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To rebuild satellite communications, Ubiquitilink starts at ground level – TechCrunch

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Communications satellites are multiplying year by year as more companies vie to create an orbital network that brings high-speed internet to the globe. Ubiquitilink, a new company headed by Nanoracks co-founder Charles Miller, is taking a different tack: reinventing the Earthbound side of the technology stack.

Miller’s intuition, backed by approval and funding from a number of investors and communications giants, is that people are competing to solve the wrong problem in the comsat world. Driving down the cost of satellites isn’t going to create the revolution they hope. Instead, he thinks the way forward lies in completely rebuilding the “user terminal,” usually a ground station or large antenna.

“If you’re focused on bridging the digital divide, say you have to build a thousand satellites and a hundred million user terminals,” he said, “which should you optimize for cost?”

Of course, dropping the price of satellites has plenty of benefits on its own, but he does have a point. What happens when a satellite network is in place to cover most of the planet but the only devices that can access it cost thousands of dollars or have to be in proximity to some subsidized high-tech hub?

There are billions of phones on the planet, he points out, yet only 10 percent of the world has anything like a mobile connection. Serving the hundreds of millions who at any given moment have no signal, he suggests, is a no-brainer. And you’re not going to do it by adding more towers; if that was a valid business proposition, telecoms would have done it years ago.

Instead, Miller’s plan is to outfit phones with a new hardware-software stack that will offer a baseline level of communication whenever a phone would otherwise lapse into “no service.” And he claims it’ll be possible for less than $5 per person.

He was coy about the exact nature of this tech, but I didn’t get the sense that it’s vaporware or anything like that. Miller and his team are seasoned space and telecoms people, and of course you don’t generally launch a satellite to test vaporware.

But Ubiquitilink does have a bird in the air, with testing of their tech set to start next month and two more launches planned. The stack has already been proven on the ground, Miller said, and has garnered serious interest.

“We’ve been in stealth for several years and have signed up 22 partners — 20 are multi-billion-dollar companies,” he said, adding that the latter are mainly communications companies, though he declined to name them. The company has also gotten regulatory clearance to test in five countries, including the U.S.

Miller self-funded the company at the outset, but soon raised a pre-seed round led by Blazar Ventures (and indirectly, telecoms infrastructure standby Neustar). Unshackled Ventures led the seed round, along with RRE Ventures, Rise of the Rest, and One Way Ventures. All told, the company is working with a total $6.5 million, which it will use to finance its launches and tests; once they’ve taken place, it will be safer to dispel a bit of the mystery around the tech.

“Ubiquitilink represents one of the largest opportunities in telecommunications,” Unshackled founding partner Manan Mehta said, calling the company’s team “maniacally focused.”

I’m more than a little interested to find out more about this stealth attempt, three years in the making so far, to rebuild satellite communications from the ground up. Some skepticism is warranted, but the pedigree here is difficult to doubt; we’ll know more once orbital testing commences in the next few months.

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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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