Microsoft announced legal action Monday seeking to disrupt a major cybercrime digital network that uses more than 1 million zombie computers to loot bank accounts and spread ransomware, which experts consider a major threat to the U.S. presidential election.
The operation to knock offline command-and-control servers for a global botnet that uses an infrastructure known as Trickbot to infect computers with malware was initiated with an order that Microsoft obtained in Virginia federal court on Oct. 6. Microsoft argued that the crime network is abusing its trademark.
“It is very hard to tell how effective it will be but we are confident it will have a very long-lasting effect,” said Jean-Ian Boutin, head of threat research at ESET, one of several cybersecurity firms that partnered with Microsoft to map the command-and-control servers. “We’re sure that they are going to notice and it will be hard for them to get back to the state that the botnet was in.”
Cybersecurity experts said that Microsoft’s use of a U.S. court order to persuade internet providers to take down the botnet servers is laudable. But they add that it’s not apt to be successful because too many won’t comply and because Trickbot’s operators have a decentralized fall-back system and employ encrypted routing.
Paul Vixie of Farsight Security said via email “experience tells me it won’t scale — there are too many IP’s behind uncooperative national borders.” And the cybersecurity firm Intel 471 reported no significant hit on Trickbot operations Monday and predicted “little medium- to long-term impact” in a report shared with The Associated Press.
But ransomware expert Brett Callow of the cybersecurity firm Emsisoft said that a temporary Trickbot disruption could, at least during the election, limit attacks and prevent the activation of ransomware on systems already infected.
The announcement follows a Washington Post report Friday of a major — but ultimately unsuccessful — effort by the U.S. military’s Cyber Command to dismantle Trickbot beginning last month with direct attacks rather than asking providers to deny hosting to domains used by command-and-control servers.
A U.S. policy called “persistent engagement” authorizes U.S. cyberwarriors to engage hostile hackers in cyberspace and disrupt their operations with code, something Cybercom did against Russian misinformation jockeys during U.S. midterm elections in 2018.
Created in 2016 and used by a loose consortium of Russian-speaking cybercriminals, Trickbot is a digital superstructure for sowing malware in the computers of unwitting individuals and websites. In recent months, its operators have been increasingly renting it out to other criminals who have used it to sow ransomware, which encrypts data on target networks, crippling them until the victims pay up.
One of the biggest reported victims of a ransomware variety sowed by Trickbot called Ryuk was the hospital chain Universal Health Services, which said all 250 of its U.S. facilities were hobbled in an attack last month that forced doctors and nurses to resort to paper and pencil.
U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials list ransomware as a major threat to the Nov. 3 presidential election. They fear an attack could freeze up state or local voter registration systems, disrupting voting, or knock out result-reporting websites.
While cybersecurity experts say the operators of Trickbot and affiliated digital crime syndicates are Russian speakers mostly based in eastern Europe, they caution that they are motivated by profit, not politics. They do, however, operate with impunity with no Kremlin interference as long as their targets are abroad.
“In today’s world, Trickbot is a type of a plague,” said Alex Holden, founder of Milwaukee-based Hold Security, which tracks its activity closely on the dark web, “and a government that ignores a global plague is more than complacent.”
Trickbot is “malware-as-a-service,” its modular architecture lets it be used as a delivery mechanism for a wide array of criminal activity. It began mostly as a so-called banking Trojan that attempts to steal credentials from online bank account so criminals can fraudulently transfer cash.
But recently, researchers have noted a rise in Trickbot’s use in ransomware attacks targeting everything from municipal and state governments to school districts and hospitals. Ryuk and another type of ransomware called Conti — also distributed via Trickbot — dominated attacks on the U.S. public sector in September, said Callow of Emsisoft.
Holden said the reported Cybercom disruption — involving efforts to confuse its configuration through code injections — succeeded in temporarily breaking down communications between command-and-control servers and most of the bots.
“But that’s hardly a decisive victory,” he said, adding that the botnet rebounded with new victims and ransomware.
The disruption — in two waves that began Sept. 22 — was first reported by cybersecurity journalist Brian Krebs.
The AP could not immediately confirm the reported Cybercom involvement.
By FRANK BAJAK AP Technology Writer.
Facebook demands academics disable ad-targeting data tool
Academics, journalists and First Amendment lawyers are rallying behind New York University researchers in a showdown with Facebook over its demand that they halt the collection of data showing who is being micro-targeted by political ads on the world’s dominant social media platform.
The researchers say the disputed tool is vital to understanding how Facebook has been used as a conduit for disinformation and manipulation.
In an Oct. 16 letter to the researchers, a Facebook executive demanded they disable a special plug-in for Chrome and Firefox browsers used by 6,500 volunteers across the United States and delete the data obtained. The plug-in lets researchers see which ads are shown to each volunteer; Facebook lets advertisers tailor ads based on specific demographics that go far beyond race, age, gender and political preference.
The executive, Allison Hendrix, said the tool violates Facebook rules prohibiting automated bulk collection of data from the site. Her letter threatened “additional enforcement action” if the takedown was not effected by Nov. 30.
Company spokesman Joe Osborne said in an emailed statement Saturday that Facebook “informed NYU months ago that moving forward with a project to scrape people’s Facebook information would violate our terms.” The company has long claimed protecting user privacy is its main concern, though NYU researchers say their tool is programmed so the data collected from participating volunteers is anonymous.
The outcry over Facebook’s threat was immediate after The Wall Street Journal first reported the news Friday considering the valuable insights the “Ad Observer” tool provides. It has been used since its September launch by local reporters from Wisconsin to Utah to Florida to write about the Nov. 3 presidential election.
“That Facebook is trying to shut down a tool crucial to exposing disinformation in the run up to one of the most consequential elections in U.S. history is alarming,” said Ramya Krishnan, an attorney with the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, which is representing the researchers. “The public has a right to know what political ads are being run and how they are being targeted. Facebook shouldn’t be allowed to be the gatekeeper to information necessary to safeguard our democracy. “
“The NYU Ad Observatory is the only window researchers have to see microtargeting information about political ads on Facebook,” Julia Angwin, editor of the data-centric investigative tech news website The Markup, tweet in disappointment.
The tool lets researchers see how some Facebook advertisers use data gathered by the company to profile citizens “and send them misinformation about candidates and policies that are designed to influence or even suppress their vote,” Damon McCoy, an NYU professor involved in the project, said in a statement.
After an uproar over its lack of transparency on political ads Facebook ran ahead of the 2016 election, a sharp contrast to how ads are regulated on traditional media, the company created an ad archive that includes details such as who paid for an ad and when it ran. But Facebook does not share information about who gets served the ad.
The company has resisted allowing researchers access to the platform, where right-wing content has consistently been trending in recent weeks. Last year, more than 200 researchers signed a letter to Facebook calling on it to lift restrictions on public-interest research and journalism that would permit automated digital collection of data from the platform.
By FRANK BAJAK AP Technology Writer – BOSTON (AP).
Huawei sales up, but growth slows under virus, US pressure
Chinese tech giant Huawei, one of the biggest makers of smartphones and switching equipment, said Friday its revenue rose 9.9% in the first nine months of this year, but growth decelerated in the face of U.S. sanctions and the coronavirus pandemic.
Huawei Technologies Ltd. gave no sales figure for the most recent quarter ending in September, but growth for the first three quarters was down from the 13.1% reported for the first half of the year.
Huawei is struggling with U.S. sanctions that cut off its access to most American components in a feud with Beijing over technology and security. The White House says Huawei is a threat and might facilitate Chinese spying, which the company denies.
Washington also is tightening curbs on access to U.S. markets or technology for other Chinese tech companies including telecom equipment maker ZTE Corp., video service TikTok and messaging app WeChat.
The conflict has fueled fears the global market might be dividing into competing U.S. and Chinese technology spheres with incompatible standards. Industry analysts warn that would slow down innovation and raise costs.
Executives have warned Huawei’s smartphone and network equipment sales would be affected. The company has launched smartphones based on its own chips and other components and says it is removing U.S. technology from its products.
On Thursday, the company unveiled its latest smartphone, the Mate 40, based on Kirin 9000 chips developed by Huawei.
Sales in the first nine months of 2020 rose to 671.3 billion yuan ($100.4 billion), Huawei reported. It said net profit was 8%, down from the first half’s 9.2% margin.
The company gave no details of its smartphone shipments. Sales outside China have weakened because its handsets no longer come preloaded with Google’s popular music, maps and other features. But sales in China, where Huawei phones already used local alternatives, have grown sharply.
Huawei’s global market share in smartphones rose to 19.6% in the three months ending in June, up from 17.7% a year earlier, according to Canalys. That was driven by strength in its home market, where Huawei had a 51% market share and sales rose 32% to 14.5 million handsets.
Huawei is owned by its Chinese employees who make up about 60% of its global workforce of 194,000. It began reporting financial results a decade ago in an attempt to appear more transparent and mollify foreign security fears.
BEIJING (AP) — By JOE McDONALD AP Business Writer.
Tesla ‘full self-driving’ vehicles can’t drive themselves
Earlier this week, Tesla sent out its “full self-driving” software to a small group of owners who will test it on public roads. But buried on its website is a disclaimer that the $8,000 system doesn’t make the vehicles autonomous and drivers still have to supervise it.
The conflicting messages have experts in the field accusing Tesla of deceptive, irresponsible marketing that could make the roads more dangerous as the system is rolled out to as many as 1 million electric vehicle drivers by the end of the year.
“This is actively misleading people about the capabilities of the system, based on the information I’ve seen about it,” said Steven Shladover, a research engineer at the University of California, Berkeley, who has studied autonomous driving for 40 years. “It is a very limited functionality that still requires constant driver supervision.”
On a conference call Wednesday, Musk told industry analysts that the company is starting full self-driving slowly and cautiously “because the world is a complex and messy place.” It plans to add drivers this weekend and hopes to have a wider release by the end of the year. He referred to having a million vehicles “providing feedback” on situations that can’t be anticipated.
The company hasn’t identified the drivers or said where they are located. Messages were left Thursday seeking comment from Tesla.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which regulates automakers, says it will monitor the Teslas closely “and will not hesitate to take action to protect the public against unreasonable risks to safety.”
The agency says in a statement that it has been briefed on Tesla’s system, which it considers to be an expansion of driver assistance software, which requires human supervision.
“No vehicle available for purchase today is capable of driving itself,” the statement said.
On its website, Tesla touts in large font its full self-driving capability. In smaller font, it warns: “The currently enabled features require active driver supervision and do not make the vehicle autonomous. The activation and use of these features are dependent on achieving reliability far in excess of human drivers as demonstrated by billions of miles of experience, as well as regulatory approval, which may take longer in some jurisdictions.”
Even before using the term “full self-driving,” Tesla named its driver-assist system “Autopilot.” Many drivers relied on it too much and checked out, resulting in at least three U.S. deaths. The National Transportation Safety Board faulted Tesla in those fatal crashes for letting drivers avoid paying attention and failing to limit where Autopilot can be used.
Board members, who have no regulatory powers, have said they are frustrated that safety recommendations have been ignored by Tesla and NHTSA.
Bryant Walker Smith, a University of South Carolina law professor who studies autonomous vehicles, said it was bad enough that Tesla was using the term “Autopilot” to describe its system but elevating it to “full self-driving” is even worse.
“That leaves the domain of the misleading and irresponsible to something that could be called fraudulent,” Walker Smith said.
The Society of Automotive Engineers, or SAE, has developed five levels to describe the functions of autonomous vehicles. In levels zero through two, humans are driving the cars and supervising partially automated functions. In levels three through five, the vehicles are driving, with level five describing a vehicle being driven under all traffic and weather conditions.
The term “full self-driving” means there is no driver other than the vehicle itself, indicating that it would be appropriate to put no one in the vehicle, Walker Smith said.
Musk also said on Wednesday that Tesla would focus on setting up a robotaxi system where one person could manage a fleet of 10 self-driving cars in a ride hailing system.
“It wouldn’t be very difficult, but we’re going to just be focused on just having an autonomous network that has sort of elements of Uber, Lyft, Airbnb,” he said.
Tesla is among 60 companies with permits to operate autonomous vehicles with human backup drivers in California, the No. 1 state for Tesla sales. The companies are required to file reports with regulators documenting when the robotic system experiences a problem that requires the driver to take control – a mandate that could entangle the owners of Tesla vehicles in red tape.
Before Tesla is able to put fully self-driving vehicles on California roads, it will have to get another permit from state regulators. Only five companies, including Google spin-off Waymo and General Motors’ Cruise subsidiary, have obtained those permits.
The California Department of Motor Vehicles didn’t immediately respond to questions about Tesla’s latest plans for robotic cars.
NHTSA, which has shied away from imposing regulations for fear of stifling safety innovation, says that every state holds drivers accountable for the safe operation of their vehicles.
Walker Smith argues that the agency is placing too much of the responsibility on Tesla drivers when it should be asking what automakers are going to do to make sure the vehicles are safe. At the same time, he says that testing the system with vehicle drivers could be beneficial and speed adoption of autonomous vehicles.
Thursday afternoon, Musk was clearly trying to sell the full self-driving software. He wrote on Twitter that the price of “FSD beta” will rise by $2,000 on Monday.
DETROIT (AP) — By TOM KRISHER AP Auto Writer
AP Technology Writer Michael Liedtke contributed from San Ramon, California.
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