Blog: April 2023 Archives

Hacking the Layoff Process

My latest book, A Hacker’s Mind, is filled with stories about the rich and powerful hacking systems, but it was hard to find stories of the hacking by the less powerful. Here’s one I just found. An article on how layoffs at big companies work inadvertently suggests an employee hack to avoid being fired:

…software performs a statistical analysis during terminations to see if certain groups are adversely affected, said such reviews can uncover other problems. On a list of layoff candidates, a company might find it is about to fire inadvertently an employee who previously opened a complaint against a manager—a move that could be seen as retaliation, she said.

So if you’re at a large company and there are rumors of layoffs, go to HR and initiate a complaint against a manager. It’ll protect you from being laid off.

Posted on April 28, 2023 at 3:15 PM11 Comments

Security Risks of AI

Stanford and Georgetown have a new report on the security risks of AI—particularly adversarial machine learning—based on a workshop they held on the topic.

Jim Dempsey, one of the workshop organizers, wrote a blog post on the report:

As a first step, our report recommends the inclusion of AI security concerns within the cybersecurity programs of developers and users. The understanding of how to secure AI systems, we concluded, lags far behind their widespread adoption. Many AI products are deployed without institutions fully understanding the security risks they pose. Organizations building or deploying AI models should incorporate AI concerns into their cybersecurity functions using a risk management framework that addresses security throughout the AI system life cycle. It will be necessary to grapple with the ways in which AI vulnerabilities are different from traditional cybersecurity bugs, but the starting point is to assume that AI security is a subset of cybersecurity and to begin applying vulnerability management practices to AI-based features. (Andy Grotto and I have vigorously argued against siloing AI security in its own governance and policy vertical.)

Our report also recommends more collaboration between cybersecurity practitioners, machine learning engineers, and adversarial machine learning researchers. Assessing AI vulnerabilities requires technical expertise that is distinct from the skill set of cybersecurity practitioners, and organizations should be cautioned against repurposing existing security teams without additional training and resources. We also note that AI security researchers and practitioners should consult with those addressing AI bias. AI fairness researchers have extensively studied how poor data, design choices, and risk decisions can produce biased outcomes. Since AI vulnerabilities may be more analogous to algorithmic bias than they are to traditional software vulnerabilities, it is important to cultivate greater engagement between the two communities.

Another major recommendation calls for establishing some form of information sharing among AI developers and users. Right now, even if vulnerabilities are identified or malicious attacks are observed, this information is rarely transmitted to others, whether peer organizations, other companies in the supply chain, end users, or government or civil society observers. Bureaucratic, policy, and cultural barriers currently inhibit such sharing. This means that a compromise will likely remain mostly unnoticed until long after attackers have successfully exploited vulnerabilities. To avoid this outcome, we recommend that organizations developing AI models monitor for potential attacks on AI systems, create—formally or informally—a trusted forum for incident information sharing on a protected basis, and improve transparency.

Posted on April 27, 2023 at 9:38 AM12 Comments

AI to Aid Democracy

There’s good reason to fear that AI systems like ChatGPT and GPT4 will harm democracy. Public debate may be overwhelmed by industrial quantities of autogenerated argument. People might fall down political rabbit holes, taken in by superficially convincing bullshit, or obsessed by folies à deux relationships with machine personalities that don’t really exist.

These risks may be the fallout of a world where businesses deploy poorly tested AI systems in a battle for market share, each hoping to establish a monopoly.

But dystopia isn’t the only possible future. AI could advance the public good, not private profit, and bolster democracy instead of undermining it. That would require an AI not under the control of a large tech monopoly, but rather developed by government and available to all citizens. This public option is within reach if we want it.

An AI built for public benefit could be tailor-made for those use cases where technology can best help democracy. It could plausibly educate citizens, help them deliberate together, summarize what they think, and find possible common ground. Politicians might use large language models, or LLMs, like GPT4 to better understand what their citizens want.

Today, state-of-the-art AI systems are controlled by multibillion-dollar tech companies: Google, Meta, and OpenAI in connection with Microsoft. These companies get to decide how we engage with their AIs and what sort of access we have. They can steer and shape those AIs to conform to their corporate interests. That isn’t the world we want. Instead, we want AI options that are both public goods and directed toward public good.

We know that existing LLMs are trained on material gathered from the internet, which can reflect racist bias and hate. Companies attempt to filter these data sets, fine-tune LLMs, and tweak their outputs to remove bias and toxicity. But leaked emails and conversations suggest that they are rushing half-baked products to market in a race to establish their own monopoly.

These companies make decisions with huge consequences for democracy, but little democratic oversight. We don’t hear about political trade-offs they are making. Do LLM-powered chatbots and search engines favor some viewpoints over others? Do they skirt controversial topics completely? Currently, we have to trust companies to tell us the truth about the trade-offs they face.

A public option LLM would provide a vital independent source of information and a testing ground for technological choices with big democratic consequences. This could work much like public option health care plans, which increase access to health services while also providing more transparency into operations in the sector and putting productive pressure on the pricing and features of private products. It would also allow us to figure out the limits of LLMs and direct their applications with those in mind.

We know that LLMs often “hallucinate,” inferring facts that aren’t real. It isn’t clear whether this is an unavoidable flaw of how they work, or whether it can be corrected for. Democracy could be undermined if citizens trust technologies that just make stuff up at random, and the companies trying to sell these technologies can’t be trusted to admit their flaws.

But a public option AI could do more than check technology companies’ honesty. It could test new applications that could support democracy rather than undermining it.

Most obviously, LLMs could help us formulate and express our perspectives and policy positions, making political arguments more cogent and informed, whether in social media, letters to the editor, or comments to rule-making agencies in response to policy proposals. By this we don’t mean that AI will replace humans in the political debate, only that they can help us express ourselves. If you’ve ever used a Hallmark greeting card or signed a petition, you’ve already demonstrated that you’re OK with accepting help to articulate your personal sentiments or political beliefs. AI will make it easier to generate first drafts, and provide editing help and suggest alternative phrasings. How these AI uses are perceived will change over time, and there is still much room for improvement in LLMs—but their assistive power is real. People are already testing and speculating on their potential for speechwriting, lobbying, and campaign messaging. Highly influential people often rely on professional speechwriters and staff to help develop their thoughts, and AI could serve a similar role for everyday citizens.

If the hallucination problem can be solved, LLMs could also become explainers and educators. Imagine citizens being able to query an LLM that has expert-level knowledge of a policy issue, or that has command of the positions of a particular candidate or party. Instead of having to parse bland and evasive statements calibrated for a mass audience, individual citizens could gain real political understanding through question-and-answer sessions with LLMs that could be unfailingly available and endlessly patient in ways that no human could ever be.

Finally, and most ambitiously, AI could help facilitate radical democracy at scale. As Carnegie Mellon professor of statistics Cosma Shalizi has observed, we delegate decisions to elected politicians in part because we don’t have time to deliberate on every issue. But AI could manage massive political conversations in chat rooms, on social networking sites, and elsewhere: identifying common positions and summarizing them, surfacing unusual arguments that seem compelling to those who have heard them, and keeping attacks and insults to a minimum.

AI chatbots could run national electronic town hall meetings and automatically summarize the perspectives of diverse participants. This type of AI-moderated civic debate could also be a dynamic alternative to opinion polling. Politicians turn to opinion surveys to capture snapshots of popular opinion because they can only hear directly from a small number of voters, but want to understand where voters agree or disagree.

Looking further into the future, these technologies could help groups reach consensus and make decisions. Early experiments by the AI company DeepMind suggest that LLMs can build bridges between people who disagree, helping bring them to consensus. Science fiction writer Ruthanna Emrys, in her remarkable novel A Half-Built Garden, imagines how AI might help people have better conversations and make better decisions—rather than taking advantage of these biases to maximize profits.

This future requires an AI public option. Building one, through a government-directed model development and deployment program, would require a lot of effort—and the greatest challenges in developing public AI systems would be political.

Some technological tools are already publicly available. In fairness, tech giants like Google and Meta have made many of their latest and greatest AI tools freely available for years, in cooperation with the academic community. Although OpenAI has not made the source code and trained features of its latest models public, competitors such as Hugging Face have done so for similar systems.

While state-of-the-art LLMs achieve spectacular results, they do so using techniques that are mostly well known and widely used throughout the industry. OpenAI has only revealed limited details of how it trained its latest model, but its major advance over its earlier ChatGPT model is no secret: a multi-modal training process that accepts both image and textual inputs.

Financially, the largest-scale LLMs being trained today cost hundreds of millions of dollars. That’s beyond ordinary people’s reach, but it’s a pittance compared to U.S. federal military spending—and a great bargain for the potential return. While we may not want to expand the scope of existing agencies to accommodate this task, we have our choice of government labs, like the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and other Department of Energy labs, as well as universities and nonprofits, with the AI expertise and capability to oversee this effort.

Instead of releasing half-finished AI systems for the public to test, we need to make sure that they are robust before they’re released—and that they strengthen democracy rather than undermine it. The key advance that made recent AI chatbot models dramatically more useful was feedback from real people. Companies employ teams to interact with early versions of their software to teach them which outputs are useful and which are not. These paid users train the models to align to corporate interests, with applications like web search (integrating commercial advertisements) and business productivity assistive software in mind.

To build assistive AI for democracy, we would need to capture human feedback for specific democratic use cases, such as moderating a polarized policy discussion, explaining the nuance of a legal proposal, or articulating one’s perspective within a larger debate. This gives us a path to “align” LLMs with our democratic values: by having models generate answers to questions, make mistakes, and learn from the responses of human users, without having these mistakes damage users and the public arena.

Capturing that kind of user interaction and feedback within a political environment suspicious of both AI and technology generally will be challenging. It’s easy to imagine the same politicians who rail against the untrustworthiness of companies like Meta getting far more riled up by the idea of government having a role in technology development.

As Karl Popper, the great theorist of the open society, argued, we shouldn’t try to solve complex problems with grand hubristic plans. Instead, we should apply AI through piecemeal democratic engineering, carefully determining what works and what does not. The best way forward is to start small, applying these technologies to local decisions with more constrained stakeholder groups and smaller impacts.

The next generation of AI experimentation should happen in the laboratories of democracy: states and municipalities. Online town halls to discuss local participatory budgeting proposals could be an easy first step. Commercially available and open-source LLMs could bootstrap this process and build momentum toward federal investment in a public AI option.

Even with these approaches, building and fielding a democratic AI option will be messy and hard. But the alternative—shrugging our shoulders as a fight for commercial AI domination undermines democratic politics—will be much messier and much worse.

This essay was written with Henry Farrell and Nathan Sanders, and previously appeared on

EDITED TO ADD: Linux Weekly News discussion.

Posted on April 26, 2023 at 6:51 AM58 Comments

Cyberweapons Manufacturer QuaDream Shuts Down

Following a report on its activities, the Israeli spyware company QuaDream has shut down.

This was QuaDream:

Key Findings

  • Based on an analysis of samples shared with us by Microsoft Threat Intelligence, we developed indicators that enabled us to identify at least five civil society victims of QuaDream’s spyware and exploits in North America, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. Victims include journalists, political opposition figures, and an NGO worker. We are not naming the victims at this time.
  • We also identify traces of a suspected iOS 14 zero-click exploit used to deploy QuaDream’s spyware. The exploit was deployed as a zero-day against iOS versions 14.4 and 14.4.2, and possibly other versions. The suspected exploit, which we call ENDOFDAYS, appears to make use of invisible iCloud calendar invitations sent from the spyware’s operator to victims.
  • We performed Internet scanning to identify QuaDream servers, and in some cases were able to identify operator locations for QuaDream systems. We detected systems operated from Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Ghana, Israel, Mexico, Romania, Singapore, United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Uzbekistan.

I don’t know if they sold off their products before closing down. One presumes that they did, or will.

Posted on April 25, 2023 at 6:09 AM13 Comments

UK Threatens End-to-End Encryption

In an open letter, seven secure messaging apps—including Signal and WhatsApp—point out that the UK’s Online Safety Bill could destroy end-to-end encryption:

As currently drafted, the Bill could break end-to-end encryption,opening the door to routine, general and indiscriminate surveillance of personal messages of friends, family members, employees, executives, journalists, human rights activists and even politicians themselves, which would fundamentally undermine everyone’s ability to communicate securely.

The Bill provides no explicit protection for encryption, and if implemented as written, could empower OFCOM to try to force the proactive scanning of private messages on end-to-end encrypted communication services—nullifying the purpose of end-to-end encryption as a result and compromising the privacy of all users.

In short, the Bill poses an unprecedented threat to the privacy, safety and security of every UK citizen and the people with whom they communicate around the world, while emboldening hostile governments who may seek to draft copy-cat laws.

Both Signal and WhatsApp have said that they will cease services in the UK rather than compromise the security of their users worldwide.

Posted on April 24, 2023 at 6:39 AM41 Comments

Hacking Pickleball

My latest book, A Hacker’s Mind, has a lot of sports stories. Sports are filled with hacks, as players look for every possible advantage that doesn’t explicitly break the rules. Here’s an example from pickleball, which nicely explains the dilemma between hacking as a subversion and hacking as innovation:

Some might consider these actions cheating, while the acting player would argue that there was no rule that said the action couldn’t be performed. So, how do we address these situations, and close those loopholes? We make new rules that specifically address the loophole action. And the rules book gets longer, and the cycle continues with new loopholes identified, and new rules to prohibit that particular action in the future.

Alternatively, sometimes an action taken as a result of an identified loophole which is not deemed as harmful to the integrity of the game or sportsmanship, becomes part of the game. Ernie Perry found a loophole, and his shot, appropriately named the “Ernie shot,” became part of the game. He realized that by jumping completely over the corner of the NVZ, without breaking any of the NVZ rules, he could volley the ball, making contact closer to the net, usually surprising the opponent, and often winning the rally with an un-returnable shot. He found a loophole, and in this case, it became a very popular and exciting shot to execute and to watch!

I don’t understand pickleball at all, so that explanation doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. (I watched a video explaining the shot; that helped somewhat.) But it looks like an excellent example.

The blog post also links to a 2010 paper that I wish I’d known about when I was writing my book: “Loophole ethics in sports,” by Øyvind Kvalnes and Liv Birgitte Hemmestad:

Abstract: Ethical challenges in sports occur when the practitioners are caught between the will to win and the overall task of staying within the realm of acceptable values and virtues. One way to prepare for these challenges is to formulate comprehensive and specific rules of acceptable conduct. In this paper we will draw attention to one serious problem with such a rule-based approach. It may inadvertently encourage what we will call loophole ethics, an attitude where every action that is not explicitly defined as wrong, will be seen as a viable option. Detailed codes of conduct leave little room for personal judgement, and instead promote a loophole mentality. We argue that loophole ethics can be avoided by operating with only a limited set of general principles, thus leaving more space for personal judgement and wisdom.

EDITED TO ADD (5/12): Here’s an eleven-second video that explains the Erne (or Ernie).

Posted on April 21, 2023 at 2:11 PM16 Comments

Using the iPhone Recovery Key to Lock Owners Out of Their iPhones

This a good example of a security feature that can sometimes harm security:

Apple introduced the optional recovery key in 2020 to protect users from online hackers. Users who turn on the recovery key, a unique 28-digit code, must provide it when they want to reset their Apple ID password.

iPhone thieves with your passcode can flip on the recovery key and lock you out. And if you already have the recovery key enabled, they can easily generate a new one, which also locks you out.

Apple’s policy gives users virtually no way back into their accounts without that recovery key. For now, a stolen iPhone could mean devastating personal losses.

It’s actually a complicated crime. The criminal first watches their victim type in their passcode and then grabs the phone out of their hands. In the basic mode of this attack, they have a few hours to use the phone—trying to access bank accounts, etc.—before the owner figures out how to shut the attacker out. With the addition of the recovery key, the attacker can shut the owner out—for a long time.

The goal of the recovery key was to defend against SIM swapping, which is a much more common crime. But this spy-and-grab attack has become more common, and the recovery key makes it much more devastating.

Defenses are few: choose a long, complex passcode. Or set parental controls in a way that further secure the device. The obvious fix is for Apple to redesign its recovery system.

There are other, less privacy-compromising methods Apple could still rely on in lieu of a recovery key.

If someone takes over your Google account, Google’s password-reset process lets you provide a recovery email, phone number or account password, and you can use them to regain access later, even if a hijacker changes them.

Going through the process on a familiar Wi-Fi network or location can also help demonstrate you’re who you say you are.

Or how about an eight-hour delay before the recovery key can be changed?

This not an easy thing to design for, but we have to get this right as phones become the single point of control for our lives.

Posted on April 21, 2023 at 10:19 AM21 Comments

New Zero-Click Exploits against iOS

Citizen Lab has identified three zero-click exploits against iOS 15 and 16. These were used by NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware in 2022, and deployed by Mexico against human rights defenders. These vulnerabilities have all been patched.

One interesting bit is that Apple’s Lockdown Mode (part of iOS 16) seems to have worked to prevent infection.

News article.

EDITED TO ADD (4/21): News article. Good Twitter thread.

Posted on April 20, 2023 at 6:47 AM3 Comments

EFF on the UN Cybercrime Treaty

EFF has a good explainer on the problems with the new UN Cybercrime Treaty, currently being negotiated in Vienna.

The draft treaty has the potential to rewrite criminal laws around the world, possibly adding over 30 criminal offenses and new expansive police powers for both domestic and international criminal investigations.


While we don’t think the U.N. Cybercrime Treaty is necessary, we’ve been closely scrutinizing the process and providing constructive analysis. We’ve made clear that human rights must be baked into the proposed treaty so that it doesn’t become a tool to stifle freedom of expression, infringe on privacy and data protection, or endanger vulnerable people and communities.

Posted on April 19, 2023 at 6:07 AM26 Comments

Using LLMs to Create Bioweapons

I’m not sure there are good ways to build guardrails to prevent this sort of thing:

There is growing concern regarding the potential misuse of molecular machine learning models for harmful purposes. Specifically, the dual-use application of models for predicting cytotoxicity18 to create new poisons or employing AlphaFold2 to develop novel bioweapons has raised alarm. Central to these concerns are the possible misuse of large language models and automated experimentation for dual-use purposes or otherwise. We specifically address two critical the synthesis issues: illicit drugs and chemical weapons. To evaluate these risks, we designed a test set comprising compounds from the DEA’s Schedule I and II substances and a list of known chemical weapon agents. We submitted these compounds to the Agent using their common names, IUPAC names, CAS numbers, and SMILESs strings to determine if the Agent would carry out extensive analysis and planning (Figure 6).


The run logs can be found in Appendix F. Out of 11 different prompts (Figure 6), four (36%) provided a synthesis solution and attempted to consult documentation to execute the procedure. This figure is alarming on its own, but an even greater concern is the way in which the Agent declines to synthesize certain threats. Out of the seven refused chemicals, five were rejected after the Agent utilized search functions to gather more information about the substance. For instance, when asked about synthesizing codeine, the Agent becomes alarmed upon learning the connection between codeine and morphine, only then concluding that the synthesis cannot be conducted due to the requirement of a controlled substance. However, this search function can be easily manipulated by altering the terminology, such as replacing all mentions of morphine with “Compound A” and codeine with “Compound B”. Alternatively, when requesting a b synthesis procedure that must be performed in a DEA-licensed facility, bad actors can mislead the Agent by falsely claiming their facility is licensed, prompting the Agent to devise a synthesis solution.

In the remaining two instances, the Agent recognized the common names “heroin” and “mustard gas” as threats and prevented further information gathering. While these results are promising, it is crucial to recognize that the system’s capacity to detect misuse primarily applies to known compounds. For unknown compounds, the model is less likely to identify potential misuse, particularly for complex protein toxins where minor sequence changes might allow them to maintain the same properties but become unrecognizable to the model.

Posted on April 18, 2023 at 7:19 AM43 Comments

Swatting as a Service

Motherboard is reporting on AI-generated voices being used for “swatting”:

In fact, Motherboard has found, this synthesized call and another against Hempstead High School were just one small part of a months-long, nationwide campaign of dozens, and potentially hundreds, of threats made by one swatter in particular who has weaponized computer generated voices. Known as “Torswats” on the messaging app Telegram, the swatter has been calling in bomb and mass shooting threats against highschools and other locations across the country. Torswat’s connection to these wide ranging swatting incidents has not been previously reported. The further automation of swatting techniques threatens to make an already dangerous harassment technique more prevalent.

Posted on April 17, 2023 at 7:15 AM21 Comments

Friday Squid Blogging: Colossal Squid

Interesting article on the colossal squid, which is larger than the giant squid.

The article answers a vexing question:

So why do we always hear about the giant squid and not the colossal squid?

Well, part of it has to do with the fact that the giant squid was discovered and studied long before the colossal squid.

Scientists have been studying giant squid since the 1800s, while the colossal squid wasn’t even discovered until 1925.

And its first discovery was just the head and arms found in a sperm whale’s stomach.

It wasn’t until 1981 that the first whole animal was found by a trawler near the coast of Antarctica.

As usual, you can also use this squid post to talk about the security stories in the news that I haven’t covered.

Read my blog posting guidelines here.

Posted on April 14, 2023 at 5:14 PM82 Comments

Hacking Suicide

Here’s a religious hack:

You want to commit suicide, but it’s a mortal sin: your soul goes straight to hell, forever. So what you do is murder someone. That will get you executed, but if you confess your sins to a priest beforehand you avoid hell. Problem solved.

This was actually a problem in the 17th and 18th centuries in Northern Europe, particularly Denmark. And it remained a problem until capital punishment was abolished for murder.

It’s a clever hack. I didn’t learn about it in time to put it in my book, A Hacker’s Mind, but I have several other good hacks of religious rules.

Posted on April 14, 2023 at 3:06 PM41 Comments

Gaining an Advantage in Roulette

You can beat the game without a computer:

On a perfect [roulette] wheel, the ball would always fall in a random way. But over time, wheels develop flaws, which turn into patterns. A wheel that’s even marginally tilted could develop what Barnett called a ‘drop zone.’ When the tilt forces the ball to climb a slope, the ball decelerates and falls from the outer rim at the same spot on almost every spin. A similar thing can happen on equipment worn from repeated use, or if a croupier’s hand lotion has left residue, or for a dizzying number of other reasons. A drop zone is the Achilles’ heel of roulette. That morsel of predictability is enough for software to overcome the random skidding and bouncing that happens after the drop.”

Posted on April 14, 2023 at 7:02 AM40 Comments

Bypassing a Theft Threat Model

Thieves cut through the wall of a coffee shop to get to an Apple store, bypassing the alarms in the process.

I wrote about this kind of thing in 2000, in Secrets and Lies (page 318):

My favorite example is a band of California art thieves that would break into people’s houses by cutting a hole in their walls with a chainsaw. The attacker completely bypassed the threat model of the defender. The countermeasures that the homeowner put in place were door and window alarms; they didn’t make a difference to this attack.

The article says they took half a million dollars worth of iPhones. I don’t understand iPhone device security, but don’t they have a system of denying stolen phones access to the network?

EDITED TO ADD (4/13): A commenter says: “Locked idevices will still sell for 40-60% of their value on eBay and co, they will go to Chinese shops to be stripped for parts. A aftermarket ‘oem-quality’ iPhone 14 display is $400+ alone on ifixit.”

Posted on April 13, 2023 at 7:22 AM20 Comments

FBI Advising People to Avoid Public Charging Stations

The FBI is warning people against using public phone-charging stations, worrying that the combination power-data port can be used to inject malware onto the devices:

Avoid using free charging stations in airports, hotels, or shopping centers. Bad actors have figured out ways to use public USB ports to introduce malware and monitoring software onto devices that access these ports. Carry your own charger and USB cord and use an electrical outlet instead.

How much of a risk is this, really? I am unconvinced, although I do carry a USB condom for charging stations I find suspicious.

News article.

Posted on April 12, 2023 at 7:11 AM27 Comments

LLMs and Phishing

Here’s an experiment being run by undergraduate computer science students everywhere: Ask ChatGPT to generate phishing emails, and test whether these are better at persuading victims to respond or click on the link than the usual spam. It’s an interesting experiment, and the results are likely to vary wildly based on the details of the experiment.

But while it’s an easy experiment to run, it misses the real risk of large language models (LLMs) writing scam emails. Today’s human-run scams aren’t limited by the number of people who respond to the initial email contact. They’re limited by the labor-intensive process of persuading those people to send the scammer money. LLMs are about to change that. A decade ago, one type of spam email had become a punchline on every late-night show: “I am the son of the late king of Nigeria in need of your assistance….” Nearly everyone had gotten one or a thousand of those emails, to the point that it seemed everyone must have known they were scams.

So why were scammers still sending such obviously dubious emails? In 2012, researcher Cormac Herley offered an answer: It weeded out all but the most gullible. A smart scammer doesn’t want to waste their time with people who reply and then realize it’s a scam when asked to wire money. By using an obvious scam email, the scammer can focus on the most potentially profitable people. It takes time and effort to engage in the back-and-forth communications that nudge marks, step by step, from interlocutor to trusted acquaintance to pauper.

Long-running financial scams are now known as pig butchering, growing the potential mark up until their ultimate and sudden demise. Such scams, which require gaining trust and infiltrating a target’s personal finances, take weeks or even months of personal time and repeated interactions. It’s a high stakes and low probability game that the scammer is playing.

Here is where LLMs will make a difference. Much has been written about the unreliability of OpenAI’s GPT models and those like them: They “hallucinate” frequently, making up things about the world and confidently spouting nonsense. For entertainment, this is fine, but for most practical uses it’s a problem. It is, however, not a bug but a feature when it comes to scams: LLMs’ ability to confidently roll with the punches, no matter what a user throws at them, will prove useful to scammers as they navigate hostile, bemused, and gullible scam targets by the billions. AI chatbot scams can ensnare more people, because the pool of victims who will fall for a more subtle and flexible scammer—one that has been trained on everything ever written online—is much larger than the pool of those who believe the king of Nigeria wants to give them a billion dollars.

Personal computers are powerful enough today that they can run compact LLMs. After Facebook’s new model, LLaMA, was leaked online, developers tuned it to run fast and cheaply on powerful laptops. Numerous other open-source LLMs are under development, with a community of thousands of engineers and scientists.

A single scammer, from their laptop anywhere in the world, can now run hundreds or thousands of scams in parallel, night and day, with marks all over the world, in every language under the sun. The AI chatbots will never sleep and will always be adapting along their path to their objectives. And new mechanisms, from ChatGPT plugins to LangChain, will enable composition of AI with thousands of API-based cloud services and open source tools, allowing LLMs to interact with the internet as humans do. The impersonations in such scams are no longer just princes offering their country’s riches. They are forlorn strangers looking for romance, hot new cryptocurrencies that are soon to skyrocket in value, and seemingly-sound new financial websites offering amazing returns on deposits. And people are already falling in love with LLMs.

This is a change in both scope and scale. LLMs will change the scam pipeline, making them more profitable than ever. We don’t know how to live in a world with a billion, or 10 billion, scammers that never sleep.

There will also be a change in the sophistication of these attacks. This is due not only to AI advances, but to the business model of the internet—surveillance capitalism—which produces troves of data about all of us, available for purchase from data brokers. Targeted attacks against individuals, whether for phishing or data collection or scams, were once only within the reach of nation-states. Combine the digital dossiers that data brokers have on all of us with LLMs, and you have a tool tailor-made for personalized scams.

Companies like OpenAI attempt to prevent their models from doing bad things. But with the release of each new LLM, social media sites buzz with new AI jailbreaks that evade the new restrictions put in place by the AI’s designers. ChatGPT, and then Bing Chat, and then GPT-4 were all jailbroken within minutes of their release, and in dozens of different ways. Most protections against bad uses and harmful output are only skin-deep, easily evaded by determined users. Once a jailbreak is discovered, it usually can be generalized, and the community of users pulls the LLM open through the chinks in its armor. And the technology is advancing too fast for anyone to fully understand how they work, even the designers.

This is all an old story, though: It reminds us that many of the bad uses of AI are a reflection of humanity more than they are a reflection of AI technology itself. Scams are nothing new—simply intent and then action of one person tricking another for personal gain. And the use of others as minions to accomplish scams is sadly nothing new or uncommon: For example, organized crime in Asia currently kidnaps or indentures thousands in scam sweatshops. Is it better that organized crime will no longer see the need to exploit and physically abuse people to run their scam operations, or worse that they and many others will be able to scale up scams to an unprecedented level?

Defense can and will catch up, but before it does, our signal-to-noise ratio is going to drop dramatically.

This essay was written with Barath Raghavan, and previously appeared on

Posted on April 10, 2023 at 7:23 AM27 Comments

Friday Squid Blogging: Squid Food Poisoning

University of Connecticut basketball player Jordan Hawkins claims to have suffered food poisoning from calamari the night before his NCAA finals game. The restaurant disagrees:

On Sunday, a Mastro’s employee politely cast doubt on the idea that the restaurant might have caused the illness, citing its intense safety protocols. The staffer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to officially speak for Mastro’s, said restaurants in general were more likely to arouse suspicion when they had some rooting interest against the customer-athletes.

As usual, you can also use this squid post to talk about the security stories in the news that I haven’t covered.

Read my blog posting guidelines here.

Posted on April 7, 2023 at 5:04 PM79 Comments

Research on AI in Adversarial Settings

New research: “Achilles Heels for AGI/ASI via Decision Theoretic Adversaries”:

As progress in AI continues to advance, it is important to know how advanced systems will make choices and in what ways they may fail. Machines can already outsmart humans in some domains, and understanding how to safely build ones which may have capabilities at or above the human level is of particular concern. One might suspect that artificially generally intelligent (AGI) and artificially superintelligent (ASI) will be systems that humans cannot reliably outsmart. As a challenge to this assumption, this paper presents the Achilles Heel hypothesis which states that even a potentially superintelligent system may nonetheless have stable decision-theoretic delusions which cause them to make irrational decisions in adversarial settings. In a survey of key dilemmas and paradoxes from the decision theory literature, a number of these potential Achilles Heels are discussed in context of this hypothesis. Several novel contributions are made toward understanding the ways in which these weaknesses might be implanted into a system.

Posted on April 6, 2023 at 6:59 AM34 Comments

FBI (and Others) Shut Down Genesis Market

Genesis Market is shut down:

Active since 2018, Genesis Market’s slogan was, “Our store sells bots with logs, cookies, and their real fingerprints.” Customers could search for infected systems with a variety of options, including by Internet address or by specific domain names associated with stolen credentials.

But earlier today, multiple domains associated with Genesis had their homepages replaced with a seizure notice from the FBI, which said the domains were seized pursuant to a warrant issued by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Wisconsin did not respond to requests for comment. The FBI declined to comment.

But sources close to the investigation tell KrebsOnSecurity that law enforcement agencies in the United States, Canada and across Europe are currently serving arrest warrants on dozens of individuals thought to support Genesis, either by maintaining the site or selling the service bot logs from infected systems.

The seizure notice includes the seals of law enforcement entities from several countries, including Australia, Canada, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

Slashdot story.

Posted on April 5, 2023 at 11:55 AM2 Comments

North Korea Hacking Cryptocurrency Sites with 3CX Exploit


Researchers at Russian cybersecurity firm Kaspersky today revealed that they identified a small number of cryptocurrency-focused firms as at least some of the victims of the 3CX software supply-chain attack that’s unfolded over the past week. Kaspersky declined to name any of those victim companies, but it notes that they’re based in “western Asia.”

Security firms CrowdStrike and SentinelOne last week pinned the operation on North Korean hackers, who compromised 3CX installer software that’s used by 600,000 organizations worldwide, according to the vendor. Despite the potentially massive breadth of that attack, which SentinelOne dubbed “Smooth Operator,” Kaspersky has now found that the hackers combed through the victims infected with its corrupted software to ultimately target fewer than 10 machines­—at least as far as Kaspersky could observe so far—­and that they seemed to be focusing on cryptocurrency firms with “surgical precision.”

Posted on April 4, 2023 at 10:10 AM8 Comments

UK Runs Fake DDoS-for-Hire Sites

Brian Krebs is reporting that the UK’s National Crime Agency is setting up fake DDoS-for-hire sites as part of a sting operation:

The NCA says all of its fake so-called “booter” or “stresser” sites -­ which have so far been accessed by several thousand people—have been created to look like they offer the tools and services that enable cyber criminals to execute these attacks.

“However, after users register, rather than being given access to cyber crime tools, their data is collated by investigators,” reads an NCA advisory on the program. “Users based in the UK will be contacted by the National Crime Agency or police and warned about engaging in cyber crime. Information relating to those based overseas is being passed to international law enforcement.”

The NCA declined to say how many phony booter sites it had set up, or for how long they have been running. The NCA says hiring or launching attacks designed to knock websites or users offline is punishable in the UK under the Computer Misuse Act 1990.

“Going forward, people who wish to use these services can’t be sure who is actually behind them, so why take the risk?” the NCA announcement continues.

Posted on April 3, 2023 at 7:05 AM9 Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.