German Government Spyware Transforms Citizen’s Computers Into ‘Big Brother’-Type Surveillance Devices
November 2, 2011
A seemingly innocuous email plants malicious spyware on your computer, allowing strangers to not only access your private communications but also to spy on you in your own home.
The fact that such invasive technology was deployed by officials in Germany has caused uproar here.
While the monitoring of internet telephone communications is allowed by German law in serious cases, it has emerged that software deployed by some law enforcement agencies was capable of much more intrusive snooping, raising serious concerns about the potential for a “Big Brother” level of surveillance.
The use of so-called “Trojan horse” software by authorities in a number of German states came to light after the Computer Chaos Club, a hacker group, published details of their examination of spyware planted on a laptop in Bavaria.
It found that the software — developed by a private company called DigiTask for the Bavarian police — was capable of much more than just monitoring internet phone calls. It could take screenshots, remotely add files and control a computer’s microphone or webcam to monitor the person’s home. However, the authorities insist that they did not deploy these functions. Investigations are ongoing.
Graham Cluley, a senior technology consultant with British computer security firm Sophos, which also analyzed the software, said that the spyware could “automatically update itself over the internet, so new functionality can be added. It can be used to install new software onto the computer, so people could actually alter the contents of a suspect’s hard drive.”
The scandal has led politicians and security experts to look at whether the country’s already stringent privacy laws need firming up.
Privacy advocates had already raised concerns about the potential for state intrusion back in 2007, when the Interior Ministry said that it was developing software to monitor suspects’ internet communications.
The following year the Federal Constitutional Court, the highest in the country, made a ruling that placed narrow limits on the use of such software, including stipulations that it could only be used to monitor Internet telephone communications. The 2008 ruling stated that the integrity of people’s computers was a “fundamental right” and could only be infringed upon with a court order.
Yet evidence now suggests that some state law enforcement agencies went beyond those constitutional limits when they deployed Trojans that had wider functionality.
“There are very strict guidelines regarding the use of this kind of software in those situations,” Cluely told GlobalPost. “It appears to us that if this piece of software was being used for that purpose then it goes beyond those guidelines.”
“The Trojan’s developers never even tried to put in technical safeguards to make sure the malware can exclusively be used for wiretapping internet telephony, as set forth by the Constitutional Court,” the Computer Chaos Club wrote on its website.
The Interior Ministry in Bavaria confirmed that law enforcement officials there have been using the spyware since 2009 and insists the application is legal. Other states, including Baden-Wurttemberg, Brandenburg and Lower Saxony, also admitted using Trojans.
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February 4th, 2010
The United States is at risk of a crippling cyber attack that could “wreak havoc” on the country because the “technological balance” makes it much easier to launch a cyber strike than defend against it, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair said Wednesday.
Blair, speaking to the House Intelligence Committee, said U.S. tools are not yet up to the task to fully protect against such an attack.
“What we don’t quite understand as seriously as we should is the extent of malicious cyberactivity that grows, that is growing now at unprecedented rates, extraordinary sophistication,” Blair said. “And the dynamic of cyberspace, when you look at the technological balance, right now it favors those who want to use the Internet for malicious purposes over those who want to use it for legal and lawful purposes.”
Blair said the United States must “deal with that reality,” and warned of the catastrophic consequences of a major attack.
“Attacks against networks that control the critical infrastructure in this country … could wreak havoc,” Blair said. “Cyber defenders right now, it’s simply the facts of the matter, have to spend more and work harder than the attackers do, and our efforts frankly are not strong enough to recognize, deal with that reality.”
He said one critical “factor” is that more and more foreign companies are supplying software and hardware for government and private sector networks.
“This increases the potential for subversion of the information in … those systems,” Blair said.
Blair also told Congress Wednesday that the Internet is providing the fuel for the growing problem of “homegrown radicalization.”
“That … has been one of the most dangerous uses of the Internet,” Blair said, explaining that foreign groups are using the Internet to organize attacks, give instructions and arrange financing.
Intelligence officials are on the Hill to discuss the annual threat assessment, which is garnering particular interest in the wake of the failed bombing of a Northwest Airlines flight bound for Detroit on Christmas Day.
Senior intelligence officials told Congress Tuesday that Al Qaeda could try to carry out an attack in the United States in the next three to six months.
CIA Director Leon Panetta said Al Qaeda is sending operatives to the United States to carry out new attacks from inside the country and inspiring homegrown extremists.
Obama has promised to make cyber security a priority in his administration, but the president’s new budget asks for a decrease in funds for the Homeland Security Department’s cybersecurity division.
The government’s first quadrennial homeland security review states high consequence and large-scale cyberattacks could massively disable or hurt international financial, commercial and physical infrastructure.
The report, obtained by The Associated Press, said these types of cyber attacks could cripple the movement of people and goods around the world and bring vital social and economic programs to a halt.
December 22, 2009
My Way News
The economy grew at a 2.2 percent pace in the third quarter, as the recovery got off to a weaker start than previously thought. However, all signs suggest the economy will end the year on stronger footing.
The Commerce Department’s new reading on gross domestic product for the July-to-September quarter was slower than the 2.8 percent growth rate estimated just a month ago. Economists were predicting that figure wouldn’t be revised in the government’s final estimate on third-quarter GDP.
The main factors behind the downgrade: consumers didn’t spend as much, commercial construction was weaker, business investment in equipment and software was a bit softer and companies cut back more on inventories, according to Tuesday’s report.
Despite the lower reading, the economy managed to finally return to growth during the quarter, after a record four straight quarters of decline. That signaled the deepest and longest recession since the 1930s had ended, and the economy had entered into a new fragile phase of recovery.
Many analysts believe the economy is on track for a better finish in the current quarter.
The economy is probably growing at nearly 4 percent in the October-to-December quarter, analysts say. If they’re right, that would mark the strongest showing since 5.4 percent growth in the first quarter of 2006 – well before the recession began. The government will release its first estimate of fourth-quarter economic activity on Jan. 29.
Yet even such growth wouldn’t be enough to quickly drive down the unemployment rate, now at 10 percent. High unemployment and tight credit for both consumers and businesses are expected to continue to weigh on the economic recovery. Many economists predict the economy’s growth will slow to a pace of around 2 or 3 percent in the first three months of 2010.
Growth in the final quarter is expected to be driven by companies restocking depleted inventories. Stocks of goods were slashed at a record pace during the recession. So even the smallest pickup in customer demand will force factories to step up production and boost overall economic activity in the final quarter.
Stronger sales of exports to foreign customers, as well as spending by U.S. consumers and businesses, also will help underpin fourth-quarter growth.
It’s been a wild ride for the economy this year. In the first three months, it shrank at a pace of 6.4 percent – its worst downhill slide in 27 years.
The recession eased in the second quarter, with the economy dipping at a pace of just 0.7 percent. The economy returned to growth in the third quarter.
But much of the third quarter’s growth was supported by government stimulus spending. The Cash for Clunkers rebates and an $8,000 tax credit for first-time home buyers buoyed sales of cars and homes. The clunkers program ended in August, though the tax credit has been extended and expanded beyond first-time buyers.
The government makes three estimates of GDP, which measures the value of all goods and services produced in the United States, for a given quarter. Each estimate is based on more complete data. The government’s initial estimate for the third quarter was more energetic, showing the economy’s growth at a 3.5 percent pace. Subsequent estimates, however, showed the recovery was actually slower.
Tuesday’s report showed consumer spending grew at a 2.8 percent pace, slightly weaker than the 2.9 percent pace previously estimated and one of the factors behind the lower overall reading.
Retail sales, however, showed decent momentum in October and November, raising hopes that holiday sales would fare better than last year, which was the worst in nearly four decades.
Still, unlike previous economic recoveries, consumers, whose spending accounts for 70 percent of overall economic activity, aren’t expected to solely power this one. Businesses and the government are having to pitch in more.
A trouble spot for the economy – the commercial real-estate market – was clearly visible in Tuesday’s report.
Builders slashed spending on commercial building projects at an annualized pace of 18.4 percent in the third quarter. That was sharper than the 15.1 percent pace previously estimated and contributed to the GDP downgrade.
Business spending on equipment and software, meanwhile, grew at a 1.5 percent pace, less than the 2.3 percent growth rate estimated a month ago.
Furthermore, businesses cut inventories more deeply, by $139.2 billion in the third quarter. However, with inventories at rock-bottom levels, businesses are starting to replenish them, which should support the economy.
It’s unclear how the recovery will fare once the government withdraws stimulus programs put in place to combat the financial crisis and the recession. If consumers pull back on spending, the economy could tip back into recession.
Economists at Capital Economics predict the recovery will slow, with the economy’s growth fading to just 1.5 percent in 2011.
Against that backdrop, the Federal Reserve pledged last week to keep interest rates at a record low to help the recovery gain traction.
Faced with the prospects of high unemployment well into the 2012 presidential election year, President Barack Obama wants the government to take further steps to put Americans back to work. The House last week passed some provisions that Obama has pushed to aid job growth. But it didn’t include new tax breaks for small businesses that hire.
The administration credits its $787 billion package of tax cuts and increased government spending with improving employment, though Republicans argue it did not help much.
December 18, 2009
The Wall Street Journal
By Siobhan Gorman
Militants in Iraq have used $26 off-the-shelf software to intercept live video feeds from U.S. Predator drones, potentially providing them with information they need to evade or monitor U.S. military operations.
Senior defense and intelligence officials said Iranian-backed insurgents intercepted the video feeds by taking advantage of an unprotected communications link in some of the remotely flown planes’ systems. Shiite fighters in Iraq used software programs such as SkyGrabber — available for as little as $25.95 on the Internet — to regularly capture drone video feeds, according to a person familiar with reports on the matter.
U.S. officials say there is no evidence that militants were able to take control of the drones or otherwise interfere with their flights. Still, the intercepts could give America’s enemies battlefield advantages by removing the element of surprise from certain missions and making it easier for insurgents to determine which roads and buildings are under U.S. surveillance.
The drone intercepts mark the emergence of a shadow cyber war within the U.S.-led conflicts overseas. They also point to a potentially serious vulnerability in Washington’s growing network of unmanned drones, which have become the American weapon of choice in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The Obama administration has come to rely heavily on the unmanned drones because they allow the U.S. to safely monitor and stalk insurgent targets in areas where sending American troops would be either politically untenable or too risky.
The stolen video feeds also indicate that U.S. adversaries continue to find simple ways of counteracting sophisticated American military technologies.
U.S. military personnel in Iraq discovered the problem late last year when they apprehended a Shiite militant whose laptop contained files of intercepted drone video feeds. In July, the U.S. military found pirated drone video feeds on other militant laptops, leading some officials to conclude that militant groups trained and funded by Iran were regularly intercepting feeds.
In the summer 2009 incident, the military found “days and days and hours and hours of proof” that the feeds were being intercepted and shared with multiple extremist groups, the person said. “It is part of their kit now.”
A senior defense official said that James Clapper, the Pentagon’s intelligence chief, assessed the Iraq intercepts at the direction of Defense Secretary Robert Gates and concluded they represented a shortcoming to the security of the drone network.
“There did appear to be a vulnerability,” the defense official said. “There’s been no harm done to troops or missions compromised as a result of it, but there’s an issue that we can take care of and we’re doing so.”
Senior military and intelligence officials said the U.S. was working to encrypt all of its drone video feeds from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, but said it wasn’t yet clear if the problem had been completely resolved.