Hacker holds San Francisco transit to ransom

Ransomware attack ruins a transport manager’s week, the IRS wants bitcoin users to complete their taxes, AI researchers have gone completely bonkers, and a European police officer proves that everything is completely broken. Here’s your weekly tech roundup.

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Managers at San Francisco’s MUNI rail system had a bumpy ride this week. First, a hacker took down payment systems at the public transit authority, leading to free rides across the system for the next two days. The attacker is now demanding 100 bitcoins (around US$73,000). Unless the money is paid, they will release 30 GB of data, including contracts, employee data and more, they said.

“We Gain Access Completely Random and Our Virus Working Automatically ! We Don’t Have Targeted Attack to them ! It’s wonderful !” said the hacker in a message.

If SF MUNI does decide to pay up, maybe their antagonist could invest in some grammar lessons.

IRS probes bitcoin users

For several years now, users of the digital currency Bitcoin have been happily buying and selling it electronically, without the involvement of the banks or the U.S. government. That’s about to change, though. A federal judge in California just approved a summons requiring popular bitcoin wallet service CoinBase to hand over records of all transactions that took place during 2014 and 2015 to the Internal Revenue Service.

The IRS is investigating possible tax fraud, because money made while trading the volatile asset is taxable as income. CoinBase will challenge the summons, it said.

Software decides if you look shifty

Chinese researchers have developed software that uses a combination of facial recognition and artificial intelligence algorithms to determine if you’re a criminal.

The software — which hasn’t been peer reviewed — trained its algorithm using more than 1,500 photos of Chinese citizens, some of whom were convicts or wanted by the police, to see if they could get it to then tell if new faces belonged to criminals or not. In tests, the software correctly identified new pictures as convicts almost 90 per cent of the time.

Experts are sceptical of the research, arguing it could simply reinforce existing biases in juries, and argue that facial features alone are unlikely to indicate criminal tendencies. The ethical and social implications of such a system are highly questionable and could lead to intractable problems in the justice system, they suggest. Consequently, a politician somewhere will probably approve an active deployment soon.

Dingbat of the week

Terrorists and terror attacks are one of the biggest dangers facing Western society, lawmakers constantly tell us. All that terror data should be locked down pretty tightly then, yes? Well, yes — unless some technologically-challenged person decides to make it public by mistake. A police officer working for Europol decided to take more than 700 pages of confidential dossiers and put it on an unencrypted drive without password protection. Then she connected it to the Internet.

TV show Zembla found the drive by searching Shodan, a kind of Google for connected devices. The data related to investigations a decade ago, so no ongoing probes had been compromised, but experts say the breach could still cause serious intelligence problems. The officer involved had left Europol and is now working for the Dutch police, according to the BBC.

Photo: iStock

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