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India’s battle with Pegasus tells a bigger tale of tech laws • The Register

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Analysis NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware-for-governments keeps returning to the headlines thanks to revelations such as its use against Spain’s prime minister and senior British officials. But there’s one nation where outrage about Pegasus has been constant for nearly a year and shows little sign of abating: India.

A quick recap: Pegasus was created by Israeli outfit NSO Group, which marketed the product as “preventing crime and terror acts” and promised it would only sell the software to governments it had vetted, and for approved purposes like taking down terrorists or targeting criminals who abuse children.

Those promises are important because Pegasus is very powerful: targets are fooled into a “zero click” install of the software, after which their smartphones are an open book.

In July 2021, Amnesty International and French journalism advocacy organisation Forbidden Stories claimed Pegasus had been used well beyond its intended purpose, and claimed to have accessed a list of over 50,000 phone numbers NSO clients had targeted for surveillance.

Many were politicans, activists, diplomats, or entrepreneurs – jobs that are just not the sort of role NSO said it would let governments target with Pegasus.

Over 300 Indian residents made that list – among them opposition politicians, activists, and officers of the Tibetan government in exile.

NSO has offered no explanation, or theory, for how its promises turned to dust.

The New York Times reported Prime Minister Narendra Modi purchased Pegasus in 2017 as part of an overall weapons deal worth roughly $2 billion, but Indian politicians have resisted admitting to its acquisition or use.

The mere implication that India’s government had turned Pegasus against political opponents was dynamite and complaints poured in from those who felt they had been targeted.

Those complaints were heeded: in October 2021, India’s Supreme Court established a Technical Committee to investigate whether the national government had used Pegasus to target citizens illegitimately.

The Committee emerged after the government offered to investigate itself. The Court rebuffed that proposal, and referred to allegations of Pegasus’s deployment as an “Orwellian concern” [PDF]. It expressed concern that rights to both privacy and free speech had been breached, and also took an interest in whether a foreign entity had been involved in illegal domestic surveillance.

Political opponents have accused Indian prime minister Narendra Modi of treason and compromising national security, while supporters have cited “lawful interception” as justification for the spyware’s use.

Probes are under way into whether State governments also acquired Pegasus, and the software has also become part of a wider debate about data privacy.

“I think the conversation is continuing because there is a court case ongoing. Anytime something happens in the case, the conversation restarts,” Anushka Jain, a lawyer for New Delhi-based digital liberties organization Internet Freedom Foundation told The Reg. Her group is providing legal representation to two journalists targeted by Pegasus spyware.

Jain explained:

Logically, if NSO only sells Pegasus to governments, the malware must have either been used by the Indian government or against Indian citizens by a foreign government – a point noted by politicians, think tanks and nonprofits like the Internet Freedom Foundation, alike. Either way, they argue, the government is responsible for taking action.

As Rajya Sabha Member of Parliament and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) member Subramanian Swamy tweeted:

The Indian Supreme Court declared privacy as a fundamental right in 2017 on the basis of Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. However, the bench clarified that a person’s fundamental right to privacy could be overridden by competing state and individual interests, or in other words, lawful interception.

“The judgment was hailed as a founding stone of privacy jurisprudence in India. It was also hailed as an opportune moment for stronger privacy of Indian citizens at a time when Digital India was gathering pace,” said Indian nonprofit The Software Freedom Law Center, India (SFLC-In) on social media.

The org, which describes itself as “Defenders of your Digital Freedom” believes that unfortunately not much has changed “in terms of actually safeguarding the privacy of Indian citizens and safeguarding them from unfettered state surveillance” since the 2017 ruling.

“The fight for stronger digital rights continues and has taken a sharper turn in the wake of the Pegasus scandal, lack of due stakeholder consultations, and bypassing legislative scrutiny to introduce unfettered technical solutions,” wrote SFLC-In in a Facebook post.

Laws that further address lawful interception, The Indian Telegraph Act and Information Technology Act, were written before spyware was even conceivable – as implied by the mention of Telegraphs.

Those laws allow for interception (in section 69) but not to the extent of hijacking and weaponizing a phone in the way Pegasus makes possible.

Meanwhile, Sections 43 and Section 66 of the same Act criminalize cybercrime and stolen computer resources.

“The Information Technology Act says that hacking is illegal, and Pegasus is essentially hacking because it takes over the entire phone and it collects all information that is on the phone, not just specific communication,” clarified Jain.

“However, that is a very broad interpretation of that provision, because that is describing hacking of a computer system, and [Indian law doesn’t have] any provisions for technology such as Pegasus.”

But India is debating such a bill – the Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019. The bill has been severely criticised at home and abroad and has not passed into law.

Jain explained that one reason for opposition to the bill is that it provides a lot of exemptions.

She said:

A catalyst

Jain told The Register that without a data protection law or a strong civil liability system, the only way forward for Indian citizens is to go to the constitutional court and claim their rights were violated.

The SFLC-In agrees that the courts are integral to change, which is why it is also supporting victims of the spyware in litigation.

As the organization wrote on their website:

Seeking rectification through the court system could establish the necessary data protection, hacking and digital rights laws, thereby creating a historical change. Of course, the laws could also not pass – or pass with inadequate protection – leaving folks like Jain and the SFLC-In looking for the next opportunity to work towards change.

While those groups continue to agitate for change, a new player has also taken aim at the Bill: in its annual assessment [PDF] of IP law around the world, The US Trade Representative rated it as likely to “undermine important IP protections in India”. The Trade Representative said the Bill’s flaws “are particularly acute given India’s outdated and insufficient legal framework for protecting trade secrets.”

“On this and other potential legislation affecting IP, the United States encourages India to undertake a transparent process that provides stakeholders with sufficient opportunity to comment.”

Those stakeholders’ positions are not hard to find. Nor is outrage about how the lack of a robust data law affords India’s government a loophole that could allow it to use Pegasus to target opponents.

Indian government policy calls for the nation’s tech firms to assume a greater role in global industry, and for wide use of digital government services. With its proposed law stalled, and key trade partners recommending its revision, both goals will be harder to achieve. ®



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.NET 6 comes to Ubuntu 22.04 • The Register

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Ubuntu and Microsoft have brought .NET 6 to the Ubuntu repositories, meaning that you can install it without adding any extra sources to the OS.

The announcement means that Ubuntu 22.04 is catching up with the Red Hat Linux family. As per Microsoft’s online docs, you could already do this on Fedora 36 as well as the more business-like variants: RHEL 8, CentOS Stream 8 and 9, and via scl-utils on RHEL 7.

Microsoft’s blog post about the news also mentions the ability to install the runtime, or the full SDK, into Ubuntu containers. Canonical also has new versions of these. It describes Ubuntu ROCKs as “new, ultra-small OCI-compliant appliance images, without a shell or package manager,” smaller than existing Ubuntu container images thanks to a new tool called chisel.

.NET 6 is Microsoft’s cross-platform toolchain for building apps to run on multiple platforms, including Windows, Linux, macOS, and mobile OSes. Essentially, it’s Microsoft’s answer to Oracle’s JVM – the increasingly inaccurately named Java Virtual Machine, which now supports multiple languages, including Clojure, Kotlin, Scala, and Groovy.

Microsoft’s own list of .NET languages is relatively short – C#, F#, and Visual Basic – although there are many others from outside the company. The list arguably should include PowerShell, but that already has its own Linux version.

Since 2014 or so, .NET primarily means what was formerly called .NET Core. According to Microsoft’s own diagram, that means the .NET Common Language Runtime, the bit which allows “managed code” to execute, and Microsoft’s web app framework ASP.NET.

There are three separate packages: dotnet-sdk-6.0, the SDK; dotnet-runtime-6.0, the CLR runtime; and aspnetcore-runtime-6.0, the runtime for ASP.NET. All three can be installed at once via the dotnet6 metapackage.

The notable bits of .NET that aren’t included in Core are the venerable Windows Forms framework or the slightly more modern Windows Presentation Framework, WPF.

Compare and contrast: .NET Framework versus .NET Core

Diagram showing .NET Core design

Click to enlarge

So don’t get excited and think that the inclusion of .NET in Ubuntu means that graphical .NET apps, such as Windows Store apps, can now be built and run natively on Linux. Limit your expectations to server-side stuff. This is a mainly a way to deploy console-based C# and ASP.NET apps into Ubuntu servers and Ubuntu containers.

When we asked Canonical about this, a spokesperson responded: “WPF is not currently supported in .NET 6 on Ubuntu. So, you’re correct that .NET 6 on Ubuntu is aimed at developers building text/server apps rather than graphical/GUI apps.”

We’ve also asked Microsoft if they have any additional information or details, and will update when they respond.

There are cross-platform graphical frameworks for .NET, including the open-source Avalonia and as well as Uno, which got on board in .NET 5. There is also Microsoft’s own Multi-platform App UI, or MAUI, which evolved out of Xamarin Forms.

The origins of .NET lie in Microsoft’s 1996 acquisition of Colusa Software for its OmniWare tool, which Colusa billed as “a universal substrate for web programming.” As Microsoft faced off against the US Department of Justice and European Commission, and the possibility of being broken into separate apps and OS divisions, it came up with Next Generation Windows Services, which then turned into .NET: a way to use Microsoft tools to build apps for any OS.

There is still controversy over exactly how open .NET really is, as exemplified by the aptly named isdotnetopen site. ®

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How cognitive science can be used to bring AI forward

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Dr Marie Postma spoke to SiliconRepublic.com about misconceptions around AI as well its relationship with human consciousness.

AI and robots are getting ‘smarter’ all the time. From Irish-made care robot Stevie to Spot the robot dog from Boston Dynamics, these tech helpers are popping up everywhere with a wide range of uses.

The tech beneath the hardware is getting smarter too. Earlier this year, Researchers at MIT developed a simpler way to teach robots new skills after only a few physical demonstrations. And just this week, Google revealed how its combining large language models with its parent company’s Everyday Robots to help them better understand humans.

However, the advances in these areas have led to recent discussions around the idea of sentient AI. While this idea has been largely rebuffed by the AI community, an understanding of the relationship between cognitive science and AI is an important one.

Dr Marie Postma is head of the department of cognitive science and artificial intelligence at Tilburg School of Humanities and Digital Sciences in the Netherlands.

The department is mainly financed by three education programmes and has around 100 staff and between 900 and 1,000 students.

‘Technology is not the problem; people are the problem’
– MARIE POSTMA

The team focuses on different research themes that combine cognitive science and AI, such as computational linguistics with a big focus on deep learning solutions, autonomous agents and robotics, and human-AI interaction, which is mainly focused on VR and its use in education.

Postma was a speaker at the latest edition of the Schools for Female Leadership in the Digital Age in Prague, run by Huawei’s European Leadership Academy.

Postma spoke to the 29 students about cognitive science and machine learning, starting with the history of AI and bringing it up to the modern-day challenges, such as how we can model trust in robots and the role empathy could play in AI.

“We have research where we are designing first-person games where people can experience the world from the perspective of an animal – not a very cuddly animal, it’s actually a beaver. That’s intentional,” she told me later that day.

Sentient AI

Her talk brought about a lot of discussion around AI and consciousness, a timely discussion following the news that Blake Lemione, a Google engineer, published an interview with the AI chatbot and claimed that it had become sentient.

Postma said much of the media coverage around this story had muddied the waters. “The way it was described in the media was more focused on the Turing test – interacting with an AI system that comes across as being human-like,” she said.

“But then at some point they mention consciousness, and consciousness is really a different story.”

Postma said that most people who research consciousness would agree that it’s based on a number of factors. Firstly it’s about having a perceptual basis, both the ability to perceive the world around us but also what’s happening inside us and being self-aware.

Secondly, the purpose of consciousness is being able to interpret yourself as someone who has feelings, needs, actionability in the world and a need to stay alive. “AI systems are not worried about staying alive, at least the way we construct them now, they don’t reflect on their battery life and think ‘oh no, I should go plug myself in’.”

Possibilities and limitations

While AI and robots don’t have consciousness, their ability to be programmed to a point where they can understand humans can be highly beneficial.

For example, Postma’s department has been conducting research that concerns brain-computer interaction, with a focus on motor imagery. “[This is] trying to create systems where the user, by focusing on their brain signal, can move objects in virtual reality or on computer screens using [electroencephalography].”

This has a lot of potential applications in the medical world for people who suffer from paralysis or in the advancements of prosthetic limbs.

Last year, researchers at Stanford University successfully implanted a brain-computer interface (BCI) capable of interpreting thoughts of handwriting in a 65-year-old man paralysed below the neck due to a spinal cord injury.

However, Postma said there is still a long way to go with this technology and it’s not just about the AI itself. “The issue with that is there are users who are able to do that and others who are not, and we don’t really know what the reasons are,” she said.

“There is some research that suggests that being able to do special rotation might be one of the factors but what we’re trying to discover is how we can actually train users so that they can use BCI.”

And in the interest of quelling any lingering fears around sentient AI, she also said people should not worry about this kind of technology being able to read their thoughts because the BCI is very rudimentary. “For the motor imagery BCI, it’s typically about directions, you know, right, left, etc.”

Other misconceptions about AI

Aside from exactly how smart the robots around us really are, one of the biggest falsehoods that Postma wants to correct is that the technology itself is not necessarily what causes the problems that surround it.

“What I repeat everywhere I go, is that the technology is not the problem, people are the problem. They’re the ones who create the technology solutions and use them in a certain way and who regulate them or don’t regulate them in a certain way,” she said.

“The bias in some AI solutions is not there because some AI solutions are biased, they’re biased because the data that’s used to create the solutions is biased so there is human bias going in.”

However, while bias in AI has been a major discussion topic for several years, Postma has an optimistic view on this, saying that these biased systems are actually helping to uncover biased data that would have previously been hidden behind human walls.

“It becomes explicit because all the rules are there, all the predictive features are there, even for deep learning architecture, we have techniques to simplify them and to uncover where the decision is made.”

While Postma is a major advocate for all the good AI can do, she is also concerned about how certain AI and data is used, particularly in how it can influence human decisions in politics.

“What Cambridge Analytica did – just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. And I don’t think they’re the only company that are doing that,” she said.

“I’m [also] concerned about algorithms that make things addictive, whether it’s social media or gaming, that really try to satisfy the user. I’m concerned about what it’s doing to kids.”

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‘I’m buying Manchester United’: Elon Musk ‘joke’ tweet charges debate over struggling club’s future | Elon Musk

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Tesla billionaire Elon Musk briefly electrified the debate about the future of Manchester United by claiming on Twitter that he is buying the struggling Premier League club – before saying that the post was part of a “long-running joke”.

He did not make clear his views on new coach Eric ten Hag’s controversial insistence on passing out from the back, or whether unhappy star striker Cristiano Ronaldo should be allowed to leave, but he did say that if he were to buy a sports team “it would be Man U. They were my fav team as a kid”.

With the team rooted to the bottom of the league after a humiliating 4-0 away defeat to Brentford, the outspoken entrepreneur’s tweet offered hope – however –briefly – to fans who want to see the back of current owners, the Florida-based Glazer family.

Also, I’m buying Manchester United ur welcome

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) August 17, 2022

Musk has a history of making irreverent tweets, and he later clarified the post by saying he was not buying sports teams.

No, this is a long-running joke on Twitter. I’m not buying any sports teams.

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) August 17, 2022

Buying United, one of the biggest football clubs in the world, would have cost Musk at least £2bn, according to its current stock market valuation.

Manchester United’s recent on-pitch woes have led to increased fan protests against the Glazers, who bought the club in a heavily leveraged deal in 2005 for £790m ($955.51m).

The anti-Glazer movement gained momentum last year after United were involved in a failed attempt to form a breakaway European Super League.

But a takeover by Musk would have been a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire for the club, given the billionaire’s tendency for off-the-cuff remarks and falling foul of market regulators.

Many were quick to point out that Musk had also promised to buy Twitter for $44bn before the deal collapsed in July, and has also boasted about colonising Mars and boosting birthrates on Earth.

That’s what you said about Twitter.

— Sema (@_SemaHernandez_) August 17, 2022

Fans responded with a mixture of bafflement and optimism given the lowly status of a club used to occupying the top places in the league rather than the bottom.

Manchester United did not immediately respond to a request for comment.



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