The great hack: A famous fraudster explains the Equifax data breach
Hackers look for open doors. If your personal data isn't protected, it's that much easier to compromise your identity.
FRANK W. ABAGNALE: First you should always ask when someone asks you joining a gym I need your social security number. For what reason? What's the purpose of asking me for my social security number? They don't need it. Actually, by law when you look up the law involving your social security number it's limited to about as many things as you can count on one hand where you legally have to provide it for income taxes, law enforcement, things of that nature. There's no need for them to have that. They're kind of foolish taking it to begin with because then they're responsible for that information and they have to try to keep that information safe. In the case of Equifax which is a perfect example, here was a multibillion dollar company. They didn't update their software. They didn't fix their patches that Microsoft said to them and said install these security patches. Their chief information security officer had her degree in music. She really didn't know anything about keeping information safe and consequently hackers got in.
Now in my 43-year career I've dealt with every breach back to TJ Maxx 15 years ago to the recent breach of Capital One, Marriott Hotels, and Facebook. What I've realized in every single breach happens because somebody in that company did something they weren't supposed to do, or somebody in that company failed to do something they were supposed to do. Hackers don't cause breaches. People do. All hackers do is look for open doors and every day there are thousands of companies with open doors. I was asked this earlier today and I firmly believe it. If I give you my information whether you be a bank or credit bureau, a hospital, I'm entrusting you with my personal data. If something happens with that data due to your fault or your negligence in keeping it safe I should have the right to a recourse to sue you for getting my information out. Because now that they don't have that as a statute companies get away with it and they tell you I'll buy you one year of credit monitoring service, two years of credit monitoring service. That's worthless.
If I steal your name, your social security number and your date of birth you can't change your name. You can't change your social security number. You can't change your date of birth. So if I'm smart I'm going to hold that data for at least three to four years before I ever go use it. But if I steal credit card numbers and debit card numbers, I have to get rid of them right away. They have a very short shelf life. But when they do a major breach they store that data typically we find from about four to five years. So you giving me one year of credit monitoring, two years of credit monitoring, three years of credit monitoring really is not going to help me at all in the long run. They will eventually get to my data and use my data. I do think that companies need to do a better job of protecting the information that's been entrusted to them. And this is why I was so big on trying to get the ability to freeze your credit. No one in this country ever said to Equifax, you know what. You can store all my personal data and you can make billions of dollars selling it for background checks, employee checks, credit checks. No, I never said that.
What I want to say is, Equifax you can keep my data, but you cannot show it to anyone without my consent. And if for some reason it gets in the wrong hand I have the recourse to come back on you 'cause you put my in jeopardy. And that's how it should be.
- Legendary con-man-turned-FBI-consultant Frank W. Abagnale breaks down the 2017 Equifax data breach.
- Hackers were able to access the personal data of millions of Americans through faulty software — and they might wait years before using the stolen social security numbers and dates of birth.
- Abagnale blames Equifax for this oversight. If a company is entrusted with an individual's personal data they need to do a better job of protecting it. "Hackers don't cause breaches, people do," he says.
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Tips from neuroscience and psychology can make you an expert thinker.
This article was originally published on Big Think Edge.
Problem-solving skills are in demand. Every job posting lists them under must-have qualifications, and every job candidate claims to possess them, par excellence. Young entrepreneurs make solutions to social and global problems the heart of their mission statements, while parents and teachers push for curricula that encourage critical-thinking methods beyond solving for x.
It's ironic then that we continue to cultivate habits that stunt our ability to solve problems. Take, for example, the modern expectation to be "always on." We push ourselves to always be working, always be producing, always be parenting, always be promoting, always be socializing, always be in the know, always be available, always be doing. It's too much, and when things are always on all the time, we deplete the mental resources we need to truly engage with challenges.
If we're serious about solving problems, at work and in our personal lives, then we need to become more adept at tuning out so we can hone in.
Solve problems with others (occasionally)
A side effect of being always on is that we are rarely alone. We're connected through the ceaseless chirps of friends texting, social media buzzing, and colleagues pinging us for advice everywhere we go. In some ways, this is a boon. Modern technologies mediate near endless opportunities for collective learning and social problem-solving. Yet, such cooperation has its limits according to a 2018 study out of Harvard Business School.
In the study, participants were divided into three group types and asked to solve traveling salesman problems. The first group type had to work on the problems individually. The second group type exchanged notes after every round of problem-solving while the third collaborated after every three rounds.
The researchers found that lone problem-solvers invented a diverse range of potential solutions. However, their solutions varied wildly in quality, with some being true light bulb moments and others burnt-out duds. Conversely, the always-on group took advantage of their collective learning to tackle more complex problems more effectively. But social influence often led these groups to prematurely converge around a single idea and abandon potentially brilliant outliers.
It was the intermittent collaborators who landed on the Goldilocks strategy. By interacting less frequently, individual group members had more time to nurture their ideas so the best could shine. But when they gathered together, the group managed to improve the overall quality of their solutions thanks to collective learning.
In presenting their work, the study's authors question the value of always-on culture—especially our submissiveness to intrusions. "As we replace those sorts of intermittent cycles with always-on technologies, we might be diminishing our capacity to solve problems well," Ethan Bernstein, an associate professor at Harvard Business School and one of the study's authors, said in a press release.
These findings suggest we should schedule time to ruminate with our inner geniuses and consult the wisdom of the crowd. Rather than dividing our day between productivity output and group problem-solving sessions, we must also create space to focus on problems in isolation. This strategy provides the best of both worlds. It allows us to formulate our ideas before social pressure can push us to abandon them. But it doesn't preclude the group knowledge required to refine those ideas.
And the more distractions you can block out or turn off, the more working memory you'll have to direct at the problem.
A problem-solving booster
The next step is to dedicate time to not dealing with problems. Counterintuitive as it may seem, setting a troublesome task aside and letting your subconscious take a crack at it improves your conscious efforts later.
How should we fill these down hours? That's up to you, but research has shown time and again that healthier habits produce hardier minds. This is especially true regarding executive functions—a catchall term that includes a person's ability to self-control, meet goals, think flexibly, and, yes, solve problems.
"Exercisers outperform couch potatoes in tests that measure long-term memory, reasoning, attention, problem-solving, even so-called fluid-intelligence tasks. These tasks test the ability to reason quickly and think abstractly, improvising off previously learned material to solve a new problem. Essentially, exercise improves a whole host of abilities prized in the classroom and at work," writes John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist at the University of Washington.
One such study, published in the Frontiers in Neuroscience, analyzed data collected from more than 4,000 British adults. After controlling for variables, it found a bidirectional relationship between exercise and higher levels of executive function over time. Another study, this one published in the Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, compared fitness data from 128 adults with brain scans taken as they were dual-tasking. Its findings showed regular exercisers sported more active executive regions.
Research also demonstrates a link between problem-solving, healthy diets, and proper sleep habits. Taken altogether, these lifestyle choices also help people manage their stress—which is known to impair problem-solving and creativity.
Of course, it can be difficult to untangle the complex relationship between cause and effect. Do people with healthy life habits naturally enjoy strong executive functions? Or do those habits bolster their mental fitness throughout their lives?
That's not an easy question to answer, but the Frontiers in Neuroscience study researchers hypothesize that it's a positive feedback loop. They posit that good sleep, nutritious food, and regular exercise fortify our executive functions. In turn, more potent executive decisions invigorate healthier life choices. And those healthy life choices—you see where this is going.
And while life choices are ultimately up to individuals, organizations have a supportive role to play. They can foster cultures that protect off-hours for relaxing, incentivize healthier habits with PTO, and prompt workers to take time for exercise beyond the usual keyboard calisthenics.
Nor would such initiatives be entirely selfless. They come with the added benefit of boosting a workforce's collective problem-solving capabilities.
Live and learn and learn some more
Another advantage of tuning out is the advantage to pursue life-long learning opportunities. People who engage in creative or problem-solving activities in their downtime—think playing music, puzzles, and even board games—show improved executive functions and mental acuity as they age. In other words, by learning to enjoy the act of problem-solving, you may enhance your ability to do so.
Similarly, lifelong learners are often interdisciplinary thinkers. By diving into various subjects, they can come to understand the nuances of different skills and bodies of knowledge to see when ideas from one field may provide a solution to a problem in another. That doesn't mean lifelong learners must become experts in every discipline. On the contrary, they are far more likely to understand where the limits of their knowledge lie. But those self-perceived horizons can also provide insight into where collaboration is necessary and when to follow someone else's lead.
In this way, lifelong learning can be key to problem-solving in both business and our personal lives. It pushes us toward self-improvement, gives us an understanding of how things work, hints at what's possible, and, above all, gives us permission to tune out and focus on what matters.
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The Rijksmuseum employed an AI to repaint lost parts of Rembrandt's "The Night Watch." Here's how they did it.
- In 1715, Amsterdam's Town Hall sliced off all four outer edges of Rembrandt's priceless masterpiece so that it would fit on a wall.
- Neural networks were used to fill in the missing pieces.
- An unprecedented collaboration between man and machine is now on display at the Rijksmuseum.
Robert Erdmann, a senior scientist working for the Rijksmuseum, cannot help but smile when I ask him to explain — in as much detail as possible — how exactly he used artificial intelligence to recreate long-lost portions of Rembrandt van Rijn's most famous painting, The Night Watch (1642). "Most people just want the elevator pitch," he tells me over Zoom.
The Night Watch is a mammoth of a painting, and it used to be even bigger. In 1715, it came into the possession of the bureaucrats in charge of Amsterdam's Town Hall. In order to fit it on their wall, they sliced off all four outer edges of Rembrandt's priceless masterpiece, inadvertently creating the compromised version we know today.
Rembrandt's "The Night Watch," with the missing edges shown in black.
The missing pieces of "The Night Watch" were never recovered, but we know what they looked like thanks to Gerrit Lundens, a contemporary of Rembrandt who copied the painting when it was complete. These missing sections depict the top of the arch, a balustrade at the bottom, and two soldiers of Frans Banninck Cocq's militia company that stood at the far left.
Though the absence of these elements does not make "The Night Watch" any less impressive, their presence greatly alters the painting's look and feel. The balustrade emphasizes the company's movement forward. Together, the four missing pieces shift the principal figures — Cocq and Willem van Ruytenburch — to the right, creating a more compelling composition.
Copy of "The Night Watch" by Gerrit Lundens.
As part of Operation Night Watch, a multimillion-dollar restoration mission, the Rijksmuseum set out to recreate these missing pieces of the painting to show visitors The Night Watch as Rembrandt had originally constructed it. One easy way to do this would be to upload the smaller Lundens copy into Photoshop, blow it up by a factor of five, print it out, and call it a day.
Easy, but far from adequate. As Erdmann puts it: "There's nothing wrong with using an artist like that. However, the final product would still contain traces of that artist's own style." For Erdmann, the only viable solution was to create a series of neural networks — software that mimics the human brain through the use of artificial neurons — to transform the Lundens copy into an "original" Rembrandt.
Humans, unlike computers, aren't able to make perfect copies. Faithful though Lundens' painting is — especially in its visual detail, for example, the number of buttons on a coat, plumes on a feather, or engravings on a halberd — it still contains a myriad of miniscule differences that prevented Erdmann from simply copy-pasting it onto the original.
Perspective was the first and arguably most important item on Erdmann's list. "The geometric correspondence is pretty good at the bottom of the copy," he says. "At the top, that correspondence starts to fall apart; the composition looks stretched out, supposedly because Lundens was unable to reach the top of the painting to get its precise measurements."
Lundens' copy, adjusted for perspective by the AI.
After creating a neural network that could identify corresponding elements in both versions of The Night Watch — from faces and hands to clothing and weapons — Erdmann made a second neural network that could stretch, rotate, foreshorten, compress, and decompress the Lundens copy so that its measurements matched the Rembrandt original as closely as possible.
According to Erdman, this step was "a guide to where we should place the figures on the left, because they need to be consistent with the extrapolation from the original Night Watch." Aside from aligning the two paintings, Erdmann's adjustments also transformed the facial structure of figures like Cocq, bringing them closer to Rembrandt's expert rendering.
Detail of the Lundens copy before perspectival adjustments.
Detail of the Lundens copy after perspectival adjustments.
Just as a painter must tone their canvas before they can work on composition and color, so too did Erdmann have to get the dimensions right before he could move on to the third and final stage of his coding process. Erdmann's next part of the neural network involved — to paraphrase his elevator pitch — sending the artificial intelligence algorithm to art school.
"Not unlike how you might translate a text from Dutch to English, we wanted to see if we could transform Lundens' painterly style and palette into Rembrandt's," he explains, comparing the learning curve to a quiz. To educate it, the AI was given random tiles from the Lundens copy and asked to render the tiles in the style of Rembrandt.
As with any pedagogical situation, Erdmann evaluated the AI's efforts with a corresponding grade. The closer its output matched the contents of the original Night Watch, the higher the grade it received. When grading, Erdmann considered things like color, texture, and representation (i.e., how well does this frowning face resemble a frowning face, or this sword an actual sword?).
"Once you've defined what makes a good copy, you can train the network on thousands and thousands of these tiles," Erdmann goes on. There are 265 gigabytes of memory of thousands of attempts stored, which demonstrates improvement in quality over a very short time. Within less than a day, the error margin between the AI and the real Rembrandt grew so small it became insignificant; the training was complete.
Lundens copy when adjusted for perspective and Rembrandt's style by AI.
Along the way, the AI had developed a thorough understanding of what made Rembrandt Rembrandt. When translating Lundens' copy, it used a less saturated color palette and thicker, sketchier brushstrokes. It even adopted the painter's signature use of chiaroscuro — a technique involving sharp contrasts between light and shadow.
Then it was time for the final exam. Using the knowledge gained from copying Rembrandt, Erdmann ordered the AI to transform the four outer edges of the Lundens copy — removed from the original Night Watch — into Rembrandt's signature style. The result, an unprecedented collaboration between man and machine, is now on display in the Eregalerij of the Rijksmuseum.
Detail of the completed "Night Watch." The two figures on the left were added from the adjusted Lundens copy.
The missing pieces, resuscitated by AI, were printed onto canvas and varnished so that they had a similar gloss to the rest of the painting. The pieces were then attached to metal plates, which were placed in front of the original Night Watch at a distance of less than one centimeter, thus creating an optical illusion for visitors without actually touching Rembrandt's work.
While conservation science is evolving rapidly, the achievements of people like Erdmann are still eclipsed by the artistic genius of the painters whose work they try to preserve, which is a shame because Erdmann's software can be just as inventive as Rembrandt's brushwork. At the very least, Erdmann's problem-solving skills would have made the master proud.
It marks a breakthrough in using gene editing to treat diseases.
This article was originally published by our sister site, Freethink.
For the first time, researchers appear to have effectively treated a genetic disorder by directly injecting a CRISPR therapy into patients' bloodstreams — overcoming one of the biggest hurdles to curing diseases with the gene editing technology.
The therapy appears to be astonishingly effective, editing nearly every cell in the liver to stop a disease-causing mutation.
The challenge: CRISPR gives us the ability to correct genetic mutations, and given that such mutations are responsible for more than 6,000 human diseases, the tech has the potential to dramatically improve human health.
One way to use CRISPR to treat diseases is to remove affected cells from a patient, edit out the mutation in the lab, and place the cells back in the body to replicate — that's how one team functionally cured people with the blood disorder sickle cell anemia, editing and then infusing bone marrow cells.
Bone marrow is a special case, though, and many mutations cause disease in organs that are harder to fix.
Another option is to insert the CRISPR system itself into the body so that it can make edits directly in the affected organs (that's only been attempted once, in an ongoing study in which people had a CRISPR therapy injected into their eyes to treat a rare vision disorder).
Injecting a CRISPR therapy right into the bloodstream has been a problem, though, because the therapy has to find the right cells to edit. An inherited mutation will be in the DNA of every cell of your body, but if it only causes disease in the liver, you don't want your therapy being used up in the pancreas or kidneys.
A new CRISPR therapy: Now, researchers from Intellia Therapeutics and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals have demonstrated for the first time that a CRISPR therapy delivered into the bloodstream can travel to desired tissues to make edits.
We can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically.
"While these are early data, they show us that we can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically so far, which is being able to deliver it systemically and get it to the right place," she continued.
What they did: During a phase 1 clinical trial, Intellia researchers injected a CRISPR therapy dubbed NTLA-2001 into the bloodstreams of six people with a rare, potentially fatal genetic disorder called transthyretin amyloidosis.
The livers of people with transthyretin amyloidosis produce a destructive protein, and the CRISPR therapy was designed to target the gene that makes the protein and halt its production. After just one injection of NTLA-2001, the three patients given a higher dose saw their levels of the protein drop by 80% to 96%.
A better option: The CRISPR therapy produced only mild adverse effects and did lower the protein levels, but we don't know yet if the effect will be permanent. It'll also be a few months before we know if the therapy can alleviate the symptoms of transthyretin amyloidosis.
This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine.
If everything goes as hoped, though, NTLA-2001 could one day offer a better treatment option for transthyretin amyloidosis than a currently approved medication, patisiran, which only reduces toxic protein levels by 81% and must be injected regularly.
Looking ahead: Even more exciting than NTLA-2001's potential impact on transthyretin amyloidosis, though, is the knowledge that we may be able to use CRISPR injections to treat other genetic disorders that are difficult to target directly, such as heart or brain diseases.
"This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine," Fyodor Urnov, a UC Berkeley professor of genetics, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR. "We as a species are watching this remarkable new show called: our gene-edited future."
If something is "true," it needs to be shown to work in the real world.
- Pragmatism is an American philosophical movement that originated as a rebuke to abstract European philosophy.
- The pragmatic theory of truth argues that truth and reality only can be understood in their relation to how things work in the real world.
- The trouble is that the theory devalues the term "truth," such that it only applies to one particular moment in time. But Charles Sanders Peirce offers a clever way out.
Think of wine. Now take away from this idea every possible property it has. Take away its redness or whiteness, its intoxicating effect, its taste, the slosh it makes, and so on. What are you left with? Nothing. An empty phoneme of the mind. An invisible color. A silent noise. Do this with any concept, and the result is the same.
This is exactly the kind of consideration that led the American Pragmatic movement. The likes of William James, John Dewey, and Charles Sanders Peirce argued that all of our concepts, and the truth of anything, are determined solely by the practical effects they have and how these extend into the real world. The idea of truth, and even of having intelligible thoughts at all, cannot be understood without reference to what that something does or how it behaves in the real world.
Pragmatic theory of truth: a very American idea
Peirce was the first to coin the term Pragmatism as a particular school of American philosophy, and it was a conscious response to the more untethered and arcane metaphysics coming out of Europe. Across the pond, and especially in Germany, philosophers since Immanuel Kant seemed to be locked in a competition to make philosophy as inaccessible and polysyllabic as possible (reaching its apogee in Georg Hegel). Pragmatists wanted to bring philosophy back and make it more relevant.
American Pragmatism gave out an exasperated and down-to-earth plea for philosophy to stop being quite so abstract.
According to Peirce, there was not any truth "out there" in the "real world" that we somehow, magically, could unearth. Instead, truth was defined by how it works in our everyday lives. So, my belief in gravity is true because of its practicality — that is, it works every day. It is true and meaningful precisely because it makes my pen drop, my coffee cup smash, and pole-vaulters come crashing down. Likewise, we know something is hard if it does not scratch easily, or if it helps you break a window, or if it hurts like heck when you hit it with your toe.
In short, we measure things by how they work and what they do. The same goes for truth.
Of course, an immediate objection comes to mind: surely the truth will change from person to person or from time to time. For instance, the Aristotelian model of gravity and the Ptolemaic model of planetary motion worked quite well for millennia. Does that mean these scientifically disproven models were actually true?! William James would argue yes, but Peirce would say no — and he offered a nuanced way out.
The coalescence of inquiry
For Peirce, "truth" could eventually coalesce or converge by the idealized agreement of intelligent inquirers. That is to say, scientists, scholars, and society will one day be so informed about the world that their answers to "what works" will be the only, final, and universal "truth" or "reality." As Peirce wrote, "The real, then, is that which, sooner or later, information and reasoning would finally result in, and which is therefore independent of the vagaries of me and you." And, elsewhere, he says reality is "what may finally come to be known to be in the ideal state of complete information."
For instance, Ptolemy's notion that the sun revolves around the Earth was never true but rather mistaken as true. What is true is defined by the end result of more advanced inquiry, such as that of Copernicus and Galileo. (Of course, we might still be mistaken today.) We cannot know if something is true until this perfected end point has been reached — the point when there are no alternative answers to the question, "What works best?"
Acceptance of error and self-correction
Most commentators today do not think Peirce meant there had to be an actual and future idealized end point where there would be no more debate and disagreement. Rather, Peirce's Pragmatism speaks to two broader and much more widely accepted epistemic virtues: an openness to accept error and the willingness to correct it.
Under Peirce's account, something is true or real insofar as it works within the world. This is not just for everyday experiences like gravity causing us to drop things. He meant that things must also work in the science laboratory as well.
Today, we practice science by presenting a hypothesis, which is then tested in experiments over and over again. Scientists are constantly calibrating the truth of hypotheses and theories based on how they work in the world. And, according to Peirce's Pragmatism, "although the conclusion [of an experiment] at any stage of the investigation may be more or less erroneous, the further application of the same method must correct the error."
So, we will get closer and closer to the truth as society becomes more and more informed. But this also means accepting that future societies will possibly, or even quite likely, correct what we today call truth.
The American way
Pragmatism has a certain intuitive appeal. Truth which is abstracted from how things operate in the real world often makes very little sense. The idea of a world "out there" beyond our minds — a world which is unseen, unknown, and unimaginable — is also unintelligible (as Kant pointed out) if it is not tied, in some way, both to how the world works and to what we humans can interact with.
People like Peirce should be praised for a very American Pragmatism that gave out an exasperated and down-to-earth plea for philosophy to stop being quite so abstract.