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Broward County Public Schools in US Hit by Ransomware Attack

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Broward County Public Schools in US Hit by Ransomware Attack
The computer system of one of the nation’s largest school districts was hacked by a criminal gang that encrypted district data and demanded $40 million (roughly Rs. 293 crores) in ransom or it would erase the files and post students’ and employees’ personal information online.

Broward County Public Schools said in a statement Thursday that there is no indication that any personal information has been stolen and that it made no extortion payment to the ransomware gang, which as an apparent pressure tactic last week posted screenshots of its online negotiations with the district to its site on the dark web.

The Fort Lauderdale-based district said it is working with cybersecurity experts “to investigate the incident and remediate affected systems. Efforts to restore all systems are underway and progressing well. We have no intention of paying a ransom.” The district did, after two weeks of back and forth, offer to pay $500,000 (), at which point the ransomware criminals apparently ended negotiations, according to the hackers’ screenshots.

The district declined further comment outside its statement. With 271,000 students, Broward is the nation’s sixth-largest school district with an annual budget of about $4 billion (roughly 23,900) — a fact the hackers kept returning to as they demanded $40 million (roughly Rs. 293 crores), to be paid in cryptocurrency. The ransomware caused a brief shutdown of the district’s computer system in early March, but classes were not disrupted.

“It is a possible amount for you,” the Conti gang said early in its negotiations with a district official, whose name does not appear in the screenshots and has not been released. Its data-locking malware is one of the top 10 strains of ransomware.

“This is a Public school district,” the Broward negotiator replied. “You cannot possibly think we have anything close to this!” It was unclear if the representative was a district employee or, as is often the case, a hired ransomware negotiator.

The FBI usually investigates such attacks but said Thursday it would not confirm if it was investigating this one.

An epidemic of ransomware attacks has been plaguing government agencies, businesses, and individuals for the past three years. Most are Russian-speaking gangs based in Eastern Europe and enjoy safe harbor from tolerant governments. The more sophisticated groups identify their targets in advance, infect networks through phishing or other means, and often steal data as they plant malware that encrypts a victim’s network.

After the ransomware is activated, the criminals demand money to unlock the malware and refrain from posting — or selling — stolen data. In the case of corporations, that data could be trade secrets. In the case of retailers or government agencies, it could be Social Security, bank account numbers, and birth dates. Conti claimed it stole from Broward’s system Social Security numbers, birth dates, and other student and employee information.

Public school districts have been frequent targets of ransomware attacks. The districts of Baltimore County, Maryland; Fairfax County, Virginia; Hartford, Connecticut; and Fort Worth, Texas, were among those hit last year. Elementary, middle, and high schools have been increasingly targeted in recent months, according to the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. In December, it said that K-12 schools accounted for 57 percent of all reported attacks in August and September as compared to 28 percent for January through July.

Overall, ransomware attacks disrupted learning at 1,681 schools, colleges, and universities in 2020 and at least 544 so far this year, said analyst Brett Callow at Emsisoft, a cybersecurity firm. Seven districts had personal data published.

Many ransomware cases go unreported due to the liability and stigma attached to victims. Cybersecurity firms have good data on ransoms paid in part because negotiations between victims and hackers occur on dark websites that researchers learn about through shared malware samples where criminals typically leave ransomware notes with instructions and demands. An entire subindustry has also emerged to help victims manage emergencies.

The average ransom paid for to hacking gangs nearly tripled from $115,000 (roughly Rs. 84 lakhs) in 2019 to $312,000 (roughly Rs. 2.2 crores) in 2020, according to the cybersecurity firm Palo Alto Networks. It said the highest ransom paid by an organisation doubled last year to $10 million (roughly Rs. 73 crores), up from $5 million (roughly Rs. 36.6 crores) in 2019.

In Conti’s negotiations with Broward, after the gang’s initial $40 million (roughly Rs. 293 crores) demand, it said it was willing to negotiate: it would accept $15 million (roughly Rs. 109 crores) in Bitcoin but it had to be delivered within 24 hours. Otherwise, it would upload the personal information it claimed to have and permanently lock the computer system. Conti said legal claims against the district for losing the data would exceed $50 million (roughly Rs. 366 crores), so it should consider its demand a bargain.

“Pay $15M (roughly Rs. 109 crores) and you guys are guaranteed to solve your problem,” Conti told the district.

The district insisted it still couldn’t afford it and, in any case, didn’t have access to Bitcoin. Ransomware gangs demand payment in cyber currency because it can be difficult to trace.

Conti upped its threat by suggesting it had found damaging information about an unnamed royal family in Broward’s database — an allegation the district’s negotiator found absurd.

“What do you mean about a royal family… we are a public school district,” the negotiator replied.
The negotiations continued for two weeks, with Conti eventually lowering its demand to $10 million (roughly Rs. 73 crores). The district made its $500,000 counteroffer (roughly Rs. 3.6 crores). That is the last screenshot posted.

“The negotiation is bizarre,” said Callow, the Emsisoft analyst. “The Conti operators are experienced extortionists, so it’s odd that they seemed not to know who they were dealing with and demanded an amount that a public school district was never likely to pay. I can’t explain it.”


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Microsoft Partners With Inworld to Bring AI Game Development Tools to Xbox

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Microsoft Partners With Inworld to Bring AI Game Development Tools to Xbox


Microsoft is teaming up with Inworld AI to create game development tools for Xbox, enabling developers to create characters, generate entire scripts and quests, and more. The multi-year deal brings an AI design copilot and an AI character runtime engine to the forefront, both of them being totally optional to use and to varying degrees. Of course, the use of AI in art has been criticised by many for simply lacking originality, in addition to running the risk of fewer jobs for artists — a growing fear among many considering the alarming number of layoffs seen at game studios this year in an attempt to cut costs.

“At Xbox, we believe that with better tools, creators can make even more extraordinary games,” Haiyan Zhang, GM, Xbox Gaming AI, said in a blog post. “This partnership will bring together: Inworld’s expertise in working with generative AI models for character development, Microsoft’s cutting-edge cloud-based AI solutions including Azure OpenAI Service, Microsoft Research’s technical insights into the future of play, and Team Xbox’s strengths in revolutionizing accessible and responsible creator tools for all developers.”

The aforementioned AI design copilot is a toolset that will help game designers turn prompts into scripts and dialogue trees. In contrast, the character runtime will enable dynamically generated plot beats and quests. We’ve already seen heavy AI integration in games by way of procedural generation — a more recent example being the 1000+ planets in Starfield. Not to mention, enemy AI has been around for way longer.

Inworld made headlines in August when it launched a modded story mode for Grand Theft Auto V, Sentient Streets, in which players had to investigate the rise of a bizarre AI-worshipping cult — a segment loaded with characters that spoke in AI-generated dialogue, on the fly. The mod was later taken down by publisher Take-Two, leaving a permanent strike on the creator Bloc’s YouTube channel. As per The Verge, Inworld’s AI technology can also be used for narration in top-down RPGs to warn players about any events awaiting off-screen and respond to questions like we’ve seen in the past year with AI chatbots like ChatGPT and Bing Chat. Microsoft has also been heavily banking on artificial intelligence, having made a $10 billion (about Rs. 83,254 crore) investment in OpenAI. The company has also integrated AI tools into its popular suite of services and also added an AI copilot to Windows.

Despite being a Microsoft-affiliated AI toolset, it would be interesting to see whether titles using them will be allowed to thrive on other platforms. In July, Valve claimed that it would be cracking down on games that included AI-generated assets if the developer didn’t own the copyright to the piece of art. For the uninitiated, when you insert a prompt to create something in AI, the software simply repurposes existing assets found online and mushes them together — basically stealing from other artists and writers without appropriate commercial licenses. Infringing them would lead to the game not being distributed on Steam, forcing the developers to seek proper licenses for the asset by reaching out to the AI companies involved. It’s unclear how Microsoft’s partnership will play out — as long as AI content is being used as a catalyst to innovate and create something new, it should be fine.


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BSNL Offers Free 4G SIM Upgrade: Here’s How to Get It

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BSNL Offers Free 4G SIM Upgrade: Here’s How to Get It


BSNL (Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited) is a state-owned telecommunication company in India. Earlier this year in May, the government said that the firm started rolling out 4G services in the country. By December, the networks were said to be upgraded to 5G. However, at the India Mobile Congress, BSNL chairman P K Purwar said that the company will launch 4G services in December and then roll it across the country by June 2024. The chairman added that the 5G upgrades will take place after June next year.

In a post on X shared by BSNL’s Andhra Pradesh (@bsnl_ap_circle) unit, the company confirmed that BSNL users can upgrade their older 2G or 3G SIMs to a 4G SIM for free. Not only will the upgrade be free, but a promotional image shared with the post suggests that users who opt for the upgrade will also receive 4GB of free data that will be valid for three months. It is speculated that BSNL is aiming to boost its upcoming 4G services with this offer. The announcement was first spotted by Telecom Talk.

To access the free data offer and the free upgrade, BSNL users are requested to get in touch with executives at BSNL’s Customer Service Centre, franchisee or retailer stores, or contact one of their Direct Selling Agents (DSA). The promo image also adds in a finer print that the offer is available with certain terms and conditions, but hasn’t detailed any, so far.

Reliance’s Jio recently launched the 4G-supported Bharat B1 feature phone in India. The handset is priced at Rs. 1,299 in India. Alongside 4G connectivity, the phone comes with JioCinema and JioSaavn applications pre-installed.

The Jio Bharat B1 is equipped with the JioPay application, which is said to allow users to make UPI payments. Aiming to increase accessibility, the phone supports 23 languages overall, including multiple regional languages.


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Realme GT 5 Pro Teased to Feature 3,000 Nits Display; More Details Revealed

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Realme GT 5 Pro Teased to Feature 3,000 Nits Display; More Details Revealed


Realme GT 5 Pro’s launch date is not far away. The Chinese smartphone brand on Tuesday (November 7) confirmed the arrival of the new GT series smartphone in its home country. The Realme GT 5 Pro is teased to come with a display with over 3000 nits of peak brightness. It is also confirmed to pack a larger heat dissipation area for thermal management. The handset will ship with Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon 8 Gen 3 SoC. The Realme GT 5 Pro is expected to come as a successor to the Realme GT 5 that debuted in China in August.

Realme, via Weibo, announced the arrival of the Realme GT 5 Pro in China. The display of the handset is confirmed to offer 3000 nits peak brightness. It has also been teased to offer heat dissipation with a surface area of around 10,000mm2. It is confirmed to ship with Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon 8 Gen 3 SoC. The post doesn’t specify the exact launch date of the smartphone, however, given the release of the teasers, the launch could be just around the corner.

The Realme GT 5 Pro has been in the news a lot lately. It is expected to feature a 6.78-inch (1,264×2,780 pixels) AMOLED display and is tipped to come in 8GB, 12GB, and 16GB RAM options along with 128GB, 256GB, 512GB, and 1TB inbuilt storage options.

For optics, the Realme GT 5 Pro is said to have a triple rear camera unit comprising two 50-megapixel sensors and an 8-megapixel shooter at the rear. The camera setup might include a Sony LYTIA LYT808 sensor, an OmniVision OV08D10 secondary sensor, and a Sony IMX890 telephoto sensor. For selfies, there could be a 32-megapixel sensor at the front. It is said to carry a 5,400mAh battery with support for 100W wired charging and 50W wireless charging.

The Realme GT 5 Pro is expected to come with upgrades over Realme GT 5. The latter was launched in China in August with a price tag of CNY 2,999 for the base model with 12GB of RAM and 256GB of storage.


The Motorola Edge 40 recently made its debut in the country as the successor to the Edge 30 that was launched last year. Should you buy this phone instead of the Nothing Phone 1 or the Realme Pro+? We discuss this and more on Orbital, the Gadgets 360 podcast. Orbital is available on Spotify, Gaana, JioSaavn, Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, Amazon Music and wherever you get your podcasts.
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