9 March 2021

Chinese Cyber Exploitation in India’s Power Grid – Is There a linkage to Mumbai Power Outage?

Maj Gen PK Mallick, VSM (Retd)

New York Times report on U.S. based intelligence firm Recorded future giving details of Chinese penetration of India’s power grid and its possible linkage to power outage in Mumbai on October 13, 2020 has caused a furor in Indian media.

I decided to strike when iron is hot. I wrote the paper on the next day based on open sources information titled Chinese Cyber Exploitation in India’s Power Grid – Is There a linkage to Mumbai Power Outage? To be published by any think tank it would taken time because of requirements of peer review and other requirements.

I have published in my own blog site the paper Chinese Cyber Exploitation in India’s Power Grid – Is There a linkage to Mumbai Power Outage?, for earlier dissemination.

Any feedback is welcome.

The Social Media Anatomy of New Radical Groups in Kashmir

By Kabir Taneja and Khalid Shah

In December 2020, a new militant group called the “United Liberation Front (ULF)” operating in Jammu & Kashmir made its first appearance on the online platform, Telegram. Prior to this, there was no mention of this group or its on-ground activities in the mainstream militant narratives or in the media. The Telegram channel of this outfit was created on 21 December, and on the next day, a poster appeared on the channel which read: “United Media Front for all the outfits fighting against the Indian occupational regime for the liberation [sic] of Kashmir.”

The poster made it evident that the group was a common propaganda platform for various militant outfits operating in Kashmir, an aggregator, if you will. Soon after its creation, it started sharing information about attacks and recruitment conducted by others such as The Resistance Front (TRF), Peoples’ Anti Fascist Front (PAFF), and so on. The main outlier here was that the legacy militant groups were not covered as much, but the alternatives were. The name of this group and its abbreviation had a resonance of Kashmir’s first militant outfit, the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front. While the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front was popularly known as JKLF or KLF, which reportedly disbanded its militant wing in 1994, the new outfit brands itself in a similar branding fashion as the ULF, arguably giving it some historical heft.

To Get to the Negotiating Table, India and Pakistan Had Help


On Feb. 25, senior Indian and Pakistani military officials issued a simultaneous statement after a scheduled weekly telephone call. In it, they declared that both the sides would adhere to “all agreements, understandings and cease firing along the Line of Control and all other sectors.”

Since 2018, the Line of Control, the heavily militarized 450-mile-long border dividing Kashmir between India and Pakistan since a United Nations-mandated cease-fire between the two countries in 1949, has thousands of violations. That’s despite a cease-fire agreed on by the two sides in 2003. Although the news about the cease-fire grabbed headlines, the more significant bit of the statement was that the two countries “agreed to address each other’s core issues and concerns which have the propensity to disturb peace and lead to violence.

By agreeing to address each other’s core issues—for Pakistan, Kashmir; and for India, Pakistan-backed terrorism—the statement clearly indicates that the cease-fire is meant as the first step in a longer peace process. The announcement could not have emerged without weeks of back channel diplomatic work by the two governments, including the buy-in of the top political leaderships of both countries and of Pakistan’s powerful military leadership.

Within two weeks, both of India’s restive borders have become calmer.

The question is: why now? Last month, New Delhi also announced a disengagement on its northern borders with China, ratcheting down a tense nine-month-long military standoff in the Himalayas. Within two weeks, in other words, both of India’s restive borders have become calmer.

Can India and Pakistan Capitalize on Their Border Cease-Fire?


I’m Michael Kugelman, the Asia Program deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington. I’ve succeeded Ravi Agrawal, now FP’s editor in chief, as the writer of this newsletter. I look forward to sharing news and analysis from a region with one-quarter of the world’s population—and an endless supply of fascinating stories.

The highlights this week: What comes next after the India-Pakistan cease-fire, Chinese malware is uncovered in Indian electricity infrastructure, and why Kabul’s water crisis is only getting worse.

Precursor to Peace?

In the aftermath of the India-Pakistan cease-fire along the Line of Control, assessed in Foreign Policy this week by both Sushant Singh and columnist Sumit Ganguly, a key question is what will come next. Can observers be optimistic? Will the cease-fire lead to additional steps to strengthen bilateral ties, or will it amount to a damp squib that fails to improve the tense relationship?

On one level, skepticism is in order. While the joint statement accompanying the cease-fire pledges to tackle “core issues,” neither side is likely to address the other’s core issue to its satisfaction anytime soon.

What Is Happening in the Indian Ocean?


The Indian Ocean is a vast theater, stretching from the Strait of Malacca and western coast of Australia in the East to the Mozambique Channel in the West. It encompasses the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea in the North, all the way down to the southern Indian Ocean.

Along the coasts of this huge geographic expanse are countries that are home to some 2.7 billion people. The Indian Ocean’s key subregions are South Asia, the Middle East, the eastern coast of Africa, and the islands dotting the ocean from Sri Lanka in the East to the Comoros Archipelago in the West.

The region’s size and diversity explains its geoeconomic importance. Its regional forum, the Indian Ocean Rim Association, includes countries as politically and socially different as Australia, Indonesia, Iran, and South Africa, leading to striking new power dynamics. From resource-rich Africa and the energy-dense Middle East to South Asia’s labor markets and manufacturing industries, the stability of the Indian Ocean is crucial to the global economy.


While it may be difficult today for one nation to control the entire expanse of the Indian Ocean the way the British, French, or Portuguese empires did during the colonial period, the strategic significance of the Indian Ocean remains the same. In fact, the advent of the Indo-Pacific—the new geopolitical framework that includes both the Indian and Pacific Oceans—has pushed the Indian Ocean back into the spotlight after a period with no serious great power competition in the region, following the end of the Cold War.

Corruption in Afghanistan as ‘Big a Threat’ as Taliban


Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Security Brief. Let’s start off with something completely different: For anyone who’s nostalgic for the Pleistocene era, there’s a new job opportunity for people who want to bring the woolly mammoth back to life. Okay, now back to business.

The highlights this week: A government watchdog outlines billions of dollars wasted in Afghanistan reconstruction, Biden releases a new national security strategy document, and a new study reveals shortcomings in U.S. counterterrorism efforts in West Africa.

Billions in Taxpayer Dollars Wasted on Afghanistan Development

It only cost U.S. taxpayers over half a billion dollars, but to be fair, they got back almost $41,000 for all the trouble.

A pair of damning new U.S. government watchdog reports shed light on the industrial-scale waste, fraud, and abuse of taxpayer dollars in Afghanistan. And it’s a sign of how inured Washington is to mismanagement in the Afghan War that the matter barely made a dent in the Washington news cycle. But one key U.S. lawmaker is speaking out.

Grounded. The U.S. Air Force wasted $549 million on purchasing Italian-made cargo planes for the Afghan government that didn’t work back in 2008, and now the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) said no one involved in the deal will be held to account. SIGAR is the U.S. government watchdog monitoring how the government carries out stability and reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan.

Biden has no good options on Afghanistan with deadline for troop withdrawal looming

By Oren Liebermann, Zachary Cohen and Kylie Atwood

Washington (CNN)The Biden administration is just weeks away from having to make a decision whether to end the nearly 20-year military deployment in Afghanistan that has claimed nearly 2,400 American lives, as experts and US officials told CNN there are no good options available and the best hope is to avert "catastrophe."

With the May deadline for a withdrawal looming and NATO allies eager to learn what the US will do, the National Security Council (NSC) convened a meeting of senior officials Friday to discuss the way forward on Afghanistan, according to two administration officials familiar with the meeting.

The administration has coalesced around two broad goals, an official familiar with the discussions told CNN. First, it aims to achieve a "responsible conclusion" to the conflict, which would see the end of ongoing violence and a stable Afghan government. Second, the administration wants to safeguard national interests and prevent the country from becoming an ISIS-style caliphate or the base from which a large attack is launched against the US.

"The violence is too high in Afghanistan. That's the bottom line," said Pentagon spokesman John Kirby Friday.

After America Will civil war hit Afghanistan when the U.S. leaves?

By Dexter Filkins

In the eleven years since the American invasion of Afghanistan, Abdul Nasir has become a modern and prosperous professional. A worldly man in his late thirties, he smokes Marlboros, drives a Toyota, and follows Spanish soccer, rooting for Barcelona. He works in Kabul as a producer for Khurshid TV, one of the many private channels that have sprung up since 2004. He makes news and entertainment shows and sometimes recruiting commercials for the Afghan National Army, one of the country’s biggest advertisers. On weekends, he leaves the dust of the city and tends an apple orchard that he bought in his family’s village. We met for tea recently in a restaurant called Afghan International Pizza Express. Nasir wore jeans and a black T-shirt and blazer. His beard is closely trimmed, in the contemporary style.

Nasir recalled that when Afghanistan’s civil war broke out, in April, 1992, he was an agricultural student at Kabul University. He was from the sort of secular family that had flourished under the regime of Mohammad Najibullah, the country’s last Communist President. The Soviet Army had left in 1989, after ten years of fighting the American- and Saudi-backed guerrillas known as the mujahideen. Najibullah was a charismatic and ruthless leader, but, as the last of the Soviet troops departed, no one gave him much of a chance to remain in power. The Soviet Minister of Defense figured that Najibullah would last only a few months.

The regime, sustained by a flow of food and ammunition from the Soviet Union, held firm. The Afghan Army fought well, routing the mujahideen in a decisive battle for the city of Jalalabad. But in late 1991 the Soviet Union fell apart, leaving Najibullah and his fellow-Communists to fend for themselves. With their supplies running out, soldiers began to desert the Afghan Army. On April 17, 1992, Najibullah sought refuge in the United Nations compound in Kabul. The mujahideen poured into the capital, wild and hollow-eyed after years in the countryside.

Marines Downgrade Russia Threat To Focus on China


WASHINGTON: The Marine Corps commandant has for the first time put Russia alongside Iran, North Korea, and extremist groups as areas that will “continue to pose threats,” while elevating China to the undisputed top of threats facing US policy makers.

“China will remain the pacing threat for the next decade,” Berger wrote in the memo obtained by Breaking Defense, a point he has made before while usually including Russia as a close second.

The ordering of the Marine Corps’ threat picture over the next decade marks a major downgrade for how the Corps sees Russia, though Gen. David Berger’s Feb. 23 memo to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin largely maintains the major internal reforms he’s pushed over the past two years. Those efforts, which include divesting of the Corps’ inventory of Abrams tanks and shedding 12,000 Marines, has been aimed at reinventing the Corps for operations across the expanses of the Pacific.

In a joint op-ed with Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown just last month, they wrote that to “compete with the People’s Republic of China and Russia and successfully address other emergent challenges, the U.S. military requires a new framework for assessing readiness. It should focus less on near-term availability and more on future capability and warfighting advantage over peer adversaries.”

The U.S. Doesn’t Have to Make Sacrifices to Get China’s Climate Cooperation


Joe Biden entered the White House in January and immediately began mobilizing the U.S. government and global partners around two major policy poles, combating climate change and strategic competition with China. As the two most critical issues the United States arguably faces, they dominate the foreign-policy conversation, leading to tough questions about what happens when priorities seem to clash.

Despite strong records and statements from senior Biden officials on the challenge that China poses, some national security policy hands and pundits still worry that the Biden administration may sacrifice more traditional strategic concerns, such as Taiwan or the South China Sea, in an attempt to strike a climate bargain with Beijing. This betrays both a misperception of earlier climate breakthroughs and a mistaken belief that China’s own ambitious climate goals are disingenuous or principally fodder to gain other concessions.

China made strong joint climate commitments with the United States in 2014 and again in the Paris climate agreement out of its own interest in curbing the costs of pollution and climate change. Since then, China has ramped up its renewable power sector, enhanced its enforcement of environmental mandates, and set even more ambitious climate goals for itself. Social and economic transformation on the scale that achieving those goals requires cannot be bought with concessions from the United States. Framing climate cooperation with China as zero-sum against a broader strategic competition also ignores that much of that cooperation should be setting the terms for productive competition on green technology, renewable supply chains, decarbonizing industry, and infrastructure financing—not just pushing for more aggressive targets.

Nevertheless, domestic critics focus on John Kerry’s high-profile role as Biden’s climate envoy to claim that he might undercut strong administration policies against China to secure its cooperation on climate change. The Wall Street Journal editorial board opined that “Chinese leaders will be only too happy to make future promises on climate in return for American acquiescence today to their security priorities.” An anonymous former Obama administration official complained that “China’s diplomacy is a constant search for leverage, and Kerry will deliver a load of it in a wheelbarrow right to their front door every day,” an idea with strong currency in more hawkish quarters.

Jumping Jehoshaphat! Have You Seen How Many Israelis Just Visited the U.A.E.?

By Thomas L. Friedman

I was Googling around the other day for a factoid: how many Israelis had visited the United Arab Emirates since the signing of their normalization agreement, known as the Abraham Accords. Answer: more than 130,000.

Jumping Jehoshaphat, Batman! In the middle of a global pandemic, at least 130,000 Israeli tourists and investors have flown to Dubai and Abu Dhabi since commercial air travel was established in mid-October!

I believed from the start that the openings between Israel and the U.A.E., Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan — forged by Jared Kushner and Donald Trump — could be game-changing. We are still in the early phase, though, and having lived through the shotgun marriage and divorce of Israelis and Lebanese Christians in the 1980s, I will wait a bit before sending wedding gifts.

That caveat aside, something big seems to be stirring. Unlike the peace breakthroughs between Israel and Egypt, Israel and Lebanon’s Christians and Israel and Jordan, which were driven from the top and largely confined there, the openings between Israel and the Gulf States — while initiated from the top to build an alliance against Iran — are now being driven even more from the bottom, by tourists, students and businesses.

A new Hebrew language school that holds classes in Dubai and Abu Dhabi has been swamped with Emiratis wanting to study in Israel or do business there. Israel’s Mekorot National Water Company just finalized a deal to provide Bahrain with desalination technology for brackish water. The Times of Israel recently ran an article about Elli Kriel in Dubai, who “has become the go-to kosher chef in the U.A.E. … Last year, Kriel launched Kosherati, which sells kosher-certified Emirati cuisine, as well as fusion Jewish-Emirati dishes.” And, by the way, those 130,000 Israeli visitors helped to save the U.A.E.’s tourist industry from being crushed by the pandemic during the crucial holiday season.

Saudi Arabia is a partner, not an ally. Let’s stop the charade.

Aaron David Miller and Richard Sokolsky

According to a readout of his call last week with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdul Aziz, President Biden addressed the “longstanding partnership” between the United States and Saudi Arabia, and reaffirmed the “historic nature of the relationship.” In a news briefing last week — discussing the Biden administration’s planned response to the role Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, played in the brutal killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributing columnist, outlined in a recently released intelligence report — Secretary of State Antony Blinken said “the relationship with Saudi Arabia is bigger than any one individual.”

For now, the administration won’t directly sanction the crown prince. And Biden’s reluctance to do so is, in part, grounded in the antiquated notion that Saudi Arabia is a close ally of the United States. But at best, Saudi Arabia is a partner whose interests often run counter to Washington’s and whose values rarely coincide with those of the United States at all. Far from advancing U.S. priorities in the Middle East, the Saudis have often complicated them, especially in recent years.

The two countries continue to cooperate on important counterterrorism efforts and support for the normalization of relations between Israel and several Arab nations. For decades, the U.S. has agreed to sell Saudi Arabia various advanced military technologies. American firms have had longstanding ties to the Saudi oil industry. But the U.S.-Saudi relationship has grown increasingly uncertain and strained, especially in the wake of 9/11, Yemen’s civil war and Saudi Arabia’s human rights violations.

A Look Into the Middle East’s Future


Recently, the prominent researchers Shibley Telhami, of the University of Maryland, and Marc Lynch, a George Washington University professor, published a major poll examining the future of the Middle East. They surveyed 521 experts on the region, 71 percent of them based in the United States and the rest living elsewhere. Among the issues covered was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Arab Spring uprisings.

Perhaps the most striking takeaway was how the experts saw the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A majority, 52 percent, said that a two-state solution was no longer viable, while 42 percent said it could be achieved, but not within the next decade. The more important finding was how these mostly U.S.-based experts viewed the political situation in Israel and the occupied territories. Fully 59 percent described the status quo there as that of a one-state reality akin to apartheid, while 7 percent described it as a one-state reality with inequality, but that could not be compared to apartheid.

Anyone familiar with the political sensitivities of U.S. institutions can understand the courage needed for a U.S.-based expert to describe Israel’s system as it is: a racist, apartheid regime. When asked about the most likely scenario if a two-state solution were no longer possible, 77 percent predicted a one-state reality akin to apartheid.

These expectations have major political implications for the Arab world. They show that the two-state solution is no longer seen as a viable option by a majority of American academics, who tend to provide a bellwether for where U.S. policy might head. Realistically, and with no disrespect to the aspirations of Arabs, a political debate limited to the two-state solution and unaccompanied by any major effort to make that solution a reality, simply gives Israel a green light to absorb more land and make such a solution impossible.

Combating Terrorism Center (CTC)

CTC Sentinel, February 2021, v. 14, no. 2

Al-Qa`ida’s Soon-To-Be Third Emir? A Profile of Saif al-`Adl\

The Evolution of the Boogaloo Movement

The Network of the November 2020 Vienna Attacker and the Jihadi Threat to Austria

Extremism and Terrorism Trends in Pakistan: Changing Dynamics and New Challenges

The Coming Battle Over Rare Earths

Candace Rondeaux 

Depending on who you ask, there are either good reasons to panic about
China one day weaponizing its dominance of the market for rare earth elements, or to think that the risk is overblown. Judging from President Joe Biden’s executive order last week calling for a major 100-day review of U.S. strategic supply chains, including rare earths, in order to spur domestic production, Washington is starting to take that risk more seriously than ever. That could be a very good thing, not only for the United States but for the world.

There is no debating that the coming shift to electric vehicles and greater reliance on renewable energy will drive up competition over rare earths, which are crucial to manufacturing everything from mobile phones to batteries for electric cars and wind turbines. The only real question is how the rest of the world outside China, and especially the U.S., is going to cope with the coming competition over rare earths.

Trump Is Gone, but Democracy Is in Trouble


After November 3, I allowed myself to dream that the battered troops of democracy would regain their courage and go on the offensive.

For a decade or more, authoritarian populists around the globe had won one upset victory after another. They rose to power in India and Brazil, in the Philippines and the United States. And though Jair Bolsonaro and Rodrigo Duterte were at first mocked as incompetent leaders who would soon lose power, they have proved surprisingly shrewd at maintaining their popularity or concentrating power in their own hands. Over the past 10 years, examples of populist politicians being thrown out of office in free and fair elections have been few and far between.

Joe Biden’s defeat of Donald Trump finally changed that. For the first time in a decade, the citizens of a powerful democracy took a close look at populist politics and decided that they had seen enough. It felt as though the tide might finally be turning. The democratic fightback was about to begin.

It is still eminently possible that this optimism will ultimately be vindicated. But in the months since the election, two important developments have made me more pessimistic.

The first is domestic. Trump and his allies have managed to convince a worryingly large share of his base that the election was stolen from him. And while Trump has somewhat faded from public view, the Republican Party, for now, remains under his firm control. As his triumphal reception at the Conservative Political Action Conference demonstrates, he remains his party’s only real star.

Europe needs to learn from Asia to stop falling behind in tech

When I started my technology company in China 7 years ago, everybody in the West thought China was just copying European and US technology and there was no real innovation taking place.

The overriding theme in the media and at conferences – where I spoke about the daily reality of operating in the Chinese startup world – was always belittling Chinese innovation, while South East Asia was not even mentioned. But what I saw seven years ago from my daily experience is that China was already very innovative in many areas – from e-commerce to social media – and had created a unique ecosystem.

The world was surprised when China was suddenly recognized as being innovative and leading the way in AI, IoT and electric vehicles – areas where the West thought it was ahead. The problem was an inability and unwillingness from western observers to understand or acknowledge the tremendous development that was taking place.

The West is frankly not used to learning from others. Europe and the US are mostly looking at each other, or worse, just internally for innovation and progress. Many Asian countries on the other hand, are used to observing very closely what is happening in Europe and the US in terms of innovation and progress.

The West’s judgement of the rest of the world is more and more clouded by judgement based solely on differences in values. If Europe wants to keep progressing like it has in the last 50 years, it needs to finally start learning from Asia, just as Asia has been doing from Europe for decades. Our future depends on cooperation and mutual learning, avoiding conflict and solving the world’s biggest problems, such as climate change, together.

This is how much different commodities contribute to deforestation

Mikaela Weisse

New analysis shows that just seven agricultural commodities — cattle, oil palm, soy, cocoa, rubber, coffee and plantation wood fiber — accounted for 26% of global tree cover loss from 2001 to 2015. These agricultural commodities replaced 71.9 million hectares of forest during that period, an area of land more than twice the size of Germany.

The results, now available on WRI's Global Forest Review, underscore the outsized role a handful of commodities play in global deforestation.
Land used for cattle is the biggest contributor to deforestation.

What is agriculture’s role in deforestation?

Confidence, Humility, and the United States’ New Direction in the World


On March 3, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken made a major address to the public to lay out the broad outlines of the Biden administration’s foreign-policy ideology and strategy. In the wide-ranging speech, he reaffirmed support for multilateralism, spoke of the connection between national and international well-being, and pointed to China as one of the biggest threats to the United States on the global stage. In a striking change of tone from the last four years, he also promised to “balance humility with confidence. … Humility because we aren’t perfect, we don’t have all the answers, and a lot of the world’s problems aren’t mainly about us, even as they affect us. But confidence because America at its best has a greater ability than any country on Earth to mobilize others for the common good and for the good of our people.”

Good morning. My fellow Americans, five weeks ago I was sworn in as your secretary of state. My job is to represent the United States to the world, to fight for the interests and values of the American people. When President [Joe] Biden asked me to serve, he made sure that I understood that my job is to deliver for you—to make your lives more secure, create opportunity for you and your families, and tackle the global crises that are increasingly shaping your futures.

I take this responsibility very seriously. And an important part of the job is speaking to you about what we’re doing and why.

Later today, President Biden will share what’s called the “interim strategic guidance” on our national security and foreign policy. It gives initial direction to our national security agencies so that they can get to work right away while we keep developing a more in-depth national security strategy over the next several months. The interim guidance lays out the global landscape as the Biden administration sees it, explains the priorities of our foreign policy, and specifically how we will renew America’s strength to meet the challenges and seize the opportunities of our time.

Want to track pandemic variants faster? Fix the bioinformatics bottleneck

Emma B. Hodcroft

The prospect of reduced vaccine potency from fast-spreading SARS-CoV-2 variants has spurred a global rush to increase genomic surveillance for the coronavirus. This is crucial for quickly identifying and tracking emergent strains. It can also pin down how transmission occurs between individuals more definitively than typical contact tracing can. As this article went to press, laboratories around the world had sequenced more than 610,000 SARS-CoV-2 samples; that number could well exceed one million by the end of the pandemic. In theory, these genomes could help us to understand the spread of the virus through communities and across the globe, allowing us to stall infections. In practice, such analyses reveal much less than they might do.

Much of the analysis of these genome sequences is not done by public-health bodies. It rests on the initiative of academic researchers, many of them early in their careers, who cobble together software and analytical tools in their own time to find essential answers. Nextstrain1, an open-source project involving groups from Switzerland and the United States, is helping to coordinate these efforts. One of us (E.B.H.), a Nextstrain researcher, has been working to track variants since September 2020 (see https://nextstrain.org/ncov/global). Less than two hours after the spread of an alarming new variant (now called 501Y.V1, or B.1.1.7) was announced by the UK health minister in December 2020, E.B.H. had provided context for its key mutations in a series of tweets, and showed its progression in the United Kingdom and across Europe in the months before (see go.nature.com/3ptrya5). The Twitter thread became a key source of information on the new variant, and E.B.H.’s Christmas break was lost to crunching further sequences and briefing journalists.

The ‘phylogenetic’ tools used to track these variants were largely developed by evolutionary biologists to study the lineage of organisms. They were designed to construct phylogenetic trees that can ask, for example, whether flight evolved twice in mammals, or whether two large groups of bats began as one that then diverged.

The search for animals harbouring coronavirus — and why it matters

Smriti Mallapaty

It was the news Sophie Gryseels had been dreading for months. Almost a year into the pandemic, a seemingly healthy wild mink tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 in Utah. No free-roaming animal was known to have caught the virus before, although researchers had been watching for this closely. “It’s happened,” wrote Gryseels, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Antwerp, Belgium, in an e-mail to her colleagues.

Ever since the coronavirus started spreading around the world, scientists have worried that it could leap from people into wild animals. If so, it might lurk in various species, possibly mutate and then resurge in humans even after the pandemic has subsided.

That would bring the tale of SARS-CoV-2 full circle, because wild animals probably brought it to humans in the first place. Strong evidence suggests that the virus originated in horseshoe bats (Rhinolophus spp.), possibly hitching a ride on other animals before infecting people1. In the current stage of the pandemic, with hundreds of thousands of confirmed COVID-19 infections every day, people are still driving transmission of SARS-CoV-2. But years from now, when community spread has been suppressed, a reservoir of SARS-CoV-2 in free-roaming animals could become a recalcitrant source of new flare-ups.

The danger in calling the SolarWinds breach an ‘act of war’

Tarah Wheeler

When news broke late last year that a massive, years-long Russian cyberespionage had penetrated large parts of the U.S. federal government and its information technology systems, policymakers were quick to describe the breach as “an act of war” and that the United States must strike back. But the breach that leveraged weaknesses in software developed by the company SolarWinds was not an act of war. It was an act of espionage. The United States has experienced cycles of outrage over Russian espionage before and mislabeling espionage as an act of war risks leading the United States toward the wrong response.

To understand why the SolarWinds breach was an act of espionage, and not an act of war, it is worth considering the technical details of the breach. The breach occurred via the Orion IT network management software developed by the Texas company SolarWinds. That tool was and remains widely deployed in U.S. federal systems. To keep the more than 300,000 customers that use Orion on the latest version, SolarWinds would occasionally push out an update that client machines would receive and install. The server that held the updated software was compromised when Russian hackers found a hole in SolarWinds network security, pivoted to the update server through the network, broke into that server, added a vulnerability to the patch pushed to customers, and recompiled the update to look innocent. When customers downloaded legitimate fixes from SolarWinds, they got a Russian wiretap along with it. The updated software contained a backdoor that permitted Russian eavesdropping on every computer that contained the Orion software.

The A.I. Industry Is Exploiting Gig Workers Around the World — Sometimes for Just $8 a Day

Dave Gershgorn

OneZero’s General Intelligence is a roundup of the most important artificial intelligence and facial recognition news of the week.

Modern artificial intelligence relies on algorithms processing millions of examples or images or text. A picture of a bird in an A.I. dataset would be manually tagged “bird” so that the algorithm associated aspects of that image with the category “bird.”

The process of tagging this data, by hand, scaled to the millions, is time-consuming and mind-numbingly monotonous.

Much of this work is done outside the United States and other Western countries and exploits workers from around the world, according to a new paper from Princeton, Cornell, University of Montreal, and the National Institute of Statistical Sciences.

Data-labeling companies like Sama (formerly Samasource), Mighty AI, and Scale AI use labor from sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, paying employees as little as $8 per day. Meanwhile, these companies earn tens of millions of dollars in revenue per year.

Take Amazon Mechanical Turk, an online gig working platform where anyone in the world can log on and perform simple tasks for a few cents each. Until 2019, Mechanical Turk required a U.S. bank account to get paid, meaning that anyone working for the platform without access to U.S. banking wouldn’t even be paid in legal currency. Instead they were compensated in Amazon gift cards.

Infographic Of The Day: Which Streaming Service Has The Most Subscriptions?

Today's infographic takes the video, audio, and news subscription services with 5+ million subscribers to see who came out on top - and who has grown the most quickly - over the past year.

Microsoft: SolarWinds Attack Highlights Growing Sophistication of Nation State Actors

James Coker

Microsoft has highlighted the increasingly sophisticated cyber-threat landscape, particularly as a result of the rise in nation state attacks.

During a session at the Microsoft Ignite event, the company outlined some of the trends it is seeing and actions it is taking to help mitigate them.

There has been marked rise in cyber-attacks detected by Microsoft over recent years, both from cyber-criminals and nation state actors, with the latter becoming a particular cause for concern. Tom Burt, CVP, customer security and trust, Microsoft, said that “we have seen an increase in the volume of attacks and in the sophistication of those attacks, and they’re led primarily by attacks emanating from Russia but also Iran, North Korea and China.”

The wide-ranging SolarWinds attack at the end of last year, allegedly perpetrated by Russia, has emphasized the increasingly dangerous digital environment that governments, businesses and individuals are operating in. Vasu Jakkal, corporate vice-president, Microsoft Security, Compliance and Identity at Microsoft, noted that this breach was “one of the most widespread and complex events in cybersecurity history,” and “it was a clear reminder of what we are all up against.”

Explaining how the incident occurred, Burt said that as Microsoft helped FireEye investigate the incident from early on, it discovered that the threat actor had compromised the build process for the SolarWinds Orion application, making the malware very hard to detect. This led to 18,000 Solarwinds customers around the world.

Burt added: “Then this actor picked a much smaller number of those infected companies to drop a second stage of malware and go in and conduct their espionage war.”

Protecting the Information Space in Times of Armed Conflict

by Robin Geiss and Henning Lahmann

Information warfare has generated growing international concern in recent years as allegations of adversarial foreign influence operations – directed against democratic decision-making processes and public information spaces – surge. However, so far, the ensuing debate among scholars and policymakers has been focused on international human rights law (IHRL) and other questions of peacetime international law. The legal implications of digital information warfare in the context of armed conflict (in which the applicability or at least the extent of the application of IHRL remain contentious), on the other hand, have so far received less attention. As part of an ongoing project at the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights on “Disruptive Military Technologies,” we have published a research paper in the hope to fill this gap and to serve as a starting point for further debate. This post presents a condensed version of our argument.

To illustrate what is potentially at stake, imagine the following fictitious but, we think, realistic scenario:

During an armed conflict between State A and State B, the military information operations unit of State B launches an open propaganda campaign through social media, video streaming platforms, and State-owned TV channels. As part of the campaign, which is designed to undermine public support for the military campaign of State A, the military information operations unit of State B spreads a video via social media – using networks of fake accounts that appear to belong to ordinary citizens of State A – that ostensibly shows a high-ranking political leader admitting that the armed conflict was actually initiated by State A under false pretenses. Shortly thereafter, the military of State B starts a large-scale cognitive warfare operation aimed at the distortion of the entire online media ecosystem of State A. The content on the websites of all of the most important public broadcasting services and the leading newspaper publishers is subtly, and at first virtually imperceptibly, falsified and manipulated, in line with the official position of State B. Employing micro-targeting algorithms and bots, susceptible parts of State A’s population are flooded with incendiary political messages that contradict the official government position, exploiting preexisting rifts in the country’s social fabric. The military information operations unit even gains access to the servers of several think tanks and research institutes in State A by using sophisticated email spear phishing to install backdoors. It then carefully rewrites the main points of already published expert opinions and academic studies dealing with political issues that are points of contention between the two countries. The combined epistemic assault leads to a lasting corrosion of the media ecosystem of State A and results in widespread and sustained confusion and uncertainty among the civilian population. Even though the original content can gradually be reinstated and it eventually turns out that the video had been fabricated using “deep fake” algorithms, support for the government and the war effort in State A drop significantly. Eventually, the military of State A is forced to retreat due to mounting internal pressure. The upheaval in State A caused by the corrosion of public trust in both the media and political structures proves to be lasting, resulting in a sustained period of political instability that State B further exploits to achieve its strategic goals vis-à-vis State A.