FBI-Apple showdown ends

Just before a court hearing schedule for Tuesday, the FBI decided to pursue and attack method that would not require Apple’s assistance. This effectively put the FBI’s case on pause, and created an anti-climactic end to the battle between the government and the tech giant over hacking into the San Bernardino shooters iPhone. A U.S. District Court in California ruled that good cause had been shown by the government for the delay and ordered it to file a status report with the court on April 5.

Originally the FBI had wanted Apple to write software that would change the amount of password attempts that could be made before the phone erased itself. Currently, an iPhone will be erased after 10 unsuccessful attempts with the wrong passcode. The FBI stated that it would need Apple’s help to get around this hurdle, but apparently that has changed. This leave many to wonder how to agency might defeat the phone’s security.

“You can always attack the phone while it’s running. There are hundreds of people in the world, if not more, who can do that,” said Rod Schultz, vice president of product at Rubicon Labs.”They can attach a debugger to the device, and modify the instructions that are doing the policy check,” he told TechNewsWorld.

The password also could be recovered through a technique known as NAND mirroring. It requires making a copy of the iPhone’s memory. Then, after 10 wrong password guesses erased the phone’s contents, the memory would be reloaded into the phone and the FBI could take 10 more tries at cracking it. That process would be repeated several times until the FBI was able to hack into the phone. The downside is that it takes a long time, and that is most why the FBI didn’t want to do it.

The is some skepticism about the reasons why the FBI asked for the delay. “Those of us who are watching both the technology arguments and the legal arguments are somewhat skeptical of the claim that the FBI suddenly discovered they could get into the phone,” said Mike Godwin, general counsel and director of innovation policy at the R Street Institute.

“The legal arguments that Apple produced were quite strong,” Godwin told TechNewsWorld. “I think the FBI was worried it was going to lose based on the legal arguments.”

As for Apple, its public stance is that the issue must be settled outside the courts. “Tim Cook has never said Apple will never cooperate with the FBI,” observed R Street’s Godwin.

Article via TechNewsWorld, 23 March 2016

Photo: The Apple – FBI Electronic Encryption Fight RGB Triptych v1.3 by Surian Soosay [Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs]


Obama bans slave products

Last Wednesday President Obama officially placed a ban on goods imported into the United States that are produced by slave labor. He signed a bill that includes a provision that bans imports of fish caught by slaves in Southeast Asia, gold mined by children in Africa and garments sewn by abused women in Bangladesh. This closes a loophole in an 85 year old tariff law that failed to keep slave produced products out of the U.S.

As long as domestic production couldn’t meet demand, the government has turned a blind eye to companies exporting these goods. The bill may be a game changer for U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agencies responsible for preventing goods derived from slavery from entering the country. Last year, an exposé by the Associated Press found Thai companies were shipping seafood into the U.S. that was caught by enslaved workers. As a result of the reports, more than a dozen alleged traffickers were arrested, millions of dollars worth of seafood and vessels seized, and more than 2,000 trapped fishermen have been rescued.

“The old system that leaves the door open to child or slave labor if it’s used to make a product that isn’t made here in the U.S. — that system absolutely must end, and it will,” U.S. Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who spoke against the loophole on the Senate floor, said in a statement.

The legal gap has been in place for so long that politicians who pushed for the change aren’t exactly sure how it will affect businesses cited by human rights groups or the agencies responsible for blocking goods derived from slavery.

“Ending this provision gives those fighting forced labor the confidence they can challenge imports of these products without fear of being undermined by an archaic and outrageous provision of U.S. trade law,”  Keith Chu, a senator who voted for the bill,  said in an e-mail.

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio said Wednesday that his office is already asking U.S. Customs and Border Protection to ensure they begin enforcing the new rules when the law takes effect in 15 days. “It’s embarrassing that for 85 years, the United States let products made with forced labor into this country, and closing this loophole gives the U.S. an important tool to fight global slavery”.

 

Article via Mashable, 25 February 2016; Mashable,12 February 2016

Photo: White House Maker Faire (201406180003HQ) by NASA HQ PHOTO  [Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs]


Hackers attacked the IRS

Hackers were recently able to break into the IRS and steal taxpayer identification numbers. The agency was able to detect the attack and shut it down on Tuesday. The breach means that it may be possible for the hackers to file fraudulent tax returns. The attack was done by attempting to obtain e-filing pins from over 450,000 stolen social security numbers. Attempts involving about 100,000 of those social security numbers were successful, the IRS said in a statement.

The IRS stated that the attacks did not originate in their system. It appears as though the social security numbers were stolen outside the IRS, and then used in the attack. They added that “no personal taxpayer data was compromised or disclosed” by its systems. The IRS said it will notify people affected by the attack and will mark their accounts to guard against identity theft.

All of this is part of why President Barack Obama proposed, on Tuesday, to spend $19 billion on more secure technology for the government. If approved, the funds would help in efforts like recruiting cybersecurity experts, reducing reliance on unsafe items like social security numbers. “The caliber of the enemy we’re facing is incredibly sophisticated and global,” IRS Commissioner John Koskinen told the Senate Finance Committee at a hearing Wednesday, in response to a question about the most recent hack. The attackers are professionals that steal sensitive data from their targets, government and financial institutions throughout the world.

Attacks like these have become more prevalent as more tax filing and banking is done online. In the US 150 million tax returns are expected to be filed this season, with 80 percent of them expected to be filed online.

Despite storing a massive trove of data on American citizens, the federal government has struggled to protect it from hackers. That includes the IRS, which hackers attacked last year to steal tax records of perhaps 300,000 people. The agency has even struggled with fraudsters in its ranks; on Monday it successfully prosecuted an employee for identity theft and conspiracy to commit bank fraud.

Article via CNET, 10 February 2016

Photo: Please Insert Coin by arsheffield[Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs]


Yahoo sued for gender bias by male employee

Yahoo is being sued by a former employee that claims that he was discriminated against for being male.

Gregory Anderson, who was employed in Yahoo’s media division was fired in November 2014.  He filed a lawsuit against the tech giant, alleging the company’s performance management system was arbitrary and unfair. Anderson “alleges that Mayer encouraged and fostered the use of the QPR Program to accommodate management’s subjective biases and personal opinions, to the detriment of Yahoo’s male employees.”

The QPR Program at Yahoo is the controversial quarterly performance review program that ranks employees and then fires the lowest ranking ones. In the Media division, where Anderson was an editor, the complaint says that when male and female employees got equally low scores (anything under 3), the women were favored and the men were fired. What’s worse, in the case that both male and female employees got the same score, the men were fired and the female employee took over the male employees job.

This isn’t the first discrimination lawsuit to be tied to a stack ranking system. In the early 2000s, a cascade of cases against Ford, Goodyear, and Capital One, alleged that such systems led to age discrimination against older employees

The lawsuit also alleges that in addition to discriminating against men, Yahoo fires people without just cause and did not give 60 days’ notice to staff affected in mass layoffs. In California, layoffs are defined as terminating more than 50 people at one time, therefore not providing notice violates California law. In addition to the complaint about the way that people were fired, Anderson’s complaint also alleges that there was unfair gender based biased for hiring.  Former Chief Marketing Officer Kathy Savitt, almost exclusively hired women into management positions in Yahoo’s media division.

Under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and also California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act, discrimination on the basis of sex is illegal. It doesn’t matter which gender the person happens to be.

“The Anderson lawsuit raises the question of how to correct lingering gender discrimination against women and suggests that the answer is not yet more illegal discrimination,” wrote Anderson’s attorney Jon Parsons in a statement about the lawsuit.

Article via Huffington Post, 4 February 2016

Photo: Yahoo! by Eric Hayes [Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs]


Natural gas leak leads to criminal charges

Over 100 days after the beginning of a natural gas leak near the the Porter Ranch neighborhood, criminal charges are being brought against Southern California Gas Company. Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey has filed charges due to failing to immediately report the natural gas leak at its Aliso Canyon facility to proper authorities, her office announced Tuesday. Southern California Gas Company is being charged with four misdemeanor counts: three counts of failing to report the release of hazardous material from Oct. 23 to Oct. 26 and one count for the discharge of air contaminants starting Oct. 23 through the present, according to the complaint.

In late November, 58,000 kilograms of methane per hour have been leaking into the atmosphere due to the breach. Since then, the natural gas leak has released emissions equivalent to burning more than 862,000 gallons of gasoline.

Methane is the primary component of natural gas, and can leak almost anywhere in the supply chain. Methane leaks like this, are a contributing factor to climate change and the overall warming of the environment. Figures from 2007 showed that there are about 400 underground methane storage sites like Aliso Canyon (Southern California Gas Co. current major leak), and these storage facilities are poorly regulated. There’s little federal oversight of such facilities, and the state is not consistent with enforcing regulations. This lack of oversight creates opportunities for such large leaks to go unnoticed and in this case, unaddressed for so long. Souther California Gas Company say that the leak will finally be stopped by late this month, but the methane will linger in the atmosphere, most likely for decades.

The gas company could be fined up to $25,000 a day for each day that it failed to notify the California Office of Emergency Services and up to $1,000 per day for air pollution violations.

“It is important that Southern California Gas Co. be held responsible for its criminal actions… We will do everything we can as prosecutors to help ensure that the Aliso Canyon facility is brought into compliance,” stated District Attorney Jackie Lacey in a written statement.  “I believe we can best serve our community using the sanctions available through a criminal conviction to prevent similar public health threats in the future.”

Arraignment for the company is set for Feb. 17 at the Santa Clarita Branch of the Los Angeles County Superior Court.

Article via fivethirtyeight.com, 3 February, 2016; Daily News, 2 February 2016

Photo Demonstrating On The Leak by Greenpeace USA [Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs]


Will robots become the next speech writers?

As this is an election year, the American public will be hearing many speeches from  politicians addressing the nation.  Phrases such as “My Fellow Americans”, “main street” and “small businesses” are staples that they average person can predict to hear from any politician. These political phrases are not only predicted by Americans, but now are being predicted by robots.

“Mr. Speaker, supporting this rule and supporting this bill is good for small business. It is great for American small business, for Main Street, for jobs creation. We have an economy that has created nearly 2 million jobs in the past couple of months: apparel, textiles, transportation and equipment, electronic components and equipment, chemicals, industrial and commercial equipment and computers, instruments, photographic equipment, metals, food, wood and wood products. Virtually every state in the union can claim at least one of these industrial sectors. In fact, one young girl, Lucy, wanted to make sure that the economy keeps growing. That should not be done on borrowed money, on borrowed time.”

This speech was written by a computer.

This comes from a research project at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The researchers created a predictive algorithm that laid down words based on the previous 5 words that came before them. In program analyzed 3800 speeches that were introduced in the House.

The program is not perfect. There were speeches produced that came out a bit non-sensical. One computer generated address had this to say:

“For example, I mean probably all of us have had a mom or a grandmom or an uncle to whom we say, hey, I noticed your legs are swelling again. Fluid retention. Fluid retention.”

What this project does show is that their artificial intelligence can be useful, and maybe be the starting place for speech writing. It is not unrealistic to assume that future State of the Union addresses may first start with an algorithm.

 

Article via The Washington Post, 25 January 2016

Photo: 01-27-11 at 14-34-48 bySpeaker John Boehner  [Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs]