Here’s a clever new twist on an old email scam that could serve to make the con far more believable. The message purports to have been sent from a hacker who’s compromised your computer and used your webcam to record a video of you while you were watching porn. The missive threatens to release the video to all your contacts unless you pay a Bitcoin ransom. The new twist? The email now references a real password previously tied to the recipient’s email address.
The basic elements of this sextortion scam email have been around for some time, and usually the only thing that changes with this particular message is the Bitcoin address that frightened targets can use to pay the amount demanded. But this one begins with an unusual opening salvo:
“I’m aware that <substitute password formerly used by recipient here> is your password,” reads the salutation.
The rest is formulaic:
You don’t know me and you’re thinking why you received this e mail, right?
Well, I actually placed a malware on the porn website and guess what, you visited this web site to have fun (you know what I mean). While you were watching the video, your web browser acted as a RDP (Remote Desktop) and a keylogger which provided me access to your display screen and webcam. Right after that, my software gathered all your contacts from your Messenger, Facebook account, and email account.
What exactly did I do?
I made a split-screen video. First part recorded the video you were viewing (you’ve got a fine taste haha), and next part recorded your webcam (Yep! It’s you doing nasty things!).
What should you do?
Well, I believe, $1400 is a fair price for our little secret. You’ll make the payment via Bitcoin to the below address (if you don’t know this, search “how to buy bitcoin” in Google).
BTC Address: 1Dvd7Wb72JBTbAcfTrxSJCZZuf4tsT8V72
(It is cAsE sensitive, so copy and paste it)
You have 24 hours in order to make the payment. (I have an unique pixel within this email message, and right now I know that you have read this email). If I don’t get the payment, I will send your video to all of your contacts including relatives, coworkers, and so forth. Nonetheless, if I do get paid, I will erase the video immidiately. If you want evidence, reply with “Yes!” and I will send your video recording to your 5 friends. This is a non-negotiable offer, so don’t waste my time and yours by replying to this email.
KrebsOnSecurity heard from three different readers who received a similar email in the past 72 hours. In every case, the recipients said the password referenced in the email’s opening sentence was in fact a password they had previously used at an account online that was tied to their email address.
However, all three recipients said the password was close to ten years old, and that none of the passwords cited in the sextortion email they received had been used anytime on their current computers.
It is likely that this improved sextortion attempt is at least semi-automated: My guess is that the perpetrator has created some kind of script that draws directly from the usernames and passwords from a given data breach at a popular Web site that happened more than a decade ago, and that every victim who had their password compromised as part of that breach is getting this same email at the address used to sign up at that hacked Web site.
I suspect that as this scam gets refined even more, perpetrators will begin using more recent and relevant passwords — and perhaps other personal data that can be found online — to convince people that the hacking threat is real. That’s because there are a number of shady password lookup services online that index billions of usernames (i.e. email addresses) and passwords stolen in some of the biggest data breaches to date.
Alternatively, an industrious scammer could simply execute this scheme using a customer database from a freshly hacked Web site, emailing all users of that hacked site with a similar message and a current, working password. Tech support scammers also may begin latching onto this method as well.
Sextortion — even semi-automated scams like this one with no actual physical leverage to backstop the extortion demand — is a serious crime that can lead to devastating consequences for victims. Sextortion occurs when someone threatens to distribute your private and sensitive material if you don’t provide them with images of a sexual nature, sexual favors, or money.
According to the FBI, here are some things you can do to avoid becoming a victim:
-Never send compromising images of yourself to anyone, no matter who they are — or who they say they are.
-Don’t open attachments from people you don’t know, and in general be wary of opening attachments even from those you do know.
-Turn off [and/or cover] any web cameras when you are not using them.
The FBI says in many sextortion cases, the perpetrator is an adult pretending to be a teenager, and you are just one of the many victims being targeted by the same person. If you believe you’re a victim of sextortion, or know someone else who is, the FBI wants to hear from you: Contact your local FBI office (or toll-free at 1-800-CALL-FBI).
Score one for the good guys: Bitcanal, a Portuguese Web hosting firm long accused of helping spammers hijack large swaths of dormant Internet address space over the years, was summarily kicked off the Internet this week after a half-dozen of the company’s bandwidth providers chose to sever ties with the company.
Spammers and Internet service providers (ISPs) that facilitate such activity often hijack Internet address ranges that have gone unused for periods of time. Dormant or “unannounced” address ranges are ripe for abuse partly because of the way the global routing system works: Miscreants can “announce” to the rest of the Internet that their hosting facilities are the authorized location for given Internet addresses. If nothing or nobody objects to the change, the Internet address ranges fall into the hands of the hijacker.
For years, security researchers have tracked the suspected theft of millions of IPv4 Internet addresses back to Bitcanal, which was also doing business under the name “Ebony Horizon.” Experts say shortly after obtaining a chunk of IP addresses, Bitcanal would apparently sell or lease the space to spammers, who would then begin sending junk email from those addresses — taking full advantage of the good or at least neutral Internet reputation of the previous owner to evade anti-spam blacklists.
Much of the hijacked address space routed by Bitcanal was once assigned to business entities that no longer exist. But some of the more brazen hijacks attributed to Bitcanal and its customers involved thousands of Internet addresses assigned to active organizations, such as the company’s well-documented acquisition of address space assigned to the Texas State Attorney General’s office, as well as addresses managed by the U.S. Department of Defense.
Bitcanal’s reputation finally caught up with the company late last month, when anti-spam activist and researcher Ron Guilmette documented yet another new major IP address hijack at the company and challenged Bitcanal’s upstream Internet providers to stop routing traffic for it (KrebsOnSecurity has published several stories about previous high-profile IP address hijacks involving spammers who were flagged by Guilmette).
Guilmette said Bitcanal and its proprietor — Portuguese businessman Joao Silveira — have a well-documented history of “behaving badly and coloring outside the lines for literally years.”
“His actions in absconding with other people’s IP address space, over the years, are those of either a spoiled child or else those of a sociopath, depending on one’s personal point of view,” Guilmette said. “In either case the Internet will, by and large, be glad to see his backside, and will be better off without him.”
Doug Madory, a researcher for Internet performance management firm Dyn (now owned by Oracle), published a blog post chronicling Bitcanal’s history as an address “hijack factory.” That post also documents the gradual ostracization of Bitcanal over the past week, as one major Internet exchange after another pulled the plug on the company.
Reached for comment just days before Bitcanal was shunned by all of its peering providers, Mr. Silveira expressed shock and surprise over what he called unfair attacks against his company’s reputation. He blamed the besmirchment on one or two “bad” customers who abused his service over the years.
“My thought is that one or two customer in my network maybe [imitated] people acting like a client and force the errors or injecting bad network space,” Silveira said in an emailed response to KrebsOnSecurity. “I am not the problem and this public trial and conviction will not solve the prefix hijacking matter. If these questions remain without solution, those actors will keep doing it.”
Another business tied to Mr. Silveira suggests that Bitcanal/Ebony Horizon has long been actively involved in obtaining sizable chunks of Internet address space on behalf of its clients. The same contact phone number that once existed on the (now unreachable) home page of Bitcanal.com also appears on the homepage of ip4transfer.net, a company that advertises the ability to lease large chunks of Internet address space.
The current WHOIS registration records for ip4transfer.net are mostly redacted by domain registrar GoDaddy, but the name Ebony Horizon appears as the current business name, and Mr. Silveira’s name is on the original domain registration records from 2016, according to historic WHOIS records maintained by DomainTools [full disclosure: DomainTools is an advertiser on this blog].
Much of the content on ipv4transfer.net seeks to answer questions about what customers should expect when leasing address space from the company, including the possibility that some leased address ranges could be flagged as malicious or spammy by Spamhaus.org, an anti-spam group whose spam blacklists are relied upon by many ISPs to block large-scale spam campaigns. Prior to Bitcanal’s final disconnection this week, Spamhaus had blacklisted virtually all of Bitcanal’s address ranges as sources of spam and/or malicious email.
“Legitimate IP address space brokers don’t need to spend a lot of ink telling their customers how to avoid getting their shiny new IP address blocks listed by Spamhaus, or how to get them unlisted by Spamhaus, or what to do about it if the shiny new block they just purchased is already listed by Spamhaus,” Guilmette said.
Because the global routing of Internet address space is largely based on trust relationships between and among network operators, those operators have an obligation to ensure they’re not inadvertently facilitating the hijacking of Internet address space.
Perhaps coincidentally to the disconnection of Bitcanal, the RIPE Network Coordination Centre — one of the five global Regional Internet Registries (RIRs) providing Internet address allocations — on July 10 published an analysis of route hijacking activity across the Internet. The analysis includes a set of tips for network operators to help avoid contributing to the overall problem.
Microsoft and Adobe each issued security updates for their products today. Microsoft’s July patch batch includes 14 updates to fix more than 50 security flaws in Windows and associated software. Separately, Adobe has pushed out an update for its Flash Player browser plugin, as well as a monster patch bundle for Adobe Reader/Acrobat.
According to security firm Qualys, all but two of the “critical” fixes in this round of updates apply to vulnerabilities in Microsoft’s browsers — Internet Explorer and Edge. Critical patches mend software flaws that can be exploited remotely by malicious software or bad guys with little to no help from the user, save for perhaps visiting a Web site or opening a booby-trapped link.
Microsoft also patched dangerous vulnerabilities in its .NET Framework (a Windows development platform required by many third-party programs and commonly found on most versions of Windows), as well as Microsoft Office. With both of these weaknesses, an attacker could trick a victim into opening an email that contained a specially crafted Office document which loads malicious code, says Allan Liska, a threat intelligence analyst at Recorded Future.
One of the more nettlesome features of Windows 10 is the operating system by default decides on its own when to install updates, very often shutting down open programs and restarting your PC in the middle of the night to do so unless you change the defaults.
Not infrequently, Redmond ships updates that end up causing stability issues for some users, and it doesn’t hurt to wait a day or two before seeing if any major problems are reported with new updates before installing them. Microsoft doesn’t make it easy for Windows 10 users to change this setting, but it is possible. For all other Windows OS users, if you’d rather be alerted to new updates when they’re available so you can choose when to install them, there’s a setting for that in Windows Update.
It’s a good idea to get in the habit of backing up your computer before applying monthly updates from Microsoft. Windows has some built-in tools that can help recover from bad patches, but restoring the system to a backup image taken just before installing updates is often much less hassle and an added piece of mind while you’re sitting there praying for the machine to reboot successfully after patching.
As per usual on Microsoft’s Patch Tuesday, Adobe issued an update to its Flash Player browser plugin. The latest update brings Flash to version 188.8.131.52, and patches at least two security vulnerabilities in the program. Microsoft’s patch bundle includes the Flash update as well.
Adobe says the Flash update addresses “critical” security holes, meaning they could be exploited by malware or miscreants to take complete, remote control over vulnerable systems. My standard advice is for readers to kick Flash to the curb, as it’s a buggy program that is a perennial favorite target of malware purveyors.
For readers still unwilling to cut the Flash cord, there are half-measures that work almost as well. Fortunately, disabling Flash in Chrome is simple enough. Paste “chrome://settings/content” into a Chrome browser bar and then select “Flash” from the list of items. By default it should be set to “Ask first” before running Flash, although users also can disable Flash entirely here or whitelist and blacklist specific sites.
By default, Mozilla Firefox on Windows computers with Flash installed runs Flash in a “protected mode,” which prompts the user to decide if they want to enable the plugin before Flash content runs on a Web site.
Another, perhaps less elegant, alternative to wholesale junking Flash is keeping it installed in a browser that you don’t normally use, and then only using that browser on sites that require Flash.
If you use Adobe Reader or Acrobat to manage PDF documents, you’re probably going to want to update these products soon: Adobe released updates for both today that fix more than 100 security vulnerabilities in the software titles.
Some folks may be unaware that there are other free PDF readers which aren’t quite as bloated as Adobe’s. Whether these alternative readers are more secure is another question; they certainly seem to be updated less frequently, but that may have something to do with the fact that they include far fewer features and likely less overall attack surface area.
I can’t recall the last time I had Adobe Reader installed on anything I own. My preferred PDF reader for Windows is Sumatra PDF, which is comparatively lightweight and very fast. Unfortunately, no matter how many times you change Sumatra to the default PDF reader on Windows 10, the operating system keeps defaulting to opening PDFs in Microsoft Edge.
For a detailed rundown of the individual vulnerabilities patched by Microsoft today, check out the SANS Internet Storm Center, which indexes the fixes by severity, how likely it is that each vulnerability will be exploited anytime soon, and whether specific flaws were publicly disclosed prior to today’s patch release.
According to SANS, at least three of the flaws — CVE-2018-8278, CVE-2018-8313, and CVE-2018-8314 — were previously disclosed publicly, meaning that attackers may have had a head start figuring out how to exploit these flaws for criminal gain.
As always, if you experience any problems installing or downloading these updates, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment. If past Patch Tuesday posts are any indicator, you may even find helpful responses or solutions from other readers experiencing the same issues.
Energy giant ExxonMobil recently sent snail mail letters to its Plenti rewards card members stating that the points program was being replaced with a new one called Exxon Mobil Rewards+. Unfortunately, the letter includes a confusing toll free number and directs customers to a parked page that tries to foist Web browser extensions on visitors.
The mailer (the first page of which is screenshotted below) urges customers to visit exxonmobilrewardsplus[dot]com, to download its mobile app, and to call “1-888-REWARD+” with any questions. It may not be immediately obvious, but that “+” sign is actually the same thing as a zero on the telephone keypad (although I’m ashamed to say I had to look that up online to be sure).
Worse, visiting the company’s new rewards Web site in Google Chrome prompted my browser to run a “security check,” followed by a series of popups offering to install a Chrome extension called “Browsing Safely.”
That extension changes your default search engine to Yahoo and appears to redirect all searches through a domain called lastlog[dot]in, which seems to be affiliated with an Israeli online advertising network. After adding the Browsing Safely extension to Chrome using a virtual machine, my browser was redirected to Exxon.com.
Many people on Twitter who expressed confusion about the mailer said they accidentally added an “e” to the end of “exxonmobil” and ended up getting bounced around to spammy-looking sites with ad redirects and dodgy download offers.
ExxonMobil corporate has not yet responded to requests for comment. But after about 10 minutes on hold listening to the same Muzak-like song, I was able to reach a customer service person at the confusing ExxonMobil Rewards+ phone number. That person said the Web site for the rewards program wasn’t going to be active until July 11.
“Currently the Web site is not available,” the representative said. “Please don’t try to download anything from it right now. It should be active and available next week.”
It always amazes me when major companies roll out new marketing initiatives without consulting professionals who help mitigate security and privacy issues for a living. It seems likely that happened in this case because anyone who knows a thing or two about security would strongly advise against instructing customers to visit a parked domain or one that isn’t yet fully under the company’s control.
Many people, particularly older folks, proudly declare they avoid using the Web to manage various accounts tied to their personal and financial data — including everything from utilities and mobile phones to retirement benefits and online banking services. The reasoning behind this strategy is as simple as it is alluring: What’s not put online can’t be hacked. But increasingly, adherents to this mantra are finding out the hard way that if you don’t plant your flag online, fraudsters and identity thieves may do it for you.
The crux of the problem is that while most types of customer accounts these days can be managed online, the process of tying one’s account number to a specific email address and/or mobile device typically involves supplying personal data that can easily be found or purchased online — such as Social Security numbers, birthdays and addresses.
Some examples of how being a modern-day Luddite can backfire are well-documented, such as when scammers create online accounts in someone’s name at the Internal Revenue Service, the U.S. Postal Service or the Social Security Administration.
Other examples may be far less obvious. Consider the case of a consumer who receives their home telephone service as part of a bundle through their broadband Internet service provider (ISP). Failing to set up a corresponding online account to manage one’s telecommunications services can provide a powerful gateway for fraudsters.
Carrie Kerskie is president of Griffon Force LLC, a company in Naples, Fla. that helps identity theft victims recover from fraud incidents. Kerskie recalled a recent case in which thieves purchased pricey items from a local jewelry store in the name of an elderly client who’d previously bought items at that location as gifts for his late wife.
In that incident, the perpetrator presented a MasterCard Black Card in the victim’s name along with a fake ID created in the victim’s name (but with the thief’s photo). When the jewelry store called the number on file to verify the transactions, the call came through to the impostor’s cell phone right there in the store.
Kerskie said a follow-up investigation revealed that the client had never set up an account at his ISP (Comcast) to manage it online. Multiple calls with the ISP’s customer support people revealed that someone had recently called Comcast pretending to be the 86-year-old client and established an online account.
“The victim never set up his account online, and the bad guy called Comcast and gave the victim’s name, address and Social Security number along with an email address,” Kerskie said. “Once that was set up, the bad guy logged in to the account and forwarded the victim’s calls to another number.”
Incredibly, Kerskie said, the fraudster immediately called Comcast to ask about the reason for the sudden account changes.
“While I was on the phone with Comcast, the customer rep told me to hold on a minute, that she’d just received a communication from the victim,” Kerskie recalled. “I told the rep that the client was sitting right beside me at the time, and that the call wasn’t from him. The minute we changed the call forwarding options, the fraudster called customer service to ask why the account had been changed.”
Two to three days after Kerskie helped the client clean up fraud with the Comcast account, she got a frantic call from the client’s daughter, who said she’d been trying her dad’s mobile phone but that he hadn’t answered in days. They soon discovered that dear old dad was just fine, but that he’d also neglected to set up an online account at his mobile phone provider.
“The bad guy had called in to the mobile carrier, provided his personal details, and established an online account,” Kerskie said. “Once they did that, they were able transfer his phone service to a new device.”OFFLINE BANKING
Many people naively believe that if they never set up their bank or retirement accounts for online access then cyber thieves can’t get access either. But Kerskie said she recently had a client who had almost a quarter of a million dollars taken from his bank account precisely because he declined to link his bank account to an online identity.
“What we found is that the attacker linked the client’s bank account to an American Express Gift card, but in order to do that the bad guy had to know the exact amount of the microdeposit that AMEX placed in his account,” Kerskie said. “So the bad guy called the 800 number for the victim’s bank, provided the client’s name, date of birth, and Social Security number, and then gave them an email address he controlled. In this case, had the client established an online account previously, he would have received a message asking to confirm the fraudulent transaction.”
After tying the victim’s bank account to a prepaid card, the fraudster began slowly withdrawing funds in $5,000 increments. All told, thieves managed to siphon almost $170,000 over a six month period. The victim’s accounts were being managed by a trusted acquaintance, but the withdrawals didn’t raise alarms because they were roughly in line with withdrawal amounts the victim had made previously.
“But because the victim didn’t notify the bank within 60 days of the fraudulent transactions as required by law, the bank only had to refund the last 60 days worth of fraudulent transactions,” Kerskie said. “We were ultimately able to help him recover most of it, but that was a whole other ordeal.”
Kerskie said many companies try to fight fraud on accounts belonging to customers who haven’t set up a corresponding online account by sending a letter via snail mail to those customers when account changes are made.
“But not everyone does that and if the thief who’s taking advantage of the situation is smart, he’ll simply set up an online account and change the billing address, so the customer never gets that notice,” Kerskie said.
MARK YOUR TERRITORY
Kerskie said it’s a good idea for people with older relatives to help those individuals ensure they have set up and manage online identities for their various accounts — even if those relatives never intend to access any of the accounts online. Helping those relatives place a security freeze on their credit files with the four major credit bureaus (and with another, little known bureau that many mobile providers rely upon for credit checks) can go a long way toward preventing new account fraud.
Adding two-factor authentication (whenever it is available) and/or establishing a customer-specific personal identification number (PIN) also can help secure online access. For those who can’t be convinced to use a password manager, even writing down all of the account details and passwords on a slip of paper can be helpful, provided the document is secured in a safe place.
This process is doubly important, Kerskie said, for parents and relatives who have just lost a spouse.
“When someone passes away, there’s often an obituary in the paper that offers a great deal of information about the deceased and any surviving family members,” she said. “And the bad guys absolutely love obits.”
Eschewing accounts on popular social media platforms also can have consequences, mainly because most people have enough information about themselves online that anyone can create an account in their name and start messaging friends and family members with various fraud schemes.
“I always tell people if you don’t want to set up an online account for social media that’s fine, but make sure you tell your friends and family, ‘If you ever get a social media request from me, just ignore it because I’ll never do that,'” Kerskie advised.
In summary, plant your flag online or — as Kerskie puts it — “mark your territory” — before fraudsters do it for you. And consider helping less Internet-savvy friends and family members to do the same.
“It can save a lot of headache,” she said. “The sad reality is that criminals very often only need to answer two or three questions to commit fraud in your name, whereas victims typically need to spend hours of their time and answer dozens of questions to undo the resulting fraud.”
Previous stories here on the proliferation of card-skimming devices hidden inside fuel pumps have offered a multitude of security tips for readers looking to minimize their chances of becoming the next victim, such as favoring filling stations that use security cameras and tamper-evident tape on their pumps. But according to police in San Antonio, Texas, there are far more reliable ways to avoid getting skimmed at a fuel station.
San Antonio, like most major U.S. cities, is grappling with a surge in pump skimming scams. So far in 2018, the San Antonio Police Department (SAPD) has found more than 100 skimming devices in area fuel pumps, and that figure already eclipses the total number of skimmers found in the area in 2017. The skimmers are hidden inside of the pumps, and there are often few if any outward signs that a pump has been compromised.
In virtually all cases investigated by the SAPD, the incidents occurred at filling stations using older-model pumps that have not yet been upgraded with physical and digital security features which make it far more difficult for skimmer thieves to tamper with fuel pumps and siphon customer card data (and PINs from debit card users).
Lt. Marcus Booth is the financial crimes unit director for the SAPD. Booth said most filling stations in San Antonio and elsewhere use legacy pumps that have a vertical card reader and a flat, membrane-based keypad. In addition, access to the insides of these older pumps frequently is secured via a master key that opens not only all pumps at a given station, but in many cases all pumps of a given model made by the same manufacturer.
In contrast, Booth said, newer and more secure pumps typically feature a horizontal card acceptance slot along with a raised metallic keypad — much like a traditional payphone keypad and referred to in the fuel industry as a “full travel” keypad:
Booth said the SAPD has yet to see a skimming incident involving newer pump models like the one pictured directly above.
“Here in San Antonio, many of these stations with these older keypads and card slots were getting hit all the time, sometimes weekly,” he said. “But as soon as those went over to newer gear, we’ve seen zero problems.”
According to Booth, the newer pumps include not only custom keys for each pump, but also tamper protections that physically shut down a pump if the machine is improperly accessed. What’s more, these more advanced pumps do a better job of compartmentalizing individual components, very often enclosing the electronics that serve the card reader and keypad in separately secured metal cages.
“Pretty much all these full travel metallic keypads are encrypted, and if you disconnect them they disable themselves and can only be re-enabled by technician,” Booth told KrebsOnSecurity. “Also, if the pump is opened improperly, it disables itself. These two specific items: The card reader or the pad, if you pull power to them they’re dead, and then they can only be re-enabled by an authorized technician.”
Newer pumps may also include more modern mobile payment options — such as Apple Pay — although many stations with pumps that advertise this capability have not yet enabled it, which allows customers to pay for fuel without ever sharing their credit or debit card account details with the fuel station.
One reason that pump skimmers seem to be more pervasive is that authorities across the country are doing a better job of working with banks and federal investigators to determine fuel stations that appear to be compromised. The flip side is that thieves are generally opportunistic, and tend to focus on targeting systems that offer the least resistance and lowest hanging fruit.
Unfortunately, there is still a ton of low-hanging fruit, and these newer and more secure pump systems remain the exception rather than the rule, Booth said. In December 2016, Visa delayed by three years a deadline for fuel station owners to install payment terminals at the pump that are capable of handling more secure chip-based cards. The chip card technology standard, also known as EMV (short for Europay, MasterCard and Visa) makes credit and debit cards far more expensive and difficult for thieves to clone.
Under previous credit card association rules, station owners that didn’t have chip-ready readers in place by Oct. 2017 would have been on the hook to absorb 100 percent of the costs of fraud associated with transactions in which the customer presented a chip-based card yet was not asked or able to dip the chip (currently, card-issuing banks eat most of the fraud costs from fuel skimming). Currently, fuel stations have until Oct. 1, 2020 to meet the liability shift deadline.
Some pump skimming devices are capable of stealing debit card PINs as well, so it’s a good idea to avoid paying with a debit card at the pump. Armed with your PIN and debit card data, thieves can clone the card and pull money out of your account at an ATM. Having your checking account emptied of cash while your bank sorts out the situation can be a huge hassle and create secondary problems (bounced checks, for instance).
This advice often runs counter to the messaging pushed by fuel station owners themselves, many of whom offer lower prices for cash or debit card transactions. That’s because credit card transactions typically are more expensive to process.
In summary, if you have the choice, look for fuel pumps with raised keypads and horizontal card slots. And keep in mind that it may not be the best idea to frequent a particular filling station simply because it offers the lowest prices: Doing so could leave you with hidden costs down the road.
The U.S. Supreme Court today ruled that the government needs to obtain a court-ordered warrant to gather location data on mobile device users. The decision is a major development for privacy rights, but experts say it may have limited bearing on the selling of real-time customer location data by the wireless carriers to third-party companies.
At issue is Carpenter v. United States, which challenged a legal theory the Supreme Court outlined more than 40 years ago known as the “third-party doctrine.” The doctrine holds that people who voluntarily give information to third parties — such as banks, phone companies, email providers or Internet service providers (ISPs) — have “no reasonable expectation of privacy.”
That framework in recent years has been interpreted to allow police and federal investigators to obtain information — such as mobile location data — from third parties without a warrant. But in a 5-4 ruling issued today that flies in the face of the third-party doctrine, the Supreme Court cited “seismic shifts in digital technology” allowing wireless carriers to collect “deeply revealing” information about mobile users that should be protected by the 4th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which is intended to shield Americans against unreasonable searches and seizures by the government.
Amy Howe, a reporter for SCOTUSblog.com, writes that the decision means police will generally need to get a warrant to obtain cell-site location information, a record of the cell towers (or other sites) with which a cellphone connected.
The ruling is no doubt a big win for privacy advocates, but many readers have been asking whether this case has any bearing on the sharing or selling of real-time customer location data by the mobile providers to third party companies. Last month, The New York times revealed that a company called Securus Technologies had been selling this highly sensitive real-time location information to local police forces across the United States, thanks to agreements the company had in place with the major mobile providers.
It soon emerged that Securus was getting its location data second-hand through a company called 3Cinteractive, which in turn was reselling data from California-based “location aggregator” LocationSmart. Roughly two weeks after The Times’ scoop, KrebsOnSecurity broke the news that anyone could look up the real time location data for virtually any phone number assigned by the major carriers, using a buggy try-before-you-buy demo page that LocationSmart had made available online for years to showcase its technology.
Since those scandals broke, LocationSmart disabled its promiscuous demo page. More importantly, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon all have said they are now in the process of terminating agreements with third-parties to share this real-time location data.
Still, there is no law preventing the mobile providers from hashing out new deals to sell this data going forward, and many readers here have expressed concerns that the carriers can and eventually will do exactly that.
So the question is: Does today’s Supreme Court ruling have any bearing whatsoever on mobile providers sharing location data with private companies?
According to SCOTUSblog’s Howe, the answer is probably “no.”
“[Justice] Roberts emphasized that today’s ruling ‘is a narrow one’ that applies only to cell-site location records,” Howe writes. “He took pains to point out that the ruling did not ‘express a view on matters not before us’ – such as obtaining cell-site location records in real time, or getting information about all of the phones that connected to a particular tower at a particular time. He acknowledged that law-enforcement officials might still be able to obtain cell-site location records without a warrant in emergencies, to deal with ‘bomb threats, active shootings, and child abductions.'”
However, today’s decision by the high court may have implications for companies like Securus which have marketed the ability to provide real-time mobile location data to law enforcement officials, according to Jennifer Lynch, a senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit digital rights advocacy group.
“The court clearly recognizes the ‘deeply revealing nature’ of location data and recognizes we have a privacy interest in this kind of information, even when it’s collected by a third party (the phone companies),” Lynch wrote in an email to KrebsOnSecurity. “I think Carpenter would have implications for the Securus context where the phone companies were sharing location data with non-government third parties that were then, themselves, making that data available to the government.”
Lynch said that in those circumstances, there is a strong argument the government would need to get a warrant to access the data (even if the information didn’t come directly from the phone company).
“However, Carpenter’s impact in other contexts — specifically in contexts where the government is not involved — is much less clear,” she added. “Currently, there aren’t any federal laws that would prevent phone companies from sharing data with non-government third parties, and the Fourth Amendment would not apply in that context.”
And there’s the rub: There is nothing in the current law that prevents mobile companies from sharing real-time location data with other commercial entities. For that reality to change, Congress would need to act. For more on the prospects of that happening and how we wound up here, check out my May 26 story, Why is Your Location Data No Longer Private?
The full Supreme Court opinion in Carpenter v. United States is available here (PDF).
In the wake of a scandal involving third-party companies leaking or selling precise, real-time location data on virtually all Americans who own a mobile phone, the four major wireless carriers have responded to requests from a U.S. senator for more details about how the carriers are managing access to this extremely sensitive information. While three out of four providers said they had cancelled data sharing agreements with some of the offending companies, only one — Verizon — pledged to terminate all of them and initiate a wholesale review of their location data-sharing practices.
At issue are companies known in the wireless industry as “location aggregators,” entities that manage requests for real-time customer location data for a variety of purposes, such as roadside assistance and emergency response. These aggregators are supposed to obtain customer consent before divulging such information, but several recent incidents show that this third-party trust model is fundamentally broken.
On May 10, 2018, The New York Times broke the story that a little-known data broker named Securus was selling local police forces around the country the ability to look up the precise location of any cell phone across all of the major U.S. mobile networks.
Then it emerged that Securus had been hacked, its database of hundreds of law enforcement officer usernames and passwords plundered. We also learned that Securus’ data was ultimately obtained from a company called 3Cinteractive, which in turn obtained its data through a California-based location tracking firm called LocationSmart.
On May 17, KrebsOnSecurity broke the news of research by Carnegie Mellon University PhD student Robert Xiao, who discovered that a LocationSmart try-before-you-buy opt-in demo of the company’s technology was wide open — allowing real-time lookups from anyone on anyone’s mobile device — without any sort of authentication, consent or authorization.
LocationSmart disabled its demo page shortly after that story. By that time, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) had already sent letters to AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon, asking them to detail any agreements to share real-time customer location data with third-party data aggregation firms.
AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon all said they had terminated data-sharing agreements with Securus. In a written response (PDF) to Sen. Wyden, Sprint declined to share any information about third-parties with which it may share customer location data, and it was the only one of the four carriers that didn’t say it was terminating any data-sharing agreements.
T-Mobile and Verizon each said they both share real-time customer data with two companies — LocationSmart and another firm called Zumigo, noting that these companies in turn provide services to a total of approximately 75 other customers.
Verizon emphasized that Zumigo — unlike LocationSmart — has never offered any kind of mobile location information demo service via its site. Nevertheless, Verizon said it had decided to terminate its current location aggregation arrangements with both LocationSmart and Zumigo.
“Verizon has notified these location aggregators that it intends to terminate their ability to access and use our customers’ location data as soon as possible,” wrote Karen Zacharia, Verizon’s chief privacy officer. “We recognize that location information can provide many pro-consumer benefits. But our review of our location aggregator program has led to a number of internal questions about how best to protect our customers’ data. We will not enter into new location aggregation arrangements unless and until we are comfortable that we can adequately protect our customers’ location data through technological advancements and/or other practices.”
In its response (PDF), AT&T made no mention of any other company besides Securus. AT&T indicated it had no intention to stop sharing real-time location data with third-parties, stating that “without an aggregator, there would be no practical and efficient method to facilitate requests across different carriers.”
Sen. Wyden issued a statement today calling on all wireless companies to follow Verizon’s lead.
“Verizon deserves credit for taking quick action to protect its customers’ privacy and security,” Wyden said. “After my investigation and follow-up reports revealed that middlemen are selling Americans’ location to the highest bidder without their consent, or making it available on insecure web portals, Verizon did the responsible thing and promptly announced it was cutting these companies off. In contrast, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint seem content to continuing to sell their customers’ private information to these shady middle men, Americans’ privacy be damned.”
Wyden’s letter asked the carriers to detail any arrangements they may have to validate that location aggregators are in fact gaining customer consent before divulging the information. Both Sprint and T-Mobile said location aggregators were contractually obligated to obtain customer consent before sharing the data, but they provided few details about any programs in place to review claims and evidence that an aggregator has obtained consent.
AT&T and Verizon each said they have processes for periodically auditing consent practices by the location aggregators, but that Securus’ unauthorized use of the data somehow flew under the radar.
AT&T noted that it began its relationship with LocationSmart in October 2012 (back when it was known by another name, “Locaid”). Under that agreement, LocationSmart’s customer 3Cinteractive would share location information with prison officials through prison telecommunications provider Securus, which operates a prison inmate calling service.
But AT&T said after Locaid was granted that access, Securus began abusing it to sell an unauthorized “on-demand service” that allowed police departments to learn the real-time location data of any customer of the four major providers.
“We now understand that, despite AT&T’s requirements to obtain customer consent, Securus did not in fact obtain customer consent before collecting customers’ location information for its on-demand service,” wrote Timothy P. McKone, executive vice president of federal relations at AT&T. “Instead, Securus evidently relied upon law enforcement’s representation that it had appropriate legal authority to obtain customer location data, such as a warrant, court order, or other authorizing document as a proxy for customer consent.”
McKone’s letter downplays the severity of the Securus incident, saying that the on-demand location requests “comprised a tiny fraction — less than two tenths of one percent — of the total requests Securus submitted for the approved inmate calling service. AT&T has no reason to believe that there are other instances of unauthorized access to AT&T customer location data.”
Blake Reid, an associate clinical professor at the University of Colorado School of Law, said the entire mobile location-sharing debacle shows the futility of transitive trust.
“The carriers basically have arrangements with these location aggregators that contractually say, ‘You agree not to use this access we provide you without getting customer consent’,” Reid said. “Then that aggregator has a relationship with another aggregator, and so on. So what we then have is this long chain of trust where no one has ever consented to the provision of the location information, and yet it ends up getting disclosed anyhow.”
Curious how we got here and what Congress or federal regulators might do about the current situation? Check out last month’s story, Why Is Your Location Data No Longer Private.
Google in the coming weeks is expected to fix a location privacy leak in two of its most popular consumer products. New research shows that Web sites can run a simple script in the background that collects precise location data on people who have a Google Home or Chromecast device installed anywhere on their local network.
Craig Young, a researcher with security firm Tripwire, said he discovered an authentication weakness that leaks incredibly accurate location information about users of both the smart speaker and home assistant Google Home, and Chromecast, a small electronic device that makes it simple to stream TV shows, movies and games to a digital television or monitor.
Young said the attack works by asking the Google device for a list of nearby wireless networks and then sending that list to Google’s geolocation lookup services.
“An attacker can be completely remote as long as they can get the victim to open a link while connected to the same Wi-Fi or wired network as a Google Chromecast or Home device,” Young told KrebsOnSecurity. “The only real limitation is that the link needs to remain open for about a minute before the attacker has a location. The attack content could be contained within malicious advertisements or even a tweet.”
It is common for Web sites to keep a record of the numeric Internet Protocol (IP) address of all visitors, and those addresses can be used in combination with online geolocation tools to glean information about each visitor’s hometown or region. But this type of location information is often quite imprecise. In many cases, IP geolocation offers only a general idea of where the IP address may be based geographically.
This is typically not the case with Google’s geolocation data, which includes comprehensive maps of wireless network names around the world, linking each individual Wi-Fi network to a corresponding physical location. Armed with this data, Google can very often determine a user’s location to within a few feet (particularly in densely populated areas), by triangulating the user between several nearby mapped Wi-Fi access points. [Side note: Anyone who’d like to see this in action need only to turn off location data and remove the SIM card from a smart phone and see how well navigation apps like Google’s Waze can still figure out where you are].
“The difference between this and a basic IP geolocation is the level of precision,” Young said. “For example, if I geolocate my IP address right now, I get a location that is roughly 2 miles from my current location at work. For my home Internet connection, the IP geolocation is only accurate to about 3 miles. With my attack demo however, I’ve been consistently getting locations within about 10 meters of the device.”
Young said a demo he created (a video of which is below) is accurate enough that he can tell roughly how far apart his device in the kitchen is from another device in the basement.
“I’ve only tested this in three environments so far, but in each case the location corresponds to the right street address,” Young said. “The Wi-Fi based geolocation works by triangulating a position based on signal strengths to Wi-Fi access points with known locations based on reporting from people’s phones.”
Beyond leaking a Chromecast or Google Home user’s precise geographic location, this bug could help scammers make phishing and extortion attacks appear more realistic. Common scams like fake FBI or IRS warnings or threats to release compromising photos or expose some secret to friends and family could abuse Google’s location data to lend credibility to the fake warnings, Young notes.
“The implications of this are quite broad including the possibility for more effective blackmail or extortion campaigns,” he said. “Threats to release compromising photos or expose some secret to friends and family could use this to lend credibility to the warnings and increase their odds of success.”
When Young first reached out to Google in May about his findings, the company replied by closing his bug report with a “Status: Won’t Fix (Intended Behavior)” message. But after being contacted by KrebsOnSecurity, Google changed its tune, saying it planned to ship an update to address the privacy leak in both devices. Currently, that update is slated to be released in mid-July 2018.
According to Tripwire, the location data leak stems from poor authentication by Google Home and Chromecast devices, which rarely require authentication for connections received on a local network.
“We must assume that any data accessible on the local network without credentials is also accessible to hostile adversaries,” Young wrote in a blog post about his findings. “This means that all requests must be authenticated and all unauthenticated responses should be as generic as possible. Until we reach that point, consumers should separate their devices as best as is possible and be mindful of what web sites or apps are loaded while on the same network as their connected gadgets.”
Earlier this year, KrebsOnSecurity posted some basic rules for securing your various “Internet of Things” (IoT) devices. That primer lacked one piece of advice that is a bit more technical but which can help mitigate security or privacy issues that come with using IoT systems: Creating your own “Intranet of Things,” by segregating IoT devices from the rest of your local network so that they reside on a completely different network from the devices you use to browse the Internet and store files.
“A much easier solution is to add another router on the network specifically for connected devices,” Young wrote. “By connecting the WAN port of the new router to an open LAN port on the existing router, attacker code running on the main network will not have a path to abuse those connected devices. Although this does not by default prevent attacks from the IoT devices to the main network, it is likely that most naïve attacks would fail to even recognize that there is another network to attack.”
For more on setting up a multi-router solution to mitigating threats from IoT devices, check out this in-depth post on the subject from security researcher and blogger Steve Gibson.