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The Biggest Cyberattack in Internet History Happened Yesterday

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By Chris Gayomali

Things on the web feel a little sluggish yesterday? You weren't imagining things. Security experts claim that the largest cyberattack in Internet history happened yesterday, slowing services like Netflix to a crawl and making other global websites completely unreachable. The traffic jam was all due to a very public spat between a Dutch webhosting company and a quiet spam-fighting organization. Here's what you need to know.

What's going on?

Spamhaus is a non-profit that — you guessed it — helps organizations fight spam and other unwanted stuff by providing them with content filters. The company keeps tabs of malicious servers on exhaustive blacklists. The trouble began when Spamhaus blacklisted a Dutch company called Cyberbunker, a service that offers hosting to any kind of website "except child porn and anything related to terrorism." A Cyberbunker spokesman said that Spamhaus was abusing its power, and should not be allowed to decide "what goes and does not go on the Internet."

So who's attacking whom?

Spamhaus says Cyberbunker has been retaliating with a powerful denial of service, or DDoS, attack. The attacks, which Spamhaus claims started on March 19, are reaching "previously unknown magnitudes, growing to a data stream of 300 billion bits per second," says the New York Times. (For comparison, similar DDoS attacks that crippled major banks peaked at 50 billion bits.) "It's a real number," says Patrick Gilmore, chief architect of Akamai Technologies, a digital content provider. "It is the largest publicly announced DDoS attack in the history of the Internet." 

So Cyberbunker is attacking Spamhaus directly?

Not exactly. Cyberbunker doesn't appear to be responding to anyone's request for comment. Spamhaus, on the other hand, asserts that Cyberbunker was cooperating with "criminal gangs" from Eastern Europe and Russia to coordinate the DDoS attacks. These attacks are said to be organized by "swarms of computers called botnets," says the Times. The technique "uses a long-known flaw in the Internet's basic plumbing," akin to "using a machine gun to spray an entire crowd when the intent is to kill one person." In other words, it's causing a major data pile-up.

Who are these attacks affecting?

Not to get too technical, but the reason these attacks are so crippling is because they flooded Spamhaus' Domain Name System, or DNS, with massive amounts of its own data. Spamhaus hosts 80 servers around the world, and hackers "target[ed] every part of the Internet infrastructure that they feel can be brought down," says Steve Linford, chief executive of Spamhaus. As such, millions of Internet users trying to access the web could have experienced delays. Security experts are concerned that as the attacks get more powerful, basic Internet services like email and banking may be jeopardized.

Who first discovered it?

The attacks were first mentioned publicly by a Silicon Valley firm called CloudFare, which was hired by Spamhaus for security. However, in trying to defend against the DDoS attacks, it, too, ended up being attacked. "These things are essentially like nuclear bombs," said CloudFlare chief executive Matthew Prince. "It's so easy to cause so much damage." Other companies like Google did their part to keep the Internet held together, and lent Spamhaus resources to "absorb all this traffic."

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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