The Conversation

Technology: Discussion of technology events and developments.

Did a U.S. defense contractor help create the next generation of spyware weapons?

Aug 16, 2014 6:50 AM PT

The Washington Post relates a fascinating little cloak-and-dagger story that ends with a heck of a punchline: a U.S. defense contractor was apparently working with foreign companies that create spyware and virus programs to develop new tools for spying on people, potentially both foreign and domestic.

CloudShield Technologies, a California defense contractor, dispatched a senior engineer to Munich in the early fall of 2009. His instructions were unusually opaque.

As he boarded the flight, the engineer told confidants later, he knew only that he should visit a German national who awaited him with an off-the-books assignment. There would be no written contract, and on no account was the engineer to send reports back to CloudShield headquarters.

His contact, Martin J. Muench, turned out to be a former developer of computer security tools who had long since turned to the darkest side of their profession. Gamma Group, the British conglomerate for which Muench was a managing director, built and sold systems to break into computers, seize control clandestinely, and then copy files, listen to Skype calls, record every keystroke and switch on Web cameras and microphones at will.

According to accounts the engineer gave later and contemporary records obtained by The Washington Post, he soon fell into a shadowy world of lucrative spyware tools for sale to foreign security services, some of them with records of human rights abuse.

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Anonymous: We're Not Known for Being 'Responsible'

Aug 15, 2014 11:05 AM PT

Anonymous released the name of the person they claimed shot Michael Brown. They got it wrong but that doesn't seem to bother the group very much. In fact they are taking credit for the police decision to release the real name of the officer today.

The person whose name Anonymous released Thursday wasn't a police officer, just a dispatcher. One member of Anonymous spoke to Mother Jones saying, "We are not exactly known for being 'responsible,' nor for worrying overly much about the safety of cops." In fact, the group has since suggested it hoped threats against an unrelated individual they publicly named as the shooter would force the police's hand.

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Murder suspect allegedly asks his iPhone for help disposing of a corpse

Aug 13, 2014 1:55 PM PT

Reports were swirling around the Internet today about a University of Florida student named Pedro Bravo - dubbed an "idiot killer" by website BGR - asking Siri, the voice-response program of the iPhone, for assistance with disposing of a corpse.  The even stranger twist to the story is that Siri responded.

In court on Tuesday, prosecutors presented some fresh new evidence in the trial surrounding the alleged 2012 murder of University of Florida student Christian Aguilar by his roommate Pedro Bravo. As part of their case, prosecutors revealed that Bravo turned on Siri and told the personal assistant that “I need to hide my roommate.”

As has been shown in earlier easter eggs, Siri then came back with the following response: “What kind of place are you looking for? Swamps. Reservoirs. Metal foundries. Dumps.”

9to5Mac says that Apple has seemingly removed this response and now when you ask Siri for help hiding a body, the digital assistant only responds by saying, “What, again?” It seems that Apple engineers had put the original “advice” in as a joke because they figured, hey, no one would really be stupid enough to ask Siri for advice on where to dump someone’s corpse. Sadly, it appears they were mistaken.

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New Internet toothache: unstoppable bitcoin thieves

Aug 13, 2014 8:57 AM PT

The Dell computer corporation's SecureWorks Counter Threat Unit recently discovered an unknown hacker quietly "hijacking networks belonging to Amazon, Digital Ocean, OVH, and other large hosting companies between February and May 2014."  During that period of time, the hijacker used a complicated but time-tested "redirection" technique to steal $83,000 of profits from the currency miners.  ("Cryptocurrency" refers to virtual online currency, the most famous example being Bitcoin.  The miners were basically using automated programs to engage in sophisticated high-speed currency speculation.)

As noted in an article by MIT cyber-security student Josephine Wolff at Slate, what's alarming about this little heist is that the redirection tools used by the hacker have been around for nearly two decades, and security professionals have no idea how to stop them, because they're perverting one of the core features of the Internet:

When we go online we take for granted that we’ll be able to reach content and communicate with people regardless of the Internet service provider they use. My home Internet connection comes via Comcast, but I can use that connection to email friends with Verizon or Time Warner, or any other service provider. Eventually, that email will have to make its way from my provider, where it originated, to the recipient’s. This is what the Border Gateway Protocol, or BGP, is for—to help autonomous networks like Comcast and Verizon connect and direct traffic between each other.

Using BGP routers, service providers announce which IP addresses they can easily deliver traffic to, so that other providers know which traffic to send them. If multiple providers advertise that they can deliver traffic to the same IP address, then whichever one serves a smaller set of addresses will receive traffic intended for that address. So networks are constantly updating and broadcasting these announcements to one another via BGP routers, letting their peers know which addresses they can deliver traffic to, and allowing the rest of us to ignore the question of which service providers everyone else is using.

Without BGP, there is no Internet as we know it. But that doesn’t mean it can’t cause problems—our reliance on the accuracy of the information provided by BGP routers means that anyone who can gain access to one can redirect some portion of online traffic by advertising a sufficiently small set of addresses whose traffic it wants to target. In other words, if you want access to some piece of online traffic directed to someone else, you can use BGP to announce that you will deliver it to its intended recipients—in the same way that Comcast announces it can deliver traffic to me—and the rest of the Internet will believe you. So this is probably what happened in the bitcoin theft incidents investigated by SecureWorks—the thief used the credentials of someone who worked at a Canadian ISP to send out false routing announcements. Using those announcements, the thief redirected the traffic of groups dedicated to bitcoin mining and was able to retain the bitcoins harvested by those groups’ machines rather than paying them out to the owners of the mining computers.

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News Crew Robbed While Investigating Area Featured on 'Sketchy Neighborhood' App

Aug 10, 2014 10:38 AM PT

You'd need a heart of stone not to laugh at what happened when a D.C. news crew rolled into a neighborhood supposedly mis-identified as "sketchy" by a controversial new phone app that tells users to avoid high-crime neighborhoods.  From The Raw Story:

WUSA9 reporter Mola Lenghi said that he, photographer James Hash, and intern Taylor Bisciotti were in the Petworth area interviewing residents who lived there.

“We were doing a story on an app that describes ‘sketchy’ neighborhoods,” Lenghi said. “It led us to the Petworth neighborhood of Northwest, and I’m not going to call it a ‘sketchy’ neighborhood, but as folks were telling us that it was a good neighborhood, and that not much activity happens around there — as that was being told to us, our van was being robbed.”

“We got back to the news van,” he continued, “and noticed that the lock was popped out. Got in there, and noticed that all of our stuff was gone. I had a backpack full of electronics.”

Lenghi then turned to photographer James Hash, who said that he had two backpacks full of equipment that he had “built up over a career, 15 years.”

Taylor Bisciotti, the intern, had her iPhone stolen, but the crew was able to use the “Find my iPhone” application to track its location, eventually finding it — and much of the crew’s other gear — in a raccoon-infested dumpster in a different part of DC.

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Internet security freak-out of the week: Russian gangsters have a billion stolen passwords

Aug 6, 2014 12:57 PM PT

If you thought security incidents like the theft of personal information from retail giant Target were bad news, you won't like hearing that a Russian gang has quietly amassed a stockpile of stolen Internet user names, passwords, and email addresses that dwarfs any previous security breach.  In fact, based on the New York Times' account, it might be bigger than all of the others put together:

A Russian crime ring has amassed the largest known collection of stolen Internet credentials, including 1.2 billion user name and password combinations and more than 500 million email addresses, security researchers say.

The records, discovered by Hold Security, a firm in Milwaukee, include confidential material gathered from 420,000 websites, including household names, and small Internet sites. Hold Security has a history of uncovering significant hacks, including the theft last year of tens of millions of records from Adobe Systems.

Hold Security would not name the victims, citing nondisclosure agreements and a reluctance to name companies whose sites remained vulnerable. At the request of The New York Times, a security expert not affiliated with Hold Security analyzed the database of stolen credentials and confirmed it was authentic. Another computer crime expert who had reviewed the data, but was not allowed to discuss it publicly, said some big companies were aware that their records were among the stolen information. 

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Did Snowden Help al-Qaeda Step up Their Online Game?

Aug 2, 2014 9:38 AM PT

The Edward Snowden saga is really two stories in one.  There are the secrets he's revealed about the extent of the Digital Panopticon, which is of great concern to Americans who are understandably upset about the degree to which they have been spied upon.  (And when the Ruling Class notices the Eye of Sauron glaring at them, by golly, they get filled with bipartisan anger, too!)  And then there's the way Snowden obtained those secrets, which is both a massive indictment of U.S. internal security, and of Snowden himself.  

Ever since the first days of Wikileaks, I've been less than completely enthusiastic for the idea of self-appointed Guardians of Truth deciding who gets to keep what secrets.  There are clearly some secrets a government must be allowed to keep, in order to serve any meaningful role in security at all, from domestic police work to foreign intelligence.  I've remarked before that the wikileakers spend most of their energy exposing the secrets of relatively benevolent governments, while leaving the worst global cretins alone, in part because said cretins are willing to torture and kill freelance freedom-of-information activists who get in their way.  This has the net effect of unilaterally disarming the good guys in a contest of terrorism and espionage.  It's understandable to be outraged at what someone like Snowden reveals, but still get a bad feeling about the long-term damage to intelligence efforts.  If only the malevolent forces of the world are allowed to run effective espionage networks, we're all in deep trouble.

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The very expensive death of the Chevy Volt

Jul 25, 2014 2:18 PM PT

I've been a student of the Chevy Volt electric-car debacle since the first time I took a stab at figuring out the actual per-unit cost of each car, with the subsidies figured in.  The thing launched with a sticker price of $41,000, but direct state and federal subsidies - i.e. taxpaying chumps forced at gunpoint to pay for part of your shiny new electric car - could take it down to $33,500 or less.  But if you figured in all the subsidies those taxpayer chumps were forced to give manufacturers, they really cost at least $81,000 apiece.  You paid $33k or so, while people who will never drive a Volt, and maybe never buy a Chevy, covered the rest.

Later Voltologists suggested I was being far too generous to this boondoggle, because the subsidies indirectly drawn into production of the vehicle and its battery were far larger than the direct nuts-and-bolts subsidies I was counting.  It has been suggested the real unit cost was closer to $200,000 per car.

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Kindle Unlimited: All-you-can-read for ten bucks a month

Jul 18, 2014 7:44 AM PT has enough muscle to drop game-changing bombs on the publishing industry, and the new Kindle Unlimited service reported by Engadget might just be one of them:

After teasing us with a possible launch, Amazon has confirmed Kindle Unlimited, its all-you-can-read e-book subscription service. For $9.99 per month, Kindle Unlimited offers 600,000 books and "thousands" of audiobooks across a range of devices. As expected, many of the major publishers aren't fully represented, but there are number of popular titles listed, including Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and the Hunger Games, as well as a whole catalog of Kindle exclusives. Like Prime, Amazon initially offers a free 30-day trial to draw you in, but it's also throwing in a three month subscription to Audible and access to 2,000 audiobooks via its Whispersync service (which lets you seamlessly switch between reading and listening whenever the mood takes you).

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The silence of the void

Jul 15, 2014 9:36 AM PT

I've been fascinated by the search for extraterrestial life since I was a little kid, so I wasted no time clicking on the Drudge Report's headline about NASA saying that the discover of intelligent life on other worlds was less than 20 years away.  Alas, it turns out to be just a CBS News report about NASA holding a press conference to tout its plans to search for E.T.s, and playing the numbers game to confidently assert that success must be right around the corner:

“Just imagine the moment, when we find potential signatures of life. Imagine the moment when the world wakes up and the human race realizes that its long loneliness in time and space may be over — the possibility we’re no longer alone in the universe,” said Matt Mountain, director and Webb telescope scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, which plans to launch the James Webb Space Telescope in 2018.

“What we didn’t know five years ago is that perhaps 10 to 20 per cent of stars around us have Earth-size planets in the habitable zone,” added Mountain. “It’s within our grasp to pull off a discovery that will change the world forever.”

Describing their own estimates as “conservative,” the NASA planet hunters calculate that 100 million worlds within the Milky Way galaxy are able to sustain complex alien life forms. The estimate accounts for the 17 billion Earth-sized worlds scientists believe to be orbiting the galaxy’s 100 billion stars.

The NASA panel says that ground-based and space-based technology – including the Hubble Space Telescope, the Kepler Space Telescope and the Spitzer Space Telescope – will be able to determine the presence of liquid water, an essential sign of potential alien life.

“I think in the next 20 years we will find out we are not alone in the universe,” said NASA astronomer Kevin Hand, who suggested that alien life may exist on Jupiter’s Europa moon.

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