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The Google Assistant gets a button

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Traditionally, the Google Assistant always lived under the home button on Android phones, but as the company announced at MWC today, LG, Nokia, Xiaomi, TCL and Vivo are about to launch phones with dedicated assistant buttons, similar to what Samsung has long done with its Bixby assistant.

The new phones with the button that are launching this week are the LG G8 ThinQ and K40 and the Nokia 3.2 and 4.2. The upcoming Xiaomi Mi Mix 3 5G and Mi 9, as well as new phones from Vivo (including the Vivo V15 Pro) and TCL will also feature a dedicated Assistant button. With this, Google expects that over 100 million devices will soon offer this feature.

With a dedicated button, Google can also build a few new features into the Android OS, too, that’ll make it easier to bring up some Assistant features that were traditionally always a few taps away.

As expected, a single tap on the button will bring up the Assistant, just like a long tap on your phone does today. A double tap will bring up the Assistant’s visual snapshot feature that provides you with contextual information about your day and location (similar to the sorely missed Google Now of days gone by). A long press activates what Google calls a “walkie talkie feature.” This ensures that the Assistant listens to longer queries, which Google says is “perfect for emails or long text message.”

It’s interesting to see that the Android ecosystem is now building these buttons into phones (and we can probably assume that Google’s own next-gen Pixel devices or the fabled low-end Pixel 3 will have one, too). They will make it easier to discover the Assistant, of course, and maybe get people to use it more often, too — and that’s surely what Google is hoping for.

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New Bluetooth hack can unlock your Tesla—and all kinds of other devices

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When you use your phone to unlock a Tesla, the device and the car use Bluetooth signals to measure their proximity to each other. Move close to the car with the phone in hand, and the door automatically unlocks. Move away, and it locks. This proximity authentication works on the assumption that the key stored on the phone can only be transmitted when the locked device is within Bluetooth range.

Now, a researcher has devised a hack that allows him to unlock millions of Teslas—and countless other devices—even when the authenticating phone or key fob is hundreds of yards or miles away. The hack, which exploits weaknesses in the Bluetooth Low Energy standard adhered to by thousands of device makers, can be used to unlock doors, open and operate vehicles, and gain unauthorized access to a host of laptops and other security-sensitive devices.

When convenience comes back to bite us

“Hacking into a car from hundreds of miles away tangibly demonstrates how our connected world opens us up to threats from the other side of the country—and sometimes even the other side of the world,” Sultan Qasim Khan, a principal security consultant and researcher at security firm NCC Group, told Ars. “This research circumvents typical countermeasures against remote adversarial vehicle unlocking and changes the way we need to think about the security of Bluetooth Low Energy communications.”

This class of hack is known as a relay attack, a close cousin of the person-in-the-middle attack. In its simplest form, a relay attack requires two attackers. In the case of the locked Tesla, the first attacker, which we’ll call Attacker 1, is in close proximity to the car while it’s out of range of the authenticating phone. Attacker 2, meanwhile, is in close proximity to the legitimate phone used to unlock the vehicle. Attacker 1 and Attacker 2 have an open Internet connection that allows them to exchange data.

Attacker 1 uses her own Bluetooth-enabled device to impersonate the authenticating phone and sends the Tesla a signal, prompting the Tesla to reply with an authentication request. Attacker 1 captures the request and sends it to Attacker 2, who in turn forwards the request to the authenticating phone. The phone responds with a credential, which Attacker 2 promptly captures and relays back to Attacker 1. Attacker 1 then sends the credential to the car.

With that, Attacker 1 has now unlocked the vehicle. Here’s a simplified attack diagram, taken from the above-linked Wikipedia article, followed by a video demonstration of Khan unlocking a Tesla and driving away with it, even though the authorized phone isn’t anywhere nearby.

Wikipedia

NCC Group demo Bluetooth Low Energy link layer relay attack on Tesla Model Y.

Relay attacks in the real world need not have two actual attackers. The relaying device can be stashed in a garden, coat room, or other out-of-the-way place at a home, restaurant, or office. When the target arrives at the destination and moves into Bluetooth range of the stashed device, it retrieves the secret credential and relays it to the device stationed near the car (operated by Attacker 1).

The susceptibility of BLE, short for Bluetooth Low Energy, to relay attacks is well known, so device makers have long relied on countermeasures to prevent the above scenario from occurring. One defense is to measure the flow of the requests and responses and reject authentications when the latency reaches a certain threshold, since relayed communications generally take longer to complete than legitimate ones. Another protection is encrypting the credential sent by the phone.

Khan’s BLE relay attack defeats these mitigations, making such hacks viable against a large base of devices and products previously assumed to be hardened against such attacks.

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Researchers devise iPhone malware that runs even when device is turned off

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Classen et al.

When you turn off an iPhone, it doesn’t fully power down. Chips inside the device continue to run in a low-power mode that makes it possible to locate lost or stolen devices using the Find My feature or use credit cards and car keys after the battery dies. Now researchers have devised a way to abuse this always-on mechanism to run malware that remains active even when an iPhone appears to be powered down.

It turns out that the iPhone’s Bluetooth chip—which is key to making features like Find My work—has no mechanism for digitally signing or even encrypting the firmware it runs. Academics at Germany’s Technical University of Darmstadt figured out how to exploit this lack of hardening to run malicious firmware that allows the attacker to track the phone’s location or run new features when the device is turned off.

This video provides a high overview of some of the ways an attack can work.

[Paper Teaser] Evil Never Sleeps: When Wireless Malware Stays On After Turning Off iPhones

The research is the first—or at least among the first—to study the risk posed by chips running in low-power mode. Not to be confused with iOS’s low-power mode for conserving battery life, the low-power mode (LPM) in this research allows chips responsible for near-field communication, ultra wideband, and Bluetooth to run in a special mode that can remain on for 24 hours after a device is turned off.

“The current LPM implementation on Apple iPhones is opaque and adds new threats,” the researchers wrote in a paper published last week. “Since LPM support is based on the iPhone’s hardware, it cannot be removed with system updates. Thus, it has a long-lasting effect on the overall iOS security model. To the best of our knowledge, we are the first who looked into undocumented LPM features introduced in iOS 15 and uncover various issues.”

They added: “Design of LPM features seems to be mostly driven by functionality, without considering threats outside of the intended applications. Find My after power off turns shutdown iPhones into tracking devices by design, and the implementation within the Bluetooth firmware is not secured against manipulation.”

The findings have limited real-world value since infections required a jailbroken iPhone, which in itself is a difficult task, particularly in an adversarial setting. Still, targeting the always-on feature in iOS could prove handy in post-exploit scenarios by malware such as Pegasus, the sophisticated smartphone exploit tool from Israel-based NSO Group, which governments worldwide routinely employ to spy on adversaries.
It may also be possible to infect the chips in the event hackers discover security flaws that are susceptible to over-the-air exploits similar to this one that worked against Android devices.

Besides allowing malware to run while the iPhone is turned off, exploits targeting LPM could also allow malware to operate with much more stealth since LPM allows firmware to conserve battery power. And of course, firmware infections are already extremely difficult to detect since it requires significant expertise and expensive equipment.

The researchers said Apple engineers reviewed their paper before it was published, but company representatives never provided any feedback on its contents. Apple representatives didn’t respond to an email seeking comment for this story.

Ultimately, Find My and other features enabled by LPM help provide added security because they allow users to locate lost or stolen devices and lock or unlock car doors even when batteries are depleted. But the research exposes a double-edged sword that, until now, has gone largely unnoticed.

“Hardware and software attacks similar to the ones described, have been proven practical in a real-world setting, so the topics covered in this paper are timely and practical,” John Loucaides, senior vice president of strategy at firmware security firm Eclypsium. “This is typical for every device. Manufacturers are adding features all the time and with every new feature comes a new attack surface.”

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The tech sector teardown is more catharsis than crisis

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Following a series of “super clarifying” meetings with shareholders, Uber’s chief executive, Dara Khosrowshahi, emailed employees on Sunday night with an arresting message: “we need to show them the money.”

Mangling his metaphors, Khosrowshahi explained that the market was experiencing a “seismic shift” and the “goalposts have changed.” The ride-hailing and food delivery company’s priority must now be to generate free cash flow. “We are serving multitrillion-dollar markets, but market size is irrelevant if it doesn’t translate into profit,” he wrote.

For the boss of Uber to be trumpeting cash flow and profit would once have seemed about as likely as Elon Musk shouting about the benefits of personal humility and petrol-fueled cars. No company has been more emblematic of the long, crazy, capital-doped bull market in technology stocks than Uber. Founded in 2009, the company floated a decade later at a valuation of $76 billion without recording a single quarter of profits. Its belated conversion to financial orthodoxy shows how much markets have been transformed since the turn in the interest rate cycle and the crash of the tech-heavy Nasdaq market, which has dropped 26 percent this year.

As ever, when bubbles burst, it is hard to distinguish between temporary adjustment and permanent change, between the cyclical downturn and the secular trend. Has the speculative froth just been blown off the top of the market? Or have the rules of the game fundamentally changed for those venture capital-backed start-ups trying to emulate Uber? My bet is on the latter, but that may be no bad thing.

There is certainly a strong argument that the extraordinary boom in tech stocks over the past decade was largely fueled by the unprecedented low-interest-rate policies in response to the global financial crisis of 2008. With capital becoming a commodity, it made sense for opportunistic companies such as Uber to grab as much cash as VC firms would give them to “blitzscale” their way to market domination.

This madcap expansion was accelerated by funding provided by a new class of non-traditional, or tourist, investors, including Masayoshi Son’s SoftBank and “crossover” hedge funds such as Tiger Global. Such funds are now seeing spectacular falls in their portfolio valuation. SoftBank has just announced a historic $27 billion investment loss over the past year at its two Vision Funds, while Tiger Global has lost $17 billion this year.

“There was a unique set of economic and financial policies enacted by the world’s central banks that we have never seen before: sustained negative interest rates over the long term,” says William Janeway, the veteran investor. As a result, he says, some companies pursued “capital as a strategy,” looking to invest their way to success and ignoring traditional metrics. “But I do not believe that is a sensible or sustainable investment strategy.”

Stock market investors have drawn the same conclusion and are now distinguishing between those tech companies that generate strong cash flow and profits, such as Apple, Microsoft, and Alphabet, and more speculative investments, such as Netflix, Peloton, and Zoom. These may have grown extraordinarily fast during the COVID-19 pandemic, but they are still flooded with red ink.

Just as public market investors have rotated out of cash-guzzling growth stocks into cash-generating value companies, so private market investors are following suit, says Albert Wenger, managing partner of Union Square Ventures, the New York-based VC firm. “I think that this is healthy. Companies have to build real products and deliver customer value that translates into earnings,” Wenger says, even if this shift will prove “very, very painful for a number of companies.”

Life is already becoming uncomfortable for late-stage startups looking to exit. The public markets are now hard to access. According to EY, the value of all global IPOs in the first quarter of 2022 dropped 51 percent year on year. The once-manic market for special purpose acquisition companies, which enabled highly speculative tech companies to list through the backdoor, has all but frozen. Trade sales have also fallen as M&A activity has contracted sharply. And valuations for late-stage funding rounds have now dropped in the US, with the rest of the world following behind.

In spite of this, the VC industry remains stuffed with cash and desperate to invest. According to KPMG, almost 1,400 VC funds around the world raised a total of $207 billion last year.

Although cash will count for far more, the ability of startups to exploit opportunities by using cheap and powerful tools such as open source software, cloud computing, and machine learning applications remains undimmed. And a slowdown in the voracious hiring plans of the big technology companies may persuade more budding entrepreneurs to give it a go. “We still need to take many more shots on goal from an investment and societal perspective,” says Wenger. There remains screaming demand for climate tech startups to invent smarter ways of reducing energy consumption, for example.

Venture-backed companies may have just ridden the most extraordinary wealth-generating bull market in history. Such supernatural conditions will never occur again. What follows will more likely prove to be catharsis than crisis, so long as they, like Uber, can show investors the money.

Financial Times: © 2022 The Financial Times Ltd. All rights reserved Not to be redistributed, copied, or modified in any way.

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