Costa Rican president says country is ‘at war’ with Conti ransomware group

Ransomware — and particularly the Conti ransomware gang — has become a geopolitical force in Costa Rica. On Monday, the new Costa Rican president Rodrigo Chaves, who began his four-year term only 10 days ago, declared that the country was “at war” with the Conti cybercriminal gang, whose ransomware attack has disabled agencies across the government since April.

In a forceful statement made to press on May 16th, President Chaves also said that Conti was receiving help from collaborators within the country and called on international allies to help.

“We’re at war and this is not an exaggeration,” Chaves told local media. “The war is against an international terrorist group, which apparently has operatives in Costa Rica. There are very clear indications that people inside the country are collaborating with Conti.”

President Chaves’ declaration of war against Conti comes in the face of unusually belligerent rhetoric from the ransomware group, which stated its intent to “overthrow the government by means of a cyberattack.” In a message posted to the Conti website, the ransomware group urged citizens of Costa Rica to pressure their government to pay the ransom, which has been doubled from an initial $10 million to $20 million.

Over the period of the attack, the US government has also offered a bounty of up to $10 million for information that could identify or locate the main coordinators of the Conti group’s operations or $5 million for information leading to the arrest of any Conti member.

The severe impact of Conti’s attack on the Costa Rican government points to the continued ability of the largest ransomware groups to operate on a scale that can pose a threat to nation states and draw on funding reserves that allow them to buy their way into some of the most sensitive computer systems by bribing those with access.

“We’re at the point now where these ransomware groups make billions of dollars, so their ability to get access to these [networks] is only limited by their own desire,” said Jon Miller, CEO and co-founder of anti-ransomware software platform Halcyon. “Month after month, more of these groups are coming online. This is a drastically growing problem.”

As the Costa Rican crisis continues, more knock-on effects are reaching citizens of the country. Statements made by Chaves put the number of government agencies hit at 27, including the Finance Ministry and the Ministry of Labor and Social Security. One of the effects was that the government was unable to collect taxes through traditional means, Chaves said.

So far, the Costa Rican president has remained intransigent that the government will pay nothing to the ransomware gang. With neither side appearing to budge, the situation has reached a standoff — but one that will be closely watched by other governments hoping to avoid a similar fate.

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Russian military reportedly hacked into European satellites at start of Ukraine war

American government officials told The Washington Post that the Russian military was responsible for a cyberattack on a European satellite internet service that affected Ukrainian military communications in late February.

The hack affected the KA-SAT satellite broadband network, owned by Viasat, an American satellite communications company. On February 24th, the day the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, the KA-SAT network was hit by outages that affected Ukraine and surrounding regions in Europe. A few days afterward, Viasat blamed outages on a “cyber event,” but did not release further details.

Though Ukrainian officials have not fully disclosed the impact, the outage is believed to have caused significant communications disruptions at the beginning of the war.

The NSA was reported to be collaborating on an investigation with Ukrainian intelligence services, but no results have been officially announced. However, anonymous officials reportedly told the Post that US intelligence analysts have now concluded that Russian military hackers were behind the attack.

A request for confirmation sent by The Verge to the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) had not received a response by the time of publication.

Officials from Viasat told Air Force Magazine that the attack was conducted through a compromise of the system that manages customer satellite terminals, and only affected customers of the KA-SAT network, a smaller broadband provider that Viasat bought last year from French satellite operator Eutelsat.

At the outset of the conflict, commentators feared that Russia could launch widespread and destructive cyberattacks. While one perspective holds that such attacks have failed to materialize, the slow release of additional information gives credence to the suggestion that many attacks may have occurred in the shadows.

In the aftermath of the hack, CISA and the FBI issued a joint cybersecurity advisory to satellite communications providers, warning that the agencies were aware of possible threats to US and international networks, and advising companies to report any indications of malicious activity immediately.

As the war in Ukraine continues — and US opposition to Russia grows in the form of sanctions — the Biden administration has issued increasingly serious warnings about the possibility of Russian cyberattacks on US infrastructure.

On Monday, President Biden advised US businesses to take added precautions against hacking, citing “evolving intelligence” that Russia was preparing to target the US with cyberattacks. Then on Thursday, the Department of Justice unsealed indictments against four Russians accused of mounting state-sponsored cyberattacks against the US, publicly releasing details of a highly sophisticated hacking campaign involving supply-chain software compromises and spear-phishing campaigns against thousands of employees of companies and US government agencies.

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Winning the war on ransomware

In the past 10 years, ransomware has become inescapable. All kinds of institutions have been targeted, from the schools children go to, to fuel and medical infrastructure. A report from the US Treasury estimates there were over half a billion dollars in ransomware payouts in the first half of 2021 alone. Law enforcement has struggled to get a handle on the situation, with many groups operating for years with no apparent fear of repercussions.

This year, federal law enforcement decided to try something new. In April, the Department of Justice created the Ransomware and Digital Extortion Task Force in a move to prioritize the “disruption, investigation, and prosecution of ransomware and digital extortion activity.” The task force is supposed to help share information between DOJ departments, as well as work with outside and foreign agencies. In the months since, it’s made some impressive prosecutions, but they’re just a sliver of the overall — and the bigger picture remains maddeningly unclear.

One of the first publicized wins for the group came in June, when the Department of Justice said the group was handling the case of an individual alleged to be partially responsible for the malware suite known as Trickbot, which could help expose a system to a ransomware attack. Days after that announcement came an even bigger win: the DOJ announced it had seized back $2.3 million of the $4.4 million ransom paid by oil company Colonial Pipeline, and that the task force had coordinated the efforts. Then, in October, its biggest win yet — the arrests of a few alleged members of REvil, a hacking group, by European police forces, and the seizure of over $6 million in funds the department says were linked to ransomware payments.

Still, the sheer volume of attacks means a handful of prosecutions is unlikely to make a difference. Prosecutors need the threat of law enforcement action to scare criminals away from ransomware — and some experts say the scheme is still too lucrative for criminals to give up.

Hackers “prefer to take the risk instead of leaving this lucrative malicious activity behind,” according to Dmitry Bestuzhev, a researcher at cybersecurity company Kaspersky. “So what they try to do is to learn from others’ mistakes and improve their opsec, but there is no evidence they feel intimidated and want to quit.” Bestuzhev says they’ll continue to re-form groups, even as the government works to shut them down — “even with the successful arrest we have recently witnessed, many ransomware groups are just here to stay.”

But not everyone agrees with Bestuzhev. John Fokker, the head of cyber investigations for McAfee Enterprise Advanced Threat Research, is more optimistic that the task force is starting to change the outlook for criminals. For years ransomware “had been relatively untouched,” not getting too much attention from governments, Fokker told The Verge. Now that the task force was starting to crack down, he says, “what used to be a safe space isn’t a safe space anymore. There’s beginning to be an atmosphere of distrust.”

The attention from the task force has also been affecting ransomware groups’ ability to advertise to potential customers, the ones who often use their malware to infect targets. In a blog, Fokker discussed how cybercrime forums have become hesitant to play host to ransomware operators, banning them from advertising in the wake of the Colonial Pipeline attacks. Forum administrators, when they offered an explanation for the decision, said that ransomware was attracting a lot of unwanted attention — as one admin put it, according to The Record, the word “ransom” was now associated with “unpleasant phenomena — geopolitics, extortion, government hacking.” Another forum had a cheekier explanation for why it was banning posts about ransomware: “if it ran somewhere, then you should probably go catch it?”

The ability to advertise on forums cut off the groups’ easy access to customers, made it harder for ransomware creators to get in touch with the affiliates making them billions of dollars, and made the contact that does happen riskier on both sides. Transferring money or giving demos becomes harder when there’s not a (somewhat) trusted third-party platform to help mediate. That, along with bounties for up to $10 million, has started to create “little cracks in the model,” says Fokker. He even mentioned an instance where an affiliate, angry with what they considered to be a meager payout, posted a ransomware group’s entire playbook. “That kind of environment hurts business,” he says.

The task force has also been helping the people on the other side of ransomware: the companies and organizations that are targeted by it. Government agencies have been working together to keep industries informed about what actions they’ve taken against ransomware operators, and to issue guidance to help keep companies safe. ”The Department of Commerce, Department of Treasury, State, Homeland Security, and Defense, all of them have taken a very clear, concrete action on ransomware actors to disrupt and each of them have their own press release and their own guidance,” says Vishaal Hariprasad, CEO of cyber-focused insurance company Resilience.

When asked to grade the government’s actions, he says, “I would actually give the government an A for what they’ve done in the past 90 days. I think it’s been pretty incredible to see that we’re actually taking action, we’re taking the fight to the bad guys with disruption, with arrests, with warrants, sanctions, the $10 million bounty for any information.”

Hariprasad says while the government had carried out similar actions in years prior, the publicity was a boon to victims. “I think the task force has helped coordinate it, but coordinating in the back end where nobody can see isn’t valuable. It doesn’t have the motivating psychological impact unless you can talk about it … the government’s always been doing things, it’s just never been able to publicly talk about it in a clear and concise, coordinated way.”

Still others are optimistic that the task force can have an impact if it keeps up its legal actions. “As long as there is a sustained effort against these somewhat decentralized and shifting crime gangs; this isn’t just ‘whack-a-mole,’” says Kurt Baumgartner, principal security researcher at Kaspersky, echoing Fokker’s optimism. “While we are seeing the resurrection of certain parts of the ransomware-as-a-service chain in response,” Baumgartner thinks the “coordinated anti-ransomware efforts are just the start. It is great to see evidence of some ransom payments clawed back, decryption keys obtained, communications infiltrated, successful multi-national law enforcement efforts.”

In particular, Hariprasad thinks massively disruptive attacks could become less frequent. “I think you’ll still have the one or two major coordinated campaigns that will be very sophisticated,” he says. “But as they get a lot of attention and people start focusing on them, you’ll see that happen less, and the younger or the less sophisticated operators will continue to get back to the lower end of the ransoms and just kind of go for quantity over quality.” Better to collect a few $50,000 ransoms without making headlines, the thinking goes, than to bag $40 million and have law enforcement kicking down your door.

It’s hard to say which of the task force’s tactics will end up having the greatest effect, and there’s always the possibility that things get worse before they get better. If ransomware operators wind up desperate, they could end up going after a massive target, in a Hollywood-style “one last job” scenario. Ransomware could also become a more manageable annoyance, as hackers look for the next big cash cow, one that the world’s governments aren’t paying as much attention to. Or attackers could get creative and start developing entirely new ways to make trouble.

Cybersecurity is always a cat-and-mouse game, and the incentives to hack big companies won’t be going away — but as Hariprasad told me, “a big part of deterrence is making sure they understand that there are repercussions to their actions and that the government is actively doing something.” On that point, at least, governments seem to be making progress.

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DLSS Support Coming To God Of War, Horizon Zero Dawn

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With more PlayStation games coming to PC, graphics card manufacturer Nvidia has been working on making the PC versions of titles better than their console counterparts. Horizon Zero Dawn is getting the DLSS treatment, while God of War will get the same, along with a suite of other graphical improvements.

Starting today, anyone with one of Nvidia’s beefier cards in their computer can play Horizon Zero Dawn on PC with Nvidia’s DLSS tech. DLSS, or Deep Learning Super Sampling, boosts frame rates in-game without reducing resolutions by using A.I. rendering. The technique lets players run their games at high resolutions, with maxed-out settings, or even with ray tracing enabled, without shedding too many frames. While Horizon Zero Dawn doesn’t have ray tracing, the game is quite demanding, although Nvidia claims that DLSS can boost the game’s performance by “up to 50%.”

As for next year’s PC rerelease of God of War, the blockbuster title will receive numerous changes and improvements when it moves off of consoles. Along with Nvidia’s DLSS, anyone playing God of War on PC with an Nvidia graphics card will be able to use Nvidia Reflex, which reduces latency. The game will also have a full bevy of graphics settings options, letting players turn on high-resolution shadows, higher rendering resolutions, and more. And thanks to an uncapped frame rate, players can finally play God of War at 144 frames per second.

Nvidia also shared God of War‘s PC system requirements, revealing that the title won’t be too demanding to run. God of War is set to launch on PC on January 14, 2022.

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God of War PC requirements revealed: What you’ll need for top performance

Next month, we’ll see what is almost certainly the biggest Sony PC release yet. After bringing Horizon Zero Dawn and Days Gone to PC, Sony will be bringing 2018’s God of War to the platform in January. Today, Sony’s Santa Monica Studio revealed the PC specifications for the game, and it looks like it will run on a rather large array of configurations.

Santa Monica Studios/Sony

Minimum specs and maximum performance

Sony Santa Monica shared lists for five different specifications today, starting with the minimum required specifications ranging all the way up to the hardware needed to run God of War at ultra settings. As you might imagine, there’s a pretty big disparity between those two specs, with “recommended,” “high,” and “performance” specs in between.

The minimum required specifications will be good enough to run the game on the low graphics preset in 720p at 30fps, which isn’t great. Still, we work with what we’ve got in the world of PC gaming, and if you have at least an NVIDIA GTX 960 (4GB)/AMD R9 290X (4GB) GPU in your rig along with an Intel Core i5-2500k/AMD Ryzen 3 1200 CPU and 8GB of RAM, it’s good enough to run God of War.

Compare that to the ultra specification, and you’ll see just how big the difference between the minimum and maximum are. In order to run God of War on the ultra graphics preset in 4K at 60fps, you’ll need an RTX 3080 (10GB)/RX 6800 XT (16GB) along with an Intel Core i9-9900k/AMD Ryzen 9 3950X and 16GB of RAM. Considering how hard it is to get both the RTX 3080 and RX 6800 XT, we’re guessing that most gamers will probably have to settle for a lower spec.

Santa Monica Studios/Sony

Thankfully, that’s what is required to run the game at 4K60, so lower resolutions will ease up on the hardware requirements a fair amount. You can check the other specifications in the image we’ve embedded above, but hardware specifications aren’t the only thing Sony’s Santa Monica Studio revealed about the PC version of God of War today.

The studio also confirmed today that God of War will support NVIDIA DLSS in rigs with an RTX GPU, which uses supersampling to allow the game to run at higher resolutions without sacrificing framerates. The game will also support NVIDIA Reflex to cut back on system latency, though that requires at least a GTX 900-series GPU. Finally, God of War will support AMD’s FidelityFX Super Resolution, so Sony Santa Monica’s partnership with NVIDIA doesn’t mean that AMD users have to be left out in the cold.

You can see a sampling of God of War‘s PC features in the trailer above. Otherwise, look for God of War to land on Steam and the Epic Games Store on January 14th, 2022.

Sony’s PC game port plans

God of War screenshot

Sony/PlayStation Blog

In March 2020, PlayStation Worldwide Studios head Herman Hulst confirmed Sony’s plan at the time to bring Horizon Zero Dawn to PC (via PS Blog). The port raised new questions about the company’s plans for future major PlayStation exclusive games and whether they, too, would eventually make their way to desktop. At the time, Hurst reassured PlayStation fans that Sony is “very committed to dedicated hardware” and “very committed to quality exclusives.”

With that said, Hurst also went on to note that the company was “going to be very open to experimentation,” one example of which was the eventual Horizon Zero Dawn PC release. The studio’s leader indicated bringing a major PS game to PC served as a way to “introduce more people to PlayStation,” potentially making them aware of the kinds of games they can enjoy if they pick up a PlayStation console.

Hurst went on to state that “releasing one first-party AAA title to PC doesn’t necessarily mean that every game now will come to PC.” The statement left many doubtful that select other major PlayStation titles — including God of War — would make their way to PC. Fast-forward nearly two years and it’s clear Sony is continuing with this plan, though if the trend holds, it looks like PC gamers can expect to wait a couple of years after a major game’s release before it (potentially) makes its way to desktop systems.

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Halo Infinite campaign launch trailer prepares us for all-out war

Even though Halo Infinite‘s multiplayer has been out for a couple of weeks, we’re still awaiting the arrival of the game’s campaign. We’re about a week away from the launch of Halo Infinite‘s campaign, but that isn’t stopping 343 Industries and Microsoft from whetting appetites with a launch trailer today. If you’re a fan of the Halo campaigns of the past, then you’ll definitely want to give this trailer a look.

Master Chief takes on The Banished

As we’ve known for quite some time already, in Halo Infinite, Master Chief will be going toe-to-toe with The Banished, a Covenant splinter group that ultimately rebelled against their old allies. The launch trailer for Halo Infinite‘s campaign gets us right into the details: The Banished are planning to fire a new ring called Zeta Halo and Master Chief has to stop them.

This, of course, means there will be plenty of fighting, and we know that Halo Infinite is going to have at least a semi-open world, which is something of a departure for the Halo series. While previous entries have had huge maps with secret weapons and collectibles dotted throughout them, they’ve also been linear in their design.

With Halo Infinite, that all changes – at least somewhat. While on Zeta Halo, Master Chief will be able to capture forward operating bases held by The Banished, and we get to see a glimpse of some of those base assaults in this trailer. While the trailer doesn’t give too much away – at least compared to what we already know – those who are trying to go into it as unspoiled as possible may still want to give it a pass for now.

Microsoft tries a different strategy with Halo Infinite

Halo Infinite represents a pretty big departure for the series and for Microsoft, which have both followed a fairly consistent structure throughout the years. We’ve already told you how Halo Infinite is changing from a design perspective, but it’ll be a lot different from previous games from a monetization perspective as well.

For all previous releases in the Halo series, multiplayer and the campaign were both parts of the same purchase. $60 (or whatever the game cost at the time) granted you access to both, but that won’t be the case for Halo Infinite. Halo Infinite‘s multiplayer is free-to-play and is already available.

That means the campaign will be sold separately for $60, so we’ll soon find out just how much value Halo players put on the campaign. With no multiplayer included to hook players into buying, the campaign needs to stand on its own from a value standpoint if Microsoft is looking to sell copies. That could explain why 343 and Microsoft decided to make Halo Infinite‘s campaign semi-open world, a decision that suggests it’ll be broader in scope (and perhaps even in replayability) than previous campaigns.

Of course, Halo Infinite‘s campaign will also be available through Xbox Game Pass, which means that it doesn’t necessarily have to sell copies a ton of copies at $60 to be counted as a success in Microsoft’s eyes. In any case, we’ll find out if the value is there soon enough, as Halo Infinite‘s campaign launches on Xbox One, Xbox Series X, and PC on December 8th.

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Controversial Iraq War game ‘Six Days in Fallujah’ delayed until late 2022

The long and messy development of the controversial Six Days in Fallujah is set to last for at least another year. Publisher Victura has confirmed the first-person shooter will be delayed until the last quarter of 2022. Previously, it targeted a 2021 launch window.

Victura and Highwire Games, which counts former Destiny and Halo developers among its team, announced in February that they are reviving the game. Six Days in Fallujah first emerged in 2009, but following a backlash, publisher Konami backed out and developer Atomic Games wasn’t able to secure funding to finish the game. The studio shut down in 2011 and the project, then a third-person shooter, was shelved.

The game features true stories shared by dozens of marines, soldiers and Iraqi civilians who were involved in Second Battle of Fallujah in Iraq in November 2004. Missions take place from the perspective of a person who was there, and they’ll provide narration about what happened, from their point of view.

As was the case the first time around, critics rallied against Six Days in Fallujah. The Council on American-Islamic Relations, a prominent Muslim advocacy group in the US, urged Sony, Microsoft and Valve to block it from their gaming platforms.

Victura CEO Peter Tamte, formerly of Atomic and Destiny studio Bungie, was widely denounced for suggesting the game would not make a political statement regarding why American soldiers were in Fallujah. The publisher later clarified that “we understand the events recreated in Six Days in Fallujah are inseparable from politics.”

Despite the black cloud hanging over the game, Victura and Highwire are forging ahead. They plan to almost double the size of the development team. “It became clear that recreating these true stories at a high quality was going to require more people, capital and time than we had,” Tamte said. “Doubling our team is just one of many things we’re doing to make sure Six Days in Fallujah brings new kinds of tactical and emotional depth to military shooters.”

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God of War Is Coming to Steam Next Year With 4K Support

God of War, the 2018 PlayStation 4 hit, is making its way to PC via Steam on January 14, 2022. It will retail on the service for $50. This new port is the latest in Sony’s initiative to bring more of its first-party titles to PC.

Last year in a corporate report, Sony expressed interest in bringing more of its first-party exclusives to PC following the success of Horizon Zero Dawn‘s PC launch. “(PlayStation) will explore expanding our 1st-party titles to the PC platform, in order to promote further growth in our profitability,” the company stated at the time. God of War‘s new port makes good on that initiative and is the biggest Sony exclusive to come to PC yet.

The God of War PC port will be available on Steam and includes 4K support, an unlocked frame rate, controls customization, Nvidia DLSS and Reflex support, and ultrawide monitor support.

Sony said these features will offer players a wide range of graphical settings: “From higher resolution shadows and improved screen space reflections to enhancements to the ambient occlusion pipeline with GTAO and SSDO”

PlayStation also confirmed that God Of War on PC will support both DualShock 4 and DualSense controllers natively. Keyboard and mouse players will be able to fully customize their controls to find the best setup possible.

The port will also contain previously released digital content. Here’s the full list of extras that come with the PC version.

  • Death’s Vow Armor Sets for Kratos and Atreus
  • Exile’s Guardian Shield Skin
  • Buckler of the Forge Shield Skin
  • Shining Elven Soul Shield Skin
  • Dökkenshieldr Shield Skin

God of War will hit Steam on January 14, 2022.

Editors’ Choice

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‘God of War’ heads to PC on January 14th

Nearly four years after debuting on PlayStation 4, God of War is heading to PC. Sony will release its 2018 exclusive on Steam and the Epic Games Store on January 14th, the company announced on Wednesday. 

Provided you have the necessary hardware, the PC port will allow you to play God of War at an unlocked framerate and true 4K. Additionally, the port will support both DualShock 4 and DualSense controllers natively, as well as NVIDIA’s DLSS and Reflex technologies. If you would rather play with a mouse and keyboard, the game will also allow you to fully customize your keybindings. 

In recent years, Sony has slowly started to bring its PlayStation exclusives to PC, with plans to port more titles down the line. God of War will join Horizon Zero Dawn and Days Gone among the list of games that have made the jump to Windows. The timing of the release should also help Sony build excitement for God of War Ragnarök, which is expected to come out sometime in 2022.

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Have autonomous robots started killing in war? The reality is messier than it appears

It’s the sort of thing that can almost pass for background noise these days: over the past week, a number of publications tentatively declared, based on a UN report from the Libyan civil war, that killer robots may have hunted down humans autonomously for the first time. As one headline put it: “The Age of Autonomous Killer Robots May Already Be Here.”

But is it? As you might guess, it’s a hard question to answer.

The new coverage has sparked a debate among experts that goes to the heart of our problems confronting the rise of autonomous robots in war. Some said the stories were wrongheaded and sensational, while others suggested there was a nugget of truth to the discussion. Diving into the topic doesn’t reveal that the world quietly experienced the opening salvos of the Terminator timeline in 2020. But it does point to a more prosaic and perhaps much more depressing truth: that no one can agree on what a killer robot is, and if we wait for this to happen, their presence in war will have long been normalized.

It’s cheery stuff, isn’t it? It’ll take your mind off the global pandemic at least. Let’s jump in:

The source of all these stories is a 548-page report from the United Nations Security Council that details the tail end of the Second Libyan Civil War, covering a period from October 2019 to January 2021. The report was published in March, and you can read it in full here. To save you time: it is an extremely thorough account of an extremely complex conflict, detailing various troop movements, weapon transfers, raids and skirmishes that took place among the war’s various factions, both foreign and domestic.

The paragraph we’re interested in, though, describes an offensive near Tripoli in March 2020, in which forces supporting the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) routed troops loyal to the Libyan National Army of Khalifa Haftar (referred to in the report as the Haftar Affiliated Forces or HAF). Here’s the relevant passage in full:

Logistics convoys and retreating HAF were subsequently hunted down and remotely engaged by the unmanned combat aerial vehicles or the lethal autonomous weapons systems such as the STM Kargu-2 (see annex 30) and other loitering munitions. The lethal autonomous weapons systems were programmed to attack targets without requiring data connectivity between the operator and the munition: in effect, a true “fire, forget and find” capability.”

The Kargu-2 system that’s mentioned here is a quadcopter built in Turkey: it’s essentially a consumer drone that’s used to dive-bomb targets. It can be manually operated or steer itself using machine vision. A second paragraph in the report notes that retreating forces were “subject to continual harassment from the unmanned combat aerial vehicles and lethal autonomous weapons systems” and that the HAF “suffered significant casualties” as a result.

The Kargu-2 drone is essentially a quadcopter that dive-bombs enemies.
Image: STM

But that’s it. That’s all we have. What the report doesn’t say — at least not outright — is that human beings were killed by autonomous robots acting without human supervision. It says humans and vehicles were attacked by a mix of drones, quadcopters, and “loitering munitions” (we’ll get to those later), and that the quadcopters had been programmed to work offline. But whether the attacks took place without connectivity is unclear.

These two paragraphs made their way into the mainstream press via a story in the New Scientist, which ran a piece with the headline: “Drones may have attacked humans fully autonomously for the first time.” The NS is very careful to caveat that military drones might have acted autonomously and that humans might have been killed, but later reports lost this nuance. “Autonomous drone attacked soldiers in Libya all on its own,” read one headline. “For the First Time, Drones Autonomously Attacked Humans,” said another.

Let’s be clear: by itself, the UN does not say for certain whether drones autonomously attacked humans in Libya last year, though it certainly suggests this could have happened. The problem is that even if it did happen, for many experts, it’s just not news.

The reason why some experts took issue with these stories was because they followed the UN’s wording, which doesn’t distinguish clearly between loitering munitions and lethal autonomous weapons systems or LAWS (that’s policy jargon for killer robots).

Loitering munitions, for the uninitiated, are the weapon equivalent of seagulls at the beachfront. They hang around a specific area, float above the masses, and wait to strike their target — usually military hardware of one sort or another (though it’s not impossible that they could be used to target individuals).

The classic example is Israel’s IAI Harpy, which was developed in the 1980s to target anti-air defenses. The Harpy looks like a cross between a missile and a fixed-wing drone, and is fired from the ground into a target area where it can linger for up to nine hours. It scans for telltale radar emissions from anti-air systems and drops onto any it finds. The loitering aspect is crucial as troops will often turn these radars off, given they act like homing beacons.

The IAI Harpy is launched from the ground and can linger for hours over a target area.
Image: IAI

“The thing is, how is this the first time of anything?” tweeted Ulrike Franke, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Loitering munition have been on the battlefield for a while – most notably in Nagorno-Karaback. It seems to me that what’s new here isn’t the event, but that the UN report calls them lethal autonomous weapon systems.”

Jack McDonald, a lecturer at the department of war studies at King’s College London, says the distinction between the two terms is controversial and constitutes an unsolved problem in the world of arms regulation. “There are people who call ‘loitering munitions’ ‘lethal autonomous weapon systems’ and people who just call them ‘loitering munitions,’” he tells The Verge. “This is a huge, long-running thing. And it’s because the line between something being autonomous and being automated has shifted over the decades.”

So is the Harpy a lethal autonomous weapons system? A killer robot? It depends on who you ask. IAI’s own website describes it as such, calling it “an autonomous weapon for all weather,” and the Harpy certainly fits a makeshift definition of LAWS as “machines that target combatants without human oversight.” But if this is your definition, then you’ve created a very broad church for killer robots. Indeed, under this definition a land mine is a killer robot, as it, too, autonomously targets combatants in war without human oversight.

If killer robots have been around for decades, why has there been so much discussion about them in recent years, with groups like the Campaign To Stop Killer Robots pushing for regulation of this technology in the UN? And why is this incident in Libya special?

The rise of artificial intelligence plays a big role, says Zak Kallenborn, a policy fellow at the Schar School of Policy and Government. Advances in AI over the past decade have given weapon-makers access to cheap vision systems that can select targets as quickly as your phone identifies pets, plants, and familiar faces in your camera roll. These systems promise nuanced and precise identification of targets but are also much more prone to mistakes.

“Loitering munitions typically respond to radar emissions, [and] a kid walking down the street isn’t going to have a high-powered radar in their backpack,” Kallenborn tells The Verge. “But AI targeting systems might misclassify the kid as a soldier, because current AI systems are highly brittle — one study showed a change in a single pixel is sufficient to cause machine vision systems to draw radically different conclusions about what it sees. An open question is how often those errors occur during real-world use.”

This is why the incident in Libya is interesting, says Kallenborn, as the Kargu-2 system mentioned in the UN report does seem to use AI to identify targets. According to the quadcopter’s manufacturer, STM, it uses “machine learning algorithms embedded on the platform” to “effectively respond against stationary or mobile targets (i.e. vehicle, person etc.)” Demo videos appear to show it doing exactly that. In the clip below, the quadcopter hones in on a mannequin in a stationary group.

But should we trust a manufacturers’ demo reel or brochure? And does the UN report make it clear that machine learning systems were used in the attack?

Kallenborn’s reading of the report is that it “heavily implies” that this was the case, but McDonald is more skeptical. “I think it’s sensible to say that the Kargu-2 as a platform is open to being used in an autonomous way,” he says. “But we don’t necessarily know if it was.” In a tweet, he also pointed out that this particular skirmish involved long-range missiles and howitzers, making it even harder to attribute casualties to any one system.

What we’re left with is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the fog of war. Or more accurately: the fog of LAWS. We can’t say for certain what happened in Libya and our definitions of what is and isn’t a killer robot are so fluid that even if we knew, there would be disagreement.

For Kallenborn, this is sort of the point: it underscores the difficulties we face trying to create meaningful oversight in the AI-assisted battles of the future. Of course the first use of autonomous weapons on the battlefield won’t announce itself with a press release, he says, because if the weapons work as they’re supposed to, they won’t look at all out of the ordinary. “The problem is autonomy is, at core, a matter of programming,” he says. “The Kargu-2 used autonomously will look exactly like a Kargu-2 used manually.”

Elke Schwarz, a senior lecturer in political theory at Queen Mary University London who’s affiliated with the International Committee for Robot Arms Control, tells The Verge that discussions like this show we need to move beyond “slippery and political” debates about definitions and focus on the specific functionality of these systems. What do they do and how do they do it?

“I think we really have to think about the bigger picture […] which is why I focus on the practice, as well as functionality,” says Schwarz. “In my work I try and show that the use of these types of systems is very likely to exacerbate violent action as an ‘easier’ choice. And, as you rightly point out, errors will very likely prevail […] which will likely be addressed only post hoc.”

Schwarz says that despite the myriad difficulties, in terms of both drafting regulation and pushing back against the enthusiasm of militaries around the world to integrate AI into weaponry, “there is critical mass building amongst nations and international organizations to push for a ban for systems that have the capacity to autonomously identify, select and attack targets.”

Indeed, the UN is still conducting a review into possible regulations for LAWS, with results due to be reported later this year. As Schwarz says: “With this news story having made the rounds, now is a great time to mobilize the international community toward awareness and action.”

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