The Download: China-linked hackers, and chromosome variations

This is today’s edition of The Download, our weekday newsletter that provides a daily dose of what’s going on in the world of technology.

Hackers linked to China have been targeting human rights groups for years

The news: A hacking group linked to China has spent the last three years targeting human rights organizations, think tanks, news media, and agencies of multiple foreign governments, according to a new report shared exclusively with MIT Technology Review.

Who are they? The hackers, known as RedAlpha, have taken aim at organizations including Amnesty International, the International Federation for Human Rights, Radio Free Asia, the Mercator Institute for China Studies, and other think tanks and government and humanitarian groups around the world. 

Why it matters: The report, from the cybersecurity firm Recorded Future, offers new clues about how private contractors and front companies operating with relatively few resources can run long-standing hacking operations and succeed against high-value targets with crude but effective tactics. 

What else?: These new findings show that RedAlpha is still operating with the same simple and inexpensive playbook that it used years ago. In fact, this latest slate of espionage was linked to previous campaigns because the group reused many of the same domains, IP addresses, tactics, malware, and even domain registration information that has been publicly identified by cybersecurity experts for years. Read the full story

—Patrick Howell O’Neill

What to expect when you’re expecting an extra X or Y chromosome

Sex chromosome variations, in which people have a surplus or missing X or Y, occur in as many as one in 400 births, yet the majority of people affected don’t even know they have them. That’s because these conditions can fly under the radar; they’re not life threatening or necessarily even life limiting and don’t often have telltale characteristics that raise red flags. Still, the diagnosis can cause distress.

As more expectant parents opt for noninvasive prenatal testing in hopes of ruling out serious conditions, many of them are surprised to discover instead that their fetus has a far less severe—but far less well-known—condition.

And because so many sex chromosome variations have historically gone undiagnosed, many ob-gyns are not familiar with these conditions, leaving families to navigate the unexpected news on their own. Read the full story.

—Bonnie Rochman

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 Amazon has accused a US agency of harassing its executives
It claimed the FTC has employed heavy-handed tactics to force Jeff Bezos and others to give evidence to its investigation into Amazon Prime. (FT $) 

2 How two disgraced crypto founders lost a trillion dollars
The Three Arrows Capital bosses’ whereabouts is unknown. (NY Mag $)
Crypto lender Celsius will probably run out of cash by October. (CoinDesk)
+ Crypto skeptics are clubbing together to upend the industry. (NBC)
+ How governments seize millions in stolen cryptocurrency. (MIT Technology Review)

3 Police investigated a man for a crime—using his newborn’s DNA
Raising serious questions over the privacy of children’s genetic information. (Wired $)

4 TikTok’s owner has shared its algorithms with the Chinese government
Beijing now has unprecedented access to 30 algorithms from firms including Alibaba and Tencent. (Bloomberg $)
+ The US wants to stop Chinese companies from building innovative chips. (Protocol $)

5 Inside the sinister workplace programs tracking employee productivity
Tasks completed off-screen, like thinking, don’t count. (NYT $)

6 Capetown is QR-coding thousands of informal settlements
Privacy experts are concerned city officials will use them to digitally identify poor Black residents. (BuzzFeed News)
+ South Africa’s private surveillance machine is fueling a digital apartheid. (MIT Technology Review)

7 A Russian arms fair demoed a grenade launcher-equipped robotic dog
It’s the terrifying next step in robotic conflict. (Motherboard)
+ Xiaomi has built a much less intimidating humanoid robot. (IEEE Spectrum)
+ This bionic hand can be updated from anywhere in the world. (Reuters

8 Your smart home is spying on you 🏠
Here’s how to stop it. (The Guardian)

9 How fan fiction found its true home online
And birthed a thriving community of writers in the process. (The Verge)
+ What I learned from studying billions of words of online fan fiction. (MIT Technology Review)

10 YouTube’s coin pusher community is riddled with scammers
They’re rigging the machines to fix the results. (Input)

Quote of the day

“Why give them money if I’m not watching?”

—Kate Bigel, a retired game-industry art director in San Diego, explains to the Wall Street Journal why she and her husband are among the growing number of consumers chopping and changing their streaming subscriptions to make savings.

The big story

What an octopus’s mind can teach us about AI’s ultimate mystery

August 2021

Machines with minds are mainstays of science fiction—the idea of a robot that somehow replicates consciousness through its hardware or software has been around so long it feels familiar.

Such machines don’t exist, of course, and maybe never will. 

Indeed, the concept of a machine with a subjective experience of the world and a first-person view of itself goes against the grain of mainstream AI research. It collides with questions about the nature of consciousness and self—things we still don’t entirely understand. 

Even imagining such a machine’s existence raises serious ethical questions that we may never be able to answer. What rights would such a being have, and how might we safeguard them?

And yet, while conscious machines may still be mythical, their very possibility shapes how we think about the machines we are building today. Read the full story.

—Will Douglas Heaven

We can still have nice things

A place for comfort, fun and distraction in these weird times. (Got any ideas? Drop me a line or tweet ’em at me.)

+ Did anyone do this sincerely?!
+ A mesmerizing clip of how suitcases are made.
+ First there was barbiecore, now balletcore is Gen Z’s latest favorite trend.
+ Who let the cats out? Germany, apparently.
+ This teeny tiny apartment in Amsterdam is a great use of space.

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