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Is blockchain a friend or foe in ransomware attacks?

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UCD assistant professor Dr Nima Afraz explores how blockchain technology could be used against cyberattacks as well as the potential danger it poses.

In light of the recent ransomware attack on Ireland’s Health Service Executive (HSE), I have examined the possible role blockchain technology can play in exacerbating but also preventing such attacks.

The race is now on between those who want to use blockchain for good and those who seek to use it to create further criminal harm.

Ransomware is an increasingly common type of cyberattack during which the victim’s computer is infiltrated and their data rendered inaccessible by encryption techniques. The victim is then forced to pay a ransom to gain access to their own data.

A ransomware attack consists of several steps:

1. Infection/breach: Hackers use an attack vector to deliver the infected software or the ‘payload’ to the victim’s device.

2. The malware spreads: The malware spreads within the victim’s network and quickly encrypts their files.

3. Negotiations begin: The attacker shows an alert on the victim’s screen or opens a communication channel with them and promises to unlock the encrypted data when the ransom is paid.

A ransomware victim’s computer screen with directions on how to pay the ransom.

A ransomware victim’s computer screen with directions on how to pay the ransom.

Ransomware supply chain

The more advanced these attacks become, the more specialisation each step requires. For instance, an advanced cryptographist capable of designing the most sophisticated multi-threaded encryption technique is not necessarily a skilled extortion-negotiator or an adept social engineer.

At the same time, a cybercrime gang will risk more danger by recruiting more people. Hence, a new concept has emerged to connect these cybercriminals without exposing them to more danger. The recent phenomenon is called ransomware-as-a-service (RaaS).

RaaS platforms are often equipped with a step-by-step process allowing the client (in this case, the attacker) to customise many aspects of the malicious software, including the attack vector, encryption method, the type of files targeted (images, PDF, or a specific file format), communication channel and messages.

A dark web marketplace ad claiming to sell a custom-made ransomware

A dark web marketplace ad claiming to sell a custom-made ransomware.

Cybercriminals’ struggle for trust

Unsurprisingly cybercriminals do not trust each other. The marketplaces on the dark web where such RaaS offerings are sold are full of reviews from opportunist novice criminals who heard about RaaS and thought they could get rich overnight, only to be scammed by other con artists.

Similarly, the victims also have good reasons not to trust the attackers, besides them being criminals. For one, according to Kaspersky, only a quarter of ransomware victims manage to fully recover their data after paying the ransom. This is simply because the attackers do not invest substantial time and money in developing the decryption tool.

Meanwhile, very often, even after receiving the ransom and exchanging the decryption keys, the greedy attackers threaten to leak the sensitive data acquired during the attack and continue blackmailing the victim.

Therefore, there is no guarantee that after paying the ransom, the victim will get all their data back.

This issue seldom goes out of the area of individual trust and becomes a public cry for legitimacy. The collective of dark web hackers has long enjoyed the Robin Hood status due to targeting big corporations and donating to charities or leaking classified data on the government and public figure corruption.

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Like drug cartels’ popularity stunts during the pandemic, cybercriminals benefit from the ‘coolness factor’ to recruit more hackers and maintain a reputation in public opinion.

However, preventing a country’s cancer patients from accessing chemotherapy and articles such as this is not consistent with the Robin Hood stature they yearn for. This might be why the cybercriminals behind the recent ransomware attack against HSE suddenly decided to publish the decryption tool online and for free.

Where does the blockchain come in?

Although the earliest documented ransomware attack dates back to 1989, the emergence of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies has resulted in a massive resurgence in ransomware attacks. This is mainly because these cryptocurrencies allow attackers to extort large sums of money while remaining anonymous and difficult to trace.

The bad news is blockchain technology might prove to be the missing link in the full automation of ransomware attacks. Cybercriminals have already made efforts in automating the process of customising and selling ransomware. However, the lack of trust between cybercriminals is still a barrier to the full automation of this process.

A smart contract-based RaaS supply chain could cultivate more worrying degrees of operation. For instance, the cybercriminals could agree on a smart contract where a ransomware developer would only get a commission fee and only if the ransomware is proven effective. Once an agreement is written in a smart contract format, it’s immutable and unstoppable by either party.

From human-operated to automated attacks

On the other hand, blockchain could be used by the attackers to gain the victim’s trust. Researchers have studied how blockchain-based semi-autonomous ransomware could take the scale of ransomware attacks to an entirely new level. Researchers are now studying new ransom payment paradigms enabled by blockchain technology, including the pay-per-decrypt method.

Pay-per-decrypt is designed to gain the victim’s trust by allowing them to pay separate ransom for each, or a subset of, encrypted files. This will remedy the lack of trust between a victim who, rather than a large lump sum payment with uncertainty, will pay small amounts in return for guaranteed decryption. Another advantage of pay-per-decrypt for the attacker is the additional payment options they can program into the smart contracts, such as dynamic pricing of the files.

It is not all bad news

Blockchain technology can also work as a preventative measure to disarm ransomware.

In many cases, the main problem for victims is that only one copy of their data was ever stored on the servers. If attackers target this single point of failure, it’s enough to cost a victim access to their data.

Suppose the victim was instead keeping distributed records of their data spread across multiple servers hosted by independent providers instead of a single centralised copy. In that case, they could have isolated the infected machine and recovered all the data from the other copies.

Blockchain is one of the main technologies that allow such a distributed record-keeping with multiple immutable copies of the data available on demand without relying on a central entity and, therefore, no single point of failure.

On top of that, other distributed file storage protocols such as InterPlanetary File System (IPFS) could be used in parallel to blockchain to store larger datasets.

In addition, our work on collaborative attack prevention also uses blockchain technology to incentivise network entities to share attack information with each other and potentially leading to better defence against ransomware.

By Dr Nima Afraz

Dr Nima Afraz is an assistant professor at University College Dublin and is associated with the Connect  SFI research centre in Trinity College Dublin.

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California’s net neutrality law dodges Big Telecom bullet • The Register

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The US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday upheld a lower court’s refusal to block California’s net neutrality law (SB 822), affirming that state laws can regulate internet connectivity where federal law has gone silent.

The decision is a blow to the large internet service providers that challenged California’s regulations, which prohibit network practices that discriminate against lawful applications and online activities. SB 822, for example, forbids “zero-rating” programs that exempt favored services from customer data allotments, paid prioritization, and blocking or degrading service.

In 2017, under the leadership of then-chairman Ajit Pai, the US Federal Communications Commission tossed out America’s net neutrality rules, to the delight of the internet service providers that had to comply. Then in 2018, the FCC issued an order that redefined broadband internet services, treating them as “information services” under Title I of the Communications Act instead of more regulated “telecommunications services” under Title II of the Communications Act.

California lawmaker Scott Wiener (D) crafted SB 822 to implement the nixed 2015 Open Internet Order on a state level, in an effort to fill the vacuum left by the FCC’s abdication. SB 822, the “California Internet Consumer Protection and Net Neutrality Act of 2018,” was signed into law in September 2018 and promptly challenged.

In October 2018, a group of cable and telecom trade associations sued California to prevent SB 822 from being enforced. In February, 2021, Judge John Mendez of the United States District Court for Eastern California declined to grant the plaintiffs’ request for an injunction to block the law. 

So the trade groups took their case to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which has now rejected their arguments. While federal laws can preempt state laws, the FCC’s decision to reclassify broadband services has moved those services outside its authority and opened a gap that state regulators are now free to fill.

“We conclude the district court correctly denied the preliminary injunction,” the appellate ruling [PDF] says. “This is because only the invocation of federal regulatory authority can preempt state regulatory authority.

The FCC no longer has the authority to regulate in the same manner that it had when these services were classified as telecommunications services

“As the D.C. Circuit held in Mozilla, by classifying broadband internet services as information services, the FCC no longer has the authority to regulate in the same manner that it had when these services were classified as telecommunications services. The agency, therefore, cannot preempt state action, like SB 822, that protects net neutrality.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which supported California in an amicus brief, celebrated the decision in a statement emailed to The Register.

“EFF is pleased that the Ninth Circuit has refused to bar enforcement of California’s pioneering net neutrality rules, recognizing a very simple principle: the federal government can’t simultaneously refuse to protect net neutrality and prevent anyone else from filling the gap,” a spokesperson said.

“Californians can breathe a sigh of relief that their state will be able to do its part to ensure fair access to the internet for all, at a time when we most need it.”

There’s still the possibility that the plaintiffs – ACA Connects, CTIA, NCTA and USTelecom – could appeal to the US Supreme Court.

In an emailed statement, the organizations told us, “We’re disappointed and will review our options. Once again, a piecemeal approach to this issue is untenable and Congress should codify national rules for an open Internet once and for all.” ®

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RCSI scientists find potential treatment for secondary breast cancer

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An existing drug called PARP inhibitor can be used to exploit a vulnerability in the way breast cancer cells repair their DNA, preventing spread to the brain.

For a long time, there have been limited treatment options for patients with breast cancer that has spread to the brain, sometimes leaving them with just months to live. But scientists at the Royal College of Surgeons Ireland (RCSI) have found a potential treatment using existing drugs.

By tracking the development of tumours from diagnosis to their spread to the brain, a team of researchers at RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences and the Beaumont RCSI Cancer Centre found a previously unknown vulnerability in the way the tumours repair their DNA.

An existing kind of drug known as a PARP inhibitor, often used to treat heritable cancers, can prevent cancer cells from repairing their DNA because of this vulnerability, culminating in the cells dying and the patient being rid of the cancer.

Prof Leonie Young, principal investigator of the RCSI study, said that breast cancer research focused on expanding treatment options for patients whose disease has spread to the brain is urgently needed to save the lives of those living with the disease.

“Our study represents an important development in getting one step closer to a potential treatment for patients with this devastating complication of breast cancer,” she said of the study, which was published in the journal Nature Communications.

Deaths caused by breast cancer are often a result of treatment relapses which lead to tumours spreading to other parts of the body, a condition known as secondary or metastatic breast cancer. This kind of cancer is particularly aggressive and lethal when it spreads to the brain.

The study was funded by Breast Cancer Ireland with support from Breast Cancer Now and Science Foundation Ireland.

It was carried out as an international collaboration with the Mayo Clinic and the University of Pittsburgh in the US. Apart from Prof Young, the other RCSI researchers were Dr Nicola Cosgrove, Dr Damir Varešlija and Prof Arnold Hill.

“By uncovering these new vulnerabilities in DNA pathways in brain metastasis, our research opens up the possibility of novel treatment strategies for patients who previously had limited targeted therapy options”, said Dr Varešlija.

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Surface Duo 2 review: Microsoft’s dual-screen Android needs work | Microsoft

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Microsoft’s second attempt at its interesting dual-screen Android smartphone corrects some mistakes of the original, but falls short of a revolution due to a series of oddities created by its physical laptop-like form.

Looking more like a tiny convertible computer than a phone, the Surface Duo 2 starts at £1,349 ($1,499/A$2,319), a lot for a regular smartphone but slightly cheaper than folding-screen rivals.

It opens like a book, with each half just 5.5mm thick, and a hinge that allows it to fold all the way over.

Microsoft Surface Duo 2 review
There is no screen on the outside, but the time and some basic alerts for SMS and calls can be shown down the spine of the hinge. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

Inside are a pair of 90Hz OLED screens each measuring 5.8in on the diagonal. They can be used on their own or combined as one display measuring 8.3in – a similar size to an iPad mini. Both screens are covered in traditional scratch-resistant smartphone glass and have large, old-fashioned bezels top and bottom.

Having two separate displays rather than one that folds in half creates a major drawback: a gap in the middle of the screen big enough that you can see through it, which is much harder to ignore than the crease in the middle of a flexible display as found on the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3.

Microsoft Surface Duo 2 review
The gap between the screens sits right in the middle of the combined display, which makes full-screen reading, scrolling and watching video awkward. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

You can use two different apps at the same time on the two screens. The theory is sound, but I found few pairings were useful beyond simple messaging apps and a browser. More useful was using one screen for a note-taking app and the other for a full keyboard like a mini laptop.

Some apps spanned across both displays, like Outlook, can put different information on each screen, such as your inbox on one side and an open message on the other. Some games, including Asphalt 9 and Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass streaming service, put controls on one screen and the action on the other. But there are very few apps and games optimised for this setup.

microsoft surface duo 2 review
The two screens can be folded into various configurations, including just a single display, both combined into one large display, propped up like a tent or open like a mini laptop. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

Specifications

  • Screens: two 5.8in AMOLED 90Hz displays

  • Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 888

  • RAM: 8GB of RAM

  • Storage: 128, 256 or 512GB

  • Operating system: Android 11

  • Cameras: 12MP wide, 16MP ultra-wide, 12MP 2x telephoto; 12MP selfie

  • Connectivity: 5G, USB-C, wifi 6, NFC, Bluetooth 5.1 and location

  • Water resistance: IPX1 (dripping water)

  • Dimensions closed: 145.2 x 92.1 x 11.0mm

  • Dimensions open: 145.2 x 184.5 x 5.5mm

  • Weight: 284g

2021’s top Android chip

microsoft surface duo 2 review
It takes two hours 15 minutes to fully charge the Duo 2 hitting 50% in 45 minutes, using a 45W USB-C charger (not included), which is pretty slow compared to rivals. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

The Duo 2 has last year’s top Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 chip with 8GB of RAM, matching the performance of top-flight Android smartphones from 2021 and capable of running two apps running side-by-side without slowdown.

Battery life is more variable than a traditional phone. It lasts about 32 hours between charges, with both screens used for about four hours with a variety of messaging, browsing and work apps. It lasts about a third longer if you mostly use only one screen. That’s a considerably shorter battery life than a regular smartphone and behind the Z Fold 3.

Sustainability

Microsoft Surface Duo 2 review
The camera sticks quite far out of the glass back stopping it from sitting flat on a desk. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

Microsoft does not provide an expected lifespan for the Duo 2’s battery; those in similar devices typically maintain at least 80% of their original capacity for in excess of 500 full charge cycles. Microsoft charges an out-of-warranty service fee of £593.94 to repair devices and £568.44 to replace the battery. The previous generation Surface Duo scored only two out of 10 on iFixit’s repairability scale.

The phone contains no recycled materials, but Microsoft operates recycling schemes for old devices, publishes a company-wide sustainability report and a breakdown of each product’s environmental impact.

Android 11

Microsoft Surface Duo 2 review
The single screen mode is hard to use one-handed and most Android apps and websites are designed for longer screens, not short and fat ones, so you end up having to do a lot more scrolling than you would on a regular phone. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

The Duo 2 runs Android 11 – not the latest Android 12 – and generally behaves like a standard Android smartphone or tablet with a few small additions that make it easier to use each screen separately. One of the best is the ability to drag the gesture bar at the bottom of an app to move it between screens or to drop it on to the gap between the screens to span it across both displays.

The software can be a bit unpredictable at times, such as opening the keyboard or text box of an app on another screen or hiding a second app from the screen when you try to type. But it is generally a fast and responsive experience given how unusual the device is.

The Duo 2 will receive three years of software updates from release, including monthly security patches, which is disappointingly at least a year short of what rivals, including Samsung and Apple, offer. Microsoft’s last planned update for the Duo 2 will be 21 October 2024.

Camera

Microsoft Surface Duo 2 review
Because the camera is on the back of the device, it would be blocked if you fold one of the screens over, meaning you have to shoot photos with both screens open – which is unwieldy. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

The Duo 2 has a triple camera on the back and a 12-megapixel selfie camera above the right-hand screen.

The rear main 12MP camera and 2x telephoto cameras are good, capable of producing detailed shots in a range of lighting conditions. The 16MP ultra-wide camera is reasonable, but a bit soft on detail and struggles with challenging scenes. The camera app has most of the features you’d expect, such as portrait mode, night mode and slow-mo video, and can shoot regular video at up to 4K at 60 frames a second.

The 12MP selfie camera is capable of shooting detailed photos even in middling light, and has access to the dedicated night mode when it gets dark.

Overall, the camera system on the Duo 2 is solid, but it can’t hold a candle to the best in the business.

Observations

Microsoft Surface Duo 2 review
The camera lump on the back stops the device folding fully flat, creating a wedge shape when using one screen only. The shiny power button is also a fingerprint scanner, which was fairly fast and reliable. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian
  • The Duo 2 supports Microsoft’s Slim Pen stylus, which can be magnetically stored and charged on the back of the device when not in use.

  • The stereo speakers are decently loud but a bit tinny, fine for watching YouTube videos.

  • The width of the device makes it a challenge to fit into smaller pockets.

Price

The Surface Duo 2 costs £1,349 ($1,499/A$2,319) with 128GB, £1,429 ($1,599/A$2,469) with 256GB or £1,589 ($1,799/A$2,769) with 512GB of storage.

For comparison, the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 costs £1,599 and the Galaxy Z Flip 3 costs £949.

Verdict

The Surface Duo 2 is an improvement on its predecessor, but is still a very odd proposition that’s neither a good phone nor a good tablet.

The individual screens are short and stout, forcing lots of scrolling in apps when using it like a phone and making one-handed use very difficult. The gap at the hinge makes combining them into one big tablet screen awkward too.

Using two apps side-by-side works well, but few combinations proved useful or faster than just quick switching between two apps on one screen on a normal phone. There is more potential in apps like Outlook that provide a multi-pane view, but few apps or games are optimised for the dual-screen system.

Microsoft is only offering a disappointing three years of software and security updates from release for the Duo 2, too, losing it a star.

It is good to see Microsoft trying something different. But ultimately the Duo 2’s two screens are just not yet as good or useful as either a single phone screen or a bigger folding screen, making it an expensive halfway house.

Pros: two screens, two apps side-by-side, multiple modes, top performance, hardened glass screens, decent camera, head-turning design.

Cons: gap between screens, few optimised apps, average battery life, bulky camera lump, chunky in pocket, hard to use one-handed, no real water resistance, only three years of software updates from release.

Microsoft Surface Duo 2 review
The outside of the device is smooth glass front and back with quality-feeling plastic edges and a metal hinge. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

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