Tag: russia

Twitter took a year to close a fake GOP account run by Russians

The Russian troll farm that bought ads pointing to fake news sites on Facebook also ran a fake Twitter account impersonating the Tennessee Republican Party. While it has now been permanently suspended, Buzzfeed says the platform refused to take the account down for months even though the real party reported it thrice for impersonation since 2016. @TEN_GOP gained a huge following that reached 136,000 followers between November 15th to August this year just before Twitter finally yanked it offline.

Within that timeframe, the account consistently tweeted out pro-Trump, anti-Obama, anti-Clinton, anti-mainstream media and anti-Islam sentiments. The account is now gone, but we looked through some of the snapshots Wayback Machine saved to give you a taste of what it used to tweet:

As you would expect from the same people who bought fake news ads on Facebook, the account also dealt in falsehoods. According to Buzzfeed, it tweeted a photo of a Cleveland Cavaliers NBA championship parade and claimed it was a crowd waiting to hear Trump speak. @TEN_GOP's real identity was first unearthed by Russian's RBC News as part of a report that details its country's efforts to influence politics in the US.

Tennessee Republican Party's communications director showed her emails dated September 17th, 2016, March 1st, 2017 and August 14th, 2017 to Buzzfeed reporting the fake account. While Twitter took way too long to take action, something might have happened in between the reports, since @TEN_GOP changed its description from "I love God, I Love my Country" to one that says it's the "Unofficial Twitter of Tennessee Republicans." We reached out to Twitter for a statement, but don't hold your breath: the company already refused to talk to Buzzfeed.

Source: Buzzfeed

The robots that will sweep Earth’s skies

After six years in space, China's first orbital station, the Tiangong-1 (aka the "Heavenly Palace") has finally outlived its operational limits and begun its descent back to Earth. It's expected to re-enter the atmosphere in a few months, whereupon a majority of the 9.3-ton station should burn up before reaching the surface. This is how defunct satellites are supposed to be disposed of. Unfortunately, until very recently, that hasn't often been the case.

For the past 50 years, we've been filling Low Earth Orbit with defunct satellites, launch vehicle upper stages, and various bits of broken spacecraft (including frozen water, coolant and paint flecks). Most of this comes from failed launches or spent experiments. In 1963, for example, the US military unloaded 480 million needle-sized antennas into orbit to see if they'd act as a crude radio reflector array. The idea was that radio signals from Earth would bounce up into the atmosphere and bounce back down off of them, enabling longer distance radio service. Though satellite communications have since made this technology obsolete, those antennas are still up there, just floating around waiting to go full-on Gravity with a passing satellite.

By the start of the 21st century, LEO had become increasingly crowded with satellites -- more than 7,000 have been launched since Sputnik first circled the globe -- though only 1,500 of them remain active. That number is expected to swell to more than 18,000 man-made objects in orbit in the coming decades as private industry begins sending up communications and observation satellites in addition to national governments. In fact, of the 98 launches that took place worldwide in 2016, nearly half carried private communications satellites.

Today, there are an estimated 20,000 pieces of debris bigger than a softball in Low Earth Orbit and another 50,000 the size of a marble. We're not sure how much junk smaller than that is in orbit -- it could be on the magnitude of tens of millions -- because we lack the technology to track them from the ground. This trend is sure to cause havoc if we don't start cleaning up after ourselves.

In some ways it already has. In 2007, China destroyed its Fengyun-1C weather satellite with a ballistic missile as a show of force to the international community. Doing so spread more than 3,000 pieces of debris throughout LEO. America's response a few months later, blew a defunct spy satellite to smithereens, though a majority of that debris field reportedly re-entered the atmosphere. Two years later, in 2009, a defunct Russian satellite crashed into an American Iridium satellite, spreading another 2,000 bits of space junk.

"It's a serious, serious challenge," Launchspace founder, Marshall Kaplan, told Space.com in 2013. "This is not a U.S. problem... it's everybody's problem. And most of the people that produced the debris, the serious offenders, like Russia, China, and the United States, are not going to spend that kind of money. It's just not a good investment."

"We've reached the point of no return," he continued. "The debris will continue to get worse in terms of collision threats... even if not another satellite were launched, the problem will continue to get worse."

This cascade of collisions is known as the Kessler Syndrome, named for former head of NASA's space debris program, Donald Kessler. He mathematically proved in the 1970s that there is a saturation point of how much stuff we can place into LEO. Once we reach that critical mass, the items in that orbit are sure to set off a massive collision cascade, even if we don't place any additional objects in that orbit. "If we're not at the critical mass, we're pretty close to it," Kessler told The Atlantic in 1998.

But it's not just our satellite communications that are in danger of being destroyed, all that space trash poses serious threats to manned missions as well. In 1983, a fleck of paint travelling at around 17,000 MPH, struck the windshield of the Challenger space shuttle and left a pea-sized pit. This happened with such startling regularity (read: literally during every mission) that NASA took to orbiting the shuttle upsidedown and backwards (relative to its direction of travel) so that the rockets would take the brunt of the impacts rather than the crew cabin.

The ISS isn't much better off. That 2009 collision between the Russian and American satellites forced the ISS crew to scramble for safety aboard the Soyuz spacecraft should a piece of debris blast through the station's hull.

Despite the dangers, there's plenty we can do to mitigate the damage that this debris does. The first step is to know what, and how much of it, we're dealing with. The Department of Defense has established the Space Surveillance Network to do just that. The SSN is able to track objects as small as 2 inches across at LEO and as small as 3 feet in geosynchronous orbit -- around 21,000 of them in total.

The system doesn't track each item continuously but rather uses a predictive method that calculates their orbital momentum so ground-based observers can "check in" with individual objects by pointing their telescopes to where and when the item should be overhead. All together, the DoD's array of sensors and telescopes, which are spread from Hawaii to Greenland to the Indian Ocean, observe around 80,000 satellites (and pieces thereof) every day.

Of course, simply knowing where these debris fields are doesn't alleviate the threat that they pose. We've got to come up with a means of inciting that space junk to fall back to the surface. And while nobody has managed to successfully deploy an orbital debris reclamation system yet, a number of space agencies are working on everything from magnetized wire lanyards and gigantic nets to "space brooms" and kamikaze robo-grapplers.

In 2012, NASA granted North Carolina-based Star Technology and Research $1.9 million to develop the ElectroDynamic Debris Eliminator (EDDE). This device, upon reaching orbit, would unfurl a 6-mile long tether which generates an attractive field as it moves through the Earth's magnetic field. When the EDDE encounters a piece of space junk it captures it in a large net and drops the ensnared garbage into a lower orbit where the thicker atmosphere pulls it out of orbit. This is essentially the same process that JAXA's Kounotori 6 spacecraft was attempting when a technical glitch caused that mission to fail earlier this year.

The European Space Agency has floated a similar idea except that in addition to, or even perhaps instead of, their orbital garbage truck would hunt its quarry using a tethered harpoon. It's part of the ESA's e.Deorbit mission which is scheduled to launch in 2021. The harpoon, which is being developed by Airbus Defense and Space, is just one of the proposed capture methods that will be tried during that mission.

Accurately piercing the hull of a defunct satellite using a space harpoon in microgravity is as technically challenging as it sounds. So rather than try to spear and reel in derelict objects, the startup Swiss Space Systems (S3), has devised a robotic grappler that clamps onto debris and drags it into the atmosphere. Dubbed the Clean Space One project, this 66-pound janitor satellite would be about the size of a breadbox. After being launched from the European Suborbital Reusable Shuttle in 2018, the CSO is tasked with tracking and capturing a non-operational Swisscube satellite, then dragging it back to Earth. The mission is expected to cost around $16 million.

One problem persistent debris capturing satellites like the ESA's e.Deorbit face is maintaining a steady supply of propellent. You don't want your janitor satellite to become another piece of debris simply because it ran out of power. Texas A&M University is working on a clever solution to that issue with the Space Sweeper with Sling-Sat (4S). This satellite would first capture a piece of debris then whip around, slinging the trash into the atmosphere while pushing itself into the path of its next target. By repeating this process, the 4S should be able to hop from one bit of trash to the next without having to expend an expensive and limited supply of fuel.

But what if we didn't need to send new robots into orbit to capture the olds ones? In 2011, Raytheon BBN Technologies and the University of Michigan teamed up to devise the Space Debris Elimination (SPaDE) system. Rather than rely on satellites, SPaDE would puff concentrated bursts of atmospheric gas into the paths of LEO debris. The added friction from these gasses should be sufficient to slow the debris down enough that it falls back to Earth. Unfortunately, the SPaDE project never got beyond the drawing board.

Then again, why even expend the effort to drag dead satellites into the atmosphere when you can simply repurpose their functional (albeit unpowered) pieces? That's what DARPA hopes to do with its Phoenix project. This system would rely on a new class of microsatellites, dubbed "satlets", which would seek out and affix themselves to dead satellites in geosynchronous orbit.

Each satlet would restore an essential satellite function (ie power, movement control or sensors) and share data, power and thermal management capabilities among themselves. By connecting these devices in different combinations, deactivated satellites could be resurrected and their operational lifespans drastically increased. DARPA expects to launch a demonstrator mission around 2020 and commercialize the technology shortly thereafter.

This mission could prove valuable for both the military and the commercial space industry, DARPA program Manager Gordon Roesler told Via Satellite in 2015, wherein a civilian firm would own and operate the satellites themselves and the military "could just pay a commercial operator for the service."

Despite the myriad capture options that these various systems offer, they all share one aspect in common: not one of them is ready to be put into service. It's not economically viable at this point to send up robots like the d.Deorbit to dispose of a single piece of space junk and likely won't be for years to come. What's more, the government may soon face a legal minefield in its cleanup efforts as more and more privately-owned satellites come to occupy and operate in LEO.

"Removal from orbit, collision avoidance, satellite servicing and repair, satellite recycling in orbit, debris storage locations, change to using a 'stable plane' at higher altitudes especially in Geosynchronous Earth Orbit (GEO)... are all possibilities," Donald Kessler told Space.com in 2013. "Some are mutually exclusive and may not be appropriate at all altitudes, while others could combine to be more effective."

"I believe it is time that the international community takes a serious look at the future of space operations," he concluded. "There's need to begin a process to answer these questions and determine which path will most effectively provide a sustainable environment for spacecraft in Earth orbit."

Facebook and Google reportedly helped set up anti-Muslim election ads

It looks like Russia wasn't the only one buying ads online to help sway the election last year. Facebook and Google worked closely with conservative non-profit Secure America Now and advertising firm Harris Media on ad campaigns targeting swing state voters with anti-Muslim and anti-refugee messages, and linking Democratic candidates to terrorists, according to a report from Bloomberg. "Unlike Russian efforts to secretly influence the 2016 election via social media, this American-led campaign was aided by direct collaboration with employees of Facebook and Google," the publication says.

One ad is a mock tourism video titled "Book Your Trip to the Islamic State of France." It features an Eiffel Tower with a crescent moon and star atop it, terrorist training camp footage and Muslims praying while a narrator describes a burka-clad Mona Lisa as finally looking "how a woman should."

"Under Sharia Law, you can enjoy everything the Islamic State of France has to offer, as long as you follow the rules," the narrator says.

The ads apparently ran in Nevada and North Carolina during the final weeks of the election, and caused at least one Harris Media employee to feel uncomfortable about their content.

Bloomberg's sources say that Facebook's and Google's sales team worked closely with Secure America Now to improve their multimillion dollar ad campaigns. Google eventually pulled a number of the ads because they violated the company's policies.

Facebook's "eager" sales team supposedly went as far as using Secure America Now's ads for A/B testing a new vertical video format at scale:

"The video they used was 'Are We Safe?', which contrasts colorful scenes of Main Street America with black-and-white pictures of Muslims who have carried out attacks in the US. Facebook tested 12 different versions of the video."

Facebook also worked with a Germany's far-right Alternative for Germany party, also a Harris Media client, to target voters with anti-immigration ads in the country this year.

This report comes after it was discovered that Russia bought some 3,000 ads and cut Facebook a check for over $100,000 during the 2016 election. It was found that Russian agents also purchased ads with Google leading up to last November.

We've reached out to Facebook and Google for more information and will update this post should it arrive.

Source: Bloomberg

Facebook trying to find employees with national security clearance

Facebook's next attempt at clearing its name from any future political entanglements is apparently hiring people with national security clearances, according to Bloomberg. "Facebook plans to use these people -- and their ability to receive government information about potential threats -- in the company's attempt to search more proactively for questionable social media," the publication's source says. It makes sense, and given the role the social network played in he 2016 election, is a smart move.

In the last few months alone, Facebook has admitted Russia spent some $100,000 on over 3,000 targeted ads during the election cycle; turned over said ads to election investigators and revealed that some 10 million saw the ads. Twitter and Google have come under fire by the government for Russian agents purchasing advertising on their platforms to influence voters as well. We've reached out to Facebook for more information and will update this post should it arrive.

Source: Bloomberg

Telegram fined after refusing to provide user data to Russia

Back in June, we reported on the struggles that messaging app Telegram was having with the Russian government. Russia asked Telegram to hand over confidential user data because it claimed terrorists have been using the service to plan attacks. Now, the latest update in their saga is here. The Meshchansky Court of Moscow fined Telegram 800,000 rubles (the equivalent of about $14,000) for failure to provide the Russian government with decryption keys to user messages.

It's not an outright ban, which is what Russia threatened Telegram with, and the size of the fine implies that Russia's doing this for show. Telegram founder Pavel Durov posted about the decision on the social networking site VK (which he also founded). He claims that the demands of the FSB, Russia's state security organization, are unconstitutional. What's more, they are not feasible from a technological standpoint. After all, providing backdoor access to an app isn't exactly a simple endeavor.

Durov is currently working on appealing the decision. His VK post asks any lawyers interested in this case to contact him; they will choose from the candidates in the next few days. It's not a large fine, to be sure, so Telegram could just pay it, but it's clear that Durov wants to take a stand on the issue of user privacy.

Via: Phys.org

Source: VK

Russia hopes to launch its own digital currency

Russia has been talking openly about the prospect of creating its own cryptocurrency, and it looks like the country might turn those words into action. Local news outlets report that Communications Minister Nikolay Nikiforov has confirmed plans to launch a state-controlled digital currency. Don't expect to generate virtual rubles with your PC any time soon, though. While it would use blockchain to decentralize control and improve trust, you reportedly can't mine it -- instead, it'd be issued and tracked like conventional money. This would theoretically let Russia boost its internet economy without tying the fate of its currency to other countries or third-party brokers.

You could readily exchange digital coins for conventional money, although officials would reportedly require a proof of origin if you wanted to avoid a 13 percent tax meant to discourage money laundering and other dirty tricks.

There's no mention of a time frame for launching this money, but Nikiforov apparently believes Russia can't afford to wait. If it doesn't introduce its own currency, neighbors in Asia and Europe will make their own move "after 2 months," he said. That's clearly hyperbolic, but there are reasons for Russia to be nervous. China has been cracking down on cryptocurrency in part because it saw speculators selling off the yuan in favor of bitcoins -- Russia probably doesn't want to see that happen on its own soil. Officials have already called for tight regulations on existing virtual cash.

There are concerns that Russia would be effectively profiting from fraudsters with the 13 percent tax: hey, we'll look the other way as long as you give us a cut. Short of an outright ban on competing currencies, though, there would be nothing to stop criminals from simply relying on a different currency instead. Rather, this would repeat a familiar strategy of keeping technology on a tight leash so that it can't be used to undermine authority.

Via: TechCrunch

Source: CoinTelegraph

Facebook locks down key data as researchers analyze Russian influence

The truth behind Facebook's involvement in Russian voter hacks continues to get more complicated. The social media company apparently knew about Russian meddling even before last year's US election. Mark Zuckerberg's company reported that 10 million people saw Russian political ads, and has handed over Russia-linked ads to Congress. According to a report in The Washington Post, however, Facebook recently scrubbed the internet of thousands of posts related to social media analyst Jonathan Albright's research that apparently concluded that at least twice as many people had seen the ads than Facebook reported.

Needless to say, the researcher is upset. "This is public interest data," Albright told the Post. "This data allowed us to at least reconstruct some of the pieces of the puzzle. Not everything, but it allowed us to make sense of some of this thing."

Facebook confirmed to The Washington Post that while the posts had been removed, it was due to a bug in its analytics tool CrowdTangle. According to the company, Albright should never have been able to see this information. When the "bug" was quashed, Facebook told the Post, advertisers (and analysits like Albright) could no longer see information from "cached" posts that had already been taken down on Facebook (and Instagram). "We identified and fixed a bug in CrowdTangle that allowed users to see cached information from inactive Facebook Pages," Facebook spokesman Andy Stone told the Post. "Across all our platforms we have privacy commitments to make inactive content that is no longer available, inaccessible."

It's hard not to see this as a convenient excuse to hide tens of millions of potentially damning data, of course, especially as COO Sheryl Sandberg has committed the company to transparency around the fake Russian ads. Social media analysis has become a large part of figuring out what happens in our society, and not allowing access to even "taken down" posts can seem alarming. We've reached out to Facebook for comment on this matter and will update the post when we hear back.

Source: The Washington Post

Facebook plans to fix ad system before 2018 US midterm elections

We've heard quite a bit about Russian meddling in the US election through Facebook ads. Last month we reported that Facebook handed over the suspected Russian ads to Congressional investigators. We also learned that the social media giant is hiring 1,000 additional people to approve ads on the platform and will hand-review ads that target politics or race. Now, it turns out Facebook has set a deadline for itself to overhaul its advertising system: the 2018 US election.

On Tuesday, November 6th of next year, the US electorate will head to polling stations to vote in the 2018 general election. Facebook wants to ensure that Russian ads don't play the same role they might have had in 2016. The ads purchased by this Russian group sought to exploit existing social divisions on America on issues of race, religion, gun control, immigration and more. They apparently specifically targeted swing states in the election.

Facebook's Chief Technology Officer Mike Schroepfer told Reuters that the company is making improvements to its ad platform constantly, and that users would start to see regular updates. The challenge, he says, is the amount of content on Facebook's platform; it's difficult to police over 2 billion users and 5 million advertisers. "We're investing very heavily in technical solutions, because we're operating at an unprecedented scale," he said.

It's understandable that Facebook doesn't want to play the same role in future elections that it did in 2016. And on a larger scale, the company is constantly in the headlines for its lackluster response to hate speech and other misuses of its platform. Perhaps these changes will be applied on a broader scale if they work and improve the experience for Facebook's users at large.

Source: Reuters

House intel committee will release Russian-funded Facebook ads

A month ago, Facebook revealed that a Russian group bought $100,000 worth of ads on the social network in an apparent effort to influence the 2016 US Presidential election. After more was revealed about the far-reaching impact of the ads, the social media titan handed them over to the House Intelligence Committee last week. Now Congress is planning to release the advertisements to the American public, according to CNBC -- but not before a November 1st hearing that will include Facebook, Twitter and Google.

After Congressional pressure, Facebook handed over the over 3,000 ads, which 10 million people saw. As recently as July 20th, the social media titan insisted that Russian actors hadn't bought advertisements on the network -- though, to their credit, the contractors Facebook uses to scan potential ads weren't trained to screen out political content or propaganda. Information surfacing in the last month revealed that the Russian hacking operation Internet Research Agency had bought the ads.

The advertisements' content and delivery show a pattern of intentional manipulation. For one, the content intentionally stoked tension by inflaming racial issues, like promoting Black Lives Matter in one ad while portraying it as an existential threat to America in another. Plus, the ads targeted key demographics in swing states like Michigan and Wisconsin.

Source: CNBC

Meet Alice: The virtual assistant from Russian search giant Yandex

Russian search giant Yandex has unveiled its virtual assistant Alice. Like Alexa or Siri, Alice provides users with directions, weather forecasts and news as well as incorporating access to other Yandex offerings like its music service. And, of course, it does all of this in Russian, which Yandex points out isn't an easy language for AI to tackle. "Speech recognition is especially challenging for the Russian language due to its grammatical and morphological complexities," Yandex it said in a statement. "According to word error rate measurements, SpeechKit provides world-best accuracy for spoken Russian recognition, enabling Alice to understand speech with a near human-level accuracy."

And that accuracy applies to Russian slang as well. Yandex says that when a user asks for the weather in Moscow, for example, and then follows that up with "And what about Peter?" Alice knows to give the weather forecast for St. Petersburg.

Yandex isn't the only regional company to incorporate a voice-activated assistant into its repertoire. Chinese tech company Baidu did the same thing in 2015, demonstrating just how popular and in-demand virtual assistants have become. Alice is now available through the Yandex search app for iOS and Android. A Windows version is currently in beta testing.

Via: TechCrunch

Source: Yandex