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Spyware Maker Intellexa Sued by Journalist

The Greek journalist Thanasis Koukakis was spied on by his own government, with a commercial spyware product called “Predator.” That product is sold by a company in North Macedonia called Cytrox, which is in turn owned by an Israeli company called Intellexa.

Koukakis is suing Intellexa.

The lawsuit filed by Koukakis takes aim at Intellexa and its executive, alleging a criminal breach of privacy and communication laws, reports Haaretz. The founder of Intellexa, a former Israeli intelligence commander named Taj Dilian, is listed as one of the defendants in the suit, as is another shareholder, Sara Hemo, and the firm itself. The objective of the suit, Koukakis says, is to spur an investigation to determine whether a criminal indictment should be brought against the defendants.

Why does it always seem to be Israel? The world would be a much safer place if that government stopped this cyberweapons arms trade from inside its borders.

Posted on October 7, 2022 at 6:13 AM12 Comments

NSA Employee Charged with Espionage

An ex-NSA employee has been charged with trying to sell classified data to the Russians (but instead actually talking to an undercover FBI agent).

It’s a weird story, and the FBI affidavit raises more questions than it answers. The employee only worked for the NSA for three weeks—which is weird in itself. I can’t figure out how he linked up with the undercover FBI agent. It’s not clear how much of this was the employee’s idea, and whether he was goaded by the FBI agent. Still, hooray for not leaking NSA secrets to the Russians. (And, almost ten years after Snowden, do we still have this much trouble vetting people before giving them security clearances?)

Mr. Dalke, who had already left the N.S.A. but told the agent that he still worked there on a temporary assignment, then revealed that had taken “highly sensitive information” related to foreign targeting of U.S. systems and information on cyber operations, the prosecutors said. He offered the information in exchange for cryptocurrency and said he was in “financial need.” Court records show he had nearly $84,000 in debt between student loans and credit cards.

EDITED TO ADD (10/5): Marcy Wheeler notes that the FBI seems to be sitting on some common recruitment point, and collecting potential Russian spies.

Posted on October 4, 2022 at 6:30 AM27 Comments

Detecting Deepfake Audio by Modeling the Human Acoustic Tract

This is interesting research:

In this paper, we develop a new mechanism for detecting audio deepfakes using techniques from the field of articulatory phonetics. Specifically, we apply fluid dynamics to estimate the arrangement of the human vocal tract during speech generation and show that deepfakes often model impossible or highly-unlikely anatomical arrangements. When parameterized to achieve 99.9% precision, our detection mechanism achieves a recall of 99.5%, correctly identifying all but one deepfake sample in our dataset.

From an article by two of the researchers:

The first step in differentiating speech produced by humans from speech generated by deepfakes is understanding how to acoustically model the vocal tract. Luckily scientists have techniques to estimate what someone—or some being such as a dinosaur—would sound like based on anatomical measurements of its vocal tract.

We did the reverse. By inverting many of these same techniques, we were able to extract an approximation of a speaker’s vocal tract during a segment of speech. This allowed us to effectively peer into the anatomy of the speaker who created the audio sample.

From here, we hypothesized that deepfake audio samples would fail to be constrained by the same anatomical limitations humans have. In other words, the analysis of deepfaked audio samples simulated vocal tract shapes that do not exist in people.

Our testing results not only confirmed our hypothesis but revealed something interesting. When extracting vocal tract estimations from deepfake audio, we found that the estimations were often comically incorrect. For instance, it was common for deepfake audio to result in vocal tracts with the same relative diameter and consistency as a drinking straw, in contrast to human vocal tracts, which are much wider and more variable in shape.

This is, of course, not the last word. Deepfake generators will figure out how to use these techniques to create harder-to-detect fake voices. And the deepfake detectors will figure out another, better, detection technique. And the arms race will continue.

Slashdot thread.

Posted on October 3, 2022 at 6:25 AM35 Comments

Security Vulnerabilities in Covert CIA Websites

Back in 2018, we learned that covert system of websites that the CIA used for communications was compromised by—at least—China and Iran, and that the blunder caused a bunch of arrests, imprisonments, and executions. We’re now learning that the CIA is still “using an irresponsibly secured system for asset communication.”

Citizen Lab did the research:

Using only a single website, as well as publicly available material such as historical internet scanning results and the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, we identified a network of 885 websites and have high confidence that the United States (US) Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) used these sites for covert communication.

The websites included similar Java, JavaScript, Adobe Flash, and CGI artifacts that implemented or apparently loaded covert communications apps. In addition, blocks of sequential IP addresses registered to apparently fictitious US companies were used to host some of the websites. All of these flaws would have facilitated discovery by hostile parties.

[…]

The bulk of the websites that we discovered were active at various periods between 2004 and 2013. We do not believe that the CIA has recently used this communications infrastructure. Nevertheless, a subset of the websites are linked to individuals who may be former and possibly still active intelligence community employees or assets:

  • Several are currently abroad
  • Another left mainland China in the timeframe of the Chinese crackdown
  • Another was subsequently employed by the US State Department
  • Another now works at a foreign intelligence contractor

Citizen Lab is not publishing details, of course.

When I was a kid, I thought a lot about being a spy. And this, right here, was the one thing I worried about. It didn’t matter how clever and resourceful I was. If my handlers were incompetent, I was dead.

Another news article.

EDITED TO ADD (10/2): Shashdot thread.

Posted on September 30, 2022 at 9:19 AM12 Comments

Differences in App Security/Privacy Based on Country

Depending on where you are when you download your Android apps, it might collect more or less data about you.

The apps we downloaded from Google Play also showed differences based on country in their security and privacy capabilities. One hundred twenty-seven apps varied in what the apps were allowed to access on users’ mobile phones, 49 of which had additional permissions deemed “dangerous” by Google. Apps in Bahrain, Tunisia and Canada requested the most additional dangerous permissions.

Three VPN apps enable clear text communication in some countries, which allows unauthorized access to users’ communications. One hundred and eighteen apps varied in the number of ad trackers included in an app in some countries, with the categories Games, Entertainment and Social, with Iran and Ukraine having the most increases in the number of ad trackers compared to the baseline number common to all countries.

One hundred and three apps have differences based on country in their privacy policies. Users in countries not covered by data protection regulations, such as GDPR in the EU and the California Consumer Privacy Act in the U.S., are at higher privacy risk. For instance, 71 apps available from Google Play have clauses to comply with GDPR only in the EU and CCPA only in the U.S. Twenty-eight apps that use dangerous permissions make no mention of it, despite Google’s policy requiring them to do so.

Research paper: “A Large-scale Investigation into Geodifferences in Mobile Apps“:

Abstract: Recent studies on the web ecosystem have been raising alarms on the increasing geodifferences in access to Internet content and services due to Internet censorship and geoblocking. However, geodifferences in the mobile app ecosystem have received limited attention, even though apps are central to how mobile users communicate and consume Internet content. We present the first large-scale measurement study of geodifferences in the mobile app ecosystem. We design a semi-automatic, parallel measurement testbed that we use to collect 5,684 popular apps from Google Play in 26 countries. In all, we collected 117,233 apk files and 112,607 privacy policies for those apps. Our results show high amounts of geoblocking with 3,672 apps geoblocked in at least one of our countries. While our data corroborates anecdotal evidence of takedowns due to government requests, unlike common perception, we find that blocking by developers is significantly higher than takedowns in all our countries, and has the most influence on geoblocking in the mobile app ecosystem. We also find instances of developers releasing different app versions to different countries, some with weaker security settings or privacy disclosures that expose users to higher security and privacy risks. We provide recommendations for app market proprietors to address the issues discovered.

Posted on September 29, 2022 at 6:14 AM6 Comments

Cold War Bugging of Soviet Facilities

Found documents in Poland detail US spying operations against the former Soviet Union.

The file details a number of bugs found at Soviet diplomatic facilities in Washington, D.C., New York, and San Francisco, as well as in a Russian government-owned vacation compound, apartments used by Russia personnel, and even Russian diplomats’ cars. And the bugs were everywhere: encased in plaster in an apartment closet; behind electrical and television outlets; bored into concrete bricks and threaded into window frames; inside wooden beams and baseboards and stashed within a building’s foundation itself; surreptitiously attached to security cameras; wired into ceiling panels and walls; and secretly implanted into the backseat of cars and in their window panels, instrument panels, and dashboards. It’s an impressive—­ and impressively thorough—­ effort by U.S. counterspies.

We have long read about sophisticated Russian spying operations—bugging the Moscow embassy, bugging Selectric typewriters in the Moscow embassy, bugging the new Moscow embassy. These are the first details I’ve read about the US bugging the Russians’ embassy.

Posted on September 28, 2022 at 6:19 AM13 Comments

New Report on IoT Security

The Atlantic Council has published a report on securing the Internet of Things: “Security in the Billions: Toward a Multinational Strategy to Better Secure the IoT Ecosystem.” The report examines the regulatory approaches taken by four countries—the US, the UK, Australia, and Singapore—to secure home, medical, and networking/telecommunications devices. The report recommends that regulators should 1) enforce minimum security standards for manufacturers of IoT devices, 2) incentivize higher levels of security through public contracting, and 3) try to align IoT standards internationally (for example, international guidance on handling connected devices that stop receiving security updates).

This report looks to existing security initiatives as much as possible—both to leverage existing work and to avoid counterproductively suggesting an entirely new approach to IoT security—while recommending changes and introducing more cohesion and coordination to regulatory approaches to IoT cybersecurity. It walks through the current state of risk in the ecosystem, analyzes challenges with the current policy model, and describes a synthesized IoT security framework. The report then lays out nine recommendations for government and industry actors to enhance IoT security, broken into three recommendation sets: setting a baseline of minimally acceptable security (or “Tier 1”), incentivizing above the baseline (or “Tier 2” and above), and pursuing international alignment on standards and implementation across the entire IoT product lifecycle (from design to sunsetting). It also includes implementation guidance for the United States, Australia, UK, and Singapore, providing a clearer roadmap for countries to operationalize the recommendations in their specific jurisdictions—and push towards a stronger, more cohesive multinational approach to securing the IoT worldwide.

Note: One of the authors of this report was a student of mine at Harvard Kennedy School, and did this work with the Atlantic Council under my supervision.

Posted on September 27, 2022 at 6:15 AM14 Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.