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Teams autonomously mapping the depths take home millions in Ocean Discovery Xprize – TechCrunch

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There’s a whole lot of ocean on this planet, and we don’t have much of an idea what’s at the bottom of most of it. That could change with the craft and techniques created during the Ocean Discovery Xprize, which had teams competing to map the sea floor quickly, precisely and autonomously. The winner just took home $4 million.

A map of the ocean would be valuable in and of itself, of course, but any technology used to do so could be applied in many other ways, and who knows what potential biological or medical discoveries hide in some nook or cranny a few thousand fathoms below the surface?

The prize, sponsored by Shell, started back in 2015. The goal was, ultimately, to create a system that could map hundreds of square kilometers of the sea floor at a five-meter resolution in less than a day — oh, and everything has to fit in a shipping container. For reference, existing methods do nothing like this, and are tremendously costly.

But as is usually the case with this type of competition, the difficulty did not discourage the competitors — it only spurred them on. Since 2015, then, the teams have been working on their systems and traveling all over the world to test them.

Originally the teams were to test in Puerto Rico, but after the devastating hurricane season of 2017, the whole operation was moved to the Greek coast. Ultimately after the finalists were selected, they deployed their craft in the waters off Kalamata and told them to get mapping.

Team GEBCO’s surface vehicle

“It was a very arduous and audacious challenge,” said Jyotika Virmani, who led the program. “The test itself was 24 hours, so they had to stay up, then immediately following that was 48 hours of data processing after which they had to give us the data. It takes more trad companies about 2 weeks or so to process data for a map once they have the raw data — we’re pushing for real time.”

This wasn’t a test in a lab bath or pool. This was the ocean, and the ocean is a dangerous place. But amazingly there were no disasters.

“Nothing was damaged, nothing imploded,” she said. “We ran into weather issues, of course. And we did lose one piece of technology that was subsequently found by a Greek fisherman a few days later… but that’s another story.”

At the start of the competition, Virmani said, there was feedback from the entrants that the autonomous piece of the task was simply not going to be possible. But the last few years have proven it to be so, given that the winning team not only met but exceeded the requirements of the task.

“The winning team mapped more than 250 square kilometers in 24 hours, at the minimum of five meters resolution, but around 140 was more than five meters,” Virmani told me. “It was all unmanned: An unmanned surface vehicle that took the submersible out, then recovered it at sea, unmanned again, and brought it back to port. They had such great control over it — they were able to change its path and its programming throughout that 24 hours as they needed to.” (It should be noted that unmanned does not necessarily mean totally hands-off — the teams were permitted a certain amount of agency in adjusting or fixing the craft’s software or route.)

A five-meter resolution, if you can’t quite picture it, would produce a map of a city that showed buildings and streets clearly, but is too coarse to catch, say, cars or street signs. When you’re trying to map two-thirds of the globe, though, this resolution is more than enough — and infinitely better than the nothing we currently have. (Unsurprisingly, it’s also certainly enough for an oil company like Shell to prospect new deep-sea resources.)

The winning team was GEBCO, composed of veteran hydrographers — ocean mapping experts, you know. In addition to the highly successful unmanned craft (Sea-Kit, already cruising the English Channel for other purposes), the team did a lot of work on the data-processing side, creating a cloud-based solution that helped them turn the maps around quickly. (That may also prove to be a marketable service in the future.) They were awarded $4 million, in addition to their cash for being selected as a finalist.

The runner up was Kuroshio, which had great resolution but was unable to map the full 250 km2 due to weather problems. They snagged a million.

A bonus prize for having the submersible track a chemical signal to its source didn’t exactly have a winner, but the teams’ entries were so impressive that the judges decided to split the million between the Tampa Deep Sea Xplorers and Ocean Quest, which amazingly enough is made up mostly of middle-schoolers. The latter gets $800,000, which should help pay for a few new tools in the shop there.

Lastly, a $200,000 innovation prize was given to Team Tao out of the U.K., which had a very different style to its submersible that impressed the judges. While most of the competitors opted for a craft that went “lawnmower-style” above the sea floor at a given depth, Tao’s craft dropped down like a plumb bob, pinging the depths as it went down and back up before moving to a new spot. This provides a lot of other opportunities for important oceanographic testing, Virmani noted.

Having concluded the prize, the organization has just a couple more tricks up its sleeve. GEBCO, which stands for General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans, is partnering with The Nippon Foundation on Seabed 2030, an effort to map the entire sea floor over the next decade and provide that data to the world for free.

And the program is also — why not? — releasing an anthology of short sci-fi stories inspired by the idea of mapping the ocean. “A lot of our current technology is from the science fiction of the past,” said Virmani. “So we told the authors, imagine we now have a high-resolution map of the sea floor, what are the next steps in ocean tech and where do we go?” The resulting 19 stories, written from all 7 continents (yes, one from Antarctica), will be available June 7.

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The Google Assistant is now a Google messaging service

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The Google Assistant’s “Broadcast” feature has long existed as a way to blast a message to every Google smart speaker in the house. Instead of hunting down every individual family member at dinner time, put those smart speakers to work by saying, “Hey Google, broadcast, ‘It’s dinner time!'”

In a new blog post, Google called Broadcast “one of our most popular Assistant features” and announced that the feature is expanding to show messages on phones, too, even when they’re outside the home Wi-Fi network. That means Broadcast is basically turning into a new Google messaging service.

Broadcast will now be able to send and receive messages on the Google Home and Nest smart speakers, the Google Home Hub and Nest Hub smart displays, any Android phone, and iPhones running the Google Assistant app. Phones will get a notification when new messages arrive, and group chat members include both individual people (presumably with personal devices like a phone) and more public home devices. Just like any other messaging service, opening the notification will show a scrolling list of broadcast messages. The one big limitation is that the messaging only happens within a Google Family Group. If you want to include an outsider, you’ll have to awkwardly switch group messaging services.

Broadcast messaging uses audio by default, so speakers and smart displays will play the voice recording of your message. Phones and smart displays will show a transcription of your message and a play button, so you can listen or read if you want, and it looks like phones have the option of typing a response, too. Presumably, this would play back on speakers using text-to-speech.

One of many bespoke Google messaging services

Google has never been able to throw its full weight behind a single messaging service, and the constant launching and shutting down of competing messaging services has left the company without a competitive messaging platform to back. Several Google apps like the Google Assistant have aimed to include some smaller messaging functionality over the years, but without a clear Google service to plug into, they end up spinning up their own bespoke messaging services.

Besides this Google Assistant messaging service, YouTube Messaging existed from 2017-2019, Google Maps Messages (to message businesses) launched in 2018, Google Photos Messaging launched in 2019, Stadia Messaging was added in 2020, and Google Pay Messaging came out of beta with the app revamp in March 2021. And who could forget Google Docs Chat, which has existed seemingly forever, though awkwardly only on desktop clients. We can also give half-credit to Google News, which lets you send a message with a shared news article and will pop up a notification through the Google News app, although the feature doesn’t support replies. It would be nice if any of these services talked to each other through a single Google Messaging service, but instead, you’ll be managing individual contact lists and message histories.

This is one of a few new Google Assistant features that is supposed to arrive “just in time” for Mother’s Day (this Sunday—you all remembered, right?) so it should be rolling out soon.

Listing image by Google

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Fix for critical Qualcomm chip flaw is making its way to Android devices

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Makers of high-end Android devices are responding to the discovery of a Qualcomm chip flaw that researchers say could be exploited to partially backdoor about a third of the world’s smartphones.

The vulnerability, discovered by researchers from security firm Check Point Research, resides in Qualcomm’s Mobile Station Modem, a system of chips that provides capabilities for things like voice, SMS, and high-definition recording, mostly on higher-end devices made by Google, Samsung, LG, Xiaomi, and OnePlus. Phone-makers can customize the chips so they do additional things like handle SIM unlock requests. The chips run in 31 percent of the world’s smartphones, according to figures from Counterpoint Research.

The heap overflow the researchers found can be exploited by a malicious app installed on the phone, and from there the app can plant malicious code inside the MSM, Check Point researchers said in a blog post published Thursday. The nearly undetectable code might then be able to tap into some of a phone’s most vital functions.

“This means an attacker could have used this vulnerability to inject malicious code into the modem from Android, giving them access to the device user’s call history and SMS, as well as the ability to listen to the device user’s conversations,” the researchers wrote. “A hacker can also exploit the vulnerability to unlock the device’s SIM, thereby overcoming the limitations imposed by service providers on it.”

Fixes take time

Check Point spokesman Ekram Ahmed told me that Qualcomm has released a patch and disclosed the bug to all customers who use the chip. Because of the intricacies involved, it’s not yet clear which vulnerable Android devices are fixed and which ones aren’t.

“From our experience, the implementation of these fixes takes time, so some of the phones may still be prone to the threat,” he wrote in an email. “Accordingly, we decided not to share all the technical details, as it would give hackers a roadmap on how to orchestrate an exploitation.”

Qualcomm representatives weren’t available on Wednesday evening to answer questions.

The vulnerability is tracked as CVE-2020-11292. Check Point discovered it by using a process known as fuzzing, which exposed the chip system to unusual inputs in an attempt to find bugs in the firmware. Thursday’s research provides a deep dive into the inner workings of the chip system and the general outline they used to exploit the vulnerability.

The research is a reminder that phones and other modern-day computing devices are actually a collection of dozens if not hundreds of interconnected computing devices. While successfully infecting individual chips typically requires nation-state-level hacking resources, the feat would allow an attacker to run malware that couldn’t be detected without time and money.

“We believe this research to be a potential leap in the very popular area of mobile chip research,” Check Point researchers wrote. “Our hope is that our findings will pave the way for a much easier inspection of the modem code by security researchers, a task that is notoriously hard to do today.”

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Dell patches a 12-year-old privilege escalation vulnerability

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Enlarge / At least three companies have reported the dbutil_2_3.sys security problems to Dell over the past two years.

Yesterday, infosec research firm SentinelLabs revealed twelve year old flaws in Dell’s firmware updater, DBUtil 2.3. The vulnerable firmware updater has been installed by default on hundreds of millions of Dell systems since 2009.

The five high severity flaws SentinelLabs discovered and reported to Dell lurk in the dbutil_2_3.sys module, and have been rounded up under a single CVE tracking number, CVE-2021-21551. There are two memory corruption issues and two lack of input validation issues, all of which can lead to local privilege escalation, and a code logic issue which could lead to a denial of service.

A hypothetical attacker abusing these vulnerabilities can escalate the privileges of another process, or bypass security controls to write directly to system storage. This offers multiple routes to the ultimate goal of local kernel-level access—a step even higher than Administrator or “root” access—to the entire system.

This is not a remote code execution vulnerability—an attacker sitting across the world, or even across the coffee shop, cannot use it directly to compromise your system. The major risk is that an attacker who gets an unprivileged shell via some other vulnerability can use a local privilege escalation exploit like this one to bypass security controls.

Since SentinelLabs notified Dell in December 2020, the company has provided documentation of the flaws, and mitigation instructions which for now boil down to “remove the utility.” A replacement driver is also available, and should be automatically installed at the next firmware update check on affected Dell systems.

SentinelLabs’ Kasif Dekel was at least the fourth researcher to discover and report this issue, following CrowdStrike’s Satoshi Tanda and Yarden Shafir, and IOActive’s Enrique Nissim. It’s not clear why it took Dell two years and three separate infosec companies’ reports to patch the issue—but to paraphrase CrowdStrike’s Alex Ionescu above, what matters most is that Dell’s users will finally be protected.

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