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Apple didn’t engage with the infosec world on CSAM scanning – so get used to a slow drip feed of revelations • The Register

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Apple’s system to scan iCloud-bound photos on iOS devices to find illegal child sexual abuse material (CSAM) is supposed to ship in iOS 15 later this year.

However, the NeuralHash machine-learning model involved in that process appears to have been present on iOS devices at least since the December 14, 2020 release of iOS 14.3. It has been adapted to run on macOS 11.3 or later using the API in Apple’s Vision framework. And thus exposed to the world, it has been probed by the curious.

In the wake of Apple’s initial child safety announcement two weeks ago, several developers have explored Apple’s private NeuralHash API and provided a Python script to convert the model into a convenient format – the Open Neural Network Exchange (ONNX) – for experimentation.

On Wednesday, Intel Labs research scientist Cory Cornelius used these resources to create a hash collision – two different images that, when processed by the algorithm, produce the same NeuralHash identifier.

That’s expected behavior from perceptual hashing, which is designed to compute the same identifier for similar images – the idea is that one shouldn’t be able to, say, convert a CSAM image from color to grayscale to evade hash-based detection.

This raised the possibility of ‘poisoned’ images that looked harmless, but triggered as child sexual abuse media

As Apple explains in its technical summary [PDF], “Only another image that appears nearly identical can produce the same number; for example, images that differ in size or transcoded quality will still have the same NeuralHash value.”

But in this instance, the matching hashes come from completely dissimilar images – a beagle and a variegated gray square. And that finding amplifies ongoing concern that Apple’s child safety technology may be abused to cause inadvertent harm. For instance, by giving someone an innocent image that is wrongly flagged up as CSAM.

Apple has said there’s less than “an extremely low (1 in 1 trillion) probability of incorrectly flagging a given account,” but as Matthew Green, associate professor of computer science at Johns Hopkins, observed via Twitter, Apple’s statistics don’t cover the possibility of “deliberately-constructed false positives.”

“It was always fairly obvious that in a perceptual hash function like Apple’s, there were going to be ‘collisions’ — very different images that produced the same hash,” said Green in reference to the collision demo. “This raised the possibility of ‘poisoned’ images that looked harmless, but triggered as child sexual abuse media.”

Jonathan Mayer, assistant professor of computer science and public affairs at Princeton University, told The Register that this does not mean that Apple’s NeuralHash image matching scheme is broken.

“That would be a reasonable response if NeuralHash were a cryptographic hash function,” explained Mayer. “But it’s a perceptual hash function, with very different properties.”

With cryptographic hash functions, he said, you’re not supposed to be able to find two inputs with the same output. The formal term for that is “second-preimage resistance.”

“With a perceptual hash function, by comparison, a small change to the input is supposed to produce the same output,” said Mayer. “These functions are designed specifically not to have second-preimage resistance.”

Mayer said while he worries the collision proof-of-concept will provoke an overreaction, he’s nonetheless concerned. “There is a real security risk here,” he said.

Of greatest concern, he said, is an adversarial machine-learning attack that generates images that match CSAM hashes and appear to be possible CSAM during Apple’s review process. Apple, he said, can defend against these attacks and, in fact, describes some planned mitigations in its documentation.

Apple, said Mayer, “has both a technical mitigation (running a separate, undisclosed server-side perceptual hash function to check for a match) and a process mitigation (human review),” he explained. “Those mitigations have limits, and they still expose some content, but Apple has clearly thought about this issue.”

“I’m less concerned about the attack than some observers, because it presupposes access to known CSAM hashes,” said Mayer. “And the most direct way to get those hashes is from source images. So it presupposes an attacker committing a very serious federal felony.”

Mayer’s objections have more to do with the way Apple handled its child safety announcement, which even the company itself was forced to concede has led to misunderstandings.

“I find it mind boggling that Apple wasn’t prepared to discuss this risk, like so many other risks surrounding its new system,” said Mayer. “Apple hasn’t seriously engaged with the information security community, so we’re going to have a slow drip of concerning developments like this, with little context for understanding.”

The Register asked Apple to comment, but we expect to hear nothing.

Cupertino comeback

Apple, aware of these developments, reportedly held a call for the press in which the company downplayed the hash collision and cited safeguards like the operating system’s code signing to guarantee the integrity of the NeuralHash model, human review, and redundant algorithmic check that runs server-side.

Nonetheless, AsuharietYgvar, the pseudonymous individual who made the NeuralHash model available in ONYX format, and asked to be identified as “an average concerned citizen,” expressed concern that Apple was misinforming the public and skepticism about the supposed server-side check.

This is highly questionable because it adds a black box in the detection process, which no one can perform security audits on

“If their claim was true, the collision would appear to no longer be a problem since it’s impossible to retrieve the algorithm they are using on the servers,” said AsuharietYgvar in a message to The Register. “However, this is highly questionable because it adds a black box in the detection process, which no one can perform security audits on.

“We already know that NeuralHash is not as robust as Apple claimed. Who can believe their secret, non-audited secondary check will be better? Considering that Apple already described their NeuralHash and Private Set Intersection algorithms in detail, it’s ironic that eventually they decided to keep the integral parts in secret to combat security researchers. And if I did not make their NeuralHash public, we will never know that the algorithm is that easy to defeat.”

“Another real problem is that this system can be easily worked around to store CSAM materials without being detected,” AsuharietYgvar continued. “Since the NeuralHash model is public now it’s trivial to implement an algorithm which completely changes the hash without introducing visible difference. This will make those materials easily pass the initial on-device check.

“I believe what I did was a firm step against mass surveillance, but certainly this will not be enough. We cannot let Apple’s famous 1984 ad become a reality. At least not without a fight.” ®



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Crypto is starting to lose its cool – just look at El Salvador | Rowan Moore

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To its evangelists, bitcoin is a frictionless, empowering form of money that liberates citizens of the world from the shackles of banks and national governments. To sceptics, the cryptocurrency is a tool of kleptocrats and gangsters, environmentally monstrous in its consumption of energy, a digitally glamorised Ponzi scheme whose eventual crash will most hurt those least able to afford a loss.

Confidence may or may not have been enhanced by the unveiling, by President Nayib Bukele, of images of a proposed bitcoin-shaped Bitcoin City in El Salvador, funded with a bitcoin bond, the currency’s logo embedded in the central plaza, a metropolis powered with geothermal energy from a nearby volcano. Bukele, the self-styled “coolest dictator in the world”, a former publicist who wears baseball caps back to front, has already made El Salvador the first country to adopt bitcoin as the official currency. “The plan is simple,” he said. “As the world falls into tyranny, we’ll create a haven for freedom.”

Leaving aside the worrisome Pompeii vibe of the city’s location, some shine has come off the president’s vision with the news that the country’s investments in cryptocurrency have lost 45% of their value, that it scores CCC with the credit rating agency Fitch, and that the perceived risk of its bonds is up there with that of war-torn Ukraine. And Bukele’s talk of freedom doesn’t sit well with Amnesty International’s claim that his recent state of emergency has created “a perfect storm of human rights violations”.

But why worry about any of this when you have shiny computer-generated images of a fantasy city to distract you?

Unsecured credit line

Boris Johnson waves his arms behind a podium with the Elizabeth line sign.
The Mayor of London Sadiq Khan looks on as Boris Johnson gives a speech at Paddington station on 17 May 2022. Photograph: Reuters

The use of constructional bluster by populist leaders – Trump’s wall, for example – is not in itself anything new. See also the island airport, garden bridge, Irish Sea bridge, 40 new hospitals and 300,000 homes a year promised but not delivered by Boris Johnson, and the nuclear power stations he has implausibly pledged to build at a rate of one a year.

Last week his fondness for Potemkin infrastructure took a new twist. Rather than over-promise illusory schemes and under-deliver them, he decided to take credit for something actually built, the £19bn Elizabeth line in London, formerly known as Crossrail, whose central section opens to the public on Tuesday. “We get the big things done,” he boasted to the House of Commons, choosing to ignore the fact that the line was initiated under a Labour prime minister and a Labour mayor of London. He almost makes Nayib Bukele look credible.

Behind the red wall

Characters from The House of Shades gather around a table on stage
Mounting misery: The House of Shades. Photograph: Helen Murray

If you want a light-hearted night out – a date, a birthday treat – then The House of Shades, a new play by Beth Steel, might not, unless you are an unusual person, be for you. It is a cross between Greek tragedy and what was once called kitchen sink drama, a story of ever-mounting misery set in a Nottinghamshire town from 1965 to 2019. It covers the collapse of manufacturing, the rise of Thatcherism, the promises of New Labour and the disillusionment that led to “red wall” seats voting Conservative in 2019.

It features illegal abortion, graphically portrayed, and the effects of inflation, both newly significant. All presented at the Almeida theatre in the famously metropolitan London borough of Islington, not far from the former restaurant where Tony Blair and Gordon Brown did the 1994 deal that shaped some of the events in the play. There’s irony here to make this audience squirm. Which, along with several other not-comfortable emotions, is probably the desired effect.

Rowan Moore is the Observer’s architecture correspondent

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Lonestar plans to put datacenters in the Moon’s lava tubes • The Register

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Imagine a future where racks of computer servers hum quietly in darkness below the surface of the Moon.

Here is where some of the most important data is stored, to be left untouched for as long as can be. The idea sounds like something from science-fiction, but one startup that recently emerged from stealth is trying to turn it into a reality. Lonestar Data Holdings has a unique mission unlike any other cloud provider: to build datacenters on the Moon backing up the world’s data.

“It’s inconceivable to me that we are keeping our most precious assets, our knowledge and our data, on Earth, where we’re setting off bombs and burning things,” Christopher Stott, founder and CEO of Lonestar, told The Register. “We need to put our assets in place off our planet, where we can keep it safe.”

Stott said Lonestar’s efforts to build a data storage facility in space are a bit like trying to preserve all of the world’s seeds in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, located on the Norwegian Arctic island ofSpitsbergen. But instead of trying to protect crop diversity, the upstart wants to safeguard human knowledge. 

“If we don’t do this, what will happen to our data on Earth?,” he asked. “The seed bank flooded due to effects of climate change. It’s also susceptible to other forms of destruction like war or cyber attacks. We need to have somewhere we can keep our data safe.” Lonestar has its sights set on the Moon.

One side of our bigger natural satellite is tidally locked and constantly faces Earth, meaning it would be possible to set up a constant, direct line-of-sight communication between devices on the Moon and our planet.

Lonestar is currently closing its $5m seed round from investors like Seldor Capital and 2 Future Holding. To raise more money, it’ll have to prove its technology is feasible and will start with small demos on commercial lunar payloads. Last month, it announced it had signed contracts to launch prototype demonstrations of its software and hardware capabilities aboard two lunar landers with NASA-funded aerospace biz Intuitive Machines.

Under the space agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, Intuitive Machines will, after some delay, send its Nova-C lander to the Moon for its first mission, dubbed IM-1, at the end of 2022. Lonestar will run a software-only test, storing a small bit of data on the lander’s hardware. IM-1 is expected to last one lunar day, an equivalent of two weeks on Earth. 

The second launch, IM-2, is more ambitious. Intuitive Machines plans to send another Nova-C lander to the Moon’s South Pole carrying various bits of equipment, including NASA’s PRIME-1 drill for ice and a spectrometer as well as Lonestar’s first hardware prototype: a one-kilogram storage device, the size of a hardback novel, with 16 terabytes of memory. IM-2’s is expected to launch in 2023.

Robots and lava tubes

The tiny proof-of-concept datacenter will be storing immutable data for Lonestar’s early beta of its so-called Disaster Recovery as a Service (DRaaS), Stott told us. “[We will be] performing upload and download tests (think refresh and restore of data), and performing edge processing tests of apps as well. It will be running Ubuntu.” The company is still in the process of determining bandwidth rates, and has secured permissions to transmit data to the Moon and back to Earth in the S, X, and Ka-Bands in the radio spectrum.

Lonestar’s opportunity to test its technology on the Moon for the first time will depend on whether Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C landers successfully make it to the lunar surface in one piece. Soft landings on the Moon are notoriously difficult; numerous endeavors from the Soviets and the US in the Sixties have ended in failure. The last two attempts that ended badly were in 2019, when Israel’s SpaceIL and India’s National Space agency’s respectively crashed their Beresheet and Chandrayaan-2 lunar landers.

The strong gravitational pull of the Moon and its very thin atmosphere means the speeds at which spacecraft approach the surface have to be considerably slowed in a short amount of time to land gently. Nailing the landing process is key to lunar exploration, whether it’s sending robotic spacecraft or a crew of astronauts. 

“Our turnkey solution for delivering, communicating, and commanding customer payloads on and around the Moon is revolutionary,” Intuitive’s president and CEO, Steve Altemus, told us in a statement. “Adding Lonestar Data Holdings and other commercial payloads to our lunar missions are critical steps toward Intuitive Machines creating and defining the lunar economy.”

The path from a book-sized prototype to real fully fledged cloud storage datacenters, however, is handwavy. Stott said Lonestar has plans for future missions to launch servers capable of holding five petabytes of data in 2024, and 50 petabytes of data by 2026. By then, he hopes the datacenter will be able to host data traffic to and from the Moon at rates of 15 Gigabits per second – much faster than home internet broadband speeds – beamed from a series of antennas. 

If the company is to continue scaling and storing data long-term, it’ll have to figure out how to protect its datacenters from cosmic radiation and deal with the Moon’s fluctuating surface temperatures, which can go from a scorching 222.8°F (106°C) during the day to a -297.4°F (-183°C) at night.

Stott has an answer for that: nestle the datacenters in lunar lava tubes, cavernous pits bored below the surface of the Moon by the flow of ancient basaltic lava. Inside these pits, the temperature will be steadier and the servers will be better shielded from harmful electromagnetic rays.

And how will the Lonestar get them down there? “Robots… lots of robots,” Stott said. ®

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Here are the Royal Irish Academy’s newest members from STEM

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14 of the 29 new members being welcomed by the Royal Irish Academy this year are from STEM. We take a quick look at what they do.

Every year, the Royal Irish Academy admits new members to its prestigious roster of researchers from across the island of Ireland for their exceptional contributions to the sciences, humanities, social sciences and public service.

This year, the 236-year-old institution has elected 29 new members from universities and bodies across Ireland, officially welcoming 24 of them at its Admittance Day event held in Dublin today (20 May).

Future Human

“We are immensely proud of these 29 new members who we are recognising today for their scholarly achievements, their research and international distinction or for significant contributions to Irish society,” said Dr Mary Canning, president of the Royal Irish Academy.

“As new members of the Academy, they will contribute to and strengthen our capacity to provide expert advice on higher education and research policy.”

Here we take a quick look at 14 new members who have a background in STEM-related fields.

Linda Doyle, TCD

Doyle made history by becoming the first woman provost of Trinity College Dublin in its 429-year history last year. Before that she was a professor of engineering and the arts at Trinity and the university’s dean of research from 2018.

Geraldine Boylan, UCC

A former Science Foundation Ireland Researcher of the Year, Boylan is the director of the Infant research centre for maternal and child health research and professor of neonatal physiology at University College Cork.

Mary Cannon, RCSI

Cannon is a consultant psychiatrist and professor of psychiatric epidemiology and youth mental health at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. She is a leading researcher in the area of youth mental health and childhood and adolescent risk factors for mental illness.

Rónadh Cox, Williams College

One of this year’s five honorary members, Cox is the Brust Professor of Geology and Mineralogy at Williams College, Massachusetts. She is prominent internationally within the coastal erosion and geomorphology community.

Marie Donnelly, Climate Change Advisory Council

Donnelly is the only new member in this list not associated with any university. Instead, she is the chair of the Climate Change Advisory Council. She previously worked with the European Commission for three decades.

Gary Donohoe, NUI Galway

A professor of psychology at NUI Galway, Donohoe is an internationally known researcher in the cognitive neuroscience and mental health space. His work focuses on understanding and treating factors relevant to social and occupational function.

Fiona Doohan, UCD

Doohan is a professor of plant health at University College Dublin’s School of Biology and Environmental Science. She is one of the co-founders of agricultural sustainability company CropBiome, which is one of the many high-potential start-ups backed by Enterprise Ireland.

David Jones, QUB

A professor of pharmaceutical and biomaterial engineering at Queen’s University Belfast, Jones is an internationally recognised researcher in polymer-based implanted medical devices and enhanced pharmaceutical dosage forms.

Patricia Kearney, UCC

Kearney is a professor of epidemiology in the School of Public Health at UCC. A recognised clinical triallist, her research focuses on population health and health services.

Mairead Kiely, UCC

Another researcher working in the area of health, Kiely is a professor of human nutrition at UCC. Her research focuses macronutrients, particularly vitamin D, and their impact on health and child development.

Hannah McGee, RCSI

McGee is the deputy vice-chancellor for academic affairs at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and a scholar in psychology. A former president of the European Health Psychology Society, she was also appointed as the deputy chair of Ireland’s National Research Ethics Committee for Covid-19.

James P O’Gara, NUI Galway

A professor of microbiology at NUI Galway, O’Gara’s research focuses on the mechanisms underpinning biofilm production and antimicrobial resistance in staphylococci, including MRSA.

Stefan Oscarson, UCD

Oscarson is a professor of chemical biology at UCD and an internationally known researcher in the field of carbohydrate chemistry. His synthetic work underpins the development of drug and vaccine candidates against various infectious diseases.

Patrick Wyse Jackson, TCD

Curator of the Geology Museum based in Trinity College Dublin, Jackson is also a professor of geology at the university. He is an expert on the history of Irish geology and his research focuses on fossil bryozoans – a large phylum of invertebrate animals.

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