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Pegasus Project claims NSO spyware targeted journalists and activists

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Spyware from the Israeli firm was used to violate human rights, according to an investigation involving Amnesty and 17 media organisations.

Amnesty International published a technical report yesterday (18 July) regarding the methodology of The Pegasus Project, in what it states will be one of the first of many reports regarding the “weapon of choice for repressive governments seeking to silence journalists, attack activists and crush dissent”.

The Pegasus Project is an international collaboration investigating the claimed use of spyware developed by Israeli company NSO Group against journalists, activists and government officials.

There are more than 80 journalists from 17 media organisations in 10 countries involved in the investigation. The group is led by Paris-based media non-profit Forbidden Stories with technical support provided by Amnesty International.

The non-profit stated the investigation began with a leak of documents that Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International had access to.

In this list of more than 50,000 selected targets by clients of NSO Group, they found the names of some colleagues and journalists that had worked on past collaborative investigations. This led them to share access to the data with the other media organisations in the Forbidden Stories consortium.

“Clearly, [NSO’s] actions pose larger questions about the wholesale lack of regulation that has created a wild west of rampant abusive targeting of activists and journalists,” said Agnès Callamard, secretary general of Amnesty International.

“Until this company and the industry as a whole can show it is capable of respecting human rights, there must be an immediate moratorium on the export, sale, transfer and use of surveillance technology.”

The NSO Group is a technology and surveillance company that “develops technology to prevent and investigate terror and crime”. It claims its products are used exclusively by government intelligence and law enforcement agencies.

NSO said the Pegasus report is full of false accusations, wrong assumptions and uncorroborated theories.

“Their sources have supplied them with information which has no factual basis, as evident by the lack of supporting documentation for many of their claims,” said the issued response.

“In fact, these allegations are so outrageous and far from reality, that NSO is considering a defamation lawsuit.”

Amnesty International provided the technical support for the project through forensic investigations on mobile phones to identify traces of the NSO spyware.

It said that at the centre of this investigation is the NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware which, when installed on a victim’s phone, “allows an attacker complete access to the device’s messages, emails, media, microphone, camera, calls and contacts”.

Amnesty published its methodology at-length, alongside open-source mobile forensics tools and detailed technical indicators, “in order to assist information security researchers and civil society with detecting and responding to these serious threats”.

The report documents the evolution of Pegasus spyware attacks since 2018, with details on the spyware’s infrastructure, including more than 700 Pegasus-related domains.

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“These revelations blow apart any claims by NSO that such attacks are rare and down to rogue use of their technology. While the company claims its spyware is only used for legitimate criminal and terror investigations, it’s clear its technology facilitates systemic abuse,” said Callamard.

One example of their investigation included an analysis of the phone of Moroccan activist Maati Monjib, who was one of the activists targeted as documented in Amnesty International’s 2019 report.

It detailed that on further analysis, suspicious redirects were noted in Monjib’s Safari browsing history. In one case there was a redirect to an odd-looking URL after Monjib attempted to visit Yahoo.

“We detail how we determined these redirections to be the result of network injection attacks performed either through tactical devices, such as rogue cell towers, or through dedicated equipment placed at the mobile operator,” stated the report.

The project identified at least 180 journalists in 20 countries to be the focus of political targeting by the NSO spyware, including at least 40 journalists from nearly every major media outlet in India.

Forensic tests stated the phones of Siddharth Varadarajan and MK Venu, co-founders of independent online outlet The Wire, were infected with Pegasus spyware as recently as June 2021.

“This should be a wake-up call for governments to step up and hold spyware developers like the NSO Group accountable for their role in stoking the flames and profiting off human rights abuses,” said Attila Tomaschek, a digital privacy expert at the company ProPrivacy.

“The private spyware industry is only going to continue to grow, and its influence will intensify if this space remains as alarmingly unregulated as it is today. Tech companies need to ensure their products are safe to use in the face of increasingly sophisticated spyware that has the potential to be abused in such a widespread and frightening manner.”

Data use in targeting terrorism has come under fire before, such as the campaign ‘Reclaim Your Face’ launched by a European Citizens’ Initiative. This group challenged plans for public biometric surveillance included in the Security Union package presented by the European Commission in December 2020.

Amnesty stated that over the next week, media partners of The Pegasus Project including The Guardian, Le Monde, Süddeutsche Zeitung and The Washington Post will run a series of stories showing the details of their NSO investigation.

“The widespread violations Pegasus facilitates must stop. Our hope is the damning evidence published over the next week will lead governments to overhaul a surveillance industry that is out of control,” said Etienne Maynier, a technologist at Amnesty International’s security lab.

Callamard stated: “As a first step, NSO Group must immediately shut down clients’ systems where there is credible evidence of misuse. The Pegasus Project provides this in abundance.”

In a response to The Guardian, the Indian government said: “The questionnaire sent to the government of India indicates that the story being crafted is one that is not only bereft of facts but also founded in pre-conceived conclusions.

“It seems you are trying to play the role of an investigator, prosecutor as well as jury.”

The project also linked the NSO spyware to family members of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered in Istanbul on 2 October 2018.

The NSO Group responded to the Pegasus Project allegations saying that its “technology was not associated in any way with the heinous murder of Jamal Khashoggi” and that it had previously investigated this claim and found it lacked substance.

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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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