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Review: Apple’s new iPad mini continues to be mini

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The iPad mini is super enjoyable to use and is the best-sized tablet for everything but traditional laptop work. It’s very good and I’m glad Apple updated it.

Using Apple Pencil is aces on the smaller mini; don’t worry about the real estate being an issue if you like to scribble notes or make sketches. It’s going to fall behind a larger iPad for a full-time artist, but as a portable scratch pad it’s actually far less unwieldy or cumbersome than an iPad Pro or Air will be.

The only caveat? After using the brilliant new Pencil, the old one feels greasy and slippery by comparison, and lacks that flat edge that helps so much when registering against your finger for shading or sketching out curves.

The actual act of drawing is nice and zippy, and features the same latency and responsiveness as the other Pencil-capable models.

The reasoning behind using the old pencil here is likely a result of a combination of design and cost-saving decisions. No flat edge would require a rethink of the magnetic Pencil charging array from the iPad Pro and it is also apparently prohibitively expensive in a way similar to the smart connector. Hence its lack of inclusion on either Air or mini models.

Touch ID feels old and slow when compared to iPad Pro models, but it’s not that bad in a mini, where you’re almost always going to be touching and holding it rather than setting it down to begin typing. It still feels like you’re being forced to take an awkward, arbitrary additional action to start using the iPad though. It really puts into perspective how fluidly Face ID and the new gestures work together.

The design of the casing remains nearly identical, making for broad compatibility with old cases and keyboards if you use those with it. The camera has changed positions and the buttons have been moved slightly though, so I would say your mileage may vary if you’re bringing old stuff to the table.

The performance of the new mini is absolutely top notch. While it falls behind when compared to the iPad Pro, it is exactly the same (I am told, I do not have one to test yet) as the iPad Air. It’s the same on paper though, so I believe it in general and there is apparently no “detuning” or under-clocking happening. This makes the mini a hugely powerful tiny tablet, clearly obliterating anything else in its size class.

The screen is super solid, with great color, nearly no air gap and only lacking tap-to-wake.

That performance comes at a decently chunky price, $399. If you want the best, you pay for it.

Last year I took the 12.9” iPad Pro on a business trip to Brazil, with no backup machine of any sort. I wanted to see if I could run TechCrunch from it — from planning to events to editorial and various other multi-disciplinary projects. It worked so well that I never went back, and have not opened my MacBook in earnest since. I’ll write up that experience at some point because I think there are some interesting things to talk about there.

I include that context here because, though the iPad Pro is a whole-ass computer and really capable, it is not exactly “fun” to use in non-standard ways. That’s where the iPad mini has always shined and continues to do so.

It really is pocketable in a loose jacket or coat. Because the mini is not heavy, it exercises little of the constant torsion and strain on your wrist that a larger iPad does, making it one-handed.

I could go on, but in the end, all that can be said about the iPad mini being “the small iPad” has already been said ad nauseam over the years, beginning with the first round of reviews back in 2012. This really is one of the most obvious choices Apple has in its current iPad lineup. If you want the cheap one, get the cheap one (excuse me, “most affordable” one). And if you want the small one, get the iPad mini.

The rest of the iPads in Apple’s lineup have much more complicated purchasing flow charts — the mini does indeed sell itself.

Back even before we knew for sure that a mini iPad was coming, I wrote about how Apple could define the then very young small-tablet market. It did. No other small-tablet model has ever made a huge dent on the market, unless you count the swarm of super-crappy Android tablets that people buy in blister packs expecting them to eventually implode as a single hive-mind model.

Here’s how I saw it in 2012:

To put it bluntly, there is no small tablet market…Two years ago we were talking about the tablet market as a contiguous whole. There was talk about whether anyone would buy the iPad and that others had tried to make consumer tablets and failed. Now, the iPad is a massive success that has yet to be duplicated by any other manufacturer or platform.

But the tablet market isn’t a single ocean, it’s a set of interlocking bodies of water that we’re just beginning to see take shape. And the iPad mini isn’t about competing with the wriggling tadpoles already in the ‘small tablet’ pond, it’s about a big fish extending its dominion.

Yeah, that’s about right, still.

One huge difference, of course, is that the iPad mini now has the benefit of an enormous amount of additional apps that have been built for iPad in the interim. Apps that provide real, genuine access to content and services on a tablet — something that was absolutely not guaranteed in 2012. How quickly we forget.

In addition to the consumer segment, the iPad mini is also extremely popular in industrial, commercial and medical applications. From charts and patient records to point-of-sale and job-site reference, the mini is the perfect size for these kinds of customers. These uses were a major factor in Apple deciding to update the mini.

Though still just as pricey (in comparison) as it was when it was introduced, the iPad mini remains a standout device. It’s small, sleek, now incredibly fast and well-provisioned with storage. The smallness is a real advantage in my opinion. It allows the mini to exist as it does without having to take part in the “iPad as a replacement for laptops” debate. It is very clearly not that, while at the same time still feeling more multipurpose and useful than ever. I’m falling in real strong like all over again with the mini, and the addition of Pencil support is the sweetener on top.

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US government strikes back at Kremlin for SolarWinds hack campaign

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Matt Anderson Photography/Getty Images

US officials on Thursday formally blamed Russia for backing one of the worst espionage hacks in recent US history and imposed sanctions designed to mete out punishments for that and other recent actions.

In a joint advisory, the National Security Agency, FBI, and Cybersecurity and Information Security Agency said that Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, abbreviated as the SVR, carried out the supply-chain attack on customers of the network management software from Austin, Texas-based SolarWinds.

The operation infected SolarWinds’ software build and distribution system and used it to push backdoored updates to about 18,000 customers. The hackers then sent follow-up payloads to about 10 US federal agencies and about 100 private organizations. Besides the SolarWinds supply-chain attack, the hackers also used password guessing and other techniques to breach networks.

After the massive operation came to light, Microsoft President Brad Smith called it an “act of recklessness.” In a call with reporters on Thursday, NSA Director of Cybersecurity Rob Joyce echoed the assessment that the operation went beyond established norms for government spying.

“We observed absolutely espionage,” Joyce said. “But what is concerning is from that platform, from the broad scale of availability of the access they achieved, there’s the opportunity to do other things, and that’s something we can’t tolerate and that’s why the US government is imposing costs and pushing back on these activities.”

Thursday’s joint advisory said that the SVR-backed hackers are behind other recent campaigns targeting COVID-19 research facilities, both by infecting them with malware known as both WellMess and WellMail and by exploiting a critical vulnerability in VMware software.

The advisory went on to say that the Russian intelligence service is continuing its campaign, in part by targeting networks that have yet to patch one of the five following critical vulnerabilities. Including the VMware flaw, they are:

  • CVE-2018-13379 Fortinet FortiGate VPN
  • CVE-2019-9670 Synacor Zimbra Collaboration Suite
  • CVE-2019-11510 Pulse Secure Pulse Connect Secure VPN
  • CVE-2019-19781 Citrix Application Delivery Controller and Gateway
  • CVE-2020-4006 VMware Workspace ONE Access

“Mitigation against these vulnerabilities is critically important as US and allied networks are constantly scanned, targeted, and exploited by Russian state-sponsored cyber actors,” the advisory stated. It went on to say that the “NSA, CISA, and FBI strongly encourage all cybersecurity stakeholders to check their networks for indicators of compromise related to all five vulnerabilities and the techniques detailed in the advisory and to urgently implement associated mitigations.”

CISA

The US Treasury Department, meanwhile, imposed sanctions to retaliate for what it said were “aggressive and harmful activities by the Government of the Russian Federation.” The measures include new prohibitions on Russian sovereign debt and sanctions on six Russia-based firms that the Treasury Department said “supported the Russian Intelligence Services’ efforts to carry out malicious cyber activities against the United States.”

The firms are:

  • ERA Technopolis, a research center operated by the Russian Ministry of Defense for transferring the personnel and expertise of the Russian technology sector to the development of technologies used by the country’s military. ERA Technopolis supports Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), a body responsible for offensive cyber and information operations.
  • Pasit, a Russia-based information technology company that has conducted research and development supporting malicious cyber operations by the SVR.
  • SVA, a Russian state-owned research institute specializing in advanced systems for information security located in that country. SVA has done research and development in support of the SVR’s malicious cyber operations.
  • Neobit, a Saint Petersburg, Russia-based IT security firm whose clients include the Russian Ministry of Defense, SVR, and Russia’s Federal Security Service. Neobit conducted research and development in support of the cyber operations conducted by the FSB, GRU, and SVR.
  • AST, a Russian IT security firm whose clients include the Russian Ministry of Defense, SVR, and FSB. AST provided technical support to cyber operations conducted by the FSB, GRU, and SVR.
  • Positive Technologies, a Russian IT security firm that supports Russian Government clients, including the FSB. Positive Technologies provides computer network security solutions to Russian businesses, foreign governments, and international companies and hosts recruiting events for the FSB and GRU.

“The reason they were called out is because they’re an integral part and participant in the operation that the SVR executes,” Joyce said of the six companies. “Our hope is that by denying the SVR the support of those companies, we’re impacting their ability to project some of this malicious activity around the world and especially into the US.”

Russian government officials have steadfastly denied any involvement in the SolarWinds campaign.

Besides attributing the SolarWinds campaign to the Russian government, Thursday’s release from the Treasury Department also said that the SVR was behind the August 2020 poisoning of Russian opposition leader Aleksey Navalny with a chemical weapon, the targeting of Russian journalists and others who openly criticize the Kremlin, and the theft of “red team tools,” which use exploits and other attack tools to mimic cyber attacks.

The “red team tools” reference was likely related to the offensive tools taken from FireEye, the security firm that first identified the Solar Winds campaign after discovering its network had been breached.
The Treasury department went on to say that the Russian government “cultivates and co-opts criminal hackers” to target US organizations. One group, known as Evil Corp. was sanctioned in 2019. That same year, federal prosecutors indicted the Evil Corp kingpin Maksim V. Yakubets and posted a $5 million bounty for information that leads to his arrest or conviction.

Although overshadowed by the sanctions and the formal attribution to Russia, the most important takeaway from Thursday’s announcements is that the SVR campaign remains ongoing and is currently leveraging the exploits mentioned above. Researchers said on Thursday that they’re seeing Internet scanning that is intended to identify servers that have yet to patch the Fortinet vulnerability, which the company fixed in 2019. Scanning for the other vulnerabilities is also likely ongoing.

People managing networks, particularly any that have yet to patch one of the five vulnerabilities, should read the latest CISA alert, which provides extensive technical details about the ongoing hacking campaign and ways to detect and mitigate compromises.

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100 million more IoT devices are exposed—and they won’t be the last

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Elena Lacey

Over the last few years, researchers have found a shocking number of vulnerabilities in seemingly basic code that underpins how devices communicate with the Internet. Now, a new set of nine such vulnerabilities are exposing an estimated 100 million devices worldwide, including an array of Internet-of-things products and IT management servers. The larger question researchers are scrambling to answer, though, is how to spur substantive changes—and implement effective defenses—as more and more of these types of vulnerabilities pile up.

Dubbed Name:Wreck, the newly disclosed flaws are in four ubiquitous TCP/IP stacks, code that integrates network communication protocols to establish connections between devices and the Internet. The vulnerabilities, present in operating systems like the open source project FreeBSD, as well as Nucleus NET from the industrial control firm Siemens, all relate to how these stacks implement the “Domain Name System” Internet phone book. They all would allow an attacker to either crash a device and take it offline or gain control of it remotely. Both of these attacks could potentially wreak havoc in a network, especially in critical infrastructure, health care, or manufacturing settings where infiltrating a connected device or IT server can disrupt a whole system or serve as a valuable jumping-off point for burrowing deeper into a victim’s network.

All of the vulnerabilities, discovered by researchers at the security firms Forescout and JSOF, now have patches available, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to fixes in actual devices, which often run older software versions. Sometimes manufacturers haven’t created mechanisms to update this code, but in other situations they don’t manufacture the component it’s running on and simply don’t have control of the mechanism.

“With all these findings, I know it can seem like we’re just bringing problems to the table, but we’re really trying to raise awareness, work with the community, and figure out ways to address it,” says Elisa Costante, vice president of research at Forescout, which has done other, similar research through an effort it calls Project Memoria. “We’ve analyzed more than 15 TCP/IP stacks both proprietary and open source and we’ve found that there’s no real difference in quality. But these commonalities are also helpful, because we’ve found they have similar weak spots. When we analyze a new stack, we can go and look at these same places and share those common problems with other researchers as well as developers.”

The researchers haven’t seen evidence yet that attackers are actively exploiting these types of vulnerabilities in the wild. But with hundreds of millions—perhaps billions—of devices potentially impacted across numerous different findings, the exposure is significant.

Siemens USA chief cybersecurity officer Kurt John told Wired in a statement that the company “works closely with governments and industry partners to mitigate vulnerabilities … In this case we’re happy to have collaborated with one such partner, Forescout, to quickly identify and mitigate the vulnerability.”

The researchers coordinated disclosure of the flaws with developers releasing patches, the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, and other vulnerability-tracking groups. Similar flaws found by Forescout and JSOF in other proprietary and open source TCP/IP stacks have already been found to expose hundreds of millions or even possibly billions of devices worldwide.

Issues show up so often in these ubiquitous network protocols because they’ve largely been passed down untouched through decades as the technology around them evolves. Essentially, since it ain’t broke, no one fixes it.

“For better or worse, these devices have code in them that people wrote 20 years ago—with the security mentality of 20 years ago,” says Ang Cui, CEO of the IoT security firm Red Balloon Security. “And it works; it never failed. But once you connect that to the Internet, it’s insecure. And that’s not that surprising, given that we’ve had to really rethink how we do security for general-purpose computers over those 20 years.”

The problem is notorious at this point, and it’s one that the security industry hasn’t been able to quash, because vulnerability-ridden zombie code always seems to reemerge.

“There are lots of examples of unintentionally recreating these low-level network bugs from the ’90s,” says Kenn White, co-director of the Open Crypto Audit Project. “A lot of it is about lack of economic incentives to really focus on the quality of this code.”

There’s some good news about the new slate of vulnerabilities the researchers found. Though the patches may not proliferate completely anytime soon, they are available. And other stopgap mitigations can reduce the exposure, namely keeping as many devices as possible from connecting directly to the Internet and using an internal DNS server to route data. Forescout’s Costante also notes that exploitation activity would be fairly predictable, making it easier to detect attempts to take advantage of these flaws.

When it comes to long-term solutions, there’s no quick fix given all the vendors, manufacturers, and developers who have a hand in these supply chains and products. But Forescout has released an open source script that network managers can use to identify potentially vulnerable IoT devices and servers in their environments. The company also maintains an open source library of database queries that researchers and developers can use to find similar DNS-related vulnerabilities more easily.

“It’s a widespread problem; it’s not just a problem for a specific kind of device,” Costante says. “And it’s not only cheap IoT devices. There’s more and more evidence of how widespread this is. That’s why we keep working to raise awareness.”

This story originally appeared on wired.com.

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Microsoft acquires Nuance—makers of Dragon speech rec—for $16 billion

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Enlarge / In this 2011 photo, Dr. Michael A. Lee uses Dragon Medical voice-recognition software to enter his notes after seeing a patient.

Earlier today, Microsoft announced its plans to purchase Nuance for $56 per share—23 percent above Nuance’s closing price last Friday. The deal adds up to a $16 billion cash outlay and a total valuation for Nuance of about $19.7 billion, including that company’s assumed debt.

Who is Nuance?

In this 2006 photo, Rollie Berg—who has extremely limited use of his hands due to multiple sclerosis—uses Dragon NaturallySpeaking 8 to interact directly with his PC.
Enlarge / In this 2006 photo, Rollie Berg—who has extremely limited use of his hands due to multiple sclerosis—uses Dragon NaturallySpeaking 8 to interact directly with his PC.

Nuance is a well-known player in the field of natural language recognition. The company’s technology is the core of Apple’s Siri personal assistant. Nuance also sells well-known personal speech-recognition software Dragon NaturallySpeaking, which is invaluable to many people with a wide range of physical disabilities.

Dragon NaturallySpeaking, originally released in 1997, was one of the first commercially continuous dictation products—meaning software that did not require the user to pause briefly between words. In 2000, Dragon Systems was acquired by ScanSoft, which acquired Nuance Communications in 2005 and rebranded itself as Nuance.

Earlier versions of Dragon software used hidden Markov models to puzzle out the meaning of human speech, but this method had serious limitations compared to modern AI algorithms. In 2009, Stanford researcher Fei-Fei Li created ImageNet—a massive training data set that spawned a boom in deep-learning algorithms used for modern, core AI tech.

After Microsoft researchers Dong Yu and Frank Seide successfully applied deep-learning techniques to real-time automatic speech recognition in 2010, Dragon—now Nuance—applied the same techniques to its own speech-recognition software.

Fast forward to today, and—according to both Microsoft and Nuance—medically targeted versions of Dragon are in use by 77 percent of hospitals, 75 percent of radiologists, and 55 percent of physicians in the United States.

Microsoft’s acquisition play

Microsoft and Nuance began a partnership in 2019 to deliver ambient clinical intelligence (ACI) technologies to health care providers. ACI technology is intended to reduce physician burnout and increase efficiency by offloading administrative tasks onto computers. (A 2017 study published in the Annals of Family Medicine documented physicians typically spending two hours of record-keeping for every single hour of actual patient care.)

Acquiring Nuance gives Microsoft direct access to its entire health care customer list. It also gives Microsoft the opportunity to push Nuance technology—currently, mostly used in the US—to Microsoft’s own large international market. Nuance chief executive Mark Benjamin—who will continue to run Nuance as a Microsoft division after the acquisition—describes it as an opportunity to “superscale how we change an industry.”

The move doubles Microsoft’s total addressable market (TAM) in the health care vertical to nearly $500 billion. It also marries what Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella describes as “the AI layer at the healthcare point of delivery” with Microsoft’s own massive cloud infrastructure, including Azure, Teams, and Dynamics 365.

The acquisition has been unanimously approved by the Boards of Directors of both Nuance and Microsoft, and it is expected to close by the end of 2021.

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