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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay The use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) has enhanced not only the delivery of services but also improved cybersecurity. It’s estimated that 15% of organizations globally have adopted AI technology in their operations. However, the use of technology has both positive and negative consequences for businesses. If your organization fails …
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The US is at war. That’s probably not exactly news, as the country has been engaged in one type of conflict or another for most of its history. The last time we officially declared war was after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941.
Our biggest undeclared war today is not being fought by drones in the mountains of Afghanistan or even through the less-lethal barrage of threats over the nuclear programs in North Korea and Iran. In this particular war, it is the US that is under attack and on the defensive.
This is cyberwarfare.
The definition of what constitutes a cyber attack is a broad one, according to Greg White, executive director of the Center for Infrastructure Assurance and Security (CIAS) at The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA).
At the level of nation-state attacks, cyberwarfare could involve “attacking systems during peacetime—such as our power grid or election systems—or it could be during war time in which case the attacks may be designed to cause destruction, damage, deception, or death,” he told Singularity Hub.
For the US, the Pearl Harbor of cyberwarfare occurred during 2016 with the Russian interference in the presidential election. However, according to White, an Air Force veteran who has been involved in computer and network security since 1986, the history of cyber war can be traced back much further, to at least the first Gulf War of the early 1990s.
“We started experimenting with cyber attacks during the first Gulf War, so this has been going on a long time,” he said. “Espionage was the prime reason before that. After the war, the possibility of expanding the types of targets utilized expanded somewhat. What is really interesting is the use of social media and things like websites for [psychological operation] purposes during a conflict.”
The 2008 conflict between Russia and the Republic of Georgia is often cited as a cyberwarfare case study due to the large scale and overt nature of the cyber attacks. Russian hackers managed to bring down more than 50 news, government, and financial websites through denial-of-service attacks. In addition, about 35 percent of Georgia’s internet networks suffered decreased functionality during the attacks, coinciding with the Russian invasion of South Ossetia.
The cyberwar also offers lessons for today on Russia’s approach to cyberspace as a tool for “holistic psychological manipulation and information warfare,” according to a 2018 report called Understanding Cyberwarfare from the Modern War Institute at West Point.
US Fights Back
News in recent years has highlighted how Russian hackers have attacked various US government entities and critical infrastructure such as energy and manufacturing. In particular, a shadowy group known as Unit 26165 within the country’s military intelligence directorate is believed to be behind the 2016 US election interference campaign.
However, the US hasn’t been standing idly by. Since at least 2012, the US has put reconnaissance probes into the control systems of the Russian electric grid, The New York Times reported. More recently, we learned that the US military has gone on the offensive, putting “crippling malware” inside the Russian power grid as the U.S. Cyber Command flexes its online muscles thanks to new authority granted to it last year.
“Access to the power grid that is obtained now could be used to shut something important down in the future when we are in a war,” White noted. “Espionage is part of the whole program. It is important to remember that cyber has just provided a new domain in which to conduct the types of activities we have been doing in the real world for years.”
The US is also beginning to pour more money into cybersecurity. The 2020 fiscal budget calls for spending $17.4 billion throughout the government on cyber-related activities, with the Department of Defense (DoD) alone earmarked for $9.6 billion.
Despite the growing emphasis on cybersecurity in the US and around the world, the demand for skilled security professionals is well outpacing the supply, with a projected shortfall of nearly three million open or unfilled positions according to the non-profit IT security organization (ISC)².
UTSA is rare among US educational institutions in that security courses and research are being conducted across three different colleges, according to White. About 10 percent of the school’s 30,000-plus students are enrolled in a cyber-related program, he added, and UTSA is one of only 21 schools that has received the Cyber Operations Center of Excellence designation from the National Security Agency.
“This track in the computer science program is specifically designed to prepare students for the type of jobs they might be involved in if they went to work for the DoD,” White said.
However, White is extremely doubtful there will ever be enough cyber security professionals to meet demand. “I’ve been preaching that we’ve got to worry about cybersecurity in the workforce, not just the cybersecurity workforce, not just cybersecurity professionals. Everybody has a responsibility for cybersecurity.”
Artificial Intelligence in Cybersecurity
Indeed, humans are often seen as the weak link in cybersecurity. That point was driven home at a cybersecurity roundtable discussion during this year’s Brainstorm Tech conference in Aspen, Colorado.
Participant Dorian Daley, general counsel at Oracle, said insider threats are at the top of the list when it comes to cybersecurity. “Sadly, I think some of the biggest challenges are people, and I mean that in a number of ways. A lot of the breaches really come from insiders. So the more that you can automate things and you can eliminate human malicious conduct, the better.”
White noted that automation is already the norm in cybersecurity. “Humans can’t react as fast as systems can launch attacks, so we need to rely on automated defenses as well,” he said. “This doesn’t mean that humans are not in the loop, but much of what is done these days is ‘scripted’.”
The use of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and other advanced automation techniques have been part of the cybersecurity conversation for quite some time, according to White, such as pattern analysis to look for specific behaviors that might indicate an attack is underway.
“What we are seeing quite a bit of today falls under the heading of big data and data analytics,” he explained.
But there are signs that AI is going off-script when it comes to cyber attacks. In the hands of threat groups, AI applications could lead to an increase in the number of cyberattacks, wrote Michelle Cantos, a strategic intelligence analyst at cybersecurity firm FireEye.
“Current AI technology used by businesses to analyze consumer behavior and find new customer bases can be appropriated to help attackers find better targets,” she said. “Adversaries can use AI to analyze datasets and generate recommendations for high-value targets they think the adversary should hit.”
In fact, security researchers have already demonstrated how a machine learning system could be used for malicious purposes. The Social Network Automated Phishing with Reconnaissance system, or SNAP_R, generated more than four times as many spear-phishing tweets on Twitter than a human—and was just as successful at targeting victims in order to steal sensitive information.
Cyber war is upon us. And like the current war on terrorism, there are many battlefields from which the enemy can attack and then disappear. While total victory is highly unlikely in the traditional sense, innovations through AI and other technologies can help keep the lights on against the next cyber attack.
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When Elon Musk and DARPA both hop aboard the cyborg hypetrain, you know brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) are about to achieve the impossible.
BMIs, already the stuff of science fiction, facilitate crosstalk between biological wetware with external computers, turning human users into literal cyborgs. Yet mind-controlled robotic arms, microelectrode “nerve patches”, or “memory Band-Aids” are still purely experimental medical treatments for those with nervous system impairments.
With the Next-Generation Nonsurgical Neurotechnology (N3) program, DARPA is looking to expand BMIs to the military. This month, the project tapped six academic teams to engineer radically different BMIs to hook up machines to the brains of able-bodied soldiers. The goal is to ditch surgery altogether—while minimizing any biological interventions—to link up brain and machine.
Rather than microelectrodes, which are currently surgically inserted into the brain to hijack neural communication, the project is looking to acoustic signals, electromagnetic waves, nanotechnology, genetically-enhanced neurons, and infrared beams for their next-gen BMIs.
It’s a radical departure from current protocol, with potentially thrilling—or devastating—impact. Wireless BMIs could dramatically boost bodily functions of veterans with neural damage or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or allow a single soldier to control swarms of AI-enabled drones with his or her mind. Or, similar to the Black Mirror episode Men Against Fire, it could cloud the perception of soldiers, distancing them from the emotional guilt of warfare.
When trickled down to civilian use, these new technologies are poised to revolutionize medical treatment. Or they could galvanize the transhumanist movement with an inconceivably powerful tool that fundamentally alters society—for better or worse.
Here’s what you need to know.
The four-year N3 program focuses on two main aspects: noninvasive and “minutely” invasive neural interfaces to both read and write into the brain.
Because noninvasive technologies sit on the scalp, their sensors and stimulators will likely measure entire networks of neurons, such as those controlling movement. These systems could then allow soldiers to remotely pilot robots in the field—drones, rescue bots, or carriers like Boston Dynamics’ BigDog. The system could even boost multitasking prowess—mind-controlling multiple weapons at once—similar to how able-bodied humans can operate a third robotic arm in addition to their own two.
In contrast, minutely invasive technologies allow scientists to deliver nanotransducers without surgery: for example, an injection of a virus carrying light-sensitive sensors, or other chemical, biotech, or self-assembled nanobots that can reach individual neurons and control their activity independently without damaging sensitive tissue. The proposed use for these technologies isn’t yet well-specified, but as animal experiments have shown, controlling the activity of single neurons at multiple points is sufficient to program artificial memories of fear, desire, and experiences directly into the brain.
“A neural interface that enables fast, effective, and intuitive hands-free interaction with military systems by able-bodied warfighters is the ultimate program goal,” DARPA wrote in its funding brief, released early last year.
The only technologies that will be considered must have a viable path toward eventual use in healthy human subjects.
“Final N3 deliverables will include a complete integrated bidirectional brain-machine interface system,” the project description states. This doesn’t just include hardware, but also new algorithms tailored to these system, demonstrated in a “Department of Defense-relevant application.”
Right off the bat, the usual tools of the BMI trade, including microelectrodes, MRI, or transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) are off the table. These popular technologies rely on surgery, heavy machinery, or personnel to sit very still—conditions unlikely in the real world.
The six teams will tap into three different kinds of natural phenomena for communication: magnetism, light beams, and acoustic waves.
Dr. Jacob Robinson at Rice University, for example, is combining genetic engineering, infrared laser beams, and nanomagnets for a bidirectional system. The $18 million project, MOANA (Magnetic, Optical and Acoustic Neural Access device) uses viruses to deliver two extra genes into the brain. One encodes a protein that sits on top of neurons and emits infrared light when the cell activates. Red and infrared light can penetrate through the skull. This lets a skull cap, embedded with light emitters and detectors, pick up these signals for subsequent decoding. Ultra-fast and utra-sensitvie photodetectors will further allow the cap to ignore scattered light and tease out relevant signals emanating from targeted portions of the brain, the team explained.
The other new gene helps write commands into the brain. This protein tethers iron nanoparticles to the neurons’ activation mechanism. Using magnetic coils on the headset, the team can then remotely stimulate magnetic super-neurons to fire while leaving others alone. Although the team plans to start in cell cultures and animals, their goal is to eventually transmit a visual image from one person to another. “In four years we hope to demonstrate direct, brain-to-brain communication at the speed of thought and without brain surgery,” said Robinson.
Other projects in N3 are just are ambitious.
The Carnegie Mellon team, for example, plans to use ultrasound waves to pinpoint light interaction in targeted brain regions, which can then be measured through a wearable “hat.” To write into the brain, they propose a flexible, wearable electrical mini-generator that counterbalances the noisy effect of the skull and scalp to target specific neural groups.
Similarly, a group at Johns Hopkins is also measuring light path changes in the brain to correlate them with regional brain activity to “read” wetware commands.
The Teledyne Scientific & Imaging group, in contrast, is turning to tiny light-powered “magnetometers” to detect small, localized magnetic fields that neurons generate when they fire, and match these signals to brain output.
The nonprofit Battelle team gets even fancier with their ”BrainSTORMS” nanotransducers: magnetic nanoparticles wrapped in a piezoelectric shell. The shell can convert electrical signals from neurons into magnetic ones and vice-versa. This allows external transceivers to wirelessly pick up the transformed signals and stimulate the brain through a bidirectional highway.
The magnetometers can be delivered into the brain through a nasal spray or other non-invasive methods, and magnetically guided towards targeted brain regions. When no longer needed, they can once again be steered out of the brain and into the bloodstream, where the body can excrete them without harm.
Mind-blown? Yeah, same. However, the challenges facing the teams are enormous.
DARPA’s stated goal is to hook up at least 16 sites in the brain with the BMI, with a lag of less than 50 milliseconds—on the scale of average human visual perception. That’s crazy high resolution for devices sitting outside the brain, both in space and time. Brain tissue, blood vessels, and the scalp and skull are all barriers that scatter and dissipate neural signals. All six teams will need to figure out the least computationally-intensive ways to fish out relevant brain signals from background noise, and triangulate them to the appropriate brain region to decipher intent.
In the long run, four years and an average $20 million per project isn’t much to potentially transform our relationship with machines—for better or worse. DARPA, to its credit, is keenly aware of potential misuse of remote brain control. The program is under the guidance of a panel of external advisors with expertise in bioethical issues. And although DARPA’s focus is on enabling able-bodied soldiers to better tackle combat challenges, it’s hard to argue that wireless, non-invasive BMIs will also benefit those most in need: veterans and other people with debilitating nerve damage. To this end, the program is heavily engaging the FDA to ensure it meets safety and efficacy regulations for human use.
Will we be there in just four years? I’m skeptical. But these electrical, optical, acoustic, magnetic, and genetic BMIs, as crazy as they sound, seem inevitable.
“DARPA is preparing for a future in which a combination of unmanned systems, AI, and cyber operations may cause conflicts to play out on timelines that are too short for humans to effectively manage with current technology alone,” said Al Emondi, the N3 program manager.
The question is, now that we know what’s in store, how should the rest of us prepare?
Image Credit: With permission from DARPA N3 project. Continue reading →