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Washington Wants To Ban Encryption That They Can’t Break

And this is not the first time they tried to move to bypass encryption mechanisms.

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Trump officials held a meeting regarding the encryption issue. Photo: Richard Patterson | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Data security has become one of the priorities of the tech world as pressure from users and advocacy group intensifies and the promise of cybersecurity forcing tech companies to improve safety mechanisms; the White House seems to beg to disagree.

The White House, exceptionally high ranking Trump officials, are talking about the possibility of banning technologies that employ encryptions that can’t be broken by law enforcement.

The plan cites counterterrorism and police investigations as the reason behind the proposal. According to a report, the National Security Council meeting to deliberate the encryption issue — which the government reportedly calls “going dark” — consisted of the second-in-commands from several agencies. Nonetheless, as far as we know, there are no decisions that were made out of the meeting.

If true, the proposal of the White House would open a flood gate for a plethora of cybercrimes that might happen. Encryption is a way of safeguarding data — where data is encoded in such a way that only those who have authorized access on the said data can read the contents of the encrypted file.

Commonly, encryption is a way of storing information — where the actual information is miswritten using a code — that renders the data unreadable for those who don’t have the encryption key that is used to decode the information.

Linux password file
This is how an encrypted password looks like for those who don’t have the encryption key. Photo: Christiaan Colen | Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Right now, most social media networks and other digital companies use encryption techniques to safeguard the data of their users like passwords, messages, and account information. End-to-end encryption, used in apps like WhatsApp and Telegram, only allows the sender and recipient access to the information sent.

And people are not happy when someone violates the supposed “encryption.” Hundreds of millions of Facebook user passwords were being stored in a “readable form” that allows thousands of its employees to access and understand it. While Facebook has already notified the users affected by the password leak, public decrying of what happened ensued; calling the California-based company not trustworthy.

But the police and the White House says that this kind of encryption limits the ability of the investigation to fully access a suspect’s data, which in turn, will jeopardize their operations. In the past, law enforcement agencies have been at odds with tech companies over encryption issues, especially when the authorities cannot decode the encryption by themselves.

In 2015, the FBI had waged a high-stakes lawsuit against Apple, the manufacturer of iPhones, because according to them, the security features in the phones make it hard for law enforcement and investigation agencies to bypass. According to the FBI, the advanced encryption systems in iPhones are hurting their investigations and are allowing criminals and terrorists to “go dark” online. They have been complaining that tech companies have been very uncooperative in helping them bypass those encryptions and now it seems that they are turning into another technology to avoid them without the permission of the user or the phone manufacturer.

Despite the hot water that federal agencies have been bathing in as the issue on hacking and encryption breaking becomes more public, the FBI, among other federal agencies in question, is yet to prove that their inability to bypass the said encryption systems thwarts their investigation.

In fact, in the 2015 lawsuit that FBI filed to compel Apple to help them decrypt the iPhone used by San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook, the bureau ultimately withdraw its demand due to the lack of proof of the necessity of decryption.

In the recent years, it seems like the effort of the government to push against encryption has been intensifying, with government agencies procuring technologies that would allow them to pass through encryption and locking systems.

A recent $1.2 million purchase was made by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for a technology that would essentially hack into a locked iPhone. The said contract has two components. The first one, valued at $384,000 and was made in September 2018, and another made this month for $819,000. Sources revealed that the said hacking equipment would go to the agency’s Homeland Security Investigation unit. The unit focuses on the investigation on immigration crimes, drug trafficking, child exploitation, and money laundering, according to Thomas Brewster from Forbes.

The American Civil Liberties, who sued the US government over the warrantless searches in the airport by two federal agencies said that they found that “CBP and ICE are asserting near-unfettered authority to search and seize travelers’ devices at the border.” That includes “for purposes far afield from the enforcement of immigration and customs laws” including “investigating and enforcing bankruptcy, environmental, and consumer protection laws.”

A consumer tech and cybersecurity journalist who does content marketing while daydreaming about having unlimited coffee for life and getting a pet llama.

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Lenovo Patches Security Flaw Exposing 36TB Of Financial Data In The Wild

The compromised data include sensitive financial information like card numbers and financial records.

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Photo: lenovophotolibrary | Flickr | CC BY-ND 2.0

A recent breach that has exposed more than 36TB of data owned by users of specific network-attached storage devices has been confirmed by the computer tech giant, Lenovo, and said that a vulnerability in some of their products “could allow an unauthenticated user to access files on NAS shares via the API.”

Security researchers from Vertical Structures, who made the discovery, said that they found “about 13,000 spreadsheet files indexed, with 36 terabytes of data available. The number of files in the index from scanning totaled to 3,030,106.” Worse, these data include sensitive financial information like card numbers and financial records.

According to a security notification from Lenovo, the breach affected both Iomega and LenovoEMC NAS products. Vertical Structures was able to track down the source, a legacy Iomega storage product acquired by EMC and co-branded Lenovo-EMC in a joint venture. They added that it is “trivially easy” to exploit that application programming interface (API) and allow attackers to access the data stored upon any of several Lenovo-EMC network-attached storage (NAS) devices.

Screenshot of discovered files. Photo: Vertical Structures

Discovery was verified by WhiteHat Security

Researchers from Vertical Structures said they commissioned the help of WhiteHat Security, a security firm known to have patched up network-related vulnerabilities in the past, to verify their discovery because “of its world-renowned reputation in helping secure applications, to work together to verify the vulnerability found.”

“Verifying vulnerabilities is a very important step in securing applications, networks, and devices. After all, on an average day, WhiteHat scanners discover hundreds upon hundreds of new potential vulnerabilities,” they added.

After the team has notified Lenovo of their discovery of the said vulnerability, they said that the company swiftly responded and took measures to mitigate the impacts of the vulnerability.

When asked for comments regarding the problem, Simon Whittaker, cybersecurity director at Vertical Structures, said that “this is definitely a huge problem but one which we see every day.”

“Many organizations fear change and are cautious about retiring old devices. If they can’t replace devices, then they should be using threat modeling techniques to consider how better to protect them and ideally removing them from internet access completely,” he added. 

In order to let their users utilize their services, Lenovo pulled three of its old versions out of retirement and brought them back to life while they are patching the said vulnerability. Lenovo then pulled old software from version control to investigate any other potential vulnerabilities to fix and release updates.

“High” severity problem

In a security advisory that Lenovo released, they said that vulnerability has “high” severity and they advised their users to “update to the firmware level (or later) described for your system in the Product Impact section,” and if update is not feasible, “partial protection can be achieved by removing any public shares and using the device only on trusted networks.”

In the advisory, Lenovo lists the products that were impacted by the said flaw. They include:

  • px12-350r and ix12-300r, version 4.0.24.34808
  • HMND (Home Media Network Hard Drive) Cloud Edition, version 3.2.16.30221
  • StorCenter ix2-200, Cloud Edition, version 3.2.16.30221 StorCenter ix4-200d, Cloud Edition, version 3.2.16.30221 StorCenter ix2-200, version 2.1.50.30227
  • StorCenter ix4-200d, version 2.1.50.30227
  • StorCenter ix4-200rl, version 2.1.50.30227

For their security advisory, Lenovo disclaims that “the information provided in this advisory is provided on an “as is” basis without any warranty or guarantee of any kind” and advised users to “please remain current with updates and advisories from Lenovo regarding your equipment and software” for more recent and updated information about the problem.

Learning opportunity

As part of their report, Verticle Structures said that there are a lot of things tech companies can learn from what happened in Lenovo. They characterized Lenovo’s approach to the problem as “professional” and hoped that other companies experiencing similar problems could learn from them.

“Not only did they have a clearly stated vulnerability disclosure policy on their site with contact information, but they responded quickly and worked with WhiteHat and Vertical Structure to understand the nature of the problem and quickly resolve it,” said Vertical Structures.

“In sharing this story, both WhiteHat and Vertical Structure hope companies are inspired to always keep cybersecurity top of mind to keep up with the constant barrage of new vulnerabilities and exposures,” they added.

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This Free Service Detects And Blocks Suspicious Behaviors Of Android Apps

This service is still on the beta phase but they promise to release improvements and expand their territorial reach.

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Secure D Index by Upstream

As a smartphone owner, you can have a plethora of apps available for download via Google Play Store or Apple App Store. However, not all of these apps are secured and are safe to be installed on your devices. Some of them are either fake apps posing as a legitimate version of another app, or worse; they could be carriers of infectious malware that could potentially put your device or yourself in harm’s way.

Amid the risk of threat actors and hackers invading someone’s phone or tablet, leading tech company, Upstream, launched an online index that screens, catalogs, and blocks suspicious Android apps in the market around the world.

“The information on the Secure-D Index, currently in beta, allows anyone to easily find what apps pose a threat to their privacy and pocket, in one place, for free. Data is openly available to the whole mobile industry, from app developers, ad networks and publishers, to media, advertisers and mobile network operators that all fall prey to mobile ad fraud.”

The Secure-D Index is still in beta and is currently being tested. Nonetheless, the company and the platform promise to help resolve the problem of malicious apps that serve as a trojan horse for a more significant and more destructive attack against people’s privacy.

Currently, the platform included an aggregate list of suspected malicious Android Apps, and the index is growing every day as the platform continue to scan the internet to flag these unwanted applications. For each app, the Secure-D Index center features pertinent information such as the number of downloads, market infection rate, and markets where the app is active.

The data is available to 17 regions, and they are working on expanding their reach shortly. They are available in countries like the US, Russia, India, Germany, South Africa, and Egypt, covering up to 1.3 billion mobile data subscribers.

The number of the listed apps in the platform is currently at 1,500, with malicious apps estimating to 13.5 billion downloads. The platform allows users to check whether the apps are available on Google Play, have been removed from Google Play, or are distributed through third-party app stores.

Furthermore, along with the entry of each malicious app, the index also includes data such as the developer’s website, whenever the information is available.

“Secure-D leads the fight against malware, an ever-growing threat for mobile security worldwide. We believe a crucial part of this fight is awareness, which mobile users and, surprisingly, a large part of the industry lacks,” Dimitris Maniatis, Head of Secure-D at Upstream said

“At Upstream, we have been steadily and openly sharing Secure-D’s proprietary findings on suspicious and fraudulent apps in an effort to eliminate digital mobile fraud. The publication of these findings through our Secure-D Index highlights the level of awareness we aim to achieve and the transparency we believe is required to more effectively target the shady practices of threat actors that prey on a whole ecosystem.”

The platform is available for everyone where the Index is available, and it is free of charge, according to the press release of the company. Users can access the top 20 most active malware from the previous day and register for free to access full data — either global or country-specific — see historical data, or search for a specific app.

In 2018 alone, Secure-D having processed over 1.8 billion mobile transactions, detected and blocked over 63,000 malicious apps in 16 countries. They added that the platform is currently processing and blocking an average of 170 malicious applications every day.

Earlier this year, Secure-D reported on the suspicious background activity of 4shared, a popular file-sharing app, Vidmate, a video downloader, and Weather Forecast a preinstalled app on Alcatel devices. They said that all these apps were previously available at Google Play Store and had more than 600,000 downloads before their platform was able to flag their suspicious behavior. The company said that in these three cases alone, Secure-D detected and blocked near 250 million suspicious mobile transactions

“By providing information on suspicious apps freely to the public via Secure-D Index, Upstream aims to further protect mobile subscribers, operators, and advertisers from the ever-growing threat of mobile ad fraud, whose value is currently estimated at $40 billion,” they added.

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‘User Data Are Not Transferred To Russia,’ Says FaceApp

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Photo: charlene mcbride | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

The popular photo-manipulation app, Face App, has taken social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram by storm. And with “by storm,” it means that a lot of people, including celebrities and famous individuals, have jumped on the bandwagon to see how they would look like when they grow old.

There are a lot of things interesting about the app; it can manipulate a photo that a user submits to make a realistic version of the picture as the face ages. There is no surprise as to why Face App has gained popularity among young users around the world.

There is a problem though: you need to submit your photo to the app. This means that providing the chosen selfie, FaceApp will have access to your photo at their disposal. That’s why concerns were raised by security experts and data privacy advocates regarding the implication of sending a photo to an app.

One thing that concerns advocate and experts the most is the fact that the company that built and developed the app is from Russia. It is owned by a Russian company named Wireless Labs and has been downloaded by more than 100 million people via Google Play on the Android platform, and by over 50 million people across other platforms including Apple’s iOS.

The Russia issue

Many advocates have cited the human rights record of Russia, as well as the heightened citizen surveillance they have in their country. The fears of advocates and experts are amplified after the privacy terms and conditions for the app reveals that it sneakily includes a clause that would “grant FaceApp a perpetual, irrevocable, nonexclusive, royalty-free, worldwide, fully-paid, transferable sub-licensable license to use, reproduce, modify, adapt, publish, translate, create derivative works from, distribute, publicly perform and display your User Content and any name, username or likeness provided in connection with your User Content in all media formats and channels now known or later developed, without compensation to you [the user or the owner of the photo].”

The app’s terms of use also grant the developers to publish the photos they gathered in public at their discretion. “When you post or otherwise share User Content on or through our Services, you understand that your User Content and any associated information (such as your [username], location or profile photo) will be visible to the public,” they added.

The polarizing opinions about FaceApp have opened the discussion on how people are carelessly sharing their photos on social media platforms and smartphone apps without a thorough understanding of the implications of such action. In an article published by Wired, they said that what FaceApp is doing is rather common than new.

They said that the same thing is happening when someone uploads a photo on Facebook and Instagram. Instead of demonizing FaceApp and singling it out, the article encourages users to be more vigilant with the data they share across all platforms.

FaceApp clarifies

However, security experts and advocates still press on the idea that FaceApp could be used by the Russian government in its surveillance and technology-versus-people agenda. However, FaceApp is strong in its position that it is protecting the privacy of their users, saying that they “perform[s] most of the photo processing in the cloud. We only upload a photo selected by a user for editing. We never transfer any other images from the phone to the cloud.”

“We might store an uploaded photo in the cloud. The main reason for that is performance and traffic: we want to make sure that the user doesn’t upload the photo repeatedly for every edit operation. Most images are deleted from our servers within 48 hours from the upload date. We don’t sell or share any user data with any third parties,” they added.

They also countered the claims that they can be used as Russia’s trojan horse and said that “even though the core R&D team is located in Russia, the user data is not transferred to Russia.”

Furthermore, they clarified that they don’t require users to log in their app for them to use it and while they ask for device permission to access the phone’s camera and photo roll, they only access those that are selected by the users for editing.

“You can quickly check this with any of network sniffing tools available on the internet,” they said.

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