US intelligence agencies’ embrace of generative AI is at once wary and urgent

BY  FRANK BAJAK
May 23, 2024

ARLINGTON, Virginia (AP) — Long before generative AI’s boom, a Silicon Valley firm contracted to collect and analyze non-classified data on illicit Chinese fentanyl trafficking made a compelling case for its embrace by U.S. intelligence agencies.

The operation’s results far exceeded human-only analysis, finding twice as many companies and 400% more people engaged in illegal or suspicious commerce in the deadly opioid.

Excited U.S. intelligence officials touted the results publicly — the AI made connections based mostly on internet and dark-web data — and shared them with Beijing authorities, urging a crackdown.

One important aspect of the 2019 operation, called Sable Spear, that has not previously been reported: The firm used generative AI to provide U.S. agencies — three years ahead of the release of OpenAI’s groundbreaking ChatGPT product — with evidence summaries for potential criminal cases, saving countless work hours.

“You wouldn’t be able to do that without artificial intelligence,” said Brian Drake, the Defense Intelligence Agency’s then-director of AI and the project coordinator.

The contractor, Rhombus Power, would later use generative AI to predict Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine with 80% certainty four months in advance, for a different U.S. government client. Rhombus says it also alerts government customers, who it declines to name, to imminent North Korean missile launches and Chinese space operations.

U.S. intelligence agencies are scrambling to embrace the AI revolution, believing they’ll otherwise be smothered by exponential data growth as sensor-generated surveillance tech further blankets the planet.

But officials are acutely aware that the tech is young and brittle, and that generative AI — prediction models trained on vast datasets to generate on-demand text, images, video and human-like conversation — is anything but tailor-made for a dangerous trade steeped in deception.

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Renowned Peruvian investigative reporter battles criminalized smear campaign — and cancer

By FRANK BAJAK
April 28, 2024

LIMA, Peru (AP) — At age 75, one of Latin America’s most storied journalists had been looking forward to weaving into books the fragmented threads of more than four decades of investigative reporting that exposed high-level abuse of power in Peru and abroad.

In an illustrious career, Gustavo Gorriti has endured death threats from drug traffickers, survived Peru’s harrowing Shining Path insurgency and a kidnapping by silencer-toting military intelligence agents during a 1992 presidential power grab.

Then an aggressive lymphatic cancer struck, wasting the former five-time national judo champion’s robust physique. Diagnosed in August, Gorriti was in the final drips of two months of chemotherapy in December when a different kind of body blow landed.

A smear campaign — amplified by complicit, cowed or indifferent broadcast and print media — portrayed the self-styled “intelligence agent for the people” as Public Enemy No. 1, a ruthless, egotistical victimizer of innocents.

Gorriti is clear on who is behind it: A cabal of “kleptocrats” in Peru’s political and business elites who are in prosecutorial peril due in large part to his crowning gumshoe achievements. Their aim: “to liquidate all gains in the war on corruption.”

With his hair gone from the chemo, his trademark white beard down to “like three hairs,” Gorriti said he “looked like a pathetic Fu Manchu.” He was so debilitated “I only wanted to sleep,” he said in an interview on the terrace of his Lima apartment.

But indignation stirred the pugilistic reporter to action, marshaling his team at IDL-Reporteros, an online news site, to mount a vigorous, detailed defense.

“You don’t get to choose when you go to war,” he said.

Then it got worse. By March 27, Gorriti was facing a criminal investigation in a bizarrely framed bribery case, accused of “favoring” two anti-corruption prosecutors with publicity.

“Of course it’s not true,” one of the prosecutors cited, José Domingo Pérez, told The Associated Press. “This is a blatant attempt to muzzle one of Latin America’s best investigative reporters, the outlet that he has founded, and, by extension, any journalist who would dare to speak truth to power in Latin America,” The Washington-based National Press Club said in a statement co-signed by seven press and human rights groups.

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US-China competition to field military drone swarms could fuel global arms race

By FRANK BAJAK
April 12, 2024

As their rivalry intensifies, U.S. and Chinese military planners are gearing up for a new kind of warfare in which squadrons of air and sea drones equipped with artificial intelligence work together like a swarm of bees to overwhelm an enemy.

The world’s only AI superpowers are engaged in an arms race for swarming drones that is reminiscent of the Cold War, except drone technology will be far more difficult to contain than nuclear weapons. Because software drives the drones’ swarming abilities, it could be relatively easy and cheap for smaller powers and rogue actors alike to acquire their own fleets of killer robots.

In this photo from the Defense Visual Information Distribution Service, British soldiers launch a drone during Project Convergence exercises at Fort Irwin, Calif., on Nov. 4, 2022. With tensions high over Taiwan, U.S. and Chinese military planners are readying themselves for a new kind of war where battleships, fighter jets and amphibious landings cede prevalence to squadrons of AI-enabled air and sea drones. (DVIDS via AP)

The unchecked spread of swarm technology “could lead to more instability and conflict around the world,” said Margarita Konaev, an analyst with Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology.

As the undisputed leaders in the field, Washington and Beijing are best equipped to set an example by putting limits on military uses of drone swarms. But their intense competition, China’s military aggression in the South China Sea and persistent tensions over Taiwan make the prospect of cooperation look dim.

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Book Review: ‘Means of Control’ charts disturbing rise of secretive US surveillance regime

By Frank Bajak

March 4, 2024

In the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks, former national security advisor John Poindexter launched Total Information Awareness, intent on preventing future assaults on the homeland by amassing extensive databases on people and their movements.

The Pentagon program had a creepy eye-surveilling-the-globe-from-a-pyramid logo and was roundly rejected by civil libertarians as Orwellian overkill. Adm. Poindexter, an Iran-Contra conspirator, was skewered by late-night talk show hosts and Congressional resistance moved to defund it.

Except TIA wasn’t DOA. Not by a longshot.

The data collection that Poindexter envisioned instead went underground, with code names such as “Basketball” and classified budgets. How private Beltway contractors grew what has become a secretive surveillance regime is exposed in disturbing detail by journalist Byron Tau in his first book, “Means of Control.” In the absence of a federal privacy law, the U.S. national security establishment has used commercially available data to craft a creeping panopticon.

As a Wall Street Journal reporter, Tau broke important stories on how the shadowy U.S. data collection and brokering industry has been indirectly — and legally, it seems — eavesdropping on tens of millions of Americans and foreigners in the service of U.S. military, intelligence and homeland security.

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Online dump of Chinese hacking documents offers a rare window into pervasive state surveillance

By Dake Kang and Frank Bajak

Feb. 21, 2024

Chinese police are investigating an unauthorized and highly unusual online dump of documents from a private security contractor linked to the nation’s top policing agency and other parts of its government — a trove that catalogs apparent hacking activity and tools to spy on both Chinese and foreigners.

Among the apparent targets of tools provided by the impacted company, I-Soon: ethnicities and dissidents in parts of China that have seen significant anti-government protests, such as Hong Kong or the heavily Muslim region of Xinjiang in China’s far west.

The dump of scores of documents late last week and subsequent investigation were confirmed by two employees of I-Soon, known as Anxun in Mandarin, which has ties to the powerful Ministry of Public Security. The dump, which analysts consider highly significant even if it does not reveal any especially novel or potent tools, includes hundreds of pages of contracts, marketing presentations, product manuals, and client and employee lists.

They reveal, in detail, methods used by Chinese authorities used to surveil dissidents overseas, hack other nations and promote pro-Beijing narratives on social media.

The documents show apparent I-Soon hacking of networks across Central and Southeast Asia, as well as Hong Kong and the self-ruled island of Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its territory.

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Whistleblower allegation: Harvard muzzled disinfo team after $500 million Zuckerberg donation

By FRANK BAJAK

Dec. 4, 2023

A prominent disinformation scholar who left Harvard University in August has accused the school of muzzling her speech and stifling — then dismantling — her research team as it launched a deep dive in late 2021 into a trove of Facebook files she considers the most important documents in internet history.

The actions impacting Joan Donovan’s work coincided with a $500 million donation to Harvard by a foundation run by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan. In a whistleblower disclosure made public Monday, Donovan seeks investigations into “inappropriate influence” from Harvard’s general counsel, the Massachusetts attorney general’s office and the U.S. Department of Education.

The CEO of Whisteblower Aid, a legal nonprofit supporting Donovan, called the alleged behavior by Harvard’s Kennedy School and its dean a “shocking betrayal” of academic integrity at the elite school.

“Whether Harvard acted at the company’s direction or took the initiative on their own to protect (Facebook’s) interests, the outcome is the same: corporate interests are undermining research and academic freedom to the detriment of the public,” CEO Libby Liu said in a press statement.

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Pentagon’s AI initiatives accelerate hard decisions on lethal autonomous weapons

By FRANK BAJAK

Nov. 25, 2023

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. (AP) — Artificial intelligence employed by the U.S. military has piloted pint-sized surveillance drones in special operations forces’ missions and helped Ukraine in its war against Russia. It tracks soldiers’ fitness, predicts when Air Force planes need maintenance and helps keep tabs on rivals in space.

Now, the Pentagon is intent on fielding multiple thousands of relatively inexpensive, expendable AI-enabled autonomous vehicles by 2026 to keep pace with China. The ambitious initiative — dubbed Replicator — seeks to “galvanize progress in the too-slow shift of U.S. military innovation to leverage platforms that are small, smart, cheap, and many,” Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks said in August.

While its funding is uncertain and details vague, Replicator is expected to accelerate hard decisions on what AI tech is mature and trustworthy enough to deploy – including on weaponized systems.

There is little dispute among scientists, industry experts and Pentagon officials that the U.S. will within the next few years have fully autonomous lethal weapons. And though officials insist humans will always be in control, experts say advances in data-processing speed and machine-to-machine communications will inevitably relegate people to supervisory roles.

That’s especially true if, as expected, lethal weapons are deployed en masse in drone swarms. Many countries are working on them — and neither China, Russia, Iran, India or Pakistan have signed a U.S.-initiated pledge to use military AI responsibly.

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Insider Q&A: Pentagon AI chief on network-centric warfare, generative AI challenges

Nov. 20, 2023

By FRANK BAJAK

The Pentagon’s chief digital and artificial intelligence offer, Craig Martell, is alarmed by the potential for generative artificial intelligence systems like ChatGPT to deceive and sow disinformation. His talk on the technology at the DefCon hacker convention in August was a huge hit. But he’s anything but sour on reliable AI.

Not a soldier but a data scientist, Martell headed machine-learning at companies including LinkedIn, Dropbox and Lyft before taking the job last year.

Marshalling the U.S. military’s data and determining what AI is trustworthy enough to take into battle is a big challenge in an increasingly unstable world where multiple countries are racing to develop lethal autonomous weapons.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: How should we think about AI use in military applications?

A: All AI is, really, is counting the past to predict the future. I don’t actually think the modern wave of AI is any different.

Q: Pentagon planners say the China threat makes AI development urgent. Is China winning the AI arms race?

A: I find that metaphor somewhat flawed. When we had a nuclear arms race it was with a monolithic technology. AI is not that. Nor is it a Pandora’s box. It’s a set of technologies we apply on a case-by-base basis, verifying empirically whether it’s effective or not.

Q: The U.S. military is using AI tech to assist Ukraine. How are you helping?

A: Our team is not involved with Ukraine other than to help build a database for how allies provide assistance. It’s called Skyblue. We’re just helping make sure that stays organized.

Q: There is much discussion about autonomous lethal weaponry – like attack drones. The consensus is humans will ultimately be reduced to a supervisory role — being able to abort missions but mostly not interfering. Sound right?

A: In the military we train with a technology until we develop a justified confidence. We understand the limits of a system, know when it works and when it might not. How does this map to autonomous systems? Take my car. I trust the adaptive cruise control on it. The technology that is supposed to keep it from changing lanes, on the other hand, is terrible. So I don’t have justified confidence in that system and don’t use it. Extrapolate that to the military.

Q: The Air Force’s “loyal wingman” program in development would have drones fly in tandem with fighter jets flown by humans. Is the computer vision good enough to distinguish friend from foe?

A: Computer vision has made amazing strides in the past 10 years. Whether it’s useful in a particular situation is an empirical question. We need to determine the precision we are willing to accept for the use case and build against that criteria – and test. So we can’t generalize. I would really like us to stop talking about the technology as a monolith and talk instead about the capabilities we want.

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Leading Egyptian opposition politician targeted with spyware, researchers find

Sept. 24, 2023

By FRANK BAJAK

BOSTON (AP) — A leading Egyptian opposition politician was targeted with spyware multiple times after announcing a presidential bid — including with malware that automatically infects smartphones, security researchers have found. They say Egyptian authorities were likely behind the attempted hacks.

Discovery of the malware last week by researchers at Citizen Lab and Google’s Threat Analysis Group prompted Apple to rush out operating system updates for iPhones, iPads, Mac computers and Apple Watches to patch the associated vulnerabilities.

Citizen Lab said in a blog post that attempts beginning in August to hack former Egpytian lawmaker Ahmed Altantawy involved configuring his phone’s connection to the Vodaphone Egypt mobile network to automatically infect it with Predator spyware if he visited certain websites not using the secure HTTPS protocol.

Citizen Lab said the effort likely failed because Altantawy had his phone in “lockdown mode,” which Apple recommends for iPhone users at high risk, including rights activists, journalists and political dissidents in countries like Egypt.

Prior to that, Citizen Lab said, attempts were made beginning in May to hack Altantawy’s phone with Predator via links in SMS and WhatsApp messages that he would have had to click on to become infected.

Once infected, the Predator spyware turns a smartphone into a remote eavesdropping device and lets the attacker siphon off data.

Given that Egypt is a known customer of Predator’s maker, Cytrox, and the spyware was delivered via network injection from Egyptian soil, Citizen Lab said it had “high confidence” Egypt’s government was behind the attack

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Book Review: Novelist and blogger Cory Doctorow pens a manual for destroying Big Tech

Sept. 12, 2023

By FRANK BAJAK

As a leading blogger in the pre-Substack era, novelist and public-interest technologist Cory Doctorow often warned that Big Tech was rendering of cyberspace a polluted, dystopian, crassly commercial and often hostile world of limited options.

Now it’s happened. Facebook, Instagram and other walled fiefdoms of surveillance capitalism distract discourse with scrolls of targeted ads and trending video reels. More genteel competitors were long ago muscled out.

Hateful trolls, violent speech and addictive algorithms thrive. And when a user account is mistakenly or unjustly shuttered, platform automation means the aggrieved will encounter callous indifference. It’s gotten to where anti-Big Tech initiatives enjoy bipartisan backing in an otherwise teetering U.S. democracy.

“There is no fixing Big Tech,” Doctorow, who blogged for years on the website “Boing Boing,” writes in his new book “The Internet Con: How To Seize The Means of Computation.” The breezily written 173-page manifesto is for people who want to destroy it.

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