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U.S. DoJ increasingly gaining access to Americans' social network accounts

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September 28, 2012

U.S. federal police and the Department of Justice (DoJ) are increasingly gaining real-time access to Americans' social network accounts, such as Twitter, Facebook and Google+, but prior to obtaining search warrants, newly released documents reveal.

And the numbers are really dramatic-- live interception requests made by the U.S. Department of Justice to social-networking sites and email providers jumped over 80 percent from 2010 to 2011 alone, and the trend is rapidly increasing.

Documents the ACLU released yesterday reveal that U.S. federal police are using a 1986 law originally intended to tell police what phone numbers were dialed for far more invasive surveillance-- monitoring of whom specific social-network users communicate with, what IP addresses they're connecting from, and perhaps even likes and +1s.

The DoJ conducted 1,662 live intercepts on social networks and email providers last year, up from only 922 a year earlier, the reports demonstrate.

The ACLU hopes that the disclosure of the documents it sued to obtain under the Freedom of Information Act will persuade Congress to tighten up the requirements for police to intercept "noncontent" data -- a broad category that excludes e-mail messages and direct messages.

The current legal standard "allows the government to use these powerful surveillance tools with very little oversight in place to safeguard Americans' privacy," says Catherine Crump, an ACLU staff attorney.

And it could work. On September 25, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., introduced a new bill that would require police to get warrants to access Americans' email and track their mobile phones. But last week, senators delayed a vote on a similar bill after law enforcement groups vehemently objected to it.

The U.S. DoJ didn't immediately respond to questions about social-network surveillance. We'll update this story if we receive a response.

It still isn't clear on just how many of those 1,662 real-time intercepts last year -- which do require a judge's approval -- targeted social networks, and how many were aimed at email providers themselves.

Traditional phone intercepts remain far more frequent-- for example, the U.S. Marshals Service says that 409 of its noncontent intercepts were for internet service providers, while 14,568 were for telephone call data.

The largest number of them fell into the fugitive-finding category, including parole or probation violations. To perform noncontent intercepts on social networks, police must generally seek court authorization for a pen register or trap and trace order, both of which are terms borrowed from decades-old surveillance law.

They were originally designed to allow law enforcement to easily collect the phone numbers associated with incoming and outgoing calls, and were extended to the Internet by the Patriot Act eleven years ago.

However, the Patriot Act didn't make it any more difficult for law enforcement to ask for such an order. Police must merely claim their request is "relevant" to an ongoing investigation. A search warrant, by contrast, requires probable cause, and a live wiretap order is even more privacy-protective.

What's also unclear is what kind of real-time data police are seeking from social networks through these orders. It's clear that they can obtain the current IP address of a Facebook user, for instance, and the port number, which is increasingly important.

But it's less clear whether a "+1" or information about a user's circle of friends would be permitted. And the wording of that section of the Patriot Act is more broad than narrow. It says that police can demand all "routing" or "addressing" information that's transmitted through an Internet service or that's "likely to identify the source of a wire or electronic communication."

Christopher Soghoian, principal technologist with the ACLU's Speech, Privacy and Technology Project says "This is a very invasive surveillance technology. We don't even have a feel for how broadly it's currently being used, and that's only part of the issue."

In other internet security news

Virus and malware creators say they are now experimenting with Google's Go as a potential programming language for creating malware and viruses.

The Encriyoko Trojan uses components written in Go, a compiled language developed by Google. It first emerged from the company more than three years ago. Once installed on a Microsoft Windows PC, the Trojan attempts to use the 'Blowfish' algorithm to encrypt all files matching various criteria including particular document types and a range of file sizes.

The exact key used to encrypt the data is either pulled from a particular file on the D: drive or is randomly generated. This renders the information useless to its owner if the cipher key cannot be recovered.

"Restoration of the encrypted files will be difficult, if not impossible," Symantec warns about the Trojan. The malware is circulating in the wild, and disguises itself as a tool to root Samsung Galaxy smartphones - a process that would otherwise allow customized operating systems to be installed on the phones.

It's possible that the unknown virus writers are simply using a programming language they've taken a liking to. "Go could also be more resilient to reversing attempts by researchers as it isn't really mainstream for now. The latter may be more a perception by the coders than in reality."

It goes without saying that Google needs to look into this very rapidly in order to prevent the potential creation of viruses and other malware that could severy impede systems and then propagate itself to multiple networks.

In other internet security news

The U.K.'s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the actual nerve center for eavesdropping police in England, has launched a new initiative to better persuade tech-savvy British citizens to help defend their own country against potential hackers and cyber attackers.

Government officials at the GCHQ are going after cyber crooks aged 16 and over who are not already working in computer security and could possibly guard the country's networks against the hacking ambitions of hostile states, cyber criminals and so-called script kiddies.

But the GCHQ must first triumph in a 'Balancing the Defense' game. The participants will analyse a fake government network for possible paths of intrusion, help determine the potential threats they face and suggest new ways to defend them, all while taking into account the increasingly budget-concious that is the U.K.

The GCHQ will have just one week, starting on October 1st to be briefed on the scenario and submit its report. "We hope that this competition will uncover those who have the vital mix of technical ability and business awareness to make tough decisions in the best interest of an organization," said Joen Karl, the architect of the competition.

"At the GCHQ, we are really committed in finding and developing the new cyber security skills in the U.K. and these are the skills sets that employers including ourselves are most interested in," he added in a statement.

This latest test is part of the Cyber Security Challenge program, which was started in 2010. Winners of Balancing the Defense program will be invited onto the next stage of the program, a face-to-face competition that will further whittle down the candidates.

Another virtual competition will follow, after which the remaining contenders will get a real-life challenge with an Aston Martin Racing team and the IT infrastructure the crew relies on.

The final few will reach a Masterclass and Awards weekend in March, where a "range of career enhancing prizes" will be on offer. The GCHQ people didn't specifically say that any employment post was waiting for anyone, mentioning bursaries, university courses and internships instead.

The eavesdropping collective may be a bit embarrassed to admit how much one of their crack specialists would earn, since another of its competitions, Can You Crack It?, yielded a job with a starting salary of just £ 25,000.

Then again, a number of GCHQ's code-cracking conundrums have had hidden solutions within the main puzzle for top-notch spy wannabes to crack and stand out from the humdrum candidates.

In other internet security news

The court case against Wikileaks founder Julian Assange may be on the brink of collapse following various claims from the defense team that the central piece of evidence used in the case does not contain Assange’s real and required DNA to proceed any further.

But it gets more complicated than just that. According to various details that have emerged in a 100-page police report submitted *after* witnesses were interviewed and forensic evidence had been examined, the condom submitted for evidence by one of the key alleged sexual assault victims does not contain Assange’s DNA.

Assange’s legal team have alleged that the lack of conclusive DNA evidence suggests that fake evidence may have been submitted and is calling the entire process into question.

The reason why we are publishing this news story today is that it is widely expected that the U.S. government and other countries could bring to trial Assange for the many thousands of leaks to the internet of sensitive information that could endanger the national security of those countries, beginning with the United States.

The Swedish prosecutor’s office has yet to publicly comment on the sexual rape report. Assange currently remains in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London after being granted asylum as he fights against the claims and extradition to Sweden.

Meanwhile, in Australia, and as a symbolic show of support, leaders of an Aboriginal group issued a passport to Assange. The Indigenous Social Justice Association is fighting for sovereignty within Australia and claimed that it wanted to forge solidarity with Assange, who has been largely unsupported by the Australian government.

The said passport, which isn't valid according to Australian laws, was issued to Assange’s estranged father. We will keep you posted on this important case since it is one that has been highly publicized over the past eigthteen months or so, and one that is sure to gain a lot of momentum going forward.

In other internet news

A prominent group of hackers has released large quantities of sensitive data from banks, government agencies and consulting firms and has promised even more data leaks in the near future.

"Team Ghost Shell's final form of protest this summer against the banks, politicians and for all the fallen hackers this year," wrote in a Pastebin post titled "Project Hell Fire" this weekend.

"With the help of it's various divisions, MidasBank & the newest branch, OphiusLab. One million accounts/records leaked. We are also letting everyone know that more releases, collaborations with Anonymous and others, plus two more projects are still scheduled for this fall and winter. It's only the beginning," wrote the site's blog post.

It's still unclear how much data was published and from how many organizations, but security firm Imperva analyzed the data and said some of the breached databases contain more than 30,000 records.

"It's hard to say with precision just how much data was stolen, but you can say this is a pretty significant breach," said Rob Rachwald, director of security strategy at Imperva.

Whoever stole that data mostly used SQL injection attacks, common attacks that are easy for Web sites to protect against.

The data includes administrator login information, usernames and passwords and files from content management systems, although it didn't appear to have much sensitive information in those files, Imperva said.

"There was some vulnerability with a content management system that they were able to exploit across multiple locations and download file upon file upon file," Rachwald said.

Team GhostShell also offered six billion databases from a Chinese mainframe that it claims contained technology from China, Japan and possibly other countries. More than 100 billion databases from a mainframe at an unnamed U.S. stock exchange mainframe and access points to three or four Department of Homeland Security servers were also offered.

"The sensitive information isn't that great but it may be good for street cred," the post says. The leak, like so many others, highlights some of the amazingly lax password practices people and companies follow. "The passwords show the usual '123456' common issue," the Imperva blog post said.

"But one law firm implemented an interesting password system where the root password, 'law321' was pre-pended with your initials. So if your name is Mickey Mouse, your password is 'mmlaw321'. Worse, the law firm didn't require users to regularly change the password either."

In other internet security news

A critical Java security vulnerability that first appeared earlier this week actually leverages two zero-day security holes within Java itself. This most recent revelation comes as it was discovered that Oracle knew about the security flaw as early as April of this year.

To be sure, Windows, Mac OS X and Linux desktops running multiple browser platforms are all vulnerable to outside attacks. Exploit code already in circulation first uses a security hole to gain access the restricted sun.awt.SunToolkit class before a second flaw is used to disable the Security Manager, and ultimately to break out of the Java sandbox.

Unpatched vulnerabilities to the so-called Gondvv exploit were introduced in Java 7.0, released in July 2011. All versions of Java 7 are also vulnerable but older Java 6 versions appear to be immune, at least for now.

This means that Mac OS X users who follow best practices and apply the latest version of software applications are actually more at risk of attacks.

As a result of these two security vulnerabilities in the most recent version of Java, potential hackers and attackers can spread viruses and malware simply by tricking users into visiting booby-trapped websites.

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Source: The ACLU.

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