You may want to think twice about the new MacBook.
Apple may have ideas about its newly introduced USB-C but widely reported vulnerabilities of USB devices amplify big troubles ahead, as the following article explains.
The NSA Is Going to Love These USB-C Charging Cables
Thanks to Apple’s new MacBook and Google’s new Chromebook Pixel, USB-C has arrived. A single flavor of cable for all your charging and connectivity needs? Hell yes. But that convenience doesn’t come without a cost; our computers will be more vulnerable than ever to malware attacks, from hackers and surveillance agencies alike.
The trouble with USB-C stems from the fact that the USB standard isn’t very secure. Last year, researchers wrote a piece of malware called BadUSB which attaches to your computer using USB devices like phone chargers or thumb drives. Once connected, the malware basically takes over a computer imperceptibly. The scariest part is that the malware is written directly to the USB controller chip’s firmware, which means that it’s virtually undetectable and so far, unfixable.
Before USB-C, there was a way to keep yourself somewhat safe. As long as you kept tabs on your cables, and never stuck random USB sticks into your computer, you could theoretically keep it clean. But as The Verge points out, the BadUSB vulnerability still hasn’t been fixed in USB-C, and now the insecure port is the slot where you connect your power supply. Heck, it’s shaping up to be the slot where you connect everything. You have no choice but to use it every day. Think about how often you’ve borrowed a stranger’s power cable to get charged up. Asking for a charge from a stranger is like having unprotected sex with someone you picked up at the club.
What the Verge fails to mention however, is that it’s potentially much worse than that. If everyone is using the same power charger, it’s not just renegade hackers posing as creative professionals in coffee shops that you need to worry about. With USB-C, the surveillance establishment suddenly has a huge incentive to figure out how to sneak a compromised cable into your power hole.
It might seem alarmist and paranoid to suggest that the NSA would try to sneak a backdoor into charging cables through manufacturers, except that the agency has been busted trying exactly this kind of scheme. Last year, it was revealed that the NSA paid security firm RSA $10 million to leave a backdoor in their encryption unpatched. There’s no telling if or when or how the NSA might try to accomplish something similar with USB-C cables, but it stands to reason they would try.
We live in a world where we plug in with abandon, and USB-C’s flexibility is designed to make plugging in easier than ever. Imagine never needing to guess whether or not your aunt’s house will have a charger for your phone. USB-C could become so common that this isn’t even a question. Of course she has one! With that ubiquity and convenience comes a risk that the tech could become exploited—not just by criminals, but also by the government’s data siphoning machine.
Here’s an insightful chilling account of how one victim attempted to trace the hacker who invaded into his onlife life and Bitcoin wallet.
Anatomy of a Hack
In the early morning hours of October 21st, 2014, Partap Davis lost $3,000. He had gone to sleep just after 2AM in his Albuquerque, New Mexico, home after a late night playing World of Tanks. While he slept, an attacker undid every online security protection he set up. By the time he woke up, most of his online life had been compromised: two email accounts, his phone, his Twitter, his two-factor authenticator, and most importantly, his bitcoin wallets.
Davis was careful when it came to digital security. He chose strong passwords and didn’t click on bogus links. He used two-factor authentication with Gmail, so when he logged in from a new computer, he had to type in six digits that were texted to his phone, just to make sure it was him. He had made some money with the rise of bitcoin and held onto the bitcoin in three protected wallets, managed by Coinbase, Bitstamp, and BTC-E. He also used two-factor with the Coinbase and BTC-E accounts. Any time he wanted to access them, he had to verify the login with Authy, a two-factor authenticator app on his phone.
Other than the bitcoin, Davis wasn’t that different from the average web user. He makes his living coding, splitting time between building video education software and a patchwork of other jobs. On the weekends, he snowboards, exploring the slopes around Los Alamos. This is his 10th year in Albuquerque; last year, he turned 40.
After the hack, Davis spent weeks tracking down exactly how it had happened, piecing together a picture from access logs and reluctant customer service reps. Along the way, he reached out to The Verge, and we added a few more pieces to the puzzle. We still don’t know everything — in particular, we don’t know who did it — but we know enough to say how they did it, and the points of failure sketch out a map of the most glaring vulnerabilities of our digital lives.
It started with Davis’ email. When he was first setting up an email account, Davis found that Partap@gmail.com was taken, so he chose a Mail.com address instead, setting up Partap@mail.com to forward to a less memorably named Gmail address.
Some time after 2AM on October 21st, that link was broken. Someone broke into Davis’ mail.com account and stopped the forwarding. Suddenly there was a new phone number attached to the account — a burner Android device registered in Florida. There was a new backup email too, email@example.com, which is still the closest thing we have to the attacker’s name.
For simplicity’s sake, we’ll call her Eve.
How did Eve get in? We can’t say for sure, but it’s likely that she used a script to target a weakness in Mail.com’s password reset page. We know such a script existed. For months, users on the site Hackforum had been selling access to a script that reset specific account passwords on Mail.com. It was an old exploit by the time Davis was targeted, and the going rate was $5 per account. It’s unclear how the exploit worked and whether it has been closed in the months since, but it did exactly what Eve needed. Without any authentication, she was able to reset Davis’ password to a string of characters that only she knew.
Eve’s next step was to take over Partap’s phone number. She didn’t have his AT&T password, but she just pretended to have forgotten it, and ATT.com sent along a secure link to firstname.lastname@example.org to reset it. Once inside the account, she talked a customer service rep into forwarding his calls to her Long Beach number. Strictly speaking, there are supposed to be more safeguards required to set up call forwarding, and it’s supposed to take more than a working email address to push it through. But faced with an angry client, customer service reps will often give way, putting user satisfaction over the colder virtues of security.
Once forwarding was set up, all of Davis’ voice calls belonged to Eve. Davis still got texts and emails, but every call was routed straight to the attacker. Davis didn’t realize what had happened until two days later, when his boss complained that Davis wasn’t picking up the phone.
Google and Authy
Next, Eve set her sights on Davis’ Google account. Experts will tell you that two-factor authentication is the best protection against attacks. A hacker might get your password or a mugger might steal your phone, but it’s hard to manage both at once. As long as the phone is a physical object, that system works. But people replace their phones all the time, and they expect to be able to replace the services, too. Accounts have to be reset 24 hours a day, and two-factor services end up looking like just one more account to crack.
Davis hadn’t set up Google’s Authenticator app, the more secure option, but he had two-factor authentication enabled — Google texted him a confirmation code every time he logged in from a new computer. Call forwarding didn’t pass along Davis’ texts, but Eve had a back door: thanks to Google’s accessibility functions, she could ask for the confirmation code to be read out loud over the phone.
Authy should have been harder to break. It’s an app, like Authenticator, and it never left Davis’ phone. But Eve simply reset the app on her phone using a mail.com address and a new confirmation code, again sent by a voice call. A few minutes after 3AM, the Authy account moved under Eve’s control.
It was the same trick that had fooled Google: as long as she had Davis’ email and phone, two-factor couldn’t tell the difference between them. At this point, Eve had more control over Davis’s online life than he did. Aside from texting, all digital roads now led to Eve.
At 3:19AM, Eve reset Davis’s Coinbase account, using Authy and his Mail.com address. At 3:55AM, she transferred the full balance (worth roughly $3,600 at the time) to a burner account she controlled. From there, she made three withdrawals — one 30 minutes after the account was opened, then another 20 minutes later, and another five minutes after that. After that, the money disappeared into a nest of dummy accounts, designed to cover her tracks. Less than 90 minutes after his Mail.com account was first compromised, Davis’ money was gone for good.
Authy might have known something was up. The service keeps an eye out for fishy behavior, and while they’re cagey about what they monitor, it seems likely that an account reset to an out-of-state number in the middle of the night would have raised at least a few red flags. But the number wasn’t from a known fraud center like Russia or Ukraine, even if Eve might have been. It would have seemed even more suspicious when Eve logged into Coinbase from the Canadian IP. Could they have stopped her then? Modern security systems like Google’s ReCAPTCHA often work this way, adding together small indicators until there’s enough evidence to freeze an account — but Coinbase and Authy each only saw half the picture, and neither had enough to justify freezing Partap’s account.
BTC-E and Bitstamp
When Davis woke up, the first thing he noticed was that his Gmail had mysteriously logged out. The password had changed, and he couldn’t log back in. Once he was back in the account, he saw how deep the damage went. There were reset emails from each account, sketching out a map of the damage. When he finally got into his Coinbase account, he found it empty. Eve had made off with 10 bitcoin, worth more than $3,000 at the time. It took hours on the phone with customer service reps and a faxed copy of his driver’s license before he could convince them he was the real Partap Davis.
What about the two other wallets? There was $2,500 worth of bitcoin in them, with no advertised protections that the Coinbase wallet didn’t have. But when Davis checked, both accounts were still intact. BTC-e had put a 48-hour hold on the account after a password change, giving him time to prove his identity and recover the account. Bitstamp had an even simpler protection: when Eve emailed to reset Davis’s authentication token, they had asked for an image of his driver’s license. Despite all Eve’s access, it was one thing she didn’t have. Davis’ last $2,500 worth of bitcoin was safe.
It’s been two months now since the attack, and Davis has settled back into his life. The last trace of the intrusion is Davis’ Twitter account, which stayed hacked for weeks after the other accounts. @Partap is a short handle, which makes it valuable, so Eve held onto it, putting in a new picture and erasing any trace of Davis. A few days after the attack, she posted a screenshot of a hacked Xfinity account, tagging another handle. The account didn’t belong to Davis, but it belonged to someone. She had moved onto the next target, and was using @partap as a disposable accessory to her next theft, like a stolen getaway car.
Who was behind the attack? Davis has spent weeks looking for her now — whole afternoons wasted on the phone with customer service reps — but he hasn’t gotten any closer. According to account login records, Eve’s computer was piping in from a block of IP addresses in Canada, but she may have used Tor or a VPN service to cover her tracks. Her phone number belonged to an Android device in Long Beach, California, but that phone was most likely a burner. There are only a few tracks to follow, and each one peters out fast. Wherever she is, Eve got away with it.
Why did she choose Partap Davis? She knew about the wallets upfront, we can assume. Why else would she have spent so much time digging through the accounts? She started at the mail.com account too, so we can guess that somehow, Eve came across a list of bitcoin users with Davis’ email address on it. A number of leaked Coinbase customer lists are floating around the internet, although I couldn’t find Davis’ name on any of them. Or maybe his identity came from an equipment manufacturer or a bitcoin retailer. Leaks are commonplace these days, and most go unreported.
Davis is more careful with bitcoin these days, and he’s given up on the mail.com address — but otherwise, not much about his life has changed. Coinbase has given refunds before, but this time they declined, saying the company’s security wasn’t at fault. He filed a report with the FBI, but the bureau doesn’t seem interested in a single bitcoin theft. What else is there to do? He can’t stop using a phone or give up the power to reset an account. There were just so many accounts, so many ways to get in. In the security world, they call this the attack surface. The bigger the surface, the harder it is to defend.
Most importantly, resetting a password is still easy, as Eve discovered over and over again. When a service finally stopped her, it wasn’t an elaborate algorithm or a fancy biometric. Instead, one service was willing to make customers wait 48 hours before authorizing a new password. On a technical level, it’s a simple fix, but a costly one. Companies are continuously balancing the small risk of compromise against the broad benefits of convenience. A few people may lose control of their account, but millions of others are able to keep using the service without a hitch. In the fight between security and convenience, security is simply outgunned.
3/5 11:10am ET: Updated to clarify Bitstamp security protocols.
Great, now there’s a new technology to get true clear pictures out of blurred CCTV images just when we learned last week that there are gadgets to hide one’s identity from the prying eyes of facial recognition programs like the FBI’s US$1 billion futuristic facial recognition program – the Next Generation Identification (NGI) System.
Fujitsu, the Japanese multinational information technology equipment and services company, recently said it has invented a new, first of its kind image-processing technology that can detect people from low-resolution imagery and track people in security camera footage, even when the images are heavily blurred to protect privacy. See full story below.
Sad to say, this is probably the easiest, effective and most feasible solution:
Fujitsu tech can track heavily blurred people in security videos
By Tim Hornyak
IDG News Service | March 6, 2015
Fujitsu has developed image-processing technology that can be used to track people in security camera footage, even when the images are heavily blurred to protect their privacy.
Fujitsu Laboratories said its technology is the first of its kind that can detect people from low-resolution imagery in which faces are indistinguishable.
Detecting the movements of people could be useful for retail design, reducing pedestrian congestion in crowded urban areas or improving evacuation routes for emergencies, it said.
Fujitsu used computer-vision algorithms to analyze the imagery and identify the rough shapes, such as heads and torsos, that remain even if the image is heavily pixelated. The system can pick out multiple people in a frame, even if they overlap.
Using multiple camera sources, it can then determine if two given targets are the same person by focusing on the distinctive colors of a person’s clothing.
An indoor test of the system was able to track the paths of 80 percent of test subjects, according to the company. Further details of the trial were not immediately available.
“The technology could be used by a business owner when planning the layout of their next restaurant/shop,” a Fujitsu spokesman said via email. “It would also be used by the operators of a large sporting event during times of heavy foot traffic.”
People-tracking know-how has raised privacy concerns in Japan. Last year, the National Institute of Information and Communications Technology (NICT) was forced to delay and scale down a large, long-term face-recognition study it was planning to carry out at Osaka Station, one of the country’s busiest rail hubs.
The Fujitsu research is being presented to a conference of the Information Processing Society of Japan being held at Tohoku University in northern Japan. The company hopes to improve the accuracy of the system with an aim to commercializing it in the year ending March 31, 2016.
Fujitsu has also been developing retail-oriented technology such as sensors that follow a person’s gaze as he or she looks over merchandise as well as LED lights that can beam product information for smartphones.
Sending an email message is like sending a postcard. That’s the message Hillary Clinton probably now wish she heard earlier.
Andy Yen, a scientist at CERN – the European Organization for Nuclear Research – co-founded ProtonMail, an encrypted email startup based in Geneva, Switzerland. As he explained in this TEDTalk, it is easy to make encryption easy for all to use and keep all email private.
“Those kinds of restrictive practices I think would ironically hurt the Chinese economy over the long term because I don’t think there is any US or European firm, any international firm, that could credibly get away with that wholesale turning over of data, personal data, over to a government.”
That’s a quote from Obama reported in The Guardian (see article below).
Oh great, so Obama actually understood the consequences of government gaining backdoors into encryption? He should give the same advice to his NSA director Mike Rogers who somehow struggled when asked about the issue recently.
Building backdoors into encryption isn’t only bad for China, Mr President
Wednesday 4 March 2015 16.15 GMT
Want to know why forcing tech companies to build backdoors into encryption is a terrible idea? Look no further than President Obama’s stark criticism of China’s plan to do exactly that on Tuesday. If only he would tell the FBI and NSA the same thing.
In a stunningly short-sighted move, the FBI – and more recently the NSA – have been pushing for a new US law that would force tech companies like Apple and Google to hand over the encryption keys or build backdoors into their products and tools so the government would always have access to our communications. It was only a matter of time before other governments jumped on the bandwagon, and China wasted no time in demanding the same from tech companies a few weeks ago.
As President Obama himself described to Reuters, China has proposed an expansive new “anti-terrorism” bill that “would essentially force all foreign companies, including US companies, to turn over to the Chinese government mechanisms where they can snoop and keep track of all the users of those services.”
Obama continued: “Those kinds of restrictive practices I think would ironically hurt the Chinese economy over the long term because I don’t think there is any US or European firm, any international firm, that could credibly get away with that wholesale turning over of data, personal data, over to a government.”
Bravo! Of course these are the exact arguments for why it would be a disaster for US government to force tech companies to do the same. (Somehow Obama left that part out.)
As Yahoo’s top security executive Alex Stamos told NSA director Mike Rogers in a public confrontation last week, building backdoors into encryption is like “drilling a hole into a windshield.” Even if it’s technically possible to produce the flaw – and we, for some reason, trust the US government never to abuse it – other countries will inevitably demand access for themselves. Companies will no longer be in a position to say no, and even if they did, intelligence services would find the backdoor unilaterally – or just steal the keys outright.
For an example on how this works, look no further than last week’s Snowden revelation that the UK’s intelligence service and the NSA stole the encryption keys for millions of Sim cards used by many of the world’s most popular cell phone providers. It’s happened many times before too. Ss security expert Bruce Schneier has documented with numerous examples, “Back-door access built for the good guys is routinely used by the bad guys.”
Stamos repeatedly (and commendably) pushed the NSA director for an answer on what happens when China or Russia also demand backdoors from tech companies, but Rogers didn’t have an answer prepared at all. He just kept repeating “I think we can work through this”. As Stamos insinuated, maybe Rogers should ask his own staff why we actually can’t work through this, because virtually every technologist agrees backdoors just cannot be secure in practice.
(If you want to further understand the details behind the encryption vs. backdoor debate and how what the NSA director is asking for is quite literally impossible, read this excellent piece by surveillance expert Julian Sanchez.)
It’s downright bizarre that the US government has been warning of the grave cybersecurity risks the country faces while, at the very same time, arguing that we should pass a law that would weaken cybersecurity and put every single citizen at more risk of having their private information stolen by criminals, foreign governments, and our own.
Forcing backdoors will also be disastrous for the US economy as it would be for China’s. US tech companies – which already have suffered billions of dollars of losses overseas because of consumer distrust over their relationships with the NSA – would lose all credibility with users around the world if the FBI and NSA succeed with their plan.
The White House is supposedly coming out with an official policy on encryption sometime this month, according to the New York Times – but the President can save himself a lot of time and just apply his comments about China to the US government. If he knows backdoors in encryption are bad for cybersecurity, privacy, and the economy, why is there even a debate?
The pictures above is an example of what the US government had collected of one individual – she filed a Freedom of Information Act request to see what was collected and the Department of Homeland Security subsequently released the data collected under the Global Entry Program.
But apart from immigration checkpoints, and potentially other files from other government departments (local and global), we are also subjected to the millions of CCTV cameras in public areas and the facial recognition programs scanning through the captured images (and also those on the internet and social networks).
So it’s good to know there may be a potential solution – though it’s still early days and it may not apply to cameras at immigration checkpoints.
The (computer) antivirus software company AVG is working on a “privacy glasses” project. These glasses (above) are designed to obfuscate your identity and prevent any facial recognition software from figuring out who you are, either by matching you with the pictures in their database or creating a new file of you for future use.
This is bizarre (see article below) but a good sign that what Mega offers in encrypted communications is the real deal and the authorities are certainly not impressed, thus the pressures on credit card companies to force Paypal to block out Mega, as they did previously with WikiLeaks.
BUT don’t forget Kim Dotcom’s newly launched end-to-end encrypted voice calling service “MegaChat” comes in both free and paid versions – see my earlier piece on how to register for MegaChat.
Under U.S. Pressure, PayPal Nukes Mega For Encrypting Files
on February 27, 2015
After coming under intense pressure PayPal has closed the account of cloud-storage service Mega. According to the company, SOPA proponent Senator Patrick Leahy personally pressured Visa and Mastercard who in turn called on PayPal to terminate the account. Bizarrely, Mega’s encryption is being cited as a key problem.
During September 2014, the Digital Citizens Alliance and Netnames teamed up to publish a brand new report. Titled ‘Behind The Cyberlocker Door: A Report How Shadowy Cyberlockers Use Credit Card Companies to Make Millions,’ it offered insight into the finances of some of the world’s most popular cyberlocker sites.
The report had its issues, however. While many of the sites covered might at best be considered dubious, the inclusion of Mega.co.nz – the most scrutinized file-hosting startup in history – was a real head scratcher. Mega conforms with all relevant laws and responds quickly whenever content owners need something removed. By any standard the company lives up to the requirements of the DMCA.
“We consider the report grossly untrue and highly defamatory of Mega,” Mega CEO Graham Gaylard told TF at the time. But now, just five months on, Mega’s inclusion in the report has come back to bite the company in a big way.
Speaking via email with TorrentFreak this morning, Gaylard highlighted the company’s latest battle, one which has seen the company become unable to process payments from customers. It’s all connected with the NetNames report and has even seen the direct involvement of a U.S. politician.
According to Mega, following the publication of the report last September, SOPA and PIPA proponent Senator Patrick Leahy (Vermont, Chair Senate Judiciary Committee) put Visa and MasterCard under pressure to stop providing payment services to the ‘rogue’ companies listed in the NetNames report.
Following Leahy’s intervention, Visa and MasterCard then pressured PayPal to cease providing payment processing services to MEGA. As a result, Mega is no longer able to process payments.
“It is very disappointing to say the least. PayPal has been under huge pressure,” Gaylard told TF.
The company did not go without a fight, however.
“MEGA provided extensive statistics and other evidence showing that MEGA’s business is legitimate and legally compliant. After discussions that appeared to satisfy PayPal’s queries, MEGA authorised PayPal to share that material with Visa and MasterCard. Eventually PayPal made a non-negotiable decision to immediately terminate services to MEGA,” the company explains.
paypalWhat makes the situation more unusual is that PayPal reportedly apologized to Mega for its withdrawal while acknowledging that company’s business is indeed legitimate.
However, PayPal also advised that Mega’s unique selling point – it’s end-to-end-encryption – was a key concern for the processor.
“MEGA has demonstrated that it is as compliant with its legal obligations as USA cloud storage services operated by Google, Microsoft, Apple, Dropbox, Box, Spideroak etc, but PayPal has advised that MEGA’s ‘unique encryption model’ presents an insurmountable difficulty,” Mega explains.
As of now, Mega is unable to process payments but is working on finding a replacement. In the meantime the company is waiving all storage limits and will not suspend any accounts for non-payment. All accounts have had their subscriptions extended by two months, free of charge.
Mega indicates that it will ride out the storm and will not bow to pressure nor compromise the privacy of its users.
“MEGA supplies cloud storage services to more than 15 million registered customers in more than 200 countries. MEGA will not compromise its end-to-end user controlled encryption model and is proud to not be part of the USA business network that discriminates against legitimate international businesses,” the company concludes.
The tweet from Glenn Greenwald above sums up the prevailing stance between the US and China (see video clip below) on backdoors and encryption matters – please see also article below.
It’s not like the NSA has not been warned and China may just be the first of many to come.
The United States Is Angry That China Wants Crypto Backdoors, Too
February 27, 2015 // 03:44 PM EST
When the US demands technology companies install backdoors for law enforcement, it’s okay. But when China demands the same, it’s a whole different story.
The Chinese government is about to pass a new counter terrorism law that would require tech companies operating in the country to turn over encryption keys and include specially crafted code in their software and hardware so that chinese authorities can defeat security measures at will.
Technologists and cryptographers have long warned that you can’t design a secure system that will enable law enforcement—and only law enforcement—to bypass the encryption. The nature of a backdoor door is that it is also a vulnerability, and if discovered, hackers or foreign governments might be able to exploit it, too.
Yet, over the past few months, several US government officials, including the FBI director James Comey, outgoing US Attorney General Eric Holder, and NSA Director Mike Rogers, have all suggested that companies such as Apple and Google should give law enforcement agencies special access to their users’ encrypted data—while somehow offering strong encryption for their users at the same time.
“If the US forces tech companies to install backdoors in encryption, then tech companies will have no choice but to go along with China when they demand the same power.”
Their fear is that cops and feds will “go dark,” an FBI term for a potential scenario where encryption makes it impossible to intercept criminals’ communications.
But in light of China’s new proposals, some think the US’ own position is a little ironic.
“You can’t have it both ways,” Trevor Timm, the co-founder and the executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, told Motherboard. “If the US forces tech companies to install backdoors in encryption, then tech companies will have no choice but to go along with China when they demand the same power.”
He’s not the only one to think the US government might end up regretting its stance.
Someday US officials will look back and realize how much global damage they’ve enabled with their silly requests for key escrow.
— Matthew Green (@matthew_d_green) February 27, 2015
Matthew Green, a cryptography professor at Johns Hopkins University, tweeted that someday US officials will “realize how much damage they’ve enabled” with their “silly requests” for backdoors.
Matthew Green, a cryptography professor at Johns Hopkins University, tweeted that someday US officials will “realize how much damage they’ve enabled” with their “silly requests” for backdoors.
Ironically, the US government sent a letter to China expressing concern about its new law. “The Administration is aggressively working to have China walk back from these troubling regulations,” US Trade Representative Michael Froman said in a statement.
A White House spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment from Motherboard.
“It’s stunningly shortsighted for the FBI and NSA not to realize this,” Timm added. “By demanding backdoors, these US government agencies are putting everyone’s cybersecurity at risk.”
In an oft-cited examples of “if you build it, they will come,” hackers exploited a system designed to let police tap phones to spy on more than a hundred Greek cellphones, including that of the prime minister.
At the time, Steven Bellovin, a computer science professor at Columbia University, wrote that this incident shows how “built-in wiretap facilities and the like are really dangerous, and are easily abused.”
That hasn’t stopped other from asking though. Several countries, including India, Kuwait and UAE, requested BlackBerry to include a backdoor in its devices so that authorities could access encrypted communications. And a leaked document in 2013 revealed that BlackBerry’s lawful interception system in India was “ready for use.”
NSA Director Admiral Michael Rogers said at a cyber security conference in Washington DC Monday this week that the government needs to develop a “framework” so that the NSA and law enforcement agencies could read encrypted data when they need and he was immediately challenged by top security experts from the tech industry, most notably Yahoo’s chief information security officer Alex Stamos (see transcript).
Gemalto, the world’s largest SIM cards manufacturer that The Intercept reported last week to be hacked by the NSA and GCHQ, putting at risk some two billion SIM cards used in cellphones across the world, has somehow and somewhat concluded its findings after a “thorough” internal investigations in just six days, with assurance that its encryption keys are safe and admitted that the French-Dutch company believes the US and British spy agencies were behind a “particularly sophisticated intrusion” of its internal computer networks, back four-five years ago.
“Gemalto learned about this five-year-old hack by GCHQ when the The Intercept called them up for a comment last week. That doesn’t sound like they’re on top of things, and it certainly suggests they don’t have the in-house capability to detect and thwart sophisticated state-sponsored attacks,” says Christopher Soghoian, the chief technologist at the American Civil Liberties Union.
Or consider this (below – Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z0amvXr8BUk )
Gemalto Doesn’t Know What It Doesn’t Know
By Jeremy Scahill
Gemalto, the French-Dutch digital security giant, confirmed that it believes American and British spies were behind a “particularly sophisticated intrusion” of its internal computer networks, as reported by The Intercept last week.
This morning, the company tried to downplay the significance of NSA and GCHQ efforts against its mobile phone encryption keys — and, in the process, made erroneous statements about cellphone technology and sweeping claims about its own security that experts describe as highly questionable.
Gemalto, which is the largest manufacturer of SIM cards in the world, launched an internal investigation after The Intercept six days ago revealed that the NSA and its British counterpart GCHQ hacked the company and cyberstalked its employees. In the secret documents, provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, the intelligence agencies described a successful effort to obtain secret encryption keys used to protect hundreds of millions of mobile devices across the globe.
The company was eager to address the claims that its systems and encryption keys had been massively compromised. At one point in stock trading after publication of the report, Gemalto suffered a half billion dollar hit to its market capitalization. The stock only partially recovered in the following days.
After the brief investigation, Gemalto now says that the NSA and GCHQ operations in 2010-2011 would not allow the intelligence agencies to spy on 3G and 4G networks, and that theft would have been rare after 2010, when it deployed a “secure transfer system.” The company also said the spy agency hacks only affected “the outer parts of our networks — our office networks — which are in contact with the outside world.”
Security experts and cryptography specialists immediately challenged Gemalto’s claim to have done a “thorough” investigation into the state-sponsored attack in just six days, saying the company was greatly underestimating the abilities of the NSA and GCHQ to penetrate its systems without leaving detectable traces.
“Gemalto learned about this five-year-old hack by GCHQ when the The Intercept called them up for a comment last week. That doesn’t sound like they’re on top of things, and it certainly suggests they don’t have the in-house capability to detect and thwart sophisticated state-sponsored attacks,” says Christopher Soghoian, the chief technologist at the American Civil Liberties Union. He adds that Gemalto remains “a high-profile target for intelligence agencies.”
Matthew Green, a cryptography specialist at the Johns Hopkins Information Security Institute, said, “This is an investigation that seems mainly designed to produce positive statements. It is not an investigation at all.”
In its statement, Gemalto asserted:
“While the intrusions described above were serious, sophisticated attacks, nothing was detected in other parts of our network. No breaches were found in the infrastructure running our SIM activity or in other parts of the secure network which manage our other products such as banking cards, ID cards or electronic passports. Each of these networks is isolated from one another and they are not connected to external networks.
It is extremely difficult to remotely attack a large number of SIM cards on an individual basis. This fact, combined with the complex architecture of our networks explains why the intelligence services instead, chose to target the data as it was transmitted between suppliers and mobile operators as explained in the documents.”
But security and encryption experts told The Intercept that Gemalto’s statements about its investigation contained a significant error about cellphone technology. The company also made sweeping, overly-optimistic statements about the security and stability of Gemalto’s networks, and dramatically underplayed the significance of the NSA-GCHQ targeting of the company and its employees. “Their ‘investigation’ seem to have consisted of asking their security team which attacks they detected over the past few years. That isn’t much of an investigation, and it certainly won’t reveal successful nation-state attacks,” says the ACLU’s Soghoian.
Security expert Ronald Prins, co-founder of the Dutch firm Fox IT, told The Intercept, “A true forensic investigation in such a complex environment is not possible in this time frame.”
“A damage assessment is more what this looks like,” he added.
In a written presentation of its findings, Gemalto claims that “in the case of an eventual key theft, the intelligence services would only be able to spy on communications on second generation 2G mobile networks. 3G and 4G networks are not vulnerable.” Gemalto also referred to its own “custom algorithms” and other, unspecified additional security mechanisms on top of the 3G and 4G standards.
Green, the Johns Hopkins cryptography specialist, said Gemalto’s claims are flatly incorrect.
“No encryption mechanism stands up to key theft,” Green says, “which means Gemalto is either convinced that the additional keys could not also have been stolen or they’re saying that their mechanisms have some proprietary ‘secret sauce’ and that GCHQ, backed by the resources of NSA, could not have reverse engineered them. That’s a deeply worrying statement.”
“I think you could make that statement against some gang of Internet hackers,” Green adds. “But you don’t get to make it against nation state adversaries. It simply doesn’t have a place in the conversation. They are saying that NSA/GCHQ could not have breached those technologies due to ‘additional encryption’ mechanisms that they don’t specify, and yet here we have evidence that GCHQ and NSA were actively compromising encryption keys.”
In a press conference today in Paris, Gemalto’s CEO, Olivier Piou, said his company will not take legal action against the NSA and GCHQ. “It’s difficult to prove our conclusions legally, so we’re not going to take legal action,” he said. “The history of going after a state shows it is costly, lengthy and rather arbitrary.”
There has been significant commercial pressure and political attention placed on Gemalto since The Intercept’s report. Wireless network providers on multiple continents demanded answers and some, like Deutsche Telekom, took immediate action to change their encryption algorithms on Gemalto-supplied SIM cards. The Australian Privacy Commissioner has launched an investigation and several members of the European Union parliament and Dutch parliament have asked individual governments to launch investigations. German opposition lawmakers say they are initiating a probe into the hack as well.
On Wednesday, Gerard Schouw, a member of the Dutch parliament, submitted formal questions about the Gemalto hack and the findings of the company’s internal investigation to the interior minister. “Will the Minister address this matter with the Ambassadors of the United States and the United Kingdom? If not, why is the Minister not prepared to do so? If so, when will the Minister do this?” Schouw asked. “How does the Minister assess the claim by Gemalto that the attack could only lead to wiretapping 2G-network connections, and that 3G and 4G-type networks are not susceptible to this kind of hacks?”
China Mobile, which uses Gemalto SIM cards, has more wireless network customers than any company in the world. This week it announced it was investigating the breach and the Chinese government said it was “concerned” about the Gemalto hack. “We are opposed to any country attempting to use information technology products to conduct cyber surveillance,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said. “This not only harms the interests of consumers but also undermines users’ confidence.” He did not mention that China itself engages in widespread, state-sponsored hacking.
While Gemalto is clearly trying to calm its investors and customers, security experts say the company’s statements appear intended to reassure the public about the company’s security rather than to demonstrate that it is taking the breach seriously.
The documents published by The Intercept relate to hacks done in 2010 and 2011. The idea that spy agencies are no longer targeting the company — and its competitors — with more sophisticated intrusions, according to Soghoian, is ridiculous. “Gemalto is as much of an interesting target in 2015 as they were in 2010. Gemalto’s security team may want to keep looking, not just for GCHQ and NSA, but also, for the Chinese, Russians and Israelis too,” he said.
Green, the Johns Hopkins cryptographer, says this hack should be “a wake-up call that manufacturers are considered valuable targets by intelligence agencies. There’s a lot of effort in here to minimize and deny the impact of some old attacks, but who cares about old attacks? What I would like to see is some indication that they’re taking this seriously going forward, that they’re hardening their systems and closing any loopholes — because loopholes clearly existed. That would make me enormously more confident than this response.”
Green says that the Gemalto hack evidences a disturbing trend that is on the rise: the targeting of innocent employees of tech firms and the companies themselves. (The same tactic was used by GCHQ in its attack on Belgian telecommunications company Belgacom.)
“Once upon a time we might have believed that corporations like this were not considered valid targets for intelligence agencies, that GCHQ would not go after system administrators and corporations in allied nations. All of those assumptions are out the window, so now we’re in this new environment, where everyone is a valid target,” he says. “In computer security, we talk about ‘threat models,’ which is a way to determine who your adversary is, and what their capabilities are. This news means everyone has to change their threat model.”
Additional reporting by Ryan Gallagher. Josh Begley contributed to this report.
Congratulations to Laura Poitras and her team behind “CitizenFour” in winning the Oscars for Best Documentary Feature. And did you notice Snowden‘s girlfriend Lindsay Mills was on the stage (see picture above (Credit: YouTube) and video clips below)?
This news originally from The Intercept, based on leaked files from Edward Snowden, shouldn’t come as a surprise as the NSA had been on a mission to Collect It All (Chapter 3) according to Glenn Greenwald’s book “No Place to Hide” (see above).
This may be bad news but it’s not the end of the world. There’s no need to push the panic button.
You may have read that the NSA have reportedly inserted spyware on the hard drives made by top manufacturers like Western Digital, Seagate, Toshiba, Samsung, etc – ie. the hard drives in literally every computers in the world. This global surveillance exercise, discovered by Moscow-based security software Kaspersky Lab, mainly targeted “government and military institutions, telecommunication companies, banks, energy companies, nuclear researchers, media, and Islamic activist” mainly in countries like Iran, Russia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, China, Mali, Syria, Yemen and Algeria.
Now even if you’re not within that circumscribed range of victims, the fact remains that every computers can be compromised. But there are ways to circumvent the risks – you can never eliminate such risks but you can always minimize the impacts.
As I have pointed out in my public lectures, there are some simple tricks to protect your data (and your life if you’re an entrepreneur because your data is everything to your livelihood) even if you’re not an IT geek. One good practice is to never store a single file or doc, apart from the software and operating system, on your computer hard disk. And I’m not suggesting using the cloud given the well publicized risks. I meant storing your files on an external encrypted hard disk.
And together with several other simple tricks that I’ve shared publicly (for example, consider how you connect your devices online, when you should connect/disconnect the external hard drives to the computer…), there are indeed ways to protect your computers and data.
Here’s the video clip of Edward Snowden’s latest public appearance (via video conference) on 14 February 2015 at the The Davis Levin First Amendment Conference, to a sold-out audience at the Hawaii Convention Center in Honolulu.
Previous speakers at this event include Daniel Ellsberg, Kenneth Starr, US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, Ralph Reed, Nadine Strossen and Jay Sekulow.
This is probably the most telling moment of how US President Barack Obama is still on the wrong frequency on cyber matters…
Obama blamed the “impact on their [the tech companies] bottom lines” for the mistrust between the government and Silicon Valley in the aftermath of the Snowden revelations. These were his words, straight from the POTUSA mouth rather than reading from the scripts, in an exclusive interview with Re/code’s Kara Swisher (see video below) following the well publicized cybersecurity summit at Stanford University last Friday, when he signed an executive order to encourage the private sector to share cybersecurity threat information with other companies and the US government.
Contrast that with the high-profile speech by Apple CEO Tim Cook (see video below), who warned about “life and death” and “dire consequences” in sacrificing the right to privacy as technology companies had a duty to protect their customers.
His speech was delivered before Obama’s address to the summit – which the White House organized to foster better cooperation and the sharing of private information with Silicon Valley – best remembered for the absence of leaders from tech giants like Google, Yahoo and Facebook who gave Obama the snub amid growing tensions between Silicon Valley and the Obama administration. Heavyweights whom Obama counted as “my friends” in the Re/code interview (watch closely his expression at the 39th second of the clip above).
Amid continuing Sino-US spats on cyber-espionage and related matters, China is beefing up its cyber and national security in a big way as it is reportedly just months away from launching the longest quantum communications network on earth stretching some 2,000 kilometer between its capital Beijing and financial center Shanghai to transfer data close to the speed of light with no hacking risks – initially to transmit sensitive diplomatic and classified information for the government and military with personal and financial data also on the cards for the near future.
And that’s ahead of the previously announced plan for 2016 to become the first country to launch a quantum communications satellite into the orbit.
Looks like Snowden was spot on again. In a post just a month ago, I wrote what he said about how the US (would and) is paying the price for focusing too much on the cyber offensive at the expense of cyber defense.
Meanwhile, following the recent cyber-attack on Sony Pictures, President Barack Obama’s homeland security and counter-terrorism adviser Lisa Monaco announced earlier this week a new intelligence unit – the Cyber Threat Intelligence Integration Center – to take the lead in tracking cyber-threats by pooling and disseminating data on cyber-breaches to other US agencies.
“Currently, no single government entity is responsible for producing coordinated cyber threat assessments,” according to Monaco.
China nears launch of hack-proof ‘quantum communications’ link
Published: Feb 9, 2015 11:13 p.m. ET
Technology to be employed for military and other official uses
BEIJING (Caixin Online) — This may be a quantum-leap year for an initiative that accelerates data transfers close to the speed of light with no hacking threats through so-called “quantum communications” technology.
Within months, China plans to open the world’s longest quantum-communications network, a 2,000-kilometer (1,240-mile) electronic highway linking government offices in the cities of Beijing and Shanghai.
Meanwhile, the country’s aerospace scientists are preparing a communications satellite for a 2016 launch that would be a first step toward building a quantum communications network in the sky. It’s hoped this and other satellites can be used to overcome technical hurdles, such as distance restrictions, facing land-based systems.
Physicists around the world have spent years working on quantum-communications technology. But if all goes as planned, China would be the first country to put a quantum-communications satellite in orbit, said Wang Jianyu, deputy director of the China Academy of Science’s (CAS) Shanghai branch.
At a recent conference on quantum science in Shanghai, Wang said scientists from CAS and other institutions have completed major research and development tasks for launching the satellite equipped with quantum-communications gear.
The satellite program’s likelihood for success was confirmed by China’s leading quantum-communications scientist, Pan Jianwei, a CAS academic who is also a professor of quantum physics at the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC) in Hefei, in the eastern province of Anhui. Pan said researchers reported significant progress on systems development after conducting experiments at a test center in Qinghai province, in the northwest
The satellite would be used to transmit encoded data through a method called quantum key distribution (QKD), which relies on cryptographic keys transmitted via light-pulse signals. QKD is said to be nearly impossible to hack, since any attempted eavesdropping would change the quantum states and thus could be quickly detected by data-flow monitors.
A satellite-based quantum-communications system could be used to build a secure information bridge between the nation’s capital and Urumqi, a city that’s the capital of the restive Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in the west, Pan said.
It’s likely the technology initially will be used to transmit sensitive diplomatic, government-policy and military information. Future applications could include secure transmissions of personal and financial data.
Plans call for China to put additional satellites into orbit after next year’s ground-breaking launch, Pan said, without divulging how many satellites might be deployed or when. He did say that China hopes to complete a QKD system linking Asia and Europe by 2020, and have a worldwide quantum-communications network in place by 2030.
In 2009, China became the first country in the world to put quantum-communications technology to work outside of a laboratory.
In October of that year, a team of scientists led by Pan built a secure network for exchanging information among government officials during a military parade in Beijing celebrating the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic. The demonstration underscored the research project’s key military application.
“China is completely capable of making full use of quantum communications in a regional war,” Pan said. “The direction of development in the future calls for using relay satellites to realize quantum communications and control that covers the entire army.”
The country is also working to configure the new technology for civilian use.
A pilot quantum-communications network that took 18 months to build was completed in February 2012 in Hefei. The network, which cost the city’s government 60 million yuan ($9.6 million), was designed by Pan’s team to link 40 telephones and 16 video cameras installed at city government agencies, military units, financial institutions and health-care offices.
A similar, civilian-focused network built by Pan’s team in Jinan, the provincial capital of the eastern province of Shandong, started operating in March 2014. It connects some 90 users, most of whom tap the network for general business and information.
In late 2012, Pan’s team installed a quantum-communications network that was used to securely connect the Beijing venue hosting a week-long meeting of the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party, with hotel rooms where delegates stayed, as well as the Zhongnanhai compound in Beijing where the nation’s top leaders live and work.
Next on the development agenda is opening the network linking Beijing and Shanghai. Pan is leading that project as well.
If all goes as planned, Pan said, existing networks in Hefei and Jinan would eventually be tied to the Beijing-Shanghai channel to provide secure communications connecting government and financial agencies in each of the four regions. The new network could be operating as early as 2016.
No room for hype
A quantum code expert said that so far, quantum-communications technology development efforts in China have basically focused on protecting national security. “How important it will be for the public and in everyday life are questions that remain unanswered,” said the expert.
To date, Pan said, technical barriers and the high cost of systems development have kept private capital out of what’s now almost exclusively a government initiative. Moreover, it’s still too early to tell whether the technology has any potential commercial value.
Pan has warned the public not to listen to investment come-ons that hype the money-making potential of quantum-communications businesses. At this stage of the game, he said, the focus is still on technological development, not commercial applications.
Nevertheless, since 2009, USTC has been building a commercial enterprise called Anhui Quantum Communication Technology Co. to produce equipment based on technology developed by Pan and his team. The company is China’s largest quantum-communications equipment supplier. Last September, it said it had started mass-producing quantum-cryptography equipment.
Anhui Quantum general manager Zhao Yong said the company’s clients include financial institutions and government agencies seeking to supplement, not replace, conventional communications systems. Their shared goal, he said, is to improve data security.
Once the technology has matured, said Wang Xiangbin, a physicist at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, its range of applications should be targeted to specific industries and regions because of its high barrier in technology and cost. Quantum communications is not a technology suitable for mass use via the Internet, for example, Wang told a group of scientists at a 2012 seminar.
Some experts say it’s wrong to assume that quantum communications is a flawlessly secure means of transmitting information. Another Tsinghua physics professor, Long Guilu, said quantum communication is only theoretically safe, since malfunctioning equipment or operational errors can open doors to risk.
Experimental systems built in 2007 by Chinese and U.S. physicists reportedly achieved secure QKD transmissions between two points more than 100 kilometers apart. But the experiment also taught scientists that data can be intercepted by a third party during a transmission.
In addressing the naysayers, Pan admitted that quantum communications is not perfect. But he defended it as safer than conventional means of communication. In fact, he said, no means of protecting data is more secure than quantum communications.
To test the capacity and safety of the network linking Beijing and Shanghai, Pan said his team plans to ask other communications experts to carefully study the system and look for potential security holes. The network could then be modified in ways that close any detected gaps and reduce hacking risks.
“Assessments and testing will be conducted after the network is completed,” said Pan, who remains convinced that any network using quantum cryptographic technology is more secure than any other communications channel.
Pan has been working on quantum-communications technology since the late 1990s, when he was a researcher at the University of Vienna and working in a partnership with Austrian physicist Anton Zeilinger. That team is credited with developing the first protocol for quantum communications.
Pan worked with Zeilinger about a decade after U.S. physicist Charles Bennett and colleagues at IBM Research built the world’s first functioning quantum cryptographic system. Based on their research, the first network was installed in the U.S. city of Boston.
Like their counterparts in China, researchers in the United States, Japan and European countries continue work to advance the technology. A key effort is aimed at extending that potential reach of quantum-communications systems, which for years were used only to span short distances.
Some experts have even wondered whether the new technology has been misidentified, since its key feature is high-level cryptography, not electronic communications.
“What we can do now is merely encrypt data, which is far from real quantum communications,” said one expert who declined to be named. “Theoretically it can’t be hacked, but in practice it has many limitations.”
Guo Guangcan, director of USTC’s quantum-communications lab, said networks now operating and those being built in China “achieve encryption only,” whereas true communications networks “involve content.”
“It’s not accurate to call it quantum communications,” said Guo.
Whatever it’s called, China appears determined to push ahead with the research and development that paves the way for a new era of secure communications. And according to Pan, that era is still at least a decade away.
“It will take 10 to 20 years to really put (the technology) into practice,” said Pan.
As it so happened, everything started and ended in Geneva…
It was a cold morning in mid-December 2008. Hervé Falciani has just finished packing his favorite black Rimowa luggage and a small handy leather bag with his five precious CDs safely tucked to the bottom.
“Mate I’m getting ready to leave for Nice for a few days, to do you know what,” he wrote on his encrypted email.
“Good luck mate. That’s the spirit. Am actually planning to get myself out of Geneva and home for good shortly after the New Year. Keep those stuff safe,” the reply promptly appeared on the computer screen.
“Will do. Thanks so much for all the guidance. Take care!” Falciani penned off, half-wishing his pal Snowden was not serious about leaving Geneva.
Well, that was probably how John le Carré approached his next best-selling spy novel but this opening scene may not be too far from the truth.
Falciani was widely dubbed the Snowden of the banking world when the HSBC exposé stole global headlines early this week. According to his profile, the then-36-year-old dual French-Italian national joined the British banking giant HSBC in 2000, in Monaco where he grew up, and was transferred to HSBC Private Bank (Suisse) in Geneva, Switzerland in 2006.
That was the same year Edward Snowden joined the CIA and the now famous whistleblower behind the NSA revelations was posted to Geneva the following year under diplomatic cover, where he admitted having grown disillusioned with American spy craft. He left Geneva and the agency in 2009.
And as an undercover CIA operative based in Geneva, Snowden probably knew some bankers as The Guardian once reported:
He described as formative an incident in which he claimed CIA operatives were attempting to recruit a Swiss banker to obtain secret banking information. Snowden said they achieved this by purposely getting the banker drunk and encouraging him to drive home in his car. When the banker was arrested for drunk driving, the undercover agent seeking to befriend him offered to help, and a bond was formed that led to successful recruitment.
The possibility that Snowden and Falciani knew each other may be a novelist’s creation and a trivial even if it’s true. But nevertheless, it would open up many possibilities.
Consider, for example, both claimed to have reported to their superiors, who ignored their respective complaints and warnings. Both became whistleblowers and accused for their actions. The two IT experts stole and released troves of internal data to the media – Falciani, the systems specialist of the HSBC Private Bank in Geneva now under the global spotlights, reportedly met French tax investigators at a cafe in Nice airport before Christmas of 2008 and handed them five CDs worth of confidential data pertaining to some 130,000 clients and 300,000 private accounts from 200 countries – which eventually reached then Finance Minister of France Christine Lagarde, who subsequently shared it with other countries.
Snowden is scheduled to speak via video-conference this Friday to the International Students For Liberty Conference in downtown Washington, D.C. Would be interesting to hear what he has to say about the HSBC exposé and… his friend Falciani.
This spat on intrusive rules is going to be a huge long battle.
The US is voicing opposition to Chinese rules that foreign vendors hand over the source code if they were to supply computer equipments to Chinese banks – which could expand to other sectors as the matter is “part of a wider review”.
Other measures to comply with include the setting up of research and development centers in China and building “ports” for Chinese officials to manage and monitor the data processed by their hardware.
Submitting to these “intrusive rules” for a slice of the huge Chinese markets also means alienating the rest of the world – as complying with these rules means creating backdoors, adopting Chinese encryption algorithms and disclosing sensitive intellectual property.
Speaking of “intrusive rules” (see BBC report far below) and “actual intrusions” in China, the latter I have expanded recently in two articles – one on Apple yesterday and the other on VPN blocks last week – and merged in this new column I’m also pasting right below.
The long and short of it, it’s espionage made easy. Period.
Apple Lets Down Its Asia Users
Written by Vanson Soo
MON,02 FEBRUARY 2015
Knuckling under to China on security inspections
If you are a die-hard fan of Apple products and if you, your company or business have anything to do with mainland China, recent developments involving the US tech giant can be construed as bad news, with deeper implications than what was generally thought and reported.
First, about Apple.
I have always liked the beauty and elegance of Apple products. I have owned two Mac laptops and an iPhone but I have shunned them as anyone deeply conscious and concerned about privacy and security should do. Edward Snowden, for example, who laid bare extensive snooping by the US National Security Agency, recently said he had never used the iPhone given the existence of secret surveillance spyware hidden in the devices.
Consider the latest news that Apple Inc. has caved in to Chinese demands for security inspections of its China-made devices including iPhones, iPads and Mac computers. The move understandably makes business sense to Apple [and its shareholders] as China is just too huge a market to ignore – so the Cupertino-based company [whose market capitalization hit US$683 billion last week, more than double Microsoft’s US$338 billion] realized it simply couldn’t ignore Beijing’s “concerns” about national security arising from the iPhone’s ability to zero in onto a user’s location.
Now pause right there. No, there’s no typo above. And yes, the Android and Blackberry smartphones can also mark a user’s location. So what’s the catch? Figure that out – it’s not difficult.
What Apple found they can ignore is the privacy and security of its die-hard users – after all, it has been well documented that Apple users were [and probably still are] known for their cult-like loyalty to the brand. Look no further for evidence than last summer when Apple announced its plan to host some of its data from its China-based users on servers based inside the country and claimed the company was not concerned about any security risks from using servers hosted by China Telecom, one of the three state-owned Chinese carriers.
The company has also denied working with any government agencies to create back doors into its products or servers… So surrendering to security audits wouldn’t?
If only Apple users managed to chuck away their cult mentality and come to their senses about their privacy and security risks, the firm would realize the Google approach, though still not perfect, is a better way of cultivating brand loyalty.
And in case you’re wondering, I use Linux most of the time – and shun the most popular Linux distributions to be on the safe side.a
Now next. And this is bad news with far-reaching global implications – and it’s affecting not just only those based in China.
News surfaced in late January that some foreign-based virtual private network (VPN) vendors found their services in China had been disrupted following a government crackdown – which the authorities labeled as an “upgrade” of its Internet censorship – to block the use of VPNs as a way to escape the so-called Great Firewall.
The real impact is not merely on domestic residents who were cut off from YouTube, BBC/CNN news and other information sources but resident expatriates, multinationals, foreign embassies and those traveling to China, especially businessmen and executives. Think: Chinese espionage now made easy!
Many China-based internet users use VPNs to access external news sources but this is also bad news for companies and government offices based in China as well as anyone visiting the Chinese mainland – as many businessmen and executives use VPNs, as part of their company (and security) practice, on their business trips. Many foreigners and businesses residing in China also use VPNs for their day-to-day communications.
The VPNs provide an encrypted pipe between a computer or smartphone and an overseas server such that any communications would be channeled through it, which effectively shields internet traffic from government filters that have set criteria on what sites can be accessed.
And as China is fast moving beyond the “factories of the world” tag to become a global economic powerhouse and important trading partner to many developed and developing countries, this is one development to keep a close watch on.
29 January 2015 Last updated at 14:35
US tech firms ask China to postpone ‘intrusive’ rules
By Kevin Rawlinson BBC News
US business groups are seeking “urgent discussions” over new Chinese rules requiring foreign firms to hand over source code and other measures.
The groups wrote to senior government officials after the introduction of the cybersecurity regulations at the end of last year.
The US Chamber of Commerce and other groups called the rules “intrusive”.
The regulations initially apply to firms selling products to Chinese banks but are part of a wider review.
“An overly broad, opaque, discriminatory approach to cybersecurity policy that restricts global internet and ICT products and services would ultimately isolate Chinese ICT firms from the global marketplace and weaken cybersecurity, thereby harming China’s economic growth and development and restricting customer choice,” the letter read.
The groups said that the rules would force technology sellers to create backdoors for the Chinese government, adopt Chinese encryption algorithms and disclose sensitive intellectual property.
Firms planning to sell computer equipment to Chinese banks would also have to set up research and development centres in the country, get permits for workers servicing technology equipment and build “ports” which enable Chinese officials to manage and monitor data processed by their hardware, Reuters reported.
Source code is the usually tightly guarded series of commands that create programs. For most computing and networking equipment, it would have to be turned over to officials, according to the new regulations.
In the letter, a copy of which has been seen by the BBC, the groups have asked the Chinese government to delay implementation of the regulations and “grant an opportunity for discussion and dialogue for interested stakeholders with agencies responsible for the initiatives”.
They added: “The domestic purchasing and related requirements proposed recently for China’s banking sector… would unnecessarily restrict the ability of Chinese entities to source the most reliable and secure technologies, which are developed in the global supply chain,” the letter, which was dated 28 January, read.
The letter from the American groups, including the US Chamber of Commerce, AmCham China and 16 others, was addressed to the Central Leading Small Group for Cyberspace Affairs, which is led personally by Chinese President Xi Jinping.
It comes at a time of heightened tension between the USA and China over cybersecurity. In May last year, Beijing denounced US charges against Chinese army officers accused of economic cyber-espionage.
It was also alleged that the US National Security Agency spied on Chinese firm Huawei, while the US Senate claimed that the Chinese government broke into the computers of airlines and military contractors.
American tech firms, such as Cisco and Microsoft, are facing increased pressure from Chinese authorities to accept rigorous security checks before their products can be purchased by China’s sprawling, state-run financial institutions.
Beijing has considered its reliance on foreign technology a national security weakness, particularly following former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden’s revelations that US spy agencies planted code in American-made software to snoop on overseas targets.
The cyber-space policy group approved a 22-page document in late 2014 that contained the heightened procurement rules for tech vendors, the New York Times reported on Thursday.
Here’s one nice TEDTalk on why encryption is important for everyone and why breaking or weakening it – British Prime Minister David Cameron and US President Barack Obama are now pushing for a ban on encryption – is not a good idea. To put it bluntly and briefly, it is shooting our own foot.
Here’s a video on how to send an encrypted message in a very simple and low-tech way: with a pen and paper.
Beauty of this primitive but effective method is you would have burnt the “keys” and the authorities won’t be able to punch it out of you, even with water-boarding tactics.
But the one potential challenge is the pad of “cypher keys” (see video below) has to be shared securely in advance and used once at best. Alternative: have several of these pads and find a secure way to convey which pad to use for reference.
Wonder what British Prime Minister David Cameron and US President Barack Obama – who were keen to push for a total ban on encryption despite warnings of irreversible damages – have to say about this. The message to them: it’s impossible to ban encrypted communications.
If you’re amongst those wary of (eavesdropping with) Skype and Google Hangouts, this will be great news.
New Zealand-based internet entrepreneur Kim Dotcom, best known for his legendary Megaupload and Mega file sharing services, announced last week the launch of his new and highly anticipated encrypted communication software MegaChat for video calling, messaging and chat. Dubbed a “Skype Killer”, the New Zealand-based service is available in both free and paid version – see video below.
And this is going to be interesting. The Snowden revelations have revealed how Microsoft, which bought Skype, has handed the NSA access to encrypted messages.
Earlier this month, following the Paris attacks, British Prime Minister announced his push to ban encryption altogether and US President Barack Obama has openly voiced support despite warnings of irreversible damages.
Meantime, Kim Dotcom said encrypted video conferencing, email and text chat would also be available later. In any case, here’s a video on how to register and start using MegaChat.