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What does OpenAI’s crack-down on 5 State-Affiliated Cyber Threats mean for global politics?

The company terminated accounts of threat actors connected to China, Russia, North Korea and Iran months after formally announcing its partnership with the US military.

What’s the news: OpenAI terminated five accounts associated with state-affiliated threat actors that sought to use artificial intelligence (AI) services for malicious cyber activities, said the company in a blog post on February 15, 2024. Accounts of threat actors connected to China, Russia, Iran and North Korea were taken down despite OpenAI’s recent announcement to partner with the US military and relax its usage policies for military purposes. Such developments highlight the growing influence of geopolitics in the field of AI.

Accounts removed for suspicion of phishing campaigns: Based on collaboration and information sharing with Microsoft, OpenAI terminated accounts of: two China-affiliated threat actors known as ‘Charcoal Typhoon’ and ‘Salmon Typhoon’; Iran-affiliated threat actor, ‘Crimson Sandstorm’; North Korea-affiliated actor ‘Emerald Sleet’; and Russia-affiliated actor ‘Forest Blizzard.’ The latter was described as “extremely active in targeting organizations” during the Russia-Ukraine war, by Microsoft. All these accounts were removed for the following reasons:

Charcoal Typhoon used our services to research various companies and cybersecurity tools, debug code and generate scripts, and create content likely for use in phishing campaigns.

Salmon Typhoon used our services to translate technical papers, retrieve publicly available information on multiple intelligence agencies and regional threat actors, assist with coding, and research common ways processes could be hidden on a system.

Crimson Sandstorm used our services for scripting support related to app and web development, generating content likely for spear-phishing campaigns, and researching common ways malware could evade detection.

Emerald Sleet used our services to identify experts and organizations focused on defense issues in the Asia-Pacific region, understand publicly available vulnerabilities, help with basic scripting tasks, and draft content that could be used in phishing campaigns.

Forest Blizzard used our services primarily for open-source research into satellite communication protocols and radar imaging technology, as well as for support with scripting tasks.

Microsoft also said that the research on these actors did not identify significant cybersecurity attacks using OpenAI’s LLM technology but felt the need to share such activities from “well-known threat actors.” But here’s an interesting question, what happens when such threat actors emerge from agencies partnering with OpenAI? Will the company be able to levy the same penalty on such actors as well?

OpenAI open to military projects: In January, 2024, OpenAI relaxed its usage policies for military and warfare purposes and confirmed its partnership with the US’s Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The news caused a stir across the globe with even India’s IT Minister, Rajeev Chandrasekhar using this as an example of how “AI can and will be used for military purposes.”

More than anything else, the announcement indicated that even AI companies and their technologies are not neutral agencies in geopolitics. For example, the US is known to use AI-driven drone systems during the Russia-Ukraine war. Palantir Technologies, a data-analytics firm involved in the Russia-Ukraine war and dubbed an “AI arms dealer of the 21st century” by a Ukrainian official is funded in part by the US government, as per the Time. MediaNama has reached out to OpenAI asking whether similar actions or notices have been sent to US entities. Until then, considering the growing influence of global powers on these companies, can OpenAI say with confidence that it will apply the same punitive action as mentioned above and terminate accounts of threat actors associated with the US government?

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I'm interested in the shaping and strengthening of rights in the digital space. I cover cybersecurity, platform regulation, gig worker economy. In my free time, I'm either binge-watching an anime or off on a hike.

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