ISPs take legal action against GCHQ

GCHQ and the NSA's spying work is under legal scrutiny
GCHQ and the NSA’s spying work is under legal scrutiny

Seven internet service providers have filed a legal complaint against the UK’s intelligence agency GCHQ.

ISPs from the US, UK, Netherlands and South Korea have joined forces with campaigners Privacy International to take the agency to task over alleged attacks on network infrastructure.

It is the first time that GCHQ has faced such action.

The move follows allegations about government snooping made by US whistleblower Edward Snowden.

‘Infected with malware’

The ISPs claim that alleged network attacks, outlined in a series of articles in Der Spiegel and the Intercept, were illegal and “undermine the goodwill the organisations rely on”.

The allegations that the legal actions are based on include:

  • claims that employees of Belgian telecommunications company Belgacom were targeted by GCHQ and infected with malware to gain access to network infrastructure
  • GCHQ and the US National Security Agency, where Mr Snowden worked, had a range of network exploitation and intrusion capabilities, including a “man-on-the-side” technique that covertly injects data into existing data streams to create connections that will enable the targeted infection of users
  • the intelligence agencies used an automated system, codenamed Turbine, that allowed them to scale up network implants
  • German internet exchange points were targeted, allowing agencies to spy on all internet traffic coming through those nodes

While the ISPs taking the action were not directly named in the leaked Snowden documents, Privacy International claims that “the type of surveillance being carried out allows them to challenge the practices… because they and their users are at threat of being targeted”.

Privacy International has previously filed two other cases – the first against alleged mass surveillance programmes Tempora, Prism and Upstream, and the second against the deployment by GCHQ of computer intrusion capabilities and spyware.

‘Strict framework’

Eric King, deputy director of Privacy International, said “These widespread attacks on providers and collectives undermine the trust we all place on the internet and greatly endangers the world’s most powerful tool for democracy and free expression.”

The ISPs involved in the action are UK-based GreenNet, Riseup (US), Greenhost (Netherlands), Mango (Zimbabwe), Jinbonet (South Korea), May First/People Link (US)and the Chaos Computer Club (Germany).

Cedric Knight, of ISP GreenNet, added: “Snowden’s revelations have exposed GCHQ’s view that independent operators like GreenNet are legitimate targets for internet surveillance, so we could be unknowingly used to collect data on our users. We say this is unlawful and utterly unacceptable in a democracy.”

GCHQ maintains that all its work is conducted “in accordance with a strict legal and policy framework which ensures that our activities are authorised, necessary and proportionate”.

WiFi World Wide a Big Security Issue

WiFi World Wide a Big Security Issue

Do you access your various financial or social media accounts, or other private accounts such as emails with your doctor, at public computer stations? At the coffee house or hotel, for instance? Boy, are you ever setting yourself up for cybercrime including identity theft.

 

What usually happens is that the criminals establish Wi-Fi hotspots that trick people into thinking they are legitimate public Wi-Fi locations–people take the bait and log on. The crooks can then watch your communications through their Wi-Fi access points, and steal your personal information like passwords and credit card numbers.

A computerweekly.com report warns that anything you send via a public Wi-Fi may potentially fall into the hands of fraudsters.

One of the scams is that a criminal will get in the middle of a transaction between a user and a website, then intercept in tricky ways to steal the user’s data.

A Few Experiments

  • The security firm, First Base Technologies, did an experiment in November 2013. The public participants had no idea that thieves could set up rogue wireless points of access that fake out users as being valid connection points.
  • The participants were also shocked to learn that their exchanged information was not encrypted.
  • FBT did another experiment using its private wireless network and numerous mobile applications. FBT was easily able to use the apps to invade other smartphones on the same network.
  • One of these apps was a setup to get the participants to use the “attacking” smartphone as their portal to the Internet. This meant that the attacking device siphoned all the traffic and was able, in many instances, to remove encryption from supposedly secure connections.

This weakness in knowledge in the user, and in the security of public Wi-Fi, needs to be addressed by–obviously–the user and the providers of public Wi-Fis, plus business organizations that rely on public Wi-Fis.

Another survey in the same article found that 34 percent of PC users said that they do not take special precautions to safeguard their online interactions when using public Wi-Fi. Just 13 percent do take the time to inspect encryption prior to making a connection to a particular point.

So how can you protect yourself when using public Wi-Fi?

  • If you must absolutely use public Wi-Fi for activities involving highly sensitive information, make sure that the Wi-Fi network is secure and trusted.
  • Before you get onto any website, check the URL field to make sure that there is an “https” (not “http”) AND a padlock icon; these indicate the site is secure. Also check the security certificate.
  • Make sure that every device that you own has full protection such as antivirus and a firewal.
  • Use a reputable virtual private network such as Hotspot Shield to secure your device for public Wi-Fi use.

Google strikes back at the big screen with Android TV

 

 

google tv display

 

Google announced its plan to take on the billions of TV viewers in the world with a groundbreaking product that would blur the lines between internet and broadcast — four years ago. Executives from Dish Network, Best Buy, Sony, Logitech, Sony and Intel joined the stage with Google’s then-CEO Eric Schmidt to herald the coming of a new era — which never came. Several generations of Google TV devices failed to catch on and it was eventually squeezed out by set-top boxes, game consoles and other “smart TV” platforms.

The idea seemed to come right on time; according to market research firm Strategy Analytics as many as 76 million smart TVs shipped last year, and companies like Apple and Roku have sold millions of connected boxes. So why didn’t Google TV get a major piece of that action? And what makes Google’s latest initiative, Android TV, any different?

OUT WITH THE OLD

game pad

To start with, the concept has been reimagined, with Android TV coming in as a one-size-fits-all platform through devices people actually want — not what Google thinks they want. The large QWERTY-keyboard/remote combos are nowhere to be seen, gone in favor of traditional remotes and actual gamepads for gaming. Where Google TV sought to dominate your home TV ecosystem with passthroughs and overlays, its successor is ready to fit in. It could solve problems for those who want a cheap streaming box, a game console or even (maybe) a DVR, with apps that work everywhere and add features as easily and frequently as our phones do.

GoogleTV

The original Google TV demo focused on showing how good it was at bringing the web to TV, highlighting a picture-in-picture letting you browse or tweet with TV in a small window. The plan was to make a platform that could play any web video easily without requiring custom apps, at least until Hulu and the rest blocked it. Now? Google’s own developer site includes this passage:

We discourage including web browsing in games for Android TV. The television set is not well-suited for browsing, either in terms of display or control scheme.

What Google TV product manager Rishi Chandra said on stage then about the existing pay-TV experience and its terrible guides is still mostly true, and years of cord-cutting/cord-never behavior has even more viewers looking for an alternative. The internet TV market is still fragmented between services (Netflix, Amazon, Hulu) and hardware manufacturers are all desperately pushing their own platforms, with varying levels of success. While the reality of Apple TV has seen slight upgrades, the rumors are as loud and unfounded as ever, so there’s plenty of time for Google to turn back the clock and just try again.

IN WITH THE NEW

What is truly different about this push starts with Google and Android. Google TV was a team separated from Android, with its own developer tools, software that wasn’t the same version and even an odd set of mismatched features (like shipping with the Chrome browser before Android even had it). Android L is one platform that pulls both sides forward together, all at once. That’s good for developers and ultimately good for anyone using Android TV, with apps and a UI that can (theoretically) stretch across platforms, and work together as easily as Chromecasting. Its ability to work as a Cast receiver makes using one easier than the old version. The same goes for a revamped remote app, which isn’t any prettier than the one it’s replacing, but is much simpler.

Voice search and personalized recommendations that came later to the Google TV platform, combined with Google Now, can change TV viewing in a way that wasn’t possible in 2010. Google’s Dave Burke was able to ask a natural question, “Who played Katniss in The Hunger Games?” to his phone, and got an immediate response on the TV — something I can see actually cutting down the amount of time spent figuring out what to watch, and just jumping in to watch. As far as availability, Android TV will have better hardware support from just Sony (probably more than willing to offload R&D costs from its freshly independent TV division) next year than Google TV ever did, not to mention others like Razer, ASUS and Sharp. I’ll need some hands-on time — and actual retail devices — to tell for sure, but on paper, the hardware requirements (2GB of RAM, 8GB of flash storage, WiFi and/or Ethernet, Bluetooth) seem ready to avoid the combination of overpriced and underpowered that doomed the first attempt.

Google-TV

Google TV seemed so concerned about trying to partner with traditional TV providers — which never took off in the US — that it wasn’t ready for cord cutters or people without a standard cable box. This time around, that’s changed. The suite of potential video apps for viewers to go streaming-only has grown drastically, however the list announced on stage was disappointingly short, with YouTube, Netflix and Showtime Anytime at the top, but no HBO Go, Vudu, Amazon or Hulu.

It has support for PlayReady DRM, which could eventually make it a viable Windows Media Center or HTPC alternative for the enthusiasts that want that. It can tune directly into live TV broadcasts with the support of third-party hardware. SiliconDust makes TV tuners for viewers to watch TV over antenna or cable on a computer (or PS3), and that’s what provided the live feed you saw at the keynote. It has a plugin for Android TV that will let it work with the company’s current hardware, and unspecified future products. Lessons learned from Google TV and improved Android L support mean companies like Plex are already in position with impressive media apps, and hopefully that list will grow before Android TV debuts this fall.

THE COMPETITION

The four-year time gap has introduced some downsides, as former friends and enemiesalike have found new partners or built formidable setups of their own. Logitech is apparently no longer interested in building a TV box; LG released multiple Google TV devices, but has turned its attention (fully) to webOS and HTML5 apps; and Vizio ditched Android for its recent products as well. Samsung never came through with the Google TV hardware it reluctantly demonstrated; now it seems poised for a Tizen-based approach and has even acquired the team and tech behind Boxee.

Comcast’s march to world domination is coming with a juiced-up cable box platform called X1 that has internet access, cloud-powered apps and voice search (also, maybe games), while TiVo has a much improved follow-up to the Premiere DVR and cloud-based plans of its own. Microsoft left Media Center behind, but its Xbox One is a living room Trojan horse in the way Google always wanted to be, and Amazon has seemingly beaten Google to the punch with its own TV box based on Android.

android-tv-remote

THE BOTTOM LINE

Despite all of those attempts, and even Google’s patchy track record (Chromecast: good; Nexus Q: so, so bad), no one company or platform is ready to dominate the internet-connected TV future yet. The new Android TV effort seems ready to just make popular internet features better on the big screen, instead of dominating all living room media as the price of entry. That’s probably not enough to justify any more lofty predictions from Schmidt (he said Google TV would be in most TVs by mid-2012), but I expect it will be enough to keep Google in the game this time.

Windows 8.1 Sleep Study tool tells you which activities drain your battery

Microsoft_Surface_RT

If you absolutely have to make your Windows tablet battery last as long as you can, then knowing what drains its power will be very helpful. That’s what Microsoft’s new Sleep Study tool can do: generate a report of which apps and activities consume the most energy. Unfortunately, there’s a catch — it only works if your device is in InstantGo sleep mode. InstantGo, a feature for Windows 8.1, was previously called Connected Standby for Windows 8 and RT. Unlike other similar modes, it allows your system to sleep while updating apps in the background and keeps the device in a state that’s quickly ready to resume.

Take note that it’s not available on all Windows 8.1 devices, so to know if you have it, launch the command prompt and type in “powercfg /a.” If you see that “Standby <Connected>’s” available, then you can follow Microsoft’s instructions on the Windows Experience Blog to run Sleep Study. The tool will generate the report as an HTML file, where you can see the top five reasons why your tablet’s always out of battery when you need it the most.

 

Germany’s green energy boom is leaving a ‘trail of blood’ on coal companies

german-solar-farm-lead

Since the beginning, the commercial growth of renewable energy has been a laborious, often painful matter of government pushes, tax incentives and campaigning for greater awareness. In Germany, however, the energy market is on the cusp of evolving to the next step: An era in which the sun and the wind replace fossil fuels through the sheer, unstoppable force of the market.

The country is currently experiencing a glut of energy, thanks to the recent openings of new coal power stations (which were commissioned back when electricity was in short supply) as well as record levels of renewable generation — especially solar. On sunny and windy days, the excess of electricity (which on average stands at 117 percent of peak demand) gets so big that energy prices are pushed downwards and traditional power stations are forced to cut down their running hours. A decade ago, fossil companies enjoyed a 15 percent margin on their sales, but today they make just five percent. An energy trader has informed Bloomberg that he believes that the latest coal stations to come online will make “much less money than originally thought” and “won’t cover their costs.”

Regulation is still at the heart of Germany’s predicament, because green generators have preferential access to the grid on days when there’s an overload. In other words, they’re allowed to run and run, while coal-fired stations have to switch themselves off in response to the excess. However, the consequence — which we’re already seeing — is to sap investors’ interest in financing the coal industry. In turn, this means that when the country’s older coal stations reach their end of life over the next decade, there’s a much greater chance that they’ll be replaced by green sources. Renewable energy’s contribution to the grid is on target to rise to 45 percent by 2025, while coal companies are left with what one chief financial officer described as a “trail of blood” on their balance sheets. In the US, meanwhile, the birth of solar on an industrial scale is only just getting started.

Astronomers discover Earth-sized diamond : 900 light years away

The world’s largest diamond, the Cullinan, is a tad over 3,100 carats uncut. Its estimated value is some $2 billion, and it only weighs about 1.37 pounds. That stone, while enormous relative to others like it, is but an invisible speck when up against the Earth-sized diamond discovered 900 light years from our planet. PSR J2222-0137, a pulsating companion to a white dwarf star located near the constellation Aquarius, has an incredibly low temperature of about 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s the coldest such object that astronomers have ever detected — so cool, in fact, that it’s likely composed of crystallized carbon, much like the diamonds we treasure so greatly. Ultimately, while an exciting development, it would take 10 lifetimes traveling at the speed of light to reach this interstellar discovery, so don’t expect an influx of those coveted clear jewels anytime soon.

E-voting experiments end in Norway amid security fears

E-voting in Norway did not boost voter turnout, suggests a report into online trials
E-voting in Norway did not boost voter turnout, suggests a report into online trials

Norway is ending trials of e-voting systems used in national and local elections.

Experiments with voting via the net were carried out during elections held in 2011 and 2013.

But the trials have ended because, said the government, voters’ fears about their votes becoming public could undermine democratic processes.

Political controversy and the fact that the trials did not boost turnout also led to the experiment ending.

In a statement, Norway’s Office of Modernisation said it was ending the experiments following discussions in the nation’s parliament about efforts to update voting systems.

The statement said although there was “broad political desire” to let people vote via the net, the poor results from the last two experiments had convinced the government to stop spending money on more trials.

The 2013 trial was also controversial because immediately prior to the election, criticism was levelled at the encryption scheme used to protect votes being sent across the net. Software experts called for the entire voting system to be rewritten to better protect data.

A report looking into the success of the 2013 trial said about 70,000 Norwegians took the chance to cast an e-vote. This represented about 38% of all the 250,000 people across 12 towns and cities who were eligible to vote online.

However, it said, there was no evidence that the trial led to a rise in the overall number of people voting nor that it mobilised new groups, such as young people, to vote.

The report by Norway’s Institute of Social Research also expressed worries about the fact that online voting took place in what it called “uncontrolled environments”. This, it said, undermined the need for a vote to be made in secret without anyone influencing the voter as they made their choice.

It said there was also some evidence that a small number of people, 0.75% of all voters, managed to vote twice in 2013. They did this by voting once online then travelling to a polling station to cast a paper ballot.

Norway has made its decision soon after Jenny Watson, head of Britain’s Electoral Commission, said the UK should move more swiftly to adopt e-voting as it could help arrest a decline in the numbers of young voters.