Are hackers and their trackers working together?


May 16, 2019

Today, this season’s signature style is “paranoia-chic” and the future of digital labor is lookin’ kinda bleak, but first…
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How do high-tech services outsmart ransomware? Often, by paying the ransoms

Every 14 seconds, a new business is targeted by ransomware — a virus that holds its software systems or data hostage until a ransom is paid for their safe return.

Once businesses are hit, they have 2 options: Pay hackers to return the data, or pay ransom-busting startups to recover it.

But, according to a new ProPublica report, those 2 options are often the same: Most “high-tech” data recovery startups merely pay the hackers behind the scenes — and then pocket the extra fees.

The ransomware recovery industry is living a lie

The business model is simple: Ransomware recovery companies charge their clients fees that are far higher than the ransom amounts, so they make money no matter what.

Some firms are upfront about the fact that they negotiate with hackers — sharing data with law enforcement agencies and security researchers to prevent future thefts — but most intentionally obscure their payouts.

Financially, this system works. But morally…?

Since paying ransoms is acceptable by the letter of the law, there’s nothing illegal about negotiating with hackers.

But paying ransoms perpetuates the extortion industry: Cyberattackers who routinely collect $6m or more from secretive “data recovery” companies have every incentive to continue ransoming their way to riches.

Even more problematically, much of the ransom money ends up in the coffers of international terror groups and crime syndicates.

From ransoms to riches

Hackers and their handmaidens in the data recovery biz both benefit from ransomware, so it’s unlikely that shady solution-providers will disappear until regulators require more disclosure. 

In many cases, hackers even treat data recovery firms like partners by offering discounts or deadline extensions to encourage continued cooperation (who says hackers aren’t professional?!).

Meanwhile, ransomware rates continue to rise for businesses: Ransomware attacks have increased 97% in the past 2 years, and ransomware now costs businesses $75B a year.

A handsome ransom
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AI relies on human ‘labelers’ who make as little as $2.50 an hour

Artificial intelligence is driving some of the biggest technological advancements of our time, from self-driving cars to facial recognition.

But as Axios reports, this technology is reliant on a growing, often low-paid sector of human workers, or “AI sharecroppers.”

Day labelers

Before an AI system can identify images on its own (a process called deep learning), it must be “trained” with millions of hand-labeled images.

This so-called “AI labeling” industry is projected to grow from $150m globally in 2018 to $1B by 2023 — and like many booming industries, it’s largely dependent on tedious, cheap labor.

Many of these jobs are outsourced to Southeast Asia and Kenya, where workers sit at computers labeling millions of images (stop signs, animals, vehicles) for as little as $2.50 per hour.

But as IEEE Spectrum reports, some of these jobs also find a home on US soil.

Alegion, based in Texas, promises to help veterans “find meaningful work in the new digital gig economy.” (Apparently, this means labeling aerial photos of cars and trucks for $7-15 per hour.)

Big-time benefits for a small-time cost

Though the work these labelers do is rote, repetitious, and often referred to as “unskilled,” the financial value AI companies reap from it is enormous.

“The companies derive benefit over a long time, while workers are paid just once,” James Cham, a VC at Bloomberg Beta, told Axios. “They are paid like sharecroppers, making subsistence wages. The landowners get all the returns because of how the system is set up.”

i, sharecropper
 

Are ‘pocket neighborhoods’ the solution to never-ending urban sprawl?

Clarkston, a small city in Georgia that’s struggling to deal with the encroaching sprawl of nearby Atlanta, has found a novel solution to rising home prices: pocket neighborhoods.

Pocket neighborhoods — large urban lots subdivided into several small homes — could increase local housing stock and drive down home prices, reports Fast Company

‘An experiment in smaller living’

While tiny houses are often associated with hipster millennials and van-lifers, the city of Clarkston’s project shows that homes with smaller footprints are gaining popularity among urban planners, too.

In partnership with a nonprofit called the MicroLife Institute, Clarkston plans to build 8 tiny homes (ranging from 250-500 square feet) on a single half-acre lot that once had a single house.

Lots have lots to offer

The city expects the humble new homes to cost between $100k and $125k — far less than the county average of $285k (that’s a big deal in Clarkston, where home prices have increased 158% since 2012).

In addition to creating more affordable housing, pocket neighborhoods also reduce the amount of energy required to heat and cool homes and decrease the amount of building materials required to put up houses.

» Lots to think about here
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How an underwear startup is capitalizing on unfounded fears of technology

Lambs, a startup that previously sold radiation-proof underwear under the name “Spartan,” has rebranded and announced it will start selling radiation-proof, silver-lined beanies.

Despite the medical community’s continued insistence that radiation from cell phones does NOT cause cancer, predatory startups like Lambs continue to make products designed to profit from popular paranoia.

Who says technophobia can’t be stylish?

Paranoia-chic has come a long way since tinfoil hats: Lamb’s new, wireless radiation-blocking beanie is supremely stylish — and it’s available for just $39 online!

On its site, Lambs boasts that its boxers, trunks, and beanies — T-shirts and women’s underwear coming soon — block EMFs (electromagnetic fields).

Pseudoscience sells… paranoia pays

Although government research and the majority of the medical community agrees that there’s no link between cell phone radiation and cancer, Lambs makes several controversial claims on its site to sell its undies. 

Lambs’ front page says: “Men exposed to cell phone radiation all day may experience 50% sperm count reduction.”

But, in a twist of irony worthy of an Orwell novel, Lambs is funded partly by an investment firm called Science Inc.

After all, who needs science… when you have Science Inc.?

» Lambs… or lions?
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