NSA tracking cellphone locations worldwide, Snowden documents show
By Barton Gellman and Ashkan Soltani
Dec 4 2013
The National Security Agency is gathering nearly 5 billion records a day on the whereabouts of cellphones around the world, according to top-secret documents and interviews with U.S. intelligence officials, enabling the agency to track the movements of individuals — and map their relationships — in ways that would have been previously unimaginable.
The records feed a vast database that stores information about the locations of at least hundreds of millions of devices, according to the officials and the documents, which were provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. New projects created to analyze that data have provided the intelligence community with what amounts to a mass surveillance tool.
The NSA does not target Americans’ location data by design, but the agency acquires a substantial amount of information on the whereabouts of domestic cellphones “incidentally,” a legal term that connotes a foreseeable but not deliberate result.
One senior collection manager, speaking on condition of anonymity but with permission from the NSA, said “we are getting vast volumes” of location data from around the world by tapping into the cables that connect mobile networks globally and that serve U.S. cellphones as well as foreign ones. Additionally, data are often collected from the tens of millions of Americans who travel abroad with their cellphones every year.
In scale, scope and potential impact on privacy, the efforts to collect and analyze location data may be unsurpassed among the NSA surveillance programs that have been disclosed since June. Analysts can find cellphones anywhere in the world, retrace their movements and expose hidden relationships among individuals using them.
U.S. officials said the programs that collect and analyze location data are lawful and intended strictly to develop intelligence about foreign targets.
Robert Litt, general counsel for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees the NSA, said “there is no element of the intelligence community that under any authority is intentionally collecting bulk cellphone location information about cellphones in the United States.”
The NSA has no reason to suspect that the movements of the overwhelming majority of cellphone users would be relevant to national security. Rather, it collects locations in bulk because its most powerful analytic tools — known collectively as CO-TRAVELER — allow it to look for unknown associates of known intelligence targets by tracking people whose movements intersect.
Still, location data, especially when aggregated over time, is widely regarded among privacy advocates as uniquely sensitive. Sophisticated mathematical techniques enable NSA analysts to map cellphone owners’ relationships by correlating their patterns of movement over time with thousands or millions of other phone users who cross their paths. Cellphones broadcast their locations even when they are not being used to place a call or send a text.
Credit card fraud comes of age with advances in point-of-sale botnets
Researchers: 20,000 cards compromised in active campaign hitting US merchants.
By Dan Goodin
Dec 4 2013
Underscoring the growing sophistication of Internet crime, researchers have documented one of the first known botnets to target point-of-sale terminals used by stores and restaurants to process customers’ credit and debit card payments.
The botnet remained active at the time of writing and had compromised more than 20,000 payment cards since August, researchers from IntelCrawler, a Los Angeles-based security intelligence provider, told Ars. They arrived at the findings after infiltrating one of the control servers used to send commands to infected machines and receive pilfered data from them. A recently captured screenshot (above) showed that it was controlling 31 machines that the researchers said belonged to US-based restaurants and retailers. Some of the infected machines are servers, so the number of affected point-of-sale (PoS) devices could be much higher. The researchers have reported their findings to law enforcement agencies that they declined to identify by name.
PoS-based hacking is nothing new. The best-known incident stole data for more than 146,000 cards after infecting 200 terminals used at Subway Sandwich shops and other small merchants. According to federal prosecutors, the criminals behind that intrusion infected one or more servers with “sniffing” software that logged payment card numbers and sent them to a remote server. Although the now-convicted crooks were able to install a backdoor on the computers they accessed so they could change configuration settings and install new programs, there is no evidence of a botnet that actively controlled the infected machines in lockstep.
The infections observed by IntelCrawler, by contrast, are much more advanced. They allow attackers to corral large numbers of PoS devices into a single botnet. The interface makes it easy to monitor the activities of infected machines in real time and to issue granular commands. In short, they are to PoS terminals what ZeuS, Citadel, and other banking trojans are to online bank accounts. The code helping to streamline the process has been dubbed StarDust. It’s a major revision of Dexter, a previously discovered piece of malware targeting PoS devices that has already been fingered in other real-world payment card swindles.
“The unique side of our case is that it is a real botnet with C&C functions, which is active close to half a year and controlled by a group of criminals which has a new type of Dexter,” IntelCrawler CEO Andrey Komarov wrote in an e-mail. “The infected PoS merchants are installed in different places and cities… which makes it different as the bad actors infected them separately and then organized a botnet from it.”
Not your father’s PoS malware
StarDust developers have intimate knowledge of the inner workings of PoS applications such as Clearview PoS. As a result, the malware can ferret out where in computer memory sensitive data in cleartext form is stored. StarDust can also sniff network traffic and is able to extract Track1 and Track2 card data. To remain covert, the software transfers card details only when the terminal is inactive and the screensaver is on. It also uses the RC4 cipher to encrypt data before sending it to the control server.
The discovery comes as researchers from a separate security firm called Arbor Networks published a blog post on Tuesday reporting an active PoS compromise campaign. The advisory is based on two servers found to be hosting Dexter and other PoS malware. Arbor researchers said the campaign looks to be most active in the Eastern Hemisphere. There was no mention of a botnet or of US restaurants or retailers being infected, so the report may be observing a campaign independent from the one found by IntelCrawler.
Oldest human DNA sequence yet confuses our picture of pre-modern humans
DNA looks like a Denisovan; bones look like a Neanderthal.
By John Timmer
Dec 4 2013
Today, researchers announced they have obtained DNA sequences from the earliest human skeletal remains yet, a Spanish fossil from a site known as Sima de los Huesos, or pit of bones. Although the study is undoubtedly a triumph of technology and technique, the results themselves have researchers scratching their heads, since the most closely related DNA has only been found on the opposite side of Eurasia.
The sequencing of DNA from fossil humans has already shaken up our view of the past. The completion of the genome of Neanderthals indicated that they had interbred with modern humans enough to introduce a small bit of their DNA into genomes of any population that left Africa. But sequencing other bones revealed that there was a second group of pre-modern humans in Siberia that also interbred with our ancestors. This group, called the Denisovans, also contributed DNA to our ancestors, but it only appears in groups that migrated into the Pacific.
To confuse matters further, although we have many Neanderthal skeletal remains and a good idea of how they differed from modern humans, so far, all we have of the Denisovans is a couple of teeth. These tell us that their teeth were very large, but little else. Still, the only real question seemed to be how the Denisovans, whom we only know from Siberian remains, ended up getting their DNA carried out into the Pacific.
With the DNA from Sima de los Huesos, there are quite a few more questions now. The cave has extensive remains of both animals and humans that date from over 300,000 years ago. At least 28 individuals have been identified among the remains, and they’ve been classified as Homo heidelbergensis, a poorly defined grouping that roughly encompasses any pre-modern Eurasian humans who aren’t Neanderthals. Nevertheless, there are a few features on the skeletons that suggest they might have been ancestral to Neanderthals.
Getting DNA out of bones that old isn’t easy, but Svante Pääbo’s group at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology has been honing its technique on other ancient remains. And in this case, they confirmed they could extract DNA from the samples at the site by obtaining sequences from a cave bear skeleton found there.
That turned out to be a relatively easy task, primarily because they did not have any bears working as technicians in the lab. In contrast, their attempts to amplify ancient human DNA from the bones kept ending up with contamination by modern human DNA. By careful sampling, they determined that the vast majority of ancient DNA fragments were less than 45 base pairs long and had a high frequency of a specific type of damage. (Over half of the C residues had been converted to Ts.) So, they set a computer to filter out anything that was over 45 bases and wasn’t badly damaged.
With what was left, they managed to reconstruct most of the mitochondrial genome of the individual found in the cave. Then, they were able to compare it to Denisovans, Neanderthals, and modern human populations.
The results are, to say the least, confusing. The Sima de los Huesos individual ended up being most closely related to Denisovans, at least on the DNA level. In fact, it was close enough that it ended up splitting the Neanderthal and Denisovans, which had been considered sister groups based on their full nuclear genomes. And, as noted above, the bones from Sima de los Huesos seemed to have incipient Neanderthal features.
It’s also confusing because the DNA provided an independent estimate of the fossil’s age, one that placed it at 400,000 years old. That date happens to be before most estimates of when Neanderthals and Denisovans had split into distinct lineages.
Can 23andMe survive the FDA?
The DNA mappers must mutate to survive federal regulation
By Russell Brandom
Dec 3 2013
It’s been a week since the FDA brought the hammer down on personal genetics service 23andMe, and for followers of the company, the future is still uncertain. According to the order, the company has 15 business days (now 11 and counting) to offer the FDA a compliance plan, which is then open for comment from the agency. It’s still unclear if the end result will allow the company to continue selling its $99 saliva test kits, but the ramifications are already being felt. 23andMe announced yesterday that it was ending its marketing campaigns, but it’s likely just the first step in the process. The FDA, for its part, is staying quiet. The agency declined to comment, except to say that the 15-day grace period is standard and the resulting compliance negotiations will be kept private. However long it takes, the rest of the process is likely to occur behind closed doors.
In the meantime, the internet is incensed, with many seeing the order as punitive and wrong-headed. Greg Lennon, co-founder of the genome research project SNPedia, said the FDA crackdown was akin to banning mirrors or scales because, in the wrong hands, they could provide misleading information. “I don’t think anyone honestly thinks they’re making serious medical diagnoses based on a $99 test,” Lennon says. Forbes’ Matthew Herper even speculated that 23andMe’s incompetence could have been a kind of FDA-baiting, designed to provoke a furious response from Silicon Valley that would help to build a larger movement.
If so, it seems to be working. Few observers dispute that the FDA was within its legal rights in making the order, but it’s already led many observers to question the powers of the agency at large. Richard Epstein, a law professor at NYU, has been one prominent voice, writing for the neoconservative Manhattan Institute that FDA throttling will prevent the very research that could make personal genomics safe. “The FDA has this terrible culture,” Epstein tells The Verge. “I almost resent it viscerally. Every time I read them, they’re protecting me and they’re assuming I’m an idiot. Well I happen to think that they’re not very bright.”
But behind the anger, there’s a bigger problem: why didn’t 23andMe do a better job of protecting itself? The company had six years and millions of dollars to navigate the agency — and according to the FDA, it had plenty of warning about what kinds of tests would be required. So why didn’t the company just play along?
Robots and telepresence: Bandwidth-heavy tools invade the business world
But even the savviest users of bandwidth still suffer from dropped Skype calls.
By Jon Brodkin
Dec 3 2013
Sitting in front of my computer in my office on the East Coast, I am controlling a robot in Palo Alto, California.
“Push down your up arrow key and follow me,” says an employee of Suitable Technologies, the maker of these Beam telepresence robots. I do what I’m told.
The 100-pound Beam is outfitted with wheels, a wide-angle camera, and 17-inch video screen, and I can control it all from an application on my desktop. My keyboard’s arrow keys let me drive forward and backward and make turns, while virtual lines superimposed on the ground help me avoid hitting people and objects. Soon enough, I am chatting with Suitable founder and CEO Scott Hassan, who greets me with a fist bump and then sits down on a comfortable-looking chair in the office lounge. Hassan previously founded Willow Garage, which develops hardware and open source software for robotics applications.
“I prefer Beams, talking in Beam… It’s much easier to deal with in Beam form,” he said. “If we wanted to do this interview, we’d probably do it over the phone or something like that before. With Beam, if I say something to you that’s outrageous, I can see your reaction. I can also give you a tour of the place, and you don’t have to fly out here.”
Videoconferencing that makes you feel almost as if you’re in the same room with a person is nothing new, but it’s set to become an even greater part of the business world as companies like Suitable take advantage of increasing amounts of Internet bandwidth.
While I spoke with Hassan, the Beam interface informed me I had a 1.4Mbps connection to the system, well above the 500Kbps needed for a good experience. That may not sound like a lot, but imagine a whole conference room filled with people and Beam robots. That’s precisely what happened at the recent RoboBusiness conference in Santa Clara.
“We just had over 100 people that we didn’t know Beam into the convention center and drive these things around,” Hassan said.
There’s one neat trick that increases Beam’s reliability even when it’s driving around a large enough area that it has to switch from one Wi-Fi access point to another. The system has two radios, and while one is connected, “the other radio is searching for a better signal,” Hassan said. Once it finds a stronger signal, it connects to the new access point and switches the call over in less than a microsecond, he said.
Did the FCC Chairman Just Endorse a Pay-for-Play Internet Fast Lane?
By Michael Weinberg
Dec 3 2013
Chairman Wheeler endorsed both two-sided markets and net neutrality. There seems to be a conflict.
Yesterday, new FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler delivered his first formal public address. After a prepared speech that explained his regulatory approach, he moved to a Q&A session. In that session, he appeared to endorse the opposite of net neutrality: allowing ISPs to charge websites and services in order to reach that ISP’s subscribers. In other words, giving ISPs the power to pick winners and losers online. This endorsement was all the more unexpected because it followed his explicit endorsement of “net neutrality” and a speech that touted the FCC’s role in protecting the public interest. What is going on here?
Chairman Wheeler was asked about “data hogs” and if it was reasonable for people who value the internet more to pay more for access (which, of course,already happens) (video here, question starts at around 34:10). At first, he talked about how the market was evolving:
“I think that we’re seeing the market evolve in such a way that there will be variations in pricing, there will be variations in service and, as I said, I’m a firm believer in the market.”
But then he started talking about two-sided markets:
“I think we’re also going to see a two-sided market where Netflix might say ‘well, I’ll pay in order to make sure that you might receive, my subscriber might receive, the best possible transmission of this movie.’ I think we want to let those kinds of things evolve …”
This is, of course, exactly the type of market that net neutrality is designed to prevent. ISPs should not be allowed to charge some websites or services extra just so those websites and services actually work. ISP subscribers are not hostages to be auctioned off to web services. There are all sorts of reasons for this but, just to pick one, in order for this type of “fast lane” to make sense there needs to be a “slow lane” that is bad enough to make someone like Netflix need to pay to get out of it. And just to pick two, this sort of pricing structure works to freeze out new innovation from companies that cannot afford to outbid incumbents.
Finally, Chairman Wheeler’s response talked about the importance of watching what happens:
“… and we want to observe what happens from that and then we want to make decisions accordingly. But I go back to the fact that the marketplace is where these decisions ought to be made and that the functionality of a competitive marketplace dictates the degree of regulation.”
[Note: This item comes from Dave Farber's IP list. DLH]
From: John Gilmore <email@example.com>
Date: Tue, Dec 3, 2013 at 3:18 PM
Subject: In first no-fly trial, witness ends up unable to fly to testify
To: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com
The US no-fly list has existed for decades in a legal limbo, and no
court has yet ruled on the legality or constitutionality of its ban on
citizen travel or its lack of due process for victims. It is being
challenged in court this week.
Rahinah Ibrahim, a middle-aged Muslim Stanford grad student from
Malaysia, was put on the no-fly list in 2005 for no obvious reason,
and arrested in the SFO airport. A day later, she was allowed to
leave the US to go to a conference, whereupon her longstanding student
visa was canceled and she could not return. She ultimately completed
her Stanford PhD remotely, from her native Malaysia, and is now the
dean of the architecture school at a Malaysian university. She has
diligently pursued a court case against DHS and the San Francisco
police who arrested her in the airport ever since.
After years of Federal delaying tactics, including two trips to the
Court of Appeals and the invocation of the “state secrets privilege”,
Judge William Alsup forced the matter to trial, which is happening
this week in San Francisco. Earlier in the case, he refused to
look at DHS-offered secret evidence, declaring that travel is a
right that cannot be denied without “an effective means of redress”.
The news from Monday, the first day of the trial, is that
Ms. Ibrahim’s daughter, who was born in the US and is a US citizen and
a witness in the trial, was prevented by DHS on Sunday from flying to
San Francisco for the trial. The daughter, Raihan Mustafa Kamal, was
14 years old in 2005 when she accompanied Ms. Ibrahim through the San
Francisco airport where she was arrested. Ms. Ibrahim’s lawyers had
notified the DHS that they planned to call her as an eyewitness to the
events of that day. DHS appears to have put her on the no-fly list,
and as a result she has not been able to attend the trial.
(For the same reason, Ms. Ibrahim cannot attend her OWN trial against
the Federal government. She went to London to testify, with attorneys
from both sides present, and part of her videotaped testimony was
shown in court on Monday. Apparently she can fly anywhere else in the
world except the lawless USA.)
DHS lawyers claimed that Ms. Kamal “just missed her flight”, which is
not what she told her mother’s lawyers. Judge Alsup ordered them to
provide more information today, saying, “I want to know whether the
government did something to obstruct a witness, a U.S. citizen.”
More information is here:
Ms. Ibrahim already reached a settlement with the San Francisco
police, which cost the taxpayers of the city a cool $225,000 for that
false arrest. The city’s lawyers realized that they had had no
grounds to arrest Ms. Ibrahim, who had not broken any laws, and
settled rather than risk a trial. (TSA agents have no power to arrest
anyone. They call local cops when they want someone arrested. Most
local cops are stupid enough to arrest someone when TSA tells them to,
even though no law has been broken, on some vague and bogus theory
about Federal orders trumping state laws. I am hopeful that
cash-strapped San Francisco will decline to stooge for TSA next time.)
The ID-card-holding public can attend the trial at 450 Golden Gate
Avenue, San Francisco, on the 18th floor. The case docket and some of
the filings are publicly available at the Internet Archive via the
RECAP system that voluntarily publishes public-domain extracts from
the Federal Courts’ restricted pay-per-page docketing system, PACER: