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US distrust of Huawei linked in part to malicious software update in 2012 • The Register

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Suspicions about the integrity of Huawei products among US government officials can be attributed in part to a 2012 incident involving a Huawei software update that compromised the network of a major Australian telecom company with malicious code, according to a report published by Bloomberg.

The report, based on interviews with seven former officials, some identified and some not, says that Optus, a division of Singapore Telecommunications Ltd., had its systems compromised through a malicious update in 2012 – a claim the company disputes.

“The update appeared legitimate, but it contained malicious code that worked much like a digital wiretap, reprogramming the infected equipment to record all the communications passing through it before sending the data to China, [the sources] said,” Bloomberg’s report explains.

After several days, the snooping code reportedly deleted itself, but Australia’s intelligence services decided China’s intelligence services were responsible, “having infiltrated the ranks of Huawei technicians who helped maintain the equipment and pushed the update to the telecom’s systems.”

Australian intelligence is said to have shared details about the incident with American intelligence agencies, which subsequently identified a similar attack from China using Huawei hardware in the US.

The report seeks to provide an evidentiary basis for efforts by the US and other governments to shun Huawei hardware amid global 5G network upgrades and to give that business to non-Chinese firms.

Notably absent is any claim that Huawei leadership knew of this supposed effort to subvert Optus’ network. “Bloomberg didn’t find evidence that Huawei’s senior leadership was involved with or aware of the attack,” the report says.

In short, the claim is that China’s intelligence agencies compromised an Australian network by placing agents within Huawei, an ongoing risk for any number of prominent global technology firms.

‘Australia’s slander’

China has denied “Australia’s slander.” It’s perhaps worth noting that The Register is unaware of any nation owning up to recent intelligence activities. Even Russian President Vladimir Putin, faced with compelling evidence unearthed by investigative news service Bellingcat of the FSB’s attempt to poison political opposition leader Alexey Navalny, denied that Russian agents had anything to do with Navalny’s near-fatal poisoning.

But the statement from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs is unusual in that it suggests mutual guilt more than wounded innocence: “Australia’s slander on China carrying out cyberattacks and espionage penetration are purely a move like a thief crying to catch a thief.”

In other words, everyone spies and Australia has poor manners to air its grievances in public. Consider that the US National Security Agency by 2010 had already penetrated Huawei’s network to spy on founder Ren Zhengfei and associates, based on prior concern that Huawei could create backdoors in its equipment. That’s according to documents made available by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

The Register asked Huawei to comment and a spokesperson provided us with a copy of the remarks John Suffolk, Huawei’s global cybersecurity officer, offered to Bloomberg.

“[W]ithout specifics, it is not possible to give you a detailed assessment as each operator is different,” said Suffolk in an emailed statement. “It is fanciful to suggest that ‘Huawei’s software updates can push whatever code they want into those machines, whenever they want, without anyone knowing.’ It does not work that way.”

“It is fanciful to suggest engineers can reprogram the code as they have no access to source code, cannot compile the source code to produce binaries and the binaries have tamper proofing mechanisms within them. We are leaders in encouraging governments, customers and the security ecosystem to review our products, look for design weaknesses, provide feedback on vulnerabilities or poor code examples and it is this openness and transparency that acts as a great protector.”

“Finally no tangible evidence has ever been produced of any intentional wrongdoing of any kind.”

But this isn’t about evidence presented in a public forum or court room. Huawei is not on trial, at least in this context.

Yes, there was that dustup with its CFO, resolved to avoid a serious diplomatic row, the US government’s trade secret theft lawsuit against Huawei based on T-Mobile’s civil lawsuit, and claims that Huawei screwed over a California IT consultancy and backdoored a network in Pakistan.

Can’t catch a break

Even so, Huawei’s guilt or innocence as it applies to helping China spy is largely irrelevant. As far as the US is concerned, Huawei can’t be trusted because the Chinese government could, in theory, make demands the company could not refuse. The feds are worried about precrime, to use the terminology of Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report, a story about a police unit that apprehends people predicted to commit crimes.

The US Federal Communications Commission recently used future concerns, alongside past behavior and secret accusations, to ban another Chinese firm from operating in the US. In October, the FCC announced that China Telecom Americas could no longer do business in America. The agency said it based its decision [PDF] partly on classified evidence provided by national security agencies.

But it also said “the totality of the extensive unclassified record alone” was sufficient to justify its decision. The agency concluded that China Telecom Americas could potentially be forced to comply with Chinese government requests and company officials have demonstrated a lack of candor and trustworthiness to US officials.

And trust is key. The changeable nature of software and the possibility of concealed hardware functions make it inherently risky to accept IT systems from untrusted sources. The risk can be mitigated through source code inspection, auditing, and other precautions, but not completely.

Trust is an issue for everyone involved. In February, Bloomberg followed up on its controversial 2018 report of covert spy chips with word that similar snooping hardware was found in 2015 on the motherboards of servers made by US computer maker Supermicro, a claim the company disputed. The Register at the time spoke with a former executive at a prominent chip making firm who insisted such devices exist and that he’d personally held some of them. We trust our source but still, more concrete proof would be nice.

In retrospect it seems obvious any intelligence agency with enough funds and know-how would want such a thing. And it’s difficult to believe no one has ever successfully deployed a surveillance chip or backdoored a system destined for a geopolitical rival. But the absence of samples that have been publicly dissected and analyzed means again, we’re left to interpret national-state shadowplay with hints and whispers.

Coincidentally, this state of affairs – where lack of trust means nation-based IT stacks – works just fine for companies based in the countries where they can make claims about spying behind closed doors and see government funding that puts their products in the place of ousted competitors.

We can only imagine the cheer that went out among network switch vendors when the FCC announced it would pay US telecom providers to rip and replace their Huawei gear. And given the ways in which China has tilted its market toward local firms, it might be fair to say turnabout is fair play, if anyone were actually concerned about fair play. ®

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Exclusive or not, this is one Clubhouse I was happy to leave | John Naughton

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In March 2020, a new app suddenly arrived on the block. It was called Clubhouse and described as a “social audio” app that enabled its users to have real-time conversations in virtual “rooms” that could accommodate groups large and small. For a time in that disrupted, locked-down spring, Clubhouse was what Michael Lewis used to call the “New New Thing”. “The moment we saw it,” burbled Andrew Chen of the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, “we were deeply excited. We believe Clubhouse will be a meaningful addition to the world, one that increases empathy and provides new ways for people to talk to each other (at a time when we need it more than ever).”

The app could not have come at a better time for social media, he continued. “It reinvents the category in all the right ways, from the content consumption experience to the way people engage each other, while giving power to its creators.” His firm put $12m of its (investors’) money behind Chen’s fantasies and followed up a year later with an investment that put a valuation of $1bn on Clubhouse, which would have made it one of the “unicorns” so prized by the Silicon Valley crowd.

This endorsement by an ostensibly serious venture capital firm undoubtedly helped to boost the hype about Clubhouse, but the main drivers – snobbery and elitism – had little to do with funding. In the beginning, for example, the app was only available for the iPhone (the BMW of the smartphone market) and membership was by invitation only. If you were lucky enough to be invited, then you could pass on an invitation to one friend. A generous colleague of mine extended hers to me and I went about signing up, until I discovered that the app unconditionally demanded access to all the contacts on my phone, whereupon I deleted it, as did my embarrassed colleague some time later.

Other invitees were more accommodating, though, and for a time Clubhouse grew like crazy. It had 600,000 registered users by December 2020 and 8.1m downloads by February 2021. In April 2021, Twitter approached it with a view to acquiring it for $4bn, but nothing came of that. And sometime after that the air began to leak out of the Clubhouse balloon. After months in which much of the chatter was about (and on) the platform, we somehow moved to a point where nobody talks about it any more. Yet Clubhouse still exists, has 10 million users and has raised more than $10m from investors. But now, in a move that smacks of desperation, it’s allowing its US users to share a link to a “live” room that enables non-members to listen in (but not to talk). And the web is alive with pieces trying to explain Clubhouse’s decline.

So what happened? A conjunction of lots of different things, probably. The most important was that vaccination programmes led to an easing of the Covid lockdowns. People who were no longer having to work from home were out and about again, talking to friends and colleagues in person. But other factors were at work too. For example, the decision to open the app to Android users in May 2021 somewhat dented the iPhone “exclusivity” that drove growth in 2020.

And, as always happens when user-generated content balloons online, abusive and unpleasant conversations proliferated. Many of the virtual rooms turned out not to be about discourse but celebrity-puffing or scamming.

As one critic put it: “So many rooms that advertise themselves as hosting big celebrities and names in the worlds of business and entertainment … turn out to be scammers … impersonating celebrities or giving a vague Ted Talk about entrepreneurship from random people who have never … set foot in the industry. Other rooms are often cover-ups for scam businesses.

“A big issue on the app were rooms that claimed to invite people with startup ideas to share with their peers and exchange advice and strategies. The rooms’ hosts would then buy the domain names these startups were looking for and sell them back to them at much higher prices to make a profit.” Clubhouse rooms became, wrote another critic, “like a late-night talkshow where celebrities come together and speak about their family, achievements, passions and plans”.

So how should we view the Clubhouse story? In the long view of history, the app might look like a shooting star, an object of brief wonder that briefly mesmerised a world afflicted with tech-induced attention-deficit disorder. A more prosaic, but possible more realistic, view is that it was just a tech solution looking for a social problem to “solve”. In other words, a typical product of Silicon Valley.

What I’ve been reading

On message
I Didn’t Want It to Be True, But the Medium Really Is the Message is an interesting New York Times op-ed by Ezra Klein.

Ministry of the environment
The late, great James Lovelock outlined the Gaia theory in the article I Speak for the Earth, which is republished on the Resurgence website.

Desperately seeking Susan
Seriously Susan is a terrifically inventive review by Melinda Harvey of Benjamin Moser’s biography of Susan Sontag on the Sydney Review of Books website.

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AI laser probe for prostate cancer enters clinical trials • The Register

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AI software capable of mapping tumor tissue more accurately to help surgeons treat and shrink prostate cancer using a laser-powered needle will soon be tested in real patients during clinical trials.

The National Cancer Institute estimated that approximately 12.6 percent of men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer at some point in their life. The risk for developing the disease rises over time for men over the age of 50. It’s one of the most curable forms of cancer, considering most cases are caught in the early stages due to regular screening tests.

Treatment for prostate cancer varies depending on the severity of the disease. Patients can undergo hormone therapy, chemotherapy, or surgery to remove tissue. Avenda Health, a medical startup founded in 2017, is developing a new type of treatment that is less invasive. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted an investigational device exemption (IDE) to the company’s invention this week, meaning it can now be used in a clinical study. 

Patients will need to have an MRI scan and a targeted fusion biopsy performed first. The data is processed by Avenda’s AI algorithms in its iQuest software to map where the cancerous cells are located within the prostate. Next, the computer vision-aided model will simulate where best to insert FocalPoint, a probe armed with a laser, to help surgeons treat the patient’s tumor. The heat from the laser gently heats the cancerous cells and kills them with goal of shrinking and removing the whole tumor.

focal_point_iquest_avenda

MRI images where cancer is mapped using iQuest software before and after treatment. Image Credit: Avenda Health

“Historically, prostate cancer treatments of surgery or radiation impacts critical structures like the urethra and nerves which control sexual and urinary function,” Avenda’s CEO and co-founder Shyam Natarajan told The Register. “Our focal laser ablation system, FocalPoint, which is powered by our AI-driven cancer margin software, iQuest, specifically targets tumor tissue and avoids healthy tissue. This means patients no longer lose control over these functions that are so common with traditional treatments, so quality of life is significantly improved.”

The treatment is only effective for men diagnosed with intermediate risk of prostate cancer, a classification that describes tumors being confined within the prostate only. Patients are considered high risk in cases where the cancer has spread beyond the prostate. 

“This is one of the benefits of the iQuest software. Not only can it map the cancer, but it also provides decision support for the physician as they determine the best course of treatment for an individual patient. Not every patient is going to be eligible for focal therapy, and it is important for the physician to distinguish between good focal therapy candidates and not.  iQuest provides useful insights for that decision making process,”  Natarajan said.

Avenda received FDA clearance for its FocalPoint device in 2020. The IDE approval brings the company one step closer to bringing their product to market after clinical trial testing, Brittany Berry-Pusey, co-founder and COO of Avenda, said in a statement. 

“This clinical trial will play a key role in advancing our breakthrough technology to improve prostate cancer care. With no new FDA approvals for the treatment of localized prostate cancer in more than four decades, we look forward to working alongside our clinical sites to collect the data necessary to bring iQuest and FocalPoint to market and into the patient care environment.”

Natarajan told us the company was aiming to begin clinical trials in 2023. ®

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US offers $10m reward for info on five Conti ransomware members

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Rewards for Justice shared a photo of someone it claims to be an associate of the ransomware gang and is offering a reward to identify him and four others.

The US Department of State is offering a $10m reward for any information on five malicious cyber actors who are believed to be high-ranking members of the Conti ransomware gang.

The US has been offering rewards for information on this ransomware gang since May, including a $5m reward for any intel that leads to the arrest of anyone conspiring or attempting to participate in a Conti attack.

Yesterday (11 August), the department’s Rewards for Justice programme shared an alleged photo of an associate of the ransomware gang. The department said on Twitter that it is “trying to put a name to the face” and believes the individual is the hacker known as “Target”.

Illustration showing an image of a man with four figures next to it. A reward offer for information on the Conti ransomware gang.

A request for information by the Rewards for Justice programme. Image: US Department of State/Rewards for Justice

Conti, also known as Wizard Spider, has been linked to a group believed to be based near St Petersburg, Russia. The US has labelled it a “Russian government-linked ransomware-as-a-service (RaaS) group”.

The group’s malware is believed to be responsible for more than 1,000 ransomware operations targeting critical infrastructure around the world, from law enforcement agencies to emergency medical services and dispatch centres.

In May 2021, the Conti group was behind the HSE ransomware incident that saw more than 80pc of the IT infrastructure of healthcare services across Ireland impacted. It was said to be the most serious cyberattack ever to hit the State’s critical infrastructure.

The US Department of State previously said the Conti ransomware variant is the “costliest strain of ransomware” ever documented. The FBI estimates that, as of January 2022, there had been more than 1,000 victims of attacks associated with Conti ransomware, with victim payouts exceeding $150m.

When Russia began its invasion of Ukraine earlier this year, the Conti group declared its allegiance to the Russian government. Shortly after, a Ukrainian researcher took the cybersecurity world by storm after publishing more than 60,000 internal messages of the ransomware gang.

Raj Samani, chief scientist at cybersecurity firm Rapid7, said the latest reward offer is just “the tip of the iceberg as enforcement agencies make “considerable strides” through public-private collaboration to hold cybercriminals to account.

“Announcing a reward and revealing the details of Conti members sends a message to would-be criminals that cybercrime is anything but risk-free,” said Samani.

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