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Tibetans hit by the same mobile malware targeting Uyghurs – TechCrunch

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A recently revealed mobile malware campaign targeting Uyghur Muslims also ensnared a number of senior Tibetan officials and activists, according to new research.

Security researchers at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab say some of the Tibetan targets were sent specifically tailored malicious web links over WhatsApp, which, when opened, stealthily gained full access to their phone, installed spyware and silently stole private and sensitive information.

The exploits shared “technical overlaps” with a recently disclosed campaign targeting Uyghur Muslims, an oppressed minority in China’s Xinjiang state. Google last month disclosed the details of the campaign, which targeted iPhone users, but did not say who was targeted or who was behind the attack. Sources told TechCrunch that Beijing was to blame. Apple, which patched the vulnerabilities, later confirmed the exploits targeted Uyghurs.

Although Citizen Lab would not specify who was behind the latest round of attacks, the researchers said the same group targeting both Uyghurs and Tibetans also utilized Android exploits. Those exploits, recently disclosed and detailed by security firm Volexity, were used to steal text messages, contact lists and call logs, as well as watch and listen through the device’s camera and microphone.

It’s the latest move in a marked escalation of attacks on ethnic minority groups under surveillance and subjection by Beijing. China has long claimed rights to Tibet, but many Tibetans hold allegiance to the country’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. Rights groups say China continues to oppress the Tibetan people, just as it does with Uyghurs.

A spokesperson for the Chinese consulate in New York did not return an email requesting comment, but China has long denied state-backed hacking efforts, despite a consistent stream of evidence to the contrary. Although China has recognized it has taken action against Uyghurs on the mainland, it instead categorizes its mass forced detentions of more than a million Chinese citizens as “re-education” efforts, a claim widely refuted by the west.

The hacking group, which Citizen Lab calls “Poison Carp,” uses the same exploits, spyware and infrastructure to target Tibetans as well as Uyghurs, including officials in the Dalai Lama’s office, parliamentarians and human rights groups.

Bill Marczak, a research fellow at Citizen Lab, said the campaign was a “major escalation” in efforts to access and sabotage these Tibetans groups.

In its new research out Tuesday and shared with TechCrunch, Citizen Lab said a number of Tibetan victims were targeted with malicious links sent in WhatsApp messages by individuals purporting to work for Amnesty International and The New York Times. The researchers obtained some of those WhatsApp messages from TibCERT, a Tibetan coalition for sharing threat intelligence, and found each message was designed to trick each target into clicking the link containing the exploit. The links were disguised using a link-shortening service, allowing the attackers to mask the full web address but also gain insight into how many people clicked on a link and when.

“The ruse was persuasive,” the researchers wrote. During a week-long period in November 2018, the targeted victims opened more than half of the attempted infections. Not all were infected, however; all of the targets were running non-vulnerable iPhone software.

One of the specific social engineering messages, pretending to be an Amnesty International aid worker, targeting Tibetan officials (Image: Citizen Lab/supplied)

The researchers said tapping on a malicious link targeting iPhones would trigger a chain of exploits designed to target a number of vulnerabilities, one after the other, in order to gain access to the underlying, typically off-limits, iPhone software.

The chain “ultimately executed a spyware payload designed to steal data from a range of applications and services,” said the report.

Once the exploitation had been achieved, a spyware implant would be installed, allowing the attackers to collect and send data to the attackers’ command and control server, including locations, contacts, call history, text messages and more. The implant also would exfiltrate data, like messages and content, from a hardcoded list of apps — most of which are popular with Asian users, like QQMail and Viber.

Apple had fixed the vulnerabilities months earlier (in July 2018); they were later confirmed as the same flaws found by Google earlier this month.

“Our customers’ data security is one of Apple’s highest priorities and we greatly value our collaboration with security researchers like Citizen Lab,” an Apple spokesperson told TechCrunch. “The iOS issue detailed in the report had already been discovered and patched by the security team at Apple. We always encourage customers to download the latest version of iOS for the best and most current security enhancements.”

Meanwhile, the researchers found that the Android-based attacks would detect which version of Chrome was running on the device and would serve a matching exploit. Those exploits had been disclosed and were “obviously copied” from previously released proof-of-concept code published by their finders on bug trackers, said Marczak. A successful exploitation would trick the device into opening Facebook’s in-app Chrome browser, which gives the spyware implant access to device data by taking advantage of Facebook’s vast number of device permissions.

The researchers said the code suggests the implant could be installed in a similar way using Facebook Messenger, and messaging apps WeChat and QQ, but failed to work in the researchers’ testing.

Once installed, the implant downloads plugins from the attacker’s server in order to collect contacts, messages, locations and access to the device’s camera and microphone.

When reached, Google did not comment. Facebook, which received Citizen Lab’s report on the exploit activity in November 2018, did not comment at the time of publication.

“From an adversary perspective what makes mobile an attractive spying target is obvious,” the researchers wrote. “It’s on mobile devices that we consolidate our online lives and for civil society that also means organizing and mobilizing social movements that a government may view as threatening.”

“A view inside a phone can give a view inside these movements,” they said.

The researchers also found another wave of links trying to trick a Tibetan parliamentarian into allowing a malicious app access to their Gmail account.

Citizen Lab said the threat from the mobile malware campaign was a “game changer.”

“These campaigns are the first documented cases of iOS exploits and spyware being used against these communities,” the researchers wrote. But attacks like Poison Carp show mobile threats “are not expected by the community,” as shown by the high click rates on the exploit links.

Gyatso Sither, TibCERT’s secretary, said the highly targeted nature of these attacks presents a “huge challenge” for the security of Tibetans.

“The only way to mitigate these threats is through collaborative sharing and awareness,” he said.



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IKEA and Sonos’ picture frame speaker has one big problem

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Sonos and IKEA have returned with another surprisingly affordable speaker, but the SYMFONISK Picture Frame hides its music in plain sight. In the process it has added a new element of design to the partnership though, as excited as I am for more attainable connected speakers, I can’t help but feel that neither company has quite closed the loop on this third product.

I’m a big fan of Sonos and IKEA’s original SYMFONISK range, particularly the bookshelf speaker. At $99 it’s the most affordable speaker you can buy which will integrate with Sonos, and that opens up the door to expanding a Sonos system into rooms and spaces you might not otherwise have been able to justify. Home offices and kids bedrooms are good examples, but the affordable speaker also serves well as components for a rear surround sound system too.

Even when it launched the bookshelf and table lamp speakers, IKEA and Sonos weren’t coy in promising more from the SYMFONISK series. It was to be a long-term collaboration, the two companies insisted, leveraging the mass-market design chops of one with the tech-savvy of the other. We had to wait, of course, almost two years to see the third product arrive.

I’ll confess, I’m left scratching my head a little at the new SYMFONISK Picture Frame. Announced yesterday, it takes Sonos into a whole new form-factor compared to what the company is familiar with.

Sonos speakers aren’t exactly attention-grabbing, and Sonos Architectural installations can be positively surreptitious. However the new speaker for IKEA goes one step further, effectively hiding the audio side of things even as the SYMFONISK sits on the wall. Only the power cable really gives things away.

Speaker companies have tried flat speakers before, but never quite like this. IKEA’s contribution is, in no small part, the price tag. Yes, at $199 the picture frame is the most expensive of the SYMFONISK line-up so far, but it’s a far, far cry from the super-premium flat speakers we’ve seen attempted in the past. At 2.36-inches deep it’s not quite as slender as them, either, but I suspect the cost/thickness balance will be far more acceptable in terms of people opening their wallets.

What I struggle with, though, is the idea of it being a picture frame at all. More specifically, the fact that right now there’s no way to actually use your own art in there.

IKEA has designed it so that the picture pops out and can be replaced. The frame – in either black or white – is super-slim, to the point that you don’t really see it around the edge of the picture insert, but it means that you’ll be able to swap the default image for something new. That is, assuming IKEA has a design you like.

The two standard art pieces are the handiwork of European artist Jennifer Idrizi. They’re apparently inspired by visualizations of music and inter-connections, the result being an abstract interplay of lines that are more like a topographical network map than anything else. Neither is unpleasant, and you could easily picture them on the wall of a fancy apartment building’s show-suite.

At the same time, though, they’re hardly striking in an art sense. IKEA will have a couple of other designs, following on in August, and the retailer says that more versions will follow – and vary by geographic location – in due course. Much like the furniture company’s regular range evolves with the seasons, so too will SYMFONISK art, it seems.

What I’d really like, though, is the ability to put my own pictures in there instead. I doubt I’m alone in that. I suspect the challenge is that IKEA isn’t using paper or canvas for its art, instead relying on some sort of mesh that’s still acoustically transparent despite also showing Idrizi’s handiwork.

For now, Sonos tells me, there’s no provision for custom art for the SYMFONISK Picture Frame. That could change in the future, of course, and I really hope it does. The ability to upload a picture and have it reproduced on a speaker-compatible mesh seems like the sort of home decor idea people would love, and the Sonos audio side of that would be the gravy on top.

Honestly, I’m not sure SYMFONISK is going in the direction I – and others – expected it to. Sonos and IKEA’s plan to democratize music and design looked, initially, like a value play: the value that IKEA is already known for with so much of its range. However instead we’ve seen the attainable design side be emphasized, a reminder that part of IKEA’s charm has long been that it works with individual designers on products that are not only distinctive to look at but can be cost-effective to manufacture and ship at scale.

That’s arguably a far more exciting approach to the home audio category, and one I hope we don’t have to wait another two years to see the next installment in. More immediately, though, my fingers are crossed that Sonos and IKEA join up the dots on this new SYMFONISK offering, because while art is nice, art with personal meaning can be truly uplifting.

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Here’s what the first Google Store is like on the inside

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The first Google Store is almost open, and if you can’t make it to New York City to check out the new brick & mortar shop, a virtual walk-around is the next best thing. Google announced earlier in the year that it would be opening its first physical location for device sales, and now it has opened its doors in Chelsea, NYC.

At first, it seems like a fairly odd decision given the events of the past 18 months. Online shopping has soared in popularity, as the COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing have kept people at home and online.

Still, Google argues that it does make sense. “This new space will be a natural extension of our commitment to NYC and provide customers with hands-on interaction with our lineup of devices and services — from Pixel phones and Nest products to Fitbit wearables and Pixelbooks,” Ivy Ross, VP of hardware design, UX & research, and Nathan Allen, head of store design & special projects, insist. Part of that is a recognition that Google’s device range is now considerable, and that can be overwhelming to new users.

As a result, the new Google Store takes a more hands-on, exploratory approach. Google worked with NYC-based architect Reddymade, even building a full-scale mockup in Mountain View, CA, where it could play with the layout and figure out how to best demo both hardware – like Pixel and Nest – and software.

The end result isn’t just a retail location, but a way for Google to showcase some of the other elements which have become increasingly important in product design. That includes sustainability: both for the devices on sale, and for the store itself. The building is certified LEED Platinum by the US Green Building Council, for example, around sustainable choices for construction and materials.

“Every element of the Google Store — the materials, building processes, mechanical systems and more — was painstakingly considered and selected,” Ross and Allen explain. “For example, the veneer on the walls is a soft gray responsibly sourced hickory, each lighting fixture is energy efficient and our custom cork and wood furniture was created with a local craftsman from Greenpoint, Brooklyn. We even attached our carpeting (which was manufactured with recycled materials) in a sustainable way.”

Of course, that still left room for some more playful elements. The most conspicuous is the “Google Imagination Space”: a 17 foot tall circular glass structure filled with huge touchscreens that can be used to show off immersive demos. That’ll begin with Google Translate, which will do real-time translation across 24 different languages as visitors speak.

There’ll be specially-trained staff to give advice and do demos, and an opportunity to see all of the different color options of each product. Gamers will be able to try out Google Stadia, too, in a specially set-up game hall.

The Google Store is open from tomorrow, June 17, from 10am ET.

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Honor 50 series launches with Google good news

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Honor has revealed its Honor 50 smartphones and, more importantly, that Google’s apps and services will be supported on the new handsets. The announcement today – which confirmed availability and pricing for the Honor 50 and Honor 50 Pro in China – came with the news that the former Huawei subsidiary has achieved its big goal in spinning out.

Honor began as Huawei’s focused brand on younger users, borrowing technology from its corporate parent but packaging it into a more affordable line-up. However when Huawei was placed on the US government’s entity list, blocking it from doing business with American firms, it left Honor also out of the loop for accessing Google apps and services.

That’s proved to be disastrous for Huawei, with its smartphone sales slumping dramatically. Honor, meanwhile, was spun out into its own, standalone business late last year. That allowed it to begin inking the deals with companies that Huawei simply wasn’t allowed to.

The fruits of that freedom will be the Honor 50 series, the company confirmed today. “Honor devices will undergo Google’s Play Protect certified security review and compatibility testing process to ensure they are ready to run apps from Google and the Google Play Store,” the company told SlashGear in a statement. “Honor devices will therefore have the option to have Google Mobile Services (“GMS”) preinstalled on compatible devices, in accordance with Google’s licensing and governance models. Consumers will be able to experience HONOR smartphones and tablets equipped with GMS.”

It’ll include both smartphones and tablets from Honor, beyond just the new Honor 50. “Going forward all the phones that we will launch in global markets will have GMS,” a spokesperson told us.

It’s a big deal for Honor, and its ambitions to be a player in global markets. Without the Google deal it’s been unable to include apps like Gmail, Google Maps, and YouTube on its phones. Equally important, it hasn’t been able to load the Google Play Store either, meaning buyers of Honor devices have been cut off from Google’s official app download store.

For the Honor 50 series specifically, the company plans to put the phones up for preorder in China on June 16. Broader availability – including the UK, France, Mexico, Malaysia, Russia, and Saudi Arabia – will follow later in the year, though no further details have been shared at this stage.

The Honor 50 Pro is, unsurprisingly, the more interesting of the two. It has a 6.72-inch 120Hz display, and is powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 778G chipset. On the back are two circular camera clusters, with a 100-megapixel main sensor, an 8-megapixel ultra-wide, a 2-megapixel depth camera, and a 2-megapixel depth camera. On the front there’s a pair of cameras for selfies: a 32-megapixel regular sensor, and a 12-megapixel ultra-wide.

For the Honor 50, the chipset is the same, as are the rear cameras. However the screen is a 6.57-inch 120Hz panel, and the selfie camera loses out on the dedicated ultra-wide. The Honor 50 Pro has a 4,000 mAh battery with up to 100W fast-charging, while the Honor 50 has a slightly larger 4,300 mAh battery but only 66W fast charging.

The Honor 50 will be priced at RMB 2699 ($422), and the Honor 50 Pro at RMB 3699 ($578).

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