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Hackers break into voting machines within 2 hours at Defcon

After nearly an hour and a half, Carsten Schürmann, an associate professor with IT-University of Copenhagen, successfully cracked into a voting machine at Las Vegas’ Defcon convention on Friday night, CNET reports.

Schürmann penetrated Advanced Voting Solutions’ 2000 WinVote machine through its Wi-Fi system. Using a Windows XP exploit from 2003, he was able to remotely access the machine, CNET reports.

The convention purchased more than 30 voting machines for the event, although, organizers didn’t specify how many models those units represented.

“The exposure of those devices to the people who do bug bounties or actually look at these kind of devices has been fairly limited”, Brian Knopf, director of security researcher for Neustar, told CNET. “And so Defcon is a great opportunity for those of us who hack hardware and firmware to look to these kind of devices and really answer that question, ‘Are they hackable?’”

A hacker tries to access and alter data from an electronic poll book in a Voting Machine Hacking Village during the Defcon hacker convention in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S. on July 29, 2017.  REUTERS
 A hacker tries to access and alter data from an electronic poll book in a Voting Machine Hacking Village during the Defcon hacker convention in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S. on July 29, 2017.  REUTERS

Synack, a San Francisco security platform, discovered serious flaws with the WinVote machine months ahead of this weekend’s convention. The team simply plugged in a mouse and keyboard and bypassed the voting software by clicking “ctrl-alt-del”.

“It’s really just a matter of plugging your USB drive in for five seconds and the thing’s completely compromised at that point”, Synack co-founder Jay Kaplan told CNET. “To the point where you can get remote access. It’s very simple.”

A hacker, who only identified himself as “Oyster,” tried to crack a Diebold voting machine after another team had compromised it.

Anne-Marie Hwang, a Synack intern, told CNET that changing votes can be as simple as updating a Microsoft Excel document…

Source: Hackers break into voting machines within 2 hours at Defcon (CBS News)

Why FB and Netflix Support “Net Neutrality”

“[Companies like Netflix] support net neutrality because they stand to benefit from the anti-competitive nature of the rules. We have been predisposed to think of net neutrality as a pro-competitive measure because we have only considered its effects on ISPs, but those rules also create an anti-competitive moat around market-dominate [content providers].”

In the debate over net neutrality, we need to pay closer attention to the anti-competitive interests of Internet Content Providers.

Now that the FCC has formally repealed its net neutrality guidelines, many net neutrality advocates are worried about how Internet Service Providers (ISPs) will respond. ISPs are middlemen who build and maintain the fiber optic cables and satellites that allow consumers to connect with Internet Content Producers (ICPs) like Facebook and Amazon. Net neutrality proponents worry that ISPs will create “fast” and “slow” lanes on the information superhighway, which would mean prioritizing some content over other content rather than handling it all in an equal fashion.

For instance, Netflix (an ICP) might pay Comcast (an ISP) to guarantee that Comcast customers can stream its movies at full HD resolution. Meanwhile, those who subscribe to Amazon Prime Video would have their internet connection throttled so that they could only stream in SD in order to avoid buffering issues. This would, of course, give Netflix a competitive advantage over Amazon but at the expense of users who would once have been able to watch either service at the same resolution. Without net neutrality, advocates worry that the internet will become a series of proprietary walled gardens rather than a digital commons where all users are treated fairly.

Yes, ISP Monopolies Are a Problem, but…

There are many reasons for skepticism about these fears. As others have noted, it is based on the popular misconception of the internet as a gigantic network of “dumb” pipes treating all data packets in an equivalent fashion, but net neutrality in a technical sense has not existed in decades. Services like video calls already receive privileged treatment over email and other less time-sensitive information. Furthermore, differential treatment of data is a vital precondition for innovation in online medical technology. Nobody wants the robo-surgeon—controlled by a doctor a thousand miles away—that is performing surgery on their body to suddenly be disrupted by a local user’s decision to torrent the latest season of Game of Thrones.

Even after “Ma Bell” was broken up, her child companies had what amounted to regional monopolies on telephone lines and, eventually, on access to the internet.

But net neutrality activists do have at least one legitimate concern. The post-net neutrality worst case scenario is made at least theoretically plausible because of the lack of competition between the handful of ISPs that dominate the market. As a legacy of the nearly century-long, State-protected Bell System telephone monopoly, even after “Ma Bell” was broken up in the 1980s her child companies had what amounted to regional monopolies on telephone lines and, thus, eventually, on access to the internet. Even today, the median American consumer has only a single ISP option for high-speed internet, if that.

The lack of competition among ISPs is a major problem and it is not hard to see how it could contribute to ISPs mistreating customers. After all, it is competition that forces companies in any industry to treat their customers fairly or else risk their customers choosing another provider. A lack of competition removes that natural, market-based disciplinary system. Given the lack of competition in many markets, the skepticism of pro-net neutrality activists towards the anti-competitive motives of the ISPs is not unwarranted.

However, the same skepticism should be directed towards the major corporate sponsors of the pro-net neutrality push. As much as ISPs stand to gain from the end of net neutrality, Internet Content Providers (ICPs) stand to benefit from the rules remaining in place. This facet of the net neutrality debate remains under-examined.

Content Providers Have Everything to Gain

All of the major ICPs have backed net neutrality, including Facebook, Amazon, and Google. Each company has poured millions of dollars into the Internet Association, which lobbies Congress on their behalf. The organization backed a “Day of Action” in July 2017 in which members posted banner ads encouraging their users to protest the FCC’s rollback of net neutrality rules. Since then, the Internet Association has sponsored studies, successfully lobbied for the Senate to vote to preserve the rules, and sued to delay the rule change.

Wu’s suspicions ran directly counter to what these companies were actually doing at that very moment, which was opposing the repeal of net neutrality.

This has caused cognitive dissonance for some progressives in the tech sector who have traditionally framed the debate over net neutrality as a David-versus-Goliath struggle between activists and corporations. It is assumed that corporations have an inherent anti-competitive interest and so they will support regulatory policies that will allow them to extract “rent” from consumers. Since getting rid of net neutrality will allow these companies to extract larger rents, it is assumed that opposition to net neutrality would be the default corporate position.

Yet the most influential internet content providers—Alphabet (Google), Apple, and Amazon—all support net neutrality and each has a market cap several times larger than any of the major internet service providers. Clearly, there is no default corporate position on net neutrality. Instead, companies are generally divided on the issue along an ISP vs. ICP faultline.

Columbia Law School professor Tim Wu, who coined the term “net neutrality” in 2003, attempted to resolve this cognitive dissonance in an interview with Slate’s If Then podcast after the FCC’s decision to repeal net neutrality. One of the interviewers asked Wu whether he agreed that the end of net neutrality rules would “further entrench the power of these incumbents,” speaking of Facebook, Google, and Netflix. Wu noted that these companies once supported net neutrality but that now “everyone also knows that it’s to some degree to their advantage to climb up the ladder and pull it up after them.”

Of course, Wu’s suspicions ran directly counter to what these companies were actually doing at that very moment, which was opposing the repeal of net neutrality. How did Wu explain the dissonance between the actual actions of these companies and what “everyone knows” they really wanted to be doing? He said it was because their employees and consumers were pressuring them to support net neutrality even though they really wished they could stand against it. Wu concluded, “[Support for net neutrality] is against their philosophy, but not their business interests.” The interviewers quickly agreed. After all, it was something “everyone knows.”

Netflix Supports Net Neutrality Except When It Doesn’t

While nobody can definitively rule out the possibility that the likes of Google, Amazon, and Netflix formed a multi-million dollar lobbying outfit to push for the maintenance of net neutrality out of the fear of the ire of their users (and despite the prospect of reaping windfall profits from the repeal of the same), there is a much simpler explanation. Incumbent ICPs support net neutrality because they stand to benefit from the anti-competitive nature of the rules. We have been predisposed to think of net neutrality as a pro-competitive measure because we have only considered its effects on ISPs, but those rules also create an anti-competitive moat around market-dominate ICPs.

Consumers get better and cheaper access to content. The ISP gets paid. The market becomes more competitive.

Put yourself in Netflix’s position. As long as every entertainment streaming company is treated equally by the ISPs, Netflix can compete on its own terms: the impressive depth of its catalog and its ability to leverage its large user base in negotiating new content acquisition deals. But startup streaming companies compete on those terms at a severe disadvantage because by their nature they have neither many users nor much of a catalog.

Yet they might be able to compete with an incumbent like Netflix on access. Imagine a streaming startup paying a mobile ISP to give their service a “zero-rating” for their users, which means that the ISP would not count any mobile data used while streaming against the user’s data cap. In this scenario everyone, except for Netflix, wins. Consumers get better and cheaper access to content. The ISP gets paid. The market becomes more competitive.

While it may be true that “everyone knows” corporations have an anti-competitive interest, Netflix’s current anti-competitive interest is actually the use of net neutrality rules to prevent competition from insurgent ICPs. We do not have to rely on assumptions or hypotheticals to show this to be true.

Netflix was an incumbent in America but an insurgent in Australia, and it adjusted its position on net neutrality accordingly.

For example, while Netflix has long opposed zero-rating in America, where it is the market-dominant incumbent, it actually paid to have its service zero-rated when it launched in Australia in 2015. In the land “Down Under,” Netflix was an upstart, trying to compete with streaming services that had deeper catalogs of film and television made in Australia. If Netflix could not compete on catalog depth or user base, what could it compete on? Access.

Netflix paid an indeterminate sum to have the largest Australian ISP give its customers zero-rated access to Netflix. It may be fair to accuse Netflix of trans-Pacific hypocrisy, but it was responding rationally to its relative market position in both countries. Simply put, Netflix was an incumbent in America but an insurgent in Australia, and it adjusted its position on net neutrality accordingly.

Netflix is by no means the only ICP to have paid for zero-rating. Several times over the past decade, mobile ISPs have struck deals with ICPs to provide zero-rated streaming access. In 2012, Comcast zero-rated its own Xfinity video streaming service. More recently, there has been a flurry of similar deals as AT&T zero-rated HBO Now, T-Mobile did so for Netflix, and Verizon expanded access to its go90 service.

But What About the “Slow Lanes”?

It is no accident that this flurry of zero-rating happened in the immediate aftermath of the FCC’s announced repeal of net neutrality. One might wonder why net neutrality advocates would be so alarmed by the prospect of consumers receiving new, cheaper, and better service given that the ostensible goal of net neutrality is maximizing consumer internet access. But advocates reason that allowing ISPs to privilege one content provider over another would lead to “throttling,” in which the companies would create “slow lanes” for content from providers who did not pay for access to “fast lanes.”

The takeaway from Comcast’s throttling program should not be that ISPs wanted to end net neutrality for nefarious ends. Rather, it was much the opposite.

The most commonly cited example of throttling is Comcast’s campaign against BitTorrent users in 2007. This was during the height of the internet piracy boom when a relatively small number of users downloaded millions of illegally-shared music and video files. At the time, peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing consumed between 49 and 95 percent of internet bandwidth (depending on the time of day), with most of that usage coming from fewer than 1 percent of internet users. A handful of P2P downloaders of movies, music, and porn were clogging up the internet for everybody else and disincentivizing investment in additional bandwidth.

Comcast wanted to make sure that the maximum amount of bandwidth was dedicated to serving the maximum number of users, but the FCC fined Comcast for doing so, stopping the throttling program as a violation of net neutrality principles. The takeaway from Comcast’s throttling program should not be that ISPs wanted to end net neutrality for nefarious, anti-competitive, and regressive ends. Rather, it was much the opposite. In 2007, net neutrality rules prevented Comcast from making changes that would have benefited 99 percent of users, incentivized investment in high-speed infrastructure, and created more competition between ISPs.

Fast forward to today when theoretical concerns about zero-rating have led net neutrality advocates to oppose giving actual users more and better access to content. What has happened since the FCC announced the repeal of net neutrality has not been Comcast-style throttling but the opposite, a kind of “widening” of the internet. Just as adding toll lanes to an actual highway can improve traffic speeds for all drivers while encouraging further investment in highway infrastructure, so too will adding high speed or zero-rated lanes to the internet superhighway.

To return to concerns about competition and net neutrality, advocates on both sides of the issue should devote at least as much attention to the anti-competitive motivations of the ICPs backing net neutrality as they do to the anti-competitive motivations of the ISPs which are opposed. In the end, consumers will benefit from an internet economy that maximizes robust competition between both content producers and service providers.

Source: The Real Reason Facebook and Netflix Support Net Neutrality – Foundation for Economic Education

Spy agency NSA triples collection of U.S. phone records


FILE PHOTO: The National Security Agency (NSA) headquarters is seen in Fort Meade, Maryland, U.S. February 14, 2018. REUTERS/Sait Serkan Gurbuz

The U.S. National Security Agency collected 534 million records of phone calls and text messages of Americans last year, more than triple gathered in 2016, a U.S. intelligence agency report released on Friday said.

The sharp increase from 151 million occurred during the second full year of a new surveillance system established at the spy agency after U.S. lawmakers passed a law in 2015 that sought to limit its ability to collect such records in bulk.

The spike in collection of call records coincided with an increase reported on Friday across other surveillance methods, raising questions from some privacy advocates who are concerned about potential government overreach and intrusion into the lives of U.S. citizens.

The 2017 call records tally remained far less than an estimated billions of records collected per day under the NSA’s old bulk surveillance system, which was exposed by former U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden in 2013.

The records collected by the NSA include the numbers and time of a call or text message, but not their content.

Overall increases in surveillance hauls were both mystifying and alarming coming years after Snowden’s leaks, privacy advocates said.

“The intelligence community’s transparency has yet to extend to explaining dramatic increases in their collection,” said Robyn Greene, policy counsel at the Washington-based Open Technology Institute that focuses on digital issues …

 

Friday’s report also showed a rise in the number of foreigners living outside the United States who were targeted under a warrantless internet surveillance program, known as Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, that Congress renewed earlier this year.

That figure increased to 129,080 in 2017 from 106,469 in 2016, the report said, and is up from 89,138 targets in 2013, or a cumulative rise over five years of about 45 percent.

U.S. intelligence agencies consider Section 702 a vital tool to protect national security, but privacy advocates say the program incidentally collects an unknown number of communications belonging to Americans.

Source: Spy agency NSA triples collection of U.S. phone records: official report | Reuters

Confirmed: Facebook’s Recent Algorithm Update Burying Right-Wing Sources, Boosting Left

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg Press conference at the summit G8/G20 about new technologies - Deauville, France on May 26 2011 (Shutterstock)
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg Press conference at the summit G8/G20 about new technologies – Deauville, France on May 26 2011 (Shutterstock)

By George Upper

Facebook’s much-publicized demotion of publishers’ content in users’ news feeds has negatively impacted conservative-leaning publishers significantly more than liberal-leaning outlets, an analysis by The Western Journal has revealed.

Liberal publishers have gained about 2 percent more web traffic from Facebook than they were getting prior to the algorithm changes implemented in early February.

On the other hand, conservative publishers have lost an average of nearly 14 percent of their traffic from Facebook.

This algorithm change, intentional or not, has in effect censored conservative viewpoints on the largest social media platform in the world. This change has ramifications that, in the short-term, are causing conservative publishers to downsize or fold up completely, and in the long-term could swing elections in the United States and around the world toward liberal politicians and policies.

Facebook Algorithm Impact On Conservatives

Example: New York Post vs. New York Daily News

Case in point: Two rival publishers in New York City, the New York Post and the New York Daily News, are similar in many ways, except for their editorial slants. The Post is well-known as a right-leaning outlet, whereas the Daily News has an established left-leaning slant. For example, the Daily News recently ran a headline after the Parkland shooting that read, “Brave Florida survivors plan day of action for gun sanity and to call out ‘blood on hands’ of NRA puppets.”

Headlines like that garnered the Daily News a 24.18 percent increase in traffic from Facebook, while the right-leaning Post’s traffic dropped 11.44 percent in the same time period.

NY Post vs NY Daily News Facebook

 

These results are similar to the “surprisingly profound and partisan” findings of analysis conducted by The Outline. However, whereas The Outline analyzed user engagement on Facebook itself, The Western Journal looked at actual traffic driven to news websites by Facebook, which directly impacts revenue for these sites.

Why did Facebook make this change?

Campbell Brown, a former anchor on NBC and CNN who now leads Facebook’s news partnerships team, told attendees at a recent technology and publishing conference that Facebook would be censoring news publishers based on its own internal biases:

“This is not us stepping back from news. This is us changing our relationship with publishers and emphasizing something that Facebook has never done before: It’s having a point of view, and it’s leaning into quality news. … We are, for the first time in the history of Facebook, taking a step to try to to define what ‘quality news’ looks like and give that a boost.” (Emphasis added.)

Based on The Western Journal’s analysis — and an overwhelming amount of insider reports from new media publishers — it is clear that Facebook’s definition of “quality news” is news with a liberal slant.

RELATED: Huckabee Jokes He’s ‘Rushed To Cardiac Unit’ After Seeing Surprising CNN Report

Where does this data come from?

To conduct this evaluation, The Western Journal selected 50 publishers known to receive a significant amount of online traffic from Facebook. These publishers include traditional print or television outlets such as The Washington Post, CNN and Fox News, as well as new media outlets like Salon, Vox and The Daily Caller. (The full list of publishers appears in the chart below.)

The Western Journal then assigned each publisher a number between 0 and 100 based on Media Bias / Fact Check News, a third party website that analyzes publishers for political bias and places them on a continuum between “extreme left” and “extreme right.”

Next, The Western Journal checked the monthly Facebook traffic for each of these sources using data from global digital market intelligence company SimilarWeb and compared January traffic to traffic from Feb. 4 through Mar. 3, adjusted for the slightly shorter time period. According to available internal data, Facebook began rolling out this major algorithm change on Feb. 6.

The results: Conservative publishers negatively impacted

The 25 on the liberal side of the scale averaged a 1.86 percent boost in traffic from Facebook, whereas the 25 news organizations on the conservative side averaged a 13.71 percent decrease in traffic.

Based on this analysis, it is clear that liberal news sites are being promoted in Facebook users’ news feeds more often than conservative sites.

Facebook Algorithm Impact On Conservatives

After removing the 15 publishers with the least traffic from Facebook, the trend becomes even more clear.

Of the remaining 35 news sources, the 12 most liberal sites averaged a boost of 0.21 percent — in other words, they don’t appear to have been affected in any meaningful way.

The 11 sites in the middle — which ranged from “left-center” to “least biased” on the MBFC News scale — saw a significant increase in Facebook traffic of 12.81 percent.

The 12 most conservatives sites lost an average of 27.06 percent of their traffic from Facebook.

Of the 12 most liberal sites, six saw double-digit decreases in traffic, while four saw double-digit increases and two — The Washington Post and HuffPo — saw single-digit increases. CNN’s traffic increased 43.78 percent.

Of the 11 sites in the middle of the scale, nine saw traffic increase. Only two — CBS News and The Atlantic — saw a traffic decrease.

Among those 11, only two — USA Today and The Economist — can truly be considered centrist according to the MSFC News scale. Their traffic increased by 23.16 percent and 1.12 percent, respectively.

Of the 12 most conservative sites, only two benefited from increased Facebook traffic — the Daily Mail with 3.51 percent and Fox News with 31.67 percent.

The other 10 saw decreases ranging from 3.13 percent at Breitbart to a whopping 76.49 percent at Independent Journal Review.  On Feb. 15, IJR announced significant layoffs to an “already skeletal staff,” The Daily Caller reported. Rare, a conservative leaning news media publication owned by Cox Media Group, experienced a 68.7 percent drop in traffic after the algorithm change. Rare will shut down entirely at the end of the month, Axios reported.

The average impact per news site with the most desktop sessions from Facebook also varied significantly depending on the political leaning of the site.

Facebook Algorithm Crushing Conservative News

Fox News was the only conservative site that saw significant growth in this calculation. If Fox were removed from the group of 12 conservative sites shown above, the average drop would grow to 32.4 percent among the remaining 11.

Facebook’s Response

It is, of course, possible that the benefit to liberals sites and the harm to conservatives is unintentional, a side effect of Facebook’s well-known “move fast, break things” attitude. Given Facebook’s history of manually suppressing conservative news, and given recent Facebook comments acknowledging that Facebook will have a point of view, it would not be surprising if this move was an intentional break with the formerly stated goal to be a neutral platform.

“How this manifests in the coming months is not totally clear to us right now,” Campbell admitted at the Recode event. “These are conversations we’ve just started having with a lot of publishers. But in terms of us taking a big step in that direction, I think, yes, I think this is, I think this is us having a very clear point of view.”

Facebook has not responded to a request for comment submitted by The Western Journal last week.

For the full data set, visit this public Google Sheet.

(Correction: An earlier version of this article erroneously referred to The Outline as The Outlet. I have corrected the error, which was completely my fault, and apologize for the oversight. – G.)

Source: Western Journal

Police can get your DNA from 23andMe, Ancestry.com and others

Genetic testing companies could give up you DNA for criminal investigations

The DNA you send in the mail through genetics kits and ancestry programs like 23andMe and Ancestry.com can be used by police in a criminal investigation, but it doesn’t happen very often.

More than 1.2 million customers have sent their saliva to 23andMe to learn about their own genetics, though not everyone is aware that police can potentially have access to their DNA.

“We try to make information available on the website in various forms, so through Frequently Asked Questions, through information in our privacy center,” 23andMe privacy officer Kate Black told Action News Jax.

Police have only requested information from 23andMe for five Americans and according to 23andMe reports, the company didn’t turn over any information.

“In each of these cases, 23andMe successfully resisted the request and protected our customers’ data from release to law enforcement,” Black and colleague Zerina Curevac wrote in a blog post last year.

But Black said she wouldn’t rule out the possibility in the future and seeks to review requests on “a case-by-case basis.”

In the 23andMe blog post, Black and Curevac address multiple privacy concerns and questions involving law enforcement and their DNA.

They write that typically police will collect the DNA of an unknown suspect at a crime scene and compare it to the federal government’s genetic information database, the Combined DNA Index System or “CODIS.”

Using CODIS, police can run a search to see if the DNA matches that of a convicted offender or arrestee profile in the database. They can also run a “familial search” to identify close biological relatives.

If no matches are found, police may turn to privately owned databases.

But 23andMe and other ancestry tools aren’t likely to be useful to law enforcement or to the government, Black and Curevac wrote.

Their genetic tests can’t be used to match CODIS information or information in other governmental databases because the genotyping technology is very different.

And, even if police are presented a situation in which their testing would be useful, they would still face tough legal and technical limitations.

These limitations are usually enough to persuade police to back off their requests, according to the blog.

23andMe posts law enforcement requests on its public Transparency Report.

While police have been unable to obtain DNA information from 23andMe, in 2014, Ancestry self-reported that it released a customer’s DNA sample to police in compliance with a search warrant.

According to Ancestry’s website, the company “requires valid legal process in order to produce information about our users. We comply with legitimate requests in accordance with applicable law.”

The investigation involved the 1996 murder and rape of 18-year-old Angie Dodge in Idaho Falls, Idaho, Mashable reported. Police believed there was another suspect involved in addition to Christopher Tapp, who was sentenced to life in prison in 1998.

The 2014 Ancestry results found a close (but not exact) match, which police believed to be Tapp’s relative.

After showing up at donor Michael Usry Jr.’s doorstep in New Orleans, Louisiana, for a six-hour interrogation and blood drawing, police determined it wasn’t a match, Mashable reported.

Ancestry’s Transparency Report states that the company received nine valid law enforcement requests in 2016 and provided information on eight of the requests  to government agencies. All were related to credit card misuse and identity theft.

CLICK HERE to learn how to delete you results from 23andMe and CLICK HERE to learn how to do the same for Ancestry.


RELATED: Deleting Your Online DNA Data Is Brutally Difficult (Bloomburg) – June 15, 2018

RELATED: A look at DNA-sharing services and privacy (Associated Press) – Apr. 28, 2018

RELATED: Took an ancestry DNA test? You might be a ‘genetic informant’ unleashing secrets about your relatives (USA Today) – Apr 27, 2018

RELATED: 7 things you need to know before you send your spit to 23andMe (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution) – Apr 12, 2017

RELATED: Bill would allow companies to collect employee genetics information (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution) – Mar 11, 2017


Source: Police can get your DNA from 23andMe, Ancestry.com and other tools (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Are you being watched? Government spy tool found hiding as WhatsApp and Skype

Malware used by intelligence agencies spotted in 7 countries, experts said

Glenn Carstens-Peters/Unsplash
Glenn Carstens-Peters/Unsplash

Legitimate downloads of popular software including WhatsApp, Skype and VLC Player are allegedly being hacked at an internet service provider (ISP) level to spread an advanced form of surveillance software known as “FinFisher”, cybersecurity researchers warn.

FinFisher is sold to global governments and intelligence agencies and can be used to snoop on webcam feeds, keystrokes, microphones and web browsing. Documents, previously published by WikiLeaks, indicate that one tool called “FinFly ISP” may be linked to the case.

The digital surveillance tools are peddled by an international firm called Gamma Group and have in the past been sold to repressive regimes including Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

In March this year, the company attended a security conference sponsored by the UK Home Office.

This week (21 September), experts from cybersecurity firm Eset claimed that new FinFisher variants had been discovered in seven countries, two of which were being targeted by “man in the middle” (MitM) attacks at an ISPlevel – packaging real downloads with spyware.

Companies hit included WhatsApp, Skype, Avast, VLCPlayer and WinRAR, it said, adding that “virtually any application could be misused in this way.”

When a target of surveillance was downloading the software, they would be silently redirected to a version infected with FinFisher, research found.

When downloaded, the software would install as normal – but Eset found it would also be covertly bundled with the surveillance tool.

The stealthy infection process was described as being “invisible to the naked eye.”

The seven countries were not named for security reasons, Eset said. WhatsApp and VLC Player did not respond to request for comment by the time of publication.

A Microsoft spokesperson, referencing the Skype infections, told IBTimes UK: “Windows Defender antivirus cloud protection already automatically identifies and blocks the malware.

“For non-cloud customers, we’ve deployed signatures to protect against this in our free antivirus software”, the statement added.

An Avast spokesperson said: “Attackers will always focus on the most prominent targets.

“Wrapping official installers of legitimate apps with malware is not a new concept and we aren’t surprised to see the PC apps mentioned in this report.”

“What’s new is that this seems to be happening at a higher level.”

“We don’t know if the ISPs are in cooperation with the malware distributors or whether the ISPs’ infrastructure has been hijacked.”

The latest version of FinFisher was spotted with new customized code which kept it from being discovered, what Eset described as “tactical improvements”. Some tricks, it added, were aimed at compromising end-to-end (E2E) encryption software and known privacy tools.

One such application was Threema, a secure messaging service.

“The geographical dispersion of Eset’s detections of FinFisher variants suggests the MitM attack is happening at a higher level—an ISP arises as the most probable option”, the team said.

“One of the main implications of the discovery is that they decided to use the most effective infection method and that it actually isn’t hard to implement from a technical perspective”, FilipKafka, a malware researcher at Eset, told IBTimes UK.

“Since we see have seen more infections than in the past surveillance campaigns, it seems that FinFisher is now more widely utilized in the monitoring of citizens in the affected countries.”

Breaking encryption has become a major talking point of governments around the world, many of which conduct bulk communications collection. Politicians argue, often without evidence, that software from companies such as WhatsApp has become a burden on terror probes.

WhatsApp
Microsoft to shut Skypes London offices and make most of its 400 employees redundant
VLC Player for Windows 10
WhatsApp, Skype and VLC all targeted by FinFisher spyware. Image credits (L/R): iStock, Reuters, Windows Phone Store

One WikiLeaks document on FinFly ISP touted its ability to conduct surveillance at an ISP level.

The software’s brochure boasted: “FinFly ISP is able to patch files that are downloaded by the target on-the-fly or send fake software updates for popular software.”

It added that it “can be installed on an internet service provider’s network” and listed one use case when it was previously deployed by an unnamed intelligence agency.

Eset found that all affected targets within one of the countries were using the same ISP.

“Unprecedented”

“The deployment of the ISP-level MitM attack technique mentioned in the leaked documents has never been revealed – until now”, the researchers said in their analysis.

“If confirmed, these FinFisher campaigns would represent a sophisticated and stealthy surveillance project unprecedented in its combination of methods and reach.”

It remains unknown who was behind the fresh hacking campaigns, but FinFisher is almost exclusively tailored to government, police or intelligence agency use.

“We cannot say for sure who is behind the campaign but the ISP re-direction could be a service ordered from FinFisher”, Kafka said.

“This question should be addressed to FinFisher.”

“We [have] very limited information on this, who specifically was targeted, but generally the targets were catered to what FinFisher is generally used for”, he added.

Gamma Group did not immediately respond to a request for comment from IBTimes UK.

Computer code
The variant was spotted in 7 countriesMarkusSpiske/Unsplash

This is not the first time that the company, which has offices in Europe, has been linked to questionable business practices.

In 2013, tech firm Mozilla sent it a cease and desist letter after its software was caught posing as a version of its Firefox browser.

“We cannot abide a software company using our name to disguise online surveillance tools that can be – and in several cases actually have been – used by Gamma’s customers to violate citizens’ human rights and online privacy”, it complained in a blog post.

The same year, Reporters without Borders branded Gamma Group as one of the “Corporate Enemies of the Internet” in an annual report. The creepy and invasive spyware can also be spread via more traditional means – malicious email attachments, for example.

Back in 2011, it emerged that Gamma International, a UK subsidiary, was selling a malware Trojan disguised as an update for Apple’s iTunes media player.

Before being patched, the gaping vulnerability had been exploited for approximately three years, found security journalist Brian Krebs at the time.

Source: Are you being watched? FinFisher government spy tool found hiding as WhatsApp and Skype

Facebook wants to secretly watch you through your smartphone camera

Facebook wants to get up close and personal with its users after a patent was revealed detailing a desire to secretly watch users through their webcam or smartphone camera, spying on your mood in order to sell you tailored content or advertisements.

The purpose behind the invasive idea is to analyze people through the camera in real time while they browse online and if it recognizes you looking happy, bored or sad, it would deliver an advert fitting your emotion. If you were forlorn, for example, it would be able to serve an ad to perk you up, or know what products you had previously looked at online and put them under your nose at just the right time.

Facebook explains in the patent application that a user who looked away during certain content (in their fictional case it was a kitten video) algorithms for the social network would know to not show more of that type of content. In another example it describes how the technology could tell if a user’s expression changed while looking at posts or pictures from a certain person and would show more or less of these in the future.

The social network has filed several patents over the years on emotion-based technology but this, based on ‘passive imaging data’ is perhaps the most unnerving, considering it would take control of cameras that weren’t even switched on by the user.

As described by CB Insights: “This patent proposes capturing images of the user through smartphone or laptop cameras, even when the user is not actively using the camera. By visually tracking a user’s facial expression, Facebook aims to monitor the user’s emotional reactions to different types of content.”

Facebook spy camera patent
How the ’emotion-based technology’ patent works.

The New York-based intelligence firm went on to say: “On the one hand, they want to identify which content is most engaging and respond to audience’s reactions, on the other emotion-detection is technically difficult, not to mention a PR and ethical minefield.”

Other patents listed by Facebook include a text messaging platform to detect a user’s mood by measuring how hard and fast they were typing, then augment the message format, such as adding emojis or changing the font size, to match their emotion.

The patent for taking control of the camera of a user’s device was granted back in 2015 but there has been no introduction of the technology in the wild. Facebook, however, will always have to notify members in advance of any changes. Yet, this would likely be a hard sell.

A Facebook spokesperson provided IBTimesUK with the following statement: “We often seek patents for technology we never implement, and patents should not be taken as an indication of future plans.”

With the danger of online privacy edging its way to the foreground of public awareness many would no doubt be wary about giving away such intimate access. After all, even Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is alert to the dangers of being spied on after a picture he posted online showed his laptop’s webcam and microphone port taped over.

3 things about this photo of Zuck:

Camera covered with tape
Mic jack covered with tape
Email client is Thunderbird

Source: Facebook wants to secretly watch you through your smartphone camera

With a single wiretap order, U.S. authorities listened in on 3.3 million phone calls

“They spent a fortune tracking 26 people and recording three million conversations and apparently got nothing … I’d love to see the probable cause affidavit for that one and wonder what the court thought on its 10 day reviews when zip came in … I’m not surprised by the results because on average, a very very low percentage of conversations are incriminating, and a very very low percent results in conviction”. When reached, a spokesperson for the Justice Department did not comment.

Continue reading: With a single wiretap order, US authorities listened in on 3.3 million phone calls

No, NSA HASN’T Stopped Mass Spying On American Citizens

’The #MainstreamPress says that the #NSA has “ended” its bulk phone records collection program. Does that mean we can all relax and forget about #MassSurveillance?

‘NSA has long recorded the content,  and not just the metadata, of Americans’ phone calls … The NSA is also converting our spoken words into text.

Bottom line: No, the #government hasn’t stopped mass #surveillance on the American people.’

Continue reading:

New password guidelines say everything we thought about passwords is wrong

‘Forget enforced password complexity. Forget forced periodic #password changes—These don’t work! Do have passwords checked against a list of commonly “hacked” #passwords that regularly show up in stolen account data troves…’

Continue reading:

Here is a quick look at the three main changes the NIST has proposed:

No more periodic password changes. This is a huge change of policy as it removes a significant burden from both users and IT departments. It’s been clear for a long time that periodic changes do not improve password security but only make it worse, and now NIST research has finally provided the proof.

No more imposed password complexity (like requiring a combination of letters, numbers, and special characters). This means users now can be less “creative” and avoid passwords like “Password1$”, which only provide a false sense of security.

Mandatory validation of newly created passwords against a list of commonly-used, expected, or compromised passwords. Users will be prevented from setting passwords like “password”, “12345678”, etc. which hackers can easily guess.

So why haven’t we seen any coverage of the changes considering how much of a departure they are from previous advice — and considering every average user is going to be affected?

How to secure your browser in 10 minutes for free (and why you urgently need to)

‘Soon every mistake you’ve ever made online will not only be available to your internet service provider (ISP) — it will be available to any corporation or foreign government who wants to see those mistakes.

Thanks to last week’s US Senate decision (update March 28: and today’s House decision), ISPs can sell your entire web browsing history to literally anyone without your permission. The only rules that prevented this are all being repealed, and won’t be reinstated any time soon (it would take an act of congress).

You might be wondering: who benefits from repealing these rules? Other than those four monopoly ISPs that control America’s “last mile” of internet cables and cell towers? … these politicians — who have received millions of dollars in campaign contributions from the ISPs for decades — have sold us out.

VPN company Private Internet Access paid $600,000 to run this full-page ad in Sunday’s New York Times — even though they would make a ton of money if these rules were repealed. That’s how this CRA is — even the VPN companies are campaigning against it.

…ISPs can now continue doing these things as much as they want…

  1. Sell your browsing history to basically any corporation or government that wants to buy it
  2. Hijack your searches and share them with third parties
  3. Monitor all your traffic by injecting their own malware-filled ads into the websites you visit
  4. Stuff undetectable, undeletable tracking cookies into all of your unencrypted traffic
  5. Pre-install software on phones that will monitor all traffic — even HTTPS traffic — before it gets encrypted. AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile have already done this with some Android phones …

How VPNs can protect you

VPN stands for Virtual Private Network.

  • Virtual because you’re not creating a new physical connection with your destination — your data is just traveling through existing wires between you and your destination.
  • Private because it encrypts your activity before sending it, then decrypts it at the destination.

People have traditionally used VPNs as a way to get around websites that are blocked in their country (for example, Medium is blocked in Malaysia) or to watch movies that aren’t available in certain countries. But VPNs are extremely useful for privacy, too.

There are several types of VPN options, with varying degrees of convenience and security.

Experts estimate that as many as 90% of VPNs are “hopelessly insecure” and this changes from time to time. So even if you use the tools I recommend here, I recommend you take the time to do your homework.

Most VPNs are services that cost money, but the following options are convenient and free to use, with some limited functionality:


Desktop VPN apps

Probably the most secure, trustworthy free VPN you can install (as of when this article was last updated) is ProtonVPN. It’s made by the folks who also make the most secure free email, ProtonMail (which we also highly recommend)

To learn more about why we recommend this stellar VPN, check out BestVPN’s Comprehensive ProtonVPN Review


Mobile Device VPN apps (smartphone, tablet, etc.)

Windscribe – This is our choice for best freemium VPN, since they earn high marks for privacy and give you 10GB free/month. Check out BestVPN’s Review

Opera VPN – While there are definitely better VPNs available, OperaVPN is one of the very few that offer free ulimited bandwitdh. See BestVPN’s Review


Browser-based VPNs

Opera is a popular web browser that comes with some excellent privacy features, like a free built-in VPN and a free ad blocker (and as you may know, ads can spy on you).

Opera’s free VPN service offers a choice of ‘virtual’ country locations to connect through.

I recommend setting the U.S. as your location for Americans, unless you’re quite familiar with the ins & outs of how VPNs work.

Also be advised that you will likely need to disable your VPN in order to use certain websites or apps.

If you just want a secure way to browse the web without ISPs being able to easily snoop on you and sell your data, Opera is a great start. Let’s install and configure it real quick. This takes less than 5 minutes.

Before you get started, note that this will only anonymize the things you do within the Opera browser. Also, I’m obligated to point out that even though Opera’s parent company is European, it was recently purchased by a consortium of Chinese tech companies, and there is a non-zero risk that it could be compromised by the Chinese government.

Having said that, here’s how to browse securely with Opera:

Step #1: Download the Opera browser

Step #2: Turn on its ad blocker by clicking on the Opera menu (upper left) and going to Preferences

Step #3: Turn on its VPN:

That’s it! You can now browse much more privately than you likely had been.

For secure messaging, you may also want to check out Edward Snowden-recommended Open Whisper Systems’ mobile and desktop app called Signal.

Click here for the original article this was excerpted from.