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The Google Assistant gets more visual

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Google today is launching a major visual redesign of its Assistant experience on phones. While the original vision of the Assistant focused mostly on voice, half of all interactions with the Assistant actually include touch. So with this redesign, Google acknowledges that and brings more and larger visuals to the Assistant experience.

If you’ve used one of the recent crop of Assistant-enabled smart displays, then some of what’s new here may look familiar. You now get controls and sliders to manage your smart home devices, for example. Those include sliders to dim your lights and buttons to turn them on or off. There also are controls for managing the volume of your speakers.Even in cases where the Assistant already offered visual feedback — say when you ask for the weather — the team has now also redesigned those results and brought them more in line with what users are already seeing on smart displays from the likes of Lenovo and LG. On the phone, though, that experience still feels a bit more pared down than on those larger displays.

With this redesign, which is going live on both Android and in the iOS app today, Google is also bringing a little bit more of the much-missed Google Now experience back to the phone. While you could already bring up a list of upcoming appointments, commute info, recent orders and other information about your day from the Assistant, that feature was hidden behind a rather odd icon that many users surely ignored. Now, after you’ve long-pressed the home button on your Android phone, you can swipe up to get that same experience. I’m not sure that’s more discoverable than previously, but Google is saving you a tap.

In addition to the visual redesign of the Assistant, Google also today announced a number of new features for developers. Unsurprisingly, one part of this announcement focuses on allowing developers to build their own visual Assistant experiences. Google calls these “rich responses” and provides developers with a set of pre-made visual components that they can easily use to extend their Assistant actions. And because nothing is complete with GIFs, they can now use GIFs in their Assistant apps, too.

But in addition to these new options for creating more visual experiences, Google is also making it a bit easier for developers to take their users money.

While they could already sell physical goods through their Assistant actions, starting today, they’ll also be able to sell digital goods. Those can be one-time purchases for a new level in a game or recurring subscriptions. Headspace, which has long offered a very basic Assistant experience, now lets you sign up for subscriptions right from the Assistant on your phone, for example.

Selling digital goods directly in the Assistant is one thing, but that sale has to sync across different applications, too, so Google today is also launching a new sign-in service for the Assistant that allows developers to log in and link their accounts.

“In the past, account linking could be a frustrating experience for your users; having to manually type a username and password — or worse, create a new account — breaks the natural conversational flow,” the company explains. “With Google Sign-In, users can now create a new account with just a tap or confirmation through their voice. Most users can even link to their existing accounts with your service using their verified email address.”

Starbucks has already integrated this feature into its Assistant experience to give users access to their rewards account. Adding the new Sign-In for the Assistant has almost doubled its conversion rate.

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Epik data breach impacts 15 million users, including non-customers

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Epik has now confirmed that an “unauthorized intrusion” did in fact occur into its systems. The announcement follows last week’s incident of hacktivist collective Anonymous leaking 180 GB of data stolen from online service provider Epik. To mock the company’s initial response to the data breach claims, Anonymous had altered Epik’s official knowledge base, as reported by Ars.

Epik is a domain registrar and web services provider known to serve right-wing clients, some of which have been turned down by more mainstream IT providers due to the objectionable and sometimes illicit content hosted by the clients. Epik’s clients have included the Texas GOP, Parler, Gab, and 8chan, among others.

Epik hack impacts millions of non-customers, too

Turns out, the leaked data dump contains 15,003,961 email addresses belonging to both Epik’s customers and non-customers, and not everyone is pleased with the news. This occurred as Epik had scraped WHOIS records of domains, even those not owned by the company, and stored these records. In doing so, the contact information of those who have never transacted with Epik directly was also retained in Epik’s systems.

Data breach monitoring service HaveIBeenPwned has now begun sending out alerts to millions of email addresses exposed in the Epik hack. The service’s founder, Troy Hunt, is one of the many impacted by the data breach but who “had absolutely nothing to do with Epik.”

In a poll last week, Hunt had asked if affected users who weren’t Epik customers preferred receiving breach alerts as well. The majority of users responded affirmatively to the question.

“The breach exposed a huge volume of data not just of Epik customers, but also scraped WHOIS records belonging to individuals and organisations who were not Epik customers,” states HaveIBeenPwned. “The data included over 15 million unique email addresses (including anonymised versions for domain privacy), names, phone numbers, physical addresses, purchases and passwords stored in various formats.”

Ars has seen a part of the leaked whois.sql data set file, roughly 16 GB in size, with emails, IP addresses, domains, physical addresses, and phone numbers of the users. We noticed WHOIS records for some domains were dated and contained incorrect information about domain owners—people who no longer own these assets.

Epik's WHOIS database, part of the 180 GB leak.
Enlarge / Epik’s WHOIS database, part of the 180 GB leak.

Ax Sharma

Prior to registering domains, domain registrars require users to provide their “WHOIS” contact information, such as email address, physical address, and phone number. This information becomes a part of the public WHOIS directory and is searchable by anyone for contacting the domain owner. Being public data, WHOIS records may be seen or scraped by anyone. Those who prefer not to disclose their personal information directly on a WHOIS directory often rely on a company or a private WHOIS provider to act on their behalf. However, what has gotten the users concerned in this case is that the presence of their contact information in Epik’s data set could falsely portray them as having a connection to Epik when there was none.

“Wonder if there is any legal recourse once can take against [Epik] for harvesting data, and keeping it longer than expected in a cache for individuals who are NOT clients, and have had 0 business dealings with them? Is there a precedent for this?” asked TapEnvy.US, a Texas-based app development shop.

Epik confirms data breach, emails impacted people

Epik has confirmed the breach and is also emailing the impacted parties about an “unauthorized intrusion,” according to screenshots shared by data scientist Emily Gorcenski and cybersecurity expert Adam Sculthorpe:

Epik begins emailing data breach notice to customers.
Enlarge / Epik begins emailing data breach notice to customers.

“As we work to confirm all related details, we are taking an approach toward maximum caution and urging customers to remain alert for any unusual activity they may observe regarding their information used for our services – this may include payment information including credit card numbers, registered names, usernames, emails, and passwords,” reads Epik’s email notice.

Although the company has not confirmed at this time if credit card information was also compromised, as a caution, users are encouraged to “contact any credit card companies that you used to transact with Epik and notify them of a potential data compromise to discuss your options with them directly.”

Previously, an Epik spokesperson had told Ars that the company was not aware of any breach and was investigating the claims.

Users whose contact information was potentially exposed as a part of this hack should keep an eye out for any phishing emails and online banking scams.

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A new app helps Iranians hide messages in plain sight

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Enlarge / An anti-government graffiti that reads in Farsi “Death to the dictator” is sprayed at a wall north of Tehran on September 30, 2009.

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Amid ever-increasing government Internet control, surveillance, and censorship in Iran, a new Android app aims to give Iranians a way to speak freely.

Nahoft, which means “hidden” in Farsi, is an encryption tool that turns up to 1,000 characters of Farsi text into a jumble of random words. You can send this mélange to a friend over any communication platform—Telegram, WhatsApp, Google Chat, etc.—and then they run it through Nahoft on their device to decipher what you’ve said.

Released last week on Google Play by United for Iran, a San Francisco–based human rights and civil liberties group, Nahoft is designed to address multiple aspects of Iran’s Internet crackdown. In addition to generating coded messages, the app can also encrypt communications and embed them imperceptibly in image files, a technique known as steganography. Recipients then use Nahoft to inspect the image file on their end and extract the hidden message.

Iranians can use end-to-end encrypted apps like WhatsApp for secure communications, but Nahoft, which is open source, has a crucial feature in its back pocket for when those aren’t accessible. The Iranian regime has repeatedly imposed near-total Internet blackouts in particular regions or across the entire country, including for a full week in November 2019. Even without connectivity, though, if you already have Nahoft downloaded, you can still use it locally on your device. Enter the message you want to encrypt, and the app spits out the coded Farsi message. From there you can write that string of seemingly random words in a letter, or read it to another Nahoft user over the phone, and they can enter it into their app manually to see what you were really trying to say.

“When the Internet goes down in Iran, people can’t communicate with their families inside and outside the country, and for activists everything comes to a screeching halt,” says Firuzeh Mahmoudi, United for Iran’s executive director, who lived through the 1979 Iranian revolution and left the country when she was 12. “And more and more the government is moving toward layered filtering, banning different digital platforms, and trying to come up with alternatives for international services like social media. This is not looking great; it’s the direction that we definitely don’t want to see. So this is where the app comes in.”

Iran is a highly connected country. More than 57 million of its 83 million citizens use the Internet. But in recent years the country’s government has been extremely focused on developing a massive state-controlled network, or intranet, known as the “National Information Network” or SHOMA. This increasingly gives the government the ability to filter and censor data, and to block specific services, from social networks to circumvention tools like proxies and VPNs.

This is why Nahoft was intentionally designed as an app that functions locally on your device rather than as a communication platform. In the case of a full Internet shutdown, users will need to have already downloaded the app to use it. But in general, it will be difficult for the Iranian government to block Nahoft as long as Google Play is still accessible there, according to United for Iran strategic adviser Reza Ghazinouri. Since Google Play traffic is encrypted, Iranian surveillance can’t see which apps users download. So far, Nahoft has been downloaded 4,300 times. It’s possible, Ghazinouri says, that the government will eventually develop its own app store and block international offerings, but for now that capability seems far off. In China, for example, Google Play is banned in favor of offerings from Chinese tech giants like Huawei and a curated version of the iOS App Store.

Ghazinouri and journalist Mohammad Heydari came up with the idea for Nahoft in 2012 and submitted it as part of United for Iran’s second “Irancubator” tech accelerator, which started last year. Operator Foundation, a Texas nonprofit development group focused on Internet freedom, engineered the Nahoft app. And the German penetration testing firm Cure53 conducted two security audits of the app and its encryption scheme, which draws from proven protocols. United for Iran has published the findings from these audits along with detailed reports about how it fixed the problems Cure53 found. In the original app review from December 2020, for example, Cure53 found some major issues, including critical weaknesses in the steganographic technique used to embed messages in photo files. All of these vulnerabilities were fixed before the second audit, which turned up more moderate issues like Android denial-of-service vulnerabilities and a bypass for the in-app auto-delete passcode. Those issues were also fixed before launch, and the app’s Github repository contains notes about the improvements.

The stakes are extremely high for an app that Iranians could rely on to circumvent government surveillance and restrictions. Any flaws in the cryptography’s implementation could put people’s secret communications, and potentially their safety, at risk. Ghazinouri says the group took every precaution it could think of. For example, the random word jumbles the app produces are specifically designed to seem inconspicuous and benign. Using real words makes it less likely that a content scanner will flag the coded messages. And United for Iran researchers worked with Operator Foundation to confirm that current off-the-shelf scanning tools don’t detect the encryption algorithm used to generate the coded words. That makes it less likely that censors will be able to detect encoded messages and create a filter to block them.

You can set a passcode needed to open Nahoft and set an additional “destruction code” that will wipe all data from the app when entered.

“There has always been a gap between communities in need and the people who claim to work for them and develop tools for them,” Ghazinouri says. “We’re trying to shrink that gap. And the app is open source, so experts can audit the code for themselves. Encryption is an area where you can’t just ask people to trust you, and we don’t expect anyone to trust us blindly.”

In a 2020 academic keynote, “Crypto for the People,” Brown University cryptographer Seny Kamara made a similar point. The forces and incentives that typically guide cryptographic inquiry and creation of encryption tools, he argued, overlook and dismiss the specific community needs of marginalized people.

Kamara has not audited the code or cryptographic design of Nahoft, but he told WIRED that the goals of the project fit with his ideas about encryption tools made by the people, for the people.

“In terms of what the app is trying to accomplish, I think this is a good example of an important security and privacy problem that the tech industry and academia have no incentive to solve,” he says.

With Iran’s Internet freedom rapidly deteriorating, Nahoft could become a vital lifeline to keep open communication going within the country and beyond.

This story originally appeared on wired.com.

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SpaceX Starlink will come out of beta next month, Elon Musk says

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Enlarge / Screenshot from the Starlink order page, with the street address blotted out.

SpaceX’s Starlink satellite-broadband service will emerge from beta in October, CEO Elon Musk said last night. Musk provided the answer of “next month” in response to a Twitter user who asked when Starlink will come out of beta.

SpaceX began sending email invitations to Starlink’s public beta in October 2020. The service is far from perfect as trees can disrupt the line-of-sight connections to satellites and the satellite dishes go into “thermal shutdown” in hot areas. But for people in areas where wired ISPs have never deployed cable or fiber, Starlink is still a promising alternative and service should improve as SpaceX launches more satellites and refines its software.

SpaceX has said it is serving over 100,000 Starlink users in a dozen countries from more than 1,700 satellites. The company has been taking preorders for post-beta service and said in May that “over half a million people have placed an order or put down a deposit for Starlink.”

It is still possible to place pre-orders and submit $99 deposits at the Starlink website, but the site notes that “Depending on location, some orders may take 6 months or more to fulfill.” The deposits are fully refundable.

First 500,000 to order will “likely” get service

There are capacity limits imposed by the laws of physics, and SpaceX hasn’t guaranteed that every person who pre-ordered will actually get Starlink. Musk said in May that the first 500,000 people will “most likely” get service, but that SpaceX will face “[m]ore of a challenge when we get into the several million user range.”

We asked Musk today how many orders will be fulfilled by the end of 2021 and will update this article if we get a response. Musk has said the capacity limits will primarily be a problem in densely populated urban areas, so rural people should have a good chance at getting service.

SpaceX has US permission to deploy 1 million user terminals across the country and is seeking a license to deploy up to 5 million terminals. The number of Starlink pre-orders is up to 600,000 and SpaceX is reportedly speeding up its production of dishes to meet demand, as PCMag wrote last week. 

No changes to pricing yet

In beta, SpaceX has been charging a one-time fee of $499 for the user terminal, mounting tripod, and router, plus $99 per month for service. SpaceX hasn’t announced any changes to the pricing, but that could change when it moves from beta to commercial availability.

In April, SpaceX president and COO Gwynne Shotwell said that Starlink will likely avoid “tiered pricing” and “try to keep [pricing] as simple as possible and transparent as possible.” Shotwell said that SpaceX would keep Starlink in beta “until the network is reliable and great and something we’d be proud of.” SpaceX is also working on ruggedized user terminals for aircraft, ships, large trucks, and RVs.

SpaceX has a Federal Communications Commission license to launch nearly 12,000 low-Earth orbit satellites and is seeking permission to launch an additional 30,000. Amazon, which plans its own satellite constellation, has been urging the FCC to reject the current version of SpaceX’s next-generation Starlink plan. Satellite operator Viasat supported Amazon’s protest and separately urged a federal appeals court to halt SpaceX launches, but judges rejected Viasat’s request for a stay.

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