The Download: Language-preserving AI, and hackers showed it’s frighteningly easy to breach critical infrastructure


This is today’s edition of The Download, our weekday newsletter that provides a daily dose of what’s going on in the world of technology.

A new vision of artificial intelligence for the people

In the back room of an old building in New Zealand, one of the most advanced computers for artificial intelligence is helping to redefine the technology’s future.

Te Hiku Media, a nonprofit Māori radio station run by Peter-Lucas Jones and Keoni Mahelona, bought the machine to train its own algorithms for natural-language processing. It’s now a central part of the pair’s dream to revitalize the Māori language while keeping control of their community’s data.

The project is a radical departure from the way the AI industry typically operates. Over the last decade, AI researchers have pushed the field to new limits with the dogma “more is more,” relentlessly mining people for their faces, voices, and behaviors to enrich bottom lines. But projects like Te Hiku could point the way to a new generation of AI—one that does not treat marginalized people as mere data subjects but reestablishes them as co-creators of a shared future. Read the full story.

—Karen Hao

This is the fourth and final part of our series on AI colonialism, the idea that artificial intelligence is creating a new colonial world order. You can read the previous articles in the series here.

These hackers showed just how easy it is to target critical infrastructure

Expert skills: Earlier this week, two Dutch researchers took home $90,000 as a reward for hacking the software that helps run the world’s critical infrastructure.

Frightening ease: Daan Keuper and his colleague Thijs Alkemade are well practiced. Having hacked a car in 2018, they started infiltrating video conferencing software and coronavirus apps last year. Their latest challenge was their easiest yet. The targets were all industrial control systems that run critical facilities, including power grids, gas pipelines, and more. It’s the same software that can be found in the real world.

Security vulnerabilities: The pair managed to successfully bypass the trusted-application check for a communications protocol called OPC UA, which allows different parts of a critical-operations system to talk to each other in industrial settings. “In industrial control systems, there is still so much low-hanging fruit,” Keuper says. “The security is lagging behind badly.” Read the full story.

—Patrick Howell O’Neill

Spilling Silicon Valley’s secrets, one tweet at a time

Shortly after midnight on May 4, 2018, Jane Manchun Wong tweeted her first “finding” ever. “Twitter is working on End-to-End Encrypted Secret DM!” she wrote.

That tweet was the first of many that Wong would send out. By going into public source code for companies like Twitter and Facebook, she has been able to find out what features and projects are secretly working on before they announce it.

A young woman of color exposing the plans of a Big Tech firm without any tools apart from her own ability to reverse-engineer code was (and is) pretty radical—and it’s changed the way tech companies work. Read the full story.

—Tanya Basu

Quote of the day

“We think we are fighting fascism, but there isn’t fascism there. There isn’t.” 

—Sergei Klokov, a driver at Moscow’s police headquarters, criticized Russia’s activities in Ukraine during a phone call to a friend shortly before he was arrested, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 We need to prepare for the war in Ukraine to last indefinitely

It’s been eight weeks since the invasion, with no sign of a conclusion to the conflict. (Foreign Affairs)
+ Ukraine is concerned that Chinese-made drones are sabotaging its defenses. (WSJ $)
+ Russia has banned Kamala Harris and other US officials from entering the country. (Reuters)
+ Russian troops are blockading a steel mill with 2,000 Ukrainian fighters inside. (NYT $)
+ The World Bank is anticipating a catastrophic global food crisis. (BBC)
+ Russia plans to “falsify” an independence referendum in southern Ukraine, says Zelensky. (The Guardian)

2 Elon Musk says he’s lined up $46.5 billion to buy Twitter
Which is an awful lot of money, even for someone as wealthy as him. (WSJ $)
+ He says he wants free speech on the platform, but he’s spent years trying to silence his own critics is pretty thin-skinned to criticism. (Bloomberg $)
+ Musk also appears dead-set on turning back time to when tweets had fewer consequences. (New Yorker $)

3 Zero-day hacks are the rich cybercriminal’s weapon of choice
They’re eye-wateringly expensive, but incredibly effective. (TR)
+ Google is fixing more zero-day flaws targeting Chrome. (ZDNet)

4 Microbial jet fuel could help cut carbon emissions from flying
If (a big if) it can be proven to work at scale. (TR)
+ Another way to lower greenhouse emissions? Sue the producers. (The Economist $)

5 The EU is set to announce a new law forcing Big Tech to police illegal content
If it goes through, it means they’ll no longer be allowed to mark their own homework. (FT $)
+ It could leave the biggest companies vulnerable to fines of billions of dollars. (Bloomberg $)
+ As ever, the biggest companies are less than thrilled by the prospect. (Bloomberg $)
+ And marketers won’t be happy either. (The Drum $)

6 Regulation alone can’t combat disinformation
Disinformation is dangerous, but flawed methods to tackle it can be terrible too. (The Atlantic $)
+ YouTube is more likely to reinforce extreme views than to introduce you to them. (NYT $)
+ Big Tech has made democracy more vulnerable, Obama says. (WP $)

7 Sheryl Sandberg reportedly persuaded journalists not to write about her then-boyfriend
Partly because it would have harmed her reputation as a champion of women. (WSJ $)

8 Someone in the UK has had covid for more than a year
Doctors say we need better treatments for people battling persistent infections. (The Guardian)
+ New global covid cases were down by nearly a quarter last week. (The Guardian)

9 Installing smart home tech in rental properties is a thorny privacy issue
On one hand, it’s convenient. On the other: it’s a web-enabled surveillance network. (WSJ $)
+ Amazon thinks home tech is a safer bet than expanding into the metaverse. (FT $)

10 What it’s like to receive an email from your past self 📧
It’s a lovely way to reflect on your achievements, and the future. (The Guardian)

We can still have nice things

A place for comfort, fun and distraction in these weird times. (Got any ideas? Drop me a line or tweet ’em at me.)

+ If you’re lucky, you can catch warthog piglets having a mud bath on this livestream of a Namibian waterhole (thanks Michael!)
+ Forget It, I reckon this is Stephen King’s scariest work to date.
+ NASA’s Perseverance Rover witnessed a rare solar eclipse on Mars.
+ Today would have been Glen Campbell’s 86th birthday. Enjoy this rendition of the enduring classic, Wichita Lineman.
+ I’m sure New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern was touched by this beautiful dance from two people dressed as kiwi fruits welcoming her to Japan.
+ This collection of album covers makes me want to listen to some Grace Jones immediately.
+ Remember Honda’s ASIMO robot? It’s retiring. 😢





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