Social Justice

For those who pushed for Illinois minimum wage increase, automation poses questions, challenges


By Dwight A. Weingarten
Medill Reports

The Illinois state minimum wage will rise to $9.25 an hour on Jan. 1, 2020, increasing for the first time in a decade, and to $15 an hour by 2025. But the struggle of low-wage workers and their political allies who fought for the increase face a seemingly steep obstacle—automation, robotics and kiosk services.

In the spring of 1964, civil rights activist Bob Moses spoke at Stanford University in an attempt to recruit students to join him in Mississippi to help register voters. Moses’ words about organizing and human rights hold true some 55 years later and will frame the struggle that achieved the $15 minimum wage in Illinois – click on Moses’ words quoted in this story to hear the original recording of the speech.

The Demonstration
“All the questions about automation, all the questions about our schools, all the questions about our cities—what kind of cities will we have?—all of these find their focus in the public eye in terms of some kind of civil rights demonstration or another.” Bob Moses Continue reading

Plans for former coal plant irk Pilsen activists

By Lauren Robinson
Medill Reports

This story has been revised to reflect the status of Hilco’s relationship to the former Fisk site.

Seven years after Pilsen residents celebrated the closure of the Fisk coal plant, activists are gearing up for a new campaign: to demand input in the site’s redevelopment and oppose the continued operation of diesel-fired “peaker” plants.

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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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Chicago’s impact investing landscape: A conversation

By Cyan Zhong
Medill Reports

What is the primary purpose of business? To maximize profit or to make the society better with products and services? Can businesses balance these two goals?

Impact investing, a trend quickly gaining momentum in Chicago, offers an answer. In February, small businesses, not-for-profits, corporations, foundations and venture capitalists alike gathered at the annual Impact Investing Showcase, to learn about how the latest innovations and impact measurements help businesses “do well” and “do good” at the same time.

Impact Investing Showcase 2019. (Video by Cyan Zhong/Medill)

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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)

Dreams come true at Inspiration Kitchen: How job training program helps those in need

By Lily Qi
Medill Reports

About 10 freshmen gathered at the back of the kitchen. It’s their first day here and they have no idea what is coming in the following 12 weeks. Most of them aren’t sure what is going to happen in the next few hours. This occurs every four months at the Inspiration Kitchen in East Garfield Park because but not many kitchens operate like this.

A group of first-day students meet with Inspiration Kitchen instructor Elizabeth Holland before the work day starts. (Lily Qi/Medill)

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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

Chicago LGBTQ advocates document serious life risks for trans homeless youth

By Ariana Puzzo
Medill Reports

“The average life span for a black trans woman is 35-years-old,” said Mariah Emerson, the public relations manager for Center on Halsted. “It’s a reality and it’s a disproportionate access to health [and] it’s disproportionate access to housing.”

It is understood that disproportionate access here means a lack of access and the one of the highest risks of death is murder.

Organizations such as the Center on Halsted try to mend the gap. The center is an LGBTQ community center in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood, founded as Gay Horizons in 1973. It offers LGBTQ people programming and resources, including dance performances, HIV testing, volleyball, and GED classes.

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Puerto Rico Association of University Professors rallies against proposed budget cuts

By Ankur Singh
Medill Reports

Puerto Rico remains in the midst of a massive fiscal crisis with over $72 billion in debt. To address this crisis, in 2016 the United States Congress created a Fiscal Oversight Board that was not elected through the passage of the PROMESA ACT in order to manage and reduce Puerto Rico’s debt.

The seven-member board was appointed by former President Barack Obama and includes many people from the finance and banking industries.

The board has proposed a series of austerity measures to cut funding for many of the island’s institutions. In particular, the University of Puerto Rico, with its eleven campuses across the island, has been hit particularly hard. Continue reading Puerto Rico Association of University Professors rallies against proposed budget cuts

Your old cell phone could become the medals for 2020 Tokyo Olympics

By Cyan Zhong
Medill Reports

If you live in Japan, you might have a chance to see top athletes all over the world wear your old phones on their necks next summer.

Well, not quite, but close. The Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games has been collecting used electronics all over Japan, including old cellphones and home appliances. The plan is to extract the metal and make – you guessed it – Olympic medals.

A Japanese factory is melting the electronics to extract the metal within. (Ⓒ Tanaka Kikinzoku Kogyo).

“The Medal Project,” as the committee calls it, is a big part of sustainability innovations ahead of the games. Kicked off in April 2017, the project is now near the finish line – March marks the last month of collection, said Tatsuo Ogura, senior manager of international communications for the committee.

“When we started this project in 2017, we expected it to finish in two years,” Ogura said. “We are on the right track and we almost met with the goal.”

The committee fulfilled the 2,700-kilogram goal of bronze collection last June. In October, it met 93.7 percent of the target for salvaging gold and 85.4 percent for silver, Ogura said.

A total of 1,500 municipalities across Japan are involved in the medal project, and they put the signature yellow donation boxes at post offices or street corners for citizens to donate their used devices, Ogura said. They can also donate at 2,400 NTT DOCOMO stores nationwide, Japan’s predominant mobile phone operator.

“We believe that, by supporting schemes like the medal project which encourage participation by the public, we can draw attention to the importance of recycling and help realize an environmentally friendly and sustainable society,” a NTT Docomo representative said in an email.  

The yellow donation box allows people all over Japan to donate their used electronic devices. Many athletes are on board with the project and signed their names to back the cause. (Cyan Zhong/Medill Reports)

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