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The $1 billion Russian cyber company that the US says hacks for Moscow

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The $1 billion Russian cyber company that the US says hacks for Moscow


The public side of Positive is like many cybersecurity companies: staff look at high-tech security, publish research on new threats, and even have cutesy office signs that read “stay positive!” hanging above their desks. The company is open about some of its links to the Russian government, and boasts an 18-year track record of defensive cybersecurity expertise including a two-decade relationship with the Russian Ministry of Defense. But according to previously unreported US intelligence assessments, it also develops and sells weaponized software exploits to the Russian government. 

One area that’s stood out is the firm’s work on SS7, a technology that’s critical to global telephone networks. In a public demonstration for Forbes, Positive showed how it can bypass encryption by exploiting weaknesses in SS7. Privately, the US has concluded that Positive did not just discover and publicize flaws in the system, but also developed offensive hacking capabilities to exploit security holes that were then used by Russian intelligence in cyber campaigns.

Much of what Positive does for the Russian government’s hacking operations is similar to what American security contractors do for United States agencies. But there are major differences. One former American intelligence official, who requested anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss classified material, described the relationship between companies like Positive and their Russian intelligence counterparts as “complex” and even “abusive.” The pay is relatively low, the demands are one-sided, the power dynamic is skewed, and the implicit threat for non-cooperation can loom large.

Tight working relationship

American intelligence agencies have long concluded that Positive also runs actual hacking operations itself, with a large team allowed to run its own cyber campaigns as long as they are in Russia’s national interest. Such practices are illegal in the western world: American private military contractors are under direct and daily management of the agency they’re working for during cyber contracts. 

US intelligence has concluded that Positive did not just discover and publicize flaws, but also developed offensive hacking capabilities to exploit security holes that it found

Former US officials say there is a tight working relationship with the Russian intelligence agency FSB that includes exploit discovery, malware development, and even reverse engineering of cyber capabilities used by Western nations like the United States against Russia itself. 

The company’s marquee annual event, Positive Hack Days, was described in recent US sanctions as “recruiting events for the FSB and GRU.” The event has long been famous for being frequented by Russian agents. 

NSA director of cybersecurity Rob Joyce said the companies being sanctioned “provide a range of services to the SVR, from providing the expertise to developing tools, supplying infrastructure and even, sometimes, operationally supporting activities,” Politico reported.

One day after the sanctions announcement, Positive issued a statement denying “the groundless accusations” from the US. It pointed out that there is “no evidence” of wrongdoing and said it provides all vulnerabilities to software vendors “without exception.”

Tit for tat

Thursday’s announcement is not the first time that Russian security companies have come under scrutiny. 

The biggest Russian cybersecurity company, Kaspersky, has been under fire for years over its relationships with the Russian government—eventually being banned from US government networks. Kaspersky has always denied a special relationship with the Russian government.

But one factor that sets Kaspersky apart from Positive, at least in the eyes of American intelligence officials, is that Kaspersky sells antivirus software to western companies and governments. There are few better intelligence collection tools than an antivirus, software which is purposely designed to see everything happening on a computer, and can even take control of the machines it occupies. US officials believe Russian hackers have used Kaspersky software to spy on Americans, but Positive—a smaller company selling different products and services—has no equivalent. 

Recent sanctions are the latest step in a tit for tat between Moscow and Washington over escalating cyber operations, including the Russian-sponsored SolarWinds attack against the US, which led to nine federal agencies being hacked over a long period of time. Earlier this year, the acting head of the US cybersecurity agency said recovering from that attack could take the US at least 18 months.



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A nonprofit promised to preserve wildlife. Then it made millions claiming it could cut down trees

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A nonprofit promised to preserve wildlife. Then it made millions claiming it could cut down trees


Clegern said the program’s safeguards prevent the problems identified by CarbonPlan.   

California’s offsets are considered additional carbon reductions because the floor serves “as a conservative backstop,” Clegern said. Without it, he explained, many landowners could have logged to even lower levels in the absence of offsets.

Clegern added that the agency’s rules were adopted as a result of a lengthy process of debate and were upheld by the courts. A California Court of Appeal found the Air Resources Board had the discretion to use a standardized approach to evaluate whether projects were additional.

But the court did not make an independent determination about the effectiveness of the standard, and was “quite deferential to the agency’s judgment,” said Alice Kaswan, a law professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law, in an email.

California law requires the state’s cap-and-trade regulations to ensure that emissions reductions are “real, permanent, quantifiable, verifiable” and “in addition to any other greenhouse gas emission reduction that otherwise would occur.”

“If there’s new scientific information that suggests serious questions about the integrity of offsets, then, arguably, CARB has an ongoing duty to consider that information and revise their protocols accordingly,” Kaswan said. “The agency’s obligation is to implement the law, and the law requires additionality.”

The recipe

On an early spring day, Lautzenheiser, the Audubon scientist, brought a reporter to a forest protected by the offset project. The trees here were mainly tall white pines mixed with hemlocks, maples and oaks. Lautzenheiser is usually the only human in this part of the woods, where he spends hours looking for rare plants or surveying stream salamanders.

The nonprofit’s planning documents acknowledge that the forests enrolled in California’s program were protected long before they began generating offsets: “A majority of the project area has been conserved and designated as high conservation value forest for many years with deliberate management focused on long-term natural resource conservation values.”

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Meet Jennifer Daniel, the woman who decides what emoji we get to use

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Meet Jennifer Daniel, the woman who decides what emoji we get to use


Emoji are now part of our language. If you’re like most people, you pepper your texts, Instagram posts, and TikTok videos with various little images to augment your words—maybe the syringe with a bit of blood dripping from it when you got your vaccination, the prayer (or high-fiving?) hands as a shortcut to “thank you,” a rosy-cheeked smiley face with jazz hands for a covid-safe hug from afar. Today’s emoji catalogue includes nearly 3,000 illustrations representing everything from emotions to food, natural phenomena, flags, and people at various stages of life.

Behind all those symbols is the Unicode Consortium, a nonprofit group of hardware and software companies aiming to make text and emoji readable and accessible to everyone. Part of their goal is to make languages look the same on all devices; a Japanese character should be typographically consistent across all media, for example. But Unicode is probably best known for being the gatekeeper of emoji: releasing them, standardizing them, and approving or rejecting new ones.

Jennifer Daniel is the first woman at the helm of the Emoji Subcommittee for the Unicode Consortium and a fierce advocate for inclusive, thoughtful emoji. She initially rose to prominence for introducing Mx. Claus, a gender-inclusive alternative to Santa and Mrs. Claus; a non-gendered person breastfeeding a non-gendered baby; and a masculine face wearing a bridal veil. 

Now she’s on a mission to bring emoji to a post-pandemic future in which they are as broadly representative as possible. That means taking on an increasingly public role, whether it’s with her popular and delightfully nerdy Substack newsletter, What Would Jennifer Do? (in which she analyzes the design process for upcoming emoji), or inviting the general public to submit concerns about emoji and speak up if they aren’t representative or accurate.

“There isn’t a precedent here,” Daniel says of her job. And to Daniel, that’s exciting not just for her but for the future of human communication.

I spoke to her about how she sees her role and the future of emoji. The interview has been lightly edited and condensed. 

What does it mean to chair the subcommittee on emoji? What do you do?

It’s not sexy. [laughs] A lot of it is managing volunteers [the committee is composed of volunteers who review applications and help in approval and design]. There’s a lot of paperwork. A lot of meetings. We meet twice a week.

I read a lot and talk to a lot of people. I recently talked to a gesture linguist to learn how people use their hands in different cultures. How do we make better hand-gesture emoji? If the image is no good or isn’t clear, it’s a dealbreaker. I’m constantly doing lots of research and consulting with different experts. I’ll be on the phone with a botanical garden about flowers, or a whale expert to get the whale emoji right, or a cardiovascular surgeon so we have the anatomy of the heart down. 

There’s an old essay by Beatrice Warde about typography. She asked if a good typeface is a bedazzled crystal goblet or a transparent one. Some would say the ornate one because it’s so fancy, and others would say the crystal goblet because you can see and appreciate the wine. With emoji, I lend myself more to the “transparent crystal goblet” philosophy. 

Why should we care about how our emoji are designed?

My understanding is that 80% of communication is nonverbal. There’s a parallel in how we communicate. We text how we talk. It’s informal, it’s loose. You’re pausing to take a breath. Emoji are shared alongside words.

When emoji first came around, we had the misconception that they were ruining language. Learning a new language is really hard, and emoji is kind of like a new language. It works with how you already communicate. It evolves as you evolve. How you communicate and present yourself evolves, just like yourself. You can look at the nearly 3,000 emoji and it [their interpretation] changes by age or gender or geographic area. When we talk to someone and are making eye contact, you shift your body language, and that’s an emotional contagion. It builds empathy and connection. It gives you permission to reveal that about yourself. Emoji can do that, all in an image.

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Product design gets an AI makeover

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Product design gets an AI makeover


It’s a tall order, but one that Zapf says artificial intelligence (AI) technology can support by capturing the right data and guiding engineers through product design and development.

No wonder a November 2020 McKinsey survey reveals that more than half of organizations have adopted AI in at least one function, and 22% of respondents report at least 5% of their companywide earnings are attributable to AI. And in manufacturing, 71% of respondents have seen a 5% or more increase in revenue with AI adoption.

But that wasn’t always the case. Once “rarely used in product development,” AI has experienced an evolution over the past few years, Zapf says. Today, tech giants known for their innovations in AI, such as Google, IBM, and Amazon, “have set new standards for the use of AI in other processes,” such as engineering.

“AI is a promising and exploratory area that can significantly improve user experience for designing engineers, as well as gather relevant data in the development process for specific applications,” says Katrien Wyckaert, director of industry solutions for Siemens Industry Software.

The result is a growing appreciation for a technology that promises to simplify complex systems, get products to market faster, and drive product innovation.

Simplifying complex systems

A perfect example of AI’s power to overhaul product development is Renault. In response to increasing consumer demand, the French automaker is equipping a growing number of new vehicle models with an automated manual transmission (AMT)—a system that behaves like an automatic transmission but allows drivers to shift gears electronically using a push-button command.

AMTs are popular among consumers, but designing them can present formidable challenges. That’s because an AMT’s performance depends on the operation of three distinct subsystems: an electro-mechanical actuator that shifts the gears, electronic sensors that monitor vehicle status, and software embedded in the transmission control unit, which controls the engine. Because of this complexity, it can take up to a year of extensive trial and error to define the system’s functional requirements, design the actuator mechanics, develop the necessary software, and validate the overall system.

In an effort to streamline its AMT development process, Renault turned to Simcenter Amesim software from Siemens Digital Industries Software. The simulation technology relies on artificial neural networks, AI “learning” systems loosely modeled on the human brain. Engineers simply drag, drop, and connect icons to graphically create a model. When displayed on a screen as a sketch, the model illustrates the relationship between all the various elements of an AMT system. In turn, engineers can predict the behavior and performance of the AMT and make any necessary refinements early in the development cycle, avoiding late-stage problems and delays. In fact, by using a virtual engine and transmissions as stand-ins while developing hardware, Renault has managed to cut its AMT development time almost in half.

Speed without sacrificing quality

So, too, are emerging environmental standards prompting Renault to rely more heavily on AI. To comply with emerging carbon dioxide emissions standards, Renault has been working on the design and development of hybrid vehicles. But hybrid engines are far more complex to develop than those found in vehicles with a single energy source, such as a conventional car. That’s because hybrid engines require engineers to perform complex feats like balancing the power required from multiple energy sources, choosing from a multitude of architectures, and examining the impact of transmissions and cooling systems on a vehicle’s energy performance.

“To meet new environmental standards for a hybrid engine, we must completely rethink the architecture of gasoline engines,” says Vincent Talon, head of simulation at Renault. The problem, he adds, is that carefully examining “the dozens of different actuators that can influence the final results of fuel consumption and pollutant emissions” is a lengthy and complex process, made by more difficult by rigid timelines.

“Today, we clearly don’t have the time to painstakingly evaluate various hybrid powertrain architectures,” says Talon. “Rather, we needed to use an advanced methodology to manage this new complexity.”

For more on AI in industrial applications, visit www.siemens.com/artificialintelligence.

Download the full report.

This content was produced by Insights, the custom content arm of MIT Technology Review. It was not written by MIT Technology Review’s editorial staff.

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