Bitcoins ‘losing’ value for cyber-thieves

The falling value of bitcoins have made them much less attractive to cyber-thieves, claims a security expert. The anonymity of the virtual cash has made it a favourite with thieves who blackmail victims with viruses.

 
The falling value of bitcoins have made them much less attractive to cyber-thieves, claims a security expert. The anonymity of the virtual cash has made it a favourite with thieves who blackmail victims with viruses.
 
Now hi-tech gangs quickly convert payments into other currencies, said IBM security expert Etay Maor in an interview with The Register.
 
One bitcoin is now worth £155, much lower than the £728 value it hit in late 2013.
 
Scrambling data with malicious programs known as ransomware – which demand payment from victims to decrypt data – has been popular with some hi-tech criminals over the past few years. The gang behind the notorious cryptolocker program is believed to have made about £2m from victims before it was broken up.
 
Bitcoins have been the preferred payment method, said Mr Maor, but the volatility of the currency and its falling value has forced criminals to convert it into other forms of cash as soon as possible. “Most of them won’t keep bitcoins – they don’t like the valuations bitcoin has – so they just use it as a layer of obfuscation, and move it to a different form of money,” Mr Maor told The Register during an interview at the RSA security conference in San Francisco.
 
Many ransomware gangs use people not directly connected with the gang, known as mules, to clean up the cash by paying it into a legitimate bank account. Mules generally get a 20% cut as a fee.
Police forces and computer security firms have scored some successes against ransomware gangs. Computers involved in the cryptolocker malware were seized and the encryption system for the program broken so victims could get their data back without paying any cash.
 
In addition, Dutch police have worked with security firm Kaspersky Labs to analyse a server seized during an operation against the coinvault ransomware. This led to the creation of a program that can decrypt scrambled data. The firm has also retrieved lots of encryption keys that can be used to unscramble data.
 

Three unveils plans for major network upgrades

peoples phone three logo

Three, the UK’s most reliable network, is set to experience a major boost in the second half of 2015 with the introduction of new technology that will extend coverage and bring quality voice services to even more customers throughout the country.
 
From September, Three will add low frequency spectrum to its existing network. This new spectrum will significantly enhance Three’s coverage footprint, particularly indoors, helping to wipe out current coverage blackspots.
 
At present, our 4G network purely runs data services and by the Autumn Three will also introduce new technology, known as Voice over LTE (or VoLTE), to enable voice services to run on 4G as well.
 
This means that Three’s customers will be able to make and receive calls in places they have never been able to before, whilst experiencing high quality calling and speedy voice set up.
 
Three will ensure that this network enhancement is extended to all of its customers with a view to 1million using VoLTE this year and 7.5million reaping the benefits by 2016.
 
Bryn Jones, Three’s Chief Technical Officer, said: “Our aim is to keep our customers connected wherever they are. Adding low frequency spectrum to our network and enabling voice calls over 4G and Wi-Fi, will mean Three customers can stay connected in more places than ever before.”
 
“With roaming at no extra cost also available in 18 destinations, Three is doing more than any other network to give our customers a reliable, quality experience wherever they are.”
 
Three has also announced that over 1 million customers have downloaded and activated the Three InTouch app benefitting from the ability to call and text over Wi-Fi.
 
Danny Dixon, Director of Customer Strategy, said: “The Three inTouch app has been highly successful with over 1million users to date. Seamless connectivity on mobile and WiFi is a key part of our future strategic direction and by using the app, our customers will never miss that important call or text, whether they’re in the home, commuting to work, or away on holiday.


Samsung ‘investigating’ claims of fingerprint hack on Galaxy S5

Samsung is “investigating” claims from security researchers that hackers can steal copies of fingerprints from the company’s 2014 flagship Galaxy S5 smartphone, as well as other Android devices, by exploiting a weakness in the operating system’s handling of biometric data.
 
Samsung is “investigating” claims from security researchers that hackers can steal copies of fingerprints from the company’s 2014 flagship Galaxy S5 smartphone, as well as other Android devices, by exploiting a weakness in the operating system’s handling of biometric data.
 
According to security firm FireEye, Android fails in its attempts to render fingerprint information inaccessible to most apps by sequestering it in a “secure zone” on the phone. The flaw is simple: rather than trying to break into the secure zone itself, the attackers simply focus on reading the data coming directly from the fingerprint sensor before it reaches the secure zone.
 
With this information, it’s possible to reconstruct the fingerprint, and potentially use it elsewhere, the researchers told Forbes’ Thomas Fox-Brewster.
 
“If the attacker can break the kernel, although he cannot access the fingerprint data stored in the trusted zone, he can directly read the fingerprint sensor at any time. Every time you touch the fingerprint sensor, the attacker can steal your fingerprint,” one of the researchers, Yulong Zhang, told Forbes. “You can get the data, and from the data you can generate the image of your fingerprint. After that you can do whatever you want.”
 
The vulnerability is fixed on the newest version of Android, Lollipop – which runs on newer devices, including the Galaxy S6 – and users who can upgrade should. As well as Samsung, some – but not all – other Android devices running versions earlier than Lollipop are affected, though the Galaxy S5 was the only one named. Samsung says it “takes consumer privacy and data security very seriously” and is investigating FireEye’s claims, which are due to be revealed in more detail at the upcoming RSA security conference.
 
Apple’s TouchID system, present on the iPhone 5s and iPhones 6, uses a similar trusted zone architecture, but no attacker has yet demonstrated the ability to lift fingerprints off the device using a software hack. The fingerprint sensor has, however, been shown to be vulnerable to spoofed fingerprints: a fake fingerprint, printed onto a laminated sheet and stuck to a real finger, can fool the fingerprint sensor.
 
Of course, stealing a fingerprint through a software hack may not be the easiest way to bypass biometric security: in December, a hacker demonstrated the ability to spoof a German minister’s fingerprints from just a photograph of her hand.
 

Samsung and Huawei fingerprint scanners can be fooled using an inkjet printer

Fingerprint sensors used to secure smartphones can be fooled with something as simple as a inkjet printer, researchers from Michigan State University have shown.
 
Fingerprint sensors used to secure smartphones can be fooled with something as simple as a inkjet printer, researchers from Michigan State University have shown.
 
A Samsung Galaxy S6 and a Huawei Honor 7 were unlocked successfully using a fingerprint printed using a standard inkjet printer loaded with special ink and paper by Kai Cao and Anil Jain from the department of computer science and engineering.
 
The researchers took scans of several fingers and simply printed them in 2D on paper using conductive ink – ink which conducts a charge – and special paper that is typically used for printing electronic circuits and other charge-carrying systems.
 
They found they could replicate the process for several different fingers for several different volunteers taking very little time using common equipment. Previous spoofing attempts that require the production of a model of the fingerprint in wood glue or rubber have taken at least 30 minutes to create, often requiring special equipment and manual manipulation skill.
 
Cao and Jain said: “This experiment further confirms the urgent need for anti-spoofing techniques for fingerprint recognition systems, especially for mobile devices which are being increasingly used for unlocking the phone and for payment.”
 
The Samsung Galaxy S6 and the Huawei Honor 7 use similar fingerprint scanner technology to most of those used across devices from Google’s Nexus smartphones to LG’s G5. The same technique will likely be able to spoof many other smartphones.
 
Some fingerprint scanners have more robust anti-spoofing technology, but even Apple’s Touch ID system, which is regarded as one of the best, was fooled within days of it being available with the iPhone 5S in September 2013.
 
The risk for your average user of this happening is very small, given that anyone attempting to unlock a smartphone using a printed fingerprint first requires a perfect, high-resolution scan of the fingerprint used to unlock the phone. But for law enforcement agencies, it could represent a fast and effective way of unlocking a suspect’s smartphone without resorting to backdoors.
 
Typically smartphone using a fingerprint sensor require the password or pin to be entered after 48 hours or once the phone has been powered off, but being able to lift a print, scan it in and print it in a matter of minutes makes 48 hours look like an ample window of opportunity as long as you don’t reset the password or let the phone turn off.
 
A Samsung spokesperson said: “Samsung takes fingerprint security very seriously, and we would like to assure that users’ fingerprints are encrypted and securely stored within our devices equipped with fingerprint sensors.
 
As the report itself points out, it takes specific equipment, supplies and conditions to simulate a person’s fingerprint including being in possession of the fingerprint owner’s phone to unlock the device.
 
If at any time there is a credible potential vulnerability, we will act promptly to investigate and resolve the issue.”

 
A Huawei spokesperson said: “Honor takes data integrity very seriously and we are committed to protecting customer privacy through the constant updating of new technologies, including fingerprint sensor technology.
 
“We are aware of various reports which make the claim that vulnerabilities exist in fingerprint sensor technology used by several manufacturers, including Honor. We have equipped Honor 7 with a chipset level security solution in which personal data in the form of fingerprint images is protected with hardware. This solution is significantly superior to that of most other Android phones.
 
“We remain committed to developing new technologies that further enhance data privacy and security for our customers.”

 

Uber drivers accused of turning away guide dogs

The ride-sharing firm, Uber is being taken to court over allegations that its drivers are discriminating against people with visual impairment.
 
The ride-sharing firm, Uber is being taken to court over allegations that its drivers are discriminating against people with visual impairment.
 
The National Federation for the Blind of California is one of those bringing the case which cites at least 40 instances where drivers have refused to carry guide dogs. Uber said drivers are told to comply with all laws relating to the carriage of service animals. It said the claims have no merit.
 
The case against Uber includes two instances in which Uber drivers allegedly yelled “no dogs” at riders. In another instance an Uber driver allegedly refused a blind woman’s plea to pull over once she realised the driver had locked her guide dog in the boot of his car.
 
Aaron Zisser, a lawyer for Disability Rights Advocates in Berkeley, California, which helped bring the case, said: “Uber is a very popular service, and it is important for riders with service animals to be able to use it like anyone else,”
 
Uber supervises drivers who wish to use their own private vehicles to offer a taxi-like service and who use the company to find potential passengers. It had argued that the case should not be allowed to be brought by a group of individuals and institutions but rather that each should seek arbitration separately. It added that it was “on the cutting edge of expanding accessibility” for the disabled.
 
But US Judge Nathanael Cousins has allowed the case to be heard and gave Uber until 2 May to formally respond to the complaint.

 
James White from UK charity, Guide Dogs, said dogs being refused transit is a significant problem in the UK. “Far too often we hear about guide dog owners being refused access to taxis. This is extremely upsetting, embarrassing and frustrating for the person involved. Such discrimination can prevent people with guide dogs from getting out and about with confidence. Without the appropriate legal exception it is a criminal offence for minicabs and taxis to refuse a passenger who is accompanied by an assistance dog.”
 
The UK’s Royal National Institute of Blind People added that taxi drivers had very few circumstances where they could refuse carriage: “In the UK .. taxi and private hire drivers have to carry guide dogs and assistance dogs at no extra cost to the passenger. Drivers who have a medical condition that means they are unable to assist passengers or carry dogs in their vehicle may apply for an exemption from these duties.”
 
The case is the latest lawsuit of many faced by Uber globally. Last week a Berlin court upheld a decision taken last summer to ban Uber from operating because its drivers did not comply with public insurance requirements.
 
The question for Uber and the courts in many of these cases is to what degree liability for complying with local laws should rest with Uber and how much drivers using the service to find passengers should be responsible for.
 

Huawei says P8 phones have ‘professional’ camera features

huawei logo wall office peoples phone

Huawei has unveiled its latest flagship phones with cameras that it says are capable of creating “professional” looking photos and videos.
 
The firm said a mix of an advanced sensor and optical image stabilisation tech offered superior night photos and the ability to create “light painting” effects with real-time previews. The Chinese company is pitching its P8 handsets as “premium” options. But one analyst said the firm still had a “mountain to climb”.
 
The Shenzhen-headquartered company impressed many reviewers with the design of a smartwatch unveiled at Barcelona’s Mobile World Congress in February, which one tech blog described as “the surprise hit” of the trade fair.
 
However, Ben Wood, from the tech consultancy CCS Insight, said Western consumers still perceived it as being a “value-for-money brand”.
 
“Huawei’s challenge is how to differentiate a great-looking device from the sea of similar smartphones,” he added. “Apple’s vice-like grip on the high-end smartphone market has effectively locked out all rivals, with the possible exception of Samsung, which is having to make an eye-watering marketing investment to attract consumers to its new products.”
 
The new Android-powered phones, which were unveiled in London, come in two sizes – the basic P8 with a 5.2in screen (13.2cm) and the P8max with a larger than normal 6.8in (17.3cm) display. Both feature a 13 megapixel rear camera whose image sensor includes pixels dedicated to measuring white light as well as the more common red, green and blue colour pixels. The firm says this delivers improved images in high contrast and low light situations.
In addition, the handset features what the firms claims to be a “best-in-class” stabilisation component that minimises camera shake. This allows its shutter to be kept open for longer, helping capture sharp images in dim light.
 

It also permits the device to be put into light-painting mode while operated freehand, letting users draw inside a photo as it’s taken by quickly shining light from a small torch across their view. Although this function is available to other smartphones, Huawei says it is unusual in being able to provide a live preview of what the shot look likes, making it easier to achieve the light-based doodles.
 
In addition, four P8 phone can be linked together to provide a multi-cam filming system, allowing users to record video footage containing changes in view. Sony pioneered a similar built-in option in its Xperia handsets last year.

Although another Chinese handset-maker – Xiaomi – has captured many headlines of late, Huawei ended last year with a bigger market share. It accounted for 6% of global smartphone shipments at the close of 2014, according to CCS Insight. That put it in fourth position behind Lenovo, another Chinese manufacturer, whose figures have been boosted by its recent takeover of Motorola.
 

“Huawei’s new camera technology is impressive and it’s invested a lot in the associated software to make it quick, but my concern is that for most consumers the cameras on their smartphones are already good enough,” said Mr Wood. “But there is another feature that’s interesting: the knuckle sense technology that you to double-tap the screen with your knuckle to take a screenshot – that’s going to appeal to the Snapchat generation wanting to capture pictures before they disappear.”
 
Huawei’s smartphone launch coincided with that of a lesser-known Chinese manufacturer LeTV. Its new device, Le Max, is the first handset to feature a USB-C port. The facility allows the device to be connected and charged with a reversible cable – similar to Apple’s Lightning connector.
 

The announcement has been overshadowed by the fact the firm’s chief executive recently apologised after commissioning an advertising campaign featuring a cartoon of Hitler with Apple’s logo in the place of a swastika on his armband. Jia Yueting acknowledged that the image was “insensitive and wrong” after posting a still on Weibo, a Chinese Twitter-like service. The ad now features a cartoon king instead. Apple has not commented on the affair.

 

Nokia setting sights on Alcatel-Lucent

Nokia has confirmed that it is in advanced talks to buy French smartphone and wireless equipment manufacturer Alcatel-Lucent.
 
Nokia has confirmed that it is in advanced talks to buy French smartphone and wireless equipment manufacturer Alcatel-Lucent.
 
The Finnish firm confirmed speculation from French financial newspaper Les Echos, which could see Nokia bolster its networking business against Swedish rival Ericsson as well as give it a possible re-entry into the smartphone market.
 
“Nokia and Alcatel-Lucent confirm that they are in advanced discussions with respect to a potential full merger, which would take the form of a public exchange offer by Nokia for Alcatel-Lucent,” said a statement. “There can be no certainty at this stage that these discussions will result in any agreement or transaction.”
 
Paris-based Alcatel-Lucent is a leading supplier of 4G and LTE mobile networks and related services, best known in the UK for its modems and routers and cheap mobile phones.
 
In a joint venture with Chinese manufacturer TCL Communications, the company also manufactured a range of Android and Windows Phone smartphones predicated on low-cost but feature-rich devices, as well as wearable devices and smartphone accessories. Alcatel-Lucent later sold its shares in Alcatel Mobile Phones to TCL.
 
It is possible an acquisition of Alcatel-Lucent could provide both firms with a ground to re-enter the smartphone market.
 
Alcatel-Lucent has offices and research and development centres, which could aid Nokia’s transition back into a mobile company after having sold its struggling smartphone business to Microsoft for £4.6bn in September 2013. Since completing the sale last year Nokia has sat on most of the £4.6bn it made from the sale.
 
The Finnish company was the world’s biggest mobile phone maker for more than a decade until it was overtaken by South Korea’s Samsung in 2012.
 
Nokia launched a thin and powerful Android tablet in China last year, made by Apple product manufacturer Foxconn, and is rumoured to be working on at least one Android smartphone. But under the terms of the deal with Microsoft, Nokia is restricted from using the Nokia brand name on smartphones until the last quarter of 2016 and on feature phones for 10 years.
 
Analysts and investors flagged potential opposition from the French government, which has said in the past it sees the communications industry as strategic, and is sensitive about the job cuts that often go with cost-saving takeover deals. The French economy ministry had no immediate comment.
 
Clairinvest fund manager Ion-Marc Valahu also expressed scepticism over the merits of the proposed deal: “They are two of the weaker players in the industry. They could come up with some cost cuts, but just because you combine one weak player with another weak player does not necessarily mean that you will end up with a stronger player.”
 
The purchase would represent a significant boost in market share for Nokia, however, creating a European telecoms company worth over £28bn. Alcatel-Lucent share price rose 14% while Nokia’s fell 6.6% on the news this morning.
 
 

Bendy battery promises safe, speedy charging

flexible battery development peoples hone

Scientists have built a flexible aluminium battery which they say could be a cheap, fast-charging and safe alternative to current designs.
 
The protoype consists of a soft pouch, containing aluminium for one electrode and a graphite foam for the other – all surrounded by a special liquid salt. It can recharge in less than a minute and is very safe and durable compared to lithium-ion batteries, but currently only delivers about half the voltage.
 
The work appears in the journal Nature. The researchers say it has advantages over lithium-ion batteries, common in electronic devices like smartphones, as well as traditional alkaline batteries.
 
Other scientists have said the work is exciting but still at a very early stage.
 
“We have developed a rechargeable aluminium battery that may replace existing storage devices, such as alkaline batteries, which are bad for the environment, and lithium-ion batteries, which occasionally burst into flames,” said senior author Prof Hongjie Dai from Stanford University in California. “Our new battery won’t catch fire, even if you drill through it.”
 
In fact, a video made by the research team shows that the battery even continues to work for a short period after being punished in this way. We may not expect batteries to withstand such treatment routinely – but this demonstration certainly sets the new design apart from lithium-ion batteries, which have faced safety concerns including recent bans on air transport. Because it is lightweight and inexpensive, aluminium has attracted interest from battery engineers for many years, but it has never yielded a viable product.
 
Key to the new discovery was the choice of material for the other, positive electrode (the cathode) to go with aluminium for the negative electrode (or anode). Graphite – a form of carbon in which the atoms form thin, flat sheets – turned out to deliver very good performance, while also being similarly lightweight, cheap and widely available.
 
To connect the two electrodes, the pouch is filled with liquid.
 
“The electrolyte is basically a salt that’s liquid at room temperature, so it’s very safe,” said PhD student Ming Gong, another of the study’s authors. This contrasts with the flammable electrolytes used in lithium-ion batteries.
 

The battery performed particularly well when the team made the graphite cathode into a foam: a sponge-like pattern of tiny whiskers of the stuff, surrounding many empty pockets. This allows ions in the electrolyte solution very easy access to the graphite, helping the battery to work faster. When the battery discharges, aluminium dissolves at the anode, while aluminium-containing ions slide into the spaces between atomic graphite layers at the cathode. When it charges again, the reverse occurs, depositing metallic aluminium metal back on the anode.
 
Crucially, this can take place through more than 7,500 complete cycles without the battery losing any capacity – several times more than most lithium-ion batteries, and hundreds of times better than any previous experimental designs that used aluminium.
 
Similarly, the device’s two-volt output is the best seen from an aluminium battery. It is also better than common 1.5-volt alkaline batteries, but lags behind the output of the lithium-ion batteries we use in smartphones and laptops.
 

“Our battery produces about half the voltage of a typical lithium battery,” Prof Dai said. “But improving the cathode material could eventually increase the voltage and energy density.”
 
Nonetheless, his team has high hopes for their design. Already, just by strapping two of the pouch batteries together and plugging them into an adaptor, they managed to charge up a smartphone in a minute. They also suggest it could be very useful in flexible displays, one of the proposals for the next generation of electronics.
 
Prof Dai clearly believes its voltage is the battery’s single main limitation: “Our battery has everything else you’d dream that a battery should have: inexpensive electrodes, good safety, high-speed charging, flexibility and long cycle life.
“I see this as a new battery in its early days. It’s quite exciting.”
Clare Grey, a materials chemist at the University of Cambridge, said the work was “definitely a step-change” for aluminium batteries.
 
“Aluminium batteries are very difficult technology and I think their method of storing the charges inside the graphite is rather clever,” Prof Grey said.
 
But she added that turning the prototype into a larger commercial product would be challenging. One problem is that the process of squeezing ions in between the graphite sheets can cause the material to expand and contract, which is “bad news for the battery”, Prof Grey explained. “And then also, the bigger the graphite sheets are, the further the ions have got to diffuse in – so the slower it gets. So part of reason it’s got this high rate is that it’s got very small platelets of graphite.”
 
She was impressed by the concept and the demonstration of the new design, however.
 
“I think it’s very exciting and it gives new pointers as to how one might get that type of chemistry to work,” Prof Grey said.