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Australian cops, FBI created backdoored chat app, told crims it was secure — then listened to 9,000 users’ plots • The Register

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The Australian Federal Police (AFP) has revealed it was able to decrypt messages sent on a supposedly secure messaging app that was seeded into the organised crime community and promoted as providing snoop-proof comms.

The app was secretly built by the FBI, allowing law enforcement authorities to tune into conversations between about 9,000 users scattered around Earth.

Results in Australia alone have included over 500 warrants executed, 200-plus arrests, the seizure of AU$45m and 3.7 tonnes of drugs, and the prevention of a credible threat to murder a family of five. Over 4,000 AFP officers were involved in raids overnight, Australian time. Europol and the FBI will detail their use of the app in the coming hours.

The existence of the app — part of Operation Ironside — was revealed at a press conference in Australia today, where AFP commissioner Reece Kershaw detailed that informal beer-based meetings between members of the AFP and the FBI cooked up the idea of creating a backdoored app. The idea built on previous such efforts such as the Phantom Secure platform.

The app, called AN0M, was seeded into the organised crime community. The app could only run on mobile phones that could not make calls or send emails and could only communicate with other AN0M-equipped phones. The app required payment of a monthly fee.

“We were able to see every handset that was handed out and attribute it to individuals,” Kershaw said.

“Criminals needed to know a criminal to get a device,” said the AFP’s announcement of the operation. “The devices organically circulated and grew in popularity among criminals, who were confident of the legitimacy of the app because high-profile organised crime figures vouched for its integrity.”

But the software had a backdoor. Commissioner Kershaw said the organisation he leads “provided a technical capability to decrypt the messages,” and that as a result the force, the FBI, and Europol were able to observe communications among criminals in plain text.

“All they talk about is drugs and violence,” Kershaw said. “There was no attempt to hide behind any kind of codified information.” Intercepts included comments about planned murders and information about where and when speedboats would appear to shift contraband.

Kershaw said the surveillance enabled by the app is legal under the terms of Australia’s Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access) Act 2018. Law enforcement agencies in other jurisdictions also had legal cover for their use of the software.

However, some of those authorities were set to expire. That, and an operational decision to end the operation due to the opportunity to act on intelligence gathered using AN0M, led to today’s disclosures.

AN0M gave us insights we never had before

“The use of encrypted apps represents significant challenges,” Kershaw said. “AN0M gave us insights we never had before.”

The commissioner acknowledged that criminals will now adjust their behaviour as a result of this news, but suggested the AFP is working to develop similar capabilities. “This was a small platform. We know there are bigger ones. We will ensure we have the technology to disrupt criminals.”

FBI International Operations Division legal attaché for Australia, Anthony Russo, offered similar comments, saying “Criminals should be on notice that law enforcement are resolute to continue to evolve our capabilities.”

Kershaw somewhat smugly suggested that organised crime will take a while to bounce back from this operation, as intercepts of AN0M messages and conversations suggest that arrests made before the app was revealed have sparked internecine warfare and revenge plots. ®

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Flight Simulator says Windows 11 has been downloaded on Xbox • The Register

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Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner capsule, designed to carry astronauts to and from the International Space Station, will not fly until the first half of next year at the earliest, as the manufacturing giant continues to tackle an issue with the spacecraft’s valves.

Things have not gone smoothly for Boeing. Its Starliner program has suffered numerous setbacks and delays. Just in August, a second unmanned test flight was scrapped after 13 of 24 valves in the spacecraft’s propulsion system jammed. In a briefing this week, Michelle Parker, chief engineer of space and launch at Boeing, shed more light on the errant components.

Boeing believes the valves malfunctioned due to weather issues, we were told. Florida, home to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center where the Starliner is being assembled and tested, is known for hot, humid summers. Parker explained that the chemicals from the spacecraft’s oxidizer reacted with water condensation inside the valves to form nitric acid. The acidity corroded the valves, causing them to stick.

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NUI Galway part of global team that detected giant collision in space

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The joint study between NUI Galway, MIT and Cambridge used the ALMA telescope to provide a ‘window to the composition of young planets’.

An astronomer from NUI Galway is part of an international team that for the first time found evidence of a planet’s atmosphere being stripped away by a giant collision in a nearby star system.

At just 95 light years from Earth, the young star named HD172555 was witness to a massive collision between two newly-formed planets in its planetary system which are estimated to be about the size of Earth.

Using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) radio telescope in Chile, the joint study between NUI Galway, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and Cambridge University, studied the collision and unexpectedly detected a ring of carbon monoxide gas in the dust produced.

“This, for the first time, indicates that impacts can release large amounts of gas as well as dust, and that this gas can survive long enough to be detected,” said Dr Luca Matrà, an advisor for the study and lecturer at NUI Galway’s Centre for Astronomy.

Based on the amount of gas detected, the team was able to estimate that the size of the impact was likely massive and dated it to around 200,000 years ago. “This has the potential to revolutionise our understanding and observability of giant impacts,” Matrà added.

‘Window to composition of planets’

Findings of the study were published yesterday (20 October) in the journal Nature. It solves years of mystery around the unusual composition of dust observed by scientists in the region – indicating the aftermath of a planetary impact like the one that led to the formation of the moon.

The ALMA observatory used for the study consists of 66 radio telescopes working in unison. Ireland gained access to it after joining the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in 2018. In July, it was used in a study to understand how moons are formed.

Carbon monoxide gas was found orbiting in large amounts in the outer terrestrial planet region of the solar system. Matrà said that the amount of gas discovered is 10 to 20pc of the mass of Venus’ atmosphere, which “goes on to show the incredible sensitivity of the obersvations”.

“This puts forward gas observations as a viable detection method of terrestrial planet-forming collisions, and as a window to the composition of young planets,” she said.

Lead author Tajana Schneiderman of MIT said that this the first time scientists have detected the phenomenon of protoplanetary atmosphere being stripped away in a giant impact.

“Everyone is interested in observing a giant impact because we expect them to be common, but we don’t have evidence in a lot of systems for it. Now we have additional insight into these dynamics.”

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Netflix employees join wave of tech activism with walkout over Chappelle controversy | Netflix

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Employees at Netflix halted work on Wednesday and staged a protest outside the company’s Los Gatos, California, headquarters to condemn the streaming platform’s handling of complaints against Dave Chappelle’s new special.

The actions – which hundreds participated in – are the latest in a string of highly visible organizing efforts in the tech sector, as workers increasingly take their grievances about company policies and decisions public.

“Three years ago, a worker walkout at a major tech company would have been unthinkable,” said Veena Dubal, a labor law professor at the University of California, Hastings. “White-collar workers across the world now understand their labor power, and their ability to change the unethical practices of their employer by withholding their labor.”

On Monday, the transgender employee resources group behind the walkout released a list of specific demands of Netflix, including more funding for trans creators, recruiting more diverse employees and flagging anti-trans content on the platform.

Tensions at Netflix started in early October, when Netflix leaders doubled down on their support for the comedian Dave Chappelle following criticism from viewers, the queer media watchdog Glaad as well as some employees that Chappelle’s new show contained jokes that were anti-trans.

As internal criticism grew, Netflix leaders continued to defend the special. Reed Hastings, the co-chief executive, reportedly said on an internal message board: “I do believe that our commitment to artistic expression and pleasing our members is the right long-term choice for Netflix, and that we are on the right side, but only time will tell.”

Ted Sarandos, the other co-CEO, claimed in an email obtained by Variety: “While some employees disagree, we have a strong belief that content on screen doesn’t directly translate to real-world harm.” He added: “Adults can watch violence, assault and abuse – or enjoy shocking standup comedy – without it causing them to harm others.”

The Sarandos memo in particular fueled the walkout, according to the Hollywood Reporter. “The memo was very disrespectful,” a staffer told the outlet on the condition of anonymity. “It didn’t invite a robust conversation about this hard topic, and that’s normally how things go.”

Ted Sarandos, co-CEO of Netflix.
Ted Sarandos, co-CEO of Netflix. Photograph: Vickie Flores/EPA

Meanwhile, Netflix temporarily suspended Terra Field, a trans employee, who had tweeted that Chappelle “attacks the trans community, and the very validity of transness” and tied such comments to real-world violence. The company said Field was suspended because she had attended a meeting she was not invited to, but it later conceded she had “no ill intent”.

Netflix fired another trans worker who had been involved in organizing the walkout on allegations of leaking internal documents to the press.

“We understand this employee may have been motivated by disappointment and hurt with Netflix, but maintaining a culture of trust and transparency is core to our company,” a Netflix spokesperson told the Guardian about that decision last week.

The employee on Tuesday identified themself as B Pagels-Minor in an interview with the New York Times and denied “leaking sensitive information to the press”.

Social media event pages for the walkout have advertised a rally outside the Netflix headquarters in Los Angeles featuring public figures and speakers.

Staffers participating in the virtual walkout have vowed to halt work and focus on efforts to support the trans community.

‘A wave of worker walkouts’

In this week alone, there are protests at Netflix, the grocery delivery platform Instacart and at Facebook by its content moderators. Uber drivers globally went on strike in 2019. Hundreds of Amazon workers walked out to protest against the company’s climate policies in 2019.

Walkouts have become an increasingly common tactic among tech employees. “We are seeing a wave of them,” said Jess Kutch, executive director of the Solidarity Fund, which raises money to support employees engaged in workplace organizing – including at Netflix.

Google employees were among the first to deploy the strategy on a large scale in 2018, when more than 20,000 workers around the world walked out over the news that the company had given a $90m severance package to an executive who was forced to step down over sexual misconduct allegations (which he has denied).

The incensed workers decried a culture of silence about sexual harassment and systemic racism and demanded Google make concrete changes to address such issues within the company. In particular, they targeted Google’s use of forced arbitration – a practice common in the tech industry in which workers settle legal disputes in a private forum, making it almost impossible for workers to sue their bosses in court and keep repeat offenders from being publicly recognized.

Google employees stage a walkout in Mountain View, California, in 2018.
Google employees stage a walkout in Mountain View, California, in 2018. Photograph: Stephen Lam/Reuters

The November 2018 action changed the way workers in the tech industry organize, experts said. “Workers are observing their peers to see what is effective in moving decision makers, and replicating that in their own companies,” Kutch said.

Kutch noted tech employees studied other protest movements to determine the most effective forms of action, learning, for example, to release specific demands tied to their walkouts. “There is a degree of depth, commitment and planning that was not present even just a few years ago,” she said.

Organizers have particularly taken aim at the tools tech companies had long used to keep dissent internal. Faced with employee pressure, companies such as Google, Airbnb, Facebook and eBay were compelled to end forced arbitration practices.

Employees have also fought companies’ use of non-disclosure agreements, or NDAs, which were initially meant to protect trade secrets, but later allowed companies to keep accusations of wrongdoing from becoming public.

Last month, California passed a law that makes it illegal for firms to prevent employees from speaking out about such issues through the use of NDAs.

Organizing gained another boost when the Black Lives Matter movement and protests laid bare some of the huge inequities in tech and revealed the power of protest to change them.

“Workers woke up at that moment to the fact that if employers are able to discriminate against any one part of the workforce, it hurts everyone,” said Anastasia Christman, senior policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project.

“There have been isolated examples of this kind of thing for years, but employees are increasingly using the leverage of their labor to stand up for diversity and equity,” she added.

The price of whistleblowing

For some employees, the price of speaking out has been steep. Leaked memos showed that in early 2020, Amazon discussed smearing a warehouse worker who spoke out against the company’s Covid-19 practices and was later fired. (Amazon said the employee was fired for putting other employees at risk of Covid-19.) In September 2021, Amazon reached a settlement with two other employees who said they had been fired over their climate activism within the company.

Other whistleblowers have narrated how their lives were upended by speaking out against major tech companies. The worker behind the walkouts at Google, Claire Stapleton, left the company after 12 years of working there, due to perceived retaliation for her role in organizing.

Netflix told the Guardian in an email that it “respect[s] the decision of any employee who chooses to walk out” and recognizes “we have much more work to do both within Netflix and in our content”.

“We value our trans colleagues and allies, and understand the deep hurt that’s been caused,” the spokesperson said.

In a public blogpost, Field outlined much of the vitriol she has sustained for speaking out about the special. She said she did not necessarily want the show removed from the platform, but wanted accountability from Netflix to its workers and viewers.

“We’ve spent years building out the company’s policies and benefits so that it would be a great place for trans people to work,” she wrote. “A place can’t be a great place to work if someone has to betray their community to do so.”

Netflix CEO Sarandos told the Hollywood Reporter on Tuesday that he handled the situation poorly, but that he remains supportive of Chappelle’s work. He said that his previous memos “lacked humanity”, and did not acknowledge that “a group of our employees were in pain”, but said that his stance “hadn’t changed”.

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