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Russian Censorship of Telegram

Internet censors have a new strategy in their bid to block applications and websites: pressuring the large cloud providers that host them. These providers have concerns that are much broader than the targets of censorship efforts, so they have the choice of either standing up to the censors or capitulating in order to maximize their business. Today’s Internet largely reflects the dominance of a handful of companies behind the cloud services, search engines and mobile platforms that underpin the technology landscape. This new centralization radically tips the balance between those who want to censor parts of the Internet and those trying to evade censorship. When the profitable answer is for a software giant to acquiesce to censors’ demands, how long can Internet freedom last?

The recent battle between the Russian government and the Telegram messaging app illustrates one way this might play out. Russia has been trying to block Telegram since April, when a Moscow court banned it after the company refused to give Russian authorities access to user messages. Telegram, which is widely used in Russia, works on both iPhone and Android, and there are Windows and Mac desktop versions available. The app offers optional end-to-end encryption, meaning that all messages are encrypted on the sender’s phone and decrypted on the receiver’s phone; no part of the network can eavesdrop on the messages.

Since then, Telegram has been playing cat-and-mouse with the Russian telecom regulator Roskomnadzor by varying the IP address the app uses to communicate. Because Telegram isn’t a fixed website, it doesn’t need a fixed IP address. Telegram bought tens of thousands of IP addresses and has been quickly rotating through them, staying a step ahead of censors. Cleverly, this tactic is invisible to users. The app never sees the change, or the entire list of IP addresses, and the censor has no clear way to block them all.

A week after the court ban, Roskomnadzor countered with an unprecedented move of its own: blocking 19 million IP addresses, many on Amazon Web Services and Google Cloud. The collateral damage was widespread: The action inadvertently broke many other web services that use those platforms, and Roskomnadzor scaled back after it became clear that its action had affected services critical for Russian business. Even so, the censor is still blocking millions of IP addresses.

More recently, Russia has been pressuring Apple not to offer the Telegram app in its iPhone App Store. As of this writing, Apple has not complied, and the company has allowed Telegram to download a critical software update to iPhone users (after what the app’s founder called a delay last month). Roskomnadzor could further pressure Apple, though, including by threatening to turn off its entire iPhone app business in Russia.

Telegram might seem a weird app for Russia to focus on. Those of us who work in security don’t recommend the program, primarily because of the nature of its cryptographic protocols. In general, proprietary cryptography has numerous fatal security flaws. We generally recommend Signal for secure SMS messaging, or, if having that program on your computer is somehow incriminating, WhatsApp. (More than 1.5 billion people worldwide use WhatsApp.) What Telegram has going for it is that it works really well on lousy networks. That’s why it is so popular in places like Iran and Afghanistan. (Iran is also trying to ban the app.)

What the Russian government doesn’t like about Telegram is its anonymous broadcast feature­ — channel capability and chats — ­which makes it an effective platform for political debate and citizen journalism. The Russians might not like that Telegram is encrypted, but odds are good that they can simply break the encryption. Telegram’s role in facilitating uncontrolled journalism is the real issue.

Iran attempts to block Telegram have been more successful than Russia’s, less because Iran’s censorship technology is more sophisticated but because Telegram is not willing to go as far to defend Iranian users. The reasons are not rooted in business decisions. Simply put, Telegram is a Russian product and the designers are more motivated to poke Russia in the eye. Pavel Durov, Telegram’s founder, has pledged millions of dollars to help fight Russian censorship.

For the moment, Russia has lost. But this battle is far from over. Russia could easily come back with more targeted pressure on Google, Amazon and Apple. A year earlier, Zello used the same trick Telegram is using to evade Russian censors. Then, Roskomnadzor threatened to block all of Amazon Web Services and Google Cloud; and in that instance, both companies forced Zello to stop its IP-hopping censorship-evasion tactic.

Russia could also further develop its censorship infrastructure. If its capabilities were as finely honed as China’s, it would be able to more effectively block Telegram from operating. Right now, Russia can block only specific IP addresses, which is too coarse a tool for this issue. Telegram’s voice capabilities in Russia are significantly degraded, however, probably because high-capacity IP addresses are easier to block.

Whatever its current frustrations, Russia might well win in the long term. By demonstrating its willingness to suffer the temporary collateral damage of blocking major cloud providers, it prompted cloud providers to block another and more effective anti-censorship tactic, or at least accelerated the process. In April, Google and Amazon banned­ — and technically blocked­ — the practice of “domain fronting,” a trick anti-censorship tools use to get around Internet censors by pretending to be other kinds of traffic. Developers would use popular websites as a proxy, routing traffic to their own servers through another website­ — in this case Google.com­ — to fool censors into believing the traffic was intended for Google.com. The anonymous web-browsing tool Tor has used domain fronting since 2014. Signal, since 2016. Eliminating the capability is a boon to censors worldwide.

Tech giants have gotten embroiled in censorship battles for years. Sometimes they fight and sometimes they fold, but until now there have always been options. What this particular fight highlights is that Internet freedom is increasingly in the hands of the world’s largest Internet companies. And while freedom may have its advocates — ­the American Civil Liberties Union has tweeted its support for those companies, and some 12,000 people in Moscow protested against the Telegram ban­ — actions such as disallowing domain fronting illustrate that getting the big tech companies to sacrifice their near-term commercial interests will be an uphill battle. Apple has already removed anti-censorship apps from its Chinese app store.

In 1993, John Gilmore famously said that “The Internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” That was technically true when he said it but only because the routing structure of the Internet was so distributed. As centralization increases, the Internet loses that robustness, and censorship by governments and companies becomes easier.

This essay previously appeared on Lawfare.com.

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Skygofree: New Government Malware for Android

Kaspersky Labs is reporting on a new piece of sophisticated malware:

We observed many web landing pages that mimic the sites of mobile operators and which are used to spread the Android implants. These domains have been registered by the attackers since 2015. According to our telemetry, that was the year the distribution campaign was at its most active. The activities continue: the most recently observed domain was registered on October 31, 2017. Based on our KSN statistics, there are several infected individuals, exclusively in Italy.

Moreover, as we dived deeper into the investigation, we discovered several spyware tools for Windows that form an implant for exfiltrating sensitive data on a targeted machine. The version we found was built at the beginning of 2017, and at the moment we are not sure whether this implant has been used in the wild.

It seems to be Italian. Ars Technica speculates that it is related to Hacking Team:

That’s not to say the malware is perfect. The various versions examined by Kaspersky Lab contained several artifacts that provide valuable clues about the people who may have developed and maintained the code. Traces include the domain name h3g.co, which was registered by Italian IT firm Negg International. Negg officials didn’t respond to an email requesting comment for this post. The malware may be filling a void left after the epic hack in 2015 of Hacking Team, another Italy-based developer of spyware.

BoingBoing post.

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Tamper-Detection App for Android

Edward Snowden and Nathan Freitas have created an Android app that detects when it’s being tampered with. The basic idea is to put the app on a second phone and put the app on or near something important, like your laptop. The app can then text you — and also record audio and video — when something happens around it: when it’s moved, when the lighting changes, and so on. This gives you some protection against the “evil maid attack” against laptops.

Micah Lee has a good article about the app, including some caveats about its use and security.

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Tracking People Without GPS

Interesting research:

The trick in accurately tracking a person with this method is finding out what kind of activity they’re performing. Whether they’re walking, driving a car, or riding in a train or airplane, it’s pretty easy to figure out when you know what you’re looking for.

The sensors can determine how fast a person is traveling and what kind of movements they make. Moving at a slow pace in one direction indicates walking. Going a little bit quicker but turning at 90-degree angles means driving. Faster yet, we’re in train or airplane territory. Those are easy to figure out based on speed and air pressure.

After the app determines what you’re doing, it uses the information it collects from the sensors. The accelerometer relays your speed, the magnetometer tells your relation to true north, and the barometer offers up the air pressure around you and compares it to publicly available information. It checks in with The Weather Channel to compare air pressure data from the barometer to determine how far above sea level you are. Google Maps and data offered by the US Geological Survey Maps provide incredibly detailed elevation readings.

Once it has gathered all of this information and determined the mode of transportation you’re currently taking, it can then begin to narrow down where you are. For flights, four algorithms begin to estimate the target’s location and narrows down the possibilities until its error rate hits zero.

If you’re driving, it can be even easier. The app knows the time zone you’re in based on the information your phone has provided to it. It then accesses information from your barometer and magnetometer and compares it to information from publicly available maps and weather reports. After that, it keeps track of the turns you make. With each turn, the possible locations whittle down until it pinpoints exactly where you are.

To demonstrate how accurate it is, researchers did a test run in Philadelphia. It only took 12 turns before the app knew exactly where the car was.

This is a good example of how powerful synthesizing information from disparate data sources can be. We spend too much time worried about individual data collection systems, and not enough about analysis techniques of those systems.

Research paper.

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The US Senate Is Using Signal

The US Senate just approved Signal for staff use. Signal is a secure messaging app with no backdoor, and no large corporate owner who can be pressured to install a backdoor.

Susan Landau comments.

Maybe I’m being optimistic, but I think we just won the Crypto War. A very important part of the US government is prioritizing security over surveillance.

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Security Vulnerabilities in Mobile MAC Randomization

Interesting research: “A Study of MAC Address Randomization in Mobile Devices When it Fails“:

Abstract: Media Access Control (MAC) address randomization is a privacy technique whereby mobile devices rotate through random hardware addresses in order to prevent observers from singling out their traffic or physical location from other nearby devices. Adoption of this technology, however, has been sporadic and varied across device manufacturers. In this paper, we present the first wide-scale study of MAC address randomization in the wild, including a detailed breakdown of different randomization techniques by operating system, manufacturer, and model of device. We then identify multiple flaws in these implementations which can be exploited to defeat randomization as performed by existing devices. First, we show that devices commonly make improper use of randomization by sending wireless frames with the true, global address when they should be using a randomized address. We move on to extend the passive identification techniques of Vanhoef et al. to effectively defeat randomization in 96% of Android phones. Finally, we show a method that can be used to track 100% of devices using randomization, regardless of manufacturer, by exploiting a previously unknown flaw in the way existing wireless chipsets handle low-level control frames.

Basically, iOS and Android phones are not very good at randomizing their MAC addresses. And tricks with level-2 control frames can exploit weaknesses in their chipsets.

Slashdot post.

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Security Risks of the President's Android Phone

Reports are that President Trump is still using his old Android phone. There are security risks here, but they are not the obvious ones.

I’m not concerned about the data. Anything he reads on that screen is coming from the insecure network that we all use, and any e-mails, texts, Tweets, and whatever are going out to that same network. But this is a consumer device, and it’s going to have security vulnerabilities. He’s at risk from everybody, ranging from lone hackers to the better-funded intelligence agencies of the world. And while the risk of a forged e-mail is real — it could easily move the stock market — the bigger risk is eavesdropping. That Android has a microphone, which means that it can be turned into a room bug without anyone’s knowledge. That’s my real fear.

I commented in this story.

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Capturing Pattern-Lock Authentication

Interesting research — “Cracking Android Pattern Lock in Five Attempts“:

Abstract: Pattern lock is widely used as a mechanism for authentication and authorization on Android devices. In this paper, we demonstrate a novel video-based attack to reconstruct Android lock patterns from video footage filmed u sing a mobile phone camera. Unlike prior attacks on pattern lock, our approach does not require the video to capture any content displayed on the screen. Instead, we employ a computer vision algorithm to track the fingertip movements to infer the pattern. Using the geometry information extracted from the tracked fingertip motions, our approach is able to accurately identify a small number of (often one) candidate patterns to be tested by an adversary. We thoroughly evaluated our approach using 120 unique patterns collected from 215 independent users, by applying it to reconstruct patterns from video footage filmed using smartphone cameras. Experimental results show that our approach can break over 95% of the patterns in five attempts before the device is automatically locked by the Android system. We discovered that, in contrast to many people’s belief, complex patterns do not offer stronger protection under our attacking scenarios. This is demonstrated by the fact that we are able to break all but one complex patterns (with a 97.5% success rate) as opposed to 60% of the simple patterns in the first attempt. Since our threat model is common in day-to-day lives, our work calls for the community to revisit the risks of using Android pattern lock to protect sensitive information.

News article.

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Smartphone Secretly Sends Private Data to China

This is pretty amazing:

International customers and users of disposable or prepaid phones are the people most affected by the software. But the scope is unclear. The Chinese company that wrote the software, Shanghai Adups Technology Company, says its code runs on more than 700 million phones, cars and other smart devices. One American phone manufacturer, BLU Products, said that 120,000 of its phones had been affected and that it had updated the software to eliminate the feature.

Kryptowire, the security firm that discovered the vulnerability, said the Adups software transmitted the full contents of text messages, contact lists, call logs, location information and other data to a Chinese server.

On one hand, the phone secretly sends private user data to China. On the other hand, it only costs $50.

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