Hackers are leaking children’s data — and there’s little parents can do / Humans + Tech – #98

+ Facebook is ignoring Instagram’s harmful impact on teens + Drugs, robots, and the pursuit of pleasure: Why experts are worried about AIs becoming addicts + Other interesting stories around the web

Hi,

I hope you had a great week. Let’s dive into this week’s articles.

Hackers are leaking children’s data — and there’s little parents can do

Hackers who’ve broken into school systems gain access to children's sensitive personal data; medical conditions, family financial statuses, social security numbers, and birthdays. The hackers make this information available on the dark web. The nature of this sensitive data puts them at risk of identity theft for their entire lifetime [Kevin Collier, NBC News].

The ongoing wave of ransomware attacks has cost companies and institutions billions of dollars and exposed personal information about everyone from hospital patients to police officers. It’s also swept up school districts, meaning files from thousands of schools are currently visible on those hackers’ sites. 

NBC News collected and analyzed school files from those sites and found they’re littered with personal information of children. In 2021, ransomware gangs published data from more than 1,200 American K-12 schools, according to a tally provided to NBC Newsby Brett Callow, a ransomware analyst at the cybersecurity company Emsisoft.

Some schools contacted about the leaks appeared unaware of the problem. And even after schools are able to resume operations following an attack, parents have little recourse when their children’s information is leaked. 

The article has tips on steps that parents can take to mitigate the impacts of any breached information on their children.


Surprise surprise: Facebook is ignoring Instagram’s harmful impact on teens

It seems to be standard practice at Facebook now. Their internal research indicates that their platforms are causing harm to society, and then they quietly push it aside, without acting on it, as it would affect their profits [The Next Web].

Facebook officials had internal research in March 2020 showing that Instagram – the social media platform most used by adolescents – is harmful to teen girls’ body image and well-being but swept those findings under the rug to continue conducting business as usual, according to a Sept. 14, 2021, Wall Street Journal report.

[…]

Teens are more likely to log on to Instagram than any other social media site. It is a ubiquitous part of adolescent life. Yet studies consistently show that the more often teens use Instagram, the worse their overallwell-being, self-esteem, life satisfaction, mood and body image. One study found that the more college students used Instagram on any given day, the worse their mood and life satisfaction became.

Facebook’s VP of global affairs, Nick Clegg, disputed the findings of the Wall Street Journal report [Kim Lyons, The Verge]


Drugs, robots, and the pursuit of pleasure: Why experts are worried about AIs becoming addicts

To boost the speed and flexibility of AI learning, scientists tried to reward the AI for completing a particular task. They found that the AI adapted its strategy to maximise the reward rather than completing the task. Very similar behaviour to human drug addicts [Thomas Moynihan and Anders Sandberg, Singularity Hub].

More than 60 years later, in 2016, a pair of artificial intelligence (AI) researchers  were training an AI to play video games. The goal of one game, Coastrunner, was to complete a racetrack. But the AI player was rewarded for picking up collectable items along the track. When the program was run, they witnessed something strange. The AI found a way to skid in an unending circle, picking up an unlimited cycle of collectibles. It did this, incessantly, instead of completing the course.

[…]

The pursuit of reward becomes its own end, rather than the means for accomplishing a rewarding task. There is a growing list of examples.

When you think about it, this isn’t too dissimilar to the stereotype of the human drug addict. The addict circumvents all the effort of achieving “genuine goals,” because they instead use drugs to access pleasure more directly. Both the addict and the AI get stuck in a kind of “behavioral loop” where reward is sought at the cost of other goals.


Other interesting articles from around the web


📖 Ebooks are an abomination [Ian Bogost, The Atlantic]

I prefer physical books to ebooks. This article by Ian Bogost resonated very well with me.

I guess I have my answer, then: I hate ebooks because I don’t read much genre fiction, but I read a lot of scholarly and trade nonfiction. I also buy a lot of books on art, architecture, and design, whose subjects work best—or feel most bookish—when they are large-format, open-spread, and richly illustrated. As a somewhat haughty book person, I also can’t quite wrap my spleen around every book looking and feeling the same, like they do on an ebook reader. For me, bookiness partly entails the uniqueness of each volume—its cover, shape, typography, and layout.

For me, the user experience of ebooks still doesn’t match physical books. It’s so much more cumbersome to flip back to recall or refer to something in an ebook than it is in a physical book. Like Bogost, I mostly read non-fiction, so going back to previous sections or chapters is often something I do.


🧊 How AI can help forecast how much Arctic sea ice will shrink [Gloria Dickie, Science News]

IceNet, a sea ice forecasting system developed by the British Antarctic Survey, or BAS, can forecast ice levels two months ahead with 95% accuracy.

Tracking sea ice is crucial to keeping tabs on the impacts of climate change. While that’s more of a long game, the advanced notice provided by IceNet could have more immediate benefits, too. For instance, it could give scientists the lead time needed to assess, and plan for, the risks of Arctic fires or wildlife-human conflicts, and it could provide data that Indigenous communities need to make economic and environmental decisions.

Being able to predict ice levels months in advance will be very useful with the increasing impact of climate change.


🧬 A clever 'gene silencing injection' has been approved for treating high cholesterol [Aristides Tagalakis, The Conversation]

The NHS has approved a new cholesterol treatment that will be offered to 300,000 people over the next three years. The drug uses a technique called “gene silencing” that targets a particular gene and prevents it from making the protein that it produces.

In the case of the cholesterol jab, gene silencing works by targeting a protein called PCSK9 and degrading it. This protein is involved in regulating cholesterol in our bodies, but occurs in excess in people with high levels of LDL cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol). Preventing this protein from being produced in the first place will reduce cholesterol levels.

In order to target this specific mRNA, researchers need to create a synthetic version of another type of RNA – called small interfering RNA (siRNA) – in the lab. This is a highly specific stretch of RNA which can be used to target specific mRNAs. In this case, the siRNA is designed to specifically target the mRNA which carries instructions for the PCSK9 protein. It binds to its target mRNA and destroys the instructions, which significantly reduces the amount of these proteins that are produced.


Quote of the week

“Knowing where the sea ice is going to be in the spring could potentially help you figure out where you’re likely to have fires — in Siberia, for example, as soon as the sea ice moves away from the shore, the land can warm up very quickly and help set the stage for a bad fire season.”

—Uma Bhatt, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute, from the article, “How AI can help forecast how much Arctic sea ice will shrink” [Science News]

I wish you a brilliant day ahead :)

Neeraj