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The Download: Activists are targeting Russians with open-source ‘protestware’

Also: food prices are soaring

March 21, 2022
ukraine protest
UK workers from the software firm BrightLocal SEO protest against the Russian invasion of Ukraine in solidarity with their software engineer colleagues who are from and based in Ukraine.AP

This is today's edition of The Download, our weekday newsletter that provides a daily dose of what's going on in the world of technology.

The Download: Activists are targeting Russians with open-source ‘protestware’

The news: The largest bank in Russia has warned its users to stop updating any software due to the threat of “protestware,” open source software projects whose authors have altered their code in opposition to Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. Open source software is software that anyone can modify and inspect, making it more transparent—and, in this case at least, more open to sabotage.

Some context: Around two dozen open source software projects have been spotted adding code protesting the war. Most of the protestware simply displays anti-war, pro-Ukrainian messages when it is run but at least one project is believed to have had malicious code added which would wipe computers located in Russia and Belarus. 

Loss of trust: Some within the open source community worry that the possibility of sabotage can undermine the open source ecosystem. Although it is less well known than commercial software, open source software is enormously important to running every facet of the internet. Read the full story

—Patrick Howell O’Neill

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 Food prices are soaring
Ukraine supplies much of the world’s wheat, corn, and barley—and its farmers are unlikely to be able to plant this season. (NYT $)
  + Climate change is compounding the problem. (Wired $)
  + A Ukrainian MP has accused Russia of trying to starve Mariupol into surrender. (BBC)
  + Russia is using cluster bombs, and they could pose a danger for decades. (Wired $)
  + 6.5 million people have been displaced inside Ukraine, according to the UN. (Axios

2 Is Russia holding back from cyberwar?
The most dire predictions haven’t come to pass—yet. (Vox)
  + Right now, the propaganda war is the most significant virtual battlefront. (TR)
  + Russian families are fighting over reality, as different members receive vastly different reports on the war. (WP $)
  + Ukraine is appealing to DJI to restrict where its drones can fly. (Vice

3 China reported its first covid deaths since January 2021
Omicron has arrived on its shores—but it’s meeting with stiff resistance. (The Guardian)
  + England’s health service has started giving out second covid boosters to people categorized as higher-risk. (The Guardian)
  + Hong Kong is emerging from some of the world’s strictest covid restrictions. (Nikkei)
  + But low vaccination rates and levels of immunity led to a heavy death toll. (The Guardian

4 What’s a “normal” amount of time to grieve?
Psychiatry’s most powerful body thinks it’s about a year. (NYT $)
  + How to mend your broken pandemic brain. (TR

5 Americans are hoarding nickels 💰
The ones who’ve noticed its price spiking recently, at least. (The Atlantic $)
  + The war in Ukraine looks likely to also cause a shortage of neon. (Recode)
  + It could be a major setback for electric car sales too. (NYT $) 

6 NASA’s giant new moon rocket has arrived at its launch pad 🚀
Marking a crucial milestone in NASA’s space exploration plans, though it may be months before it flies. (Ars Technica)
  + Russia sent three cosmonauts to the International Space Station amid turmoil over Ukraine. (WP $) 

7 Sounds like SXSW was… kinda depressing
There’s always hype in tech, but the gap between promises and likely outcomes looks like a giant chasm recently. (Vice)

8 Have iPhone cameras become too smart?
Some users are complaining that the latest iteration over-corrects their photos. (New Yorker $)

9 Why do video games keep getting longer? 🎮⌛
It’s a golden age for games—you just need to have the time to actually play them. (WP $)

10 What AI thinks an Emily Dickinson poem looks like
Truly otherworldly stuff. (Debugger $)

Quote of the day

“There can be no talk of any surrenders, laying down of arms. We have already informed the Russian side about this. Instead of wasting time on 8 pages of letters, just open a [humanitarian] corridor.” 

~Ukraine’s deputy prime minister Iryna Vereshchuk issues a defiant message as the Russian military deadline for the surrender of Mariupol passed today, news outlet Ukrainska Pravda reports.

We can still have nice things

A place for comfort, fun and distraction in these weird times. (Got any ideas? Drop me a line or tweet 'em at me.)

  + Not NOW, Japanese demon
  + These physics toys look endlessly entertaining. 
  + Sean Connery’s Highlander voiceover dubbed over the opening of Teletubbies cannot be unheard—or unseen. 
  + Why you should embrace being boring
  + New Ben Affleck film Deep Water asks the eternal question: can a drone engineer be sexy

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