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How a hi-tech search for Genghis Khan is helping polar bears | Endangered species

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Genghis Khan got his dying wish: despite attempts by archaeologists and scientists to find the Mongolian ruler’s final resting place, the location remains a secret 800 years after his death. The search for his tomb, though, has inspired an innovative project that could help protect polar bears.

“I randomly tuned into the radio one night and heard an expert talking about the use of synthetic aperture radar [SAR] to look for Genghis Khan’s tomb,” says Tom Smith, associate professor in plant and wildlife sciences at Brigham Young University (BYU) in Utah. “They were using SAR to penetrate layers of forest canopy in upper Mongolia, looking for the ruins of a burial structure.”

Talking to engineers, including BYU’s Dr David Long, Smith learned that SAR is used by the military to detect enemy camps, tanks and vehicles hidden beneath camouflage and is being studied as a potential tool for finding avalanche survivors. He and the team at Polar Bears International (PBI) had been looking for a technology to detect polar bear dens. “It was very serendipitous that I heard that broadcast,” says Smith.

Researchers in a specially adapted plane search for simulated bear dens in a study in Utah.
Researchers search for simulated polar bear dens in a specially adapted plane, in a study in Utah. Photograph: Kt Miller/Polar Bears International

Successful pilot tests using SAR to find simulated polar bear dens took place in Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay in 2014 and 2015. The project was resurrected with trials in March 2021 on a snowy mountain plateau in Utah’s Manti-La Sal national forest. A SAR device was fitted to a Cessna O-2A Skymaster that flew 3,000ft (900 metres) over PBI researchers and BYU students digging dens a metre under the snow. With a lack of polar bears in Utah, students crawled inside to act as targets, or laid out simulated bears made from cardboard and tinfoil.

Building dens is a critical period for polar bears. For months, vulnerable cubs rely on their mother’s milk and the safety of the den to survive. As polar bears are driven further inland by receding sea ice, denning areas and oil and gas activity increasingly overlap. Disturbances can push fearful mothers to abandon their dens. The chances of survival for the weak and undeveloped cubs prematurely out on the snow and ice, are drastically reduced.

With fewer than 26,000 polar bears thought to be left globally and an estimated decline of 40% in some populations, such as the southern Beaufort Sea, every den and bear counts.

Getting reliable data on denning sites is vital. “The Arctic national wildlife refuge is the perfect example,” says BJ Kirschhoffer, PBI’s director of field operations, who led the latest tests in Utah. “Industry wants to go in and pump oil. If we have a tool that definitively says exactly where polar bear dens are, that means keeping people away from those places. If we want bears, we need baby bears, so we’ve got to protect those dens.”

SAR detects objects by sending pulses of radio waves; sensors pick up the echo or “bounce” to map an area. The aim is to find the right frequency, a sweet spot, that can penetrate snow but still detect a bear.

The current technology for detecting dens, forward-looking infrared (FLIR), which detects heat, is less than 50% effective. Smith likens it to a “divining rod”.

Polar bear cubs looking out of a den in Wapusk national park near Churchill, in Manitoba province, Canada.
Polar bear cubs looking out of a den in Wapusk national park near Churchill, in Manitoba province, Canada. Photograph: Thorsten Milse/Alamy

SAR gives a wider sweep and radar data provides specific locations, rather than just an image. It works in adverse conditions, whereas wind, snow, ice and fog can render FLIR useless. “We’d spend days out on the tundra at 40 degrees below zero, looking where FLIR said there was a den and there was nothing,” Smith says. “We had a very personal stake in finding better technology.”

Recent SAR tests look promising – the radar could see the students and simulated bears. Next, the technology is likely to be tested on real polar bear dens in Canada or Norway.

There are also hopes it could soon be possible to do polar bear surveys from satellites in space. “A satellite going over the Arctic, giving an idea of polar bear numbers and movements, would be transformative,” says Geoff York, PBI’s senior director of conservation. “Radar engineers we work with at BYU say the technology exists. In the next decade, we could see that shift. It would be a massive gamechanger.”

A ‘burr tag’ designed to stick to a bear’s fur as an alternative to using collars, ear tags or implants to track polar bears.
A ‘burr tag’ designed to stick to a bear’s fur as an alternative to using collars, ear tags or implants to track polar bears. Photograph: Polar Bears International

Other projects to monitor polar bear movements across the Arctic include “burr on fur” temporary tracking devices. PBI has worked with 3M, the company behind Post-it notes, to develop small bioplastic triangles with coiled bristles that stick to a polar bear’s fur, like a burr, along with a medical-grade adhesive. Burrs are smaller and easier to attach than collars, and less invasive than ear tags or implants, which require surgery. They can cope with extreme cold, snow, ice, saltwater and a polar bear’s rough lifestyle. By the time the polar bear moults and the tag comes off with its hair, the data has already been collected via satellite.

Tags were applied to five wild bears in western Hudson Bay, in Canada’s Manitoba province in November 2020, with plans to tag more, possibly in Greenland and Nunavut, northern Canada, when Covid restrictions allow. “Being able to monitor polar bears matters a lot,” says York. “Historically, we only have movement data from female polar bears, as radio collars slip off adult males’ thicker necks. We don’t know how adult males or sub-adults use habitats. As sea ice changes in the Arctic, we need a better understanding of what’s using which habitat, so we can model the potential impacts.”

Technology to understand what goes on inside dens has also improved from the days of researchers sitting out on the ice to watch the bears. PBI uses remote-controlled cameras fixed outside dens and is working with an artificial-intelligence specialist at San Diego zoo to produce cameras that can detect targets and follow their movement. “To argue that someone’s disturbed a polar bear den, you need to know what normal denning behaviour is,” says Kirschhoffer. “The more we know, the more we can protect polar bears.”

PBI also trialled an early-warning radar system last year in Churchill, Manitoba. “Human and polar bear conflict is a growing issue around the Arctic,” says York. “As sea ice melts more quickly, polar bears spend longer times ashore and come closer to communities. It’s happening in Russia, Canada … Bears have attacked people or damaged property. But in polar bear-human conflict, it’s the polar bear that often loses its life.”

A polar bear and her cub off Svalbard, Norway. Polar bears are driven farther inland as global heating melts sea ice faster, increasing the chances of conflict with humans.
A polar bear and her cub off Svalbard, Norway. Polar bears are driven farther inland as global heating melts sea ice faster, increasing the chances of conflict with humans. Photograph: Kt Miller/Polar Bears International

The SpotterRF compact surveillance radar system is used by the US military to warn of enemy intruders, drones and vehicles. “It’s highly mobile and detects everything around you at 360 degrees,” says York. “If there’s any movement, it tells you where it is and tracks it. Anything we can do to keep polar bears and people safe is a good move. The tech’s great because it’s 24/7 and sees through darkness, snow and fog.”

The early-warning radar system is ready to be used to monitor polar bears, with Norway’s Svalbard archipelago or Churchill likely options. It sends an alert to a person, so they could issue a warning. But there are also plans to use the radar to trigger a deterrent, such as strobe lighting or a noise, to steer bears away.

The system’s most interesting innovation is artificial intelligence. “We’ve focused on training radar detection’s AI,” says York. “From all these things we’re detecting, what’s a person? What’s a tundra buggy? What’s grass blowing? What’s a polar bear? It’s not using imagery. It’s using quantitative data from the radar to determine what’s what. Over the season, we had 130 polar bear targets and it got us accuracies in the high 90-percentile range.”

Researchers set up a camera to monitor a den. Artificial intelligence is now used to find a bear among all the images captured.
Researchers set up a camera to monitor a den. Artificial intelligence is now used to find bears among all the images captured. Photograph: Kt Miller/Polar Bears International

AI’s potential is exciting conservationists. “With tech, we’re able to gather massive amounts of information, but how do we find the data we want? How do you filter it to make sure it doesn’t care about snowmobiles, but you see the one polar bear that walks across the screen?” says Kirschhoffer. “AI’s the key to all that stuff, for radar, SAR and cameras. AI can give us more ‘intelligent’ data.”

These are desperate measures for desperate times. “If we were doing our jobs collectively and caring for our planet, there wouldn’t need to be all these hi-tech solutions,” admits York.

Two-thirds of the world’s polar bears could be lost by the end of the century. Disappearing sea ice, caused by the climate crisis, is their greatest threat. “All the tech tools we’re using are stopgaps to help protect the animals we have,” says Kirschhoffer.

“But ultimately the solution isn’t any of this tech; it’s getting people to change their behaviour, to live more sustainably and reduce their carbon footprint, and maybe pushing tech to find more efficient ways to live on this planet. That’s the tech we need most: carbon capture, more efficiencies, electric cars, whatever reduces our impact on the planet.”

PBI’s BJ Kirschhoffer at an Alaska den study.
A PBI den study in Alaska. ‘If we want bears in future, we need baby bears, so we’ve got to protect those dens,’ says BJ Kirschhoffer. Photograph: Polar Bears International

Whether we will be able to change our behaviour and how much we will rely on tech solutions to help tackle the climate crisis is hard to predict. “Covid’s been an interesting example,” says Kirschhoffer. “Who would’ve thought you can crank out a vaccine in a year to solve Covid? I have great faith we can solve the climate problem. We just need to buckle down and make it happen.”

Find more age of extinction coverage here, and follow our biodiversity reporters Phoebe Weston and Patrick Greenfield on Twitter for all the latest news and features



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Nvidia’s Arm deal faces another blow, this time from the US FTC

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The US Federal Trade Commission wants to block Nvidia’s Arm takeover as it believes the combined company will stifle competition.

Nvidia’s contentious acquisition of UK chip designer Arm continues to face roadblocks as the US Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) is suing Nvidia to block the deal.

The acquisition, which is now valued at $54bn, has been fighting an uphill battle since it was first announced more than a year ago, first from the UK’s competition watchdog in January 2021 and then from the EU.

Now, the FTC wants to block the acquisition. In a statement, the FTC said Arm’s technology is a critical input that enables competition between Nvidia and its competitors in several markets.

Therefore, it believes the proposed merger would give Nvidia the ability and incentive to use its control of this technology to undermine its competitors, reducing competition and ultimately resulting in reduced product quality, reduced innovation, higher prices and less choice.

The FTC’s bureau of competition director, Holly Vedova, said the proposed deal would allow the combined company to stifle the innovation pipeline for next-generation technologies.

“Tomorrow’s technologies depend on preserving today’s competitive, cutting-edge chip markets. This proposed deal would distort Arm’s incentives in chip markets and allow the combined firm to unfairly undermine Nvidia’s rivals,” she said.

“The FTC’s lawsuit should send a strong signal that we will act aggressively to protect our critical infrastructure markets from illegal vertical mergers that have far-reaching and damaging effects on future innovations.”

Opposition from all sides

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) in the UK raised similar concerns in August when it said the deal would require an in-depth investigation.

“We’re concerned that Nvidia controlling Arm could create real problems for Nvidia’s rivals by limiting their access to key technologies, and ultimately stifling innovation across a number of important and growing markets,” said Andrea Coscelli, chief executive of the CMA.

In October, Nvidia’s planned purchase hit another roadblock from the European Commission launching an in-depth antitrust investigation into the deal at the end of October, with a decision expected by 15 March 2022.

“While Arm and Nvidia do not directly compete, Arm’s IP is an important input in products competing with those of Nvidia, for example in data centres, automotive and internet of things,” said executive vice-president Margrethe Vestager, who is responsible for competition policy.

“Our analysis shows that the acquisition of Arm by Nvidia could lead to restricted or degraded access to Arm’s IP, with distortive effects in many markets where semiconductors are used.”

Despite opposition from several watchdogs, Nvidia has been confident the deal will go through.

“Although some Arm licensees have expressed concerns or objected to the transaction, and discussions with regulators are taking longer than initially thought, we are confident in the deal and that regulators should recognise the benefits of the acquisition to Arm, its licensees and the industry,” Nvidia CFO Colette Kress said earlier this year.

And in a letter to the Financial Times a month after the deal was first announced, Nvidia founder and CEO Jensen Huang said the company will maintain Arm’s open licensing model. “We have no intention to ‘throttle’ or ‘deny’ Arm’s supply to any customer.”

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UK government’s risk planning is weak and secretive, says Lords report | Politics

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Assessment and planning by the government relating to risks facing the UK are deficient and “veiled in secrecy”, a report has found.

The 129-page report, entitled Preparing for Extreme Risks: Building a Resilient Society, was produced by the House of Lords select committee on risk assessment and risk planning – a group appointed in October 2020.

James Arbuthnot, chair of the committee, said that while the UK’s risk assessment processes had been praised across the world before the pandemic, the impact of Covid suggested there may be problems.

“It had been advised that if there were to be a coronavirus pandemic, as a country we would suffer up to 100 deaths,” he said. “Over 140,000 deaths later, we realised that we could perhaps have been doing rather better in our assessment and our planning.”

The report – which draws on sources including oral evidence from 85 witnesses, including from the chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, during 29 sessions – looked at the country’s approach to assessing and preparing for a wide range of risks, from chemical warfare to the climate crisis and severe space weather.

“If you ask, what keeps me awake at nights, it is the growing possibility of major disruption due to more and more frequent cyber-attacks,” said Lord Rees, a committee member. “And even more, I worry on a timescale of tens of years about bioterrorism, bioengineered viruses and all that, which are going to be feasible.”

The report’s conclusions point to a number of shortcomings. Among them the committee highlighted a tendency for the government to focus on immediate problems rather than preparing for the long term.

“The likelihood of major risks actually occurring during the term of the government is low,” said committee member Lord Mair, noting as a result there is no incentive to prepare for them.

The committee also flagged concerns over the National Risk Register and the National Security Risk Assessment (NSRA), and called for better processes to categorise risks, including looking at how vulnerable the country would be to certain threats, and better modelling of how risks can cascade – with Arbuthnot noting as an example the impact of Covid on school exams.

Among other issues the report criticised a lack of transparency by the government. “The current risk management system is veiled in an unacceptable and unnecessary level of secrecy,” the report noted, adding that in turn has hampered the country’s preparedness, with frontline responders including local government and volunteer groups struggling to access the information they need.

It is not the first time the government has been accused of secrecy over risk assessment and planning: a report on Exercise Cygnus, the 2016 government simulation of how the country would handle a fictitious “swan flu”pandemic was only made public after a copy was leaked to the Guardian.

Among other actions, the latest report recommends:

  • The establishment of an Office for Preparedness and Resilience by the government, headed by a newly created post of government chief risk officer.

  • A presumption of publication by the government, and the publication of the content of the Official-Sensitive National Security Risk Assessment except where there is a direct national security risk.

  • The publication, every two years, by the government of a brochure on risk preparedness to inform the public on topics including what to do in an emergency.

“[It’s] much better to face some of these issues, having prepared for, and practised for, and exercised for them in advance rather than doing them first in the heat of battle,” said Arbuthnot

Arbuthnot added the Covid pandemic had offered the chance to “address a public that is ready to be addressed. And people have proved that they’re up to it.”

Prof David Spiegelhalter, chair of the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication at Cambridge University, and who contributed evidence to the report, welcomed its publication.

“It’s extraordinary that the National Risk Register does not get any public promotion or media coverage, and I welcome the committee’s recommendation to radically improve the communication with the public about the risks they face,” he said. “These vital issues deserve to be widely known and discussed.”

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Ubiquiti dev charged with data-breaching own employer • The Register

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A Ubiquiti developer has been charged with stealing data from the company and extortion attempts totalling $2m in what prosecutors claim was a vicious campaign to harm the firm’s share price – including allegedly planting fake press stories about the breaches.

US federal prosecutors claimed that 36-year-old Nickolas Sharp had used his “access as a trusted insider” to steal data from his employer’s AWS and GitHub instances before “posing as an anonymous hacker” to send a ransom demand of 50 Bitcoins.

The DoJ statement does not mention Sharp’s employer by name, but a Linkedin account in Sharp’s name says he worked for Ubiquiti as a cloud lead between August 2018 and March 2021, having previously worked for Amazon as a software development engineer.

In an eyebrow-raising indictment [PDF, 19 pages, non-searchable] prosecutors claim Sharp not only pwned his employer’s business from the inside but joined internal damage control efforts, and allegedly posed as a concerned whistleblower to make false claims about the company wrongly downplaying the attack’s severity, wiping $4bn off its market capitalisation.

Criminal charges were filed overnight in an American federal court against Sharp, of Portland, Oregon. The indictment valued the 50 Bitcoins at $1.9m “based on the prevailing exchange rate at the time.”

US attorney Damian Williams said in a US Justice Department statement: “As further alleged, after the FBI searched his home in connection with the theft, Sharp, now posing as an anonymous company whistle-blower, planted damaging news stories falsely claiming the theft had been by a hacker enabled by a vulnerability in the company’s computer systems.”

Sharp is alleged to have downloaded an admin key which gave him “access to other credentials within Company-1’s infrastructure” from Ubiquiti’s AWS servers at 03:16 local time on 10 December 2020, using his home internet connection. Two minutes later, that same key was used to make the AWS API call GetCallerIdentity from an IP address linked to VPN provider Surfshark – to which Sharp was a subscriber, prosecutors claimed.

Later that month, according to the prosecution, he is alleged to have set AWS logs to a one-day retention policy, effectively masking his presence.

Eleven days after the AWS naughtiness, the indictment claims, he used his own connection to log into Ubiquiti’s GitHub infrastructure. “Approximately one minute later,” alleged the indictment, Sharp used Surfshark to ssh into GitHub and clone around 155 Ubiquiti repos to his home computer.

“In one fleeting instance during the exfiltration of data,” said the indictment, “the Sharp IP address was logged making an SSH connection to use GitHub Account-1 to clone a repository.”

For the rest of that night, prosecutors said, logs showed Sharp’s personal IP alternating with a Surfshark exit node while making clone calls. Although it was not spelled out in the court filing, prosecutors appeared to be suggesting that Surfshark VPN was dropping out and revealing “the attacker’s” true IP.

Ubiquiti discovered what was happening on 28 December. Prosecutors claimed Sharp then joined the company’s internal response to the breaches.

In January 2021 Ubiquiti received a ransom note sent from a Surfshark VPN IP address demanding 25 Bitcoins. If it paid an extra 25 Bitcoins on top of that, said the note, its anonymous author would reveal a backdoor in the company’s infrastructure. This appears to be what prompted Ubiquiti to write to its customers that month alerting them to a data breach. Ubiquiti did not pay the ransom, said the indictment.

Shortly after Federal Bureau of Investigation workers raided Sharp’s home, prosecutors claim he “caused false or misleading news stories to be published about the Incident and Company-1’s disclosures and response to the Incident. Sharp identified himself as an anonymous source within Company-1 who had worked on remediating the Incident. In particular, Sharp pretended that Company-1 had been hacked by an unidentified perpetrator who maliciously acquired root administrator access [to] Company-1’s AWS accounts.”

This appears to be referencing an article by infosec blogger Brian Krebs that was published that day, on 30 March 2021. He spoke “on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution by Ubiquiti”, and El Reg (among many other outlets) followed up Krebs’ reporting in good faith. In that article, the “whistleblower” said he had reported Ubiquiti in to the EU Data Protection Supervisor, the political bloc’s in-house data protection body.

We have asked Krebs for comment.

Sharp is innocent unless proven guilty. He is formally charged with breaches of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, transmitting interstate threats, wire fraud and making false statements to the FBI. If found guilty on all counts and handed maximum, consecutive sentences on each, he faces 37 years in prison. ®

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