The Download: open source insecurity, and gene editing plants

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.

The US military wants to understand the most important software on Earth

It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that the whole world is built on top of the Linux kernel—although most people have never heard of it.

It is one of the very first programs that load when most computers power up. It enables the hardware running the machine to interact with the software, governs its use of resources, and acts as the foundation of the operating system.

It is the core building block of nearly all cloud computing, virtually every supercomputer, the entire internet of things, billions of smartphones, and more.

But the kernel is also open source, meaning anyone can write, read, and use its code. And that’s got cybersecurity experts inside the US military seriously worried. Its open-source nature means the Linux kernel—along with a host of other pieces of critical open-source software—is exposed to hostile manipulation in ways that we still barely understand. Read the full story.

—Patrick Howell O’Neill

Heat is bad for plant health. Here’s how gene editing could help.

The news: Some of the world’s most productive agricultural regions have already broken temperature records this year, with potentially worrying implications for food supplies. Even a slight rise in temperatures can cause crops to become more vulnerable to pests. To combat this, researchers have identified a single gene that seems to be the temperature-sensitive culprit and found a way to repair the plants’ immune system at higher temperatures.

How they did it: For many plants, an important immune pathway involves salicylic acid. The chemical has antibacterial properties, and it also acts as a signal to get other immune pathways going. However, this pathway essentially shuts down in unusually hot conditions. Researchers were able to tweak the plants’ genome so they produced more salicylic acid, thus boosting the plants’ protection against pests and diseases.

What it means: While the experiment was conducted on an Arabidopsis plant, many others, including wheat, corn, and potatoes, share the same kind of salicylic acid pathway, making it possible the work could have an impact far beyond the lab. Read the full story.

—Casey Crownhart

The must-reads

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

1 Russian propaganda is flourishing on social media again
Months into the war, Ukraine says Big Tech has lost interest in removing it. (WP $)
+ Russia’s bombing campaigns have tipped into terrorism. (The Atlantic $)
+ A US defense firm has supplied Ukraine with kamikaze drones. (FT $)
+ The war in Ukraine could threaten regulating killer robots. (New Scientist $)
 + A Chinese housewife fooled Wikipedia into thinking she was a Russian expert. (Motherboard)

2 Uber is being sued by 550 women over sexual assault claims 
The US-based women say they were raped and sexually assaulted by drivers, according to the harrowing filing. (BBC)

3 Post-Roe, we’re more surveilled than ever
It’s becoming increasingly difficult to avoid leaving a digital paper trail. (NYT $)
+ Big Tech is still silent on questions about data privacy in a post-Roe US. (MIT Technology Review)

4 These new encryption algorithms are quantum-proof
Researchers are confident they’re able to resist quantum computing’s attempts to crack them. (Economist $)
+ What is post-quantum cryptography? (MIT Technology Review)
+ Numbers with negative square values are integral to quantum theory. (Aeon)

5 Don’t bother trying to make sense of Elon Musk v Twitter
The madness is only set to intensify by the time they make it to court. (The Atlantic $)
+ Everyone involved emerges looking like a loser. (Insider)

6 How one of crypto’s biggest lenders collapsed
Celsius has now filed for bankruptcy, leaving its customers out of pocket. (FT $)
The UK has approved suing someone over blockchain. (Bloomberg $)

7 Turkey says it’s discovered a rich mine of rare earth elements
But experts aren’t convinced. (Wired $)
+ Mining minerals for rechargeable batteries still makes us feel guilty. (The Atlantic $)

8 Prime membership turned Amazon into the internet’s jack of all trades
And allowed it to weaponize convenience along the way. (New Statesman $)

9 Spam calls are driving us to distraction
Some frustrated victims have taken to emailing the FCC for answers. (Motherboard)
+ The people using humor to troll their spam texts. (MIT Technology Review)

10 Bad taste is the new good taste
The early noughties internet aesthetic is reassuringly gaudy. (Vox)

Quote of the day

“I feel like clickbait.”

—Maree, a woman from Melbourne, describes her discomfort at being filmed without her consent in a viral ‘random act of kindness’ TikTok video, reports the Guardian.

The big story

Why Generation Z falls for online misinformation

June 2021

In November 2019, a TikTok video claiming that if Joe Biden is elected president of the United States, “trumpies” will commit mass murder of LGBT individuals and people of color rapidly went viral, viewed, shared, liked and commented on by hundreds of thousands of young people.

Clearly, the claims were false. Why, then, did so many members of Generation Z—a label applied to people aged roughly 9 to 24, who are presumably more digitally savvy than their predecessors—fall for such flagrant misinformation? It’s partly because young people are more likely to believe and pass on misinformation if they feel a sense of common identity with the person who shared it in the first place. Read the full story.

—Jennifer Neda John 

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.)+ No matter how bad things get, at least we’ve got Kirby.
+ The jokes about the three men who stole Don Henley’s handwritten Hotel California lyrics just write themselves (thanks Allison!)
+ A missing dog casually managed to win third place in a dog show while her owners were searching for her.
+ Here’s why the lost cities buried deep in the Amazon rainforest took so long to find.
+ I loved the charming story behind this viral picture of a surfing teacher from the 70s.

Main Menu