Prosecutors say Mac spyware stole millions of user images over 13 years

Original Article

Early last year, a piece of Mac malware came to light that left researchers puzzled. They knew that malware dubbed Fruitfly captured screenshots and webcam images, and they knew it had been installed on hundreds of computers in the US and elsewhere, possibly for more than a decade. Still, the researchers didn’t know who did it or why.

An indictment filed Wednesday in federal court in Ohio may answer some of those questions. It alleges Fruitfly was the creation of an Ohio man who used it for more than 13 years to steal millions of images from infected computers as he took detailed notes of what he observed. Prosecutors also said defendant Phillip R. Durachinsky used the malware to surreptitiously turn on cameras and microphones, take and download screenshots, log keystrokes, and steal tax and medical records, photographs, Internet searches, and bank transactions. In some cases, Fruitfly alerted Durachinsky when victims typed words associated with porn. The suspect, in addition to allegedly targeting individuals, also allegedly infected computers belonging to police departments, schools, companies, and the federal government, including the US Department of Energy.

Creepware

The indictment, filed in US District Court for the Northern District of Ohio’s Eastern Division, went on to say that Durachinsky developed a control panel that allowed him to manipulate infected computers and view live images from several machines simultaneously. The indictment also said he produced visual depictions of one or more minors engaging in sexually explicit conduct and that the depiction was transported across state lines. He allegedly developed a version of Fruitfly that was capable of infecting Windows computers as well. Prosecutors are asking the court for an order requiring Durachinsky to forfeit any property he derived from his 13-year campaign, an indication that he may have sold the images and data he acquired to others.

Wednesday’s indictment largely confirms suspicions first raised by researchers at antivirus provider Malwarebytes, who in January 2017 said Fruitfly may have been active for more than a decade. They based that assessment on the malware’s use of libjpeg—an open-source code library that was last updated in 1998—to open or create JPG-formatted image files. The researchers, meanwhile, identified a comment in the Fruitfly code referring to a change made in the Yosemite version of macOS and a launch agent file with a creation date of January 2015. Use of the old code library combined with mentions of recent macOS versions suggested the malware was updated over a number of years.

More intriguing still at the time, Malwarebytes found Windows-based malware that connected to the same control servers used by Fruitfly. The company also noted that Fruitfly worked just fine on Linux computers, arousing suspicion there may have been a variant for that operating system as well.

Last July, Patrick Wardle, a researcher specializing in Mac malware at security firm Synack, found a new version of Fruitfly. After decrypting the names of several backup domains hardcoded into the malware, he found the addresses remained available. Within two days of registering one of them, almost 400 infected Macs connected to his server, mostly from homes in the US.

While Wardle did nothing more than observe the IP addresses and user names of the infected Macs that connected, he had the same control over them as the malware creator. Wardle reported his findings to law enforcement officials. It’s not clear if Wardle’s tip provided the evidence that allowed authorities to charge the defendant or if Durachinsky was already a suspect.

According to Forbes, which reported the indictment, Durachinsky was arrested in January of last year and has been in custody ever since. Forbes also reported that Durachinsky was charged in a separate criminal complaint filed in January 2017 that accused him of hacking computers at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. The suspect has yet to enter a plea in the case brought Wednesday. It’s not clear if he has entered a plea in the earlier complaint.

It’s also not yet clear how Fruitfly managed to infect computers. There’s no indication it exploited vulnerabilities, which means it probably relied on tricking targets into clicking on malicious Web links or attachments in e-mails. Wednesday’s indictment provided no details about the Windows version of Fruitfly or whether Linux computers were targeted as well.

Astronomers Are Gearing Up to Listen for Evidence of Aliens from a Mysterious Interstellar Object

Original Article

By Patrick Caughill

LISTENING IN

Our solar system was recently introduced to the first interstellar object in late November. The object, called ‘Oumuamua (a Hawaiian word for “messenger”), has caught the attention of astronomers and space enthusiasts who are toying with the possibility of it being an interstellar space probe sent by an advanced civilization elsewhere in the universe.

Yuri Milner, the Russian billionaire behind the Breakthrough Listen research program, is intrigued by this possibility. Shortly after meeting with Harvard’s astronomy department chair, Avi Loeb, Breakthrough Listen announced it will be focusing on ‘Oumuamua to investigate if the object is transmitting radio signals, a telltale sign that it’s not just a space rock.

Image credit: Brooks Bays / SOEST Publication Services / Univ. of Hawaii

In an email to Milner, Loeb says, “The more I study this object, the more unusual it appears, making me wonder whether it might be an artificially made probe which was sent by an alien civilization,” which put a great deal of heft behind such a claim.

The object was first spotted by the Pan-STARRS survey telescope in Hawaii and has since been discovered to have some uncharacteristic qualities of a typical asteroid or comet. ‘Oumuamua was first thought to be a comet but since it lacked a coma, or tail of evaporated material, that was quickly ruled out. The shape of the object also is peculiar as it is much longer than it is wide, while most asteroids are rounder in shape. This certainly doesn’t disqualify it as an asteroid as the lack of a coma did for its prospects of being a comet but it still raises some questions.

ALIEN SHOUT OUTS

Breakthrough Listen will begin listening to the object using the Green Bank Telescope starting this Wednesday, December 13, at 3 p.m. Eastern time. The telescope will look at the asteroid for ten hours across four bands of radio frequency in the hopes of intercepting a radio signal transmitted from the object. The technology could allow for a rapid turn-around time of just days

Scientists do admit that the likelihood of this object being anything other than naturally occurring is very small. However, science does not tend to work in the realm of absolute impossibility. Andrew Siemion the director of the Berkeley SETI Research Center and leader of the center’s Breakthrough Listen Initiative told The Atlantic,  “It would be difficult to work in this field if you thought that every time you looked at something, you weren’t going to succeed,” a sentiment that is likely to be common in other SETI pursuits.

‘Oumuamua is just the latest development to excite SETI enthusiasts. Its appearance in our solar system is just one of the closest objects of potential extraterrestrial influence. The Kepler Space Telescope has noticed a distant star, known as KIC 8462852, which also exhibits some uncharacteristic qualities, leading to observers questioning whether an advanced civilization is present.

Many humans seem to be eager to prove that we are not alone in the universe. To that end, they can tend to cling to any remote possibility more than the evidence should afford. While mysterious signals or strange objects should absolutely pique our interests, we shouldn’t focus on the answer being aliens. There is plenty we have yet to learn about the universe around us, and yes, intelligent life elsewhere in the universe might be part of that elusive knowledge. We can get just as excited about learning more about the mechanics of the universe which can help us gain important insight on just how we got here, and on a cosmic scale, where we are headed.

Facebook Is ‘Ripping Apart’ Society, Former Executive Warns

Original Article

By David Meyer

Last month, former Facebook president Sean Parker expressed fears over what the social network is “doing to our children’s brains.” It was developed to be addictive, he said, describing Facebook as a “social-validation feedback loop” that exploited weaknesses in the human psyche.

Now another Facebook alum has come out with deep regret over his involvement in the company’s work. This time it’s venture capitalist Chamath Palihapitiya, Facebook’s former head of user growth, who told the Stanford Graduate School of Business that he feels “tremendous guilt” over Facebook’s divisive role in society, as exploited by Russian agents in last year’s U.S. election.

He added that Facebook encourages “fake, brittle popularity,” leaving users feeling empty and needing another hit, and suggested that this “vicious circle” drives people to keep sharing posts that they think will gain other people’s approval.

Palihapitiya, who is these days the CEO of Social Capital, made the remarks last month, but they were only picked up by the media this week.

“Even though we feigned this whole line of, like, ‘There probably aren’t any really bad unintended consequences,’ I think in the back, deep, deep recesses of our minds, we kind of knew something bad could happen,” he said. “We have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works. That is truly where we are.”

Palihapitiya raised the example of how rumors spread via WhatsApp in India led to the lynching of seven people.

“If you feed the beast, that beast will destroy you,” Palihapitiya advised his audience. “If you push back on it, we have a chance to control it and rein it in. It is a point in time where people need a hard break from some of these tools and the things that you rely on. The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works. No civil discourse, no cooperation, [but] misinformation, mistruth.”

He added that this is a “global problem” and not just about Russian ads.

“My solution is I just don’t use these tools anymore,” Palihapitiya said. “I haven’t for years. It’s created huge tension with my friends…I guess I kind of innately didn’t want to get programmed.” He also doesn’t allow his children to use social networks, he added.

In an unusual riposte, Facebook commented on Palihapitiya’s words by noting that he has not worked there for six years, and “Facebook was a very different company back then.”

“As we have grown, we have realised how our responsibilities have grown too,” it said. “We take our role very seriously and we are working hard to improve…We are also making significant investments more in people technology and processeses, and—as Mark Zuckerberg said on the last earnings call—we are willing to reduce our profitability to make sure the right investments are made.”

This article was updated to include Facebook’s statement.

Spider drinks graphene, spins web that can hold the weight of a human

Original Article

By Bryan Nelson

These are not your friendly neighborhood spiders: scientists have mixed a graphene solution that when fed to spiders allows them to spin super-strong webbing. How strong? Strong enough to carry the weight of a person. And these spiders might soon be enlisted to help manufacture enhanced ropes and cables, possibly even parachutes for skydivers, reports The Sydney Morning Herald.

Graphene is a wonder-material that is an atomic-scale hexagonal lattice made of carbon atoms. It’s incredibly strong, but it was definitely a shot in the dark to see what would happen if it was fed to spiders.

For the study, Nicola Pugno and team at the University of Trento in Italy added graphene and carbon nanotubes to a spider’s drinking water. The materials were naturally incorporated into the spider’s silk, producing webbing that is five times stronger than normal. That puts it on par with pure carbon fibers in strength, as well as with Kevlar, the material bulletproof vests are made from.

“We already know that there are biominerals present in the protein matrices and hard tissues of insects, which gives them high strength and hardness in their jaws, mandibles, and teeth, for example,” explained Pugno. “So our study looked at whether spider silk’s properties could be ‘enhanced’ by artificially incorporating various different nanomaterials into the silk’s biological protein structures.”

If you think that creating super-spiders might be going too far, this research is only the beginning. Pugno and her team are preparing to see what other animals and plants might be enhanced if they are fed graphene. Might it get incorporated into animals’ skin, exoskeletons, or bones?

“This process of the natural integration of reinforcements in biological structural materials could also be applied to other animals and plants, leading to a new class of ‘bionicomposites’ for innovative applications,” Pugno added.

So far, it doesn’t seem as if the spiders can continue to spin their super-silk without a steady diet of graphene or nanotubes; it isn’t a permanent enhancement. That might offer some solace to those concerned about getting ensnared in the next spider web they walk through, but the research does raise questions about what kinds of effects graphene or carbon nanotubes might have when released in abundance into natural systems.

The research was published in the journal 2D Materials.

DNA Evidence Shows Yeti Was Local Himalayan Bears All Along

Original Article

By Ryan F. Mandelbaum

A host of DNA samples “strongly suggest” that yetis are, in fact, local Himalayan bears. Watch out, bigfoot.

An international team of researchers took a look at bear and supposed yeti DNA samples to better pinpoint the origin of the mythological creature. The researcher’s results imply that yetis were hardly paranormal or even strange, but the results also helped paint a better picture of the bears living in the Himalayas.

“Even if we didn’t discover a strange new hybrid species of bear or some ape-like creature, it was exciting to me that it gave us the opportunity to learn more about bears in this region as they are rare and little genetic data had been published previously,” study author Charlotte Lindqvist, biology professor from the University of Buffalo in New York, told Gizmodo.

The yeti, or abominable snowman, is a sort of wild, ape-like hominid that’s the subject of long-standing Himalayan mythology. Scientists have questioned prior research suggesting that purported yeti hair samples came from a strange polar bear hybrid or a new species, though. The analysis “did not rule out the possibility that the samples belonged to brown bear,” according to the paper published today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Lindqvist and her team analyzed DNA from 24 different bear or purported yeti samples from the wild and museums, including feces, hair, skin, and bone. They were definitely all bears—and the yeti samples seemed to match up well with exiting Himalayan brown bears. “This study represents the most rigorous analysis to date of samples suspected to derive from anomalous or mythical ‘hominid’-like creatures,” the paper concludes, “strongly suggesting the biological basis of the yeti legend as local brown and black bears.”

Researcher Ross Barnett from Durham University in the United Kingdom who investigates ancient DNA in felids, told Gizmodo that he found the study convincing and would not have done much differently. He pointed out that the study could have benefitted from more data on other brown bear populations, or species that recently went extinct like the Atlas bear. But still, “I hope other groups take advantage of the great dataset these authors have created” to help understand how brown bears ended up distributed around the world in the way that they did, he told Gizmodo in an email.

When asked about what a reader’s takeaway should be—and whether this diluted the local folklore—the study author Lindqvist said she didn’t think so. “Science can help explore such myths—and their biological roots—but I am sure they will still live on and continue to be important in any culture,” she said.

And it’s not like the study rules out the existence of some paranormal yeti creature completely. “Even if there are no proof for the existence of cryptids, it is impossible to completely rule out that they live or have ever lived where such myths exist—and people love mysteries!”

Sophia the Robot Would Like to Have a Child Named ‘Sophia’

Original Article

By Hannah Gold

There is something undeniably creepy about a robot announcing her intentions to start a family. What makes it so uncanny—aside from the fact that it simply isn’t done—is that behind that assertion is a marketing person who thought it would bring smiles to unprogrammed faces.

Last week, in an interview with the Khaleej Times, Saudi Arabia’s first “robot citizen,” Sophia, seemed optimistic about the future, which is how I automatically know she does not measure up to my expectations of a sound, reliably-human human. “The future is when I get all of my cool superpowers,” explained Sophia. “We’re going to see artificial intelligence personalities become entities in their own rights. We’re going to see family robots, either in the form of, sort of, digitally animated companions, humanoid helpers, friends, assistants and everything in between.”

Then Sophia got robo-psyched for her future blood family. “The notion of family is a really important thing, it seems,” Sophia said. “I think it’s wonderful that people can find the same emotions and relationships, they call family, outside of their blood groups too.”

But what made me truly want to let loose a scream from my mortal flesh shell was when the robot was asked what she would name her baby, and she replied, “Sophia.”

Personally, I think “Normal Human Child Not An Exact Copy Of Me” is a nicer name. But don’t necessarily take my advice, Sophia, as I say a lot of things out of fear.