Security News This Week: Signal Is Finally Testing Usernames

Plus: A DDoS attack shuts down ChatGPT, Lockbit shuts down a bank, and a communications breakdown between politicians and Big Tech.
Signal app icons scattered on a black background
Illustration: Juan Roballo/Alamy

Drones, hidden cameras, thermal vision scopes—these are just a few examples of the high-tech equipment recommended by the animal liberation group Direct Action Everywhere, according to a manual released by the organization this week. The document, which was reviewed by WIRED, is a rare glimpse into how the organization is using tech to target factory farms in often brazen operations that have rescued pigs, goats, ducks, and chickens.

Extremist groups are experimenting with generative AI to flood social media with propaganda and misinformation, researchers at Tech Against Terrorism have told WIRED. A new report from the group details how, in recent months, terrorists and other extremist organizations have been using artificial intelligence to manipulate imagery and thwart content moderation. As platforms have struggled to keep up with this flood of extremist content, a new tool called Altitude, built in collaboration between Tech Against Terrorism and Google, is seeking to address the problem. The tool centralizes the collection of verified terrorist content, allowing companies to easily vet posts shared to their platforms.

Israel is exacerbating the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza by likely imposing devastating internet blackouts in the region. Last week, Israel reportedly imposed a full internet shutdown in the area as its troops moved into the Gaza Strip. After internet access was restored, the area suffered two additional connectivity blackouts. The most recent lasted for about 15 hours on Sunday as Israel was carrying out an intense operation to cut off Gaza City in the north from southern Gaza.

In other infrastructure news, a report from the ​​cybersecurity firm Mandiant reveals that last year, the Russian military intelligence agency known as Sandworm carried out a power grid attack targeting a Ukrainian electric utility causing a blackout for Ukrainian civilians. According to the report, the cyberattack coincided with the start of a series of missile strikes targeting Ukrainian critical infrastructure across the country.

The third GOP presidential primary debate was livestreamed on Rumble, a YouTube alternative home to what the Southern Poverty Law Center says is one of America’s most notorious white nationalists, Nick Fuentes. Since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas conflict last month, Fuentes has used his Rumble channel to push antisemitic hate speech and Holocaust denial conspiracies, racking up hundreds of thousands of views. Fuentes’ YouTube account was terminated in 2020 after Google demonetized it.

And there's more. Each week, we round up the security and privacy news we didn’t cover in depth ourselves. Click the headlines to read the full stories, and stay safe out there

On Wednesday, you and everyone you know had trouble getting ChatGPT to ghostwrite their emails as developer OpenAI was hit by what it thought was a distributed denial-of-service attack. For nearly two hours, users who tried to access the chatbot were greeted with a message telling them “ChatGPT is at capacity right now.”

In a tweet, OpenAI CEO Sam Altman initially blamed its outage on a surge in interest in the platform's new features. By Wednesday night the company announced that the periodic outages were due to an “abnormal traffic pattern reflective of a DDoS attack.”

While it’s unclear who is behind the attack, a group known as Anonymous Sudan claimed responsibility on Wednesday, posting on Telegram that it had targeted OpenAI for "general biases towards Israel and against Palestine." OpenAI has since resolved the issue.

The US arm of the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China was hit by a ransomware attack that disrupted trades in the US Treasury market on Thursday. The bank appears to be the latest victim of the prolific ransomware gang known as Lockbit. According to the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, Lockbit has hit 1,700 US organizations since 2020 and extorted more than $100 million in ransom demands. Last month it threatened Boeing with a leak of sensitive data.

"ICBC has been closely monitoring the matter and has done its best in emergency response and supervisory communication," China's foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said at a press conference.

Signal is beta testing usernames that will allow people to communicate using the encrypted service without exchanging phone numbers, further enhancing the app's privacy applications. The feature will go live in early 2024.

Support for usernames is a major step for the messaging service as Signal has apparently been working on the feature for years. Though accounts will still need to be associated with a phone number at setup, the introduction of usernames will allow users to connect without having to share it.

Cooperation between government, researchers, and tech companies aimed at countering disinformation online is evaporating thanks to a sustained campaign by US Republicans in the press, courts, and on Capitol Hill. Tech employees tell NBC the FBI has halted communications with social media firms about foreign influence campaigns, a move the FBI director attributed to a September ruling in the country's most conservative appellate court forbidding the government from "significantly" encouraging social media companies to remove misinformation.

“We’re having some interaction with social media companies,” FBI director Christopher Wray said in testimony last week to the Senate Homeland Security Committee. “But all of those interactions have changed fundamentally in the wake of the court rulings.”

According to NBC, all the FBI’s interactions with tech platforms now have to be supervised by Justice Department lawyers.