US, EU Launch Agreement on Artificial Intelligence

The United States and European Union announced Friday an agreement to speed up and enhance the use of artificial intelligence to improve agriculture, health care, emergency response, climate forecasting and the electric grid. 

A senior U.S. administration official, discussing the initiative shortly before the official announcement, called it the first sweeping AI agreement between the United States and Europe. Previously, agreements on the issue had been limited to specific areas such as enhancing privacy, the official said.  

AI modeling, which refers to machine-learning algorithms that use data to make logical decisions, could be used to improve the speed and efficiency of government operations and services.  

“The magic here is in building joint models [while] leaving data where it is,” the senior administration official said. “The U.S. data stays in the U.S. and European data stays there, but we can build a model that talks to the European and the U.S. data, because the more data and the more diverse data, the better the model.” 

The initiative will give governments greater access to more detailed and data-rich AI models, leading to more efficient emergency responses and electric grid management, and other benefits, the administration official said. 

Pointing to the electric grid, the official said the United States collects data on how electricity is being used, where it is generated, and how to balance the grid’s load so that weather changes do not knock it offline. 

Many European countries have similar data points they gather relating to their own grids, the official said. Under the new partnership, all that data would be harnessed into a common AI model that would produce better results for emergency managers, grid operators and others relying on AI to improve systems.  

The partnership is currently between the White House and the European Commission, the executive arm of the 27-member European Union. The senior administration official said other countries would be invited to join in the coming months.  

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US Dismantles Ransomware Network Responsible for More Than $100 Million in Extortion

An international ransomware network that extorted more than $100 million from hundreds of victims around the world has been brought down following a monthslong infiltration by the FBI, the Department of Justice announced Thursday.

The group known as Hive targeted more than 1,500 victims, including hospitals, school districts and financial firms in more than 80 countries, the Justice Department said. Officials say the most recent victim in Florida was targeted about two weeks ago.

In a breakthrough, FBI agents armed with a court order infiltrated Hive’s computer networks in July 2022, covertly capturing its decryption keys and offering them to victims, saving the targets $130 million in ransom payments, officials said.

“Cybercrime is a constantly evolving threat. But as I have said before, the Justice Department will spare no resource to identify and bring to justice, anyone, anywhere, who targets the United States with a ransomware attack,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said at a press conference.

Working with German and Dutch law enforcement, the FBI on Wednesday took down the servers that power the Hive network.

“Simply put, using lawful means, we hacked the hackers,” Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said.

While no arrests have been made in connection with the takedown, FBI Director Christopher Wray warned that anybody involved with Hive should be concerned, because this investigation is very much ongoing.

“We’re engaged in what we call ‘joint sequenced operations’ … and that includes going after their infrastructure, going after their crypto and going after the people who work with them,” Wray said.

In a ransomware attack, hackers lock in a victim’s network and then demand payments in exchange for providing a decryption key.

Hive used a “ransomware-as-a-service” model where so-called “administrators” develop a malicious software strain and recruit “affiliates” to deploy them against victims.

Officials said Hive affiliates targeted critical U.S. infrastructure entities.

In August 2021, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hive affiliates attacked a Midwest hospital’s network, preventing the medical facility from accepting any new patients, Garland said.

It was only able to recover the data after it paid a ransom.

Hive’s takedown is the latest in the Biden administration’s crackdown on ransomware attacks that are on the rise, costing businesses and organizations billions of dollars.

U.S. banks and financial institutions processed nearly $1.2 billion in suspected ransomware payments in 2021, more than double the amount in 2020, the Department of the Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCen) reported in November.

Roughly 75% of the ransomware attacks reported in 2021 had a nexus to Russia, its proxies or persons acting on its behalf, according to FinCen.

The top five highest-grossing ransomware tools used in 2021 were connected to Russian cyber actors, according to FinCen.

Officials would not say whether Hive had any link to Russia.

The Biden administration views ransomware attacks not just as a “pocketbook issue” that affects ordinary Americans but increasingly as a growing national security threat that calls for a coordinated response.

Last year, the White House hosted a two-day international ransomware summit where participants from 36 countries agreed to create a fusion cell at the Regional Cyber Defense Center in Lithuania, followed by an International Counter Ransomware Task Force later this year.

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US Presidents Facing Scrutiny on Documents

As former Vice President Mike Pence joined the club of top officials mishandling classified documents, U.S. presidents and vice presidents going all the way back to Jimmy Carter, the oldest living former commander in chief, must now respond to public scrutiny on whether they followed procedure in returning classified material upon leaving office.

Representatives of the 39th U.S. president, who served from 1977 to 1981, said he did.

“Though President Carter was not bound by the Presidential Records Act, which took effect after his presidency, he nevertheless voluntarily donated his documents and records to the National Archives after he left office and directed his team to work closely with the National Archives on their transfer,” a spokesperson said in an email response to VOA.

The Presidential Records Act of 1978 governs the official records of presidents and vice presidents after January 1981 and transfers the legal ownership of those records from private to public under the management of the National Archives and Records Administration.

The Carter Center did not deny reporting by The Associated Press that classified materials were found at the president’s home in Plains, Georgia, on at least one occasion and were returned to NARA.

“It could happen,” Matthew De Galan, Carter Center vice president of communications, told VOA. “If it happened, it’s a normal thing — you find a classified document, you turn it in.”

But no one currently working at the Carter Center or the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum remembers the president finding classified materials at his home, De Galan added.

Representatives of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama responded similarly to VOA’s query, saying the presidents returned materials to NARA at the end of their terms and no additional searches are being conducted. Obama’s office points to NARA statements in September that refute media reports that boxes of presidential records were missing from the Obama administration when NARA moved them at the end of his term.

Widespread problem

Lawyers for Pence said a “small number” of classified documents were found at his home in Indiana last week. Meanwhile, former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden are under separate special counsel investigations looking into their respective mishandling of classified documents.

Much is still unknown about how, when and why these materials were not appropriately handled. However, many former officials and experts say the problem is widespread.

“There are several million people at any given time who hold a security clearance and have access to classified information,” Mark Zaid, an attorney focusing on national security law, told VOA. “Individuals leave federal service and just mistakenly bring documents home that are classified, and they don’t even realize that for years.”

Classified documents may also get misplaced during a presidential transition, where there is a massive move of records, including the physical transfer of hundreds of millions of textual, electronic and audiovisual records and artifacts from the White House to an outgoing president’s future library.

Matthew Dowd, chief strategist for the Bush-Cheney 2004 presidential campaign, said in a tweet that it is likely every president and vice president in recent history “accidentally left with classified documents because of packing mess at transition times.”

Still, some lawmakers are livid.

“We have an epidemic of senior leaders taking classified [documents] home. And we have to say categorically, whether it’s Republican or Democrat, it’s all wrong,” Republican Representative Don Bacon said in an interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

“It shows carelessness, negligence, and I think Americans should be mad,” he added, throwing his support behind a special counsel investigation on Pence similar to those investigating Trump and Biden.

White House officials maintain that Biden and his aides take treatment of classified materials seriously.

“The National Security Council staff, we deal with classified material every single day. You have to do that,” John Kirby, coordinator for strategic communications at the NSC, said during a briefing to reporters on Wednesday. “We all know what the rules are. We follow the rules. And the procedures exist for a reason.”

Public trust in elected officials is already at a historic low, with only 20% of Americans saying they trust the government in Washington to do what is right, according to a Pew Research poll.

“Most people think that the government does a pretty good job with national security,” Jennifer Mercieca, who teaches presidential rhetoric at Texas A&M University, told VOA. “These classified document scandals could affect how the public sees the government’s ability to guarantee safety.”

Some observers say that while officials must deal with classified materials more carefully, the U.S. government system suffers from rampant overclassification.

“Many millions of documents are classified each year, most of which do not contain any real secrets but are classified for political purposes,” said Allan Lichtman, presidential historian at American University who has written about reforming the U.S. classification system. “Until such reform is realized, the American people have a reason to distrust the classification system.”

As part of his Open Government Initiative, Obama signed an executive order mandating that the government cannot classify a document if “significant doubt” exists about the need to hide it.

Elizabeth Goitein, senior director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty & National Security Program, argues that the order doesn’t go far enough. She said officials overuse “Secret” and “Top Secret” stamps, keeping many documents that should be public from becoming available.

Katherine Gypson contributed to this report.

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