Entries Tagged "United Arab Emirates"

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UAE Hack and Leak Operations

Interesting paper on recent hack-and-leak operations attributed to the UAE:

Abstract: Four hack-and-leak operations in U.S. politics between 2016 and 2019, publicly attributed to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, should be seen as the “simulation of scandal” ­– deliberate attempts to direct moral judgement against their target. Although “hacking” tools enable easy access to secret information, they are a double-edged sword, as their discovery means the scandal becomes about the hack itself, not about the hacked information. There are wider consequences for cyber competition in situations of constraint where both sides are strategic partners, as in the case of the United States and its allies in the Persian Gulf.

Posted on August 13, 2020 at 9:28 AMView Comments

ToTok Is an Emirati Spying Tool

The smartphone messaging app ToTok is actually an Emirati spying tool:

But the service, ToTok, is actually a spying tool, according to American officials familiar with a classified intelligence assessment and a New York Times investigation into the app and its developers. It is used by the government of the United Arab Emirates to try to track every conversation, movement, relationship, appointment, sound and image of those who install it on their phones.

ToTok, introduced only months ago, was downloaded millions of times from the Apple and Google app stores by users throughout the Middle East, Europe, Asia, Africa and North America. While the majority of its users are in the Emirates, ToTok surged to become one of the most downloaded social apps in the United States last week, according to app rankings and App Annie, a research firm.

Apple and Google have removed it from their app stores. If you have it on your phone, delete it now.

Posted on December 24, 2019 at 1:13 PMView Comments

How Signal Is Evading Censorship

Signal, the encrypted messaging app I prefer, is being blocked in both Egypt and the UAE. Recently, the Signal team developed a workaround: domain fronting.

Signal’s new anti-censorship feature uses a trick called “domain fronting,” Marlinspike explains. A country like Egypt, with only a few small internet service providers tightly controlled by the government, can block any direct request to a service on its blacklist. But clever services can circumvent that censorship by hiding their traffic inside of encrypted connections to a major internet service, like the content delivery networks (CDNs) that host content closer to users to speed up their online experience — or in Signal’s case, Google’s App Engine platform, designed to host apps on Google’s servers.

“Now when people in Egypt or the United Arab Emirates send a Signal message, it’ll look identical to something like a Google search,” Marlinspike says. “The idea is that using Signal will look like using Google; if you want to block Signal you’ll have to block Google.”

The trick works because Google’s App Engine allows developers to redirect traffic from Google.com to their own domain. Google’s use of TLS encryption means that contents of the traffic, including that redirect request, are hidden, and the internet service provider can see only that someone has connected to Google.com. That essentially turns Google into a proxy for Signal, bouncing its traffic and fooling the censors.

This isn’t a new trick (Tor uses it too, for example), but it does work.

Posted on December 28, 2016 at 6:20 AMView Comments

NSO Group

We’re starting to see some information on the Israeli cyberweapons arms manufacturer that sold the iPhone zero-day exploit to the United Arab Emirates so they could spy on human rights defenders.

EDITED TO ADD (9/1): There is criticism in the comments about me calling NSO Group an Israeli company. I was just repeating the news articles, but further research indicates that it is Israeli-founded and Israeli-based, but 100% owned by an American private equity firm.

Posted on August 31, 2016 at 8:16 AMView Comments

iPhone Zero-Day Used by UAE Government

Last week, Apple issued a critical security patch for the iPhone: iOS 9.3.5. The incredible story is that this patch is the result of investigative work by Citizen Lab, which uncovered a zero-day exploit being used by the UAE government against a human rights defender. The UAE spyware was provided by the Israeli cyberweapons arms manufacturer NSO Group.

This is a big deal. iOS vulnerabilities are expensive, and can sell for over $1M. That we can find one used in the wild and patch it, rendering it valueless, is a major win and puts a huge dent in the vulnerabilities market. The more we can do this, the less valuable these zero-days will be to both criminals and governments — and to criminal governments.

Citizen Lab blog post and report. New York Times article. More news articles.

Posted on August 29, 2016 at 1:21 PMView Comments

Using Law against Technology

On Thursday, a Brazilian judge ordered the text messaging service WhatsApp shut down for 48 hours. It was a monumental action.

WhatsApp is the most popular app in Brazil, used by about 100 million people. The Brazilian telecoms hate the service because it entices people away from more expensive text messaging services, and they have been lobbying for months to convince the government that it’s unregulated and illegal. A judge finally agreed.

In Brazil’s case, WhatsApp was blocked for allegedly failing to respond to a court order. Another judge reversed the ban 12 hours later, but there is a pattern forming here. In Egypt, Vodafone has complained about the legality of WhatsApp’s free voice-calls, while India’s telecoms firms have been lobbying hard to curb messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Viber. Earlier this year, the United Arab Emirates blocked WhatsApp’s free voice call feature.

All this is part of a massive power struggle going on right now between traditional companies and new Internet companies, and we’re all in the blast radius.

It’s one aspect of a tech policy problem that has been plaguing us for at least 25 years: technologists and policymakers don’t understand each other, and they inflict damage on society because of that. But it’s worse today. The speed of technological progress makes it worse. And the types of technology­ — especially the current Internet of mobile devices everywhere, cloud computing, always-on connections and the Internet of Things — ­make it worse.

The Internet has been disrupting and destroying long-standing business models since its popularization in the mid-1990s. And traditional industries have long fought back with every tool at their disposal. The movie and music industries have tried for decades to hamstring computers in an effort to prevent illegal copying of their products. Publishers have battled with Google over whether their books could be indexed for online searching.

More recently, municipal taxi companies and large hotel chains are fighting with ride-sharing companies such as Uber and apartment-sharing companies such as Airbnb. Both the old companies and the new upstarts have tried to bend laws to their will in an effort to outmaneuver each other.

Sometimes the actions of these companies harm the users of these systems and services. And the results can seem crazy. Why would the Brazilian telecoms want to provoke the ire of almost everyone in the country? They’re trying to protect their monopoly. If they win in not just shutting down WhatsApp, but Telegram and all the other text-message services, their customers will have no choice. This is how high-stakes these battles can be.

This isn’t just companies competing in the marketplace. These are battles between competing visions of how technology should apply to business, and traditional businesses and “disruptive” new businesses. The fundamental problem is that technology and law are in conflict, and what’s worked in the past is increasingly failing today.

First, the speeds of technology and law have reversed. Traditionally, new technologies were adopted slowly over decades. There was time for people to figure them out, and for their social repercussions to percolate through society. Legislatures and courts had time to figure out rules for these technologies and how they should integrate into the existing legal structures.

They don’t always get it right –­ the sad history of copyright law in the United States is an example of how they can get it badly wrong again and again­ — but at least they had a chance before the technologies become widely adopted.

That’s just not true anymore. A new technology can go from zero to a hundred million users in a year or less. That’s just too fast for the political or legal process. By the time they’re asked to make rules, these technologies are well-entrenched in society.

Second, the technologies have become more complicated and specialized. This means that the normal system of legislators passing laws, regulators making rules based on those laws and courts providing a second check on those rules fails. None of these people has the expertise necessary to understand these technologies, let alone the subtle and potentially pernicious ramifications of any rules they make.

We see the same thing between governments and law-enforcement and militaries. In the United States, we’re expecting policymakers to understand the debate between the FBI’s desire to read the encrypted e-mails and computers of crime suspects and the security researchers who maintain that giving them that capability will render everyone insecure. We’re expecting legislators to provide meaningful oversight over the National Security Agency, when they can only read highly technical documents about the agency’s activities in special rooms and without any aides who might be conversant in the issues.

The result is that we end up in situations such as the one Brazil finds itself in. WhatsApp went from zero to 100 million users in five years. The telecoms are advancing all sorts of weird legal arguments to get the service banned, and judges are ill-equipped to separate fact from fiction.

This isn’t a simple matter of needing government to get out of the way and let companies battle in the marketplace. These companies are for-profit entities, and their business models are so complicated that they regularly don’t do what’s best for their users. (For example, remember that you’re not really Facebook’s customer. You’re their product.)

The fact that people’s resumes are effectively the first 10 hits on a Google search of their name is a problem –­ something that the European “right to be forgotten” tried ham-fistedly to address. There’s a lot of smart writing that says that Uber’s disruption of traditional taxis will be worse for the people who regularly use the services. And many people worry about Amazon’s increasing dominance of the publishing industry.

We need a better way of regulating new technologies.

That’s going to require bridging the gap between technologists and policymakers. Each needs to understand the other ­– not enough to be experts in each other’s fields, but enough to engage in meaningful conversations and debates. That’s also going to require laws that are agile and written to be as technologically invariant as possible.

It’s a tall order, I know, and one that has been on the wish list of every tech policymaker for decades. But today, the stakes are higher and the issues come faster. Not doing so will become increasingly harmful for all of us.

This essay originally appeared on CNN.com.

EDITED TO ADD (12/23): Slashdot thread.

Posted on December 23, 2015 at 6:48 AMView Comments

Cargo Security

The New York Times writes:

Despite the increased scrutiny of people and luggage on passenger planes since 9/11, there are far fewer safeguards for packages and bundles, particularly when loaded on cargo-only planes.

Well, of course. We’ve always known this. We’ve not worried about terrorism on cargo planes because it isn’t very terrorizing. Packages aren’t people. If a passenger plane blows up, it affects a couple of hundred people. If a cargo plane blows up, it just affects the crew.

Cargo that is loaded on to passenger planes should be subjected to the same level of security as passenger luggage. Cargo that is loaded onto cargo planes should be treated no differently from cargo loaded into ships, trains, trucks, and the trunks of cars.

Of course: now that the media is talking about cargo security, we have to “do something.” (Something must be done. This is something. Therefore, we must do it.) But if we’re so scared that we have to devote resources to this kind of terrorist threat, we’ve well and truly lost.

EDITED TO ADD (10/30): The plot — it’s still unclear how serious it was — wasn’t uncovered by any security screening, but by intelligence gathering:

Intelligence officials were onto the suspected plot for days, officials said. The packages in England and Dubai were discovered after Saudi Arabian intelligence picked up information related to Yemen and passed it on to the U.S., two officials said.

This is how you fight through terrorism: not by defending against specific threats, but through intelligence, investigation, and emergency response.

Posted on October 30, 2010 at 9:41 AMView Comments

UAE Man-in-the-Middle Attack Against SSL

Interesting:

Who are these certificate authorities? At the beginning of Web history, there were only a handful of companies, like Verisign, Equifax, and Thawte, that made near-monopoly profits from being the only providers trusted by Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator. But over time, browsers have trusted more and more organizations to verify Web sites. Safari and Firefox now trust more than 60 separate certificate authorities by default. Microsoft’s software trusts more than 100 private and government institutions.

Disturbingly, some of these trusted certificate authorities have decided to delegate their powers to yet more organizations, which aren’t tracked or audited by browser companies. By scouring the Net for certificates, security researchers have uncovered more than 600 groups who, through such delegation, are now also automatically trusted by most browsers, including the Department of Homeland Security, Google, and Ford Motors­and a UAE mobile phone company called Etisalat.

In 2005, a company called CyberTrust­—which has since been purchased by Verizon­—gave Etisalat, the government-connected mobile company in the UAE, the right to verify that a site is valid. Here’s why this is trouble: Since browsers now automatically trust Etisalat to confirm a site’s identity, the company has the potential ability to fake a secure connection to any site Etisalat subscribers might visit using a man-in-the-middle scheme.

EDITED TO ADD (9/14): EFF has gotten involved.

Posted on September 3, 2010 at 6:27 AMView Comments

UAE to Ban BlackBerrys

The United Arab Emirates — Dubai, etc. — is threatening to ban BlackBerrys because they can’t eavesdrop on them.

At the heart of the battle is access to the data transmitted by BlackBerrys. RIM processes the information through a handful of secure Network Operations Centers around the world, meaning that most governments can’t access the data easily on their own. The U.A.E. worries that because of jurisdictional issues, its courts couldn’t compel RIM to turn over secure data from its servers, which are outside the U.A.E. even in a national-security situation, a person familiar with the situation said.

This is a weird story for several reasons:

1. The UAE can’t eavesdrop on BlackBerry traffic because it is encrypted between RIM’s servers and the phones. That makes sense, but conventional e-mail services are no different. Gmail, for example, is encrypted between Google’s servers and the users’ computers. So are most other webmail services. Is the mobile nature of BlackBerrys really that different? Is it really not a problem that any smart phone can access webmail through an encrypted SSL tunnel?

2. This an isolated move in a complicated negotiation between the UAE and RIM.

The U.A.E. ban, due to start Oct. 11, was the result of the “failure of ongoing attempts, dating back to 2007, to bring BlackBerry services in the U.A.E. in line with U.A.E. telecommunications regulations,” the country’s Telecommunications Regulatory Authority said Sunday. The ban doesn’t affect telephone and text-messaging services.

And:

The U.A.E. wanted RIM to locate servers in the country, where it had legal jurisdiction over them; RIM had offered access to the data of 3,000 clients instead, the person said.

There’s no reason to announce the ban over a month before it goes into effect, other than to prod RIM to respond in some way.

3. It’s not obvious who will blink first. RIM has about 500,000 users in the UAE. RIM doesn’t want to lose those subscribers, but the UAE doesn’t want to piss those people off, either. The UAE needs them to work and do business in their country, especially as real estate prices continue to collapse.

4. India, China, and Russia threatened to kick BlackBerrys out for this reason, but relented when RIM agreed to “address concerns,” which is code for “allowed them to eavesdrop.”

Most countries have negotiated agreements with RIM that enable their security agencies to monitor and decipher this traffic. For example, Russia’s two main mobile phone providers, MTS and Vimpelcom, began selling BlackBerrys after they agreed to provide access to the federal security service. “We resolved this question,” Vimpelcom says. “We provided access.”

The launch of BlackBerry service by China Mobile was delayed until RIM negotiated an agreement that enables China to monitor traffic.

Similarly, last week India lifted a threat to ban BlackBerry services after RIM agreed to address concerns.

[…]

Nevertheless, while RIM has declined to comment on the details of its arrangements with any government, it issued an opaque statement on Monday: “RIM respects both the regulatory requirements of government and the security and privacy needs of corporations and consumers.”

How did they do that? Did they put RIM servers in those countries, and allow the government access to the traffic? Did they pipe the raw traffic back to those countries from their servers elsewhere? Did they just promise to turn over any data when asked?

RIM makes a big deal about how secure its users’ data is, but I don’t know how much of that to believe:

RIM said the BlackBerry network was set up so that “no one, including RIM, could access” customer data, which is encrypted from the time it leaves the device. It added that RIM would “simply be unable to accommodate any request” for a key to decrypt the data, since the company doesn’t have the key.

The BlackBerry network is designed “to exclude the capability for RIM or any third party to read encrypted information under any circumstances,” RIM’s statement said. Moreover, the location of BlackBerry’s servers doesn’t matter, the company said, because the data on them can’t be deciphered without a decryption key.

Am I missing something here? RIM isn’t providing a file storage service, where user-encrypted data is stored on its servers. RIM is providing a communications service. While the data is encrypted between RIM’s servers and the BlackBerrys, it has to be encrypted by RIM — so RIM has access to the plaintext.

In any case, RIM has already demonstrated that it has the technical ability to address the UAE’s concerns. Like the apocryphal story about Churchill and Lady Astor, all that’s left is to agree on a price.

5. For the record, I have absolutely no idea what this quote of mine from the Reuters story really means:

“If you want to eavesdrop on your people, then you ban whatever they’re using,” said Bruce Schneier, chief security technology officer at BT. “The basic problem is there’s encryption between the BlackBerries and the servers. We find this issue all around about encryption.”

I hope I wasn’t that incoherent during the phone interview.

EDITED TO ADD (8/5): I might have gotten a do-over with Reuters. On a phone interview yesterday, I said: “RIM’s carefully worded statements about BlackBerry security are designed to make their customers feel better, while giving the company ample room to screw them.” Jonathan Zittrain picks apart one of those statements.

Posted on August 3, 2010 at 11:08 AMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.