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XPRIZE names two grand prize winners in $15 million Global Learning Challenge

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XPRIZE, the non-profit organization developing and managing competitions to find solutions to social challenges, has named two grand prize winners in the Elon Musk-backed Global Learning XPRIZE .

The companies, KitKit School out of South Korea and the U.S., and onebillion, operating in Kenya and the U.K., were announced at an awards ceremony hosted at the Google Spruce Goose Hangar in Playa Vista, Calif.

XPRIZE set each of the competing teams the task of developing scalable services that could enable children to teach themselves basic reading, writing, and arithmetic skills within 15 months.

Musk himself was on hand to award $5 million checks to each of the winning teams.

Five finalists including: New York-based CCI, which developed lesson plans and a development language so non-coders could create lessons; Chimple, a Bangalore-based, learning platform enabling children to learn reading, writing and math on a tablet; RobotTutor, a Pittsburgh-based company which used Carnegie Mellon research to develop an app for Android tablets that would teach lessons in reading and writing with speech recognition, machine learning, and human computer interactions, and the two grand prize winners all received $1 million to continue developing their projects.

The tests required each product to be field tested in Swahili, reaching nearly 3,000 children in 170 villages across Tanzania.

All of the final solutions from each of the five teams that made it to the final round of competition have been open-sourced so anyone can improve on and develop local solutions using the toolkits developed by each team in competition.

Kitkit School, with a team from Berkeley, Calif. and Seoul, developed a program with a game-based core and flexible learning architecture to help kids learn independently, while onebillion, merged numeracy content with literacy material to provide directed learning and activities alongside monitoring to personalize responses to children’s needs.

Both teams are going home with $5 million to continue their work.

The problem of access to basic education affects more than 250 million children around the world, who can’t read or write and one-in-five children around the world aren’t in school, according to data from UNESCO.

The problem of access is compounded by a shortage of teachers at the primary ad secondary school level. Some research, cited by XPRIZE, indicates that the world needs to recruit another 68.8 million teachers to provide every child with a primary and secondary education by 2040.

Before the Global Learning XPRIZE field test, 74% of the children who participated were reported as never having attended school; 80% were never read to at home; and 90% couldn’t read a single word of Swahili.

After the 15 month program working on donated Google Pixel C tablets and pre-loaded with software, the number was cut in half.

“Education is a fundamental human right, and we are so proud of all the teams and their dedication and hard work to ensure every single child has the opportunity to take learning into their own hands,” said Anousheh Ansari, CEO of XPRIZE, in a statement. “Learning how to read, write and demonstrate basic math are essential building blocks for those who want to live free from poverty and its limitations, and we believe that this competition clearly demonstrated the accelerated learning made possible through the educational applications developed by our teams, and ultimately hope that this movement spurs a revolution in education, worldwide.”

After the grand prize announcement, XPRIZE said it will work to secure and load the software onto tablets; localize the software; and deliver preloaded hardware and charging stations to remote locations so all finalist teams can scale their learning software across the world.

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AT&T failed to fix Ohio man’s broken Internet service for a month

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Ohio resident John Sopko had to go a month without his AT&T fixed wireless Internet service because the company repeatedly failed to diagnose and fix the problem, the Akron Beacon Journal reported today. AT&T finally figured out this week that the antenna on Sopko’s roof was broken and had to be replaced, but not until after a parade of support calls and technician visits.

Sopko said he isn’t a big Internet user but that his girlfriend and her 17-year-old son are. The son has “been at his grandmother’s since four days after [the outage] started because he needs it for school,” Sopko said. Sopko’s house is either in or near an area where AT&T received US government funding to deploy service.

Sopko’s service stopped working on October 30. Rebooting the modem did nothing, so he called AT&T’s service phone number and “followed directions to reboot the system.” That again did nothing, so AT&T sent a technician to his home in Akron, but the tech just repeated the steps that Sopko had already taken, according to the report:

“He went and turned everything off and plugged it back in,” Sopko said. Same result—no connection.

AT&T sent out a second technician, on Nov. 8. “He did the same thing,” Sopko said. “He said it was an engineering problem and was going to send an email.”

More frustration, no explanation from AT&T

Sopko didn’t hear back from AT&T, so he called the company again a couple of days after the second technician visit, the Beacon Journal article said. “They said they were ‘troubleshooting’ and said it would be back up in a couple of hours,” he told the newspaper.

The service did not come back online within a couple of hours, and Sopko said he had to “chase them down” again because AT&T didn’t call him back. He was eventually able to schedule a technician appointment for November 23. But on that day, “he received another text, confirming an appointment for Nov. 26. A text on Nov. 26 confirmed an appointment for 2 pm to 4 pm. Sopko said he may not have responded in time to that text, so a new appointment was set for Dec. 3,” the newspaper reported.

The Beacon Journal report continued:

Sopko called the service line again on Nov. 26, talking to a customer representative. “I don’t want to be mean to you,” he told the representative. “But this has been going on for 28 days now. Why?”

The representative couldn’t give a solid answer, which frustrated Sopko even more. “I’m buying a product that I can’t use,” he said. “Tell me lightning hit a tower; tell me something.”

AT&T’s government funding

Finally, Sopko was contacted on Tuesday of this week by an AT&T rep, and the company sent what Sopko called a “more advanced technician” to his house on Wednesday. The technician tested the antenna, found it wasn’t working, and replaced it.

“That ‘antenna’ was a fixed wireless unit the company had installed about a year and a half before. The units are primarily used in rural areas where cable lines aren’t in place,” the Beacon Journal noted.

Ohio is one of 18 states where AT&T received $428 million from the Federal Communications Commission per year for seven years starting in 2015 to deploy 10Mbps Internet using fixed wireless technology to 1.1 million homes and small businesses. It’s not clear whether Sopko’s home is counted in that deployment, but his address on East Voris Street is very close to other Akron properties where the FCC map shows subsidized deployment by AT&T.

AT&T still trying to “determine what happened”

Sopko “received a bill on Tuesday for a month’s service he didn’t get” but later received bill credits “and a gift card for his troubles,” the Beacon Journal reported. AT&T told the newspaper that “our technicians restored Mr. Sopko’s Internet service and he is satisfied.”

We asked AT&T for an explanation of why it took a month to diagnose and fix the problem. The company didn’t explain but said it is looking into the matter.

“Clearly, this is not an acceptable customer experience and did not meet our expectations for how we serve our customers,” AT&T told Ars today. “We have apologized to Mr. Sopko and credited his account. We are reviewing this case to determine what happened and to prevent it from happening again.”

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iPhones of US diplomats hacked using “0-click” exploits from embattled NSO

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The iPhones of nine US State Department officials were infected by powerful and stealthy malware developed by NSO Group, the Israeli exploit seller that has come under increasing scrutiny for selling its wares to journalists, lawyers, activists, and US allies.

The US officials, either stationed in Uganda or focusing on issues related to that country, received warnings like this one from Apple informing them their iPhones were being targeted by hackers. Citing unnamed people with knowledge of the attacks, Reuters said the hackers used software from NSO.

No clicking required

As previously reported, NSO software known as Pegasus uses exploits sent through messaging apps that infect iPhones and Android devices without requiring targets to click links or take any other action. From there, the devices run hard-to-detect malware that can download photos, contacts, text messages, and other data. The malware also allows the operator to listen to audio and view video in real time.

NSO has long come under fire for selling its wares to governments hostile to journalists and dissidents. Facebook sued NSO in 2019 after Pegasus was discovered to have used the company’s WhatsApp to infect the iPhones of 36 journalists. Last month, Apple sued NSO after learning Pegasus infected 37 iPhones belonging to journalists, human rights activists, and business executives. Critics said the targets didn’t meet the criteria NSO says is required for its powerful spyware to be used. Also last month the Biden administration’s Commerce Department blocked the export, re-export and in-country transfer of NSO technology.

An NSO spokesperson said in a statement that after learning of the allegations by Reuters, it immediately terminated the responsible customer’s access to its system while it looks into the matter. NSO officials wrote:

On top of the independent investigation, NSO will cooperate with any relevant government authority and present the full information we will have. To clarify, the installation of our software by the customer occurs via phone numbers. As stated before, NSO’s technologies are blocked from working on US (+1) numbers. Once the software is sold to the licensed customer, NSO has no way to know who the targets of the customers are, as such, we were not and could not have been aware of this case.

Reuters said that while the iPhones targeted in this case were all registered to overseas numbers, the target’s affiliation with the US government was obvious because they all used Apple IDs that were associated with email addresses ending in state.gov. The news outlet said the actions taken against the State Department officials “represent the widest known hacks of US officials through NSO technology.”

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Ransomware attack on Planned Parenthood steals data of 400,000 patients

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Ransomware hackers broke into a Planned Parenthood network and accessed medical records or other sensitive data for more than 400,000 patients of the reproductive health care group.

The disclosure came in a sample letter posted to the California attorney general’s website and a release published by the organization. Both said that the intrusion and data theft was limited to patients of Planned Parenthood’s Los Angeles chapter. Organization personnel first noticed the hack on October 17 and conducted an investigation.

“The investigation determined that an unauthorized person gained access to our network between
October 9, 2021 and October 17, 2021, and exfiltrated some files from our systems during that time,” the letter stated. It went on to say: “On November 4, 2021, we identified files that contained your name and one or more of the following: address, insurance information, date of birth, and clinical information, such as diagnosis, procedure, and/or prescription information.”

The release said that the intruder “installed malware/ransomware and exfiltrated some files from its systems during that time.” The organization said it has no evidence the stolen data has been used for fraudulent purposes. Planned Parenthood of Los Angeles spokesman John Erickson didn’t respond to a question asking if the organization could rule out that possibility.

Ransomware has become a scourge that hits both Fortune 500 firms and small nonprofits alike. The criminals behind the attacks routinely extort money, with the threat to not only lock up victims’ computer networks, but also to leak sensitive data online if the ransom goes unpaid. There are no reports of any of the Planned Parenthood data being published.

In May, hackers hit Colonial Pipeline with a ransomware attack that caused disruptions in gasoline distribution in the southeastern United States. A few weeks later, JBS SA, the world’s biggest meat producer, suffered a ransomware attack that shut down operations at five of the biggest JBS beef plants in the US. A Canadian JBS beef plant that processes almost a third of the country’s federally inspected cattle was also shut down.

Nonprofit organizations, meanwhile, have also been menaced by ransomware, with hospitals, homeless shelters, and community groups all in the crosshairs. Earlier this year, data belonging to a Planned Parenthood chapter in the District of Columbia was also held for ransom.

Word of the latest Planned Parenthood attack comes as the availability of abortions in many states has come under threat in state legislatures. The US Supreme Court on Wednesday heard oral arguments in a case challenging the constitutionality of a Mississippi law that effectively bans the procedure after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

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