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Google reveals Spanish IT firm’s links to spyware targeting Chrome, Firefox and Microsoft Defender

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A Spanish company that offers “tailor made Information Security Solutions” may have exploited vulnerabilities in Chrome, Firefox and the Microsoft Defender antivirus program to deploy spyware, researchers with Google’s Threat Analysis Group said Wednesday.

The company’s apparent exploitation framework called “Heliconia” provided “all the tools necessary to deploy a payload to a target device,” the researchers said. And although the team has not detected active exploitation, researchers added “it appears likely these were utilized as zero-days in the wild.”

A script within the code that Google examined referred to Variston IT, a Barcelona company that offers “Custom Security” solutions and tools that support “the discovery of digital information by [law enforcement agencies],” among other services.

Google, Microsoft and Mozilla fixed the relevant vulnerabilities in 2021 and early 2022, researchers said.

The revelations land as the White House prepares to deploy policy initiatives, including an executive order, that would limit the U.S. government’s ability to use commercial spyware, CyberScoop’s Tonya Riley reported Nov. 18.

The proposal may leave wiggle room for the U.S. government to use spyware, Riley reported, but “the measure would entail the latest effort by the Biden administration to address the privacy risks posed by highly intrusive software used by law enforcement and intelligence agencies around the world.”

Heliconia was discovered when an anonymous party submitted three vulnerabilities to the Chrome bug reporting program, each with instructions and an archive that contained source code. The bug reports contained three unique names: “Heliconia Noise,” “Heliconia Soft,” and “Files.”

An analysis of the submissions revealed the frameworks capable of deploying exploits in the wild and also a script within the source code that checked whether binaries contained sensitive strings including “variston,” the company name, as well as the project or developer names, the researchers said.

References to “variston” and the project name uncovered by Google TAG researchers (Google TAG)

Variston did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Publishing details of the framework and the relevant vulnerabilities is part of Google’s ongoing effort to expose and push back against commercial spyware vendors, the researchers said.

“TAG’s research has shown the proliferation of commercial surveillance and the extent to which commercial spyware vendors have developed capabilities that were previously only available to governments with deep pockets and technical expertise,” the researchers wrote. “The growth of the spyware industry puts users at risk and makes the Internet less safe, and while surveillance technology may be legal under national or international laws, they are often used in harmful ways to conduct digital espionage against a range of groups.”

In June the same team at Google exposed the activities of an Italian spyware firm called RCS Labs that was working with unnamed internet service providers to install malicious apps on targets’ phones in Italy and Kazakhstan.

Eight Chrome zero-days have been resolved this year, with the most recent being announced on Thanksgiving, Security Week reported Nov. 28. Earlier this summer, Google Project Zero’s Maddie Stone reported that as of June 15, 18 zero-days had been detected and exploited in the wild in 2022. In 2021, 58 in-the-wild exploits were detected and disclosed, Stone reported in April, the most ever recorded since Project Zero began its tracking efforts in mid-2014, likely due to better detection abilities.

Corrected Nov. 30, 2022: This story has been corrected to update the timing of reporting on an anticipated executive order to limit the U.S. government’s use of spyware. CyberScoop was not the first publication to cover the expected White House ban.


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Hiltzik: Anti-vaccination propaganda is threatening your health

In the modern world and our modern society, there can be no excuse for an outbreak of measles. The disease can be lethal for young children, but they can be protected by a vaccination administered to 1-year-olds that is more than 93% effective.

Yet America is once again facing a measles surge. In Columbus, Ohio, an outbreak in daycare centers and schools is now at 44 cases and has been spreading rapidly. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention counts 55 cases nationwide this year, as of Nov. 24. That’s the highest total since 2019, following a pattern that points to an even larger outbreak in coming months.

What accounts for this emerging public health crisis?

The number of Americans who lost their lives because they refused the COVID vaccine is just staggering. It’s the greatest self-immolation in American history.

— Peter Hotez, Baylor School of Medicine

Ohio authorities say that every one of their cases was among unvaccinated children — more than half of them between the ages of 1 and 2. That points to the rising influence of the anti-vaccination movement, which should scare you.

“We’re on the brink of a collapse in public health because we’re seeing intentional efforts to play politics with people’s health,” says Rekha Lakshmanan, strategy director for the Houston-based Immunization Partnership.

Fifty-one bills related to vaccination mandates in schools and workplaces were enacted this year in 26 states, according to the National Council of State Legislatures.

While some measures upheld or strengthened vaccination requirements, others barred mandates or loosened standards for non-medical exemptions. Such measures were signed into law in Arizona, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Mississippi, Tennessee and Utah.

The anti-vaccination movement gained strength from the COVID pandemic, thanks to the politicization of the disease and the measures meant to contain its spread by former President Trump and his right-wing echo chamber.

“Under a flag of health or medical freedom, an outright defiance of masks and social distancing came to symbolize allegiance to President Trump,” Peter Hotez, co-director of the Center for Vaccine Development at Texas Children’s Hospital, has observed. Hotez is also dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine.

Once the COVID vaccines came in the market, they became a prime target for the anti-vax crusaders.

By casting doubt on the safety and efficacy of the vaccines — both qualities of which have been proved and accepted by the medical establishment—anti-vaxxers discouraged Americans from taking the shots despite clear evidence that the vaccines reduce the chances of death or serious illness from the COVID virus.

Some 680,000 Americans have died from COVID since early January 2021, when vaccines developed by Moderna and Pfizer were approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

“The number of Americans who lost their lives because they refused the COVID vaccine is just staggering,” Hotez told me. “It’s the greatest self-immolation in American history.”

It’s also true that COVID death rates nationwide show a distinctly partisan lean, with rates in the reddest counties as much as 3.23 times higher than rates in the bluest counties. Those figures are a mirror image of vaccination rates, which are much lower in red counties than blue, according to statistical expert Charles Gaba.

measles

Measles cases are again on the rise in the U.S. Will the outbreak be as severe as in 2014 and 2019? With anti-vaccination sentiment growing, the prospect is distressing.

(Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

The links between the anti-vaccination movement and the American right wing are inescapable. In July 2021, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), an icon of the far right, absurdly attacked leaders of the Biden administration’s campaign to encourage all Americans to get vaccinated against COVID as “medical brown shirts.” Her reference was to Nazi storm troopers during Hitler’s rise to power, who were known as “brownshirts.”

Opposition to the COVID vaccines among red state political leaderships is not only scientifically insupportable, but financially costly.

A recent study of New York City’s vaccination campaign from December 2020 through January 2022 found that the savings from vaccination — including fewer outpatient and emergency room visits, emergency medical services, and intensive care unit admissions — were so great that “every $1 invested in vaccination yielded estimated savings of $10.19.”

The cost-benefit calculation resembles that of Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, which also produces savings far outweighing its expense — but is still refused by 12 red states.

It’s likely that anti-science and anti-vaccine activism will find a more receptive audience in the House of Representatives next year, when Republicans move into the majority.

The GOP leadership has promised to investigate Anthony Fauci, the White House medical advisor and government expert on infectious diseases over his role during the COVID pandemic — building on false allegations aired against Fauci by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and others.

As Hotez has documented, the anti-vaccination movement was on the run in the U.S. for decades, starting in the 1950s when Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin developed their polio vaccines. Vaccines against measles, mumps, rubella, chicken pox and other childhood diseases followed and were embraced by the medical establishment, the public, and school authorities in virtually every state.

Acceptance of these vaccines even survived setbacks such as the “Cutter incident” in which a Berkeley manufacturer of the Salk vaccine issued contaminated lots that sickened 40,000 children. About 200 victims were permanently paralyzed and 10 died. The incident led to a months-long suspension of the nationwide polio vaccination campaign, but it eventually resumed under tighter oversight.

Confidence in childhood vaccination was shaken by the 1998 publication in the Lancet, a leading British medical journal, of a notorious paper by Andrew Wakefield and other researchers asserting a link between the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine and autism.

The research was eventually shown to be fraudulent. Wakefield eventually lost his medical license in Britain, but he has resurfaced in the U.S. as a leading anti-vaccination activist. Despite having been consistently refuted by research, the supposed link between the MMR vaccine and autism is continually cited by the anti-vaccination movement.

Emboldened by their success in suppressing COVID vaccination rates, anti-vaxxers have shifted their sights to other childhood vaccinations. The rate of routine childhood vaccinations dropped during the pandemic, in part due to the social disruptions of the period — parents were reluctant or unable to get their kids to the doctor for immunizations, among other factors.

Vaccination rates have begun to recover but still fall short of pre-pandemic levels. In Texas, for example, one-third of children have not been fully protected against seven vaccine-preventable diseases, according to the Immunization Partnership. One factor is that state’s particular leniency toward granting exemptions from the vaccination rules; Texas law allows exemptions “for reasons of conscience, including a religious belief.”

But it’s also true that “anti-vaccine activism is giving parents second thoughts about giving their kids all vaccines,” Hotez says.

“COVID served as an accelerant for anti-vaccine activists,” Lakshmanan says. She cites “a significant increase in the kinds of anti-immunization legislation filed” in state capitols, especially in red states. In 2021 and 2022 most were aimed at blocking COVID vaccine mandates.

“The alarming thing is that those kinds of bills served as a Trojan horse for what the opposition is really trying to do, which is undermine the public health infrastructure and push vaccines and vaccination into the shadows,” she says. “The ultimate goal is to go after all childhood wellness vaccines.”

Advocates of science-based medicine, including vaccination requirements, face a conundrum in fighting the anti-vaxxers, since just to engage them in debate risks giving their positions unwarranted attention and legitimacy. Discussions in statehouses coast to coast have become more heated.

When legislation that would effectively repeal routine school vaccination requirements was introduced last year in Ohio, Lakshmanan says, “the vitriol that was thrown during legislative hearings was just incredible.” One spectator interrupted an August 2021 hearing on the bill to call a Democratic lawmaker who opposed it a “fascist distractor.” He was ejected.

The bill failed, but “any time legislative committees give a hearing to anti-science legislation, they serve as vehicles for misinformation and disinformation,” Lakshmanan says.

The anti-vaccination movement draws some of its strength from public complacency. Existing immunizations have made once-endemic childhood diseases such as measles and polio so rare in the U.S. that their toll in the past has been largely forgotten.

“Vaccines are a victim of their own success,” Lakshmanan says. “A generation or two have not seen the devastating consequences of a widespread polio outbreak.”

What’s needed to push back on the anti-vaccination forces is a focused education campaign by political, social and scientific leaders, Hotez says.

“In the past, the message from the Department of Health and Human Services was not to call this out or give attention to it because that will give it oxygen,” he says. “That was a failed policy that HHS maintained for decades.” Under the current administration, however, “HHS recognizes that there’s a problem, which is a breakthrough.” But the authorities are still reluctant to point fingers at “the sources who are generating disinformation.”

The truth is that a strong majority of Americans favors vaccination mandates for school, traveling and workplaces. But opposition to COVID vaccine mandates has become a litmus test for GOP orthodoxy. The risk to the public, Hotez says, is that the phenomenon will spread to other childhood maladies.

“What we really need is help from the National Academy of Sciences, scientific and professional societies, university presidents,” Hotez says. “They need to unify. Right now, we’re not seeing that kind of leadership. We need voices to say, ‘Enough: We’re a nation built on science and technology, and we’re not going to stand for this anymore.’ ”


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Report: California gun data breach was unintentional

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California’s Department of Justice mistakenly posted the names, addresses and birthdays of nearly 200,000 gun owners on the internet because officials didn’t follow policies or understand how to operate their website, according to an investigation released Wednesday.

The investigation, conducted by an outside law firm hired by the California Department of Justice, found that personal information for 192,000 people was downloaded 2,734 times by 507 unique IP addresses during a roughly 12-hour period in late June. All of those people had applied for a permit to carry a concealed gun.

“The improper exposure of confidential personal data by DOJ, while unacceptable, was unintentional and not connected to any nefarious purpose,” investigators wrote in their report.

An intentional breach of personal information carries more stiff fines and penalties under California law, according to Chuck Michel, an attorney and president of the California Rifle & Pistol Association. Michel said his group is preparing a class action lawsuit against the state.

“There is a lot of gaps and unanswered questions, perhaps deliberately so, and some spin on this whole notion of whether this was an intentional release or not,” he said. “This is not the end of the inquiry.”

The release of the data over the summer came shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against a New York requirement that people must provide a reason to carry a concealed gun. California has a similar requirement, and efforts to change it following the court’s ruling failed earlier this year.

Michel said the leaked data had information about judges, law enforcement personnel and domestic violence victims who had sought gun permits.

Officials at the California Department of Justice did not know about the breach until someone sent Attorney General Rob Bonta a private message on Twitter that included screenshots of the personal information that was available to download from the state’s website, the investigation said.

State officials at first thought the report was a hoax. Two unnamed employees — identified only as “Data Analyst 1″ and “Research Center Director” — investigated and mistakenly assured everyone that no personal information was publicly available.

Meanwhile, the website crashed because so many people were trying to download the data. Another group of state officials worked to bring the website back online, unaware of the data breach. They got the website working again at about 9:30 p.m., which included the personal information ready for download.

State officials would not disable the website until about noon the next day. By then, the information had already been downloaded thousands of times.

State officials thought they were providing anonymous information in the aggregate for research and media requests about the use of guns in California. But the employee who created the website included several datasets that contained personal information.

Investigators found that no one — not the employee who compiled the data or the officials that supervised the employee — knew the proper security settings to prevent the data from being made available for download by the public.

“This was more than an exposure of data, it was a breach of trust that falls far short of my expectations and the expectations Californians have of our department,” Bonta, the attorney general, said in a news release. “I remain deeply angered that this incident occurred and extend my deepest apologies on behalf of the Department of Justice to those who were affected.”

Other information was also mistakenly released, including data from firearms safety certificates, dealer record of sale and the state’s assault weapons registry. That data included dates of birth, gender and driver’s license numbers for more than 2 million people and 8.7 million gun transactions. But investigators said there wasn’t enough information in those datasets to identify anyone.

Investigators recommended more training and planning for state officials, including a review and update of policies and procedures.

“This failure requires immediate correction, which is why we are implementing all of the recommendations from this independent report,” Bonta said.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.


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UAE vows strong alliance with OIC

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Abdullah bin Touq Al Marri said the UAE is keen to support the OIC efforts and initiatives aimed at promoting concerted action and encouraging the expansion of Islamic economies, reports Asian Lite Newsdesk

Minister of Economy, Abdullah bin Touq Al Marri, led the UAE delegation to the meetings of the 38th Ministerial Session of the Standing Committee for Economic and Commercial Cooperation of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (COMCEC), held in Istanbul on 26-29 November at the level of ministers and high-ranking officials.

“The UAE, under the leadership of President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, is keen to support the efforts of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and its initiatives aimed at promoting concerted action amongst Islamic countries, encouraging the expansion of our economies, and developing effective plans to deal with present and upcoming challenges,” the minister said during his remarks at the meetings.

“The UAE is keenly interested in maximising mutual benefit with the rest of the Islamic world, particularly given that trade movement between the Emirates and the COMCEC states is experiencing continuous growth” he said, explaining that the UAE’s trade with these countries hit about AED650 billion in 2021, representing a growth of 26% over the previous year.

Because of their advantageous location, which establishes them as a vital and sustainable link in the movement of global trade, the Islamic countries are well-equipped to help ensure the continuity of global supply chains despite the current challenges the world is facing, Bin Touq added.

About $4 trillion worth of trade was conducted between COMCEC nations and the rest of the globe in 2021, making up 10% of all global merchandise trade volume, 9.5 percent of exports, and 10.5 percent of imports, the minister noted.

Earlier this month, the UAE elected Vice President of the OIC team to respond to cyber emergencies.

This was during the 10th Regional Cybersecurity Week for Arab Countries and OIC Member States organised by the Arab Regional Cybersecurity Centre in cooperation with the Ministry of Transport, Communications and Information Technology in the Sultanate of Oman, with the participation of more than 400 specialists from 45 countries.

During its participation, the UAE presented its experience in this sector, underscoring the UAE leadership’s interest and efforts to strengthen the country’s advanced position in maintaining sophisticated and secure digital infrastructure that keeps pace with its ambitions for the next 50 years. The UAE ranked fifth in the Global Cybersecurity Index 2020 issued by the UN International Telecommunication Union.

Dr. Mohamed Al Kuwaiti, Head of Cybersecurity at the UAE Government, said that the UAE has extensive experience in the fields of cloud computing security, and it has prioritised this field due to its pivotal role in accelerating secure digital transformation.

Moreover, he underscored that the UAE is keen to continue strengthening its electronic infrastructure and cyber domains to protect its cybersecurity.

Hissein Brahim Taha, the Secretary-General of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC)

OIC chief lauds UAE

Hissein Brahim Taha, the Secretary-General of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), has praised the contributions of the UAE in promoting the values of peace and tolerance.

The OIC Secretary-General also lauded the role of the Abu Dhabi Forum for Peace in serving peace, dialogue, coexistence, and moderation. He stressed the full readiness of the OIC General Secretariat for cooperation between the two sides.

He made this statement yesterday when he received Al Mahfoudh bin Bayyah, Secretary-General of the Abu Dhabi Forum for Peace.

During the meeting, Al Mahfoudh bin Bayyah praised the OIC’s role in uniting Islamic countries and promoting cooperation, solidarity, and peace. He expressed the wish of the Abu Dhabi Forum for Peace to cooperate with the OIC in areas of common interest.

ALSO READ: UAE envoy presents credentials to President of India


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JCCC’s hackers — and how they plan to strengthen the world’s digital security

By Tracy Q, photo editor

Every week, Cybersecurity Club meets to discuss the latest threats to network security and to acquire hands-on hacking experience. 

Members also take on penetration testing challenges, authorized and simulated attacks on computer systems, in the National Cybersecurity League Competition.

“It’s about knowing where the weaknesses are,” said Dan Long, Professor of Information Technology and Club Academic Advisor. “Just like keeping your home safe by testing the locks, doors and knowing where all the entrances are, cybersecurity is about knowing how your networks can be accessed.”

According to Daniel Gonzalez, Cybersecurity Club vice president and Student Senate president, the club is open to all JCCC students, because the club believes that everyone should learn about cybersecurity.

“Cybersecurity can be implemented by everyone and can have a big impact… using long passwords, consistently, updating software on devices and enabling multi-factor authentication on your accounts,” Gonzalez said.

According to Long, even IT students sometimes ignore the importance of network security. For this reason, the club encourages habits that protect their personal information. 

“The club requires members to use a VPN to access virtual labs to participate in activities,” Long said. “It’s one of the many ways the club gets students used to the everyday practice of shoring up the weaknesses in their networks. They’ve also practiced SIM card cloning, which is a common way people’s private data can be stolen.”

“Cybersecurity is a growing field, with over 400,000 open positions and more needed in the future,” Long said. “The club’s goal is to leave students in a better position to compete in a world that’s increasingly finding electronic systems in every aspect of work and life.”

In today’s digital world, home security, banking information, personal vehicles and even basic human communication are all tied to an internet connection and an online account. This is why cybersecurity skills are so vital. 

“You have to be right every time,” Long said. “The hacker only has to be right once,” said Long.

Cybersecurity Club meets Wednesdays, 3:30 p.m., in RC 340. 

Yoshiki Stout, student reporter


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Ukraine’s Rich Culture Awaits in Sweeping Immersive Online Hub From Google

The ongoing war in Ukraine has made it difficult, and in many cases dangerous, to experience the country’s abundant cultural offerings. Museums, historical buildings, monuments, religious sites and libraries have been destroyed or damaged

That’s what makes an extensive new online showcase of Ukrainian art, culture and heritage all the more significant. At a time when tourism is pretty much out of the question, the Ukraine Is Here initiative from Google Arts & Culture lets anyone, anywhere, immerse themselves in the country’s rich culture. 

Ukraine Is Here lets you explore in stunning detail the swirls of color in paintings like Victor Palmov’s The Beach.  


Ukraine Ministry of Culture and Information Policy

The collection brings to vivid life — in one place — Ukraine’s art, architecture, music, theater, historical landmarks and national parks through video, virtual galleries, immersive 360-degree augmented-reality tours, 3D models and Street View images collected before the war. 

You can, for example, head to Kyiv for a tour of the House with Chimeras, a unique, Art Nouveau-style mansion that hosts official presidential and diplomatic ceremonies. You can visit Unesco World Heritage sites like Saint Sophia’s Cathedral, an 11th-century monument of Byzantine and Ukrainian Baroque architecture, as well as painting and mosaic. (Fortunately, no Unesco World Heritage sites appear to have been damaged in the war yet, according to the United Nations organization.) 

Outside the capital city, you can get a sweeping bird’s-eye view of the ancient and primeval beech forests of the Eastern Carpathians, also home to the biggest, oldest oak trees in Ukraine. Or climb to the top of one of the tallest peaks around Yaremche to take in the picturesque mountain landscapes. 

Uzhansky National Park in the Eastern Carpathians. Ukraine is home to more than 600,000 square kilometers of national parks and biosphere reserves. 


Ukraine Ministry of Culture and Information Policy

Virtual exhibitions highlighting traditional and avant-garde art let you scroll around exquisitely detailed, high-resolution images of paintings like David Burliuk’s richly allegorical early 20th-century creation The Time, in which a passenger on a train that goes off its rails personifies a country in chaos. It’s housed at the Dnipropetrovsk Art Museum in Oblast.  

And you can learn all about Ukrainian folk dress and jewelry and listen to soul-stirring Ukrainian folk music sung by a group of babushkas. There’s an added poignancy to their jagged harmonies given the tumult and displacement that’s gripped the Eastern European country since Russia invaded it in February. 

Partners in Ukraine Is Here include Ukraine’s Ministry of Culture and Information Policy, the National Art Museum of Ukraine and the Museum of Theatre, Music and Cinema of Ukraine. First lady Olena Zelenska has also lent her support. 

“Our culture is not only ours. This is the legacy of the entire civilized world,” the president’s wife said in a statement.  “When one country loses its cultural values, the whole world loses. So let’s preserve, multiply, watch, admire, Google Ukrainian culture and thus enrich the world.” 

Google Arts & Culture broadens the reach of international culture by digitizing art, artifacts and cultural heritage sites from around the globe. The Google Arts & Culture app is free and available on the web, iOS and Android


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List of areas the Alberta government accuses Ottawa of overreaching – Brandon Sun

EDMONTON – When the Alberta legislature resumed sitting Tuesday, the first bill introduced by the United Conservative Party government was one aimed at shielding the province from federal laws it deems harmful to its interests.

The Alberta Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act was a key promise from Premier Danielle Smith when she was running for the leadership of the party, replacing Jason Kenney.

Smith said Tuesday that past efforts to work with the federal government have not worked and Ottawa continues to interfere in constitutionally protected areas of provincial responsibility.


Alberta Premier Danielle Smith makes her way to a press conference after the speech from the throne in Edmonton, Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022. When the Alberta legislature resumed sitting Tuesday, the first bill introduced by the United Conservative Party government aims to shield the province from federal laws it deems harmful to its interests. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

Here are four areas Alberta has accused the federal government of overreaching:

CARBON PRICING

Last year, Kenney said that he hoped the Supreme Court of Canada decision upholding Ottawa’s right to levy a carbon tax on provinces wouldn’t open the door to federal overreach in other areas.

Alberta, along with Ontario and Saskatchewan, challenged the federal carbon pricing rules.

In its 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that climate change is a critical threat to the globe and that Canada cannot effectively combat it if each province can go its own way on greenhouse gas emissions.

Kenney’s government campaigned and won the 2019 election around a centrepiece promise to scrap the Alberta NDP consumer carbon tax and that was his first bill as premier, prompting Ottawa to impose its own levy at the start of 2020.

Smith, who was sworn in as premier last month, has said her government is planing another challenge.

IMPACT ASSESSMENT ACT

The Alberta government, calling it a Trojan Horse, challenged the federal act and was supported by Saskatchewan and Ontario.

The Impact Assessment Act, given royal assent in 2019, lists activities that trigger an impact review and allows Ottawa to consider the effects of new resource projects on a range of environmental and social issues, including climate change.

Alberta asked its Appeal Court for a reference, or an opinion, which is not a binding decision and is used to guide governments in determining a law’s meaning or constitutionality.

In May, the Alberta Court of Appeal said the act is an “existential threat” to the division of powers guaranteed by the Constitution.

FIREARMS

In September, the Alberta government said it was taking steps to oppose federal firearms prohibition legislation and the potential seizure of thousands of assault-style weapons.

Since May 2020, Ottawa has prohibited more than 1,500 different models of assault-style firearms from being used or sold in Canada. It has committed to establishing a buyback program to remove those firearms from communities.

Alberta Justice Minister Tyler Shandro said the province will not agree to have RCMP officers act as “confiscation agents” and will protest any such move under the provincial-federal agreement that governs policing.

Alberta also plans to seek intervener status in six ongoing judicial review applications challenging the constitutionality of the legislation.

FERTILIZER

The Alberta government, along with Saskatchewan, said in July that it was disappointed with Ottawa’s fertilizer emissions reduction target.

Federal Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau has said reducing those emissions by nearly a third by 2030 is ambitious but must be accomplished.

In a news release at the time, the provinces said the commitment to future consultations is only to determine how to meet the target “unilaterally imposed” on the industry, not to consult on what is achievable or attainable.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 30, 2022.




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St. Croix County voters fear for America – Twin Cities


By TIM SULLIVAN

HUDSON, Wis. (AP) — A word — “Hope” — is stitched onto a throw pillow in the little hilltop farmhouse. Photographs of children and grandchildren speckle the walls. In the kitchen, an envelope is decorated with a hand-drawn heart. “Happy Birthday, My Love,” it reads.

Out front, past a pair of century-old cottonwoods, the neighbors’ cornfields reach into the distance.

John Kraft loves this place. He loves the quiet and the space. He loves that you can drive for miles without passing another car.

But out there? Out beyond the cornfields, to the little western Wisconsin towns turning into commuter suburbs, and to the cities growing ever larger?

Out there, he says, is a country that many Americans wouldn’t recognize.

It’s a dark place, dangerous, where freedom is under attack by a tyrannical government, few officials can be trusted and clans of neighbors might someday have to band together to protect one another. It’s a country where the most basic beliefs — in faith, family, liberty — are threatened.

And it’s not just about politics anymore.

“It’s no longer left versus right, Democrat versus Republican,” says Kraft, a software architect and data analyst. “It’s straight up good versus evil.”

A man feeds a cow
John Kraft feeds an apple to one of his cows at his home in Clear Lake, Wis., Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022. “It’s no longer left versus right, Democrat versus Republican,” says Kraft, a software architect and data analyst. “It’s straight up good versus evil.” He knows how he sounds. He’s felt the contempt of people who see him as a fanatic, a conspiracy theorist. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

He knows how he sounds. He’s felt the contempt of people who see him as a fanatic, a conspiracy theorist.

But he’s a hero in a growing right-wing conservative movement that has rocketed to prominence here in St. Croix County.

Just a couple years ago, their talk of Marxism, government crackdowns and secret plans to destroy family values would have put them at the far fringes of the Republican Party.

But not anymore. Today, despite midterm elections that failed to see the sweeping Republican victories that many had predicted, they remain a cornerstone of the conservative electoral base. Across the country, victories went to candidates who believe in QAnon and candidates who believe the separation of church and state is a fallacy. In Wisconsin, a U.S. senator who dabbles in conspiracy theories and pseudoscience was reelected – crushing his opponent in St. Croix County.

They are farmers and business analysts. They are stay-at-home mothers, graphic designers and insurance salesmen.

They live in communities where crime is almost nonexistent and Cub Scouts hold $5 spaghetti-lunch fundraisers at American Legion halls.

And they live with something else.

Sometimes it’s anger. Sometimes sadness. Every once in a while it’s fear.

All of this can be hard to see, hidden behind the throw pillows and the gently rolling hills. But spend some time in this corner of Wisconsin. Have a drink or two in the small-town bars. Sit with parents cheering kids at the county rodeo. Attend Sunday services.

Try to see America through their eyes.

___

There’s a joke people sometimes tell around here: Democrats take Exit 1 off I-94; Republicans go at least three exits farther.

The first exit off the freeway leads to Hudson, a onetime ragged-at-the-edges riverside town that has become a place of carefully tended 19th-century homes and tourists wandering main street boutiques. With 14,000 people, it’s the largest town in St. Croix County. It’s also replete with Democrats.

The Republicans start at Exit 4, the joke says, beyond a neutral zone of generic sprawl: a Target, a Home Depot, a thicket of chain restaurants.

“For some people out here, Hudson might be (as far away as) South Dakota or California,” says Mark Carlson, who lives off exit 16 in an old log cabin now covered in light blue siding. He doesn’t go into Hudson often. “I don’t meet many liberals.”

A man sits on a couch with two dogs
Mark Carlson sits with his dogs, Maise, left, and Ellie, at his home in Hammond, Wis., Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022. Carlson is a friendly man who exudes gentleness, loves to cook, rarely leaves home without a pistol and believes that despotism looms over America. “There’s a plan to lead us from within towards socialism, Marxism, communism-type of government,” says Carlson, a St. Croix county supervisor who recently retired after 20 years working at a juvenile detention facility. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Carlson is a friendly man who exudes gentleness, loves to cook, rarely leaves home without a pistol and believes despotism looms over America.

“There’s a plan to lead us from within toward socialism, Marxism, communism-type of government,” says Carlson, a St. Croix County supervisor who recently retired after 20 years working at a juvenile detention facility and is now a part-time Uber driver.

He was swept into office earlier this year when insurgent right-wing conservatives created a powerful local voting bloc, energized by fury over COVID lockdowns, vaccination mandates and the unrest that shook the country after George Floyd was murdered by a policeman in Minneapolis, just 45 minutes away.

In early 2020 they took control of the county Republican Party, driving away leaders they deride as pawns of a weak-kneed establishment, and helped put well over a dozen people in elected positions across the county.

In their America, the U.S. government orchestrated COVID fears to cement its power, the IRS is buying up huge stocks of ammunition and former President Barack Obama may be the country’s most powerful person.

But they are not caricatures. Not even Carlson, a bearded, gun-owning white guy who voted for former President Donald Trump.

Two people sitting next to jars of food
Jars of food sit on the shelves of Mark, left, and Linda Carlson’s kitchen in Hammond, Wis., Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022. Mark’s boundless curiosity about the world often emerges in the kitchen, where he makes everything from organic yogurt to Filipino-style spring rolls to Japanese-style fried chicken cutlets. The jars and additional food they keep in storage are also part of their plan should things go really bad for America. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

“I’m just a normal person,” he says, sitting on a sofa, next to a picture window overlooking the large garden that he and his wife tend. “They don’t realize that we mean well.”

He’s a complicated man. While even he admits he might accurately be called a right-wing extremist, he calls peaceful Black protesters “righteous” for taking to the streets after Floyd’s murder. He doubts there was fraud in the midterm elections. He drives a Tesla. He loves AC/DC and makes his own organic yogurt. In an area where Islam is sometimes viewed with open hostility, he’s a conservative Christian who says he’d back the area’s small Muslim community if they wanted to open a mosque here.

“Build your mosque, of course! That’s the American way!”

He believes, deeply, that America doesn’t need to be bitterly divided.

“Liberalism and conservatism aren’t that far apart. You can be pro-American, pro-constitutional. You just want bigger government programs. I want less.”

“We can work together,” he says. “We don’t have to, like, hate each other.”

Repeatedly, he and the county’s other right-wing conservatives insist they don’t want violence.

But violence often seems to be looming as they talk, hazy images of government thugs or antifa rioters or health officers seizing children from parents.

And weapons are a big part of their self-proclaimed “patriot” movement. The Second Amendment and the belief that Americans have a right to overthrow tyrannical governments are foundational principles.

“I’m not a big gun guy,” says Carlson, whose weapons include pistols, a shotgun, an AR-15 rifle, 10 loaded magazines and about 1,000 additional rounds. “For a lot of people that’s just a start.”

That cocktail of weaponry and politics concerns plenty of people outside of their circles.

Liberal voters, along with many establishment Republicans, worry that men in tactical clothing can now occasionally be seen at public gatherings. They worry that some people are now too afraid to be campaign volunteers. They worry that many locals think twice about wearing Democratic T-shirts in public, even in Hudson.

Paul Hambleton, who lives in Hudson and works with the county Democratic Party, found comfort in the midterm election results, which even some Republicans say could signal a repudiation of Trump and his most extreme supporters.

Paul Hambleton sits in his home in Hudson, Wis., Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2022. Hambleton, who works with the county Democratic party, says he takes comfort in the midterm election results, which even some Republicans say could signal a repudiation of Trump and his most extremist supporters. "I don't feel the menace like I was feeling it before" the vote, he says. "I think this election showed that people can be brave, that they can stick their necks out." (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Paul Hambleton sits in his home in Hudson, Wis., Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2022. Hambleton, who works with the county Democratic party, says he takes comfort in the midterm election results, which even some Republicans say could signal a repudiation of Trump and his most extremist supporters. “I don’t feel the menace like I was feeling it before” the vote, he says. “I think this election showed that people can be brave, that they can stick their necks out.” (AP Photo/David Goldman)

“I don’t feel the menace like I was feeling it before” the vote, Hambleton says. “I think this election showed that people can be brave, that they can stick their necks out.”

He spent years teaching in small-town St. Croix County, where the population has grown from 43,000 in 1980 to about 95,000 today. He watched over the years as the student body shifted. Farmers’ children gave way to the children of people who commute to work in the Twin Cities. Racial minorities became a small but growing presence.

He understands why the changes might make some people nervous.

“There is a rural way of life that people feel is being threatened here, a small town way of life,” he says.

But he’s also a hunter who saw how hard it was to buy ammunition after the 2020 protests, when firearm sales soared across America. For nearly two years, the shelves were almost bare.

“I found that menacing,” says Hambleton. “Because no way is that deer hunters buying up so much ammunition.”

____

When the newly empowered conservatives get together it’s often at an Irish bar in a freeway strip mall. Next door is the little county GOP office where you can pick up Republican yard signs and $15 travel mugs that proclaim “Normal Is Not Coming Back — Jesus Is.”

Paddy Ryan’s is the closest thing they have to a clubhouse. One afternoon in late summer, Matt Rust was there talking about the media.

“I think they’re an arm of a much larger global effort by very rich powerful people to control as much of the world as possible,” says Rust, a designer and product developer who can quote large parts of the U.S. Constitution from memory. “And I don’t think that’s anything new. It’s always been that way,” from ancient Persian rulers to Adolf Hitler.

“Is that a conspiracy or is that just human nature?” he asks. “I think it’s just human nature.”



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Cerebras Systems and Cirrascale Cloud Services Announce Availability of Cerebras AI Model Studio


SAN DIEGO and SUNNYVALE, Calif., Nov. 30, 2022 — Cerebras Systems, a pioneer in accelerating artificial intelligence (AI) compute, and Cirrascale Cloud Services, a provider of deep learning infrastructure solutions for autonomous vehicle, NLP, and computer vision workflows, have announced the availability of the Cerebras AI Model Studio. Hosted on the Cerebras Cloud @ Cirrascale, this new offering enables customers to train generative Transformer (GPT)-class models, including GPT-J, GPT-3 and GPT-NeoX, on industry-leading Cerebras Wafer-Scale Clusters, including the newly announced Andromeda AI supercomputer.

Traditional cloud providers struggle with large language models as they are unable to guarantee latency between large numbers of GPUs. Variable latency produces complex and time-consuming challenges in distributing a large AI model amongst GPUs and large swings in time to train. The Cerebras AI Model Studio overcomes these challenges. Set up is quick and easy; clusters of dedicated CS-2s guarantee deterministic latency; and because the clusters rely solely on data parallelization, there is zero distributed compute work required.

Training Large Language Models (LLMs) is challenging and expensive — multi-billion parameter models require months to train on clusters of GPUs and a team of engineers experienced in distributed programming and hybrid data-model parallelism. It is a multi-million dollar investment that many organizations simply cannot afford.

The Cerebras AI Model Studio offers users the ability to train GPT-class models at half the cost of traditional cloud providers and requires only a few lines of code to get going. Users can choose from state-of-the-art GPT-class models, ranging from 1.3 billion parameters up to 175 billion parameters, and complete training with 8x faster time to accuracy than on an A100.

“The new Cerebras AI Model Studio expands our partnership with Cirrascale and further democratizes AI by providing customers with access to multi-billion parameter NLP models on our powerful CS-2 clusters, with predictable, competitive model-as-a-service pricing,” said Andrew Feldman, CEO and co-founder of Cerebras Systems. “Our mission at Cerebras is to broaden access to deep learning and rapidly accelerate the performance of AI workloads. The Cerebras AI Model Studio makes this easy and dead simple – just load your dataset and run a script.”

The Cerebras AI Model Studio offers users cloud access to the Cerebras Wafer-Scale Cluster, which enables GPU-impossible work with first-of-its-kind near-perfect linear scale performance. Users can access up to a 16-node Cerebras Wafer-Scale Cluster and train models using longer sequence lengths of up to 50,000 tokens – a capability only available to Cerebras users – opening up new opportunities for exciting research.

“We are really excited to offer our enterprise, research and academic customers easy, affordable access to the leading CS-2 accelerator to train GPT-class models in less than one day,” said PJ Go, CEO, Cirrascale Cloud Services. “We’ve made the process extremely simple – eliminating the need for dev-ops and distributed programming – with push-button model scaling, from 1 to 20 billion parameters.”

With every component optimized for AI work, the Cerebras Cloud @ Cirrascale delivers more compute performance at less space and less power than any other solution. Depending on workload, from AI to HPC, it delivers hundreds or thousands of times more performance than legacy alternatives, but uses only a fraction of the space and power. Cerebras Cloud is designed to enable fast, flexible training and low-latency datacenter inference, thanks to greater compute density, faster memory, and higher bandwidth interconnect than any other datacenter AI solution.

The Cerebras AI Model Studio is available now. For a limited time, users can sign up for free 2-day trial evaluation run.  Customers can begin using the Cerebras AI Model Studio by visiting https://cirrascale.com/cerebras.

For more information, please visit https://www.cerebras.net/product-cloud.


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