The Conversation

Technology: Discussion of technology events and developments.

Whoops: Russian hackers exploit security flaw in Windows to spy on NATO for the past 5 years

Oct 14, 2014 7:57 AM PT

Good news: Microsoft is about to roll out a patch that fixes a security vulnerability that exists in every version of Windows except XP.  Bad news: a gang of Russian hackers, most likely working for Moscow, has been exploiting it to spy on various targets - including the Ukrainians and NATO - for the past five years.  

The Washington Post reports on the exploits of a group dubbed "SandWorm" (yes, sci-fi fans, it's a reference to "Dune"):

The group has been active since at least 2009, according to research by iSight Partners, a cybersecurity firm. Its targets in the recent campaign also included a Polish energy firm, a Western European government agency and a French telecommunications firm.

“This is consistent with espionage activity,” said iSight Senior Director Stephen Ward. “All indicators from a targeting and lures perspective would indicate espionage with Russian national interests.”

There is no indication that the group was behind a recent spate of intrusions into U.S. banks, including JPMorgan Chase, Ward said.

Current and former U.S. intelligence officials say the capabilities of Russian hackers are on par with those of the United States and Israel.

“It’s possible they’ve become more active in response to the Ukrainian situation,” said a former intelligence official. “And when you become more active, you increase your likelihood of getting caught.”

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Cyber warfare in the financial sector

Oct 10, 2014 8:44 AM PT

The stories about data theft at retail outlets such as Target and Home Depot - the latter of which, incidentally, resulted in a wave of fraudulent transactions, which means crooks are trying to use the stolen credit-card data - raised concerns because of their size, and because the stores turned out to be relatively soft targets for hackers.  As security reports revealed, including one prepared by the Department of Homeland Security, the hatches were not battened down.  There were clear points of vulnerability in the data infrastructure of the retail chains, including weaknesses at the local store level that could open pathways into corporate systems.  Some of these vulnerabilities seemed surprisingly obvious to those with knowledge of computer security, while others were obscure software and structural flaws that could understandably escape the notice of IT departments setting up computerized cash and inventory systems for a retail store.

But the financial sector?  Stealing data from those guys must be like robbing the gold out of Fort Knox, right? 

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Man vs. machine: the strange death of Air France Flight 447

Oct 2, 2014 2:51 PM PT

After a day of consuming increasingly disturbing Ebola news, how about an entirely different sort of horror story?  William Langeswiesche at Vanity Fair has an extensive, methodical, and terrifying account of the Air France Flight 447 crash from 2009, which resulted in 228 fatalities.  He argues it's the most significant airline disaster of recent years, as it spotlights the point at which automated systems fail, and pilots accustomed to using those systems can't cope with the confusing mass of data flung at them by previously helpful systems.

The article is nine solid Web pages of detail, including background, context, and a moment-to-moment account of the crash as compelling as any ghost story - you'll be silently yelling at the pilots to do simple, retroactively obvious things that could easily have averted the crisis, the same way the audience at a scary movie yells "DON'T GO IN THERE!" at the characters on the screen.  The length of the article contrasts with the brevity of the incident itself- only a couple of minutes elapsed between an ordinary flight in one of the world's most advanced jetliners, through mostly clear skies, and a stall that only the world's best pilots could have pulled out of.  And yet, nothing about the incident was truly catastrophic.  The flight crew was experienced and reasonably confident.  The only actual system failure came from ice crystals clogging up an airspeed sensor - a highly unusual problem that the sensors had already been modified to prevent, but the upgrade for Flight 447 was waiting in a maintenance hangar it would never reach.  The only immediate consequence of this failure was that the plane's powerful computer system momentarily lost its primary feed of airspeed data.

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How Big Data Could Either Solve Corporate Diversity Issues or Make Them Worse

Oct 1, 2014 9:08 AM PT

Are you feeling a bit paranoid about the use of data-mining tools to sift through huge piles of online information to predict or manipulate your behavior?  How would you feel if companies started using Big Data to find job applicants, with an eye toward increasing racial diversity?

I couldn't get three paragraphs into an article on the subject at National Journal before my hackles went up, and that was one paragraph before concerns about how it could all go horribly wrong were explored:

Humans are fallible, biased creatures, and even the most well-intentioned hiring managers have a strong tendency to hire "look like me, act like me" candidates.

Those unintended prejudices in recruitment—whether racial, gendered, or economic—are shortcomings that a growing number of big-data firms are hoping they can help solve with their massive number-crunching operations. By mining troves of personal and professional data, these companies claim they can not only match employers with A-plus job candidates, but help close diversity gaps in the workforce, too.

"Big data in the workplace poses some new risks, but it may yet turn out to be good news for traditionally disadvantaged job applicants," said David Robinson, a principal at Robinson + Yu, a consulting group that works to connect social justice and technology.

Still, concerns abound. Earlier this year, the White House released a landmark report on big data, warning that the exploding enterprise could—intentionally or not—allow companies to use data to discriminate against certain groups of people, particularly minorities and low-income groups. That's also the fear of the Federal Trade Commission, which held a workshop last week exploring the concept of "discrimination by algorithm."

"Big data can have consequences," FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez said. "Those consequences can be either enormously beneficial to individuals and society, or deeply detrimental."

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HealthCareDotGov got hacked

Sep 4, 2014 5:58 PM PT

The first hacker attack on the ObamaCare federal exchange website - at least, the first one the Administration is aware of, and willing to admit to - happened in July, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.  Reportedly one of the test servers got hacked, and while some malware was uploaded, we are assured no data was stolen.  

(Stop laughing about the "test servers."  They do test HealthCareDotGov nowadays, although that was evidently too much to ask before the damn thing launched.)

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Google Exec Wyler Exits Abruptly

Sep 3, 2014 4:53 AM PT

Considered a leader behind Google's "efforts to beam Internet connectivity across the globe via satellite," Greg Wyler left the company "abruptly" according to reports.

It remains unclear precisely why. There's more background here.

In another report, The Verge revealed Wyler reportedly left Google to work with SpaceX, but not as an actual employee. 

 SpaceX designs, manufactures and launches rockets and spacecraft. 

Wyler is the founder of O3b Networks, another company that also works on ways to bring internet access to the developing world.

Mystery of the Android attack towers

Sep 2, 2014 8:33 PM PT

Here's a little high-tech ghost story to give you chills, just in case you weren't already freaked out enough by the Nude Celebrity Hack, or the possible theft of a large trove of credit card numbers from Home Depot:

Typical smartphones have a number of potential data insecurities, caused by their constant efforts to connect with various networks, and the way they keep most of their background activities conveniently hidden from the user.  We just want the things to work.  We don't want our phone screens covered with impenetrable technobabble explaining exactly what the phone is doing at any given moment.

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Hackers break into cloud storage, unleash torrential rain of celebrity nude photos

Sep 1, 2014 1:45 PM PT

The Washington Post brings us a fresh lesson in the dangers of sending racy material into the Internet cloud, starring one of the most popular actresses in the world:

On Sunday, the Internet practically melted down when racy photos, allegedly of celebrities including “The Hunger Games” star Jennifer Lawrence, started surfacing around the Internet. As with any report of nude photos, people immediately questioned the authenticity. But the frenzy picked up when Lawrence’s publicist confirmed that these were stolen photos, and promised that there would be legal action.

“This is a flagrant violation of privacy. The authorities have been contacted and will prosecute anyone who posts the stolen photos of Jennifer Lawrence,” her representative said in a statement Sunday evening.

Buzzfeed reported that the Web forum 4chan was behind the leak, and that a “master list” of all the hacked celebrity photos includes Ariana Grande, Victoria Justice, Kim Kardashian, Rihanna, Kate Upton, Lea Michele, Kirsten Dunst, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, among others.

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Internet providers team up to block America's best Internet service

Aug 30, 2014 7:44 AM PT

It is widely held that one of the fastest Internet services in America, if not the fastest, can be found in Chattanooga, Tennessee.  They've got speeds that can reach 1 gigabit per second, which is around fifty times faster than the average in the U.S.  The high quality of this network has been bringing tech jobs to the area.  And yet, a partnership between Big Cable companies Comcast and Time Warner is trying to block expansion of the Chattanooga high-speed Internet service, along with a similar service in Wilson, North Carolina.

It's a good old-fashioned example of anti-competition, in which big players use political influence or legal challenges to keep a market closed up.  The twist is that in this case, the new players entering the market with superior service are municipal governments.  The broadband services in question are owned by the local governments.  The UK Guardian explains that the operation in North Carolina was launched expressly as a result of customer complaints about poor Time Warner service:

Chattanooga has the largest high-speed internet service in the US, offering customers access to speeds of 1 gigabit per second – about 50 times faster than the US average. The service, provided by municipally owned EPB, has sparked a tech boom in the city and attracted international attention. EPB is now petitioning the FCC to expand its territory. Comcast and others have previously sued unsuccessfully to stop EPB’s fibre optic roll out.

Wilson, a town of a little more than 49,000 people, launched Greenlight, its own service offering high speed internet, after complaints about the cost and quality of Time Warner cable’s service. Time Warner lobbied the North Carolina senate to outlaw the service and similar municipal efforts.

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Latest world power to have a top-secret drone program: Google

Aug 29, 2014 9:32 AM PT

There was some pretty wild talk coming out of Amazon a while back about using unmanned aerial vehicles to deliver packages.  It turns out Google wants to play too, and is already has a drone test program well under way.  The existence of this top-secret program was officially announced on Thursday.  From USA Today:

Dubbed Project Wing, the three-year mission successfully completed its first delivery Aug. 13, a bundle of Cherry Ripe chocolate bars. Over subsequent days, the team from GoogleX — the Mountain View, Calif.-based search company's exploratory technology arm — air-dropped a range of other farmer-friendly goods, from medicines to first-aid kits.

The flights were a direct response to GoogleX lead and Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who challenged his team to make a delivery to a real person via drone.

"We selected these items based on several conversations with local people about how aerial delivery might help them in their jobs," GoogleX said in a release Thursday. "Over the course of the week, the team ran more than 30 successful delivery flights. We are now back in California reviewing what we've learned."

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