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Inside the Team That Cracked the Stuxnet Worm

Shown above: Siemens Simatic S7-300 PLC CPU, similar to one of those targeted by the Stuxnet worm.

In an extremely comprehensive WIRED article, Kim Zetter tells the inside story of how researchers worldwide (primarily working for Symantec) decoded the Stuxnet worm, ultimately figuring out that it was developed to target nuclear centrifuges at a particular site in Iran. For nerds, this is an incredibly engrossing read, full of technical-but-followable detail, as well as a compelling real-life narrative. As many commenters have noted, it reads a bit like a Tom Clancy novel. While many of us have heard something about Stuxnet, this is the article you should read to learn the real story -- grab a sandwich and turn off your email program for a half hour. Here's a snippet:

It should have been no surprise to the researchers, then, when their work drew the attention of government agencies in and outside the United States, that began asking for briefings on their findings. Symantec put together a PowerPoint presentation for the Department of Homeland Security, Defense Department, Department of Energy and FBI to answer their questions. "I joke that they already had all the answers," Chien said. Asked if anyone from the NSA or CIA attended the PowerPoint sessions, he smiled. "If we ever did brief the NSA, we wouldn't know, right?"

The political ramifications of their work took on even starker dimensions when, two weeks after they published their findings on the frequency converters, assassins on motorbikes attacked two Iranian nuclear scientists simultaneously in Tehran. The men were commuting to work on a Monday morning in separate parts of the city when the assassins zipped by their cars and attached bombs to them. [...]

Although the researchers didn't really believe their lives were at risk for exposing Stuxnet, they laughed nervously as they recalled the paranoia and dark humor that crept into their conversations at the time. O Murchu began noticing weird clicking noises on his phone, and one Friday told Chien and Falliere, "If I turn up dead and I committed suicide on Monday, I just want to tell you guys, I'm not suicidal."

The day news of the assassination plots broke, Chien joked to his colleagues that if a motorcycle ever pulled alongside his car, he'd take out the driver with a quick swerve of his wheels. When he left work that day and stopped at the first intersection, he was shaken -- just for a moment -- as he glanced in the rear-view mirror and saw a motorcycle pull up behind him.

Read the rest (it's long) for a thoroughly excellent look at a dramatic story of modern computer security research.

(Via Waxy.org via Hypertext.)

(Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, used under Creative Commons license.)

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Stop Your Snoring and Track Your Sleep With a Wi-Fi Smart Pillow
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REM-Fit

Everyone could use a better night's rest. The CDC says that only 66 percent of American adults get as much sleep as they should, so if you're spending plenty of time in bed but mostly tossing and turning (or trying to block out your partner's snores), it may be time to smarten up your sleep accessories. As TechCrunch reports, the ZEEQ Smart Pillow improves your sleeping schedule in a multitude of ways, whether you're looking to quiet your snores or need a soothing lullaby to rock you to sleep.

After a successful Kickstarter in 2016, the product is now on sale and ready to get you snoozing. If you're a snorer, the pillow has a microphone designed to listen to the sound of your snores and softly vibrate so that you shift positions to a quieter pose. Accelerometers in the pillow let the sleep tracker know how much you're moving around at night, allowing it to record your sleep stages. Then, you can hook the pillow up to your Amazon Echo or Google Home so that you can have your favorite smart assistant read out the pillow's analysis of your sleep quality and snoring levels the next morning.

The pillow is also equipped with eight different wireless speakers that turn it into an extra-personal musical experience. You can listen to soothing music while you fall asleep, either connecting the pillow to your Spotify or Apple Music account on your phone via Bluetooth or using the built-in relaxation programs. You can even use it to listen to podcasts without disturbing your partner. You can set a timer to turn the music off after a certain period so you don't wake up in the middle of the night still listening to Serial.

And when it's time to wake up, the pillow will analyze your movements to wake you during your lightest sleep stage, again keeping the noise of an alarm from disturbing your partner.

The downside? Suddenly your pillow is just another device with a battery that needs to charge. And forget about using it in a place without Wi-Fi.

The ZEEQ Smart Pillow currently costs $200.

[h/t TechCrunch]

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Design
Forget Horns: Some Trains in Japan Bark Like Dogs to Scare Away Deer
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iStock

In Japan, growing deer populations are causing friction on the railways. The number of deer hit by trains each year is increasing, so the Railway Technical Research Institute has come up with a novel idea for curbing the problem, according to the BBC. Researchers there are using the sound of barking dogs to scare deer away from danger zones when trains are approaching, preventing train damage, delays, and of course, deer carnage.

It’s not your standard horn. In pilot tests, Japanese researchers have attached speakers that blare out a combination of sounds designed specifically to ward off deer. First, the recording captures the animals’ attention by playing a snorting sound that deer use as an “alarm call” to warn others of danger. Then, the sound of howling dogs drives the deer away from the tracks so the train can pass.

Before this initiative, the problem of deer congregating on train tracks seemed intractable. Despite the best efforts of railways, the animals aren’t deterred by ropes, barriers, flashing lights, or even lion feces meant to repel them. Kintetsu Railway has had some success with ultrasonic waves along its Osaka line, but many rail companies are still struggling to deal with the issue. Deer flock to railroad tracks for the iron filings that pile up on the rails, using the iron as a dietary supplement. (They have also been known to lick chain link fences.)

The new deer-deterring soundtrack is particularly useful because it's relatively low-tech and would be cheap to implement. Unlike the ultrasonic plan, it doesn’t have to be set up in a particular place or require a lot of new equipment. Played through a speaker on the train, it goes wherever the train goes, and can be deployed whenever necessary. One speaker on each train could do the job for a whole railway line.

The researchers found that the recordings they designed could reduce the number of deer sightings near the train tracks by as much as 45 percent during winter nights, which typically see the highest collision rates. According to the BBC, the noises will only be used in unpopulated areas, reducing the possibility that people living near the train tracks will have to endure the sounds of dogs howling every night for the rest of their lives.

Deer aren't the only animal that Japanese railways have sought to protect against the dangers of railroad tracks. In 2015, the Suma Aqualife Park and the West Japan Railway Company teamed up to create tunnels that could serve as safer rail crossings for the turtles that kept getting hit by trains.

[h/t BBC]

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