The World Today for June 25, 2021

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Thrust and Parry

After meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin in Switzerland recently, American President Joe Biden said Russia would face consequences if the country continued to encourage or ignore ransomware and other cyber espionage attacks launched from its territory.

Asked what those consequences might be, Biden did not mention specifics, however, saying that Putin’s “credibility” would suffer, MSNBC reported.

The American president faces a tricky challenge with Russia and hacking.

Before the meeting, Biden officials discussed a possible military response to hacking, the Guardian wrote. Cyberattacks are on an escalating trajectory that resembles how incidents of fundamentalist Islamic terrorism became more serious before they culminated in the September 11 attacks.

According to Business Insider, Russia gives tacit support to hackers that have meddled in American elections and launched ransomware attacks against an oil pipeline, government facilities, private businesses, food suppliers and other targets. It appears as if Russia accepts the hackers so long as they don’t conduct attacks on Russian interests. Many ransomware programs won’t work on Russian-language keyboards, for example.

Putin could easily shut down hackers working within his country, former US counterespionage honcho William Evanina told the Washington Times.

But the connections between the Kremlin and the hackers are murky, noted Reuters. American officials have not released evidence tying Russia to the attacks. American law enforcement officials and intelligence have drawn links between dark hacker groups and Russia, however. A federal judge in Nevada recently deported a Russian man after he pleaded guilty to attempting to pay a Tesla employee $500,000 to insert malware into the company’s servers.

Technology has also made Biden’s job much tougher.

As Vox explained, ransomware has been around since the 1980s when hackers infected computers with floppy disks and demanded victims mail cashier’s checks or money orders to a post office box in Panama to regain access to their machines. Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin made that process even easier. The hackers can now obtain their loot anonymously from anywhere on the planet.

What’s more, an ecosystem of developers, extortionists and “access brokers” who hack into sophisticated systems has developed in Russia, creating a business that, like any industry, has its own lobbying and influence peddling operation, National Public Radio added.

If Russia won’t crack down, others might, Ukrainian police recently rounded up members of a ransomware gang that allegedly broke into American universities and other organizations in the US and South Korea, the Financial Times wrote.

It was the first time that mass arrests for ransomware occurred anywhere. It probably won’t be the last.



A Green Doghouse

Retail giant, Amazon, came under fresh scrutiny after an investigative report said the company was destroying thousands of unused products and electronics at one of its warehouses in Scotland, the Scotsman reported Thursday.

The British-based ITV News unveiled secret footage this week showing piles of stock, including laptops, headphones and even sealed face masks – often new – being sorted into boxes marked for disposal.

The investigation revealed that up to 124,000 items a week were being destroyed at the Dunfermline Amazon warehouse alone.

Although Amazon has not broken any British laws, the report sparked an outcry among environmentalist groups and politicians about Amazon’s environmental and ethical practices.

Green lawmakers in the Scottish parliament urged First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to implement more “robust laws” to prevent waste in the future. They also questioned the Scottish government on subsidies or payments it provides Amazon: The Greens allege that Sturgeon’s government gave the US giant more than $6 million for web services.

Sturgeon said the report “raises questions” and she would investigate the level of financial support Scotland is providing Amazon.

Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson vowed to investigate the company’s conduct, according to the Guardian.


Losing My Religion

An airstrike killed at least 50 people in Ethiopia’s war-torn Tigray region this week in an attack that sparked international condemnation amid ongoing elections in Africa’s second-most-populous nation, CNN reported Thursday.

On Tuesday, a government airstrike hit a busy marketplace in the town of Togoga, west of the regional capital Mekele. The attack came as fighting intensified between the forces of Tigray’s ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), and those fighting with Ethiopia’s military.

Witnesses and healthcare workers told CNN that the military blocked ambulances from entering the scene and accused them of attempting to help TPLF forces.

The military, however, denied it targeted civilians and maintained that the combatants in Togoga were in civilian clothes and were not inside the market.

The airstrike comes a day after Ethiopians headed to the polls to vote in national and regional elections. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is seeking re-election and said the polls – which had been delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic – would be the “best election in our history.”

But the deteriorating situation and the recent attack have severely damaged Abiy’s reputation. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for resolving a long-running conflict with neighboring Eritrea.

Since last November, Ethiopian troops have been fighting the TPLF in a clash analysts say bears the hallmarks of a genocide: Thousands have been killed, millions displaced and some areas of the country have been plagued with famine.

Abiy denies there is a famine in Tigray.


Fair Play

The European Union’s executive arm opened a new investigation into Google this week to determine whether the tech giant has breached antitrust rules by favoring its own ad technology services, CNBC reported.

European Commission Executive Vice President Margrethe Vestager said there’s concern the company “has made it harder for rival online advertising services to compete in the so-called ad tech stack.”

The commission will assess the restrictions that Google has placed on the ability of advertisers, publishers and other third parties to access data about user identity and user behavior. No deadline has been set for the end of the probe.

Google representatives said they were open to the investigation.

The latest investigation adds to the list of probes and fines that the US firm has faced in the European market in recent years.

Earlier this month, the French competition regulator fined Google more than $260 million for abusing its market power in the online ad industry.

In March 2019, the commission also imposed a nearly $1.8 billion fine for breaching anti-trust rules. EU officials said that the company imposed restrictive clauses in contracts with third-party websites that prevented Google’s rivals from placing their search ads on these websites.


The Smart Cell

A single-celled slime mold is redefining cognition and problem solving, reported ScienceAlert.

The Physarum polycephalum is a yellow, multi-headed slime mold. This organism has thrived on the planet for a billion years, starting life as multiple individual cells and merging to form and fan out in veins to explore its environment and search for food.

This single-celled P.polycephalum has been compared to a network of neurons, where each part of the slime mold operates independently but shares information with its neighboring sections.

Despite its simple cognitive architecture, complex problems like food acquisition, the ability to navigate its environment and finding a safe place for growth and reproduction are not obstacles for P.polycephalum.

In a 2000 paper titled, “Maze-solving by an amoeboid organism,” author Toshiyuki Nakagaki and his team put a piece of the slime mold at one end of a maze, a food reward at the other and observed how the organism managed to find the fastest route through every maze thrown at it.

Nakagaki also tested a maze from real life: Watch the slime mold almost exactly recreate the Tokyo subway.

Even so, P. polycephalum is neither a brain itself nor likely to evolve into one.

Information processing in the organism is uncertain but it’s clear that P. polycephalum’s veins contract to act as a peristaltic pump, producing wave-like contractions of cytoplasmic fluid from section to section.

These oscillations of fluid seem to coincide with encounters with external stimuli like food. They are also quite similar to oscillations seen in the human brain, only involve a system of electrical signals.

COVID-19 Global Update

More than 180 nations worldwide have confirmed cases of the coronavirus. The following have the highest numbers worldwide as of 4 a.m. ET*:

  1. US: 33,590,549 (+0.04%)
  2. India: 30,134,445 (+0.18%)
  3. Brazil: 18,243,483 (+0.64%)
  4. France: 5,826,278 (+0.04%)
  5. Turkey: 5,393,248 (+0.11%)
  6. Russia: 5,325,940 (+0.33%)
  7. UK: 4,700,691 (+0.34%)
  8. Argentina: 4,350,564 (+0.64%)
  9. Italy: 4,255,700 (+0.03%)
  10. Colombia: 4,060,013 (+0.75%)

Source: Johns Hopkins University

*Numbers change over 24 hours

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