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UK criminal sanctions for tech bosses ‘could be copied by non-democracies’ | Technology

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Introducing criminal sanctions for tech executives in the online safety bill could be copied by non-democratic regimes, the industry has claimed before an influential report this week.

A joint committee of MPs and peers scrutinising the bill will publish its findings on Tuesday after the culture secretary promised to accelerate provisions for criminal liability for senior managers.

Nadine Dorries said it was “nonsense” that tech firms would be given a two-year grace period before criminal accountability is introduced. Instead, liability would be brought in within three to six months of the bill becoming law, she said.

In an example of the industry counter-offensive, the British trade body techUK said criminal sanctions could provide a “pretext” for non-democratic regimes to introduce punitive measures based on the legislation.

Antony Walker, the deputy chief executive of techUK, said: “There are examples around the world in non-democratic regimes where threats to senior executives have been used as a way to force companies in a way that suits a particular government. The UK has an opportunity to set an example whereby we don’t provide those pretexts for other regimes to simply say: ‘Well if the UK does it, that’s the gold standard. We’re going to do it too but then apply a somewhat different standard.’”

Twitter has issued a similar warning. Speaking to the joint committee in October, the social media company’s director of public policy strategy, Nick Pickles, said “hostage laws” – so called because they could be used to get at companies by pressuring staff members – could be adopted by illiberal regimes.

In its submission to the committee, Google said the criminal sanctions threat would encourage directors to remove content “at scale” rather than risk falling foul of the act.

Dorries told the committee that failure to tackle harmful algorithms – which tailor an internet user’s experience and could steer them down content “rabbit holes” – could result in charges being brought against executives. “Remove your harmful algorithms today and you will not be subjected – named individuals – to criminal liability and prosecution.”

Under the bill, senior managers face a fine or up to two years in jail if they fail to comply with “information requests” from Ofcom, the communications watchdog that will oversee it.

According to the draft bill, a criminal offence will be committed if an executive fails to comply with an information request from Ofcom, or if the response is materially false or encrypted.

Supporters of the bill believe the clauses are broad enough to force tech companies to follow the act closely. However, lawyers at Harbottle & Lewis said the government memo on the deferred powers was focused on information offences and they did not “see anything in the memo that suggests liability could extend to other breaches of the act”.

Dorries has said she will look at the committee’s recommendations “very seriously”, with several issues under debate including bringing fraudulent adverts under the scope of the bill and introducing tougher child protection measures such as stringent age verification.

The online safety bill applies to companies that host user-generated content, covering services from social media networks to video sharing sites. It places a duty of care on those companies to protect users from harmful content, or face substantial fines levied by Ofcom.

The duty of care is split into three parts: preventing the proliferation of illegal content and activity such as child abuse images, terrorist material and hate crimes such as racial abuse; ensuring children are not exposed to harmful or inappropriate content; and, for tech firms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, ensuring adults are protected from legal but harmful content.

The latter content category is to be defined by the culture secretary, after consultation with Ofcom, and then scrutinised by parliament before being enacted in secondary legislation.

A spokesperson for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport said: “We are bringing in proportionate regulation for tech companies to give them a legal duty to keep their customers safe, as firms have in other sectors. It is vital that the most senior tech bosses take their new responsibilities seriously, and our bill will underline that.”

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Exclusive or not, this is one Clubhouse I was happy to leave | John Naughton

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In March 2020, a new app suddenly arrived on the block. It was called Clubhouse and described as a “social audio” app that enabled its users to have real-time conversations in virtual “rooms” that could accommodate groups large and small. For a time in that disrupted, locked-down spring, Clubhouse was what Michael Lewis used to call the “New New Thing”. “The moment we saw it,” burbled Andrew Chen of the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, “we were deeply excited. We believe Clubhouse will be a meaningful addition to the world, one that increases empathy and provides new ways for people to talk to each other (at a time when we need it more than ever).”

The app could not have come at a better time for social media, he continued. “It reinvents the category in all the right ways, from the content consumption experience to the way people engage each other, while giving power to its creators.” His firm put $12m of its (investors’) money behind Chen’s fantasies and followed up a year later with an investment that put a valuation of $1bn on Clubhouse, which would have made it one of the “unicorns” so prized by the Silicon Valley crowd.

This endorsement by an ostensibly serious venture capital firm undoubtedly helped to boost the hype about Clubhouse, but the main drivers – snobbery and elitism – had little to do with funding. In the beginning, for example, the app was only available for the iPhone (the BMW of the smartphone market) and membership was by invitation only. If you were lucky enough to be invited, then you could pass on an invitation to one friend. A generous colleague of mine extended hers to me and I went about signing up, until I discovered that the app unconditionally demanded access to all the contacts on my phone, whereupon I deleted it, as did my embarrassed colleague some time later.

Other invitees were more accommodating, though, and for a time Clubhouse grew like crazy. It had 600,000 registered users by December 2020 and 8.1m downloads by February 2021. In April 2021, Twitter approached it with a view to acquiring it for $4bn, but nothing came of that. And sometime after that the air began to leak out of the Clubhouse balloon. After months in which much of the chatter was about (and on) the platform, we somehow moved to a point where nobody talks about it any more. Yet Clubhouse still exists, has 10 million users and has raised more than $10m from investors. But now, in a move that smacks of desperation, it’s allowing its US users to share a link to a “live” room that enables non-members to listen in (but not to talk). And the web is alive with pieces trying to explain Clubhouse’s decline.

So what happened? A conjunction of lots of different things, probably. The most important was that vaccination programmes led to an easing of the Covid lockdowns. People who were no longer having to work from home were out and about again, talking to friends and colleagues in person. But other factors were at work too. For example, the decision to open the app to Android users in May 2021 somewhat dented the iPhone “exclusivity” that drove growth in 2020.

And, as always happens when user-generated content balloons online, abusive and unpleasant conversations proliferated. Many of the virtual rooms turned out not to be about discourse but celebrity-puffing or scamming.

As one critic put it: “So many rooms that advertise themselves as hosting big celebrities and names in the worlds of business and entertainment … turn out to be scammers … impersonating celebrities or giving a vague Ted Talk about entrepreneurship from random people who have never … set foot in the industry. Other rooms are often cover-ups for scam businesses.

“A big issue on the app were rooms that claimed to invite people with startup ideas to share with their peers and exchange advice and strategies. The rooms’ hosts would then buy the domain names these startups were looking for and sell them back to them at much higher prices to make a profit.” Clubhouse rooms became, wrote another critic, “like a late-night talkshow where celebrities come together and speak about their family, achievements, passions and plans”.

So how should we view the Clubhouse story? In the long view of history, the app might look like a shooting star, an object of brief wonder that briefly mesmerised a world afflicted with tech-induced attention-deficit disorder. A more prosaic, but possible more realistic, view is that it was just a tech solution looking for a social problem to “solve”. In other words, a typical product of Silicon Valley.

What I’ve been reading

On message
I Didn’t Want It to Be True, But the Medium Really Is the Message is an interesting New York Times op-ed by Ezra Klein.

Ministry of the environment
The late, great James Lovelock outlined the Gaia theory in the article I Speak for the Earth, which is republished on the Resurgence website.

Desperately seeking Susan
Seriously Susan is a terrifically inventive review by Melinda Harvey of Benjamin Moser’s biography of Susan Sontag on the Sydney Review of Books website.

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AI laser probe for prostate cancer enters clinical trials • The Register

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AI software capable of mapping tumor tissue more accurately to help surgeons treat and shrink prostate cancer using a laser-powered needle will soon be tested in real patients during clinical trials.

The National Cancer Institute estimated that approximately 12.6 percent of men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer at some point in their life. The risk for developing the disease rises over time for men over the age of 50. It’s one of the most curable forms of cancer, considering most cases are caught in the early stages due to regular screening tests.

Treatment for prostate cancer varies depending on the severity of the disease. Patients can undergo hormone therapy, chemotherapy, or surgery to remove tissue. Avenda Health, a medical startup founded in 2017, is developing a new type of treatment that is less invasive. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted an investigational device exemption (IDE) to the company’s invention this week, meaning it can now be used in a clinical study. 

Patients will need to have an MRI scan and a targeted fusion biopsy performed first. The data is processed by Avenda’s AI algorithms in its iQuest software to map where the cancerous cells are located within the prostate. Next, the computer vision-aided model will simulate where best to insert FocalPoint, a probe armed with a laser, to help surgeons treat the patient’s tumor. The heat from the laser gently heats the cancerous cells and kills them with goal of shrinking and removing the whole tumor.

focal_point_iquest_avenda

MRI images where cancer is mapped using iQuest software before and after treatment. Image Credit: Avenda Health

“Historically, prostate cancer treatments of surgery or radiation impacts critical structures like the urethra and nerves which control sexual and urinary function,” Avenda’s CEO and co-founder Shyam Natarajan told The Register. “Our focal laser ablation system, FocalPoint, which is powered by our AI-driven cancer margin software, iQuest, specifically targets tumor tissue and avoids healthy tissue. This means patients no longer lose control over these functions that are so common with traditional treatments, so quality of life is significantly improved.”

The treatment is only effective for men diagnosed with intermediate risk of prostate cancer, a classification that describes tumors being confined within the prostate only. Patients are considered high risk in cases where the cancer has spread beyond the prostate. 

“This is one of the benefits of the iQuest software. Not only can it map the cancer, but it also provides decision support for the physician as they determine the best course of treatment for an individual patient. Not every patient is going to be eligible for focal therapy, and it is important for the physician to distinguish between good focal therapy candidates and not.  iQuest provides useful insights for that decision making process,”  Natarajan said.

Avenda received FDA clearance for its FocalPoint device in 2020. The IDE approval brings the company one step closer to bringing their product to market after clinical trial testing, Brittany Berry-Pusey, co-founder and COO of Avenda, said in a statement. 

“This clinical trial will play a key role in advancing our breakthrough technology to improve prostate cancer care. With no new FDA approvals for the treatment of localized prostate cancer in more than four decades, we look forward to working alongside our clinical sites to collect the data necessary to bring iQuest and FocalPoint to market and into the patient care environment.”

Natarajan told us the company was aiming to begin clinical trials in 2023. ®

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US offers $10m reward for info on five Conti ransomware members

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Rewards for Justice shared a photo of someone it claims to be an associate of the ransomware gang and is offering a reward to identify him and four others.

The US Department of State is offering a $10m reward for any information on five malicious cyber actors who are believed to be high-ranking members of the Conti ransomware gang.

The US has been offering rewards for information on this ransomware gang since May, including a $5m reward for any intel that leads to the arrest of anyone conspiring or attempting to participate in a Conti attack.

Yesterday (11 August), the department’s Rewards for Justice programme shared an alleged photo of an associate of the ransomware gang. The department said on Twitter that it is “trying to put a name to the face” and believes the individual is the hacker known as “Target”.

Illustration showing an image of a man with four figures next to it. A reward offer for information on the Conti ransomware gang.

A request for information by the Rewards for Justice programme. Image: US Department of State/Rewards for Justice

Conti, also known as Wizard Spider, has been linked to a group believed to be based near St Petersburg, Russia. The US has labelled it a “Russian government-linked ransomware-as-a-service (RaaS) group”.

The group’s malware is believed to be responsible for more than 1,000 ransomware operations targeting critical infrastructure around the world, from law enforcement agencies to emergency medical services and dispatch centres.

In May 2021, the Conti group was behind the HSE ransomware incident that saw more than 80pc of the IT infrastructure of healthcare services across Ireland impacted. It was said to be the most serious cyberattack ever to hit the State’s critical infrastructure.

The US Department of State previously said the Conti ransomware variant is the “costliest strain of ransomware” ever documented. The FBI estimates that, as of January 2022, there had been more than 1,000 victims of attacks associated with Conti ransomware, with victim payouts exceeding $150m.

When Russia began its invasion of Ukraine earlier this year, the Conti group declared its allegiance to the Russian government. Shortly after, a Ukrainian researcher took the cybersecurity world by storm after publishing more than 60,000 internal messages of the ransomware gang.

Raj Samani, chief scientist at cybersecurity firm Rapid7, said the latest reward offer is just “the tip of the iceberg as enforcement agencies make “considerable strides” through public-private collaboration to hold cybercriminals to account.

“Announcing a reward and revealing the details of Conti members sends a message to would-be criminals that cybercrime is anything but risk-free,” said Samani.

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