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MY TAKE: With disinformation running rampant, embedding ethics into AI has become vital

By Byron V. Acohido

Plato once sagely observed, “A good decision is based on knowledge and not on numbers.” 

Related: How a Russian social media site radicalized U.S. youth

That advice resonates today, even as we deepen our reliance on number crunching — in the form of the unceasing machine learning algorithms whirring away in the background of our lives, setting in motion many of the routine decisions each of us make daily.

However, as Plato seemingly foresaw, the underlying algorithms we’ve come to rely on are only as good as the human knowledge they spring from. And sometimes the knowledge transfer from humans to math formulas falls well short.

Last  August, an attempt by the UK government to use machine learning to conjure and dispense final exam grades to quarantined high-schoolers proved to be a disastrous failure. Instead of keeping things operable in the midst of a global pandemic, the UK officials ended up exposing the deep systemic bias of the UK’s education systems, in a glaring way. 

Then, in November, the algorithms pollsters invoked to predict the outcome of the 2020 U.S. presidential election proved drastically wrong — again, even after the pollsters had poured their knowledge into improving their predictive algorithms after the 2016 elections.  

GUEST ESSAY: 5 steps for raising cyber smart children — who know how to guard their privacy

By Ellen Sabin

Today’s children are online at a young age, for many hours, and in more ways than ever before. As adults, we know that bad online decisions can have negative or dangerous effects for years to come.

Related: Web apps are being used to radicalize youth

The question isn’t whether we should educate children about online safety, but how we can best inspire them to learn to be thoughtful, careful, and safe in the cyber world for their lifetime. For adults doing the teaching, it’s no easy task.

Teaching children about good cyber security habits starts with helping them realize their power to learn to make smart choices. Often, messages about online security are presented as ‘to-do’ lists that can make even the most pliant of us feel like we are being preached to. Instead, let children think about why they want to become smart about online decisions and how they can make good choices.

Here are some tips to excite kids about cybersecurity.

Q&A: Here’s why securing mobile apps is an essential key to tempering political division

By Byron V. Acohido

Finally, Facebook and Twitter muzzled Donald Trump, preventing him from using his favorite online bully pulpits to spread disinformation. It only took Trump inciting a failed coup d’état that cost five lives.

Related: How a Russian social media app is radicalizing disaffected youth

The action taken by Facebook and Twitter last week was a stark reminder of how digital tools and services can be manipulated by badly motivated parties in insidious ways.

The risks and exposures intrinsic to our favorite digital tools and services runs very deep, indeed. This is something that we’re going to have to address. As the presidential election unfolded in the fall, for example, there were revelations about how mobile apps used by political candidates were rife with security flaws that played right into the hands of propagandists and conspiracy theorists.

Data Theorem, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based software security vendor specializing in API exposures, took a close look at the gaping vulnerabilities in mobile app used by the Biden and Trump campaigns, respectively, and came up with a scoring system to rate the security-level of each camp’s main mobile app to reach voters.

On Android, the Official Trump 2020 App ranked nearly three times as secure as the Vote Joe App, for a simplistic reason: the Trump app used the most recent version of Android OS. Newer versions of Android provided more security and privacy benefits.

That said, neither the Biden nor the Trump apps enforced Android’s Verify Apps feature, which scans for potentially harmful Apps on the device. If the Verify Apps feature is turned off, any apps side-loaded onto the user’s device do not get scanned for malware, Doug Dooley, Data Theorem’s chief operating officer, told me.

MY TAKE: How Russia is leveraging insecure mobile apps to radicalize disaffected males

By Byron V. Acohido

How did we get to this level of disinformation? How did we, the citizens of the United States of America, become so intensely divided?

It’s tempting to place the lion’s share of the blame on feckless political leaders and facile news media outlets. However, that’s just the surface manifestation of what’s going on.

Related: Let’s not call it ‘fake news’ any more.

Another behind-the-scenes component — one that is not getting the mainstream attention it deserves — has been cyber warfare. Russian hacking groups have set out to systematically erode Western democratic institutions — and they’ve been quite successful at it. There’s plenty of evidence illustrating how Russia has methodically stepped-up cyber attacks aimed at achieving strategic geopolitical advantage over rivals in North America and Europe.

I’m not often surprised by cybersecurity news developments these days. Yet, one recent disclosure floored me. A popular meme site, called iFunny, has emerged as a haven for disaffected teen-aged boys who are enthralled with white supremacy. iFunny is a Russian company; it was launched in 2011 and has been downloaded to iOS and Android phones an estimated 10 million times.

In the weeks leading up to the 2020 U.S. presidential election, investigators at Pixalate, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based supplier of fraud management technology, documented how iFunny distributed data-stealing malware and, in doing so, actually targeted smartphone users in the key swing states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. The public is unlikely to ever learn who ordered this campaign, and what they did — or intend to do, going forward — with this particular trove of stolen data.

Advertising practices

Even so, this shared intelligence from Pixalate is instructive. It vividly illustrates how threat actors have gravitated to hacking vulnerable mobile apps. The state of mobile app security is poor. Insecure mobile apps represent a huge and growing attack vector. Mobile apps are being pushed out of development more rapidly than ever, … more

NEW TECH: Will ‘Secure Access Service Edge’ — SASE — be the answer to secure connectivity?

By Byron V. Acohido

Company networks have evolved rather spectacularly in just 20 years along a couple of distinct tracks: connectivity and security.

We began the new millennium with on-premises data centers supporting servers and desktops that a technician in sneakers could service. Connectivity was relatively uncomplicated. And given a tangible network perimeter, cybersecurity evolved following the moat-and-wall principle. Locking down web gateways and erecting a robust firewall were considered the be-all and end-all.

Related: The shared burden of securing the Internet of Things

Fast forward to the 21st Century’s third decade. Today, connectively is a convoluted mess. Company networks must support endless permutations of users and apps, both on-premises and in the Internet cloud. Security, meanwhile, has morphed into a glut of point solutions that mostly serve to highlight the myriad gaps in an ever-expanding attack surface. And threat actors continue to take full advantage.

These inefficiencies and rising exposures are not being ignored. Quite the contrary, there’s plenty of clever innovation, backed by truckloads of venture capital, seeking to help networks run smoother, while also buttoning down the attack surface. One new approach that is showing a lot of promise cropped up in late 2019. It’s called Secure Access Service Edge, or SASE, as coined by research firm Gartner.

SASE (pronounced sassy) replaces the site-centric, point-solution approach to security with a user-centric model that holds the potential to profoundly reinforce digital transformation. The beauty of SASE is that it accomplishes this not by inventing anything new, but simply by meshing mature networking and security technologies together and delivering them as a single cloud service —  with all of the attendant efficiency and scalability benefits.

To get a better idea of SASE, I had the chance to visit with Elad Menahem, director of security, and Dave Greenfield, secure networking evangelist,  at Cato Networks, a Tel Aviv-based startup that’s in the thick of the SASE movement. Here are the key takeaways … more

STEPS FORWARD: Math geniuses strive to make a pivotal advance — by obfuscating software code

By Byron V. Acohido

Most of time we take for granted the degree to which fundamental components of civilization are steeped in mathematics.

Everything from science and engineering to poetry and music rely on numeric calculations. Albert Einstein once observed that “pure mathematics is, in its way, the poetry of logical ideas.”

Related: How Multi Party Computation is disrupting encryption

An accomplished violinist, Einstein, no doubt, appreciated the symmetry of his metaphor. He was keenly aware of how an expressive Haydn symphony applied math principles in a musical context in much the same way has he did in deriving breakthrough physics theorems.

Math once more is being conjured to help civilization make a great leap forward. Digital technology, like music, is all about math. We’ve come a long way leveraging algorithms to deliver an amazing array of digital services over the past 30 years; yet so much more is possible.

Math is the linchpin to innovations that can dramatically improve the lives of billions of people, perhaps even save the planet. However, a quintessential math conundrum, is, for the moment, holding these anticipated advancements in check. The math community refers to this bottleneck as “indistinguishability obfuscation,” or iO.

Our top math geniuses point to iO as a cornerstone needed to unleash the full potential of artificially intelligent (AI) programs running across highly complex and dynamic cloud platforms, soon to be powered by quantum computers. Simply put, iO must be achieved in order to preserve privacy and security while tapping into the next generation of IT infrastructure.

I recently had the chance to discuss iO with Dr. Tatsuaki Okamoto, director of NTT Research’s Cryptography and Information Security (CIS) Lab, and Dr. Amit Sahai, professor of computer science at UCLA Samueli School of Engineering and director of UCLA Center for Encrypted Functionalities (CEF). NTT Research sponsored research led by Sahai that recently resulted in a achieving an important iO milestone.

SHARED INTEL: Coming soon — ‘passwordless authentication’ as a de facto security practice

By Byron V. Acohido

As a tradeoff for enjoying our digital lives, we’ve learned to live with password overload and even tolerate two-factor authentication.

But now, at long last, we’re on the brink of eliminating passwords altogether, once and for all.

Related:  CEOs quit Tweeting to protect their companies

A confluence of technical and social developments points to username-and-password logons becoming obsolete over the next few years. What’s more, this shift could very well kick into high gear as part of the solidifying of post Covid-19 business practices and online habits.

I had a chance to discuss this seminal transition with George Avetisov, co-founder and chief executive officer of HYPR, a Manhattan-based supplier of advanced authentication technologies. For a full drill down on our eye-opening conversation, please give a listen to the accompanying podcast. Here are a few big takeaways.

Password tradeoffs 

Passwords have always been a big pain. They must be convoluted to be any good, which means they’re difficult to remember, especially since the average person has to juggle passwords to access dozens of online accounts. From a business perspective, managing and resetting passwords chews up scarce resources, and yet even with the best possible maintenance passwords are trivial to hack.

For most of the Internet era, we’ve learned to live with these tradeoffs. However, in the last couple of years the harm wrought by the abuse of passwords has spiked exponentially. The reason: credential stuffing. This is a type of advanced, brute-force hacking that leverages automation.

By deploying botnets pre-loaded with stolen data, credential stuffing gangs are able to insert stolen usernames and passwords into web page forms, at scale, until they gain access to a valuable account. Credential stuffing has enabled criminal hacking rings to turbo-charge their malware spreading and account hijacking campaigns. And when Covid-19 hit, these attackers opportunistically pivoted to plundering Covid-19 relief funds at an ungodly scale.