Archives October 7, 2018

Bloomberg’s Spy Chip Story Reveals the Murky World of National Security Reporting

Chinese spies reportedly infiltrated the supply chain and installed tiny chips the size of a pencil tip on the motherboards built by Supermicro, which are used in data center servers across the U.S. tech industry — from Apple to Amazon. That chip can compromise data on the server, allowing China to spy on some of the world’s most wealthy and powerful companies. Apple, Amazon and Supermicro — and the Chinese government — strenuously denied the allegations. Apple also released its own standalone statement later in the day, as did Supermicro.

Welcome to the murky world of national security reporting.

I’ve covered cybersecurity and national security for about five years, most recently at CBS, where I reported exclusively on several stories — including the U.S. government’s covert efforts to force tech companies to hand over their source code in an effort to find vulnerabilities and conduct surveillance. And last year I revealed that the National Security Agency had its fifth data breach in as many years, and classified documents showed that a government data collection program was far wider than first thought and was collecting data on U.S. citizens.

Even with this story, my gut is mixed.

In the aftermath of the disclosure of PRISM, the NSA’s data pulling program that implicated several tech companies — including Apple, but not Amazon — the companies came out fighting, vehemently denying any involvement or connection. Was it a failure of reporting? Partially, yes. But the companies also had plausible deniability by cherry picking what they rebuffed. Despite a claim by the government that PRISM had “direct access” to tech companies’ servers, the companies responded that this wasn’t true. They didn’t, however, refute indirect access — which the companies wouldn’t be allowed to say in any case.

Facebook Is Teeming With Fake Accounts Created By Undercover Cops

In the summer of 2015, as Memphis exploded with protests over the police killing of a 19-year-old man, activists began hearing on Facebook from someone called Bob Smith. The name was generic, and so was his profile picture: a Guy Fawkes mask, the symbol of anti-government dissent. Smith acted as if he supported the protesters, and, slowly, they let him into their online community. Over the next three years, dozens of them accepted his friend requests, allowing him to observe private discussions over marches, rallies and demonstrations.

But Smith was not real. He was the creation of a white detective in the Memphis Police Department’s Office of Homeland Security whose job was to keep tabs on local activists across the spectrum, from Black Lives Matter to Confederate sympathizers.

The detective, Tim Reynolds, outed himself in August under questioning by the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, which sued the police department for allegedly violating a 1978 agreement that prohibited police from conducting surveillance of lawful protests. The revelation validated many activists’ distrust of local authorities. It also provided a rare look into the ways American law enforcement operates online, taking advantage of a loosely regulated social media landscape — and citizens’ casual relinquishing of their privacy — to expand monitoring of the public.

The proliferation of fake Facebook accounts and other means of social media monitoring ─ including the use of software to crunch data about people’s online activity ─ illustrates a policing “revolution” that has allowed authorities to not only track people but also map out their networks, said Rachel Levinson-Waldman, senior counsel at New York University School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice.

She is among many scholars who worry that expanded social media surveillance could make people less likely to engage in online activities protected by the First Amendment, from sharing their opinions to organizing protests of the government. But there are few laws governing this kind of monitoring. Few courts have taken up the issue. And most police departments don’t have policies on how officers can use social media for investigations, according to Levinson-Waldman’s research.

“It’s pretty open territory,” she said.

Instagram is testing the ability to share your precise location history with Facebook

Revealed just weeks after Instagram’s co-founders left the company, Instagram is currently testing a feature that would allow it to share your location data with Facebook, even when you’re not using the app.

Instagram is not the only service that Facebook has sought to share data between. Back in 2016 the company announced that it would be sharing user data between WhatsApp and Facebook in order to offer better friend suggestions. The practice was later halted in the European Union thanks to its GDPR legislation, although WhatsApp’s CEO and co-founder later left over data privacy concerns.

Facebook is also reportedly testing a map view to see friend’s locations, similar to what’s already offered by Snapchat. Instagram’s data sharing could provide additional data points to power this functionality, while providing Facebook with more data to better target its ads.