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Texts from HMRC could show taxpayers’ location • The Register

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Exclusive Britain’s tax collection agency asked a contractor to use the SS7 mobile phone signalling protocol that would make available location data of alleged tax defaulters, a High Court lawsuit has revealed.

Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs had the potential to use SS7 to silently request that tax debtors’ mobile phones give up location data over the past six years, according to papers filed in an obscure court case about a contract dispute.

SMS provider MMGRP Ltd, operators of HMRC’s former 60886 text messaging service, filed a suit against the tax agency after losing the contract to send text messages on its behalf. Court documents obtained by The Register show that the secret surveillance capability was baked into otherwise mundane bulk SMS sending carried out by MMGRP Ltd.

The tax collection agency, which has the power to retrospectively change laws, had been using SMS reminder messages as an enforcement tool.

We asked HMRC for comment, posing a series of questions including how long had it used HLR look-up techniques against taxpayers; did HMRC obtain necessary warrants to carry out HLR lookups and, if so, under what legislation and from which courts; how many times it had used this technique; under what circumstances it was deployed; and is the capability present in a contract with its new supplier.

In response, the Brit tax collection agency admitted to using home location register (HLR) checks, although it maintained: “HLR checks were used solely to check if a customer’s phone number was still active before sending a SMS message.”

What the papers say

The since-settled lawsuit over an alleged breach of public procurement laws was filed by the company which operated HMRC’s former 60886 SMS sender number and brought the HMRC surveillance powers to light.

MMGRP sued the HMRC last summer alleging breach of public contract regulations after the tax authority awarded a multi-million pound deal to one of MMGRP’s rivals in March.

Particulars of claim filed in the High Court in July last year by the SMS provider said:

The document also said the agency had asked for the capability of doing more than merely verifying that tax demands sent by text had been delivered, quoting the contract between the pair as requiring, under “Existing Services”:

In its defence document filed a month later, on 19 August last year, HMRC’s legal team admitted that part of MMGRP’s case, meaning they did not contest its truth.

The Reg wonders why HMRC did not dispute this is the legal papers, and and why the capability was baked into the contract the tax collector was not going to use it.

Describing the contract outlined in the lawsuit as “slightly odd”, Professor Alan Woodward, the University of Surrey-based compsci expert, told The Register: “I can see how this might be required if HMRC must later prove that a letter was received and read in a specific jurisdiction. Someone they are taking to court might claim they never received it or that it had no effect where they were when they were served with some form of formal notice.”

He added: “As with other powers, provided there is suitable legislation, oversight and transparency then it may have a place in chasing some of the tax evaders.”

GSM security expert Tobias Engel told The Register this location-finding service looked like a natural bolt-on to the SMS systems MMGRP was providing to HMRC, characterising it as a fairly routine service feature.

“A few years back this was still very easy,” said Engel, “since getting SMS routing information (the infamous so-called ‘HLR lookup’) already revealed a coarse location of the phone, and that same routing information could then be used to query the network for a more precise location.”

How does it work?

Signalling System Number 7 (SS7) is the signalling protocol used by mobile phone networks to route Short Messaging Service (SMS) messages.

Using SS7 to detect where messages were received is relatively simple. In essence SS7 tells mobile networks where to send messages based on which mast a particular phone number was last connected to. A register of those connections is kept and can be queried.

Thus the technique is called Home Location Register (HLR) lookup. Commands exist for querying a network’s HLR for a particular Mobile Station Integrated Services Digital Network number (MSISDN, or “phone number” to you and I). If you know the location of a mast where that MSISDN was last connected, you’ve got a radius of where the phone could be located. Cross-referencing that radius with multiple masts helps triangulate a specific phone, and thus its user.

This is the data used by police forces and others to locate criminals by tracking their mobile phones.

Bitter contract dispute

MMGRP’s lawsuit came about after HMRC had repeatedly extended the contract following its original expiry date of July 2020.

HMRC leaned heavily on the SMS provider for those short-duration extensions, raising the spectre of “reputational damage to HMRC, to outer [sic] Government Departments who utilise the service and ultimately to [MMG] as a provider” if the company didn’t agree.

For its part, MMGRP admitted that director Daniel Layton, “in the heat of the moment” threatened to shut off HMRC’s SMS services altogether when the tax authority told him it was awarding the contract to another company instead of renewing at the end of its existing term in early 2021.

“Mr Layton rapidly withdrew that threat,” the company’s particulars of claim added.

Ultimately the service was awarded to rival business IMImobile after lots of short-term extensions with MMGRP.

MMRGP owns the old HMRC 60886 SMS shortcode, which is why taxpayers are no longer advised to look out for messages from that number.

The court case has since been settled. HMRC does not say on its website that it makes use of HLR technology to identify taxpayers’ locations – but does list a range of ways in which it might try to contact them. ®

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Dublin’s Circit raises €6.5m for open banking platform

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CEO David Heath told SiliconRepublic.com that Circit is to auditing verification what Stripe is to payments.

Irish open banking start-up Circit has raised €6.5m in funding for its financial auditing management platform.

The Dublin-based fintech has developed a platform for managing financial auditing used by banks, solicitors and brokers. Circit is regulated by the Central Bank of Ireland as an account information service provider under PSD2 – the EU regulation for open banking.

Future Human

Investment in this Series A round was led by New York-based Aquiline Technology Growth and Luxembourg-based MiddleGame Ventures, both of which are fintech-focused VC firms.

CEO David Heath told SiliconRepublic.com in an interview that a number of team members in Circit have come from auditing backgrounds in big firms who think the industry, which is going through its “biggest reform in decades”, could do with more digitalisation.

“We saw a lot of manual processes that were going on that we felt could be automated, which would free us up to do more valuable work for the client,” said Heath, who was previously an auditor with Grant Thornton and a director with E-Commerce Accounting.

“Rather than wait for regulators to prescribe the change, we proactively re-imagined and designed a platform that gives auditors a new way of obtaining independent audit evidence that both reduces risk and cuts verification time from weeks to minutes.”

Heath said the open banking platform frees up auditors from manual and time-consuming processes, providing automation for third-party confirmations and verified insights on bank and digital asset transactions.

“Our aim is to help auditors become highly skilled in addressing the future risks facing businesses and the economy,” he added. “In a way, what Stripe is for payments, Circit is for auditing verification.”

Founded in 2017, Circit counts more than 200 audit businesses including Deloitte and PwC among its clients. While headquartered in Dublin, it has operations in the UK and Spain, and clients all over Europe, the United States, Australia and the greater APAC region.

Circit grew significantly during the pandemic, which saw its workforce shoot up from just seven to a team of 35. It raised €1.1m in a July 2020 funding round to accelerate its international expansion and create 20 new jobs.

Last year, Circit acquired UK-based Audapio, a tech company that builds data analytics tools for financial auditing and fraud monitoring. In February, it signed a deal with Danske Bank UK to integrate its tech with the bank’s audit confirmation response operations.

Heath told SiliconRepublic.com that the latest funding will be used to invest in further developing the Circit platform and pushing for the company’s growth internationally.

Patrick Pinschmidt, general partner for MiddleGame Ventures, said that while Circit is addressing a “persistent pain point” by digitising the audit confirmation process, he sees broader use cases for the company’s tech.

“The combination of open banking tools and the integration of financial institutions and corporates into Circit’s solution will lower costs and improve transparency as the company helps digitise a cross-section of workflows for a global customer base.”

Pinschmidt, along with Giovanni Nani of Aquiline Technology Growth, will join Circit’s board as a result of the investment to help scale the company’s international expansion.

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YouTube removes more than 9,000 channels relating to Ukraine war | YouTube

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YouTube has taken down more than 70,000 videos and 9,000 channels related to the war in Ukraine for violating content guidelines, including removal of videos that referred to the invasion as a “liberation mission”.

The platform is hugely popular in Russia, where, unlike some of its US peers, it has not been shut down despite hosting content from opposition figures such as Alexei Navalny. YouTube has also been able to operate in Russia despite cracking down on pro-Kremlin content that has broken guidelines including its major violent events policy, which prohibits denying or trivialising the invasion.

Since the conflict began in February, YouTube has taken down channels including that of the pro-Kremlin journalist Vladimir Solovyov. Channels associated with Russia’s Ministries of Defence and Foreign Affairs have also been temporarily suspended from uploading videos in recent months for describing the war as a “liberation mission”.

YouTube’s chief product officer, Neal Mohan, said: “We have a major violent events policy and that applies to things like denial of major violent events: everything from the Holocaust to Sandy Hook. And of course, what’s happening in Ukraine is a major violent event. And so we’ve used that policy to take unprecedented action.”

In an interview with the Guardian, Mohan added that YouTube’s news content on the conflict had received more than 40m views in Ukraine alone.

“The first and probably most paramount responsibility is making sure that people who are looking for information about this event can get accurate, high-quality, credible information on YouTube,” he said. “The consumption of authoritative channels on our platform has grown significantly, of course in Ukraine, but also in countries surrounding Ukraine, Poland, and also within Russia itself.”

YouTube did not provide a breakdown of the taken-down content and channels but Mohan said much of it represented Kremlin narratives about the invasion. “I don’t have the specific numbers, but you can imagine a lot of it being the narratives that are coming from Russian government, or Russian actors on behalf of the Russian government,” he said.

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YouTube has an estimated 90 million users in Russia, although it no longer allows advertising on the platform in the country. The decision by YouTube’s parent company, Google, has drawn protests from Navalny, who said well-targeted ads helped counteract Kremlin propaganda.

“YouTube remains the largest video-sharing site up and running in Russia itself,” said Mohan. “So YouTube is a place where Russian citizens can get uncensored information about the war, including from many of the same authoritative channels that we all have access to outside of the country. We remain an important platform for Russian citizens themselves as this crisis continues to evolve.”

Last week, the Russian minister for digital development, Maksut Shadaev, said the country would not block YouTube, despite disputes over content that have resulted in the platform being fined in court for not removing banned videos.

Shadaev indicated that blocking Russia’s most popular social media platform would affect users. “We are not planning to close YouTube,” the minister said. “Above all, when we restrict something, we should clearly understand that our users won’t suffer.”

YouTube has also placed a worldwide ban on channels associated with Russian state media, including Russia Today and Sputnik. Facebook and Instagram are banned in Russia and access to Twitter has been restricted, in response to the platforms’ own bans on Russian state-owned media.

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Russian-backed rulers of Costa Rican hacktocracy? • The Register

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In brief The notorious Russian-aligned Conti ransomware gang has upped the ante in its attack against Costa Rica, threatening to overthrow the government if it doesn’t pay a $20 million ransom. 

Costa Rican president Rodrigo Chaves said that the country is effectively at war with the gang, who in April infiltrated the government’s computer systems, gaining a foothold in 27 agencies at various government levels. The US State Department has offered a $15 million reward leading to the capture of Conti’s leaders, who it said have made more than $150 million from 1,000+ victims.

Conti claimed this week that it has insiders in the Costa Rican government, the AP reported, warning that “We are determined to overthrow the government by means of a cyber attack, we have already shown you all the strength and power, you have introduced an emergency.” 

Experts who spoke to the AP said they doubt actual regime change is likely, or the goal; Emsisoft analyst Brett Callow told the newswire that the threats are simply noise, and not to be taken seriously.

Callow may be right: News unfolding late this week suggests that Conti has gone offline, and may be breaking into several subsidiary groups. Its political ambitions in Costa Rica may just be a distraction, albeit one that could also turn a tidy profit. 

NSA: Trust us, no post-quantum encryption backdoors

The NSA wants to ease everyone’s concerns now: Even though it’s been involved in the US government’s post-quantum encryption research, the spy agency won’t have a backdoor.

Speaking to Bloomberg while discussing the National Institute for Standards and Technology’s post-quantum encryption competition, NSA Director of Cybersecurity (and Christmas-tree hacker) Rob Joyce said the new standards being developed are so strong that “there are no backdoors.” 

That would be a departure from previous encryption standards, which the NSA is believed to have had ready access to – until foreign spies acquired a copy of the backdoor software for their own use. The Biden administration recently announced additional funding for post-quantum encryption research, which aims to develop a form of protecting sensitive data so secure that even a quantum computer couldn’t crack it. 

The US has been actively working to develop encryption standards able to stand up to quantum computers for some time; Joyce claimed to Bloomberg that the NSA has had its own post-quantum encryption algorithms for several years, but those aren’t part of the NIST competition or available to the public. 

Despite spending tens of millions to address the security problems posed by quantum computers, the NSA also readily admits that it has no idea when, or even if, quantum computers able to crack modern public key cryptography will be realized. 

Frustrated IT admin gets seven years for deleting company databases

A former database administrator from China who wiped out his employer’s financial records has been sentenced to seven years in prison as a result.

Han Bing, who managed databases for Chinese real estate brokerage Lianjia, allegedly used his administrator access and root privileges to log in to two of Lianjia’s database servers, and two application servers, where he wiped financial data and related applications that took the company’s entire finance system offline, said Chinese news sources. 

Bing was reportedly disgruntled with his employer. He repeatedly warned them of security flaws in Lianjia’s finance system but felt ignored and undervalued, Lianjia’s ethics chief testified in court. Bing’s actions directly cost the company around $27,000 to recover data and rebuilt systems, but that doesn’t include the impact of lost business.

Bing was caught when Lianjia questioned everyone with access to the financial systems who had permissions to do what Bing did, of whom there were only five. The company claims that Bing acted suspiciously when asked to present his laptop for inspection, refusing to provide his password and claiming privacy privileges. 

The company said it suspected none of the laptops would show traces of the attack, but wanted to see how those it questioned would react. Investigators were later able to recover logs that pointed to Bing’s laptop’s IP and MAC addresses, and crosschecking logs against security footage put Bing in the right place at the right time to be the guilty party.

Apple patches a whopping 98 separate vulnerabilities

Apple has had a busy week: In a series of security updates released Monday and Wednesday, the iMaker patched 98 separate vulnerabilities out of its various software platforms.

The updates in question cover most every bit of software Apple makes: WatchOS, iOS and iPad OS, macOS Monterey, Big Sur and Catalina, Xcode, tvOS, Safari and iTunes for Windows were all included. Most of the vulnerabilities are from the past few months, but one common vulnerability and exposure (CVE) number covered by the updates dates back to 2015.

A few of the vulnerabilities covered by this week’s glut of Apple patches were rolled out previously for one system, but not others, as was the case with CVE-2022-22674 and -22675, which were patched in macOS Monterey, but not older versions, in April. Those vulnerabilities were reportedly being actively exploited at the time. 

Malicious applications executing arbitrary code with kernel privileges appears to be the most common type of hole being closed in this round of patches, though some do stand out, like Apple Watch bugs that could let apps capture the screen and bypass signature validation.

On iOS, vulnerabilities patched include websites being able to track users in Safari private browsing mode, while macOS users are being protected against apps being able to bypass Privacy preferences and access restricted portions of the filesystem.

Russian-backing Chaos ransomware variant is pure destruction

Cybersecurity firm Fortinet has discovered a variant of the Chaos ransomware that professes support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but appears to have no decryption key to rescue victims in Putin’s regime. 

The variant appears to have been compiled with Chaos’ GUI customization tool as recently as May 16, Fortinet said. The researchers said they’re unsure how the Chaos variant infects its victims, and said the variant doesn’t act any differently than typical Chaos ransomware. 

Like other forms of Chaos, it enumerates files on infected systems, and irrevocably damages any larger than around 2MB by filling it with random bytes. Anything smaller is encrypted, but recoverable with a key. Chaos also typically attacks commonly used directories like Desktop, Contacts, Downloads and Pictures, which are encrypted entirely. 

Here’s where this Chaos variant differs: It’s overtly political, and instead of offering contact info and a ransom demand, the malware simply says “Stop Ukraine War! F**k Zelensky! Dont [sic] go die for f**king clown,” along with a pair of links to sites claiming to belong to the Information Coordination Center, but offering no information otherwise. Files are also encrypted with a “f**kazov” extension, likely referring to the Ukrainian Azov Battalion.

Fortinet said that this Chaos variant appears unique in the sense it appears designed to be file-destroying malware. “This particular variant provides no such avenue as the attacker has no intent on providing a decryption tool … clearly, the motive behind this malware is destruction,” Fortinet said. 

The FortiGuard team behind the research warns that with its GUI, Chaos ransomware has become a commodity product, and it expects additional attacks of this variety to emerge. ®



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