept a vicious cycle turning

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Colonial Pipeline paid a $5 million ransom—and kept a vicious cycle turning

Sean Rayford | Getty Images

Nearly a week after a ransomware attack led Colonial Pipeline to halt fuel distribution on the East Coast, reports emerged on Friday that the company paid a 75 bitcoin ransom—worth as much as $5 million, depending on the time of payment—in an attempt to restore service more quickly. And while the company was able to restart operations Wednesday night, the decision to give in to hackers’ demands will only embolden other groups going forward. Real progress against the ransomware epidemic, experts say, will require more companies to say no.

Not to say that doing so is easy. The FBI and other law enforcement groups have long discouraged ransomware victims from paying digital extortion fees, but in practice many organizations resort to paying. They either don’t have the backups and other infrastructure necessary to recover otherwise, can’t or don’t want to take the time to recover on their own, or decide that it’s cheaper to just quietly pay the ransom and move on. Ransomware groups increasingly vet their victims’ financials before springing their traps, allowing them to set the highest possible price that their victims can still potentially afford.

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In the case of Colonial Pipeline, the DarkSide ransomware group attacked the company’s business network rather than the more sensitive operational technology networks that control the pipeline. But Colonial took down its OT network as well in an attempt to contain the damage, increasing the pressure to resolve the issue and resume the flow of fuel along the East Coast. Another potential factor in the decision, first reported by Zero Day, was that the company’s billing system had been infected with ransomware, so it had no way to track fuel distribution and bill customers.

Advocates of zero tolerance for ransom payments hoped that Colonial Pipeline’s proactive shutdown was a sign that the company would refuse to pay. Reports on Wednesday indicated that the company had a plan to hold out, but numerous subsequent reports on Thursday, led by Bloomberg, confirmed that the 75 bitcoin ransom had been paid. Colonial Pipeline did not return a request for comment from WIRED about the payment. It is still unclear whether the company paid the ransom soon after the attack or days later, as fuel prices rose and lines at gas stations grew.

“I can’t say I’m surprised, but it’s certainly disappointing,” says Brett Callow, a threat analyst at antivirus company Emsisoft. “Unfortunately, it’ll help keep United States critical infrastructure providers in the crosshairs. If a sector proves to be profitable, they’ll keep on hitting it.”

In a briefing on Thursday, White House press secretary Jen Pskai emphasized in general that the US government encourages victims not to pay. Others in the administration struck a more measured note. “Colonial is a private company and we’ll defer information regarding their decision on paying a ransom to them,” said Anne Neuberger, deputy national security adviser for cyber and emerging technologies, in a press briefing on Monday. She added that ransomware victims “face a very difficult situation and they [often] have to just balance the cost-benefit when they have no choice with regards to paying a ransom.”

Researchers and policymakers have struggled to produce comprehensive guidance about ransom payments. If every victim in the world suddenly stopped paying ransoms and held firm, the attacks would quickly stop, because there would be no incentive for criminals to continue. But coordinating a mandatory boycott seems impractical, researchers say, and likely would result in more payments happening in secret. When the ransomware gang Evil Corp attacked Garmin last summer, the company paid the ransom through an intermediary. It’s not unusual for large companies to use a middleman for payment, but Garmin’s situation was particularly noteworthy because Evil Corp had been sanctioned by the US government.

“For some organizations, their business could be completely destroyed if they don’t pay the ransom,” says Katie Nickels, director of intelligence at the security firm Red Canary. “If payments aren’t allowed you’ll just see people being quieter about making the payments.”

Prolonged shutdowns of hospitals, critical infrastructure, and municipal services also threaten more than just finances. When lives are literally at stake, a principled stand against hackers quickly drops off of the priorities list. Nickels herself recently participated in a public-private effort to establish comprehensive United States–based ransomware recommendations; the group could not agree on definitive guidance about if and when to pay.

“The Ransomware Task Force discussed this extensively,” she says. “There were a lot of important things that the group came to a consensus on and payment was one where there was no consensus.”

As part of a cybersecurity Executive Order signed by President Joseph Biden on Wednesday, the Department of Homeland Security will create a Cyber Safety Review Board to investigate and debrief “significant” cyberattacks. That could at least help more payments be made in the open, giving the general public a fuller sense of the scale of the ransomware problem. But while the board has incentives to entice private organizations to participate, it may still need expanded authority from Congress to demand total transparency. Meanwhile, the payments will continue, and so will the attacks.

“You shouldn’t pay, but if you don’t have a choice and you’ll be out of business forever, you’re gonna pay,” says Adam Meyers, vice president of intelligence at the security firm CrowdStrike. “In my mind, the only thing that’s going to really drive change is organizations not getting got in the first place. When the money disappears, these guys will find some other way to make money. And then we’ll have to deal with that.”

For now, though, ransomware remains an inveterate threat. And Colonial Pipeline’s $5 million payment will only egg on cybercriminals.

This story originally appeared on wired.com.

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Talend: 36% of business leaders don’t rely on data to make decisions

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40% of business leaders still rely on gut decisions, not data.

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Even as enterprise leaders tout the importance of data, 36% of business leaders don’t rely on it for making critical decisions, according to a survey by Talend, an open source data integration platform. The same survey found that 78% of business executives face challenges effectively working with data to make decisions.

Above: 40% of business leaders still rely on gut decisions, not data.

Image Credit: Talend

Our relationship with data is not healthy. Talend’s survey found only 40% of executives always trust the data they work with. For decades, managing and using data for analysis was focused on the mechanics: the collecting, cleaning, storing, and cataloging of as much data as possible, then figuring out how to use it later. Companies don’t know what data they have, where it is, or who is using it, and, critically, no way to measure their data health.

Data health is Talend’s vision of a comprehensive system for ensuring the well-being and return of corporate information. Data health offers proactive treatments, quantifiable measures, and preventive steps to identify and correct issues, ensuring that corporate data is clean, complete, and uncompromised.

Data health is a complex journey of unique requirements, regulations, and risk tolerance. It will take substantial market collaboration and research to align on appropriate standards for different companies. Eventually, data health solutions will help create a universal set of metrics to evaluate the health of corporate data and establish it as an essential indicator of the strength of a business. Talend’s initial framework imagines four primary focus areas to establish data health: reliability, visibility, understanding and value. We believe that data health will become a key, if not the most important, performance framework used within and across organizations to monitor and evaluate the health of the company. With this new data health first approach, and new standards, leaders can level the employee playing field and drive a data-charged cultural change.

From March 24th to April 8th, 2021, Talend led a survey via Qualtrics among a base of 529 independent respondents worldwide. (57% North America, 26% Asia-Pacific, 17% Europe). The respondents are all executives — with titles ranging from director to the C-suite — from medium and large companies making more than $10 million in annual revenue.

Read Talend’s full report Data Health Survey.

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Pipeline attacker Darkside suddenly goes dark—here’s what we know

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Pipeline attacker Darkside suddenly goes dark—here’s what we know

Darkside—the ransomware group that disrupted gasoline distribution across a wide swath of the US this week—has gone dark, leaving it unclear if the group is ceasing, suspending, or altering its operations or is simply orchestrating an exit scam.

On Thursday, all eight of the dark web sites Darkside used to communicate with the public went down, and they remain down as of publication time. Overnight, a post attributed to Darkside claimed, without providing any evidence, that the group’s website and content distribution infrastructure had been seized by law enforcement, along with the cryptocurrency it had received from victims.

The dog ate our funds

“At the moment, these servers cannot be accessed via SSH, and the hosting panels have been blocked,” the post stated, according to a translation of the Russian-language post published Friday by security firm Intel471. “The hosting support service doesn’t provide any information except ‘at the request of law enforcement authorities.’ In addition, a couple of hours after the seizure, funds from the payment server (belonging to us and our clients) were withdrawn to an unknown account.”

The post went on to claim that Darkside would distribute a decryptor free of charge to all victims who have yet to pay a ransom. So far, there are no reports of the group delivering on that promise.

If true, the seizures would represent a big coup for law enforcement. According to newly released figures from cryptocurrency tracking firm Chainalysis, Darkside netted at least $60 million in its first seven months, with $46 million of it coming in the first three months of this year.

Identifying a Tor hidden service would also be a huge score, since it likely would mean that either the group made a major configuration error in setting the service up or law enforcement knows of a serious vulnerability in the way the dark web works. (Intel471 analysts say that some of Darkside’s infrastructure is public-facing—meaning the regular Internet—so malware can connect to it.)

But so far, there’s no evidence to publicly corroborate these extraordinary claims. Typically, when law enforcement from the US and Western European countries seize a website, they post a notice on the site’s front page that discloses the seizure. Below is an example of what people saw after trying to visit the site for the Netwalker group after the site was taken down:

netwalker notice

So far, none of the Darkside sites display such a notice. Instead, most of them time out or show blank screens.

What’s even more doubtful is the claim that the group’s considerable cryptocurrency holdings have been taken. People who are experienced in using digital currency know not to store it in “hot wallets,” which are digital vaults connected to the Internet. Because hot wallets contain the private keys needed to transfer funds to new accounts, they’re vulnerable to hacks and the types of seizures claimed in the post.

For law enforcement to confiscate the digital currency, Darkside operators likely would have had to store it in a hot wallet, and the currency exchange used by Darkside would have had to cooperate with the law enforcement agency or been hacked.

It’s also feasible that close tracking by an organization like Chainalysis identified wallets that received funds from Darkside, and law enforcement subsequently confiscated the holdings. Indeed, Elliptic, a separate blockchain analytics company, reported finding a Bitcoin wallet used by DarkSide to receive payments from its victims. On Thursday, Elliptic reported, it was emptied of $5 million.

At the moment, it’s not known if that transfer was initiated by the FBI or another law enforcement group, or by Darkside itself. Either way, Elliptic said the wallet—which since early March had received 57 payments from 21 different wallets—provided important clues for investigators to follow.

“What we find is that 18% of the Bitcoin was sent to a small group of exchanges,” Elliptic Co-founder and Chief Scientist Tom Robinson wrote. “This information will provide law enforcement with critical leads to identify the perpetrators of these attacks.”

Nonsense, hype, and noise

Darkside’s post came as a prominent criminal underground forum called XSS announced that it was banning all ransomware activities, a major about-face from the past. The site was previously a significant resource for the ransomware groups REvil, Babuk, Darkside, LockBit, and Nefilim to recruit affiliates, who use the malware to infect victims and in exchange share a cut of the revenue generated. A few hours later, all Darkside posts made to XSS had come down.

In a Friday morning post, security firm Flashpoint wrote:

According to the administrator of XSS, the decision is partially based on ideological differences between the forum and ransomware operators. Furthermore, the media attention from high-profile incidents has resulted in a “critical mass of nonsense, hype, and noise.” The XSS statement offers some reasons for its decision, particularly that ransomware collectives and their accompanying attacks are generating “too much PR” and heightening the geopolitical and law enforcement risks to a “hazard[ous] level.”

The admin of XSS also claimed that when “Peskov [the Press Secretary for the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin] is forced to make excuses in front of our overseas ‘friends’—this is a bit too much.” They hyperlinked an article on the Russian News website Kommersant entitled “Russia has nothing to do with hacking attacks on a pipeline in the United States” as the basis for these claims.

Within hours, two other underground forums—Exploit and Raid Forums—had also banned ransomware-related posts, according to images circulating on Twitter.

REvil, meanwhile, said it was banning the use of its software against health care, educational, and governmental organizations, The Record reported.

Ransomware at a crossroads

The moves by XSS and REvil pose a major short-term disruption of the ransomware ecosystem since they remove a key recruiting tool and source of revenue. Long-term effects are less clear.

“In the long run, it’s hard to believe the ransomware ecosystem will completely fade out, given that operators are financially motivated and the schemes employed have been effective,” Intel471 analysts said in an email. They said it was more likely that ransomware groups will “go private,” meaning they will no longer publicly recruit affiliates on public forums, or will unwind their current operations and rebrand under a new name.

Ransomware groups could also alter their current practice of encrypting data so it’s unusable by the victim while also downloading the data and threatening to make it public. This double-extortion method aims to increase the pressure on victims to pay. The Babuk ransomware group recently started phasing out its use of malware that encrypts data while maintaining its blog that names and shames victims and publishes their data.

“This approach allows the ransomware operators to reap the benefits of a blackmail extortion event without having to deal with the public fallout of disrupting the business continuity of a hospital or critical infrastructure,” the Intel471 analysts wrote in the email.

For now, the only evidence that Darkside’s infrastructure and cryptocurrency have been seized is the words of admitted criminals, hardly enough to consider confirmation.

“I could be wrong, but I suspect this is simply an exit scam,” Brett Callow, a threat analyst with security firm Emsisoft told Ars. “Darkside get to sail off into the sunset—or, more likely rebrand—without needing to share the ill-gotten gains with their partners in crime.”

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