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‘It’s quite feasible to start a war’: just how dangerous are ransomware hackers? | Cybercrime

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They have the sort of names that only teenage boys or aspiring Bond villains would dream up (REvil, Grief, Wizard Spider, Ragnar), they base themselves in countries that do not cooperate with international law enforcement and they don’t care whether they attack a hospital or a multinational corporation. Ransomware gangs are suddenly everywhere, seemingly unstoppable – and very successful.

In June, meat producer JBS, which supplies over a fifth of all the beef in the US, paid a £7.8m ransom to regain access to its computer systems. The same month, the US’s largest national fuel pipeline, Colonial Pipeline, paid £3.1m to ransomware hackers after they locked the company’s systems, causing days of fuel shortages and paralysing the east coast. “It was the hardest decision I’ve made in my 39 years in the energy industry,” said a deflated-looking Colonial CEO Joseph Blount in an evidence session before Congress. In July, hackers attacked software firm Kaseya, demanding £50m. As a result, hundreds of supermarkets had to close in Sweden, because their cash registers didn’t work.

The gangs – criminal enterprises that hack into internet-connected computer systems, lock access to them, and then sell a decryption key in exchange for payment in bitcoin – have targeted schools, hospitals, councils, airports, government bodies, oil pipelines, universities, nuclear contractors, insurance companies, chemical distributors and arms manufacturers. Hackers haven’t targeted air traffic controllers yet, but some believe that it’s only a matter of time.

All organisations are vulnerable, although a sweet spot is mid-size businesses that have enough revenue to make them a lucrative target, but aren’t large enough to have dedicated cybersecurity teams. “Everybody who uses internet-connected computer systems has vulnerabilities,” says Dr Herb Lin, a cybersecurity expert at Stanford University.

Russia is a major hotspot for ransomware attackers to headquarter themselves, as is Iran. Cyrillic – the Russian alphabet – is commonly used in ransomware forums or source codes. “It’s not that the Russian government is conducting these ransomware attacks,” Lin says, “but they have an arrangement in which the Russian-based cyber-mobs can do their activities outside Russia, and the country turns a blind eye to it. The tacit agreement is, if you hack a Russian system, you’re in trouble.” I ask Lin why the Russian authorities are so lenient. “My guess is that Putin gets a cut,” he says.

These hackers operate as organised gangs: some members specialise in identifying compromised systems and gaining access, while others handle the ransom negotiations. (Investigators tracing ransom payments will often see cryptocurrency transferred into many different cyberwallets after a transaction has been made, for this reason.)

And they are not shy of publicity – some have even given media interviews. “I know at the very least several affiliates have access to a ballistic missile launch system… It’s quite feasible to start a war,” said an unnamed REvil spokesperson airily in one interview. “But it’s not worth it – the consequences are not profitable.” Each group has a distinct character. “REvil has some flair, as does Pysa, who are quite snarky,” says Brett Callow of the cybersecurity firm Emsisoft. “At the other end of the spectrum, Ryuk are robotic in their approach.”

More recently, these gangs have pivoted into extorting individuals. If victims don’t pay, their stolen data is dumped online, or sold on the dark web to the highest bidder. (There is no way to know if the data is sold anyway, even if the victim does pay.) Some of these extortion demands take a vicious tenor: REvil recently threatened to publish damaging information about Invenergy CEO Michael Polsky after he refused to pay a ransom. “We know his secrets… we will share with you some disgusting photos, and many interesting facts from his life,” wrote the hackers on their dark web blog. And the pandemic has proved especially fecund for ransomware gangs. According to a report from cybersecurity software firm Bitdefender, attacks increased by 485% in 2020 alone. “It’s taken off since Covid because we have more people working from home,” says Sophia, a crisis communications expert who specialises in advising companies who have been targeted by ransomware hackers. Poorly secured remote access logins are a common route in. “More of a digital environment leads to more points of entry for the attackers,” she says. “The last year and a half has been a whole new ballgame.”

‘You can’t be a puritan in this space. You are dealing with the livelihoods of your staff’: a hacked computer screen.
‘You can’t be a puritan in this space. You are dealing with the livelihoods of your staff’: a hacked computer screen. Photograph: Getty Images

I ask how many cases she has personally worked on this year. Sophia sighs. “It’s probably upwards of 50 this year. And it’s only July.”

All the experts I speak with agree – many victims of ransomware do pay. “About half do,” says Sophia of her clients. “I did one job for an organisation in Australia,” says Nick Klein of Australian cybersecurity firm CyberCX, “where the CEO was literally walking around their office with a credit card, saying, ‘How can I convert money into bitcoin?’” Alastair MacGibbon of CyberCX always advises his clients not to pay, but he is not judgmental of those who do: “You can’t be a puritan in this space. You are dealing with the livelihoods of your staff, and trying to protect your suppliers. There are legitimate reasons to pay.”

Specialist negotiators are often brought in to haggle the gangs down. “It’s a business deal,” says Klein, who is one such negotiator. “You need to make the attackers understand that you want to do a business transaction with them, and they need to be realistic and come to an agreement that works for both parties.” He’s successfully bartered down hackers from demands of tens of millions of dollars, to under $100,000. “Conversely,” Klein says, “I’ve done jobs where we’ve gone to criminals and said, the company can’t afford this, and they send back a copy of their financial statements.” He chuckles: “That’s a well-informed criminal.”

But despite the fact that many ransomware victims do pay up, a code of omertà prevails. No one will talk about it to me. Phone calls go unanswered; emails ignored. One CEO answers his mobile, garbles incoherently at break-neck speed, and hangs up. Everyone who works in this space tells me the same thing: they know dozens, if not hundreds, of executives who have paid ransoms, and not one will speak with me. “There’s a stigma attached,” MacGibbon says. “And there’s a fear of revictimisation.”

But eventually, I do track down someone who will talk…

Thursday, 11 January 2018 was a day like any other at Hancock Regional Hospital in the city of Greenfield, Indiana. Inclement weather was approaching and flu cases were on the rise. At 9.30pm, messages began appearing on computer screens, announcing that the system had been encrypted using SamSam ransomware. Hackers got in through a password belonging to a third-party vendor that had been breached and sold on the dark web. If the hospital wanted to regain access to its systems, it had to pay a ransom of four bitcoins, then the equivalent of about £40,000. Until then, every file was locked.

At home, in bed beside his wife, Steve Long received a phone call from an administrator around midnight. He drove to the hospital immediately, where he stared in puzzlement at row upon row of locked computer screens.

“They were targeting us specifically,” he says. “What kind of a person does that? It’s unconscionable to do that to a hospital.”

Long is that rarest of people – a man willing to admit to paying a ransom demand. The hospital CEO has the genial air of a headteacher and is remarkably candid about his decision to pay the hackers, who were based in Iran.

“It was a terrible decision,” he says, “and I agree with all the reasons for not paying ransoms. But when you’re in that situation you discover pretty quickly it’s about business continuity.” There was some blowback, of course. “People said, ‘You should never pay a ransom for any reason.’ But they were people who have never been in that situation.”

After staying up all Thursday night, Long made the decision to pay up around noon the following day – they were going into a holiday weekend and the bank would be closed until Tuesday. Just as he was preparing to make the transaction, he received the phone call: a reporter at the local paper had gotten wind of the story.

Long had three choices: lie, obfuscate, or tell the truth. He invited the reporter into the hospital and told him exactly what was going on. “We thought it was important to tell our story,” he says, “because no one ever talks about this and, because no one ever talks about it, no one ever learns.”

He hopes that sharing his experience will encourage other organisations to take the threats posed by ransomware hackers seriously.“As an individual,” Long says, “you think it won’t happen and you’ll never find yourself in the thick of it. And then you’re sitting in the administrator conference room and the only outside access you have to the world is your personal laptop, email address, and the hotspot on your phone.”

Early Saturday morning, the hospital paid the ransom. The hackers, good to their word, provided the decryption keys and by Monday morning most things were back to normal. Long threw a staff party with a cupcake van and drinks. He even had T-shirts made up. They read: “I survived the cyber apocalypse of 2018, and all I got was this silly T-shirt.”

In the world of ransomware, there are no pat moral absolutes. Long paid, protected patient safety, and got the hospital back up and running again, but he also put money into the pocket of criminals, and encouraged them to do it again, to another hospital. To not pay is a principled stance, but one fraught with risk. Oftentimes, not paying is damaging, disruptive, and actually costs organisations more than the ransom demand. When Atlanta refused to pay a £36,000 ransom in 2018, it cost the city more than £1.8m to rebuild.

“We won’t entertain the idea of paying ransoms,” says Rob Miller of Hackney council, which was hit in October 2020. “It places other organisations and councils at risk, because it creates a precedent that we will pay. And it funds nasty criminality, including child exploitation.” An ethical decision, certainly, although Hackney’s residents may not agree because, 10 months on, the council still does not have access to many of its core systems. The council tax system is not fully operational, nor is the system to record business rates. It could be another nine months before the benefits office is back to normal.

As a result of the chaos, people’s house sales fell through and many have not been able to access the benefits they are entitled to. Perhaps worst of all, hackers posted personal information about Hackney residents, including passport data, on the dark web, for criminals to exploit. “Obviously,” says Miller, “that feels terrible.” But he robustly rejects the notion that it would have been better to pay, or that Hackney Council should be held culpable for not protecting their residents better. “We’re really clear that the people who should feel guilty are the criminals that caused this,” Miller says.

Perhaps. But the truth is that criminals were able to access Hackney’s systems through a security weakness and as a result, residents have suffered. Miller tells me council officers have been working around the clock to minimise service disruption, and identify people who may have been affected by the breach, and offer support. But is that enough?

“It’s my personal view that organisations should be held liable for cybersecurity breaches they could have fixed, but didn’t,” Lin says. Under existing UK and US law, organisations have to notify individuals whose data has been compromised by cybercriminals, but they don’t usually have to pay fines. “Let’s pretend they had to pay $20 every time they wrote to someone notifying them of a data breach,” says Lin. “They would start to pay attention [to their cybersecurity] then.” I ask him whether it’s right to re-victimise victims of crime – after all, we wouldn’t fine burglary victims for leaving a window open. “I’m also the victim of a crime,” Lin says. “Who compensates me? Why should they get off for having inadequate security precautions that caused me to suffer this harm?”

It’s a punchy proposition, albeit one unlikely to see the light of day, because hundreds, if not thousands, of businesses would probably go bankrupt. Some of the organisations targeted by criminals have been sloppy, certainly. The hackers who got into Colonial Pipeline did so because there wasn’t dual-factor authentication set up on a VPN account – a basic security measure. But a talented and conscientious hacker can gain access to most internet-connected computer systems.

“What we have right now is a feeding frenzy which is the result of companies paying increasingly ridiculous amounts of money,” Callow says, “and criminals being able to operate with almost complete impunity.” He believes the solution is for governments to make paying ransoms to cybercriminals illegal. In the US and UK it is not currently illegal and insurers will often cover ransom payments, which are sometimes tax-deductible. “Ransomware attacks happen for one reason,” Callow says. “Because they are profitable. So organisations have to stop paying ransoms. That’s the only way to stop attacks.”

Governments are finally waking up to the terrible threat posed by ransomware hackers. In the UK, GCHQ’s cybersecurity lead recently warned that ransomware poses a bigger threat to online security than hostile states. In the US, President Biden has established a multi-agency anti-ransomware government taskforce. The FBI recently succeeded in recovering £1.6m of the Colonial Pipeline ransom, suggesting that bitcoin is either not as untraceable as previously thought, or that investigators had intelligence on the group behind the attack. This month, REvil – the most high-profile of all the ransomware groups – went offline. No one is sure why, but the crackdown may have played a role.

While legislators try to find solutions, the savvier organisations are doing all they can to inoculate themselves against attacks. “I tell my clients to prepare for their worst nightmare cyber incident,” Sophia says. Miller and Long urge organisations to increase their cybersecurity spend: Hackney council has accelerated its move to cloud-based services, which are less vulnerable to hackers, while Hancock Regional Hospital pays an external security firm to watch their network 24/7, monitoring for potential breaches. “It’s a bit like after the Great Fire of London,” says Miller of the council’s security efforts post-hack, “they built stone buildings with wider streets. It didn’t stop all fires from happening, but it reduced the likelihood.”

And of course, there’s going back to basics. “The backup is always paper,” Long says. “We have other safeguards electronically. But the hospital has a paper backup we always go to.” Because in a digital world, sometimes the only way to protect oneself from the cybercriminals of the future is to seek sanctuary in an analogue past.

Some names have been changed

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Beeban Kidron v Silicon Valley: one woman’s fight to protect children online | Beeban Kidron

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When she first began talking to her peers in the House of Lords about the rights of children on the internet, Baroness Kidron says she looked like “a naysayer”, like someone who was “trying to talk about wooden toys” or, in her husband’s words, like “one middle-aged woman against Silicon Valley”. It was 2012 and the film-maker and recently appointed life peer was working on her documentary InRealLife, spending “hundreds of hours in the bedrooms of children” to discover how the internet affects young lives. What she saw disturbed her.

“I did what they were doing – gaming, falling in love, watching pornography, going to meet-ups, making music – you name it, it happened,” Beeban Kidron says. The film explored everything from children’s exposure to porn, to rampant online bullying, to the way privacy is compromised online. But Kidron noticed that one thing underpinned it all: on the internet, nobody knows you’re a kid. “Digital services and products were treating them as if they were equal,” she says. “The outcome of treating everyone equally is you treat a kid like an adult.”

Almost a decade later, Kidron has pushed through a Children’s Code that hopes to change this landscape for ever. The Age Appropriate Design Code, an amendment to the 2018 Data Protection Act, came into effect this month. It requires online services to “put the best interests of the child first” when designing apps, games, websites and internet-connected toys that are “likely” to be used by kids.

In total, there are 15 standards that companies need to adhere to in order to avoid being fined up to 4% of their global turnover. These include offering “bite-size” terms and conditions for children; giving them “high privacy” by default; turning off geolocation and profiling; and avoiding “nudge techniques” that encourage children to turn off privacy settings. The code, which will be enforced by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), also advises against “using personal data in a way that incentivises children to stay engaged”, such as feeding children a long string of auto-playing videos one after the other.

The code was introduced in September 2020, but offered companies a 12-month transition period, in this time the world’s tech giants have seemingly begun responding to the sting of Kidron’s sling. Instagram now prevents adults from messaging children who don’t follow them on the app, while anyone under 16 who creates an account will have it set to private by default. TikTok has implemented a bedtime for notifications; teens aged 13-15 will no longer be pinged after 9pm. Meanwhile, YouTube has turned off autoplay for users aged 13-17, while Google has blocked the targeted advertising of under-18s.

But hang on, why does TikTok’s bedtime only apply to those 13 and over? Are toddlers OK to use the app until 2am? You’ve just spotted the first flaw in the plan. While social media sites require users to be at least 13 to sign up for their services (in line with America’s 21-year-old Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act), a quick glance at reality shows that kids lie about their age in order to snap, share and status-update. Creating a system in which children can’t lie, by, for example, necessitating that they provide ID to access an online service, ironically risks compromising their privacy further.

Social video app TikTok has introduced a “bedtime” for notifications for users aged 13-15.
Social video app TikTok has introduced a “bedtime” for notifications for users aged 13-15. Photograph: Robin Utrecht/Rex/Shutterstock

“There is nothing that stops us having a very sophisticated age-check mechanism in which you don’t even know the identity of the person, you just know that that they’re 12,” Kidron argues, pointing to a report on age verification that she recently worked on with her organisation 5Rights Foundation, entitled But how do they know it is a child?. Third-party providers, for example, could confirm someone’s identity without passing on the data to tech giants, or capacity testing could allow websites to estimate someone’s age based on whether they can solve a puzzle (no prizes for figuring out the numerous ways that could go wrong).

Whatever the solution, Kidron is currently working on a private member’s bill that sets minimum standards of age assurance, thereby preventing companies from choosing their own “intrusive, heavy handed or just terrible, lousy, and ineffective” techniques.

How did Kidron go from looking like a “naysayer” to changing the landscape so drastically? Kidron began making documentaries in the 80s before working in Hollywood (most notably directing the Bridget Jones sequel The Edge of Reason). After becoming a baroness, she founded the 5Rights Foundation to fight for children’s digital rights. She says she had her “early adopters” in parliament, including the archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell, Conservative peer Dido Harding and Liberal Democrat peer Timothy Clement-Jones. “That was my gang,” Kidron says, but others remained sceptical for years. “The final set of people only came on board this summer, once they saw what the tech companies were doing.”

The Children’s Code as a whole defines a child as anyone under 18, in line with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). For Kidron, it’s about much more than privacy – “a child’s right to unfettered access to different points of view is actually taken away by an algorithmic push for a particular point of view,” she argues, also noting that the right to the best possible health is removed when companies store and sell data about children’s mental health. “It’s nothing short of a generational injustice,” she says. “Here was this technology that was purporting to be progressive, but in relation to children it was regressive – it was taking away the existing rights and protections.”

How did these claims go down in Silicon Valley? Conversations with executives were surprisingly “very good and productive”, according to Kidron, but she ultimately realised that change would have to be forced upon tech companies. “They have an awful lot of money to have an awful lot of very clever people say an awful lot of things in an awful lot of spaces. And then nothing happens,” she says. “Anyone who thinks that the talk itself is going to make the change is simply wrong.”

And yet while companies must now comply with the code, even Kidron admits, “they have to comply in ways that they determine”. TikTok’s bedtime, for example, seems both arbitrary and easy to get around (children are well versed in changing the date and time on their devices to proceed in video games). Yet Kidron says the exact o’clock is irrelevant – the policy is about targeting sleeplessness in children, which in turn enables them to succeed at school. “These things seem tiny… but they’re not. They’re about the culture and they’re about how children live.”

As for children working their way around barriers, Kidron notes that transgression is part of childhood, but “you have to allow kids to transgress, you can’t just tell them it’s really normal”. “The problem we have is kids who are eight are looking at hardcore, violent, misogynistic porn and there’s no friction in the system to say, ‘Actually, that’s not yours.’”

Yet problems also arise when we allow tech companies, not parents, to set boundaries for our children. In 2017, YouTube came under fire after its parental controls blocked children from seeing content made by LGBTQ+ creators (YouTube initially apologised for the “confusion” and said only videos that “discuss more sensitive issues” would be restricted in the future). Kidron says she’s “not a big takedown freak” and is “committed to the idea that children have rights to participate”, but can the same be said of companies hoping to avoid fines? Numerous American websites remain inaccessible in Europe after the implementation of General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) laws in 2018, with companies preferring to restrict access rather than adapt.

For now, it remains to be seen how the Children’s Code will be enforced in practice; Kidron says it’s “the biggest redesign of tech since GDPR”, but in December 2020 a freedom of information request revealed that more than half of GDPR fines issued by the ICO remain unpaid.

Still, Kidron is certain of one thing: that tech companies are “disordering the world” with their algorithms – “making differences of their terms for people who are popular and have a lot of followers versus those who are not” and “labelling things that get attention without really thinking about what that attention is about”. These are prescient remarks: a day after we speak, the Wall Street Journal revealed that Facebook has a program that exempts high-profile users from its rules and has also published internal studies demonstrating that Instagram is harmful to teens. One internal presentation slide read: “We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls.” Instagram’s head of public policy responded to the report in a blog post, writing: “The story focuses on a limited set of findings and casts them in a negative light.”

Whether or not Kidron was once “one middle-aged woman against Silicon Valley”, today she has global support. The recent changes implemented by social media companies are not just UK-based, but have been rolled out worldwide. Kidron says her code is a Trojan horse, “starting the conversation that says, you can regulate this environment”.

But this Trojan horse is only beginning to open up. “We had 14 Factory Acts in the 19th century on child labour alone,” Kidron says, adding that the code is likely to be the first of many more regulations to come. “I think today we air punch,” she says, when asked how it feels to have led the charge for change. “Tomorrow, we go back to work.”

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Thanks, Sir Clive Sinclair, from Reg readers whose careers you created and lives you shaped • The Register

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Sir Clive Sinclair’s contributions to computing and business are well known, and we’ve done our best to celebrate his life in our obituary of the electronics pioneer, who passed last week aged 81.

To mark his life we felt it appropriate to also consider his impact on Reg readers.

Like many others, your correspondent’s first computer was a ZX Spectrum. The machine led to my presence in these pages, because I eventually joined the Australian ZX Users’ Association (AZUA), which published its own magazine and invited contributions.

A die was cast.

I tracked down AZUA co-founder David Vernon who told us, by email: “We all loved Clive. We loved his foresight, his eccentricity and his desire to bring computing to the masses.”

Referring to the ZX80 and ZX81, Vernon added: “But we found him frustrating in equal measure. Why to save a few pounds did he give us such a crappy touch keyboard? Why not give us 4K of RAM and not 1K?”

“But even these irritations had a silver lining. They showed us that we didn’t have to put up with whatever a manufacturer gave us but we could improve on it. And this is perhaps Clive’s legacy to my generation — we could do stuff that we never imagined. Clive gave us confidence that we could do clever stuff too. And we did.”

“Honestly, it’s thanks to Clive that I now run my own publishing business. Without my early experience of writing and publishing computer programs and help pages I’d not be doing what I do today.”

Splash Screen for classic adventure game The Hobbit

Author of ’80s classic The Hobbit didn’t know game was a hit

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Similar stories poured in from around the world as comments on our appreciation of the great man’s life.

“For me it was the ZX 48K,” wrote commenter Mozzie.

“It got upgraded with a Saga 1, had an astonishing Saisho cassette player that never to failed to load anything except LoTR. Chuckie Egg, Dizzy, Wriggler, Harrier Attack, Target Renegade and even HiSoft Pascal… thanks Clive for giving me the means to feed my family the last 16 years.”

“So, so many aspects of my life are directly or only slightly indirectly related to my love for coding and electronics and tech in general, and that all stems back to those heady days of the early 80s, sat in my bedroom in front of my Speccy,” wrote another forum member, ChrisC.

Linus Torvalds was a Sinclair user: Among those influenced by Sir Clive was Linus Torvalds, creator of the Linux kernel, who worked on a Sinclair QL before he turned to his most famous work. From 00:30 in the video below, he reminisces about his time using the QL.

Youtube Video

A commenter named Allwallgbr shared his experience working for Sir Clive for two years in the 1970s and described the time as “amazing hard working, fun packed years servicing audio products and demonstrating at Hi-Fi exhibitions.

“I enjoyed the work and the buzz of the company so much, no other employer came close in my entire working life.”

Readers also remembered Sir Clive as possessing a strange charisma.

“An absolute genius with just the right amount of barminess to be a proper British boffin,” opined a commenter with the handle John Brown (no body). “He even had the proper boffin’s bald patch and glasses.”

Others shared their experiences putting Sinclair kit to work.

“I wrote a text-graphic based D&D game, and fed in the entire D&D stats to help automate games,” wrote a Reg forums member named Danny 2.

Next, he tackled something harder. “I tried and failed to write a conversation simulator to pass the Turing test: more difficult than I expected.”

“I think I freaked my mum out when she heard noises at 6am. It was just my seven-year-old self who was desperate to find out whether SIN and COS would let me PLOT a circle on my birthday present ZX81,” wrote another commenter, who goes by the strangely apt handle 0x80004005. (We’re guessing it’s a Windows error code.)

An email ad for the Telecom Australia Computerphone

Sinclair’s FORGOTTEN Australia-only micro revealed!

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Sir Clive’s passing has hit some of you hard.

“I’m currently crying like a baby here. This has hit me a lot harder than I thought it would. This marks the end of the line for the largest chunk of my formative years, and possibly the greatest influence in my entering the career I have,” wrote commenter Stumpy.

“RIP to a massively flawed genius,” our reader added. “A man with ideas often far ahead of their time. I’ll be setting a glass of decent malt aside for you tonight.”

A few readers offered some Sinclair BASIC as tribute:

GOTO Valhalla, wrote Dr. G. Freeman

10 PRINT "RIP Clive you'll be missed"
20 GOTO 10

…came in from a netizen named Dazzler.

The legacy lives on: One measure of Sir Clive’s contribution was that emulators for his computers remain available to this day, even if some homages such as the Spectrum Vega+ went awry.

Classic games developed for the ZX Spectrum remain available in many forms, not just as image files for emulators. Manic Miner is now an app, as is Lords Of Midnight. Some other Spectrum classics have even been ported to Microsoft’s XBOX.

One of the folks we reached out to for a Sinclair memory was Shane Muller, an Australian tech entrepreneur who in 2019 threw a very good party to celebrate his thirty years in the tech business. At that event he brandished the ZX81 that started it all.

Shane’s response to news of Sir Clive’s death was to write him a letter:

Vale, Sir Clive. ®

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Alphabet’s high-speed internet project Taara is making waves in Africa

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Taara’s wireless optical technology was able to beam nearly 700TB of data in 20 days across the Congo River.

Alphabet’s internet balloon project Loon may be a closed chapter, but the company is finding new ways to use some of this technology to bring high-speed internet to remote and underserved areas.

Project Taara is Alphabet’s attempt to harness wireless optical tech to make fast internet accessible and affordable. In a blog post yesterday (16 September), the project’s director of engineering, Baris Erkmen, said that its wireless optical communications links are now beaming light-speed connectivity across the Congo River.

“I’m delighted to share that working with Liquid Intelligent Technologies, we recently helped bridge a particularly stubborn connectivity gap between Brazzaville in the Republic of the Congo and Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo,” he wrote.

Brazzaville and Kinshasa are only 4.8km apart, but because of the speed and depth of the Congo River, it wasn’t possible to establish fibre connection between the two cities. Instead, cables have to travel more than 400km to loop around the river.

Erkmen said that after installing links on both sides of the river, Taara’s technology was able to beam across nearly 700TB of data in 20 days with almost 100pc availability. While the connectivity won’t always be reliable in all weather conditions, he said he was confident it will “play a key role in bringing faster, more affordable connectivity” to the 17m people living in the two cities.

“Being able to deliver high-speed internet (up to 20Gbps) most of the time is a vastly better option than having millions of people miss out on the benefits of connectivity because the economics of laying hundreds of kilometres of cable in the ground simply don’t stack up.”

Project Taara’s predecessor Loon brought helium balloon-based internet to Kenya and delivered communications services to Puerto Rico and Peru following natural disasters in those countries.

Like Project Taara, it was part of Alphabet’s X research division that invests in ambitious but costly projects. However, Loon was shut down in January because it was unable to make a business case for the project and its path to commercial viability was “much longer and riskier than hoped”, according to X lab head Astro Teller.

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