The New York Times has a long article on the investigative techniques used to identify the person who stabbed and killed four University of Idaho students.
Pay attention to the techniques:
The case has shown the degree to which law enforcement investigators have come to rely on the digital footprints that ordinary Americans leave in nearly every facet of their lives. Online shopping, car sales, carrying a cellphone, drives along city streets and amateur genealogy all played roles in an investigation that was solved, in the end, as much through technology as traditional sleuthing.
At that point, investigators decided to try genetic genealogy, a method that until now has been used primarily to solve cold cases, not active murder investigations. Among the growing number of genealogy websites that help people trace their ancestors and relatives via their own DNA, some allow users to select an option that permits law enforcement to compare crime scene DNA samples against the websites’ data.
A distant cousin who has opted into the system can help investigators building a family tree from crime scene DNA to triangulate and identify a potential perpetrator of a crime.
On Dec. 23, investigators sought and received Mr. Kohberger’s cellphone records. The results added more to their suspicions: His phone was moving around in the early morning hours of Nov. 13, but was disconnected from cell networks - perhaps turned off—in the two hours around when the killings occurred.
Posted on June 13, 2023 at 7:03 AM •
Tile has an interesting security solution to make its tracking tags harder to use for stalking:
The Anti-Theft Mode feature will make the devices invisible to Scan and Secure, the company’s in-app feature that lets you know if any nearby Tiles are following you. But to activate the new Anti-Theft Mode, the Tile owner will have to verify their real identity with a government-issued ID, submit a biometric scan that helps root out fake IDs, agree to let Tile share their information with law enforcement and agree to be subject to a $1 million penalty if convicted in a court of law of using Tile for criminal activity. So although it technically makes the device easier for stalkers to use Tiles silently, it makes the penalty of doing so high enough to (at least in theory) deter them from trying.
Interesting theory. But it won’t work against attackers who don’t have any money.
Hulls believes the approach is superior to Apple’s solution with AirTag, which emits a sound and notifies iPhone users that one of the trackers is following them.
My complaint about the technical solutions is that they only work for users of the system. Tile security requires an “in-app feature.” Apple’s AirTag “notifies iPhone users.” What we need is a common standard that is implemented on all smartphones, so that people who don’t use the trackers can be alerted if they are being surveilled by one of them.
Posted on February 20, 2023 at 7:09 AM •
The two people who shut down four Washington power stations in December were arrested. This is the interesting part:
Investigators identified Greenwood and Crahan almost immediately after the attacks took place by using cell phone data that allegedly showed both men in the vicinity of all four substations, according to court documents.
Nowadays, it seems like an obvious thing to do—although the search is probably unconstitutional. But way back in 2012, the Canadian CSEC—that’s their NSA—did some top-secret work on this kind of thing. The document is part of the Snowden archive, and I wrote about it:
The second application suggested is to identify a particular person whom you know visited a particular geographical area on a series of dates/times. The example in the presentation is a kidnapper. He is based in a rural area, so he can’t risk making his ransom calls from that area. Instead, he drives to an urban area to make those calls. He either uses a burner phone or a pay phone, so he can’t be identified that way. But if you assume that he has some sort of smart phone in his pocket that identifies itself over the Internet, you might be able to find him in that dataset. That is, he might be the only ID that appears in that geographical location around the same time as the ransom calls and at no other times.
There’s a whole lot of surveillance you can do if you can follow everyone, everywhere, all the time. I don’t even think turning your cell phone off would help in this instance. How many people in the Washington area turned their phones off during exactly the times of the Washington power station attacks? Probably a small enough number to investigate them all.
Posted on January 9, 2023 at 7:14 AM •
Researchers claim that supposedly anonymous device analytics information can identify users:
On Twitter, security researchers Tommy Mysk and Talal Haj Bakry have found that Apple’s device analytics data includes an iCloud account and can be linked directly to a specific user, including their name, date of birth, email, and associated information stored on iCloud.
Apple has long claimed otherwise:
On Apple’s device analytics and privacy legal page, the company says no information collected from a device for analytics purposes is traceable back to a specific user. “iPhone Analytics may include details about hardware and operating system specifications, performance statistics, and data about how you use your devices and applications. None of the collected information identifies you personally,” the company claims.
Apple was just sued for tracking iOS users without their consent, even when they explicitly opt out of tracking.
Posted on November 22, 2022 at 10:28 AM •
This is a dangerous vulnerability:
An assessment from security firm BitSight found six vulnerabilities in the Micodus MV720, a GPS tracker that sells for about $20 and is widely available. The researchers who performed the assessment believe the same critical vulnerabilities are present in other Micodus tracker models. The China-based manufacturer says 1.5 million of its tracking devices are deployed across 420,000 customers. BitSight found the device in use in 169 countries, with customers including governments, militaries, law enforcement agencies, and aerospace, shipping, and manufacturing companies.
BitSight discovered what it said were six “severe” vulnerabilities in the device that allow for a host of possible attacks. One flaw is the use of unencrypted HTTP communications that makes it possible for remote hackers to conduct adversary-in-the-middle attacks that intercept or change requests sent between the mobile application and supporting servers. Other vulnerabilities include a flawed authentication mechanism in the mobile app that can allow attackers to access the hardcoded key for locking down the trackers and the ability to use a custom IP address that makes it possible for hackers to monitor and control all communications to and from the device.
The security firm said it first contacted Micodus in September to notify company officials of the vulnerabilities. BitSight and CISA finally went public with the findings on Tuesday after trying for months to privately engage with the manufacturer. As of the time of writing, all of the vulnerabilities remain unpatched and unmitigated.
These are computers and computer vulnerabilities, but because the computers are attached to cars, the vulnerabilities become potentially life-threatening. CISA writes:
These vulnerabilities could impact access to a vehicle fuel supply, vehicle control, or allow locational surveillance of vehicles in which the device is installed.
I wouldn’t have buried “vehicle control” in the middle of that sentence.
Posted on July 21, 2022 at 8:36 AM •
Some sites, including Facebook, add parameters to the web address for tracking purposes. These parameters have no functionality that is relevant to the user, but sites rely on them to track users across pages and properties.
Mozilla introduced support for URL stripping in Firefox 102, which it launched in June 2022. Firefox removes tracking parameters from web addresses automatically, but only in private browsing mode or when the browser’s Tracking Protection feature is set to strict. Firefox users may enable URL stripping in all Firefox modes, but this requires manual configuration. Brave Browser strips known tracking parameters from web addresses as well.
Facebook has responded by encrypting the entire URL into a single ciphertext blob.
Since it is no longer possible to identify the tracking part of the web address, it is no longer possible to remove it from the address automatically. In other words: Facebook has the upper hand in regards to URL-based tracking at the time, and there is little that can be done about it short of finding a way to decrypt the information.
Posted on July 18, 2022 at 9:49 AM •
We’ve always known that phones—and the people carrying them—can be uniquely identified from their Bluetooth signatures, and that we need security techniques to prevent that. This new research shows that that’s not enough.
Computer scientists at the University of California San Diego proved in a study published May 24 that minute imperfections in phones caused during manufacturing create a unique Bluetooth beacon, one that establishes a digital signature or fingerprint distinct from any other device. Though phones’ Bluetooth uses cryptographic technology that limits trackability, using a radio receiver, these distortions in the Bluetooth signal can be discerned to track individual devices.
The study’s scientists conducted tests to show whether multiple phones being in one place could disrupt their ability to track individual signals. Results in an initial experiment showed they managed to discern individual signals for 40% of 162 devices in public. Another, scaled-up experiment showed they could discern 47% of 647 devices in a public hallway across two days.
The tracking range depends on device and the environment, and it could be several hundred feet, but in a crowded location it might only be 10 or so feet. Scientists were able to follow a volunteer’s signal as they went to and from their house. Certain environmental factors can disrupt a Bluetooth signal, including changes in environment temperature, and some devices send signals with more power and range than others.
One might say “well, I’ll just keep Bluetooth turned off when not in use,” but the researchers said they found that some devices, especially iPhones, don’t actually turn off Bluetooth unless a user goes directly into settings to turn off the signal. Most people might not even realize their Bluetooth is being constantly emitted by many smart devices.
Posted on June 17, 2022 at 6:06 AM •
Apple Mail now blocks email trackers by default.
Most email newsletters you get include an invisible “image,” typically a single white pixel, with a unique file name. The server keeps track of every time this “image” is opened and by which IP address. This quirk of internet history means that marketers can track exactly when you open an email and your IP address, which can be used to roughly work out your location.
So, how does Apple Mail stop this? By caching. Apple Mail downloads all images for all emails before you open them. Practically speaking, that means every message downloaded to Apple Mail is marked “read,” regardless of whether you open it. Apples also routes the download through two different proxies, meaning your precise location also can’t be tracked.
Crypto-Gram uses Mailchimp, which has these tracking pixels turned on by default. I turn them off. Normally, Mailchimp requires them to be left on for the first few mailings, presumably to prevent abuse. The company waived that requirement for me.
Posted on May 9, 2022 at 9:39 AM •
Ever since Apple introduced AirTags, security people have warned that they could be used for stalking. But while there have been a bunch of anecdotal stories, this is the first vaguely scientific survey:
Motherboard requested records mentioning AirTags in a recent eight month period from dozens of the country’s largest police departments. We obtained records from eight police departments.
Of the 150 total police reports mentioning AirTags, in 50 cases women called the police because they started getting notifications that their whereabouts were being tracked by an AirTag they didn’t own. Of those, 25 could identify a man in their lives—ex-partners, husbands, bosses—who they strongly suspected planted the AirTags on their cars in order to follow and harass them. Those women reported that current and former intimate partners—the most likely people to harm women overall—are using AirTags to stalk and harass them.
Eight police departments over eight months yielded fifty cases. And that’s only where the victim (1) realized they were being tracked by someone else’s AirTag, and (2) contacted the police. That’s going to multiply out to a lot of AirTag stalking in the country, and the world.
EDITED TO ADD (4/13): AirTags are being used by Ukrainians to track goods stolen by Russians and, as a nice side effect, to track the movements of Russian troops.
Posted on April 8, 2022 at 6:06 AM •
The malicious uses of these technologies are scary:
Police reportedly arrived on the scene last week and found the man crouched beside the woman’s passenger side door. According to the police, the man had, at some point, wrapped his Apple Watch across the spokes of the woman’s passenger side front car wheel and then used the Watch to track her movements. When police eventually confronted him, he admitted the Watch was his. Now, he’s reportedly being charged with attaching an electronic tracking device to the woman’s vehicle.
Posted on March 30, 2022 at 6:29 AM •
Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.