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Google is killing off Allo, its latest messaging app flop

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It’s official: Google is killing off Allo.

The messaging app was only launched in September 2016, but it was pretty much flawed from the word go, with limited usage. Google was, once again, painfully late to the messaging game.

The company said it had ceased work on the service earlier this year, and now it has announced that it’ll close down in March of next year.

“Allo will continue to work through March 2019 and until then, you’ll be able to export all of your existing conversation history from the app,” Google said in a blog post. “We’ve learned a lot from Allo, particularly what’s possible when you incorporate machine learning features, like the Google Assistant, into messaging.”

Google said it wants “every single Android device to have a great default messaging experience,” but the fact remains that the experience on Android massively lags iOS, where Apple’s iMessage service offers a slick experience with free messages, calling and video between iPhone and iPad users.

Instead of Allo, Google is pushing ahead with RCS (Rich Communication Services), an enhanced SMS standard that could allow iMessage-like communication between Android devices.

But “could” is the operative word. The main caveat with RCS is that carriers must develop their own messaging apps that work with the protocol and connect to other apps, while the many Android OEMs also need to hop on board with support.

As I wrote earlier this year, with RCS, Google is giving carriers a chance to take part in the messaging boom, rather than be cut out as WhatsApp, Messenger, iMessage and others take over. But the decision is tricky for carriers, who have traditionally tightly held any form of income until the death. That’s because they won’t directly make money from consumers via RCS, though it allows them to keep their brand and figure out other ways to generate income, such as business-related services.

Verizon has already signed up, for one, but tracking the other supporters worldwide is tricky. Another problem: RCS is not encrypted, which flies in the face of most messaging apps on the market today.

Elsewhere, Google is keeping Duo — the video chat service that launched alongside Allo — while it continues to develop Hangouts into an enterprise-focused service, much like Slack .

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Ransomware crooks post cops’ psych evaluations after talks with DC police stall

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A ransomware gang that hacked the District of Columbia’s Metropolitan Police Department in April posted personnel records on Tuesday that revealed highly sensitive details for almost two dozen officers, including the results of psychological assessments and polygraph tests, driver license images, fingerprints, social security numbers, dates of birth, and residential, financial and marriage histories.

The data, included in a 161GB download from a website on the dark web, was made available after negotiations broke down between members of the Babuk ransomware group and MDP officials, according to screenshots purporting to be chat transcripts between the two organizations. After earlier threatening to leak the names of confidential informants to crime gangs, the operators agreed to remove the data while they carried out the now-aborted negotiations, the transcripts showed.

This is unacceptable

The operators demanded $4 million in exchange for a promise not to publish any more information and provide a decryption key that would restore the data.

“You are a state institution, treat your data with respect and think about their price,” the operators said, according to the transcript. “They cost even more than 4,000,000, do you understand that?”

“Our final proposal is to offer to pay $100,000 to prevent the release of the stolen data,” the MPD negotiator eventually replied. “If this offer is not acceptable, then it seems our conversation is complete. I think we understand the consequences of not reaching an agreement. We are OK with that outcome.”

“This is unacceptable from our side,” the ransomware representative replied. “Follow our website at midnight.”

A post on the group’s website said: “The negotiations reached a dead end, the amount we were offered does not suit us, we are posting 20 more personal files on officers.” The 161MB file was password protected. The operators later published the passphrase after MPD officials refused to raise the price the department was willing to pay.

Three of the names listed in the personnel files matched the names of officers who work for the MPD, web searches showed. The files were based on background investigations of job applicants under consideration to be hired by the department.

MPD representatives didn’t respond to questions about the authenticity of the transcripts or the current status of negotiations.

Like virtually all ransomware operators these days, those with Babuk employ a double extortion model, which charges not only for the decryption key to unlock the stolen data but also in exchange for the promise not to make any of the data available publicly. The operators typically leak small amounts of data in hopes of motivating the victims to pay the fee. If victims refuse, future releases include ever more private and sensitive information.

The ransomware attack on the MPD has no known connection to the one that has hit Colonial Pipeline.

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Amazon “seized and destroyed” 2 million counterfeit products in 2020

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Enlarge / Amazon trailers backed into bays at a distribution center in Miami, Florida, in August 2019.

Amazon “seized and destroyed” over 2 million counterfeit products that sellers sent to Amazon warehouses in 2020 and “blocked more than 10 billion suspected bad listings before they were published in our store,” the company said in its first “Brand Protection Report.”

In 2020, “we seized and destroyed more than 2 million products sent to our fulfillment centers and that we detected as counterfeit before being sent to a customer,” Amazon’s report said. “In cases where counterfeit products are in our fulfillment centers, we separate the inventory and destroy those products so they are not resold elsewhere in the supply chain,” the report also said.

Third-party sellers can also ship products directly to consumers instead of using Amazon’s shipping system. The 2 million fakes found in Amazon fulfillment centers would only account for counterfeit products from sellers using the “Fulfilled by Amazon” service.

The counterfeit problem got worse over the past year. “Throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen increased attempts by bad actors to commit fraud and offer counterfeit products,” Amazon VP Dharmesh Mehta wrote in a blog post yesterday.

Counterfeiting is a longstanding problem on Amazon. Other problems on Amazon that harm consumers include the sale of dangerous products, fake reviews, defective third-party goods, and the passing of bribes from unscrupulous sellers to unscrupulous Amazon employees and contractors. One US appeals court ruled in 2019 that Amazon can be held responsible for defective third-party goods, but Amazon has won other similar cases. Amazon is again arguing that it should not be held liable for a defective third-party product in a case before the Texas Supreme Court that involves a severely injured toddler.

Amazon tries to reassure legit sellers

Amazon’s new report was meant to reassure legitimate sellers that their products won’t be counterfeited. While counterfeits remain a problem for unsuspecting Amazon customers, the e-commerce giant said that “fewer than 0.01 percent of all products sold on Amazon received a counterfeit complaint from customers” in 2020. Of course, people may buy and use counterfeit products without ever realizing they are fake or without reporting it to Amazon, so that percentage may not capture the extent of the problem.

Amazon’s report on counterfeits describes extensive systems and processes to determine which sellers can do business on Amazon. While Amazon has argued in court that it is not liable for what third parties sell on its platform, the company is monitoring sellers in an effort to maintain credibility with buyers and legitimate sellers.

Amazon said it “invested over $700 million and employed more than 10,000 people to protect our store from fraud and abuse” in 2020, adding:

We leverage a combination of advanced machine learning capabilities and expert human investigators to protect our store proactively from bad actors and bad products. We are constantly innovating to stay ahead of bad actors and their attempts to circumvent our controls. In 2020, we prevented over 6 million attempts to create new selling accounts, stopping bad actors before they published a single product for sale, and blocked more than 10 billion suspected bad listings before they were published in our store.

“This is an escalating battle with criminals that attempt to sell counterfeits, and the only way to permanently stop counterfeiters is to hold them accountable through litigation in the court system and through criminal prosecution,” Amazon also said. “In 2020, we established a new Counterfeit Crimes Unit to build and refer cases to law enforcement, undertake independent investigations or joint investigations with brands, and pursue civil litigation against counterfeiters.”

Amazon said it now “report[s] all confirmed counterfeiters to law enforcement agencies in Canada, China, the European Union, UK, and US.” Amazon also urged governments to “increase prosecution of counterfeiters, increase resources for law enforcement fighting counterfeiters, and incarcerate these criminals globally.”

Stricter seller-verification system

Amazon said it had a “new live video and physical address verification” system in place in 2020 in which “Amazon connects one-on-one with prospective sellers through a video chat or in person at an Amazon office to verify sellers’ identities and government-issued documentation.” Amazon said it also “verifies new and existing sellers’ addresses by sending information including a unique code to the seller’s address.”

Most new attempts to register as a seller were apparently fraudulent, as Amazon said that “only 6 percent of attempted new seller account registrations passed our robust verification processes and listed products.” Overall, Amazon “stopped over 6 million attempts to create a selling account before they were able to publish a single listing for sale” in 2020, more than double “the 2.5 million attempts we stopped in 2019,” Amazon said.

The verification process isn’t enough on its own to stop all new fraudulent sellers, so Amazon said it performs “continuous monitoring” of sellers to identify new risks. “If we identify a bad actor, we immediately close their account, withhold funds disbursement, and determine if this new information brings other related accounts into suspicion. We also determine if the case warrants civil or criminal prosecution and report the bad actor to law enforcement,” Amazon said.

Amazon monitors product detail changes for fraud

One problem we wrote about a few months ago involves “bait-and-switch reviews” in which sellers trick Amazon into displaying reviews for unrelated products to get to the top of Amazon’s search results. In one case, a $23 drone with 6,400 reviews achieved a five-star average rating only because it had thousands of reviews for honey. At some point, the product listing had changed from a food item to a tech product, but the reviews for the food product remained. After a purging of the old reviews, that same product page now lists just 348 ratings at a 3.6-star average.

Amazon is trying to prevent recurrences of this problem, saying in its new report that it scans “more than 5 billion attempted changes to product detail pages daily for signs of potential abuse.”

Amazon also provides self-service tools to companies to help them block counterfeits of their products. Amazon’s report said that 18,000 brands have enrolled in “Project Zero,” which “provides brands with unprecedented power by giving them the ability to directly remove listings from our store.” The program also has an optional product serialization feature that lets sellers put unique codes on their products or packaging.

The self-service tool only accounts for a tiny percentage of blocked listings. “For every 1 listing removed by a brand through our self-service counterfeit removal tool, our automated protections removed more than 600 listings through scaled technology and machine learning that proactively addresses potential counterfeits and stops those listings from appearing in our store,” Amazon said.

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Hackers who shut down pipeline: We don’t want to cause “problems for society”

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Enlarge / Problems with Colonial Pipeline’s distribution system tend to lead to gasoline runs and price increases across the US Southeast and Eastern seaboard. In this September 2016 photo, a man prepared to refuel his vehicle after a Colonial leak in Alabama.

On Friday, Colonial Pipeline took many of its systems offline in the wake of a ransomware attack. With systems offline to contain the threat, the company’s pipeline system is inoperative. The system delivers approximately 45 percent of the East Coast’s petroleum products, including gasoline, diesel fuel, and jet fuel.

Colonial Pipeline issued a statement Sunday saying that the US Department of Energy is leading the US federal government response to the attack. “[L]eading, third-party cybersecurity experts” engaged by Colonial Pipeline itself are also on the case. The company’s four main pipelines are still down, but it has begun restoring service to smaller lateral lines between terminals and delivery points as it determines how to safely restart its systems and restore full functionality.

Colonial Pipeline has not publicly said what was demanded of it or how the demand was made. Meanwhile, the hackers have issued a statement saying that they’re just in it for the money.

Regional emergency declaration

In response to the attacks on Colonial Pipeline, the Biden administration issued a Regional Emergency Declaration 2021-002 this Sunday. The declaration provides a temporary exemption to Parts 390 through 399 of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations, allowing alternate transportation of petroleum products via tanker truck to relieve shortages related to the attack.

The emergency declaration became effective immediately upon issuance Sunday and remains in effect until June 8 or until the emergency ends, whichever is sooner. Although the move will ease shortages somewhat, oil market analyst Gaurav Sharma told the BBC the exemption wouldn’t be anywhere near enough to replace the pipeline’s missing capacity. “Unless they sort it out by Tuesday, they’re in big trouble,” said Sharma, adding that “the first areas to hit would be Atlanta and Tennessee, then the domino effect goes up to New York.”

Russian gang DarkSide believed responsible for attack

Unnamed US government and private security sources engaged by Colonial have told CNN, The Washington Post, and Bloomberg that the Russian criminal gang DarkSide is likely responsible for the attack. DarkSide typically chooses targets in non-Russian-speaking countries but describes itself as “apolitical” on its dark web site.

Infosec analyst Dmitry Smilyanets tweeted a screenshot of a statement the group made this morning, apparently concerning the Colonial Pipeline attack:

NBC News reports that Russian cybercriminals frequently freelance for the Kremlin—but indications point to a cash grab made by the criminals themselves this time rather than a state-sponsored attack.

Dmitri Alperovitch, a co-founder of infosec company CrowdStrike, claims that direct Russian state involvement hardly matters at this point. “Whether they work for the state or not is increasingly irrelevant, given Russia’s obvious policy of harboring and tolerating cybercrime,” he said.

DarkSide “operates like a business”

This sample threat was posted to DarkSide's dark web site in 2020, detailing attacks made on a threat management company.
Enlarge / This sample threat was posted to DarkSide’s dark web site in 2020, detailing attacks made on a threat management company.

London-based security firm Digital Shadows said in September that DarkSide operates like a business and described its business model as “RaaC”—meaning Ransomware-as-a-Corporation.

In terms of its actual attack methods, DarkSide doesn’t appear to be very different from smaller criminal operators. According to Digital Shadows, the group stands out due to its careful selection of targets, preparation of custom ransomware executables for each target, and quasi-corporate communication throughout the attacks.

DarkSide claims to avoid targets in medical, education, nonprofit, or governmental sectors—and claims that it only attacks “companies that can pay the requested amount” after “carefully analyz[ing] accountancy” and determining a ransom amount based on a company’s net income. Digital Shadows believes these claims largely translate to “we looked you up on ZoomInfo first.”

It seems quite possible that the group didn’t realize how much heat it would bring onto itself with the Colonial Pipeline attack. Although not a government entity itself, Colonial’s operations are crucial enough to national security to have brought down immediate Department of Energy response—which the group certainly noticed and appears to have responded to via this morning’s statement that it would “check each company that our partners want to encrypt” to avoid “social consequences” in the future.

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