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Age discrimination case against IBM in Texas leaks emails, docs via bad redaction • The Register

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An IBM age discrimination lawsuit filed in Texas last year has become a bit less opaque after The Register found an inadequately redacted court document that discusses plans to present evidence obtained from company emails and documents.

The case involves 16 former Big Blue employees who claim “IBM’s highest executives created and attempted to conceal a multi-faceted ‘fire-and-hire’ scheme with the ultimate goal of making IBM’s workforce younger.”

Since the publication of a 2018 report by ProPublica and Mother Jones alleging systematic efforts within IBM to get rid of older employees and findings to that effect by the United States’ Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), there have been multiple lawsuits against IBM claiming that the IT titan engaged in a pattern of discriminatory behavior.

There’s a case underway in New York involving several former IBM employees. Last April, another case in Texas involving plaintiff Jonathan Langley was unexpectedly dismissed – and presumably settled.

The current Texas claim, Kinney et al v. International Business Machines Corporation, is being handled by some of the same attorneys in the Langley case and The Register understands that some previously unearthed executive communications could play a role in the latest litigation.

The Kinney case faces two legal obstacles. The first involves convincing the judge that employees’ arbitration agreements with IBM were the result of fraud and thus should not prevent them from suing in court.

The second involves convincing the judge that the plaintiffs should be able to sue in Texas rather than in the places where they worked, an argument the judge rejected in a previous ruling that the plaintiffs’ legal team is trying to reverse.

Someone’s an April fool

An April court filing, a reply to IBM’s partial motion to dismiss the case because some plaintiffs don’t reside in Texas, provides the court with “a snapshot of IBM documents that support a denial of IBM’s jurisdictional challenge.”

The filing is supposed to be redacted, with black bars through various sensitive passages in the text. But the redaction, typically done with a redaction tool in an application like Adobe Acrobat Pro, didn’t take. The underlying text can be viewed by copying the obscured passage and pasting the results into a word-processing application.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys present the judge with a preview of their evidence against Big Blue. Take the passage below, for example, which seeks to illustrate that Texas is an appropriate venue for the case by claiming that IBM’s hiring strategy focused on locations where younger workers might be hired more easily. It quotes internal IBM documents that will be used in evidence and were supposed to be redacted for now.

We’ve replaced the document’s intended redactions with strikethrough text.

The court filing asserts that IBM executives deliberately orchestrated the simultaneous firing and hiring of several thousand employees at strategic locations to meet their specific goals. It continued, quoting internal email messages:

The filing further alleges that IBM’s location-based hiring strategy is being driven by “approximately six ‘senior level decision makers.'” It mentions another email chain that talks about using computer modeling to make “broad brush recommendations for remix/reskill” efforts, characterizing those terms as code for making business units younger overall.

And it cites IBM spreadsheet column headings that “can reasonably be expected to correlate with – or even serve as a dog whistle for – age: ‘Band‘ level, ‘Time_In_Band_Yrs,‘ ‘Salary Band Date,‘ ‘Tenure,‘ ‘PBC_Date,‘ ‘Tech Capability Gap,‘ and ‘Tech Capability Expected Level.‘”

The most recent filing in the Texas case comes from IBM, which argued about two weeks ago that there’s no basis for the court to reverse its decision to transfer the case to jurisdictions appropriate for the plaintiffs.

IBM, still dealing with an email disruption that was supposed to be fixed by now, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The company in the past has denied discriminating on the basis of age. ®

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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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Meditation app Calm sacks one-fifth of staff | Meditation

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The US-based meditation app Calm has laid off 20% of its workforce, becoming the latest US tech startup to announce job cuts.

The firm’s boss, David Ko, said the company, which has now axed about 90 people from its 400-person staff, was “not immune” to the economic climate. “In building out our strategic and financial plan, we revisited the investment thesis behind every project and it became clear that we need to make changes,” he said in a memo to staff.

“I can assure you that this was not an easy decision, but it is especially difficult for a company like ours whose mission is focused on workplace mental health and wellness.”

The Calm app, founded in 2012, offers guided meditation and bedtime stories for people of all ages. It received a surge of downloads triggered by the 2020 Covid lockdowns. By the end of that year, the software company said the app had been downloaded more than 100 million times globally and had amassed over 4 million paying subscribers.

Investors valued the firm, which said it had been profitable since 2016, at $2bn.

In the memo, Ko went on: “We did not come to this decision lightly, but are confident that these changes will help us prioritize the future, focus on growth and become a more efficient organization.”

More than 500 startups have laid off staff this year, according to layoffs.fyi, a website that tracks such announcements.

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Let there be ambient light sensing, without data theft • The Register

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Six years after web security and privacy concerns surfaced about ambient light sensors in mobile phones and notebooks, browser boffins have finally implemented defenses.

The W3C, everyone’s favorite web standards body, began formulating an Ambient Light Events API specification back in 2012 to define how web browsers should handle data and events from ambient light sensors (ALS). Section 4 of the draft spec, “Security and privacy considerations,” was blank. It was a more carefree time.

Come 2015, the spec evolved to include acknowledgement of the possibility that ALS might allow data correlation and device fingerprinting, to the detriment of people’s privacy. And it suggested that browser makers might consider event rate limiting as a potential mitigation.

By 2016, it became clear that allowing web code to interact with device light sensors entailed privacy and security risks beyond fingerprinting. Dr Lukasz Olejnik, an independent privacy researcher and consultant, explored the possibilities in a 2016 blog post.

Olejnik cited a number of ways in which ambient light sensor readings might be abused, including data leakage, profiling, behavioral analysis, and various forms of cross-device communication.

He described a few proof-of-concept attacks, devised with the help of security researcher Artur Janc, in a 2017 post and delved into more detail in a 2020 paper [PDF].

“The attack we devised was a side-channel leak, conceptually very simple, taking advantage of the optical properties of human skin and its reflective properties,” Olejnik explained in his paper.

“Skin reflectance only accounts for the 4-7 percent emitted light but modern display screens emit light with significant luminance. We exploited these facts of nature to craft an attack that reasoned about the website content via information encoded in the light level and conveyed via the user skin, back to the browsing context tracking the light sensor readings.”

It was this technique that enabled the proof-of-concept attacks like stealing web history through inferences made from CSS changes and stealing cross origin resources, such as images or the contents of iframes.

Snail-like speed

Browser vendors responded in various ways. In May 2018, with the release of Firefox 60, Mozilla moved access to the W3C proximity and ambient light APIs behind flags, and applied further limitations in subsequent Firefox releases.

Apple simply declined to implement the API in WebKit, along with a number of other capabilities. Both Apple and Mozilla currently oppose a proposal for a generic sensor API.

Google took what Olejnik described his paper as a “more nuanced” approach, limiting the precision of sensor data.

But those working on the W3C specification and on the browsers implementing the spec recognized that such privacy protections should be formalized, to increase the likelihood the API will be widely adopted and used.

So they voted to make the imprecision of ALS data normative (standard for browsers) and to require the camera access permission as part of the ALS spec.

Those changes finally landed in the ALS spec this week. As a result, Google and perhaps other browser makers may choose to make the ALS API available by default rather than hiding it behind a flag or ignoring it entirely. ®



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