Friday Brief for 4 February 2022
Transformer — A transformer is a deep learning model that adopts the mechanism of self-attention, differentially weighting the significance of each part of the input data. It is used primarily in the field of natural language processing (NLP) and in computer vision (CV).
FBI Director is Trying to Make a Point
What’s New: FBI Director Christopher Wray gave a speech this week on “Countering Threats Posed by the Chinese Government Inside the U.S.”
Why This Matters: Wray gave a similarly pointed speech in 2020 and his other public comments since have had a consistent message — the United States has a China problem that it cannot ignore.
On Monday, Wray spoke at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, CA and was unambiguous in his analysis.
[The threat from China has] “reached a new level—more brazen, more damaging than ever before, and it’s vital—vital—that all of us focus on that threat together,” said Wray. “When we tally up what we see in our investigations—over 2,000 of which are focused on the Chinese government trying to steal our information and technology—there is just no country that presents a broader threat to our ideas, our innovation, and our economic security than China.”
The Director makes clear that the challenge is broad in scope and complex in sophistication.
“What makes the Chinese government’s strategy so insidious is the way it exploits multiple avenues at once, often in seemingly innocuous ways … They unleash a massive, sophisticated hacking program that is bigger than those of every other major nation combined. Operating from pretty much every major city in China, with a lot of funding and sophisticated tools, and often joining forces with cyber criminals … At the same time, the Chinese government uses intelligence officers to target the same information, multiplying their efforts by working extensively through scores of so-called co-optees. Basically, people who aren’t technically Chinese government officials but who assist in their intelligence operations—spotting and assessing sources, providing cover, communications, and helping steal secrets in other ways. The Chinese government also makes investments and partnerships to position their proxies to take valuable technology.”
But it’s about more than just hacking and IP theft.
“The Chinese government is increasingly targeting people inside the U.S. for personal and political retribution—undercutting the freedoms that our Constitution and laws promise … Over the past eight years, the Chinese government has hauled home more than 9,000 people worldwide, bringing them back to China, where they can be imprisoned or controlled … Currently, there are hundreds of people on U.S. soil who are on the Chinese government’s official Fox Hunt1 list and a whole lot more that are not on the official list. And most of the targets are green card holders, naturalized citizens—folks with important rights and protections under U.S. law.”
Wray closes with an optimistic note and a promise.
“All of us in America—and across the free world—are in this together. And as President Reagan said in his inaugural address, “No arsenal or no weapon in the arsenals of the world is so formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women.” And I have been heartened to see that recognition take hold, to watch and help our partners gird for the long, important fight now underway. And everyone involved in that fight can be certain that you will have no more committed partner than the FBI.”
What I’m Thinking:
No need to beat a dead horse (but somebody hand me a stick). My views on the Chinese Communist Party are well known and I don’t need to belabor this story with repetitive commentary. That said, I want to underscore (again) the scale of this challenge because Wray’s speech has this squarely in view. The United States’ policy towards China continues to be convoluted and, at times, contradicting. If Chinese theft of data and IP is as big of a threat as Wray says — and it is — then we need a foreign policy that punishes Beijing for this theft and complementary domestic policies that actually protect against it. If the CCP hacking campaign is “bigger than those of every other major nation combined,” then we need to have a comprehensive national cybersecurity strategy that is actually being implemented and a coherent overarching policy for dealing with all Chinese companies in the U.S. market — every one of which is subject to CCP law and coercion. Finally, if there is “no country that presents a broader threat to our ideas, our innovation, and our economic security than China,” then we have to crack down on U.S. outbound investments that are enabling China’s technological rise and its ability to imperil our citizens and interests. The Biden administration needs to remember that China is a strategic opponent on the world stage — one with a defined and hostile ideology, with a comprehensive plan for leveraging its national power to constrain our own, and with real resources for implementing this plan. The discreet efforts of the FBI are laudable and necessary. But they’re not sufficient.
A Hacker Hacks the Hermit Kingdom
What’s New: A lone hacker reportedly took down North Korea’s internet, according to Wired.
Why This Matters: The story illustrates how, even in a world of powerful state actors, individual actors can have outsized geopolitical influence.
Recently, almost all of North Korea’s websites (only a few dozen) have experienced intermittent service problems — with at least one of the country’s central networks being completely incapable of connecting to the global internet.
Some believed this was the work of the United States or another nation in response to Pyongyang’s recent missile tests.
Wired reports, however, that the takedown is the work of P4x, an independent hacker who was himself hacked by North Korea just over one year ago.
“It felt like the right thing to do here. If they don’t see we have teeth, it’s just going to keep coming,” says the hacker. (P4x spoke to WIRED and shared screen recordings to verify his responsibility for the attacks but declined to use his real name for fear of prosecution or retaliation.) “I want them to understand that if you come at us, it means some of your infrastructure is going down for a while.”
P4x says he disrupted the Hermit Kingdom’s internet by exploiting several unpatched vulnerabilities and launching a distributed denial of service (DDOS) attack — essentially flooding North Korean servers with more internet traffic than they could handle.
The U.S.-based hacker also says he’s trying to get Washington’s attention because it has not, in his view, responded aggressively enough to North Korea’s targeting of foreign cybersecurity researchers: “If no one’s going to help me, I’m going to help myself.”
What I’m Thinking:
This wasn’t a huge hit against North Korea. Very few North Koreans have internet access and many of the nation’s government-backed hackers are likely located in other countries — especially in China.
But it wasn’t nothing. Any time one person takes down a significant portion of the internet it’s a reminder of how vulnerable some systems continue to be. P4x’s DDOS attack wasn’t particularly sophisticated, but it might still have significant implications.
Beware of unintended consequences. It’s not hard to sympathize with P4x’s frustrations over a perceived lack of government help; but, his actions could have important consequences beyond him. For example, what if his actions disrupted ongoing Western intelligence efforts piggybacking on the networks he brought down? What if the DDOS attack had caused cascading failures of essential services, punishing innocent North Koreans who are already suffering under Kim Jong Un’s despotism? Finally, what if the North Koreans decide that they can’t have every disgruntled hacker shutting down the nation’s internet and so they take more aggressive, punitive actions that risk escalating tensions between Washington and Pyongyang? This is why I continue to oppose so-called “hack back” laws that would allow citizens to attack hackers online. There are too many tripwires for bad things and it is hard enough navigating the cyber domain without a bunch of cyber renegades running around shooting up the place.
An AI is Matching Human Coders
What’s New: DeepMind has a new AI algorithm that writes computer programs at a competitive level.
Why This Matters: Writing programs requires a mix of critical thinking, logic, natural language understanding, coding, and algorithms. An AI that can do all of these things could transform how such programs are generated in the future.
DeepMind is owned by Google parent company, Alphabet and has produced a number of bleeding-edge algorithms.
The new algo, AlphaCode, “uses transformer-based language models to generate code at an unprecedented scale, and then smartly filters to a small set of promising programs,” according to DeepMind.
In plain English this means the algo has learned how to throw a lot of code “spaghetti” against the wall and to identify which programs are most likely to solve the defined problem.
The amazing part is that DeepMind validated AlphaCode by having it complete 10 different coding competitions where it performed at the level of a median human competitor — “marking the first time an AI code generation system has reached a competitive level of performance in programming competitions.”
“Solving competitive programming problems is a really hard thing to do, requiring both good coding skills and problem solving creativity in humans,” said Peter Mitrichev, a software engineer at Google and world-class competitive programmer. “I was very impressed that AlphaCode could make progress in this area, and excited to see how the model uses its statement understanding to produce code and guide its random exploration to create solutions.”
What I’m Thinking:
What will we get when AI creates itself? While AlphaCode has a long way to go before it can write its own AI programming, the processing power of these programs often allow them to become exponentially more sophisticated in relatively short time frames. At the point where AIs are able to produce other working AIs, we’ll be entering a world where computer programming could simply be something we ask a digital personal assistant to do for us — “Hey Siri, I need an app that tracks my grocery spending and buys Pringles in bulk when they go on sale.”
I mean, I guess there are applications beyond Pringles. This type of autonomous coding would not only make the “magic” of software development more accessible for everyone, the tendency of AIs to employ novel and counterintuitive approaches would likely also lead to new software development models, languages, and tools that humans are less likely to create — advancing and shaping our technological future in ways that are hard to even imagine right now.
Let’s Get Visual
That’s it for this Friday Brief. Thanks for reading, and if you think someone else would like this newsletter, please share it with your friends and followers. Have a great weekend!
A CCP program ostensibly aimed at stamping out corruption, but in reality, targets, captures, and repatriates former Chinese citizens overseas that are deemed a threat to Beijing.