Tag Archives: NSA

BadAibling-Reuters

Shhh… Mangfall Kaserne in Bad Aibling – Surveillance-Proof Site for German Intelligence BND to Cooperate with the NSA

(Above) Photo credit: Reuters.

The former US espionage base, Bad Aibling, was supposedly returned to the German foreign intelligence agency BND back in 2004. But that’s what “happened” only on surface. Check out the Spiegel special report below:

Spying Close to Home: German Intelligence Under Fire for NSA Cooperation

US intelligence spent years spying on European targets from a secretive base. Now, it seems that German intelligence was aware of the espionage — and did nothing to stop it.

April 24, 2015 – 07:20 PM

It was obvious from its construction speed just how important the new site in Bavaria was to the Americans. Only four-and-a-half months after it was begun, the new, surveillance-proof building at the Mangfall Kaserne in Bad Aibling was finished. The structure had a metal exterior and no windows, which led to its derogatory nickname among members of the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), the German foreign intelligence agency: The “tin can.”

The construction project was an expression of an especially close and trusting cooperation between the American National Security Agency (NSA) and the BND. Bad Aibling had formerly been a base for US espionage before it was officially turned over to the BND in 2004. But the “tin can” was built after the handover took place.

The heads of the two intelligence agencies had agreed to continue cooperating there in secret. Together, they established joint working groups, one for the acquisition of data, called Joint Sigint Activity, and one for the analysis of that data, known as the Joint Analysis Center.

But the Germans were apparently not supposed to know everything their partners in the “tin can” were doing. The Americans weren’t just interested in terrorism; they also used their technical abilities to spy on companies and agencies in Western Europe. They didn’t even shy away from pursuing German targets.

The Germans noticed — in 2008, if not sooner. But nothing was done about it until 2013, when an analysis triggered by whistleblower Edward Snowden’s leaks showed that the US was using the facility to spy on German and Western European targets.

On Thursday, though, SPIEGEL ONLINE revealed that the US spying was vastly more extensive than first thought. The revelations have been met with extreme concern in the German capital — partly because they mark the return of a scandal that two successive Merkel administrations have never truly sought to clear up.

It remains unclear how much the BND knew, and to what extent German intelligence was involved, either intentionally or not. More crucially, it demonstrates the gap in trust that exists between two close allies.

Humiliating Efforts

The German government will have to quickly come up with answers. It will also have to decide how it will confront Washington about these new accusations. In the past two years, Berlin has made little to no progress in its largely humiliating efforts to get information from Washington.

The issue that could have been cleared up, at least internally, shortly after the NSA scandal began in the summer of 2013. But BND decision-makers chose not to go public with what they knew.

When media reports began emerging that the NSA had scooped up massive amounts of data in Germany and Europe, and that this data surveillance was not being performed exclusively for the global fight against terrorism, BND agents became suspicious. In previous years, BND agents had noticed on several occasions that the so-called “Selector Lists,” that the Germans received from their American partners and which were regularly updated, contained some oddities.

Selectors are targets like IP addresses, mobile phone numbers or email accounts. The BND surveillance system contains hundreds of thousands, possibly more than a million, such targets. Analysts are automatically notified of hits.

In 2008, at the latest, it became apparent that NSA selectors were not only limited to terrorist and weapons smugglers. Their searches also included the European defense company EADS, the helicopter manufacturer Eurocopter and French agencies. But it was only after the revelations made by whistleblower Edward Snowden that the BND decided to investigate the issue. In October 2013, an investigation came to the conclusion that at least 2,000 of these selectors were aimed at Western European or even German interests.

That would have been a clear violation of the Memorandum of Agreement that the US and Germany signed in 2002 in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks. The agreement pertained to joint, global surveillance operations undertaken from Bad Aibling.

Cease and Desist

Washington and Berlin agreed at the time that neither Germans nor Americans — neither people nor companies or organizations — would be among the surveillance targets. But in October 2013, not even the BND leadership was apparently informed of the violations that had been made. The Chancellery, which is charged with monitoring the BND, was also left in the dark. Instead, the agents turned to the Americans and asked them to cease and desist.

In spring 2014, the NSA investigative committee in German parliament, the Bundestag, began its work. When reports emerged that EADS and Eurocopter had been surveillance targets, the Left Party and the Greens filed an official request to obtain evidence of the violations.

At the BND, the project group charged with supporting the parliamentary investigative committee once again looked at the NSA selectors. In the end, they discovered fully 40,000 suspicious search parameters, including espionage targets in Western European governments and numerous companies. It was this number that SPIEGEL ONLINE reported on Thursday. The BND project group was also able to confirm suspicions that the NSA had systematically violated German interests. They concluded that the Americans could have perpetrated economic espionage directly under the Germans’ noses.

Only on March 12 of this year did the information end up in the Chancellery. Merkel administration officials immediately recognized its political explosiveness and decided to go on the offensive. On Wednesday, the Parliamentary Control Panel met, a body that is in charge of monitoring Germany’s three intelligence agencies. The heads of the agencies normally deliver their reports in the surveillance-proof meeting room U1.214.

Panel members suspected something was different at this week’s meeting when Chancellery head Peter Altmaier, a cabinet-level position in Germany, indicated that he would be attending. The heads of the parliamentary NSA investigative committee were also invited to attend. BND President Gerhard Schindler, however, was asked to stay away. The day after the meeting, the government announced bluntly that Schindler’s office had displayed “technical and organizational deficits.”

Recast in a Different Light

With that, Germany’s foreign intelligence agency has some explaining to do. The BND, after all, doesn’t just report to the Chancellery. It has also provided testimony on its activities at Bad Aibling several times to the Parliamentary Control Panel and to the NSA investigative committee. That testimony now appears in a different light.

According to a classified memo, the agency told parliamentarians in 2013 that the cooperation with the US in Bad Aibling was consistent with the law and with the strict guidelines that had been established.

The memo notes: “The value for the BND (lies) in know-how benefits and in a closer partnership with the NSA relative to other partners.” The data provided by the US, the memo continued, “is checked for its conformance with the agreed guidelines before it is inputted” into the BND system.

Now, we know better. It remains to be determined whether the BND really was unaware at the time, or whether it simply did not want to be aware.

The NSA investigative committee has also questioned former and active BND agents regarding “selectors” and “search criteria” on several occasions. Prior to the beginning of each session, the agents were informed that providing false testimony to the body was unlawful. The BND agents repeatedly insisted that the selectors provided by the US were precisely checked.

A senior analyst from the department responsible, known as “Signals Intelligence,” testified in March that BND lawyers would check “each individual search term” and “each individual selector” to ensure that it conformed with the Memorandum of Agreement. That didn’t just apply to government officials and German companies, he said, but to Europeans more broadly.

‘Prosecutors Must Investigate’

“Sneaking in” such search terms would “become apparent” in such a long-term operation, the witness said. “To try, over all these years, to sneak selectors by us to perpetrate economic espionage, I don’t think that is possible,” the witness said. He added: “We never noticed such a thing.”

Members of the NSA investigative committee now feel that they have been lied to, and the reactions have been harsh. “At least since the Snowden revelations in 2013, all those involved at all levels, including the Chancellery, should have been suspicious of the cooperation with the NSA,” says Konstantin von Notz, the senior Green Party member on the investigative committee.

“The spying scandal shows that the intelligence agencies have a life of their own and are uncontrollable,” says the senior Left Party representative Martina Renner. “There have to be personnel consequences and German public prosecutors must investigate.”

But as of late Thursday, the German government hadn’t even informed the public prosecutor’s office of the incident.

By Maik Baumgärtner, Nikolaus Blome, Hubert Gude, Marcel Rosenbach, Jörg Schindler and Fidelius Schmid

Anonymous

Shhh… Anonymous: CyberSecurity Bill’s a Scam

The article below sums it up nicely: the Protecting Cyber Networks Act passed by the Congress this week was a surveillance bill in disguise.

Check out this video by the Anonymous:

House of Representatives Passes Cybersecurity Bills Without Fixing Core Problems

April 22, 2015 | By Mark Jaycox

The House passed two cybersecurity “information sharing” bills today: the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence’s Protecting Cyber Networks Act, and the House Homeland Security Committee’s National Cybersecurity Protection Advancement Act. Both bills will be “conferenced” to create one bill and then sent to the Senate for advancement. EFF opposed both bills and has been urging users to tell Congress to vote against them.

The bills are not cybersecurity “information sharing” bills, but surveillance bills in disguise. Like other bills we’ve opposed during the last five years, they authorize more private sector spying under new legal immunity provisions and use vague definitions that aren’t carefully limited to protect privacy. The bills further facilitate companies’ sharing even more of our personal information with the NSA and some even allow companies to “hack back” against potentially innocent users.

As we’ve noted before, information sharing is not a silver bullet to stopping security failures. Companies can already share the necessary technical information to stop threats via Information Sharing and Analysis Centers (ISACs), public reports, private communications, and the DHS’s Enhanced Cybersecurity Services.

While we are disappointed in the House, we look forward to the fight in the Senate where equally dangerous bills, like the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act, have failed to pass every year since 2010.

Contact your Senator now to oppose the Senate bills.

Congress

Shhh… The Protecting Cyber Networks Act Gets Greenlight from Congress

Time to brace up for further loss of privacy as the PCNA would amount to voluntary wholesale transfer of data to the NSA (see story below).

And the Congress actually believe it’s in the name of stopping hackers and cyber attacks?

House Passes Cybersecurity Bill Despite Privacy Protests

Andy Greenberg
04.22.15

Congress is hellbent on passing a cybersecurity bill that can stop the wave of hacker breaches hitting American corporations. And they’re not letting the protests of a few dozen privacy and civil liberties organizations get in their way.

On Wednesday the House of Representatives voted 307-116 to pass the Protecting Cyber Networks Act, a bill designed to allow more fluid sharing of cybersecurity threat data between corporations and government agencies. That new system for sharing information is designed to act as a real-time immune system against hacker attacks, allowing companies to warn one another via government intermediaries about the tools and techniques of advanced hackers. But privacy critics say it also threatens to open up a new backchannel for surveillance of American citizens, in some cases granting the same companies legal immunity to share their users’ private data with government agencies that include the NSA.

“PCNA would significantly increase the National Security Agency’s (NSA’s) access to personal information, and authorize the federal government to use that information for a myriad of purposes unrelated to cybersecurity,” reads a letter signed earlier this week by 55 civil liberties groups and security experts that includes the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Freedom of the Press Foundation, Human Rights Watch and many others.

“The revelations of the past two years concerning the intelligence community’s abuses of surveillance authorities and the scope of its collection and use of individuals’ information demonstrates the potential for government overreach, particularly when statutory language is broad or ambiguous,” the letter continues. “[PCNA] fails to provide strong privacy protections or adequate clarity about what actions can be taken, what information can be shared, and how that information may be used by the government.”

Specifically, PCNA’s data-sharing privileges let companies give data to government agencies—including the NSA—that might otherwise have violated the Electronic Communications Privacy Act or the Wiretap Act, both of which restrict the sharing of users’ private data with the government. And PCNA doesn’t even restrict the use of that shared information to cybersecurity purposes; its text also allows the information to be used for investigating any potential threat of “bodily harm or death,” opening its application to the surveillance of run-of-the-mill violent crimes like robbery and carjacking.

Congressman Adam Schiff, who led the advocacy for the bill on the House floor, argued in a statement to reporters that PCNA in fact supports privacy by protecting Americans from future hacker breaches. “We do this while recognizing the huge and growing threat cyber hacking and cyber espionage poses to our privacy, as well as to our financial wellbeing and our jobs,” he writes.

“In the process of drafting this bill, protecting privacy was at the forefront throughout, and we consulted extensively with privacy and civil liberties groups, incorporating their suggestions in many cases. This is a strong bill that protects privacy, and one that I expect will get even better as the process goes forward—we expect to see large bipartisan support on the Floor.”

Here’s a video [above] of Schiff’s statement on the House floor.

PCNA does include some significant privacy safeguards, such as a requirement that companies scrub “unrelated” data of personally identifying information before sending it to the government, and that the government agencies pass it through another filter to delete such data after receiving it.

But those protections still don’t go far enough, says Robyn Greene, policy counsel for the Open Technology Institute. Any information considered a “threat indicator” could still legally be sent to the government—even, for instance, IP address innocent victims of botnets used in distributed denial of service attacks against corporate websites. No further amendments that might have added new privacy restrictions to the bill were considered before the House’s vote Wednesday. “I’m very disappointed that the house has passed an information sharing bill that does so much to threaten Americans’ privacy and civil liberties, and no real effort was made to address the problems the bill still had,” says Greene. “The rules committee has excluded amendments that would have resolved privacy concerns…This is little more than a backdoor for general purpose surveillance.”

In a surprise move yesterday, the White House also publicly backed PCNA and its Senate counterpart, the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act in a statement to press. That’s a reversal of its threat to veto a similar Cybersecurity Information Sharing and Protection Ac in 2013 over privacy concerns, a decision that all but killed the earlier attempt at cybersecurity data sharing legislation. Since then, however, a string of high-profile breaches seems to have swayed President Obama’s thinking, from the cybercriminal breaches of Target and health insurer Anthem that spilled millions of users’ data, to the devastating hack of Sony Pictures Entertainment, which the FBI has claimed was perpetrated as an intimidation tactic by the North Korean government to prevent the release of its Kim Jong-un assassination comedy the Interview.

If the White House’s support stands, it now leaves only an upcoming Senate vote sometime later this month on the Senate’s CISA as the deciding factor as to whether it and PCNA are combined to become law.

But privacy advocates haven’t given up on a presidential veto. A new website called StopCyberspying.com launched by the internet freedom group Access, along with the EFF, the ACLU and others, includes a petition to the President to reconsider a veto for PCNA, CISA and any other bill that threatens to widen internet surveillance.

OTI’s Greene says she’s still banking on a change of heart from Obama, too. “We’re hopeful that the administration would veto any bill that doesn’t address these issues,” she says. “To sign a bill that resembles CISA or PCNA would represent the administration doing a complete 180 on its commitment to protect Americans’ privacy.”

News-Media-Sites.jpg

Shhh… The Perils of Popular News Sites

This story (below) gives a whole new meaning to the phrase No News is Good News:

The most popular news sites can be used to spy on you, research shows

Cale Guthrie Weissman

Over a year ago it was discovered that government surveillance programs can use digital ad tracking software to keep tabs on Internet users. Now it appears more widespread than most thought.

In fact, 100 popular news sites were found to be susceptible to security issues that could help spies learn about what websites you browse and the data you share.

The fact that the government uses ad tracking software to surveil citizens isn’t necessarily new, but recently published research shows just how widespread the issue is.

This is in the wake of the one the top ad organisations publically saying that the majority of its ad tracking programs are safe and secure. The truth is that almost half of the software used by the most popular global news websites are unsecure and provide an easy way for governments to snoop, according to the new research.

A Toronto-based researcher named Andrew Hilts performed his own audit of the 100 top media sites to see how secure data exchange really was. Hilt is a fellow at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, as well as the executive director of the nonprofit Open Effect.

Hilt decided to check out if ad trackers — third-party ad software that sends and receives data — were encrypted. If the trackers were found to be unencrypted, it meant that personal data was in plain sight and easy to hack. (In essence, ad trackers leave cookies on users’ browsers, which are used to remember information such as personal preferences and previous logins. If this data is not protected it’s ripe for the taking.)

Of the pages Hilt loaded, he discovered 47 different third parties that were transmitting data to and from the sites. Of those third parties, 19 of them left what’s called a “unique identifier.” Hilt explained to me that unique identifiers are basically used to compile “a profile of who you are and what you’re interested in.”

Now this is the important, albeit slightly complicated, part of Hilt’s analysis:

An average of 53% of the third party hosts transmitting data on top news websites support HTTPS. News websites, on average, initiated communications with 10 different third parties that led to transmissions of uniquely identifying cookies that could not be secured with HTTPS. An average of 9 unique ID transmissions were to servers that support HTTPS. In other words, network snoops can take advantage of many insecurely-transmitted unique identifiers to help them identify just who is reading what news.

In laymen terms this means that on average nearly half of all third-party data transfers happening on the most popular news websites are unencrypted. Hilt explained to me the ramifications: “If an ad tracking system is being done unencrypted, other actors like your ISP or the NSA can collected this data,” he said.

News-MediaTracker

Looking at the analysis, you can see that websites like the New York Post and the Economist transmit myriad data through third parties. Both of which, according to his chart, transmit well over 20 unencrypted identifiers that could be used by hackers.

The discoveries began in 2013. One of the many Snowden documents described a program that “piggybacked” on internet advertising technologies, using ad tracking technology to keep tabs on people of interest. The NSA discovered a handy loophole; many trackers are unencrypted. Thus, the NSA could easily tap into a website’s data exchange and also collect the traffic data of users.

More than a year after this initial revelation the Internet Advertising Bureau wrote a blog post calling for more widespread ad tracker encryption. This organisation called for all ad companies to support the encrypted HTTPS protocol — even the ad trackers. A website that uses the HTTPS protocol communicates encrypted data, which makes external snooping much harder to do.

The problem is that all parts of the website need to use HTTPS, not just the website itself. So if a news organisation uses third-party ad software that doesn’t use HTTPS, the website could very easily be tapped by spies. That’s why the IAB called for more data security.

“Once a website decides to support HTTPS,” the IAB wrote, “they need to make sure that their primary ad server supports encryption.” This way a user can be sure that all information exchanged on the page is secure and invisible to any unwanted eyes. The IAB added in its post that “nearly 80% of [its] members ad delivery systems supported HTTPS.”

Hilt’s findings show that this may not be the case.

Privacy advocates freaked out yesterday over Hilt’s findings. “A dubious congratulations to the St Louis Post-Dispatch, topping the news charts with 168 tracking URLs per page load,” tweeted Electronic Frontier Foundation activist Parker Higgins.

While the IAB’s message to advertisers is a step in the right direction, the fact that it doesn’t seem aware of how prevalent unencrypted tracking is means there’s a huge problem. In order for a website to truly ensure that its users aren’t being tracked by unknown third parties, it must ensure that both it and all of its third parties are communicating using HTTPS.

Hilt said the he’s happy the IAB is working to correct this issue, but it also needs to be aware of the work that needs to be done.

“The findings show they still have a ways to go,” he said.

Google-GerhardEschelbeck5

Shhh… New Google Security Chief – In Search of Balance with Privacy

Here’s an insight to one man at Google to keep tab on – see the article below.

New Google security chief looks for balance with privacy
By GLENN CHAPMAN, AFP April 19, 2015 4:55am

MOUNTAIN VIEW, United States – Google has a new sheriff keeping watch over the wilds of the Internet.

Austrian-born Gerhard Eschelbeck has ranged the British city of Oxford; cavorted at notorious Def Con hacker conclaves, wrangled a herd of startups, and camped out in Silicon Valley.

He now holds the reins of security and privacy for all-things Google.

In an exclusive interview with AFP, Eschelbeck spoke of using Google’s massive scope to protect users from cyber villains such as spammers and state-sponsored spies.

“The size of our computing infrastructure allows us to process, analyze, and research the changing threat landscape and look ahead to predict what is coming,” Eschelbeck said during his first one-on-one press interview in his new post.

“Security is obviously a constant race; the key is how far can you look ahead.”

Eschelbeck took charge of Google’s 500-strong security and privacy team early this year, returning to Silicon Valley after running engineering for a computer security company in Oxford for two years.

“It was a very natural move for me to join Google,” Eschelbeck said. “What really excited me was doing security at large scale.”

Google’s range of global services and products means there are many fronts for a security expert to defend. Google’s size also means there are arsenals of powerful computer servers for defenders to employ and large-scale data from which to discern cyber dangers.

Eschelbeck’s career in security stretches back two decades to a startup he built while a university student in Austria that was acquired by security company McAfee.

What started out as a six-month work stint in California where McAfee is based turned into a 15-year stay by Eschelbeck.

He created and advised an array of computer security startups before heading off to Oxford. Eschelbeck, has worked at computer technology titans such as Sophos and Qualys, and holds patents for network security technologies.

Constant attack

He was confident his team was up to the challenge of fending off cyber attacks, even from onslaughts of sophisticated operations run by the likes of the US National Security Agency or the Chinese military.

Eschelbeck vowed that he would “absolutely” find any hacker that came after his network.

“As a security guy, I am never comfortable,” he said. “But, I do have a very strong team…I have confidence we have the right reactive and proactive defense mechanisms as well.”

State-sponsored cyber attacks making news in the past year come on top of well-known trends of hacking expressly for fun or profit.

The sheer numbers of attack “vectors” has rocketed exponentially over time, with weapons targeting smartphones, applications, datacenters, operating systems and more.

“You can safely assume that every property on the Internet is continuously under attack,” Eschelbeck said.

“I feel really strong about our ability to identify them before they become a threat and the ability to block and prevent them from entering our environment.”

Scrambling data

Eschelbeck is a backer of encrypting data, whether it be an email to a friend or photos stored in the cloud.

“I hope for a time when all the traffic on the Internet is encrypted,” he said.

“You’re not sending a letter to your friend in a transparent envelop, and that is why encryption in transport is so critical.”

He believes that within five years, accessing accounts with no more than passwords will be a thing of the past.

Google lets people require code numbers sent to phones be used along with passwords to access accounts in what is referred to as “two-factor” authentication.

The Internet titan also provides “safe browsing” technology that warns people when they are heading to websites rigged to attack visitors.

Google identifies about 50,000 malicious websites monthly, and another 90,000 phishing websites designed to trick people into giving up their passwords or other valuable personal information, Eschelbeck said.

“We have some really great visibility into the Web, as you can imagine,” he said.

“The time for us to recognize a bad site is incredibly short.”

Doubling-down on privacy

Eschelbeck saw the world of online security as fairly black and white, while the privacy side of his job required subjective interpretations.

Google works closely with data protection authorities in Europe and elsewhere to try and harmonize privacy protections with the standards in various countries.

“I really believe that with security and privacy, there is more overlap than there are differences,” he said.

“We have made a tremendous effort to focus and double-down on privacy issues.”

As have other large Internet companies, Google has routinely made public requests by government agencies for information about users.

Requests are carefully reviewed, and only about 65 percent of them satisfied, according to Google.

“Privacy, to me, is protecting and securing my activities; that they are personal to myself and not visible to the whole wide world,” Eschelbeck said. — Agence France-Presse

NewZealand-China10

Shhh… New Zealand & US Plotted to Spy on China

The Intercept has revealed how New Zealand has teamed up with the NSA to eavesdrop on China, its largest trading partner (see article below).

This is not the first time New Zealand has been pulled into the equation about mass surveillance and the NSA. Just a month ago, New Zealand was also accused of spying on its neighbors in the Pacific islands (see video below).


New Zealand Plotted Hack on China With NSA

By Ryan Gallagher and Nicky Hager

New Zealand spies teamed with National Security Agency hackers to break into a data link in the country’s largest city, Auckland, as part of a secret plan to eavesdrop on Chinese diplomats, documents reveal.

The covert operation, reported Saturday by New Zealand’s Herald on Sunday in collaboration with The Intercept, highlights the contrast between New Zealand’s public and secret approaches to its relationship with China, its largest and most important trading partner.

The hacking project suggests that New Zealand’s electronic surveillance agency, Government Communications Security Bureau, or GCSB, may have violated international treaties that prohibit the interception of diplomatic communications.

New Zealand has signed both the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, international treaties that protect the “inviolability” of diplomatic correspondance. The country’s prime minister, John Key, said in a recent speech on security that New Zealand had an obligation to support the rule of law internationally, and was “known for its integrity, reliability and independence.”

Last year, Key said that New Zealand’s relationship with China, worth an estimated $15 billion in annual two-way trade, had “never been stronger.” The relationship was not just about “purely trading,” he said, “it is so much broader and much deeper than that.”

In 2013, Key described a meeting with top Chinese officials in Beijing as “extremely warm” and told of how he was viewed as a “real friend” by the country’s premier, Li Keqiang.

At the same time, as minister in charge of the GCSB, Key was overseeing spying against China – which included the top-secret planned operation in Auckland, aimed at the Chinese consulate.

The hacking project is outlined in documents obtained by The Intercept from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

A secret report called “NSA activities in progress 2013,” includes an item titled “New Zealand: Joint effort to exploit Chinese MFA [Ministry of Foreign Affairs] link.” The operation, according to another NSA document, had “identified an MFA data link between the Chinese consulate and Chinese Visa Office in Auckland,” two buildings about a five-minute walk apart on the city’s busy Great South Road.

The document added that the New Zealand agency was “providing additional technical data” on the data link to the NSA’s Tailored Access Operations, a powerful unit that hacks into computer systems and networks to intercept communications. The agencies had “verbally agreed to move forward with a cooperative passive and active effort against this link,” it said.

Passive surveillance refers to a method of eavesdropping on communications that intercepts them as they are flowing over Internet cables, between satellites, or across phone networks. Active surveillance is a more aggressive tactic that involves hacking into computers; in the case of the Auckland operation, active surveillance could have involved planting spyware in the Chinese government computers or routers connected via the consulate data link.

The documents do not reveal whether the operation was successfully completed, due to the timeframe that the records cover. In May 2013, Snowden left his Hawaii-based intelligence job and flew to Hong Kong carrying the cache of secret files. In April 2013, shortly before Snowden’s departure, “formal coordination” on the hacking plan had begun between the NSA and its New Zealand counterpart, according to the documents.

More New Zealand operations targeting China appear to have been ongoing at that time. In another April 2013 NSA document describing the agency’s relationship with New Zealand spies, under the heading “What partner provides to NSA,” the first item on the list is “collection on China.” New Zealand’s GCSB surveillance agency “continues to be especially helpful in its ability to provide NSA ready access to areas and countries that are difficult for the United States to access,” the report said.

China intelligence is handled inside the New Zealand agency by a special section that focuses on economic analysis. According to sources with knowledge of the agency’s operations, its economic section, known as the “IBE,” specialised in Japanese diplomatic communications from 1981 until the late 2000s. In recent years its focus has shifted to intercepted Chinese communications, the sources say.

In response to the revelations, a spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in New Zealand told the Herald on Sunday that the country was “concerned” about the spying. “We attach great importance to the cyber security issue,” the spokesman said, adding that “China proposes to settle disputes through dialogue and formulate codes to regulate cyber space behaviors that are acceptable to all sides.”

China itself is known to be a major perpetrator of espionage on the global stage, and it has been repeatedly accused by the U.S. government of hacking into American computer networks. Last year, China was linked to an apparent intelligence-gathering hack on a powerful New Zealand supercomputer used to conduct weather and climate research.

But the Snowden documents have shown that countries in the so-called “Five Eyes” surveillance alliance – which includes New Zealand, the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia – are also heavily involved in conducting aggressive spying and hacking operations across the world.

Previous revelations have detailed how agencies in the alliance have hacked law-abiding companies, foreign government computers, and designed technology to attack and destroy infrastructure using cyberwar techniques. Last year, The Intercept revealed how the NSA had developed the capability to deploy millions of malware “implants” to infect computers and steal data on a large scale.

The NSA, the GCSB and the New Zealand prime minister’s office each declined to answer questions about this story.

GCSB’s acting director, Una Jagose, said in an emailed statement that the agency “exists to protect New Zealand and New Zealanders.” She added: “We have a foreign intelligence mandate. We don’t comment on speculation about matters that may or may not be operational. Everything we do is explicitly authorised and subject to independent oversight.”

Google-EU

Shhh… Google’s EU Antitrust Troubles Explained

Privacy-Eye

Shhh… Spy On Spies – A New Breed of Spies

Here’s an interesting story:


Meet the privacy activists who spy on the surveillance industry

by Daniel Rivero | April 6, 2015

LONDON– On the second floor of a narrow brick building in the London Borough of Islington, Edin Omanovic is busy creating a fake company. He is playing with the invented company’s business cards in a graphic design program, darkening the reds, bolding the blacks, and testing fonts to strike the right tone: informational, ambiguous, no bells and whistles. In a separate window, a barren website is starting to take shape. Omanovic, a tall, slender Bosnian-born, Scottish-raised Londonite gives the company a fake address that forwards to his real office, and plops in a red and black company logo he just created. The privacy activist doesn’t plan to scam anyone out of money, though he does want to learn their secrets. Ultimately, he hopes that the business cards combined with a suit and a close-cropped haircut will grant him access to a surveillance industry trade show, a privilege usually restricted to government officials and law enforcement agencies.

Once he’s infiltrated the trade show, he’ll pose as an industry insider, chatting up company representatives, swapping business cards, and picking up shiny brochures that advertise the invasive capabilities of bleeding-edge surveillance technology. Few of the features are ever marketed or revealed openly to the general public, and if the group didn’t go through the pains of going undercover, it wouldn’t know the lengths to which law enforcement and the intelligence community are going to keep tabs on their citizens.

“I don’t know when we’ll get to use this [company], but we need a lot of these to do our research,” Omanovic tells me. (He asked Fusion not to reveal the name of the company in order to not blow its cover.)

The strange tactic– hacking into an expo in order to come into close proximity with government hackers and monitors– is a regular part of operations at Privacy International, a London-based anti-surveillance advocacy group founded 25 years ago. Omanovic is one of a few activists for the group who goes undercover to collect the surveillance promotional documents.

“At last count we had about 1,400 files,” Matt Rice, PI’s Scottish-born advocacy officer says while sifting through a file cabinet full of the brochures. “[The files] help us understand what these companies are capable of, and what’s being sold around the world,” he says. The brochures vary in scope and claims. Some showcase cell site simulators, commonly called Stingrays, which allow police to intercept cell phone activity within a certain area. Others provide details about Finfisher– surveillance software that is marketed exclusively to governments, which allows officials to put spyware on a target’s home computer or mobile device to watch their Skype calls, Facebook and email activity.

The technology buyers at these conferences are the usual suspects — the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), and the Australian Secret Intelligence Service– but also representatives of repressive regimes —Bahrain, Sudan, pre-revolutionary Libya– as the group has revealed in attendees lists it has surfaced.

At times, companies’ claims can raise eyebrows. One brochure shows a soldier, draped in fatigues, holding a portable device up to the faces of a somber group of Arabs. “Innocent civilian or insurgent?,” the pamphlet asks.

“Not certain?”

“Our systems are.”

The treasure trove of compiled documents was available as an online database, but PI recently took it offline, saying the website had security vulnerabilities that could have compromised information of anyone who wanted to donate to the organization online. They are building a new one. The group hopes that the exposure of what Western companies are selling to foreign governments will help the organization achieve its larger goal: ending the sale of hardware and software to governments that use it to monitor their populations in ways that violate basic privacy rights.

The group acknowledges that it might seem they are taking an extremist position when it comes to privacy, but “we’re not against surveillance,” Michael Rispoli, head of PI’s communications, tells me. “Governments need to keep people safe, whether it’s from criminals or terrorists or what it may be, but surveillance needs to be done in accordance with human rights, and in accordance with the rule of law.”

The group is waging its fight in courtrooms. In February of last year, it filed a criminal complaint to the UK’s National Cyber Crime Unit of the National Crime Agency, asking it to investigate British technology allegedly used repeatedly by the Ethiopian government to intercept the communications of an Ethiopian national. Even after Tadesse Kersmo applied for– and was granted– asylum in the UK on the basis of being a political refugee, the Ethiopian government kept electronically spying on him, the group says, using technology from British firm Gamma International. The group currently has six lawsuits in action, mostly taking on large, yet opaque surveillance companies and the British government. Gamma International did not respond to Fusion’s request for comment on the lawsuit, which alleges that exporting the software to Ethiopian authorities means the company assisted in illegal electronic spying.

“The irony that he was given refugee status here, while a British company is facilitating intrusions into his basic right to privacy isn’t just ironic, it’s wrong,” Rispoli says. “It’s so obvious that there should be laws in place to prevent it.”

PI says it has uncovered other questionable business relationships between oppressive regimes and technology companies based in other Western countries. An investigative report the group put out a few months ago on surveillance in Central Asia said that British and Swiss companies, along with Israeli and Israeli-American companies with close ties to the Israeli military, are providing surveillance infrastructure and technical support to countries like Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan– some of the worst-ranking countries in the world when it comes to freedom of speech, according to Freedom House. Only North Korea ranks lower than them.

PI says it used confidential sources, whose accounts have been corroborated, to reach those conclusions.

Not only are these companies complicit in human rights violations, the Central Asia report alleges, but they know they are. Fusion reached out to the companies named in the report, NICE Systems (Israel), Verint Israel (U.S./ Israel), Gamma (UK), or Dreamlab (Switzerland), and none have responded to repeated requests for comment.

The report is a “blueprint” for the future of the organization’s output, says Rice, the advocacy officer. “It’s the first time we’ve done something that really looks at the infrastructure, the laws, and putting it all together to get a view on how the system actually works in a country, or even a whole region,” says Rice.

“What we can do is take that [report], and have specific findings and testimonials to present to companies, to different bodies and parliamentarians, and say this is why we need these things addressed,” adds Omanovic, the researcher and fake company designer.

The tactic is starting to show signs of progress, he says. One afternoon, Omanovic was huddled over a table in the back room, taking part in what looked like an intense conference call. “European Commission,” he says afterwards. The Commission has been looking at surveillance exports since it was revealed that Egypt, Tunisia, and Bahrain were using European tech to crack down on protesters during the Arab Spring, he added. Now, PI is consulting with some members, and together they “hope to bring in a regulation specifically on this subject by year’s end.”

***

Privacy International has come a long way from the “sterile bar of an anonymous business hotel in Luxembourg,” where founder Simon Davies, then a lone wolf privacy campaigner, hosted its first meeting with a handful of people 25 years ago. In a blog post commemorating that anniversary, Davies (who left the organization about five years ago) described the general state of privacy advocacy when that first meeting was held:

“Those were strange times. Privacy was an arcane subject that was on very few radar screens. The Internet had barely emerged, digital telephony was just beginning, the NSA was just a conspiracy theory and email was almost non-existent (we called it electronic mail back then). We communicated by fax machines, snail mail – and through actual real face to face meetings that you travelled thousands of miles to attend.”

Immediately, there were disagreements about the scope of issues the organization should focus on, as detailed in the group’s first report, filed in 1991. Some of the group’s 120-odd loosely affiliated members and advisors wanted the organization to focus on small privacy flare-ups; others wanted it to take on huge, international privacy policies, from “transborder data flows” to medical research. Disputes arose as to what “privacy” actually meant at the time. It took years for the group to narrow down the scope of its mandate to something manageable and coherent.

Gus Hosein, current executive director, describes the 90’s as a time when the organization “just knew that it was fighting against something.” He became part of the loose collective in 1996, three days after moving to the UK from New Haven, Connecticut, thanks to a chance encounter with Davies at the London Economics School. For the first thirteen years he worked with PI, he says, the group’s headquarters was the school pub.

They were fighting then some of the same battles that are back in the news cycle today, such as the U.S. government wanting to ban encryption, calling it a tool for criminals to hide their communications from law enforcement. “[We were] fighting against the Clinton Administration and its cryptography policy, fighting against new intersections of law, or proposals in countries X, Y and Z, and almost every day you would find something to fight around,” he says.

Just as privacy issues stemming from the dot com boom were starting to stabilize, 9/11 happened. That’s when Hosein says “the shit hit the fan.”

In the immediate wake of that tragedy, Washington pushed through the Patriot Act and the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, setting an international precedent of invasive pat-downs and extensive monitoring in the name of anti-terrorism. Hosein, being an American, followed the laws closely, and the group started issuing criticism of what it considered unreasonable searches. In the UK, a public debate about issuing national identification cards sprung up. PI fought it vehemently.

“All of a sudden we’re being called upon to respond to core policy-making in Western governments, so whereas policy and surveillance were often left to some tech expert within the Department of Justice or whatever, now it had gone to mainstream policy,” he says. “We were overwhelmed because we were still just a ragtag bunch of people trying to fight fights without funding, and we were taking on the might of the executive arm of government.”

The era was marked by a collective struggle to catch up. “I don’t think anyone had any real successes in that era,” Hosein says.

But around 2008, the group’s advocacy work in India, Thailand and the Philippines started to gain the attention of donors, and the team decided it was time to organize. The three staff members then started the formal process of becoming a charity, after being registered as a corporation for ten years. By the time it got its first office in 2011 (around the time its founder, Davies, walked away to pursue other ventures) the Arab Spring was dominating international headlines.

“With the Arab Spring and the rise of attention to human rights and technology, that’s when PI actually started to realize our vision, and become an organization that could grow,” Hosein says. “Four years ago we had three employees, and now we have 16 people,” he says with a hint of pride.

***

“This is a real vindication for [Edward] Snowden,” Eric King, PI’s deputy director says about one of the organization’s recent legal victories over the UK’s foremost digital spy agency, known as the Government Communications Headquarters or GCHQ.

PI used the documents made public by Snowden to get the British court that oversees GCHQ to determine that all intelligence sharing between GCHQ and the National Security Administration (NSA) was illegal up until December 2014. Ironically, the court went on to say that the sharing was only illegal because of lack of public disclosure of the program. Now that details of the program were made public thanks to the lawsuit, the court said, the operation is now legal and GCHQ can keep doing what it was doing.

“It’s like they’re creating the law on the fly,” King says. “[The UK government] is knowingly breaking the law and then retroactively justifying themselves. Even though we got the court to admit this whole program was illegal, the things they’re saying now are wholly inadequate to protect our privacy in this country.”

Nevertheless, it was a “highly significant ruling,” says Elizabeth Knight, Legal Director of fellow UK-based civil liberties organization Open Rights Group. “It was the first time the [courts have] found the UK’s intelligence services to be in breach of human rights law,” she says. “The ruling is a welcome first step towards demonstrating that the UK government’s surveillance practices breach human rights law.”

In an email, a GCHQ spokesperson downplayed the significance of the ruling, saying that PI only won the case in one respect: on a “transparency issue,” rather than on the substance of the data sharing program. “The rulings re-affirm that the processes and safeguards within these regimes were fully adequate at all times, so we have not therefore needed to make any changes to policy or practice as a result of the judgement,” the spokesperson says.

Before coming on board four years ago, King, a 25-year old Wales native, worked at Reprieve, a non-profit that provides legal support to prisoners. Some of its clients are at Guantanamo Bay and other off-the-grid prisons, something that made him mindful of security concerns when the group was communicating with clients. King worried that every time he made a call to his clients, they were being monitored. “No one could answer those questions, and that’s what got me going on this,” says King.

Right now, he tells me, most of the group’s legal actions have to do with fighting the “Five Eyes”– the nickname given to the intertwined intelligence networks of the UK, Canada, the US, Australia and New Zealand. One of the campaigns, stemming from the lawsuit against GCHQ that established a need for transparency, is asking GCHQ to confirm if the agency illegally collected information about the people who signed a “Did the GCHQ Illegally Spy On You?” petition. So far, 10,000 people have signed up to be told whether their communications or online activity were collected by the UK spy agency when it conducted mass surveillance of the Internet. If a court actually forces GCHQ to confirm whether those individuals were spied on, PI will then ask that all retrieved data be deleted from the database.

“It’s such an important campaign not only because people have the right to know, but it’s going to bring it home to people and politicians that regular, everyday people are caught up in this international scandal,” King says. “You don’t even have to be British to be caught up in it. People all over the world are being tracked in that program.”

Eerke Boiten, a senior lecturer at the interdisciplinary Cyber Security Centre at the University of Kent, says that considering recent legal victories, he can’t write off the effort, even if he would have dismissed it just a year ago.

“We have now finally seen some breakthroughs in transparency in response to Snowden, and the sense that intelligence oversight needs an overhaul is increasing,” he wrote in an email to me. “So although the [British government] will do its best to shore up the GCHQ legal position to ensure it doesn’t need to respond to this, their job will be harder than before.”

“Privacy International have a recent record of pushing the right legal buttons,” he says. “They may win again.”

A GCHQ spokesperson says that the agency will “of course comply with any direction or order” a court might give it, stemming from the campaign.

King is also the head of PI’s research arm– organizing in-depth investigations into national surveillance ecosystems, in tandem with partner groups in countries around the world. The partners hail from places as disparate as Kenya and Mexico. One recently released report features testimonials from people who reported being heavily surveilled in Morocco. Another coming out of Colombia will be more of an “exposé,” with previously unreported details on surveillance in that country, he says.

And then there’s the stuff that King pioneered: the method of sneaking into industry conferences by using a shadow company. He developed the technique Omanovic is using. King can’t go to the conferences undercover anymore because his face is now too well known. When asked why he started sneaking into the shows, he says: “Law enforcement doesn’t like talking about [surveillance]. Governments don’t talk about it. And for the most part our engagement with companies is limited to when we sue them,” he laughs.

When it comes to the surveillance field, you would be hard pressed to find a company that does exactly what it says it does, King tells me. So when he or someone else at PI sets up a fake company, they expect to get about as much scrutiny as the next ambiguous, potentially official organization that lines up behind them.

Collectively, PI has been blacklisted and been led out of a few conferences over the past four years they have been doing this, he estimates.

“If we have to navigate some spooky places to get what we need, then that’s what we’ll do,” he says. Sometimes you have to walk through a dark room to turn on a light. Privacy International sees a world with a lot of dark rooms.

“Being shadowy is acceptable in this world.”

GreatCannon-China

Shhh… China’s Powerful “Great Cannon” to Censor the Internet

Check out the related New York Times coverage and original Citizen Lab report.

Europol-NetworkShutDown

Shhh… Shutting Down Network of 12,000 Computers Used by Cyber-criminals

No arrest yet but the good news is that the US and Europe have, via the FBI and Europol’s European Cybercrime Center, dismantled on Wednesday a network of as many as 12,000 computers that cyber-criminals used to elude security firms and law enforcement agencies for some years. Check out the video clip and Bloomberg article below.

Meanwhile, recall yesterday’s blog on data breach and the 22 countries where stolen data were most frequently accessed.


Police Shut Europe Computer Network Enabling Theft, Extortion

by Cornelius RahnChris Strohm

European and U.S. police shut down a computer network on Wednesday used by cybercriminals to facilitate the theft of banking passwords and extortion which had eluded security companies and law enforcement for years.

Agents of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and the European Cybercrime Center seized servers across Europe that had been responsible for spreading malware on thousands of mainly U.S.-based victim computers, said Raj Samani, chief technology officer for Intel Corp.’s security unit in the region, which helped prepare the takedown.

Governments are responding to increasing frequency and impact of online attacks by setting up dedicated cybercrime units and working with security-software companies to weed out threats before more damage is done. The network functioned as a portal offered by criminals to others seeking to spread their own malware, according to Paul Gillen, head of operations at Europol’s European Cybercrime Centre.

“If that carried on in earnest, it had great potential from a criminal perspective,” Gillen said. “People set up infrastructure like that and rent it out to others, saying ‘here are a lot of infected computers so you can upload all your banking malware or other things on them.’”

FBI and Europol said there had been no arrests yet as it was too early to say who the perpetrators were, or what damage the malware had caused. Police will now sift through the data gained from the seized machines before notifying victims and determining the culprits, according to Gillen.

The malicious code, labeled W32/Worm-AAEH, was first detected in 2009 but was difficult to weed out because it changed its shape as many as six times a day, Intel’s Samani said. The worm had evolved capabilities such as shutting down connections with servers from antivirus companies and disabling tools that could terminate it, he said.

Even after the control servers are no longer available to the criminals to morph existing pieces of malware, users must still clean up their machines. Computer owners can stop the software’s core function by setting rules that prevent new software from running automatically and shutting certain ports, Intel said.

WhiteHouse-Russian-FreakingNews

Shhh… Turning the White House into a Russian House?

Photo (above) credit: http://www.freakingnews.com

Here’s a breaking news (below) from the CNN:

WhiteHouse-Russian

How the U.S. thinks Russians hacked the White House

By Evan Perez and Shimon Prokupecz, CNN
Updated 0037 GMT (0737 HKT) April 8, 2015

Washington (CNN)Russian hackers behind the damaging cyber intrusion of the State Department in recent months used that perch to penetrate sensitive parts of the White House computer system, according to U.S. officials briefed on the investigation.

While the White House has said the breach only affected an unclassified system, that description belies the seriousness of the intrusion. The hackers had access to sensitive information such as real-time non-public details of the president’s schedule. While such information is not classified, it is still highly sensitive and prized by foreign intelligence agencies, U.S. officials say.

The White House in October said it noticed suspicious activity in the unclassified network that serves the executive office of the president. The system has been shut down periodically to allow for security upgrades.

The FBI, Secret Service and U.S. intelligence agencies are all involved in investigating the breach, which they consider among the most sophisticated attacks ever launched against U.S. government systems. ​The intrusion was routed through computers around the world, as hackers often do to hide their tracks, but investigators found tell-tale codes and other markers that they believe point to hackers working for the Russian government.

National Security Council spokesman Mark Stroh didn’t confirm the Russian hack, but he did say that “any such activity is something we take very seriously.”

“In this case, as we made clear at the time, we took immediate measures to evaluate and mitigate the activity,” he said. “As has been our position, we are not going to comment on [this] article’s attribution to specific actors.”

Neither the U.S. State Department nor the Russian Embassy immediately responded to a request for comment.

Ben Rhodes, President Barack Obama’s deputy national security adviser, said the White House’s use of a separate system for classified information protected sensitive national security-related items from being obtained by hackers.

“We do not believe that our classified systems were compromised,” Rhodes told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Tuesday.

“We’re constantly updating our security measures on our unclassified system, but we’re frankly told to act as if we need not put information that’s sensitive on that system,” he said. “In other words, if you’re going to do something classified, you have to do it on one email system, one phone system. Frankly, you have to act as if information could be compromised if it’s not on the classified system.”

To get to the White House, the hackers first broke into the State Department, investigators believe.

The State Department computer system has been bedeviled by signs that despite efforts to lock them out, the Russian hackers have been able to reenter the system. One official says the Russian hackers have “owned” the State Department system for months and it is not clear the hackers have been fully eradicated from the system.

As in many hacks, investigators believe the White House intrusion began with a phishing email that was launched using a State Department email account that the hackers had taken over, according to the U.S. officials.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, in a speech at an FBI cyberconference in January, warned government officials and private businesses to teach employees what “spear phishing” looks like.

“So many times, the Chinese and others get access to our systems just by pretending to be someone else and then asking for access, and someone gives it to them,” Clapper said.

The ferocity of the Russian intrusions in recent months caught U.S. officials by surprise, leading to a reassessment of the cybersecurity threat as the U.S. and Russia increasingly confront each other over issues ranging from the Russian aggression in Ukraine to the U.S. military operations in Syria.

The attacks on the State and White House systems is one reason why Clapper told a Senate hearing in February that the “Russian cyberthreat is more severe than we have previously assessed.”

The revelations about the State Department hacks also come amid controversy over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server to conduct government business during her time in office. Critics say her private server likely was even less safe than the State system. The Russian breach is believed to have come after Clinton departed State.

But hackers have long made Clinton and her associates targets.

The website The Smoking Gun first reported in 2013 that a hacker known as Guccifer had broken into the AOL email of Sidney Blumenthal, a friend and advisor to the Clintons, and published emails Blumenthal sent to Hillary Clinton’s private account. The emails included sensitive memos on foreign policy issues and were the first public revelation of the existence of Hillary Clinton’s private email address​ now at the center of controversy: hdr22@clintonemail.com. The address is no longer in use.

Wesley Bruer contributed to this report

Snowden-JohnOliver

Shhh… Edward Snowden on John Oliver’s ‘Last Week Tonight’

Have to feel sorry for Snowden here…

Google-NSA-relations

Shhh… Emails Reveal Cozy Google-NSA Relationship on Previously Denied High-Level Policy Discussions

Here’s an exclusive story (below) from Al Jazeera neither Google nor the NSA wants you to know.

Email-NSA-Google

Email-NSA-Google2

Email-NSA-Google3

Exclusive: Emails reveal close Google relationship with NSA

National Security Agency head and Internet giant’s executives have coordinated through high-level policy discussions

May 6, 2014 5:00AM ET
by Jason Leopold

Email exchanges between National Security Agency Director Gen. Keith Alexander and Google executives Sergey Brin and Eric Schmidt suggest a far cozier working relationship between some tech firms and the U.S. government than was implied by Silicon Valley brass after last year’s revelations about NSA spying.

Disclosures by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden about the agency’s vast capability for spying on Americans’ electronic communications prompted a number of tech executives whose firms cooperated with the government to insist they had done so only when compelled by a court of law.

But Al Jazeera has obtained two sets of email communications dating from a year before Snowden became a household name that suggest not all cooperation was under pressure.

On the morning of June 28, 2012, an email from Alexander invited Schmidt to attend a four-hour-long “classified threat briefing” on Aug. 8 at a “secure facility in proximity to the San Jose, CA airport.”

“The meeting discussion will be topic-specific, and decision-oriented, with a focus on Mobility Threats and Security,” Alexander wrote in the email, obtained under a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, the first of dozens of communications between the NSA chief and Silicon Valley executives that the agency plans to turn over.

Alexander, Schmidt and other industry executives met earlier in the month, according to the email. But Alexander wanted another meeting with Schmidt and “a small group of CEOs” later that summer because the government needed Silicon Valley’s help.

“About six months ago, we began focusing on the security of mobility devices,” Alexander wrote. “A group (primarily Google, Apple and Microsoft) recently came to agreement on a set of core security principles. When we reach this point in our projects we schedule a classified briefing for the CEOs of key companies to provide them a brief on the specific threats we believe can be mitigated and to seek their commitment for their organization to move ahead … Google’s participation in refinement, engineering and deployment of the solutions will be essential.”

Jennifer Granick, director of civil liberties at Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society, said she believes information sharing between industry and the government is “absolutely essential” but “at the same time, there is some risk to user privacy and to user security from the way the vulnerability disclosure is done.”

The challenge facing government and industry was to enhance security without compromising privacy, Granick said. The emails between Alexander and Google executives, she said, show “how informal information sharing has been happening within this vacuum where there hasn’t been a known, transparent, concrete, established methodology for getting security information into the right hands.”

The classified briefing cited by Alexander was part of a secretive government initiative known as the Enduring Security Framework (ESF), and his email provides some rare information about what the ESF entails, the identities of some participant tech firms and the threats they discussed.

Alexander explained that the deputy secretaries of the Department of Defense, Homeland Security and “18 US CEOs” launched the ESF in 2009 to “coordinate government/industry actions on important (generally classified) security issues that couldn’t be solved by individual actors alone.”

“For example, over the last 18 months, we (primarily Intel, AMD [Advanced Micro Devices], HP [Hewlett-Packard], Dell and Microsoft on the industry side) completed an effort to secure the BIOS of enterprise platforms to address a threat in that area.”

“BIOS” is an acronym for “basic input/output system,” the system software that initializes the hardware in a personal computer before the operating system starts up. NSA cyberdefense chief Debora Plunkett in December disclosed that the agency had thwarted a “BIOS plot” by a “nation-state,” identified as China, to brick U.S. computers. That plot, she said, could have destroyed the U.S. economy. “60 Minutes,” which broke the story, reported that the NSA worked with unnamed “computer manufacturers” to address the BIOS software vulnerability.

But some cybersecurity experts questioned the scenario outlined by Plunkett.

“There is probably some real event behind this, but it’s hard to tell, because we don’t have any details,” wrote Robert Graham, CEO of the penetration-testing firm Errata Security in Atlanta, on his blog in December. “It”s completely false in the message it is trying to convey. What comes out is gibberish, as any technical person can confirm.”

And by enlisting the NSA to shore up their defenses, those companies may have made themselves more vulnerable to the agency’s efforts to breach them for surveillance purposes.

“I think the public should be concerned about whether the NSA was really making its best efforts, as the emails claim, to help secure enterprise BIOS and mobile devices and not holding the best vulnerabilities close to their chest,” said Nate Cardozo, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s digital civil liberties team.

He doesn’t doubt that the NSA was trying to secure enterprise BIOS, but he suggested that the agency, for its own purposes, was “looking for weaknesses in the exact same products they’re trying to secure.”

The NSA “has no business helping Google secure its facilities from the Chinese and at the same time hacking in through the back doors and tapping the fiber connections between Google base centers,” Cardozo said. “The fact that it’s the same agency doing both of those things is in obvious contradiction and ridiculous.” He recommended dividing offensive and defensive functions between two agencies.

Two weeks after the “60 Minutes” broadcast, the German magazine Der Spiegel, citing documents obtained by Snowden, reported that the NSA inserted back doors into BIOS, doing exactly what Plunkett accused a nation-state of doing during her interview.

Google’s Schmidt was unable to attend to the mobility security meeting in San Jose in August 2012.

“General Keith.. so great to see you.. !” Schmidt wrote. “I’m unlikely to be in California that week so I’m sorry I can’t attend (will be on the east coast). Would love to see you another time. Thank you !” Since the Snowden disclosures, Schmidt has been critical of the NSA and said its surveillance programs may be illegal.

Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, did attend that briefing. Foreign Policy reported a month later that Dempsey and other government officials — no mention of Alexander — were in Silicon Valley “picking the brains of leaders throughout the valley and discussing the need to quickly share information on cyber threats.” Foreign Policy noted that the Silicon Valley executives in attendance belonged to the ESF. The story did not say mobility threats and security was the top agenda item along with a classified threat briefing.

A week after the gathering, Dempsey said during a Pentagon press briefing, “I was in Silicon Valley recently, for about a week, to discuss vulnerabilities and opportunities in cyber with industry leaders … They agreed — we all agreed on the need to share threat information at network speed.”

Google co-founder Sergey Brin attended previous meetings of the ESF group but because of a scheduling conflict, according to Alexander’s email, he also could not attend the Aug. 8 briefing in San Jose, and it’s unknown if someone else from Google was sent.

A few months earlier, Alexander had emailed Brin to thank him for Google’s participation in the ESF.

“I see ESF’s work as critical to the nation’s progress against the threat in cyberspace and really appreciate Vint Cerf [Google’s vice president and chief Internet evangelist], Eric Grosse [vice president of security engineering] and Adrian Ludwig’s [lead engineer for Android security] contributions to these efforts during the past year,” Alexander wrote in a Jan. 13, 2012, email.

“You recently received an invitation to the ESF Executive Steering Group meeting, which will be held on January 19, 2012. The meeting is an opportunity to recognize our 2012 accomplishments and set direction for the year to come. We will be discussing ESF’s goals and specific targets for 2012. We will also discuss some of the threats we see and what we are doing to mitigate those threats … Your insights, as a key member of the Defense Industrial Base, are valuable to ensure ESF’s efforts have measurable impact.”

A Google representative declined to answer specific questions about Brin’s and Schmidt’s relationship with Alexander or about Google’s work with the government.

“We work really hard to protect our users from cyberattacks, and we always talk to experts — including in the U.S. government — so we stay ahead of the game,” the representative said in a statement to Al Jazeera. “It’s why Sergey attended this NSA conference.”

Brin responded to Alexander the following day even though the head of the NSA didn’t use the appropriate email address when contacting the co-chairman.

“Hi Keith, looking forward to seeing you next week. FYI, my best email address to use is [redacted],” Brin wrote. “The one your email went to — sergey.brin@google.com — I don’t really check.”

Obama-Signs

Shhh… Did Obama Know What He’s Doing When He Signed the new Executive Order on Cybercrimes?

Was that a brainfart?

President Barack Obama signed an executive order Wednesday that permits the US to impose economic sanctions on individuals and entities anywhere in the world for destructive cyber-crimes and online corporate espionage – see the Bloomberg article below.

Now what’s this about? An all-out effort on cyber-criminals or just plain window dressing?

For all their abilities to trace the attacks right down to the identities of the hackers, have the US authorities been able to do anything? Recall the Mandiant Report two years ago that allegedly traced Chinese hackers down to the very unit of a military base in Shanghai?

Hackers-Chinese

Recall also the five Chinese military hackers (above) on the FBI wanted list last year? Where has that led to (see video clip below)? And what about the alleged North Korean hacks on Sony Pictures?

With all good intent and seriousness to go on the offensive, Obama has yet to put his words into action on this front…


Hackers, Corporate Spies Targeted by Obama Sanctions Order

by Justin SinkChris Strohm

President Barack Obama signed an executive order Wednesday allowing the use of economic sanctions for the first time against perpetrators of destructive cyber-attacks and online corporate espionage.

That will let the Treasury Department freeze the assets of people, companies or other entities overseas identified as the source of cybercrimes. The federal government also will be able to bar U.S. citizens and companies from doing business with those targeted for sanctions.

“Cyberthreats pose one of the most serious economic and national security challenges to the United States,” Obama said in a statement. “As we have seen in recent months, these threats can emanate from a range of sources and target our critical infrastructure, our companies and our citizens.”

Under the order, sanctions only will be used if a cyber-attack threatens to harm U.S. national security, foreign policy or the broader economy. It’s aimed at cybercriminals who target critical infrastructure, disrupt major computer networks, or are involved in the “significant” theft of trade secrets or intellectual property for competitive advantage or private financial gain.

Data Breaches

The administration is using the threat of sanctions to help prevent large-scale data theft after breaches at major U.S. corporations, including retailer Target Corp., health-insurer Anthem Inc. and home-improvement chain Home Depot Inc. It’s also a recognition that companies are facing increasingly destructive attacks, such as the hack against Sony Pictures Entertainment that crippled thousands of computers and delayed release of a comedy movie.

Sanctions imposed under the executive order will help disrupt the operations of hackers who may be in countries outside the reach of U.S. law enforcement, John Carlin, U.S. assistant attorney general for national security, said in a phone interview.

Banks and other companies connected to the U.S. financial system will be required to prohibit sanctioned hackers and entities from using their services, cutting them off from valuable resources, Carlin said.

“It’s a new powerful tool and we intend do to use it,” Carlin said. “It has the capability to significantly raise the cost for those who steal or benefit through cybercrime.”

Transcends Borders

The unique aspect of the executive order is that it allows the U.S. to impose sanctions on individuals or entities over hacking attacks regardless of where they are located, White House Cybersecurity Coordinator Michael Daniel told reporters on a conference call. While other sanctions are tied to a particular country or group of persons, hacking attacks transcend borders.

“What sets this executive order apart is that it is focused on malicious cyber-activity,” Daniel said. “What we’re trying to do is enable us to have a new way of both deterring and imposing costs on malicious cyber-actors wherever they may be.”

The order is a signal of the administration’s “clear intent to go on offense against the full range of very serious cyberthreats that are out there,” said Peter Harrell, the former principal deputy assistant secretary for sanctions at the State Department.

“This is a message that if folks around the world don’t cut out these activities, they’re going to find themselves cut off from the American banking system,” Harrell said in an interview.

Hidden Identities

Harrell said there are potential stumbling blocks to effective implementation. For one, hackers work hard to conceal their identity. Even though the U.S. and private companies have improved their ability to trace attacks, attribution can sometimes be difficult.

Daniel acknowledged that determining who is actually behind hacking attacks is still a challenge but said the U.S. is getting better at it.

In other cases, diplomatic considerations may be at play. The administration’s decision in 2014 to file criminal charges against five members of the Chinese military over their role in cyber-espionage strained relations with Beijing.

In January, Obama authorized economic sanctions against 10 North Korean officials and government entities in connection with the Sony attack. The North Korean government has denied any involvement in the Sony case.

Overseas Governments

Harrell said the use of sanctions can provide leverage as the U.S. registers complaints with governments overseas about cyber-attacks. Targeted use of the new sanctions powers also may help deter criminals.

“A number of these cyber-attacks are organized by fairly significant actors out there — large hacking collectives, or organized by foreign intelligence agencies,” Harrell said. “They all have real potential costs if they were put on sanctions lists.”

The Obama administration has been under pressure to take action to help companies protect their networks from cyber-attacks. In early March, Premera Blue Cross announced that hackers may have accessed 11 million records, including customer Social Security numbers, bank account data and medical information.

Home Depot in September said 56 million payment cards and 53 million e-mail addresses had been stolen by hackers. And just days earlier, JPMorgan Chase & Co. announced a data breach affecting 76 million households and 7 million small businesses.

The highest-profile breach, however, may have been the hacking of Sony Pictures. The U.S. government said North Korean hackers broke into the studio’s network and then exposed e-mails and private employment and salary records. U.S. authorities said it was in retaliation for plans to release “The Interview,” a satirical film depicting the assassination of leader Kim Jong Un.

Facebook-EUprivacyLaws

Shhh… Facebook Violates EU Law as it Tracks Everyone Including Logged Out Users and Visitors

Continuing on the Facebook topic again, check out the video clip and the exclusive Guardian article below:

Facebook ‘tracks all visitors, breaching EU law’

Exclusive: People without Facebook accounts, logged out users, and EU users who have explicitly opted out of tracking are all being tracked, report says

Facebook tracks the web browsing of everyone who visits a page on its site even if the user does not have an account or has explicitly opted out of tracking in the EU, extensive research commissioned by the Belgian data protection agency has revealed.

The report, from researchers at the Centre of Interdisciplinary Law and ICT (ICRI) and the Computer Security and Industrial Cryptography department (Cosic) at the University of Leuven, and the media, information and telecommunication department (Smit) at Vrije Universiteit Brussels, was commissioned after an original draft report revealed Facebook’s privacy policy breaches European law.

The researchers now claim that Facebook tracks computers of users without their consent, whether they are logged in to Facebook or not, and even if they are not registered users of the site or explicitly opt out in Europe. Facebook tracks users in order to target advertising.

The issue revolves around Facebook’s use of its social plugins such as the “Like” button, which has been placed on more than 13m sites including health and government sites.

Facebook places tracking cookies on users’ computers if they visit any page on the facebook.com domain, including fan pages or other pages that do not require a Facebook account to visit.

When a user visits a third-party site that carries one of Facebook’s social plug-ins, it detects and sends the tracking cookies back to Facebook – even if the user does not interact with the Like button, Facebook Login or other extension of the social media site.

EU privacy law states that prior consent must be given before issuing a cookie or performing tracking, unless it is necessary for either the networking required to connect to the service (“criterion A”) or to deliver a service specifically requested by the user (“criterion B”).

The same law requires websites to notify users on their first visit to a site that it uses cookies, requesting consent to do so.

A cookie is a small file placed on a user’s computer by a website that stores settings, previous activities and other small amounts of information needed by the site. They are sent to the site on each visit and can therefore be used to identify a user’s computer and track their movements across the web.

“We collect information when you visit or use third-party websites and apps that use our services. This includes information about the websites and apps you visit, your use of our services on those websites and apps, as well as information the developer or publisher of the app or website provides to you or us,” states Facebook’s data usage policy, which was updated this year.

Facebook’s tracking practices have ‘no legal basis’

An opinion published by Article 29, the pan-European data regulator working party, in 2012 stated that unless delivering a service specifically requested by the user, social plug-ins must have consent before placing a cookie. “Since by definition social plug-ins are destined to members of a particular social network, they are not of any use for non-members, and therefore do not match ‘criterion B’ for those users.”

The same applies for users of Facebook who are logged out at the time, while logged-in users should only be served a “session cookie” that expires when the user logs out or closes their browser, according to Article 29.

The Article 29 working party has also said that cookies set for “security purposes” can only fall under the consent exemptions if they are essential for a service explicitly requested by the user – not general security of the service.

Facebook’s cookie policy updated this year states that the company still uses cookies if users do not have a Facebook account, or are logged out, to “enable us to deliver, select, evaluate, measure and understand the ads we serve on and off Facebook”.

The social network tracks its users for advertising purposes across non-Facebook sites by default. Users can opt out of ad tracking, but an opt-out mechanism “is not an adequate mechanism to obtain average users informed consent”, according to Article 29.

“European legislation is really quite clear on this point. To be legally valid, an individual’s consent towards online behavioural advertising must be opt-in,” explained Brendan Van Alsenoy, a researcher at ICRI and one of the report’s author.

“Facebook cannot rely on users’ inaction (ie not opting out through a third-party website) to infer consent. As far as non-users are concerned, Facebook really has no legal basis whatsoever to justify its current tracking practices.”

Opt-out mechanism actually enables tracking for the non-tracked

The researchers also analysed the opt-out mechanism used by Facebook and many other internet companies including Google and Microsoft.

Users wanting to opt out of behavioural tracking are directed to sites run by the Digital Advertising Alliance in the US, Digital Advertising Alliance of Canada in Canada or the European Digital Advertising Alliance in the EU, each of which allow bulk opting-out from 100 companies.

But the researchers discovered that far from opting out of tracking, Facebook places a new cookie on the computers of users who have not been tracked before.

“If people who are not being tracked by Facebook use the ‘opt out’ mechanism proposed for the EU, Facebook places a long-term, uniquely identifying cookie, which can be used to track them for the next two years,” explained Günes Acar from Cosic, who also co-wrote the report. “What’s more, we found that Facebook does not place any long-term identifying cookie on the opt-out sites suggested by Facebook for US and Canadian users.”

The finding was confirmed by Steven Englehardt, a researcher at Princeton University’s department of computer science who was not involved in the report: “I started with a fresh browsing session and received an additional ‘datr’ cookie that appears capable of uniquely identifying users on the UK version of the European opt-out site. This cookie was not present during repeat tests with a fresh session on the US or Canadian version.”

Facebook sets an opt-out cookie on all the opt-out sites, but this cookie cannot be used for tracking individuals since it does not contain a unique identifier. Why Facebook places the “datr” cookie on computers of EU users who opt out is unknown.

‘Privacy-friendly’ design

For users worried about tracking, third-party browser add-ons that block tracking are available, says Acar: “Examples include Privacy Badger, Ghostery and Disconnect. Privacy Badger replaces social plug-ins with privacy preserving counterparts so that users can still use social plug-ins, but not be tracked until they actually click on them.

“We argue that it is the legal duty of Facebook to design its services and components in a privacy-friendly way,” Van Alsenoy added. “This means designing social plug-ins in such a way that information about individual’s personal browsing activities outside of Facebook are not unnecessarily exposed.”

Facebook is being investigated by the Dutch data protection authority, which asked the social network to delay rollout of its new privacy policy, and is being probed by the Article 29 working party.

A Facebook spokesperson said: “This report contains factual inaccuracies. The authors have never contacted us, nor sought to clarify any assumptions upon which their report is based. Neither did they invite our comment on the report before making it public. We have explained in detail the inaccuracies in the earlier draft report (after it was published) directly to the Belgian DPA, who we understand commissioned it, and have offered to meet with them to explain why it is incorrect, but they have declined to meet or engage with us. However, we remain willing to engage with them and hope they will be prepared to update their work in due course.”

“Earlier this year we updated our terms and policies to make them more clear and concise, to reflect new product features and to highlight how we’re expanding people’s control over advertising. We’re confident the updates comply with applicable laws including EU law.”

Van Alsenoy and Acar, authors of the study, told the Guardian: “We welcome comments via the contact email address listed within the report. Several people have already reached out to provide suggestions and ideas, which we really appreciate.”

“To date, we have not been contacted by Facebook directly nor have we received any meeting request. We’re not surprised that Facebook holds a different opinion as to what European data protection laws require. But if Facebook feels today’s releases contain factual errors, we’re happy to receive any specific remarks it would like to make.”

Facebook-RichardStallman

Shhh… Richard Stallman: Why Facebook is Mass Surveillance

Let’s continue on the Facebook topic from yesterday and hear it this time from software freedom activist and computer programmer Richard Stallman (also known as rms).

Facebook-Addict

Shhh… Why You Should Forget Facebook for Good?

Do you need convincing reasons to leave Facebook for good? Look no further than this video clip and Guardian article below.

To be honest, I signed up to Facebook only late last year but used it exclusively to promote this blog. Yet, I’m always having second thoughts…

Leave Facebook if you don’t want to be spied on, warns EU

European Commission admits Safe Harbour framework cannot ensure privacy of EU citizens’ data when sent to the US by American internet firms

Samuel Gibbs
@SamuelGibbs

Thursday 26 March 2015 19.11 GMT

The European Commission has warned EU citizens that they should close their Facebook accounts if they want to keep information private from US security services, finding that current Safe Harbour legislation does not protect citizen’s data.

The comments were made by EC attorney Bernhard Schima in a case brought by privacy campaigner Maximilian Schrems, looking at whether the data of EU citizens should be considered safe if sent to the US in a post-Snowden revelation landscape.

“You might consider closing your Facebook account, if you have one,” Schima told attorney general Yves Bot in a hearing of the case at the European court of justice in Luxembourg.

When asked directly, the commission could not confirm to the court that the Safe Harbour rules provide adequate protection of EU citizens’ data as it currently stands.

The US no longer qualifies

The case, dubbed “the Facebook data privacy case”, concerns the current Safe Harbour framework, which covers the transmission of EU citizens’ data across the Atlantic to the US. Without the framework, it is against EU law to transmit private data outside of the EU. The case collects complaints lodged against Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Microsoft-owned Skype and Yahoo.

Schrems maintains that companies operating inside the EU should not be allowed to transfer data to the US under Safe Harbour protections – which state that US data protection rules are adequate if information is passed by companies on a “self-certify” basis – because the US no longer qualifies for such a status.

The case argues that the US government’s Prism data collection programme, revealed by Edward Snowden in the NSA files, which sees EU citizens’ data held by US companies passed on to US intelligence agencies, breaches the EU’s Data Protection Directive “adequacy” standard for privacy protection, meaning that the Safe Harbour framework no longer applies.

Poland and a few other member states as well as advocacy group Digital Rights Ireland joined Schrems in arguing that the Safe Harbour framework cannot ensure the protection of EU citizens’ data and therefore is in violation of the two articles of the Data Protection Directive.

The commission, however, argued that Safe Harbour is necessary both politically and economically and that it is still a work in progress. The EC and the Ireland data protection watchdog argue that the EC should be left to reform it with a 13-point plan to ensure the privacy of EU citizens’ data.

“There have been a spate of cases from the ECJ and other courts on data privacy and retention showing the judiciary as being more than willing to be a disrupting influence,” said Paula Barrett, partner and data protection expert at law firm Eversheds. “Bringing down the safe harbour mechanism might seem politically and economically ill-conceived, but as the decision of the ECJ in the so-called ‘right to be forgotten’ case seems to reinforce that isn’t a fetter which the ECJ is restrained by.”

An opinion on the Safe Harbour framework from the ECJ is expected by 24 June.

Facebook declined to comment.

MacBookAir-USB-c

Shhh… The USB-C Makes those new MacBooks More Vulnerable

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.

MacBookAir-USB-c2

The NSA Is Going to Love These USB-C Charging Cables

Mario Aguilar
3/17/15 12:35pm

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.

Hacked

Shhh… Anatomy of a Hack – What Should You Do After You’re Hacked?

Ever wonder what happens when one’s hacked?

Here’s an insightful chilling account of how one victim attempted to trace the hacker who invaded into his onlife life and Bitcoin wallet.

Hacked-AnatomyOfAHack

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.

Mail.com

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, swagger@mailinator.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.

AT&T

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 partap@mail.com 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.

Coinbase

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.


Twitter

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.

DeptOftheInternet

Shhh… Department of the Internet: How the Government Has Taken Over Our Lives

It’s mid-week… thought I should share something light for a change: an alternative comic look into privacy and the government takeover of the internet in our daily lives.

Blurred-pics

Shhh… Fujitsu Can Detect Faces in Blurred Security Videos

Above photo credit: http://background-kid.com/blurred-people-background.html

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:

FaceMask

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.

ProtonMail

Shhh… ProtonMail: Email Privacy and Encryption

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.

But curiously, it seems so much like PGP.

Obama-China

Shhh… How Come Obama Suddenly Understood & Explained to China Why Backdoors into Encryption is Really Bad?

“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

Trevor Timm
@trevortimm
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?

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Shhh… How to Make Yourself Invisible to Facial Recognition with the New “Privacy Glasses”?

Forget Google Glass, there’s something more fun and useful (picture above) but first, consider this picture below.

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It may sounds like the Hollywood movie Matrix but let’s face it, everyone would sooner or later have their photos captured in the public space.

Consider for example, the FBI’s US$1 billion futuristic facial recognition program – the Next Generation Identification (NGI) System – was already up and running with the aim to capture photographs of every Americans and everyone on US soils.

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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.

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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.

Find out more from this article below.

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