US Dismantles Ransomware Network Responsible for More Than $100 Million in Extortion

An international ransomware network that extorted more than $100 million from hundreds of victims around the world has been brought down following a monthslong infiltration by the FBI, the Department of Justice announced Thursday.

The group known as Hive targeted more than 1,500 victims, including hospitals, school districts and financial firms in more than 80 countries, the Justice Department said. Officials say the most recent victim in Florida was targeted about two weeks ago.

In a breakthrough, FBI agents armed with a court order infiltrated Hive’s computer networks in July 2022, covertly capturing its decryption keys and offering them to victims, saving the targets $130 million in ransom payments, officials said.

“Cybercrime is a constantly evolving threat. But as I have said before, the Justice Department will spare no resource to identify and bring to justice, anyone, anywhere, who targets the United States with a ransomware attack,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said at a press conference.

Working with German and Dutch law enforcement, the FBI on Wednesday took down the servers that power the Hive network.

“Simply put, using lawful means, we hacked the hackers,” Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said.

While no arrests have been made in connection with the takedown, FBI Director Christopher Wray warned that anybody involved with Hive should be concerned, because this investigation is very much ongoing.

“We’re engaged in what we call ‘joint sequenced operations’ … and that includes going after their infrastructure, going after their crypto and going after the people who work with them,” Wray said.

In a ransomware attack, hackers lock in a victim’s network and then demand payments in exchange for providing a decryption key.

Hive used a “ransomware-as-a-service” model where so-called “administrators” develop a malicious software strain and recruit “affiliates” to deploy them against victims.

Officials said Hive affiliates targeted critical U.S. infrastructure entities.

In August 2021, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hive affiliates attacked a Midwest hospital’s network, preventing the medical facility from accepting any new patients, Garland said.

It was only able to recover the data after it paid a ransom.

Hive’s takedown is the latest in the Biden administration’s crackdown on ransomware attacks that are on the rise, costing businesses and organizations billions of dollars.

U.S. banks and financial institutions processed nearly $1.2 billion in suspected ransomware payments in 2021, more than double the amount in 2020, the Department of the Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCen) reported in November.

Roughly 75% of the ransomware attacks reported in 2021 had a nexus to Russia, its proxies or persons acting on its behalf, according to FinCen.

The top five highest-grossing ransomware tools used in 2021 were connected to Russian cyber actors, according to FinCen.

Officials would not say whether Hive had any link to Russia.

The Biden administration views ransomware attacks not just as a “pocketbook issue” that affects ordinary Americans but increasingly as a growing national security threat that calls for a coordinated response.

Last year, the White House hosted a two-day international ransomware summit where participants from 36 countries agreed to create a fusion cell at the Regional Cyber Defense Center in Lithuania, followed by an International Counter Ransomware Task Force later this year.

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Trump Reinstated to Facebook After 2-Year Ban

Facebook parent Meta is reinstating former President Donald Trump’s personal account after a two-year suspension following the January 6, 2021, insurrection. 

The company said in a blog post Wednesday it is adding “new guardrails” to ensure there are no “repeat offenders” who violate its rules. 

“In the event that Mr. Trump posts further violating content, the content will be removed and he will be suspended for between one month and two years, depending on the severity of the violation,” said Meta, which is based in Menlo Park, California. 

Trump, in a post on his own social media network, blasted Facebook’s decision to suspend his account as he praised his own site, Truth Social. 

“FACEBOOK, which has lost Billions of Dollars in value since “deplatforming” your favorite President, me, has just announced that they are reinstating my account. Such a thing should never again happen to a sitting President, or anybody else who is not deserving of retribution!” he wrote. 

He was suspended on January 7, a day after the deadly 2021 insurrection. Other social media companies also kicked him off their platforms, though he was recently reinstated on Twitter after Elon Musk took over the company. He has not tweeted. 

Banned from mainstream social media, Trump has been relying on Truth Social, which he launched after being blocked from Twitter. 

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Olive Pits Fuel Flights in Spain

The war in Ukraine has exposed Europe’s energy dependence on Russia and is spurring the development of new, cleaner-burning biofuels. Spain is emerging as a leader in this effort, with the introduction late last year of airplane fuel made from olive pits. Marcus Harton narrates this report from Alfonso Beato in Seville.

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Microsoft Reports Outage for Teams, Outlook, Other Services

Microsoft said it’s seeing some improvement to problems with its online services including the Teams messaging platform and Outlook email system after users around the world reported outages Wednesday. 

In a status update, the tech company reported “service degradation” for a number of its Microsoft 365 services. 

Thousands of users reported problems with Teams, Outlook, the Azure cloud computing service and XBox Live online gaming service early Wednesday on the Downdetector website, which tracks outage reports. Many users also took to social media to complain that services were down. 

By later in the morning, Downdetector showed the number of reports had dropped considerably. 

“We’re continuing to monitor the recovery across the service and some customers are reporting mitigation,” the Microsoft 365 Status Twitter account said. “We’re also connecting the service to additional infrastructure to expedite the recovery process.” 

It tweeted earlier that it had “isolated the problem to a networking configuration issue” and that a network change suspected to be causing the problem was rolled back. 

It comes after Microsoft reported Tuesday that its quarterly profit fell 12%, reflecting economic uncertainty that the company said led to its decision this month to cut 10,000 workers. 

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US, 8 States Sue Google on Digital Ad Business Dominance

The U.S. Justice Department filed a lawsuit against Alphabet’s GOOGL.O Google on Tuesday over allegations that the company abused its dominance of the digital advertising business, according to a court document.

“Google has used anticompetitive, exclusionary, and unlawful means to eliminate or severely diminish any threat to its dominance over digital advertising technologies,” the government said in its antitrust complaint.

The Justice Department asked the court to compel Google to divest its Google Ad manager suite, including its ad exchange AdX.

Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The lawsuit is the second federal antitrust complaint filed against Google, alleging violations of antitrust law in how the company acquires or maintains its dominance. The Justice Department lawsuit filed against Google in 2020 focuses on its monopoly in search and is scheduled to go to trial in September.

Eight states joined the department in the lawsuit filed on Tuesday, including Google’s home state of California.

Google shares were down 1.3% on the news.

The lawsuit says “Google has thwarted meaningful competition and deterred innovation in the digital advertising industry, taken supra-competitive profits for itself, prevented the free market from functioning fairly to support the interests of the advertisers and publishers who make today’s powerful internet possible.”

While Google remains the market leader by a long shot, its share of the U.S. digital ad revenue has been eroding, falling to 28.8% last year from 36.7% in 2016, according to Insider Intelligence. Google’s advertising business is responsible for some 80% of its revenue.

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AI Tools Can Create New Images, But Who Is the Real Artist?

Countless artists have taken inspiration from “The Starry Night” since Vincent Van Gogh painted the swirling scene in 1889.

Now artificial intelligence systems are doing the same, training themselves on a vast collection of digitized artworks to produce new images you can conjure in seconds from a smartphone app.

The images generated by tools such as DALL-E, Midjourney and Stable Diffusion can be weird and otherworldly but also increasingly realistic and customizable — ask for a “peacock owl in the style of Van Gogh” and they can churn out something that might look similar to what you imagined.

But while Van Gogh and other long-dead master painters aren’t complaining, some living artists and photographers are starting to fight back against the AI software companies creating images derived from their works.

Two new lawsuits —- one this week from the Seattle-based photography giant Getty Images —- take aim at popular image-generating services for allegedly copying and processing millions of copyright-protected images without a license.

Getty said it has begun legal proceedings in the High Court of Justice in London against Stability AI — the maker of Stable Diffusion —- for infringing intellectual property rights to benefit the London-based startup’s commercial interests.

Another lawsuit filed Friday in a U.S. federal court in San Francisco describes AI image-generators as “21st-century collage tools that violate the rights of millions of artists.” The lawsuit, filed by three working artists on behalf of others like them, also names Stability AI as a defendant, along with San Francisco-based image-generator startup Midjourney, and the online gallery DeviantArt.

The lawsuit said AI-generated images “compete in the marketplace with the original images. Until now, when a purchaser seeks a new image ‘in the style’ of a given artist, they must pay to commission or license an original image from that artist.”

Companies that provide image-generating services typically charge users a fee. After a free trial of Midjourney through the chatting app Discord, for instance, users must buy a subscription that starts at $10 per month or up to $600 a year for corporate memberships. The startup OpenAI also charges for use of its DALL-E image generator, and StabilityAI offers a paid service called DreamStudio.

Stability AI said in a statement that “Anyone that believes that this isn’t fair use does not understand the technology and misunderstands the law.”

In a December interview with The Associated Press, before the lawsuits were filed, Midjourney CEO David Holz described his image-making subscription service as “kind of like a search engine” pulling in a wide swath of images from across the internet. He compared copyright concerns about the technology with how such laws have adapted to human creativity.

“Can a person look at somebody else’s picture and learn from it and make a similar picture?” Holz said. “Obviously, it’s allowed for people and if it wasn’t, then it would destroy the whole professional art industry, probably the nonprofessional industry too. To the extent that AIs are learning like people, it’s sort of the same thing and if the images come out differently then it seems like it’s fine.”

The copyright disputes mark the beginning of a backlash against a new generation of impressive tools — some of them introduced just last year — that can generate new images, readable text and computer code on command.

They also raise broader concerns about the propensity of AI tools to amplify misinformation or cause other harm. For AI image generators, that includes the creation of nonconsensual sexual imagery.

Some systems produce photorealistic images that can be impossible to trace, making it difficult to tell the difference between what’s real and what’s AI. And while most have some safeguards in place to block offensive or harmful content, experts say it’s not enough and fear it’s only a matter of time until people utilize these tools to spread disinformation and further erode public trust.

“Once we lose this capability of telling what’s real and what’s fake, everything will suddenly become fake because you lose confidence of anything and everything,” said Wael Abd-Almageed, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Southern California.

As a test, The Associated Press submitted a text prompt on Stable Diffusion featuring the keywords “Ukraine war” and “Getty Images.” The tool created photo-like images of soldiers in combat with warped faces and hands, pointing and carrying guns. Some of the images also featured the Getty watermark, but with garbled text.

AI can also get things wrong, like feet and fingers or details on ears that can sometimes give away that they’re not real, but there’s no set pattern to look out for. And those visual clues can also be edited. On Midjourney, for instance, users often post on the Discord chat asking for advice on how to fix distorted faces and hands.

With some generated images traveling on social networks and potentially going viral, they can be challenging to debunk since they can’t be traced back to a specific tool or data source, according to Chirag Shah, a professor at the Information School at the University of Washington, who uses these tools for research.

“You could make some guesses if you have enough experience working with these tools,” Shah said. “But beyond that, there is no easy or scientific way to really do this.”

But for all the backlash, there are many people who embrace the new AI tools and the creativity they unleash. Searches on Midjourney, for instance, show curious users are using the tool as a hobby to create intricate landscapes, portraits and art.

There’s plenty of room for fear, but “what can else can we do with them?” asked the artist Refik Anadol this week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where he displayed an exhibit of his AI-generated work.

At the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Anadol designed “Unsupervised,” which draws from artworks in the museum’s prestigious collection — including “The Starry Night” — and feeds them into a massive digital installation generating animations of mesmerizing colors and shapes in the museum lobby.

The installation is “constantly changing, evolving and dreaming 138,000 old artworks at MoMA’s Archive,” Anadol said. “From Van Gogh to Picasso to Kandinsky, incredible, inspiring artists who defined and pioneered different techniques exist in this artwork, in this AI dream world.”

For painters like Erin Hanson, whose impressionist landscapes are so popular and easy to find online that she has seen their influence in AI-produced visuals, she is not worried about her own prolific output, which makes $3 million a year.

She does, however, worry about the art community as a whole.

“The original artist needs to be acknowledged in some way or compensated,” Hanson said. “That’s what copyright laws are all about. And if artists aren’t acknowledged, then it’s going to make it hard for artists to make a living in the future.”

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