Start Up No.1744: US mulls cyberattack on Russia, Ukraine systems hit by virus, NFT auction yanked, AMP nearer death, and more


If you want to watch multiple news video streams at once (maybe desirable just now?) there’s a website for you. CC-licensed photo by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. It’s Friday, James. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Biden has been presented with options for massive cyberattacks against Russia • CNBC

Ken Dilanian and Courtney Kube:

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President Joe Biden has been presented with a menu of options for the US to carry out massive cyberattacks designed to disrupt Russia’s ability to sustain its military operations in Ukraine, four people familiar with the deliberations tell NBC News.

Two US intelligence officials, one Western intelligence official and another person briefed on the matter say no final decisions have been made, but they say US intelligence and military cyber warriors are proposing the use of American cyberweapons on a scale never before contemplated. Among the options: disrupting internet connectivity across Russia, shutting off electric power, and tampering with railroad switches to hamper Russia’s ability to resupply its forces, three of the sources said.

“You could do everything from slow the trains down to have them fall off the tracks,” one person briefed on the matter said.

The sources said the options presented include pre-emptive responses to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, irrespective of whether Russian launches its own cyberattacks on the US in retaliation for sanctions. They said most of the potential cyberattacks under consideration are designed to disrupt but not destroy, and therefore fall short of an act of war by the United States against Russia. They say the idea is to harm networks, not people. Officials are debating the legal authorities under which the attacks would take place — whether they would be covert action or clandestine military activity. Either way, the US would not publicly acknowledge carrying out the operations, the sources say. US Cyber Command, the National Security Agency, the CIA and other agencies would have a role to play in the operations, the sources said. 

“Our response will be harsh and measured, but not so severe as to encourage Putin to take more drastic steps,” one US official said.

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More drastic steps such as.. what? Cyberattacks on other countries besides Ukraine, perhaps? But…
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Russia unleashed data-wiper virus on Ukraine, say cyber experts • The Guardian

Dan Milmo:

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Cyber experts have identified a new strain of computer-disabling malware unleashed on Ukrainian targets as part of Russia’s offensive, as the UK government and banks said they were on alert for online attacks.

Russia was widely expected to launch a cyber assault alongside its military campaign, and the run-up to the invasion of Ukraine was marked by the deployment of a “wiper” virus. A distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack, which paralyses websites by bombarding them with spurious information requests, also hit Ukrainian government sites.

On Wednesday, ESET Research Labs, a Slovakia-based cybersecurity company, said it had detected a new piece of data-wiping malware on hundreds of machines in Ukraine.

ESET said large organisations had been affected, while security experts at Symantec’s threat intelligence team said the malware had affected Ukrainian government contractors in Latvia and Lithuania and a financial institution in Ukraine. ESET has called the malware, which renders computers inoperable by disabling rebooting, HermeticWiper.

The NotPetya attack of 2017, which devastated Ukrainian businesses, was a wiper attack that encrypted computers irretrievably and spilled over into other countries, causing $10bn (£7.5bn) of damage worldwide.

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VidGrid: a news channel multiview in your browser

Matt Taylor:

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VidGrid is a free multiviewer built for news channels by Matt TK Taylor. It uses YouTube-sourced and other publicly listed and unprotected playlist (m3u8) HLS streams provided by broadcasters to the internet in order to provide streams. It cannot play protected streams such as those protected by YouTube’s embedding policy, or by web standards like Cross-Origin Resource Sharing (CORS) protection.If you are a broadcaster who would like your stream removed, please contact me, I’d be happy to do so. I am also open to helping your teams implement the protections suggested to prevent others from doing this.This is a personal side-project and no infringement of rights is intended. Streams are not hosted, generated, or proxied by this service but instead come directly from publicly accessible and generally broadcaster-endorsed links.

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Lots of choice for those who aren’t sufficiently distracted by one picture-in-picture element.
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Sotheby’s NFT sale, expected to hit $30m, suddenly cancelled • The New York Times

Zachary Small:

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At Sotheby’s on Wednesday night, a single lot of NFTs — 104 digital art assets known as CryptoPunks — was expected to sell for as much as $30m. But after a delay of 25 minutes past the auction’s expected start time, the sale was off.

The consignor had withdrawn the pixelated collectibles and posted a meme on Twitter mocking the auction house.

Audiences inside a packed Sotheby’s salesroom were shocked, according to two attendees. The evening began with people drinking Champagne and ended with a stunned shuffle back home.

Derek Parsons, a Sotheby’s spokesman, said in a statement Wednesday night that “the lot was withdrawn prior to the sale following discussions with the consignor,” but he did not share details of how the deal fell apart.

“People were extremely upset,” said Kent Charugundla, a telecom investor and NFT collector who attended the event.

“This is so bad for the NFT community,” he added, explaining that the market needed strong sales to continue its momentum.

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A cloud no bigger than a man’s fist.
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CNN removes ‘squeezeback’ ads from Ukraine invasion coverage following online outcry • AdWeek

Jason Lynch:

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CNN has removed “squeezeback” ads from its ongoing coverage of Russia’s Ukraine invasion, after the jarring juxtaposition of carefree advertising messages alongside somber images of Ukraine under siege sparked an online outcry earlier in the day.

Several Twitter users began noticing that instead of cutting away for its advertising breaks as usual, CNN was running split-screen ads alongside its continuing coverage, which led to what we’ll charitably call mixed messaging. Those included an Applebee’s spot celebrating “a little bit of chicken fried” and “cold beer on a Friday night,” as well as an ad for Sandals Resorts, set to Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds,” which includes the lyrics, “Don’t worry ‘bout a thing/Cause every little thing gonna be all right!”

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The pictures are amazing. This video is the classic American insistence that advertising must be everywhere at all times. (Applebees blamed CNN for running the advert.)
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Publishers move to abandon Google-supported mobile web initiative • WSJ

Alexandra Bruell:

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Companies including Vox Media LLC, BuzzFeed Inc.’s Complex Networks and Bustle parent BDG said they have started testing or are considering using their own versions of mobile-optimized article pages, instead of building them using the Accelerated Mobile Pages framework, which Google introduced in 2015 and is supported by an open-source working group. The Washington Post has gone a step further, abandoning AMP last summer.

A potential exit from AMP would make media companies slightly less reliant on Google, whose dominance in digital advertising has strained its relationship with publishers and been referenced in a December 2020 lawsuit by state attorneys general alleging anticompetitive behavior.

A recently unredacted version of the lawsuit alleged that AMP pages—which are hosted on Google’s servers—have been specifically designed to make it more difficult for ad space to be auctioned on platforms other than Google’s ad exchange. It also alleged that Google made ads that didn’t use AMP load with a one-second delay.

A Google spokesman at the time said the lawsuit’s claims about AMP were false and said its engineers designed the system to load webpages faster.

Media executives have said dropping AMP would give them more control over their page designs and ad formats, and make it easier for them to sell ad space in auctions that include a greater number of ad marketplaces through a system known as header bidding, ultimately boosting competition and prices for their ad space.

Google said it is possible for publishers to sell ad space on AMP pages through header bidding, but the practice has its downsides, including using more data and causing webpages to load more slowly.

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Gradually, then suddenly: AMP is dying. It’s taken just over six years. (The full article should be visible if you click the link.)
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Bitcoin donations to Ukrainian military soar as Russia invades • CNBC

MacKenzie Sigalos:

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Bitcoin donations to the Ukrainian army are soaring after Moscow launched a large-scale offensive against Ukraine early Thursday.

New data from blockchain analytics firm Elliptic shows that over a 12-hour window Thursday, nearly $400,000 in bitcoin was donated to Come Back Alive, a Ukrainian nongovernmental organization providing support to the armed forces.

The fresh round of crypto donations capitalizes on a trend seen in recent weeks, in which donations totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars have flooded into Ukrainian NGOs and volunteer groups working to stave off a Russian offensive, according to Elliptic.

Activists have deployed the crypto for a variety of purposes, including equipping the Ukrainian army with military equipment, medical supplies, and drones, as well as funding the development of a facial recognition app designed to identify if someone is a Russian mercenary or spy.

“Cryptocurrency is increasingly being used to crowdfund war, with the tacit approval of governments,” said Tom Robinson, chief scientist of Elliptic, which sells blockchain analytics tools to banks and cryptocurrency platforms.

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You win some…
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Financial sanctions are easier than ever for Russians to evade. Thank bitcoin • CNN

Allison Morrow:

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The West’s initial salvo of financial sanctions against Russia failed to deter President Vladimir Putin from launching a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Now the United States is taking a punitive approach, announcing another round of sanctions meant to tighten the screws on Russian banks and “corrupt billionaires.”

But some experts say those measures, which so far do not target Putin himself, are becoming increasingly easy to evade, thanks in part to a surge of cryptocurrency adoption in Russia.

The US and EU sanctions rely heavily on banks to enforce the rules. If a sanctioned business or individual wants to make a transaction denominated in traditional currencies such as dollars or euros, it’s the bank’s responsibility to flag and block those transactions.

But digital currencies operate outside the realm of standard global banking, with transactions recorded on a public ledger known as the blockchain.

“If the Russians decide — and they’re already doing this, I’m sure — to avoid using any currency other than cryptocurrency, they can effectively avoid virtually all of the sanctions,” said Ross S. Delston, an expert on anti-money laundering compliance.

The US Treasury is well aware of this problem. In an October report, officials warned that digital currencies “potentially reduce the efficacy of American sanctions” by allowing bad actors to hold and transfer funds outside the traditional financial system. “We are mindful of the risk that, if left unchecked, these digital assets and payments systems could harm the efficacy of our sanctions.” 

As Exhibit A, look no further than Eastern Europe, which has one of the highest rates of crypto transaction volume associated with criminal activity, according to research by Chainalysis. Websites used for illicit trades known as darknet markets brought in a record $1.7bn worth of cryptocurrency in 2020, most of it in bitcoin.

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Not sure that all the Russian banks would really be able to do all their work using bitcoin rather than the SWIFT interbank network. And KYC (know your customer) requirements on crypto exchanges can be a big roadblock. Not to mention the general cash-strappedness of crypto exchanges, which hate handing out fiat (real) money (when they’re not getting zapped by the SEC).
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Meta AI: company builds translation engine for the metaverse • Protocol

Janko Roettgers:

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Meta wants you to understand anyone, from anywhere, no matter which language they speak. To achieve this the company is looking to build a universal, instantaneous speech translator, capable of translating any language to any other language — including languages that are primarily spoken.

Mark Zuckerberg announced this goal during an AI-focused event Wednesday, describing it as a key step toward a world-encompassing metaverse. “The ability to communicate with anyone in any language — that’s a superpower people have dreamed of forever, and AI is going to deliver that in our lifetimes.”

Meta’s ambitious universal translation project is part of a broader push to build out the company’s translation capabilities for the metaverse. “This is going to be especially important when people begin teleporting across virtual worlds and experiencing things with people from different backgrounds,” Zuckerberg said.

As part of these efforts, Meta’s AI researchers have begun to build an AI model called “No Language Left Behind” that is supposed to be able to learn new languages with less training data than existing machine translation models to more easily understand languages like Luganta, a language spoken by an estimated 2 million people in Uganda.

Going even further, the company’s “Universal Speech Translator” is supposed to be able to translate speech directly to speech without first transcribing it.

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Can I point out, as I did in Social Warming, that many of the problems in Myanmar were amplified because Facebook’s systems were set up in Unicode, and Myanmar used a home-grown character system called Zawgyi. And Facebook still isn’t any good at translating and moderating inflammatory language in Ethiopia, where there are multiple ethnicities.

Don’t have a lot of confidence about this.
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How an obscure far-right website with three employees dominates Facebook in 2022 • Popular Info

Judd Legum:

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Most people have probably never heard of the website Conservative Brief. It employs just three writers and it does not produce any original reporting. Nearly all of its articles are aggregations of Tweets, YouTube videos, or other media websites, presented with a far-right spin. Recent headlines include “More Damning Evidence Surfaces Against Hillary Clinton in Durham Probe,” and “Trump Gives Love To Mike Lindell, Showers Him With Praise For The Good He Has Done.” Conservative Brief has been cited repeatedly for publishing false claims. 

Yet Conservative Brief has emerged in 2022 as a dominant force on Facebook. It has recently become more popular on the platform than the New York Times and the Washington Post. 

How did this happen? Popular Information has uncovered evidence strongly suggesting that Conservative Brief is paying a network of large Facebook pages, including several controlled by prominent conservative political personalities, to post its content. This conduct, if it is indeed occurring, is in direct violation of Facebook’s rules. 

Conservative Brief’s engagement on Facebook has exploded over the last year. According to data provided to Popular Information by NewsWhip, an independent social media analytics firm, in February 2021, Conservative Brief attracted about 2,500 engagements (a combination of likes, reactions, comments, and shares) per article. Today, each article posted by Conservative Brief attracts well over 30,000 engagements. 

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Urgh.

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• Why do social networks drive us a little mad?
• Why does angry content seem to dominate what we see?
• How much of a role do algorithms play in affecting what we see and do online?
• What can we do about it?
• Did Facebook have any inkling of what was coming in Myanmar in 2016?

Social Warming, my latest book, and find answers – and more.


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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