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Hackers’ new target during pandemic: video conference calls

Inside Telecom Staff

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Hackers' new target during pandemic: video conference calls

By REGINA GARCIA CANO and AARON MORRISON Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — Ceri Weber had just begun to defend her dissertation when the chaos began: Echoes and voices interrupted her. Someone parroted her words. Then Britney Spears music came on, and someone told Weber to shut up. Someone threatened to rape her.

Hackers had targeted the meeting on the video conference platform Zoom while Weber was completing the final step of her doctoral degree at Duke University. The harassment lasted 10 minutes — the result of an increasingly common form of cyber attack known as “Zoom bombing.”

As tens of millions of people turn to video conferencing to stay connected during the coronavirus pandemic, many have reported uninvited guests who make threats, interject racist, anti-gay or anti-Semitic messages, or show pornographic images. The attacks have drawn the attention of the FBI and other law enforcement agencies.

“It seemed like someone was just being silly,” but then the intrusions “started to get more serious and threatening,” Weber recalled. “I was really in the zone and kept presenting.” She said she was more concerned about others in the chat who could have been scared. She was interrupted despite having selected “mute all” in the settings for the meeting she conducted from her home in Durham, North Carolina.

A Massachusetts high school reported that someone interrupted a virtual class on Zoom, yelled profanity and revealed the teacher’s home address. Another school in that state reported a person who accessed a meeting and showed swastika tattoos, according to the FBI.

The agency’s field office in Boston recommended that users of video-teleconference platforms prioritize their security by ensuring that hosts have sole control over screen-sharing features and meeting invitations.

In New York, Attorney General Letitia James sent a letter to Zoom with questions about how users’ privacy and security are being protected. In a separate later, Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut sought information about how the company handles users’ personal data and guards against security threats and abuse.

Zoom has referred to trolls as “party crashers,” which some critics have taken as a sign the company is downplaying the attacks.

In a statement issued last week, the company told The Associated Press it takes the security of meetings seriously and encourages users to report any incidents directly to Zoom. The company suggested that people hosting large, public meetings confirm that they are the only ones who can share their screen and use features like mute controls.

“For those hosting private meetings, password protections are on by default, and we recommend that users keep those protections on to prevent uninvited users from joining,” the company said. Zoom recently updated the default screen-sharing settings for education users so that teachers are by default the only ones who can share content.

Despite the update, Nevada’s Clark County School District, which includes all public schools in Las Vegas, and the New York City Department of Education, which is responsible for the largest school district in the U.S., have told teachers to stop using Zoom.

Zoom-bombing was always a threat given how the video conferencing app was configured — geared more toward user-friendliness than privacy, said Justin Brookman, director of privacy and technology policy at Consumer Reports.

When shelter-at-home mandates suddenly converted Zoom into a lifeline for tens of millions of families, it became a juicy target for mischief, he said.

For years, “the usability issues outweighed the potential security issues because society was less reliant on them. Obviously, that has changed dramatically over the last month,” Brookman added.

Some Zoom-bombers have been able to randomly guess meeting IDs and crash conferences not configured to keep out interlopers, he said.

In other cases, inexperienced users have exposed meeting IDs online, including U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who tweeted a screenshot of a Zoom Cabinet meeting that showed the ID and everyone’s screen name.

Brookman said Zoom can do more to boost privacy protections for a massive user base that now ranges from elementary school children to senior citizens discussing their wills with attorneys.

“A lot of people, including us, are critical of how they enable hosts to surveil users to make sure they are paying attention to the screen, or reading DMs or recording the call when it’s not entirely clear,” Brookman said.

A mother in Georgia told a local TV station that her son was “embarrassed and a little hysterical” after someone hacked into his online class and showed pornography to the children and teacher.

The Rev. Jason Wells was holding a publicly advertised forum recently on Zoom when a troll entered and used the chat box to post a racial slur so many times that it made the feature unusable for other participants.

“I would not say this was a random vandal hoping to interrupt somebody,” said Wells, who is executive director of the New Hampshire Council of Churches in Concord and co-chair of a state chapter of the Poor People’s Campaign, part of a movement pioneered by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The intruder was eventually removed and blocked.

As the Rev. Laura Everett delivered a sermon via Zoom for Boston’s First Baptist Church, a user who had seen the church service advertised entered the video conferencing session and shouted homophobic and racist slurs. Everett said she had tweeted the link to the sermon because she wanted “the doors of the church to be open to every weary soul who is looking for a word of comfort.”

“This was, for all intents and purposes, a house of worship that was violated,” she said. “Zoom and every other business bears the primary responsibility for users’ safety.”

In Oakland, California, Malachi Garza reported an attack on a Zoom conference she hosted for roughly 200 participants, including formerly incarcerated people who have experience with solitary confinement and are struggling with the pandemic’s stay-home orders.

The conference organized by the philanthropic Solidare Network was interrupted by racist, anti-transgender language, and pornographic images were flashed on a shared screen.

Zoom needs to “tell the truth and call this what it really is,” Garza said. “It’s racial terror, not party crashers.”


Morrison reported from New York. Associated Press Technology Writer Frank Bajak in Boston also contributed to this report.

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Facebook removes nearly 200 accounts tied to hate groups

Inside Telecom Staff

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Facebook removes nearly 200 accounts tied to hate groups

By DAVID KLEPPER Associated Press

Facebook has removed nearly 200 social media accounts linked to white supremacy groups that planned to encourage members to attend protests over police killings of black people — in some cases with weapons, company officials said Friday.

The accounts on Facebook and Instagram were tied to the Proud Boys and the American Guard, two hate groups already banned on the platforms. Officials were already monitoring the accounts in preparation for removing them when they saw posts attempting to exploit the ongoing protests prompted by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

“We saw that these groups were planning to rally supporters and members to physically go to the protests and in some cases were preparing to go with weapons,” said Brian Fishman, Facebook’s director of counterterrorism and dangerous organizations policy.

The company did not divulge details of the account users — such as their specific plans for protests or where in the U.S. they live. It said “approximately” 190 accounts were removed overall.

Both the Proud Boys and American Guard had been banned from Facebook for violating rules prohibiting hate speech. Facebook said it will continue to remove new pages, groups or accounts created by users trying to circumvent the ban.

Earlier this week, Facebook announced the removal of a “handful” of other accounts created by white supremacists who had been posing on Twitter as members of the far-left antifa movement.

Facebook announced two other actions on Friday to root out networks of fake accounts used in attempts to manipulate public opinion in Africa and Iraq:

— Hundreds of fake Instagram and Facebook accounts created in Tunisia in an alleged effort to influence elections in that country and other French-speaking nations in sub-Saharan Africa:

The accounts and related pages were used to impersonate local citizens, politicians and news organizations. More than 3.8 million accounts followed one or more of the pages, and more than 171,000 people had followed one of the fake Instagram accounts.

The network of fake accounts and pages was uncovered by the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. In their report, researchers at the DFRL said they’ve noticed more and more PR firms dabbling in misinformation and online manipulation.

— Facebook also deactivated another network of 102 fake Instagram and Facebook accounts used to impersonate local politicians and news organizations in the Kurdish region in northern Iraq. Company officials said the fake accounts, which appeared to target domestic audiences in Kurdistan, were linked to Kurdish intelligence services.

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Study: Autonomous vehicles won’t make roads completely safe

Inside Telecom Staff

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StudyAutonomousvehicleswontmakeroadscompletelysafe

By TOM KRISHER AP Auto Writer

DETROIT (AP) — A new study says that while autonomous vehicle technology has great promise to reduce crashes, it may not be able to prevent all mishaps caused by human error.

Auto safety experts say humans cause about 94% of U.S. crashes, but the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety study says computer-controlled robocars will only stop about one-third of them.

The group says that while autonomous vehicles eventually will identify hazards and react faster than humans, and they won’t become distracted or drive drunk, stopping the rest of the crashes will be a lot harder.

“We’re still going to see some issues even if autonomous vehicles might react more quickly than humans do. They’re not going to always be able to react instantaneously,” said Jessica Cicchino, and institute vice president of research and co-author of the study.

The IIHS studied over 5,000 crashes with detailed causes that were collected by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, separating out those caused by “sensing and perceiving” errors such as driver distraction, impaired visibility or failing to spot hazards until it was too late. Researchers also separated crashes caused by human “incapacitation” including drivers impaired by alcohol or drugs, those who fell asleep or drivers with medical problems. Self-driving vehicles can prevent those, the study found.

However, the robocars may not be able to prevent the rest, including prediction errors such as misjudging how fast another vehicle is traveling, planning errors including driving too fast for road conditions and execution errors including incorrect evasive maneuvers or other mistakes controlling vehicles.

For example, if a cyclist or another vehicle suddenly veers into the path of an autonomous vehicle, it may not be able to stop fast enough or steer away in time, Cicchino said. “Autonomous vehicles need to not only perceive the world around them perfectly, they need to respond to what’s around them as well,” she said.

Just how many crashes are prevented depends a lot on how autonomous vehicles are programmed, Cicchino said. More crashes would be stopped if the robocars obey all traffic laws including speed limits. But if artificial intelligence allows them to drive and react more like humans, then fewer crashes will be stopped, she said.

“Building self-driving cars that drive as well as people do is a big challenge in itself,” IIHS Research Scientist Alexandra Mueller said in a statement. “But they’d actually need to be better than that to deliver on the promises we’ve all heard.”

Partners for Automated Vehicle Education, a group with many self-driving vehicle companies as members, said Thursday that the study incorrectly assumes superior perception and lack of distraction are the only ways autonomous vehicles can drive better than humans.

Autonomous vehicles, for instance, can be programmed to never break traffic laws, which the study blames for 38% of crashes. “The assumption that these behaviors could be altered by passengers in ways that so dramatically reduce safety is inconsistent with what our members tell us about the culture they bring to AV development,” said a statement from the group, which includes Ford, General Motors, Waymo, Lyft, Daimler, Volkswagen and others.

Study numbers show autonomous vehicles would prevent 72% or crashes, the group said, but the vehicles are so complex that the ultimate impact is only a guess.

Yet Missy Cummings, a robotics and human factors professor at Duke University who is familiar with the study, said preventing even one-third of the human-caused crashes is giving technology too much credit. Even vehicles with laser, radar and camera sensors don’t always perform flawlessly in all conditions, she said.

“There is a probability that even when all three sensor systems come to bear, that obstacles can be missed,” Cummings said. “No driverless car company has been able to do that reliably. They know that, too.”

Researchers and people in the autonomous vehicle business never thought the technology would be capable of preventing all crashes now caused by humans, she said, calling that “layman’s conventional wisdom that somehow this technology is going to be a panacea that is going to prevent all death.”

IIHS researchers reviewed the crash causes and decided which ones could be prevented, assuming that all vehicles on the road were autonomous, Cicchino said. Even fewer crashes will be prevented while self-driving vehicles are mixed with human driven cars, she said.

Virginia-based IIHS is a nonprofit research and education organization that’s funded by auto insurance companies.

More than 60 companies have applied to test autonomous vehicles in California alone, but they have yet to start a fully-robotic large-scale ride-hailing service without human backup drivers.

Several companies including Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo and General Motors’ Cruise had pledged to do it during the past two years, but those plans were delayed when the industry pulled back after an Uber automated test vehicle hit and killed a pedestrian in March 2018 in Tempe, Arizona.

Tesla Inc. CEO Elon Musk last year promised a fleet of autonomous robotaxis would start operating in 2020. But recently he has said he hopes to deploy the system with humans monitoring it in early 2021, depending on regulatory approval.

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Germany, France hope cloud data project to boost sovereignty

Inside Telecom Staff

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By GEIR MOULSON Associated Press

BERLIN (AP) — Germany and France on Thursday launched a project to set up a European cloud computing platform that they hope will enhance European economic sovereignty in the wake of the coronavirus crisis and break the continent’s dependence on U.S. and Chinese companies.

The platform, entitled GAIA-X, is meant to be up and running — at least in prototype form — at the beginning of next year and be open to users from outside Europe that commit to adhere to European standards. German Economy Peter Altmaier said that the aim is “nothing less than a European moonshot in digital policy.”

Germany and France will set up a non-profit association to coordinate and organize the data infrastructure, Altmaier said. Conceived last year and initially announced in October, GAIA-X follows on the heels of an existing push by the European Union’s two biggest economies to set up a car battery consortium aimed at catching up with Asian rivals.

The cloud computing project “could not have been more timely” as Europe tries to dig itself out of a deep recession caused by the coronavirus crisis, French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire said.

“With the COVID crisis, companies massively shifted to teleworking. This makes the need for (a) secure and European cloud solution all the more urgent,” Le Maire told a news conference by video link from Paris.

“The crisis also showed that the giant tech companies are the winners … the European digital space has to be protected,” he added, pledging that the new platform “will ensure the application of policy rules based on EU values and standards.”

“We are not China, we are not the United States — we are European countries with our own values and our own economic interests that we want to defend,” Le Maire said. He stressed the importance of “interoperability,” allowing companies to switch easily to the new system without losing any data.

The two ministers said the project has brought together 22 companies in France and Germany, including Dassault Systemes, Orange, Siemens, SAP, Robert Bosch and Deutsche Telekom. They didn’t give financial details. Le Maire called on “all other European companies and countries” to join the initiative.

Beyond that, “the idea is that we invite companies across the world providing their cloud services according to European standards and rules,” Altmaier said. “Everyone who wants to have the label of GAIA-X will have to respect and to satisfy several sets of rules,” including on interoperability and data migration.

He said that the project’s success “will be crucial for Germany, for France and for Europe as far as our economic strength, our competitivity and our sovereignty are concerned.”

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