The Download: Open Source Insecurity and Gene Editing Factories


This is today’s edition the downloadour weekday newsletter that gives a daily dose of what’s going on in the world of technology.

The US military wants to understand the most important software on the planet

It’s no exaggeration to say that the whole world is built on top of the Linux kernel, although most people have never heard of it.

It is one of the very first programs to load when most computers start up. It allows the hardware on which the machine runs to communicate with the software, controls resource usage, and acts as the foundation of the operating system.

It is the core building block of almost all cloud computing, virtually every supercomputer, the entire Internet of Things, billions of smartphones and more.

But the kernel is also open source, meaning anyone can write, read, and use the code. And that worries cybersecurity experts within the US military. Its open-source nature means that the Linux kernel — along with a myriad of other pieces of critical open-source software — is exposed to hostile manipulation in ways we still barely understand. Read the full story.

—Patrick Howell O’Neill

Heat is bad for plant health. Here’s how gene editing could help.

The news: Some of the world’s most productive agricultural regions have already broken temperature records this year, with potentially worrying implications for food supplies. Even a slight increase in temperature can make crops more vulnerable to pests. To counter this, researchers have identified a single gene that appears to be the temperature-sensitive culprit and found a way to rebuild the plant’s immune system at higher temperatures.

How they did it: For many plants, salicylic acid is an important immune pathway. The chemical has antibacterial properties and also acts as a signal to trigger other immune pathways. However, this trail is essentially closed in unusually warm conditions. Researchers were able to modify the plants’ genome so that they produced more salicylic acid, which gave the plants better protection against pests and diseases.

What it means: Although the experiment was conducted on an Arabidopsis plant, many others, including wheat, corn and potatoes, share the same kind of salicylic acid pathway, potentially making the work impact far beyond the lab. Read the full story.

— Casey Crownhart

The must reads

I’ve scoured the internet to find today’s funniest/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 Russian propaganda is flourishing again on social media
Months after the war, Ukraine says Big Tech has no interest in removing it. (WP $)
+ Russia’s bombing has turned into terrorism. (The Atlantic Ocean $)
+ A US defense company has supplied Ukraine with kamikaze drones. (FT $)
+ The war in Ukraine could threaten to regulate killing robots. (new scientist $)
+ A Chinese housewife fooled Wikipedia into thinking she was a Russian expert. (Motherboard)

2 Uber is sued by 550 women over sexual assault allegations
The US-based women say they were raped and sexually assaulted by drivers, according to the harrowing filing. (BBC)

3 Post-Roe, we’re being checked more than ever
It’s getting harder and harder to avoid leaving a digital paper trail. (NYT $)
+ Big Tech Still Silent on Data Privacy Questions in a Post-Roe US (MIT Technology Review)

4 These New Encryption Algorithms Are Quantum Proof
Researchers are confident they can resist quantum computing’s attempts to crack them. (Economist $)
+ What is post-quantum cryptography? (MIT Technology Review)
+ Numbers with negative squares are an integral part of quantum theory. (Aeon)

5 Don’t bother understanding Elon Musk v Twitter
The madness will only increase by the time they come to court. (The Atlantic Ocean $)
+ Everyone involved comes out as a loser. (Insider)

6 How One Of Crypto’s Biggest Backers Collapsed
Celsius has now filed for bankruptcy, keeping its customers out of the pocket. (FT $)
The UK has agreed to sue someone over blockchain. (Bloomberg $)

7 Turkey Says It Discovered A Rich Mine With Rare Earth Elements
But experts are not convinced. (wired $)
+ Mining minerals for rechargeable batteries still makes us feel guilty. (The Atlantic Ocean $)

8 Prime membership made Amazon the all-rounder of the internet
And allowed to arm convenience along the way. (new statesman $)

9 Spam Calls Lead Us To Distraction
Some frustrated victims have emailed the FCC for answers. (Motherboard)
+ The people who use humor to troll their spam texts. (MIT Technology Review)

10 Bad taste is the new good taste
The internet aesthetic of the early 1990s is reassuringly ostentatious. (Vox)

Quote of the day

“I’m in the mood for clickbait.”

—Maree, a Melbourne woman, describes her discomfort when she was filmed without her consent in a viral ‘random act of kindness’ TikTok video, reports the guard.

The big story

Why Generation Z falls for online disinformation

June 2021

In November 2019, a TikTok video claiming that if Joe Biden is elected president of the United States, “trumpies” will commit mass murder of LGBT persons and people of color quickly went viral, viewed, shared, liked and commented on by hundreds of thousands of young people.

Clearly the claims were false. So why did so many members of Generation Z — a label applied to people aged about 9 to 24, who are presumably more digitally savvy than their predecessors — fall for such blatant misinformation? That’s partly because young people are more likely to believe and pass on misinformation if they feel a sense of common identity with the person who shared it in the first place. Read the full story.

—Jennifer Neda John

We can still have nice things

A place for comfort, fun and distraction in these weird times. (Do you have an idea? Give me a call or tweet them to me.)+ No matter how bad it gets, at least we have Kirby.
+ The jokes about the three men who stole Don Henley’s handwritten Hotel California lyrics just write yourself (thanks Allison!)
+ A missing dog casually managed win third place in a dog show while her owners were looking for her.
+ This is why the lost cities buried deep in the Amazon rainforest took so long to find.
+ I loved the charming story behind this viral photo of a 1970s surf teacher.