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Week-in-Review: Alexa’s indefinite memory and NASA’s otherworldly plans for GPS

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Hello, weekenders. This is Week-in-Review, where I give a heavy amount of analysis and/or rambling thoughts on one story while scouring the rest of the hundreds of stories that emerged on TechCrunch this week to surface my favorites for your reading pleasure.

Last week, I talked about the cult of Ive and the degradation of Apple design. On Sunday night, The Wall Street Journal published a report on how Ive had been moving away from the company, to the dismay of many on the design team. Tim Cook didn’t like the report very much. Our EIC gave a little breakdown on the whole saga in a nice piece.

Apple sans Ive


The big story

This week was a tad restrained in its eventfulness; seems like the newsmakers went on 4th of July vacations a little early. Amazon made a bit of news this week when the company confirmed that Alexa request logs are kept indefinitely.

Last week, an Amazon public policy exec answered some questions about Alexa in a letter sent to U.S. Senator Coons. His office published the letter on its site a few days ago and most of the details aren’t all that surprising, but the first answer really sets the tone for how Amazon sees Alexa activity:

Q: How long does Amazon store the transcripts of user voice recordings?

A: We retain customers’ voice recordings and transcripts until the customer chooses to delete them.

What’s interesting about this isn’t that we’re only now getting this level of straightforward dialogue from Amazon on how long data is kept if not specifically deleted, but it makes one wonder why it is useful or feasible for them to keep it indefinitely. (This assumes that they actually are keeping it indefinitely; it seems likely that most of it isn’t, and that by saying this they’re protecting themselves legally, but I’m just going off the letter.)

After several years of “Hey Alexa,” the company doesn’t seem all that close to figuring out what it is.

Alexa seems to be a shit solution for commerce, so why does Amazon have 10,000 people working on it, according to a report this week in The Information? All signs are pointing to the voice assistant experiment being a short-term failure in terms of the short-term ambitions, though AI advances will push the utility.

Training data is a big deal across AI teams looking to educate models on data sets of relevant information. The company seems to say as much. “Our speech recognition and natural language understanding systems use machine learning to adapt to customers’ speech patterns and vocabulary, informed by the way customers use Alexa in the real world. To work well, machine learning systems need to be trained using real world data.”

The company says it doesn’t anonymize any of this data because it has to stay associated with a user’s account in order for them to delete it. I’d feel a lot better if Amazon just effectively anonymized the data in the first place and used on-device processing the build a profile on my voice. What I’m more afraid of is Amazon having such a detailed voiceprint of everyone who has ever used an Alexa device.

If effortless voice-based e-commerce isn’t really the product anymore, what is? The answer is always us, but I don’t like the idea of indefinitely leaving Amazon with my data until they figure out the answer.

Send me feedback
on Twitter @lucasmtny or email
lucas@techcrunch.com

On to the rest of the week’s news.

Trends of the week

Here are a few big news items from big companies, with green links to all the sweet, sweet added context:

  • NASA’s GPS moonshot
    The U.S. government really did us a solid inventing GPS, but NASA has some bigger ideas on the table for the positioning platform, namely, taking it to the Moon. It might be a little complicated, but, unsurprisingly, scientists have some ideas here. Read more.
  • Apple has your eyes
    Most of the iOS beta updates are bug fixes, but the latest change to iOS 13 brought a very strange surprise: changing the way the eyes of users on iPhone XS or XS Max look to people on the other end of the call. Instead of appearing that you’re looking below the camera, some software wizardry will now make it look like you’re staring directly at the camera. Apple hasn’t detailed how this works, but here’s what we do know
  • Trump is having a Twitter party
    Donald Trump’s administration declared a couple of months ago that it was launching an exploratory survey to try to gain a sense of conservative voices that had been silenced on social media. Now @realdonaldtrump is having a get-together and inviting his friends to chat about the issue. It’s a real who’s who; check out some of the people attending here.

Amazon CEO And Blue Origin Founder Jeff Bezos Speaks At Air Force Association Air, Space And Cyber Conference

(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

GAFA Gaffes

How did the top tech companies screw up this week? This clearly needs its own section, in order of badness:

  1. Amazon is responsible for what it sells:
    [Appeals court rules Amazon can be held liable for third-party products]
  2. Android co-creator gets additional allegations filed:
    [Newly unsealed court documents reveal additional allegations against Andy Rubin]

Extra Crunch

Our premium subscription service had another week of interesting deep dives. TechCrunch reporter Kate Clark did a great interview with the ex-Facebook, ex-Venmo founding team behind Fin and how they’re thinking about the consumerization of the enterprise.

Sam Lessin and Andrew Kortina on their voice assistant’s workplace pivot

“…The thing is, developing an AI assistant capable of booking flights, arranging trips, teaching users how to play poker, identifying places to purchase specific items for a birthday party and answering wide-ranging zany questions like “can you look up a place where I can milk a goat?” requires a whole lot more human power than one might think. Capital-intensive and hard-to-scale, an app for “instantly offloading” chores wasn’t the best business. Neither Lessin nor Kortina will admit to failure, but Fin‘s excursion into B2B enterprise software eight months ago suggests the assistant technology wasn’t a billion-dollar idea.…”

Here are some of our other top reads this week for premium subscribers. This week, we talked a bit about asking for money and the future of China’s favorite tech platform:

  • When is the right time to pitch VCs for funding?
  • WeChat wants to own tourism

Want more TechCrunch newsletters? Sign up here.

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Cyberattack on Albanian government suggests new Iranian aggression

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Enlarge / Tirane, Albania.

Pawel Toczynski | Getty Images

In mid-July, a cyberattack on the Albanian government knocked out state websites and public services for hours. With Russia’s war raging in Ukraine, the Kremlin might seem like the likeliest suspect. But research published on Thursday by the threat intelligence firm Mandiant attributes the attack to Iran. And while Tehran’s espionage operations and digital meddling have shown up all over the world, Mandiant researchers say that a disruptive attack from Iran on a NATO member is a noteworthy escalation.

The digital attacks targeting Albania on July 17 came ahead of the “World Summit of Free Iran,” a conference scheduled to convene in the town of Manëz in western Albania on July 23 and 24. The summit was affiliated with the Iranian opposition group Mujahadeen-e-Khalq, or the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (often abbreviated MEK, PMOI, or MKO). The conference was postponed the day before it was set to begin because of reported, unspecified “terrorist” threats.

Mandiant researchers say that attackers deployed ransomware from the Roadsweep family and may have also utilized a previously unknown backdoor, dubbed Chimneysweep, as well as a new strain of the Zeroclear wiper. Past use of similar malware, the timing of the attacks, other clues from the Roadsweep ransomware note, and activity from actors claiming responsibility for the attacks on Telegram all point to Iran, Mandiant says.

“This is an aggressive escalatory step that we have to recognize,” says John Hultquist, Mandiant’s vice president of intelligence. “Iranian espionage happens all the time all over the world. The difference here is this isn’t espionage. These are disruptive attacks, which affect the lives of everyday Albanians who live within the NATO alliance. And it was essentially a coercive attack to force the hand of the government.”

Iran has conducted aggressive hacking campaigns in the Middle East and particularly in Israel, and its state-backed hackers have penetrated and probed manufacturing, supply, and critical infrastructure organizations. In November 2021, the US and Australian governments warned that Iranian hackers were actively working to gain access to an array of networks related to transportation, health care, and public health entities, among others. “These Iranian government-sponsored APT actors can leverage this access for follow-on operations, such as data exfiltration or encryption, ransomware, and extortion,” the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency wrote at the time.

Tehran has limited how far its attacks have gone, though, largely keeping to data exfiltration and reconnaissance on the global stage. The country has, however, participated in influence operations, disinformation campaigns, and efforts to meddle in foreign elections, including targeting the US.

“We’ve become used to seeing Iran being aggressive in the Middle East where that activity just has never stopped, but outside of the Middle East they’ve been far more restrained,” Hultquist says. “I’m concerned that they may be more willing to leverage their capability outside of the region. And they clearly have no qualms about targeting NATO states, which suggests to me that whatever deterrents we believe exist between us and them may not exist at all.”

With Iran claiming that it now has the ability to produce nuclear warheads, and representatives from the country meeting with US officials in Vienna about a possible revival of the 2015 nuclear deal between the countries, any signal about Iran’s possible intentions and risk tolerance when it comes to dealing with NATO are significant.

This story originally appeared on wired.com.

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“Huge flaw” threatens US emergency alert system, DHS researcher warns

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Enlarge / Obstruction light with bokeh city background

The US Department of Homeland Security is warning of vulnerabilities in the nation’s emergency broadcast network that makes it possible for hackers to issue bogus warnings over radio and TV stations.

“We recently became aware of certain vulnerabilities in EAS encoder/decoder devices that, if not updated to most recent software versions, could allow an actor to issue EAS alerts over the host infrastructure (TV, radio, cable network),” the DHS’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) warned. “This exploit was successfully demonstrated by Ken Pyle, a security researcher at CYBIR.com, and may be presented as a proof of concept at the upcoming DEFCON 2022 conference in Las Vegas, August 11-14.”

Pyle told reporters at CNN and Bleeping Computer that the vulnerabilities reside in the Monroe Electronics R189 One-Net DASDEC EAS, an Emergency Alert System encoder and decoder. TV and radio stations use the equipment to transmit emergency alerts. The researcher told Bleeping Computer that “multiple vulnerabilities and issues (confirmed by other researchers) haven’t been patched for several years and snowballed into a huge flaw.”

“When asked what can be done after successful exploitation, Pyle said: ‘I can easily obtain access to the credentials, certs, devices, exploit the web server, send fake alerts via crafts message, have them valid / pre-empting signals at will. I can also lock legitimate users out when I do, neutralizing or disabling a response,’” Bleeping Computer added.

This isn’t the first time federal officials have warned of vulnerabilities in the emergency alert system.

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North Korea-backed hackers have a clever way to read your Gmail

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Getty Images

Researchers have unearthed never-before-seen malware that hackers from North Korea have been using to surreptitiously read and download email and attachments from infected users’ Gmail and AOL accounts.

The malware, dubbed SHARPEXT by researchers from security firm Volexity, uses clever means to install a browser extension for the Chrome and Edge browsers, Volexity reported in a blog post. The extension can’t be detected by the email services, and since the browser has already been authenticated using any multifactor authentication protections in place, this increasingly popular security measure plays no role in reining in the account compromise.

The malware has been in use for “well over a year,” Volexity said, and is the work of a hacking group the company tracks as SharpTongue. The group is sponsored by North Korea’s government and overlaps with a group tracked as Kimsuky by other researchers. SHARPEXT is targeting organizations in the US, Europe, and South Korea that work on nuclear weapons and other issues North Korea deems important to its national security.

Volexity President Steven Adair said in an email that the extension gets installed “by way of spear phishing and social engineering where the victim is fooled into opening a malicious document. Previously we have seen DPRK threat actors launch spear phishing attacks where the entire objective was to get the victim to install a browser extension vs it being a post exploitation mechanism for persistence and data theft.” In its current incarnation, the malware works only on Windows, but Adair said there’s no reason it couldn’t be broadened to infect browsers running on macOS or Linux, too.

The blog post added: “Volexity’s own visibility shows the extension has been quite successful, as logs obtained by Volexity show the attacker was able to successfully steal thousands of emails from multiple victims through the malware’s deployment.”

Installing a browser extension during a phishing operation without the end-user noticing isn’t easy. SHARPEXT developers have clearly paid attention to research like what’s published here, here, and here, which shows how a security mechanism in the Chromium browser engine prevents malware from making changes to sensitive user settings. Each time a legitimate change is made, the browser takes a cryptographic hash of some of the code. At startup, the browser verifies the hashes, and if any of them don’t match, the browser requests the old settings be restored.

For attackers to work around this protection, they must first extract the following from the computer they’re compromising:

  • A copy of the resources.pak file from the browser (which contains the HMAC seed used by Chrome)
  • The user’s S-ID value
  • The original Preferences and Secure Preferences files from the user’s system

After modifying the preference files, SHARPEXT automatically loads the extension and executes a PowerShell script that enables DevTools, a setting that allows the browser to run customized code and settings.

“The script runs in an infinite loop checking for processes associated with the targeted browsers,” Volexity explained. “If any targeted browsers are found running, the script checks the title of the tab for a specific keyword (for example’ 05101190,’ or ‘Tab+’ depending on the SHARPEXT version). The specific keyword is inserted into the title by the malicious extension when an active tab changes or when a page is loaded.”

Volexity

The post continued:

The keystrokes sent are equivalent to Control+Shift+J, the shortcut to enable the DevTools panel. Lastly, the PowerShell script hides the newly opened DevTools window by using the ShowWindow() API and the SW_HIDE flag. At the end of this process, DevTools is enabled on the active tab, but the window is hidden.

In addition, this script is used to hide any windows that could alert the victim. Microsoft Edge, for example, periodically displays a warning message to the user (Figure 5) if extensions are running in developer mode. The script constantly checks if this window appears and hides it by using the ShowWindow() and the SW_HIDE flag.

Volexity

Once installed, the extension can perform the following requests:

HTTP POST Data Description
mode=list List previously collected email from the victim to ensure duplicates are not uploaded. This list is continuously updated as SHARPEXT executes.
mode=domain List email domains with which the victim has previously communicated. This list is continuously updated as SHARPEXT executes.
mode=black Collect a blacklist of email senders that should be ignored when collecting email from the victim.
mode=newD&d=[data] Add a domain to the list of all domains viewed by the victim.
mode=attach&name=[data]&idx=[data]&body=[data] Upload a new attachment to the remote server.
mode=new&mid=[data]&mbody=[data] Upload Gmail data to the remote server.
mode=attlist Commented by the attacker; receive an attachments list to be exfiltrated.
mode=new_aol&mid=[data]&mbody=[data] Upload AOL data to the remote server.

SHARPEXT allows the hackers to create lists of email addresses to ignore and to keep track of email or attachments that have already been stolen.

Volexity created the following summary of the orchestration of the various SHARPEXT components it analyzed:

Volexity

The blog post provides images, file names, and other indicators that trained people can use to determine if they have been targeted or infected by this malware. The company warned that the threat it poses has grown over time and isn’t likely to go away anytime soon.

“When Volexity first encountered SHARPEXT, it seemed to be a tool in early development containing numerous bugs, an indication the tool was immature,” the company said. “The latest updates and ongoing maintenance demonstrate the attacker is achieving its goals, finding value in continuing to refine it.”

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