Good Monday Morning

It’s May 15. Open AI co-founder and CEO Sam Altman testifies before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee tomorrow, the first time the executive whose firm launched ChatGPT has appeared before Congress. Don’t expect legislators to show too much knowledge. The House only purchased 40 ChatGPT licenses and those were bought three weeks ago.

Today’s Spotlight is 918 words–about 3 1/2 minutes to read.

Image by MidJourney 5.1, prompted by George Bounacos

Spotlight On … Increasing Ransomware Attacks

Ransomware attacks are increasing in 2023, thanks in part to a vulnerability in widely used commercial software that was exploited against more than 100 companies in 30 days. That’s not the only reason; ransomware attacks also increased in January and February compared to last year.

The First Wave of Ransomware Attacks

The Toronto city government confirmed it had been attacked three days after reporters from TechCrunch contacted the administration. Other hacking victims include:

  • 1 million Community Health Systems patient records
  • 140,000 Social Security records from Hatch Bank
  • Hitachi Energy employee data
  • Internal data from cybersecurity company Rubrik

These aren’t the only recent ransomware attacks. In March, personal records about student mental health, suspension reports, and even notes about rape and child abuse of Minneapolis students were published online after the city refused to pay a $1 million ransom.

Hackers attacking Virginia’s Bluefield University took their case directly to the university community last week. After breaching the school’s computers, the hackers used the college’s alert system to warn students and faculty that their records would be published if the university didn’t pay.

Employees Are An Attack Vector

There will likely be more attacks as hackers target tech employees.

More than 27 million passwords purportedly belonging to Fortune 1000 company employees are available on the dark web. We also learned this week that a third-party support agent working for Discord was hacked.  That attack led the network to inform users that hackers may have downloaded their email addresses and attachments.

Meanwhile SchoolDude software acknowledged last Friday that hackers have stolen nearly three million user records of school administrators, principals, and campus maintenance workers who submit maintenance and repair requests.

2) The New York Times and Google reached a $100 million, three year deal that will feature Times content on Google as well as subscriptions and ad products. Other publishers with similar Google deals include The Guardian and The Wall Street Journal.

3) Separately, Google announced last week during its I/O Event that it will bundle its generative AI software called Bard into Search and Google Docs. The company is also accelerating its Immersive Maps view and announced new tablets, a budget phone, and a luxury folding phone that will cost $1,800.

Practical AI

Photos published on social media by Amnesty International to highlight police crackdowns on protests in Colombia were AI generated fakes. Amnesty said that it used images that it labeled as AI-generated to protect protesters from retribution.

The UK government is adding £100 million in funding to establish a public-private AI task force to boost the country’s competitiveness and ensure “safe and reliable” use of the technology. This is the government’s second major financial commitment and follows a £900 million investment for computing hardware and AI research.

Tool of the Week: Google has made samples of its MusicLM program publicly available. The software creates new music from text prompts.

 Waiting in the Wings

  • How algorithms are automatically denying medical claims
  • Amazon’s data about you expands beyond shopping
  • Big Tech has a 2024 election issue it hasn’t quite solved 

Put your email address in the form at this link and you’ll get a free copy of Spotlight each Monday morning to start your week in the know.

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Did That Really Happen? — Crime Not Lowest on Mother’s Day

The meme’s timing was perfect. Unfortunately, no one has proven that it’s true. Snopes explains why.

Following Up —  TurboTax Refunds On The Way

We’ve been writing for years about how Intuit’s TurboTax steered consumers away from its participation in the IRS’ Free File program.  Some of those government-filed suits are now putting a little cash in the pockets of more than four million filers who the company misled. Those refunds are averaging about $30.

Protip —  Take a Screenshot of Streaming Video

The Verge has published a walkthrough showing you how to change your browser settings to take a screenshot of Netflix, Amazon Prime, or other video streaming services playing on your device.

Screening Room — Dove Real Virtual Beauty

Science Fiction World —  Lawnmower Makes Room for Bees, Butterflies

We’ve been learning a lot about how lawns can harm native bee and butterfly populations. Now the Roomba-like Husqvarna lawnmower will cut the grass while maintaining 10% of the area for those pollinators. You can see the lawnmower in action here.

Coffee Break — This Bear Knows What He Wants

You definitely want to see this Colorado Parks & Wildlife video showing a bear properly opening a truck door, dumping the stuff that he didn’t want, and loping off with a picnic basket a bag.

Sign of the Times

Good Monday Morning

Thursday marks the end of the COVID-19 health emergency declaration in the U.S. This likely means that you will have to pay for testing and treatment if you become ill. More than 1,000 Americans still die from the disease each week, more than from gun violence and car accidents combined.

Today’s Spotlight is 1,134 words–about 4 minutes to read.

Facial recognition privacy concerns abound as people queue up at a stadium entrance
image by Midjourney 5.1 prompted by George Bounacos

Spotlight On … Facial Recognition Privacy

It’s increasingly common to have to comply with identity requirements to attend concerts, sports events, or access government records, putting data access at odds with individual facial recognition privacy and security.

Israeli soldiers use Red Wolf software and its red-yellow-green icons to indicate whether Palestinians can cross into the occupied West Bank or be investigated. Amnesty International calls that practice ‘automated apartheid’.

The human rights organization also criticized the Met Police for their plans to deter crime or help with intelligence operations by using live facial recognition. Critics call the technology Orwellian and criticize law enforcement authorities for boasting of only 1 false positive in 6,000. They also call the concept mass surveillance and assert that no one will have an expectation of facial recognition privacy.

Americans already face similar requirements at concerts and sporting events. During a field trip with her daughter’s Girl Scout troop last December, a woman working for a law firm suing Madison Square Garden was denied access to MSG-owned Radio City Music Hall.  State officials and the law firm threatened MSG’s owner, but he doubled down on the technology.

Nine U.S. ballparks this summer are testing similar programs powered by Clear. Clear has used that technology in U.S. airports for years and is branching into offering services to venue owners.

U.S. government agencies also require positive identification to access services. A driver’s license or other photo ID is normally reviewed by an official, but uses biometrics instead. Both this program and, proposed by the Internal Revenue Service last year, have detractors. IRS backpedaled after widespread criticism, allowing Americans to verify their identity by video call or photo ID at 650 branches.

As we reported in January, multiple police departments have jailed individuals based on false facial recognition results. Clearview, a company that made headlines by illicitly downloading 30 billion photos from Facebook and social media sites, claims to have run nearly 1 million reports for law enforcement agencies against a database of those images. Some cities, including Portland and San Francisco, ban police from using that company’s services.

3 More Stories to Know

1) Google announced passkey support has arrived for personal accounts and will migrate to Google Workspace commercial accounts. The secure login uses biometrics or a PIN instead of a password. We wrote about passkeys last November.

Separately, Google announced that it will start displaying a blue checkmark next to commercial email senders’ names when the organization has verified their domain.

2) IBM said that it will pause hiring for nearly 8,000 jobs that it thinks will be performed by automation and machine learning software in the coming years.

3) More shipping and returns information will begin appearing in Google search results. This requires additional merchant coding so look for the information to first begin appearing at big brands and the most savvy of small businesses.

Practical AI

A Reddit community of college professors has been gleefully following the financial results of “education company” Chegg Inc. The $700 million publicly traded company offers “homework help” and similar assistance that facilitates student cheating. Chegg lost 49% of its value the day after it acknowledged that revenues were harmed by the widespread rollout of ChatGPT.

Samsung is banning employees from using generative AI for work. The company said that some sensitive code has been uploaded by employees. It’s a great reminder for your organization–not just developers looking for code troubleshooting, but others using the systems to help write copy about sensitive topics. 

Tool of the Week: This Midjourney prompting tutorial is clearly written and offers solid advice. It’s a great place to start if you’re looking to improve your graphics to the next level.

Trends & Spends

Did That Really Happen? — VP Video Was Doctored

A video of Vice President Kamala Harris that started on TikTok made its way around social media online via tens of thousands of people sharing. PolitiFact reports that the video was doctored and shows her “talking nonsensically” and slurring her speech during an address at Howard University.

 Following Up —  Robocops & Driverless Cars

We told you last week about New York Mayor Eric Adams partnering again with Boston Dynamics and their four legged robots called Spot. Now a firm has outfitted the same robots with onboard ChatGPT access and a Google Text-to-Speech interface. 

Perhaps they can help their human counterparts in San Francisco who are shown in this remarkable bodycam footage trying to corral a driverless vehicle that blundered into a fire and crime scene.

Protip —  Make How-To Guides

If you need to show a colleague or a customer how to do something online, you can now make professional-looking manuals based on your own screen and actions. I’ve played with Scribe for a couple of weeks and think that its free version is fine for casual business use.

Screening Room —  Budweiser Builds Ground Coolers to Combat Climate Change

Science Fiction World —  Sweden Building Electrified Road

Letting the road charge your car as you drive is another mind-boggling way to help mitigate climate change. Sweden plans to build this electrified motorway within two years. The road will connect Stockholm, Gothenburg, and Malmö.

Coffee Break — Tour the Space Station

The European Space Agency published a virtual tour of the International Space Station. Similar to Google Maps’ Street View, you can move though the various modules on the Space Station,

Sign of the Times

Good Monday Morning

It’s April 24th. Friday is Arbor Day. Here’s a WDIV segment showing a Michigan celebration involving champion tree climbers–the arborists themselves.

Today’s Spotlight is 1,108 words–about 4 minutes to read

Spotlight On … Voice Cloning

The music world is livid and wary after the release of the track “Heart On My Sleeve,” credited to Drake and The Weeknd. The song became a viral sensation with millions of plays, proving problematic for the Canadian superstars who have collaborated in the past, but never sang on this track.

“Heart on My Sleeve” was created by voice cloning AI software and was released without the involvement of the artists or their music companies. This has sparked a debate about the potential of generative AI and what it could mean for the music industry. It has also raised questions about copyright laws and how they apply to AI-generated content.

Using sound alikes isn’t new in the music industry. Singer Ral Donner sounded like Elvis on multiple hits between 1959 and 1963. Before he became famous, Elton John recorded nearly 50 top hits between 1969 and 1970 for uncredited sound-alike releases. And even today, singers who leave a band are often replaced by others who mimic their voices.

But vocal cloning poses a different threat to the music industry. The judiciary often lags behind technological advances. Legal battles still rage over key provisions of the nearly thirty-year-old Communications Decency Act. Some legal experts today muse that the software creation could itself be considered a protected work of art.

Voice over artists are also increasingly concerned about synthesized versions of their voices that have cropped up online, usually on websites that promise to provide artificially generated scripts of famous voices.

Criminals are also using voice cloning. An Arizona mother received a call featuring the voice of her daughter crying and apologizing. A man told her that her daughter had been kidnapped while on a skiing trip and then demanded a ransom. In minutes, the woman verified the phone voice was fake and that her daughter was safe.

In Saskatchewan, a couple in their 70s was targeted by a call from their grandson’s voice  claiming he was in jail and needed bail money. After withdrawing $3,000 CAD, they rushed to a second bank branch where they learned he was safe. Another couple lost $21,000 after a voice that sounded like their adult son claimed to be in jail after killing a U.S. diplomat in a car accident.

Voice cloning is cheap, easy, and ubiquitous. Critics also praise its quality. For now, be careful, ask smart questions that may not be public knowledge, and heed these red flags that the FBI identified.

3 More Stories to Know

1) Europe’s air traffic control organization has been under cyberattack by a known Russian hacking gang since April. 19. Officials says that air traffic there remains unaffected.

2) Instagram announced that commercial accounts can now include up 5 links in their profile. Account holders previously had to use a third-party service to include more than one link.

3) An era ended when Netflix announced that it will stop emailing DVDs to customers in September.

You may not know that Silver Beacon-owned website Movie Rewind was one of the first sites to publish the company’s schedule. EIC Sue Millinocket wrote the breakthrough piece, “The Blind Side Not Out On Netflix? I’ll Tell You Why” way back in March of 2010. Since then, Sue and her team of contributors publish genre-specific reviews of older films and television. 

They also still publish a free weekly overview of Netflix release dates. Sign up here.

 Waiting in the Wings

  • Protecting yourself from location data
  • What you can really do with those chatbots
  • How algorithms are automatically denying medical claims

Put your email address in the form at this link and you’ll get a free copy of Spotlight each Monday morning to start your week in the know.

If you’re already a free subscriber, would you please forward this to a friend who could use a little Spotlight in their Monday mornings? It would really help us out.

Trends & Spends

Did That Really Happen? — Bud Light Billboards  & Other Debunked Stuff

Here’s what happened with the Bud Light “boycott.”

  • Anheuser-Busch sent out “influencer packages,” essentially free gifts for hundreds of  people in different communities.
  • One of the goodies was some Bud Light cans with the person’s name on it.
  • One went to an online personality who happens to be transgendered.

From there, all the stories got crazy. Conservative musicians Kid Rock and John Rich both made videos complaining about a transgendered person’s inclusion. Both claimed to cut off Budweiser sales at their restaurants, which Fr. Nathan Monk later proved was untrue.

Others claimed that the company had lost “billions” although the stock price is actually flat this month and up this year. And still others claimed, especially on social media, that the entire marketing department had been fired, which was again, untrue.

Finally, the AP had to debunk claims that Budweiser had bought billboards mocking conservative activists and calling them crybabies.

Following Up —  AI Cutting Academic Paper Mills

Academic paper writers who help students cheat say that the rise of generative AI like ChatGPT has cut into their earnings.

Protip —  Disable ChatGPT on Windows 11

If you’re using Bing and Windows 11, you now have ChatGPT on your taskbar, but this simple diagram shows you how to remove it.

Screening Room —  My Last Lullaby

Science Fiction World — NYPD Robot Dogs Are Back

We wrote about police robots fashioned to look like dogs two years ago. A public outcry ended the program before it really started, but with former police captain and current mayor Eric Adams leading the way, the NYPD is using robots again.

Coffee Break —  Voice Clone Yourself

Here’s one of many free options you can try yourself to see what all the fuss is about.

Sign of the Times