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►  How artificial intelligence is taking on ransomwar

Twice in the space of six weeks, the world has suffered major attacks of ransomware — malicious software that locks up photos and other files stored on your computer, then demands money to release them.

It’s clear that the world needs better defenses, and fortunately those are starting to emerge, if slowly and in patchwork fashion. When they arrive, we may have artificial intelligence to thank.

Ransomware isn’t necessary trickier or more dangerous than other malware that sneaks onto your computer, but it can be much more aggravating, and at times devastating. Most such infections don’t get in your face about taking your digital stuff away from you the way ransomware does, nor do they shake you down for hundreds of dollars or more.

Despite those risks, many people just aren’t good at keeping up with security software updates. Both recent ransomware attacks walloped those who failed to install a Windows update released a few months earlier.

Watchdog security software has its problems, too. With this week’s ransomware attack , only two of about 60 security services tested caught it at first, according to security researchers.

“A lot of normal applications, especially on Windows, behave like malware, and it’s hard to tell them apart,” said Ryan Kalember, an expert at the California security vendor Proofpoint.


HOW TO FIND MALWARE

In the early days, identifying malicious programs such as viruses involved matching their code against a database of known malware. But this technique was only as good as the database; new malware variants could easily slip through.

So security companies started characterizing malware by its behavior. In the case of ransomware, software could look for repeated attempts to lock files by encrypting them. But that can flag ordinary computer behavior such as file compression.

Newer techniques involve looking for combinations of behaviors. For instance, a program that starts encrypting files without showing a progress bar on the screen could be flagged for surreptitious activity, said Fabian Wosar, chief technology officer at the New Zealand security company Emsisoft. But that also risks identifying harmful software too late, after some files have already been locked up.

An even better approach identifies malware using observable characteristics usually associated with malicious intent — for instance, by quarantining a program disguised with a PDF icon to hide its true nature.

This sort of malware profiling wouldn’t rely on exact code matches, so it couldn’t be easily evaded. And such checks could be made well before potentially dangerous programs start running.


MACHINE VS. MACHINE

Still, two or three characteristics might not properly distinguish malware from legitimate software. But how about dozens? Or hundreds? Or even thousands?

For that, security researchers turn to machine learning, a form of artificial intelligence. The security system analyzes samples of good and bad software and figures out what combination of factors is likely to be present in malware.

As it encounters new software, the system calculates the probability that it’s malware, and rejects those that score above a certain threshold. When something gets through, it’s a matter of tweaking the calculations or adjusting the threshold. Now and then, researchers see a new behavior to teach the machine.


AN ARMS RACE

On the flip side, malware writers can obtain these security tools and tweak their code to see if they can evade detection. Some websites already offer to test software against leading security systems. Eventually, malware authors may start creating their own machine-learning models to defeat security-focused artificial intelligence.

Dmitri Alperovitch, co-founder and chief technology officer at the California vendor CrowdStrike, said that even if a particular system offers 99 percent protection, “it’s just a math problem of how many times you have to deviate your attack to get that 1 percent.”

Still, security companies employing machine learning have claimed success in blocking most malware, not just ransomware. SentinelOne even offers a $1 million guarantee against ransomware; it hasn’t had to pay it yet.


A FUNDAMENTAL CHALLENGE

So why was ransomware still able to spread in recent weeks?

Garden-variety anti-virus software — even some of the free versions — can help block new forms of malware, as many are also incorporating behavioral-detection and machine-learning techniques. But such software still relies on malware databases that users aren’t typically good at keeping up to date.

Next-generation services such as CrowdStrike, SentinelOne and Cylance tend to ditch databases completely in favor of machine learning.

But these services focus on corporate customers, charging $40 to $50 a year per computer. Smaller businesses often don’t have the budget — or the focus on security — for that kind of protection.

And forget consumers; these security companies aren’t selling to them yet. Though Cylance plans to release a consumer version in July, it says it’ll be a tough sell — at least until someone gets attacked personally or knows a friend or family member who has.

As Cylance CEO Stuart McClure puts it: “When you haven’t been hit with a tornado, why would you get tornado insurance?”

In Science and Technology….

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►  It’s not just you: your iPhone storage isn’t going as far as it used to

Nearly every iPhone owner’s been there: you’re snapping pictures or getting ready to download a new game, and you get that dreaded message warning you that your storage is almost full.

So much for watching that movie on the plane.

If you feel like your storage is filling up faster than it used to, you may be on to something. An examination of the most-installed apps for iOS from mobile analysis firm Sensor Tower has found that the size of those apps is, on average, 11 times bigger than they were in 2013.

And some apps have grown far more than that, said Randy Nelson, Sensor Tower’s head of mobile insights. Take Snapchat, for example, which now takes up 51 times more space than it did in May 2013. Facebook is the largest of the apps Nelson looked at, now clocking in at 388 MB – up from just 32 MB at the start of Nelson’s analysis period.

Nelson said that there are multiple reasons for the upward creep in app size. For one, apps – particularly social media apps – have been adding new features regularly, to keep up with each other. Snapchat is an excellent example of this, Nelson said. At first, the features of Snapchat were pretty streamlined with its close focus on ephemeral messages. But now it’s locked in a feature war with Instagram and Facebook, and has added things such as the Discover tab, or an ever-expanding array of filters. Games grow for a similar reason; new levels or features in Candy Crush take up extra space, as do prettier graphics that want to take full advantage of the iPhone’s screen technology.

There are also some technical reasons that app size is ballooning, Nelson said. The iPhone and iPad have more screen sizes than they used to, for example, which means that developers often design their apps to adapt to all those different sizes. Supporting a broader range of devices automatically means an app’s size will go up, even though the person downloading the app only sees one version. As developers drop support for older devices, app sizes may go down again, Nelson said - but it may not be by very much.

The upshot for consumers is that, yes, your phone’s storage isn’t going as far as it used to. And there’s not a clear solution for consumers about how to solve this issue. We can, of course, rely more on the mobile web or simply use fewer apps. But app creep is particularly hard to deal with, because it means that even if you aren’t downloading new apps, the old ones you have are still taking up progressively more space.

Apple has announced some features that may be able to help with this problem down the line. In iOS 11, due out in the fall, there is a feature that lets you “offload” apps you use less often – deleting the apps themselves from your phone, but retaining enough data so that you don’t have to set them up again.

Nelson has not run a similar analysis for Android, though growth causes such as additional features would logically apply there as well.

With app sizes only poised to keep growing, Nelson said the problem is unlikely to go away any time soon. Mobile apps are generally becoming more complex and more graphically advanced, not less. So, if you keep running up against your storage limits, it may be a hint to think bigger for your next phone purchase.

“It is more ammunition for that decision to pull the trigger on buying a phone with more capacity,“ Nelson said. “If you know that you’re going to have an eighth of your storage taken up by the top 10 apps, you’ll probably push to pick up a larger phone.“


►  What is ransomware?

Computers around the world were locked up and users’ files held for ransom in a cyberattack Tuesday that paralyzed some hospitals, government offices and major multinational corporations.

Here’s a look at how malware and ransomware work and what people can do if they fall victim to attacks.

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WHAT IS MALWARE AND RANSOMWARE?

Malware is a general term that refers to software that’s harmful to your computer, says John Villasenor, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. Ransomware is a type of malware that essentially takes over a computer and prevents users from accessing data on it until a ransom is paid, he says.

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HOW DOES YOUR COMPUTER BECOME INFECTED WITH RANSOMWARE?

In most cases, the software infects computers through links or attachments in malicious messages known as phishing emails.

“The age-old advice is to never click on a link in an email,” says Jerome Segura, a senior malware intelligence researcher at Malwarebytes, a company based in San Jose, California, that has released anti-ransomware software. “The idea is to try to trick the victim into running a malicious piece of code.”

The software usually is hidden within links or attachments in emails. Once the user clicks on the link or opens the document, their computer is infected and the software takes over.

But some of the major ransomware attacks recently, including last month’s WannaCry and the one spreading Tuesday, borrowed leaked National Security Agency code that permits software to spread quickly within an organization’s network.

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HOW RANSOMWARE WORKS

“Ransomware, like the name suggests, is when your files are held for ransom,” says Peter Reiher, a UCLA professor who specializes in computer science and cybersecurity. “It finds all of your files and encrypts them and then leaves you a message. If you want to decrypt them, you have to pay.”

The ransomware encrypts data on the computer using an encryption key that only the attacker knows. If the ransom isn’t paid, the data is often lost forever.

When the ransomware takes over a computer, the attackers are pretty explicit in their demands, Segura says. In most cases, they change the wallpaper of the computer and give specific instructions telling the user how to pay to recover their files.

Most attackers demand $300 to $500 to remove the malicious ransomware; the price can double if the amount isn’t paid within 24 hours. The demand in Tuesday’s attack was $300 per computer, according to security researchers.

Law enforcement officials have discouraged people from paying these ransoms.

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HOW TO AVOID THESE ATTACKS

The first step is being cautious, experts say. Users should also look for malicious email messages that often masquerade as emails from companies or people you regularly interact with online. It’s important to avoid clicking on links or opening attachments in those messages, since they could unleash malware, Villasenor says.

But Villasenor says there is “no perfect solution” to the problem.

Users should regularly back up their data and ensure that security updates are installed on your computer as soon as they are released. Up-to-date backups make it possible to restore files without paying a ransom.

WannaCry and Tuesday’s attack exploited vulnerabilities in some versions of Microsoft Windows. Microsoft has released software patches for the security holes, although not everyone has installed those updates.

Even so, the new malware appears to have a backup spreading mechanism, so that even if some computers were patched, they can still be hit if one or more machines in a particularly network wasn’t patched.

In Science and Technology….

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►  Why is virtual reality taking so long to take off?

At the Electronic Entertainment Expo, all seemed right for virtual reality. Players were waiting in snaking lines – some for up to seven hours – for a chance to step into fantasy worlds. Crowds watched as players wearing VR headsets over their eyes reached out to pick up objects or shoot enemies that only they could see.

More than 125 VR exhibitors were at E3 this year, up 130 percent from last year. Yet adoption of VR among consumers hasn’t really taken off in the three years since it captured buzz in the wider world. An estimated 6.3 million headsets have sold worldwide – indicating that, even among the world’s 2.6 billion gamers, few have picked one up.

Experts point to several reasons behind the slow adoption – the technology can cause motion sickness and it is costly. It’s also been hard getting people to try it, developers said. And showing virtual reality experiences on flat screens doesn’t give people a good enough taste of how different the experience really is.

“How do you advertise a color TV on black-and-white televisions? It requires people walking down to main street and seeing it for themselves,“ said Steve Bowler, president and co-founder at VR game developer CloudGate Studio.

What virtual reality needs, experts say, is a killer app. And firms are pushing to find it, building up their own platforms and funding developers to bring games to their own headsets exclusively. But this kind of fragmentation has resulted in a confusing market and fewer games for players, thus giving them fewer reasons to spend their dollars on this young trend.

Mike Fischer, chairman and co-founder of VR game developer CloudGate Studio, told a panel last year that platform fragmentation “keeps me up at night” after so many new companies jumped into the VR market – although he says that things have improved a little since then.

Devoting extra resources to creating games for different devices can be particularly difficult for smaller studios, whose creativity drives much of the virtual reality market. In fact some developers, such as Jeff Pobst from Hidden Path Entertainment, say they rely on funding from platforms such as Oculus to get their games made at all.

These exclusive deals between developers and VR companies make it hard for consumers to know which expensive headset will get the game that they want to play - leading them to put off their decision, analysts said.

A monopoly, while simple for consumers, wouldn’t be perfect either, experts said. Competition is important, and different headsets’ characteristics inspire different types of games. HTC’s technology is designed for larger, room-sized experiences that often require gamers to stand. Sony’s experiences are largely seated. Oculus provides a mix of the two.

Even big players in the virtual reality market acknowledge that locking any game to a single device could be problematic.

“We actually think that content in the VR space makes a lot of space for developers and publishers to look at the market from a platform agnostic standpoint,“ said Joel Breton, vice president of Global VR Content for HTC. While HTC helps developers create games for its own platform, Breton said it doesn’t hold them to any sort of exclusivity deal.

More companies are also beginning to work on cross-platform solutions.

Developer tools such as Unity and Unreal are streamlining the process for developers who want to port their games between headsets. Ubisoft, one of the world’s largest game publishers, has committed to releasing virtual reality games that work the major three high-end headsets, allowing people who own different headsets to play with each other. Sony spokeswoman Jennifer Hallett said the PlayStation VR has several titles that also work on other platforms, including Ubisoft’s “Star Trek: Bridge Crew” and “Eve: Valkyrie” – which started as an Oculus-exclusive title.

The VR companies are also trying to do more to work together. Jason Rubin, vice president of content at Oculus, said in an email interview that he doesn’t think that there is harmful fragmentation in the market for consumers or developers. But his firm tries to work with competitors to push the whole industry forward, he added.

But other major publishers seem to be waiting to see how the market plays out before revealing their plans for virtual reality.

“We believe VR will be a major opportunity, but widespread adoption will take time,“ said Electronic Arts in an emailed statement.

For consumers eager to try virtual reality, however, that may mean waiting at least another development cycle to let the market fill out.

“The more content out there across different platforms and price points, the more likely consumers are to try VR, and the more likely they are to become true believers in the medium,“ Rubin said.


►  SpaceX launches 10 satellites from SoCal air base

A SpaceX rocket carried 10 communications satellites into orbit from California on Sunday, two days after the company successfully launched a satellite from Florida.

The Falcon 9 rocket blasted off through low-lying fog at 1:25 p.m. from Vandenberg Air Force Base northwest of Los Angeles. It carried a second batch of new satellites for Iridium Communications, which is replacing its orbiting fleet with a next-generation constellation of satellites.

About 7 minutes after liftoff, the rocket’s first-stage booster returned to earth and landed on a floating platform on a ship in the Pacific Ocean, while the rocket’s second stage continued to carry the satellites toward orbit.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 on Friday launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida and boosted a communications satellite for Bulgaria into orbit. Its first stage was recovered after landing on a drone ship in the Atlantic.

Billionaire Elon Musk, who founded Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX, believes reusing rocket components will bring down the cost of space launches.

Iridium plans to put in place 75 new satellites for its mobile voice and data communications system by mid-2018, requiring six more launches, all by SpaceX.

The $3 billion effort by the McLean, Virginia, company involves complex procedures to replace 66 operational satellites in use for many years. Some of the new satellites will be so-called on-orbit spares, or older satellites that remain in orbit on standby for use if the newer ones malfunction.

Swapping out and deorbiting some old satellites has already begun, Iridium CEO Matt Desch said in a pre-launch call with reporters.

Several old satellites have been moved into lower orbits to use up their remaining fuel and configure the solar panels for maximum drag so they will re-enter the atmosphere and burn up.

The first re-entry was believed to have occurred on June 11, Desch said.

“It’s hard to celebrate something like that, but these satellites have put in almost 20 years of service, and making sure we’ve cleaned up after ourselves as we deploy our new constellation is a priority,“ he said.

The new satellites also carry payloads for joint-venture Aerion’s space-based, real-time tracking and surveillance of aircraft around the globe, which has implications for efficiency, economy and safety – especially in remote airspace over the oceans.

“This will truly be a revolutionary aspect of air-traffic control,“ said Aireon CEO Don Thomas.

The technology, which requires aircraft to be equipped with certain equipment, is undergoing testing involving eight of the initial batch of Iridium NEXT satellites.

The Iridium NEXT program also will bring an end to so-called “Iridium flares,“ which space enthusiasts have observed for years. The new satellites will not create visible flashes of reflected sunlight as they passed overhead.

In Science and Technology….

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►  Egyptologists Examine ‘Sensational’ Discovery

Think losing a toe in ancient Egypt meant you’d be forever without one? Not so, at least in one case. Egyptologists from Switzerland’s University of Basel have since 2015 been studying what a press release calls an “ancient Egyptian elite cemetery” near Luxor, and one of its finds was small but big: one of the oldest prosthetic devices ever found, which served to replace the right foot’s big toe and was made with incredible skill. The 3,000-year-old prosthesis was discovered in the upper-class tomb of a priest’s daughter at plundered burial site Sheikh ‘Abd el-Qurna and has now been re-examined. Not only is it attractive and functional, but “the mobility of the prosthetic extension and the robust structure of the belt strap” show it was made by an artisan who was “very familiar” with the human form.

At the Conversation, Jane Draycott of the University of Glasgow notes prostheses have also been found in ancient Greece, and advancements in this field likely followed war as soldiers with missing extremities returned home. It isn’t clear what happened to the priest’s daughter, but researchers believe her toe was amputated and a pricey prosthetic fitted in its place. Using microscopy and X-rays, they determined the wooden toe was actually refitted at least three times, per UPI. It shows “she had a certain living standard,“ researcher Andrea Loprieno-Gnirs tells Swiss Info. Ancient Egyptians “often wore sandals, so you can imagine that a well-formed foot was important,“ she adds, calling the prosthetic an “extraordinary” and “sensational find.“


►  Uber CEO’s Resignation Was Months in the Making

The dust continues to settle after the resignation of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick from the $70 billion tech company he helped found. The New York Times interviewed more than a dozen employees and other insiders at Uber to get the lowdown on the months that led up to Kalanick being forced out by investors. It includes him butting heads with executives, accusations of sexual harassment, a wave of employees leaving for personal reasons, and the death of his mother in a boating accident. Meanwhile, CBS News reports investors forced Kalanick out because they want to guarantee Uber has a successful IPO. “Given its investment in technology and growth, Uber can’t afford to alienate potential and current customers with adolescent behavior,“ CBS states.

While Kalanick is out as CEO, he still maintains a large stake in Uber and has a spot on the board. Management experts tell the Washington Post he could have a hard time letting go of his former position. “This is not a guy who’s going to go softly into the night,“ the author of a book on the psychology of CEOs says. Kalanick has a reputation as a micromanager. Even during his brief leave of absence last week, he was calling current executives and interviewing candidates for open executive positions. It remains unclear who will replace Kalanick as Uber CEO, but some big names were being floated.


►  Blob-Like Intruders Infesting Pacific Coast

They are called “unicorns of the sea” and they are infesting the Pacific Coast, destroying fishing nets and puzzling scientists, the Guardian reports. The tiny blob-like creatures are infesting some stretches of the West Coast as far north as Alaska so badly that fishermen can’t catch anything. The translucent tubular invaders are pyrosomes, and while they generally range in size from a few inches to 2 feet, they band together in huge colonies. (See video.) They rip nets and clog hooks, and wash up on beaches to the consternation of the locals. One researcher began spotting the “sea pickles” in nets in February and since then, the numbers have exploded, per Oregon Public Broadcasting. One research boat captured 60,000 within minutes.

“They were glowing and floating on the surface, completely covering the sea,“ says University of Oregon researcher Hilarie SorenSenator The creatures—their Greek name means “fire bodies”—prefer the tropics, but even there, they haven’t been seen in the “insane” numbers of this year’s bloom, says SorenSenator The impact of the little cucumbers is unknown, but there is concern their massive presence could foul ecosystems. While the bloom could be a natural phenomenon, Dr. Lisa-ann Gershwin says “an abundance this gobsmackingly big” indicates something fishy may be going on. Warming seas could be a possible explainer, or perhaps changes in the marine food supply or shifting currents.


►  Jaywalk Here, and Prepare to Be Publicly Shamed

Jaywalkers take heed: If you do it in parts of China, you could be in for the shaming of your life. Authorities have installed a new device called the “Electronic Police” at intersections in cities in four provinces. Not only does it detect when people are jaywalking, but it snaps photos of the offenders and uses facial recognition tech to pull up their images in the provincial police database, reports RT. Once police confirm a match, the person isn’t just flagged for the offense (they can choose whether to pay a fine, take a safety class, or volunteer with traffic police). Their photo and personal details, including parts of their ID number and home address, are displayed on a large screen for all passersby to see.

Facial recognition has already been used in China to catch toilet paper thieves in public restrooms and to predict orders at the fast food chain KFC, reports the AFP. But the use of public shaming takes things to a whole new level—one that local police say is proving effective. They say public shaming can go so far as to impact insurance and pension premiums, and police in the city of Jinan say they’ve caught more than 6,200 people crossing at red lights since installing the system in early May (yes, that’s less than two months), with the number of incidents dropping ten-fold from 200 per day to 20. Jinan is looking to install the system at 50 other major intersections by the end of June, each costing the city roughly $15,000, reports Mashable.

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