Beyond Chicago

Water contamination threat continues for the Navajo Nation

By Lily Qi and Lu Zhao
Medill Reports

Uranium, arsenic, lead … have you ever thought about these metals contaminating the water you use and drink every day? Once they reach a certain level, these elements can cause illness and even endanger your life. This is what has been happening in the Navajo Nation with its centuries old history and culture.

Spread across portions of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico, the Navajo Nation possesses the largest land among Indigenous tribes. The territory encompasses spectacular scenery across vast areas but that makes it harder to test and address the water contamination problem on this land.

How severe is the contamination? Earlier this month, we took a reporting trip to the Navajo Nation to observe and inquire. Listen to the podcast and see what we found out about the water there.

Podcast by Lily Qi and Lu Zhao/Medill

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A mosquito can become a video game hero in Japan

By Jessica Xieyang Qiao
Medill Reports

A lone mosquito patrols the Yamada family to stock up on blood for the coming winter. You are Mister Mosquito, an uninvited guest who pesters the hapless Yamada family. They want you dead. You want to bite. The battle is on.

Quirky as it sounds, Mister Mosquito is a Japanese video game released by ZOOM Inc. in 2001. Unlike U.S. video games that depict  post-apocalyptic journeys or commando attacks, Mister Mosquito allows you to experience the hardship of a mosquito’s life.

“In Japanese video games, there are craftsmanship and culture that you don’t see in other countries,” said John Davis, co-founder of BitSummit, an annual Kyoto indie game festival. “Japan never shies away from having anime, strong female protagonists or other types of subjects in games. There has never been a cookie-cutter approach to game semantics.” Continue reading A mosquito can become a video game hero in Japan

International athletes face special challenges as seniors

By Fernando Shan
Medill Reports

Turning pro is the dream for student athletes. But many give up  that dream due to injuries, players say.

“I don’t think professional tennis is a realistic goal. Tennis is going to end at college [graduation]. It’s time to move on,”said Rachel Le Comber, a senior on the UIC women’s tennis team.
The majority of student athletes need to figure out another career path before graduation.
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New cyberattacks such as cryptojacking make past risks kids’ stuff

By Xieyang Jessica Qiao
Medill Reports

Blockchain, AI, IoT and a storm of new technologies are leading to greater operational efficiency and consumer opportunities, while triggering an increasing range of cyberattacks.

In the age of digital transformation, the best defense for users is to understand past breaches in order to maintain constant vigilance for future threats.

AI applications have made inroads in robotic process automation that allows users in all professions to extract key metadata from their text, including entities, relations, concepts and sentiments. This helps lawyers run a smarter practice, for instance.

“Process automation can extract basic entities from your contracts’ metadata across different repositories and move that metadata into a contract life cycle management system,” said Andrew Pery, consultant of ABBYY, a software company that offers AI-based solutions. “So you have a single point of resources from which you can manage the contract life cycle.”

More advanced instances of process automation focus on cognitive analytics. By using the neural network, natural language processing and semantic analysis, AI extracts meaning from legal documents and may even predict the outcome of a court case.

While high technology generates excited chatter with its wide-ranging applications, it also creates new security incidents that have become increasingly complex. Recent years saw the growth of malware attacks targeting AI-powered and IoT devices.

“Everything that is connected to the internet is potentially susceptible to data breaches, and getting attached to the internet can become in essence a risk factor,” said Tomas Suros, chief solutions architect of AbacusNext, a software and private cloud services provider. “We’ve seen attacks specific to those AI-powered or IoT devices. Malware may propagate through Alexa, Siri or anything that can be used to automate activities.”

Suros said 60 percent of small- and medium-sized businesses had been infected or had a data breach at one point. Within six months, 60 percent of them went out of business.

“The scope of malware attacks is increasing,” Suros said. “The damage to your business reputation, your inability to restore and the cost associated with recovery are devastating.”

While the sophistication of cyber crimes increases, its paradigm also shifts. A hacker breaks into your network to steal information or creates a virus to corrupt your network are now “ancient” models of cyberattacks. The new culprit is no longer smash-and-dash.

“Let’s say somebody inadvertently clicks on a link in an email,” Suros said. “The malware attack may not happen immediately. Instead, a bot is dropped on your network. It does password sniffing and siphons off that information in a way that is not immediately apparent. But the bot can penetrate your network and continue to do damage.”

There is also a nefarious nature to the way these innovative attacks are initiated, as they spike immediately before and after Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks.

“The goal is to find you in a weak moment when you’re busy or distracted and all it takes is one weak point in your network to initiate a deadly infection,” Suros said.

One type of malware is Trojan, which purports to be a legitimate software such as a browser or an add-on. When you install the software, however, Trojan drops malware on your system.

“After the infection starts, Trojan can identify an encrypted network drive even a couple of layers deep,” Suros said. “If you have data drives that create backups, Trojan can come in to create an infection and find those drives. Before initiating the attack, it actually has a map. This allows Trojan to hide its traps and potentially remove your ability to restore your backups of that data.”

Ransomware, a subset of malware programmed to encrypt data and block access to the computer network until money is paid, ramped up last year and is likely to rise even more in 2019.

“It comes in many shapes and sizes,” Suros said. “One of the newer variants is described as artisanal, meaning it’s designed to know its targets, what systems they’re using, and then deploy itself in ways that fool individuals by giving them information that seems familiar.”

Samsam, the ransomware used in targeted attacks, is responsible for the 2018 Atlanta cyberattack when one-third of the 424 software programs used by the city were thrown offline or partially disabled.

“Samsam doesn’t immediately start an attack,” Suros said. “It starts a scheme by recognizing the system and looking for vulnerabilities – the shortest path to a disruptive attack. It may install a crypto miner or a keystroke logger, which keeps records of every keystroke and sends them off as a file. People can deconstruct that and find your password.”

Then there’s cryptojacking – an emerging form of ransomware that may hide on your network to gain unauthorized use of your computer to mine cryptocurrency.

“It’s not encrypting your data or preventing you from using the system,” Suros said. “But it uses your resources, your central processing unit (CPU) cycles, your storage and your internet to create cryptocurrencies and send that to someone else who collects them.”

While cryptojacking malware doesn’t take all your data, it steals your resources, slows down your system and limits your security shields.

Last year also saw an upward trend in spear phishing and whaling attacks. While whaling attack is a more specific type of spear phishing that targets high-level executives, both are social engineering attacks that use psychological manipulation to trick users into revealing sensitive information.

“Spear phishing can identify your organization,” Suros said. “It may appear to come from HR, requesting you to update your password. You may receive an email from the IT department, asking you to do something and you will probably do it- thinking that the cause is to improve your technology and security.”

Suros said attacks cost businesses more than $75 billion per year- and it’s not just ransom that is paid. If individuals refuse to pay ransoms, they no longer have access to their servers or workstations.

“They are out of business until they can restore and recover,” Suros said. “There are 1.5 million phishing sites being created each month. This has become an industry and it will continue to grow this year.”

Photo at top: Recent years saw an increasing amount of advanced cyberattacks worldwide. (Miria Grunick/Flickr)

Most trendy 2018 technologies unveiled in Chicago and beyond

By Xieyang Jessica Qiao
Medill Reports

Today may be the slowest day you’re ever going to have during the rest of your life. The pace of change tomorrow will be faster than the pace today.

Chicago’s burgeoning VC opportunities and tech scene

An entrepreneurial spirit, fueled by investors who bet big on the city, is driving Chicago’s tech startup scene. According to the 2018 Chicago VC Ecosystem report, the city continues to outperform other U.S. venture ecosystems – including Silicon Valley – in terms of median multiple on invested capital (MOIC).

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Almost two years after Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico’s drug crisis grows more severe

By Carly Graf
Medill Reports 

It’s near 4 a.m. when the green minivan carrying two volunteers turns the corner and spots a woman hailing them down. Emmanuel, the driver and volunteer leader of tonight’s outreach program, parks on a street corner, and two women come rushing out from the shadows of a storefront porch.

Natalia, dressed in a short jean skirt and black tank top revealing a chronic skin rash, asks in a raspy voice for coffee, juice and an extra sandwich to take back to her friend. The other woman, clad in a mismatched terrycloth jumpsuit and missing most of her teeth, brings over a handful of used needles to exchange for clean ones.

Iniciativa Comunitaria, a San Juan-based public health non-profit, runs overnight outreaches to bring food and drink to the city’s homeless population, many of whom are chronic users of drugs including heroin or methamphetamine. Continue reading

True/False Film Festival welcomes spring with annual March march

By Ankur Singh
Medill Reports

True/False is one of the largest documentary film festivals in the United States.

Every year documentary filmmakers and audiences from all over the world arrive in Columbia, Missouri, for four days of documentary screenings and events.

Several notable films screened at the festival include Knock Down the House, which follows several women as they run for Congress in the 2018 election, including New York Democrat Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, who won her race.

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R. Kelly indictment sparks sexual violence conversations among Chicagoans

By Nora Mabie
Medill Reports

Students, educators and community members came together this month to discuss sexual violence against black women and girls at the Pop-Up JUST Art Gallery, a program of the Social Justice Initiative at University of Illinois at Chicago.

Recent charges of sexual abuse against R&B singer R. Kelly ignited the meeting and discussion, part of UIC’s Reimagining Masculinities Initiative and hosted by other UIC cultural engagement centers.
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San Juan outreach program supports local homeless community

By Chris Schulz
Medill Reports
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO –

It’s just before 8 p.m. when we arrive at Iniciativa Comunitaria in the Rio Piedras neighborhood of San Juan.

Every Friday night, Iniciativa conducts Operación Compasión, a nighttime round to serve the local homeless population by providing food, coffee, juice, condoms, clothes, hygiene kits and needle exchange, among other things.

Each week a different member of the organization leads the outreach. Tonight the leader is Emanuel Rivera, a young public health professional, accompanied by his brother Kenneth. Emanuel is already a veteran of the rounds, but this is 17-year-old Kenneth’s first time volunteering. Ivan Figueroa, a local pharmacist who is helping set up but will not join us on the rounds, briefs us about what to expect and what to do while Emmanuel prepares the coffee and juice. Continue reading

Cyber insurance: Consumer friend or foe?

By Jessica Xieyang Qiao
Medill Reports

Warren Buffett is not eager for Berkshire Hathaway to be a pioneer in the “uncharted territory” of investing in cyber insurance.

Yet cyber insurance is growing and evolving rapidly in response to a surge in demand and an increasing level of cyber threats.

The total cybersecurity insurance market in the U.S. reached about $3.1 billion in 2017, a year-to-year increase of 29.5 percent compared to approximately $2.4 billion in 2016 and $1.4 billion in 2015, according to National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC)’s latest cyber report. Continue reading