July Roundup

Hi, sorry! I know I’ve been quite patchy with these articles and they’re being churned out more like once every two months instead of monthly like I initially intended. I also know this July one is (very) late. I don’t really have an excuse so please just accept my apology. Also, as you can see from the title, I have given up on pretending that the monthly roundups are only on topics within maths, tech and computing. So, welcome to the first general science and tech roundup.

Fake Facebook accounts meddling in US midterm elections

In a statement titled ‘Removing Bad Actors on Facebook’, the company announced that it discovered the “first coordinated disinformation campaign” aimed at swaying the US midterm elections. 32 pages and accounts were removed from Facebook and Instagram for “coordinated inauthentic behaviour”. Almost 300,000 people followed at least one of these pages and around 150 ads were run, at the cost of about 11,000 dollars. Content found on the pages were often politically divisive, covering topics such as President Trump and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.

Alex Stamos, Chief Security Officer at Facebook, wrote that the company tries to “link suspicious activity to the individual or group with primary operational responsibility for the malicious action”, thus allowing them to potentially associate multiple campaigns to one set of people responsible. The company also tries to link a specific actor to a real-world sponsor, which could include a political organisation or a nation-state. Nathaniel Gleicher, head of cyber security policy at Facebook, said that “we still don’t have firm evidence to say with certainty who’s behind this effort”, but have not ruled out Russia’s involvement. Facebook have cited the reason behind their suspicion being that tactics used were similar to those employed by the Russian-based Internet Research Agency (IRA). There are also some loose connections to the IRA, with one known IRA account briefly being an administrator on one of the suspended pages. However, Facebook pointed out some key differences. For example, the Russian-based Internet Research Agency (IRA) accounts disabled in 2017 sometimes used Russian IP addresses and paid for ads in rubles. The new accounts, however, went to far greater lengths to cover their tracks, using third parties to run ads on their behalf and using virtual private networks (VPNs) to hide their locations.

Although Facebook has removed the suspect accounts, other legitimate page administrators have interacted with them without realising that the true purpose of these accounts were to interfere in the elections. For example, Resisters, one of the suspended accounts, created an event on Facebook called “No Unite the Right 2”. Five other page owners offered to co-host the event and unwittingly helped build interest in this event, with around 2,600 users expressing interest in attending the event.

Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House intelligence committee, said the revelation by Facebook showed that “malicious foreign actors bearing the hallmarks of previously identified Russian influence campaigns continue to abuse and weaponise social media platforms to influence the US electorate”.

The Facebook development comes as US lawmakers continue to express concerns that the US infrastructure was not adequately prepared to fend off cyber attacks. Facebook is not the only tech company to have discovered evidence of attempts to meddle in the US midterm elections. Earlier in July, Microsoft disclosed that it spotted phishing attempts on 3 US political campaigns.

Inmates hack their tablets to get almost a quarter of a million dollars worth of credit

It was discovered earlier this month that 364 inmates at various prisons in Idaho hacked the special tablets provided to them by prison services company JPay to credit their own accounts with sums that collectively make up almost a quarter of a million dollars. Around 50 of the inmates boosted their JPay account by around 1000 dollars whilst one inmate in particular transferred almost $10000 into their account. Funds are deposited into special accounts by inmates’ families to be used as credit, allowing the inmates to use the tablets for things such as video visits, emails or downloading music.

The Idaho Department of Correction’s spokesman, Jeff Ray, said in a statement that “This conduct was intentional, not accidental. It required a knowledge of the JPay system and multiple actions by ever inmate who exploited the system’s vulnerability to improperly credit their account.” So far JPay has recovered more than 65,000 dollars worth of credits, but have suspended some functions such as music and game downloading until they reimburse the stolen credits. The nature of the vulnerability was not disclosed by JPay, but the company has said the issues have been identified and fixed.

Inmates’ families told the Associated Press that the incident was not an intentional ploy on the part of the inmates, describing it as a glitch, and that they were worried about the consequences. Melissa King said her brother, an Idaho inmate, described the credit as a “misapplied payment from JPay” that he did nothing to obtain. The state’s Department of Correction have issued disciplinary reports to the inmates in question, which could temporarily revoke privileges or reclassify them to a higher security risk level. However, even if it were a deliberate scheme, many argue that it is a victimless crime as the inmates were not stealing money. Rather, they were placing items in their cart and removing it in a way that created credit, which was added to their tally of available funds, therefore, not costing the taxpayers any money.

In recent years, tablets designed for prison use have become increasingly popular, with JPay being one of the US’ biggest prison financial services provider, having a presence in prisons across 35 states. Tablets have been marketed as a way to incentivize good behaviour, but companies like JPay have been criticised for profiting from a captive market. The tablets are distributed to the prisons for free, but the costs incurred from creating and using them are then transferred to the families of the inmates. For example, to transfer up to 20 dollars into an inmate’s account, there is a 3.15 dollars service fee. Furthermore, the services are offered at steep prices. Sending a one-page email from an Idaho prison costs approximately 50 cents, but prison jobs only provide salaries between 10 and 90 cents an hour, meaning some inmates must work up to 5 hours to send a one-page email. Cheaper options are not available since JPay and other similar companies hold monopoly contracts that make them the only provider of email and other services. Peter Wagner, executive director of Prison Policy Institute, an advocacy group fighting to limit the prices charged by companies for things like phone calls, said that “these are the poorest folks in the state … and they are being asked to pay unreasonable sums of money to stay in touch with their loved ones”. However, JPay have responded by saying that “these products help incarcerated Americans stay connected with loved ones, provide access to education tools, assist in the rehabilitation process and offer other services that would otherwise be unavailable in jails and prisons”.

Blood moon lunar eclipse

On July 27th the longest lunar eclipse of the century occurred. The “blood moon” phase lasted 1 hour and 43 minutes, approximately 15 minutes longer than the average eclipse. The eclipse was visible through much of the Eastern Hemisphere, although cloudy skies meant that areas such as England and Scotland missed out on viewing the event.

A lunar eclipse occurs when the moon passes into Earth’s shadow. The moon turns deep red or reddish brown, thus giving it the name “blood moon”, instead of going completely dark because some sunlight that is bent around the edge of Earth falls onto the moon’s surface.

The duration of a lunar eclipse is controlled by the position of the moon as it passes through the Earth’s shadow; the core of which is called the umbra. Picture the umbra as a cone extending from the Earth in the opposite direction to the sun. If the moon goes straight through the middle of the cone, then the eclipse will be longer. Hence, this eclipse was longer than previous ones due to the moon passing closer to the centre of the cone.

(There’s not much to say about this, but there are a lot of pretty pictures, all of which I got from National Geographic and Express).


Fake Facebook accounts meddling in US midterm elections

  1. Irish Times
  2. New York Daily News
  3. BBC
  4. Wired
  5. Facebook Newsroom

Inmates hack their tablets to get almost a quarter of a million dollars worth of credit

  1. Quartz
  2. New York Times
  3. Tech Crunch
  4. Engadget
  5. We Live Security
  6. BBC
  7. Chicago Sun Times

Blood moon lunar eclipse

  1. New York Times
  2. Space
  3. National Geographic
  4. Express


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