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When news broke last week of a hacking attack on Baltimore’s 911 system, Chad Howard felt a rush of nightmarish memories.
Howard, the information technology manager for Henry County, Tennessee, faced a similar intrusion in June 2016, in one of the country’s first so-called ransomware attacks on a 911 call center. The hackers shut down the center’s computerized dispatch system and demanded more than $2,000 in bitcoin to turn it back on. Refusing payment, Howard’s staff tracked emergency calls with pencil and paper for three days as the system was rebuilt.
“It basically brought us to our knees,” Howard recalled.
Nearly two years later, the March 25 ransomware attack on Baltimore served as another reminder that America’s emergency-response networks remain dangerously vulnerable to criminals bent on crippling the country’s critical infrastructure ─ either for money, or something more nefarious.
There have been 184 cyberattacks on public safety agencies and local governments in the past 24 months, according to a compilation of publicly reported incidents by the cybersecurity firm SecuLore Solutions. That includes Atlanta, which fell victim to a ransomware attack a couple days before the one on Baltimore, scrambling the operations of many agencies, but not the 911 system.
911 centers have been directly or indirectly attacked in 42 of the 184 cases on SecuLore’s list, the company says. Two dozen involved ransomware attacks, in which hackers use a virus to remotely seize control of a computer system and hold it hostage for payment.
Most of the other attacks involve “denial of service,” in which centers are immobilized by a flood of automated bogus calls. One of the first occurred in October 2016, when Meetkumar Desai, then 18, of Arizona, distributed a computer bug on Twitter that overwhelmed 911 centers in 12 states. The motivations for such attacks are often less about the money than doing damage — sometimes as a form of protest, as when the “hacktivist” group Anonymous took down Baltimore’s city website after the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody, experts say. Desai reportedly told authorities he meant his attack more as a prank.
“911 is the perfect [target] because it can’t afford to be down,” said Tim Lorello, SecuLore’s president and CEO.
This is how 911 works: When someone dials for help ─ typically from a mobile phone ─ the call gets routed from a cell tower to a 911 center, where a “telecommunicator” answers the phone and gathers basic information. The telecommunicator enters that information into a computer-aided dispatch system, where a dispatcher picks it up and coordinates a response from firefighters, police officers or ambulances.
This 911 system relies on redundancy, meaning that call centers that are taken out of service by a hacking attack can work around the disruption by shutting down the computer-aided dispatch system and sharing information person-to-person, or by sending calls to a nearby center. But depending on the type of attack and a 911 center’s resources, those disruptions can make it more difficult for people to reach someone in case of an emergency. A July 2017 investigation by Scripps News on the vulnerabilities of 911 systems noted the case of a 6-month-old Dallas boy who died after his babysitter’s 911 calls were delayed during an apparent denial-of-service attack.
J.J. Guy, chief technology officer at the cybersecurity firm Jask, said that the spread of ransomware attacks on public safety agencies and other key government operations shows the potential for cyberterrorists to target the country’s critical infrastructure.
Last month, the Department of Homeland Security outlined in a report how Russian hackers have gained access to American power plants. The hackers did not cause service interruptions, but the fact that they could gain access at all is troubling to security experts.
“To date, if you don’t have credit cards or lots of personal information, attackers had little motivation and thus you were mostly safe,” Guy said in an email. “This will change those dynamics. Manufacturing, logistics, etc — any field with an operations mindset that loses money when ‘the line is down’ will be targeted.”
The attack on Baltimore was discovered March 25, after a morning breach of its computer-aided dispatch system, officials said. The city’s cybersecurity unit took the system down, forcing support staff to pass 911 calls to dispatchers using paper rather than electronically. Call-center operations returned to normal early the next day, officials said. Investigators later determined that the intrusion was an attempted ransomware attack, but “no ransom was demanded or paid,” a city spokesman James Bentley said. He declined to explain further, saying that “could compromise the investigation.”
Most ransomware cases end similarly, with governments refusing to pay hackers, choosing instead to switch to a more primitive version of 911 services while they rebuild their systems. Governments have caved at times, however, although officials decline to say much about those incidents, out of concern that it will encourage more attacks.
Another problem with the current 911 system is that it doesn’t accommodate the ways people communicate in the modern world ─ through texts, photos, videos, etc. That is why the 911 industry is pushing telecommunication companies and state and local governments to adopt what it calls Next Generation 911, which allows callers to send data through approved telecommunications carriers and internet service providers (while still taking calls from landlines).
COVID-19: Muslim graveyard in India turns bodies away, as coronavirus cases continue to surge | World News
Delhi’s main Muslim graveyard is running out of space due to COVID-related deaths, as it surpassed Mumbai to become India’s worst-hit city.
On 15 April, a stream of ambulances arrived at the Jadid Qabristan cemetery on the outskirts of Delhi, where a patch of waste ground was turned into a COVID-19 burial ground last year.
The graves now run-up to the boundary wall, with little space for more.
Head gravedigger Mohammad Shameem said he has had to turn bodies away, with space and staff at a premium.
“Yesterday there were 19 bodies, but we can only handle 15,” he said.
Hospitals are also struggling to cope under the growing strain of increased cases.
Pappu Ali, 43, contracted coronavirus and his family visited several private hospitals in the city searching for a bed. He died after being admitted to a government hospital.
“There were not enough doctors, we couldn’t even find water,” his uncle Mehboob said.
According to official figures, Delhi recorded over 17,000 cases on 14 April, while Mumbai’s highest single-day peak was 11,163 on 4 April.
India reported more than 200,000 new cases in a single day on 15 April, with hospitals reporting a shortage of beds and oxygen.
The financial hub of Mumbai, India’s largest city, has gone into lockdown, but other cities remain open despite a spike in cases.
Following the event, 30 Hindu priests tested positive for coronavirus.
Among those infected with the virus, was the leader of the All India Akhada Parishad, Mahant Narendra Giri, who has been admitted to hospital.
On Thursday night, Uttarakhand reported 2,200 cases in 24 hours – its biggest single-day spike since the pandemic began in December 2019.
As cases around the country surge, India has found itself short of vaccines and is running out of the raw materials required to make new jabs.
The AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine is locally made by the Serum Institute of India (SII) but production has been delayed by a raw material shortage.
SII’s chief executive appealed to US president Joe Biden to end the ban on raw material exports out of the US.
“Respected POTUS, if we are to truly unite in beating the virus, on behalf of the vaccine industry outside the US, I humble request you lift the embargo on raw material exports out of the US so that vaccine production can ramp up,” Adar Poonawalla said on Twitter.
Vaccination centres are rationing supplies, as the country inoculates over 45s having started its roll-out in mid-January with front line workers.
It has administered the most doses in the world, after America and China, but ranks much lower when looking at the per capita figure.
Respected @POTUS, if we are to truly unite in beating this virus, on behalf of the vaccine industry outside the U.S., I humbly request you to lift the embargo of raw material exports out of the U.S. so that vaccine production can ramp up. Your administration has the details. 🙏🙏
— Adar Poonawalla (@adarpoonawalla) April 16, 2021
The government said the country had a stock of about 30 million doses, which will be enough for 10 days.
Despite initial reluctance to use non-Indian vaccines, the government has this week given emergency authorisation to Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine to be imported this month.
It has also urged Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson to sell jabs to India.
A new Indian variant of the virus has been detected in the UK, with 74 cases detected by Public Health England.
India is not on the travel red list, so there is no requirement for hotel quarantine. Travellers returning from India are required to take two COVID-19 tests and quarantine at home for 10 days.
Boris Johnson is scheduled to visit the country at the end of April, his first major international trip since Britain’s exit from the European Union.
Asked if his planned trip to India would still go ahead later this month, a No 10 spokesman said it was still on.
But he said the programme “will be slightly shorter” and added: “As you would expect, safety is obviously important and is a priority for us on this trip, which is why we will make sure that all elements of the visit are COVID-secure.”
Hong Kong: Media tycoon Jimmy Lai jailed over pro-democracy protests | World News
Billionaire Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai has been imprisoned over his role in pro-democracy protests.
Mr Lai, founder of opposition newspaper Apple Daily, was one of several activists who appeared in court on Friday who had been earlier found guilty of taking part in “unauthorised assemblies” during mass pro-democracy protests in 2019.
He was sentenced to 14 months in prison while nine others received jail time or suspended sentences.
The 73-year-old is a fierce critic of Beijing and his sentence comes as the mainland is increasingly cracking down on Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms.
Mr Lai has been in jail since December after being denied bail in a separate national security trial.
District court judge Amanda Woodcock said even though the 18 August assembly was peaceful there was a “latent risk of possible violence” and that a deterrent sentence and “immediate imprisonment” was appropriate.
Mr Lai’s repeated arrests have drawn criticism from Western governments and international rights groups, who raised concerns over waning freedoms in the global financial hub, including freedom of speech and assembly.
Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific regional director Yamini Mishra said: “The wrongful prosecution, conviction and sentencing of these activists underlines the… government’s intention to eliminate all political opposition.”
The other defendants also found guilty, included prominent barrister Margaret Ng and veteran democrats Lee Cheuk-yan, Albert Ho, Leung Kwok-hung, Cyd Ho, Au Nok-hin and Leung Yiu-chung.
They received sentences of up to 18 months. Ng, Leung Yiu-chung and Albert Ho were given suspended sentences.
The 2019 pro-democracy protests were spurred by Beijing’s tightening squeeze on wide-ranging freedoms promised to Hong Kong upon its return to Chinese rule in 1997, and plunged the semi-autonomous city into its biggest crisis since the handover.
Beijing has since consolidated its authoritarian grip on Hong Kong by imposing a sweeping national security law,
punishing anything it deems as secession, subversion, terrorism or collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison.
Supporters of the law say it has restored stability.
Mr Lai has been a frequent visitor to Washington, meeting officials such as former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, to rally support for Hong Kong democracy, prompting Beijing to label him a “traitor”.
Prosecutors said he will face two additional charges of conspiracy to collude with foreign forces and conspiracy to
obstruct the course of justice.
Earlier this week, Apple Daily published a hand-written letter Mr Lai sent to his colleagues from prison, saying: “It is
our responsibility as journalists to seek justice.
“As long as we… do not let evil get its way through us, we are fulfilling our responsibility.”
It is “time for us to stand tall”, he wrote.
Human cells grown in monkey embryos triggers ‘Pandora’s box’ ethical concerns | Science & Tech News
Human cells have been grown in monkey embryos by scientists in the US, sparking ethical concerns and warnings that it “opens a Pandora’s box”.
Those behind the research say their work could help tackle the severe shortage of transplant organs as well as enable better overall understanding of human health, from the development of disease to ageing.
But some experts in the UK have highlighted the significant ethical and legal challenges posed by the creation of such hybrid organisms and called for a public debate.
Concerns have been raised after researchers from the Salk Institute in California produced what is known as monkey-human chimeras.
This involved human stem cells – special cells that have the ability to develop into many different cell types – being inserted in macaque embryos in petri dishes in the lab.
The aim is to understand more about how cells develop and communicate with each other.
Chimeras are organisms whose cells come from two or more individuals.
In humans, chimerism can naturally occur following organ transplants, where cells from the organ start growing in other parts of the body.
Professor Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, who is leading the research, said: “These chimeric approaches could be really very useful for advancing biomedical research not just at the very earliest stage of life, but also the latest stage of life.”
In 2017, he and his team created the first human-pig hybrid, where they introduced human cells into early-stage pig tissue but found the environment provided poor molecular communication.
As a result, the researchers decided to investigate lab-grown chimeras using a more closely related species.
The human-monkey chimeric embryos were monitored in the lab for 19 days before being destroyed.
According to the scientists, the results, published in the journal Cell, showed human stem cells “survived and integrated with better relative efficiency than in the previous experiments in pig tissue”.
The team said understanding more about how cells of different species communicate with each other could provide an “unprecedented glimpse into the earliest stages of human development” as well as offer scientists a “powerful tool” for research on regenerative medicine.
Insisting that their research has met current ethical and legal guidelines, Prof Izpisua Belmonte said: “As important for health and research as we think these results are, the way we conducted this work, with utmost attention to ethical considerations and by coordinating closely with regulatory agencies, is equally important.
“Ultimately, we conduct these studies to understand and improve human health.”
Responding to the research, Dr Anna Smajdor, lecturer and researcher in biomedical ethics at the University of East Anglia’s Norwich Medical School, said: “This breakthrough reinforces an increasingly inescapable fact: biological categories are not fixed – they are fluid.
“This poses significant ethical and legal challenges.”
She added: “The scientists behind this research state that these chimeric embryos offer new opportunities, because ‘we are unable to conduct certain types of experiments in humans’.
“But whether these embryos are human or not is open to question.”
Prof Julian Savulescu, director of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics and co-director of the Wellcome Centre for Ethics and Humanities, University of Oxford, said: “This research opens Pandora’s box to human-nonhuman chimeras.
“These embryos were destroyed at 20 days of development but it is only a matter of time before human-nonhuman chimeras are successfully developed, perhaps as a source of organs for humans. That is one of the long-term goals of this research.
“The key ethical question is: what is the moral status of these novel creatures? Before any experiments are performed on live-born chimeras, or their organs extracted, it is essential that their mental capacities and lives are properly assessed.”
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