One morning in mid-August, seven months into the Arab Spring protests and government crackdowns in which thousands have been killed, something strange happened on Syria’s Internet. As users aimed their Web browsers at Google and Facebook, they instead saw a page of white Arabic script scrawled across a black background.
“This is a deliberate, temporary Internet breakdown. Please read carefully and spread the following message,” it read. “Your Internet activity is monitored.”
Then the page switched to a white screen filled with instructions on using free encryption and anonymity software like Tor and TrueCrypt to evade surveillance and censorship. Emblazoned above the text was a round, mysterious symbol: a star inside an omega, hovering over a pyramid surrounded by lightning bolts. Below it were written the words: “This is Telecomix. We come in peace.”
Telecomix, a loose-knit team of international hacktivists, had been scanning the Syrian Internet in a massive sweep, dividing 700,000 target connections among its members in Germany, France and the U.S., probing for hackable devices with software tools like Nmap and Shodan. They compromised vulnerable Cisco Systemsproduced network switches to find other devices’ passwords, snooped on open cameras revealing street scenes and even officials’ desks, and at one point retrieved the log-in credentials for 5,000 unsecured home routers, which they used to insert the above-mentioned surveillance warning into browsers across the country.
As the globally distributed hackers combed Syria’s networks and posted their findings in a crowd-sourced document, one American member of the group, who uses the handle Punkbob, spotted a Windows FTP server filled with data he recognized: logs from a Proxy SG 9000 appliance built by the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based company Blue Coat Systems. In Punkbob’s day job at a Pentagon contractor, he says, the same equipment had been used to intercept traffic to filter and track staff behavior. The Syrian machine’s logs showed the Internet activity of thousands of users, connecting the sites they attempted to visit and every word of their communications with the IP addresses that pointed directly to their homes. In short, he had discovered American technology being used to help a brutal dictatorship spy on its citizens.
“At first we were just poking around, but when I saw that, I had this feeling of dread,” says Punkbob, who requested that FORBES not use his real name. “To see exactly what Syria was tracking and who was providing the technology to do it.…That was when it felt real.”
Since Telecomix published 54 gigabytes of those logs, the resulting attention has forced Blue Coat to admit that its gear had been used by Syria, a potential violation of international sanctions against that country. The company didn’t respond to FORBES’ request for an interview, citing an ongoing internal review and a related Commerce Department probe. (Note that the investigation didn’t deter private equity firm Thoma Bravo and the Ontario Teachers Pension Plan from a recent deal to take Blue Coat private for $1.3 billion.)
The disclosure of Blue Coat’s gear in Syria has touched off revelations that hardware from other U.S. firms, including NetApp and HP, was also used by blacklisted regimes. The industry now faces tough new questions about tech firms’ responsibility for how their products are used—and by whom.
Telecomix sees its Blue Coat discovery as a turning point in the group’s mission: Founded to fight for free speech, it now aims to also expose those who fight against that ideal, including any Western tech firm aiding the wrong side. “I hope that the Blue Coat thing was the start of something much bigger,” says Chris Kullenberg, a lean and lip-pierced Swedish political science grad student at the University of Gothenburg and a Telecomix founder. “The goal is to put political pressure on these companies. It started with rage and frustration. What can we do? Well, we can hack a few boxes and expose this to the world. That’s the motivation that drives hackers deeper and deeper into the networks.”
Telecomix likely broke Syrian law. But some more traditional advocates appreciate their work. “It crosses a line we wouldn’t be comfortable crossing,” says Brett Solomon, president of the digital human rights group Access Now.
“But sometimes it takes someone like Telecomix to put a spanner in the works.”
Actively hacking networks is a new game for Telecomix’s Web revolutionaries, who call each other “agents” or “Internauts.” But unlike the hacker group Anonymous, which began with juvenile pranks before attacking Scientologists, opponents of WikiLeaks and defense contractors, Telecomix was born political. The group was created at a Gothenburg conference in 2009 to oppose the European Union’s so-called Telecoms Package, industry-influenced laws that would have cut Internet access for anyone repeatedly downloading copyrighted files. “In a sense, corporations have always been the enemy,” says Kullenberg.
The hackers dug up and published the phone numbers of every EU Parliament member, then convinced the copyright-flouting Swedish download site the Pirate Bay to post a link on its home page, which received 20 million monthly visitors. The Parliament’s phones were jammed for days, and the statute was eventually dropped.
The populist uprisings of the Arab Spring brought Telecomix’s goals—and its enemies—into sharper focus. A few days into the Jan. 25 protests in Egypt Hosni Mubarak shut down all but one of his country’s Internet service providers. “Telecomix members consider themselves citizens of the Internet,” says one American Telecomix hacker who goes by the nickname the Doctor. “So we took that as a personal affront.” Agents arranged with the hacker-friendly Internet provider French Data Network to fire up modem banks and give users free dial-up connections. Then the group faxed thousands of leaflets to Egyptian universities, offices and cybercafes, explaining how to skirt the blackout.
Telecomix’s scanning of the Syrian Net began as reconnaissance to prepare for an Egypt-style Internet shutdown. Stumbling onto the Blue Coat logs was a fateful fluke. When the hackers realized what they’d found, they downloaded close to 100 gigabytes of data, using the Tor anonymization network to cover their tracks. The process took weeks. In October Telecomix released hundreds of millions of lines of text listing hundreds of sites the Syrian government was blocking, from porn to Facebook to Chat- roulette, along with enough users’ communication logs to show that the regime was using their Blue Coat gear to not only filter but also monitor dissidents’ activities.
Blue Coat’s scandal demonstrates the complexity of regulating surveillance technology. The firm claims it hadn’t known about its devices in Syria, arguing they must have found their way into the country through a reseller in the United Arab Emirates. “Blue Coat is mindful of the violence in Syria and is saddened by the human suffering and loss of human life that may be the result of actions by a repressive regime,” it wrote in a statement. “We don’t want our products to be used by the government of Syria or any other country embargoed by the United States.” But critics like cryptography guru Bruce Schneier and Tor developer Jacob Appelbaum point out that Blue Coat devices link back to its servers for licensing and updates, implying the company may have turned a blind eye to its Syrian users.
Some Telecomix agents say they’ve also spotted equipment sold by Fortinet in Syria. Fortinet responds that it “has in place a policy prohibiting shipping its product to countries where shipment is embargoed.” And what about resellers who pass it on to those countries? “At that point it’s out of our hands,” a spokesperson says. Hazy as the line may be, it’s clear some companies have crossed it. Marketing documents published by Wiki Leaks show 160 firms advertising surveillance gear, often in Arabic as well as English. British firm Gamma International brags that it can spy on users of Gmail, Skype and iTunes; its sales pitch was found in the files of the Egyptian government after Mubarak fled.
Telecomix is determined to remain a watchdog against Western firms aiding foreign Big Brothers. Two Swedish members, Chris Kullenberg and Jonatan Walck, have registered a site called Internaut.cat where they plan to publish future disclosures of the group’s findings, using Sweden’s strong media laws to shield their sources. “We’re at a point now where Internet users are becoming aware of what’s being done to them,” says the Doctor. “Companies that sell gear designed to track people should expect to be outed.”
How Virtual Therapy Apps Are Trying To Disrupt The Mental Health Industry
Millions of Americans deal with mental illness each year, and more than half of them go untreated. As the mental health industry has grown in recent years, so has the number of tech startups offering virtual therapy, which range from online and app-based chatbots to video therapy sessions and messaging.
Still a nascent industry, with most startups in the early seed-stage funding round, these companies say they aim to increase access to qualified mental health care providers and reduce the social stigma that comes with seeking help.
While the efficacy of virtual therapy, compared with traditional in-person therapy, is still being hotly debated, its popularity is undeniable. Its most recognizable pioneers, BetterHelp and TalkSpace, have enrolled nearly 700,000 and more than 1 million users respectively. And investors are taking notice.
Funding for mental health tech startups has boomed in the past few years, jumping from roughly $100 million in 2014 to more than $500 million in 2018, according to Pitchbook. In May of this year, the subscription-based online therapy platform Talkspace raised an additional $50 million, bringing its total funding to just under $110 million since its 2012 inception.
The ubiquity of smartphones, coupled with the lessening of the stigma associated with mental health treatment have played a large role in the growing demand for virtual therapy. Of the various services offered on the Talkspace platform, “clients by far want asynchronous text messaging,” says Neil Leibowitz, the company’s chief medical officer.
Users seem to prefer back-and-forth messaging that isn’t restricted to a narrow window of time over face-to-face interactions. At BetterHelp, founder Alon Matas notes that older users are more likely to go for phone and video therapy sessions, whereas younger users favor text messaging.
“Each generation is getting progressively more mobile-native,” says John Prendergass, an associate director at Ben Franklin Technology Partners’ healthcare investment group, “so I think we’re going to see people become increasingly more accustomed, or predisposed, to a higher level of comfort in seeking care online.”
The ease and convenience of virtual therapy is another draw, particularly for busy people or those who live in rural areas with limited access to therapy and a range of care options.
Alison Darcy, founder and CEO of Woebot, a free automated chatbot that uses artificial intelligence to provide therapeutic services without the direct involvement of humans, says that with Woebot and other similar services, there is no need to schedule appointments weeks in advance and users can receive real-time coaching at the moment they need it, unlike traditional therapy. The sense of anonymity online can also lead to more openness and transparency and attracts people who normally wouldn’t seek therapy.
Along with stigma, the cost of therapy has historically acted as a barrier to accessing quality mental-health care. Health insurance is often unlikely to cover therapy sessions. In most cities, sessions run about $75 to $150 each, and can go as high as $200 or more in places like New York City. Web therapists don’t have to bear the expense of brick-and-mortar offices, filing paperwork or marketing their services, and these savings can be passed on to clients.
BetterHelp offers a $200-a-month membership that includes weekly live sessions with a therapist and unlimited messaging in between, while Talkspace’s cheapest monthly subscription at $260-a-month, offers unlimited text, video and audio messaging.
But virtual therapy, particularly text-based therapy, is not suitable for everyone. Nor is it likely to make traditional therapy obsolete. “Online therapy isn’t good for people who have severe mental and relational health issues, or any kind of psychosis, deep depression or violence,” says Christiana Awosan, a licensed marriage and family therapist.
At her New York and New Jersey offices, she works predominantly with black clients, a population that she says prefers face-to-face meetings. “This community is wary of mental health in general because of structural discrimination,” Awosan says. “They pay attention to nonverbal cues and so they need to first build trust in-person.”
Virtual therapy apps can still be beneficial for people with low-level anxiety, stress or insomnia, and they can also help users become aware of harmful behaviors and obtain a higher sense of well-being.
Sean Luo, a psychiatrist whose consultancy work focuses on machine learning techniques in mental health technology, says: “This why some of these companies are getting very high valuations. There are a lot of commercialization possibilities.” He adds that from a mental health treatment perspective, a virtual therapy app “isn’t going to solve your problems, because people who are truly ill will by definition require a lot more.”
Relying on digital therapy platforms might also provide a false sense of security for users who actually need more serious mental-health care, and many of these apps are ill-equipped to deal with emergencies like suicide, drug overdoses or the medical consequences of psychiatric illness. “The level of intervention simply isn’t strong enough,” says Luo, “and so these aspects still need to be evaluated by a trained professional.
– Ruth Umoh, Diversity and Inclusion Writer, Forbes Staff.
AI 50 Founders Say This Is What People Get Wrong About Artificial Intelligence
Forbes’ new list of promising artificial intelligence companies highlights how the technology is creating real value across industries like transportation, healthcare, HR, insurance and finance.
Naturally, the founders of the honoree companies are excited about the technology’s benefits and, in their roles, spend a lot of time thinking and talking about its strengths and limitations. Here’s what they think people get wrong about artificial intelligence.
Affectiva CEO Rana el Kaliouby says she’s too often encountered the idea that AI is “evil.”
“AI—like any technology in history—is neutral,” she says. “It’s what we do with it that counts, so it’s our responsibility, as an AI ecosystem, to drive it in the right direction.”
Companies need to be aware of how AI could widen bounds of inequality, she adds: “Any AI that is designed to interact with humans—Affectiva’s included—must be evaluated with regards to the ethical and privacy implications of these technologies.”
Sarjoun Skaff, CTO and cofounder of Bossa Nova Robotics, says that the biggest misconception he encounters is that artificial intelligence is actually, well, intelligent.
“The truth is much more mundane,” he says. “AI is a very good pattern-matching tool. To make it work well, though, scientists need to understand the details of how it internally works and not treat it as an ‘intelligent’ black box. At the end of the day, making good use of great pattern matching still belongs to humans.”
Similarly, Aira cofounder Suman Kanuganti says that the public has “over-inflated expectations” for artificial intelligence.
“Garry Kasparov sums it up nicely: ‘We are in the beginning of MS-DOS and people think we are Windows 10,’” Kanuganti says. “AI realistically is still like a 3-year-old child at this stage. When it works, it feels magical. It does some things well, but there’s still a long way to go.”
So, no, we are nowhere close to “artificial general intelligence,” or AGI, where machines are actually as smart as humans.
“We’re still a long way from AI having the general intelligence of even a flea,” says David Gausebeck.
Despite the tendency to overestimate what artificial intelligence can do, the difficulty of building an effective system is often underestimated, some founders say.
“The systems you need to implement and manage machine learning in production are often much more complex than the algorithms themselves,” says Algorithmia CEO Diego Oppenheimer. “You can’t throw models at a complex business problem and expect returned value. You need to build an ecosystem to manage those models and connect their intelligence to your applications.”
Put another way, you can’t just “sprinkle on some artificial intelligence like a magic sauce,” says Feedzai CEO Nuno Sebastiao.
One of the most common tropes that a handful of founders brought up was the idea that artificial intelligence is primarily a job killer.
People.ai founder Oleg Rogynskyy says that AI should be seen as a creator of new opportunities instead of a destroyer of jobs.
“In a nutshell, AI does two things: It automates repetitive low-value-add work for humans (which will indeed take low-complexity jobs away), which we think of as ‘Autopilot,’ and it guides people on how to do their work or other activities better (which makes humans more effective at what they do), which we call ‘Copilot,’” he says. “While Autopilot can take simple, repetitive and boring jobs away, Copilot is absolutely the best way to guide, train and educate humans on how to do new things.”
– By Jillian D’Onfro, Forbes
‘AI Is A Powerful Tool’
Research forecasts that by 2025, machines will perform more current work tasks than humans. Murat Sonmez, member of the managing board, and Head of the Centre for the WEF Fourth Industrial Revolution Network, expands on the role humans might play.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is at the center of the current economic frontier. In reality, is Africa prepared for such changes?
Moving quickly and being agile are key principles of success in the 4IR. Any country can succeed if they take on this mindset. A few years ago, Rwanda saw the opportunities drones, a 4IR technology, brought to their country.
They helped save over 800 lives by delivering blood to remote villages. To scale this, the government worked with the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) drones’ team to create the world’s first agile airspace regulation. Now, we see countries in Africa and around the world looking to the Rwandan model.
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What feasible solutions can artificial intelligence (AI) offer in terms of forecasting natural disasters, droughts food security on the African continent?
AI can help predict diseases, increase agriculture yields and help first responders. It is a powerful tool for governments and businesses, but it needs a lot of data to be effective.
For AI to be all that it can be, countries and companies need to work together to build frameworks for better management and protection of our data and ensure that it is shared and not stored in silos. Data is the oxygen of the (4IR). If countries do not leverage data and have their policies in place, they will be left behind.
There is a growing concern that the 4IR will strip people of jobs, of which there is already a shortage. How true is this?
The world is going through a workplace revolution that will bring a seismic shift in the way humans work alongside machines and algorithms.
Latest research from the WEF forecasts that by 2025, machines will perform more current work tasks than humans, compared to 71% being performed by humans today.
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The rapid evolution of machines and algorithms in the workplace could create 133 million new roles in place of 75 million that will be displaced between now and 2022.
Consumers have real concerns around the potential harm technology can cause in areas such as privacy, misinformation, surveillance, job loss, environmental damage and increased inequality. What ethical precautions are being considered in the robotics space?
Now more than ever, it is important to incorporate ethics into the design, deployment and use of emerging technology. Innovating in the 4IR requires addressing concerns around privacy and data ownership, while attracting the skills and forward-looking thinkers of the future.
There are big challenges and bigger opportunities ahead. We have seen many companies and countries create ethical and human rights-based frameworks. What’s important is they are co-designed with members of both communities along with academia, civil society and start-ups.
A multi-stakeholder approach will result in a more holistic set of guidelines and principles that can be adopted in many different industries and geographies.
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What changes need to take place for the African continent to be on par with global developments, and are there tangible goals set?
The 4IR provides governments the opportunity to be global leaders in shaping the next 20 to 30 years of science and technology. It is important they create an environment where companies can innovate.
The other tenet is to be open to working across borders and learning from each other. The global health industry has access to mountains of data on rare diseases, but it is trapped within countries and sometimes even within the hospital walls.
If we can build trust and find innovative ways to share the data while protecting privacy, we can employ tools like AI to help us cure disease faster. Countries and companies need to have the right governance frameworks and mechanisms in place for these breakthroughs to happen. It is possible to do these things now, but we need to work together to make it happen.
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