Leading the News
Report: Suspected Russian Hackers Penetrating US Energy Networks.
The New York Times (7/6, Perlroth, Subscription Publication) reports, “Since May, hackers have been penetrating the computer networks of companies that operate nuclear power stations and other energy facilities, as well as manufacturing plants in the United States and other countries.” An “urgent joint report” from DHS and the FBI released last week names the Wolf Creek Nuclear Operating Corporation among the companies targeted. The report “carried an urgent amber warning, the second-highest rating for the severity of the threat.” The report “did not indicate whether the cyberattacks were an attempt at espionage…or part of a plan to cause destruction.” Bloomberg News (7/6, Riley, Dlouhy, Gruley) reports that “at least a dozen” plants were breached and the “chief suspect is Russia, according to three people familiar with the continuing effort to eject the hackers from the computer networks.” The “possibility of a Russia connection is particularly worrisome, former and current officials say, because Russian hackers have previously taken down parts of the electrical grid in Ukraine and appear to be testing increasingly advanced tools to disrupt power supplies.”
Ars Technica (7/6, Gallagher) reports, “Administrative computers and reactor control systems in most cases are operated separately, and the control networks are generally ‘air-gapped’ – kept disconnected from networks that attach to the Internet.” Even so, that doesn’t necessarily ensure “that they are secure. A 2015 study by the British think-tank Chatham House found nuclear control systems to be ‘insecure by design’ and vulnerable to attack. Some did not keep control systems isolated from administrative networks connected to the Internet, and others were vulnerable despite air-gaps because of the heavy use of USB thumb drives to move data and install software updates.” Additionally, “many of these systems run on older operating systems that are not regularly updated.”
BuzzFeed (7/7, Sacks) reports that security officials “warned that hackers appeared to be mapping out computer networks and searching for vulnerabilities to eventually disrupt the country’s electrical grid and power supply, Bloomberg reported.” The attacks “mostly targeted individuals connected to the companies manning the facilities, such as ‘industrial control engineers who have direct access to systems that, if damaged, could lead to an explosion, fire or a spill of dangerous material,’ according to the Times.” Huffington Post (7/6, Visser) reports that in 2016, the “head of the International Atomic Energy Agency…warned of the potential for hacking at nuclear power plants worldwide, citing an effective attack that ‘caused some problems’ two or three years prior.” IAEA Director Yukiya Amano told Reuters in October, “This is not an imaginary risk,” adding that “cyber attacks on nuclear-related facilities or activities should be taken very seriously.”
CNET News (7/6, Musil) reports that the hackers sent “fake résumés containing malware to senior engineers who maintain broad access to critical industrial control systems, the government report said.” When the “recipients clicked on the documents, hackers could then steal their credentials, the Times reported.” Business Insider Australia (7/7, Sheth) mistakenly reports, “US officials have concluded that hackers working on behalf of a foreign power recently breached at least a dozen US nuclear power sites, Bloomberg reported on Thursday.”
AGs Sue DeVos Over Student Loan Protections.
News that the attorneys general of 18 states and the District of Columbia have filed a lawsuit against ED and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos over her move to delay rules that protect student loan borrowers generated significant coverage from dozens of state and national news outlets.
Noting that all of the plaintiff AGs are Democrats, the New York Times (7/6, Cowley, Subscription Publication) reports that the complaint challenges “the department’s move last month to freeze new rules for erasing the federal loan debt of student borrowers who were cheated by colleges that acted fraudulently.” The piece explains that the borrower defense to repayment rules “were finalized in October by the Obama administration after years of negotiation and review, and they had been scheduled to take effect on July 1.” However, DeVos “paused the planned changes, citing a federal lawsuit filed in May by an association of for-profit colleges in California that is seeking to block the rules.” The Times says the states call ED’s “rationale for the delay — the California lawsuit — a ‘mere pretext’ for repealing and replacing rules that had already been finalized.”
The Washington Post (7/6, Douglas-Gabriel) reports that Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey is leading the lawsuit, quoting her saying, “With no notice, with no opportunity for comment … the DeVos team is trying to cancel this rule.” The lawsuit accuses ED “of violating federal law by halting updates to a regulation known as the borrower defense to repayment” which “wipes away federal loans for students whose colleges used illegal or deceptive tactics to get them to borrow money to attend.” The Post quotes ED Press Secretary Liz Hill saying, “With this ideologically driven suit, the state attorneys general are saying to regulate first, and ask the legal questions later—which also seems to be the approach of the prior administration that adopted borrower-defense regulations through a heavily politicized process and failed to account for the interests of all stakeholders.” The AP (7/6, Binkley) reports that the lawsuit demands that the borrower defense rules be implemented as currently written.
Reuters (7/6, Lambert) reports that DeVos “pressed pause on the rules” last month, and “has said accelerating the debt cancellation process would put taxpayers on the hook for significant costs, and a delay is needed while current litigation in California over the rules works through the legal system.” Meanwhile, consumer advocacy groups Public Citizen and Project on Predatory Student Lending also filed suit on Thursday to block the delay. Reuters explains that the Obama administration began drafting the rules after the collapse of Corinthian Colleges Inc. left thousands of students on the hook for their loans.
Bloomberg News (7/6, Harris) reports that the AGs’ lawsuit contends that ED “improperly delayed parts of the Borrower Defense Rule instead of engaging in the formal process of revamping or rescinding it, as required by law.” Bloomberg reports that under President Obama, ED rewrote the rules “in the wake of revelations that some for-profit colleges enticed students with promises of an education and diplomas that would allow them to get jobs in their chosen fields. In reality, many of those certifications weren’t recognized by prospective employers, leaving graduates saddled with student loans they couldn’t repay.”
Parents Of US College Students Killed While Studying Abroad Demand Stronger Oversight.
The AP (7/6, Jain) reports that though hundreds of thousands of American college students spend some portion of time studying overseas, “no one can say exactly how many are injured or die.” The piece reports that parents of students killed while studying abroad “are demanding that US education institutions provide more oversight of a $183 billion youth-travel industry that offers little transparency about what happens when things go wrong.”
Research and Development
Duke Researchers Develop Low-Cost Tire Wear Sensor.
The Wall Street Journal (6/30, Akst, Subscription Publication) reports that Duke University researchers have developed an inexpensive sensor that can monitor the amount of tread left on car tires and alert drivers when it reaches dangerously low levels. Data from the sensors could also help manufacturers understand how tires perform on the road leading to future safety innovations. The Journal explains that the sensors are made of paired carbon nanotube electrodes.
University Of Arizona Engineers Working On Systems To Use Artificial Intelligence To Patrol US-Mexico Border.
Phys (UK) (7/6, Goetz) reports that as US border authorities increase the use of technology for monitoring the US-Mexico border, “systems and industrial engineers at the University of Arizona are building a framework for border surveillance that uses artificial intelligence…to integrate data from different sources and respond in real time.” The piece explains that some of the UAVs being used at the border cost upwards of $18 million. The article reports that the Air Force Office of Scientific Research has given University of Arizona engineering professor Young-Jun Son a $750,000 grant “to build an integrated and autonomous surveillance system for land and aerial vehicles monitoring the nation’s southern border.”
Researchers Develop Temperature Sensor That Uses Less Than 1-Billionth Of A Watt.
Digital Trends (7/6, Dormehl) reports a team of electrical engineers from the University of California, San Diego developed a “temperature sensor that runs on just 113 picowatts of power” – that’s “628 times lower power than the previous state-of-the-art technology and 10 billion times smaller than a single watt.” Patrick Mercier, an electrical engineering professor at UC San Diego and the study’s senior author, told Digital Trends, “What we’ve built is a digital thermometer that operates with nearly zero power consumption. Normally, digital thermometers are used to monitor ambient air temperature, the temperature of the human body, or the temperature of seawater, industrial equipment, or a large number of other applications — requiring significant power to operate.” According to Mercier, this means such devices “must employ larger than desired batteries, or be connected to wall power, which is inconvenient and increases the overall size of the device.” In short, a sensor that “not only requires virtually no power to operate, but is also just a square millimeter in size,” opens up new possibilities for wearable technology.
Researchers Develop New AI Code Allowing Computers To Read Body Language In Real Time.
The Daily Mail (7/6, Macdonald) reports researchers from Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute developed a new code using the Panoptic Studio to provide robots with “capabilities to better understand the humans around them, paving the way for more perceptive machines, from self-driving cars to surveillance.” The researchers say the new technique allows computers “to understand body poses and movements of multiple people, even tracking parts as minute as individual fingers.” According to the research team, “by tracking the 2D human form and motion, the new code could vastly improve robots’ abilities in social situations.”
Research: Satellite Phone Calls Can Now Be Decrypted In “Real Time.”
ZDNet (7/6) reports Chinese researchers have discovered a way to speed up decrypting satellite phone communications to “within a fraction of a second in some cases.” The new paper expands on previous research by German academic in 2012, finding a way to decrypt popular Inmarsat satellite phones in “real time.” Matthew Green, a cryptography teacher at Johns Hopkins University, said in 2012 after the German research that satellite phone security “matters. … Satphone coverage is…important in war zones, where signal privacy is of more than academic interest.” An Inmarsat spokesperson said the security flaw was addressed in 2012 and “we are entirely confident that the issue… has been completely resolved and that our satellite phones are secure.”
Microsoft Cutting Thousands Of Jobs As It Shifts Sales Focus Toward The Cloud.
The Washington Post (7/6, Tsukayama) reports Microsoft has begun eliminating thousands of positions, “mostly in its sales department, days after announcing it would shift its sales strategy to focus more on cloud services than on its traditional server and desktop businesses.” The New York Times (7/6, Lohr, Subscription Publication) reports that, according to a person familiar with the company’s plans, the number of layoffs is likely to be in the range of 3,000 to 4,000. AFP (7/6) reports that, according to Global Equities research analyst Trip Chowdhry, Microsoft Azure and Amazon Web Services are the two most dominant cloud services in the market. The Motley Fool (7/6) also identifies the two companies as the top services in the market and says that, “going forward, the cloud and enterprise competition between Microsoft and Amazon is only going to intensify, so in trying to improve sales efficiency, Microsoft is probably just preparing for battle.”
Taiwan Planning $33 Million Investment In AI Research Centers.
Reuters (7/6) reports that Taiwan’s government has announced that it “plans to spend T$1 billion ($32.73 million) every year over a period of five years on artificial intelligence research centers” in an effort to “help its technology firms enter the fledgling sector.” Minister of Science and Technology Liang-Gee Chen says the country hopes to supply technology mainland Chinese tech firms such as Baidu.
Engineering and Public Policy
DOE: Cost Of Building Power Plants On The Decline.
The Houston Chronicle (7/6, Handy) reports that according to the Energy Department, “the cost of building natural gas-fired power plants, wind farms and large solar arrays has fallen significantly since 2013.” However “the cost of building a new power” facility “is one piece of the equation for power companies, which also consider the cost of fuel, financial incentives and state policies.” For example, “while the cost of fuel for natural gas plants is low and the cost of building those plants has dropped, low wholesale electricity prices and a surge of renewable energy in Texas have left companies hard-pressed to justify building, or even updating, power plants.”
US Army Corps Of Engineers Approves Surry-Skiffes Creek Transmission Line.
The Washington Post (7/6, Schneider) reports the US Army Corps of Engineers has granted its final approval for Dominion Energy’s proposed Surry-Skiffes Creek transmission line, which has faced opposition from environmentalists and historians who fear the project will mar the view from historic Jamestown. For its part, Dominion Energy says the transmission line is needed to ensure reliability for the Peninsula after environmental regulations force the shutdown of the utility’s two coal-burning units in Yorktown. Dominion Energy spokeswoman Bonita Billingsley Harris said of the approval, “We believe the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has done a diligent and thorough review.” The article mentions that Dominion Energy has “agreed to take steps to limit the environmental impact” and to use “a design that uses the fewest towers possible and to paint them in a way that minimizes their appearance.”
The Newport News (VA) Daily Press (7/6, Ress, Subscription Publication) reports Dominion Energy will ask the James City County Board of Supervisors on July 11 to approve a permit to build a switching station connecting the line to the grid. Dominion Energy estimates that it will cost about $180 million to build the line and has agreed to a $91 million environmental mitigation plan.
Renewable Energy Surpasses Nuclear For First Time In Decades.
The AP (7/6, Michael Biesecker) reports the US, “for the first time in decades,” generated “more electricity from renewable sources than nuclear power in March and April.” On Thursday, the US Energy Information Administration announced “that electricity production from utility-scale renewable sources exceeded nuclear generation in both March and April,” and that is “the first time renewable sources have outpaced nuclear since 1984.” The increase “in renewables was fueled by scores of new wind turbines and solar farms, as well as recent increases in hydroelectric power as a result of heavy snow and rain in Western states last winter.” Bloomberg News (7/6, Martin) reports EIA analyst Mikey Francis said in the report by the agency, “As renewable generation has increased, net generation from nuclear power has remained relatively flat since the late 1990s. … Retirements of a number of nuclear plants have resulted in a slightly lower level of overall nuclear generation capacity.” The Houston Chronicle (7/6) reports “renewable energy’s climb past nuclear this spring also received a boost by planned outages of nuclear plants during March and April, when about 14 to 21 percent of the nation’s total nuclear plants were undergoing maintenance.”
Indiana District Middle School To Host First Robotics Camp.
The Muncie (IN) Journal (7/6) reports that, later this month, Muncie Southside Middle School in Muncie, Indiana is scheduled to hold its first ever Robotics Summer Camp, noting that a pair of educators reached out to Ted Baker at the Innovation Connector to set up the event. The program will feature programming, problem-solving, and robotics.
Thursday’s Lead Stories
• US Officials Looking For Balance When It Comes To AI Systems.
• Gainful Employment, Borrower Defense Among Regulations On Administration’s Chopping Block.
• Significant Progress Made In Engineering Digestive System Tissues.
• Cal Poly, Harvey Mudd Researchers Help Discover World War II Era Plane Off Malta.
• Citing “Market Realities,” EPA Proposes Lowering Biofuel Mandates.
• Students With Disabilities Learn Tech Skills At Virginia Robotics And Cyber Academy.