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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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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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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Check-in With Facial Recognition Now Possible in Shanghai

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 underway 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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Facebook Now Requires UK Political Ad Buyers to Reveal Identity

Facebook says that anyone who takes out a British political ad on the social media platform will now be forced to reveal their identity, in a bid to increase transparency and curb misinformation.

 

The company said Tuesday that it will also require disclaimers for any British political advertisements. All the data on the ad buyers will be archived for seven years in a publicly accessible database.

 

Facebook is already applying a similar system in the United States, which is holding midterm elections this year.

 

British lawmakers have called for greater oversight of social media companies and election campaigns to protect democracy in the digital age.

 

A House of Commons report this year said democracy is facing a crisis because data analysis and social media allow campaigns to target voters with messages of hate without their consent.

 

“While the vast majority of ads on Facebook are run by legitimate organizations, we know that there are bad actors that try to misuse our platform,” Facebook said in a statement. “By having people verify who they are, we believe it will help prevent abuse.”

 

Facebook said it’s up against “smart and well-funded adversaries who change their tactics as we spot abuse,” but it believes that increased transparency is good for democracy and the electoral process.

 

 


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Facebook to Ban Misinformation on Voting in Upcoming US Elections

Facebook Inc will ban false information about voting requirements and fact-check fake reports of violence or long lines at polling stations ahead of next month’s U.S. midterm elections, company executives told Reuters, the latest effort to reduce voter manipulation on its service.

The world’s largest online social network, with 1.5 billion daily users, has stopped short of banning all false or misleading posts, something that Facebook has shied away from as it would likely increase its expenses and leave it open to charges of censorship.

The latest move addresses a sensitive area for the company, which has come under fire for its lax approach to fake news reports and disinformation campaigns, which many believe affected the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, won by Donald Trump.

The new policy was disclosed by Facebook’s cybersecurity policy chief, Nathaniel Gleicher, and other company executives.

The ban on false information about voting methods, set to be announced later on Monday, comes six weeks after Senator Ron Wyden asked Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg how Facebook would counter posts aimed at suppressing votes, such as by telling certain users they could vote by text, a hoax that has been used to reduce turnout in the past.

The information on voting methods becomes one of the few areas in which falsehoods are prohibited on Facebook, a policy enforced by what the company calls “community standards” moderators, although application of its standards has been uneven. It will not stop the vast majority of untruthful posts about candidates or other election issues.

“We don’t believe we should remove things from Facebook that are shared by authentic people if they don’t violate those community standards, even if they are false,” said Tessa Lyons, product manager for Facebook’s News Feed feature that shows users what friends are sharing.

Links to discouraging reports about polling places that may be inflated or misleading will be referred to fact-checkers under the new policy, Facebook said. If then marked as false, the reports will not be removed but will be seen by fewer of the poster’s friends.

Such partial measures leave Facebook more open to manipulation by users seeking to affect the election, critics say. 

Russia, and potentially other foreign parties, are already making “pervasive” efforts to interfere in upcoming U.S. elections, the leader of Trump’s national security team said in early August.

Just days before that, Facebook said it uncovered a coordinated political influence campaign to mislead its users and sow dissension among voters, removing 32 pages and accounts from Facebook and Instagram. Members of Congress briefed by Facebook said the methodology suggested Russian involvement.

Trump has disputed claims that Russia has attempted to interfere in U.S. elections. Russian President Vladimir Putin has denied it.

Weighing ban on hacked material

Facebook instituted a global ban on false information about when and where to vote in 2016, but Monday’s move goes further, including posts about exaggerated identification requirements.

Facebook executives are also debating whether to follow Twitter Inc’s recent policy change to ban posts linking to hacked material, Gleicher told Reuters in an interview.

The dissemination of hacked emails from Democratic party officials likely played a role in tipping the 2016 presidential election to Trump, and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats has warned that Russia has recently been attempting to hack and steal information from U.S. candidates and government officials.

A blanket ban on hacked content, however, would limit exposure to other material some believe serves the public interest, such as the so-called Panama Papers, which in 2015 made public the extensive use of offshore tax havens by the world’s wealthy.

Months ago, senior Facebook executives briefly debated banning all political ads, which produce less than 5 percent of the company’s revenue, sources said. The company rejected that because product managers were loath to leave advertising dollars on the table and policy staffers argued that blocking political ads would favor incumbents and wealthy campaigners who can better afford television and print ads.

Instead, the company checks political ad buyers for proof of national residency and keeps a public archive of who has bought what.

Facebook also takes a middle ground on the authenticity of personal accounts. It can use automated activity it finds to disable pages spreading propaganda, as happened last week, but it does not require phone numbers or other proof of individual identity before allowing people to open accounts in the first place.

On the issue of fake news, Facebook has held off on a total ban, instead limiting the spread of articles marked as false by vetted fact-checkers. However, that approach can leave fact-checkers overwhelmed and able to tackle only the most viral hoaxes.

“Without a clear and transparent policy to curb the deliberate spread of false information that applies across platforms, we will continue to be vulnerable,” said Graham Brookie, head of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.

 


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Artificial Intelligence Can Help Fight Global Hunger

A world without hunger by 2030 is the theme of this year’s World Food Day, and the goal of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. Events around the world on October 16th will promote awareness and action for those who suffer from hunger and for the need to ensure food security and nutritious diets for all. Advances in technology and artificial intelligence can help feed the world. VOA’s Elizabeth Lee explains.


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Using CT Scans to Predict Heart Attacks

One of the joys of computer algorithms and machine learning is their ability to extract new data from old technologies. Doctors at the University of London in Oxford for instance have figured out a way to take regular CT heart scans and predict heart problems years in advance. VOA’s Kevin Enochs reports.


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