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Web Vigilantes

The hacker group Telecomix vows to expose those who censor or surveil the Internet, U.S. tech firms included.

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One morning in mid-August, seven months into the Arab Spring protests and government crackdowns in which thousands have been killed, something strange happened on Syria’s Internet. As users aimed their Web browsers at Google and Facebook, they instead saw a page of white Arabic script scrawled across a black background.

“This is a deliberate, temporary Internet breakdown. Please read carefully and spread the following message,” it read. “Your Internet activity is monitored.”

Then the page switched to a white screen filled with instructions on using free encryption and anonymity software like Tor and TrueCrypt to evade surveillance and censorship. Emblazoned above the text was a round, mysterious symbol: a star inside an omega, hovering over a pyramid surrounded by lightning bolts. Below it were written the words: “This is Telecomix. We come in peace.”

Telecomix, a loose-knit team of international hacktivists, had been scanning the Syrian Internet in a massive sweep, dividing 700,000 target connections among its members in Germany, France and the U.S., probing for hackable devices with software tools like Nmap and Shodan. They compromised vulnerable Cisco Systemsproduced network switches to find other devices’ passwords, snooped on open cameras revealing street scenes and even officials’ desks, and at one point retrieved the log-in credentials for 5,000 unsecured home routers, which they used to insert the above-mentioned surveillance warning into browsers across the country.

As the globally distributed hackers combed Syria’s networks and posted their findings in a crowd-sourced document, one American member of the group, who uses the handle Punkbob, spotted a Windows FTP server filled with data he recognized: logs from a Proxy SG 9000 appliance built by the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based company Blue Coat Systems. In Punkbob’s day job at a Pentagon contractor, he says, the same equipment had been used to intercept traffic to filter and track staff behavior. The Syrian machine’s logs showed the Internet activity of thousands of users, connecting the sites they attempted to visit and every word of their communications with the IP addresses that pointed directly to their homes. In short, he had discovered American technology being used to help a brutal dictatorship spy on its citizens.

“At first we were just poking around, but when I saw that, I had this feeling of dread,” says Punkbob, who requested that FORBES not use his real name. “To see exactly what Syria was tracking and who was providing the technology to do it.…That was when it felt real.”

Since Telecomix published 54 gigabytes of those logs, the resulting attention has forced Blue Coat to admit that its gear had been used by Syria, a potential violation of international sanctions against that country. The company didn’t respond to FORBES’ request for an interview, citing an ongoing internal review and a related Commerce Department probe. (Note that the investigation didn’t deter private equity firm Thoma Bravo and the Ontario Teachers Pension Plan from a recent deal to take Blue Coat private for $1.3 billion.)

The disclosure of Blue Coat’s gear in Syria has touched off revelations that hardware from other U.S. firms, including NetApp and HP, was also used by blacklisted regimes. The industry now faces tough new questions about tech firms’ responsibility for how their products are used—and by whom.

Telecomix sees its Blue Coat discovery as a turning point in the group’s mission: Founded to fight for free speech, it now aims to also expose those who fight against that ideal, including any Western tech firm aiding the wrong side. “I hope that the Blue Coat thing was the start of something much bigger,” says Chris Kullenberg, a lean and lip-pierced Swedish political science grad student at the University of Gothenburg and a Telecomix founder. “The goal is to put political pressure on these companies. It started with rage and frustration. What can we do? Well, we can hack a few boxes and expose this to the world. That’s the motivation that drives hackers deeper and deeper into the networks.”

Telecomix likely broke Syrian law. But some more traditional advocates appreciate their work. “It crosses a line we wouldn’t be comfortable crossing,” says Brett Solomon, president of the digital human rights group Access Now.

“But sometimes it takes someone like Telecomix to put a spanner in the works.”

Actively hacking networks is a new game for Telecomix’s Web revolutionaries, who call each other “agents” or “Internauts.” But unlike the hacker group Anonymous, which began with juvenile pranks before attacking Scientologists, opponents of WikiLeaks and defense contractors, Telecomix was born political. The group was created at a Gothenburg conference in 2009 to oppose the European Union’s so-called Telecoms Package, industry-influenced laws that would have cut Internet access for anyone repeatedly downloading copyrighted files. “In a sense, corporations have always been the enemy,” says Kullenberg.

The hackers dug up and published the phone numbers of every EU Parliament member, then convinced the copyright-flouting Swedish download site the Pirate Bay to post a link on its home page, which received 20 million monthly visitors. The Parliament’s phones were jammed for days, and the statute was eventually dropped.

The populist uprisings of the Arab Spring brought Telecomix’s goals—and its enemies—into sharper focus. A few days into the Jan. 25 protests in Egypt Hosni Mubarak shut down all but one of his country’s Internet service providers. “Telecomix members consider themselves citizens of the Internet,” says one American Telecomix hacker who goes by the nickname the Doctor. “So we took that as a personal affront.” Agents arranged with the hacker-friendly Internet provider French Data Network to fire up modem banks and give users free dial-up connections. Then the group faxed thousands of leaflets to Egyptian universities, offices and cybercafes, explaining how to skirt the blackout.

Telecomix’s scanning of the Syrian Net began as reconnaissance to prepare for an Egypt-style Internet shutdown. Stumbling onto the Blue Coat logs was a fateful fluke. When the hackers realized what they’d found, they downloaded close to 100 gigabytes of data, using the Tor anonymization network to cover their tracks. The process took weeks. In October Telecomix released hundreds of millions of lines of text listing hundreds of sites the Syrian government was blocking, from porn to Facebook to Chat- roulette, along with enough users’ communication logs to show that the regime was using their Blue Coat gear to not only filter but also monitor dissidents’ activities.

Blue Coat’s scandal demonstrates the complexity of regulating surveillance technology. The firm claims it hadn’t known about its devices in Syria, arguing they must have found their way into the country through a reseller in the United Arab Emirates. “Blue Coat is mindful of the violence in Syria and is saddened by the human suffering and loss of human life that may be the result of actions by a repressive regime,” it wrote in a statement. “We don’t want our products to be used by the government of Syria or any other country embargoed by the United States.” But critics like cryptography guru Bruce Schneier and Tor developer Jacob Appelbaum point out that Blue Coat devices link back to its servers for licensing and updates, implying the company may have turned a blind eye to its Syrian users.

Some Telecomix agents say they’ve also spotted equipment sold by Fortinet in Syria. Fortinet responds that it “has in place a policy prohibiting shipping its product to countries where shipment is embargoed.” And what about resellers who pass it on to those countries? “At that point it’s out of our hands,” a spokesperson says. Hazy as the line may be, it’s clear some companies have crossed it. Marketing documents published by Wiki Leaks show 160 firms advertising surveillance gear, often in Arabic as well as English. British firm Gamma International brags that it can spy on users of Gmail, Skype and iTunes; its sales pitch was found in the files of the Egyptian government after Mubarak fled.

Telecomix is determined to remain a watchdog against Western firms aiding foreign Big Brothers. Two Swedish members, Chris Kullenberg and Jonatan Walck, have registered a site called Internaut.cat where they plan to publish future disclosures of the group’s findings, using Sweden’s strong media laws to shield their sources. “We’re at a point now where Internet users are becoming aware of what’s being done to them,” says the Doctor. “Companies that sell gear designed to track people should expect to be outed.”

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Apple Is Donating 9 Million Masks To Combat The Coronavirus

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Topline: Apple will donate 9 million N95 protective masks to combat the coronavirus, Vice President Mike Pence said on Tuesday, making Apple one of several California tech companies pitching in as hospitals across the country report a shortage of protective gear.

  • Pence thanked Apple for agreeing to donate 9 million N95 respirator masks to healthcare facilities across the country during a press briefing on Tuesday.
  • Pence’s remarks come after Apple CEO Tim Cook tweeted over the weekend the company was “working to help source supplies for healthcare providers fighting COVID-19” and “donating millions of masks for health professionals in the US and Europe,” but did not offer more specifics.
  • N95 respirators are masks that form a protective seal around a wearer’s mouth, filtering  out at least 95% of particles in the air, according to the Centers for Disease Control, which makes them necessary to protect healthcare workers from being exposed to the disease from patients.
  • Facebook has also said it is donating its stockpile of 720,000 masks purchased during the California wildfires last year, which degraded the air quality in the San Francisco Bay Area.
  • Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Forbes asking if all of the donated masks were stockpiled because of the wildfires or if the company got them from somewhere else.

Chief critic: Teddy Schleifer, a reporter at Recode, wrote that health systems shouldn’t rely on the generosity of big tech companies to make up for the failures of the federal government. 

“But there is a risk in relying on corporate philanthropy—rather than the government—in solving this problem. For starters, it depends on the voluntary generosity of these companies to deal with an unprecedented emergency, an altruism that could vanish at any time,” he wrote.

Crucial quote: “And I spoke today, and the president spoke last week, with Tim Cook of Apple. And at this moment in time Apple went to their store houses and is donating 9 million N95 masks to healthcare facilities all across the country and to the national stockpile,” Pence said.

Key background: Apple is one of several California tech companies to give away N95 masks. In addition to Facebook, Salesforce, Tesla and IBM have also announced mask donations.

News peg: Doctors and nurses are sounding the alarm that they don’t have enough masks to protect healthcare workers. Not only does inadequate protective gear put important frontline health workers at risk, public health experts say, any situation endangering medical personnel may only further depletes the U.S. health system which already doesn’t have enough capacity to handle a surge in cases. State officials in New York and Illinois have criticized President Donald Trump for not stepping in to force companies to manufacture masks or allocate masks from private companies to ensure that states don’t outbid each other for the same supplies.

Rachel Sandler, Forbes Staff, Breaking News

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Video Games Are Being Played At Record Levels As The Coronavirus Keeps People Indoors

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Topline: With school closures, mandatory work-from-home policies and lockdowns taking place in the U.S. as a result of the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, gaming has seen higher engagement, especially over this past weekend.

  • Steam, the most popular digital PC gaming marketplace, reached new heights Sunday, drawing a record 20,313,451 concurrent users to the 16-year-old service, according to third-party database SteamDB.
  • Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, released by Steam-owner Valve in 2012, seems to be the top beneficiary of the increased engagement, breaking it’s all-time peak on Sunday with 1,023,2290 concurrent players, topping its previous peak last month by a million, which itself beat the record set in April 2016.
  • Like other esports, CS:GO has had to cancel events due to the virus, particularly the Intel Extreme Masters in Katowice earlier this month, though its peak viewership reached over a million, making it one of the most watched tournaments in the esports’ history.
  • Activision Blizzard’s new free-to-play battle royale spinoff Call of Duty: Warzone, launched March 10 on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4, is also likely benefiting, drawing in a staggering 15 million in three days, besting the record 10 million in three days by last year’s battle royale sensation Apex Legends.
  • These new heights follows similar effects of the virus on China and Italy: Telecom Italia’s CEO told Bloomberg it saw a 70% increase in traffic over its landline network, with Fortnite playing a significant part, while Chinese live-streaming service Douyu experienced increased viewership of the country’s most popular games, according to market analyst Niko Partners.
  • While gaming was considered “recession proof” during the 2008 market crash, stocks aren’t immune to the current historic drops: software developers like Activision Blizzard are facing a 9% decrease in price year-to-date, while hardware companies that rely on Chinese manufacturing like Nintendo are seeing bigger drops of 24%.

What To Watch For: If these records keep rising as the closings and lockdowns continue. Arriving this week is Nintendo’s long-awaited Animal Crossing: New Horizons for the Switch console, a relaxing “life-simulator” that’s set to have a big day with many fans not-so-jokingly asking Nintendo to launch early.

Surprising Fact: Plague Inc., a game that tasks players in creating a virus that wipes out humanity, surged in popularity late January, becoming the top-paid game on the Chinese app store at one point, but the game has now been removed in China at the direction of the government.

Further Reading: So You’re Suddenly Working From Home And Want To Try Gaming? Here’s How To Get Started.

Matt Perez, Forbes Staff, Innovation


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Amazon Hoping To Hire 100,000 New Employees To Deal With Coronavirus Demand

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Topline: Amazon announced Monday that it would be opening 100,000 new full-time and part-time positions to deal with increased buying demand as people practice social distancing during the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic.

  • The company will also increase pay by $2 in the U.S. from its current $15 an hour, £2 in the UK and €2 in Europe for those working in fulfillment centers, transportation services, stores or people making deliveries, amounting to a total of $350 million.
  • Amazon last Friday shared that the increase in online commerce has unsurprisingly resulted in shortages for household essentials and delays in shipment times.
  • Monday’s statement also noted that “We continue to consult with medical and health experts, and take all recommended precautions in our buildings and stores to keep people healthy. We’ve taken measures to promote social distancing in the workplace and taken on enhanced and frequent cleaning, to name just a few.”
  • Last week, Amazon told all of its employees to consider working from home if they could, according to CNBC; for its fulfillment centers and delivery services, it also launched a $25 million relief fund that lets workers diagnosed with the coronavirus apply for  grants equal to two weeks pay, as well as unlimited unpaid time off for all hourly employees until the end of March.
  • Amazon currently employs 250,000 people at 110 fulfillment centers.

News Peg: According to Johns Hopkins, 181,200 people have been infected with the coronavirus, with 7,115 deaths reported. School closures, lockdowns and curfews have been put in place to promote social distancing, with the White House today recommending to avoid groups of more than 10 people.

Matt Perez, Forbes Staff, Games

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