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SpaceX kicks off its space-based internet service tomorrow with 60-satellite Starlink launch – TechCrunch

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As wild as it sounds, the race is on to build a functioning space internet — and SpaceX is taking its biggest step yet with the launch of 60 (!) satellites tomorrow that will form the first wave of its Starlink constellation. It’s a hugely important and incredibly complex launch for the company — and should be well worth launching.

A Falcon 9 loaded to the gills with the flat Starlink test satellites (they’re “production design” but not final hardware) is vertical at launchpad 40 in Cape Canaveral. It has completed its static fire test and should have a window for launch tomorrow, weather permitting.

Building satellite constellations hundreds or thousands strong is seen by several major companies and investors as the next major phase of connectivity — though it will take years and billions of dollars to do so.

OneWeb, perhaps SpaceX’s biggest competitor in this area, just secured $1.25 billion in funding after launching the first six satellites in March (of a planned 650). Jeff Bezos has announced that Amazon will join the fray with the proposed 3,236-satellite Project Kuiper. Ubiquitilink has a totally different approach. And plenty of others are taking on smaller segments, like lower-cost or domain-specific networks.

Needless to say it’s an exciting sector, but today’s launch is a particularly interesting one because it is so consequential for SpaceX. If this doesn’t go well, it could set Starlink’s plans back long enough to give competitors an edge.

The satellites stacked inside the Falcon 9 payload fairing. “Tight fit,” pointed out CEO Elon Musk.

SpaceX hasn’t explained exactly how the 60 satellites will be distributed to their respective orbits, but founder and CEO Elon Musk did note on Twitter that there’s “no dispenser.” Of course there must be some kind of dispenser — these things aren’t going to just jump off of their own accord. They’re stuffed in there like kernels on a corncob, and likely each have a little spring that sends them out at a set velocity.

A pair of prototype satellites, Tintin-A and B, have been in orbit since early last year, and have no doubt furnished a great deal of useful information to the Starlink program. But the 60 aboard tomorrow’s launch aren’t quite final hardware. Although Musk noted that they are “production design,” COO Gwynne Shotwell has said that they are still test models.

“This next batch of satellites will really be a demonstration set for us to see the deployment scheme and start putting our network together,” she said at the Satellite 2019 conference in Washington, D.C. — they reportedly lack inter-satellite links but are otherwise functional. I’ve asked SpaceX for more information on this.

It makes sense: If you’re planning to put thousands (perhaps as many as 12,000 eventually) of satellites into orbit, you’ll need to test at scale and with production hardware.

And for those worried about the possibility of overpopulation in orbit — it’s absolutely something to consider, but many of these satellites will be flying at extremely low altitudes; at 550 kilometers up, these tiny satellites will naturally de-orbit in a handful of years. Even OneWeb’s, at 1,100 km, aren’t that high up — geosynchronous satellites are above 35,000 km. That doesn’t mean there’s no risk at all, but it does mean failed or abandoned satellites won’t stick around for long.

Just don’t expect to boot up your Starlink connection any time soon. It would take a minimum of six more launches like this one — a total of 420, a happy coincidence for Musk — to provide “minor” coverage. This would likely only be for testing as well, not commercial service. That would need 12 more launches, and dozens more to bring it to the point where it can compete with terrestrial broadband.

Even if it will take years to pull off, that is the plan. And by that time others will have spun up their operations as well. It’s an exciting time for space and for connectivity.

No launch time has been set as of this writing, so takeoff is just planned for Wednesday the 15th at present. As there’s no need to synchronize the launch with the movement of any particular celestial body, T-0 should be fairly flexible and SpaceX will likely just wait for the best weather and visibility. Delays are always a possibility, though, so don’t be surprised if this is pushed out to later in the week.

As always you’ll be able to watch the launch at the SpaceX website, but I’ll update this post with the live video link as soon as it’s available.



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The Google Assistant is now a Google messaging service

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The Google Assistant’s “Broadcast” feature has long existed as a way to blast a message to every Google smart speaker in the house. Instead of hunting down every individual family member at dinner time, put those smart speakers to work by saying, “Hey Google, broadcast, ‘It’s dinner time!'”

In a new blog post, Google called Broadcast “one of our most popular Assistant features” and announced that the feature is expanding to show messages on phones, too, even when they’re outside the home Wi-Fi network. That means Broadcast is basically turning into a new Google messaging service.

Broadcast will now be able to send and receive messages on the Google Home and Nest smart speakers, the Google Home Hub and Nest Hub smart displays, any Android phone, and iPhones running the Google Assistant app. Phones will get a notification when new messages arrive, and group chat members include both individual people (presumably with personal devices like a phone) and more public home devices. Just like any other messaging service, opening the notification will show a scrolling list of broadcast messages. The one big limitation is that the messaging only happens within a Google Family Group. If you want to include an outsider, you’ll have to awkwardly switch group messaging services.

Broadcast messaging uses audio by default, so speakers and smart displays will play the voice recording of your message. Phones and smart displays will show a transcription of your message and a play button, so you can listen or read if you want, and it looks like phones have the option of typing a response, too. Presumably, this would play back on speakers using text-to-speech.

One of many bespoke Google messaging services

Google has never been able to throw its full weight behind a single messaging service, and the constant launching and shutting down of competing messaging services has left the company without a competitive messaging platform to back. Several Google apps like the Google Assistant have aimed to include some smaller messaging functionality over the years, but without a clear Google service to plug into, they end up spinning up their own bespoke messaging services.

Besides this Google Assistant messaging service, YouTube Messaging existed from 2017-2019, Google Maps Messages (to message businesses) launched in 2018, Google Photos Messaging launched in 2019, Stadia Messaging was added in 2020, and Google Pay Messaging came out of beta with the app revamp in March 2021. And who could forget Google Docs Chat, which has existed seemingly forever, though awkwardly only on desktop clients. We can also give half-credit to Google News, which lets you send a message with a shared news article and will pop up a notification through the Google News app, although the feature doesn’t support replies. It would be nice if any of these services talked to each other through a single Google Messaging service, but instead, you’ll be managing individual contact lists and message histories.

This is one of a few new Google Assistant features that is supposed to arrive “just in time” for Mother’s Day (this Sunday—you all remembered, right?) so it should be rolling out soon.

Listing image by Google

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Fix for critical Qualcomm chip flaw is making its way to Android devices

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Makers of high-end Android devices are responding to the discovery of a Qualcomm chip flaw that researchers say could be exploited to partially backdoor about a third of the world’s smartphones.

The vulnerability, discovered by researchers from security firm Check Point Research, resides in Qualcomm’s Mobile Station Modem, a system of chips that provides capabilities for things like voice, SMS, and high-definition recording, mostly on higher-end devices made by Google, Samsung, LG, Xiaomi, and OnePlus. Phone-makers can customize the chips so they do additional things like handle SIM unlock requests. The chips run in 31 percent of the world’s smartphones, according to figures from Counterpoint Research.

The heap overflow the researchers found can be exploited by a malicious app installed on the phone, and from there the app can plant malicious code inside the MSM, Check Point researchers said in a blog post published Thursday. The nearly undetectable code might then be able to tap into some of a phone’s most vital functions.

“This means an attacker could have used this vulnerability to inject malicious code into the modem from Android, giving them access to the device user’s call history and SMS, as well as the ability to listen to the device user’s conversations,” the researchers wrote. “A hacker can also exploit the vulnerability to unlock the device’s SIM, thereby overcoming the limitations imposed by service providers on it.”

Fixes take time

Check Point spokesman Ekram Ahmed told me that Qualcomm has released a patch and disclosed the bug to all customers who use the chip. Because of the intricacies involved, it’s not yet clear which vulnerable Android devices are fixed and which ones aren’t.

“From our experience, the implementation of these fixes takes time, so some of the phones may still be prone to the threat,” he wrote in an email. “Accordingly, we decided not to share all the technical details, as it would give hackers a roadmap on how to orchestrate an exploitation.”

Qualcomm representatives weren’t available on Wednesday evening to answer questions.

The vulnerability is tracked as CVE-2020-11292. Check Point discovered it by using a process known as fuzzing, which exposed the chip system to unusual inputs in an attempt to find bugs in the firmware. Thursday’s research provides a deep dive into the inner workings of the chip system and the general outline they used to exploit the vulnerability.

The research is a reminder that phones and other modern-day computing devices are actually a collection of dozens if not hundreds of interconnected computing devices. While successfully infecting individual chips typically requires nation-state-level hacking resources, the feat would allow an attacker to run malware that couldn’t be detected without time and money.

“We believe this research to be a potential leap in the very popular area of mobile chip research,” Check Point researchers wrote. “Our hope is that our findings will pave the way for a much easier inspection of the modem code by security researchers, a task that is notoriously hard to do today.”

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Dell patches a 12-year-old privilege escalation vulnerability

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Enlarge / At least three companies have reported the dbutil_2_3.sys security problems to Dell over the past two years.

Yesterday, infosec research firm SentinelLabs revealed twelve year old flaws in Dell’s firmware updater, DBUtil 2.3. The vulnerable firmware updater has been installed by default on hundreds of millions of Dell systems since 2009.

The five high severity flaws SentinelLabs discovered and reported to Dell lurk in the dbutil_2_3.sys module, and have been rounded up under a single CVE tracking number, CVE-2021-21551. There are two memory corruption issues and two lack of input validation issues, all of which can lead to local privilege escalation, and a code logic issue which could lead to a denial of service.

A hypothetical attacker abusing these vulnerabilities can escalate the privileges of another process, or bypass security controls to write directly to system storage. This offers multiple routes to the ultimate goal of local kernel-level access—a step even higher than Administrator or “root” access—to the entire system.

This is not a remote code execution vulnerability—an attacker sitting across the world, or even across the coffee shop, cannot use it directly to compromise your system. The major risk is that an attacker who gets an unprivileged shell via some other vulnerability can use a local privilege escalation exploit like this one to bypass security controls.

Since SentinelLabs notified Dell in December 2020, the company has provided documentation of the flaws, and mitigation instructions which for now boil down to “remove the utility.” A replacement driver is also available, and should be automatically installed at the next firmware update check on affected Dell systems.

SentinelLabs’ Kasif Dekel was at least the fourth researcher to discover and report this issue, following CrowdStrike’s Satoshi Tanda and Yarden Shafir, and IOActive’s Enrique Nissim. It’s not clear why it took Dell two years and three separate infosec companies’ reports to patch the issue—but to paraphrase CrowdStrike’s Alex Ionescu above, what matters most is that Dell’s users will finally be protected.

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