Can Machines Save Us From the the Machines?

February 17, 2018, 5:40 PM UTC

Is it just me or is the cyber landscape getting more scary? Even as companies and consumers get better at playing defense, a host of new cyber threats is at our doorsteps—and it’s unclear if anyone can keep them out.

My doom-and-gloom stems from the dire predictions of Aviv Ovadya, the technologist who predicted the fake news epidemic, and now fears an “information apocalypse” as the trolls turbo-charge their efforts with AI. He points to the impending arrival of “laser phishing” in which bots will perfectly impersonate people we know by scraping publicly available images and social media data. The result could be the complete demolition of an already-crumbling distinction between fact and fiction.

Meanwhile, the phenomenon of crypto-jacking—in which hackers hijack your computer to mine digital currency—has quickly morphed from a novelty to a big league threat. Last week, for instance, hackers used browser plug-ins to install malignant mining tools on a wide range of court and government websites, which in turn caused site visitors to become part of the mining effort.

The use of browser plug-ins to launch such attacks is part of a familiar strategy by hackers—treating third parties (in this case the plug-ins) as the weakest link in the security chain, and exploiting them. Recall, for instance, how hackers didn’t attack Target’s computer systems directly, but instead wormed their way in through a third party payment provider. The browser-based attacks feel more troubling, though, because they take place right on our home computers.

All of this raises the question of how we’re supposed to defend ourselves against this next generation of threats. One option is to cross our fingers that new technologies—perhaps Microsoft’s blockchain-based ID systems—will help defeat phishing and secure our browsers. But it’s also hard, in an age when our machines have run amok, to believe more machines are the answer.

For a different approach, I suggest putting down your screen for a day and picking up How to Fix the Future. It’s a new book by Andrew Keen, a deep thinker on Silicon Valley culture, that proposes reconstructing our whole approach to the Internet by putting humans back at the center of our technology. Featuring a lot of smart observations by Betaworks founder John Borthwick, the book could help us fight off Ovadya’s information apocalypse.

Have a great weekend.


Jeff John Roberts


Welcome to the Cyber Saturday edition of Data Sheet, Fortune’s daily tech newsletter. You may reach Robert Hackett via Twitter, Cryptocat, Jabber (see OTR fingerprint on my, PGP encrypted email (see public key on my, Wickr, Signal, or however you (securely) prefer. Feedback welcome.


Email troll so hard: Mueller's latest indictment says Russians used "," "" and other 1990s-sounding email addresses to open bank accounts, and stir strife in American democracy. Meanwhile, the Trump team has finally said Russian meddling is beyond dispute.

Hack the Air Force—and get paid $12,500: That was the highest reward given out in the second go-round of the Air Force's bug bounty program, which flushed out 3,000 vulnerabilities and paid over $100,000 to white hats over a 20-day period. HackerOne helped run the program.

Google Ads Infection: A Ukrainian hacker group made $50M with a clever scheme: buying Google Ads with fake links to popular bitcoin sites. You know how this ends—victims clicked on the poisoned ads, and then got robbed of their bitcoin.

Hacking gold goes to Fancy Bear: Russia's hackers get high scores on technical merit—and low ones on sportsmanship—for a cyberattack that disrupted the Olympic opening ceremonies. Maybe the Kremlin is just sore it's being punished for all that blatant doping.

Pssst Facebook, 2FA is a security tool—not a spamming device.

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“We have entered a new era of warfare, witnessing a destructive and deadly mix of conventional military might and malicious cyberattacks. Russia is ripping up the rulebook by undermining democracy, wrecking livelihoods by targeting critical infrastructure and weaponizing information."
UK defense secretary Gavin Williamsom attributing the massively destructive Not-Petya malware attacks to Russia. Fortune contributor David Meyer explains a newfound willingness by the U.S. and U.K. to point fingers over Russia's cyber-shenanigans.


Russian Trolls Used Cryptocurrency Exchanges, Indictment Says by Jonathan Vanian

U.S. Olympians Asking for Bitcoin to Fund Gold Medal Dreams, by Tom Huddleston Jr.

Verizon Says It Will Fight Robberies by Locking Smartphones, by Don Reisinger

Western Union is Testing Ripple's XRP for Money Transfers, by Jeff Roberts

Boston Dynamic's Latest Scary Robot Opens Doors for Its Friends, by David Meyer

Atari Plans to Launch Its Own Cryptocurrencies, by Chris Morris


"Romance scammers often reuse the same picture." An investigation into cruel scams targeting lonely woman includes interviews with men ("always handsome in their forties or fifties with respectable jobs") who repeatedly have their identity stolen as part of the scam. One is a retired U.S. army colonel who says he's flagged 2,000 fake Facebook profiles that used his photos.

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