Hackers Accused of Ties to Russia Hit 3 E. European Companies: Cybersecurity Firm

Hackers have infected three energy and transport companies in Ukraine and Poland with sophisticated new malware and may be planning destructive cyber attacks, a software security firm said on Wednesday.

A report by researchers at Slovakia-based ESET did not attribute the hacking activity, recorded between 2015 and mid-2018, to any specific country but blamed it on a group that has been accused by Britain of having links to Russian military intelligence.

The report is the latest to raise suspicions in the West about Russia’s GRU spy agency, accused by London of conducting a “reckless campaign” of global cyber attacks and trying to kill a former Russian spy in England. Moscow denies the charges.

Investigators at ESET said the group responsible for a series of earlier attacks against the Ukrainian energy sector, which used malicious software known as BlackEnergy, had now developed and used a new malware suite called GreyEnergy.

ESET has helped investigate a series of high-profile cyber attacks on Ukraine in recent years, including those on the Ukrainian energy grid which led to power outages in late 2015.

Kiev has accused Moscow of orchestrating those attacks, while U.S. cybersecurity firm FireEye says a group known as Sandworm is thought to be responsible. Britain’s GCHQ spy agency said this month that BlackEnergy Actors and Sandworm are both names associated with the GRU.

“The important thing is that they are still active,” ESET researcher Robert Lipovsky told Reuters. “This shows that this very dangerous and persistent ‘threat actor’ is still active.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said there was no evidence to support the allegations against the GRU and that Russia does not use cyber attacks against other countries.

“These are just more accusations. We are tired of denying them, because no one is listening,” he said.

After infection via emails laced with malicious weblinks or documents – a tactic known as “spear phishing” – or by compromising servers exposed to the internet, GreyEnergy allowed the attackers to map out their victim’s networks and gather confidential information such as passwords and login credentials, ESET said.

Lipovsky said his team then saw the hackers seek out critical parts of the companies’ systems, including computers which ran industrial control processes.

“It is my understanding that this was the reconnaissance and espionage phase, potentially leading up to cyber sabotage,” he said.

Global hacking campaign

The ESET report did not name the three companies infected in Ukraine and Poland, and Reuters was unable to identify them.

Ukraine’s Cyber Police confirmed the attacks on two Ukrainian companies but declined to give any further details. Polish authorities did not respond to requests for comment.

Ben Read, a senior manager on FireEye’s espionage analysis team, said his own work corroborated ESET’s report and that the Sandworm group was probably responsible.

The activity “is similar to the group we track as Sandworm,” he said. “And activity that we attribute to Sandworm has been named by the U.S. Department of Justice as being the GRU.”

Western countries including Britain and the United States issued a coordinated denunciation of Russia as a “pariah state” this month for what they described as a global hacking campaign run by the GRU.

GRU hackers have targeted institutions ranging from sports anti-doping bodies to a nuclear power company and the world chemical weapons watchdog, they said, as well as releasing the devastating “NotPetya” cyber worm which caused billions of dollars of damage worldwide in 2017.

The GRU, now formally known in Russia by a shorter acronym GU, is also accused by Britain of carrying out a nerve agent attack in England on former GRU officer Sergei Skripal. Moscow’s relations with the West have hit a post-Cold War low over Russia’s role in the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria.

Lipovsky and fellow ESET researcher Anton Cherepanov said the BlackEnergy attackers’ decision to upgrade to the new GreyEnergy malware may have been motivated by a need to cover their tracks and deflect attention from their activities.

The power outages triggered by the BlackEnergy attacks in Ukraine in December 2015 drew international attention and are recognised as the first blackout caused by a cyber attack.

“Threat actors need to switch up their arsenal from time to time,” Lipovsky said.

 

 


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Shanghai Airport Automates Check-in with Facial Recognition

It’s now possible to check in automatically at Shanghai’s Hongqiao airport using facial recognition technology, part of an ambitious rollout of facial recognition systems in China that has raised privacy concerns as Beijing pushes to become a global leader in the field. 

Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport unveiled self-service kiosks for flight and baggage check-in, security clearance and boarding powered by facial recognition technology, according to the Civil Aviation Administration of China.

Similar efforts are under way at airports in Beijing and Nanyang city, in central China’s Henan province.

Many airports in China already use facial recognition to help speed security checks, but Shanghai’s system, which debuted Monday, is being billed as the first to be fully automated.

“It is the first time in China to achieve self-service for the whole check-in process,” said Zhang Zheng, general manager of the ground services department for Spring Airlines, the first airline to adopt the system at Hongqiao airport. Currently, only Chinese identity card holders can use the technology.

Spring Airlines said Tuesday that passengers had embraced automated check-in, with 87 percent of 5,017 people who took Spring flights on Monday using the self-service kiosks, which can cut down check-in times to less than a minute and a half.

Across greater China, facial recognition is finding its way into daily life. Mainland police have used facial recognition systems to identify people of interest in crowds and nab jaywalkers, and are working to develop an integrated national system of surveillance camera data.

Chinese media are filled with reports of ever-expanding applications: A KFC outlet in Hangzhou, near Shanghai, where it’s possible to pay using facial recognition technology; a school that uses facial recognition cameras to monitor students’ reactions in class; and hundreds of ATMs in Macau equipped with facial recognition devices to curb money laundering.

But increased convenience may come at a cost in a country with few rules on how the government can use biometric data.

“Authorities are using biometric and artificial intelligence to record and track people for social control purposes,” said Maya Wang, senior China researcher for Human Rights Watch. “We are concerned about the increasing integration and use of facial recognition technologies throughout the country because it provides more and more data points for the authorities to track people.”


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Uber Driver Charged with Kidnapping New York Woman

An Uber driver in New York City kidnapped a woman who fell asleep in his vehicle, groped her in the back seat and then left her on the side of a highway in Connecticut, federal authorities said Tuesday.

Harbir Parmar, 24, of Queens was charged in U.S. District Court with kidnapping. It wasn’t immediately clear whether he had an attorney.

The FBI said in court papers that Parmar picked the woman up in Manhattan at 11:30 p.m. on Feb. 21 for a trip to her home in White Plains, New York, about an hour away. The woman fell asleep, authorities said, and Parmar changed her destination to an address in Boston, Massachusetts.

The woman woke up to find the driver “with his hand under her shirt touching the top of her breast,” according to a criminal complaint unsealed Tuesday.

The woman reached for her phone, the complaint said, but Parmar took it from her and continued driving. She asked the driver to take her to the police station but the Parmar refused, the complaint said.

Parmar eventually left the woman on the side of Interstate 95 in Branford, Connecticut, about an hour’s drive east of her home. The complaint said the woman memorized Parmar’s license plate and called a cab from a nearby convenience store.

The woman later learned that Uber had charged her more than $1,000 for a trip from New York to Massachusetts.

Federal authorities and New York police condemned Parmar’s behavior as reprehensible.

“No one — man or woman — should fear such an attack when they simply hire a car service,” U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman said in a statement.

Uber said it blocked Parmar from using the app when the alleged kidnapping occurred.

“What’s been reported is horrible and something no person should go through. As soon as we became aware, we immediately removed this individual’s access to the platform. We have fully cooperated with law enforcement and will continue to support their investigation,” the company said in a statement.

The company’s CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, said over the summer that he hoped to make Uber the “safest transportation platform on the planet,” after enduring years of criticism that it wasn’t doing enough to screen drivers. That included adding a new feature to the app that is supposed to alert both passengers and drivers if a car makes an unplanned stop.

The state of Colorado fined Uber $8.9 million last year for allowing people with criminal records to work as drivers. New York City requires ride-hailing service drivers to go through a licensing process similar to the one it has for traditional limo and car service drivers.

Federal authorities also charged Parmar with wire fraud, accusing him of overcharging Uber riders by inputting false information about their destinations.

The complaint said he also reported “false information” about cleaning fees that he charged to Uber riders on at least three occasions, including the woman he allegedly groped and left on the side of the road.


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US to Open Trade Talks With Britain, EU, Japan

The White House has announced plans to negotiate separate trade deals with Britain, the European Union and Japan.

“We are committed to concluding these negotiations with timely and substantive results for American workers, farmers, ranchers and businesses,” U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said Tuesday.

He added that the White House wanted to “address both tariff and non-tariff barriers and to achieve fairer and more balanced trade.”

As required by law, Lighthizer sent three separate letters to Congress announcing the intention to open trade talks.

He wrote that the negotiations with Britain would begin “as soon as it’s ready” after Britain’s expected exit from the European Union on March 29.

Lighthizer called the economic partnership between the U.S. and EU the “largest and most complex”in the world, noting the U.S. has a $151 billion trade deficit with the EU

Writing about Japan, Lighthizer said it is “an important but still often underperforming market for U.S. exporters of goods,” noting that Washington also has a large trade deficit with Tokyo.

The top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, Oregon’s Ron Wyden, cautioned the administration against making what he called “quick, partial deals.” 

“The administration must take the time to tackle trade barriers comprehensively, including using this opportunity to set a high bar in areas like labor rights, environmental protection and digital trade,” he said.

President Donald Trump imposed tariffs on European steel and aluminum exports earlier this year and has threatened more tariffs on cars as a reaction to what he said were unfair deals that put the U.S. at a disadvantage.


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Earnings Reports Send US Stocks Higher

Major U.S. stock markets made strong gains Tuesday as strong earnings reports encouraged investors.

The Dow Jones industrial average gained 547.87 points, or 2.2 percent, to close at 25,798.42. The Standard & Poor’s 500 rose 59.13 points, or 2.2 percent, to 2,809.92 with all 11 sectors finishing higher. The Nasdaq composite, home to many tech stocks, jumped 214.75 points, or 2.9 percent, to 7,645.49.

New U.S. economic data showing gains in job openings and industrial production also helped buoy prices.

Tuesday’s Dow gain marked a sharp turnaround from some recent trading sessions, when worries about rising interest rates sent stock market indexes down steeply.

Those concerns also pushed down the value of European stocks, but the major indexes in France, Germany and Britain also posted gains Tuesday. 

 


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Zimbabwe’s Government Says Worst of ‘Panic-Buying’ is Over

Zimbabwe’s government says the country is emerging from a recent wave of panic-buying that saw shops run out of goods and motorists spend long hours in lines at gas stations. But as Columbus Mavhunga reports from Harare, Zimbabwe’s economic problems are far from over.


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Future RX for Pain Relief May Include Magnets

The traditional way for doctors to treat certain illnesses has been to prescribe medications. But as technology advances, researchers are working on new ways of treating symptoms that do not require drugs. One promising possibility: using tiny magnetic particles to treat pain. VOA’s Elizabeth Lee visited one lab at the University of California, Los Angeles to find out how they work.


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Google to Charge for Apps on Android Phones in Europe

Google says it will start charging smartphone makers to pre-install apps like Gmail, YouTube and Google Maps on Android handsets sold in Europe, in response to a record $5 billion EU antitrust fine.

The U.S. tech company’s announcement Tuesday is a change from its previous business model, in which it let phone makers install its suite of popular mobile apps for free on phones running its Android operating system.

It’s among measures the company is taking to comply with the July ruling by EU authorities that found Google allegedly abused the dominance of Android to stifle competitors, even as it appeals the decision.

The company will also let phone makers install rival versions of Android, the most widely used mobile operating system.


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US Employers Post Record Number of Open Jobs in August

U.S. employers posted the most jobs in two decades in August, and hiring also reached a record high, fresh evidence that companies are desperate to staff up amid solid economic growth.

Job openings rose a slight 0.8 percent to 7.14 million, the highest on records dating back to December 2000, the Labor Department said Tuesday. That is also far more than the 6.2 million of people who were unemployed that month.

The number of available jobs has swamped the number of unemployed for five straight months. Hiring has been solid, which has pushed down the unemployment rate to a nearly five-decade low of 3.7 percent. Strong demand for workers when so few are out of work.

President Donald Trump celebrated the report on Twitter, tweeting: “Incredible number just out… Astonishing! It’s all working!” Trump added that the stock market was “up big” and referenced “Strong Profits.”

Yet so far, pay raises have been modest. Average hourly earnings rose 2.8 percent in September compared with a year earlier. That’s much higher than several years ago, but below the roughly 4 percent gain that is typical when unemployment is so low.

It’s a sharp turnaround from the Great Recession and its aftermath. In 2009, there were as many as six unemployed workers for each available job. Now, that number has fallen below one.

Employers hired roughly 5.8 million people in August, the report showed. That is also the most on record, but that increase partly reflects population growth. The percentage of the workforce that found jobs in August ticked up to 3.9 percent from 3.8 percent in July. That matched an 11-year high first reached in May.

Job openings rose in August in professional and business services, which include mostly higher-paying positions in engineering, accounting and architecture, as well as temporary help. Postings in that category have jumped 27 percent from a year ago.

Construction firms are also desperate for workers, posting 298,000 open jobs. That’s nearly 39 percent more than a year ago. Job openings also increased in finance and insurance and health care.

Openings fell in August from the previous month in manufacturing, retail, and slipped slightly in hotels and restaurants.


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Huawei Launches New flagship Phones in Bid to Keep No. 2 Spot

Huawei unveiled new flagship smartphones with novel smart camera and video features on Tuesday, as it seeks to sustain momentum among price-conscious consumers.

The Chinese company, which overtook Apple this year to become the No. 2 smartphone maker by units – behind South Korea’s Samsung (005930.KS) – introduced its Mate 20 phone series using Leica camera technology.

Huawei’s new premium phone line-up has four models available around the world, expect in the United States where sales are effectively banned over whispered national security concerns.

The new line-up includes the Mate 20, with list prices ranging from 799-849 euros ($925-$983), depending on memory configuration.

The fuller-featured Mate 20 Pro, is priced as low as 799 pounds at some UK retailers and list priced at 849 pounds or 1,049 euros across Europe. A comparable iPhone X Max from Apple costs 1,099 pounds in the UK.

The new phones include a new ultra-wide angle lens, as well as a 3x telephoto lens and a macro that shoots objects as close as 2.5 centimeters (1 inch).

Mate P20 models take advantage of artificial intelligence features built into Huawei’s own Kirin chipsets.

Features available to Mate 20 users include being able to isolate human subjects and desaturate the colors around them in order to highlight people against their backgrounds.

Huawei incorporates bigger light-sensing chips than rival phones to take better pictures in low-light conditions.

Gartner analyst Roberta Cozza said that in a highly commoditized smartphone market of look-alike phones, Huawei is managing to differentiate itself with camera and personalization features.

“With the Mate 20, Huawei is setting the bar for what users can expect from photography using a smartphone,” Cozza said.

The Chinese phone maker managed to surpass Apple to take the No. 2 spot in the second quarter, industry data shows, despite being effectively excluded from the U.S. market.

However, Apple commanded 43 percent of the premium market and a lion’s share of profits, CounterPoint Research estimated.

“Huawei is clearly ticking all the key boxes needed to displace rivals – and not just Android-powered rivals,” said Ben Wood, research chief of mobile industry consulting firm CCS Insight.

Wood said Huawei’s move to match Apple iPhone’s characteristic swipe gestures and face unlock features on its Mate 20 Pro could, in theory, make it easier for committed Apple buyers to switch, although he said that was unlikely near term.

“But it’s clear that Huawei has an eye on the future and is ready to take share from Apple if the time comes that a loyal iPhone owner decides to try something else,” he said.

The new premium phone line-up from the world’s biggest telecom equipment maker includes four models, the Mate 20, Mate 20 Pro, Mate 20 X, with a 7.2 inch display screen, and a Porsche Design limited edition phone.


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