Politics/National Security

Hyderabad, India, captures a nexus of ancient and modern culture

By Aaron Dorman
Medill Reports

I traveled to India for the first time in my life for an all-too-brief three weeks’ of learning how farmers are adapting to increasing drought in the central province of Telangana with water conserving greenhouses.

Hyderabad and environs are about as far inland as can be at this latitude.  But in the heart of the city, the human-made Hussain Sagar Lake serves as a community hub. The lake is surrounded by parks and temples, and you can take a ferry to a statue of the Buddha in the middle of the lake.

Hussain Sagar Lake at sunset. Aaron Dorman/Medill

My first day in Hyderabad, I walked along the beautiful lake’s east side. It’s cut off from the rest of the city by an elevated highway, the “Tank Bund,” and layered with litter and trash along the banks. Near the hotel where I stayed, a family of feral pigs picked at garbage on a dry river bed that feeds into the lake.

Fruit vendor along the Take Bund in Hyderabad. Aaron Dorman/Medill.
A temple on the banks of Hussain Sagar Lake in Hyderabad. Aaron Dorman/Medill.

A province  conservation group has put up signs asking people to keep the lake shore clean and trash free. The group established  a row of planters filled with palm trees to beautify this portion of the waterfront. On the other side, fruit vendors and cane juice stalls offer respite from the 95-degree weather. A cold bottle of water will only set you back 20 rupees, or about 30 cents USD.

Swastika graffiti is a common site in Hyderabad; here it is a symbol for peace. Aaron Dorman/Medill.

Visitors should come prepared for the high volume of swastika graffiti and understand that it means “all is well” in its use by Hindus and Buddhists long before Nazi Germany adopted the symbol. Here, the former meaning persists. Tthe swastika also has been used as a symbol for the sun dating back millennia.

Elaborate mosques and temples line the other side of the Tank Bund.  Some of these structures are ages old, such as the one across the street from my temporary home in Secunderabad.

My first friend in India, the stray who has discovered that the Kheyti staff will give him food and water. Aaron Dorman/Medill.

Meanwhile, at the Kheyti Project office where I am embedded as a reporter, a street dog has discovered that benevolent humans there will feed him. He and I have become friends. Kheyti’s work here involves providing farmers with efficient greenhouses that help them grow crops in this drought-ridden area, providing harvests and easing poverty.

Kheyti has installed nearly 100 greenhouses already and project founders hope to have as many as 1,000 in place by the end of the year. My reporting will focus on the moving target of sustainable farming as climate change threatens the farmers’ crops and livelihood within coming decades – or even sooner.

A Hindu Temple in downtown Hyderabad. (Aaron Dorman/Medill)

Conservation, Culture, Community: The School for Field Studies in Cambodia

By Karyn Simpson
Medill Reports

SIEM REAP, Cambodia – If you turn left off the main road going west out of Siem Reap, Cambodia, you’ll find yourself on a sandy path not quite wide enough for two tuk-tuks.

You’ll bounce along the uneven road as the rush of city traffic abruptly gives way to the gentle hubbub of everyday community life. Take a right, then a left on unmarked dirt roads, past the dog with the orange fur and the second family selling clothing – everything from jeans to formal dresses – and you’ll find a tall metal gate, green paint chipping in the hot sun. This is the entrance to the School for Field Studies, an international study abroad program that not only immerses students into Cambodian culture, but also gives them first-hand experience in performing community-relevant research. Continue reading

Life at a research lab in Israel’s Negev desert

By Alexis Shanes
Medill Reports

SDE BOKER, ISRAEL — Two hours south of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, where political drama unraveled amid Tuesday’s Israeli elections, I finished my morning coffee and stepped out into the blinding desert sunshine.

I’m spending this month at the Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research, which are part of the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. The main BGU campus is located in Be’er Sheva, the Negev desert’s largest city. But I’m at the BIDR outpost 45 minutes south, in Sde Boker, where I’m embedded with researchers tackling water stewardship in the Middle East. I’m reporting by observation and taking notes I’ll later use for Medill News Service stories.
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Q and A with Laura Polanco, candidate for District 99 school board in her hometown of Cicero

By Ankur Singh
Medill Reports

Laura Polanco, 34, is a parent who was born and raised in Cicero. She’s currently running for school board for Elementary School District 99 and hoping to advocate for other parents like her in the district where she attended school. She is one of four candidates running for three seats up for re-election on the board in the April 2 elections.

 Medill Reports: Can you start by telling us a little bit about yourself?

Laura: Sure. My name is Laura Polanco. I’m a lifetime resident here in Cicero. I went through District 99, District 201 [high school], and I’m an alumni of Morton College. I was born here and I grew up here. I’m married and I currently have two kids. My oldest is currently at Columbus West (elementary) and that’s one of my biggest reasons that made me pursue [running for school board]. Continue reading

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)

Looming power plant closure leaves Hopi seeking new energy and revenue sources

By Dwight A. Weingarten
Medill Reports

Walpi and the Hopi Landscape

Traveling north nearly 300 miles from Phoenix along winding roads lies Walpi, a village inhabited for more than 1,100 years.

Walpi sits atop First Mesa and looks down from a 300-foot peak on the land of the Hopi nation that stretches across three mesas, encompassing roughly 2,500 square miles in northern Arizona.

The Hopi people, who predate the United States by thousands of years, constitute a sovereign nation recognized and protected by the United States Constitution as well as by legal precedent. 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

Bernie Sanders rallies in Chicago promising a political revolution

By Jess Martinaitis
Medill Reports

Thousands of supporters gathered to cheer Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont) at his rally in Chicago Sunday, his second stop on his second run for president.

Promising a political revolution to the crowd of more than 12,000 well-wishers, the senator credited Chicago, where he spent four years as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, as the city that taught him about “racism and poverty and other social ills.”

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Calls for change galvanize parents and educators at first CPS board meeting after mayoral election

By Carly Graf
Medill Reports

Fed up with disinvestment in their schools, South and Southeast Side parents and educators told members of Chicago’s Board of Education that Wednesday’s meeting might be one of their last.

The pending mayoral runoff between Toni Preckwinkle and Lori Lightfoot bolstered their hopes for change as each candidate touts a progressive education reform platforms, including the creation of an elected school board.

“Last night, the people of Chicago voted for change. They voted to turn the page on Rahm Emanuel’s administration that’s been closing schools and ignoring black children and their families,” said Chicago Teacher Union (CTU) President Jesse Sharkey. “The people in Chicago have spoken, and it’s time for the people in power to listen.”

CTU President Jesse Sharkey speaks on the poor school conditions in the South and Southeast Side of Chicago. (Carly Graf/Medill)

Sharkey’s comments came during a CTU-led press conference preceding the meeting of the school board, whose members are appointed by the mayor.  A group of about 15 Southeast Side residents gathered with teachers to discuss classroom overcrowding, inadequate funding for things like special education programs and lack of community involvement.

One parent from John M. Smyth Elementary School demanded an explanation for the sale of land adjacent to the school at Roosevelt Road and Morgan Street to St. Ignatius College Prep, a Catholic school across the street.

Others voiced complaints of inequity between North and South Side schools.

“No wealthy person, like someone who works in these high-rise buildings downtown, would send their kids to schools in these conditions,” Sharkey said, referring to conditions that many South Siders face.

Chants of “Whose schools? Our schools.” followed the group into the building where the meeting moderators emphasized a more celebratory tone.

Protesters chant “Whose schools? Our schools.”(Carly Graf/Medill)

Morgan Park High School’s lauded jazz ensemble performed, the board congratulated South Loop’s Whitney M. Young Magnet High School Chess Team on its recent state title, and Ronnie Coleman from Jones College Prep received his national school counselor of the year award.

The public comment period began with Alderman Carrie Austin (34th) praising Chicago Public School (CPS) CEO Janice Jackson, a sentiment that would be echoed by others throughout the morning. The sentiment may preempt any changes in her position by the next mayor, although neither runoff candidate has publicly commented on Jackson’s future.

However, the public comment quickly devolved into testimony from educators and parents alike about severe issues plaguing schools in the city’s low-income neighborhoods. Health concerns led the way.

Parents from the of Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Education recounted stories of insulin-dependent children receiving improper care from unqualified temp agency nurses at schools. President Frank Clark responded by noting the national nursing shortage, but said those conditions don’t change the responsibility of the board to ensure children receive adequate care.

About a dozen parents from George Washington Elementary School in East Side attributed their kids’ chronic migraines, allergies and asthma to decrepit, unsafe building conditions. The CPS Chief Health Office mentioned he had inspected the building and recommended inspecting the HVAC system, assessing air quality, removing old carpet and providing more hand sanitizer.

Finally, parents from Virgil Grissom Elementary School in Hegewisch criticized dramatic overcrowding at their school as harmful to special education students, a concern that Clark said “wasn’t being ignored.”

“We are one step closer to electing a mayor who supports an elected school board, but your work here is not done,” said Andrea Tolzmann, one of Raise Your Hand’s speakers.

A parent from John M. Smyth Elementary School raised concerns about overcrowding and special education resources. (Carly Graf/Medill)

CPS Security Chief Jadine Chou and CTU members diverged starkly in viewpoints on how to best guarantee student safety. Chou articulated the district’s vision for safe school certification, a better-trained cadre of security officers and anti-bullying efforts.

“Before you start thinking about pouring all this money into stronger police presence, I’m saying this: we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We need restorative justice programs, nurses, and social workers,” countered Michael Brunson, CTU recording secretary.

Charter schools took the heat, too.

“Educators shouldn’t have to strike to get what they need,” said Chris Baehrend, chair of the charter division of CTU-Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff, mentioning the successful strike of 175 teachers from Chicago International Charter Schools earlier this month for better working conditions and class size caps.

“I’m asking the board to do their job and bring accountability to charter organizations,” he said.

Both Preckwinkle and Lightfoot support ending the continued proliferation of charter schools and investing resources into needy public schools instead.

Despite uncertainty around the particulars, one thing’s for sure: there will be a new mayor in May, and that’s likely to mean sweeping changes to CPS. However, many who attended Wednesday’s meeting demanded board members not neglect their responsibilities in the interim.

“You don’t have to wait for a new mayor to address these capacity issues, you don’t have to wait for a new mayor to fix these oversight issues and you don’t have to wait for a new mayor to make things better. You can do that now,” Brunson said to applause.

Photo at top: Chicago Teachers Union members gather host a press conference outside Chicago Public School headquarters on Tuesday. (Carly Graf/Medill)

A moment bigger than a campaign: 33rd Ward Aldermanic Candidate Rossana Rodríguez-Sánchez heads into a runoff

By Justin Agrelo
Medill Reports

At a watch party on election night in the back room of Chief O’Niell’s pub in Avondale, a group of nearly 100 people wait.

Live music from a local youth band fills the room as people socialize, drinks in their hands and enthusiasm in the air. Like many other watch parties throughout Chicago’s 50 wards on Tuesday night, this group intently waits on a candidate and an announcement.

The candidate who brought them all together is Rossana Rodríguez-Sánchez,  a youth educator who is running to become the next alderman of the 33rd Ward.

Arriving just before 9 p.m., Rodríguez-Sánchez, 39, is greeted with cheers, applause, and hugs. With a smile across her face and tears in her eyes, she slowly makes her way towards the front of a small stage tucked in the corner of the room. She greets everyone on her way.

Then she dances.

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